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  • Writer's pictureLelia

Diane Keaton, Ruth Reichl, Mothers, Self-Exploration and Story

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I just finished Then Again by Diane Keaton and loved it. One of my favorite parts is Keaton’s assessment of some of the documentary films and books she made.

“No matter how many critics hated Heaven, I have to say, I loved every clip and every interview. Spending time trying to make sure I made the smart choice about the right movie to appear in wasn’t nearly as entertaining. But Heaven, Reservations, Still Life, and even Religious Commissions were just that: completely entertaining.”

I need this reminder that something can be deeply engaging without looking pretty or acceptable or garnering applause from the outside. It’s the antidote to Thoreau’s limiting and wrong-headed (in my opinion) idea that we should “be not simply good, be good for something.”

Purpose and meaning vs. pointlessness seems to be something Diane Keaton’s mom was wrestling with. Much of the book is Keaton’s attempt to understand, celebrate, honor and memorialize her mother, Dorothy Hall, so Keaton includes some of her mother’s journal entries, letters and scrapbooks.

Diane Keaton’s mother was a thinker and an artist, generous, loving and dogged by self-doubt and conditioning that kept her energy channeled into her husband and children. Keaton writes,

“In spite of the pain of anonymity, Dorothy realized her most valued dream. She wrote. And while she wrote she wasn’t criticizing her efforts. She wasn’t worried about rejection. She was engaged. She was giving evidence to the experience of being Dorothy Deanne Keaton Hall.”

It reminds me of Ruth Reichl’s Not Becoming My Mother (now entitled For You, Mom. Finally). Reichl’s mother is also struggling to find herself and appears to her daughter as zany, crazy, ungrounded and sometimes desperate in her attempts.

Diane Keaton’s mother, on the other hand, seems to retreat inward as she ages. When she was 63, Dorothy Hall writes in her journal,

“I spend too much time alone. I get in my car and go out, but I’m always home by 1 o’clock… There are times I feel as if I’m a true artist. At the moment I’m working on a large sheet of white cardboard I’m transforming into a collage. It’s going well, but I tell no one. I have about five complete works framed and ready to go. Two have been accepted in a show at Santa Ana College. I work on the floor of my darkroom where I spend a lot of time cutting out things I like from the Times. But I always get my housework done first. It’s a habit I can’t break. I make the bed, straighten the bathroom, finish the dishes, adjust the pleated blinds at the windows, plan the evening meal, make a list of things to do for that day, get dressed, and then, only then, do I turn to the work in my workroom. Sometimes I can stick with it and sometimes not. It doesn't matter because it’s only for me anyway.”

As a person who also spends a lot of time cutting out things I like, I find this heartbreaking. I want to hug Dorothy Hall and say, “It matters because it’s for you.” But she is shadowed by a sense of futility.

“All the writing I do, and all the words on paper I put away, and all the little inspirational messages I cut and save that I feel were written and directed to me and me alone, don’t matter. After I’m gone, I won’t care whether the family reads any of it or tosses all of it in the dump.”

Diane Keaton seems to have a different view. She writes that she decided to direct Unstrung Heroes because “finding redemption through documentation was particularly moving to me.” And by writing a memoir in which she sets her mother’s story next to hers, she’s redeeming her mother’s introspective explorations, sharing them with us, demonstrating that they do matter. It mattered that her mother left evidence of what it meant to be Dorothy Deanne Keaton Hall.

Jean Shinoda Bolen speaks to the importance of sharing stories. In Crossing to Avalon, she quotes Barry Lopez’s fable Crow and Weasel. “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”

I certainly am nourished by Diane Keaton's mother's story. "Mom liked to THINK about life, especially the experience of being a woman. She liked to write about it, too." Me too. What do you do with that joy? And if it never sees the light of day, never moves or affects or has meaning for anyone else, is it wasted? I don't really think so, but I don't know.

Diane Keaton’s mother’s self-exploration was short-circuited by Alzheimer’s disease, but Ruth Reichl’s mother seems to come finally to a place of peace with herself. Reichl writes:

“She stopped beating herself for all the things she hadn’t done - and she switched off the voice in her head… she filled her life with all the things that she had always wanted… and freed herself from everything that did not make her happy… she wrote the last note… when she was almost 80… her arthritic hands had trouble grasping a pen and her handwriting had turned into a hesitant wavering line. But the words are strong, positive, optimistic. ‘I am not going to lower my sights,’ Mom wrote. ‘I am going to live up to the best of my self. Even if it means some painful changes. I am no longe
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