The world is not made of atoms, it is made of stories.
There are stories we have heard or read, stories we tell ourselves, and stories we live. Some are the choicest of relics and others are consigned to the flames.
I have been telling myself a story about how to live for quite a while. It’s time to revisit the story line to see if I may be missing something. That is why I am traveling to the village of Introd, in the Aosta Valley of Italy. To live up to our promises we must tend to them. They should not be broken, especially those we make to ourselves. Even if my promises are silly, meaningless, or costly, I work hard to keep them. It’s an illness of sorts. Some call it a well-meaning stupidity; others call it obstinacy; I call it a foolish integrity. Whatever it’s called, I am going to be where I said I would be and, for me, that is never a small achievement.
I need to get away. One might call it a vacation but I do not. Vacations are a way to change the scenery without changing the players. But the context of a problem is the only context available to the person with the problem. The scenery doesn’t matter. I am seeking contextual change, a new way of engaging reality, not a change in scenery. Like a bolt of lightning that levels differences in potential, I am looking to adjust the delicate balance between separateness and connectedness. I am looking for lightning.
When I am embedded in the context of my life, I have no contrasting frame of reference other than close friends who are obligated, by the closeness of our relationship, to tell me what they see/think. Without such input, a life lived alone leaves one at the mercy of doubts, fears, and confusion. Such isolation is what likely contributed to Ted Kaczynski becoming the Unabomber. Solitude without community can be fatal. But even another’s perspective is sometimes insufficient. There are times when it is prudent to remove myself from the context of my life, stand back, and examine it as an outsider. To see myself as perhaps others see me. To clarify the intent of my life.
But what exactly is the contextual problem I am looking to solve/understand? My primary context is a life lived alone. I find few companions better than solitude. Like an old bear, I prefer the company of trees and believe that a taste for the beautiful is best cultivated out of doors. It works, but it has limitations, particularly the travails associated with fancied self-sufficiency. I fear I have placed too much weight on the side of separateness and my connectedness is beginning to fray. In a world rich with possibilities for connectedness, I suspect I may be missing something. Specifically, I wonder if my life would be enhanced by being in a “romantic” (surely there are better words) relationship, that perhaps there’s something “unnatural” or “wrong” with generally preferring to be alone.
Most people enjoy being matched in a partnership and work to establish and maintain these relationships. No one would suggest that it’s easy. Others, such as I, prefer solitude and being on their own. Likewise, I believe that not one of us would suggest that it’s easy. It’s impossible to ascertain which life has a higher degree of difficulty or provides more enjoyment, although my sense is that it’s like an embattled fortress, where everyone on the inside wants out and everyone on the outside wants in.
Living alone, one forgoes the “vaunted intimacy” of sharing life with another person (sounds a tad jaded, n'est-ce pas?). The idea that sharing one’s life with another is the pinnacle of human achievement has led many a man and woman to the altar and there’s much to be said, and has been said, about the joy that way of life brings. I am often envious. A cousin of mine and his lovely wife just celebrated 50 years of marriage. It’s inspiring to know this. Being in a long-term relationship is a rich challenge and, to me, it makes climbing the Matterhorn look like child’s play.
I have lived alone for almost 40 years. I have been married twice, the first, at age 20 for 5 years and, after an interval of 11 years, a second marriage of 9 years. I was fortunate to have been loved by two extraordinary and beautiful women. I suspect my selfishness and childhood development contributed largely to the failure of both unions. I learned early in life that I do not need anyone, I can and must do this by myself. Sad, but workable.
Kind of. Sort of. But is it still viable? Was it ever?
There is a trite cruelty in the logic of certainties that I subscribe to and use to comfort myself. There seems to be at the bottom of my life something like moaning, or is that desire? Am I, as some friends have suggested, just kidding myself about being content? They assure me that life is “better” lived in tandem, that even on the ark, they had to go two-by-two.
I will ask Marci what she thinks. She would know.
Whenever Marci looks at me, she tilts her head like a dare. She is stunningly beautiful and sings like a diva. I am in love with Marci and she dares me to tell her. I am not in love with her beauty or her voice. I love her because she is damaged and doesn’t wish to be fixed. She loves her wounds and licks them as if they were candy. Like Levon, she wears her wounds like a crown. We are forever exhorted to become “better”, to improve ourselves, but Marci loves herself as she is.
I do not love the beautiful and well-made as I love the wounded. I am a wabi sabi lover. The wounded inspire me. They teach me. They are kinfolk.
We are shaped by love and injury but often consider love the better artist. It isn’t always so. Trees that grow along the tree line, in poor soil and ravaged by wind, are often bent and twisted into grotesque shapes that are beautiful because of the damage. So, it is with us. We are bent and shaped by the soil in which we were planted and the storms that visit our lives. Our advantage is that we can walk. We can, and often do, seek new soil and shelter from the storm so as to continue to grow. Italy is new soil, different winds, and a chance for lightning.
I believe we can be more beautiful because of our injuries. We do not need to seek them out, rest assured; injuries will come. Many lovers seek to undo or fix the damage they see in another but deep love does not. Love’s blindness more often sees what is not there than what is. Deep love is based on the acceptance of imperfection and the transient nature of all experience.
I have known Marci for 23 years. Because synchronizing our lives has never been easy, we meet at long intervals that tend to increase are value to each other. Sometimes a year or more goes by without a meeting. With each reunion, we act the part of a young couple meeting on a train platform in some 1940’s movie. She sees me, tilts her head in recognition, and runs to me. I catch her, lift her up and we kiss like the lovers we are. When we part, we enact a different scene, like old friends, we politely hug and shake hands. We cherish somber goodbyes that carefully avoid the pain of too much tenderness when parting.
Marci was married but got divorced shortly after we first met. I was not the cause. We met in Washington, DC when I was working for American PCS. She was almost the perfect age to be my mistress. I was 50 and she was 31. The French have a saying, or it has been attributed to them, that a mistress should be half your age plus seven years. We both agreed that we were close enough. It made it more acceptable for us to have a mathematical basis supporting our relationship.
I am aware that the concept of “a mistress” may now be considered passé and that some may think it sinful or sexist. Some may well object to the logic behind the age calculation. But, what if you knew that we were happy, even if momentarily? Would you still object or just assume that we were fooling ourselves? Somehow you surmise we can’t be happy, that such relationships simply cannot work. You are wrong. We are quite happy but our happiness is carefully circumscribed to moments realized during infrequent liaisons. These moments become jewels, treasured against the “sometimes pain” of living alone. We have always maintained our relationship in a cloak of secrecy as it adds to the romance and saves us from unwanted commentary and unnecessary explanations.
At our last rendezvous, years ago, Marci asked that I take her picture. I took a dozen shots with my phone and she reviewed them. “That one”, she says and “this one”. “Delete the others, I do not like them.” Marci does not use contractions, it’s always “do not” rather than don’t, I will not rather than “I won’t”. It’s part of her attractiveness.
She asked me to get large prints made so that she could hang them in the bedroom. When the prints were ready, we hung one over the bed and one on the wall across from it. Marci wants to see herself as she wakes up and as she goes to bed. She is vain, but not in a disturbing kind of way. When she looks at the pictures she sees her wounds. This reminds her that she is her wounds and that the wounds are not simply a part of her. She knows where her beauty comes from and doesn’t pretend otherwise.
We have no pictures of us together. I keep but a single picture of her and she has one picture of me. Each time we meet, we tear up the old photo and make a new one. We do not want our history to become our gravity. As we are infrequent lovers, we wish to recognize only what we are now, not what we have been. Some photos are funny, or sexy, or posed but each has us smiling broadly. I sometimes lay my photo on top of hers and remark how well we fit, she playfully suggests that it’s better than when we are in bed.
Not having a photo of us together makes keeping our secret easier. Three can keep a secret if one of them is dead. Our aversion to keeping photographs is also partly borne out of the experience of Eadweard Muybridge who, in 1871, when he was 41-years-old, married 21-year-old divorcee Flora Shallcross Stone. Flora became romantically involved with Harry Larkyns, a friend of theirs. Muybridge found a photo of his child with "Harry" written on the back in Flora's handwriting, suggesting that she believed the child to be Larkyns’. Muybridge tracked down Larkyns and upon finding him, shot him point-blank. Muybridge was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide. An innocent photo, a name on the back, then a dead man.
I was hoping to see Marci once again, perhaps in Introd, as it was a place she had suggested we visit shortly after we first met. She is the one woman I know who seemed to enjoy being alone as much as I and never sought to apologize for her life. She loved our infrequent liaisons and was clear that nothing more would ever come of it.
Then lightning struck. Some months ago, I received a letter postmarked from Washington, DC. In the envelope was a sheet of Crane’s Kid Finish 100% Cotton Fiber paper and a photo. The paper held a pencil sketch of her eyes. The photo was of me, the last one I had given Marci. On the back she wrote, “We loved each other, remember only that”. The brevity of the message was hallmark Marci as was her complete and devastating sincerity. She had found an answer to the murmuring in her life and, in doing so, perhaps answered the question I was hoping to ask her. There will be no further contact, of that I am certain. I am off to Italy next year.
I learned a new word today,
“insouciant” – blithely indifferent, carefree.
I will use it in a sentence.
I wish to have insouciant feelings about us.