The Courage to Live the Imagined Life
Oh, I’d move to Napa. Except I’d either get sick of listening to wine business chatter or I’d become a raging red wine abuser (and I’m close to that already). We t returned recently from a glorious weekend of imbibing and soaking up the scenery of Sonoma/Napa. It was my first visit. Most definitely I’ll be going back.
I was looking forward to our lunch the first day at Rustic, Francis Ford and Eleanor Coppola’s restaurant. I love everything Coppola, from his movies to his wine, and I’m especially enamored with Sophia Coppola, his daughter, a successful screenwriter and director in her own right. My infatuation started when she directed the movie of one of my favorite books, The Virgin Suicides, a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. The movie was a perfect visual and emotional representation of Eugenides’s words. I was an instant fan of her work. She went on to write and direct, Lost In Translation, another favorite. Small fantasy secret: When I finished my novel-in-stories, Invincible Summers, I’d hoped somehow she’d find the book and fall in love with it, then call to discuss her ideas for the movie version. Forget Oprah’s Book Club. I wanted to be in Sophia’s club, to bask in the young aesthetic sunlight of young women characters who look at the end of adolescence and the beginning of female adulthood with disenchantment at how alone they are in the world. Even in a roomful of people.
What does this have to do with Napa? So we were walking through the gift shop at Rustic after a delicious meal when on a shelf mixed with Godfather memorabilia and winery tchotchkes was Eleanor Coppola’s book, Notes On A Life. Eleanor, the wife of Francis Ford and the mother of Sophia, writes with honesty on the life she chose and the life she really wanted. And she waxes philosophic about being female and disenchanted with her choices, and truly alone with the consequences. Hello a ton of women I know.
At the time I read Notes I was knee deep in trying to find my own time to write, to create, to hear my own thoughts while raising three kids with a husband always away for work. I soaked in Coppola’s descriptions of yearning to live an artistic life while nurturing the creativity of her husband’s dreams. She writes, “When I married and had children I expected to automatically be happy. When I wasn’t, I couldn’t understand why. Over the years I went to highly regarded psychiatrists and psychologists and asked what was wrong with me. I had it all, a loving and successful husband, a big house, healthy children. I was mystified by my depression. Not one of them said, ‘You’re a creative person, you need to pursue your creative life or you’ll feel depressed.’”
As the author Arthur Phillips wrote: “We learn to live between the lives we have and the lives we had and the lives we would like.” Eleanor Coppola was miserable in living between lives.
“Over the years I thought by the age of fifty I would surely have resolved basic issues that plagued me as a young woman. Instead I am still groping along looking for solutions. When I go on location I still find myself disoriented away from home and feel the contrast of being simultaneously in Francis’s very stimulating creative environment and my own personal dullness as I shop for the mop, frying pan, etc. I feel cut off from my friends and my creative life. I imagined that at this age I would be wise and able to balance the elements of my life; instead I feel as if my brain is a rustling file cabinet full of useless information.”
Oh, boy have I felt dull and diminished over the years in some of the roles I’ve taken on.
My daughters have never known a world without women in charge of their own homes, their communities, their bodies, and their own happiness. But there was that time. Up and down the block I grew up on there were unhappy wives and mothers never given the chance to be something other than what they turned into. And they were most likely better off than their own mothers.
I’m often blindsided by women’s ineptitude at not understanding history. When I hear from a woman my age, a successful medical doctor that she doesn’t subscribe to the feminist agenda I wonder if I heard her correctly. She’s a doctor for god’s sake. How many female doctors were there mid-century in this country when we were born? Or dentists? Or lawyers? Accountants? No, there were many more women medical receptionists, or dental hygienists, or secretaries, or bookkeepers. Her journey was paved by many a woman who plowed the fields of scorn and ridicule and downright hostility to get the vote, to get equal pay (we’re close but not there yet), and the right to a legal abortion. We should be licking the toe jam from the tired feet of these women and never take it for granted that these rights came at a hefty cost for many of them. Even education was hijacked for young women in households where money was saved for the boy to attend college but not female children. I have girlfriends who had to kiss a lot of ass to get help with community college bills.
We all have dreams. And then there is reality. The bar set in childhood to walk on the moon is somehow pared down to walking down the aisle because that is safe, that is familiar, that is expected. There are our illusions that many more times than not end in painful knowledge. But hope is a commodity we can’t give up on. Ever.
Eleanor Coppola writes authentically about all of this. About wanting to be an artist, about the angers and disappointments at not being who she wanted to be in her decades long marriage to Francis. She even mentions the elation tinged with jealously for Sophia’s accomplishments. I can’t help but wonder if Eleanor hadn’t nurtured the nests for her husband and daughter’s creative pursuits if they would have been as successful? The funny thing about chasing dreams is no one can do it on their own. And no one can do it for you.
When I return to Napa where the Coppolas live, and if I ever have that dream conversation (book related or otherwise) with Sophia, I would ask how her mom is. I would hope she is creating. I would hope she is living the life she wants. That is all we can wish for anyone