August 31, 2020

I meant to write about our last walk.

We had nothing to do but gaze—

Seven years, now nothing but a diverting smile,

Dalliance by a river, a speeding swan…

the misleading promise

to last with joy as long as our bodies,

nostalgia pulverized by thought,

nomadic as yesterday’s whirling snow,

all whiteness splotched.

Robert Lowell

One year ago today we said goodbye in her living room, me behind the leather coach, she standing in the open space reserved for yoga. She said she was sorry our marriage didn’t work out, or a few words to that effect. I said I was, too. That was all. The end lasted perhaps less than a minute. Then she was gone– as I had requested, in order to spend the last night alone before moving out forever on September 1st.  No sad goodbyes at the garage door, at least not sadder than the one we had standing in the living room.  Sad enough.

I saw her briefly twice since that August afternoon: once, fleetingly, when she handed me mail and lied to me at a South End Rowing Club members’ meeting; a second time at the South End holiday party where she refused to acknowledge my presence.

Misleading promises…that might be the swansong of our marriage. Promises never kept. Both guilty as charged. Nothing lasting with joy as long as our bodies. No joy. No bodies.

One year is a short time in a person’s life and an eternity. From that afternoon a year ago, still standing in her house, to today in my apartment in Boston, I chart a journey measured in more than the 3,100 miles that separate us: a journey of renewal.

She always said, “Plan the work, work the plan.” That’s what I did—(though she accused me of inconsistency.) The pieces fell into place, in sequence, on the schedule she allowed me to set: complete the spring teaching semester; acquire a driver’s license; take the leadership course at UCLA; undergo hand surgery; pack up all my belongings; rent and load the Pod; move out September 1st. Clockwork.

Through the exceptional generosity of friends I was given a house in West Oakland in which to live for the remainder of the year, a gesture for which I will be always grateful. The house, combined with my friends’ support, proved to be the transitional respite from the deadening despair of divorce that I badly needed. My friends understood; they knew her longer than I did and saw what I had failed to see.

Days after moving being in West Oakland took on a new significance. It couldn’t have been foreseen. On September 5th I learned from Adam that he had been diagnosed with lymphoma. Treatment was nearby at Oakland Kaiser Hospital. I was able to accompany him to the bi-weekly chemo sessions, drive him home…be there with him when it mattered most.

The autumn sped by: teaching at Hult, weekends with Adam, Adam’s Point farmer’s market, walking to West Oakland Bart, discovering open studios, swimming at the South End.  Sam visited. David visited. Thanksgiving and Christmas with Rachel’s family. Then it was time to move. I was sad to be leaving Adam during his final weeks of chemo. He was in good hands with Rachel, her family, and his Bowdoin friends.

I loaded a final lot of boxes, my bike, odds and ends, into the Pod, stored close by in West Oakland.  It would wait for shipment until I had a place to live. Work the plan.

January/February with Sam, Saga, Miki, and Ethan: a safe and comforting haven.  On March 1st I moved to my apartment in the Orient Heights section of East Boston, directly across from Constitution Beach. Purposeful for open water swimming, a walk to Sam’s, and a lucky choice once grounded by Covid-19.  I’ve suffered little if at all.

It’s the last evening in August, an evening one year ago I spent alone in a house that was never my home, least of all on that night. I had only my packed suitcases to remind me I once lived there. Tonight, while only a rented apartment, my place is truly my home. Maybe it’s the privilege of all single dwellers, that everything is ordered to one’s own taste. Sharing space can be harder than sharing a life.

I’m listening to a classic recording of Victoria de los Angeles singing Madame Butterfly. I found the CD set in a used bookstore in West Stockbridge only a week ago. I’m a sucker for the pure glorious rapture of this opera. I’ve heard it at the Met, the Berlin Opera, and the Munich Opera.  It never fails. I thank my late friend Ray, and his legacy CD collection, for rekindling my joy in music—especially now.

What have I learned during this year away from her, and my life with her, and my life in California?

That the northeast is my home. The golden hills never sparked joy or any sense of belonging. I was always an expat.

That neither Ellen nor Brenda were mistakes. But establishing these relationships as a piece of my identity was.

That my own freedom to be, freedom to act is not dependent on another.

That I love open water swimming.

That my best friends remain my best friends.

That marriage is no longer a desired state.

That being close to the geography I love is important.

That life isn’t as long or as happy as we want it to be.

That happiness begins inside.

That I miss my dog, but don’t want one on my own (as much as a solace he would have been during this novel shutdown).

Now, a year away, I’m glad not to be there. I didn’t feel that then, or even know it was possible. I think the outcome could have been otherwise had there been a will to make it so.  She didn’t have that will, and I realize now the end was inevitable.

I am back where I belong.

Late August Afternoons

The immense privilege of late August afternoons at Midwood, the wide expanse of the upper Hudson River flowing beyond the lawn, the dark hills of the Catskills, and the lady of the house seated on the great porch overlooking a view that could have been painted by one of the luminous Hudson River School artists living just up the road.

The immense privilege of these late August afternoons at Midwood: a respite from all the many ills that afflict this summer of 2020.  The Covid-19 pandemic, Trump, George Floyd and racial discord, protests, fires consuming California—the ancient Anderson Redwood Forest in Guerneville burnt to stumps some nearly a thousand years old. It’s hard to find hope in any of this. Yet, here on the Hudson River in Columbia County, time stands still. Morning mist on the river lifts to sunlit afternoons and dazzling sunsets before the stars come out at night, and the lone green channel marker blinks across the water. No other lights mare the darkness of the night horizon on the farther shore.

The immense privilege of these late August afternoons at Midwood: in this solitude I swim naked in the warm river, snaking through the water lilies to reach open water, the current at times so strong I swim in place. The rare freedom of my unclothed body only matched by the clouds floating above. Free to be, for a moment in time.

Can this be real?

Time can never relax like this again.

I’m reminded of Richard Murphy’s most beautiful poem, The Woman of the House. I’m not writing an elegy here, as he was, but I, too, am writing of a woman of the house, the woman who created this gracious home from a Livingston family legacy, a place where grace resides and beauty is a by-word of everyday living. Every time I’m here I wonder if it will be my last. The lady of the house is ninety-three. And yet another late August has come and I’m here again, participating in the immense privilege of life at Midwood.  Life is slower but undiminished. Time itself seems to have slowed down.

It was her house where we spent holidays,

With candles to bed, and ghostly stories:

In the lake of her heart we were islands

Where the wild asses galloped in the wind.

No wild asses here, but oh the wind did blow on Thursday when the sky erupted in thunder and lightning, downpour obscuring the river and mountains in a tremendous grey blanket of rain. By night the stars were back and dinner on the veranda with friends, to me one old, one new.

And those happy days, when in spite of rain

We’d motor west where the salmon-boats tossed,

She would sketch on the pier among the pots

Waves in a sunset, or the rising moon.

I’m thinking of other times here, times when I brought the women in my life to share this out-of-time experience of hospitality and warmth.  The many shad parties with Evelyn, the one with Ellen, the last time here with Brenda. Did she know then she no longer loved me, would find a way to end our marriage? It was the last thing that would have occurred to me then… but now, when I remember back it’s only the wistful end I see. I see it in her eyes, in the way she never held my hand, or showed any loving affection, the way she never touched me, never held me close. No lovemaking in our bedroom named Washburn, its antique quilt covering only a bed for sleeping.

They are gone, those women in my life. And yet I am here in the immense privilege of Midwood. Does friendship trump love? It’s lasted more than forty years—so the answer must surely be yes.

Maybe that’s love by another name.

This time I’m in the far bedroom, Bamboo, named for the eight-piece craftsman bedroom set adorned with bamboo inspired carving, a charming period piece of whimsical delight. I fall asleep at night to the sound of cicadas coming through the river -facing  windows, broken only by the occasional northbound Amtrak train.

Back in Boston this time away is a healing memory, late August afternoons in my blood. I have jam from Montgomery Place to see me through the winter (peach, apricot, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, black currant) and a small painting of the Hudson at Midwood to revive what fades in my eyes. I will paint many more scenes myself as the season wanes.

The immense privilege of late August afternoons at Midwood will last when the inevitable more ephemeral days to come alter life in petty ways that must be fought against with all the energy I can muster, a debt repaid every day.

Please one more time. One more afternoon at Midwood, with the lady of the house laying the table for dinner, with friends old and new, civilization realized, out of time, out of place in this dumbed-down, tragic world and time we live in.

Through our inheritance all things have come,

The forms, the means, all by our family ;

The good of being alive was given by them,

We ourselves limit that legacy.

Zoom Illumination

Was she a coward because I was also on the Zoom call, fully visible?  Is that why she never turned her camera on, as everyone else did during the Board meeting? Or was remaining visually anonymous her already always fear of exposure, of commitment?  Of hiding in the name of privacy? That someone might see and see through her moral hypocrisy? Is that why she could only affirm in Chat others’ braver and public—publically visible—comments on divisive topics? Such a small but illuminating example of the way she wound up being.

Why do I care is the better question to ask. Yet I ask these questions anyway. Yes I know it’s obsessive. For god’s sake put the past in the past and forget about her.

She imagines she’s such a revolutionary, wearing her ruby-studded hammer and sickle pin in solidarity with people she never associates with. Meanwhile she married me. Such contradiction isn’t an excuse for hurtful behavior. It must confuse her as much as everyone else.  (But no, she told me she had clarity of vision in her decision to dissolve our marriage, unilaterally, without compromise, without attempting to create a new possibility.)

Meanwhile it will be soon a year since I moved out of her house, out of her life, our life together.  A year. It feels like yesterday, standing in her living room, saying goodbye for the last time, nearly the last words we said directly to one another. The only other time, a few months later, she lied to me when it would have been so simple, so gracious, to have told the truth. A yes rather than no.

Her refusal to acknowledge what I knew to be so summed up a lifetime of avoidance, a lifetime of leaving.

The only other time I saw her she refused to acknowledge my presence. Is this the person she holds herself out to be?

I will never make the mistake again of trying to fit into someone else’s life. Maybe it was a mistake trying to fit into her life. She said it was, that she didn’t want me to fit into her life. though not to have would have been a life so separate as to question its validity as a marriage.  I gained much by fitting in, and was happy to do so. My losing was a loss for both of us that she could never admit.

Never trying again may mean never having another relationship. Never is a long and lonely time. I’m content with that. That doesn’t mean a loss of companionship, or even sex, Where this will come from I don’t know.  I refuse to give up my new freedom to be, to act—or to ask someone else to align with me. The ingredients to such alignment quickly spoil. To her credit she taught me this lesson.

What do I want now? Easier to say what I don’t want.


August 2020

August 2019 was the last month we lived together. It was the seventh month of living under the dark cloud of our marriage dissolving.  Month by month, day by day, without much drama, the life we once had together, thin as it turned out to be, edged closed to exit. Communication ceased. The drawn-out timing was my request to which she reluctantly agreed. It was hard, maybe terrible, for both us.  As I expressed myself here as elsewhere, she retreated deeper inside the protective shell that shielded her from explanation, responsibility.  She feared quotations of the truth and went to extreme, even legal, lengths to suppress any revelation.  The truth can bear only so much sunlight.

August 2019 was a difficult month. Recovering from surgery with a bandaged and unworkable left hand, I had to sort, sell, and pack all of my earthly belongings to be ready to move out of her house on September 1st.  Tension in our house while rarely breaking the surface was in the air we breathed. I have said before thank god we had our dog Bebe-a loving distraction from the lack of love between us. It was a time of unrelenting sadness. Was what could have been ever possible?

August 2020.  I have been gone nearly a year. We have had no communication but for a few lawyer letters summing up the divorce and an impersonal forwarding of my mail. She refuses to communicate. The Covid-19 shutdown and restrictions have undoubtedly not given her the return-to-life-before-Niland she envisioned, though I’m sure she’s happier on her own. A shared life is not in her DNA, as her many marriages and broken off relationships prove. Already always leaving is a thwart to commitment.

I’m beginning my sixth month in Boston. I moved across the country to be away from her, and to be closer to roots and geography I love. The pandemic has slowed my plans, too. I rely on my friends in San Francisco, unable to begin making new friends here. I am lucky and grateful to have family, my son Sam and his wife Saga and twin boys, nearby. Since moving in January one of my three closest friends in San Francisco has died. My best friend Josh remains in close contact and will remain so. We miss one another and compensate with video calls and our book club of two. My other friend Michael while a special presence in my life is occupied with his role as director of City Center at the San Francisco Zen Center—especially consuming in these viral times.

Do I resent her for ending our marriage?  I resent her more for not being the person I thought she was. I’m better off now, on my own, in nearly every way. A loveless, sexless, judgmental marriage isn’t what I ever wanted. The 2019 upending of my life that she caused is past–the past put in the past drawer of life. The logistics all fell into place, with help of generous friends and family who provided shelter, support, and love. I was never alone.

What’s so right now is the continuing pandemic with all its attendant uncertainties; the daily horror of Trump and his sycophantic Republicans; BlackLivesMatter and social unrest. And just last week a fatal shark attack on a swimmer off Bailey Island in Maine!

Amidst this atmospheric gloom, I swim in Boston Harbor nearly every day, teach my students, paint watercolors, read, listen to Ray’s huge collection of classical CDs, attend Zoom meetings, connect with friends virtually. My life is full.

I miss my dog. I miss companionship and the intimacy that love could inspire. I don’t miss her.