The world breaks everyone and afterward
many are strong at the broken places.
~ Ernest Hemingway
Enjoy Green Diva Meg’s inspiring chat with Mariel Hemingway, who talks about her two new books and why our stories matter (at minute 32:00-ish).
Listen to the entire show for other great segments including a Green Divas Health & Beauty with Brigitte Mars on natural remedies for radiation; a Green Divas DIY with Jeff MacIntire-Strassburg; and a WTF Green Divas myEARTH360 with Green Diva Lynn about the EPA’s recent study on the effect of fracking on the water supply.
Many great writers have written about family.
It’s one of literature’s primary subjects because it’s one of life’s primary subjects. The most famous quote, of course, is from Tolstoy:
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
It’s used so often that it’s a cliché by now. Even though I come from a family that could easily be classified as unhappy—and I, at times, have classified it that way—I won’t use that quote.
The quote that I think I’ll start with is one that risks being a cliché for entirely different reasons: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” That quote comes from my grandfather, the American author Ernest Hemingway. It’s from A Farewell to Arms, the novel he published in 1929 that became his first best seller. It’s a book about war and how it affects both the people who are in it and those who are near it, and how there’s not as much difference between the two as it might initially appear.
The quote goes on, in a slightly more depressing vein: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
He wasn’t writing explicitly about family, but the passage always makes me think of family. Specifically, it makes me think of my family, which was a family he helped to create when he and my grandmother had my father a few years before A Farewell to Arms. My family—my father, my mother, my two sisters, and myself— is the kind of family that, in today’s era of euphemism and double- speak, gets called “dysfunctional.”
In the plainspoken language my grandfather favored, it was a family torn by sadness and disappointment, one in which human frailty and flaws were on constant display. There were emotional problems. There were mental problems. There were addictions. There were suicides. There were problems within people and problems between people. We felt alone when we were together.
It was a family with breakage, though it never actually broke apart.
My parents stayed together for years and years. But that means that the breakage also persisted—it became a central part of how the family was built and how it operated. My sisters and I grew up inside that environment, became defined by it, tried to find ways to negotiate it, and ended up contributing to it despite our best efforts. And yet as I grew up in my family, I didn’t think much about whether or not it was broken.
That’s an outsider’s thought. When you’re inside a situation, moving through it day to day, you just think of it as the life you’re living, as this intimately and permanently linked group of people with specific challenges and triumphs.
Throughout my life, people have spoken about the Hemingway curse. They pointed to the many difficult things in my family: alcoholism, mental illness, suicide—all of which happened to Hemingways before I was born and would continue to happen to Hemingways throughout my adult life.
I was confused. I learned to scoff at the idea, to dismissively say that the people who called us cursed didn’t know what they were talking about. But also, to be honest, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t like the term. It was a nasty word that suggested a lack of control—and there was another dimension too, because it’s what my mother used to call getting your period. In my mind, those meanings collided and produced the sense of something dirty: of physical uncleanliness, of moral rot, of a sense of blame laid at the feet of those very people who were suffering. At the same time, though, when people talked about the Hemingway curse, I paid closer attention. I tried to see if I felt its weight upon me.
As I have gotten older, as the events of my youth have become more distant, I have started to think back through the days and months and years, not only to make sense of them now but to think about how I made sense of them back then. Most of what I did back then was a mix of instinct and analysis, of love and fear, of luck both good and bad. Very little of it was done with a sense of larger insight.
Sadly, life is laid out in such a way that you do things long before you understand them. (The key quote here is from Kierkegaard, rather than Tolstoy or my grandfather: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”) When I was a child, acting the way I did, obsessed with cleanliness and control, constantly at war with the unruliness of the rest of my family, was I aware of the reasons? Hardly.
There’s also the issue of other people’s behavior. It’s narcissistic to assume that everyone else in my life—even everyone else in my family—acted in ways whose primary purpose was to affect me.
In most cases, they were just being themselves in the only way they were capable—imperfectly, injudiciously, moving forward with a mix of blindness and sight. Remembering that, remembering them, I have to resist the temptation to make them into part of my story at the same time that I have to acknowledge that’s the only thing I am capable of doing.
Here, too, I look to my grandfather for inspiration. My favorite book of his is A Moveable Feast, his reminiscence of Paris in the 1920s. It’s a book that’s meaningful to me because I went to Paris with my father when I was eleven, and he toured me around the city, bringing the pages of the book to life. But it’s also a tutorial on how to convert life into literature without giving in to certain temptations. A Moveable Feast is not, on its face, a dramatic story, and yet it deals with deep feelings of love and sadness, of creative triumph and personal memory.
This book exists in that same spirit, though it’s different in many ways—possibly in all ways. But it’s a watershed in two respects: It separates the turbulent flow of the past from the calmer waters of the present. And it also represents a turning point in the way I see my own history. For years, I pushed aside the most painful and difficult aspects of my family history, or buried them deep inside so that I could move forward with everyday tasks.
I am done pushing things aside.
Instead, I have decided to look at my life directly, to be clear- eyed about its sorrows but also its joys. This book not only gives me voice—it is my voice.
Most important, my book isn’t only for me. It’s for the rest of my family, though most of my immediate family are gone now, taken by time and their own frailties. But beyond that, it’s for anyone who has ever been part of a similar family—and by that I mean a family rich with both triumph and tragedy. I hope that this book encourages others to investigate their own families and their own difficult memories.
Tell your story. Look at yourself by looking at those who were around you from your earliest days. A family is a cracked mirror that nevertheless reflects us accurately. At long last, I am willing to look in that mirror. My family made me, and through an act of memory I can now remake it. Life happened to me—happened all around me—and I learned, slowly, to make myself happen.
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