Come Away with Me & other randomness

Standard

It’s always a world of tiny coincidences. A few weeks back we were batting about the expression ‘come away with me’, daydreaming of running away and doing things both out of control and outside of our “normal” lives. Eventually we more or less came to substitute ‘Norah Jones with me’ for the expression ‘come away with me’ – for what should be obvious reasons. I had not thought about Norah Jones in years, if ever. Then suddenly, the very next day, I saw that she gave the first performance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit after Soundgarden the night of Chris Cornell’s death. Jones did “Black Hole Sun” (who didn’t, though?) and made it sound more like something Tori Amos than Soundgarden.

In another coincidence, I told some colleagues at lunch the other day (sitting in glorious and rare sun) the story of someone I used to work with who was basically a complete lunatic (I used it as a story to show how difficult it can be to fire federal workers). I had not thought of the crazy co-worker in years, but I got a message from my mom later that same evening telling me he had died.

“The resultant fervor of human belonging”Wole Soyinka

Life is full of these little things – coincidences and things we want in some fiendish fever to connect: the pieces must connect! … I wonder if it is all completely random or if it’s feedback from “energy” we’ve put into the world by conjuring these things up actively that then comes back to us like a boomerang.

Probably it comes down to intent and motivation.

As Pamuk asks in Strangeness in my Mind: “Intentions come in two forms: That which our heart intends and that which our words intend”. And these are indeed different phenomena. The heart will lead us to do the most irrational things (‘come away with me’ and whatnot), intending as it does to make us connect, impervious to the knowledge that it is a bad idea. The head, our words, will instead look for reason and sense, and in some cases, protective gear and weaponry in the form of iron-clad excuses not to do things that maybe we should brave our fears to do.

Are we seeking the missing pieces that link our lives and events together? Are we looking for words to explain coincidental happenstance? Do we intend to share knowledge (“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.” –Paul Kalinithi, When Breath Becomes Air)? Do we intend to join what Soyinka referred to as the ‘fervor of human belonging’ (which has its duality, light and dark)?

Motivation can be even more tenuous. I find myself succumbing, as Doris Lessing describes in The Golden Notebook, to the pull of acting out multiple personalities, playing different roles, playing off another (like Saul and Anna), driven by the one keenly stupid motivation: “I wanted to see what would happen”. Maybe this is a solid motivation in scientific experimentation. In human relations, not so much. But with curiosity the driver, the one great motivator, you do get adventures; you do get disasters. No one will claim your life was devoid of interesting stuff.

“And yet—an excitement. The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life.” -from Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage  Alice Munro

Or is that just the cynic speaking?

Weekend gardening

Standard

I sit soberly reflecting, asking myself if I will look back in a few months, entangled in a much bigger mess than I had ever imagined, wondering how I got here. Or will I, next year, find myself reflecting on this very sober moment, realizing that it was precisely this moment – the point at which I knew I was in over my head but proceeded anyway? The garden overgrown with weeds.

The process is a bit like pruning neuroses we have driven ourselves to. I’ve just finished reading Doris Lessing‘s The Golden Notebook and am surprised by how much of the way a woman’s nature is described rings true. Not so much that every individual woman is as the main characters are, but there are universal threads we can all sew together or unravel at different times in our lives. Seedlings to plant and weeds to uproot. Still, it’s demeaning to the self in many ways to succumb to the pedestrian motivations of jealousy and possession. But in many ways, at many times, it is the trap we get caught in no matter how we insulate or guard against it. The book so well captures that twisted dichotomy: you could be the most accomplished, polished, intelligent, beautiful and sophisticated woman but still wither away in petty jealousy about something – or someone – so insignificant and so unworthy of your attention.

“Don’t you think it’s extraordinary that we are both people whose personalities, whatever that word may mean, are large enough to include all sorts of things, politics and literature and art, but now that we’re mad everything concentrates down to one small thing, that I don’t want you to go off and sleep with someone else, and that you must lie to me about it?” -from The Golden Notebook

I recognize this, but I don’t completely understand it intrinsically. I have seen this happen time and again in other people’s lives.  It is not that I have never felt a hint of jealousy, but it has never been a pure and blinding jealousy that refused to view all the different angles of a situation and other people’s feelings within situations. I don’t understand the limitations of love – or even sex. That reductive impulse that demands ‘you will love (or fuck) only me’. It’s not that there’s anything at all wrong with wanting, having, expecting or engaging in monogamy. It’s the mania that motivates and demands it. Are we really wired this way? Is it not the sense of being cast aside, ignored, not loved any more that makes people jealous and hurt?

We are after all taught from earliest childhood to share. How and why are we so territorial then with our love, our feelings, our bodies and the pleasure we can give and receive?

It’s more complicated than that, of course.

blinking through middle age

Standard

“Maybe marriages are best in middle age. When all the nonsense falls away and you realize you have to love one another because you’re going to die anyway.” -from Fear of Flying, Erica Jong

Erica Jong’s heroine asks in Fear of Flying: “Would most women get married if they knew what it meant?” She follows up by stating that perhaps in middle age, marriages would work better. It’s hard to say, of course, but seems reasonable enough to presume. But then maybe it’s more likely that a second or third marriage would work best, regardless of how old the participants are. The book’s protagonist is already stymied in her second marriage and seeking comfort elsewhere. Much ado has been made about “starter marriages” and the likelihood of future marriages working because you learn from the mistakes of the first. I don’t know what to make of this. It too seems plausible – but not applicable to me.

If this is true, what of middle-aged people who never married and got no “practice” other than in a collection of short or long-term, ultimately dead-end relationships? I cannot say because I am in this demographic: middle-aged and never married. I have had a couple of long relationships that never held any future promise and a lifetime, otherwise, of flings and experiments to which I would scarcely be able to apply a name or formal distinction. In between there have been shorter and longer periods of just being on my own, which have always been the happiest and most content times of all.

Confronting the ‘more’

While it’s true that being alone and – by extension – independent has given me a lot of joy, there are moments, often more frequent than in the past, that I imagine my calm life could be enhanced by the presence of someone else. I’ve already written before about not wanting to invite in ‘the wrong element’. After all, as Doris Lessing wrote in The Golden Notebook: “What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do”. It’s a delicate balance: you may finally confront the fact that you want and need to love and be loved, but to do so, is second-rate enough? Do you fool yourself into thinking that second-rate will do it for you? Can your view become so blurred that you think the ‘wrong element’ could be right? I’ve concluded that it’s most important to recognize the need for love – and go from there.

The ark of the ache of it

Many times I have cited Denise Levertov’s “Ache of Marriage” – and given a lot of thought to the ache one must feel within a marriage – but what about the ache you have without it? It’s something you feel without ever having had the missing part in the first place. It’s not constant but comes in waves. It can look so miserable when you look at it from the outside. Mundane, like a constant sacrifice of one’s own identity and preferences. What is it that softens us … age? The right element? The sunset? The need for warmth? Previous experience (which can also harden us)? The desire for daily soup? (Soup would really do it for me.)

Past sheds light

Blink. Blink.

A recent experience, brief enough to be like the blink of an eye, has contributed one significant thing to my life. It opened a long-closed part of me and made me realize it made no sense to close it again. I had so many times before let previous experience influence me, to close me off, to shut emotional responses down. And now… maybe it was this recent experience, maybe my age, maybe all the previous “practice”, maybe the starker-than-ever realization that there are only so many sunrises and sunsets ahead, maybe a combination of everything that convinced me to stay calm, and stay open?

It is only too late if you are dead

Standard

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
― Doris Lessing

Nobel laureate Doris Lessing and creative pioneer Lou Reed both died recently. I think of this Lessing quote and the way Reed lived his life – unapologetically, his own way – and continue to realize the value of doing whatever it is you want to, are meant to, dream of doing – right now – regardless of whether the circumstances are ideal. (They never are, really. Meaning they always are. Any time is as good as any other.) We can make excuses forever – excuses will stop us in our tracks, hold us back, but all that happens is a life of regret about the things we never dared to try. That’s not to say I have always been completely faithful to the idea of jumping when the urge struck.  I am as cautious and fearful as anyone else – just about different things.

People tell me all the time that they wanted to do X or Y but that “now it’s too late” – followed by a litany of other reasons why. “I’m too old.” “It will take too long.” “I am working all day.” “It’s too far away.” “I am not smart enough.” But this idea that just because something was not done and completed at a specific point in time, like it is now out of reach forever, is complete bullshit. Nothing is too late. It is only too late if you are dead.

That is not to say it (whatever “it” is) won’t be the most difficult thing you ever did or tried to do. Even if you give this nebulous “it” your all, there is no guarantee of success. Obviously if you are 45 and think you can compete in the Olympics against 20-year-old athletes, maybe you are deluded – but does that mean you should not strive for that goal anyway just to push yourself to see how far you can go, even if you don’t compete in the Olympics? This is an extreme example. Most of us are not setting our sights on such accomplishments. Most of us are wishing for a new job, a promotion, a different educational experience, a move abroad, learning a language… and none of these things is anywhere near impossible.

It is a story I have told and written about before but choose to repeat to make a point. Around the time I had decided to move to Iceland, I found myself sometimes racked with doubt. I did not really have a plan – was I making a big mistake? As the day of my move drew nearer, though, I grew surer that I would hate myself if I did not at least try. One afternoon, I ran into a man (a former colleague with whom both my dad and I had worked when we were colleagues) I had known. I knew, via my dad, that this man had recently been diagnosed with fairly advanced cancer for which there were very few treatment options. When I had seen this many only a matter of months earlier, he had been vibrant and alive, and suddenly here he was before me, a shell of his former physical self. In that moment, it struck me vividly – he had talked almost daily at the office about his retirement countdown, looking forward to sailing around the world (his big retirement plan). Everything hinged on this magic number, magic day, “When I retire…”. Now he was not even going to make it to retirement. That encounter cemented my decision for me – it is not possible to live in this “I will do X when…” way. Yes, sometimes real, tangible circumstances delay our plans, but for the most part, when you have your moment, as frightening as it is, what is more frightening than not taking the risk? What is the alternative? Everything is a risk, and life continually postponed and planned out is not living. A more “convenient time” and “the right moment” may not come to pass.

This year, having seen so much loss, especially in very unexpected places, it hit home for me again. Plans, to some extent, mock us. When confronted by loss, even the loss of people in the periphery with whom we are not directly close, it can shock us and create emotional turmoil by stirring up so much self-reflection that normal daily life does not provoke. It reminds us both to hold on to what we have and let go of limitations simultaneously.