Monday night, I watched a film with a few of my classmates: The Night of the Iguana. It’s made from a Tennessee Williams play, and — aside from the most ridiculous fight scene ever put on celluloid, and the replacement of the play’s “plump, golden Germans” with mariachi-wielding Mexicans — it was a good film. No explosions, no chase scenes, a lot of dialogue — so perhaps not to the liking of the 2016 moviegoer, but an enjoyable way to spend two hours, particularly if you’ve already studied the text.
In one scene, Richard Burton is having a mental breakdown of sorts, and is trussed to a hammock. Deborah Kerr, with a very posh accent (she’s meant to be from Nantucket), is disabusing Burton of some of his illusions of martyrdom – but at the same time, she’s also reassuring him that he’s not altogether bad.
Burton says something to the effect of, “I’m broke, spooked, and unemployed; what could you possibly see that’s good in me?” and Deborah Kerr answers: “Why, those are just your circumstances — not who you are.”
The last couple of years, I, and a handful of people I love, have been in some unbelievably difficult circumstances; a succession of events that have made us question virtually everything we’d taken for granted, and left some of us with some residual anger and a hefty dose of distrust and doubt. I thought of all of that when I heard Deborah Kerr speak that line: “Those are just your circumstances — not who you are.”
It’s often so difficult to see beyond our circumstances, and to remember that they don’t define us. Illness, divorce, un/underemployment, financial concerns, accidents, betrayal, spiritual poverty, legal troubles….these things get us in their merciless grip, and make it hard to remember that we are more than whatever is going ass-end-up at the moment.
When I was in elementary school, my dear friend David’s mom was the Vice Principal. Barbara was a no-nonsense, but very warm, woman. On the one occasion I was sent to her (which was due to the fact that my math teacher could not, despite seeing us daily for nearly a year, distinguish between me and my friend Kerry and sent me to the office for something Kerry actually did), I was quaking with fear, but Barbara was really nice about it. I remember her huge smile, and that she teased me about David being my boyfriend…and that she’d already lost her hair to chemo, and was wearing a silk scarf on her head.
Breast cancer killed her at the end of that year; a loss that sent David’s life off-track for the majority of his adolescent and early adulthood. I went with him some years later to see his mom’s grave, and I’ve never forgotten what was engraved there, although I don’t think I really understood it until Monday. Her gravestone says:
I am this, and I am more.
I am Barbara.
Some thirty years later, I think I finally know what she was trying to say: that none of the circumstances of her life — a bitter divorce, being a single mom, cancer, leaving her young son behind — were who she was. They were just her circumstances, only that, and they didn’t define her.
Deborah Kerr and Richard Burton and Barbara are all long gone, as is Tennessee Williams. But take it from them, and spare yourself being tied to a hammock: You are not defined by the circumstances of your life.
You are this, and you are more.
And that’s something to celebrate.