My daughter and I went to the cinema tonight to see Alice Through the Looking Glass. Alice of the game Alice Madness was my daughter’s namesake for more than a year, a placeholder while she was figuring out how to move from ‘Daniel’ into ‘Morgan’, the young woman she is today. Morgan is in England with me for a month, my first visitor from the States. I feel whole with her here, and I hadn’t even realized how thin, how skeletal I’d felt before she arrived. My entire life, I’ve been held in a container of family, first my parents and siblings, then husbands and my children. Here in England, though, I’ve spent months on my own for the first time ever, and it’s opened a hollow place inside me I didn’t fully understand until my daughter arrived.
When she and I walk the streets of my new town in England, people look at her. Some seem attracted, chatting her up to get her to smile or laugh. Some seem jealous. She’s tall and gorgeous. It’s fascinating to see people’s reactions. But I know what it takes for Morgan to walk out the door, the minutes, the hours of physical and mental preparation she needs to face whatever the world hands her when she crosses the threshold. The courage it takes her, or anyone, really, to be in the world surprises me again and again. My students, they are courageous. They struggle with coming to class, speaking up, sharing their writing. My friends confide in me their anxieties, the thoughts that circle again and again in their heads. The men I date talk about ex’s, children, parts of themselves they’ve lost and can’t seem to recover. It’s all reassuring, actually, because most days, I find it a challenge to step out the door myself. In truth, I find it a challenge to step inside my door, to face the silence of my empty flat. Because that silence is me, somehow. Me disconnected from the rest of the world.
Recently, I was asked out by a younger man. He didn’t know it, but it was an act of courage for me to say yes. Or maybe he did know–maybe asking was his act of courage. I’ve talked to friends about their experiences dating much younger men, much older men. Many of them say age is irrelevant, that there is something else beyond age. For me, dating a younger person is a reminder that youth is fleeting, health is ephemeral, as is life. I’m also aware of my own internal rhythm, my life experience, which somehow slows me down just enough to be grateful. But I would never say my life experience makes me wise in everything, or even in most things. Young people have their own wisdom, even if they are only able to catch glimpses of it.
At a recent poetry festival, I met Jack Underwood. He’s the kind of writer that sees something beyond what I can see. His poems are like a curtain he’s parted so I, too, can glimpse just for a moment the beautiful, luminous things we try to describe when we say ‘love’ or ‘pain’ or ‘I’m sorry’. In Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Queen of Hearts character finally hears from her sister the words she’s longed to hear–‘I’m sorry. Please forgive me’. The final poem of Jack Underwood’s collection, Happiness, ends like this: ‘… only now I think it was not, perhaps, / a mountain, it was not, perhaps, a shrub on fire, and not a fighter-jet boring its noise through the sky, and I am / certain now it was not me, or a wing or body of a broken / bird, but the fearful and forgotten things I’ve lied to myself / about, and to my friends, and to my family’.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that what separates humans from other animals is not fire, not language, but rather our ability to speak about and collectively believe in myths, fictions. At the opening of Alice Through the Looking Glass, Alice is captaining her father’s ship, leading her crew out of danger from pirates during a perilous storm. When a crew member tells her it’s impossible, she says something like, ‘The only way to do the impossible is to believe it’s possible’. When my daughter walks out the door to face the world, when my students show up to class, their hearts on the page, when a young man shows me the sparkling bits inside him, it’s like making the impossible somehow possible.
When I was a kid, my family traveled from Texas to Colorado in an old yellow Ford van. We had three eight-track tapes: An Evening with John Denver, Three Dog Night’s Greatest Hits, and Joe Cocker Classics Volume 4. Mile after mile, I drifted to sleep with these songs in my head. Here’s one by Joe Cocker I offer to anyone who needs courage to walk out the door and face the world.