This has to be the one that made the biggest impact on my life and sense of self: a snippet from Toni Morrison's Jazz
wherein the protagonist, Violet, muses about her life to her young friend Felice. Felice is one of Violet's few friends in a pretty hostile city that has taken to gossiping about Violet and her tragic life. Felice and Violet share a mutual curiosity for each other's lives and pasts, and Felice uses Violet and her life experience as a mirror to understanding her own life. Felice helps Violet simply by listening and letting Felice think out loud, because otherwise she is too preoccupied with her work and relationship to think about her life.
In this passage Felice is telling the reader about her conversation with Violet. It's quite rich in context so reading the whole book (not a long one!) is advised for the total experience.
‘I messed up my own life,’ she told me. ‘Before I came North I made sense and so did the world. We didn’t have nothing but we didn’t miss it.’
Who ever heard of that? Living in the City was the best thing in the world. What can you do out in the country? When I visited Tuxedo, back when I was a child, even then I was bored. How many trees can you look at? That’s what I said to her. ‘How many trees can you look at? And for how long and so what?’
She said it wasn’t like that, looking at a bunch of trees. She said for me to go to 143rd Street and look at the big one on the corner and see if it was a man or a woman or a child.
I laughed but before I could agree with the hairdressers that she was crazy, she said,
‘What’s the world for if you can’t make it up the way you want it?’
‘The way I want it?’
‘Yeah. The way you want it. Don’t you want it to be something more than what it is?’
‘What’s the point? I can’t change it.’
‘That’s the point. If you don’t, it will change you and it’ll be your fault cause you let it. I let it. And messed up my life.’
‘Messed it up how?’
‘Forgot it was mine. My life. I just ran up and down the streets wishing I was somebody else.’
‘Who? Who’d you want to be?’
‘Not who so much as what. White. Light. Young again.’
‘Now you don’t?’
‘Now I want to be the woman my mother didn’t stay around long enough to see. That one. The one she would have liked and the one I used to like before…. My grandmother fed me stories about a little blond child. He was a boy, but I thought of him as a girl sometimes, as a brother, sometimes as a boyfriend. He lived inside my mind. Quiet as a mole. But I didn’t know it till I got here. The two of us. Had to get rid of it.’
She talked like that. But I understood what she meant. About having another you inside that isn’t anything like you. [My friend] and I used to make up love scenes and describe them to each other. It was fun and a little smutty. Something about it bothered me, though. Not the loving stuff, but the picture I had of myself when I did it. Nothing like me. I saw myself as somebody I’d seen in a picture show or a magazine. Then it would work. If I pictured myself the way I am it seemed wrong.
‘How did you get rid of her?’
‘Killed her. Then I killed the me that killed her.’
This drove me to accept myself as who I am to enjoy life instead of chasing some actualised image of myself. It's easy for me to want things and to chalk up my shortcomings to unfavorable conditions. I imagine myself as someone else accomplishing the things I always wanted; but the person in these imaginations isn't a truthful version of me. I've always been shunned and small; I've always been insignificant, dreaming of a great role in the world.
Now while that's harsh, it is the truth--but here comes the consolation: you can spend your youth on changing yourself to fulfill the fantasy of who you want to be, but Violet is advising you not to. In Violet's case this was white, light, and young again,
but that ship has sailed and Violet wasted her life trying to be something that was impossible. She's a bit of a bitter old woman with a lot of baggage and regret. This led me to think about my relatives, many of them alcoholic, most of them deeply depressed and unhappy, not at all unlike Violet. The contrast between what you want and what's expected of you is enormous, and the dreams we have tend to be internalised expectations about our lives rather than realistic versions of ourselves as happy, functional and decent human beings. By resolving to change the world instead of herself Violet doesn't exculpate herself from responsibility for a good life (she owns up to it: I messed up my own life
), but she acknowledges herself as she is instead focusing her efforts outward rather than inward; on other people rather than herself. This way she can remain young and light, or at least could have but now she must suffice as she is with all the mistakes she's made in life.
That's more or less my take on it. The way this hit me was massive, I can't fully do it justice how profound a change it made in me.