“…the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change.” ~ Michael Ondaatje in Warlight.
At a recent reading given by New Yorker book critic and award-winning author James Wood, he introduced his new novel called Upstate, about family relationships and the universality of the interactions within them. The author described the discomfort felt by a father visiting his daughter in her adult home, as opposed to his ease in having her return to his. Obviously, the latter assured him that not much had changed, and she was still his little girl, where the former reminded him that everything had changed, undeniably her and especially him. The truth of this disclosure was striking in its simplicity and commonality. It recalled for me the ending of Tara Westover’s stunning new memoir, Educated, in which she states, “I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.”
Initially, that sentence shook me in its perceptiveness, exposing the nature of loneliness connected to leaving family and home, and of course, childhood. Fledging into the people we are to become can seem like the ultimate act of freedom, but we all know its bittersweet quality of something gained but so much lost. Do we really want to be free, let out of the cage that gave us structure? Ms. Westover’s insight comes from the point of view of the child leaving the parent, while Mr. Wood spoke of the parent’s unique agony of letting go of not only a child, but his own life as he acknowledges the change. I see that as the more challenging of the two truths. As a grandparent, I looked a little deeper and picked up the thread of what life is really telling both the child (who doesn’t want to hear anything) and the parent who isn’t confident enough to demand to be heard.
I’ve come to realize Ms. Westover is only partly right when she says she is not the same, but her father is. No one stands still while they breathe. We all grow and change, and we keep fledging throughout our lives. Our children, former associates and friends, relatives and acquaintances from the past all need to know that we, too, are different. Maybe we’re all afraid of accepting that we’ve moved on in our lives because it marks evolution none of us feel comfortable with. I know this to be true and assure anyone who feels the fear that it’s all for the good. It’s much worse to be left behind.
At his book launch, James Wood spoke of how we humans are fond of ‘fetishizing freedom’. Lover of words that I am, his phrase went quickly into my journal, as I’m sure you can imagine if you know me or the novel I’m working on. That fixation with freedom has always fascinated me, understanding in some vicarious way since childhood that no matter how much freedom some people are given, they seem born to life-limiting captivity. Apparently, Mr. Wood’s novel also explores that phenomenon of an optimistic and happy birthright, as opposed to its opposite. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t read the book yet, but intend to; just as soon as I get into Julian Barnes’ new novel, The Only Story! Searching for who we are from birth and whether that can be affected by our social environs is an exciting and worthy adventure.
Another book with a deep effect on me was Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, Warlight. There are many complex and wonderful trails to be followed in this book, but one I picked up only near the end was an exploration of our changes in identity when we move into different worlds inhabited by different people. His protagonist suggests we are constantly someone different, depending on who we interact with. What we are is formed not by what we’ve accomplished but by how we got here, and with whom. Is he right? I think maybe so, and if so, then it also seems important to understand how others change around us, too. We tend to think time and people freeze in place when we move on, but we tend to be wrong, as so many authors are telling us lately. I think they’re well worth listening to.