Grammar Lessons and So Much More

It’s funny that this was assigned. Over the weekend, I was asked what book changed my life.  I felt particularly apprehensive about the question, and a little embarrassed as an English major. You see, no actual book has ever really changed my life. That’s not to say that pieces of writing haven’t though; Michele Morano’s “The Subjunctive Mood” from her collection of essays Grammar Lessons totally changed my life and is the piece I’ve chosen to bring in for class tomorrow.  The essay itself deals with a number of things I really know nothing about: love, suicide, the spanish language, etc. But, through her writing, I feel like I can understand everything she’s saying; I empathize with her in spite of the definition of empathy.

When the reading was first assigned to me in a class that was more or less about creative writing, I was puzzled. Why would my professor be assigning a grammar lesson? Yes, the subjunctive mood is useful to know about in some situations, but it seemed a little out of place for the class. As I started reading, I found myself perplexed. But the purpose of assigning the reading quickly became clear, and Morano’s genius blindsided me in a way I’ll never forget.

She starts out simply enough, describing the subjunctive mood, how it’s used to express things that may happen or are speculative. In contrast, she explains the indicative mood as well, which expresses things factually (“I would have paid my rent on time” versus “I paid my rent on time”, for example). Morano uses the following examples to exemplify the indicative:

I was in love.”
“The man I loved tried to kill himself.”
“I moved to Spain because the man I loved, the man who tried to kill himself, was driving me insane.”

Kind of dark, huh? She does the same for the subjunctive:

“I thought he’d improve without me.”
I left so that he’d begin to take care of himself.”

It’s clear at this point that the grammar lesson is something much more. The way she’s framed her troubles with a depressed lover who has tried to kill himself in the context of grammar is not only incredibly clever to me, but speaks to the power of language, grammar, and syntax. It’s so simple and, yet to me, so genius. Every single bit of the essay is prefaced by a subtitle that sets up the general topic for the section. For example,  the boyfriend Morano has moved to Spain to escape from visits her. When he leaves at the end she subtitles the section, “After Certain Indications of Time, If the Action Has Not Occurred.” The entire following section deals with the boyfriend’s departure, if they’ll see each other again, if they think that through the troubles and distance of their relationship, that they can make this work.  The passage is marked with a great uncertainty, which is perfect for the usage of the subjunctive mood, and the whole piece really makes me reflect on why language and communication is so important, and how powerfully it expresses.

And on a purely aesthetic note, her writing is absolutely gorgeous. A particular passage stands out in my mind. In this passage, Morano reflects on spending New Year’s Eve with her boyfriend in Spain:

“Three days before, you’d stood in Granada’s crowed city square at midnight, each eating a grape for ever stroke of the New Year. If you eat all twelve grapes in time, tradition says, you’ll have plenty of luck in the coming year. It sounds wonderful – such an easy way to secure good fortune – until you start eating and time gets ahead, so far ahead that no matter how fast you chew and swallow, midnight sounds with three grapes left.”

She characterizes her doubt and cynicism so lucidly that you almost feel her frustration with her situation with her. If I could be in love with a piece of writing, I think this would be it. This piece made me want to write. It made me stop caring about trying to find what avenue of life would bring me the most wealth, fortune, and glory. It made me think, “Why couldn’t I have written that?” In reading this, I found a goal for myself – to write as honestly and beautifully as she.