“Brooklyn” and Reinvention

In keeping with my previously stated goal of keeping better track of all that inspires me in 2016, I’m sitting here to meditate on a beautiful piece of writing I encountered today: “Bronx, Brooklyn, Broadway: Saoirse Ronan’s New York,” by Colm Tóibín, who also authored Brooklyn, the novel upon which the Ronan-starring film is based. The piece is the cover story for the current issue of New York magazine, its annual spring fashion issue. I love Saoirse Ronan, but it wasn’t her as the subject that made me love this; it was Tóibín’s turns of phrase, his perfect articulation of what it’s like to reinvent yourself, and his understanding of why you’d want to in the first place.

One of my favorite elements of the movie Brooklyn, which I saw a couple weekends ago, was that it understood homesickness in a very real way. I have not moved between countries, but I moved from Oregon to New York at a key transitional point in life – right after I graduated from college and entered the quote-unquote real world – and I identified so strongly with Ronan’s character, Eilis, as she left Ireland for Brooklyn and began a new life. I have cried like Eilis cried in the movie, felt the same hopelessness and wondered why I ever did this. But I’ve also made friends, started a career and built a life in this new place, and felt with unshakeable certainty that this is where I am meant to exist right now.

In the article, Tóibín describes Ronan (in comparison with her Brooklyn character) “as someone familiar with rural Ireland who was also intensely glamorous and ready to be transformed.” That phrase “ready to be transformed” leapt out at me. My transformation has been less a physical transformation than one of attitude, one of thought. I have changed since moving to New York in ways I did not expect, but the more I thought about Tóibín’s words, the more they rang true. The expectation of some kind of transformation was inherent in my longstanding desire to move to New York.

The strangest parts of being home are those subtle moments when I realize how much I’ve changed. I’ll notice moments when I say something, or react to a comment, or take an action that makes so much perfect sense to me now, that I only realize later how out-of-character that would have been for the pre-New York me.

I left the theater after Brooklyn concentrated on one shot: Eilis, briefly back in Ireland following a family tragedy, running errands around her sleepy town in a bright dress and sunglasses. It embodied the transformation she’d undergone in Brooklyn; not just that she now wore sunglasses, but that it was only natural for her to wear them in public, even in rural Ireland.

saoirse ronan brooklyn sunglasses

I’ve thought about that shot for days. In the context of the film, it says more about homesickness and reinvention than I ever could with words, and I grinned when I got to the end of Tóibín’s New York magazine story and saw he referenced it:

Sometimes she tries to fit in, to pretend that she has not changed at all and that being away is no big deal; other times she flaunts her new self. There is one moment when she walks through the small Irish town wearing sunglasses and a brightly colored dress when she seems like a returned Yank…ready to gather the poor natives around her to show them the style she has acquired.

I’m still working on the literal style part of my transformation (I do think I dress better than I did in college, though when I made this observation to some friends I visited at home over Christmas, I realized I was wearing a plaid Gap button-down technically made for men) but in the broader sense, this is exactly what I experience any time I’m home, or when I’m in New York and stop to think about how I am different because of this city.

The Tóibín piece can be enjoyed apart from deep reflection on self-reinvention, though. His turns of phrase alone are a joy to read. A few of my favorite parts:

On observing people like a childhood neighbor in Ireland, who emigrated to America but would come back to visit: “They had white teeth and good suntans. They thought life was short.”

On the specific childhood neighbor, compared with her sister who moved from Ireland to England: “The American sister, on the other hand, was all glitter and fascinating talk.”

On the realization Irish immigrants to America had when fully understanding their freedom in the new country – no family members to bump into on the street, etc.: “You could invent yourself here, even if the term self-invention was not yet understood by you.”

On Saoirse Ronan in this moment: “She has come home to a place that is neither Brooklyn nor Ireland but rather a place that she herself has imagined and embodies.”

And more on Saoirse: “She invites envy, she lives in light, she loves glamour, but she also moves easily into the shadows.”

Read the whole thing yourself, and enjoy. And see Brooklyn while you’re at it.

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