Usually, I don’t realize a particular day or night was auspicious – in terms of exerting a major influence on my life – until long after the fact. Not this time. Everything about meeting John for the first time felt intense, heightened, dramatic. At the same time, there was a quality of recognition – like, “There you are. I knew you were coming into my life.”
I have some corroborating evidence for my romantic premonitions. The next day I met my friend Denise Gail Williams for lunch. She said I looked happy, glowing. I told her, straight-faced, “I met the man I’m going to marry last night.”
I can’t explain how I knew this with such certainty and – in the interest of full disclosure – I must add that John did not know any such thing. He was in his first year of law school at USC and marriage was not on his mind (although it would be, a mere six weeks later when we got engaged, and six months later when we got married).
None of our fellow residents at Law House gave us a chance. Someone started a betting pool about how long we’d last. No one predicted forty-one years and counting. And after all these years – he’s still the One.
As desperate as I was to leave Santa Clara behind and start my new life in Los Angeles, I was twice as desperate to get back to Santa Clara once I left. I’d never known such intense, aching yearning – I guess I’d never been away from home long enough to get homesick.
I hadn’t been gone all that long – just under a month – but it no longer felt like the same place I left. It took a while to realize it was me who changed, however slightly. I came running home because I longed to hold onto the part of my life I left behind – my childhood and adolescence – but it was too late, those days were over. Wherever I went from now on, I’d have to live with the person I was becoming.
As years and decades rolled by, the city itself became unrecognizable. How many people remember that before there was a Lawrence Expressway (I don’t know what it’s called now), there was Lawrence Station Road, a two-lane road with a walking path lined by walnut trees?
There’s no shortage of brilliant quotes by great writers about this issue, all more articulate than me. Here’s a small sampling.
My favorite Ibsen plays aren’t the ones that deal with social issues (A Doll’s House, Enemy of the People) but the ones that deal with secrets of the heart, complicated desires most people refuse to admit – even to themselves.
The common elements to Rosmersholm, When We Dead Awaken and The Master Builder are:
An aging artist is artistically blocked and the thrill is long gone from his marriage.
A stranger from the past appears and demands payment for an unkept promise.
The young stranger tantalizes, provokes and ultimately inspires the aging artist to ascend to high, cold isolated peaks.
This perilous climb results in death. Unfortunately, in Ibsen’s world the hero must choose between living death by secure but sterile marriage or actual death by passion, romance and self-actualization.
One might assume Ibsen is the aging unhappily married artist but late in life, speaking of his wife Susannah, he said, “I could not do without her greatness. “ He never left Susannah for any of his young girls. So what was going on in Ibsen’s secret heart?
In an early work, Brand, which also ends high in the mountains with the hero’s death via avalanche, Ibsen refers to the “Ice Church”, a human soul in which love has died. All that’s left for the couple is to “try to fill that emptiness with something. Something resembling love.” (Little Eyolf)
In an interview about The Master Builder, Ibsen said “Solness and his wife are worthy people who aren’t happy in their life together. They don’t become what they could and should have become. They aren’t actually miserable. Although they share consideration and a kind of tenderness and love, they cramp each other. They brood perpetually because each goes his own way mentally and doesn’t share with the other. Contrast Hilde and Solness. They are not extraordinary persons but they feel spiritually akin, strongly attracted to each other. They feel they belong together and life together would be immeasurably richer. They would be better people and their relationship would give their lives greater meaning. Then the collision comes – when Solness still has a zest for life, a need for happiness, and feels unable to live in subdued resignation. And so they decide to build a castle in the air and live together in spirit.
This lifts him higher than before, able to do things he had not been able to do for a long time. He stakes his life on his passion and is killed.”
How many married people relate to this passage, even if they’re unwilling to admit it or act on it? Is this why these plays made people of Ibsen’s era so uncomfortable?
Ibsen also said, “It is wrong to think of unhappy love as two people who love each other but don’t wind up together. No, unhappy love is when two people who love each other get married and feel they…cannot live happily together.” I think Ibsen meant, they can’t keep their passion and romance alive – but who can? Passionate romantic love requires an element of risk, uncertainty, mystery and a leap of faith – the opposite of a long term marriage.
That’s not to say I don’t believe in marriage. I do; I’ve been married forty years (to the same man.) However, it’s not always easy. My novel, REPRISE, struggles with these themes in more depth and I’ll write more on this topic in future blogs.
Since my family and I are touring Scandinavia, it’s a perfect time to revisit my relationship with Henrik Ibsen.
Growing up in California the smart second language was Spanish, but in high school I opted for Latin. When I reached UCLA I registered for German but in less than an hour I realized what most people probably already knew – Germans don’t employ the same sentence structure as English.
Luckily, UCLA offered a plethora of languages, one of which was Swedish. As a second language its usefulness is debatable since most Swedes speak English, but it utilizes the exact same sentence structure as English. Sign me up!
Today, the only Swedish I remember is “Ja kan tala da svenska mycket bra.” Unfortunately, this translates to “I can speak Swedish very well” and since I kannot tala da svenska mycket bra, I dare not utter it to anybody who actually speaks Swedish.
Since a year of Swedish familiarized me with the Scandinavian languages building, I figured why not take Scandinavian Literature? The first book we read was “The Axe.” (That’s all I remember, but I’m willing to bet no one lived happily ever after.) Next we read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (logline – Norwegian writer starves himself to death for art) and then Barabbas
(not the feel-good movie version. In the Lagerkvist book, Barabbas escapes death on the cross, thinks about things but reaches no conclusions, and dies on another cross.) If you’re hooked on nihilistic hopelessness and can’t get enough tragic suicides or avalanches, Scandinavian lit is for you.
This brings me to Henrik Ibsen. What better way to follow up my immersion in Scandinavian lit than a ten-week four-unit course all about Ibsen, all the time? I might not know much about Strindberg but by God, I can pontificate about Ibsen as long as you can stay conscious. How important is Ibsen? He’s behind Shakespeare but ahead of Chekhov when it comes to fathering modern theater.
Here are some things you might not know about Ibsen. He left Norway before he found fame as a playwright and lived most of his adult life in Italy and Germany. He had a yen for young girls (but not Polanski thirteen-year olds; Ibsen’s crushes were old enough to legally consent, although it wasn’t necessary as nothing physical was involved.) Oddly enough, although I find the old man/ young girl thing a little repugnant, my favorite Ibsen plays are his later ones dealing – not obliquely – with old geniuses and young girls. Ibsen might be famous for A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Hedda Gable, Peer Gynt and Enemy of the People but I’ll take Rosmersholm, Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken all day long.
Part two of Ibsen and I to follow tomorrow.
But, before I leave you, today, here is a collage of some of our experiences on our cruise from Stockholm to Copenhagen.
Two weeks later, although I have visited many wondrous places and have seen some incredible things, it is time to stop climbing the endless castle stairs.
Judging by the October 1955 photo above, even at four I wasn’t a “thank god I’m a country girl” type. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what my life would be like if I’d grown up in Missouri instead of Silicon Valley.
Most of my cousins – almost all of my extended family – lived in the Midwest in 1968. Every other year, our family loaded up the station wagon and drove to Estherville and Graettinger in the northeastern corner of Iowa. There are aspects of Iowa that are buried deep in my subconscious, images that are inscribed on my brain – brick or white houses, humidity and mosquitoes, dinners with fresh buttered sweet corn and strange puffy homemade bread. The smell of coffee wafted through the day – coffee and musty old books. The basements, which all contained a washer, dryer and toilet were damp and a little bit scary even though that’s where we always played. It was cooler down there even though sometimes it was still so hot all we could do was breathe and sweat. I hate to sweat.
My grandfather, commonly referred to as R.S. by all grandchildren, was a real go-getter, a non-stop talker. Even after retirement, he didn’t quit; he took volunteer work in a funeral parlor, probably to remind himself on a daily basis of how much more vital he was than the average man. In a box in his basement, he stored the obituaries of all his friends. The basement also held a pool table and assorted recreation equipment but my cousins and I enjoyed the obits most. I suppose our fear of death – and its imminence for all the aged people of Estherville – made it an object of high hilarity.
I have yet to realize the above scenario. It turns out Tolstoy rarely surfaces in California small talk. Luckily, the blog format allows me to start my own conversation but it might be too late. I haven’t given Leo much thought for decades. To test my knowledge retention, I’m writing this post without using references.
My favorite Tolstoy novel was the lesser known Resurrection, written relatively late in his life. I don’t recall the hero’s name but basically the plot was as follows. An aristocrat serving as a juror recognizes the woman on trial as the same girl he and his friends gang-raped years earlier. Overcome with guilt, he accompanies her to prison in Siberia. She is not enthusiastic and, as I recall, it doesn’t turn into a love story. It’s more about the guy’s spiritual journey. It’s shorter than War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
My second favorite was Anna Karenina but I confess skimming the parts about Levin. Tolstoy used Levin to pontificate on rural Russian agriculture, not exactly a page-turner. Given this, it’s ironic the section of the book I remember and admired most involved the deadly dull Levin.
Here is how I remember it. Levin has been set up with an eligible woman (after suffering rejection from Kitty, the woman he wants and – spoiler alert – later gets.) They’re picnicking near a river. Tolstoy describes a moment in their conversation where they both realize – or decide – this relationship is dead in the water. The energy level drops but nothing is said. No doubt some of my admiration for this passage is due to having experienced similar moments myself although I couldn’t articulate them as well. In a future post, I’ll paste the passage in question into my blog and attempt to analyze why it works – or I’ll admit my memory failed and what I recall reading doesn’t exist. (It appears this may, in fact, be the case. I’m mortified.)
My favorite Tolstoy short story is the Kreutzer Sonata in which the aging Leo rails against the evils of lust, sex and women. In reality, Tolstoy’s wife Sonya got pregnant shortly after its publication and referred to the baby as “the postscript to the Kreutzer Sonata.” It’s a passionate story, raging against passion.
Ask me what I know about Dostoevsky or Chekhov and the answer is “not much.” But just wait until someone brings up Leo Tolstoy at a cocktail party!
Here are a couple of shots of our visits to Tallinn, Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia.
On days when nothing much happened to me – and there were many – I recorded stories about my family, about my roommate’s family, people I didn’t even know, if they intrigued me. Looking back, these got-to-fill-up-the-page entries are frequently the most interesting because – since I’m not in the story – I’ve forgotten most of the details.
Why not just leave the page blank? Please. Do you really think someone who kept a daily diary from 1964 until the present could tolerate a blank page? Maybe it’s a tad obsessive-compulsive but for me the effort has been more than worth it. Why?
I never would’ve remembered my father’s anecdotes about the old folks home if I hadn’t written them down. When I reread this diary entry last year, it was particularly poignant because my father was near the end of his life, about to be admitted to the Lutheran old folks home where he once preached. How did it happen so fast? Would anyone remember, if it wasn’t written down? Why does it matter?
For one thing, how else would I know what it’s like to preach to elderly patients with dementia? More importantly, revisiting his stories brought his spirit back to life for a minute. I could hear his voice, his gentle laugh. That old lady had it right. He was so beautiful.
Have you ever noticed how in virtually every fairy tale since the beginning of time, the oldest sister(s) are ugly harpies and the youngest is so clever, kind and beautiful – so gosh darn special – that she always wins Prince Charming’s heart? Sometimes older siblings have no plot function or personality at all – they exist only to make the hero a youngest child.
This blatant favoritism for the youngest sibling didn’t die with old-fashioned fairy-tales like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. It’s alive and well in contemporary fiction – Ron Weasley is the youngest Weasley brother and Ginny (the youngest) becomes Harry’s wife in Harry Potter. Ender is the youngest of three in Ender’s game. Alyosha, the youngest, is the most morally pure of the Brothers Karamazov.
The purpose of fairytales and myths is to teach children about life. What lesson is an oldest child supposed to take from this bias? No wonder I look so ticked off in childhood photos of the three of us. The subliminal message in myth and lit was I didn’t count in this story. I was a stage prop, meant to do something venal and stupid and exit to make way for the chosen one, the good one – my youngest sister Joyce.
If you’re interested, there’s a list and explanation of this trope at
And if you’re in the mood for some sisterly snark, follow these links to either or both of these photo galleries – My Two Years and Two Days of Bliss (link) and Kathy Vs. the Alien Baby. Pictures don’t lie!
Naturally, I swore my close friends to secrecy which ensured the sordid truth spread quickly. Some people said I was stoned, drunk or dangerously disturbed. Oddly enough, many of them were the same people who used to say I was a dull, goody-two-shoes brain. Was it possible to be both?
A preacher’s daughter is supposed to be a good example. I should’ve been getting A’s in summer school or reading great literature at home, not sitting in a police station signing a confession like some juvenile delinquent.
Fifty years later, it’s safe to say I’m more the preacher’s daughter than I am a smooth criminal. But it would be a lie to say there isn’t a trace of the social misfit (I’m loathe to use the word sociopath) that I repress. It’s the part that seeks out gory true crime books in an attempt to learn why they do what they do as if by understanding the dark motivations in others, I might understand the dark corners in myself.
Jung referred to this as the Shadow. A crucial part of the process of individuation is coming to terms with your Shadow. I’m still getting to know mine.
I suspect after a bad accident – especially when it’s your fault – most people spend a day or two dazed, haunted by how they could have avoided it and yearning to turn back time.
I’m fascinated by movies or novels in which the hero – who’s convinced he’d change his ways if given the chance – gets that chance. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray does change after exhausting the ways he can fail. In Seconds, the 1966 film based on the 1963 David Ely novel, a bored emotionally numb banker gets reborn in Rock Hudson’s body. Given a new name, wealth, and the freedom to live his dreams, he self-destructs by chasing the life he hated.
In The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin by P.D. Ouspensky, Ivan gets a do-over with full knowledge and memory of all his idiotic self-destructive behavior – but at every fork in the road, he chooses the same self-destructive behavior knowing this guarantees he’ll wind up in suicidal despair. Like most people, I’m sure I’d do better than Ivan.
So why, if I – and others like me – want to change and make the right choices, why do so few people actually do it? Writer and teacher Ron Carlson says that all great stories are about the same thing – why don’t we do what we know we should do?
That’s the story and question of these diary blogs. Part of me knew that taking the wheel with no experience whatsoever was a bad idea – but I said yes.
Some of you are probably thinking, I’d never be that stupid but if you’re honest you’ve already been that stupid, probably more than once. Forced to choose, you knew what you should do, but it wasn’t what you wanted so you cooked the books to justify your mistake. We season our rationalizations with an element of truth and tell ourselves it’ll never happen again.