We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel...is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.
In glancing over my Book Journal, the notebook where I list the titles of the books I've been reading, I realized that I've been meeting a lot of lovely people in books lately. People like Emma Gant, the fiercely ambitious and determined young journalist in Gail Godwin's Queen of the Underworld. Or Frederica Hatch, the intrepid teenage heroine in Elinor Lipman's My Latest Greivance, as she struggles to forge her own identity in spite of her parent's, two very principled college professors who serve as "dorm parents" in a small New England college. Then, there was Elizabeth Gilbert, as herself, in Eat, Pray, Love, on a voyage of discovery about her corporeal and spiritual life that took her to Italy, India, and Indonesia.
In thinking about the things I've been reading, I can't help but notice some similarities - for the past month, I've been keeping company with several young women striking out to forge their identities and discover their passions. So if what Ursula LeGuin says is true, that the lives of other people, real or imagined, help us understand who we are and what we could become, what have I learned from my meetings with these bright and plucky women, with whom I have absolutely nothing in common? And is it consequential that I've been drawn to stories about young women, when I am clearly no longer young myself?
I think there was a part of my youth that went missing, the part where you rebell, and experiment, and try out several different states of being. When teenagers like Frederica Hatch were questioning their parents beliefs and reaching out to other adults for inspiration, I was quietly ensconced in a girls school, following the nun's rules, and doing my homework each night. When young women like Emma Gant were traveling to Miami, living in a hotel run by refugee Cuban's, and carrying on an affair with a married man, all while making their mark as a reporter on the Miami Star, I was setting up housekeeping in a home inherited from my in-laws and just down the street from my parents. And when Elizabeth Gilbert was traipsing all over the world, tasting life's pleasures, I was raising a toddler.
So I read about their adventures, and sometimes wistfully wonder "what if?" But I'm also inspired by their courage, their inventiveness, their self-confidence. And now, as I embark on the next part of my journey, I can look at them for inspiration. Who knows, I may yet travel the world on a spiritual journey, or make my mark in the world of letters. It's never to late to be young in spirit.