The title of this post is a quotation from the last page of a novel I just finished. If you told me that a book was "a valedictory chorus to our childhood" my first reaction would be to assume it was pretty nauseating. Usually, when I think back to being a teenager, the dominant emotion I feel is relief that I got through it, a "God that was hell, I never want to go back" rush of thought. Most of my friends today were not the kids in high school for whom those were the "best years of their lives". More of us were geeks and theater or orchestra nerds, the kids who made it through and are most likely much happier today than we were back then.
But then, I have a peculiar memory which, unfortunately, has the ability to render in great detail moments from the past of great unpleasantness. When it comes to good memories, perhaps because they are less dramatic, my brain seems to let them go much too easily. For the last 7 years I have been (thankfully) married to a guy with a remarkable memory who can help me reconnect with good/funny/loving moments from the past. But I met him a little late--there were a good 29 years before Brian during which I know good things happened but which I only sometimes vaguely remember. A photo album can help release some of those memories from the gray matter, but only to a point.
It is an unusual feeling to read someone else's words, and fictional words no less, and feel like you have been reconnected to your own memory. But Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? has done just that and for the past week or so, I've been experiencing rushes of memories of what was also wonderful about being a teenager. I drove past (the now-toxic-from-the-dioxin-plume) First Sister Lake over by Dolph Park and WHAM I had a memory of walking down there on a warm Spring night when I was 16 with my first boyfriend. I remember the frogs peeping, I remember the purple skirt I was wearing, I remember the smell and softness of the air. Nothing dramatic, no eventful happening, just a really nice moment from my past, and something that until I finished this book, I hadn't been able to access.
I read this book before, a few years ago, and liked it enough to put it on my recommended books list. But this re-reading was such an unexpectedly rich experience and it emphasizes in my mind why I re-read books. This time I wasn't reading for plot and so I was able to notice other things. I could focus on how perfectly the intensity of friendship between Berie and Sils is rendered. I was able to see how Moore does something in this book that I think is extremely difficult--she doesn't gloss or romanticize youth; she shows how hard and tedious and complicated and messy it is to grow up. But she also captures the energy and excitement and the bursting feeling of potential from that time.
Here is a statement from the adult Berie that says it so well:
"I longed for a feeling again, a particular one: the one of approaching a room but of not yet having entered it....I associated the feeling with another part of my life: that anteroom of girlhood...anticipation playing in the heart like an orchestra tuning and warming, the notes unwed and fabulous and crazed--I wanted it back!--those beginning sounds, so much more interesting than the piece itself."
I don't mean to imply that life as an adult is a disappointment; being a somewhat high-strung person, the stability and grounded-ness of adult identity is a daily relief for me. But the book is a reminder that life isn't always about being safe and comfortable and there is an exquisite chaotic beauty to that phase of life where you as a person are not yet defined.
I must remember to re-read this book when Fiona is starting high school. I bet by then she'll dislike my presence and be completely embarrassed by me (as any normal teenage girl should be). I'm sure we'll have lots of battles. But I hope this book helps me to step back and see the big picture of the phase she'll be going through, to remember those crystalline moments that occur in the middle of such a messy period of life. The book makes me want to have a generosity of perception, to hope for and be excited about the bursts of transformational energy that appear at this age amidst all the pain-in-the-ass behavior. I don't expect to share any of this with her, but I do hope to be aware enough to notice it.