Summer school starts next week and I am supposed to be reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s book “The Sixth Extinction” and although I know it will be a well-researched, well-written book, I am avoiding it because I am happy right now in a state of forgetting. Forgetting that we are living through a mass extinction by remembering fragments of a movie I just watched: “An Unmarried Woman” from 1978. I am still channeling the weird chunky aesthetic of that time—how many things seemed woven and hippie,(chair backs, art objects) and also oddly preppy—women’s tailored jackets and miscellaneous plaids mixed with futuristic (silver picture frames and lamps). All of these designs carry emotions—hope for the future, a belief in tradition, in the safety and humble things of earth, and my own adolescent memories of art teachers who struggled to make me understand the horizon line and the mothers of friends, women who to my eternal befuddlement had once loved The Beatles, but by the late 70s embraced Anne Murray or Kenny Rogers.
I am thinking of how old movies return one to lost parts of the self. I remember how the red marquee letters spelling AN UNMARRIED WOMAN rose above the Daniel Webster Highway as my mother and I drove south to Massachusetts and how the red words made every movie seem like a potential scandal like THE LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH and I remember thinking, “What is it that unmarried women actually do?” Now I know that answer has something to do with cats and volunteer work, but then it felt drenched in sex.
My mother left my father in 1978, but unlike Jill Clayburgh my mother found no newfound freedom, no love with a bearded British abstract painter, but instead spent her newly unmarried life working toiling at nursing homes near the sea, unpacking the suitcases of old women who planned to run away to their own long dead mothers, and fending off demented, raging men who sometimes attacked the nurses assigned to care for them.
I’m marveling at how unself-conscious Jill Clayburgh seemed about her body and how the director didn’t try to hide the lines that formed on her stomach as she fell laughing into bed with a creepy guy who later boasted that “balled her” at a fancy loft party. I love her natural beauty and her 1978 jogging shorts and how strange it is to watch her undress in a gauzy 70s twilight surrounded by hanging plants, all the while thinking, “that woman will die of leukemia in 2010” and how it’s impossible to know the body, to read it or predict the many ways it might betray us.
I didn’t sit down to write about Jill Clayburgh or the 70s, I sat down to summon some kind of courage, to face reality and transform my feelings of helplessness and dread into something useful. But what I’m left with is some kind of prescient nostalgia. I have been sitting here trying to tie all the threads of this blog together. Right now it feels like it all comes down to mothers and sex and freedom, but the sea is also our “great mother” and what about our attempts to conserve things in the face of the extinction of everything and how do we tell a natural from an unnatural end?
How strange it is that a good, but corny movie about a woman’s newly found freedom should give me the courage to read about animals and plants and whole ways of being disappearing, hundreds of them every day. Maybe it had something to do with the way Jill Clayburgh walked down the street after her husband confessed his love for another woman, Jill Clayburgh with her coat collar high against the wind, or how my mother is now a patient in the same kind of nursing home she used to work in, and I wonder if she ever remembers that she did a good thing by asserting her freedom that summer. I am thinking that so much of life is all in how we carry it—I don’t feel sad dredging up these old stories. I don’t care that I was a child of divorce or an adult who knows her mother is on the verge of disappearance. Maybe it’s the movie. Something about the light and the way the people moved and talked made me feel like part of nature.
Wow. You’ve written so much about so much in this piece. I love your thoughtfulness and insight and depth of wisdom. Talk about critical thinking skills (which we know I lack but recognize and long for!), you’ve touched me profoundly in this piece. I cried. Keep writing and hoping, xo p.s. It’s one of my favorite movies. I need to rewatch it. Paul Mazursky is a wonderful director and nice man as well and it does captures that transitional time of the 70’s (with leftover late 60’s) moving into the 80’s.
Thanks for your kind words, Candace. You are such a generous spirit! I do love this movie too. She’s so great and genuine in it.