At the end of Anna Quindlen’s brilliant Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, there’s a conversation with Meryl Streep.
It’s thrown casually in the back, as though, oh yes, Anna is friends with Meryl and they discuss life and what it means to be a woman. No big deal.
If I ever had a conversation with Meryl you best believe it’s my opener, in both my book and my life.
Hello. My name is Jillian. I once had a conversation with Meryl Streep how much can I tell you about it before you become uncomfortable on every level?
In this conversation, Meryl gives Anna the ultimate compliment:
You’re one of the few who is willing to stand up. You’re willing to stand up and say stuff about living, and what it costs, and what you pay down, and what you don’t ever get back. You know, all that stuff. You’re willing to talk about it. And that’s just a really brave thing. It is.
Writing can be, should be, brave. Life can be and should be brave. Talking about it in a real way is hard and vulnerable and people who do it well should be celebrated.
Celebrated with lots of candles and plenty of cake!
Anna Quindlen makes me want to grow old.
She makes me want to get good at the job of life, something she says happens when you’ve been working at it for 50 years or so. She makes me look forward to a future where frivolous concerns slip away, where what really matters is what really matters.
She makes want to write better, damn it.
It’s odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to young woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone and became her. Then I began to like what I’d invented. And finally I was what I was again.
There was a time I behaved as though I was the center of that universe. It was a good time, when I was young, and arrogant, and foolish, and eager, and terribly insecure and horribly insensible to others and not beholden to anyone else, without responsibility for houses or children or dogs or the cleanup after a disaster. I just like this time better.
Oh those little stories we tell ourselves. They make us what we are, and, too often, what we’re not. They are the ten commandment of incapability, cut to order. I can’t cook. I’m not smart. I’m a bad driver. I’m no jock. Maybe they’re even true. It’s hard to tell at a certain point. The little stories we tell ourselves become mythic, difficult if not impossible to discount or overcome.
It often seems, looking back, that the unexpected comes to define us, the paths we didn’t see coming and may have wandered down by mistake. The older we get the more willing we are to follow those, to surprise ourselves. After all, all we can do is fail, and failure loses so much of its sting over time.
The older we get, the more we understand that the women who know and love us–and love us despite what they know about us–are the joists that hold up the house of our existence. Everything depends on them.
Because we are so invested in youthful behavior, we have youthful illusions abetted by a culture that insists that the conversation, libido, interaction, attraction and relationship of two people who have been together for forty years should be more or less like that of two people who have been together for only a few months. This makes no sense, nor should it. What if I said that I still wrote in much the same way, about most of the same things, as I did when I was eighteen? What if my husband had developed no new techniques or strategies for trying a case after decades as a trial lawyer? That wouldn’t be seen as reassuring normative but as terrible.
You dream yourself a life of bits and fantasy and imaginings, like cotton candy, pink and mostly air. And then you have an actual life that has almost nothing to do with the cotton candy one.
That’s what makes life so hard for women, that instead of thinking that this is the way things are, we always think it’s the way we are.
Maybe that’s why we give advice, when we’re older, mostly to people who don’t want to hear it. They can’t hear it because it’s in a different language, a language we learn over time, the language of experience cut with failure, triumph, and tedium…
There comes that moment when we finally know what matters and, perhaps more important, what doesn’t, when we see that all the life lessons came not from what we had but from who we loved, and from failures perhaps more than the successes.
I would tell my twenty-two-year-old self that what lasts are things so ordinary she may not even see them: family dinners, fair fights, phone calls, friends. But of course the young woman I once was cannot hear me, not just because of time and space but because of the language, and the lessons, she has yet to learn. It’s a miracle: somehow over time she learned them all just the same, by trial and error.
What comes next? Who knows? It’s a long story, the story of our lives–the friends, the families, the men, the jobs, the mistakes we made and the ones we avoided, the tedium, the drama. Some things I took a long time to figure out, and others I’ll never understand. All I can say for sure is that I want more.