December 31, 2020

Here we are, finally, at the end of a tumultuous year, the worst year in people’s memory the world over. I imagine a thousand people, many thousands, are writing up their summaries of what this year has wrought, what’s it’s meant to them, how it’s changed the world forever, what the “new normal” will be, how we’ve all been transformed by the global pandemic, by the racial reckonings of this past summer, by the reign of the god-awful Donald Trump. Yes, it’s been a year like no other.

Here at the year’s end I’ll take my own measure, look back on all this year has brought me, what light it cast, or didn’t, on the life I hoped to achieve by moving to Boston. And if I separate the atmospheric gloom of 2020 from the year I experienced as life lived for real, I can only admit, without embarrassment, that the year hasn’t been so bad. In fact, it’s been a fine year, a successful transition from one life that ended in 2019 to a new one that began on January 7th. For me, 2019 was far worse a year than 2020.

By coincidence I’m reading a newly published book titled On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives, by Andrew Miller, an English professor at Johns Hopkins.  I read a review in The New Yorker and ordered a copy from Amazon. It came in a day.

The book is a combination of memoir and a literary analysis of writers and their books or quotes that deal with the theme of lives not lived, what might have been…and the world as lived being the only world we really have.

The first chapter opens with an Oscar Wilde quote: “One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.”

In a roundabout way I think that’s the harm I’ve done myself: not living my real life. But then, I really don’t know, because I never lived any other life. What would my real life have looked like, if not the one I have lived?

I’m past the age when new life chapters hang tantalizingly available, like low hanging fruit, ripe and full, ready to be picked at random and eaten with delight. Yet in 2020 I did embark on a new life chapter, not entirely randomly picked. I decided early on in the dissolution of my marriage that not only my marriage but my entire West Coast adventure was over. And that it hadn’t been in vain at all—very much the opposite—but it was over.

One thing Brenda said to me near the end that hurt, hurt more than most of the hurtful things she said, was that she had lost the five years she had spent with me. Like I had been some kind of down payment on a future life that had to be forfeited, lost, never to be regained, with no accruing benefit while it matured in the bank deposit of life.

Once before in my own life I thought that way at the end of a marriage and it made me suicidal. All those years wasted, the life I wanted not lived.  But the fallacy of that kind of thinking, the death trap, is its negation of experience, its negation of agency, and will, and life lived on life’s terms, unknowable and expansive in its mystery. We only get one life, no matter how much we think about the lives we haven’t led.

In the book I’m reading there’s a lengthy discussion of Frost’s great and mysterious poem The Road Not Taken.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Traveling two roads as one traveler. Is the road we didn’t travel by the harm we do to ourselves? Unexplored pathways, untaken journeys?  The only way we can ever approximate two lives is sequentially, and then the second will always be built in some manner on the foundation of the first.

If life harmed me, can I make amends to myself, and try on a new life? I’m living a new life in Boston. How new do I want to make it?

I’ll end this reckoning with a gratitude list. It seems an appropriate way to end 2020, to set aside the virus, Trump, the deep divisions of the country, and focus on all the good this year has seen in my life.

I’m grateful that Brenda ended our marriage. I know we cared for each other; yet care does not equate to love. She had the courage to end what only would have continued in tranquilized obviousness, safe but soulless. That I fought so hard to save what wasn’t salvageable reflects only on my insecurities, not on any hope for a better future.

Brenda didn’t close a door in my life. She opened one.

In moving out I gained a new lifelong friendship with RD. I experienced a new and vastly different part of the Bay Area. I was able to be close to my son Adam when he needed me most. I connected with other new friends, learned the freedom and joy of painting from one afternoon spent with Dennis P.

I never waivered in my decision to move to Boston. New York was never really an option. Somehow I knew my next road taken was also a return. It has not been a disappointment.

I’m grateful to my son Sam and his wife Saga. They gave me a home for two months while I found my own in a new city. More than shelter what they gave me was an open embrace of welcome and family love.

I’m grateful to have rented the small and unfashionable apartment I chose in Orient Heights. It’s warm and comfortable inside, a marvelous evocation of me, clutter and all. It’s provided access to the beach across the street and the opportunity to swim in the harbor, sheltered by the Logan Airport runways. I’m grateful to Sam for joining me in my passion for open water swimming, a new swim mate for life.

I’m grateful to Hult for transferring my teaching role to their Cambridge campus. I’m grateful to the many new students I’ve taught there this year, and to the new friendships being formed.

I’m grateful for another year with TP, his friendship and faith in what I can offer.

I’m grateful to my friend EM, for recommending me to the interim role as marketing director at Fletcher. Whatever the final outcome is, the experience has been illuminating.

I’m grateful to be living on my own. I’m grateful that I don’t want another woman in my life. I don’t mean that in a sexist or defeatist way. The deepest love and union I’ve ever had was with a woman, the one I didn’t marry. Now, though, the idea doesn’t appeal. I’m open for revision, but for now, no. I’m open, too, to other options. Free to be, free to act.

I’m grateful to have kept the virus at bay. It’s one day at a time, an exercise in careful living. In a weird way, I’m grateful for what the virus has created, a world of Zoom possibility, of connecting and reconnecting with friends old and new that would not be possible in real life. Maybe that’s a piece of the new normal people talk about.

I’m sad to have lost my friend Ray yet grateful to have his music in my life, a daily reminder of friendship and shared experience. I’m grateful for thirteen years of sobriety, the same as Ray. I’m grateful for my many friends in the fellowship, men in my life who share our common destiny.

I’m grateful that my friendship with JS in San Francisco remains as rock solid and lasting as it ever was. Our book club of two is a success! That friendship is another door that Brenda opened, for which I’m forever grateful.

I’m grateful for my friendship with JKD and the life at Midwood into which she so warmly welcomes me. She, and my other friends, prove to me the life affirming value of friendship over transitory love. Another kind of love.

I’m grateful for little things, my love of books and bookstores, unabated even in the face of space limitations.

Most of all, above all else, I’m grateful for my three sons—the sure reproof for any regret for taking that fork in the road when I married Evelyn. My life obviously would not be the same, and obviously it would have been diminished. 2020 has seen Adam recover from 2019’s cancer. It’s forged new bonds with Sam and his family. The virus has curtailed travel to visit Adam in Oakland and David in New York, though it hasn’t lessened our bonds.

I have no predictions or resolutions for 2021. No one could have predicted 2020.

It’s one day at a time, keeping the past in the past drawer, and being open to the possibility, always, of a future that didn’t exist before.

One Moment

Was there ever a moment when my life was lived outside the walls of the identity I’ve built to describe “me,” the person who “I” am, the person I wound up being?

A moment springing forth from pure being, not from the construction I call myself. A moment of unfiltered bliss. A moment of shocking intensity, unplanned, unanticipated.

This was a question asked by the Forum leader in today’s final session.

A person may only have one or two such moments in life, if lucky. And then that moment lives on in memory as the experience of being alive.

Yes. I relive that moment in my life now and my heart leaps. That perfect moment when suddenly I wasn’t the man I wound up being.

I can feel the warm spring air on Fillmore Street. I can feel the evening; I see the street before me as clearly as the street out my window. I see the Balboa Café, lights gleaming, the street windows open on the warm night. I hear the people inside.

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I see E is standing in front of the open café window. We had arranged to meet there following a dinner she had planned with another man, a man she was letting out of her life. It was only the third time we had met. The first time was the fateful dinner party at TM’s house. The second time was for coffee outside in Hayes Valley.

Given the short time we had known one another E had made an unusual request. She had asked whether she could spend the night in my apartment on the night in question. She had planned the dinner in San Francisco and was meant to drive to a rowing competition in Sacramento early the next morning. Staying in the city would eliminate her need to drive home to Menlo Park, and then back through the city again the next morning. I explained that I lived in a studio apartment but had twin beds.

And there she was in front of the Balboa. She didn’t see me approach until the last moment when she turned and without hesitation I took her in my arms and kissed her. I kissed her as I had never kissed anyone before. I have no idea where the confidence, the passion came from. It was a moment of total abandonment.

She responded and everyone seated at the front tables at the Balboa broke out in applause.

In that kiss, that brief moment in time, I was alive. I have never been happier. I had waited my entire life for that moment. I will never again have such a moment. For giving me that respite from the man I wound up being I will love E forever, even though I erased her from my life. That was later.

That warm spring night all the lights of life burned brightly. We walked up Fillmore Street to Gamine. We stayed there briefly; I don’t think E even finished her glass of wine. We went to my apartment, my first apartment in San Francisco, in Golden Gateway on Battery Street. The twin beds lasted for a while. That was the beginning.

Can the memory of that moment out of time be a springboard to a new possibility? Not to be duplicated but to be realized in a new state of being, free to be, free to act? To live a life of my choosing, not constrained by the past, not constrained by my self-defined identity? Can I take that once upon a time spontaneity and project it into my life today? To live without fear? To know there’s no other shoe to drop?

To accept that there’s nothing here but this moment in time, that the past doesn’t exist, the future doesn’t exist, and to accept that this moment is meaningless, and to stand in that meaninglessness and create a future that doesn’t yet exist? To bring forth something from nothing? To declare the possibility of a new way of being? And be it?

The kiss isn’t gone. It’s as real tonight as on that years ago warm spring night on Fillmore Street. E is gone. San Francisco is gone. To be free is also to allow others to be free. To release them from the constraints of how I think about them.

The past is meaningless. Let it go and be free.

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Loss Upon Loss

We move from loss to loss. This morning I opened Facebook only to learn of my friend Elizabeth G’s death. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, posts from mutual friends, mourning the loss of yet another South Ender.

Elizabeth taught me how to row the club’s old wooden boats, braving the Bay with a novice who needed all the instruction and patience she so kindly offered. Later, Elizabeth was the professional photographer at my wedding, lovingly assembling an album—an album commemorating a happy day that only later dissolved to dust—that I no longer can see. That it should have remained with the marriage dissolver is an irony not worth pondering.

Elizabeth was to have also been the photographer for Adam and Rachel’s wedding celebration scheduled for this past Saturday May 9th. She was excited to carry on the tradition for me and so pleased that we had asked her. Unfortunately, that event was postponed due to the virus lockdown. Would she have been there on Saturday? The news I had this morning was when she was found in her apartment on Monday she had been gone for more than a day.

I look at a photo of Elizabeth, [X], and me, and all I see despite the obvious joy is grief. A person gone. A marriage gone. A time of happiness gone. Those that remain endure the loss. Death is unknowable, yet inevitable. To wield the cruel knife of divorce is a murder of possibility.

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These are events in life, in my life, that have happened. They are simply what’s so. By themselves, as events that happened, they have no meaning. I attribute meaning, spinning narratives of loss, and grief, and wrongness. My story. My rackets. I know this.

Every day for the past three weeks I think of my friend Ray, also lying dead to be found in his apartment. His death has left a gaping space in my experience of San Francisco, my connection to a chapter meant to be forever. Ray remains with me in the everyday reminder of the music he loved, having been left his vast collection of cds. Listening to what Ray listened to, distinguishing his taste, what he loved, what he left out of his collection, is a journey of remembrance and connection. I have no such link to my married past, nothing joint to share having been given nothing.

The enforced isolation of the virus pandemic spells too much time dwelling on death, loss, and life’s disruption. I’ve made it to the other side, reasonably unscathed, set down near family and a few old friends. The time will come when visiting becomes possible again. My life of the past twelve years, but for a few lifelong friends, whom I miss intensely, is slowly receding. Today’s news of Elizabeth’s sudden and shocking death is another nail driven ever so quietly into the coffin of that once upon a time life.

Please no more death and dying for a while. The omnipresent horrific national news is bad enough.

Friends, be well, stay with me for a while longer.

Version 4

Sunday Evening at Home

Saturday evening at home, listening to Keith Jarrett playing Handel’s Suites for Keyboard, part of Ray’s CD legacy. UPS delivered four large boxes of CD’s yesterday, hundreds of CD’s, packed and shipped by Ray’s executor Tom, who’s performing a labor of love cleaning out Ray’s so well appointed Pacific Heights apartment, the apartment where Ray lived thirty-six years, with its views of the Bay and Golden Gate off the tiny balcony. The music is Ray’s presence, not a substitute but a comforting feeling of Ray being here in the piano notes. To be the custodian of this musical legacy is an honor I didn’t expect.

I’m home from having had dinner with Sam and family. Sam made for the first time homemade lasagna. The twins were dubious, never having had lasagna before. We told them it was a spaghetti sandwich. Still dubious. Eventually they finished their dinners though not with pleasure, only as a way station on the route to a promised dessert. Sam, Saga, and I on the other hand had seconds.

The otherwise quiet of the apartment, with the Handel piano playing, is peaceful. It’s [x]’s sixty-fifth birthday today. Of course I’m thinking of her, how could I not be. I don’t miss her, though I miss the idea of being married, in the abstract. I can let my imagination conger up the ideal partner, a fiction. Reality is never ideal. Was it ever real? I had ideal for a time. It was brief and it was worth it, worth the heart pain that came later. To have had it remains better than never having experienced that first flush of passion, that first kiss. Maybe there is only ever the one time, the first time, and everything after is a photocopy of the original.

Maybe what [x] offered could never have filled the void left empty and sad inside me. It was different, not less than, simply different. And that made all the difference. I tried to fill it with her, and the very trying was an undoing, an unwanted togetherness that I couldn’t comprehend. The water was too cold.

The man I share with my few guy friends is not the same man who was once with three women. Nor was that man the same man with each of the three women in his life. Different woman/different man. Moments of perfection—perhaps that’s all we get if we’re lucky.

With my male friends perfection, peak experience, isn’t required. With my closest friends—there are only a few—there’s a mental oneness that communicates without words. When I moved to Boston Ray told me he wouldn’t any longer know who to talk to about the things we spoke about, the same line communication without explanation. We simply knew. Charleston. No, not the city in South Carolina. Vanessa Bell’s house. Billy Budd. Benjamin Britten’s opera, not the novella.

The piano music permeates the house, and my memories.

Nothing she ever did evokes similar.

Sense of smell

A hint of roasting chicken leaked into my apartment this afternoon and my immediate thought was Oh good, I still have my sense of smell, I must not have the coronavirus, loss of taste and smell being an early sign of infection. I’ve left my apartment only once since last Saturday, mouth and nose covered, gloves on. The classes I teach are now via Zoom. I speak with my sons daily, friends often. Though alone, I don’t feel disconnected. It’s a comfort being on my own, doing what I want. A few days ago one daughter-in-law wrote to say I must feel relieved not to have to share self-isolation with my former (unnamed) wife. Indeed that would be alone within aloneness. One plus one only ever equaled one plus one. Never two.

My rhythm is day to day. Though I have classes scheduled for both the summer and fall terms—fall projected to be back in-person—these seem data points not life movements. I’m grateful for them, and enjoy my students and colleagues. Yet I have visions of great leaps forward, new awareness, new ventures, new possibilities that didn’t exist before. I need to move into these.

I want to paint again, give expression to this new life, dive deeply into who I am, free to be and act and reveal through images the dreaming of my thoughts. Pick up the brushes; start; anything; everything.

Arranging my new place has been delicious. Sam says it looks like every other place where I’ve lived on my own. Two ordinary rooms turned into a sanctuary. I’m pleased with the result. The caution is complacency, falling into what W.E. calls tranquilized obviousness. Too warm. Too comfortable.

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Though happily lacking any underlying conditions I’m in the danger age zone for dying from Covid-19. Is avoiding contagion, long term, even possible despite taking the ordinary precautions? Is every surface contaminated? Every package, every shelf in a store, every person on the street? I’m not obsessing over it, but the idea is there, every present—it’s become the always already there worry of our time.

Every morning, with a cup of freshly brewed coffee (preferring Six Depot’s Blue Velvet) I’ve been reading essays, W. G. Sebald, Guy Davenport, Bruce Chatwin…

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I never did this in the north-west corner of Central Richmond. No censure would have been forthcoming, other than the ever-present atmosphere of not-measuring-up. I realize now that what I felt was the way she wound up being, being herself, outside of herself, not overtly or purposely but innately, as much a part of her as her delicate skin and fine-boned body, the body she could not give, but felt invaded not shared.

Walking along Constitution Beach at 4:00pm, the sky filling with dark clouds, the air mildly chilly, the only other person I saw was a woman exercising her dog, a Vizsla I think. He bounded near the water line, and once ran up to me and I wondered whether to pat him on his eager head or was he a carrier, a carrier of sickness and possible death. Wearing gloves, I gave his head a tap.

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The early evening now is bright and Bennington Street is empty of cars and walkers. An empty Blue Line T train passes behind the opposite side of the street houses. I know no one in my neighborhood. Other than the upstairs neighbors she knows others on the street only as neighborhood acquaintances. She always said I too casually referred to people as friends.

Back then, in the days of that marriage (more than a year has passed since she told me she wanted to end it), I told myself that I was happy when happiness was fleeting—momentary times when the burden of being who she was fell away and the lovely person she could be was unfurled, slowly like the fronds of a fern opening in the morning dew. And like the morning dew, it was gone by midday.

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She says these are figments of my imagination. If others hadn’t experienced the same behavior, the repeated leavings, the repeated don’t-get-too-close-to me protective armor, if others hadn’t also observed the way she never said a kind word to me, held my hand, I might have wondered myself. Validation is cold comfort.

Night in Orient Heights, quieter than usual. Boston now has a 9:00pm curfew, although I don’t know how that’s enforced and have no intention to test it. No cars on Bennington Street, a few lights in the windows across the street. Even the street is mostly dark. Alone in my apartment I’m OK. I don’t miss her, though I miss the idea of her, the idea of easy companionship. What’s happening now is no longer part of the narrative. Chapter closed; the past in the past.

There are enough lies circulating in the world, this new world of untruth, that to live one is a crime of against humanity. One moral failure need not beget another. Let hers rest in eternity.

I hear another Blue Line T heading westward toward central Boston, likely empty, waiting for safer days. We are all waiting for safer days.

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Black Curtains

So now she’s spreading tales, half-truths, about how she had to protect her identity, involving lawyers, threats of restraining orders, stemming from her deep fear of men and menace and harm going all the way back to island state girlhood to present days of criminals having committed unspeakable acts of sexual violence and worse. (That was never what it was about.) Those to whom she tells her tales of victimhood muddle the stories, repeating new and more elaborate versions, like children playing telephone whispers. And round and round it goes, all the way to this other coast. It’s not becoming of the person she holds herself out to be. But then that was always the problem with the person she wound up being. What you see was not what you got.

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She and her pathetic need to justify, too be right, are of trivial concern. She is nothing if not small, today and always. The entire world is consumed by a viral blight far more lethal than a man who wanted togetherness. Covid 19 the latest coronavirus is indiscriminately taking its toll, spreading sickness, death, and almost worst of all universal fear. Fear of what we cannot see, so therefore everyone and everything becomes a possible vector of infection. It’s as though the air is filled with virus, that every breath becomes a prelude to dying.

Is infection inevitable? Will the virus fade, wear itself out in some way yet unknown? How many businesses will fail? How many people will die? Will there be an end, or is the planet changed forever? Doomed? Are these the prophesized Last Days?

It’s time to reread Samuel Pepys plague diary, when the Black Death killed a fifth of London’s population. He survived.

Shall people be hanging black curtains in the windows?

Practicing social distancing, the nice euphemism for staying away from other people—those possible Typhoid Mary’s among us—is not so onerous for now. I spend my time organizing my new apartment, finding the last storage opportunities for too many random items, ordering food and staples online, along with a desk, loveseat, storage bins and shelves…all minimally designed to fit into my small space. Hanging pictures, placing carpets, sorting books into my own personal Dewey Decimal System. Somehow James Frazer and Charles Doughty belong together on the same shelf.

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Would I rather be sheltering in place with someone with me, to share the solitude? With her? In some other ideal world, yes. With her as I first knew her, yes, before she could no longer not withhold who she wound up being. Before she told a friend she didn’t do relationships well. She should never have begun.

To be sheltering in place with my little dog, the dog she kept, would be a comfort. Though my dislocation and eastward move didn’t permit keeping, or sharing, our dog, that she has him for company during this time is one of the unfairnesses of her dissolution of our marriage. Collateral damage. I miss him, still.

Version 2

No wonder news of her drinking isn’t surprising.

Everyday my boys and I check in on one another. We have a WhatsApp group that makes it easy, and the occasional video call on Zoom. We are a connected family. Sam is a short walk from my apartment; we visit many times a week. This morning Sam took me to the early seniors-only opening hour at the Seaport Whole Foods.

Though the chemotherapy eradicated Adam’s cancer it’s left his immune system compromised just now when he can least afford to be vulnerable. So he stays mostly home, enjoying his time as best he can before he begins his first choice internal medicine residency at Highland Hospital. He’s a happy young man. We are happy for him. The May 9th wedding celebration is now in doubt, given coronavirus travel restrictions. There will be even more to celebrate, let us hope, at a later date.

What comes next is unknown, uncertain for everyone. I’m glad I’m away from her orbit, now turned so uninhabitable.

As an associate in her law firm wrote to me, “As part of my job I read your blog, and was moved. I wish you well on this painful journey.”

There is no more pain. The journey continues.

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What Didn’t Happen

Flying to San Francisco. Flying at night, on a clear winter night, is magical, the lights far beneath the plane like lights on a far away Christmas tree. There’s life going on down there, people going about their evenings, preparing for bed as the plane makes its way across the country. An ordinary evening in Cleveland, or St. Louis, or wherever we are 36,000 feet up above those houses with their people going about their ordinary lives. Some might be doing the dishes, putting the kids to bed. Some might be arguing; some making love. Maybe there’s some wife down there telling her husband she no longer loves him, has fallen out of love, time for him to pack his possessions and move out. Maybe he can rent a room somewhere she might suggest. Not her problem when she’s the one always already leaving,

In our relationships, when we focus on our problems or how wrong things are, we lose our power to be and act effectively. Problems lie in the lack of inventing a future for our relationships “as a possibility.” When there’s no possibility created, pretty much what’s left is being upset.

The payoff in that is that we get to be right and see others as wrong. In being upset, in withholding our happiness and well-being, we both limit the other person as well as our own ability to be. If we switch that, if we invent ourselves (instead of just reacting), the way the world occurs shifts—we could be in a relationship with Godzilla, or anyone. If we don’t switch that, we don’t get a chance to celebrate all that’s available to ourselves and others.

When something’s missing as a possibility, there’s not a sense of insufficiency or inadequacy—we leave behind the conversation about how things are “not” going to be. What’s missing becomes a possibility “for” something. Making this switch requires disrupting our old conversations and most likely completing things from the past—there’s no wish for things to be different, better, or more. We come to know a space within ourselves where that can happen—it’s a state change, to being the author, as it were.

The conditions and circumstances for our relationships begin to reorder and realign themselves. In creating possibility, we get to know what’s possible in being human.

 Angie Mattingly
Landmark Forum leader

She was always already leaving. For her, leaving was the possibility dragged into the future. Leaving kept her safe, gave her an out, pre-ordained. It was only a matter of time.

She said her life was changed as much as mine. Not so. As she was always already leaving, nothing changed for her. She was leaving when we met, leaving throughout, leaving at the end. She’s still leaving, and word on the street has it trying to provoke a leaving in someone else’s relationship. Love has no currency in leaving. When your life is dominated by leaving, there’s no way but out. Leaving.

That I’m happier away from her leaving is not a validation of her leaving the marriage. It’s the inevitable, if long time coming, consequence, the new freedom to be, to act. Woe to the next man who fails to perceive her trail of leaving, mistaking it only for independence. Self-proclaimed independence is her cover, her mask for always already leaving.

I’m in my own apartment after two months living with my son and his family, a joyful, restorative time after last year’s dislocation. I’m immensely grateful.

Now I’m faced with sorting through too much stuff, too much of everything, to fit into my comfortable but not large one bedroom apartment. The space is entirely adequate: it’s my stuff that isn’t. Anyone who knows me knows this is true. Even with four sizable closets, rare in an apartment this size, there’s much left out that doesn’t fit. Time to divest, not one’s or two’s of this or that, but wholesale eliminations, half of everything should go. (Not the books!) Short-term angst for long term ease of living.

She would be laughing had she a sense of humor about me.

What I strive for:

Forgiveness enlarges the future

By David Cunningham

 

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful actions a human being can take–it doesn’t change the past, it enlarges the future.* Forgiveness is a choice that frees us from the burden of resentment and regret–it doesn’t alter the past, make things right, condone what we did or may have been done to us. It shifts the present and allows us to move forward. Creating a new future is declarative and takes a commitment to being complete with the person or people involved.

Forgiveness is not really about the person who we say has done wrong; it’s about the one who is forgiving. It’s about finding the courage to step out of “the way it should have been.” To complete a past hurt, resentment, anger, fear or failure, it’s worth noticing both how we’re holding what happened now, in the present, as well as recognizing that whatever happened more than likely will have gained over time a certain mass and complexity in our minds. In taking that into account, we’re more able to address the context, hear others, and look at what might be next.

For example, if we’re harboring resentment, it involves taking responsibility for the diminishment of the other person and requires generative language, such as “I’m giving up the grudge I’ve been harboring for years.” 

Upsets and grudges that we carry from the past narrow our options, impact our relationships and limit our experience of living fully.

The lights are still on down there in the country. We’re over the great plains of Nebraska, Fewer lights, more distantly separated, Lonely lights, Lonely night.

Tomorrow is Adam’s end-of-chemo party. Six months. I hear in my mind our phone call of early September when Adam called to tell me he had been diagnosed with lymphoma. He has borne the cancer and the treatment with grace and fortitude, curtailing nothing, caring for the ill himself as a fourth year medical school student. He will be a fine doctor, a rare physician of compassion and knowledge.

He received an all-clear from his oncologist yesterday; come back for a check-up in three months. The relief is immense.

My boys are blessings she could not fathom. She called them straight arrows. Power is expressed in language.

Let go and set myself free.

Let returning to San Francisco not be a set-back.

Let circumstance not have us meet.

Let go and set myself free.

To be or not to be

When I said to my wife that I liked being married, her response was of course I liked being married, men live longer married than when alone, unlike women who live longer when not married. As though I had checked the actuarial tables before asking if she would marry me, conducting a cost/benefit analysis on married versus unmarried lifespans. A cost/benefit analysis on the deleterious effects of divorce would have been of more benefit. Ahhh hindsight!

But why like being married?

There’s much evidence against it, from divorce rates, to the popular media’s incessant portrayal of unhappy couples (when was the last time you saw a film or television series about a happy marriage?), to an article in today’s (02/16/2020) New York Times titled “They’re More Than Happy Not Being Married,” about women opting out of marriage and finding they prefer being single. Now I see the cover article in the March Atlantic is “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” by David Brooks. Yet to read.

No-fault divorce, pre-nuptial agreements, #metoo, open marriage, the women’s movement, gay liberation, gender blending—all symptoms of the demise of traditional marriage as a committed, meaningful, desirable institution. Why get involved in a losing proposition, especially if raising a family isn’t a consideration? There are other options.

Yet, marriage is a commitment to something larger than oneself. It’s a commitment to a way of being, to sharing one’s life with another human being. Otherwise it’s a piece of paper, a legality lacking in the creation of a new, combined future. To dissolve a marriage without trying to get beyond the way one wound up being, beyond the petty obliviousness of daily living, is a moral failing. It’s a lack of creativity, of creating a new future that didn’t exist before. To succumb to feelings (“I fell out of love with you.”) is what a child does before it learns the lessons of selfish self-interest.

My wife didn’t regard our marriage commitment as anything more than a quaint notion, a semi-formality of the occasion that was neither binding nor life-long. No richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, ‘til death do us part; definitely not poorer. Her words were something along the lines of a marriage commitment isn’t forever; nor was love. (I dare not quote her, much less name her, lest another lawyer’s sanction arrives in my inbox.)

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Still, I liked our mostly easy companionship. Though sometimes disagreeing, we rarely argued, never fought. Her rage against men remained below the surface, appearing only when affronted by an egregious remark that couldn’t be ignored. Not from me. Her fear of men on the other hand nearly took me down one evening on the sidewalk steps away from our doorway when I approached her from behind having stopped momentarily to retie my shoe. Lesson learned, that time without a broken arm or worse but decidedly chastened.

Where do I go from here? My older son David in New York repeatedly tells me, “Dad, no more girlfriends or wives, they don’t turn out too well for you.” Not that I’ve had many: one girlfriend, two wives. The girlfriend in between. The ratio seems all wrong. Clearly more sampling could have been attempted.

I’m about to move to my own, new place in Boston. Since September last year I’ve been living in temporary accommodations. I’ve called it homeless but housed, in truth very fortunately and happily housed, first in Oakland in the house of my friend Robin and now in Boston with my son Sam and family. These both have been comfortable arrangements. I’ve enjoyed living in the bosom of family life, here with Sam and his wife Saga and twin just-turned-four year old boys Miki and Ethan. I will miss it, and also will be happy to be on my own, reunited with my books and possessions, free to be and free to act. I worry, too, about loneliness. My mind tends in dwell in dark places when I’m on my own—something to resist, with plans to paint and read and cook and, at least for a while, continue to rationalize my too much stuff, sending some off to Goodwill, other things posted on Craigslist and eBay. Keep what sparks joy, as Kondo-san says.

Relationship(s)? I’m open, not looking. I bought a twin bed that converts to a full, just in case.

We’ll see what happens.

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A Happy Day

One day you’re a swimmer in high school; the next you’re graduating from college. What seems like a few years later you’re sixty-nine. A lot of life happened in between.

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Today’s my birthday, the cusp between Aquarius and Capricorn. I doubt that has any meaning but I like to think about this idea of cuspness, between one sign and another, the best of two worlds, maybe the worst of both?

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And indeed it is! The cusp of Aquarius and Capricorn is the Cusp of Mystery and Imagination, so says tarot.com.

Strengths:

Determined, creative, entertaining, idealistic, witty, empathetic

Weaknesses:

Detached, chaotic, selfish, aloof, critical, judgmental

I could write an entire narrative to support these characteristics. That’s what we do. We string together life’s happenings into a story that gives—we believe—substance and meaning to our lives. A reason why we’re here, doing what we do.

It’s just a story we tell ourselves.

But today is a different birthday. It’s not an especially important one. I don’t mind turning sixty-nine. I neither feel it (however it’s supposed to feel) nor regret the advance in age. That’s what happens, and who wants to be young today anyway. Not me. I fear for the world my young grandchildren will inherit.

Today’s birthday comes at the beginning of a new future, a future that didn’t exist in my life a year ago when my wife decided she no longer could be married. My birthday came only a few days before that declaration. I should have known it was inevitable, history repeating itself, but chose to see only what I wanted to see, which wasn’t the dissolution of our marriage. But it happened. Life happens, even when you don’t want it to.

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Today’s birthday is in Boston. I moved here two weeks ago, a one-way ticket to a new life in a familiar city that I will create, not out of my past but with a new freedom to be, freedom to act. It’s an imperative.

I’m spending today’s birthday—which I share with MLK as a holiday—with my son Sam and his family. I know a special breakfast is in store, smoked salmon, rye toast, scrambled eggs, two little twin boys maybe singing happy birthday if grandpa is lucky.

What I want to guard against is routine, falling into a routine that’s safe and orderly and ever so respectable. That would be easy to do here in Boston, a safe and orderly and respectable city, or at least the city I know. Some will be enough.

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Last night it snowed, soft thick snow that covered the ground by morning with about four inches of powder. It was the first snowfall of my first winter in the new life chapter. We shoveled the driveway parking area, piled a mountain of snow for sledding, at least enough for a few good rides the twins could enjoy. By afternoon most of the snow was gone, the temperature reaching 38, dipping to 18 again tonight. Winter in Boston.

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Today on my birthday I’ll think about my friends in San Francisco, and the probability that I would have started the day with a birthday swim at the South End, a birthday swim, like others in years before, with my friend Josh. This time of year the water in the Bay is cold, in the low 50’s if not colder. I remember one birthday, two years ago, when Josh and I swam up to the Creakers and swimming back encountered a strong current coming straight out from the Cove, pushing us away from the opening. For about ten minutes we both thought we might not be able to muscle our way back in. The water was frigid; we were frigid. Of course we did make it, and the sauna that morning was especially welcoming.

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I’ll think of birthdays in happier days spent at Deetjens in Big Sur and the Ahwahnee in Yosemite. I’ll think of my 60th birthday, getting side by side massages in Palo Alto. I’ll think of my 50th birthday in Briarcliff Manor, a dinner party of good friends from those days in my honor. The Westchester County friends are no more. Nor is 50.

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Today’s birthday, here in Boston, will be auspicious, steeped in intent. It will be intentful, a marking, a passage to this new future.

It will be a happy day.

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Farewell. But not forgotten.

No Hoodies

No one wore a hoodie. No one wore jeans, or a T-shirt. No one had a ball cap on, backwards. I knew I was no longer in San Francisco.

It was Tuesday evening at the Liberty Hotel in Boston and it was a Bowdoin College career-networking event. I looked around and thought, these are my people. Many undergrads were there, the young men all in jackets, a few with ties. The young women wore dresses, even though it was twenty degrees outside. Alums from many years participated, including a classmate of mine I hadn’t seen in perhaps forty years. An ER physician from Marblehead—he was wearing the same clothes as the last time I saw him those many years ago: blue oxford shirt, navy blazer, khaki pants, and a red striped tie. Now however he sported a thick gray beard, a salty look on an old sailor.

I remember not too many years ago, I think 2010, when I was met by my friend Marcia H in front of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Providence and asked whether I should wear a tie to my first meeting with the board of a failing start-up about to develop a new product line. I was there to convince them to continue investing in the venture. She said of course, Niland, East Coast Sensibilities.

My now former wife hated those sensibilities, and condemned all of Rhode Island, all New England, anything that could be labeled Back East. She never wanted to go there, not even to visit my sons. She never agreed to let me show her Bowdoin, much less travel to Maine, places she knew I loved.

Now I am back, back in Boston. It’s early winter, no snow on the ground but frigid cold this past week. I’m wearing a down parka, thick gloves, woolen scarf and cap, and I’ve still been cold outside. My Californian body needs more time to acclimate. But everything looks right. I love it. Standing on the edge of Boston Common, looking up the green at the State House, all seems right in the world, a comforting sight.

What lies ahead is a future I need to create. I can’t pull the past into it. I am about to rent a very small apartment, a true mouse house, on a brick cobbled street deep in Beacon Hill. I feel like I’ve stepped into a Henry James novel, maybe the poor relation hanging on the fringe of grander society. Still, it feels right, right where I need to be, now and always.

Perhaps the hoodies will have to go as I downsize my wardrobe to fit in the closet-less house. A lot will have to go. My former wife would take sardonic pleasure in seeing the de-acquisition. She always told me I had too much stuff, and of course she was right. I didn’t need to hear it from her.

I don’t need to hear anything from her.

Tomorrow Sam, the twins, and I are driving north to Portland: Maine—“the way life should be.”

I’m on the right coast.

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