Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Useful Longing

I was recounting a short story that I recently read in the New Yorker to friends last night and figured I would write about here since they seemed to appreciate the insight. The story is called "How Was it to Be Dead," by Richard Ford. Spoilers ahead, so if you are dying to read this story first, then read my post later.

The story revolves around the reappearance of a man who walked out on his wife and children after returning from Viet Nam. He winds us an arborist on Mull (Scotland). "Wally's trauma, fear, resentment, and elective amnesia had carried him as from the Chicago suburbs, from his wife and two kids . . ." Wally returns by way of a website dedicated to finding him and asking him to return home for his parents 60th wedding anniversary. His wife--who has longed believed him dead and subsequently remarried--quite happily--walks into the house to find him. The story is narrated by the second husband and the drama revolves around Sally's decision to invite Wally to stay with her and the narrator. By the end of the story, it is clear that Sally is going to leave her happy marriage for Wally, move with him to Mull, and even admits that she doesn't think she loves him anymore.

The narrator, with some distance from the sting of being left by Sally for Wally, reflects on her fate: "I feel, in fact, a goodly tincture of regret for Sally. Because even though I believe that her sojourn on Mull will not last so long, by rechoosing Wally she has embraced the impossible, inaccessible past, and by doing so has risked or even exhausted useful longing . . ."

I can't explain exactly why I find this idea of useful longing so powerfully captures something very real about our lives, but my suspicion was confirmed when I shared this idea and saw how well it resonated with my friends. Perhaps not all of us, or many of us, still long for some inaccessible past, but I do. Better yet, I think I have had the fortune--although it is most likely not fortune but survival from enough pain--to leave the impossible, impossible. What we long for, it seems to me, is something that never really was in the first place. It is a fantasy we construct to represent what we might have been or had. It does seem true that this longing is also something quite invigorating, as long as it remains that . . .