Thursday, 10th March, 2016
(This post is part 1 of the Brooklyn Chronicles: reflections based on John Crowley’s 2015 movie Brooklyn.)
This is not a critical analysis of Brooklyn, John Crowley’s 2015 movie. Nor is it a love letter to Nick Hornby (who wrote the screenplay) and Colm Tóibín, although that could be its unintended destination. This is a journey, a reflection of how Brooklyn touched me, and the associations it pulled and triggered from the depths of my ex-patriot personal experience.
I am not an Irish woman leaving home in 1951 for the foreign shores of America, drifting alone into the streets of Brooklyn. But if there were ever a more apt description of what the past few years of my life has felt like, I guess I might have written it myself. In lieu of that, I prescribe this movie to anyone who has ever experienced, witnessed, or survived the crippling plague of displacement, homesickness, doubt, and wonder.
There should be very few spoilers, insomuch as I assume you might figure out that Brooklyn is a movie about a girl who emigrates to America from Ireland. If that’s a spoiler, sorry!)
Before Eilis leaves for America, her sister Rose stands in her bedroom helping her pack.
“I can’t believe that’s all you own,” she says, as they both look at Eilis’ single suitcase. (In the book, she has two suitcases – and she’s unendingly concerned about how she will negotiate dragging them on her own. While the movie prioritises the sparseness of her possessions, Book-Eilis’ two-suitcase problem of autonomy is one I know intimately.)
You can tell Rose is upset, perhaps ashamed, that Eilis doesn’t own more clothes, nicer things. It’s not her fault. While Rose has a full-time job, Eilis can’t find one. Of course she wouldn’t have the money for these things.
Rose says, “If it were that easy, I would spend my every last penny on you. But I can’t buy you a future – the kind of life you need.”*
That line was a Nick Hornby addition. In Tióbín’s book, Rose barely discusses the move with Eilis (yes, I have read this far!); instead, she organises the emigration with Father Flood and eventually gets her mother on board.
But I’m grateful for this moment in the movie. I think it fleshes out the narrative motivations more explicitly.
I am not offering you more money, or a better job, or nicer clothes. I did this so you could have a future.
I imagine that was a typical refrain in the emigrant-immigrant experience: where – somewhere over a stretch of land or expanse of sea – a shift occurs from being someone who leaves one country, to someone arriving in another. We are no longer emigrating. We are no longer what we have left behind. Now we are immigrants, already changed by our destination – even before we arrive.
We think migration is a pattern of history. But it happens all the time. Fleeing war, chasing stronger economies, looking for global opportunities, international transfers, to move closer to family in other countries, to seek out new horizons.
I think what Rose tells Eilis is important. Historically, we connect migration with economics, with the ability to make more money, to escape famine or scarcity of employment. But it’s too easy to associate migrations with opportunity: new jobs, new land, new families, new chances to make money, to have a better life than the one left behind. That was never the whole picture.
“If that was all this was, I would spend every last penny I earned on you.”
“If this were only about money, I would give you all of mine to keep you here.”
“If only this were about money. But it’s not. It’s about so much more.”
“What you need most deeply is nothing I can buy for you.”
“I can’t pay for what this experience will give you.”
Over the years, I’ve moved away from the economy of things, into embracing the experience economy. Part of this comes from being married to a Service Designer, who often works in User Experience (UX) design, whose hands are elbow-deep in intangible projects. It’s hard enough to explain to people: “What do you mean he designs services? Designs experiences?”
Except, once you start to subscribe to this philosophy – it makes perfect sense.
There is more to life than what you can pay for.
I’ve seen the humourous slogans (“If you think money can’t buy happiness, you haven’t been to a bookstore”). I don’t care about new clothes, a big house, a big car, the newest gadgets – but new books make me swoon. I do get it.
And I know money makes things easier. Sometimes I get caught up in the comparison game. Not the “keeping-up-with-the-Smiths-and-Joneses,” but the overwhelming context of: A just bought a new car, B just had a baby, C just bought a house, D just paid off all his student loans. Georgia told me a few days ago: “Don’t be jealous of other people’s money. Everyone has their own financial journey.” I’m trying. But I’m surrounded by people achieving great things, and a lot of those achievements are financial milestones.
It’s taken me years to let go of that, and to clarify what my own financial goals are. Am I someone who wants a big house? To take nice vacations? To buy new clothes and go to expensive events? Some of this feels like excess to me (although I know I have a lot of leeway to say that, when I’ve been lucky enough to live in some highly-desirable vacation destinations).
Do I want a home? Yes. Do I walk by the houses and apartments by Coogee and Clovelly, and imagine what my own library would look like with that sea view? Absolutely. But I’ve done the same thing on the Isle of Skye, on Iona, in Tobermoray (in Tobermoray, we even discussed the investment opportunity of buying a Post Office that was going out of business). I have visions for what I would like to build, what I would like my space and environment to look like, and where I would like to turn the key at the end of the day and call home.
But it’s not at the top of my priority list. It’s not an immediate, right-now goal. And neither are the new clothes, or the fancy car (upcoming blog series: Why we haven’t owned a car for 5 years…), or the luxury items, jewelry, gadgets… I’ve even put a cap on book purchases.
It’s true: we moved to Sydney for a new job. But the choice to emigrate doesn’t just come down to economics. It can’t. That would be putting a price tag on how much money it would take for me to leave my friends, my family, the city I’ve called home, the country I love. For Eilis, it would be like putting a price tag on how much it would take for her to leave everything she has ever known.
No amount of money can fully propel us into the unknown. What urges us to leave? It’s the call of possibility, the spirit of discovery, the lure of building something new. Some people weigh that up against the world they know, and decide to stay.
We decided to take the leap.
Last night, Andrew and I biked home from a workout in Clovelly and stopped by Coogee Beach in the twilight. With a soundtrack of guitar buskers, squawking seagulls, and the waves crashing on the beach, we sat under the stars to think.
“What are we doing here?” he asked me.
“I don’t know.” I admitted. It’s a question I’ve asked myself constantly over the past 10 months. “But it’s beautiful.”
“This,” I said. The scene in front of us. “The beach, and the sky, and the atmosphere. The Australian lifestyle. The chance that we have to be here at all.”
Why are we here? We didn’t come here for the money. We didn’t come here for the job, although it often looks that way. We seem to have come here with a large shipment of uncertainty.
I tell my students all the time: “I’m less concerned about you having the right answers. I’m more concerned about you asking the best questions.”
Sometimes I wonder whether we came here looking for better questions. The kind without a price tag. The kind that have no immediate answers.
* (All quotes from the movie are pretty much summarized as per my memory and references from scribbled notes in the cinema darkness. Apologies for any inaccuracies.)