“...and the congregation averted its eyes.”
- J. K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy
The woman in the photo could be a resident of Pagford, the fictional village in J. K. Rowling’s new novel The Casual Vacancy. The woman vibrates with ambivalence. She hopes the bright pearls and bright smile will distract the photographer from her tear-reddened eyes, the loose, lined skin on her face, the way she clutches and offers mementos from her childhood as if they are precious and matter.
When the woman saw the photo online, she felt the horror of a realization had too late, fists clenched, arms shaking with the desperate wish for just one more moment to do something, anything to unback the car from the parking meter, to unpour the boiling water from the shattered glass pitcher, to unclose the car door on the child’s hand.
She wanted to save the elderly woman in the photo from the inevitable: people will increasingly perceive her as inconsequential because she won’t have time to finish what she starts, or, more immediately, the strength, wits or wherewithal to do much of anything well. The rah-rah about aging is darling but changes nothing of the truth that one is increasingly less than one was and dies in the end.
Only in the past few years have I heard the adage about fiction, “It may not be factual, but it’s true.” I felt at home in Rowling’s Pagford, not because of its familiarity, but because of Rowling’s relentless candor.
I was raised in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of silence. Of the two suicides of my classmates, two deaths by car wrecks, and deaths of three of their parents that occurred in the years I attended Margaret Beeks Elementary School and Blacksburg High School, not a word was spoken by my parents, by my teachers, or by my classmates. The odd behavior of the swim club manager was not mentioned. Faces of the “poor kids” in the class photos from my elementary school years were missing from my high school yearbook. About loss and absence and its accompanying confusion and pain one did not speak in Blacksburg.
In Blacksburg, at Virginia Tech, I fell in love and married and moved away. I expected to have a baby, stay home and raise the baby, have another baby, and live happily ever after as a family. Only when I was unable to conceive a child and looked in anguish and bafflement at a future for which I had no ability did I see how silence had disabled me. The pain was greater than I was. I cannot remember the moment I first spoke, but only then did a slip of a self come forward. Only then did I feel a chance to not be broken by pain.
Rowling’s characters break each other’s hearts. They long to undo the undone. Then they do again, blindly and knowingly. They are alternately hurtful and calculating, brave and foolish, merciless and merciful. They and I are one. And they must, as I must - or choose not to - live with what what’s happened to us and with what we’ve done.
I find it excruciating at times to not be a member of the congregation, especially now that I'm back in Blacksburg, to not avert my eyes from the truth of who I am, from what I am feeling and thinking and remembering, from what I see when I look at what others feel, think and do or have done to them or have happen to them. I can feel upset, weak, vulnerable, even traumatized at the time of the looking. But I know, paradoxically, that I strengthen myself for what is and what will come from every truth I muscularly embrace. I live as fully as I can, not partially. On my deathbed, where it all must end, I will not regret not having tried to wholly live my life. I will not regret my silence.
I am the ambivalent woman in the photo.
Photo credit: Travis Williams for The Roanoke Times