Not only do I seem to live in a storm but I was born in one as well – a snow-storm. Mom and dad could barely see out of the front windshield, wipers lashing back-and-forth in a vain attempt to clear away the wet, heavy snow as they drove the four miles, hurrying to arrive only to wait 24 hours more. “We thought we wouldn’t make it, that I’d have you right there in the front seat of our old Chevy, in the middle of a snow storm.”
But dad heroically arrived at the emergency room door and spirited mom inside but then he had to park the car. His mistake was to walk around to the main entrance and they told him to go around to the emergency room so he retraced his steps and found mom sitting in a wheel-chair in the waiting room, right next to a man with blood all over his shirt and a woman throwing-up into a waste-basket (both made mom sick, she said). The nurse told them, “You’ve got a while to go yet, deary.” and turning to dad, “Would you fill out this form, sir.” “We thought you would be born right there, in the emergency room waiting room, next to a man who’d been in a bar-fight and a woman with typhoid fever!”
It was a spring snow that had fallen suddenly, starting early that one evening. In the week before the sun was staying-up later and encouraging the dawn of spring, the temperatures had been unusually warm for a Chicago spring and the landscape showed several early signs of greening and burgeoning blooms – budding, but none ripe with pregnancy to match mom’s 44 weeks.
All signs of spring were then quickly enclosed in a freeze of lingering dampness, topped with snow, sealed for a true spring still weeks off. March had entered as a lamb and was going to go out as a lion (it always ended as a lion in Chicago so we never put much stock in Farmer’s Almanac sayings). “It was quiet, a quiet night when we left the apartment; it was the middle of the night so nobody was out, and the snow was falling but the wind wasn’t blowing. I remember how quiet it was,” mom said. It always sounded strange to hear a heavy snowfall described as quiet because snow for me always meant screams from sleders and laughter and snowball fights and swooshing of car tires through puddles of slush – it always meant noise.
The other time I heard of a quiet snowfall was in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. At the end my parents were teary-eyed and I was confused. George repented that he’d treated his own birth with contempt, he was back at home in his drafty living room with his wife, Mary and kids, Peter, Janie, Tommy, and Zu-Zu, and all the town’s residents had joined him, except the villainous Mr. Potter who had failed to ruin George’s life.
George had wanted to “throw away God’s greatest gift,” according to the voice of Joseph in heaven. He wished he’d never been born all because he was frustrated with the way his little life was going. He had his dreams, he wanted to travel – to Italy, to Baghdad; “I just feel like if I didn’t get away, I’d bust” George said. George refused his father’s wish for a return to take over the Bailey Building and Loan, “I, I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office…. I’d go crazy. I, I want to do something big, something important.” George saw his dad as someone who financed the narrow, little, dream-less world of small town folks, and George wanted to change the world.
To the young Mary, George ranted “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.” But when George’s dad died, it was Mr. Potter who jerked George’s chain and insulted him into forfeiting his own dreams to fulfill the silly dreams of lazy people, “starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir ‘em up and fill their head with a lot of impossible ideas.” Well, George is still frustrated, Uncle Charlie (the old fool) mistakenly hands over $8000 to Mr. Potter – pride cometh and goeth before a fall it seems – and George despairs of bankruptcy, scandal, and prison, argues with his family and wife, yells at everyone, gets drunk, he’s cold-cocked by the husband of his kid’s school teacher (he’d also insulted that women), crashes his car and jumps off the bridge to rescue Clarence Oddbody his guardian angel who turns around and shows George how bankrupt everyone’s life would be without him.
If I’d never been born Mary would be the oldest and running the show and little Johnny without his big brother would still be the baby. Or maybe my parents would have had more babies and they’d never miss me. Or what if they didn’t have me and had all the money they had to spend on me instead – bills paid, moved into their first house sooner, not as many weeks struggling from paycheck to paycheck. I wonder if dad every wondered or wished I’d never been born, but I never could imagine mom wished I’d never been born. Every story mom and dad told me of their early married life was happy poverty, no regrets, at least none they ever shared with me.
It made a big impression on me – the whole It’s a Wonderful Life and black-and-white scenes of Bedford Falls. For example, what about the day after in Bedford Falls – the day after Bedford’s citizens bailed out the Bailey Building and Loan, the day after the all sang Auld Lang Sine and laughed and cried in the Bailey’s cold, drafty living room at 320 Sycamore, the day after Clarence got his wings. Uncle Billy was still stupid and silly, Mr. Potter still ruled the world (and he was $8,000 richer, to boot) and George Bailey was still stuck in Bedford Falls – another delay to his ever-postponed dreams, still tied to the town charity called the Bailey Building and Loan.
Imagine the snow that was falling on Christmas Eve left the town pristine, a blindingly white blanket, and as George set out for the Building and Loan with the snow crunching under his feet as he walked (remember, he ruined his car on Christmas Eve). The first person he saw that morning approaches and poor George is frozen in panic: How will he be greeted today by all those who bailed him out two days before? Can he just say Hello and not at least acknowledge they saved his life? ‘Thank you, Sam, your twenty bucks really got me out of a pickle, I couldn’t’ have done it without you! And thank you, Alice, your five dollars saved me from Bankruptcy! Scandal! Prison!’ That would sound like a politician thanking each individual voter after a landslide victory. George was in a pickle (that sounds like something people would say in George’s day). He can’t act as if everything was the same because he who had done so much for others was rescued by their spontaneous generosity. If George Bailey was to be praised because of his wonderful life, then the outpouring of community spirit on his behalf was equally praiseworthy. They’re all even. He saved their lives, they his. The slate is wiped clean; they don’t owe George Bailey – that unappreciative dreamer of a do-gooder – a copper cent.
Maybe everyone should get a do-over – that peasant opportunity of childhood gaming, concocted to create fairness in the face of the obvious fact that life isn’t fair, or the manipulation of bullies who fail to win by the rules who must create their own rules until they are victorious. So George wouldn’t send everyone a Thank You note, he wouldn’t personally express his eternal indebtedness to each contributor to the hat that Christmas Eve evening; he would just get to keep on being who he was before and they would get to keep on being who they were. But that doesn’t seem to be the point of Capra’s movie. George is suppose to be enlightened, made self-aware, and the citizens of Bedford Falls, including Mr. Carter, the Bank examiner and everyone else who was already on George’s side, seem to experience the euphoria of being able to finally thank the one to whom they owe so much.
Actually, what George did wasn’t all that virtuous when all is said and done. He said so himself, to Violet – she was making like an aspiring actress decked out in fur and matching hat, getting some suspicious cash from George in the office (even the bank examiner was wondering about the cash–and–kiss he witnessed that Christmas Eve in Bailey Building and Loan). When Violet gushed and left her lipstick as incriminating evidence, George gruffly informed her that it wasn’t a gift, it was a loan – she was going to have to pay that back, that was his business. He was investing in her, in her career, he said and she would have make good on his investment. So when everyone in town showed-up in his living room that night, money in hand, they were just paying George back for his confidence in them. He was a business man, they were his business – how cold is that?
So here’s where George’s story takes an even nastier turn for me. Imagine in the days after his Christmas miracle George arrives at the Bailey Building and Loan after quickening his pace, putting his head down to avoid eye contact, only to discover the waiting area filled with people looking for small favors. It seems that holiday inflicted poverty, exacerbated by their generous outpouring to save George’s neck, has been a fertile bed for thoughts of reciprocity. The good folks of Bedford Falls are wondering about the new spirit of benevolence that must have swept over old George (‘He’s so happy to be alive, just to be alive, that he is thankful for the opportunity to loan us money. Let’s make him even happier and let him receive the fulfillment of loaning us more money.’).
The next year is hell, sheer hell for George. Nobody will let him forget his despair, their rescue, and his need to remember how careless he was with his wonderful life (or maybe they are just jealous). Things go so poorly for George that he hears from Clarence Oddbody within the year. The occasion for the first visit was George’s despair –Clarence asked Joseph if George was in so much trouble, “Is he sick?” Joseph replied, “No, worse than sick, he’s discouraged.”
George was still discouraged, and Clarence was still a cute two-hundred-ninety year old man, suit, scarf, top hat, but his wings weren’t visible to normal humans and this bothered George (‘Seeing is believing, Clarence, now whip ‘em out!’ ‘No, George, Joseph told me to keep my wings hidden from you.’). George just had to see Clarence’s wings on that second meeting, something to confirm George’s waning faith, to at least hint that his own life was worth living after all. George had started to make daily trips to the fateful bridge from which he would have jumped on the Eve of Bankruptcy! Scandal! and Prison! He would stand at the rail, looking down, mumbling to himself about how he should have learned something that night, something that would have actually made him different. His repentant and desperate, “I want to live again, I want to live again,” was fine and all at the moment, but George began to resent the endless effort of own conversion. It was so, so inviting to be passive everyday now, expecting everyone to bail him out of difficult situations because he somehow had earned their charity (at least that is the way it would be if Ovid had gotten his hands on It’s a Wonderful Life).
So it’s later the next year and George is back at the bridge, again, starring down into the icy waters still wondering if his wonderful life is so wonderful. It was snowing, but noisy. Clarence appeared on the bridge behind George and that almost scarred him over the rail, this time by accident. ‘What, what the heck are you doing you fool angel? You scared me!’ ‘George, I’m here to help you… again.’ ‘Help me what you old spook?’ ‘George, why do you come back to this bridge, almost every day now? Are you thinking of jumping, again?’ ‘You, you’re crazy, you are, you, you old ghost. Get away from me, get away from me, you, you hear.’ And George stomped away. But there was no third chance this time. Now Clarence was sent to teach George the hardest lesson of life –that life, real life, the life everyone has to live, has no short-cuts, no do-overs; he would learn him that the hardest lesson of life is that you have to live life. No miracles, no hasty wishes temporarily fulfilled only to be suspended hours later, no opportunities to see what life would be like if we were never born. Instead George was now going to endure what everyone else in town has to endure without the privilege of angelic visitations. All the townspeople rallied to help George without the aid of their guardian angels, they just did the right thing, sacrificed their hard earned money to save the favored child, and had to go back to work and start from scratch on the morning of the 26th.
The first miracle Clarence granted George was a stupid indulgence wasted on an ungrateful full-grown adolescent who had the unconditional love of his wife, kids, family and friends and still thought of himself as poor and neglected. It took a miracle for this brat to wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee of his wonderful life, but everyone else in town had to learn their lesson the hard way. And now George was unlearning what the lesson of the Eve miracle just one year ago. ‘George, I’m here to help you.’ ‘Well then, Clarence, wave you magic wand again, or flap your wings, or do whatever you angels do, and make it better again!’ ‘No George, I can’t do that. I’m here to help you by not helping you. You can jump off that bridge or go on being miserable or run off with Violet and leave Mary, Pete, Janie, Tommy, Zu-Zu and her petals for all I care. But I’m not here to save you from your life. I’m here to tell you that you have to live your life.’ ‘Well…well, that’s just stupid Clarence, that’s what that is. Aren’t you supposed to do what I ask? Don’t you…don’t you have to?’ ‘No, George, I’m not a genie, and I’m not from a magic lamp that you rub when you want things your way, I’m from heaven where we see what life is really about; and it’s about living, nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.’
During his first visit Clarence told George, “Strange isn’t it. Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole doesn’t he?” Couldn’t the same story be told about every single person, or only about special people like George Bailey? Is that the kind of world we live in? I’m pretty sure most of us would like to think that we are all absolutely necessary ingredients in everyone else’s lives, everyone else’s life would absolutely suck without us, and therefore the world is not only a better place because of us but it is also a zero-sum type of world with one complete set of human beings and no room for one less, especially me. And maybe there is someone in the heavens coordinating all our own personal guardian angels assigned to each and every one of us, and we live where we should be living, and when we die we live beyond the grave and become guardian angels ourselves. We console ourselves with the myth that someone is in heaven coordinating all our guardian angels who are assigned to each and every one of us; we console ourselves with the wish that each and every one of us can’t be done without, that each and every one of us not only live beyond the grave (and become guardian angels ourselves) but that we live now, today, everyday. We don’t choose to be born, or not to be born, and we can’t make the world like it would be if we were never born; but maybe, just maybe, we matter.
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