July 6, 2006

A Change of Heart

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 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 the amount of blood that has to be spilled to obtain any of many possible outcomes hangs in the balance. In all this, change may be for the better or the worse, depending on where you stand, but change will have its time and send its butcher's bill.

And the 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 descried and codified.

Not so the changes of 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 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 lent 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 nuture 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 2AM, 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 fifteen 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, no alcoholic of hate. No, not me.

It is true that over time I no longer went to this dark well nightly. I'd lost a couple of years to its haze in the early 90s, but I got out of that in time. Say what you will, 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, and all the years of my child's life stolen from me, 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 sometime 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 sometime thing was always the same thing. It was a thing made out of the shabbiest materials of my soul, all the cheap claptrap that I was capable of nailing to the walls, all the shoddy stuff that held me up as a 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. The wronged father who could not be bothered to look at his own failures when the spite and the maliciousness was so clearly all on the other side.... On and on it went in a litany of wrongs unavenged. The trial was held and held again 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 perverted and worn 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 honesty and deeply believed that about myself right up until the moment I actually heard some very, very bad news.

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 cup was filled to overflowing and handed to me at last.

I could not drink it. I dashed it from my lips. In one amazing 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 what of my resources could be brought to bear to help her no matter what the cost.

A second wave followed almost instantly upon the first and I saw tumble through my mind a host of 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 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 onto the dock, and it Sat. Me. Down.

It sat me down beside the still waters of the inlet 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. All the more sad and sorry and shabby for being, in the end, so very common and ordinary.

In a short while 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 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 weeks 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 at last and am busy carrying in weights 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 weights. Just in case.

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Posted by Vanderleun at July 6, 2006 6:56 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

What profits a man to have his revenge, and become the thing he avenged himself upon?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at July 6, 2006 9:42 PM

Which illustrates that there is no bad situation that can't be made just a little worse if you're willing to work at it.

Posted by: ed in texas at July 7, 2006 5:12 AM

“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee..."

Posted by: Christopher at July 7, 2006 5:32 AM

Human nature, no change, never has, never will.

Posted by: jeffersonranch at July 7, 2006 6:34 AM

It's a rare, rare gift to make the blood and guts of human experience both universal and so painfully unique in one telling. In the reading, perhaps others will see that they too can let go of the past. You do us all a service and I thank you for it, Gerard.

Posted by: AskMom at July 7, 2006 9:29 AM

Very beautiful, very moving, and so very very true. Deserves far more readers than just this blog.

Posted by: Peter at July 7, 2006 10:01 AM

One may well ask: who is that envious liar and internal propagandist--for he is a universal archetype with a personal inflection--and what does he really want with us?

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at July 7, 2006 12:39 PM

Gerard, you have stared into the face of Satan himself: the adversary spirit who knows no word but No. And you have come out the better man.

We all carry a bit of the adversary spirit in us. It's what permits the sort of evil flower you've described to take root in our souls. At some level we can't help but believe that good for "the other" means harm for us. When "the other" is the focus of some aliquot of personal pain, it can give rise to appalling fantasies, and (thankfully) less often, appalling deeds. I know; I've been there too.

I feel privileged to know you.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at July 7, 2006 1:33 PM

Gagdad, you put your finger on a very fine and sharp point. Those who have trouble believing in the Lord of All Things perhaps should consider the constant work of the enemy of all good inside themselves. In the eternal scheme of things, how can there be such evil without the good to oppose? And if our selfish and shortsighted drives are the work of the one, what is the work of the other?

Faith and grace are cast into startling relief by the light of opposing forces. No dogma, buildings, hierachy or artifacts are needed to see God and know His will. Just turn everything upside down that you desire in your most closely held self, and there He is.

Posted by: AskMom at July 7, 2006 4:36 PM

Thank you, Mom. This essay brought into sharp focus some recent scuffles I have had with my own internal saboteur. You'd almost swear they were your own thoughts.

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at July 7, 2006 9:22 PM

What a remarkable and terrible road to grace. That's the worst thing about grace - it's freely given, but sometimes even a free thing costs you something, even if it is simply the self-defense mechanism you have held in place for such a long time. A thing may well be, as Yeats said, a terrible beauty.

What a story. Thank you, G; it must have been difficult to write. Yer still brill, lad! And you live in a houseboat? Too cool.

Posted by: the anchoress at July 7, 2006 11:29 PM


Thank you kindly for continuing to share your story of what I pray is of ongoing and real redemption.

On most things with you I agree. However, with one I now beg to differ: Is there really no reason to have occasional and cordial contact with your erstwhile wife? Even in spite of your painful recent history? And even if she says she doesn't want it at first?

As an (increasingly conservative) woman who went through a messy divorce from (an increasingly liberal) man who is close friends with our (increasingly messiahnic complexed former VP), I can assure you that I never wanted to have any contact with him again. I wanted to divorce him, move on, move out and forget the whole thing.

And then Grace, yes again, stepped in to teach me through new friends and colleagues, that complete cut-off from him was not worth it for one simple reason:

The children. Our children. Our now grown children.

It took me quite a while to consider this wisdom and a good deal of outisde resources. I have always been a rebellious sort.

I learned that cutoff creates too much stress in the children and often forces them to choose between uncommunicative parents.

Today, I have a cordial if only occasional relationship with the man who was also the great and inseperable love of my younger life and for many years thereafter. I have truly moved on and so has he (he is busy saving the planet for all of us!). And I would never go back.

This has taken a huge amount of work but I see the results in our offsprings' eyes. It has set them free to be with both of us in new and interesting ways. And I am glad that someone got to me to stop the silence between us for them.

Best wishes,


P.S. Now I am trying to convert them back to being conservatives!

Posted by: Webutante at July 8, 2006 9:30 AM

Thank you for a most moving and powerful essay--all the more so because it come from the spirit, with a depth of truth about that darkness we all know to be quite real, though we struggle constantly to deny it.

I have posted a few more thoughts, and a link for my readers, here. Thank you again for sharing your soul--we are all the better for it.

Posted by: Dr Bob at July 8, 2006 9:43 AM

There is nothing perhaps so generally consoling to a man as a well-established grievance; a feeling of having been injured, on which his mind can brood from hour to hour, allowing him to plead his own cause in his own court, within his own heart,—and always to plead it successfully. From Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope

Posted by: Ray at July 10, 2006 7:59 AM

Dear GvdL:

Thanks for this powerful reflection, and for all you do on this must-visit website. You said:

"..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 would only comment that:

(i) if God causes us to make ourselves, and

(ii) if he is the root & hidden fountain of our existence, will, reason, our very physical existence-- and is therefore ALWAYS creating us--

then it's hard to draw lines about who did what, and even (sometimes) what is happening in the mysterious inward lands of our soul. God is not another created being: his relation to us is maker to (being) made & remade.

Therefore, as St. Paul teaches: ".. continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.." (Philippians 2:12b-13)

To use a modern cliche, "It's a both/and thing".

Kindest regards from a fellow sinner,

CaNN Webmaster

Posted by: Binky, WebElf at July 10, 2006 8:04 AM

Remarkable. I can relate. Especially right now. ELC.

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter -- bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

Stephen Crane

Posted by: ELC at July 10, 2006 10:59 AM

As our wise friend Dr. Lew opines: It's just not easy to be human. with the purchase of a ten dollar transistor radio one gets a comprehensive instruction booklet, including a troublushooting guide. With a human life,however, we are left to find our own way, and a life is more complex by some margin. You got a raw deal, from where I sit, and I am glad you have begun to expunge bitterness; I am sure it is not easy.
Your Friend,

Posted by: flannelputz at July 11, 2006 10:23 AM

This is an interesting piece, well-written. It's fascinating to me because I *know* that it is the story of what lies ahead for my own husband, whom I am leaving...he will blame me, and the kids, for many years to come, I am sure.

Posted by: Felicity at July 12, 2006 10:17 AM

You're very honest, Vanderleun.

Beautifully expressed.

Posted by: Kip Watson at July 18, 2006 6:27 AM

Thank you, Gerald. Thank you for writing this.

Posted by: newton at August 1, 2006 6:24 PM
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