This is not a post about inspirations. Also, it is not a post about nostalgia, artistic influences, where I get my ideas, or whether I spent my childhood watching movies I was way too young to be watching.
I’m not sure what it’s about, exactly. Maybe just those moments that seem to loom up out of nowhere to shape someone as an artist or a writer or as a person who thinks and breathes and dreams and lives in the world and grows up there.
I have this indelible memory of seeing Harold and Maude for the first time.
For those unfamiliar with it, Harold and Maude is a pretty weird movie. It came out in 1971 and was considered even more weird and subversive then than it is now. It is, by turns, extremely dark and kind of shockingly funny. Also, eight years old is probably a little young for this particular movie. (A lot young?)
But as with so many of my childhood obsessions, I did not care one tiny bit about whether or not it constituted age appropriate content.
I loved the craziness and the whimsy and all the fake death scenes, and the soundtrack (almost exclusively Cat Stevens), and wanted Harold to be my boyfriend because he was just so sweet and quirky and morbid, although I don’t think that word had actually entered my vocabulary yet.
I distinctly remember watching it in my grandmother’s basement, and being kind of ominously aware that if she knew what I was doing, she’d have a lot to say about it. We’d already had not one but TWO set-tos over a really terrible Twilight Zone-esque horror show called Friday the 13th (not to be confused with the film franchise), and I was not about to be sent out to play in the backyard simply because I was too young for this particular movie. (Also, I was totally too young for it.)
The scene that changed my entire eight-year-old world view was this:
I remember sitting in the scratchy red recliner, eating a frozen mini Snickers bar and having the smallest, most petrifying existential crisis, because the world was so big and awful and wonderful, and what in the hell was I ever going to do about it, because how is this kind of magnitude even possible and there’s no way the camera can pan back farther, no way that there will be more and then more, but the camera always panned father—it always could—because that’s how big the world is, that’s how many small white flowers there are.
Which, no matter how cruel and breathtaking it is, no matter how daunting, is still a hopeful thing.
And so maybe this is a post about inspiration, because this scene is not the only reason, but it’s probably the best, most comprehensive one for why I write the kind of stories I do. Because there’s beauty in the tension of opposites, and sometimes the uplifting parts really are displayed to best advantage when they’re braided together with the dark ones.
Do you have a thing like this—a book or a movie or a song that made you stop breathing? Have you ever seen Harold and Maude? Have you ever seen it for the 18th time and then driven to school with your sister, singing Cat Stevens songs the whole way down the hill? (That last one is probably very personally specific.)