There was a time when I walked outside a lot more than I do now, and for a purpose apart from simple exercise. I walked while brainstorming through research projects, or to simmer down after some heated discussion I’d had. Sometimes I set out in order to work mentally through a chapter or story that I was writing. And almost always, I took long walks during particular turning points or vexing periods in my life.
It was while engaged in this last mode of intentional walking that I began to notice something important, something that has stayed with me to this day. Often, at a critical moment in my ambulatory reflection, I would spy a single bird feather lying in the grass alongside the walkway, or perhaps directly in front of me. From the very first of these occurrences, the simultaneity of my pondering over a life issue and sighting that feather took on a special significance. It meant that whatever solution or course of action I was considering at that instant was the best of all possible options. Both literally and metaphorically, it signified that I was on the correct path.
At least that was my interpretation of it, my personal suspension of disbelief. Dare I say a form of faith?
Certain lines from literature and even film scripts can render, and have rendered, similar life-informing effects on me. Years ago, I was watching a video at home—a 1984 film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge. In a scene midway through the movie, two characters, played by Bill Murray and Catherine Hicks, are seated at a dark, rowdy, working-class restaurant in Paris. The male character, Larry Darrell, had served as a Red Cross ambulance corpsman in World War I (though in Maugham’s novel he’d been an aviator), and had witnessed the horrors of human conflict and even faced his own mortality. Shaken by the experience, and disillusioned over the prospect of settling into a workaday grind of responsibility and career back in his native Illinois, Larry has been traveling the world in search of answers to life’s ultimate questions. Now, his former fiancée, Isabel Bradley, has tracked him down in Paris, and hopes to recall him to the domestic aspirations they’d shared before the war.
Before I continue here, I should like to provide some personal context as to why this story matters. At the time when I first saw this film, in the early months of 1990, I was standing at an existential crossroads. Though I’d never experienced a war firsthand like Larry Darrell, I nevertheless had emerged from a series of trials that affected me profoundly and reshaped me as a person. Over the space of a few years, I’d been divorced, and I’d also overcome a number of personal demons that threatened my health and even my survival. Moreover, I was coming to realize that carrying on in the family flower business—which I’d been doing for seven years by then—was decidedly not for me.
Many of the friends I’d grown up with had graduated from college five years before, and some had even gone on to get master’s degrees. A few of them were now enrolled in doctoral programs. Though I hadn’t applied myself academically in high school—or during my first, brief attempt at college—I knew that I was as smart as the best of them. But unlike my friends, I’d chosen the path of least resistance: I left school and took a job working for my mom.
So this is where I was in terms of life-path as I watched the fictional former couple dialogue in the Paris restaurant over whether they might still share a future. In the scene, Larry Darrell asks Isabel to join him in his roving philosophical quest. Of course, he admits he has little in the way of money, but he does have enough for them to travel cheaply and enjoy simple pleasures along the way. But Isabel is not convinced. Instead, she wants Larry to return home with her. She claims to understand his impetus for wanting to live a carefree existence in Europe—that he’d faced certain strains during the war—but now she insists it is time to leave that all behind and take up where they’d left off in Illinois. As their disagreement escalates, Larry Darrell grits his teeth at one point and exclaims:
“I got a second chance at life. I am not going to waste it on a big house and a new car every year and a bunch of friends who want a big house and a new car every year!”
For a moment I sat open-mouthed in my living room, stunned by what I’d heard. In and of itself, the line he uttered was not a great one, no feat of literary craftwork. In fact, it was only part of the screenplay adaptation; it doesn’t actually appear in that scene in the original book. But much like the lone feather along a walkway, Larry’s snippet of dialogue met with my self-awareness at a critical instant. I recognized its significance and personal applicability right away, and it set in motion a series of important actions. Within a few months of that experience, I broke news to my parents that I was quitting the flower business and returning to college. From there I planned to embark on a yet-unmapped course of life—perhaps as a writer, or possibly something else.
This is pretty much the way things unfolded going forward. And, to steal from the wonderful last line of the Robert Frost poem, my decision that year has made all the difference.
But despite a successful return to college and subsequent completion of a master’s program, I continued for some years after to harbor doubts, albeit less debilitating ones, about my capacities as an intellectual, a professional, and, most importantly, as a grownup. A part of me still believed I was that kid who didn’t quite measure up to what was expected of me. It is amazing that I’d been able to secure interesting and challenging jobs in my newfound career in public history during those years, and excel at them too, because so often I found myself at odds with my own misconceptions, all of them rooted in memories of my less-than-exemplary past.
But once again, at a critical hour, the written word came to my aid—only this time not in epiphanic form, but rather as encouragement and affirmation. At the time, I was the director of a non-profit organization that was in conflict with a public institution over the custodianship of some historical records. The dispute had preceded my coming aboard; but it happened to reach a climax during my directorship, and the mayor invited representatives of both bodies to his office to discuss the matter.
One of my counterparts from the other organization, a local attorney with a reputation as a tough and curmudgeonly operator, was a key player in the ongoing dispute. He was much older than I was, quite accomplished in his professional field too. I knew that he would proffer a compelling argument to the mayor, and quite possibly leave me looking like a fool in the process. In short, I was terrified at the prospect of facing this man. In terms of experience, I was a boy compared to him. What is more, I didn’t know what, if anything, the attorney knew about my frivolous, youthful past, but my own lingering doubts from those years began to press heavily on me as I approached the scheduled day of the meeting. I was in grave danger of defeating myself.
As it happened, I had recently read Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, and had found in it many resonant lines and passages that spoke directly to me and my experience. For example, I often drew (and continue to draw) inspiration from Henry’s fabulous St. Crispin’s Day pep talk to his men before they march off to face and defeat an overwhelming French army on the muddy field at Agincourt. I’d also come to love the phrase, “now sits expectation in the air,” and marvel at how aptly it still applies to matters both personal and national in scope.
But when it came to my upcoming confrontation in the mayor’s office, one passage alone stood out in this play. It is found in Act 2, Scene 4, when the Duke of Exeter is appearing before the French King Charles VI and his advisors, to present King Henry’s demands for satisfaction in the dispute over the rightful rule of France. Although this conflict is but one more eruption in the ongoing Hundred Years War between the kingdoms, Shakespeare took some dramatic license in attributing much of the present enmity to an insult that Charles’ son Louis, the Prince Dauphin, has delivered to Henry by way of official couriers in Act 1, Scene 2. The Dauphin opines in this message that the recently-crowned English king is little but a frivolous, inexperienced ne’er-do-well, and that he would be better served to abandon any claims upon France lest he be roundly vanquished on the battlefield. And in an effort to add further sting to his message, the French prince sends along a container of tennis balls to underscore his unfavorable estimation of Henry and his capacity for leadership.
To his credit, the Dauphin has reason to doubt his English foe and age contemporary, for as a reading of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor attests, the young Prince Henry did appear ill-suited to one day assume the throne of England. Even in the admission of one of his fellow nobles, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry’s youthful inclinations had been “to courses vain, his companies unlettered, rude, and shallow, his hours filled up with riots, banquets, and sports.” And indeed, throughout these earlier plays, he carouses and inflicts mayhem along with his delinquent pal, Sir John Falstaff, and the knight’s “rude and shallow” underlings, Bardolph, Nym, and Ancient Pistol.
While I certainly make no claims to royal stature, I nevertheless felt an affinity with Shakespeare’s Henry, a man who had overcome certain unsavory and frivolous habits of youth, yet remained to some extent encumbered by his past actions. And I felt this dichotomy strongly as I readied myself to go toe-to-toe with the attorney. As part of my preparation, I returned to Exeter’s defiant delivery in the French King’s chamber in Act 2, and in particular, his rebuke of the Dauphin, who’d made his presence known to Exeter by stepping forward to claim authorship of the insult sent earlier through the ambassadors. Referring to the Dauphin’s boast that, “as matching to his youth and vanity,” he “did present [Henry] with the Paris-balls,” Exeter retorted that his sovereign will “make your Paris Louvre shake for it.” Moreover, he cautions the Dauphin against making hasty judgments based on Henry’s past:
And be assured you’ll find a difference,
As we his subjects have in wonder found,
Between the promise of his greener days
And these he masters now….
I cleaved to Exeter’s defiant line all that week—read and reread it, committed it to memory as a sort of mantra, internalized its meaning for myself and my impending situation. After all, it was as true for me as it had been for Henry: I had indeed overcome much of the immaturity and the taint of poor choices I’d made in my teens and early twenties. Those days were over—and in fact, they’d been over for years. I had been my own worst enemy in perpetuating their significance in adulthood. Repeating that line from Henry V helped to concretize this for me. In the end, the meeting in the mayor’s office went about as well as could be expected. I comported myself in a professional manner, and my arguments were for the most part cogent. I admit that a bit of my youthful zeal did creep back as I felt my temper rising on a few occasions, but by and large I kept my cool and maintained my position regarding the issue at hand.
I know I’m not the only person to be affected and guided by strings of words in this manner, though in my capacity as a writer I’ve become perhaps extra sensitive to their transformative potential in my own life, and can therefore recognize the same experience in others. Of course, I cannot predict with certainty that my own written words might someday assist readers in their personal journeys. And, to be honest, I actually believe it would be a mistake to presume I could accomplish such a thing.
That is because the transformation part really isn’t up to the writer, after all. Rather, it is the readers’ responsibility, their gift to themselves. Like those feathers along the sidewalk, we writers—through our work—just happen to be present at right moment. We’ll probably never know how our writing might have been helpful, unless the affected reader tracks us down and tells us about it.
And what a humbling—and transforming—string of words that would be to hear.