Tag Archives: Love

You will meet a tall dark stranger

29 Mar

wish-upon-a-star-andrea-realpeI watched the Woody Allen movie of this title last night, and was saddened by the slide into banality of a director I once found extraordinary. As is his wont, Allen again dissects the emotionally tormented relationships between comfortably off but miserable professional couples driven by their hunger for love, and the ensuing complications of their search for love’s validation.

The ironical musical theme of the movie is a sweetly gentle version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and as the narrative unfolds it becomes apparent that while your dreams might indeed come true, dreams fulfilled don’t necessarily make you happy. In other words, be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

The film begins with an epigraph, Macbeth’s observation that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. This announced the movie’s fundamental lack of imagination: as an epigraph this one has been done to death and I was reminded of how, as raucous and irreverent schoolgirls, we screeched the quotation at one another as we draped our adolescent selves across our wooden desks, mocking its nihilistic sentiment.

What the movie did cause me to ponder, however, are the many ways in which human beings can emotionally cripple ourselves and one another, believing we’re doing what we are supposed to do living respectable coupled lives, pursuing respectable ambitions, and conforming to the expectations of our culture. All the while, as in a witch’s bubbling cauldron, deep and guilty dissatisfactions are coming to the boil, provoking unforeseen behaviours that erupt from their repression and cause chaos in outwardly conformist lives. Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble…to stay with the Macbeth references.

As Freud observed, in order to maintain civilisation we must make a trade-off, and the price we pay is the voluntary relinquishing, through repression, of desire. This is the essential paradox of civilisation: we have designed it to protect ourselves from dissatisfaction and danger, yet it is simultaneously our biggest source of both. Allen’s characters are quintessentially civilised, yet their desires rupture their civilised veneer and reveal the turmoil and misery that lies beneath. Truth will out.

The catalyst for rupture is always desire, the “tall dark stranger” encountered at times of blind yearning for one knows not what, a yearning that is always at bottom a hunger for growth, and escape from circumstances that have come to represent imprisonment and stagnation. Yet few of us can pursue these needs without savage consequences, as they fly in the face of civilised culture and its constructed desires, leaving trails of wreckage that are largely perceived not as opportunities, but as destruction. Our culture values certainty, continuity and predictability. Our culture values what is antipathetic to desire. Those who break out, yielding to desire, are judged and found wanting.

Allen knows these truths well, given his own torturous history with desire. It’s disappointing that he hasn’t found a fresher way to dissect them: he’s become formulaic.

For mine, the meeting with a tall dark stranger is the meeting with truth or the real possibility of it, a possibility generally denied us by cultural demands and expectations. Discontent is a necessary by-product of civilisation. Civilisation, as Freud would have it, inevitably makes us neurotic. The only cure is love, and love is a stranger in an open car, tempt you in and drive you far away…

 

 

 

 

 

Cabinet of Wonders

22 Feb

Cabinet of Wonders

 

I’ve decided to re-open my blog The Practice of Goodness as the place where I post stories, poems, fragments, etc, keeping No Place for Sheep for politics and commentary. This piece to my late husband is the last of its kind I’ll post here.

 

Cabinet of Wonders

I dreamed I was walking through the park at the end of an autumn day. The tree shadows were long and the light golden. I saw you on the path in front of me, and hurried to catch up. Your hands were in the pockets of your jeans. You wore the dark purple sweater I knitted for you to keep out the cold you felt so keenly. The pattern was elaborate, it took months to finish, and you marvelled that my hands, with wool and needles, wove for you enduring warmth.

My wife made this, you told people.

Sometimes you would cradle my face in your hands and look at me and say, my wife.

When I caught up with you I slipped my hand into your pocket to touch yours. You turned your head and your look was quizzical. I saw the man I thought was you, wasn’t. The difference was barely discernible, but it was there. Shaken, I pulled my hand out of your pocket. We kept walking side by side, in silence.

We came to a bandstand, painted white with green trim, and hung with paper lanterns. Silent still, we walked up three wooden steps to the platform. We stayed there for some time, leaning on the railing, watching park life. I started to cry. You gazed at me then you pointed to a small house with double doors, off to the right, whose windows top and bottom looked to be filled with hand-carved toys, painted silks, and the mysterious devices of starlit sorcery. A cabinet of wonders, I thought. Our hearts.

You started down the bandstand steps. I cried harder. You looked back at me and smiled and pointed again to the house. I was to go with you there, I believed.

I could barely see for weeping as I stumbled down the wooden steps and followed you. But I was far behind and you forged ahead and I knew I wouldn’t catch up.

That moment in time, between when I put my hand in your pocket and when I realised the man I thought was you was not, has now settled deep in the cradle of my belly, where it has taken on the qualities of eternity.

I watched as you looked back and raised your goodbye hand. I watched as you disappeared into the cabinet of wonders. I watched as its doors closed behind you and I did not try to follow.

Awake, I know again that you are dead, and there is not one part of me that does not grieve you.

Wife. Time. Eternity. Wonders. The mysterious devices of starlit sorcery. Come back, and I will throw my arms around you.

Beyond Monogamy: exploring the possibilities of the human heart

1 Feb

 

monogamy not amrried to the idea

 

Like many of our abstract sacred moral concepts, the cult of monogamy is reified to the degree that it’s considered “natural” for humans to live within its framework. Never mind that people break out all the time, and that the entirely monogamous relationship exists more in the theory than in the practice, still the monogamous ideal dominates our culture’s sexual and loving relationships.

However, “it just is” has never been a persuasive argument for me, and the reification fallacy of misplaced concreteness always comes in useful when thinking about morality.

I’ve wondered often if one of the unacknowledged goals of monogamy is to protect us from experiencing difficult emotions such as jealousy, insecurity, a sense of abandonment, of being displaced by another. Of loss, of insignificance, and so on. These are emotions we first experience in childhood, for some of us when we acquire siblings, and for all of us when we realise that no matter what we do we will never be able to enjoy an equal relationship with any of our primary carers. As children, we will always be excluded from their adult mysteries. The parental figures upon whom we are entirely dependent will never be exclusively ours. They are our centre, but we are never entirely theirs.

The only chance we ever get to heal this insulting psychic wound is in an adult monogamous relationship of our own. In this, we believe, we will be loved to the exclusion of all others, and we will love exclusively in return. In this way we will at last achieve what we have so long yearned for: the exclusive gaze of the beloved lover.

There is an enormous industry dedicated to the maintenance of monogamy, and the healing of sexual and emotional betrayal. One of it’s more bizarre branches is the one that claims infidelity can save and enrich your marriage, and none of its proponents seem at all aware of the irony of recommending breaking out of monogamy in order to make it easier to stay in it.

The idea of using the aftermath of infidelity to strengthen a marriage has spawned a million books and papers. In privileging the relationship of marriage, however, any other relationship and any individual other than the married couple is perceived as little more than a means to an end. The morality of that use and manipulation of a third-party is rarely examined, so strong is the stranglehold monogamy has on our culture.

But what if the desire for exclusivity is based on a deep need to avoid the difficult emotions we struggled with and never managed to resolve in childhood? And what if learning to negotiate those difficult emotions could enrich our lives and deepen our intimacies? And what if intimately loving more than one person is not “wrong,” but struggling not to love more than one person is our biggest relational mistake?

Which brings me to polyamory, defined as:

The practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved. Polyamory, often abbreviated as poly, is often described as “consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy” An emphasis on ethics, honesty, and transparency all around is widely regarded as the crucial defining characteristic.

Overcoming difficult emotions that close the heart rather than open it is the goal of polyamorists. Challenging the inevitably tribal nature of family founded on monogamy, and replacing it with family founded on an acceptance of the remarkable ability of humans to love more than one person deeply and intimately at the same time, is their daunting task. Imagine a society in which intimate love is not exclusive but inclusive, and the emotions that prevent such open-heartedness are viewed as emotions to be grown out of, rather than avoided through confinement and threat of punishment.

According to polyamorists, it isn’t a betrayal of one person to love another as well, it’s a skill that can be decently acquired. The heart can learn to be open instead of closed. This makes so much more sense than a monogamous ideal in which we are rewarded for confining ourselves in a closed system, in which we must be everything to one other person, and that person must be everything to us.

Because monogamy is a closed system. Not only are many married people forbidden to intimately love anyone else, they are frequently urged to avoid close friendships with others, or to engage in any kind of affection that might be threatening to the primary relationship. The monogamy industry produces another million books and papers on how friendship can threaten the marriage, how work relationships can threaten the marriage, how emotional attachment to others can threaten the marriage, even how other family members can threaten the marriage. Just about anything, it seems, can threaten monogamous marriage, and it is privileged to the degree that every other relationship is by default subservient to it.

This admitted fragility of the monogamous marriage, it’s susceptibility to threat, ought to be telling us there’s something seriously awry in the arrangement.

We have to learn to manage and overcome all kinds of difficult emotions in the process of maturing. We can’t give anger and aggression the physical expression we did when we were two, unless we want to end up incarcerated and friendless, for example. Is it really so outlandish to imagine mastering jealousy and insecurity in much the same way, so that we can allow ourselves and others the freedom to love and express that love? People do fall deeply in love with more than one person, and usually have to make a choice. The experience is fraught with secrecy, guilt, and shame, and powerful distress all round. But does it have to be? Who says it has to be?

I’m not suggesting it would be an easy way to live, because it demands a generosity of heart and spirit of which our dominant culture currently has no recognition, and thus permits no expression. As things stand we privilege exclusivity, and all the undesirable ramifications that can lead to, inside and outside of the monogamous relationship. Polyamory requires a new way of thinking about love, and about being human. It requires a level of honesty and ethical interaction that is quite foreign to monogamy. In monogamy, loving another is treachery and betrayal, usually done in guilty secrecy and fear. In polyamory, loving another is done openly, in transparency and in willing negotiation through inevitably difficult emotions and tensions.

I am hard-pressed to see much moral virtue in closing the heart, as opposed to opening it. If I love you, and I see that another’s love enhances and enriches your life, am I “right” to demand that you forego it? And if I do, what do I gain?

Love whoever you please

 

 

 

The point of love…

13 Jan

 

solitude

 

“The point of marriage  is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good  marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his [sic] solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

My husband often used to tell me that as well as looking into each other’s eyes, he liked us to stand side by side and look out together at the world, while experiencing it individually.

Where Rilke uses the term “marriage,” I would use the term love.

 

On being irresistible

31 Dec

Perhaps I’m contrary and ungrateful but I never felt good about being told by a lover  “You are irresistible.” I’d much rather he or she said something like  “I can’t resist you” and in that utterance, joyfully assumed the burden of supernatural compulsion instead of burdening me with it.

It would also be much more honest if things went wrong and my lover said “I now can/must resist you because my wife caught me, or I found someone else, or I’ve changed my mind” or whatever event provoked a change in his or her assessment of the situation. Instead of undermining my sense of myself with their change of heart, the responsibility then properly rests with the one whose desires, for whatever reason, have shifted.

I’ve never in my life found anyone to be irresistible. I’ve been overwhelmed by desire, overwhelmed by love, overwhelmed by seriously significant stupidity, but overwhelmed by my own sensations, the agent of my own downfall, not a victim subjected to another’s supernatural powers. In the end this matters, this sense that if I am drowning in love and desire, however recklessly, I am doing my own drowning the other isn’t bewitching me into it.

This may seem like unimportant hair-splitting carping, but it’s actually about taking responsibility, and empowerment. The statement “You are irresistible” gives the other all the power, and denies me the opportunity to take responsibility for my own actions. “I can’t resist you” takes all responsibility, and taking honest responsibility always empowers. The inability to resist is not in itself a negative thing. Denying it as part of one’s character might well be.

And there is something endearing about a human being who can admit an inability to resist as an aspect of his or her own self, rather than it being the fault of an irresistible other.

For women, being thought irresistible has caused and continues to cause us no end of grief, abuse, and in some instances, death. If we are credited with supernatural powers, we will also be made to pay for them. Excessive restrictions are placed on our freedoms in an effort to contain and control our perceived potentially uncontrollable natures. Those who abuse us may be leniently viewed in the light of our magically seductive powers. At its crudest, the irresistibility narrative says wearing short skirts will make men rape us, and there is a continuum from there. Telling a woman she’s irresistible is always an abdication of responsibility. You can’t resist her. It’s your thing, not hers. Own it.

End of rant.

Happy New Year.

 

irresistible

 

 

 

Intimate images: after the love has gone

24 Oct

So, won’t you let me see, /I said, won’t you let me see, /I said, won’t you let me see/ your naked body?

 

The Victorian Parliament has introduced draft legislation that makes distribution or the threat of distribution of intimate images online without consent a criminal offence. There is, it appears, a burgeoning of “Revenge Porn” sites where aggrieved and bitter ex lovers can post photos taken in happier times of their partner’s private bits, often selfies taken by that partner. Anecdotal evidence has it that perpetrators of revenge porn are mostly male, however, it is not unknown for wives or girlfriends to post sexually explicit photos of their former partner’s new lover online, if they’ve managed to get hold of them.

Common advice as to how to avoid having your lady bits made available to the public gaze without your consent includes never taking or allowing photos of them to be taken in the first place. This is tantamount to advising us to avoid rape by staying inside unless we’re accompanied by bodyguards – the fault lies not with those of us who’ve given lovers intimate images, but with the lovers or their associates who distribute them without our consent. This ought to be self-evident, after all, who is ever advised never to leave home if their house is burgled, but because it involves sex and female bodies, responsibility defaults to women to protect ourselves by crippling our lives.

As a woman who has (for the first time in her life and at an age where one would not expect to do such things) taken intimate photos of herself and given them to a lover, I feel a certain interest in this topic. When my lover first asked for photos I inwardly baulked. I was a long way from my twenties, I had never before even thought of engaging in such an act. The most I had seen of my own bits was when, like many other young feminists, I squatted over a mirror and had a good look, then later when my sister crouched between my legs with her camera and recorded in astonishing detail the birth of my second child. As a delaying tactic, I asked him what he actually wanted to see. You know, he replied. Not your toes.

I wrestled with this. Deeply in love, I didn’t want to refuse. I feared my reluctance was to do with sexual inhibition that I would do well to overcome, and much of our relationship was about both of us testing sexual boundaries, creating a list of what he called our “firsts.” I love him, I reasoned, so I can do this for him. I began with my breasts. I was pleased with the result, and so was he. We added this to our list of firsts. We moved on to even more intimate bits and I began to enjoy myself, it was exciting, it was fun, it brought us very close to each other, and so I wouldn’t feel alone in the venture and in good faith, he sent me pictures of his bits as well. I loved them because I loved him, but truthfully, a bloke’s bits don’t come near a woman’s for beauty and complexity.

Never in my wildest imaginings did I consider I might one day regret all this.

But I do. The relationship came to an emotionally devastating end. For the last few months I’ve fretted and churned about those pictures that I no longer want him to be able to look at. Several times I’ve contacted him by email, snail mail, and phone messages, asking that he let me know he has deleted the photos and that I don’t have to worry about them anymore. He has not responded to any of my requests. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Is he exercising vengeful power over me, by refusing to tell me what has become of my intimate photos? Is he determined to keep them, and rather than lie to me has decided to say nothing at all? While I cannot bring myself to believe he would misuse the photos, I don’t know that others with access to his computer would be as discreet, and besides, I don’t want anyone else even looking at them, as they shouldn’t without my consent.

The reality is, once I sent those images to him I relinquished any control over their fate. Sent in deep love and absolute trust, a powerfully bonding “first,” I now no longer have any idea who will see them and in what circumstances, and my former lover seems to want me to live with that distress.

Although I regret engaging in this “first” with someone who was obviously entirely the wrong person to trust, I don’t regret overcoming my inhibition. I don’t regret the deeper acquaintance with my body, though I wish I’d shared that discovery with someone who was trustable. I’m beside myself with rage and hurt at his refusal to reassure me as to the fate of the photos, and at my powerlessness to do anything about this. It is indeed a foul betrayal, and I can only imagine how much worse it is for women whose ex partners actually do post intimate images online without consent. The problem lies not with those of us who share images of our bodies with lovers, but with lovers who lack the sensibility to honour the intimacy of that sharing, and instead choose to cause us fear and distress in their abuse of our trust.

As Leonard Cohen tells it, I don’t have to be forgiven / for loving you that much…

 

Stranded in the shit field

30 Oct
Shit Field, by poo on you

Shit Field, by poo on you

 

Now and again in a life, one runs into what I like to call a shit field – a series of apparently unconnected events that occur simultaneously, or hard on one another’s heels, all of which share a common theme.

It can be difficult to recognise you’re in the shit field at the time, because its very nature clouds the mind and takes a toll on perceptions.

For the last twelve months, and particularly the last four or five, some of the effects of trudging through the shit field have been an increasing lack of creativity, loss of interest in the world, crippling anxiety, depression, and a sense of having completely lost control of my life and my ability to make good decisions.

I apologise to everyone who has stayed with the blog, for my increasing lack of output, and the deteriorating quality of the posts I have managed.

I wrote here about the experience of being with my beloved husband last year, after he suffered a massive stroke. I underestimated the length of time it would take me to recover from the loss of the man with who I had shared a long, fraught love affair of such intensity that I couldn’t ever imagine loving anyone else. I’m familiar with the Kubler Ross theory of the five stages of grief, though in my experience they are not necessarily consecutive, and I don’t recall ever doing any bargaining, probably because I don’t believe in a higher power so I don’t have a transcendental exteriority in my life with whom to cut a deal.

Apart from that, I’d say the model is fairly accurate, and applies to important loss of any kind, not solely death and dying, if one needs a framework to help explain the chaos inside.

I also underestimated the exhaustion I would feel and for how long I would feel it, after week upon week of sitting at my husband’s bedside, watching him deteriorate, watching in shocked despair as he railed and screamed at me in a language I could no longer understand, and at the end of these rantings, trembling as I watched him break down, as he stroked my face with his one good hand, and begged me for I knew not what. I assumed comfort. Many times I climbed onto his bed and laid my body the length of his frail frame, and held him while he fumbled, sobbing, for my breasts.

I would leave him at the end of these gruelling days, and make my way back to the Bondi Beach apartment a friend’s daughter had loaned me while she was overseas. Sometimes I’d catch a bus. More often I’d walk, as a way to calm myself, and reconnect with the world outside of the nursing home. I was not really a fit companion for anyone, and generally too exhausted for dinners or meetings with old friends. I found it difficult to sleep. These days I hate the city, and found adapting to its racket after the silence of my north coast home, almost impossible. I missed my dog. I missed him something awful.

Our life together, mine and A’s, had been largely conducted in Bondi where we lived at the beach, apart from a brief period when A realised a life-long dream, and bought a converted Pittwater ferry that we moored at the Newport Marina and lived on for a couple of years on and off. Our weekend pleasure was to motor slowly round the waterways, and come back to haul up our crab pots full of blue swimmers that A would then cook in a huge pot and we’d eat for supper with wine or a beer.  I remember once standing beside him at the boat’s wheel, my skirt flying open in the wind, my hair whipping at my face, and A turning to me and saying “If I died now, here with you, I would die a happy man.”

I told him this and other stories of our life as I sat beside him, holding his hand. I think he heard. I think he remembered. I think it gave him some sense of who he was, and had been.

I know now that I had never loved him more than I did those months I sat vigil at his bedside. I don’t know where that love came from. I felt it enter me as I walked through the nursing home doors. I felt its energy fill me as I climbed the stairs to his room. I felt that love sustain me through everything that occurred, every day it occurred. That love overwhelmed me.  Without it, I couldn’t have lasted a week. I’m not a believer in anything much. But I believe in that love.

When my friend’s daughter returned from New York, I moved to the glorious cliff top eyrie owned by my friend, Elisabeth Wynhausen, who recently died, who swore me to secrecy when she discovered her cancer, and whom I miss.

The theme of my shit field is emerging.

Then, to my utter surprise, when I had decided such things were over for me, earlier this year I fell in love.  The circumstances were challenging. Everything indicated this was not going to be easy. And yet again, out of nowhere, that love swept in with such power and took hold of me, even harder than before if that was possible, and I said a yes.

Well, in keeping with the theme of the shit field the challenges were too great, and I find myself once again in the stages of grief, or perhaps I never really got out of them.

What strikes me as remarkable, however, is that something so comparatively short-lived can cause an anguish not dissimilar to the loss of the love affair of decades. Of course there isn’t the history to mourn. But the loss. Oh god, the loss.

Or perhaps it is an accumulation of loss that finally overwhelms. I can’t tell yet. I’m still too much in love. I haven’t caught up with events. I’m still talking to him in my head as if he hasn’t gone. I’m still hurt when there’s no good morning and goodnight. I haven’t got used to the loss of him beginning my days and ending my nights. The absence of his presence.

So, I doubt I’ll be out of the shit field anytime soon. Thank you for staying around.

 

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