When I was about 13 years old, I was at least 10 pounds shy of 100 and still several clicks away from my dream height of 5-feet. Around this time my parents, brother, and I attended our family reunion at a park where there were games, goo gobs of food and cousins galore in a variety of colors and sizes. I was the same age as a few of my cousins and, admittedly, those were my favorites. When we came together, we did it in grand fashion with big hugs and kisses and declarations of love along with promises not to stay away from each other so long.
After a while, one such cousin suggested we get on the see-saw (or teeter-totter depending on your regional phraseology). Not thinking, I sat down; and then he sat down. Hard. I flipped up in the air and flew about 10 feet, landing eventually in a field away from the action. When I came to, he, along with everyone else, was standing over me.
What happened? Life, and I let it.
I began thinking about how often we let life happen to us and what that means after finishing “The Sense of an Ending,” for which author Julian Barnes won “The Man Booker Prize.” I am still deciding whether I enjoyed the book; the characters are mostly self-satisfied or seemingly uninspired with few likeable qualities. But days later I am still thinking about it. That must mean something.
SPOILER ALERT (Stop here if you don’t want to know more): “The Sense of an Ending” is the story of Tony Webster; we start while he is a schoolboy and follow him to revelations in middle age. The mother of an ex-girlfriend in Tony’s youth wills him five hundred dollars and the diary of a friend who committed suicide. As Tony makes various attempts to acquire the book, he begins reflecting on his past; but his past is not how he remembers it. Tony, we discover, or surmise, may not be the innocent party: His history, subconsciously it seems, is revisionist history.
“What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realized? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid his bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels? (Barnes, “The Sense of an Ending”)
What does it mean to let life happen to you? Does it mean there is no winning or losing? No choices or challenges? How many of us really control or direct our lives? Some talk of creating a five-year plan. Do you know five people with a five-year plan? What about a two-year plan?
On screen, the morally challenged Francis Underwood, the star manipulator in Netflix’s “House of Cards,” goes after life with verbal machine guns firing off underhanded deeds. He makes his future in full Hitler fashion. For him, getting caught unaware is an inexcusable flaw and his wife, Claire, is there to make sure it does not happen, at least not more than once. So Frank plans and follows his personal plotline until he accomplishes his reprehensible goals.
That dedication is a good thing, right? Short answer: Depends on the goals.
Personally, I found jealous Othello to be boor, blowing smoke in the form of long soliloquies when really he was just a gullible fool. Yet, the eponymous drama, in my estimation, is brilliant and arouses questions, like did the famous Moor let life happen to him? Was he unwittingly duped into murdering his wife? Or did he consciously choose to believe Iago?
As a child, my dad signed me up for baseball, mom for piano. I ran track until I let my grades fall. I got married, divorced and made other foolish decisions. Eventually I got a B.A. in English and wrote my heart out. In need of employment after graduation, I took a job the college career office found me, working at a national retailer selling hundred-dollar sneakers to female gangbangers with butterfly tattoos. Eventually, I took a better paying job and then another, until I discovered I was a journalist. It was exciting, challenging and educational, an experience I will never regret but did not plan it.
Now, at least according to other people’s timetables, I am middle aged; I am also unmarried, childless, and have not published the great American novel. I go to church regularly and read my bible daily. Did life happen to me? Maybe. Or was the very act of letting things happen a choice? Have I, by not sticking to my original plan of being a great American author, ruined my chances of seeing my dreams come true? Possibly. Do I regret it? Sometimes.
I had emergency surgery back in the 90s. A week later, after the friendly fuzziness of morphine started vanishing from my system and I was nearing the ability to whine without pain, my mother looked up from her crocheting and said, “It’s just more material for your book.”
Life may have happened to me but I have more material for my book than some who have followed the linear way, with all its smooth contours and shiny doodads. Still, I have been taking more chances lately, making purposeful changes, and doing things because they feel right and not just because I have a great capacity for survival.
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