A Love Affair

Some of my most potent memories of the time I spent in college are of lazy mornings that turned into lazy afternoons that turned into lazy evenings in which a book that had grabbed me would completely consume me for those hours.  My tape-player would cycle and recycle Sunny Day Real Estate or that one Portishead album or the eponymous Stone Roses album or REM’s Monster and I would read and read and read.  

I didn’t give up my illusions – I still pined for a partner, I still imagined myself receiving awards for my brilliance, I still imagined traveling foreign lands, I still imagined romantic lonely cabins in the deep woods.  But I did give up, for that moment, for that day, the drive to be productive.  I believed, I think, at the time, when I was youngish, that there was plenty of time for partners and productivity and accomplishment.  I believed I had time.  I would lie in bed, soft light through a basement window, or on a blanket in a park under a tree, and I would give myself over to the book that had me at the moment.

I read widely, and prolifically.  It started when I was a child with access to the little book shelf my father built into a random wall in the basement across from my bedroom that contained my mother’s science fiction collection.  Lots of Isaac Asimov.  But when I got out into the world, I looked deep and hard for books that brought some kind of connection, some kind of transformation.  I read about fictional poetry scholars falling in love.  I read nonfiction accounts of adventure driving across the Americas.  I read about seagulls finding themselves.  I read about the backrooms of Parisian bookstores.  I read famous things and obscure things.  

I drowned myself in used bookstores, using only the eclecticness of book covers as a guide to finding the next thing I’d absorb.  Each book seemed to me to be the truth.  Each one that spoke to me seemed to speak the truth.  I wasn’t discerning.  If it was transformative, I bought into it.  Which is a dangerous way to live.  Many books, like many ideas, feel true but really aren’t.  Ayn Rand is a good example.  

But for the most part, this tendency of mine was part of a larger inner exploratory drive that seemed to inform my decisions.  I loved science.  I loved art.  I felt like in poetry there ought to be some kind of universal truth, just like in the stars or oceans there ought to be some kind of blueprint to describe the whys and hows of being alive, or at least a way to ecstatically transform oneself into . . . well into something more beautiful, more perfect.  In retrospect, though misguided as the many things of youth might be, the pursuit of that kind of transformation was in and of itself something beautiful.

I think grad school killed it.  There were so many things we were supposed to be.  We were supposed to make the next new great thing.  We were supposed to produce and produce and produce.  The thing that made for success was constant and unending production.  And really, maybe grad school in this sense is just a metaphor for growing up.  We grow up, we find careers, we find mates, we make children, our lives fill with the things that disallow spending all day reading a book.  

But maybe more than those things, I just didn’t see the possibility of transformative experience in books anymore.  It is possible to make a living, or have children, or be a partner and still carve out a day for reading a transformative book.  I think I just didn’t feel like I deserved it anymore.  At some point, maybe slowly over time, I came to feel like I wasn’t worthy of ecstatic transformation.  How did that happen?

I don’t really know.  It is a tangle that has only recently become visible to me by the brutal auspices of shocking and deeply penetrating loss.  That I allowed it to happen is clear.  Whatever influence has come from those around me and from my own illusions of what is important in life, drifting away from myself in this way was allowed by me.  There is value in understanding how we come to be the way we are, but that is a topic for a different essay.

Here’s a story about the power of loss:  

When I was in my twenties I found work at one of the world’s most unusual museums.  This museum was four parts violence reduction education for children, three parts glass art museum, and three parts blind nationalism.  I worked mostly with exhibitions and art handling, but one of my jobs was to be an assistant to the museum founder, the inimitable and indomitable IJB.  He made up the J, to his middle name – not standing for anything, just because it made his name sound more commanding or important.

He’d call down to my little office, which was literally a converted broom closet and roughly tell me to come up and bring my note pad.  I’d jump to – abandoning whatever work was in front of me – and race up to his ornate office.  Then I’d sit quietly across from him, taking notes, asking clarifying questions, putting gears in motion of how to complete his requests in the most satisfactory fashion.  We worked strangely well together. 

IJB was a retired publishing magnate, the originator of TV Guide among other things.  He’s years passed on now.  At the time I knew him, he was a firecracker, full of life and vigor well into his eighties.  His one rule in life, and at the museum, was that nothing could stay the same.  Constant evolution, constant betterment, was his mantra.  He’d dream up ideas for new exhibits and I’d make little mockups made of foam-core that would turn into room sized mock ups made of overlapping sheets of 11×17 printouts.  He’d bark instructions and I would jump – in fact everyone around him would jump.  

Over the months I think he came to trust me a little.  Maybe he saw our relationship as something of a father/son kind of arrangement.  His meetings started to include impromptu life lessons.   He’d tell me the story of going bankrupt not once, but twice during his rise to wealth.  He’d intentionally call me up to his office before taking a call, then have me sit and wait quietly while he spoke to whatever wealthy acquaintance he’d be extracting donations from, following up with pithy bits of wisdom.  “Now that,” he’d say, “was a truly wealthy person.”  He’d smile.  “You might think I’m wealthy, but don’t ever sit on your laurels,” he’d bark.  “There’s always someone out there that makes your wealth look pathetic.”

One day while examining the latest iteration of a mock-up I’d produced for an exhibit whose theme was DNA – how DNA scientifically proves that all people are related, that we are all one people, and that we shouldn’t fight wars, and so on – he turned to me and said, “Do you know what it costs to run this museum?”

I shook my head, innocently.  

“Twenty-five thousand dollars a week.  This,” he said both menacingly and triumphantly, “is what it costs to have this museum.”  I don’t remember saying anything.  “Do you know why it’s here?”  More innocent head shaking.  “It’s here because I died.”

Before I could say anything to that he launched into a story about going to lunch one day, and afterward walking down the sidewalk minding his own business when he suddenly had a stroke.  “Right there on the sidewalk,” he intoned.  “Struck down.  Right there on the sidewalk.  And,” he said, “I knew right then that my life was over.  All of it, the publishing business, all of it.  Gone.”  

Again, I don’t know what my response was, but IJB just smiled.  “I knew right then,” he said as though he’d unlocked a buried treasure chest, “that God was asking me to make this museum, that this would be my legacy.”  There was a silence possible in his richly decorated sanctum that would be hard to replicate.  “Always evolving, Jay,” he’d say.  “Always moving.  I lost everything, but am blessed every day.  I am grateful for every day.”

Now, IJB was a man who understood the power of a good story, and how much of his story for me that day was apocryphal, I’ll never know.  But it’s important not to dismiss the power of loss.  Some losses are acute, some accrue over years, but there is power in the shaking up that happens when losses descend.  

In my case, I feel shaken awake.  There isn’t some universal truth that has been revealed, but a reminder that wonder – which is really a kind of joy – can only be produced by allowing for a multitude of truths.  I remember now, what it feels like to spend a day reading a deeply transformative book, for I have just done so with Lulu Miller’s amazing amazing Why Fish Don’t Exist.  In it she writes:  Far better things await outside the tunnel vision of your goals


And what does it feel like?   It feels like falling in love.


I made this painting when I was 20. The drumbeat was loud.

In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows – a compendium of newly and creatively nominated, but ubiquitously felt sorrows – John Koenig writes of ‘ioche,’ the anxiety of being an individual:

You never really get used to the feeling of being an individual.  How strange it is that you’re born alone and die alone.  That you alone must carry your own body, and your own name.  Nobody else can feel the pain you feel, or hear the ringing in your ears, or will ever be able to share an unforgettable dream.  You alone manage this particular storehouse of memories, being the only one to remember certain things, or the only one to forget.

There is a war between those that think aloneness is sad, and those who think it is exultant.  Plucky internet memes attempt to convince lost and ambling souls scrolling the back corners of the internet thought desert, that being alone doesn’t necessitate loneliness.  Rather, they say, aloneness bears the fruit of solitude.  Solitude is beautiful, they say.  And it is.  Certainly. 

Solitude breeds ideas that cannot stand to be stirred by many hands.  Solitude is for looking long and deep into distant clouds to find shapes and forms and stories previously unimagined.  Solitude is for finding peace amidst such conflict as we draw to ourselves in these times. I would write a love song for solitude, if I had any talent for such things, but the medium wouldn’t allow it. There is a reason that sad indie folk singers croon of hearts yearning for connection. And I love me some sad indie folk songs. I have whole Pandora stations devoted to such things.

My kids give me all kinds of crap for being a lover of sad indie folk songs.  Why?  They ask.  These songs are so saaaad, they opine.  Because sad songs bring such joy!  Obviously.  Musician Phoebe Bridgers, who is much more articulate in her (sad indie folk) music than in this interview says:

“Some people who misunderstand sad music are like, “Why?  Why would you want to, kind of soak in that feeling?” … There’s a weight lifted because it’s just someone that you look up to laying all this out, that you relate to.”

I really struggle with the weight of expectation and aloneness.  I know connection with others is critical to mental health.  That’s a known fact.  But does that mean that our lives are incomplete unless they are fully intertwined with another?  There isn’t anyone out there writing sad indie folk songs about being full of joy on your own.  It’s the reason there are so many dating apps and is a facet of just about every song, book, film or TV show you can think of.  

Find a partner, the ancient drum beats.  Find a partner.  

Society desperately wants us to be melded with another.  Identifying one’s self as half of a whole is a kind of social passport.  Having a partner is nearly a requirement to be a successful politician.  Our tax code generously rewards two person households.  As recently as the 60s and 70s a woman couldn’t get their own bank account without a husband.  “Oh,” the room exhales.  Someone has verified you as a person by attaching themself to you, attesting in the deepest way possible to the validity of your reasonableness to join civil society.

But I don’t really give a shit about society, these days.  More and more, society doesn’t really give a shit about me.  In today’s world, banks couldn’t care less what your marital status is.  In the Trump era, whether you’re married or not is the very least concern about social fitness.  The tax code hasn’t changed, but boo-hoo, we have to pay taxes.  You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.  I can say with certainty that spending time with someone who doesn’t really like you anymore is a waste of time, no matter how much pressure there may be, from within or without, to be half of a whole.

Still, the drum beats like deep tones in a racist colonizer flick where white heroes are lost in the jungle and just start to realize by ominous, rhythmic sounds that dangerous natives are near. 

Blue eyes whip around – where is that frightening sound coming from?  

Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  Fiiind a paaartner.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.

Raise your machete.  Back toward your blonde safari partner.  

“Chad?  Do you hear that Chad?”  

“Yes.  They’re close now.  Get behind me Karen!”

Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  Fiiind a paaartner.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.

Still, I am torn.  Does having a partner complete an otherwise incomplete person?  Is that feeling – and I feel it every day, all the time – the true expression of something deeply real about being a person?  Or is it yet another leftover relic of messaging I’ve been bombarded with from a time before I can remember by society, by my parents and family, by the amplification of my own inner echo chamber?  

My own inner echo chamber is probably the biggest culprit.  I remember in my early twenties, I would fall asleep, alone, and look out the window into the night sky and sing in my mind a line from a Sting song, which begins simply:  A-nother night finds me alooone.  Poor me.  I remember thinking, during this same chapter in my life, how brave it was that after her husband of 50+ years died, my grandmother stated, in no uncertain terms, “If I can’t live with Bayliss, I’m not interested in living with anyone else.”  And she didn’t.  And I think she was pretty happy in her later life before dementia led her down darker, falser paths.  

And I know.  I know.  I’m emerging from a long season of loss and grief.  This isn’t the time for making grand pronouncements.  This journal is love letter to my kids – so that if they’re interested, they might know their father better.  So kids, here’s something I struggle with and always have.  I even struggled with it while I was married.  I struggle with knowing whether there is something fundamentally missing from a person who is without a partner and if I should then heed the drum beat calling us to find a partner . . . fiiind a paaartner.  

Or if I should fight it – strive to overcome a false sense of emptiness unnaturally put there by all the forces that have shaped me.  To be held by someone who truly cares for you is a marvelous and wondrous thing.  But so is waking up without obligation next to a purring cat who is simultaneously the softest thing in the known universe and the sharpest thing.

The sharpest and softest thing in the known universe in an unmade bed no one will care is unmade.

I believe, more and more, in the power of intention – that we draw to us the things we ask for and work toward.  It’s overly simplistic, but I do think intention has power.  It shapes our vision of how to walk in the world.  On this one, I’m torn.  “Wait and see” isn’t a very strong intention.  But kiddos, it’s what I’ve got.  So it will have to do.