It Really is a Wonderful Life-
I always find it fascinating how the stories we are drawn to become our stories. Is it that we already know, at some intuitive level that this plot twist is coming up in our own text? Or that loving the story as much as we do, we find a way to play the role in real life? Think about your favorite novel or your favorite fairy tale, and consider there’s an element that connects you in some literal way.
The film historians in the heart of screenland know when it was first released, Frank Capra’s film “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not a success. It was only in its next incarnation as holiday television fare that it became a pop culture staple. It has since become as essential to the American Christmas season as the appearance of Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It’s as inevitable as Jingle Bell Rock.
We start the film with a shot of the planet, and the voice a of a deity explaining to an angel that we’re about to get the life story of George Bailey, so we can understand why this next part of his life requires divine intervention. As we discover, George Bailey has lived an exemplary life of duty, but never gets what he wants. He is always sacrificing his wants for someone else’s needs. His feeling that he is once again going to have to take the responsibility for someone else’s error, and that this time it will mean he loses all that he has, is too much for him, and he opts for suicide. Just as he is about to jump off a bridge, he is distracted by an angel named Clarence, and ends up saving him from drowning. As George, his lip bleeding from his rescue effort, wishes that he had never been born, Clarence gives him the experience of what his community would be like without him. The fact that his lip suddenly stops bleeding is our clue that this is a different place. After a nightmarish view of what things would be like without him, the George ends up pleading to have his life back, because it really is a wonderful life. All the people he has helped over the years come rushing to support him, and George’s faith in his community is repaid with interest.
The story of hard working George Bailey, who never caught a break because of his relentless sense of duty and unerring commitment to the people of Bedford Falls, was just too dark for moviegoers. Perhaps it works better on television because we can look away. The growing despair in James Stewart’s eyes only haunts us until the commercial break when we can go and find another cookie in the kitchen, or lick the stamp for another holiday card. Perhaps Potterville doesn’t look so depressing on television. Or maybe by succeeding so well in it’s next life, the movie becomes it’s own proof of the moral of the story- everyone deserves another chance.
For me, seeing the film this year has taken on another layer. Without our communities, out friends, and yes, even our angels, would any of us make it through those dark moments?
Just a few days after I lost my job, I was at a unique holiday party over at Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center. A support group for people who had lost someone to suicide was gathered for their annual potluck dinner, and the atmosphere was warm and thick with emotion. There was a proliferation of food, holiday treats from every ethnicity, warm cider, and cold water. There were memory quilts on display throughout the room with the faces and names of those who had left life too early, and the dates of their arrival and departure. Some of these victims of suicide were so young, it really shocked me, until I let myself recall that I had tried to kill myself when I was a teenager.
While it had nothing to do with Uncle Billy or an accounting audit, I was in circumstances so overwhelming I could not think of a single reason to try to continue. I went to the medicine chest in the bathroom, took out every bottle of pills that I could find, (coming from a medical family this was like eating every fruit on display in the produce section of the supermarket) and I swallowed them all by the handful. I lay down on the floor and waited to die, but by whatever freak combination of chemistry, the pills made me sick, and I started to vomit. I spent hours retching, more contrite with every painful stomach cramp, plea bargaining with the universe to please make the pain stop, that I would deal with whatever I had to deal with to go on living. And I did.
I had not thought about that night in decades, but sitting around the folding tables with our paper plates filled with pasta salad and sliced fruit, I heard the other side of the story. Listening to the women at my table speak with restrained agony about lost children and spouses, I had a moment of insight. When George Bailey is looking into the water under the bridge, making up his mind to end his misery, the hundreds of people who fill his living room later would all have tried to save him, but none of them were there. Because Clarence the angel has to do his job, George Bailey must be saved. The idea that the world needs us, that each individual has value, was echoed in the loss of the friends and family members who had surrendered to despair.
Later in the evening, as survivors shared their grief, their memories, and their gratitude for the love and support they had received from the group, a woman spoke about losing her teenage daughter. I spent a long moment folding and refolding my napkin, grateful for the wisdom of my body that chose to purge rather than shut down. It could be my mother or my sister saying that they had no idea I was so sad, so lost, that they could not have imagined me making such a desperate choice.
How can we know what plot twist is coming next? Isn’t that why we eat fortune cookies and consult astrologers? If an angel introduced himself, would you scoff? Not me. I’ve been lucky enough to have several angels. Tough teachers, every one of them, but always worth listening to.
As I walked out into the cold night, the wind whipped my green coat around me, and I thought of Glenn Esterly. He was the editor of the Culver City News for several years before I arrived, I realized it was almost the anniversary of his death. He was the kind of editor who lived and breathed for his newspaper, and when he left, it was the end of his road. While Glenn was not a suicide, unless you subscribe to the theory that addiction is a death wish, he died far too soon and worse than that, alone. I had read him for years, but I only met Glenn twice in the flesh. I heard so many stories about him from all the people who knew him and loved him, I felt sad that he had met his end in such cold circumstances.
So at the end of the evening, I had to look at all my big problems and realize that they are very small potatoes. People have lived through much worse, and ironically, been done in by problems far smaller than the ones I face. As surrounded as I am by friends and neighbors, as supported as I feel by my sisters and my daughters, I have to admit it really is a wonderful life.
Hey, my lip’s bleeding- Isn’t that great?!
Merry Christmas Everybody!
Judith Martin-Straw is the publisher and editor of Culver City Crossroads.com, and she is occasionally just really happy to be alive.
Thank you for sharing that.
Somehow, I find myself liking the dark part of It’s a Wonderful Life because it seems more real to me than a lot of that small-town hokum.
But things like the hokum have happened to me too. Two years ago, for example, a number of my friends sent me “donations” to pay the rent in an emergency situation.
Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and tell people that you are in need.
Yes, one has to also look around and realize that things could be worse without one’s personal input.
But it seems like it would be easier in a small town than in a big city-unless one thinks of Culver City and Santa Monica as small towns.