Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, recently revealed that her next book Clock Dance, is based on her theory that a person’s entire life and identity can be shaped by a single decision made in early childhood. As early as seven years of age, Tyler says a child can know exactly who they want to be and what type of temperament they want to have. For instance, Tyler said in her published Note prefacing Clock Dance:
“I believe that our entire lives can be shaped by a single decision that we make during childhood as to who, exactly, we should be. As to how we should be, what kind of people we want to become. ”
She provides a few examples of decisions she made when seven years of age, after studying the two grown ups in her life. Upon comparison of her parents, Tyler decided that she’d rather be like the steady, gentle, patient one, instead of the sharp tempered and erratic one. And that being the case, she knew she’d have to not marry anyone patient, as clearly, there “is only a certain amount of patience to be had, and you don’t want it all to go to the other person.”
She leads readers to surmise that one decision to be the patient one, basically formed her life and became the catalyst for her next best selling novel.
Do you agree with her theory? Can we decide as early as seven who we will become? What our personality traits will be? Maybe. But then again, don’t we always have the opportunity for reflection and to change, to grow? Or maybe we just humor ourselves with the idea that we can or will change, yet underlying personality traits of either being hyper, dramatic, patient, shy, short-tempered, etc. are embedded into our soul like a watermark that never leaves. So are we born with any genetic predispositions, or do we choose all of our personality traits based on our environments and what we choose to become?
There is no disputing the power of eloquent lines of fiction. Whether they plunge us into forgotten sorrow or lift us up into sweet contemplation—they move us. They resonate. They pull at the emotional strings that allow us to truly seek to see another human being in a light that could rarely happen in another medium. They inspire us to keep reading—to hear the whole story. To continue with a process that allows us to unfold into a slow melting of empathy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of a few phrases. Fiction has never been more important than today. Our world of instant communication via texting and social media, should, in theory, allow us to better heard, seen, acknowledged, understood. Yet, I find, more often than not, I get, or receive, fragmented, misunderstood and quickly judged or dismissed text messages. And social media has become a PR vehicle where pictures convey what we want others to see. We are rarely understood. Rarely accepted. And often isolated. Today, more than ever, fiction is vital. Why? Because it allows us to dig deeper. To look closer. To care. To connect to a truth in someone, or in some circumstance, that is completely different, yet essentially the same on some level, to our own.
It allows us to truly see the essence of another’s soul. To see their true beauty. Even to see their lack there of. But to see someone’s raw essence and to try to learn more, understand more.
Take Liz Moore’s beautiful novel Heft. I dare anyone to read this book and not fall in love with the chronically obese, homebound Arthur Opp, with a soul as kind and large as his 550 pound body.
So, this post is dedicated to finding those lines of fiction that allow the magic to start. Those lines that truly hook us and gut us. You know what I mean. I might be 100 pages into a new novel, but am just not committed until THAT line. So let’s go there and share our favorites. Take John Green‘s well-loved phrase from The Fault In Our Stars: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
Or what about this paragraph, that I instantly connected with: “Okay, maybe I’m not such a shitty writer. But I can’t pull my ideas together, Van Houten. My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.”
During a brief conversation with my neighbor, a screen writer, he shared his two favorite lines from Ernest Hemingway‘s The Old Man and The Sea, both metaphors for obsession, competition and the mentality of war:
“Looking at his damaged hand, he reflects that “pain does not matter to a man.”
“The old man thinks that the fish is killing him, and admires him for it, saying, “I do not care who kills who.”
Here are some of my favorites, although I have so many more:
“I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s not just how much you love someone. Maybe what matters is who you are when you’re with them.” – Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist.
“Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.” – John Cheever,The Wapshot Chronicle.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.
“These are the quicksilver moments of my childhood I cannot remember entirely. Irresistible and emblematic, I can recall them only in fragments and shivers of the heart.” ― Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides.
“Rape is a crime against sleep and memory; it’s afterimage imprints itself like an irreversible negative from the camera obscura of dreams.” — Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides.
“You see if you tell yourself the same tale over and over again enough times then the tellings become separate stories and you will generally fool yourself into forgetting you started with one solitary season out of your life.” — Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster.
“Again, I feel misplaced, dropped into a life not my own.” — Patti Callahan Henry, The Stories We Tell.
I have TOO many favorite lines…I’m dying to know yours. PLEASE chime in!!! L. xo
The gift of a good book just can’t be underestimated! Here are some of my favorite reads, and tops on my must-read list. (And, don’t worry, NV’s children and young adult picks are coming out soon.) But isn’t it important to treat ourselves during the holidays, too? I think of it like oxygen on the airplane. You have to first breathe into your own emergency oxygen container before securing one onto your child, right? Similarly, don’t forget to put yourself on your holiday list with one of these inexpensive splurges. So, while you’re buying Santa’s gifts for your cherubs, pick up one of these for yourself! Think of it as momma’s indulgence: put the kiddos in bed, snuggle with a blanket, drink some coco (or other beverage) and drift far, far away.
1. Heft, a novel, by Liz Moore
Why I love this book: It’s remarkable when an author can make you feel compassion for extremely flawed characters. We come to see the morbidly obese ex-professor as the beautiful person that he is. Tragically caged by his mind and his habits in his house—we begin to see that he is one of the thoughtful, kind, compassionate souls the world needs more of. The depressed, alcoholic mother and her baseball fanatic son become people of worth. The co-dependent son is wise before his years. He doesn’t realize his true strength and courage may be off the baseball field. His mother, fighting lupus and addictions, has a kindness tangled beneath her depression, pain and booze. The young pregnant maid without a college degree, we come to see as courageous and street-smart. They all have gifts that would be rarely recognized in the real world or through our lens coated with societal constraints and judgements. Any book that can open our hearts and make us re-evaluate quick, stereotypical thinking, is high on my list. It’s a great read for teens and adults.
2. Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler
I have read every book by Anne Tyler, and could easily recommend her latest or one of my other favorites by the Baltimore-based author—such as Back When We Were Grownups and Breathing Lessons. But this particular book is a great one for single moms, or any of us who have stayed the course in our lives and with our families, but sometimes fantasize catapulting a way out—even if just for a brief period.
Married with three almost-grown children, Delia Grinstead leaves her family’s beach house for an errand. Her bags aren’t packed, her next move not pre-meditated, but she just keeps going. It’s as if her feeling of liberation moves her forward and her mind must catch up later. She settles into a new life, that most would not find that exciting, but it is her own. She is in control of her life, her decisions and her time—and she is no longer reminded daily of how she is taken for granted. Oddly, even though most of us would never make this choice, it’s hard not to like this character and feel some understanding for her bizarre, steadfast “crack” that pushed her forward and onward—leaving her older children with her husband.
3. Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
This remarkable example of the healing power of forgiveness tops my ‘must read list.’ I first saw an interview with Louis Zamperini, the champion of Unbroken, on CBS Sunday Morning Memorial Day weekend. (Watch the clip here, it’s worth it!) I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since, as I know that holding on to your pain, grudges and toxic memories only hurts you. Forgiving those who have hurt you, frees you to live a joyous life. It’s easy to say, very hard to do. So hopefully, Unbroken will be in Santa’s bag for me!
If you haven’t heard about this book, it’s about the life of Louis Zamperini, a young Olympian runner who was shot down in the Pacific near Japan during WWII. Imprisoned in a brutal camp for two years, Zamperini endured horrific torture and starvation. His story, written by Hillenbrand, shows how he managed to turn away from abusing alcohol to numb his post-traumatic stress and nightmares—to a lifetime of forgiveness—even forgiving the sadistic camp director. Just amazing.
4. Super Brain, by Deepak Chopra, M.D. & Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.
I got inspired to read my first Chopra book after doing his 21 Day Meditation Challenge. During the challenge, I had a few ‘aha moments’. One, is that hearing “you are a transplendent being” or “worthy of love” every day—makes you believe it. And, finally, focussing on your inner beauty, strength and kindness helps you realize that you deserve health, love and abundance in your life.
Intellectually, you may think that you deserve these things, but emotionally, you may hold different beliefs—even those not spoken. Perhaps neglect or abuse from childhood, abuse during marriage, or other toxic memories have made you feel lesser than. This book explains how to harness your mind to overcome these issues, control your thoughts, and lessen anxiety to live a more joyful life.
As a good friend said to me: “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
5. The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling
This is on my “must-read list” and I’m happy to report that one of my son’s “bought” this for my Christmas present today! I can’t wait to read J.K.’s latest just for pure escapism during the holidays. As a former London resident, I’ve developed a fondness for quaint English villages and the quirky, gossipy residents who typically live there. I can’t wait to indulge in this book that follows the aftermath of a young man’s death and how the families in this idyllic village don’t lead such idyllic lives.
As many of you may know, I used to live in London and traveled quite a bit. I moved back to California in the summer of 2008, when 7 months pregnant. Southern California is a great place to be when you’re sleep deprived and in need of sunshine and fresh air. But lately, I find myself starting to get that twitchy foot. The itch that, in the past, would make want to purchase a last minute rail ticket for a weekend excursion to somewhere in Europe. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss my old life at all. I really do believe that I was supposed to go through this mess: this divorce, this single motherhood thing and that it’s all part of a plan. It’s forcing me to grow and realize my inner strength and I have embraced that better things are yet to come. BUT, that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes need to GET AWAY.
Now that I’m regularly sleeping through the night, (isn’t it marvelous when your child finally lets you??) I’m feeling the urge to hit the open road. I crave getting into my car and driving for long periods at a time with no real destination. I recall reading Ann Tyler’s book Ladder of Years where the main character, a 40-year-old mom, took a walk and just kept walking until she moved to another town altogether. I loved it. (Although I adore all of Ann Tyler’s books.)
Don’t worry, ya’ll. I’m not about to do that. But I realize that I need vistas. I need to explore. It’s always been a part of my DNA. My Ex hated that I rarely planned or structured our trips beyond arranging a house swap or renting a flat or house somewhere. I liked to meander and discover things—to sit at cafes and people watch or talk with a chatty local and get the low-down on where to go that evening. I miss spontaneity. In college, I’d take off and drive from Georgia to Maine with no set stopping places in between. I’d stop where it felt good to do so. I naturally gravitated to journalism as I liked the constant change of scenery or new voices. As a child, I wandered in the woods and horse trails. I love discovering by happenstance. With that said, I’m literally and financially too grounded to take off as a single mom of two kiddos.
But I’m realizing that I can still get a little bit of that flight feeling by opening my eyes wider and exploring closer to home. By being present and taking in my surroundings or taking short excursions with the boys, we can explore. So, I’m rarely without my camera these days. I’m far from a photographer, (and none of my pictures were taken with special lenses or have been touched up in some way) but I find that shooting pictures of the beauty that surrounds me in Southern California reminds me there are things to discover in my own backyard. It helps ease that yearning for an excursion I can’t have right now.
There will be days ahead for faraway travel. But for now, I’m going to keep drinking in my sun-kissed part of the world. When I take pictures and look at them later, I’ll remember to thank God for second chances at a new life. I am grateful to stay put at the moment. I am grateful to have the time to create and discover what beauty surrounds and lies within.
AloneTogether: Single Moms Support Group (This is a closed group, please say you found their site from me, Laura Roe Stevens, when requesting to join.)
The UCLA Family Commons: http://www.uclacommons.com/
Single Parent Housing: www.SPAOA.org
Pell Grants For Mothers: PellGrants.ClassesAndCareers.com