In the early years of my husband’s and my courtship, before the vows, we used to read to each other often. This was in the days of exploring each other’s bookshelves and medicine cabinets, the days of checking for hidden objects under the bed. The newly-wed stage that often takes place well before a couple is newly wed, the delicious, chocolate-cake-kind-of-good days. But I digress.
Eric and I would read to one another in the evenings after dinner, on holiday road trips to meet family, in bed at night with free hands intertwined beneath the sheets. We shared – and still share – a love of meaningful prose. One of Eric’s old favorites, that quickly became one of mine too, was Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. As an English teacher, my love of Salinger began early; his beloved character Holden Caulfield had me with his disdain for phonies and his penchant for appropriate swear words. So it wasn’t surprising that another of Salinger’s stories would effortlessly grab my heart. In fact, if soul food came in paperback, it would be entitled Franny and Zooey.
The greatest lesson of the book is: “do it for the fat lady.” Now, before you jump on the potential offensiveness of this statement, you need to remember, this is the greatest lesson of the book. In the other words, it’s “the seat of the soul.” The holy trinity. The raison d’etre. And so on.
The reader finds Franny, a young college student, lost and disillusioned, obsessed with a spiritual mantra, wanting to give up on her dream of acting. Her brother, Zooey, sets out to bring his sister back from this crisis and ends up saving her, in the purest, most honest sense of the word, by telling her to “do it for the fat lady.” The fat lady, as Zooey describes, is “Jesus.” Or for those non-Christian or non-religious readers, the fat lady is…..you.
The message of this story touches upon the essence of our common search for meaning. It answers the question of why we do anything we do. We stick with our struggles to be heard in board meetings, to reach students in the classroom, to go unrecognized in all of our one million and one mom duties, as we do with our love of Japanese painting or our failing music band because…..Jesus. Because we need to. Because this thing calls to us more deeply than anything else, even if we don’t earn a review in the Times, even if not one single person notices how amazing we are. We press on anyway, for our own salvation.
A modern day connection comes from Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular self-help book Big Magic, in which Gilbert candidly and reassuringly tells us that “nobody cares.” So when we are obsessed that no one has liked something of ours on Facebook or that friends and family aren’t going out of their way to pay attention to our creative endeavors, side projects, or our neurotic crises, we are wasting our time. Gilbert reminds us no one is paying close attention to our lives because they are busy living their own. News flash.
Phew. What a relief. We are worrying and pining and complaining for nothing. All the more reason to do it “for the fat lady.”