Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


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If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Book Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Possible spoilers, explicit sexual terminology included

While I have yet to solidify, if possible, my knowledge and perception of the different versions of the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the controversy surrounding them over the course of 30 years of critics’ reactions and Hardy’s revisionist responses to those reactions starting in the late 1880s, I can unreservedly share some gems of beautiful writing to be found in one version or another. That, along with a brief summarizing book review, is the purpose of this post.
The Transatlantic Press (TAP) 2012 edition preserved or restored several paragraphs’ worth of text missing from the Penguin Classics edition (1998), which is based on a not-easily-identifiable mixture of previous editions. Whatever its sources, TAP 2012 includes the Chaseborough dance scene first restored, from Hardy’s drafting prior to the first 1891 publication, only in the 1912 edition, over 20 years later. Other aspects of TAP’s version preserve text from the 1891 publication, based on direct comparison after I purchased the Penguin Classics rendering of that version while reading the 2012 TAP edition.
That’s the barest tip of the tip of the iceberg that constitutes this novel’s textual history. Suffice it to say there were moral objections to several parts of the work from different quarters, stirring in Hardy different shades of both defiance and compliance to society’s sensibilities over a 30-year span. Amidst the intrigue, according to the Penguin editor, Tim Dolin, Hardy had the foresight, lament it though he would, to bowdlerize his own work in order to pre-empt unwanted excisions by publishers.

Tess was his second to last novel, followed by Jude the Obscure, after which, out of fatigue or frustration with critics’ and publishers’ opinions (the general public generally received the novel with enthusiasm) and the hassle of straddling between his own wishes and theirs, he swore off novels and spent the rest of his long life writing excellent poetry. An excerpt from his poem “The Darkling Thrush” kicks off my Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series on this blog.
Setting that complicated history and the questions it raises aside, I center this post on a literary appreciation of Thomas Hardy’s controversial work in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Like most changes Hardy made, was asked to make, or purposely neglected to make, the deleted and restored scene provokes moral objections. Its palpably sensual tone and sexually suggestive content at the turn of the twentieth century was a challenge for a Western world barely recovered from the era of Victorian mores and not yet liberated by the sexual revolution of first the 1920s and then the 60s and 70s.
Leading up to the Chaseborough dance scene, Tess has been working for Alec d’Urberville’s blind mother, caring for her birds at their estate and journeying on summer Saturdays to fairs and other outings among fellow laborers in the vicinity of the fictitious town of Trantridge, real county Dorset. On one of these Saturdays, she comes upon a singular atmosphere. Alec is the instrument of her ruin which has yet to strike, and the scene serves not only as that event’s foreshadowing but also as perhaps a blend of frankness and lyrical abandon on Hardy’s part in its indirect comment and direct depiction of real society dressed warmly in Romantic and mythological allusions.
Once she reaches the source of the fiddler music unaccompanied by the sound of dancing feet, she peers through the doorway of the outhouse. The total portion of the scene represented in the TAP 2012 edition comprises some 15 paragraphs of variable length. From the second of these paragraphs, the reader shares Tess’s somewhat entranced gaze:
“It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden.”
“When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance…” (start of para. 3).
The residue making up the “yellow mist” had come from “the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene” (para. 3). And this “residuum,” or “scroff” as Hardy first labels it, accounts for the muffling of the sound of the dancers’ nonetheless very active feet.
Then, the energy rises with the number of sexual connotations, adding also some scientific tonality:
“Through this floating, fusty debris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out.”
As we zoom in, the Greek mythological allusions binding sex with music begin and pile on thickly. I include definitions and references for further reading following the passage:
“They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed. Of the rushing couples there could barely be discerned more than high lights–the indistinctness shaping them to satyrs clasping nymphs–a multiplicity of Pans whirling a multiplicity of Syrinxes: Lotis attempting to elude Priapus, and always failing.”
satyr – “creatures of the wild, part man and part beast, who in Classical times were closely associated with the god Dionysus. Satyrs and Sileni were at first represented as uncouth men, each with a horse’s tail and ears and an erect phallus. In the Hellenistic age they were represented as men having a goat’s legs and tail. Rival theories differentiate silenis from satyrs.” – Britannica.com.
similar creatures: faun (Roman), minotaur, centaur, harpy, siren. – Wikipedia
nymph – “a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in the mountainous regions and forests by lakes and streams.” forever young, can bear immortal children by gods, though not necessarily immortal themselves. examples: Charybdis and Scylla. similar creatures: mermaid, huldra, selkie, siren. the frequent target of satyrs – wikipedia
Pan – “god of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and the companion of the nymph, often associated with sexuality” – Wikipedia
Syrinx – “a nymph and follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” – Wikipedia
Priapus – “a god fo animal and vegetable fertility whose originally Asian cult started in the Hellespontine regions, centring especially on Lampsacus. He was represented in a caricature of the human form, grotesquely misshapen, with an enormous phallus. Father was Dionysus, the wine god; mother either a nymph or Aphrodite, the goddess of love.” “in Hellenistic times . . . in the country adopted as a god of gardens . . .” – Britannica
– “a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism.” – Wikipedia
priapism = “a persistent, painful erection of the penis unaccompanied by sexual excitation or desire” – Britannica
Lotis – “a nymph mentioned by Ovid. In his account, at the Liberalia festival, Priapus tried to rape her when everyone had fallen asleep, but she was awakened by a sudden cry of Silenus’s donkey and ran off, leaving Priapus in embarrassment as everyone else woke up too and became aware of his intentions. In another account, she was changed into a lotus tree to escape Priapus; later, Dryope picked a flower off the tree Lotis had become and was transformed into a black poplar.” “In Book 6 of the Fasti Ovid tells much the same story, but with the goddess Vesta rather than Lotis as the intended victim. According to some sources, Lotis was the daughter of Neptune or Nereus. Ovid suggests that Priapus later kills the donkey.” – Wikipedia
And, Pan and Syrinx are the parents of the satyrs and nymphs. Phew! Lots to unpack.

Paragraph 4 further emphasizes the sense of illusion and transformation:
“At intervals a couple would approach the doorway for air, and the haze no longer veiling their features, the demigods resolved themselves into the homely personalities of her own next-door neighbors. Could Trantridge in two or three short hours have metamorphosed itself thus madly!”
But it doesn’t stop there, and Tess interacts next with not one but two men who notice her nervous hope that the dance will end soon so her neighbors will leave and she won’t have to journey back in the dark alone. Each man is presented as a god- or saint-like figure in an ironic sense, as they are both drunken and make suggestive comments akin to Alec d’Urberville’s assuaging overtures to Tess up to this point.
The first is described as “one of [the] Sileni of the throng,” and the singular, a “Silenus,” is a particularly older, mentor-like figure in the company of the wine god Dionysus. “The plural sileni refers to the mythological figure as a type that is sometimes thought to be differentiated from a satyr by having the attributes of a horse rather than a goat.” – Wikipedia
After these exchanges, we return to the dance floor itself in paragraph 11 of this edition’s surplus Chaseborough scene:
“The movement grew more passionate: the fiddlers behind the luminous pillar of cloud now and then varied the air by playing on the wrong side of the bridge or with the back of the bow. But it did not matter; the panting shapes spun onwards.”
Here, the dancers are reduced to nebulous forms themselves, less sexual beings and more impressions of objects, like protons spinning around an atom’s nucleus. This lends the suggestion of inevitable, eminently natural movement, the essence of life and energy. Their identities are again obscured; they could be either animals or something else, but something either supra-human or subhuman.
Hardy then focuses on the dancers’ tendencies to stay with the partner they’re inclined to once begun, as if to point out the glue-like, intimate nature of these pairs, in contrast to traditional country dances of ever-changing partners and a communal sense of order and purpose and propriety. In the middle of that paragraph, number 12 of the passage, the theme of cosmic movement reaches a pinnacle:
“It was then that the ecstasy and the dream began, in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin.”
The use of the pronoun “you” personalizes the described experience to the reader’s frame of reference while simultaneously bringing emotion and human intention into equality with the ultimate nature of the cosmos. This moment serves as the climax of the figurative sexual intercourse that is the dance.
The next description reiterates the sense of accomplished sexual union and orgasmic release. However, Hardy takes it one step further in continuing to emphasize the collective over an individual couple, suggesting with no great subtlety orgiastic abandon. Paragraph 13:
“Suddenly there was a dull thump on the ground: a couple had fallen, and lay in a mixed heap. The next couple, unable to check its progress, came toppling over the obstacle. An inner cloud of dust rose around the prostrate figures amid the general one of the room, in which a twitching entanglement of arms and legs was discernible.”
Again, Hardy returns to the medium of the dance: the “fusty” “yellow mist” operating even more now as a sexual fluid of semen or the mixed pool of male and female ejaculate fluids.
Even more scandalous in his day, however, must have been his final coup de grace at the end of paragraph 14:
“. . . female accents from the human heap–those of the unhappy partner of the man whose clumsiness had caused the mishap; she happened also to be his recently married wife, in which assortment there was nothing unusual in Trantridge as long as any affection remained between wedded couples; and, indeed, it was not uncustomary in their later lives, to avoid making odd lots of the single people between whom there might be a warm understanding.”
Translation:
The husband’s clumsiness with a partner other than his wife, resulting in their falling down together, led to his wife and her partner’s collision with the first couple. This arrangement of non-wedded pairs of dance partners was not unusual in Trantridge if there was affection between sets of couples and unwedded members of the opposite sex. Well into their married lives, it was not uncommon to switch partners so that single people did not feel left out in the mix either, and to make of the crowd a more unified whole of versatile dance partners, and, implicitly, sexual partners. Swingers, orgies, etc.
As if that weren’t enough discomfort for the die-hard Victorian or Puritan reader, later when the crowd departs, Hardy overtly attaches halos to their heads, as if their very sensuality and its shameless expression have made them somehow saintly or angelic.

Hardy had balls, that’s for sure.
One would think there might be a Chapter X general note in the Penguin Classics edition concerning this deleted scene, but they don’t give it such prominence. However, they do include a note marked at the specific location where the text is significantly different between versions:
“2 – When Hardy removed this chapter from Graphic [first publication in this magazine for serial form of the text] it included a long dance scene at this point. It was retained when the chapter was published separately [as Saturday Night in Arcady], but was not restored to Tess until 1912. Appendix V reproduces both versions.”
Spoilers ahead.
At this point in the story, an incident during the journey home directly precipitates Tess’s fatal decision to go with Alec d’Urberville, who takes her into the forest and in some versions rapes while in others seduces her, resulting in her birthing a daughter, prior to which one version replaces the rape/seduction scene with a duplicitous false marriage scene between Tess and Alec.
And the confusion about Tess’s character and morality only mounts with the increase of changes and counter-changes Hardy makes over the ensuing years, in everything from subtle actions taken to gestures and tears to comments on her thought processes. The same goes for other principal figures in the book, so that when the revisions have finally ended, the modern reader hardly knows what to make of it all.
Still, and amazingly, despite all the complications, Hardy manages to deliver into posterity a well-loved narrative and tragedy of Greek proportions in a captivating writing style. Its considerable length is buffered by a noticeable economy of language coupled with playful use of extraneously large, technical-sounding words, and some made-up ones, such as “vegeto-human.” This latter feature particularly irritated many critics, but as an incorrigible intellectual in love with big words, I love Hardy for it. The tale is epic and complete and the commentary on society’s moral hypocrisy not only discernible but memorable.
Hardy elevates our understanding of human complexity, not only in his carefully told tale but also in the vacillations of all that pre-emptive shaping, editing, redaction, and rewriting. Tim Dolin, editor of the Penguin Classics edition’s textual history section and end notes, remarks on the practical impossibility of identifying a definitive edition, and proposes there may really be no such thing.
Indeed, this notion may be the simple truth of most published writing; especially in hindsight, the author knows that more could have been done or done better, but at some point they pull the trigger or nothing ever gets published. For the reader as well as the writer, the work always remains to some degree unfinished, which only adds to the fascination of literature.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles has become a new favorite book of mine, and I am sorely tempted to eschew future plans on my to-read list to take another sensual spin full of rich, transporting description around Thomas Hardy’s d’Urberville universe and the magnificently complex and shape-shifting character of Tess Durbeyfield. All that remains is the tiny matter of which edition to choose next.

book on the grass

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Croak

We might croak.

We might kick the bucket, we might shuffle off the mortal coil, or maybe even push up daisies and become food for worms. However we go, all of us, most certainly, will die.

Edward Young’s expression to “join the great majority” goes a long way toward erasing one’s sense of individuality. I prefer George Eliot’s approach, and would love to “join the choir invisible.” (Thank you, convenient Wikipedia.) I’ve always wanted to sing. Not like a frog, but sing nonetheless.

However, I have no interest in farms and would not care much to buy one.

To the degree that “sleeping with the fishes” implies being murdered and dumped in a body of water, I suppose there are worse ways to go. I don’t mind fish so much, nor sleeping.

“Kicking the bucket” actually derives from hanging, in which one kicks the bucket from under one’s feet so gravity can do its full work. Having a bucket list, therefore, might for some carry a dark undertone of the potential for suicide once everything’s crossed off your list.

My ass is somewhat large but relatively normal, so I suppose I should not be averse to kissing it good-bye, were I able to reach it.

But whether I find myself taking a dirt nap six feet under or riding the pale horse on the last train to glory, I know there is this final step I must take, whether of my own volition or not.

I’d almost rather be eaten by a large predatory animal–after, of course, being neatly and painlessly killed by the blow from a paw or the tonic of a poison–than to be reduced to ashes of lesser usefulness, or less heft. I seem to recall musical artist and singer Björk making a similar comment, that she wanted to die violently, by being eaten by a tiger or spattered with lava. (Icelanders . . . Björk.)

Diseases are pretty far down the list of most people’s preferred ways to die, but some diseases are more merciful than others.

A few years ago, a fellow writer and budding friend of mine died of cancer. She was my age, in her late thirties. Before we lost her, I had helped her refine her application essay to an MFA writing program, and she, as part of our writing group, had critiqued a nature poem of mine.

Now, every November, when my circle of friends and I participate in National Novel Writing Month, we commemorate her gift and passion, marking her departure from our lives with a day named for her, Anna’s Day, November 17th. On that day, in that week, and, for some of us, all month and intermittently throughout the year, we include her in our thoughts if not also somehow in our work. She also happened to die five days after my great aunt, who also died of cancer. It’s not easy for me to forget that week of the year.

Anna didn’t like how my poem ended. In fact, she hated it. And she did not hesitate to tell me so or attempt to soften her words to dampen her feelings, or spare mine. As I age and grow closer to death than any time since my birth (for all I know), I’m increasingly grateful for that. Useful feedback from others on a piece under construction should never be totally devoid of bold frankness or hard truths. We can’t grow without learning of our work’s flaws.

Comparatively with my other efforts, this poem was a bit of a disaster for several reasons. Yet, I felt strongly, even after receiving Anna’s notes, that the ending was far from the biggest problem. The rhythm was clunky, the lines too long. I used, as I often do, too many hyphenated phrases that become tongue twisters. In the space of one poem of 83 lines with an average of 8 or fewer words in each, there were too many different subjects and ideas competing for attention.

Perhaps above all, the themes and messages were too well concealed so that the whole became a mystery wrapped in an enigma trapped inside a puzzle pretending to be a solvable riddle. Too obscure, too obtuse, too evasive to connect with the reader. Smart writing group members couldn’t grasp my meaning. My mom understood, but she knows me very well and knows my writing, so she had an advantage. We don’t write just for Mom. When I’m apparently trying to be too clever, as in that poem, I suppose there is a dimness to my feelings or a cowardice that hides them from my readers.

At any rate, the poem, though couched in nature and wildlife appreciation, was most centrally about the persistent triumph of depression and a negative outlook over the struggle to feel alive and happy. That last line, the ending that Anna so despised, was “because when I said it I meant it, ‘Life sucks.'” Negative, true, but also inelegant.

Of course, Anna was dying of cancer at the time and doing her best to live for the moment, accomplish her goals, be her best self more than ever–in every way to rage against her dying light. How could anyone, perhaps especially a writer, a fellow poet, and someone she liked reasonably well, genuinely feel this way about the thing she desperately clung to with all her soul? Her response to such a statement might have been visceral, possibly even a kind of revulsion.

I don’t know whether she read the whole poem before starting her critique. If she did, it means she was probably a better person, a better beta reader, than I, because it means she tamped down her horror long enough to comment constructively on much more than just that nasty ending. Perhaps she was a better person than I in lots of ways. She was very likeable, friendly, and easygoing when I first met her. Clearly intelligent, astute, with a sense of humor and fellowship, she fought hard to live in spite of her death sentence.

But in truth, I didn’t know Anna all that well. Perhaps if I had, her indirect and sometimes direct message of carpe diem would have influenced me more strongly, made more of a difference. One time, in response to the question of what to do with feedback after a writing group discussion of her work sample, she said to a mixed crowd of some who knew her situation and some who had just met her, “I don’t believe in tomorrow, for lots of reasons.” She’ll take her feedback immediately, please and thank you.

I still put things off, I still take things for granted, I still undervalue my work, but I do think a lot about Anna. I think about her reaction to my autobiographical declaration in that final poetic line, and I marvel at how different people’s experiences of life, of its goodness, of its meaning, of our esteem and appreciation of it can be. I notice how even knowing that you’re going to die might not bring out a noble response in you, at least not all the time. Sometimes adversity just kicks our asses and wins the trophy.

Perhaps it was Anna’s sense of the permanence, the finality of committing that last contemptible line to print, and possibly posterity, that stood against everything she stood for. I could almost hear her: If you’re going to leave a legacy, make it encouraging, inspiring, life affirming. I’ll never know, but the poem was both. It both affirmed life and lamented the inability, the often extreme difficulty at least, to affirm it.

We wish across each other. She may have wished, in addition to not having to die, that her sense of the preciousness of life could be felt by all those around her, whether they knew they were dying soon or not, particularly in that moment when she read of someone’s opposite feeling. I wished I had had more time with her, to learn from her, to build a friendship. I often wish for that sense of imminent death, without death itself, that’s supposed to kick you in the pants and make you produce things, be better, live fully.

Maybe it’s my signals of ambivalence that so irritate the dying woman who knows she’s dying. Don’t whine. Either get it over with or get on with it. Don’t hem and haw. Pick a side and charge ahead. Irrevocably, we have so little time to lose.

As I age, my health seems to grow more precarious from different directions. I’m aware of some of the signs, if not all. I’ve got way too many medical specialist physicians.

“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special announcement,” that the writer has left the writing room so she can book a weekend getaway in Hocking Hills State Park to enjoy hiking, ziplining, and adventures with husband and dog. Carpe diem. . . .

And what did I do instead? I talked about my health with my husband, did some drug and physiological research, exorcised my fears a little–all useful activities, to a point. But when will I get around to a spontaneous leaping toward joy? Answering that, of course, would contradict the intention and fundamentally change the action’s nature.

Unless the answer is “never.” In that case, internal consistency prevails. I long ago compromised courage so as to avoid hypocrisy. Principles being principles, habits being habits, and all of these forming my identity, why would I pull the rug out now?

At bottom, I perceive one of my life’s purposes to be to earn, perpetually, the right to happiness. I don’t deserve it outright (does anyone really deserve anything, good or bad?), and I have trouble accepting it as a gift for fear of much harsher punishment as a direct response to its indulgence. In order to stave off the dropping of the other shoe, I walk around barefoot. Deprivation is my insurance policy.

The only trouble is, that doesn’t really work either. It leads exactly to the attitude expressed in my awe-filled and awful poem. And so it becomes a tug of war between, on one side, some kind of Catholic guilt-driven, Puritanical self-denial and, on the other, owning and claiming my truth while pursuing my passions. Between feeling just and feeling justified. Between “should” and “want.”

One half is always holding back the other; the other half is always straining to break free. Being locked in combat with myself like this, I envy as I compare others’ successes to my stagnation, and that comparison, and subsequent judgment, results in low self-esteem and depression.

This is why a psyche like mine can always use another dose of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program. She talks a lot about giving oneself permission to try, to fail, to be oneself, to invest in one’s art, no matter what anybody else says or does. She describes the pitfalls of the virtue trap, the thinking that being virtuous somehow leads to happiness. It doesn’t inherently do so, no. She really tapped into a selling strategy by couching the artist’s way as “a spiritual journey to higher creativity,” guided by fate, destiny, God, or some other force that only wants the best for us and calls us to express ourselves.

I don’t believe in an active, anthropomorphic God or even in the supernatural more broadly, per se. But I have seen truth to the good that can come from believing in myself and focusing my energy where my deepest instincts and greatest loves reside. So much for intuition. As an introverted thinker, an incorrigible intellectual I suppose, I’ve always lived primarily in and through my mind. Thus, the philosophy degree and the sense that the whole spectrum of reality is to me merely theoretical. So much for intellect.

If nothing beyond that cerebrally weighted attention occurs, perhaps the effort is enough. Maybe that’s my way of embracing life. Just keep doing what you’re doing. The end is not all, but it’s coming. When it does, will you be able to say that at least you tried your best? Will you look back with a sense of restless bitterness or of peace and love? Will you remain open hearted and open minded, receptive to mystery, surprise, and wonder? Will you know transcendence beyond pain and pettiness? I suppose these are decent enough measures of life’s quality.

You thought this post was going to be about frogs, didn’t you? Well, according to my train wreck of a poem, indirectly, it is.

The Dream of Turning 40

My birthday’s gift to you? Getting personal–one day early.


Each time I’ve thought of this coming birthday, I have heard Meg Ryan’s immortal lines:

“And I'm gonna be forty!”
“When?” asks Harry.
“Some day,” Sally adds weakly.
“In eight years!” Harry reasons.
“Yes, but it's just sitting there like this big dead end. . . .”

As with many of my favorite movies, and even ones I don’t like much, I occasionally hear these movie lines from When Harry Met Sally running through my head as I go about my day. These days, this particular record is broken.

Sally wants a family and has just learned that her several months’ ex-boyfriend Joe is engaged. Harry has gone to her place to comfort her. She’s crying rather hysterically, having shown no signs of grief post-breakup. Finally, the bubble has burst, and Harry and Sally’s friendship takes an irrevocable turn.

What’s my point? Lord knows. But isn’t that a great scene? More entertaining than I find everyday life, which is probably why I live in the cinematic fantasy world a significant portion of the time. (Don’t need the video; it’s all memorized.) Besides, the trauma is happening to someone else. I’m comforted, safe, but it also often means the joy and rapture are more likely found elsewhere. What reward without risk?

My eight years have passed, and 32 more besides. That reminds me, I’ve decided to state my age as “ten and thirty,” as in the days of yore. That sounds much more forgiving. Go for it, 60-year-olds! Say, “I am twenty and forty” or “I am twice thirty.” Sounds younger. I got this idea from my husband, who is nearly 14 months younger than I. Very thoughtful, Dear.

No, my husband is a hoot and adorable, and my parents, bless them, still vital and being parents. But I currently have no pets or children to look after (besides the backyard birds), which is the most accepted form of daily joy. No little ones to amuse me each day, which is, of course, the primary function of kids. Right, parents? Well, maybe not “primary,” but it’s mixed in there with all the exhaustion, stress, bewilderment, and worry.

The truth is I’m on the fence about having kids and have been for a while, but the inevitable alarm bells for presumably fertile women go up in volume a few decibels with the introduction of that dreaded digit “4.” No more thirties, not that I’ll miss the years themselves. No more legitimately falling into the young category. I’m entering that middle zone some refer to as “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Sounds like license for a mid-life crisis, for sure. 

But it’s certainly not a mid-reproductive years crisis. No, if it is a crisis or anything like, it’s that we’re coming down to the wire. As Sally Albright says after “this big dead end,” “and it’s not the same for men. Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 73.” Harry replies: “Yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” Sally starts to laugh but it returns to sobs.

Generally, women who want children and haven’t found a mate by their mid- to late-30s have more cause for mid-life crisis than men do, but science and evolution give us hope for higher numbers of fertile years and higher survival rates amidst high-risk pregnancies and complications of childbirth. Risk is always there, and danger still increases with age, but the 21st century is patient with late bloomers, whereas even as recently as 150 years ago, unmarried women past their twenties were already doomed to spinsterhood.

Risks and rewards come in many forms, and mean different things for different people. We as a society seem to believe we have no right to seek, let alone expect, healthy challenge or happiness in work or marriage itself or travel or the arts, especially not instead of in reproducing. Shouldn’t we take growth and joy everywhere we can get them?

You might think it depends on whether you’re passive or active in the “getting.” Actively seeking seems more honorable somehow, more adult, more enlightened than waiting for manna from heaven, as if we’re helpless, inert, ineffectual, and faithfully convinced of it. I.e., sheep.

Two movies intercede here. The Sound of Music and She’s Having a Baby, another 80s gem. “The Reverend Mother says you have to look for your life,” Maria tells Captain Von Trapp. And: “What I was looking for was not to be found but to be made,” says Jefferson Edward (“Jake”) Briggs of his wife and newborn son. Love that John Hughes.

Yet, even when we look for and make a life, nothing that results is absolutely great or horrible. Just as important as the issue of seeking actively or passively is to weigh the potential risks and rewards together.

For me, added risks come with carrying and birthing a child. Greatest of these besides age is that, due to inflammatory arthritis, any pregnancy would be considered by clinicians to be “high risk” from the start. I can imagine, have imagined the possible rewards as I watched my friends expand their families and now watch their eldest become teenagers. I’ve made my mental pros and cons lists and thought about all the right and wrong reasons and good and bad ways to have children. I’ve assessed our suitableness for parenthood and the question of passing on hereditary health conditions. Most important, after all that careful consideration and consultation, though, is to feel the desire rise above fear and doubt.

But whatever ends up touching us, however strangely or improbably it happens, however deliberately, desperately, or passionately we reach for it, there it is. It can either be good or bad for us, or both. We receive the good with the bad whether or not we want either of them.

The universe presents good, bad, worse, and better to us sometimes as options from an à la carte menu. The tongs grab the casual sex instead of the terrifying emotional chemistry that means risking great loss. Single woman will take slavery to meddling, co-dependent mother with side of slaw, instead of daunting freedom of looking for life, with unsweetened iced tea. But we always get a full plate. Another memorized movie brings the idea to a head:

“I have this theory of convergence that good things always happen with bad things, and I mean, I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I don’t know why . . . . I just wish I could work out some sort of schedule. Am I babbling? Do you know what I mean?”

An enamored Lloyd Dobler replies, “No.”

But I got it perfectly! “Diane Court, whoa.” Genius of 1988, valedictorian of the class in Say Anything . . . Weren’t the 80s golden for rom-coms? She finds love just when her father’s life is falling apart. She can’t pick and choose. They both descend unbidden, and neither is going away any time soon. So she does the logical thing and pushes away the good out of loyalty to her lying, thieving father.

We do that sometimes—make self-sabotaging choices, afraid of happiness, scared of the sin of it, especially as others suffer, whether we play any role in their suffering or not. It feels wrong to be happy when loved ones are not. Fortunately . . . perhaps, Diane rights herself, rejecting Dad for Lloyd. The ending is open ended.

Love does not guarantee happiness; the opposite is more likely. But that doesn’t mean we should shun love. Pain is a powerful teacher. Once in a while, we learn something valuable to apply to the future.

Oh so much wisdom can be found in film. Our movie and TV heroes show us how we stumble and how to recover. They demonstrate how it’s done. The best stories at least hint at the fact that it’s an ongoing process, until it’s not.

If we’re lucky, we get to choose to embrace life or embrace death. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Even more fortunate is the blessing of joy in this life. We may make our own happiness. We can certainly try.

Failing that, we can preserve our sense of wonder, mystery, beauty, or hope, even when rapture is out of reach. Even when disability, disease, injury, mistakes, conflict, or loss seems to mock our reaching.

In truth, fortune is fickle, and navigating it takes effort and patience, of initiative and waiting and recovery, and, for some, of praying. It really does seem to be all about the balance.

Whether equilibrium or tipped scales, the balance holds all. A 40-year-old can wobble like a toddler in heart or mind or body. A six-year-old can dispense ancient wisdom effortlessly. A 90-year-old can cut through the bullshit with razor sharpness. Nothing is completely as we might assume. Expect to have your expectations defied.

When you do, the likelihood of it may just increase. Sometimes a taste of the possibilities outside convention opens up the horizon like a star exploding. It’s messy, destructive even, but creative, too. We are all more resilient than we suppose, more capable of renewal and starting fresh after a fall or fallout or the numbing effects of time. I must remember this.

I think about death a lot, particularly my own, and not just because it’s my birthday. I expect to be struck down at any moment, much of the time. Especially any time I get in a car. I don’t really fixate; I just let the thoughts meander through. There’s little to stop them. Sometimes, I think I focus on death as a way to force myself to embrace life more vehemently. Losing grandparents, aunts, uncles, former classmates, and friends hasn’t done the trick. The terror does not yield to carpe diem, and some darkness lingers.

Losing the dog last February, however, brought new emptiness, which I greedily filled with guilty pleasures and renewed ambitions. Seen another way, I dusted myself off and kept going. However, along with vigorous effort and focus comes not just hope, but expectation.

We have no right to expect positive outcomes just because we are open to them or want them or reach for them or demand them. But while we’re here, we might as well try to build and enjoy something that is ours. Few will remember us for long after we’re gone, and eons from now, no one will.

Nowadays, almost as much as I think about death, I wonder about having kids, and my husband and I discuss it periodically (no, not monthly). The questions arise, along with the concerns. Answers are few and indefinite. In short, neither desire nor aversion has yet won.

People like to say, “It’s never too late,” but frankly, for everything, one day it will be. The line cavalierly sanctions procrastination of major life decisions. It’s little different from “There’s always tomorrow,” but that may truly never come, and one day, it just won’t. Do now, be now. All we know for sure is now. Do what, you ask? What is most true to yourself. This notion has become a trend and may now be somewhat out of fashion.

I’ve read my share of self-help books, most before the age of 30, and some have pearls of wisdom I’ve tucked away. You may know one that says, “Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (I won’t say which one; I’m promoting movies, not books, today.) In reading these, and favoring this quote, I’ve trained myself to be alert to my inner truth and its expression, and it seems to be working as I work. I don’t seek out those kinds of books anymore; too many better options await my attention.

If we all cop out or settle to some degree and at some point, or even if only most of us do, it’s no great tragedy. On the other hand, if we ignore our soul’s longing completely, it may not be a mortal sin, but it could become a terminal regret. My fear of regret keeps me asking important questions such as, How can I make the most of my life? What am I meant to do?

Like today, even tomorrow may be nothing but a dream. In that case, I choose to embrace the dream, and the dreams within it. I’ve made it this far. I survived. I fulfilled the dream of turning 40. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a signpost, a weigh station (I try not to stop at those). As if life is an aging contest or some sort of race to the finish, as if the finish line were not death itself.

Age is a sort of accomplishment in our culture. For people with, say, a terminal illness or violent household, this may well be true. Obviously, war-torn countries are so described because of death and maiming, where celebrating survival may become almost necessity. Still, in places and times of relative peace, we celebrate birthdays from year one forward, and in weeks and months before that. When birthdays are used to celebrate life and becoming, it makes sense to add some hoopla.

Otherwise, encountering another year really isn’t much of an achievement. This time, a song borrows the old adage: “Wisdom doesn’t follow just because you’ve aged.” Experience doesn’t guarantee learning. “Been there, done that” doesn’t mean you’re really any better off than someone who hasn’t. So don’t gloat so much, old fogie.

I’m certainly not done yet, not done trying to “fulfill” my “potential.” At some point, you’ve got to deliver, Dodo-head, or find yourself going the way of the dodo. And who would mourn the loss? The inability to evolve, to persevere, maintain a foothold on earth, on behalf of your species? To represent! I always feel that pressure to achieve, to make a difference, to leave a legacy, but with long-term pressure, I risk overcooking.

One side of you is saying, “And so you should.” And perhaps: “How selfish of you, how typical, to lament the inevitable passage of time, to make excuses for not using yours wisely. More selfish still, just spending (wasting) the time thinking about it because you ‘have the time’ to do so.” That’s my projected criticism from all those busy family people my age who don’t have such a “luxury,” the disapproval from the other voices in my head.

Why do I choose to look at it this way? Is that motivating? Even with these last quote marks, my defiance comes through. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” says Popeye. It’s a defiance to convention, conformity, being ordinary. It’s an insistence on forgiving myself for not being perfectly healthy, at my ideal weight, in shape, and bursting with energy while also juggling two jobs, a home, and children. Besides, I do juggle many parts of a busy life.

I defy contempt for privilege, I defy the progressive insistence that moral rightness means impoverishing oneself in the name of equality, and I defy the stigma and misconceptions about writers’ and artists’ lives. I could do office work, and I have done lots of it. I could do manual labor if I really, really had to, but I don’t. Now I work to be an artist, I teach for some income, and, thanks to my husband, I’m not starving. There, I said it.

Of course I would consider writing about, which requires dwelling upon, turning 40. I am a writer. And what’s more, a writer in a culture accustomed to celebrating and obsessing about birthdays. I’ve often thought that I am better suited to life as a free-wheeling scholar from the Age of Enlightenment or something than to traditional, modern-era work. Rather than snub the blessing, I embrace the chance to be just that kind of scholar and writer, while still working toward greater individual contributions to our income.

I usually try to keep my defiance in check in my writing, never wanting to seem too selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, too forthright, feminist, emotional, emotionalist, or otherwise stereotypically female, except in jest. But also because I claim a cherished penchant for reason and logic. True, the suppression is a bit neurotic, but, hey, awareness is the first step.

I really like that first step. I walk it all the time. It’s an infinite loop, as though I have one leg much shorter than the other and am walking in circles. Selfish –> anxious about it –> neurotic about anxiety –> selfishly neurotic. It’s oh so productive.

Suppressing defiance or anger, though, just comes across as being cold, rigid, emotionally distant, or, perhaps worse, dishonest. Unlikely I’m fooling anyone but me.

Defiance leaks out, anyway, eventually, in other contexts, the rest that I have—tutoring, friends, family. I’m human and American. Overall, I like to think my students and loved ones are pleased with me despite my egocentric leanings. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to defy expectation and to be different. The effort has become its own sort of tedious convention. Those who know me have come to expect it. Who, in the end, is truly 100 percent original? We are creatures of habit, pattern, and imitation. Relax a little when faced with things you really can’t change. Do everything in moderation, even moderation. Let loose on occasion. Balance.

And so, I revel in the riches of imagination, in all its forms, mediums, shapes, and colors. “God is in the rain,” says Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. In nature, in reverie, in reflection. That’s where God lives for me. Where I can find something of grace, of beauty, of serenity, invigoration, balance. It is my universe. I can touch it, see it, hear it, taste it, examine it, love or hate it, reject or accept it.

We all need ways to shelter ourselves from the certainty of death, at least long enough to invest in our lives and to dream new dreams. The only soul I have to live with is this living, sensing one. I mean to do right by it. Invest in the balance, and then, “wait and hope,” as the Count of Monte Cristo says. And smile.

My new dream? Only one of many: the chance to see how I feel about all this at age 50. What of effort, deepest joy, money, ego, pain, employment, God, imagination, kids, limits, convention, neurosis, the world’s hunger, potential, balance, or wisdom then? I hope I’ll see–and hear those movie lines calling.


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graduate school graduation, age 31, or “ten and 21”

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Five-Phrase Friday (25): Oxymorons and Myth

This week, I ponder the link between word and idea, between language and meaning, as I consider a handful of oxymorons and possibly mythical concepts:

formative years – as if all years we experience do not form, or re-form, some aspect of our perspectives, traits, philosophies, beliefs, attitudes, dreams and pursuits

virtual reality – This phrase may be either redundant or self-contradictory. Either real experience is an illusion (making “virtual” an extraneous modifier), or there is no such thing as virtual life, and it’s all just life (there is only the real). Or, perhaps there is only  subjective reality, and appearance and reality are the same thing, which leads us to . . .

absolute truth – What is true in one person’s view may not be true in another’s. We skew by seeing. We muddle by speaking. And perhaps, the only truths are the known, the seen, and the spoken, and nothing exists outside of our interaction with it. Does the tree that falls in the forest where no one is there to hear it make a sound? What is sound but what we can hear?

the embodied (or disembodied) soul – Neuroscientists, philosophers, and others have observed in greater and greater numbers that there is no such thing as the soul, that the mind cannot exist without the body, and, thus, the only life is the one we’re living, and there is no before or after.

unconditional love – Love is nothing but conditional. We love because we are attracted, because this child belongs to us, because we belong to these parents, these siblings, and if we did not belong, what cause would we have to love? It is only by belonging to each other, and being with each other in our thoughts and experiences–i.e., only conditionally–that we love. Our innate attachments are the first conditions, and our psyche ever after seeks self-preservation, safety, attention, comfort, stability, expression, and purpose. We may choose to love unconditionally as an act of faithfulness, but we want what we want, always the best conditions for our own survival and fulfillment, and that inner voice cannot be denied continuously or forever without psychic fracture. There may be unconditional constancy but no unconditional love. Whether the conditions are conscious or unconscious, they’re always there.

Relativity, subjectivity, conditionality, hypocrisy, irony, influence, the absolute. Creation, transformation, reality, truth, soul, love. What do you think of these concepts? How do you see them operating in your life?