Monday, October 05, 2009
What I Learned From Olive
I have been reading a lot more. Ever since I bought a Kindle II electronic reader from Amazon, I've become obsessed with reading because it is even easier to grab my Kindle than to grab my knitting. It goes along in my purse and I can pull it out and do quick snatches of reading in short periods of stolen time. I've been gobbling up books greedily.
Now let me tell you about Olive Kitterage. She's not a REAL person, but I feel like she is. She's the focus of a novel called appropriately enough, Olive Kitterage by Elizabeth Strout. It won the 2009 Pultizer Prize for fiction. This novel is a series of short stories featuring Olive, a middle-aged math teacher. The story unfolds in a series of vignettes about her life at various stages. Sometimes Olive is the main character, and in a couple of the stories she merely plays a supporting role - but with each passing chapter, we get a deeper and broader picture of this character and her life.
I think it takes BEING a middle aged woman to look back on your life and see yourself and others in Olive. Granted, Olive is probably an extreme that most of us don’t reach, but there’s the little bit of “witch” in all of us that we see coming out sometimes. And then, there’s the dicotomy - the really compassionate nurturer that also comes out when we feel moved by someone/something. Although there’s more of the witch in Olive when she’s young, there’s the compassionate Earth Mother that shows itself increasingly as she ages - and a definite theme of regret rings through the later portion of the “novel” (collection of short stories). Yet what I admire about Olive is she doesn’t shirk or shrink from her own failings. She admits them, if privately. She mulls over those things - and in a way, this whole book is a collage of her life, much of which she probably wishes she did differently.
In one story, she remembers back when she and Henry (husband) were middle aged. She thinks a very profound thought. “There were days, she could remember this, when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at those moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it.”
I have to say that in some stories, she comes off as fairly unlikeable but as her self-awareness and compassion grow, she becomes more likeable. Not only that, but even at her most unlikeable, the story is still absorbing. It's a cautionary tale of why I don't want to let some of the "Olive like" negative qualities creep into my relationships and damage them as they have in Olive's life.
Olive has taught me to be kinder and gentler to those I hold dear. To be less insistent on having my own way. To release my child a little bit - let her find her own way and to not be as judgmental. To be more flexible. To keep finding renewed meaning in life at every stage. Most important of all, nothing is as valuable as our relationships. We should be willing to bend, to reach out, to forgive and to give up our own petty hurts from the past so that we can keep the door of our relationships always open.