Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Best Days

“Optima dies … prima fugit” Virgil

Willa Cather’s My Ántonia includes this epigraph on the title page of the book. Two hundred and sixty pages later the words are translated in text: “In the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee” (263).

An epigraph is given as a motto or quotation at the beginning of a work of literature that frames a central theme for that work, and certainly Virgil’s words borrowed from the Georgics rightly direct understanding toward greater attention paid and value upheld for those details so easily passing us by each lived day – for the memories we build (or neglect to build) that will comfort us in the closing days of our life.

Three points stood out for me in this reading.

1) The story presents two classes of people making their way together in a small town of Black Hawk, Nebraska: one represented as the “newly moneyed” and the other typified in “the hired girls.” Based on the first, the reader is welcomed to formulate a kind of standard against which to measure the behavior, quality of person, and social value of the latter. By way of contrast, the narrator juxtaposes a discussion of Virgil’s poetic contribution to his hometown with the poetry made possible through the lives and being of the hired girls. “If there were no girls like that,” the speaker comments, “there would be no poetry in the world” (270).

I think of my own life and the moves I make outside the boundaries of standard expectations. Mine is a small town community, and I prize the intimacy of knowing exchanged among members as well as the ready hand wherever help is needed, but I am equally aware that time-tested patterns guide most determinations of reliability and the subsequent reward of inclusion. There is always a trade-off between conformity and the bold colors of adventurous expression (I am here reminded of Tamarika’s recent 100 mile walk), but I am encouraged by Cather’s text to remember the poetry that comes from “girls like that,” and I am glad to be counted among them whenever such judgment tips in my direction.

2) While away at school, narrator Jim Burden encounters a “brilliant and inspiring young scholar” who introduces him to the “world of ideas” and a time of mental awakening he regarded one of the happiest times in is life. Gaston Cleric was his guide in reading, poetry, athletics, and long walks of talking together. Of this time the narrator reflects, “When one first enters that world [of ideas], everything else fades for a time, and all that went before is as if it had not been” (257).

This thought blankets my anticipation of returning to school this fall. It is a return to the “world of ideas” where “everything else fades for a time.” I love the study, the considerations, and the compelling patterns discovered for their power to direct new decisions, compose convictions, and sculpt a life. I have no idea what the outcome will be, and that both excites and unnerves me. I like the comfort of knowing and the cozy experience of predictable environments; the “everything else [that] fades for a time” as I return to school amounts to the safety of all things home to me, and I know that neither it nor I will be the same when I return – if, indeed, one can be said ever to “return” from adventure. And so I embrace the going-on.

3) A youthful Jim and his Ántonia meet one last time before years of career development will take Jim forever from his Nebraska home. Ántonia consoles herself and Jim in shared moments with reflections of her father. “Of course it means you are going away from us for good,’ she said with a sigh. ‘But that don’t mean I’ll lose you. years, and yet he is more real to me than almostLook at my papa here; he’s been dead all these anybody else. He never goes out of my life. I talk to him and consult him all the time. The older I grow, the better I know him and the more I understand him” (320).

Wayne Francis Miller was born July 3, 1925 and died October 10, 1980. “He never goes out of my life,” and I comfort myself in believing he would be proud of me for the woman I have become, for the bits of being that have come to reflect and bear witness to his having been. Here’s a wink and a wave to you, Dad. I love you still.

Through the characters of Jim Burden and Ántonia Shimerdas, Cather argues the value of memories and the cohesive quality of a shared past – even one selectively composed. “In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions … Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again” (328). As the final chapter unfolds, Cather describes Jim and Ántonia coming together again years later: Jim a successful businessman and Ántonia – still vibrant and fully possessed of “the fire of life” – the wife, mother, and landowner that measures success in her own terms. In closing reflections, Cather writes of “roads of Destiny” and “accidents of fortune which predetermine for us all that we can ever be.” Last words of the novel affirm that whatever is missed as life shared together, we possess still “the precious, the incommunicable past” (372).

I treasure my illusions, personal mythologies, and remembered past: they have been purposefully composed to steel me against confusion and to assure me of my own meaningful existence. Through My Ántonia, Cather encourages me to keep up the good work.

1 comment:

tamarika said...

Thanks so much for the link in a really interesting post. Am honored to be considered in part of it!