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The Yearning: Lessons from Gone with the Wind

Before we get to the point, first you have to really understand where my love affair with Gone with the Wind began. It’s going to be hard for you to really grasp this if you can’t recall a day in your life before the VCR. My childhood years were measured by the yearly showing of Gone with the Wind on the local TV channel.

Once a year, I got to see Vivien Leigh flounce across the front yard in that white dress with the little red sash. I got to see her roll her eyes and purse her lips and sass and flirt and stomp her way through three hours of melodrama, doing all those Scarlet things that looked to me like getting away with a lot. And for a girl like me, who aspired to portray Mary holding the baby Jesus in my church’s yearly Christmas musical and never got away with anything, it should have been nearly impossible to like her or identify with her, let alone love her. Yet, I did.

Here’s how much I loved Scarlet: I spent almost every Saturday I can recall playing in my grandmother’s old square-dancing slip, fastened at my waist with a huge safety pin. It was white cotton, with flounces. Really flouncy flounces. Sound familiar? I rolled my eyes and pursed my lips and sassed and flirted with imaginary Ashleys and Rhetts. I stomped all over the farm, staking claim to our land.

And then I grew up and forgot all of this silliness, assigning it to the little box of cute childhood memories I sometimes trot out to make funny, southern-girl small talk with new writer friends who enjoy my twangy accent.

I’ve been to the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta for author events. I’ve wondered at her dinky apartment. I’ve smiled, knowing she was an eccentric, feeling connected or wanting to believe we might have been pals. Peg and me, we’re BFFs. (If really knew her like I do, you’d know that’s what we call her.)

If you pull up her Wikapedia page, it says, “An imaginative writer from a precocious age.” See, there. Proof we’re peas in a pod. Funny, that’s how I thought of Scarlet, too. I wonder if some writer will ever read what I’ve left behind and think the same of me. If you do, trust me. We would have been pals.

After I married, I tried to watch Gone with the Wind with my husband and it ended in one of our first fights. I found myself passionately defending Scarlet and condemning wimpy Melanie and whiny Ashley and all the rest. I was shocked that my dear spouse could not understand my love of the hateful, selfish, lying, conniving main character. And more than that, I was horrified to realize, on all counts in regards to Scarlet’s character – or lack, thereof – he was actually right on the money.

Still, I felt betrayed. It seemed to me that if he could not understand Scarlet or appreciate her plight, he could not understand me! Not that I had pined over my best friend’s husband or married and gotten my sister’s fiancé shot through the head, out on the Decatur Road.

I couldn’t put my finger on my undying devotion to Gone With the Wind. In the end, as usual, Rhett didn’t give a damn and I’ll be honest, I didn’t spend too much time inspecting my feelings once the film ended. I did not divorce my husband and life moved on. Fiddle dee dee.

However, I now realize a thing that should have been clear to me all long. (Yes, tomorrow is another day, but that’s not what I mean.) What I realize is this: It’s not about Scarlet. It was never about Scarlet. Not for me or for any of you, I’d bet. Oh, you think I’m wrong, I know you do. Because there’s that curtain dress in the horse jail! There’s those boys under the tree at the picnic! There’s the moment she finally, finally realizing she loves Rhett and it’s so real and raw and true and horribly doomed.

But it’s not Scarlet, y’all. And it took another Southerner to show me. (Is Southern California technically a Southerner? I’m going to go with that.)

Picture this: I’ve gone to one of my favorite Indie bookstores, Foxtale Book Shoppe, to hear one of my favorite people and writers, Susan Meissner, and she’s got this new novel out that’s set during the filming of – you guessed it – Gone with the Wind.

I sit at the back of the room, because I tend to stick to the back or slide around the wall at these things. And I listen with a smile, as reader after reader giggles and talks about her love of the book and the film. They are so entertained by Susan’s talk, as am I, and her knowledge of the film set. And they especially love telling her everything they know about Margaret Mitchell and all the places you can see and learn about Gone with the Wind around my home state of Georgia.

We might as well be fluttering our fans and eyelashes, we are all so in love with Susan and her story’s subject. And that’s where she got me! It’s where she got all of us, really.

Now, I know you’re waiting for me to veer off into deeper, more treacherous waters where I rattle cages about all the historical relevance of Gone with the Wind in regards to race or the confederacy or any number of embarrassing reminders of the awful truth about our American tragedies. But there was something else going on with Gone with the Wind back then when the whole country went wild for Scarlet’s story, and that’s the thing Susan reminded me of just a few weeks ago.

That’s what I want to talk about today. And honestly, I think it’s what we’ve all been talking about forever. It IS the conversation. It IS the reason we write.

Susan reminded us all of the scene – that iconic scene – where Scarlet’s father leads her to stand beneath the ancient oak’s spreading limbs and they gaze at a sunset over their beloved Tara. The orchestral theme swells. And we all know it is an important moment. We all know that none of it will last long. And our hearts break a little for that loss.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t long for those days of plantations and Mammie and marrying my cousin. No, thanks.

But there’s something like grief that wells up in us when we experience those characters standing there on a precipice. There’s something that keeps us coming back to this story, reading and re-reading it. And because I love Susan and I suddenly felt, like everyone else in that bookstore, that I knew exactly what she meant, I raised my hand.

I found myself sharing a story. I didn’t mention my grandmother’s square dancing slip. I didn’t mention the argument with my husband about an unlikeable character I loved. I talked about dirt. I told the crowd about a memory of walking in a field beside my childhood home after my grandfather’s tractor had turned the soil, and the sudden, overwhelming love for that place, and the terrible knowledge that it was fleeting. I stooped and filled my hands with the red dirt and thought to myself, I couldn’t own the earth under my feet. It was too big, too ancient. When I stood, I’d grown up a little. Even as a young girl, somehow, I understood, that place and time and every thing and person I knew and loved, owned me. And I would lose it all.

I had a good old-fashioned, Southern Belle crying jag right there in the book store while Susan and the other readers looked on, horrified. I’m sure she thinks I forgot to take my meds. And I was honestly mortified.

But truth does that to us, reveals us and reminds us who we are. And that is the genius of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. It is the theme Susan Meissner’s new novel is built upon. It is the wisdom of Scarlet’s father. And it is what moved me to push my nervous hand high above the crowd to share a simple, poignant memory that broke me up and put me back together again in the blink of an eye.

Things change. I will change. How will love last, when nothing else does?

Every story we tell is searching for the answer to this ache inside all human beings since the beginning of us. It is at the yearning at the heart of Gone with the Wind, why we are a generation obsessed with, even the origin of a terrible fear that is driving violence and uncertainty to a breaking point in so many ways in our country today.

And so I lead you, as Susan led me and Margaret led us all, to that hilltop beneath the sheltering oak. (I married under such an oak at my family home. Today, the tree is gone. So is the farm.) And I remind you of the beauty of what you do as storytellers, of what a gift it is to read the words of the seekers before you, and of the responsibility we have to remind one another with every precious word…It’ll come to you. Make no mistake, this love…

Home can not be lost. Love does not end. Both are safe inside of you.