While I have an instinctive dislike of television, I am an avid lover of stories. I have found great delight in novels for as long as I remember – having fallen asleep to the sound of my mother’s voice reading The Lord of the Rings to my older siblings years before I was old enough to discover the delights of reading for myself – and I derive great enjoyment from films. Books have, to resort to a cliché, been constant companions, and I have found within their covers not only comfort and escape, but great –if often subtle – learning. As my mother’s favourite author, Ursula K. Le Guin, wrote, “When we’re done with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we’ve never crossed before.”
With my husband away, I have been indulging in watching films about Paris, daydreaming about my ‘one night in Paris’ to come later this year, following our 11th wedding anniversary and at the very end of a sports tour that will take us to both Belgium and France in September. With a little over 24 hours to indulge in the city before flying back to South Africa, I am free to daydream of boat trips down the Seine, and feeling the wind in my hair at the top of the Eiffel tower (will there be a wind? Will it be raining, or warm, and does it really matter? I find the joy of exploring new places generally makes me grin with delight, even when it isn’t at all as I have imagined, and my feet ache from a long day of traipsing unknown streets). I am surprised, somehow, that after nearly eight years of living in London, and fairly frequent travels to Europe, the closest I have been to Paris thus far in my life is driving around it on the motorway in rush-hour traffic, seeing little more than concrete walls and frustrated or resigned motorists.
I find myself, however, feeling somewhat exasperated tonight that films and novels – stories, that is – almost inevitably wrap everything up so neatly. Ah, that old, bitter ‘Happily Ever After’ vexation we all feel sometimes I’m sure.
There have been numerous times in my life when, facing difficult and potentially life-changing decisions, I have wished to know how the story ends: what will the overall tale of my life be, and how will this particular decision fit into it? It reminds me of some lines from a poem I wrote as a teenager, twisting an assigned essay on the famous line ‘All the world’s a stage’ into a poem – something that broke the rules, as was my tendency at the time:
But if all the world’s a stage
And we play our parts page by page
Then why can’t I cheat
And just take a peek
At the future, the past and the present?
It is merely an occasional wish, when I have been uncertain which part of my heart to follow: to be able to peer into the future and flip back through the pages of my life story, and thereby judge which decision to make. And yet, I don’t believe our lives are pre-destined, or that their stories are already written.
And if all the world’s a stage
Then how come you’re on it with me?
Are our paths destined by the poet
Or do we make the world as we know it?
Both the films I watched tonight – Letters to Juliet and Midnight in Paris, neither particularly insightful, original or memorable, though sweet enough – had affianced couples realising ahead of their weddings (having in both cases fallen in love or found themselves drawn to someone else) that their partners weren’t quite the perfect match for them. It’s such a recurring Western theme, of course, in an age where we now hope our life partners will provide us with on-going companionship, passion, and emotional intimacy: roles often spread across various friends, partners and lovers in previous eras, but now expected from just one person over many decades, as our life expectancy continues to lengthen. We seem to balance our skepticism against the unlikely hope of meeting a soul-mate – someone who will instinctively understand and love us just as we are, and encourage us to be true to ourselves, bringing the best within us to the fore – even as we scoff at the idea of souls, or one-true-loves.
I found myself feeling irritated at the simple romanticism of the films; of how easily and neatly the couples involved walked away from each other after having shared their lives and dreams; of the greater likelihood of them only realising many months or years after their marriage that they had committed to something comfortable rather than truly fulfilling – and what does that mean, anyway? What judgements do I place on ‘comfortable’? – and how much more complex life and reality actually are. I also found myself wondering how often it takes the tumult of meeting someone who DOES meet at least some aspects of our romantic fantasies to make us realise that we have settled for something less than we had once dreamed of, or now believe possible; and I pondered what events can make us realise that what we already have in our lives is actually far more complex, but more real and messily wonderful, than any simple romance we could have imagined.
I look around me at the confusion within the lives and hearts of many of those I care for, and the disjointed sub-plots that range through all of our lives, and I feel a simmering frustration at the neat simplicity of such stories, which used to make me smile. I look within myself and find that while I tell myself and others coherent stories about my past, having chosen which threads of the complexity of events to follow and accentuate, I seldom have a stable sense of self and story-line within the fleeting present moment.
So, all the world’s a stage?
Then tell me, how do we gauge
How much, to what depth, am I acting?
To what point in this play am I me?