What Will Your Biographer Write?

I have been thinking more than ever these days about my dear friend Florence Ferreira, who died December 10, 2012, at age 51. Some may call it morbid, but in some ways, I am a sort of walking, talking shrine to my friend, wearing her clothing that her loved ones gave me after her death, fostering her cat when her beloved fiance is out of town, and generally doing my best to make every moment of life I have lived since her death matter.

That’s no easy task. Last night I was so pooped after a long day out of the house that I sank into the couch munching pretzels and chocolate and devouring a movie I had seen at least once before. Ditto the previous night, hopefully sans the snacks, but I can’t even guarantee that. There are so, so many moments of life that will, most likely, never make it into the final, authorized version of our lives. Lost moments, those too hard to explain, and those that just plain make us ashamed—not because we robbed a bank or shot an innocent bystander, but because we simply did not do the right thing, because nobody, or nobody who would have objected, was watching.

We cannot live our lives as if a drone were recording every millisecond for posterity. That’s waaaay too much pressure. But those of us who have read biography—as opposed to autobiography or memoir, which are self-created and self-editing, if not always self-serving—know that some lives, in the final analysis, contain more of the wheat than the chaff.

I think of Florence’s life. So damned short, and yet to her biographer, if there ever is one, brimming with meaning. Yes, she watched many, many movies in her downtime. (And being seriously ill for a decade before her death, she had more than her share of downtime.) Yes, she deeply regretted all the books she never got to write, all the lectures she never got to give. But when I look at the narrative of her life, I see a trajectory, a narrative arc, that was rich and forward-moving. I see a train that was mostly on track, particularly during those last, desperate years. She was intensely aware that life was short, not in the cliched sense, but in the sense of water poured into our palms, through splayed fingers.

With that knowledge, she didn’t become an ambassador or a rock star; her stage was limited. But she still exists in the lives and work of everyone who knew her, whether we are conscious of the fact or not. She lived, and she lives, in virtually every sense of the word except the one that goes to the supermarket in the middle of the day and cries out in the middle of the night in pain.  Her story, literally, continues.

I won’t go into the details of Florence’s legacy, because I am not ready to address it here. My point is simply this: Someone could be writing our biography, or more likely our obituary, tomorrow. What would be the arc of our lives, when they are over?  What will be the meaning?

Life review, which is an established technique devised decades ago, requires older adults to find, and resolve, the crisis points of their lives before they pass on. Memoir, which I often write for clients, provides an impressionistic, aesthetic framework for reviewing events and insights. In neither case is it necessary to have had a life containing material for a major motion picture. We have all read novels that are not plot-driven, but rather character-driven. (This is harder to do, albeit not impossible, in film.) The beauty and/or the meaning, I submit, derive from a mixture of form and substance.

The overarching, narrative arcs of our lives do not need to resemble the OdysseyCasablanca or Star Wars. We just need to be aware that they exist, and to live our lives accordingly—whatever that means to each of us.

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Comments

  • Marlene  On August 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    What lovely and poignant thoughts regarding your dear friend and how we can all learn something from a life that was cut too short. We may not know the reasons why these things happen but we can at least learn to take the time to appreciate what we have, the life we live and especially the people who mean so much to us. We can spend less time being judgmental on ourselves, our situations and others and instead consciously choose to see the best and express our best in any given moment. I believe this is a more genuine use of our time. Caren, you
    possess a beautiful spirit that so eloquently honors those who have passed and those who are still here, I know this personally, my dearest friend. I am so grateful you are in my life.

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