different or with a different love

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The Letter
WH Auden
From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown
Because of the sun and a lost way,
You certainly remain: to-day,
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year’s arc a completed round
And love’s worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen,
The swallow on the tile, Spring’s green
Preliminary shiver, passed
A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn. But now,
To interrupt the homely brow,
Thought warmed to evening through and through,
Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much but not to come.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

Photo by Eric Welch on Unsplash

Free: Hit the nail on the head

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…rambling… trying to sort through some thoughts and feelings… all seems trivial given the state of things in the world, but i can’t change the running commentary in my head…

Some days, you are just going along, getting stuff done, and someone reaches out after ages – years even – and says/writes something offhandedly that strikes a nerve, hits the nail on the head… and it happens to come at a timely moment. It might not have registered at all any other time – and in this case not all of it does – but the fear and the preference for being alone stuff certainly does. But it also prompts thoughts that finally move you beyond the confines of the walls you’ve lived inside and how you had been thinking but didn’t realize as well as ways you’ve defined yourself and let yourself be defined, even unconsciously.

“I know you are a nice person, but for sure many people would say you are wild, weird, lonely, and maybe more weird. But I know you are just protecting yourself from suffering and especially from men that can wish to play with you. You are genuine, you dare to say things, maybe much more with family, unknowns or friends than with your own partner. You would love to share, but are too much on the defensive as you are scared of bad endings.

I believe you have everything to scare a man. Intelligence, intellectually independent, financially autonomous; either you attract men who want to play with you and very quickly you kick them out of your life, or I’m so sure that so many will run away from you as they cannot reach you. They are too macho and only want to have power on you, but they do not understand that you are not a weak woman, so they run away or you get rid of them.

I was wondering what can be wrong with you. It happened to me to think you were probably too selfish, too independent and really too wild. But I’m sure you are not. This is what people can see from your outside. That is not you at all, you are just tired of wasting your time with stupid men and prefer to stay alone.” -French guy

These impressions from someone who never knew me that well – but apparently knew me better than I imagined – made me mope around a bit. Yeah a lot of this stuff is true – I recognize the pattern (and have been stuck in this “going through old papers and being struck by patterns” mode of late), but there is a bigger picture that I do suddenly see. I have known, of course, as I am relatively self-aware, that I am defensive, that my brain erects walls for me that I am not even aware of any more it’s become so automated, and that I prefer to stay alone … but only partly for those defensive reasons. I prefer to stay alone because I like to be alone. It is, most of all, my way of being free – and living most authentically (Camus), even when it is painful. And to want to not be alone – it takes something tremendous and almost otherworldly to make me want it.

I have occasionally tried to tell myself that being with someone else – the right someone else – might enhance who I am (and who they are). But more often than not, being with someone else, it is frustrating, and I end up suffocating the part of me that I like most – the part that probably attracts others to me in the first place. (I have witnessed this same syndrome in friends when they pair off and find themselves miserable and wonder what happened. This is what happened: You inadvertently kill the free person that you – and they – love(d).) You don’t mean to; you just do. Is it possible, if you are this kind of person, to be with someone else and keep that free person alive and forgo subsuming yourself and your needs somewhere within or beneath theirs? If so, I have not yet figured out how.

This carefree, spontaneous, open person who takes risks and action and moves forward no matter what can become stifled, bogged down in things that are not even mine, completely without conscious realization. It just happens. I have written about it before (both the caretaking side that takes control and agonizes before the eventual and the inevitable indifference monster comes calling as well as the seeming one-sided nature of these things, as evidenced in the mismatch among people’s words, actions and obvious priorities. And of course the “fuck-yes test”, which I think I would benefit from returning to again and again to remind myself) without fully appreciating what I was stating. Here and here and here and here and a whole lot more.

Half of me is an inveterate caretaker with nothing or no one to care for (which I guess is why it is so easy to shift from just being generally supportive to letting emotions be overrun by caring about someone else when they are going through unpleasant and confusing stuff). In another person’s worries, cares, indecision and flight from or fright of whatever is going on in their own lives and heads, the me who lives freely becomes too wrapped up in the minutiae of caring about them, trying to make sure they are not drowning, absorbing their doubts and worries. This part of my nature – the stable caretaker – takes over and becomes hesitant, reserved, emotionally idle – “always afraid to say more than it meant” (Auden, “The Letter”) or afraid to say too much, not being able to take it back. Too careful.

Nothing wrong with any of it except that when I take on that role, I become someone else, someone I do not like very much, especially if it starts to consume me or become the primary focus of the interaction with the other person. The marshmallow of my well-hidden insides starts to melt while an almost passive-aggressive, gooey pain seeps out of my pores. And it’s no one’s fault. Not the other person’s. Not mine. It just is: On the surface a feeling of being like – or fearing being like – an auxiliary but subjective amateur therapist who will offer true and deep understanding and care, along with observations, advice and opinions. Underneath, it is clear that I perform these tasks – willingly and lovingly – despite knowing with a reasonable amount of certainty (and simultaneously fearing and wishing it were not so) that I am merely a stepping stone to whatever comes next in a person’s life. I may be a one-woman transition team.

And it’s this deepening realization on being free (and what it means to me) and the role(s) I play in other people’s life dramas that relieves me of recent little agonies, confusion and worries, that frees me finally from the definition I had lived by but had never actually defined.

I have a choice (and somehow never felt like I did). Both of these parts, conflicting or not, are equally part of me. With or without doubts, I don’t relish the idea of looking back on my life and thinking I had abandoned either principle: my freedom or care/love/compassion. It may be difficult to strike, as all balances are, but is it not worth “a little hour or more/To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came/To soothe a time-torn man…” (Thomas Hardy)?

“In any situation, no matter how confining, you have a choice. To believe you do not, is to choose not to choose.”

“If we seek to lose ourselves in the world, we are eluding. We are seeking a diversion from knowing ourselves or tending our own soul.”

“We must choose to live in this world and to project our own meaning and value onto it in order to make sense of it. This means that people are free and burdened by it, since with freedom there is a terrible, even debilitating, responsibility to live and act authentically.” -Camus

Photo (c) 2008 Jon Mitchell.

Keep your distance – don’t assume familiarity

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I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

-WH Auden from “The Letter

For most of the last several years, vivid memories of an endless (well, it was endless for as long as it lasted anyway) correspondence, marked by a repeated violation of character and word limits, keep exceeding my capacity for endurance. A long correspondence, a brief, intense meeting and a cut-and-run final act – followed by years of agonizing, wondering and questioning ever since.

I could not handle the intensity of it – or the directness. It had been pointed out to me early on all the little “added things” I throw in at the end of various statements. Like when I said I would be inclined to meet “if we ever wanted to” — this is classic me. I have trouble making a definitive statement without any qualifiers: “I would like to meet you.” And leave it at that. I always add some caveat to the ends, non-committal, that leaves an open ending or an out for the other person because I don’t like the idea of imposing my will or wishes (even if they are individuals strong enough to just say they are not interested). There is something unsavory to me about assuming too much familiarity with anyone, ever, which extends sometimes to not expressing my own feelings and wishes because I don’t want to put any undue pressure on someone else. Unfortunately I can take this to extremes. It is so second nature for me now that I don’t even realize I am doing it. I always feel like I am being more polite this way, but a few people have pointed out that this just comes across as though I am just not interested. (It does not help that I apparently give people this harsh, serious, aloof impression in general.)

All my little addenda ending sentences, offering ways out or at least options, made it seem that I was not invested in the outcome, that I did not care what happened either way and that I had no real feelings. To me, it’s clear that this is ultimately a defense mechanism, as anyone with a history of shyness can certainly understand.

It is surprising, in any case, to have traveled through this correspondence. It could have been such a disaster – pen pals and online communications and trying to “meet” people in this fashion can be such a disaster. What is surprising to me in particular is that there are so many people out there trying to do this online thing but who are not at all good or expressive writers. I prefer people who can convey something real and substantial in writing and don’t think I would get along very well with people who are not at least trying to write coherently. I would in fact overlook people because of their bad writing or lack of effort in the same shallow way someone would discount another simply for how they look. This is probably informed by my whole life as a writer, my history as a pen pal and basing whole friendships solely on the written word. And yet even my obsession with precision in communication, I created a complete disaster in this story.

The way I handled the aftermath of the correspondence and meeting is nothing short of shameful. I ran (so far away). All this time I have contemplated whether I should do something about it – reach out, apologize, clear the air – but I have also grappled with whether I would be doing this just to assuage my own guilt and conscience. I never wanted to do it to make myself feel better – I was tempted to do it to have a clean slate – but if regret and apologetic explanation would only open a door best left closed, what would be the point of that? I have tried to learn in recent years to let go and let closed doors stay that way – one of life’s hardest lessons for ever-curious me. That said, not a day has gone by that this correspondence and the upheaval of its influence did not weigh on me.