Joie de Vivre?

I was questioning “who I am” and “what’s my nature” in my last. But look at the language – who’s the I that wants to know, and who is it she thinks she needs to know? Am I one, or am I two? More likely I’m four or eight or 73 because what what I think and what I feel seems to shift so often. So is THAT who I am, the sum of what I think and feel?

I don’t fucking know. When I’m focused, like when I’m writing, or when I’m at work, I don’t sit around pondering. I’m just doing what I’m doing. And when grief and sorrow grip me by the throat, I choke. When they loosen, I breathe easier. And the moments are as they are.

But then I’m home and gone’s the distraction between me Philip’s death, me and Natalie’s moving, me and what-all I think is wrong with me. I can’t figure out something I’m needing to know – how to live with all that’s wrong, because of course there’s something wrong. Living means suffering. Not every moment; there is nothing that’s every moment. Except if we back it up and look around at the wide world then yes, someone is suffering every moment, suffering in ways we couldn’t pretend to understand. If I take that, add to it the way life’s felt to me since I can long remember, then mix Philip’s death into it all, I find myself asking, what the fuck? Why the insistence that it’s better to be, or to have been? Sure, I can personalize it – better for me that Philip was, that Natalie is. But better for me to be? Why? And before anyone’s too appalled to keep reading, why is even asking the question enough to create revulsion and a surety that the asker is too far south of sane to be acknowledged as anything other than in deep need of help? Understand I’m not asking why it’s better to live than to commit suicide. Suicide’s not part of this equation. What I’m asking is why is it assumed that it’s better to have been than to have never been? And why, since we know we’re going to die (do we? really?) do we spend no time pondering what that means and instead equate success with how many more years medical advances give us to live? Staving off the inevitable doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

And if we went so far as to end natural death – which seems to be the goal – what would we be left with? A planet that couldn’t sustain all of us, run by a powerful elite who’d do the choosing that life/god/nature used to do for us. If you think life’s not fair now, spend a few minutes contemplating that scenario.

This is not the post I meant to write. I started to write about the way I judge myself by the amount of friends I don’t have and the lack of  traveling and other experiences which I should, by my age, have had. At 56, I should have a better life resume. It’s an old trope, one that’s gotten worse since I put myself on Match. Match is a compilation of people advertising themselves. I’ve spent some time reading through profiles, and it’s exhausting. Who’s sailed the world, climbed mountains, eaten exotic food, taught yoga in the Andes, completed multiple triathlons (all at the same time!), while running one of the largest corporations in the world – does anyone out there breathe? Are these the things that matter – who’s done the most and with who and how many ?

That’s when I start with, “What the hell do I have to offer anyone?” This is Match.com, for Chrissake. I’m supposed to “match” the joie de vivre of every other profile, of everyone who’s just lovin’ life and wantin’ more and wantin’ some special someone to do their wantin’ with. I am not that girl. Who’d want someone who hasn’t accumulated the totally awesome experiences that everyone else my age seems to have accumulated? Reading the profiles on Match, I’m sure there’s a big fucking party going  on somewhere that I most definitely have not been invited to.

Understand this is not a Match.com thing. Match only brought it to the surface. These are some of the things I’ve suffered about for years, these are things I can’t seem to figure out. Am I supposed to change, to be gregarious and extroverted? Like that’s better than what’s so? Is any of this my nature? Do I accept, do I resist? My life is what it is. Am I seriously going to decide what I’m worth based on how many times I’ve gotten on an airplane?

Here are the facts:

I don’t have a large group of friends. I have several close friends, none who know each other. The only group I have any connection with is my writing group – and while I know it’d be good for me to get back there, I’ve gone exactly twice since Philip died. I haven’t traveled a lot. I’ve been to Italy once, I’ve been to parts of the U.S. I don’t climb mountains or jump out of airplanes. I don’t play sports, I don’t exercise regularly. I do NOT follow politics. I’d rather read in my living room than on the beach, and I’d rather write more than anything. The rest of it is story, and since I’ve yet to meet a happy ending that felt real, you can bet your ass you won’t find one here, either.

How’s that sound for a profile??

Then there’s this. I know a couple – let’s call them X and Y – who have a lot of money and who are very socially active. And I love ‘em – they’re not pretentious, nor are they boring. They’re two really good people with lives utterly different from mine. More normal, I think – and I don’t mean because I’ve lost a child and they haven’t. They just seem mostly happy, have lots of friends, have careers, have combined and separate interests and they really like each other.

So this weekend, Fourth of July. They were going to the beach, they were having a houseful of people. I mean, it’s a holiday – isn’t that what people do? Me – I woke up Friday relieved to have a whole day of nothing to do so I could putter around my apartment. Yesterday I managed to get myself out for a couple hours in the morning to sit with some friends at a table in the local Farmer’s Market. Then I spent two and a half hours with my grief counselor. Today I was supposed to have dinner with Kirsten, who’s now sick. No worries. I’ve been in all day and now I’ll be in through the night. And I can’t figure out why I feel like something’s wrong with me because I’m not with a houseful of people when that’s the exact last thing I’d want to be doing anyway.

I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. Decades ago, when I was in my 20s, I’d gone to meet my friend Gerard on St. Mark’s Place, in the health food store where he worked. He introduced me to a friend of his, and we chatted for a few minutes while waiting for Gerard to close up. After we spoke – and we weren’t speaking in any particular depth – she told me this was going to be a life of spiritual awakening for me. I was thrilled. I imagined that meant some great path to peace was going to make itself known to me and when it did, well…finally, I’d be happy, I’d walk through this world in a different way.

So time has come, and yes – I do walk through the world in a different way. The big secret is it’s not about being happy. It’s about facing death. And far worse than facing my own, is facing Philip’s. This is what I lose sight of when I’m wondering about all the parties that I’m not invited to, or why I don’t want to hang out at the beach, or what’s the exact number of friends I have or what the word “friend” really means. Truth is I have the same distaste as Phillip Lopate for what he calls, “…the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live…the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.”

I’m getting damn sick of my own song. Maybe instead of questioning my worth based on my age and the amount of things I’ve not done, I’ll question what I could possibly want from someone at any age who still thinks those are things that matter.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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The Wanting

I don’t know the world since Philip died. Sometimes I think I’m just dreaming it away. But I try to pay attention to the light, what I hear it saying when I see the way it hits the trees. I’m cautious with morning light – it’s full of promises it can’t keep, has a brightness I don’t understand. What’s it so happy about, what’s it looking forward to? Morning light means adjusting – again – to time without Philip. I’m pissed at the afternoon light. That’s the light that’s turned against me – the trees catch fire and motion stops. The world’s suspended for hours in its harshness. But then there’s the evening light –  the softening of the day, and the lovely word for its waning: the gloaming.  Evening light is warm and rich and I’d like to slide right under it and stay there. Let it close in on me, let it wrap me in its luscious velvet and then maybe I can stop thinking.

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Match.com, story number two. Michael. Nice guy, interesting, handsome. Stud in his ear, which I find sexy. Suggested meeting at a yoga class. Skin-tight yoga clothes on a first date is a risk. I took it. And I liked it. After, we went to a cafe, talked over sandwiches full of whole-grain goodness. The bill came and Michael shook his head when I reached for my wallet. It’s the kind of gesture I want a man to make. Then he walked me back to my car. That’s the crucial moment – it’s either “let’s do this again” (said casually so you don’t sound too eager) or “I’ll be in touch,” (which means s/he won’t.) I let him decide because I was ambivalent. “I’d like to read your blog,” he said. I gave him the address. Then he handed me his business card and said to email him.

Sounded like a “let’s do it again” to me.

“Ambivalence is not nothing,” Philip tells me. I try to work with that. I’m often ambivalent because I don’t know what I want, I don’t know what’s driving me. Or stopping me. So while I didn’t particularly care whether or not I saw Michael again, I decided any decision was better than no decision. Next night I wrote him a short email, ending with, “So now that the first awkward date is over, if you’d like to get together for a second semi-awkard date, let me know ;o)”

I never heard from him. And other than being a wee bit stung by his rejection, I didn’t care. Since Philip died, I’ve never more known that the way people treat me has nothing to do with me. Even on a date, that intensely personal time with its concomitant judging. Someone not wanting to see me again isn’t personal.  What’s it change about me, if someone doesn’t think I’m second date material? It just means he realized we weren’t right together before I did.

I was listening to a podcast with Natalie about a man who, because of some temporary condition, lived with no testosterone for a few months. I had no desire, he said; none. He’d sit and stare at a wall for hours at a time. He didn’t want to read, or watch TV. He didn’t care what he ate. Yet he could see things were beautiful – in fact, he thought everything beautiful – but he didn’t want. Did I feel like that when Philip died, drained of anything I ever thought mattered? No – what I felt was way too wrecked and crazed to have lost all my wanting. I had no desire to bathe, wash my hair, go out, dress in anything but pajamas; and makeup – you’re kidding, right? But I had piercing desire, wanting either Philip to come home to me, or me to go to him. I was beyond reason.

In spite of the fact that Philip died, the world continued on its way. Eventually I had bouts of no-desire, lying on the couch in a state of One Huge Shrug. It wasn’t Zen-like, the way the guy on the radio described it (not that this guy ever wanted that to happen again). It was depression. For the most part, it’s not like that now. I want to write, to read, to watch TV; I want to knit and sew. I want to buy clothes. Partly because I’m not done being vain, partly because the way I dress draws attention, and if you can’t see I’m different and branded because my son died, I’ll wear my difference so you’ll notice something. “Hey – what a cool top – where’d you get it?” “Free People, do you know my son died?” “I didn’t know bell bottoms were back in style.” “Then you’re not paying attention, do you know my son died?”

As far as desire for a man…I must’ve wanted something beyond stories when I put myself on Match.com. But whenever it comes time comes for a date, I shrink. When I’m home with my writing, my books, my computer, my TV, on my couch that needs to be replaced in a living room that still has no curtains, I see no reason to invite a man into my life. I’m still nursing my grief. Working full-time and seeing friends just a little bit more than I used to gives me less time to do that. Something tells me if I let a man love me, it would be good for me; something also tells me I’m not emotionally up for what it takes to get there. I’m drained and vulnerable from living with Philip dead, and I’m not so sure about putting myself in the path of desire. Because really – it’s the wanting that undoes me.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

It’s My Heart

I haven’t felt as blocked and listless about writing – which is to say, about living – since I started this blog. I’ve been writing a post for a week, and I’ve got the bones of it. That’s usually when it starts clicking, when the writing starts writing itself. But the writing can’t “write itself” if I don’t show up for it. And I can’t seem to do that.

Ed moved. For the twenty year’s I’ve know him, Ed’s lived in Bloomfield, and ironically enough, when I moved last August, I moved close to him, close like a good, long walk away. But he and his wife had enough of working their house. They left it a buyer’s dream. I’m happy for them, that it sold quickly; but that house had been my sanctuary when Philip died. I spent days and nights with Ed and his wife, waking up early to go home and walk the dogs, returning a couple hours later to the only place I felt safe. Now they’ve moved to Florida, where they’ll stay for a year before coming back to buy a second home in New Jersey – something smaller than their last, something farther west, something that at least will be driving distance away.

So it’s not that “bad,” if you will. I can fly to Florida to visit, then they’ll be back before I know it. And If I’ve learned nothing else from Philip, it’s that when someone’s in your heart they’re with you always – you just have to accept it the way it is, not the way you want it to be. I keep saying that every change is practice for death. The practice is the leap into the unknown, the risk of not resisting what’s so. If I can’t handle the changes in my life now, how am I going to handle that last big change, that final slipping into the unknown? I’m kidding myself if I think I can stay miserable about my losses, yet go gracefully into that Good Night.

I’m mourning. I’m withdrawn. I’ve been depressed, which is different from sad. Depression seeps – it’s a whole, big, generalized “what-for-what’s-it-matter?” Growing up, I felt alone and tormented. I looked to death as a way out – at least, to my idea of death, which I imagined as a release from pain. But Philip’s told me that thinking death is some kind of answer is the same thing as thinking hitting lotto will make everything better. It’s the same in that it’s thinking some event in time, some situation other than the one that is, will be a cure. It doesn’t work that way. And I watch the way I’m responding to life, knowing so much of this heartache is about Ed, but unable feel it that way. I’m disconnected from the source.

When Philip was alive, he’d become my center. A cure for my unsteady. The older he got, the more I let go and the closer we became. But no matter what was between us, while he was alive I wouldn’t have had access to his wisdom the way I do now. And that’s because when we’re alive, there’s a lot of ego-noise that interrupts the flow of what we’d otherwise know to be true. Things like greed, power and desire, which have to do with the body. Philip’s gone from his, yet I experience him clearly and continually. Which doesn’t mean I don’t grieve for him incessantly.

A couple weeks ago, I joined Match.com. Last week, some guy named Steve sent me an email. Good looking guy, says he’s a trial lawyer, says he does stand-up comedy in NYC, when he can. His letters were funny enough that I believed him. He started his email by stuttering about how  b-b-beautiful  h-h-he  t-t-t-thought I w-was, then launched into funny bit about about where he lived, how he liked my profile, how he’d like to hear from me.

I was smitten. ONE email, and I was smitten.

So I answered him and he answered me and I answered him and it’s all funny and I’m feeling warm and fuzzy. And while I was feeling that warm-fuzzy, I thought of Philip, saw him in lying in the coffin. That’s when I heard him: “Mom,” he said, “You don’t have to choose.” Because that’s what I do. I can’t figure out how I’m supposed to live without him and feeling a certain kind of pleasure just seems wrong. He’s trying to tell me it isn’t.

As for Steve, he was the fantasy guy. The one that makes it seem like it’s so easy because that’s what he does. It was like shooting up pleasure. I mean, it was all about me – he saw how lovely and beautiful and special I was. Hell, he “snuck out of court” to write me!  He made it easy to slip past the goddamn anxiety of real-world dating. But like any fantasy, eventually you wake up. And I don’t mean like Sleeping Beauty, when you find The Prince has been waiting for you. I mean like when your second email doesn’t get answered and the guy hides his profile so he’s inaccessible and it hits you that maybe Prince Charming has a heavy hand when it comes to Cut and Paste.

Two emails was all it took for me to plunge into the netherworld of disappointment. I spent all that Saturday lying on the couch watching “True Detective” for the seventh time. I stopped for half an hour to take a quick drive to Ed’s for a final good-bye. Watching him direct the movers was too much. “I have to go,” I said. “I’ve had enough.” “I know,” he said. “I love you.”

So who the hell was I mourning for, really? For two-email Steve? I think not. I think it ironic that the weekend Ed was leaving was the weekend I let myself be seduced. I used to think that with Philip dead, what the hell could ever bother me again? Now I think that because Philip’s dead, many things bother me more. Prometheus was tied to a rock. Every day an eagle came to peck out his liver, every day it regenerated so the eagle could come back and do it again. It’s like that, except it’s not my liver. It’s my heart.

© 2014 Denise Smyth