Last night I watched a TV interview with UK author Jeanette Winterson, who grew up impoverished, but went on to attend a prestigious university and become a famous novelist. She talked about the time she left home for the first time. She told her mother she was leaving because she was seeking happiness. Her mother, who didn’t approve, replied, “You can be happy or you can be like normal people.” It made me realize that a single sentence can sometimes sum up a person’s whole life.
Winterson’s mother obviously lived a miserable life partly because she didn?t realize that you have to seek happiness, not just wait for it to come to you. I’ve noticed this before: sometimes people will somehow suddenly sum up their whole lives and philosophies in a single sentence. Often they don’t even realize they’ve done it.
Here are some of may favorite examples, that I’ve collected over the years.
I remember once hearing an interview of the musical actress Bernadette Peters, who talked about how her mother always had the radio and TVs turned on in different rooms when she was growing up, so there was a constant cacophony in the house. One time Peters got tired of shouting over the noise, and asked her mother to turn the radio in the kitchen off so they could talk. The mother flipped the switch, but the noise continued. She was obviously hearing a radio in another room, which was still turned on, but she didn’t realize that and said, “I guess we’ll just have to let it play itself out.” Peters laughed about this during the interview, but it was an indication to me that the mother was someone who, like Winterson’s mother, felt she basically had no control over her life.
Then there are the statements that become aphorisms about the nature of life itself.
I once heard an NPR reporter describe a beautiful red sunset that he and his wife were watching. They looked at it for awhile, but began to get suspicious when nothing changed? then they realized they were actually gazing dreamily at a huge Sears billboard. He said, “We have a new motto in our family. Whenever something seems too good to be true, we ask ourselves: ‘Is it a sunset or a Sears sign?'”
UPDATE: A reader writes, “I think that cars also play a primary symbolic role in our lives. I know someone who protects himself from bad life surprises by driving only old, beat-up cars that he KNOWS will disappoint. One young man I know has always had cars that symbolize what is going on in his life. He had a period of time when his cars were constantly exploding (high hormone levels? He was in his 20’s at the time). Then he prepared to leave his home state for the first time on a vacation in literally YEARS (I think he may have realized that he couldn’t take his nice, new wife along on his usual snake hunting trips in the desert with his best friend, who’s a grouchy dentist, and call that a vacation) and went out in the morning to find that his battery was cracked. Another young man of my acquaintance finally traded his college ‘beater’ in for a brand new car and came out of the grocery store to where he’d parked it, only to discover that the hood had a big dent in it because someone had rammed a shopping cart into it (it was a hit and run, he never saw who did it).”
We already knew that our cars express who we are. Now I’m beginning to think that cars express something more essential…our karma (and yes, I know that’s a bad pun).
Another reader writes: “Like most women, I carry a purse. In the Tao we are always reflecting on the metaphors that define our lives. One time spirit showed me that the different purses I have carried at different times in my life each reflected the personal growth I was going through at the time. I was looking for a new, general purpose purse, but spirit showed me that I should carry a different purse every day instead, in order to reflect my personality or ‘purse’- onality of that day. I am now retired, but as a businesswoman who moved in the engineering/corporate world, I needed to keep a type of armor between myself and the business people I dealt with. I had a small basic purse that I could slip into these other, larger, purses with ease, and so my real person was always hidden inside the personality I was wearing that day. And I NEVER, EVER called my purse a ‘bag.'”
Whitley’s mother was a woman who had encountered many disappointments in her life. When Whitley was growing up, she was constantly running out to a meeting of one committee or another, most of which she actually cared very little about. Whitley, being a pesky little kid at the time, liked to play jokes on her when she was running out the door. One time he filled her coffee cup up to the top with wet kleenex and dark blue food coloring, so it looked like it was full of coffee. Just as he’d known she would, she took a final swig as she ran out the door, then said, “Ug! You THINK you have a cup of coffee, but you don’t!”
I think that sentence pretty well summed up his mother’s life. She never did get that cup of coffee in this world before she died, but I hope that somewhere, somehow, she has it now.
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