A Day in the Life

February 11, 2014

“Well what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” — Phil Connors (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day

Are you creating your own life? Or is the force of fate (history, destiny, circumstance) encircling you from all sides, weaving its inexorable web around you so that the path you tread ends up being what it’s fated to be, no matter what choices you make?

Or (which seems to me a whole lot more likely) is the truth somewhere in between, some combination of the two? And if so, what is that mix like — the universe’s plan for you versus your plan for you?

Right now I’m halfway through Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s enormously acclaimed 2013 masterpiece that explores those questions in a breathtakingly powerful way as it follows the life of Ursula Beresford Todd, born on February 11, 1910, through two world wars and a kaleidoscope of more personal conflicts.

“What if had a chance to do it again and again,” her brother asks, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” And in a weirdly magical way, Ursula has exactly that chance. Again and again. And in the process, she gets to explore the limits of our personal ability to determine events.

So does Jake Epping, the main character of Stephen King’s brilliant epic-novel 11-22-63, in which a schoolteacher from Maine stumbles upon the opportunity to go back in time and see if he can prevent JFK’s assassination. (And if so, what might be the long-term consequences.)

You may not be a Stephen King fan, but that book is one of my favorites and well worth the read. (And if you think he’s all horror, remember: this is the guy who wrote the stories behind the films Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile.)

And you may never have read any Kate Atkinson, but if these questions intrigue you the way they intrigue me, pick up a copy. It’s not something you can read casually; you have to pay attention. Not in-line-at-the-post-office reading. But SO worth it. (Atkinson is also author of the Jackson Brodie series, and her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, is one of my top ten favorite novels of all time.)

I say all this, because this is about more than good reading.

This is about your life.

If this life you’re living is a song, who’s writing the lyrics? And where does the melody come from? And what are the lifelong implications of something seemingly so simple as the passage of a single day, the fleeting choices of a moment?

P.S. Happy birthday, Ursula!

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