across miles

Loving someone you can’t have makes you cynical, C. writes in a long message to me. The time stamp tells me it is late when she writes. She’s been up for hours.

He sends her a card in the mail – a Thanksgiving card, with a turkey on it. It says, “thinking of you across the miles.”

“Across the miles?” she asks me. Her voice sounds tired on the phone later when we speak of it. “Does he mean across the five miles from his house to mine? Or do you think he means the miles of bullshit he’s put me through? Across the metaphorical miles? Because that’s my guess.”

The holidays can be hard on the heart, it seems.

I walk with my friend K. in the afternoon. It is unseasonably warm for late November. The sky is streaked with pink. She is one of my two friends in divorce mediation. The last session did not go well. He mutters insults under his breath at her and when the lawyer leaves the room, he snarls accusations. “If he had shown this much passion during our marriage, we might not be getting divorced,” she says. We walk past a marina where white boats are tethered to the dock. She’s moved out, has her own apartment, which she’s already decorated for Christmas. It’s light-filled and airy. There is a view of water.

“It’s fine, though,” she says, as we are heading back. “Every time it gets a little easier.”

“And what of P.?” I ask about the man she fell in love with, before she knew that she would leave her husband. “Not thinking about him until January,” she says as we turn the corner to her street. “Check back with me in January.”

We are sitting on a rock formation near a man-made pond in the middle of a sprawling corporate park. The pond is stocked with koi and our children watch in delight as the fish come right up to the rocks, open-mouthed. My nephew pets one like a cat. My sister hands out the snacks she extracts from her backpack. It seems impossible that her bag could hold all that she pulls from it: Popcorn, crackers, bottles of water.

“It’s been a hard few months,” she says, in a quiet moment. Our husbands have wandered away with the children, so it is just the two of us. The sunlight creates rainbows in the jet spray from the perpetual fountain.

“I couldn’t understand what was missing from my life. I have everything I’ve always wanted, but something still felt missing. I think I have figured out what’s been missing all this time.”

I suppose that I expect to hear her say – finally, after all these years – that she wants to learn more about her adoption. That she is thinking about searching. I expect her to ask if we could plan a trip together – back to Korea, to see what we can find out, if anything at all. I am not expecting what comes next.

“I think what has been missing all this time is God. I’ve found God in my life, and I’ve never felt more at peace.”

If there is one thing I have learned when it comes to discussing matters of faith with members of my family, it is that I will quickly come to sound shrill and strident and angry. It is not a conversation in which I tend to present my best self. So I am silent for a time, give her the space to continue speaking. About how she is reading about prayer, praying all the time. Learning how to pray. “I don’t think I ever learned how,” she says. She wants me to say something.

She says: “I just feel so much peace now. I want everyone to know this happiness, this peace that I feel.”

What I say is only this: “I am very happy that you have found something that brings you peace.” She seems unsatisfied, though and the conversation that follows goes a little like this:

“Do you believe in God?”

“I don’t know that I do.”

“What do you think happens when you die?“

“I don’t think anything happens when you die. I think we just die.”

“But what is your belief system? What do you believe in?”

This last question irritates me more than the rest, the way she says “belief” and “believe” like the words themselves are magical incantations. I take a deep breath and dive in. I speak slowly, choose my words carefully, keep my voice at an even volume.

“I think the assumption that one needs to have a whole system of consistent beliefs is false. I think it’s also a false assumption that our lives are supposed to happy, that we are supposed to be at peace. I think to be human is to struggle with the very nature of our human-ness.”

She pauses. She, too, is choosing her words carefully. “And you don’t think that’s kind of sad?”

“Yes, I do think it’s sad. I think life is sad. I think that the fact that we go on at all – in the face of sadness – is what makes us human. The struggle. I guess I believe in the struggle.”

My son runs up to me with a long stick in one hand and a leaf in the other. “I’m going fishing in the pond,” he shouts at us. “I’m using this leaf as bait.”

“Oh, that’s good.” I say: “Be careful,” as he runs back off again. “And remember, this is just pretend,” I call out after him.

In my first job after college, I worked with a woman who was a poet. She had been through the graduate program I would later attend myself. As a young woman, she fought fierce battles against her depression, her bipolar disorder. “I would take the bus from Butler to my workshops, and then, when I was done, I’d get on the bus and head back.” Butler is the psychiatric hospital where for several years, she was an inpatient. She tells me this one afternoon at a staff luncheon. We are standing in a corner of the meeting room while we watch one of our co-workers carry in a sheet cake, set it on the conference table, light candles.

“I can remember riding along Blackstone Boulevard around the holidays when all the houses were lit up and decorated, thinking those people who lived there must be so happy. Because how could you possibly hang all those strings of tiny lights, tie all those bows over the doors, if you were not happy? It seemed impossible.”

I remember my mother’s far less generous interpretation. “Anyone who can spend all that time putting decorations on the outside of their house, you know it’s because they are unhappy inside.”

“They’re hiding something in there,” she’d say ominously as we passed a particularly bedazzled home. “You can just tell they’re hiding something.”

Back at the corporate park, my son has grown frustrated. We’ve moved on to another part of the park and there are smaller, shallower ponds without fish in them. “I want to fish for real,” he whines, poking his stick around in the water. “Well, you would need to have a real fishing pole,” I tell him. “And we’d have to go to a lake or a pond where we were allowed to fish.” He throws himself to the ground and moans. I look away. When I look back at him, he is on his feet, but leaning down to watch the path an ant makes across the stone. “Look, an ant,” he says and as I am about to respond, he brings his sneakered foot down on top of it, hard.

“Why did you do that?” I ask him, a little too loudly. He does not answer.

A few minutes later, I take him aside. Tell him that I understand he was frustrated and angry. But that doesn’t mean that he can hurt other people or things. “Do you understand?” I ask him, my face right up near his. “Just because you’re angry or sad does not mean you can hurt other people or things. Do you understand?”

He looks down at his shoes. “Yes.”

I send my other divorcing friend a message when I get back. Tell her I am thinking of her. She writes back: “This was our first Thanksgiving apart in twenty years.” Then: “It was fine. A little sad, a little lonely. But mostly fine. Spent time with my family. Visited with old friends. There were moments that were lovely, even.”

On the drive back from New York, back to the life I have chosen, I think about my sister’s question. About my belief system. About whether my own inability to find God has left me bereft in significant ways. “Doesn’t it make life seem sad and empty without a purpose, without thinking there is some sort of plan for you?” she had asked, but there was no time to answer before the kids came swarming back, shouting and reaching for our hands.

Had there been time, I think maybe I would have tried to say this: Empty? No, I don’t think so. A little sad, a little lonely at times. Many, many lovely moments. And mostly, fine.

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.