Easy Chair — From the October 2015 issue

The Mother of All Questions

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The problem may be a literary one: we are given a single story line about what makes a good life, even though not a few who follow that story line have bad lives. We speak as though there is one good plot with one happy outcome, while the myriad forms a life can take flower — and wither — all around us.

Even those who live out the best version of the familiar story line might not find happiness as their reward. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I know a woman who was lovingly married for seventy years. She has had a long, meaningful life that she has lived according to her principles. But I wouldn’t call her happy; her compassion for the vulnerable and concern for the future have given her a despondent worldview. What she has had instead of happiness requires better language to describe. There are entirely different criteria for a good life that might matter more to a person — honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope.

Part of my own endeavor as a writer has been to find ways to value what is elusive and overlooked, to describe nuances and shades of meaning, to celebrate public life and solitary life, and — in John Berger’s phrase — to find “another way of telling,” which is part of why getting clobbered by the same old ways of telling is disheartening.

The conservative “defense of marriage,” which is really nothing more than a defense of the old hierarchical arrangement that straight marriage was before feminists began to reform it, has bled over into the general culture, entrenching the devout belief that there is something magically awesome for children about the heterosexual two-parent household, which leads many people to stay in miserable marriages. I know people who long hesitated to leave horrible marriages because the old recipe insists that somehow a situation that is terrible for one or both parents will be beneficent for the children. Even women with violently abusive spouses are often urged to stay in situations that are supposed to be so categorically wonderful that the details don’t matter. Form wins out over content. And yet an amicably divorced woman recently explained to me how ideal it was to be a divorced parent: she and her former spouse both had plenty of time with and without their children.

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Easy Chair From the March 2018 issue

Nobody Knows

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