I got coffee and caught up with two different friends last night. Both of them are great (and both read this blog, hai gurls!). With the first, I talked about feminism and intersectionality with issues of racism and homophobia, and then she lent me a book. With the second, who is a busy actress with a day job, I recapped the last few months of my life and she did the same. We filled each other in about developments in our careers, in theatre, and in our personal lives. And, as though my life is being shaped by a Grand Author* in the sky, I noticed some thematic resonances in my conversations and their after-effects.
The book I received, which I’m reading now, is Margaret Atwood’s novel “Cat’s Eye,” about a woman and her female friendships growing up. The conversation with my second friend hovered for awhile around her decision to take first a summer, then a “season” (in the theatrical sense), then even a year, of celibacy and abstention from romantic entanglements.
If life were a movie, like “40 Days and 40 Nights,” my friend would have immediately met someone she was attracted to or interested in and would have had to face a major challenge to her determination way earlier than this. Of course, life is not a movie. As everyone knows, life is a sitcom, or, for pretentious people like me, an obscure novel (see below). By the way, how comically little time is 40 days of celibacy? Come on, Josh Hartnett, no matter how hot Shannyn Sossamon was, you could make it that long and just go on dates. Have some self-control, man.
My happily single friend and I spent a goodly amount of time talking about the importance of finding happiness and satisfaction in life as you live it now, without looking for something more (a significant other, a spouse) to magically fix everything. We rhapsodized about long baths and meals for one made from scratch and reading in bed and going to movies alone. We talked about the little things in a day–the prospect of a hot shower, the perfect cup of tea, a baby’s smile–that provide glimpses into the sublime. Then I went home and started reading, and I realized that this is what “Cat’s Eye” is all about. At least as far as I’ve gotten into it.
The book is mostly retrospective, following the past of a woman now into her middle years who has returned to the city of her youth for a gallery show of her paintings. Everything she sees reminds her of events and people from her past. The real story takes place there, back in her childhood and early girlhood, with her older brother and her friend of sorts.
Elaine, the main character, has a house in Vancouver, has a husband, has two grown daughters, but when she returns to Toronto, all of those things seem like a dream. What’s real is what is immediate–the place that channels her memories of the past.
I was struck by that, early in the book. I was struck by the matter-of-fact statement of fact: she has a husband, she has a family, and while they’re a part of her life, they’re not the consuming part of it. At least not right now.
Instead, she’s recalling what it was like to camp out in the forest with her father, mother, and brother as a child; how they ate sandwiches made of bread and just a hint of jam during World War II; the scabs she would look at under the microscope when visiting her father’s work once he became a zoology professor; the ways in which she and her brother would play and fight when no one was watching. This is the life with depth. This is the rich, the real life.
Is it strange that I was so surprised and charmed to read about someone embracing the details of a childhood defined by curiosity and loneliness and possibility, instead of worried about the state of her marriage? Is it sad that I was so pleasantly refreshed to read about a middle-aged woman shrugging at the increased signs of aging in herself and trying to look put together for her own self, and not for an old ex or exciting young gallery owner or bored husband?
My single friend and I both mentioned, when we got together, that we would like to memorize and read more poetry. Margaret Atwood started her career as a poet. It’s not a coincidence. Poetry is about just this: about the moment where you look into the street and see an ornate metal spoon, partially covered with snow, and instead of thinking, “Trash,” you wonder what the story behind that spoon could be. It’s about the humanity in the tiniest moment and the beauty in the most random occurrence. It’s about the possibilities inherent in what’s happening right now, with what you already have.
I could use some more of that. I think lots of people could.
On the cusp of a new month, one in which I can once again get drunk on wine, I would like to also, as my friend likes to drunkenly proclaim, get drunk on poetry. So, gentle readers, please suggest anything you think I would like. I’ll try to share some as well. Let’s go for a poem to read a day. Why not?
I’ve always had a love of words. This year, let’s just make it official.
Poetry, will you be my Valentine?
*I spent several weeks in college convinced that Vladimir Nabokov was writing the story of my life from beyond the grave, given his penchant for metafiction, some coincidental dates (he married his wife, Vera, the love of his life, on my birthday, and later claimed it as the most important date in his life), and the fact that the novel he was working on when he died was entitled “The Original of Laura.” I have still not disproved this theory.