Thursday, January 26, 2012

La Belle Époque

The past is always judged by the present. ~ Neith Boyce

When I was a young girl, I was completely enamored of the past. I wanted nothing more than to move back to a simple time of simple pleasures. This interest was mainly kindled into a fire when I read the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in second grade. Using couch pillows and a sheet, I created a covered wagon and tried to enlist our German Shepherd and Border Collie into being my pretend team of horses to pull it. I daydreamed about log cabins, spinning wheels and calico dresses. As I continued to read, I fell in love with Colonial Virginia, when reading a biography of Martha Washington, Ancient Egypt from"The Cat in the Mirror" by Mary Stoltz and Victorian England following my lust for Jane Austen novels. I daydreamed about Ancient Greece and Rome, through books of mythology. I imagined life in Scandinavia as I mentally sailed along with Viking raiders around the North sea. I went on a spirit journey, reading about southwestern Native American rites of passage...envisioning my life amongst the Anasazi. The current age of my childhood seemed ugly, bitter, filled with anger and too fast a pace. I longed for a more quiet life, an uncomplicated life. I imagined restraint, gentility and honor in all the times past. 

My new favorite film is "Midnight in Paris", which was written and directed  by Woody Allen. "Annie Hall" this is not. It's one man's daydreaming past into 1920's Paris...the time of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. It was the era of the great Left Bank artists, poets, writers, musicians, designers...the time of post World War I ex-patriot "Lost Generation" great thinkers and creators. The film is brilliantly created. Each night, at precisely the same spot on a side side in Paris, at Midnight, Owen Wilson's character is picked up in a vintage car and driven into the past, where he meets all of his idols. He experiences the era with which he identifies so closely. He is desperate to be a part of this time in history, when, in his mind, life was ever so much sweeter and so much more imaginative. "Gil", Wilson's protagonist, falls in love with the beautiful Adriana...a muse to the 1920's artists. As they stroll through the Paris streets each night, Gil finds the evenings to be both sublime and transcendent. He's actually living in his dream time and can't fathom anyone else not being outrageously happy.  The pace of life, for Gil, is slower, more meaningful and far more beautiful. Adriana, on the other hand, ruminates on her own 'castle in the sky' period of history, La Belle Époque, the late 19th century until World War I. It's no wonder..."The Great War"  devastated the globe. As Gil and Adriana travel back in time to the 1880's, they come upon the famous artists of the day who dream about the Renaissance. Gil and Adriana have to decide; should each one remain in his, or her, own daydream, or return to their own present times?

The lesson of the film is quite simple: it's one thing to fantasize about the romance of the past. It is wonderful to appreciate those superlative individuals who help define an era, and help to create something completely new and original. It's quite another to run away from one's problems, one's dissatisfaction and one's melancholy by vanishing into a previous time...even if that disappearing is completely metaphorical. Each generation looks to the previous ones for inspiration and with longing. Every period in history has magically beautiful aspects to it. Yet, we forget, in our reveries, that each period in history has its own share of complications and horrors. No time has ever been perfect. Yet no time has ever been without hope. We exist, as human beings, somewhere between each of these states in our hearts and minds whenever we find ourselves living.

I continue to imagine life in past decades, in other places and spending my time in deep contrast to my present. I love to read, I adore movies and I treasure works of art and pieces of music...often from times and places different than Maine in 2012. However, the lessons I learn here and now are the ones that will create my happiness. I can take advice and admonishment from the past. But, I need to bring those into my everyday life. I find that I want to assimilate those past areas of simplicity, beauty, creativity and joie de vivre into my today, while still having a deep appreciation for the exceptional time I have the privilege of experiencing.  As romantic as Elizabethan England might seem, it's awfully nice to have running water, excellent medical care and relative safety. 

Daydreams are fun. They're a diversion from the mundane. They're a way to escape, even for a few minutes, from the stresses we are plagued with. The present, no matter how complicated and rushed, has the potential to be infinitely more wonderful than any daydream. Why? Because it's happening this very second. We can breathe the air, taste the food and hear the music. We can feel the snowflakes on our cheeks and smell tang of the ocean. As delightful as the past might seem, right now is what we're blessed with...and right now is pretty extraordinary.