Hang In There Baby

This morning I have that REM song stuck in my head, the one about how everybody struggles, sometimes. “When your day is long and the night, the night is yours alone, when you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life, well hang on…”

Running with this is the image of a storm-tossed boat, a life raft containing all of us and all our friends. We’re clinging to the ropes along the edge, as the waves carry us up and then plunge us down, threaten to tip us over from one side or the other. In moments of stillness we glance around at the wet, pale, terrified faces, at the people hanging on for dear life – and they stare back at us, as if asking, “Is this all there is?” The storm seems to go on forever but eventually it settles down and we wake up to a flat sea, with no land visible in any direction, drifting on a rudderless current. The sun beats down on us and we feel hot, hotter, hottest until we wish again for the storm, just to feel the cold waves break over us again, just to feel wet instead of dried out. And we wonder, will we ever reach land again? Can we hang on that long?

Jumbled in with this image is a quote from Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Whimsey mysteries. Peter Whimsey is a golden age detective, British to the core, the younger brother of a duke. He was a handsome, spoiled young man, who graduated from Oxford, then went off to command troops in WWI, and then had a nervous breakdown from having led his men into battle over and over again, to horrible, senseless death. He is returned to his mother’s care, shivering with PTSD, unable to make even the smallest decision; unable to give even the hint of a command, down to what color socks he wants one of the servants to take out of the drawers for him to wear that day.

He is drifting, rudderless on the sea, when his batman from the war shows up, declaring that LPW promised him a job when he got out of the service. Bunter (the batman) takes one look at LPW, and begins to arrange things so that he doesn’t have to make decisions. Bunter makes the decisions for him, what he’ll wear, what he’ll eat for breakfast, which room he’ll spend his day sitting in, staring into nothing. Until one morning, LPW tells Bunter to take away the scrambled eggs that have just been set before him, and bring him something else. From there, Peter begins to recover and eventually sets up a sophisticated bachelor pad in London, becoming the apparent man about town in top hat and evening wear, with the most beautiful demimonde set up in Paris apartments for his amusement, invited to all the best balls, sought after by all the match-making mothers – and makes it his purpose in life to solve murder mysteries.

He gads about several books, rescuing his brother, friends from his exclusive club – and then he hears about Harriet Vane. Harriet is a country doctor’s daughter, who goes up to a woman’s college in Oxford. After graduation, she moves to London and becomes a writer and falls in love with an artist, who declares that he does not believe in marriage and that if she loves him, she will live in sin with him. Despite her best judgement that a life of sin is antithetical to her, she suppresses her misgivings and – you get the feeling, hating herself for giving in to him – she agrees and they move in together. Once he has broken her will, he declares that he was just testing her and says that they should get married. They have a knock-down, drag out fight, and she storms out. When he is found murdered, she is the obvious suspect, and all the clues point her way. She is arrested and, if convicted, will be executed.

Peter Whimsey reads about her case in the paper, attends her arraignment, sees in her court, falls madly in love at first sight, and arranges for the best lawyers to assist with her case. He sweeps into her cell, declares his love for her, and announces he will find the true murderer and she will go free. She, from deep in depression – the man she loved is dead, her case seems insurmountable, she has become infamous, a byword in the papers who use her as a cautionary tale of what happens to young women who leave the country, presume to get educated, pretend to be writers, move to The City, and live a life of sin. Oh, and her fame has earned her a fan club of mentally disturbed men who declare that they love her and want to marry her, of whom, Peter Whimsey – gad about town, aristocratic Bertie Wooster in a monocle – seems one.

Of course, Whimsey does find the murderer. But does she fall into his arms and live happily ever after? No. They go their separate ways. For the next few books, she hangs around the edges, mentioned casually in passing as he solves other murders, as the woman he occasionally runs into or takes out to dinner, in between adventures. He always pursuing her; she perhaps politely agreeing to a dinner – he did, after all, find the murderer so that she would not be put to death – but never initiating contact with him.

Then, on a walking tour alone, on a remote seashore, she finds a corpse. It seems impossible, but the corpse is freshy killed and the only footprints in the sand are hers. She scrambles to the nearest town and reports it to the police, who find the situation suspicious. In a flash of panic, she reaches out for a lifeline and Lord Peter Whimsey – delighted to have her initiate contact, for once – dashes to her side and they solve the mystery together. In this book they make peace with each other and she begins to see him in a different light. In the next mystery, they fall deeply in love, and he proposes. And in the last book – for, as Moonlighting and Remington Steele show us, once your lead detectives stop fighting and fall in love, the story ends – they marry and discover a corpse on their honeymoon, in the country cottage he had purchased as a gift to her.

During this last mystery, there is a moment when they spin off in his convertible, ostensibly in search of a clue, and end up in a remote churchyard on a hill, where there is no sound but the breeze, gazing down across the patchwork countryside. Cuddling quietly on a bench together, they experience a rare moment of peace that stands out in their series of stories where things are always happening, they are always racing off and finding corpses, searching for clues, uncovering murderers, being buffeted about as if, as she says at one point, they are tossed in a blanket.

And in this moment of peace, she asks him a question: Does he believe that life is basically good with bad moments? Or basically bad with good moments?

They fall into agreement: Life is basically good. Even when she was in jail, the man she loved dead, she facing certain conviction, every new moment bringing fresh coals to heap upon her head, in despair, she believed that life was basically good.

And now, married to a man who loves her, who buys her houses as gifts – because she mentioned a fond memory of them from her childhood – a man who respects her and treats her as his equal, she has found that goodness that she always knew was there.

So hang on, hang on.

There are periods of time – sometimes even years, like Harriet Vane – when each one of us feels tossed in a blanket, disoriented by sudden changes in direction, overwhelmed by stimulation or boredom.

But life is basically good, no matter how many bad moments we are having now.

Hang on.

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