Small Lives and Unhistoric Acts

Every recent generation, I expect, had an Important Movie that somehow explained, shaped, or defined it. According to the rules—movies made about young people when I was that kind of young (now I’m just a different kind of young), I think I was supposed to resonate with the mood of Garden State, or a panoply of romantic comedies set in high schools (the best of which—and set in Seattle!—was obviously Ten Things I Hate About You).

But though I liked them, none of them meant as much to me as a movie about people who were much older than I was at the time, a story that concerned the burgeoning uncertainty of online communication, the deleterious effects of robust capitalism on small businesses, and the ways in which communities are more deeply interconnected than they appear. I’m talking, clearly, about You’ve Got Mail.

Starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as competing bookstore owners also falling in love in the exotic anonymity of exchanged emails, You’ve Got Mail came out the Christmas I was in ninth grade. I saw it with my mom, declared it “my favorite movie ever” and bought the VHS as soon as I could so I could watch it roughly annually ever since.

It’s no surprise, then, that some of You’ve Got Mail‘s premises made their way into my worldview. I hadn’t yet read Pride and Prejudice, but if Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly had read it two hundred times, then it must be worth snatching off the Classics shelf at the Green Lake Branch. I still feel virtuous for shopping a small bookstore, and wince when bad planning or some other constraint find me ordering a book (gasp) online. As a high school freshman just learning how the internet might become not just place to find information, but somehow a space where a relationships might thrive, I absorbed the cleverly-written exchanges of these two characters. Emails, I gathered, were meant to be edited and perfected, crystalline encapsulations of earnest emotion and observation that might just make someone fall in love with you. My coffee order really was, for a while, a “defining sense of self.” I won’t pretend that everything I learned was healthy. Or true.

One line, in particular, has stuck with me, one written by Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly in one of those marvelous emails. Sitting in the dark in her laughably opulent, Upper West Side apartment (which I assumed was the destiny of all young adults, everywhere, including me), she types out:

Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void.

Nora Ephron, from You’ve Got Mail

In the film, her question is mostly left unanswered. Was a small life actually bad one, one that lacked bravery? Was hers? The arc of character growth in the movie leans far more heavily on Tom Hanks’s character, Joe Fox, but in the end (if you’ll forgive a light spoiler for a movie more than two decades old), Kathleen Kelly is forced to make a decision that her friends describe as “daring,” so perhaps that’s her avenue of growth, finally being brave enough to expand her dreams beyond the walls of her beautiful children’s bookstore. Her small life, in the end, is made bigger.

I’ve returned often to the idea of a “small life,” wondering about the size of my own. There have been times when I felt brave, giving up very good things for very unknown ones, or responding to circumstances beyond my control with all the faith, grace and courage I could muster at the time. There have been times that life felt somehow large, times when my geographic footprint of homes and relationships stretched across oceans, and the number of people in those circles—students, family, friends, community—seemed like a multitude. But despite all that, if I’m very honest, in my heart I’ve always felt content with a small life, with a few close friends, a cherished family circle, living in places where I can walk more than drive and recognize the familiar faces of my neighbors. And I’ve thought about Kathleen Kelly, about my small life, and asked myself: Am I being brave?

A few days ago, I finished a very different sort of story from You’ve Got Mail. I read Middlemarch last month, responding to a similar stimulus—the recommendation of quite trustworthy sources—that led me to Pride and Prejudice as a teenager. To be honest, I also read it because it was January, and I was fueled by that New Years, self-conquering desire to do something arduous. “This year,” I told myself, “I will read this long, difficult book that everyone has told me I must read. I will do it because I can, and therefore I should.” In other words, I started it with the energy I muster to do other hard things, like car maintenance or cleaning out the basement.

To my surprise, the book I’d given myself permission to read in small doses, stretched over four months, instead flew by in just one, 800 or so pages of more delightful reading than I’ve experienced elsewhere for ages. I fell in love with the lyrical prose, the vivid dialogue, and most of all the empathy suffused throughout the free indirect narration, shifting attention throughout the novel between the perspectives of a dozen or so characters. At times I felt dragged back to that Classics shelf at the library, rediscovering the pleasure of a long and well-written novel, the delight of watching characters grow over the course of many years and pages.

I was a long way into the book before I remembered that I’d actually read the end of it before. Quoted in another article (the name and thesis of which I’ve long forgotten), the ending was so compelling at the time that I filed the book away under the category of Read When You Have More Energy (hello, 2023!), and now remembered it. I was stuck with this character in a grim situation of her own making, so being a somewhat lawless reader I skipped to the end to reassure myself that everything would work out well, and to remind myself why I’d wanted to read this book in the first place. There they were, the words that had pulled at me a few years ago.

Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

George Eliot, from Middlemarch

I know that this wouldn’t be the case for everyone—I certainly wouldn’t dare to say that Middlemarch is required reading for everyone— but it would hard to overstate the refreshing, invigorating effect of this ending on me, at the place and season in which I find myself. Because the character described, unlike the mostly-static Kathleen Kelly—changed a great deal in the course of the novel, in the course of growing up. Her early chapters are full of earnestness, ambition, and impatience. She wants to do Big Things with her life, and in seeking the most rational path to achieving them makes several decisions that both narrow her scope and deepen her empathy and connectedness to her neighbors. With this conclusion, the author seems to suggest that though she never “made a name” for herself, this character ultimately found both peace and happiness in the simple fact of her compassionate presence for those around her. In essence, she lived happily ever after, and that was enough “for the growing good of the world.”

I imagine that it’s easy for many of us to feel that our lives consist of many “unhistoric acts” strung together. To a culture that prizes dreams, ambitions and goals, to even call them such feels insulting, as if I’m somehow saying that packing lunches, taking dogs to the vet, and picking people up at specific times aren’t important. But they are important, like breathing and rain, these tasks I sometimes call chores that form the nourishment (sometimes literal) of the daily fabric of my life. It is on those acts, Eliot insists, that the “growing good” of the world partly depends.

I was reading Middlemarch at the kitchen table a few days ago while my daughters played with playdough, so absorbed by the novel that I was able to sink into it a few paragraphs at a time with a background of little-girl conversation running as a very appropriate soundtrack.

“How’s your book, Mom?” my oldest daughter asked after a while.

“It’s really good,” I replied.

“You’re almost done. It’s such a big book!” she exclaimed. I nodded.

“What’s your favorite part you’re reading?” my younger daughter asked. “Can you read it?”

I laughed, scanned the truly stunning scene I’d been reading, a few chapters before the conclusion I quoted above, and read to my four- and seven-year-old daughters:

She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving—perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

George Eliot, from “Middlemarch”

The seven-year-old nodded sagely, round eyes wide. The four-year-old made no comment. And I thought about the great temptation that both paths have been to me at times, either looking out on the “palpitating life” around me or hiding it from my view. Perhaps that, in the end, would be Kathleen Kelly’s “small life,” one in which I watched the world around me as a spectator or a critic, refusing to get involved. But no, Eliot suggests. Like this heroine, I too am a part of the world—a world filled at the moment with children, with dogs, with neighbors and craft projects and sidewalks—and my life will never be a small one, as long as I’m brave enough to live in it day by day, one unhistoric act at a time.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Delightful! Silas Marner, a much shorter read by Eliot, was always a personal favorite. There is nothing unimportant about the work you are doing now! Loved your Christmas picture and update. Hugs to all, Laura Get Outlook for Android ________________________________

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