Tag Archives: the road not taken

Tips For Adulthood: Why ‘To The End Of The Land’ Is For Grown Ups

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Every so often on this blog, I point you towards books or movies that I think constitute essential reads/views for grown ups. I did it most recently with Muriel Barbery’s fabulous The Elegance Of The Hedgehog which was – to my mind, at least – all about adulthood.

This week I’m going to do it again with David Grossman’s beautifully raw novel, To The End Of The Land. This is, quite possibly, the saddest book I’ve ever read.

It recounts one woman’s walk across Israel while her 18 year-old son is called up for a 28-day military exercise. She sets off on this walk – which runs the span of the entire novel – because she doesn’t want to be home if and when the authorities try to find her should her son die in combat.

On the jacket cover, the novelist Nicole Krauss (The History of Love) writes: “Very rarely you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same.”

Krauss nails it, in my opinion, and I can’t recommend this book enough, especially for those of you who – like me –  share a fondness for sad books.

Here are five reasons I think everyone should read this book:

a. It’s About Motherhood. This is first and foremost a book about being a parent – and perhaps even more specifically – being a mother.  In the wake of the recent Oscars ceremony, much has been made of Natalie Portman’s famous throwaway line in which she thanked her fiance for giving her the “most important role” of her life — motherhood. Some writers, like Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, worried aloud that Portman was doing women a disservice by trumpeting babies over career.  Others – notably my Politics Daily colleague Joanne Bamberger – endorsed Portman’s take on the dual roles many women confront. As Joanne writes, “On some level being a mother is the greatest role of my life — not superior to others, just the greatest in terms of challenges and rewards.” If you’re feeling caught between these two feminist reads of the Portman moment, then read Grossman’s book. It reveals the fierce, all-consuming, painful and even ambivalent nature of a mother’s love in perhaps the most honest way I’ve ever seen.

b. It’s about parenting a teen. I wrote recently about the challenges of parenting teen-agers in light of new data we have about them. Boy, does this book drive that home. Grossman renders beautifully the delicate mixture of vulnerability and independence that characterizes teen-agers (in this case, boys) in a way that will resonate and, again, cut you to the quick.

c. It’s about what might have been. I once wrote a post about the “road not taken” in which I examined wistfulness as a leit motif of adulthood. My basic point was that whether it’s who you marry or what career you choose or where you live, part of being a grown up is being plagued by what might have been. Because To The End of the Land centers around a relationship between two ex lovers who’ve gone their separate ways (as a result of war) and then reunite in a literal journey of self-discovery, it plays out the whole “road not taken” concept in real time. Wow.

d. It’s about patriotism. I’m not a terribly patriotic individual. It’s not that I have a great deal of antipathy for the mother ship, I’m just not all that inclined to wave a flag or jump on a Fourth of July parade float. But if you live in Israel, you have no choice but to be patriotic. Patriotism is woven into the very fiber of the country, even for those (like the protagonist in this book) who are ambivalent about where they want their country headed. Grappling with one’s patriotism isn’t something you deal with as a child. But it is something which – explicitly or implicitly – everyone must come to terms with as a grown up.

e. It’s about Israel. This is also a book about Israel and the unbelievably complicated feelings it arouses in its citizens. One of the things I liked most about the book is that no one emerges as a winner in the seemingly eternal and intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has dominated (until quite recently) our coverage of the Middle East: not the Israelis, not the Arabs, not foreign powers like the U.S. who figure largely there. However you feel about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, there is no question that resolving it is central to a lasting peace in the Middle East, even with all of the other things going on in the region right now. That is an enduring reality of our collective adulthood.

Image; Israel – The Negev by Stella’s Mom via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

Coping With Exes In Adulthood

Breaking up is hard to do. So said Neil Sedaka in that 1962 Billboard classic.

It was as true then as it is now, whether you’re in your teens or in your forties. So how do you actually move on after a broken heart?

Sometimes, time really does heal all wounds, and you’re capable – over time – of becoming friends with a former lover. I’m still close with one of my exes. So is my husband with one of his. These are people we exchange holiday cards with, make a point of visiting when we’re back in the States and even count their spouses as friends. In both cases, these exes form part of a larger social circle that helped to reinforce the transition to “friend.”

In another case, an old boyfriend contacted me out of the blue last year to give him some marital advice. Miraculously, it worked. He now credits me with playing a key role in keeping his marriage together. Somehow the act of helping him out in an impartial way enabled us – many years after the fact – to reunite as friends.

Of course, it’s not always that easy to make the jump to being friends. One friend of mine has solved this problem by continuing to sleep with his ex-girlfriend of 20 years ago well into his forties. In keeping with that old college adage that “It doesn’t count if it’s an ex” (Oh, to be 21 again!), he simply hasn’t moved on. For what it’s worth, this is also the strategy employed by business partners/sometime lovers Mikhael Blomkvist and Erika Berger of Dragon Tattoo fame. In the Stieg Larsson trilogy, Berger’s husband knows all about it and doesn’t mind either. (It is Sweden, after all.)

Alternatively, you can go the route of writing a letter to your ex. By expressing – longhand – all the things you still feel towards him or her, you can sometimes expunge any last traces of desire or remorse still swirling around inside your belly. This was the tactic adopted by my Politics Daily colleague Andrew Cohen, in a much-trafficked love letter to his ex earlier this week entitled “On Her Wedding Day: Saying Things Left Unsaid.” Whether you should go public with such a letter – or, as my colleague Suzi Parker suggests, “put it in a box and set it afire in the bathtub” – is ultimately your call. (If you want a quick primer on why you might want to think twice before publishing said missive, click here, here and here in that order, and then run for cover.)

You can also cyber-stalk your ex by “friending” them on Facebook to keep tabs on them from a safe distance.  My colleague Sarah Wildman has a terrific piece on why that’s quite possibly not the best idea either, despite the appeal on some emotional level. It’s not just because casual On-line relationships can easily lead to the real thing. Rather, it’s because, as Sarah concludes, “some doors, however easily unlocked, are meant to remain closed.”

So where does that leave us?

I’ve often found that music works well if you want to “go there” without really “going there,” if you get my drift. At different points in my life, I’ve listened to Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me, The Grateful Dead’s Looks Like Rain and Silvio Rodriguez’ Mi Unicornio Azul when I wanted to cry into my beer.

At the end of the day, as I’ve written before, acknowledging the road not taken is just one of those bitter truths of adulthood. Sometimes you end up loving the wrong person. Or maybe – to quote that curl-up-in-a-fetal-position Dire Straits classic, Romeo and Juliet –  “it was just that the time was wrong.”

Either way, life goes on.

How have you coped with a love that wasn’t meant to be?

Image: Love Letter by Wolfsoul via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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The Road Not Taken: What I Learned From Watching Mamma Mia

“Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.”

–Frank Sinatra, My Way.

What a great quote that is.

I’ve been thinking about regret lately. It all began with this touching piece by David Sedaris in The New Yorker a few weeks back. Sedaris writes movingly about a near-hook up he almost had in his early 20’s with a Lebanese guy whom he met on a train in Italy. Although the guy invites Sedaris to get off the train and join him, Sedaris passes on the opportunity. But he still thinks about that guy – and what might have been – all these years later. The essay is a giant homage to that great question of adulthood: What if?

The Road not Taken is also the subject of Mamma Mia, which – for my sins – I watched with my kids last weekend at their behest. (I fully own up to my abiding love of musical theatre, but even I balk at Abba.)

Mamma Mia – and I’m not spoiling anything here – is about a young woman on the brink of getting married who doesn’t know who her father is. So (unbeknown to her mother) she invites the three likely candidates to her wedding. Passion, longing, anger, resentment (and far too many Abba songs) ensue. The movie is all-out camp, but nestled within all the cheese are a few touching moments that actually work (Meryl Streep singing The Winner Takes It All to a love-struck Pierce Brosnan was my own personal favorite).

What Sedaris’ essay and Mamma Mia have in common is wistfulness, which is a huge part of adulthood. In Sedaris’ case, it’s not that he regrets whom he ended up with. (He makes a subtle nod to his long-time partner, Hugh, at the end of the essay.) It’s just that he’s wondering if –  in turning down that handsome Lebanese guy all those many years ago – he missed the boat. Not necessarily the boat, but a boat nonetheless. And in so doing, he articulates that great fear of adulthood:  which is that once we make a choice, everything else becomes path dependent.  Which in turn forces us to come to grips with the fact that we may never go round again.

This can be a fear about your personal life, as it was in these two instances. But it’s also a fear that we bring to career choices and to where we live and to the schools we attend (or don’t). What I find moving about wistfulness is that you can’t really escape it. You need to just live with it and perhaps, even, embrace it by – say – writing a short story in the New Yorker.

On a lighter note, midway through the movie – which is shot on the Greek islands – I commented that I’d like to go to Greece. To which my daughter replied: “OK, but let’s not go to Latin.” No, indeed. Let’s not.

Please tell me that you, too, are now singing “The Winner Takes It All”…

*****

Speaking of musical theatre, is anyone else as excited as I am that they’re making a movie about the making of A Chorus Line? OK, anyone who isn’t my sister?

Image: Two Roads Diverged in a Non-Yellow Wood by Msmail via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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