Love (Part 2)

An occupational hazard of a career of reading English Literature is an almost fiendish doubt in the power of love. Just think of all the novels—serious literary novels—that you have read, and multiply the effect by a thousand. Sure, Jane Austen has something to offer, but seriously, Pride and Prejudice without Darcy’s fortune waiting to bail out Elizabeth Bennet is a tragedy.

Am I a cynic? Here in the early years of the 21st century, it is hard to be anything else. I fight this impulse with every fiber of my being, and yet, there is a quiet, persistent voice that advises, “Have you lost your mind?” Not so quiet after all.

So much of what I have written in these posts over the past several years is illuminated by the tension between the bountiful and generous impulse to love unabashedly and the counter impulse to protect (what is left of) myself. The gift—if there is a gift—I give is to wrestle between those countervailing forces—to recognize the struggle and not to deny the struggle.  It would be easy to give in to unbridled cynicism—I would not be alone, might even be called wise to make this decision. But even when I declare “(what is left of) myself,” I couch it parenthetically. I don’t believe that I have dwindled over the years and experiences and wisdom. Somehow I have grown—not just older, but deeper.

I can point to literature for this counterweight—just as I can point to literature for the darker impulse.  But not (most) novels.  When I read Whitman’s grand declaration of connection—“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”—I know that there is no loss so large that can obliterate me, because there is no loss that can obliterate you—“You, whoever you are.” Or when Creeley writes, “Be for me like rain—the getting out of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-lust of intentional indifference”—what could be worse than intentional indifference—or semi-lust? What good is anything short of Dickinson’s “Wild nights… Done with the Compass—Done with the Chart!”

The secret power of cynicism is that that it has a course. You can navigate to doubt in a straight line. There are doctrines and creeds to guide you to the heart of darkness. Tolstoy be damned—the road to an unhappy family is too familiar, too well worn and rutted. Happiness—not complacency, not mere contentment—but roof rending joy has no book of instructions.

If ever I doubt the power of unrestrained, unbounded, even unfounded love, I have a store of words and images to revive my failing trust. And if literature fails, I have taught kids and children for the past 25 years who give me palpable views of potential. And, if they fail, I have daughters who, even in querulous moments, give me hope. And when I am apart from them, I build one last bulwark against too easy doubt—have practiced building it for decades, and here, it is neither wall nor boundary, but an open road and unlimited horizon. It is a road built by these words, and met, beyond expectation, beyond hope, beyond doubt—met by another who builds a road to me—a road made with words and hands and trust and faith and an eye ever to the horizon.

Love

In one of his books, the literary critic Terry Eagleton, points out that “I love you” is always a quotation. Other writers offer the same warning. No one says “I love you” for the first time ever. And yet, no one (sincerely) says, “I love you,” while thinking about all the times it has been uttered—by others, or by oneself. Each utterance feels original.

I added the proviso “sincerely”—and who’s to judge if someone is really sincere? Some people, I suspect, must have this phrase slip over their tongue the same way they order tacos at the drive thru. They mean it in ways I can’t imagine. I don’t know. And I don’t know it the same way that I cannot know whether they feel it. The words rise above sea level like the tip of an iceberg, or the keel of a capsized ship, or the dorsal fin of a dolphin. I can make a guess, but what is below the water is a mystery to me.

Oh, I know the general outlines as well as any, perhaps better. Years of life, of watching those around me, and reading—and what else is reading but learning about life captured in words—have helped clarify the varieties of emotions. “Love is not love,” writes Shakespeare. And no, it is not. And it is. If anything, I have learned too much, both in watching, in reading, and in living about love—or at least too much to think I know that there is one love, one way, one answer. The shapes beneath the water could be anything—the way the fin of an ocean sunfish has nothing to do with what rests beneath the glassy surface.

What preoccupies me is less what is beneath some other surface, than what is beneath mine. I can hardly utter the first word, “I,” without replaying every other time I finished the phrase. No matter how many versions of love I have seen others act out, or that I have seen portrayed, my single clearest—or least clear—vision of love comes from my own experiences. I am sure this is true for everyone. Who, in the final moment before she or he declares her or his love, trusts anything other than the one set of experiences that illuminates only one heart?

What follows will be about me, but what else do I know? I may be well informed, but there is only one about whom I can speak with even fair, if inevitably dubious, authority.

I do not recall if I ever said, “I love you,” to my elementary school sweetheart. I know that I said it and felt it—in varying degrees—from when I was seventeen years old up to a few hours ago. I wonder how my love—my capacity to love and be loved—has changed in the intervening 41 years. The first ten of those years I was awash in joy and pain and frustration. I knew so little about myself and the world—let alone how to love, or what the person I loved actually felt. We grow up so selfish—I did. I was perfectly attuned to my desires, by which I mean, I did not feel there was any difference between what I deeply desired and the love I thought the universe should place at my feet.

It wasn’t until I started teaching—when I actively had to think about how what I said and did would further the progress of my students—that I began to have a serious idea about love. Teachers never think about themselves. Okay, that’s clearly not true. Great teachers think about their students, even when they think about themselves. I don’t know how I learned that—probably from the examples that great teachers gave me. I do know that the first serious relationship I had in graduate school was made more potent, and ended more peacefully—if not less painfully—than any romantic relationship I had up to that point.

When one teaches, there is a realization that some students simply will not get it. No matter how hard a teacher tries, it takes two (to make a thing go right). A teacher learns a kind of detachment—self differentiation. This is incredibly helpful and healthy for teachers—we care about, even love our students, but we do not engage them in unhealthy ways. Well, most of us do not. And learning that distance is hard for some teachers, because there is an impulse to care for our students. It is a human feeling.

Learning to self differentiate helped me when I loved—I knew there were proper differences and distances between me and the people I loved. There is, of course, a big difference between knowing and knowing. I never stopped longing for the kind of fully romantic immersion that I dreamed about when I was younger. My relationships after graduate school went from degrees of immersion to degrees of differentiation. Is it possible to do both? I have friends who will reassure me, and tell me that all I have to do is wait. I am 58 years old, waiting gets harder, and easier—I have had so much practice.

There is another essay about how children and becoming a parent affect all this.

So, I wonder what I carry, how I have loved, and how that shapes my expectations and capacities now. In many ways, I still feel infinitely young at heart. I may recall much, but I do not bear scars. I do not feel broken. Still, I wonder what it means when I say or write, “I love you”—whether that other will know what I mean, that I am not ordering tacos, but saying a prayer. For eleven years I worked for a church that claimed no doctrine or creed, but my faith is love—deep, enduring, self-effacing, self-affirming, life-affirming, other-affirming. I try to differentiate myself from those I love, but I dive in head first—falling then flying—out of the depths, unknown, but wholly knowable.

Trust

What drives us to claim that someone must “earn” our trust?

Maybe we look at children, and their innocent acceptance of our magical disappearances and reappearances—silly children who haven’t figured out the mystery of object permanence. Or we recall the way dogs will chase the imaginary sticks we have thrown when we hold the actual sticks behind our backs. Dogs are so stupid. Or we remember how Uncle Max had two mistresses—at the same time!—breaking Aunt Sylvia’s heart; how did she not see the signs? Or, or, or…

How many thousand lessons does life provide, proving that if we let our guards down for even a moment, that life will either make fools of us, or render us hapless victims? And earned trust? Surely there are just as many examples when our earned trust was upended like a cheap pine table in an earthquake. We proceed like penurious bankers, giving out loans at interests rates that would humble Rajahs, and still, we are repaid by grief and betrayal. What hope can we have?

How much armor is needed—lead, steel, or titanium—to get us from our bedside to the fringe of the world? Who cares that accident statistics show that SUVs—great exoskeletons that we wear like Gregor Samsa wore his carapace—are more likely to be in a crash than the nimble little roadsters that weave in and out of danger? More armor! More protection!

For what? Wrapped inside a traveling sarcophagus we are pre-entombed—already arrayed for the burial. And trust is just another layer—a shroud that hides a face.

Why not just trust? Why not embrace foolishness, stupidity, Aunt Sylvia’s blissful ignorance (until it finally becomes too much)? How many moments of easy grace do we pass by in the name of incredulity? Protecting our fragile hearts and minds (our bodies are so rarely at risk, and so much easier to protect)? From what?

What price do we pay for the blanket of distrust we wear over our shoulders—leaded, like the dentist’s leaded sheet, to prevent the harmful rays from reaching within? How many more might we more easily trust? What fruits might we more readily sample? What lessons of hope and joy might just as easily fall into our outstretched hands, if we only stretched them out?

Daily (writing, and maybe dating advice)

One of the questions—there are thousands of questions—on the OK Cupid dating website is:

Ideally, how often would you have sex?

• Every day

• 3 to 4 times per week

• 1 to 2 times per week

• less than once per week

Secretly, this is a writing question.

So, you say that you want to write. I have many friends and acquaintances who make that claim. Maybe they like to read, or maybe they have something to get off their chests, or maybe there is some kind of residual romantic cache to being a writer. I hesitate to ask them, is there anything you like to do every day?

Most people only do a few things every day. We sleep (perchance dream). We eat and drink. Cup of coffee? Glass of wine? My dad had a small dish of ice cream every night. Work? I used to work seven day weeks—which is exhausting and revelatory. Parents parent every day—every single day. Some work out daily. Fortunately, I have no worn meniscus in my brain to keep me out of the mental pool more than every other day, and I am happier when I get my actual wet mile in daily. For some with partners, or even without, some kind of sexual activity happens daily.

How many of those do you do willingly, with a sense of purpose bound to deeper joy? How many are obligations that feel like you need a respite from every five—or less!—days? If you are the kind of person who rankles at the daily grind, maybe skip the writing, unless the rankle gets you going. I know plenty of cranky writers. Plenty—Jeremiah has many brothers and sisters.

One of the early discussions in grad school was the tricks writers used to trigger their daily duty. Sharpening pencils. Cleaning house. Eating M&Ms. Waking up.

Antonio Machado writes (translated here):

After living and dreaming

comes what matters most:

waking up.

Writing is like waking up—and it happens every day. It may be fueled—strike the “may”—it is fueled by our lives and dreams, but it is more than either. The same way our bodies move through the day—chopping onions, carrying bags from the car, wheeling our mothers into the doctor’s office—they come awake when we make love (I hope, for your sake that this is so). Writing is like that—an intentional and yet mysterious waking up. A discovery.

I almost always write with a plan. I have a first sentence and last sentence. And then I wake up. The middle—every other part—is a surprise. I start grabbing books off shelves, looking up physics formulas, checking the weather data from fifty years ago, calling a friend. I almost always end up with that last sentence, but the route shifts as fast as a glimpse—the meaning of the last sentence changing as all the shifting words transport me to a city whose streets are unfamiliar and entirely welcome, and whose secret is revealed in a way I had only dreamed.

Every day. If you want to write. Dream, live, write, wake up. Every day.

Dating Advice (or writing advice)

Complain all you want about online dating, and there is plenty to complain about, but if you are of a certain age, and you cannot (will not) date people from work—which also makes up your immediate social circle—then it’s off to the great internet meet n’ greet.

Dating poses a number of challenges later in life. First of all, by now you probably know much more about who you might like to meet than you did when you were 18, or 24, or 36. This is at once an advantage and a trap. “What if she is not exactly who I am looking for?” you might wonder. She may be too much like your Ex, or one of your Exes. Or, heaven forbid, too much like your mother. Are you still really fighting that battle? Chances are if you haven’t given it good long thought that you are. I am not suggesting that any of your Exes, or your mother for that matter, is a bad model for the date you seek, or, on the other hand, the exact person you should run screaming from the building to avoid (It’s your life; you know best). However, either impulse is likely to constrict your expectations. It’s bloody impossible to go swimming with dolphins when all you are thinking about is the White Whale, Ahab.

Second, you may have gotten over all the awkward first moves of your early dating life. “I know where this is going to end up,” you think, already having all the accoutrements ready in the bedroom. And things with your date may, eventually, end up there. May. Look if sex is all you seek there are plenty of other options in the world. I had a friend who declared, “If you don’t care who it is, you can fuck anybody.” Touché!

Remember: You are going on a date. You are meeting a person who is, with any luck in the world, different in ways you have not yet figured out. Slow down. Everywhere. Spend hours making out. Who cares that you know THAT secret trick—you can impress her later. And do not jump to making out. Kisses, short exploratory kisses are gifts not to be forsworn. They are the bubbles in the champagne. If you haven’t learned this yet—and many men and women have not—you can skip everything that follows.

Seriously friends, you will meet least dozens, if not hundreds (and if you move a few times, make it a thousand) of people who will tickle some fancy you have. I have the benefit of being an extrovert (in some ways), and have short conversations with upwards of 10-20 people I have never met before almost every single day. I intend to marry none of these people, but I would fight for the right to have these conversations all the same. If you are an introvert, prepare accordingly, but do not forget that a date is the beginning of a conversation. Let it be that. Learn as you talk. Listen to her. Listen to yourself.

Look, some dates will get annoyed if you are courting too slow. Advice: who cares? Anyone who wants to light the fuse after the first date, or third date, has most likely lit the wrong fuse. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Duck! And if you feel annoyed or anxious to get moving, remember this: everything you learn about this person now will help you know whether or not you will want to go on a second date, or a fifth date, or more. Introverts, you know that someone has to meet certain criteria to get past your healthy defenses; spend the time needed to discover. “But I don’t want to have to go through all this again,” you complain. Of course not, so slow down and maybe you won’t, later. Extroverts, you know how easily you can be charmed by a single aspect of another person (I’m giving myself much needed advice here)—remember that people are multi-faceted and that more than a first date requires connections across many facets.

And here’s my complaint. Too often online daters post, “No pen pals. If you can’t meet right away, don’t bother.” Can I just say that harboring an extrovert and introvert in my heart, that words, lots of words, are an essential part of my dating process. And not quick, little texts (although that can be delightful too, but like badminton in the backyard at dusk, can drift into chasing fireflies). Finding someone who can unfurl a story over paragraphs in writing—just as I do here—is my sweet spot. Of course, before the paragraphs come, something will have been sparked by who knows what, a phrase in a written dating profile? a provocative and thoughtful question? “I don’t do words,” one respondent declared early in the process, which, of course, promptly ended. Or someone rushes to meet, and then holds forth. I had a three hour coffee date that was an unspooling of work, home improvements, exes, and there had to be something else. I don’t think I said anything.

I know that my charming exterior works around a diligent writer who is both an extrovert and an introvert. I know that I will need to find someone who can manage both sides of my complicated equation—who wants me to write to her, and who wants to write to me. And she will need to share at least some aspects of this too.

Why writing? Because writing takes focused attention, takes time, and done well, offers a chance for discovery for both the reader and the writer. Writing, done well, offers a chance to grow and learn in perpetuity. What could be better than discovering together?

Before I collapse into, “This is all about me,” let me say, what works for me (the words) may not work for you. Chances are it will not. But you know what does work for you, don’t you? A little self-knowledge about this goes a long way. Revel in it, slowly. Well begun is half done, goes the maxim. Here! Here!

Patterns

I don’t believe in fate—providence, if you will. If there is a plan, it does not proscribe outcomes. Rather we wander in and out of circumstances bumping into two sets of patterns—those we make out of our lives, and those that are beyond our immediate control. Life goes out of balance when we cannot get the two patterns to jibe—when we cannot reconcile ourselves to the patterns that exist. Out of balance we can neither accept what has happened in our lives or we cannot break those patterns and create new ones that are made from familiar pieces but reflect possibilities that we had not imagined. Out of balance we fight against the patterns that life provides, missing obvious signs (rising temperatures, repeated cruelties, even the tender messages of love) and careening against the walls of a maze that we cannot perceive and causing damage to ourselves and those around us.

The patterns in our lives start with family. I constantly share Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse.” There is something reassuring in the thought that we are in a cycle of “fuck you up.” As opposed to Larkin, I think the ways we do it, as we do it, inescapably echo what has happened to us, perhaps a refracted and distorted echo, but if we listen closely the voices of the past are there. Beyond that we try, inexpertly and haphazardly, to shape something new—sometimes in the bounds of that was happened—marrying tin castings of our mothers or fathers—and sometimes creating almost new ones—bouncing from job to job, leaving or being fired, until we find something that makes sense; switching churches running away from one doctrine to another until we find answers to our questions, or questions for our answers, failing in aspects of our lives until we discover paths that lead to understanding and accomplishment.

If we pay attention there are patterns to the world—some are startlingly easy to discern: evolution, geology, philosophy, math, literature. We go to school to learn to recognize those patterns, or at least learn the methods behind those patterns. Maybe—there’s no guarantee—we learn to accept that life does not always follow the neat regular order of all that we learn—like a geometry proof—but proceeds in fits and starts—like punctuated equilibrium. Or that it bears an uncanny resemblance to the cagey repetitions of a Mandelbrot set—a kind of beautiful and frustratingly decoded paisley.

I am writing this, because I can see—but only when I’m not looking straight at it—a pattern. The school where I will teach in the fall is near the junctions of routes 17 and 29—roads that ran through my earlier life. The mountains nearby are mountains on which I hiked when I was twelve. I am now split, three hours in either direction—when the traffic is good—from both ends of my family. These are entirely random coincidences—of that I am sure. However, coincidence when it travels in large numbers begins to wear the shape of a pattern. Perhaps it is a pattern of my own making—I look for affirmation and discover it where I will.

And yet, these days, I find other coincidences accruing—but not coincidences, more like reflections and refractions.

How many times in my life have I wondered how someone significant has entered my orbit—or rather, how has the rogue moon of my existence been captured by another’s gravity? I recognized early on the awful fact that I was chasing those tin castings from my family. Inevitable, and not always destined for failure, yet, somehow, not strangely, I ended up at 58 single.

When I looked through the kaleidoscope of my past relationships, I recognized the shifting bits of glass and plastic that first came present in my childhood. And with each turning, I noticed newer, more original bits. I could see how I was adding to the portrait, or finding, fortunately, new colors and shapes. This bit—a runner who lead me onto the road and into extended jaunts over hills. That bit—a wild heretical sense of magic and religion that helped my questioning soul find new answers. Over there, now sliding out of the periphery—an abiding sense of motherhood that helped me see fatherhood in a clearer light. Here—a love of play and pretending that rekindled my dramatic heart. In the corner—a fervent commitment to words and learning that at least matched my own. Sliding past in a glint of light—a traveler’s heart that would call me away from the familiar and to new destinations.

All these marked shifts away, additions to, and surprises in my vision of who I would walk with down city streets and along autumn trails. Singularly, each one added a variation to a familiar pattern, but that pattern remained dominant. All together they formed a secret wish—not just for someone else, but for the person I wanted to be.

Do we get to pick that person? Are we trapped under years of habit and gentle conditioning? They have carried me this far. What to do with the secret and not so secret longings—dreams set aside for expedience and practicality, or for some ingrained fear or limit? What if I began to write a new story—still with some familiar elements, but now with a center I have let waste in a box kept in a closet, underneath last year’s shoes, out of sight, but never, naggingly, out of mind?

I don’t believe in fate, but what if, instead of providence, I relied on my will to call forth a story, to create a possibility I had turned from year after year? What would happen? Would the kaleidoscope turn to reveal someone, or—by dint of will and willingness to shake my life into new form—would someone appear, almost without request, almost by chance? I don’t believe in fate, but I can see patterns, and can follow stars that have not lifted above the horizon before now.

Onward!

Stumbling

Sometimes I step right in it. It could be good, could be bad, but somehow, my foot comes down right into it. All I was doing was taking a walk—could be to anywhere, the post office, the grocery store, down the aisle. The destination is of no importance—tell yourself that Brennan, assure yourself that you are a man on a journey, drifting happily so long as there is a journey whose destination is, truly and fortunately, impossible to predict. And then, splat, I tumble forward—because that is how we fall.

All through my youth my body grew more rapidly than my control of it. I had special gym classes at Paoli Elementary School to help with my coordination. I fell down often. I skinned knees, tore pants, tripped over air. When I walked my feet slapped against the pavement—whap, whap, whap. I was a walking announcement.

And then I hiked 500 miles, and my feet learned to glide over rocks and branches and roots as big as an elephant’s trunk. Maybe it was the ballast—imagine that ballast on the back—of my thirty pound pack. Maybe I simply learned. How do I know? What happens seems to have no reason in retrospect—at the time it was a surprise, and a change I hardly noted.

Now, I still feel moments when that 8 year old boy with limbs of wind can hardly find a corner to swirl out of. My hands follow music with a maestro’s insistence—and plays—and movies. I direct everything, even the line at the grocery store. What I step into now are emotional paths, occasional avalanches of everyone’s feelings—mine too! mine too! Intellectual thickets are no peril. And maybe, just maybe, because there is not one path, but a dozen (a hundred! More!), my feet, so used to gliding, stumble.

Who are all these people, all on their own paths, that veer in and out of my little journey? Little? Hardly. It is, fortunately, a truly immense journey, and I am covered in mud. No worries, there is rain ahead, and then, I will only be wet.