Familiarity Breeds Content

 

the-battery
The Battery, a neighborhood in the east end of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

When you’ve been living with someone for a long time, you become so comfortable with each other that you can sit for hours – quite literally – in the same room, reading, and never have to speak. I’ve often heard younger people say “Look at them. They don’t say anything.” That’s because ‘they’ don’t have to. A glance, a touch on the hand, can convey so much more than words, and by the time you’ve occupied the same space for days and months and years, you’re finishing each other’s sentences and reading each other’s minds anyway.  You engage in the kind of loving banter that others, those outside your particular relationship, would consider hurtful. But you know better.

The two of us have very different personalities that are at the same time very much alike. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. For instance, Paul takes care of the finances because I love spending money, will spend it with impunity, and my maths skills are rubbish. Our ideas of what’s important are vastly different. I remember the time he gave me thirty dollars to get groceries; I brought home a loaf of black bread and a bottle of wine. I’d never seen his face turn that color before. It was almost…puce.

I asked you to get groceries!

This is groceries.

This is a bottle of wine and a round black thing. What the hell is wrong with you???

There were lots of raised voices and slammed doors that night. You do that when you’ve been together a long time and you’re arguing. You call each other horrible names and you scream about things that happened forever ago that hurt you SO MUCH and then you separate and sulk for awhile until someone decides to break the impasse.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say your bread had the consistency of wet cement. I didn’t mean to say you burned the sausages so they looked like the charred fingers of an immolated corpse. 

Yes you did. 

In the beginning, there were always arguments about my cooking. The potatoes were too soft; the potatoes weren’t done. There was too much fish; there wasn’t enough fish. Why did I add so much salt? Why couldn’t I cook – here is the absolutely most damning phrase a spouse or partner can ever utter – like his mother?

So, lots of arguments. Raging out of the house and slamming the door. Going out to look for each other: please come home. In the beginning all you do is argue. Some of the arguments are quite vicious. Your personalities are getting used to each other, jostling against the other person, afraid there won’t be enough room for you both in this relationship. No matter how well-adjusted you think you are, you have neuroses sufficient to drive the other person batshit insane.

But we’re also very alike, too. Everybody says that opposites attract, but I don’t think that’s true. For instance, we are both introverts, although he’s much less socially awkward than I am. We both love to read; we both love British crime drama; we both love ice cream; we both adore our dog, Lola.

lola_oct8_2018
You have to admit, she’s pretty darn cute.

 

We don’t have to say “I love you” but we do, often. I worry – a lot – about the day we will be separated from each other. No matter who we are or where we live and in what circumstances, the people we love will eventually leave us, and we’ll be alone again.

This is what nobody ever says out loud: some day you will leave me and I’ll be alone. Or I will leave you. Once you’ve been together for a while, you realize that, no matter how happy and fulfilling the union, it will end.

I try not to think about it. I have a lot of “issues” (as people say) around abandonment. I always fear – know – I am going to be left alone in the end. It seems a funny thing for me to worry about, seeing as how I’m such an introvert (INFJ if you’re into the whole Myers-Briggs business) but it has defined my life. And I don’t mean ‘mere’ physical dislocation, where the person you love leaves you in one way or another.

There are lots of ways to be abandoned. Not fitting into society or your family of origin is abandonment. Not knowing where you belong is abandonment. Feeling like a stranger on earth, like you are always on the outside looking in, is abandonment, in the sense that initially They abandoned you, but then you abandoned yourself.

Which isn’t to cast blame. Feeling like you don’t belong hurts so much and cuts so deep. Being close to someone who hurts you or rejects you or just outright burns you really hurts. For a long time afterwards you walk around feeling like your skin is gone and all your nerves and blood and feelings are on the outside. Even brushing up against another human being is horribly painful.

For a creative person, abandonment is when blood relatives either don’t understand or don’t care about what it is you’re trying to do, when they’re ashamed of you, because you aren’t a doctor or a success in business, or you don’t have a huge house and twenty-seven beautifully-turned out children. Because you have deliberately chosen what they see as a life of penury so you can do whatever it is that you do – paint, write, dance, act, make sock monkeys. Because you can’t do anything else. Because you tried, and you lost just about every job you ever had, trying to make a go of things in a world where you’re quietly screaming (or sobbing or muttering or praying) I’m an artist and nobody gives a tinker’s cuss. Not just that, but they think that you’re insane to even try.

You’ve felt the sting of abandonment every time someone says something like:

  • Grow up and get a real job
  • Stop wasting your time with that old garbage
  • You’re never going to get anywhere with that
  • How are you going to make a living
  • You’ll kill your mother/father/grandparents/drunk uncle Chester if you persist in doing this
  • I’m so ashamed of you
  • I’m so disappointed in you
  • What’s the matter with you? Are you insane?
  • You’re just doing this to get back at me

…&tc., and so on.

The truth is, unless you are supremely well-connected or supremely lucky and/or beloved of the gods, you probably aren’t going to make a kajillion dollars doing your art, nor are you going to afford that private jet/house in the Bahamas/whatever it is you think defines wealth and success. It ain’t gonna happen, child. And for a lot of people in your intimate circle, including but not limited to your family of origin, what you’re doing will seem to be utter madness. In a lot of ways, it is.

You live in a world ruled by money, influence, connection. It’s a generally accepted truth that these things are achievable only through committing oneself to a course of work that will guarantee them. Most creatives don’t make much money (the lucky ones make enough to live on); their only influence is their immediate sphere (usually other creatives, and if you’ve never witnessed the kind of jealousy and pissy infighting that often occurs in such groups, you’re missing out); they lack the kind of powerful connections thought necessary because, in order to create, you have to isolate yourself.

Art is something that occurs in solitude. I’ve written in crowded cafes. I quite like it, in fact, because after a while others’ conversation and assorted ambient noises fade into an agreeable background hum that drives my creativity. There are even websites featuring virtual noise machines that mimic this environment. 

AS3_+476
One of my favorite local cafes.

But everyone needs other people (some of us prefer them in small doses, but still) – at the end of your creative workday you need someone there to love, to hug, to pester, to bicker with. There’s a famous old saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ but I beg to differ. Familiarity, especially the kind born out of years of close cohabitation, breeds content.

screeching-in
The bar where we first met. Pretty classy, huh?

 

 

 

 

The Flaming Circle of Our Days

“There the Loves a circle go,The flaming circle of our days,Gyring, spiring to and fro. In those great ignorant leafy ways.” – William Butler Yeats, “The Two Trees”.

blowing-leaves

I had coffee today with a new friend I chanced to meet while walking last week. She was walking her dog, a beautiful German Shepherd, when I came along with my Lola. It was freezing cold and we were both bundled to the eyes; nevertheless we stood talking for nearly an hour. This morning she invited me to coffee and we met in a cafe overlooking a quadrangle of sorts, formed by the confluence of no less than five different streets. Well, this is an old city, with 500-year-old pathways that went where they needed to go.  Five streets in a cluster is to be expected.

From where we sat by the window we could see: a church, a hotel, a very short street with very big trees, a very long street lined with brightly-colored row houses, and the entrance to a little road leading to my very favorite cemetery. (I love cemeteries. They are like books to me, each headstone a chapter, some of them very sad.)

The wind today is very high, typical for this time of year, and a great many fallen leaves were being twirled in circles, lifted high in the air and dropped. It was a wonderful spectacle of what I think of as ‘dramatic weather’. Hot, sunny days are all well and good, and no one will dispute the glory of lying flat in a summer field watching the clouds go by, the heat of this good earth soaking into one’s bones. I like fields where I can see but not be seen, lying in a body-shaped coffin of rustling grass and hearing nothing but the wind and the faint hum of drowsing bees.

 

field

High summer is glorious, a time to be drunk on heat and wine and slumber, but I myself am transfixed by late autumn, the changing moods and wild winds of November. I went walking this morning, in winds gusting to 110 kilometers. That’s about 70 miles per hour in old money. On the way down the path, the wind pushed me, and felt like urgent hands against my back – Hurry up, get going, don’t wait, go go – but on the way back I was facing the opposite way, right into the luscious roar and buffet of it. Weather like this makes me feel vibrantly alive. Today I wanted to spread my arms and open myself up to it, breathe it all in. It absolutely delights me, weather like this. I often laugh out loud. I’m not embarrassed by this. I’ve long ago realized, as the first line of Timothy Leary’s famous prose poem says:

You aren’t like them. You’re not even close.

When I finally realized this, when I at last accepted that I am not and will never be like the majority of people, the freedom was astonishing. I may have laughed aloud; I often do. But it took years, a great many years, to get to the point where I was okay in my own skin. There are times, still, when external conditions and my mental illness temporarily gain the upper hand, and I am wretched. There are times I have taken a knife and done harm to myself – not as a serious suicide attempt, although I’ve been there many, many times, but as punishment. Punishment for what I saw as my own failure, for making things that no one asked for, that no one wanted. It takes a great deal of self-loathing to cut oneself to pieces in that way. (I’m being honest with you here, as honest as I know how to be without hyperbole.) Punishment for not being like them. God knows, I tried. Usually I felt like the outsider, and I was, the stranger in a strange land.

But every now and then there were chance meetings with people who seemed to speak the same spiritual language as I did, people who ‘got me’, who understood everything without having it explained to them – and it was like getting a drink of water after a long time of being so very thirsty. It was like being caught in the rain after spending an eon in the desert. That’s what it felt like. And so I could sit with these people and talk and listen – as my friend said this morning in the cafe, “to foster an exchange” – without the social awkwardness and feeling of displacement I almost always feel when in the company of others.

To be a writer, to be an artist of any kind, is oftentimes a profoundly lonely experience. If I’m working, as I have been these past several weeks, it’s not particularly present to me. Then the day’s work ends and it’s time to sleep or eat or do any of the quotidian things we take for granted, and the loneliness crowds in. I’m luckier than most because I have Paul. I’ve had Paul for 33 years. I might not be alive now if it weren’t for him. (I also have a younger sister who has been one of my best friends and giver of constant encouragement but I’ll tell you about her another time.)

But one’s intimate partner/lover/spouse can’t be everything to you all the time. You do need other people, but I’m wary. I’ve had horrible experiences with ‘friends’ who turned out to be nasty people. I’ve sustained a fair few ‘war wounds’. Here’s the difficult thing, though: in order to create, you have to be open to experiences that might rip you up inside. You have to, as the poet Anne Grant told me once, be willing to ‘write from the wound’. It’s not a nice or easy thing to do, and no one wants to do it, but right there is where you get the best stuff.  I won’t lie to you: doing so is hard graft. It’s like being compelled to eat a Christmas pudding filled with broken teeth.

teeth

But what my friend and I both realized this morning in the cafe is that these are our better days. Life is now. In all its ugliness and squalor, in all its beauty and joy, here it is. As the motivational saying goes (I despise motivational sayings) “Life isn’t a dress rehearsal.” So yes, there’s hard work and there’s loneliness and a fuck ton of pain, but you know what? You’re alive, you’re here, you get to live in the world. That’s nothing to sneer at. Maybe it isn’t perfect (hint: it’s never going to be) but you can sit in a warm cafe on a Sunday morning and talk to a friend and look out the window where the autumn wind is whirling the fallen leaves, and be amazed at the spectacle.