Crazy Little Thing | Part Two

Baby, even the losers
get lucky sometime.
-Tom Petty

Something like a promise

Devotion and fidelity are not one and the same.

One perfect August night, I sat with Anna at the edge of an aquamarine lake seven thousand feet high in the Bitterroot Range, holding hands and hearing my heart beat.  I stared with her at the stars and marveled at my undeserved good fortune. Never in my grandest hopes did I think I would have what I had in that moment. This remarkable, lovely person, who cared for me. This elation. This galaxy spread out across the sky just for us. It seemed so perfect, so brilliant: it was sublime.  Two kids who answered something deep within one another had stumbled upon each other and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I couldn’t let the moment slip away without telling Anna how I felt about her.

But I was afraid to. I fumbled  for the longest time, and she waited patiently while I got the nerve to tell her I loved her. Why did I feel I had to, and why was it so fearful to me? Why not just say, “I love you,” or, “Never mind”?

I had to say what I felt, so there would be no doubt what she meant to me. She had to know I didn’t think of us as a summer fling. But telling her so, that meant something more than feelings to me, it was something like a promise, a commitment, that reached ahead of us into an unknown future. I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t control what it would be. I was afraid of what it might require of me, and how empty that made me feel. I didn’t think like an adult, but in some regard, I was thinking as though I already were one. Wasn’t I just a 16-year-old with a girlfriend I was crazy about? Couldn’t I just leave it at that?

No, I couldn’t.  I was ready to move in, follow her across the country, order my life around being with her. I needed for her know that’s how I felt!

“I love you. I’m in love with you.”

* * *

U Siamese

Upper Siamese Lake

We were on a 35-mile backpacking circuit that wrapped up the 7-week YCC program. We were at the Idaho-Montana border, hiking all day, and then camping at a lake every night. The loop started around 3500 feet and climbed up to 6900 feet. It took us to Fish Lake and the Upper and Lower Siamese Lakes. We walked along the Bitterroot Divide, and could see for miles, into Idaho on one side and Montana on the other. It was rough going, but beautiful.

And I was in love.

When we got back to Missoula, we were done with work for the summer, so we had a lot of free time. But Anna was only weeks away from leaving for college. Then, not fully expecting it, I fell off a cliff. Into an abyss, from the high mountain top and crystal air, to a black, foggy ravine.

My heart burns with feeling, but,
My mind, it’s cold and reeling
Is this love baby,
Or is it confusion?
-Jimi Hendrix

L Siamese mirror

Lower Siamese Lake

At first I rode a roller coaster. Down: I saw her off as she boarded a plane to New York and a new life, and I felt the first pangs of her absence. I went to Oregon to visit my family and came back to start my junior year at Hellgate. Up: I got a letter from her and my heart soared. Down: after I read it three times over and wrote her back, every day I waited for reply was just anguish. Up: the next letter came. Down: I waited, and as I waited I went down further, and didn’t see the next up-turn. Then a darkness began to overtake me. Depression, no doubt. Now my thoughts and the other circumstances of my life kept me there. The only thing I could do is look forward to her visit over Christmas.

I wonder if I seemed different to her when she came home. I was. Less than a year earlier when when we first met at a activist group I helped start, I was energized, optimistic, cheerful. But my choices and circumstances had taken a toll. I was slowly slipping down and down. Also, she had just spent three months at Cornell. I couldn’t have seemed as wonderful as I did last summer, when I was the first boy she’d been close to. I was still a boy, no doubt about it. But there were probably a lot of interesting guys at Cornell, who were not boys. Or slackers. Or druggies.

Hmm.

If I hadn’t thought of that already, I sure did after she told me that we should be free to see other people. I didn’t realize it, but that was really the beginning of the end of our relationship. I think I may have wrestled with the real meaning of her proposal. For her, it was in truth an eventual breakup. That, I did not get at all. Ever. Until maybe a couple of weeks ago.

For me it was a change in our relationship necessitated by the 2200 miles between us. It was just a loosening. Opening things up a little.

Um. Right?

My brain wasn’t really prepared to follow where this was going, which was: nowhere. It was going nowhere primarily because I wasn’t the man for her, because I wasn’t a man at all. I was the nice boy back home. A mixed up one at that.

If we were two cars that had briefly been driving together down the highway, she was pulling ahead and away, and I couldn’t keep up because I was slower and weaving from side to side.

And I was about to drive off the road altogether.

* * *

We didn’t actually break up for a long time after that. But a little seed was planted in my mind, a seed of separation that was not just the continent between us, but Anna’s decision that we shouldn’t be exclusive. When, shortly afterward, I left Missoula, and was adrift in Seattle, it gradually became clear that if I were to see someone else (highly unlikely) and never saw Anna, I had nothing to hold onto with her. Who was I to her, if she was seeing someone else in Ithaca?

Any basis I had for being faithful to the love I felt for her was unconsciously but assuredly undermined by the circumstances – but not my wishes. I would fantasize from time to time of somehow getting myself to Ithaca. But I knew there was no place for me there. Ever so gently, almost imperceptibly, I’d been kicked loose.

I should wonder if such a fragile relationship deserves the word love attached to it. The feelings are powerful, certainly. But, on my part, the demonstration, the commitment, the acts and gestures of caring and sacrifice and giving that should issue from it were absent. We both left its future to chance and circumstance, and in the end I wandered off, wishing we could be together but knowing that we probably never would be again.

In the end she wrote a letter to me and it was over. By that time so much had happened to me that I didn’t think of myself as the same person she first knew. How much had she changed in those two years? I had no idea.

This was a good person, one of very best I had known. Thinking I was holding onto her when it was hopeless to do so, being so blind to where I really stood, my oblivion to how different I and my situation (and hers too) needed to be for any continuation of our relationship – all this kept me from seeing that we broke up long before I knew it. We were together for the summer of 1981 when we both came back to Missoula, and I somehow had the idea that we would continue seeing each other like this, for just weeks out of the year. I would have saved myself a some pain  and doubt over the next year and a half had I realized how unlikely that was. It was my waking dream.

I also called my affection and desire and elation love long before I had any idea what it means to actually love someone who’s not a blood relative. The feelings were very real, but of course a lasting relationship cannot be built on living by love as merely feeling,  because feelings are beyond our control. They come and go, rise and fall, and to them must be added promises and commitments kept sacred.  Only these can hold two hearts together over time and change and hardships.

Finally, I had yet to learn that if another person is no more than a mirror to me, that is narcissism, not love. I’ve simply fallen in love with myself through them. To truly love another is knowing, accepting, and giving yourself to another. Romantic love – or any kind of relationship – so often shipwrecks in a storm on the hard, destructive and immovable self.

Ours, though, just faded away: a good thing, I suppose. It hurt a lot less that way. And something immeasurably better was waiting.

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Crazy Little Thing | Part One

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know

-Velvet Underground

Wayfarers

One of the sadder truths of this life is how little we know of love, real, selfless love, rooted in trust and resulting in intimacy. We know little of what it is, how to receive or how to give it. We yearn for it most powerfully, but are so often deceived by its counterfeits into mistaking for them the real thing. Our fears and selfishness are its constant enemies.

As I approach 50, I realize how little I yet understand of real love: the saving, healing, and life-giving love – the real thing. This piece is mostly a confession of my confusion as a boy who wanted it in his deepest heart’s core but had only a meager notion of what it actually was. Perhaps ‘meager’ is too generous.

The first time I fell in love happened the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school. As a teenager I had never had anything close to a girlfriend, and had only one or two dates. I was terrified of the opposite sex, mostly because I figured females were pretty much the opposite sex from me. If I ever liked a girl, I was always afraid to ask her out. The one time I did, it was extremely uncomfortable; I didn’t know how to talk to her and couldn’t bring myself to continue seeing her. I thought it must have been the worst couple of hours of her freshman year.

The previous summer had been whiled away on my odd personal pursuits, virtually friendless and alone. Dad insisted this year that I get a summer job, and told me about the Youth Conservation Corps. I applied early in the year and was accepted. Though it was not all work (we got paid for class time as well), it was my first real job. It turned out to be a fantastic experience. The YCC was a federal youth work-educational program modeled after the Civil Conservation Corps of the 1930s. We spent one half of the week in Missoula, where our time was spent in the classroom and on public improvement projects, such as building and repairing playground equipment, or grounds keeping. In the classroom we learned about various subjects like first-aid and forest ecology. We spent the other half of the week at ‘spike camp.’ There we worked our way through acres of recently logged forest, gathering and making enormous piles of slash. It was hard work on rugged terrain. When we broke for the day, we swam in a cool mountain lake, and spent the evening and night in a tent camp.

The job began on  June 16, 1980.  On the third day of work, I joined some other workers loading a pickup before heading to a work site. As I introduced myself to the others, a girl named Anna told me we had met before.  Earlier in the year I had helped start a left-wing student group, USA, at Hellgate (see Waiting for the End of the World). Audrey, a friend from Sentinel High, came to a few of our meetings, and once she brought her friend Anna. Audrey had talked me up to her, and she already held me in esteem on account of my civil-disobedience arrest on Easter Sunday.

I fumbled a little, trying to remember where we had met, and she told me. That was the beginning of our friendship. We began working together when we could, eating lunch together, and before long our feelings went beyond friendship.

Anna had just graduated from Sentinel High, Hellgate’s cross-town rival. A National Merit Scholar, she would be attending Cornell in the fall. She was bright, soft-spoken, friendly to everyone and cute as a button. To me, however, the most remarkable thing about Anna  was: she was interested in me. When was the last time someone was as interested in me – other than me ? I was astonished by this. It seemed we could talk about anything, and that neither of us – me at 16, her at 18 – had known someone like that. The overwhelming thing about falling in love is not just the feelings you have for the other person, it’s that they return them. When another person reflects backs to you a better self than the one you know, a smarter, more interesting, more treasured person – well, they are a mirror, with an image you haven’t known. If your self-image is marred by a mix of vanity and self-loathing, as mine was, then you will become transfixed by this mirror. Someone outside my own self-obsessed mind wants to be with me. She must be awesome!

As it would turn out, Anna was, in practically every respect, a far better person than I was. But I couldn’t see that, and what it might mean for us, and – at first, anyway – neither could she.

I began having the typical first-love feelings. I thought of her all the time, and time away from work – and thus from Anna  – became far too long.  One day at spike camp, Anna suggested we go see a movie she had heard about.  Seeing John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven at the Crystal Theater was our first date.

One memory from that night has stayed with me. We came before they had begun seating, the first to arrive, so we sat on a love seat in the small lobby. As we sat, a man and a woman walked in from the street, both clothed in long white robes. He had hair down to his elbows and a long beard. Right away I knew they were Children of God. They greeted us warmly and then the man proceeded to the box office. From inside, the owner asked what he could do for them.

“We are traveling Christians and we carry no coin.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I wonder if you might have two seats in your house for two weary wayfarers.”

All our eyes were on the owner.

“Well, this is a movie theater, a business, and I do carry coin.”

“I understand.”

“Mm. Wait until the film is started and everyone is seated inside, and the lobby is clear. You can sit in the back.”

“God bless you, brother!”

After this we began to see each other on the weekends and evenings. We saw some more movies, “Annie Hall,” “The Elephant Man.” We rode our bikes up Pattee Canyon,  stopping along the way to pick huckleberries and eat lunch. Anna met Dad & Jane when we rode with them to Stevensville for the July 4th parade. I knew they would love her and they did.

I wanted her to meet my friends…sort of. The problem was, Anna and I ran in different circles – rather, different kinds of circles – and the differences between my world and hers, between the darkest pathways my mind had begun to take, the whole drift of my life in the last year – it was all highlighted by my relationship with someone whose path was in stark contrast. It was uncomfortable. I should have been traveling her way, but I wasn’t. Anna had a goodness and wholesomeness to her that did not characterize my life, to say nothing of my heart. In spite of beginning to awaken, I was basically self-seeking, and she, to a much greater extent, looked out for others. In many ways I was closed and narrow in my thinking, but her world had a lot more room. She had worked hard in school. I would soon be slacking off. She had steered clear of trouble. But the masthead over me and my friends was Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll.  In fact, it was my interests and aims around these three things (which were not shared by Anna, it should go without saying), that most obviously marked the real content of my character compared to Anna’s. I was torn, because it felt a little like it wasn’t  the real me, but I was going that way nonetheless. Anna as a mirror showed me what she saw, but not the hidden me that only I could see, wounded and a little desperate.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. She wasn’t going for it, at least not the first two. I was crazy enough about her to settle for one out of three. And she liked me well enough to listen to my rock ‘n’ roll. But did we hear the same songs?