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Impossible futures

14 February 2012

(from Death of a Salesman)

BIFF:             What’s he say about me?

HAPPY:        I think the fact that you’re not settled, that you’re still kind of up in the air . . . [. . .] But I think if you just got started—I mean—is there any future for you out there?

BIFF:             I tell ya, Hap, I don’t know what the future is. I don’t know—what I’m supposed to want.

HAPPY:         What do you mean?

BIFF:              Well, I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping   clerk, salesman, business of one kind or another. And it’s a measly manner of  existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still—that’s how you build a future.


“I’m not living the American Dream,” I sighed to two friends over lunch. Like me they had lived in several other countries before turning up in Norway. Unlike me, neither was born in the U.S.

“What?” asked one in astonishment. “Did you think you would be?”

“It’s just that . . . well, you believe that if you do A and B then C will follow.”

“Do you really think so? So how did you think your life would be different?”

“Well, you know, all that American Dream stuff – a big job, a big house, two cars, a two-car garage.” (So far in life I’ve made it to no job, small house, one car and a garage that was built in the 70s for a shoe.)

“Really? So that’s what you’re supposed to have?”

I smiled, but I felt self-conscious. And that’s why it’s called the American Dream, I thought.

A similar conversation with an American friend yielded a more expected response.

“I know!” she complained. “I’m not supposed to be starting a whole new life at 50. I mean, what am I doing?

“But what is a life?” I asked, in earnest.

She agreed that this was the question. We struggled to define it, and without the progression-towards-success myth of the Protestant work ethic that we’d both been forced to swallow, we were left with nothing.

In 1919 Virgina Woolf wrote: “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

No, life is not a series of gig lamps, symmetrically arranged, but I have depended upon that symmetry to make meaning from my life. I constantly try, infuriatingly, to draw a continuous line that knits together past with present and unfolds into a prophesied future.

I want to think of life as not moving in a straight line, but twisting and stretching like a vine. Sometimes it climbs higher, but sometimes it uses all of its energy to simply stay in the very same place and put down new roots.

I began this blog a year ago to come to terms with living in Norway and with being an immigrant, to try to find roots where it seemed none would grow. One year later I am still identifiable as a “not Norwegian,” and any roots I have put down could easily be kicked free by a hiker’s boot. I still don’t know what the future is, or what it means to build one.

I do have the present, though: a very rich and meaningful present that threatens to dissolve if I don’t savor it.


BIFF:             Are you content, Hap? You’re a success, aren’t you? Are you content?

HAPPY:        Hell, no!

BIFF:             Why? You’re making money, aren’t you?

HAPPY:        All I can do know is wait for the merchandise manager to die. And suppose I get to be merchandise manager? He’s a good friend of mine, and he just built a terrific estate on Long Island. And he lived there about two months and sold it, and now he’s building another one. He can’t enjoy it once it’s finished. And I know that’s just what I’d do. I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for. Sometimes I just sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I’ve always wanted. My own apartment, a car, plenty of women. And still, goddammit. I’m lonely.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Teresa Owens permalink
    14 February 2012 11:33

    Thanks, Jena…from the bottom of my heart. You have captured what I have been feeling over the past few days PERFECTLY. Do you have an extra copy of “Death…” I can borrow?….apparently, it has some forgotten gems I have need of right at this moment.

    • 14 February 2012 12:37

      Thanks, Teresa. I’m glad you felt I managed capture your feelings, thoughts as well. My only copy of DoaS is in the very large, heavy and awkward Norton Anthology of Am. Lit. But you are certainly welcome to borrow it!

  2. 14 February 2012 12:08

    Feeling desperate and lost a few weeks back, I wrote a late night email to my dearest friends, asking “What do I do??” Do I keep battling the Norwegian system for my license, do I do the steps that they are demanding of me, do we move back to the US, do I get a job as a waitress, do we have another baby. . . what do I do?? I asked them all.

    I calmed down within a day or so, and (as I blogged) will continue to jump through the hoops. But one friend wrote back and said: “Live Your Life”. And that statement continues to haunt me, because I feel like I haven’t been LIVING my life the past few years, I’ve just been looking to the next month, the next hurdle, two months, three months, what if, what if. . . And to be honest, I’m not even really sure HOW to live right now, how to really focus on the here and now and enjoy the richness that this rare version of our “American Dream” is giving us. So your comment of “having a rich and meaningful present that will dissolve if you don’t savor it”. . . that really resonates, too.

    • 14 February 2012 12:47

      “Live Your Life” — that is exactly what I have been thinking lately! Exactly that. Just LIVE. LIVE! for heaven’s sakes. I commented on one of Kimberley’s posts recently that one of my favorite old films is “Auntie Mame”. At one point she shouts, “Live! Live! Live! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” … and then she loses all of her money and her entire lifestyle in the 1929 stock market crash, everything she does ends in disaster, but her motto stays the same.

      I don’t know “how” either, but I am hoping that a different perspective might help. The thing is, as I have learned, all of this working on the future hasn’t given me the future I thought I’d have …. A+B did not equal C. So why did I put so much energy into A and B? (grad school would be my “B”). But at the same time, all of those things have gotten me, one way or another, to this place. It is not as though A and B were irrelevant and I should not have wasted my time on them. Rather they contribute to make up the mosaic that is life.

      Favorite Sting lyrics: “All this wandering has brought me to this place.”

  3. 14 February 2012 12:52

    Maybe the key to living is not trying to do what you feel you are “supposed” to do in life, but what you really, really LOVE to do, whatever that is. A successful life, then, is the one you were glad you had the chance to experience.

  4. 14 February 2012 15:47

    I think this is a dilemma most of us face at some time if not much of the time (assuming we have the basic survival needs met). So much is based on material gains and your “position” in life. It should be more about the person you are or want to be and what it is that makes you happy and satisfied. It takes a lot of self-investigation to figure out these seemingly simple things and maybe it’s just the journey toward them that really counts. If I knew the answers I would be sitting on a mountaintop with an endless stream of people looking for the same answers. Maybe the Hokey Pokey really IS what it’s all about! Or 42 is the answer.

  5. 14 February 2012 16:02

    #1) Auntie Mame is my favorite movie and this post has made me think that it is time to get it back out again. (P.S. The books are even better!)

    #2) As I am in just about the same place as all who commented, I really appreciate the thoughts. My world is kind of in the risk/reward place at the moment. What I love to do involves a financial, personal, social, and academic risk. But the life I am living right now, to me, is not living. I know it should seem like a no brainer, but it is a big decision. Maybe we sould be more like Auntie Mame and throw caution to the wind. I have, after all, never regretted any of my “experiences”. My regrets stem more from looking at the paths not taken…

    • 15 February 2012 20:05

      #1) Auntie Mame! you too? Why am I surprised! I also hated running at swim team practice. And I also loved Spanish and going to Spain. And I love cats and had one that ate cheese. And I’m there’s 100 more things I’ve forgotten about us — didn’t people call us twins? And to think we haven’t lived near each other for 20 years and we are still living the nearly same lives (both to England, both to Norway … when am I gonna move to Baltimore? I guess when you leave!)

      #2) The arts are a financial, personal, social and academic risk only because they are not valued in a capitalist society (i.e. because their goal is not to make money). What else can I say? I’ve just got to stop wanting an iPad and flatscreen tv I guess!

  6. 14 February 2012 19:22

    Oh wow, a friend sent me the link to your blog and I do believe you have captured the jumbles going on inside of my head-including the use of literature to capture it perfectly. Just a bit of info: American living in Norway: struggling with all of these things and more. Will definitely revisit this blog. Thank you for this, needed it today!!

    • 15 February 2012 20:06

      Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to comment, Nafeesa. I’m both relieved to know I’m not the only American in Norway feeling this way and saddened that so many of us do. Glad at any rate that it filled a need today.

  7. Goodness and Grit permalink
    18 February 2012 10:45

    What living in Norway is teaching me:
    Life is about change, and change is a challenge. Through challenges we learn to understand. Understanding is bliss.

    Good luck finding your bliss.

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