It’s 10:57 P.M., Wednesday night. I’ve been expecting the phone to ring and it does: David. His plane has landed at BDL, the Hartford, Connecticut airport. He’s just pulling out of the rental car parking lot. In about two hours, he’ll be here.
When David was here last weekend, at one point we were fixing something, or maybe doing summerization (the process by which you repossess the parts of the house and property you necessarily, in a cold climate, cede to winter; for example, the porch on which you store firewood in the winter reverts to its warm-weather life as a screened outdoor dining room). He remarked, shaking his head in mock wonderment, “God, you turn your back for three short months and the whole place falls apart!” I found this hilarious. Was it was when we were vacuuming up the weird winged bugs that hatch over a two-day period each May and come crawling in droves “like something out of Hitchcock,” as he said, from one of the old hand-adzed wooden beams in the bedroom, which, during the rest of the year, are such an attractive architectural feature? Perhaps it was when he’d returned to find that the bathroom had suffered an unfortunate backflood distaster that had led to the destruction of the shower (which he helped me replace with the modern sleek one we have now – complete with frameless shower doors)? Or was it when he came back upstairs from the really scary cellar where he’d gone to reconnect the hoses he’d drained in October and found that the dehumidifier was in urgent need of being turned on? It can cost a lot of power though, if I turn it on, it might be a good idea to try finding a better quote from Usave. Don’t remember.) Picture of us the fall before last, taken by his old pal Lynne Barbee.
But, it’s true, he hasn’t been here since mid-March, and, stretching it some, that is three months. Then again, I was gone all of April myself, on the last go-round of the book tour of The Cornbread Gospels. During which we did meet up for just under a week in Florida, while I was teaching at The Studios at Key West.
And this was followed by a drive up the Florida Keys Highway (a beautiful 125-some mile drive we had both wanted to make, and soon, because with global warming and the road being right at sea level, who knows how long it’s even going to be there?). And then we had a couple of days in Miami together at the ridiculously luxurious, tres pretentious Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables (the publisher was paying) during which I did a gig at one of the country’s best independent bookstores, the glorious Books & Books, where, much to my surprise, I ran into my old friend Lauren Wohl, who I knew from her early days as a publicist at what was then Harper & Row. But she is now, somewhat to her surprise, editor at Roaring Brook Press, and it turns out she spends winters in the area because her husband Cliff works at Books & Books, setting up author and reader programs six months a year (but that’s another story, too)…
Anyway, after Florida, David and I went our separate ways. I went on touring (New Orleans, where the
conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals was holding its annual meeting, and Bill Haymes and I were performing “Until Just Moistened: A One-Woman Show, with Crumbs”, (see picture left, taken by David when we were rehearsing and fooling around), Baton Rouge, Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee, Oxford, Mississippi, home of Thacker Mountain Radio, which is the South’s answer to Prairie Home Companion, and what a feisty answer it is, too, and then to South Pittsburg, Tennessee, home of the National Cornbread Festival, also another story… actually, each of these stops was and is a story).
Meanwhile, David went off to Denver (film work), Ottawa (film work), and Los Angeles (film work, his other home, and the offices of one of his businesses, Organizing Video Productions).
Then I came back here to settle back into spring, the house, writing, and dealing with piles of mail that had accumulated during the tour. Then, last weekend, David came back here, just for the weekend. Then, he went off to two days of film work in Alexandria, Virginia, and now he’s returning for a week or so. Then, for him, another three weeks in California, then he’s here pretty much all summer and fall other than a few short trips.
Despite the complications and choreography, our later-in-life relationship is simple at its core. We like, love, respect, and enjoy each other, are both smart and verbal, find the same kind of things funny, are both self-employed in fields that blend the artistic with the purposeful, and both feel that, in the other, we got a pretty damn good deal (despite the respective drawbacks that we could each, certainly, list, if so inclined, which most of the time, thankfully, we’re not).
Snapshot of life with DK: It’s COLD so last winter I crawl into bed wearing my long fuzzy full-length gray sweatshirt. “What’s that?” asks David, slightly irritably; he likes us getting skin-to-skin in bed. “Well, I’m just wearing it until I warm up,” I say. “I’ll warm you up,” he says, “And what is it?” “It’s a nightgown,” I say. “It’s more like a night-tent,” he says. When I warm up and in a few minutes later pull it off: “In diplomatic circles,” he says, “this might be called, de-tente…”
As I’ve said elsewhere, David and I didn’t fall in love… we walked, ambled, into love. This has everything to do with later-in-life stuff. To fall, after all, you have to be pretty unsteady on your feet, easily pushed over, toppled. You have to be not just able, but willing to lose your balance. When we’re young we enjoy this lack of volition, this turmoil, the agony-ecstasy compulsion of it; when we “fall” it’s as if we have no choice (or responsibility). It just happens. “I couldn’t help myself,” we say.
But if you”re lucky, you actually grow up as you age. Maturity, whatever one’s age, is always optional;
not all of us are willing or able to do it. “Live and learn,” as my friend Bill points out in his blog, “Or live and don’t learn, your choice.” But if you do so choose, then, thank God, eventually you become steadier on your feet. I think this is developmental: when you’re a baby, you move from crawling to toddling: you’re unsteady and you fall over a lot. It’s not pathology (something wrong); it’s developmental (something right; you’re learning to walk). Another picture from the series by Lynne Barbee.
And thus it is that I don’t think I even could “fall” in love again, leaving aside the question of if I’d want to. I’m not, developmentally, there any more; I’m in a different place: a good one and one I like (despite far fewer songs written being about it). There’s a name for this place, though I don’t want to jinx it by saying it, but here goes: balanced. (Balanced? Me? Do I dare to say it?) But I am, knock on wood, pretty steady on my feet most days (leaving aside my totally abnormal sleep patterns and the occasional inability to eat anything less than an entire pint of Ben & Jerry‘s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch at one sitting).
But generally? Love, and most other things, don’t push me over the edge or off-course too much. Even writing all night and thinking, as the sky outside my office window lightens and gets streaky with orange and rose and purple, A) how gorgeous the sunrise is and B) that it would be nice if sometime I could wake up to it, instead of go to sleep to it, even the immoderation with Ben & Jerry’s — in the larger picture? The picture in which, say, America has now legalized forms of torture outlawed under the Geneva Convention? Well, how can I get too bent about my own minor, harmless eccentricities? Call it self-acceptance, which it probably is; call it, in the largest sense, balance, which it may or may not be. But the fact is, these days, again knock wood, I have feelings but, thank God, they (mostly) don’t have me.
(Do you know where “knock wood” came from? From the pre-Christian Druid days, when the Celts believed that every tree contained a spirit or god within it. When you knocked on wood, thus, you were calling on a power greater than yourself, saying in effect “may it be so,” or in the contemporary phrase, “from your lips to God’s ears.”)
For two weeks in March, after David had gone but before I left for the April book tour, I invited my friends Carol and
Zoe to stay with me. Zoe is one of my adopted nieces; she’s now quite a bit older than pictured here; she’s all of five years old now. C & Z were going off to Thailand for two months (also another story). They’d sublet their home, and due to complicated departure choreography needed a place to stay until they left. My place is big enough and we all adore each other, so, perfect.
Carol asked me, “So do you miss David when he’s not here?”
I said, “Not exactly.”
She said, “But it’s different when he’s not here.”
I said, “Of course.”
She said, “But you don’t miss him?”
I said, “Not exactly.”
She said, “Are you saying it’s better when he’s not here?”
“No, no,” I said, “I like it when he’s here, it’s good, I like it a lot. But when he’s not here I like it too, it’s also good.”
She said, “Well, isn’t one better than the other?”
I said, “Different. Both good. Both interesting.”
She said, “But you like having me and Zoe here.”
I said, “Of course.”
She said, “And you don’t miss us when we’re gone?”
I said, “Look, I love you two, I think about you, I’m always happy to see you, but I don’t exactly miss you when you’re not here. ” I thought a little more. “I get sad the day before David leaves, and taking him to the airport is usually quite sad, and one of us usually says, ‘You know, this just isn’t right,’ and the other one agrees… But, pretty much, I drop him at BDL and turn around and by the time I get back home, I’m okay, I’m happy and into my life in that non-living-with-David mode. And then, when he’s about to get back, I get happy and excited that he’s coming… But I can’t say either one is better, exactly. Just different. Both good. And that it changes. It’s interesting. It’s fun. ”
(That being said, of course when David and I are apart there are daily phone calls, emails, etc; we don’t just drop off into the ether as far as the other is concerned.)
And now life is about to enter the with-David mode again, briefly, and I am happy. We plan, other than when each of us is working, to just hang out, not going anywhere, catch up. (At least theoretically. His film work and my writing work always seem to find a way to worm themselves in even when we have sworn to have protected time). We’ll get the garden in together. I’m switching from my long-time Arkansas bookkeeper to someone local, and David’ ll help me get my new system set up. We’ll maybe go on a good long walk or two, and take turns using the binoculars when there’s a wild-life sighting (recently this has included nine baby mallard ducklings, and their parents, known to us as Sir Francis, as in Sir Francis Drake, and his partner, Her Ladyship, on the pond). I’ll fix him Indian food, his favorite, at least once.
And we’ll spend a lot of time in bed. Neither of us sleep nearly as well, or as much, when separated. (Life, waking life, is very interesting, after all. Where’s the motivation to go to sleep, go to bed, without someone interesting in that bed? As long as you’re not dog-tired and don’t have to be anywhere first thing in the morning, my unconscious seems to tell me, stay up! Write! Clean house! Read! ) But once David gets here, the need for sleep, for skin- and pheromone-contact, make themselves evident. As an oasis is to a camel that’s been out on the desert, so, it seems, is being in bed together and sleeping together.
We also spend a lot of time in bed when we’re awake, doing other things. Some which I’m sure you can imagine, and some I doubt you can (unless you are really, really lucky and fairly imaginative and of a basic go-for-it temperament sexually).
But there are also plenty of bed activities when David is here that are neither sleep nor sex. Lots of talking and jiving around. At times he is Lord Windymore and I Mollie O’Titum, from below-stairs, and at other times… Well, this one is at least five or six other stories, all of which involve their own language and frames of reference. Let’s face it, you don’t, or I don’t, hang out with someone for five-plus years, even if you’re apart some of that time, unless it’s highly amusing. (Unless, I suppose, you’re in it for the money, enough to tolerate being with someone who bores you or is unkind or otherwise a jerk. This is a place I have never, ever been, or wanted to be, or been able to imagine wanting to be. There’ve been well-off guys in my past and not so well-off, and while it’s very cool if a boyfriend is more monied than not, this is so far down on my list of considerations as to not even make the list. A partner or partners, including me, can always generate more income if that’s what they want: but kindness, intelligence, sexual chemistry, sweetness, the ability to talk in funny voices — they’re either there or not. If they’re not; dude, sorry, but you’re off my list. Of course you’d also be off my list if you couldn’t pay your own way; no matter how charming and amusing you might be, I’m not paying your fare, though I guess it might be conceivable if I were way wealthier than I am.)
Anyway, it’ll be good to be with David again.
The other piece of all this is that great love of my life was Ned Shank, to whom I was married for 23 years, with whom I walked through life from age 24 to age 46. Then he died. The road forked; he went one way, out of life as we know it, and I went remained here.
Ned and I started out young, and with the big, hot, some-enchanted-evening falling in love sizzle/ unbalance. We cooled down, as per the common experience, to busyness, respect, and friendship, as in many long-term relationships. Then, during the famed mid-life crisis (a phrase I loathe because it so trivializes the terror and pain of going through it) , we came that close to splitting up. But we didn’t. Even more amazing, we wound up loving each other far more, as adults, in a manner reinvented, renewed, reinvigorated, original, and highly sexual, a way that neither of us could have imagined.
And then he died.
Even on that surreal night, when the emergency room doctor said, “We lost him,” I knew down to the marrow of my bones, that I was so, so, so grateful that we had stayed together, worked it out, fought it out, painfully and miraculously broken the shell of baby falling-in-love-love, grown unsteady, stubby, uncertain wings (they didn’t look like wings at the time), and then finally leapt — and found, instead of plummeting down as we had each feared, that we had burst into the exuberant, extravagant flight that is adult love. For-adults-only love. Hot, precious, fully entered into — walked into, flown into — by choice.
Once, as very young adults, we had fallen in love. But at midlife, we arrived in love by a different route: we walked, at times crawled on our hands and knees: by choice, with our eyes open to best and worst about ourselves and each other.
This second period of love was ten thousand times stronger than the first, and the first was pretty durned hot, so believe me when I tell you how lucky we were, and how much we both knew it. Many, many people do split up at the point where Ned and I almost did. But, oh, what at least some of them must miss by giving up too soon! The chance to actually grow up, to accept the uncontrollable imperfections of life and love and relationships, and to love each other anyway — that is perhaps one of the three or four greatest wonders of my life.
If we hadn’t done that work, how ever would I survived his loss? Why would I have wanted to love again?
When Ned and I became more intimate than ever through that work we’d done, it was not so much as a couple but as individuals. We became more married (real marriage is not something you do once, but daily, in my view, with each act and each choice). Though this is outside the common paradigm, we got where we did by, and through, becoming more individuals, more ourselves… in that sense, more separate. (The therapist David Schnarch refers to this as “differentiation.” )
And in doing this, becoming more differentiated, each of us, separately but side by side, became lovable, not in the usual sense of that word, but love-able. As in, able to love. As in, able to give and receive love, imperfect though we were (and though I still am). No longer bound and oppressed by the myth of two-becoming-one, we were two. The other, the spouse, was the other, different, separate, fascinating… not a narcissistic extension. We each loved the other as the other.
While I wept and grieved and didn’t eat, put one foot after the other and resided in limbo in the years after Ned’s death, one piece of it was not only his loss but, “So, is that it? I’m never going to be in Relationship School again? I’m never going to get to learn the kinds of growing up I could only do in that petri dish for spiritual growth called committed relationship?”
It’s a cliche to call a death like Ned’s “tragic.” A “tragic” accident. As if there were any other kind. What fatal accident isn’t “tragic”, especially when the person who loses his or her life is not only young, but good, decent, smart, handsome, generous and much loved? And Ned was all of those things, and countless more.
And yet. A combination of physical factors met and happened. An accident is by definition a random event, caused by natural or unnatural forces. Some collisions are inevitable, as accident reconstructionists (there is such a profession, one of the many pieces of information I lived without knowing until Ned”s death). An accident is not a matter of volition or choice. What I’m saying is, is “tragic” the word for an act of physical law? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.
But “tragedy”, it seems to me, may be a word that ought to be reserved for circumstances where there is an element of volition. “Tragedy,” it seems to me, is in a sense not something accidental. It’s when a flawed human being, flawed as all human beings are, is unable to resist a truly devastatingly bad choice. Tragedy is when we choose to close down, close up, be untruthful (perhaps first and most deeply to ourselves), to reach for the drink after 20 years of sobriety, to live within the lie of self-protection and the illusion of safety, and, when partnered, to amputate portions of ourselves “for the good of the relationship”, thereby lending up with less relationship and less self. To collude with the less-developed, bratty, even evil parts of ourselves instead of growing towards whatever is best and highest in us.
Tragedy in the sense I mean it here, thus has to do with choice, with moral and ethical decisions.
Ned’s death was a violent, sudden, non-volition subtraction of the person most dear to me on all God’s green earth. All the prayer and positive thinking in the universe could not undo it or change it. But what I faced by myself, as a survivor, was volitional. How would I, how could I, live my life without my beloved partner? I didn’t even know what to say when people asked me “How are you?” three months, six months, a year after his death. There was, it seemed to me, no honest reply, and it was not a time when I was capable of feigning politeness. (I ended up saying things like, “I’m riding the waves,” or “I’m a piece of kelp in the ocean,” or “If I knew how to answer that I would probably be better than I am,” or “It changes all the time,” or just shrugging and saying nothing)
But I had choices, though it did not seem so to me at the time.
Still, now, all these years later, I know that I did. If I had failed to find ways to create meaning from that loss, if I threw over everything I learned with Ned about becoming (slowly), able to love as an adult, if I had chosen to continue on solo, embittered, and in grief… now that would have been tragic. And that is not the choice, or series of choices, I made, even though I had no idea what I was doing as I inched along.
In this context, after first believing I would never love anyone again, and then having a couple of well-intended but basically disastrous false starts, I met darling David, or Davio McTavio as I sometimes call him (for no good reason). And slowly, slowly, we walked into loving each other. (I met David on the Internet, also another story).
Loving David is entirely different from loving and being loved by Ned. But, and what a long road I traveled to be able to say this, how fortunate am I to have loved and been loved by, two entirely different men, at two wholly different times in life, and to continue the joyful, difficult, and ever-intriguing course of study that is Relationship School! And to do it now knowing very consciously that however much I may be in it for the duration with David, it is still only until the unknown fork in the road, the unforeseen moment when the bell goes off and, “Time’s up”!
Can it be that loving this time around is all the more precious for this?
“Let’s don’t go out this week,” David said to me over the phone.
I hear his rental car coming up the road.