Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Life Made of Choices

Somehow, despite inserting a trip to my daughters' school in the middle of the day, I have managed to charge 6 hours of paid work today. I consider 7-7.5 hours of "chargeable" work to be a full day, so I will do some more work later. But I'm going to reward myself by writing a blog post before I move on to the next item on my to do list.

(If you're curious: I went to school to see Pumpkin receive an award. She and Petunia both got awards for "responsibility" this week. On different days, of course.)

I want to write about books, and also about how our lives are made of choices, some ours and some other people's, some large and some small. But mostly about books.

I also have to write a tiny bit about the US election. Sorry, people who are tired of it. This part will be short. I find myself obsessing about this election more than I usually do. I always have a preference for who wins, but this year is different. I am reading much more election coverage than usual, and thinking about it more.

This is because of Trump, obviously. I have a settled on a preference in Democratic primary, and it is cool to have a woman so close to securing her party's nomination, but we've been here before. I suspect I'll feel more emotion on that front when the nomination is actually hers (which it looks like it will be, unless Sanders has a truly remarkable run in the rest of the primaries and caucuses.)

But Trump is something different, at least in my lifetime. One benefit of reading so much coverage is that I'm starting to understand that we've seen candidates with some of his characteristics before. Or more properly, remember, because I had an excellent high school history teacher and much of what the commentators are pointing out sounds vaguely familiar in that "I haven't thought about that since high school" sort of way.

We've definitely had openly racist candidates in my lifetime. I remember Strom Thurmond's last two decades in the Senate, after all. But by the time I remember him, he'd toned it down to dog whistles. I've been aware that the less subtle form of racism was not gone from our country for quite awhile, but it is a bit breathtaking to see it so openly on display at the rallies of someone who is the frontrunner for his party's presidential nomination.

I think, though, what fascinates me about this election is that it is our chance to answer the question "what would you do if a fascist tried to gain power in your country?" We're not doing so well on that question right now, but I still have hope for us.

I don't want to get into the details of whether or not Trump meets the textbook definition of a fascist. The man has studied Hitler's writings. He is running rallies that are bringing racial and political violence into our political process. He has stated he wants to curtail press freedoms. He bars members of the press he considers unfriendly to him from his rallies. He has said we should bar all Muslims from entering the country. I could go on.

Bear with me, I'm almost to the books part.

I have long been fascinated with the question of what I would have done if I was living in Germany at the time of the Nazis. I am not convinced I would have recognized the danger. If I did, I am not convinced I would have known when to fight and when to flee. I think it is hard to recognize when the situation has tipped from "bad but worth trying to fix" to "the way your world works is being upended and you need to adjust to the new reality."

And this is why I loved The Dream of Scipio by Ian Pears. It follows three storylines in a particular part of France. One storyline is at the end of the Roman Empire, one is in the time of the Black Death, and one is in World War II. In each storyline, people have to decide what to do as their communities and way of life and indeed the very rules by which they are living their life crumble around them. I enjoy Pears' writing, but I love the book for the exploration of the period of time when everything is just starting to fall apart.

I sincerely hope we aren't heading for one of those periods, but this is the first time in my life I've ever felt like we could end up in such a period, depending on the choices we make. And I think that is why I'm so fascinated by this election. What will "mainstream" Republicans do if Trump gets enough delegates to secure the nomination? Will they try to hold their party together, or will they abandon it and start a new one? What is the "right" thing to do? (I don't know.) What if Trump has the most delegates but not enough to win? Again, I don't know what the right thing to do is. It feels like we're heading towards an inflection point of some sort... but who knows what choices will put us on the best trajectory? Who can even say what the best trajectory is at this point?

It has been many years since I read The Dream of Scipio, and I have forgotten many of the details of the plot. But I retain the sense that all of the characters were faced with choices, whether they recognized them as such or not, and that it was not always easy to say what the "right" thing to do was, even from the safe position of knowing how the historical events in which the story is embedded turn out.

So, sticking with the theme of choices, the second book I want to talk about is Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This is an amazing book, in which the protagonist keeps reliving her life, but each time the trajectory is slightly different, based on choices she makes or things that happen. It is set in the lead up to World War II, during the war, and immediately after the war, mainly in England. The protagonist experiences the Blitz in London, and in a couple of the timelines, she experiences Nazi Germany. It is such a good book on so many levels. If you're only going to read one of the books I talk about in this post, this would be my pick.

The final book I want to talk about also explores choices, and what we make of them, but in a much more subtle way. It is a memoir called Orchard House, by Tara Austen Weaver. The author's mother decides to buy a house with a really large yard and overrun garden, and the author joins in—and takes ownership of some aspects of—creating a beautiful garden in this space. The garden is metaphor and learning experience, and also helps frame her quest to make peace with her life and the limitations of the people in it. She's not unhappy, but she's not really happy, either, and the garden helps her understand why, and move towards a life more like what she wants. Again the elements of choice (her decision to make the garden a large part of her life) and chance/other people's choices (her mother's decision to buy that house) come together to create her life. Ultimately, though, it is her choice how to respond to her circumstances, and in the end, she learns that it is that response that really determines how she'll experience her life.

I think there are limits to that final lesson. There are some things—the Blitz, for instance—that are pretty much horrible no matter how you choose to respond to them. But then again... if you read Life after Life, you'll see that decisions the main character make do influence how she experiences even that overwhelmingly terrible time. The details are obviously fiction, but the larger conclusion strikes me as true, and it is an interesting thing to ponder. Atkinson doesn't take the easy way out: there is no obvious rule about how to respond to bad things. In general, things seem to turn out better when the protagonist takes action in response to the situations in which she finds herself... but not always. It is really a thought-provoking book.

And now, it is after dinner and I have promised my kids a trip to the ice cream shop to celebrate their awards, so I will close this post. I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of it in the comments!


  1. I LOVED Life after Life. I probably should re-read it, there is so much to think about in that book. I recently read A God In Ruins, that deals with the same characters & time period---there were some parts of that book that were really disturbing to me, but overall it was also well done and complex.
    Honestly I am terrified for this country right now and I can't really stomach reading too much election coverage. I need to bury my head in the sand and pretend its not happening so I can deal with the other very stressful issues that are being thrown my way right now. The thought of maintaining a high level of involvement for 6+ more months is just too much. Our primary is also late, and I am certainly planning to vote, but I'm giving myself a break for the next couple of months.

    1. I read Life after Life for my book club, and several of the members were re-reading it. They all said that re-reading it was really rewarding, and they picked up things they missed the first time around. A couple of them had read A God in Ruins, too (that's what made us pick this book!) but we didn't talk about it much to avoid spoiling it for those of us who hadn't read it.

      I might end up disengaging a bit more from the election, too- my primary isn't until June! But I feel like the issues that Trump's popularity have exposed need addressing, and I keep reading, hoping to figure out how we address them. No luck so far.

  2. Thank you for the book suggestions! I've been wondering what I should read next, so I'm going to try Life after Life.

    The US election is generating constant conversations here in Canada too. Everywhere I go, it's the same conversation "what is the WORLD is going on down there? how can this be happening?"

    I have to have faith in the American voters to not let this lunatic become President.

    1. I think it is unlikely he'll actually become president. He has *really* high negative ratings, and many of the Republicans I know are saying they'll either take a deep breath and vote for Hillary (assuming she's the nominee), write someone in, or leave that one blank.

      But I don't think we should take it for granted, and I think that now is the time for our "leaders" to show what their character really is.

  3. I don't think of myself as a political person. But, I am sufficiently alarmed to get more involved. I'll be working hard in Nov to get the vote out by driving the less mobile to the polls.

    Before that, I'll try to explain to younger folks why they should come out to vote for a Dem candidate other than Bernie and vote the down-ticket races as well.

    And I will demand that our country give generational, gender and racial equity more than lip service. Like I don't have enough on my plate already. LOL. But we are in a vulnerable time.

  4. Elodie6:31 PM

    I've been thinking about decisions a lot recently as well, in response to Trump and the parallels with the rise of Nazism. I always remember that in order to flee a crazy dictator, someone has to let you in. Would countries of the world open their doors to Americans fleeing, if it got that bad?
    Another thing I've been thinking about if the intersection of choices with our very American optimism. This seems to translate to a sense that, since we have so many choices, if you aren't happy with your life it's your own damm fault. There seems to be little thought of choices as a way of making the best of difficult circumstances, of choosing the best of less than ideal options, of trying to live with dignity and compassion when you don't get the option you wanted. I say this as someone who's life has turned out very different than I hoped, and sometimes feels like I'm not allowed to be sad about that, since, this is the land of endless opportunity! I notice when I'm in Europe that people don't tend to think that way, and seem much more attune to suffering being inherent in life.

  5. I'd like to recommend a book republished by Persephone called Few Eggs and No Oranges. It's the diary of Vere Hodgson, who lived in London during the Blitz and, in a former career, had been Mussolini's daughter's teacher. Her book is utterly absorbing; how quickly people adapted to the circumstances of bombing is both inspiring and terrifying.


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