Arranging the Pieces… Life is full of surprises, mystery is a good thing

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By Tabitha Bozeman

When I was a child, maybe six or seven years of age, I remember seeing my local children’s librarian, Mrs. Jones, at the grocery store. Even though I saw her at least once a week at the library, I can still clearly recall all these years later how bewildered and confused I felt seeing her in a different setting.

As a parent, I’ve often joked about this when my own children have been surprised to see a teacher out of their expected environment: “They don’t actually live at school, you know.”

As an adult, I experience similar moments when a colleague, student, acquaintance or even family member shifts from a role I expect into something new – a former student shifting into a friend and colleague, a child who has become an adult, a mentor asking for my opinion or a grandparent becoming childlike and nee-ding care.

Most of the time, these experiences have been pos-itive, if sometimes challenging shifts, requiring an openness to reassess relationships, roles and responsibilities. And despite what childhood and young adulthood led me to believe, I am continuously grateful for the reminders that none of us are locked into one role or existence forever. Sometimes, though, it can be disconcerting.

Last week, I received a vintage copy of Dylan Thomas short stories I ordered after realizing I only “knew” Thomas as a poet. Specifically, as the writer of the lines, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” This is one of my favorite poems that I read a lot when caring for my grandmother as she was in her end-of-life transitioning. I had never read a Dylan Thomas short story. It turns out that he wrote a good deal of them, and they are very unsettling. I had a moment of expectation vertigo as I realized that Thomas was not just  poet but a creator of dark, weird and creepy story worlds. I plan to compare some of his work with Flannery O’Connor’s works, so I feel like I have a connection to better understand his goals as a writer.

Another book I finished the other day was “Wild Nights!” by Joyce Carol Oates. This book is a collection of five or so short stories that imagine what the last days of a few famous writers such as Poe, Dickinson, James, Twain and Hemingway might have been like. These are works of fiction from one of the most notoriously prolific and imaginative writers of our time, but as Stephen King has reminds us, “fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

As I read Oates’ stories, I experienced that old shift of equilibrium. Here were stories of writers whose others works I know very well, but in hypothetical situations that gave them opportunity to behave in ways I did not expect. For a couple of fictional writers, they behaved in ways I found distasteful and disturbing.

After reading these fictional stories, I decided to research more into what inspired Oates’ versions. I am interested in what I might find out. The curiosity of it and the open ended-ness is the most intriguing part for me. A story is a story, and a poem is a poem. Each have many significances as readers, maybe, but they are what they are.

Lives and identities, however, are never as clear-cut. We are each capable of surprising ourselves and others by choosing responses and actions that are unexpected. This is often seen as something negative in tell-all exposés, news and tabloid stories. In real life, however, we truly do have hour by hour and day by day opportunities to shift our stories and adjust our own expectations for ourselves.

Joyce Carol Oates once said, “Sometimes people surprise us. People we think we know.” Sometimes, that person is our childhood librarian showing up at the grocery store, or a student becoming a dear friend. And, sometimes, if we pay attention, it could be ourselves.

Tabitha Bozeman teaches English at Gadsden State Community College, where she is the editor-in-chief of the Cardinal Arts Journal. The opinions expressed are her own. She may be reached at tabithabozeman@gmail.com.

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