Editing the Past

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

20 comments… add one
  • Cindy D.

    It’s all in perspective. I look at your life and see many things I wish I could have experienced. Austin in the “old days.” Being a successful writer. Living in your house for a gazillion years until you sold it all to move into a downtown condo. For the gods’ sake, how cool is that? You have lived a life that is one I dream about in an alternative universe. You seem to have a close relationship with your kids and you still like/love your husband. I know some of the heart aches you’ve written about and I’m sure there are more. But by my book, YOU are living la vida loca! (exclaimation point intentional.)

  • ruthpennebaker

    I may not have expressed myself well. Truth is, I don’t believe there’s such thing as a “small” life — they’re all intriguing in some way. (Or, taking the far greater perspective, we’re all dust motes.)
    I don’t think I’ve led an extravagant, adventurous life, though; I’m far too neurotic for that. But you’re right, Cindy — I have a very fortunate life.

  • Ah, I love this. Everything about it. I had a nearly vicious fight with one of my grad school friends about life; she seemed to believe it was to be understood while you live it. She was extremely intelligent, I had to keep reminding myself.

    And now you’ve made me punctuate mine, and while I am dramatic-er than you, I agree about the bits that warrant the exclamation. Lots of question marks in mine, along with hundreds of my beloved semicolons. What a lovely thoughtful post.

  • And what about virtual punctuation? Like when you’re having a conversation with someone who makes the little quote symbols with their hands–that cute two-fingered quote thing. Can we figure out some way edit out that annoying habit? That said, I sometimes do the “quote” thing myself. Maybe I need to tie down my arms. So annoying.

  • The older I get, the better I understand myself and am able to process the life I’ve lived. I think there are moments that you are able to “punctuate” when you live them. Falling in love and having kids definitely are exclamation point-worthy when they happen I think.

  • Chris

    This was such a well written post and it certainly struck a note with me, partially as a writer, but mostly as a woman of a certain age who can look back and hopefully look forward too.

  • Steve

    While my life undoubtedly could use an editor, one can’t well edit his own work. I do wonder how my descendants will edit mine.

  • I think your “I die!” should tack on ellipses, instead of exclamation. Your words, thoughts and humor will continue living on. Isn’t the internet immortal? But that’s a rather sorry consolation for the body I guess.

  • This is just beautiful. With an exclamation point.

  • I could so identify with this post. Thanks!

  • What a great and unique way of looking at one’s own life. Now I’ll spend the rest of the day with a red pencil, tracing the years. Hmmmm, as a writer, wouldn’t it be nice if the obituary were filled with quotation marks?

  • Your first sentence immediately made me laugh out loud, in the silence of my near-empty condo (one of my cats looked at me askance), but by the end, I was all: My god. This is deep. Why do I suddenly feel as if I’ve been smoking pot and stumbling upon epiphanies?

    I feel as if I need to stop using so many exclamation points in my life, and start using more ellipses. More punctuation that leaves things open-ended, that embodies the feeling of “Well, we’ll see what happens…”

  • Sheryl

    Ruth, This was so well said. And thanks for introducing me to a quote I will always remember. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

    So, so true. and so elegantly said.

  • Currently mid-ellipsis…

  • Memory is so complex. It isn’t only the looking back and putting things together, revising emotions and attitudes, so that the picture morphs into a new experience. But details are omitted and others may be added either from wishing or dreaming, so that we can never be certain about how it really was.

    What a thoughtful post.

  • What an intriguing way to look at our lives – by punctuating them. I like Stephanie’s idea of using open-ended punctuation so as not to close off possibilities. Truth be told, I’d much rather look forward than behind.

  • I’ve had a lot of exclamation marks over the last decade, but have decided to view them as periods. Less panic that way.

  • As a journalist, of course, I try to see my life as I report other’s stories. I’ve seen other family members remember the same events very differently. I think we all insert our own exclamation points, but at different points to the same story.

  • I totally agree with Donna’s comment about virtually punctuating things. Whenever I meet someone at a networking even who does this I move to the other side of the room.

  • “It’s always nice to know how a man is going to punctuate you.”
    You craft the funniest sentences, Ruth. How would your hubbie punctuate you? Count me among those who can’t stand the exclamation craze. When an editor sends me an assignment letter that begins “Hi Sarah!” I sigh and figure she must be fresh out of college.

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