Monday, December 16, 2013

Bitter is Not a Genre

I don't ever write about my "romantic" life, a decision I made years ago, when I realized that

1. memoir was my natural landing place as a writer, and

2. just about every memoirist was writing and/or had written some version of something (and very often several versions of several somethings) either condemning or adoring current, former, even fantasy future lovers.

Whether full of venom or syrupy sweet blind - and blinding – love, the pieces I was reading left me feeling unsettled, since I had no desire to similarly expose the life of anyone I had ever loved, and I didn’t want to dwell on the life of anyone who had hurt me. So writing about current and ex relationships simply slid of my topics list. And since I don’t spend time imagining or looking for the perfect (read: nonexistent) mate of my dreams, the potential lovers of the future were out, too.

The thing about all this, of course, is that I didn’t consciously make these decisions or reason all this out at the time. It just sort of happened organically, so that, over the years, whenever people have asked me if I’ve ever written anything along these lines, I’ve literally had to stop and think about why I am one of few writers I know who has never penned a love story or a breakup story. Hell, I’ve never even written a sex scene. When I think about the reasons behind all this, all I can come up with is: Because I don’t want to. I find pretty much every detail of this aspect of my life either utterly uneventful, or too private and painful to dredge up, or too joyful to confine to a page, or too boring to mean anything to anyone but me.

And then there are the others. The “thems.” The exes and the priors and the ones who took me from “I” to “we” and then back to “I” again. The people with whom I have shared the most intimate aspects of my life. Just because I write and they don’t, does that give me the right to put all of our stuff out there for public consumption, as if I’m some kind of gossip soup kitchen willing to feed anyone who is starved for a juicy “love gone wrong” story? Although not every past relationship inspires feelings of romance and light when I think about them, no matter how much time and self-growth I like to think has happened between the “It’s over” and the now, my exes have lives too, and investing in the memories of our time together, committing to the moments we shared for long enough to shape a coherent essay or story or catchy little limerick (Ok, so I confess – there have been a few “Here’s why I hate you” limericks over the years. I’m not proud of that.), just pulls me back into a life that obviously didn’t work for me, even if I fell apart when all the bad stuff ended.

Few dumps feel good, especially since they are usually accompanied by endless iterations of “When God closes a door he opens a window” comments and emails and bookmarks from everyone who feels bad and doesn’t know what else to say. My solution to closed doors has always been to put on storm windows and buy really thick curtains to keep the garbage from getting in that way. Yet most of my past relationships share many commonalities, which, quite obviously, is why they all fall into the “past relationships” category. Of course, life became much richer and more fulfilling when I started to realize that so many of these commonalities go no further than my own mirror.

At some point, probably after the ugly demise of yet another pairing left me reeking of self-pity and the “woe is me” kind of victim talk that marks the recently cheated on, recently dumped best of us (hey, I’m not judging you for wallowing, and you shouldn’t judge yourself either – we’ve all been there, so group hugs all around), I started to take an honest look in that persistent mirror and ask "What did I do to get here and what am I going to do to make "here" a better place to live and work and play? ‘Cause, today’s truth is this: It’s dinner for one now. Again. Still. And no one but me is gonna make my life worth living.”

So, for better and worse, I have refused to combine my love life with my writing life, despite their shared ability to inspire feelings of happy and sad, fulfilled and drained, hopeful and despondent. I guess I've always felt that to write honestly about my romantic life, a few things would have to happen:

1. I'd have to reveal parts of myself that I don't want to reveal;

2. I'd have to reveal things about people I once loved – and people I believed loved me back - that could result in emotional collateral damage to others I have no business damaging;

3. In at least a few cases, I would be using my writing purely as a weapon of retaliation, which is something I promised myself -and still promise myself - I would/will never do.

Because Bitter is not a genre.

Still, over the years, I have been tempted to approach all this on paper, especially when people ask what my "deal" is. Do I date? Do I ever want to get married again? What about kids? What about growing old alone … doesn't that scare me? Typical questions I ask myself often, usually at 2am when I have nothing better to do than spin myself into a sort of abandonment-fueled panic attack. And writing is often the place where I can unload such worries and work through the logistics.

But the logistics went to hell when I ran into an ex over Thanksgiving weekend. And not just an ex. The ex. The one I think about when I examine my current lack of relationship, my perpetual state of lingering heartache, my refusal to commit to another relationship with the potential to wreak similar havoc on my life, with no guarantee that it will bring anything positive before the inevitable crash.

Oh the drama, right?

The actual passing moment the ex and I shared was quick. Uneventful. Anyone who didn’t know us, who saw us pass each other, who watched the ex nod, who heard me say “Oh. Hey.” as casually as if I were ordering my daily decaf tea from the barista who knows me by name, would have thought that perhaps the ex and I were coworkers. Or former classmates. Or perhaps slightly antisocial neighbors who rarely saw one another. No one would have guessed that I was facing the one person for whom I had been willing to degrade and humiliate myself. The being for whom I had changed into someone I didn’t much like, and into someone by whom I was embarrassed most of the time.

No one would have guessed that the brief exchange actually followed over six years of painful soul searching, or that, had my search not uncovered some sense of personal dignity worth preserving, I would have used this unexpected opportunity to simultaneously unleash my angry inner child and my pissed off inner adult, regardless of the spectacle it would have caused. But most of all, no one would have guessed that, after the encounter, I took to Facebook and wrote my first ever public words about this aspect of my life.  And it went like this:

"That beautiful moment when you unexpectedly come face to face with an ex who you thought broke you beyond repair, and are able to honestly think "Your loss" even as you say "Oh. Hey." and keep walking because ... you truly have better things to do now."

A few of my closest friends got it. In fact, one read it and immediately sent me a rapid series of test messages:

“Which ex?”

“Are you ok?”

“You seem ok. Good for you!”

The final text simply said:

“And PS: it's weird to see you saying anything about your love life, by the way ... I guess I forget that you ever had one”.

Oddly, this ex of mine, the one who inspired the Facebook status, the one whose love and approval was once so monumental that the loss of it could have filled an epic novel (and that actually did result in volumes of bad poetry), has - apparently - finally become insignificant enough to break my “No writing about my love life” code of silence. And yet, I still have no desire to write much more than a 48-word Facebook post. Partly because this person still has a life. And because there would still be collateral emotional damage to the people who love this ex. The people this ex currently professes to love back. But the biggest, most important reason is actually quite simple: I have neither the desire nor the energy to commit to writing about someone who would not commit to loving me.

Sometimes I still cry when I remember how hard I fell from this particular relationship, not because of the ex I lost - a person I never really had to begin with -  but because of the parts of myself I threw away in the process. Although I fell out of love many, many years ago, the scars remained, in the form of questions: Why wasn't I a good enough person? What did I have to do to be lovable? What was wrong with me and how could I fix it? Only when I tired of not finding answers did I decide to break up with the illusion of love and allow my ex to truly be part of my past.

Perhaps it seems as if I’ve accomplished nothing since this person walked out of my life almost six Valentines Days ago, but coming face to face with the person who last saw me as a bitter and broken failure felt like a pretty significant success. In fact, it took that moment, that unplanned, unscripted thirty seconds in a brightly lit, people-filled hallway for me to realize just how much healing I have done. Apparently, the weight of grief lifted so gradually, so quietly, that I had to see the source of the pain to know, without a doubt, that it had actually left me. And I feel much lighter now that I have unpacked some of the relationship’s baggage and tossed its contents.  Sure, my heart still raced and my legs still shook at the mere sight of the ex, and at the realization that, whether or not I spoke or ignored, laughed or cried, stopped walking or sprinted wildly down that seemingly endless hallway, the moment was unavoidably in front of me, and the choice to interact - or not - was finally mine.

So I did what I wanted to do - not what I thought I should do, or believed I had to do, or imagined I shouldn't do.  I was simply myself.  Clearly I still have baggage, but it is my baggae to carry. I am glad I didn’t get rid of it altogether, because lugging it around all these years has made me stronger, and has taught me that I am perfectly capable of managing it on my own.  And  as long as I hang onto this lightened load, I can remember just how heavy and burdensome the baggage can get, if I let it. Even better, I can fill my baggage with the stuff I need, with the things that serve me and the moments that make life easier, happier, and more enjoyable, no matter the journey. 

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