“And I thought of all the bad luck,
And the struggles we went through
And how I lost me and you lost you.”
— Don Henley
There’s a lot of it being bandied about these days. Change, that is. Mostly in the realm of the Politics of life. Despite all the hand-wringing and introspection that goes on in this area, I’ve come to believe that the Politics of life are easy. It’s the Poetics of life that are tough.
Changing your politics by either softening or hardening or completely reversing your positions on issues is such a simple intellectual feat that almost anyone, even politicians and lawyers, can manage it. At bottom, it is mostly a matter of viewing or “re”-viewing your internal map of how the world should be, and taking up those positions or opinions or policies that you believe will lead the world from “what it is” to “what the world should be.”
Thoughtful and engaged citizens of the nation or of the world continually assemble and reassemble their political beliefs to resemble their visions of the world and its continual becoming. All of which implies, to a greater or lesser extent, some individual control over the creation of policies which determine — to some degree — political outcomes.
Politics is the great game of our globe. It is now and always has been the only blood sport played well by both warriors and wimps. This is as it should be since blood or treasure must often be spilled to obtain any one of many possible outcomes. In all this, change may be for the better or the worse, depending on where you stand, but change will come, have its way and send the butcher’s bill.
And the butcher’s bill will always be more than you imagined you would have to pay. In blood and in treasure, the stakes are fates.
All of that is hard and difficult and, more often than not, splits parties, factions, families and friends right down to the living bone. It is played in real time and with live ammunition. But none of it is mysterious. In the end, it involves only the process of politics and, while the rules may be at times obscure, they can still be described and codified.
Not so the changes in the darkest realm of our lives; that realm we know only dimly but tell ourselves, in our error, that we know well. This is the realm of the human heart; a place where change comes more slowly than wisdom accrues and rolls below our conscious minds like a deep, underground river into which we have drilled, through the bedrock of our lives, the wells of love and the wells of hate.
We recognize and celebrate the deep wells of love within ourselves. So much so that we invite others, be they strangers, friends or lovers, to drink from them; to refresh themselves and thus know us as the kind of human being that can love and love deeply; that can make the deeper vows of love in life and, despite setbacks, still cling to them and draw strength from them. To close down and fill in one of these wells we open in ourselves to another is still seen — even in this deluded age of no fault for anything — a large failure in, and a waste of, life. This is as it should be. A deep love is known, by all who have had it granted to them, as the rarest of all moments of grace to be had in this world. Nothing can buy it and nothing replaces it. One can only nurture it or squander it.
We toast the couple who has made it to fifty years of marriage. We are, indeed, amazed these days when half that measure is achieved. We admire the parents who have a deeply challenged child and yet stick by and raise that child into all the happiness of which that child is capable. We honor all those who spend their lives in service to humanity and even, when that service passes all understanding, raise them up as saints, holy or secular.
The water from our deepest wells of love runs clear and clean. It refreshes the soul. Like all the great waters of this life, it carries within it no taste at all other than that which is pure and which is true. Tasted once we carry within us forever a ceaseless thirst for more of it.
Then there are ( because we are only human and caught halfway up the stairs between beast and angel) the darker wells of which we do not speak, but which run just as deep and just as ceaseless within our hearts.
These are the wells of the black and bitter water that we drink from at that awful hour of 4 AM in the soul. That hour when the bad phone calls arrive, when the arguments and the accusations twist in the soul, when nothing is satisfied and sleep is slight and the dawn delays.
Nothing good ever transpires in an argument carried past 2 AM, and it grows almost lethal as it winds on until 4. It doesn’t matter whether or not the argument is with another or just with oneself, let it run that long into the night and you will know — cold and stained — the darkest secrets of the self. And you will drink them down as night after night and year after year they are drawn up from the heart’s core. And the water will be dank and false and carry an ever-increasing taint of poison into your soul. Tasted once, you will have a ceaseless thirst for more of it.
I’ve been drinking my dark bitter glass from my secret well of hate in the dark hours on and off for what is now going on twenty years. That’s a strange measure since it marks just about the same length of time that I loved the woman and was married to her.
But I’m no addict. I’m no alcoholic of hate. No, not me.
Over time I no longer drank from this dark well nightly. I’d lost a couple of years to its intoxicating haze in the 1990s, but I emerged from that in time. Say what you will of the dark water, it did not rule my life, only — from time to time — my nights.
After some years had passed it surprised me to realize that I had not really thought of her for months. It was surprising to notice that my once nightly mantra of secret thoughts centered on all the wrongs done had retreated to a much more infrequent pattern. I was relieved that the thoughts that always spiraled down into the dark (where I would imagine the worst sort of things happening to the woman I once loved above all others) had faded to a sometime thing.
And there it stayed, a sometimes thing. A steady state of hate.
Of course, because it came up from a well of hate I had dug deep into my heart with my own hands, the sometimes thing was always the same thing on those random nights when it filled my sleeplessness. It was a thing fashioned from the shabbiest materials of my soul, all the cheap claptrap that I was capable of pasting to the mildewed walls, all the shoddy stuff that held me up as a mock-heroic “sufferer” at another’s hands, the eternal moist “victim of circumstance,” the paltry, spurned lover. The husband who had been so unjustly cast aside that he had conveniently forgotten his own hand in the matter. On and on it went in a litany of wrongs unavenged. The trial was held and held again and I was the judge, and the verdict on her “crimes against my humanity” was, according to the jury (that would be me as well) always guilty, guilty, guilty.
Then I’d siphon up another glass of black hate from the dark well of my heart, knock it back neat, and get on to my favorite part: punishment. I won’t go into the punishments I would imagine except to say that I have an extremely vivid imagination and that being in the book and movie “American Psycho” would have seemed like an all expenses paid day at Disneyland by comparison. After all, it is the nature of hate to feed upon itself and, like all addictions, demand greater and greater quantities to become sated. Let’s just say I ate my revenge slow and cold with a table knife.
And that was how my private little melodrama played in the showcase of my soul as a decade rolled by and I waited for it, like some depraved Velveteen Rabbit, to become real. I’d hear of her from time to time but never in any great detail. I could have if I’d wanted to since I still retained connections with various members of her family. But I didn’t ask and they didn’t tell. In truth, so dark was the hate I held for her that I thought I didn’t want to hear anything about her unless the news was bad — very, very bad.
I honestly and deeply believed that about myself right up until the day I actually heard some very, very bad news about her.
It came in over the rumor mill of the telephone, just like the game of telephone. Somebody told somebody something. That somebody told somebody else something. And that somebody told me. It was a series of anecdotes four times removed from the subject. Little more than the thin gruel of gossip watered down and enhanced four times over.
The tale told was bleak and awful. It had all the things about it that I had, in my hate, been waiting to hear: disease, destitution, loneliness, and ruination. My waiting cup was at long last filled to overflowing and handed to me.
And I could not drink from it.
I dashed it from my lips. In one stunned instant, I knew that everything I had been telling myself for nearly 15 years about my deepest feelings for this person had been one of the most carefully constructed and meticulously executed lies I have ever told. And one that I had told only to myself. One that I had believed.
It was in one moment revealed to me as a lie because my very first and deepest reactions to the awful news I had been waiting for for so long was neither the glee nor the jubilation I had always imagined, but the exact polar opposite of both these states.
My first reaction was one of shock, of concern, or wanting to know more, of thinking immediately of which resources I possessed that could be brought to bear to help her, no matter what the cost.
A second illumination followed almost instantly upon the first and I saw tumble through my mind a host of bright memories I had long thought erased forever. The roses by the cabin door in Big Sur where we had first become lovers. The nights above the fog moving over the Presidio in San Francisco. Her face leaning out of the window of her loft down on Duane Street in New York as she threw down the keys. The wedding at the Pierre in New York. The flat in Belgravia. The villa in the Algarve, the apartment in Paris and the village house up along the Western Front. Her hand crushing mine as our daughter was born. The picnic in the Boston Public Gardens in a blizzard of blossoms from the cherry trees. The snowflakes drifting around me on that Hanukkah/Christmas evening when I looked into our house in Connecticut and saw her and my daughter lighting the candles on the musical Menorah.
Everything that had been good and true and wonderful across all the years before it all went smash rolled back over me, much as they say life does before a drowning man. Only it didn’t drown me. It pushed me up out of my chair, out into the sunlight on the dock, and there it… Sat. Me. Down.
It sat me down beside the still waters next to the houseboat with a ringing in my ears. Then it cold-cocked me like a ball-peen hammer stroke to the third eye with the truth of what I had been drowning with hate for so long. What I’d been hating darkly was not her at all but what I had let happen, in all the small and large ways that you do, to destroy what we had had and would never have again. A sad and sorry and shabby truth to be sure. Made all the more sad and sorry and shabby for being, in the end, common and ordinary.
After about an hour of this, I got up and went back into the houseboat office and made a call. I knew enough about the ways of the “telephone game” to know that you verify rumors before acting.
In a day I got an answer back that, in fact, nothing very dire was happening at all. Life for her went on and, in the main, that life was good. No threatening diseases, no financial ruin, no more loneliness than is common to single people of a certain age, and that she enjoyed the steady love of our daughter. Some travel was in the offing and, on the whole, everything was all right. Examining some of the details of her recent life made it clear how rumor bred with rumor to yield a dire report, but like all gossip it was only a few flecks of truth that were expanded into a false tragedy. There was nothing in it that called out for my intervention and thus no need to alter the state of no-connection that had suited us both for so long. We’d both, as they say, moved mostly on. No need for change in that regard.
Change. There’s a lot about it being bandied about in the political sphere where, as I mentioned, it comes easy enough. Less so, much less so, when it comes to the change of the heart.
And a change of the heart is, I suppose, what I’ve finally gotten out of the whole long, sad, sorry and sordid tale. In the time since this happened, I won’t pretend that the deep and black well in my heart has somehow been back-filled by God, made whole in some miraculous moment. I don’t think God does plumbing like that. He probably sub-contracts it out to free-will and leaves the heavy lifting up to you. I do know that I’ve managed to cap that dark well in my soul and am busy carrying in stones to keep the lid on.
Just as well because I’m not going to drink from that bitter water again. You need the power of a lie to work that pump, and once you know the truth about yourself you’ve got no handle to work it with. But I’m going to keep piling on the stones. Just in case.