elasticity of compassion and dread

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I have spent a night filled with a growing, and somewhat inexplicable, dread. Now that darkness lasts longer at night, the sense of rare loneliness can creep in and make itself truly felt. This dissipates as the sun rises.

I have once more reached an impasse with someone in my life who has flowed into and out of the ‘rapids’ (i.e., daily life) for years. He has never been quite ‘peripheral’ but his role has changed. He is an addict, a compulsive liar, self-destructive and mentally ill. But all along, it has been hard not to care about him and feel tremendous compassion. Despite not being ‘with’ him in a relationship for a very long time, I still felt compelled by this compassion to be supportive, to help in any way I could. But there’s certainly a large emotional manipulation component that comes into play when he’s ‘off the wagon’ (as well as transparent deception; he isn’t good at it). I have done everything I have had in my power to give him support of all kinds and all the tools and coping mechanisms he could possibly need (that I could provide). But this is all one can do, really. At some point, as I told someone in describing this situation, compassion – despite its slack and elasticity – can be stretched to the point that it snaps. A point where self-preservation must take over. Watching someone self-harm, slowly kill himself, is just too painful.

With this as the backdrop, the night was accompanied by the rare feelings of missing people from long, long ago. Watching the Twin Peaks reboot earlier, and having a long conversation with someone from my life whom I met during the original Twin Peaks era, I remembered now-dead friendships that had meant so much – and some dormant friendships that, while they exist in that “say-hi-once-annually” way that Facebook affords, once pulsated with a kind of intensity that is almost impossible to feel in middle age. The viscous quality of this nostalgia left me feeling quite alone and quite cold, unable to shake the sticky links of the past.

But, as obsessed with moving forward as I always am, I have posed the question (to myself, and more rhetorically to others) as to whether this could be a pivotal moment. How nice would it be if we were actually able to recognize pivotal moments when they arrive? Do you ever look back and realize, “Ah, that was a pivotal moment” and lament that you did not notice, and made the wrong choice? Or even realize that you somehow made the right choice, even if you did not realize the significance of the moment as it happened? I have in recent days realized that while the surface of life and self has remained the same, everything underneath is a completely different organism from a year ago. And with these changes, perhaps it is time to make a clean break, closing the door on some of the things and people that/who linger from the past.

“While past and present continue to haunt/my future is nonchalant…”

Photo by Kev Seto on Unsplash

Contextual past and eventual becoming

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“I am writing for the person I used to be. Perhaps the person I once left behind persists, standing there, still and grim, in some attic of time – on a bend, on a crossroads – and in some mysterious way she is able to read the lines I am setting out here, without seeing them.” –A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa

In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino hints gently at context, and by envisioning parallel, fictional realities, we may be ripping some gem from its intended context and stuffing it into another to serve another purpose, to enhance another context. These are not even close to his words, and in fact, in my own paraphrasing I have moved his original words (in translation no less) quite far from their origin and intended context to justify my own. It is the intent, perhaps, that a reader should interpret and ‘steal’ concepts (I know that in one of the multitudes of books I have read this week, there was a passage somewhere about stealing and refashioning good ideas – but I don’t know if I saved the quote. A shame).

But this is my pattern. I read aggressively, voraciously, feverishly highlighting meaningful passages (stopping briefly to wonder if I might highlight different passages and quotes if I were in another frame of mind, or context). And later I find some application – or context – for those passages that meant most to me in some way.

Behavior eventually shows its hand and establishes a pattern if you wait long enough. I can change these patterns to change behaviors, but the underlying drive comes out the same. I shifted from television addiction to a reading addiction, which I would argue is the better of the two addictions. But both are addictive and almost compulsive behaviors. To compensate, I seek and find some balance, and my constant underlying drive is not just the search for balance but the search for change. And for me, change is always about the future and ensuring some otherness or difference from the now and the past. It is not about dragging vestiges of the past with me into new scenery; it is likewise not about erasing that past or its experience. It does not mean cast off the you who was, but does mean give careful consideration to the you who will be.

“This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts brings with it its consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it: though all my actions are bent on erasing the consequences of previous actions and though I manage to achieve appreciable results in this erasure, enough to open my heart to hopes of immediate relief, I must, however, bear in mind that my every move to erase previous events provokes a rain of new events, which complicate the situation worse than before and which I will then, in their turn, have to try to erase. Therefore I must calculate carefully every move so as to achieve the maximum of erasure with the minimum of recomplication.” If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

While many recognize and complain about their patterns, they do nothing to alter them. Change, after all, is what we most avoid. Because of this aversion to change, at least some kinds of change, the complaints are idle and the angst projected about them contrived. But we all have our blind spots, especially when it comes to other, unpredictable, people.

“…but at that moment it was as if an undigested bit of the past had come back up his throat.” –The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano

Yes, people. Unpredictable people who jump around in the timeline of our lives. Almost dead within our archives, yet somehow we live on, almost as living, breathing people in the daily existences, of which we are (almost) no longer a part. I can control my books or tv viewing or the lengths of walks in the rain (though I cannot yet control the rain). I can control how much I sleep and how deeply involved I become in my mad dreams (how I love these). But people… and how much the past wears on and continues to affect (and infect) people.

Someone told me recently that “the past is a foreign country”, which sounds, not unlike my allusions and references to Calvino, like something lifted from a literary source (with which I am not familiar). This is poetic, but Calvino himself manages to describe the pernicious nature of the past with a far more apt simile:

“The past is like a tapeworm, constantly growing, which I carry curled up inside me”.

The past, and the people who populate it, has a voracious appetite and will eat away at one from the inside, if one lets it.

The interesting part is that the phantoms, those living in the past as though it were yesterday: they are often the most honest ones. Maybe not about how the past was (they can in fact be quite blind and/or deluded), but they aren’t hiding their intentions or papering over their defects. And the people laboring along in the firm belief that they are living in the present and looking toward the future? The veneer of calm does not hide the high-strung individual underneath, paddling away from reminders of the past like poor swimmers with no instinct for floating – there is no actual serenity in those who so desperately seek it. Maybe, like Daniel Hall writes in “Love Letter Burning”: “The past will shed some light/but never keep us warm”.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion