Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Amy Bernstein’s fiction piece, How to Fix a Lamp
John: Is there, in fact, a time to every purpose under heaven?
Amy: I don’t think so. As much as I love the Folk Song that used this passage from the Bible, it describes a view of the world that I think it is hard to hold without belief in some overarching, powerful being who makes sure things come out right. His (or hers, or theirs) supposed existence assures that if you play by the rules, you will be rewarded, that your time will come around, that there is such a thing as karma, etc. In my experience, the good are just as likely to be punished as the bad, and if you wait around for your time of happiness, you may be waiting a long time.
I think we are on our own down here, and we each have to go it alone as best we can, not waiting for any particular time.
Diogenes famously walked around Athens with an oil lamp, looking for an honest man. What should we use our modern lamps to illuminate, once we’ve fixed them?
Right now there are so many things that need to be illuminated. But if we don’t shed light on the problem of climate change, and soon, all the rest may be null. It seems like it would require a lamp with extreme, almost magical powers to make people face this overwhelming problem and try to solve it. Many prefer to turn down the dimmer so they cannot see.
It seems to me that broken might be the natural state of humanity. What do we do in this case?
I think the best we can do is to try to pull our heads out of the sand and look around at what’s broken, then try to fix what we can. We have to leave the rest behind. Just as the narrator’s mother realizes that she cannot escape if she tries to take anything with her, even her few precious objects, even her daughter, we must shed the illusion of the perfect life and glean what joy we can.
The narrator feels that there is something broken inside her. What do you think she would consider fixed?
The narrator would consider herself fixed if someone just put a new plug on her. Seriously, I think she would feel fixed if she was happy inside, at least most of the time. As you say, I think broken is the natural state of humanity, but she is young and doesn’t know this yet. She thinks that what she and her friends feel is unusual and due to their particular messed up family lives, and to their particular time in history. The Vietnam War is going on and young people are dying in it, college students are dropping out and doing acid, and she thinks these facts are linked to her personal unhappiness. She hopes that by leaving her father to his own drunken mess of a life, she may escape his misery and find her own happiness. It doesn’t always work out that way, but nonetheless, I think it’s very good that she goes.