Never in my life would I have imagined the implosion of a ‘net-based romance would provide me with my first sustained taste of a pure and ennobling grief, but then, if someone showed me a maguey plant and asked what use it was, I’d never guess “tequila.”
For most of my life, I’ve found grief — real, unalloyed sorrow at irreplacable loss — easy to avoid. Something else was always around to overshadow it. My father’s death came so soon after 9/11 that it barely registered as a separate event. Other relationships left me with bad memories and lingering grudges that I was able to use in kindling a comforting, nurturing rage. This was genuinely true of jobs as well. Workplaces, simply by being what they are, always served up at least one major injustice that convinced me I could not help but do better next time. (Sometimes this actually turned out to be true.)
But this ‘net thing happened at a strange moment. With a resolution to quit drinking in my recent past and my 40th birthday in my immediate future, I was like a tooth in need of a root canal — all nerves exposed. When a young lady jumped right out of cyberspace and into my life, with a little help from Patheos and Facebook, I pinned all my hopes for personal resurgence on a match with her. Even at the time, I saw it for what it was — an idiotic move. But there are times in life when standing still seems just as ruinous. You can doom yourself through activity or passivity — take your pick. Riding the initial high, I felt like the Lakota and Cheyenne pony soldiers must have felt when they watched their women mutilate the bodies of Custer’s men. Yeah, if you want to take the long view, we’re probably screwed, but look — isn’t this fun?
If those braves really thought a golden afternoon of coup-counting and scalp-taking was going to make defeat at the Rosebud any less bitter, they were either much better philosophers than I am or kidding themselves. The “Dear Max” PM turned out to be one of those things that didn’t have to take me by surprise to catch me off guard. I hadn’t thrown up any defenses or concocted an alibi through which I could explain the failure or convince myself I’d lost nothing of value. To the last, the woman’s conduct was perfectly adorable. Even her breaking-up medium worked for me. Getting the bad news in writing briefly gave my life the grandeur of an epistolary novel. I wrote back a snippy but dignified response — the Marquise de Merteuil would have had my guts for garters — and settled down to learn how it feels to be bereft.
Here’s the first thing I learned: daydreaming no longer helps. For a long time, it did. When my high-school crush disappeared from my life to move in with a 48-year-old film editor, I spent countless hours imagining how I’d join the Marine Corps, receive a Medal of Honor for valor in the Great Chinese War, and win her away from him. (I had help from the Turner network, which was always showing Sands of Iwo Jima, Beau Geste or Son of Fury. I had even more help from the indica my friend Big Ugly Dave sold me at $35 an eighth.) As I got older, the daydreams matured, but not by very much. They still involved performing some great deed and thus earning the love I’d lost. Implausible the storylines might have been, but they were never quite impossible. For much of life, drastic self-reinvention seems a realistic goal.
Put it down to age, but it occurred to me for the first time that I never had, in fact, succeeded in becoming a war correspondent or a champion triathlete or any of my other idealized selves. It’s my fate to do a small number of things fairly well. I’ve at last come to the point in my life where it’s best to dream small. Keeping myself out of the state mental hospital might be a good place to start.
Here’s the second thing I learned: religion is no help. What advice does the Church offer the lovelorn, anyway? The same advice it offers everyone, always: Stop thinking about yourself. Blah, blah, blah. If you guessed I wrote that while making a face and a flapping hand-puppet gesture, then there’s no point in my ever going on webcam. There are times in life when the self feels so diminished that constant thought is the chewing-gum holding it together. At such times it takes a steadier character than I to recognize the line between self-forgetfulness and self-annihilation.
Then there’s the Church’s residual ambivalence toward the kind of love I was looking for and lost. It’s only recently that she’s begun preaching the dignity of the married state with as much conviction as she’s preached consecrated celibacy. Failure to achieve it just doesn’t seem to be worth getting all mopey over. The only archetypes the Church offers spurned lovers are the would-be Mr. Agatha, Mr. Cecelia, Mr. Lucy and Mr. Dorothea. A scurvier gang of scoundrels you could not hope to meet on land or sea, and the very thought of them plays the filthiest tricks on my mind. Women who turn me down win my admiration automatically; I need encouragement to push them higher up on their pedestals like I need a hole in the head.
For that matter, intellectualizing doesn’t help. Where mating and gender are concerned, there seem to be three competing schools of criticism: 1) Men suck; 2) Women suck; 3) Women who aren’t women like us suck. If serious thinkers believe they have a case for sending one group or another to the gallows, then let ‘em go at it with a will, but without me, thank you. When it comes to mating and gender, I really am a lover, not a fighter.
When Wilde writes about the fineness and delicacy of Sorrow, he sounds like a man chewing sour grapes with an abcessed tooth: it’s clear as day he’d trade it all in for a suite at the Savoy. When Butters speaks of beautiful sadness — well, he’s a beautiful kid, one of a kind. What I am finding, though, is that feeling grief seems a lot better for the soul than anodynes like booze or frenzied service or self-justifying anger or the cultivation of a rococco fantasy life. If nothing else, grief at least reminds me I’m alive, which means it works as a prophylaxis against numbing depression. Unlike guilt or shame, it doesn’t leave me wanting to expiate a sin or avenge a slight. Grief might evolve into bitterness, but it’s not bitterness. Bitterness makes me want to be cruel; grief makes me want to be as gentle as possible with everyone, if only because I want everyone to be gentle back.
No, grief might not be beautiful or fine, but it’ll do until something better comes along.