throw your hearts open wide

At the bar, K. and I talk about her divorce. “It’s moving along,” she says, although he is angry and spiteful sometimes. “If that’s the way he needs to play it, whatever,” she says, “I just want it to be done.”

The owner of the restaurant sees her, comes over, asks about some meeting they were at earlier in the day. They talk together for a while, in a language of local politics. I hear a few words: council, pension, licensing. A man I know walks in and from across the room, waves. I wave back, turn back to the bar. He makes his way over and we talk about a work project. “We should catch up some time,” he says as he moves toward an open table. I say: “Oh, definitely, yes.”

Later in the evening, our friend comes over with pie. We all stand around together in the kitchen while M. puts away dishes. It’s good to see him – he is an old friend and we’ve all seen each other through some trying years. There is little trace of those difficulties on him now, and I marvel at his resilience, the path that he has taken. There were moments – for all of us – where it could have gone very differently.

It is easy to be is his company. We catch up on the usual things – our jobs, our families, the friends we have in common.

People all around us, it seems, are ending relationships of decades. The news of one couple, in particular, is unexpected and saddening. I think of my friend whose mother, now in her seventies, talks about leaving her father after forty years of marriage.

“I think after a certain number of years, it should be illegal,” I say, “like the statute of limitations just runs out after a time.” I mean this to be a joke, of course, but not without its point. Building love together is a wearying thing: You put years and years of love and work and care into tending this bond. Isn’t there a time at which the benefits of that outweigh any possible promise of starting anew? After a time, isn’t the comfort of knowing and being known – to the extent, at least, that any one of us can know any other – its own reward, its own gift?

But I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of our human hearts. I am just grasping here, really.

Before he leaves, we promise to stay in better contact. To see each other more frequently. I walk him to the door and he shouts something through the mail slot, something to make me laugh. I watch him walk down the front steps and to the driveway before I turn off the light on the porch.

Later, I tell M.: “We have to stay together forever because I want you to take care of me when I am old and sick.” He says, “That will be difficult, since you will be taking care of me.”

Over the weekend, J. comes into town, but we hardly get to talk at all. At a café, we run into a man she used to know here, and he lights up when he sees her. “Wow,” he says, “it’s such a treat to see you. Wow.”

“Yet another reason to move back,” she whispers as he walks away, but later, when she shows up at the art opening that he invited her to, there is a woman with him. “I don’t think he was avoiding me,” she says, “but let’s just say he didn’t seem dying to talk to me, either.”

I remember my mother once saying that to be lonely in a marriage was far worse than being alone. The idea has lingered with me – this notion of the dangers of loneliness – and with it, her sense of foreboding. As if the feeling, once felt, becomes its own irreversible truth. As if love was a static thing that could not accommodate a multiplicity of emotions – as if the very elasticity of love was not itself its greatest, most redemptive gift: Let me offer up my loneliness on the table of our love and you can set down your own. Lay your burdens down here. Here, where we can share them.

Before we leave the bar, I ask K.: “Are you alright? Will you be ok?” We hug. “I don’t know,” she says, “can I say that I really just don’t know?” We stand there for a moment longer. I nod, of course, and say the only thing I can think to say. It sounds trite and hollow as I hear myself say it, but I mean it: “There will be a time when it will not feel this way. You will be fine – maybe not right away, but you will be.”

The bar has filled up now – clusters of men and women encircling the tall tables, holding their glasses, laughing. At a table nearby, a couple sits side by side, their heads close together, their fingers touching. As I walk past them toward the door, I can’t help but think: Go forth, brave lovers. Go out into the night and throw your hearts open wide. If in the morning, you find them empty, don’t lose hope. They will be full again. 

fossilized in rock

In a collection of excerpts from writers’ journals, I stumble upon Gretel Ehrlich – travel writer, poet – and I am moved by her explorations of love, loss, struggle, and the way she expresses the fullness of her life. In the spring of 1985 (her 39th year), she writes this:

 All these pent up lusts, passions, sorrows, rages at political corruption, corrosion of the spirit, unnecessary deaths, discriminations, impossible loves…what are these? Why do I collapse across my writing table, the sun full on me, the day spectacular, and cry? Why do I feel, not bored, but unused (in the best sense) by a society enslaved? Against mediocrity, against a society that refuses to find solutions to real problems, but only tinkers, whose ingenuity is restricted to the perpetuation of the frivolous…against this and against the living dead, the brain-dead, the dead-beats, the heartbeats that make no noise – what sharpness and number of swords could prick holes into the dogma of greed?

This – my journal, this project – has been, I have come to understand, a record of the struggle of my own 39th year. A year when the inward struggles come up squarely against the outward self. A kind of mid-point. Looking to the past, looking to the alternate possible present, to the future and its myriad unknowable manifestations – all the while, moving inexorably forward in the present moment.

And when the present moment is as luminous as it is (my own ample life, in all its richness, and here again, Ehrlich: “I don’t cry about my life, but cry because of its fullness.”) it is difficult not to want to dismiss the struggle.

But it is very much present.

I woke this morning early, so early, before even the suggestion of light, with the single thought: where does all the past love go?

And by love, I don’t mean romantic love, although certainly that is a part – but all the love – all the passions and rages and longings and imaginings – all the wishes and the worries that we have had for ourselves and for the people whose lives touched our own. All the energies we put into this person or that, or this cause or that. All the life force we have poured out of ourselves, into the lives of others – beautiful testaments as they are to our human capacity to feel deeply, to live fully – where does all that go?

Rick Bass, from his journal, “An Oilman’s Notebook: Oil Notes:”

Nothing can truly disappear. It can only be rearranged, so that it gives that appearance.

The hydrogen and carbon atoms are not smashed; they are not destroyed. Their form is merely altered.

It has something to do with fear, I think.

Fear that there will be a time when I will not remember what it was like to live with such intensity.

“I was once your age, I had those feelings too,” my mother used to say, as a way to preface some admonition, some prohibition that made me think quite the opposite: If you ever, ever felt this way, you would understand. And rather than admonish, you would give me comfort. And rather than forbid, you would coax my own wisdom from me. It cannot be possible: You were never, never my age.

Talking about one’s children makes it simple, wraps it all up in platitudes: “I don’t know where the time went.” “It all has gone by so quickly.” “Wasn’t it only yesterday,” and etc., etc., ad nauseum. In this way, we can talk with other people in acceptable ways. Not drive ourselves mad with probing, without trying to plumb our own depths, all while standing around with our salon manicures, dressed in corporate casual.

We don’t have to say, coffee in hand at the open house, picking at the cheese cubes with plastic tongs: This daughter of mine, in all her radiant beauty, as she opens up to the world, reminds me – in ways that I cannot fully articulate – that I am moving closer, each day, to my own death.

(Please don’t misunderstand: I am thankful for blessings such as these.)

I will admit it: I am nostalgic for those years when I walked around like an open wound. There was the feeling that something essential about who I was, who I was trying to learn how to become was right there – throbbing at the surface, waiting to be discovered.

And as the years went on, I learned to manage (with varying degrees of success, as anyone who has ever been close to me can attest) that level of vulnerability. As we all do. We learn to modulate our passions. To become in control. And of course, this is a necessary social imperative, to control one’s passions. But where, I can’t help but wonder, does that life force – that passion, that flame – go?

There is much more to say, but time, relentless, moves forward, and so I again turn to Gretel Ehrlich:

At every moment, we’re fractured this way, going toward death, then life, so there is, everywhere, a constant movement, a swelling and deflating, an urge to accommodate opposites. Life magnetizes death and death magnetizes life; we grapple at the edge of things, save ourselves though we don’t know it, thrash in the current, hold out compasses that do not give us true north, and leave behind only the beautiful, dunelike, evanescent ripples of each foray, fossilized in rock.

May these ripples, these bits of energy and pixels of light, leave a record of my journeys out. May they point me where I need to go.