By Debra Moffatt
For pleasure and purpose, I often have multiple books on the go, alternating back and forth between my current novel choice and several nonfiction books. Recently I was a third of the way into Fredrik Backman’s novel Anxious People when these lines caused me to pause:
“The whole thing is a complicated, unlikely story. Perhaps that’s because what we think stories are about often isn’t what they’re about at all. This, for instance, might not actually be the story of a bank robbery, or an apartment viewing, or a hostage drama. Perhaps it isn’t even a story about idiots.
“Perhaps this is a story about a bridge.” (p. 103)
My writerly self studied this segment, seeking to identify why it thrilled me. The skillful repetition of “perhaps”; the new paragraph for a powerful chapter-ending sentence; the weaving together of stories, perceptions of stories, and the undercurrents flowing beneath them.
My philosophic self, however, mulled this concept of bridges—connecting places, yet also places of their own, paving ways for us to travel to the other side, pursuing life, or death. One of Backman’s minor, albeit important, characters leaped to their death from a bridge. Another was saved before they could jump. One witnessed the saving but felt complicit in the death of the first. The dying, the saving, the complicity: these interwoven stories tugged at me.
The next evening, I began reading Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything. Within the first few pages, she startled me with this statement:
“I do know two specific truths about me. One is that over the course of my life I have idly thought of jumping from rooftops and out of cars.” (p. 6)
Despite being diagnosed with OCD, anxiety, and paranoia, Lamott reveals she has not been diagnosed as clinically depressed or suicidal. And yet, she’s never met a bridge or balcony or precipice from which she did not feel compelled to leap. She labels it an obsession that she doesn’t particularly view as suicidal, but more as a sign that she has “just always found it extremely hard to be here, on this side of eternity.” (p. 7)
I closed the book and set it on my lap, caught in the paradox Lamott shared. I needed time to think.
As recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, my days typically start with the practice of writing morning pages, the aroma of dark roast coffee in the air and a chill playlist streaming through my headphones. It was only when my pen put words on paper early the next morning that I connected the dots: in both Backman’s and Lamott’s attention-snagging segments, they write about life, at times, being hard. The living, the dying, and the perceived complicity of our own actions mean some of us must fight the urge to jump.
Upon making this connection, I revisited Backman’s first page of Anxious People and found this:
“There’s such an unbelievable amount that we’re all supposed to be able to cope with these days. You’re supposed to have a job, and somewhere to live, and a family, and you’re supposed to pay taxes and have clean underwear and remember the password to your damn Wi-Fi. Some of us never manage to get the chaos under control, so our lives simply carry on. . . . We’re not in control. So we learn to pretend, all the time, about our jobs and our marriages and our children and everything else. We pretend we’re normal . . .”
Backman shares a form of pretending that has become an increasingly heavy burden in my life. While I suffer from a certain amount of social anxiety and have sometimes bordered on clinical depression, I have never been diagnosed with serious mental health concerns. Yet, more often than I care to admit, I find myself nudging up against this desire to jump. To flee. To leave the weightiness of being an adult in this complex world, where I have far too little control and spend far too much time pretending to be normal. Yet I am not suicidal. This has always confused me. As Lamott so clearly laid out, this is the paradox: two things that should not coexist, and yet they do.
How is it that the universe puts two books in my hands, within days of each other, that share themes of bridges and jumping? All I know is this has happened often enough that I now recognize when I need to sit with these seeming coincidences. There’s always a revelation—perhaps an intentional message from the cosmos—for me to discover. In this case, it’s the relief, comfort, and hopefulness offered by the reassurances found in both Backman’s story and Lamott’s writing. Because both of these authors also manage to weave in themes and threads that call attention to the beauty and grace around us, to highlight the simple joys of meaningful connection with others and the world. For as Lamott shares, the second thing she knows about herself “is that [she has] seen miracles . . .” (p. 11) Life is, indeed, exquisitely messy and full of miracles.
But what a comfort it is to know I’m not alone.
Debra Moffatt is originally from the Canadian Prairies and now lives in northern British Columbia. When not writing, she spends time reading, wondering, walking, and making things.
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Very Thought provoking essay, Debra. Congratulations on getting it published.
Interesting article. Thank you.