The Stories That Changed My Life
Each month we will feature an article about a story that changed someone’s life. We’re kicking this series off with lead editor for the lifestyle section, Maria Montgomery, sharing not one, but two, stories that changed her life.
To be honest, stories in general changed my life. Growing up, my mother died, I changed classes in school due to my teacher moving abroad and ended up bullied and I landed a step-mom I didn’t get along with. In short, I was lonely, lost and miserable. I sought refuge in books.
Books became the friends I didn’t have. They gave me inspiration. They made me dream. They made me think one day, one day I’d lead the life of my dreams. A life greatly inspired by the books I read.
Books, in a sense, became my savior. I’m not sure if I’d survived without them. I think I may have ended up suicidal. They gave me hope when I felt lost and unloved. They led me to believe I had a future.
Books also taught me many things. They gave me ideas. Perspective. They made me see possibility.
On the flip side of the coin, books became my drug. Rather than dealing with life, I hid in a book and got a thrill out of the story. I still do sometimes. Dreaming is sometimes easier than doing.
There are many books that have changed my life as a result of all this. Series that have fueled my imagination, my writing skills, my ability to problem solve…
When I was seventeen and saw Isabel Allende in a church in Vancouver, holding a speech where she said she knew she’d recovered from depression when she dreamed of Antonio Banderas swimming in rice pudding, that little lady changed my life. We were reading House of the Spirits in school and it struck a chord with me. My life, my businesses, are built around the same kind of magical realism she uses in her books. And I know exactly what it feels like when you know you’re recovering from depression. Unfortunately, my signs never included a naked Antonio Banderas.
That same, very fatal, year, I also happened to pick up a book about street urchins in Naples. Children Under the Sun by Morris West. When I one night was, unbeknownst to me, having a panic attack, but thought I might be dying, I swore to God if I survived I’d go set up a home for street children. So some odd thirteen years later I found myself on a plane to South Africa.
You could also argue that Nancy Drew changed my life. You see, one time in school, at the gym, the boys broke into the girls’ changing room. They would have found me stark naked, had it not been for the fact that I knew the last place they’d look was next to the door they’d just opened. So I curled up in a ball, on the floor, next to the wall and the other girls closed the door before they got far. I remained unseen.
But while I have to mention those books, they aren’t the ones I’ll focus on today. No, let’s hear it for two other stories: one book and one movie.
East of Eden — Thou Mayest
In high school we were forced to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I didn’t feel forced to read it though — I devoured it. I loved Steinbeck’s commentary on life.
The main concept in the book is “thou mayest.” It’s not thou shalt, it’s not thou canst, it’s thou mayest. It’s the concept of Cain and Abel and you being born into a path, but thou mayest change it.
This concept stuck with me. The idea that we are shaped by our DNA and circumstance, but we have the power to shape ourselves, if we just choose it. Granted, that for that to happen, someone needs to tell us we have a choice.
The fact that I, as a child, became incredibly shy due to some events that shaped me, then made a conscious decision to change, when I was about fourteen, and succeeded in doing so, led me to believe Steinbeck was right. Not that it was an overnight job — I was so insecure in myself, so afraid of what other would think, that I did not speak unless spoken to in most instances — the road to rebuilding my confidence was a long one. I’m still working on it. But if you look at the person I was then and the one I am today, they’re miles apart.
It’s the same reason I work with kids in South Africa today. I believe in change. I believe in showing them a road to self-mastery.
It’s also the same reason why I believe prisoners should be given a choice to change. I was shaped into being a shy, self-loathing, nerd. I could have been shaped into being a gang member, or doing drugs. Circumstance. But once we realize there’s another way, another path, we deserve a chance to walk it. It isn’t easy, but for the stubborn amongst us, it’s possible.
The Light of a Man
There’s another part of East of Eden that stuck with me. I was so taken by it that I remember I translated it to Swedish for my grandpa one Christmas.
“Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then -the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man's importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.” - John Steinbeck
You feel it when you fall in love. You feel it when something inspires you. When you find a muse. Or when you drink a cup of coffee. And I believe Steinbeck was, at least partially, right. It’s those kind of moments that make our life. We either seek out inspiration, or we do not.
I also believe that serving other people, animals and the planet — giving of ourselves — is what brings meaning to our life. That and joy, which, in a way, is inspiration.
The Moulin Rouge
When other people are asked what story changed their life, they usually talk about some mind-blowing story that spoke to their soul. Some personal development book, some spiritual insight. Well, Moulin Rouge spoke to my soul.
I was nineteen. I had graduated from high school and was having a gap year. Everyone said they’d go abroad for the year, but everyone ended up staying in Sweden and getting a job. Me too.
Then the movie Moulin Rouge came out and I went to see it. And a bohemian revolution brewed inside of me. You know those glories Steinbeck spoke of? Mhm. I was fueled by a wildfire of inspiration!
I decided I was either moving to Paris, or going backpacking. As it turned out, I went backpacking. As it was also the middle of winter, I couldn’t find anyone to go with me. But I’d made a decision that I should leave the country by a certain date, and so I did.
First I backpacked through Belgium, then I came to Paris. Honestly, I didn’t think much of Paris at first. Like nothing. I didn’t think it this way or that way. It relaxed me. It felt normal. Plain normal.
On Christmas Eve, which is when we celebrate Christmas in Sweden, I decided to go to the Eiffel Tower (and call home) and to the Swedish church. I didn’t normally go to church on Christmas, it was just the only place I could think to go. And while I was not one for religion, I always quite liked Jesus.
Anyway, on the way back to the hostel, in the metro, I saw that I was passing Pigalle. Someone had told me I’d like Pigalle, that it was like Soho in London. I also knew the Moulin Rouge was there and I hadn’t yet seen it. So I got off the metro.
I found the Moulin Rouge, but I could not find the elephant. It took me a while to figure out it had burned down decades ago…
After looking at the famous windmill, I walked further, found an Irish pub and went in to get warm. It was Christmas Eve after all and I did not feel like sitting by myself in the hostel.
In the pub I met a man, who was a reporter for Le Monde. He told me a few stories that stuck with me over the years. He also asked me if I was looking for a job. If I was a dancer he could always ask the girls at the Moulin Rouge. I was a dancer, but I was never very flexible, so I didn’t dare have him ask the dancers for an audition (regret, much? Remember that thing about poor self-confidence?). I did, however, for some reason, say I was looking for a job. And then I set about finding one. And that’s how I ended up moving to Paris.
Paris did, indeed, feel normal to me. It’s part of who I am. It is my muse. My home. Los Angeles became the home I wanted to settle in, but Paris…how can one live without Paris? La ville lumiere. La vie boheme.
If you look at my writing and how I see the world, you’ll find Isabel Allende staring back at you. Maybe it wasn’t so much that she gave me a voice, as that I found a piece of me in her.
If you look at the products for my company, my brand, and my vision, you’ll find the magical realism of Allende, again. You’ll also find Paris, la belle époque and the Moulin Rouge looking back at you.
If you look at the scripts I’m writing, you will once more find magical realism, but you’ll also find the concept of thou mayest, the wish to evoke “glories” in people, as well as the inspiration of Paris, my muse, etched across the pages.
And if you look at my life, you’ll find a girl who swore to God to do something because she was inspired by a book and a woman who did it. You’ll find a girl who ended up living in Paris because she saw a movie and a woman who grew up to write a movie about that Paris.