Words of Loss

Kathryn Schulz has a beautiful and devastating piece in The New Yorker about loss; the misplacing of essential, everyday objects, and the displacing, disappearing, of the essential people in our lives.

Two weeks ago I traveled alongside an elderly couple who were flying home to Seattle because their forty-year-old son had died the day before. The couple had lost another son years ago: the boy was three when he drowned in their pool. Somehow the couple had survived this devastating loss, had had more children, had had another son who in their words was a ‘blessing and a comfort’ after the loss of the first. Now that second son was dead, too.

Last weekend, near our house, a two-year-old boy wandered outside at night. When the mother awoke at 6AM the next morning and found the toddler gone, she called 911. Like many neighbors, as well as the police, we searched for him. Police found the boy several hours later, exhausted and suffering from hypothermia, in a bramble of blackberries a block from his apartment.

Perhaps it’s the national mood, perhaps it’s my own, but this feels like a season of loss. A season of misplacing, a season of losing that which is closest to us. Life changes on us quickly.

I Can Tell You What's Going On In There

A recent This American Life broadcast detailed a high-school-aged girl’s attempts to wrest herself from an abusive boyfriend.

Of the more disturbing aspects of the relationship—besides the obvious predatorial behavior of the twenty-something male who habitually seeks out under-aged, high-school girls and then systematically disconnects these girls from their friends, their families, and their educational lives—was the cycle of the abuse.

That’s a phrase we’re used to hearing and reading—cycle of abuse—but until you live through an abusive relationship, the phrase is fairly impotent, maybe even nonsensical. To be fair, a persistent cycle of abuse is a somewhat generalized idea. Are we talking about how abused children are more likely to become adults who then abuse their own children? Are we talking about men and women who bring a history of abuse into their coupling and create a hostile environment?

Really it’s cycles within cycles – where cause and effect are blurred. But the important concept is the repetition, the ingrained and habitual behavior. The fact that the cycle is often more powerful than the will of the two people involved.  

Within a couple where verbal, emotional and physical abuse is present, the cycle depends on two people participating. This is a component of couple-based abusive relationships we are uncomfortable discussing – that the abused is somehow complicit in how s/he is being treated. That there are roles each person plays.

The TAL story captures this dynamic effectively. Yes, the guy in the relationship was clearly an abuser, but the girl did not leave when she could have. And the reason she didn’t: Her belief that by staying she could somehow change the boyfriend and salvage their relationship.

To my mind, this is the key—the hook—that keeps the cycle of an abusive relationship spinning. Belief. Delusion. An unwillingness to accept what is for what could be (and will never be).

My own abusive relationship with a girlfriend ended close to fifteen years ago. Even after these many years, I can rarely acknowledge that not only was I in an abusive relationship, but that I both abused, and was abused by, the woman I was with. Our situation was different than the TAL story, because the cycle of abuse saw me and my former girlfriend shifting roles. One of us would be the aggressor, one of us the victim. But the cycle was there, and it continued solely because we refused to acknowledge our reality.

We had met at the University where I worked. Our emotional intimacy had grown over the course of a year or more: I had been in an unfulfilling marriage that was sputtering out into divorce, and she had been in a long-term relationship that she was no longer committed to. In the months before we became involved and moved together to a new city, she was the closest friend I had in the University town during a lonesome and difficult time. When we became physically intimate, it had seemed like a natural extension of what had been developing between us for several months.

The controlling behavior and emotional manipulation began soon after we moved into our very small apartment. Whenever I wanted to leave for reasons other than work—say to exercise or to meet friends—my ex would go silent. Eventually, after a day or two of (literally) not speaking to me, she would then go into attack mode and parse anything I had said during those days of silence; she would find a phrase that encapsulated a betrayal, and go over it again and again:

‘But you said X,” she would say. “You said X.’

The verbal fights following her silences were brutal, hours-long, devastating. My ex-girlfriend was and is an extremely intelligent woman, and she had much more capacity to argue than I did. I couldn’t escape—leaving the apartment would compound and prolong the argument, and then there was my ex’s proclivity for putting herself in random, sexually-charged situations with other men—and she would use the anxiety generated by her own disappearances as an implicit threat.

So we stayed locked together in our cage.

I was unprepared for these episodes, these devastating arguments where we just tore at each other. They began as occasional and then increased in frequency so that within a mere couple months of moving in together, we would be coming out of one of these cycles at the same time we were beginning another one. These many years later, I can’t recall not fighting, not arguing, not hurting each other. In fact, what’s more difficult is remembering the friendship that had initially brought us together. There had been love there once.

So my conduct—my sole option—during any sort of ‘thing’ was to sit in the apartment and let her shut me out until she’d finally fight with me. I went from someone who enjoyed alone time and meeting friends to someone who feared doing anything to break out of the ‘totatlity’ (her term) of our coupling. When she would try to leave the apartment or meet friends or work late, I used the only power I had and quickly turned the tables and seized the opportunity to be as controlling as she was with me.

The physical abuse started the night of my 30th birthday when I had made a comment or a joke or something and inadvertently kick-started another shutting-out-silence episode. I was so over it, so done with having to wait two days to fight and find out what I had done. I wanted to get this latest conflict over with—now—and I grabbed her by the shoulders, shook her and demanded that she stop it.

The physical manifestation of our percolating emotional and verbal abuse was an immediate forfeit. It didn’t happen every fight, but the violence occurred frequently enough that I didn’t feel I had control. A two-day silence would erupt into an all-day and all-night fight which would end when I grabbed her by the shoulders. Then she would leave the apartment, go who knows where, and come back hours later. Silent again.

I felt terrible. Any attempt to address our abusive ways in those few breaks between conflicts resulted in her blaming me. I don’t doubt that she believed this then or that she believes this now. This is conditioning from our shared liberal University education. The man is always to blame when abuse becomes physical. And while I of course agree that a man shouldn’t physically intimidate, grab or strike a woman, there has to be some acknowledgment that men can sometimes feel emotionally-pushed to force an ending to a conflict.

I read books on my own (had to hide them from her), and I saw a counselor who demanded that I immediately leave her and the situation. But I didn’t. I didn’t leave because although I recognized that I was in a dangerous environment that showed no signs of improving, I told myself that I could somehow make the situation better. That I could fix the damned problem and get her to understand that we didn’t need to behave this way.

It didn’t work. The cycle was too powerful, too seductive. We couldn’t stop it on our own.

In my case, an external force finally halted the cycle’s perpetuation. My ex’s sister and the sister’s boyfriend moved to the same city and this prompted my ex to want to move out and live with them. We somehow collaborated decently enough during a very awkward month to get everyone moved, and then suddenly, I was in my own apartment and out of that cycle.

Alone. Relieved. So relieved.

We tried to remain friends, my ex and I, but before we had split up, she had already started a relationship with a man in the law firm where she was working, and when she got her sister hired in a position at the same law firm where I was also interested in applying, it was all too much. A perpetuation of more and more drama, and without being any longer financially interdependent or trapped together in the same apartment, I realized I didn’t need to participate.

I could just stop.

So I cut the ex out of my life. I was fortunate to have the option to do this; many people—many women—in abusive relationships don’t. I got lucky. I know this. And I am grateful.

Although I wish her well, and I have no doubt that she is successful in her career, I will never speak or interact with my ex-girlfriend again. Part of this is because of an overriding sadness about the loss of the friend who vanished, but most of it is because of fear: Would the cycle still be there? Would I behave the same?

I like to think I wouldn't. I have to believe I wouldn't. But I don't want to find out. Ever.


Father (verb) First

I’ve been reflecting on an intriguing comment about parenthood in general, and fatherhood in particular, which I heard during a recent Fresh Air interview with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette about the making of the movie ‘Boyhood.’

It isn’t in the linked transcript summary here, but Hawke reflected on the realities of being a divorced father of two (in the movie and in his life) and remarked that for dads ‘…without meeting your responsibilities, there is no happiness.’

He was speaking about fathers who had abandoned their duties, who had left the raising of the children to the mothers. He reflected on how men can often position at diametrically conflicted angles their familial obligations against their lifestyle pursuits (women abandon their families too, of course, but he was speaking in relation to his male character).

As Hawke puts it, ‘family is the dream.’

It’s just that men often realize—or more likely, admit to themselves—too late that they share this dream.

Or perhaps I’m projecting. 

My wife and I both have fathers who—in one way or another—followed their own paths away from their children, away from their familial obligations. We were both kids during the late 1970s and early 1980s when divorcing parents were, anecdotally speaking, more the norm than the exception, and many of these Baby Boomer men left the children to be raised by our mothers and whatever men happened to be around.

But then, at a juncture years later, these same men have returned from wherever they’ve been—usually, it seems, raising other families—making claims on our time, our attention, our loyalty even. The pain in these men—our fathers—is palpable, a tangible weight of missed opportunity that presses hard upon shoulder, head and chest.

They ask us to lift that weight, to appease them, to forgive them, and even when or if we do, nothing changes for them.

The men in the lives of my wife and me would never—could never—acknowledge or admit this, but what we can’t do for them is give them back the satisfaction of fulfilling the responsibilities that they shirked off. They missed their (many) chances to fulfill a fundamental obligation within themselves, and no amount of effort on the part of the children alleviates the consequences born from the choices made by the fathers.

If this sounds harsh, it’s not exactly intended to. My wife and I have both worked to improve our relationships with our respective fathers, even if the results of those efforts are mixed at best (we children shoulder our own burdens of missed opportunity).

But I have to acknowledge reality, too, and the reality is this: when you have children, the time to put in the work and to be present and to establish a foundation of trust is brutally short.

However undeveloped they may be, kids know from betrayal. They know when someone is hanging in, doing his or her best, making themselves available. And they know when someone has left, physically or emotionally or both.

I'm, of course, reminded of my own behavior and my own habits as, now, a parent myself. I have to work at my own instinctive, selfish impulses and remember to father (verb) first.  Even when it's sloppy and poorly executed (which--come on--it usually is). I've seen the consequences of not doing this, and I want more for myself, not just for my own happiness, but for the happiness of my kids. 

We Are All Makers, Every One

Krista Tippett's recent 'On Being' interview with visual 'maker' Ann Hamilton played to a receptive ear. I often reference the 'On Being' interviews in this blog, and I do this because the conversations are often inspirational and confrontational (gently confrontational, but confrontational just the same), and they almost always challenge my current mindset, even when I'm unaware that my mind has set upon any specific belief or point of view. 

Of the many insights and topics covered in the interview, what resonated strongest was Hamilton's insistence on using the term 'maker' instead of 'artist' to describe her passion. Not only is the term 'maker' more democratic, more accessible to the rest of us, but there is an aspect to it that is more intrinsically human - we are all makers of a kind. And while it's an important part of any artist's development to identify with the term 'artist,' to out oneself as being a creative person who will live or die by this path, it's also important to acknowledge that this declaration and identification doesn't make one special.

A less experienced artist expends energy differentiating herself from the people around her; a more seasoned artist uses that energy to welcome, to include, and to embrace.

At the risk of repeating myself (as I've sometimes been accused)--or of enacting some false humility (which I've often been accused)--every artist reaches a point where despite success or lack of it, the struggle of constantly reminding everyone that your primary passion is to create recedes into simply doing it. Being it. 

Even so, I admit my envy was stoked when Hamilton recounted how the birth of her son barely, if at all, redefined her notion of being a 'maker.' She sees no conflict between being an artist and being a mother because 'making' is inherent in both endeavors. There is more fluidity with being creative in her own life, the caring for her son blurring with her artistic projects and flowing back out so that the artist's life and the artist's work are inseparable.

An aside: in Terry Gross's recent interview with Jennifer Senior, Senior made the observation that women in 1950s and 1960s referred to themselves (or more accurately were referred to) as 'home-makers' while women staying home with their children these days refer to themselves (or are referred to) as 'stay-at-home moms.' Senior's point was that the current generation of 'stay at home' parents emphasizes child-rearing over caring for the home, but it's also interesting to consider that there is more inherent separation from the world in the label of 'stay-at-home' than there is with 'home-maker.' Does focusing on parenting in lieu of a career have the same inherent separation from the people around us that being an artist does? Hmm. 

Anyway, for the many years that I've been writing (and to a lesser extent playing music) I haven't traversed this schism between my passion and my life. I sense separation between the two as I often have to disconnect from the one to do the other. I suspect that this is where more work and more attention needs applying. Maybe the fallacy is that there isn't a balance needed between the two because there is no true separation between them. There is no two; there is only one.

See that? Even when I think the hard work is done, there's more hard work to do. 



In It to Lose It – Your Dreams Just Begat Responsibilities

I have never been prone to realistic thinking.

Meaning, when confronted with the ample evidence that a situation has ceased being healthy, enjoyable, sensible, my mind flips into idealistic mode to get me past the multiple inputs that are telling me that right now, this moment, well, this moment sucks.

Anyone who reads this blog (thank you) knows that I’ve been working on this trait of mine and attempting—slowly, painfully—to recognize when I shift from realistic thinking into imaginative, magical or otherwise unrealistic cogitating. For me, realistic thinking—acknowledging the reality of a situation and not judging it as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but letting the moment be—is also about acknowledging truth. It’s not that ideals or dreams or inspirations aren’t truth, exactly, but when you don’t pair the idealism with the grit of grounded realism, of what’s happening right now, those dreams and visions become a hallucinatory delusion.

The vision has to be backed up by attention and by action.

This is as true in writing as it is in all other worthwhile endeavors.

At crucial times in my life, I’ve had my share of profound realistic thoughts that I’ve subsequently ignored, but these three, even I had to pay attention to:

I don’t need to be married

I don’t need to have kids

I don’t need to write

Here’s what I mean.

Of the many takeaways I gathered from the wrecked train of my first marriage, the one that stuck out above all others is that at any given moment during a marriage (however truncated) one or the other or even both participants can simply walk. They can quit. There is nothing to stop this from occurring. Nothing. No vows or promises or inconveniences are truly going to stop a spouse from bailing if s/he has set his or her mind on this outcome.

Regarding my two sons. At some point during the past 5 bleary years, the thought dawned on me that I didn’t need to have children, that I didn’t need to be a parent, that I could have avoided this whole parenting Sisyphean task and been just fine. This is the sort of realization that I could only come to once I was eyebrow deep in being parent because that’s just the type of person I am, but yeah, I’ll say it again: I could have lived a fulfilled life without being a father.

And writing. Well, writing is hard. It’s not glamorous. The pay is shit. The rewards few. When you strip away the artistic romance of the endeavor, you’re really left with slogging away word by word and wringing your heart and soul over the deformed structure and hoping that someone somewhere can look at the mess you made and think it’s worthwhile, too.

These three lessons—that I don’t need to be married, that I don’t need to be a father, that I don’t need to be a writer—are true. And they’re real. Any of us who happen to be married and or have children or who labor at writing can stop doing these activities at any time we wish. You know this as well as I do.

It may not help you to acknowledge this reality (and don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of fear in even voicing the giddy liberation that quitting evokes), but for me, it’s encouraging because it reminds me why I won’t quit my marriage or why I won’t abandon my children or why I won’t stop writing. I need to know I can quit because I need to also be reminded that I’ve chosen this.

I chose to be married to the woman I love, and I chose to be the father of these two boys whom I literally can’t imagine living without and I chose to be a writer. When you strip out the idealism, and you get to what at times are shitty moments by any rational standard, I have the power to choose how I act and react, how I behave, how I fail.

Failing or losing, these are outcomes. My wife could finally wise up and end our marriage. My sons could loathe me as the worst of all fathers. I could never complete my novels or they could linger forever on my computer, unread and unpublished. But these are results.

It’s quitting that’s the choice. We can’t choose if we lose, but we can choose if we quit.

The way to honor our dreams is to accept the difficult work that is our moment by moment responsibility.