I was 19 when the film American Beauty came out. It was just the sort of film I loved – cynical, funny, sad, strangely hopeful. I loved it for its call to lead more meaningful lives. A call shared by Fight Club and Magnolia, also 1999 films, also beloved by me.
I was 19 and I didn’t know anything about having a house or a spouse or a career or children, but I certainly wasn’t going to let those things define, or trap, me. I rolled my eyes at Carolyn Burnham and shook my tiny fist at the system. I felt total disbelief at the things people cared about. I didn’t know how hard it gets not to.
There’s that scene on the couch, the one where Lester and Carolyn almost share an intimate moment until she realises he is about to pour beer on the sofa. “This isn’t life,” he rages, “it’s just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.”
“IT’S JUST STUFF.” I loved that line. That’s the one I talked about. This is the life I ran from. Carolyn – the uptight, highly-strung kind of woman that scared me.
16 years later I don’t have an expensive sofa, one that’s more important than sex. But still, I didn’t know how one more spill of anything, anywhere could matter so much to me. And I didn’t know what mundane concerns could prevent me from letting my husband seduce me.
I didn’t know I could have 2 spirited, hilarious children and find myself wondering how the **** to dilute that spirit? I didn’t know my sense of humour would fail. I didn’t know I had it in me to feel bored and trapped and maybe a little angry.
I didn’t know.
My husband and I talk about some sharp-tongued, tightly-wound older women we have come across. I think I get it now, I say. I didn’t use to get it at all, but I think I get it now.
Imagine doing this day after day, year after year without friends who help you laugh, or writers who help you breathe, without a husband who is home much or other mums blogging truth into your kitchen.
Imagine having nobody, really, to cheer you on or change your perspective, to say “me too” or tell you it doesn’t matter.
Wouldn’t we all end up impossibly wound up by the end of it – snapping and stressing at seemingly innocuous behaviour and requests?
Before American Beauty there was Dead Poet’s Society. There was Captain my Captain and standing on tables. There were determined little idealists like me, pledging ourselves to Carpe Diem every day of our lives.
I thought, then, that the good stuff was all ‘standing on tables’ stuff. I thought that was courage right there. I didn’t know that the good stuff is often mundane and boring and time and again. I didn’t know that courage might look like tired chat with your husband, drying towel or iron in hand, trying to figure out how not to become sharp-tongued, tightly-wound women. (or men).
I didn’t know how long a Diem could be, or how spills and tantrums and mischief and neediness could thwart my ability to seize it.
I didn’t know how much I would need that Glennon Doyle Melton essay telling me to carpe the moments, not the whole diem.
I was 19 when the film American Beauty came out. I was full of pseudo-profound opinions on the human condition, convinced I was a million miles away from Lester Burnham who was mad at the system, yet part of it.
I was 19 and I used to pray dramatic prayers, sometimes, apologising to God for trying to do things “in my own strength.”
I didn’t know how committed I would continue to be to my own strength, to the try-hard life, to running the well dry.
I didn’t know how much help I would continue to need as the decades turn. I thought the meaningful, joyful life would be more intuitive.
Here’s what I do, what I have always done: I watch the people who live life the way I want to, the people whose sofas welcome, not oppress. The whole-hearted, as Brené Brown would call them. The free.
I watch. I ask them questions. I pester them a bit.
I read their books and watch their TED talks and listen to their podcasts. I talk about it and write about it, and with a little less drama, I pray about it.
Eugene Peterson says he would want to be remembered in terms of the people he lived with. Me too. He also says we’re never past recovery. Phew.
“Create in me a clean, clean heart. Create in me a work of art. Create in me a miracle. Something real and something beautiful.”