Life Remains a Blessing
“If I am going to write a story, the main character must be a woman. She will be called Clara, and she will be a professional of some sort. And a mother. She’ll be pretty, but not impossibly pretty, and talented, but not impossibly talented. She can be brilliant though, because what did brilliance ever have to do with anything, with any plot?
“Her husband – Tim, let’s say – will be a good guy. He’ll be the kind of person everyone likes. Many people will say to her, ‘He’s a keeper,’ and she will always respond, ‘Don’t I know it!’ His image in the community will be spotless.
“Their daughters – Cora and Linnea – will be lovely children. They will be smart and funny and kind. Adults will adore them, and children will be happy to be friends with them.
“Clara will live in a privileged neighborhood in a privileged country. She will not have to worry much about money, and will never have to worry about her safety or the safety of her family, beyond the normal worries of most women. She will have made it to 43 only having been harassed, but never assaulted. She will wish that luck on her daughters.
“Clara’s work will come and go in waves. Some years she’ll be fully immersed in a busy job, some years she’ll be home more with the kids. Whenever she is facing a transition, Tim, being a liberal and a feminist and a good guy, will tell her that whatever makes her happy is what she should do.”
“Is that the right answer?”
“She loves him for giving her that answer. And she can never tell him that it makes her sad. She wants him to see how valuable her time at home is for the kids and for their family. She wants him to say that, of course, time with her is so much better for the girls than time with sitters. But he’ll never cede an inch here, because he’s a feminist, and he never wants her to feel like he’s pressuring her to pull back from her career. She’s a professional, after all, and he’s proud of her for that.”
“Tell me more about her.”
“What’s there to tell? She’s in a book club, of course. A real one though, not one of those bullshit wine-and-whine affairs where everyone buys a copy of the book as a vanity and then they spend their time together talking about how their husbands and kids are assholes or about the fall nail colors or some other dumbass topic.
“She plays solitaire on her phone a lot. Obsessively, when her mind is buzzing.”
“What makes her mind buzz?”
“Oh, this and that. Want to hear about her sex life?”
“Perv! I knew you did. She has her kinks, like all of us, I suppose. Probably less kinky than you are, but still, nothing she’d want the neighbors to know about.”
“So exhibitionism isn’t one of her kinks.”
“Ha! No. I mean, maybe with the right voyeurs, but that’s not what really turns her on. I imagine she and Tim will have a fine sex life. He’ll indulge her kinks a bit, she’ll indulge his – all that GGG stuff – and they’ll keep things at least alive, if not smoking hot, in the bedroom.”
“I really want to know what makes her mind buzz.”
“Here’s a question for you: Given what you’ve heard so far, do you think she’s ordinary?”
“Why does it matter?”
“Who the hell wants to read a story about someone ordinary? And before you even say anything, Ordinary People doesn’t count.”
“She sounds like she’d be relatable to a lot of people. Is that what you’re asking?”
“I don’t know. She’s had some adventures that might count as extraordinary. Perhaps those would have to go in.”
“Is there a dark secret she’s hiding?”
“Like, is Tim really a serial killer?”
“I don’t know. Whether or not she’s ordinary, I’m not sure I’m hearing the thing that makes this a story.”
“Fuck that! It’s a story because she exists.”
“Whatever. You get what I’m saying. Why can’t she just be an individual, a little ordinary, a little unique? Why can’t that be enough?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I need to know more.”
“Fine. She can’t sleep. It’s nighttime and she’s in her comfy bed in her pretty house with her lovely kids asleep down the hall and her sweet husband snuggled up next to her and it’s 2am on a random Thursday and she can’t sleep. She’s done three meditations now. One is called, ‘Be Simple and Easy,” and one is called, ‘Getting Out of Your Head,’ and in desperation she’s finally tried, ‘How to Fall Asleep,’ but obviously she’s doing it wrong because it’s 2am and she’s complicated and difficult and in her head and wide awake.”
“Why can’t she sleep?”
“And eventually she can’t stand it anymore and she gets up quietly, quietly, and murmurs something vague to her husband in answer to his mumbled sleep-query, and she tiptoes downstairs so stealthily that even the motion sensor on their house alarm doesn’t wake, and only the cat is up, and he climbs purring into her lap as she settles into the sofa with the book she’s pulled from the shelf.
“And she doesn’t even need to flip through to the page, because the book falls open exactly in the place she’s seeking. Really, she doesn’t even need the book at all. The written words are superfluous to the chant in her head:
“As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement,
Were fields of harvest wheat…”
“And eventually she puts the book down and gets up, and, flinching at the beeping from the keypad, she turns the alarm off and puts a jacket on over her pajamas and heads out into the night.”
“Where does she go?”
“Walking. She walks up streets and down, through the quiet neighborhood and beyond. Sometimes the moon is full, sometimes the moon is half a slice of pickled daikon, sometimes it’s a memory. There are the sounds appropriate to every season. A fox shrieks close by one night, and the tearing, eerie sound sends her jumping out of her skin. There are owls and bats, and the white noise of the crickets, and the cicadas whose volume adjusts with the year, and the lusty frog songs, and sometimes the soft syllables of rain and sometimes the active silence of snow, and maybe even the flapping of moths at the streetlights, which always sends another poem into her head:
“…it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while…”
“I don’t recognize that.”
“Most people wouldn’t. Don Marquis. Archy and Mehitabel. The Lesson of the Moth. I don’t remember where I first stumbled across it years and years ago, but it’s worth a read. You’d like it.”
“You never steer me wrong.”
“True. So anyway, Clara walks. And walks and walks. And then she slips in before the family rises, turns the alarm back on, and slides back into bed as if she’d never been gone.”
“And Tim doesn’t notice?”
“If he has a sleep-fogged memory in the morning, she always says it was a brief foray for water or because she thought she heard a child cry out. And she’s always had such dark circles under her eyes anyway…
“And then she showers and makes breakfast and all that and then some days she’s alone in an empty house and she can sink down onto her knees with the house like a shrug around her and maybe bring her forehead to the cool floor and she doesn’t have to move for awhile.”
“What lifts her up?”
“Oh, common sense. Chores. Maybe the police knocking on the door with Tim’s wallet in hand…”
“I’m kidding. Like I’d be that obvious! Tim comes home, as he always does. The children tumble through the door. Dinner, homework, bedtime rituals. And all of it makes her happy.”
“Really? She doesn’t sound happy.”
“She is! She thinks of giving birth to the girls, each of them. She thinks of the wheelchair ride from the L&D room to recovery, baby swaddled tightly in a blanket and her arms, all the wild emotion of it all – from cell-tired to elation beyond measure – and how she cried all the way from room to room. Both times! She could cry now too, looking at them, although if they’re swaddled in anything, it’s dirt from soccer practice.
“And before bed, she gives each girl a long, deep hug and says, ‘I love you to you and back,’ and they say the same—“
“What does that mean?”
“Oh, Cora made it up when she was little. It means, I love you from where you are, all around the universe and back to you. It’s the farthest distance love can travel, and so it’s the most love possible.”
“It is. And she says it every night with the force of genuine feeling that is never undermined by any of the creeping, grinding parts of daily life.
“She says it often, too, with other kids in mind.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She holds her kids and thinks of all the countless millions who have no safety. All the mothers who hug their children, not with happy warmth, but with desperation and billowing fear. And mostly she thinks of all the children who are never hugged, who maybe at best found a splinter of broken love once and tried to swallow it and it lives in their throats now, a jagged memory. And so, while she’s hugging her girls and filling them with boundless love, she’s filled with love herself, but also boundless sorrow.”
“Sounds like she has her own swallowed splinter.”
“Oh, yes. A few. But that’s the thing of it, you know? She’s happy around the splinters. She loves her life, tremendously, and so maybe the sleeplessness and whatever-it-is that knocks her to the floor are just the rent she pays for all the joy. Maybe.”
“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.”
“I’d forgotten how grim the poem gets. So she’s missing something?”
“Of course! She’s bisected. Cleaved. One side of her is all the happiness she’s fallen into, which is real. And on the other side is everything else. The ones and the tens.”
“Ones and tens? I don’t follow.”
“Life, on a one to ten scale. Get it? Her home life, her family life – that’s a six or seven. Sometimes, when Cora or Linnea leans against her and she can breathe in their fragrant hair, or when she and Tim are caught up in laughter over some shared hilarity, there’s a spike, up to the top even, or almost. But mostly its sixes and sevens. But those nights she can’t sleep? Those are the nights she’s all swirled and jangled with the craving for something. She can’t name it. But she knows that it exists at the one and the ten mark, and for longer than an instant. It’s like electricity, that feeling.
“And when Clara goes to Auden, that’s what she’s searching. Hands in the water, that’s a one. But this –
“And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.
‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’”
“So it’s love she’s looking for?”
“No! Maybe. But that’s cliché. There’s this song from the Thelma and Louise soundtrack – The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. Do you know it?”
“It’s all about this woman, Lucy Jordan, and she’s a regular housewife, but she’s bored and lonely all the time and she basically starts to lose it, and the song goes:
“Her husband, he’s off to work
And the kids are off to school
And there were oh so many ways
For her to spend her days
She could clean the house for hours
Or rearrange the flowers
Or run naked through the shady street
Screaming all the way…”
“You have a pretty voice.”
“Eh. Not really. Anyway, Lucy knew she was never going to ride through Paris in a sports car with the wind in her hair, but one night – when the ‘laughter grew too loud’ – she climbed up to the roof and there was a man waiting to whisk her off to Paris, to ride in a sports car with the wind in her hair.
“And that’s the cliché, right? Boredom or fairy tale? But that’s not it, for Clara. For her it’s one whole world or another. Tim, the kids, the house, the career, the picket fence – the settled, lovely warmth of it all, and the happiness. Or it’s jumping the fence and going to live in a cabin somewhere secluded and writing until her fingers catch fire and seeing every damned sunrise and sunset and knowing by the particular way the leaves are dancing whether a storm is coming, or filling her house with abandoned babies and just trying to love them whole – the wet-finger-to-electric-current life, which, sure, could have a second person in it, but only if their love has a nuclear force, only if it’s the kind of love that can light the world or burn it down, but always one or the other.”
“She can’t have both?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe. Probably not, though. The restless part of her will always jangle when she’s nested, and the nesting part will be a gaping hole if she wanders. Immovable object meets irresistible force, or something like that.”
“So what happens in the story?”
“I wish I knew. I care about her, as a character. I want her to go leaping over the fence, but that will break her happy heart. I want her to keep floating in the gentle current of her present life, but her ragged, traveling heart will smolder and burn relentlessly if she does. And so I cannot begin to write, because I cannot stand to start a story I know I cannot finish.
“There’s this Zoroastrian concept called Hamistagan. It’s like Limbo, but even more neutral. It’s just the place between Heaven and Hell where you wait, if your good deeds and bad deeds in life were equal. That’s where I am. Or that’s where Clara is, rather. Stuck between two places, both of which actually look like Heaven, but could be Hell.”
“I hate to say it, but I think that’s our time.”
“Oh! It’s been an hour? Amazing. Here – let me write you a check. ‘We pay for fiction,’ right? Except backwards, I guess.”
“Yes. Thank you. Good night. And, Clara?”
Jane Ehrenfeld is an educator, lawyer, writer, mediator, and single mom to three daughters, among other things. Her publications include nonfiction essays in The Washington Post, Quartz, and The Huffington Post; satirical essays in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Slackjaw; and poetry in Prometheus Dreaming and Beyond Words. Her writing can be found at https://whimsyandpique.substack.com/.