Thursday, August 12, 2010

Olive Kitteridge

I woke up this morning and packed up all of my stuff in preparation for leaving Montreal to go and spend a night camping in the Adirondacks of Northern New York State. Before I left I went to a breakfast place around the corner from my hotel. It has the corny name Eggspectations, but it also has big windows, great light, friendly staff, and great food.

I sat down, ordered some pancakes and yogurt with strawberries, sipped on my coffee with cream and dove into the last chapter of Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge. The chapters of her book are not really chapters in the traditional sense. Instead, each chapter is a separate short story set in or near the fictional town of Crosby, Maine. Olive Kitteridge is the thread that ties the stories together. She is a prickly, no-nonsense woman who in some way not quite clear to me earns our empathy instead of our judgment, in spite of her off-putting bluntness and blindness to her own cruelties.

“River”, the final story of the collection, is what I was reading this morning when I knew I had to change my plan for today. In the last story Olive, old and alone and unable to understand why her son wants so little to do with her, comes in fits and starts to a new friendship and new insights about what it is to be human.

Of course, there really ARE no new insights about what it is to be human…just new people to see the same old things.

But when the narrator said:

“What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.

“And so, if this man next to her now was not a man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter? He most likely wouldn’t have chosen her either. But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union—what pieces life took out of you.

“Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude—and regret. She pictured a sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.”

It hit me like a hammer to the stomach and made tears well up and out right there in Eggspectations. (I certainly hadn’t eggspected that when I opened the book.) Olive’s realization about love, set in the context of my own week away from Erica and Isabel, made me see that I don’t want or need to be alone in the woods today and tonight. I need to be around people. For all of our rough edges and annoyingness, we are the best we have. And if I can’t be with Erica and Isabel today, at least I can be around other people and try to connect the best I can. The best we all can.

I don’t want to squander this day, consciously or unconsciously. So I am going to be out in the city, walking where my feet take me, talking with anyone willing, and looking forward to being home tomorrow with the people I love best.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Chris,
    Happy you are enjoying Montreal. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    Not sure how many more meals you have to go, but I'd like to recommend the corned beef sandwich at Schwartz's.

    3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard

    Looking forward to catching up with you over poutine or otherwise.