Recently, I was having lunch with a friend who’s so much more attractive and chic than I am that I began to figure I should get a halo or tiara for having the gall to hang out with her.
I mean, she used to be a model. She lived in France for a couple of decades. She also used to be a flight attendant back in the days when everybody wanted to fly for a living since it was so glamorous. She worked for a fashion magazine in France, too, and of course, she speaks the language well.
I could go on — mentioning the fact that she’s also nice and smart — but who needs it? No reason to go all Sylvia Plath in this heat. Besides, that’s all an intro, which, as usual, I got carried away with, and the point of the story is getting lost, dammit.
The point of the story is that she told me she once was seeing a man for a few weeks and — in mid-relationship! — he referred to their time together as being a parenthesis.
No! I said.
Yes, she insisted.
Well, I said, it’s always nice to know how a man is going to punctuate you.
So, we got into a discussion about our lives, looking back on the past five or six decades. Which made me think of the quote from somebody wiser than I am about how life is lived going forward, but only understood looking backward. (Lurking on the Internet, I see that the precise quote is, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” It’s by Kierkegaard, who died when he was only 43, for God’s sake. This makes me think that Scandinavians must acquire gravitas at a very early age.)
I’d been intrigued when I first read this quote. Looking back on my own life — what I consider a far smaller life than my glamorous friend’s, with no long European idylls, no fashion industry connections, no constant international travels in a chic uniform — I could see the point. I’d understood so little of my own small life as I lived it. It was only in looking back, over the years and decades, that I could see patterns and eddies in it, how it made some kind of sense I was incapable of seeing at the time. A maze looks so different, so predictable, when you have more of an airborne view.
My friend and I mulled it over — these crazy detours and experiences in our lives, where the commas and colons lay, where the parentheses fell, the ellipses, the dots, the periods, the question marks, the very occasional exclamation marks. You can only punctuate your life, I suppose, when it’s receded in the distance (and you’ve moved on from its immediacy, when every bad experience portends doom and every small success will automatically breed and reproduce like a cage of rabbits).
I’ve written before about my dislike of the widespread outbreak of exclamation marks. Looking back on my life, I’m similarly exclamation-mark shy. What deserves an exclamation mark, anyway? I was born! I fell in love! I found a profession I care about! I gave birth! I made dear friends! I lost people I loved!
When you come down to it, that’s all that’s most important to me; everything else carries subtler punctuation marks. Except for the last sentence — I die! — but somebody else is going to have to write that one.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)
OK! Read one of my favorite posts about how today’s pregnant women have got it made