The Things We Keep

When my husband and I were first married, we were part of a group of people in Tucson, Arizona designing a new cohousing community— our very own little American kibbutz!

This is actually how the community was described to us by a colleague, and why our ears perked up when we heard about it. We had never heard the word cohousing before then, but we knew what a kibbutz was (or we thought we did) and after the first informational session, we handed over a check and joined as one of the first young couples in a group made up mostly of divorcees and soon-to-be retirees.

We participated in a year or so of planning discussions — during which time I got pregnant with our first child — but in the end decided the community wasn’t an ideal fit for us. When I think of why, I remember most the day we had to decide if we would build a community laundry facility or instead choose that private homes would have laundry rooms.

My husband and I were strongly in favor of an easy access washer and dryer. We had spent too many years shlepping canvas bags to and from laundromats in various cities to give up what we now saw as a necessary luxury. Furthermore, dirty bibs and stinky onesies were in our near future.  But the majority of the group thought that building one community laundry facility better fit our group vision. It would be more environmentally-friendly (we could use the gray water on the central lawn!) and would mean our homes would take up a smaller footprint.

This conversation spiraled out of control pretty quickly.  Soon it wasn’t about the laundry room, but about how much space we occupy and why. Which became a conversation about the things we need vs. the things we can let go of. Which became — finally! — the real conversation, which was:

There is a stage of life for acquiring things. And there is a stage of life for letting things go.

My husband and I were acquiring.  We’d been married less than a year. We had a new baby on the way. Stuff was in our future.

The rest of the group, most of whom were 20 – 30 years older than we were, were ready to let go.

I understood then, intellectually, the difference. But I couldn’t possibly comprehend how I’d ever be ready to let go of my things. I could see parting one day with my Dyson vacuum or saying goodbye to my extra set of Pottery Barn bowls. (Even though I really liked both sets, which is why we registered for two in the first place.)

But I couldn’t visualize or emotionally connect to a time in which I wouldn’t need extra space. For I didn’t travel lightly. In addition to all the gadgets I used to make my life more comfortable, I also carried with me all the signs and symbols of who I was and who I wanted to be.

Art on the walls.

Tchotchkes inside cabinets.

Magnets on the fridge.

All those things that reminded me where I’ve been and where I wanted to go.

All the things we keep so we know when we’re home.

* * *

Since not choosing to buy a house in the cohousing community, my husband and I have lived in 5 different houses. We’ve moved across country, across town, and across the sea.

We’ve lost some tchotchkes along the way. And half of our Pottery Barn dishes.

Accidentally, of course. But, in the larger scheme of life, very much on purpose.

You can’t keep on acquiring forever.

There’s only so much space.

In your closets. In your house. In your heart.

And there’s only so much time.

Losing the Pottery Barn dishes is preparation for the greater losses to come. Dirty bibs and onesies — as stinky as they get — are gone with the blink of an eye, don’t you know? As are the wee ones who used to wear them.

Letting go is a tool we must learn. We have no other choice … but learning to let go is not a group decision.

It’s one we each arrive at on our own.

In time.

Little by little, we get there.

Broken plates, missing teacups, forgotten floor lamps become stacks of letters, boxes of mixed tapes, address books from long ago.

Little by little ...

Regrets, broken promises, what ifs.

Little by little

Fear, anger, shame.

Little by little…we get there.

We let go.

What I learned from Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win in literature

Oh Alice Munro:

“For years and years, I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel,” she told The New Yorker in 2012. “Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that. I suppose that my trying to get so much into stories has been a compensation.”

Thank you for your well-timed win and wisdom, Ms. Munro, if I may call you that.

(Though I prefer to call you Alice.)

Your words in  The New Yorker were exactly what I needed to read right now, as a writer and as a human being:

As a writer who wishes to breathe life into the characters who infiltrate my dreams, but doesn’t yet know exactly what those characters really want or where they are going.  As a woman who yearns to give life to ideas stirring inside my heart — but often lacks the time or the energy. As a human being who is constantly wondering what in this life is practice and what is for real.

Thank you for writing real women, real marriage, real life … in a way that allows the reader to envision the beauty that exists even in those very real, raw circumstances.

I’ll be honest. I’ve only read Runaway, and selected short stories of yours, but you’ve always been a writer I’ve wanted to read more of.

And I love your name.

Alice.

Munro.

It’s a name that deserves celebrity.

I love that you’re Canadian, and that my Canadian best friend loves your writing, and that those two things together make me want to read more of your stories.

I love that your first collection was only published when you were 37. It offers this exhausted and overwhelmed 38 year old mother of three a glimmer of hope.

I love that you’ve lived to be 82, and I wonder if you always knew that you would live this long or if you always thought, like I do,  that you were only one year away from dying — a victim of a tragic disease or an automobile accident.

Too bad. So sad. No book for you.

I wonder when your heart stops breaking. Does it?

I wonder when you run out of vivid memories to weave into your stories.

I wonder when you stop caring what people think and just write what you must so that a weight is lifted from your shoulders, and you can move on.

I love that picture of you — the one in which you’re sitting on the edge of the railroad track in The New York Times’  article. You look defiant, brave, and yet serene.

I wonder what takes more courage? Writing your truth or having it read by others?

Or sitting on the edge of a railroad track?

I win too, from this celebrated win of yours, Alice Munro.  Through getting to know you better, I am reminded that writing about what you know is enough.

Writing about relationships, memory, your life in your town. It’s enough.

I don’t need to fabricate tales of magic and mystery. I don’t need to create a romance that is one for the ages.

My life alone offers enough content for me to mine — life itself is a gift to any attentive writer.

Isn’t it?

What would you say, Alice Munro?

To a grown woman who still imagines herself a girl?

To a writer who still imagines herself on the slow road to a Nobel Prize in literature?

What would you say?

Would you say,

“Slow down?”

“Don’t worry?”

Would you say,

“It was all worth it?”

“It doesn’t mean a thing?”

Oh, Alice Munro. You’ve taught me a thing or two just by winning a damn award.

Getting old is better than being dead, you said, to the New York Times reporter.

“I’ve done what I wanted to do,” you said. “And that makes me feel fairly content.”

What’s a little closure between friends?

I sat alone in a movie theater in Haifa last night.

There were other people around me — strangers.

An American guy and a Russian girl out on a date.

Two elderly couples.

A grandmother, a mom, and her teenage daughter.

There were people in the theater, but I might as well have been alone.

It was that kind of movie experience.

The expression on my face moved in rhythm with the fictional couple’s tension and release.

I smiled.

I laughed.

My eyebrows furrowed.

My heart swelled and sunk.

Like the couple on the screen, I remembered 1994.

Except I wasn’t in Vienna with them when we first met. I was in Washington, D.C., sitting in a dark hall next to a good friend watching a free showing on campus of Before Sunrise, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

Courtesy wikipedia

Courtesy wikipedia

I left that movie theater in Washington, DC in love.

In love with an idea.

In love with this fictional romance.

This couple.

It’s pretty easy for me to pinpoint what I was so smitten with — the Ethan Hawke character was certainly the kind of guy I was into at the time. Intellectual, but funny. Confident enough, but still obviously insecure.  Boyishly handsome.

But most of all, I loved that their romance –Jesse’s and Celine’s — was centered around conversation, connection, and culture.

This type of romance — not the kind featuring princes and princesses —  was, to me, the stuff of fairy tales.

But how often do we get to see how the fairy tale turns out once the prince starts going gray and the wife’s eyes are underlined by heavy bags?

We don’t.

And it’s this reason why our image of romance is so royally fucked up.

Before Midnight is exactly the kind of film experience — and happy ending — we need more of.

“Happy ending?”, asks anyone who has seen Before Midnight, the 3rd installment of the trilogy, which finds Jesse and Celine married, approaching middle age, and discontent.

Yes, happy.

Real life, up-and-down, work-hard-at-it, happy.

Watching Before Midnight, we ride for two hours along with the couple through highs and lows during their family vacation in Greece — highs and lows not atypical of a middle class couple with young children.

As I observed Celine and Jesse, I could tell they are still clearly in love — or, at the very least, in “like.” They enjoy being with each other; they support each other. At times, I even found myself envying their verbal repartee, the ease with which they bounce off each other clever, but relatively harmless jabs.

They seem good.

Solid.

Until they don’t.

Midway through the movie we also come to understand exactly how very detached they are from the magic that first enchanted them.

And yet they long for that magic. You can tell.

There exists a struggle in each of them between wistfulness and resign.

But the fact they struggle at all is, in my opinion,  a good sign.

Any couple who still wants the magic is a couple who can most likely make it.

If they work at it.

Before Midnight illustrates the work that is behind long-lasting love. It lays out in ugly truth how hard marriage can be. And how easy it can be, when you are willing to put in the effort and accept your partner … even when the person who once enchanted you is buried beneath years of diapers, laundry, or uninspiring monotony.

The couple’s dilemma and resolution at the conclusion of the film was better than any “happily ever after.”  As the credits rolled, I felt my shoulders release and was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. Grateful for the gritty, yet satisfying, conclusion at the end of Before Midnight. And grateful that the idea I fell in love with in 1994 was one that could last. That could make it…somehow.

I sat alone in a movie theater in Haifa, and breathed in deep the longing I sometimes find lodged in my throat. But I breathed out wisdom and understanding.

And closure.