12 Jun On Heartache, Falling in Love and Living Honestly in the Time of Covid
(Or, Why I Find Glennon Doyle So “Freakin” Annoying)
January 1, 2022
Photo by Joanie Schwarz
There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?
— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
“Now when their nature was divided in two, each half in longing rushed to the other half of itself and they threw their arms around each other and intertwined them, desiring to grow together into one, dying of hunger and inactivity too because they were unwilling to do anything apart from one another.”
— Plato, Symposium
Sometime around 3am on a random weekday in November, I had an experience now shared by millions of people all over the world. I had contracted Covid a few days earlier, symptoms worsened considerably in a matter of 24 hours, and things had taken a nasty turn overnight. And in a rather unexpected and terrifying feverish haze, something almost like a thought floated into my brain: what if I actually die from this? Wouldn’t that be something?
I didn’t. Like countless others, I was just experiencing normal symptoms that make one feel like it’s maybe time to die. I started to improve in the following days, at which point some clearer thoughts arose, concerning the frailty of human existence, the significance of moral luck to the shape our individual lives take, and how I might both better take care of my soul and live in a way that is even more true. So this little piece, which I actually began on my birthday in 2020, is a step in that direction. Sometimes, when writers say they have been “working on a piece” for a long time, they are just referring to the words; sometimes they are referring to much more.
I recently had my Vedic astrology chart read, and though the details are fuzzy, I do recall the upshot: my life is rather charmed, since we’re being honest; there’s a lot of blossoming and many lives lived in one; big life leaps are frequently taken and I usually stick the landings; generosity, leadership, and nurturance are significant features; something something Cancer and Jupiter; and, oh yeah, the last couple of years have been a time of tremendous growth and paralysis — unbridled joy and deep heartache, in equal measure.
Yep. That all checks out.
And I suppose that last little bit has been the general arc, or zigzag, as it were, of most people’s lives since the pandemic began, nearly two years ago. We have grown in some truly beautiful ways during our time of plague-living and many of us have taken huge leaps forward, shedding what no longer serves, digging deep for inner reserves we didn’t know we had, and finding new ways to make meaning in our lives. We have also lost in ways most of us never imagined possible, and a lot of us have grown tired of hearing about the “blessings” Covid-19 have brought to us. My own growth and stumbling have unfolded largely irrespective of the pandemic and, yet, the pandemic and its attending anxiety, depression, and uncertainty are the backdrop against which I am making sense of radical changes in my life.
Of course, Covid has made ordinary loss and heartache exponentially harder and more confounding than it perhaps otherwise would have been. It has rapidly pushed some things to the surface, forcing schisms and sharp breaks for many, and this has certainly been true for me. It has also strangely ushered in a time of paralysis, where future-making seems impossible and time stands still, unsure of how or where to go. Plans, even still, are so hard to make and no longer feel like something we can count on. We are both pushed to the brink professionally and personally and yet also living inside of a monotony and boredom that stifles and, yes, deadens. There is a crazy-making that seems built into the fabric of our lives now and reaches into every realm — professional, familial, financial and, of course, emotional and psychological. We are two years in, and, still, we awake each morning, holding our breath wondering, will school actually start in person after this holiday break? What will work look like this week? Should I keep my business open or close it? What’s the strange tickle in the back of my throat?
The heartache and anxiety accompanying this relentless virus looks both different and the same for everyone. Different in the sense that some of us have been quite ill, while others not at all; some have lost family, some have not; some have suffered tremendous financial loss, while others have found new free freedom working from home and been relatively unscathed, at least materially. But the same, too, insofar as “nobody knows anything,” as my beloved is fond of saying, and we live with an uncertainty now that we could never have imagined before.
Still, even during this time of plague-living I have been reminded over and over again that the worst kind of heartache is the kind we give to ourselves. This is true if one is only a moderately thoughtful, self-reflective person, able to see in hindsight that the decisions one took against all sound advice, the red flags ignored, in the pursuit of something that one knew deep down would be harmful in the end. Resistant to facts and hard evidence plainly laid out, we act contrary to our own interests, even knowing that the bill will come due sooner or later. Whenever this happens, there is no one to blame but the one person that makes no sense at all — ourselves. And we are left with that agonizing question asked hundreds of times over the course of a lifetime: how could I have done this to myself? And too often, AGAIN? When a spouse cheats, we know who to blame. When a friend betrays us, we are hurt but enjoy a tiny bit of self-righteousness (she was always harsh, or flakey, or not to be trusted). Even when a child breaks a parent’s heart, in life or in death, there is always God to blame, or the other parent. In all of these cases, although the heart may hurt, we can take comfort in convictions of our innocence. We were not the ones to do wrong, to bring about the sadness we feel. Even if we are bereft of any real understanding.
I have broken my own heart more times than I can count, and far too many than seems reasonable for a person just 43 years-old. And each morning, when I wake up, I feel the heavy thickness of scars from all my self-inflicted wounds, right in the center of my chest. Some fresh ones, even, from this past year which brought both beautiful highs and unimaginable sorrow. But like the lines on my face, these scars are somewhat comforting to me. They are there not so much to remind me how brilliantly I have failed to live up to my own expectations, let alone others’, but rather to remind me that my life, though charmed to the outside observer, has been marked by decades of lessons learned the hard way, growing pains that came from my own inability to properly see myself, and love’s slow and painful recovery.
I believe, above all things, in being honest with oneself. I find the performance of perfection — especially, in the yoga world in which I swim these days — completely tired. Of course, we all say we believe in living honestly. But even this has become a trite slogan, and there’s a difference between not lying and living honestly. The former is a simple moral directive given in advance; the latter is a hard won way of life that requires the constant and deep investigation of one’s own soul and, importantly, its relationship to the larger universe, to something like Consciousness, as it were. In yoga, we call this svadyaya.
Like a lot of folks who come to Telluride, I took a pretty hard fall not long after I arrived. Not slipping on the icy sidewalks in town, ending up in the ER with a broken wrist as many do, or running back to town from the top of Imogene; not racing down a snowy mountain at warp speed on two narrow strips of fiberglass, no way. I am far too careful for anything like that to happen. Nope. My fall came instead right behind the biggest, smelliest dumpsters in town, one of the only places open during Spring off-season that year, as I recall, when town is generally deserted, and there is nothing but mud and dog shit everywhere. Nowadays, though, the tourists seem to flood in even for that, which gives the locals both a giggle and heartburn.
I had just recently moved to town, and was by myself with the children, as I often was at that time. My littlest one was sick and had a fever for going on something like nine days, when I stopped in to get some soup and was anxiously waiting out back for my order. We were staying at a friends’ house just one street over until our new house was ready to be moved into, and I wanted to grab it quick and run back to my very small children, alone for just the time it took me to pick up the soup. She had just walked out the back door of the cafe, a heavy-liner trash bag slung over her left shoulder, making her way back to the ever-growing piles of trash. I recall that she was looking up at the north-facing mountains as she walked, but her mind seemed somewhere else. I wondered where. The moment I saw her, I simultaneously forgot and remembered everything about myself. Love, when it happens this way, is like that. It has both a dislocating and a founding quality to it. Something inside is disrupted and we can no longer quite re-member ourselves as we once were; but something else inside of us is recovered, even if never before encountered, and we feel, inexplicably, at home.
I didn’t need anything from her just then to feel either of those things. It was unrequited (unnoticed, even, by her for quite some time, despite my very best efforts), but it made no difference to me in terms of my feelings, or my certainty that we would one day be together. I don’t really believe in magic or anything of that sort, but I come up short with some other way to describe the feeling of knowing deep in my bones the very first time I saw her that she was my person. Forgetting briefly but entirely that I had a husband at the time, someone I also loved, I only prayed there would be no girlfriend on her end, and that she might be interested. (There wasn’t a girlfriend, I was shocked to find out, nor was she really all that interested in having one, but it all turned out alright in the end.) She just turned right up, next to that trash pile and compost bin, where I sat waiting to get soup home to my youngest child. I never could have imagined that in less than two years he would choose her over me for story-time and cleaning up bloody scrapes. More than excitement or desire, there was this crystal-clear knowing: Oh. Here I am. It was more about me, who I am, than her, and that is as it should be, I think, when falling in love.
I still have that feeling every time I see her after we have been apart, which isn’t very often, even if I am annoyed at her for having left me in the first place, which I am from time to time. This ‘Here I am’ washes over me. Simple, clear. It’s a little odd, both because I have never had that experience in a relationship before, even perfectly good ones, and because it’s such a rare thing in life, when something is so straightforward, uncomplicated, clean. I have never, not once, doubted that she is mine, and I am hers.
In a sort of past life, I taught political theory at a university. One of my favorite pieces to read and teach was Plato’s Symposium. In it, Aristophanes shares a myth which is intended to explain the origins of human nature and human love. It is roundly criticized as unsophisticated and romantic to the point of incredibility, but, I confess, I have an affinity for it and it has shaped my own vision of love. It goes something like this:
A long time ago, human nature and physicality was shaped such as two beings were sharing the same body. “Our ancient nature was not what is now…the form of each human being as a whole was round, with back and sides forming a circle, but it had four arms and an equal number of legs, and two faces exactly alike on a cylindrical neck.” But humans became arrogant and threatening towards the gods, as we are wont to do, so Zeus punishes them by cutting them in two and asking Apollo to heal their wounds, giving humans the individual shape we still have now. Our nature became thus divided in two, and each half spends its days desperately trying to reunite with the other. “Now when their nature was divided in two, each half in longing rushed to the other half of itself and they threw their arms around each other and intertwined them, desiring to grow together into one, dying of hunger and inactivity too because they were unwilling to do anything apart from one another.”
Taking pity on us, Zeus allows us to reunite again with our lost half, changing our physical form and sexual organs in such a way as to allow us to reunite in each other, “undertaking to make one from two, and to heal human nature.” And so, the story goes, this is what making love is all about, literally reuniting with our lost half. Love (and the act of love) is defined as the search for our lost half. When we meet our “own particular half,” we “are then marvellously struck by friendship and kinship and Eros, and scarcely willing to be separated from each other even for a little time.” Love is “what he desired all along, namely, to join and be fused with his beloved, to become one from two. The cause is that this was our ancient nature, and we were wholes.”
In conclusion, we would then “become happy, if we should fulfil our love and each meet with [our] own beloved, returning to [our] ancient nature.” It “leads us into what is properly our own,” it “will restore us to our ancient nature, and heal us, and make us blessed and happy.”
But what is truly remarkable about this ancient myth and its story-teller is that everyone, no matter their gender or sexuality, has a place in it. Aristophanes tells us that the bodies cleaved apart were either men sectioned from men, women sectioned from women, men sectioned from women, or androgynous. In other words, some women will spend their entire lives, even if they do not realize it, craving and yearning for the reconnection with their long lost other woman-half. I find this incredibly beautiful and familiar, not only to myself, but in a less erotic way, for many of my heterosexual female friends, as well; they are paired with men, perhaps, but always searching for that female connection and deep friendship, which has powers to heal, to nurture, and to call us home, unlike any other.
Only Alison has her brilliant greenish-blueish eyes — a color that I have only ever seen before in a high Alpine lake. (I wrote that to her in a poem once, which she never even saw, because it was tucked inside of a philosophy book on human-animal relationships that I gave to her to read on a climbing trip, which she also never did — that is, read the book, not go on the climbing trip, which she definitely did — which is just one of the many ways in which we are different.) And when she looks at a person, I mean, really looks at them, I think it’s safe to say, they feel laid bare. But she rarely really looks at a person, though they sure do her. People often remark on how captivating her eyes are and how they feel so seen by her, which is funny, because she doesn’t mean to do this, and definitely doesn’t see most people. Count yourself lucky if it happens to you, friends.
In the early days of our love, they would shine a lot because she would cry often. She was, no doubt, confused about my family situation and where she fit in, and had her own complicated family life to contend with. I always thought she was most beautiful then, when she would be overcome with sorrow and fear would creep in, a vulnerability that somehow seeped through her tough exterior, even though it pained me to see her suffer. We knew where we both wanted to be — as individuals and together — but for heavy and hard reasons on both sides, it was hard to see how we’d get there. It isn’t easy to take apart a family, though it is easy enough to mess it up at the start, not quite possible to wrap everything up and tie it nicely with a bow. And some things simply cannot be put back together, and that’s a hard enough thing for adults to comprehend, never mind the children.
Yet children know instinctively what adults tend to overthink: what love looks like, the damage that fear can do, and how much safer it feels to be put to bed every night by someone who knows their own heart, and so can more easily see theirs. They have never, not once, questioned our love, or really even thought twice about it, as far as we can tell. That’s partly because I am raising them to respect the choices that I, as their mother, make for our family, but it’s also just because they feel safe, happy, loved, because I feel all of those things now. Besides, we cannot help but be together. We are each others’ greatest joy, it’s true. But something else compels us that we don’t fully understand — not social pressure, not money, not convenience.
We were both brought up in God-fearing households, and a lot of that just sticks to a person no matter how hard we try to shake it off to find ourselves. I am reminded of a passage just now from Gilead, in which Marilynne Robinson writes that, “there is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?” How lovely a reminder that our love is but a flash of a greater story of God’s love for us, all-encompassing, ever-lasting, unconditional. What brought it about, who can say? I came to this tiny little town at 40 years old, married with children, happily enough. And then BOOM my whole life unfurled right before me, the moment I saw her. What will happen to everyone else in the story, what will the consequences be? They will all be fine, because they have to be. Life goes on. At various points in my life, when I have struggled to make a decision, to know which way to go, and been riddled with confusion and guilt, my father has said some version of this to me, “Darlin’, there ain’t nothing new under the sun, and everything will sort itself out in the end.” Generally, this has stood me in good stead, and served as a reminder that I am but a tiny drop in the vast sea of humanity. We should take comfort in our insignificance more than we do. It is a freeing thing to realize that, irrespective of our own hard choices, life usually goes on for everyone else.
Our love — mine and Alison’s — has been nurtured and cheered on by a goodly many folks in this sweet little box canyon; they have looked after us for nearly two years now and are the soil in which our love took root and receives its nourishment daily. Of course, some take it as an opportunity to display their progressive bonafides — we get it, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to be radical in a town like Telluride! Most people genuinely delight in seeing us so happy and at home, and for all of it we are grateful. But, of course, we know the harder truths of our choices: that this love has been incredibly hard won and already has scars that a new love ought not have. Not because we are gay, for goodness sake, but because we met each other, not when we were young and unburdened by the bonds of family, work, routine, prior commitments and even vows, but when we both had a certain vision for how our lives were going to go that definitely did not include the radical breaks meeting each other and falling in love entailed. And only one of us is really a fighter, so it’s been a rather arduous battle at times for the other, to protect and defend what we both feel is worth dying for. We’ve been laid low countless times by unsuspecting forces. Still, the heart wants what it wants.
Very frequently, since having left a marriage and taken up with women (okay, just the one) people will ask me if I have read Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, and if I like her work. I have, of course, and I don’t, especially. I am certain she is a fine person, that our politics are generally aligned, and I appreciate her consciousness-raising efforts. They have a certain kind of retro-feminist, 1970’s appeal that I dig. But I do not find her writing to be beautiful or particularly revealing, nor do I relate to her very much as a gay woman. Mostly, as a person who spent the better part of her adult life thus far teaching and studying feminist theory and gender studies, I find most of her proclamations about women and the collective plight of the LGBTQI community (Right? I mean, right? she prods us…right, Glennon?) totally cringeworthy. It is as if the woman never heard of a gender norm or patriarchy or inequality until the last few years of her life, despite ENORMOUS bodies of literature shaped by a diverse and brilliant community of feminist scholars for almost a century now and the millions of people living it every single day. It is one thing for an average person to lack that sort of education and experience, it is quite another for someone speaking as *the* authority on the subject to the masses to lack it. But we are to be present in all the ways — the books, Insta, the Untamed journal, the “pod squad,”etc., — for her own spiritual and political awakening, that’s the main thing (right?), and I suppose I find that tiresome.
But it’s more than just annoyance with her. I know she’s not speaking to my crowd, and that is precisely what gives her such wide appeal and makes her impactful, and, truly, I ought not hold it against her overmuch that she didn’t “do her homework” (her sister Amanda, the one we definitely all wish was a lesbian, does it for her, and she’s whip smart, too, and quite compelling) or read even the tiniest shred of work on say, patriarchal beauty norms, before speaking to the masses as if she is the first person to discover, for example, that eating disorders in girls and women just might be related to all of the sexist images and messaging thrown at them every day since birth, but all of the talk about getting untamed and cheetahing our way to success and happiness just wreaks of neo-liberal feminist privilege and, more importantly, an inability to really grasp the ways in which creating a little woman-made island for ourselves on which no one else is allowed to trespass — the angry ex-husband, the unsupportive parents, the racist neighbor, even the friendly critic — is neither possible nor even desirable as an outcome if we’re being honest. The reality is that we can and do live with, and even break bread with, people that offend and hurt us all the time, and we do so for the simple fact that all goods are not commensurable (“family is family,” we say, and Trump didn’t really blow up nearly as many politically divided American families as we thought he would), and we must find a way to both be free and autonomous, as well as to live our lives with people who occasionally hurt us, or at least don’t always support every belief we have or choice we might make.
Doyle’s constant urging of women to shed everything that keeps them from living their one “wild and precious life” (a line, I believe, she stole from the venerable Mary Oliver and, to my knowledge, gives her no credit for it) is a bridge too far for me and in the wrong direction of what it means to actually live a wild and precious life, where wildness ought to actually mean something like a deep connection to the natural world and precious implies something like radical individuality kept but which is nurtured only in communion with others who are also radically themselves. Others who walk this world with us, who have their own stories, beliefs, wisdom, and lives that are no less creative works of art than our own.
It is hard not to get a kick out of the trouble-making of Glennon Doyle and her crew, though. They are doing God’s work, for sure, and even my stingy, hyper-critical feminist heart can see that.
A person can spend a lot of energy trying to get their life as perfect as can be, free from all of the forces that challenge, poke, and give offense, where our own worldview reigns supreme. I suspect that’s one way to get free; but it could also be a form of unfreedom, wherein we are never asked to see it from the other side, to surrender, to grow through conflict, to show humility, to be vulnerable, and many other experiences and feelings that mark out a shared moral life. I would certainly never advocate that we suffer through abusive, toxic relationships when leaving them is possible; but the truth is that leaving them is often not possible and feelings of freedom are often muddied by troubling desires. I also don’t think that as women who have long-suffered under patriarchal rule and all the rest of it, we are wise to no longer spend time in the company of those who might hold wildly different beliefs, or entirely abandon the life we happen to be living simply because we are bored with it. Of course, we all ought to live the lives we wish to live and find freedom in the expression of our individuality. But there is a certain givenness to life and to our humanity, and that, too, is fine. We are not entirely of our own making, both spiritually and socially. There is some value in finding that sweetness and freedom inside of a life that has been given to us.
As I get older, I tend to choose the freedom that comes with an undisturbed mind over the self-righteous vindication that comes with being right or being FREE, and I find that I am happier and my discursive and literal opponents are the same as they ever were. Upshot: My beliefs, right and unimpeachable as they are, are merely that and not all that interesting to begin with, nor that important — to specific individuals or to the world — as a younger version of me thought they were. Nagging moralism in not only unattractive, it is unproductive and less wild than it is obnoxious.
In any case, although I felt instant joy and desire upon meeting Alison, it did not amount to a moment, or a month, or even a year of “getting untamed.” Quite the contrary. That might have a lot to do with the fact that, unlike Doyle, I was not discovering the joys of lesbian sex and love for the first time, having been with women for most of my romantic life. (Doyle gets a lot of mileage out of sharing the details of her family and even sex life to straight women, likely bored in their own marriages, but I can tell you most queer people I know actually find all of that stuff uninteresting and see the Doyle-Wambach duo as rather conventional and relatively straight. But then again, we find our own lives to be like this, too, which is part of what makes Doyle’s endless gestures of surprise at how AMAZING “gay life” is and proselytizing about queerness kind of uncomfortable for many queer folks.) Partnering with Alison felt familiar and comfortable in a way that, for me, only being with a woman can. And it felt rather like an experience of getting tame, actually, not the opposite. I mean a couple of things by this, I suppose. The journey to making a life with her made clear all of the ways in which I am tethered, for better or worse, to many things that I do not necessarily choose, at least not in a super meaningful way, each day — geography, children, an ex, my work, routine, etc., but also meant embarking on a new journey in which I would need to make necessary adjustments and comport myself a bit differently in order to meet someone else’s expectations of me and to make myself a partner worthy of love and devotion. That boundedness is not a form of oppression, but rather an integral part of the practice of loving.
The way I see it, the work of our lives is in finding freedom and joy inside of a life that is not and never has been entirely freely chosen. Our lives are our responsibility to do with what we want and what we can in order to have happiness and do good; but they are not ours in the sense that we can ever really be wholly unconstrained, entirely free from the grips of others’ moral expectations and hopes for us. Indeed, those expectations, norms, hopes, shared rituals, etc., are a way of being held, both in the sense of being nurtured and being accountable, and are how we learn to see others and be seen by them. Learning to bend and sway with people who are wildly different from us, who have histories and trauma we cannot comprehend, and, yes, sometimes exercise authority over us, or even unintentionally threaten some part of what we hold dear, is precisely what it means to live in moral community with others. And retreating to our island with our chosen little egalitarian “tribe” is its own form of preciousness that, I confess, I find tiresome. As it happens, I enjoy throwing my lot in with those who challenge me and make me uncomfortable and teach me new ways of being compassionate and honest. There is a life-long learning about the human condition in that, and it feels more gratifying than a life-long learning and talking about just myself.
Even as I type these last few words, I ask myself how honest have I been, with me and with you. There is so much that goes to the heart of studying one’s soul, of really taking stock of it over these last few years and this long lifetime, hopefully, in my case, only half-lived. Revealing ourselves to others — our beliefs, feelings, choices, fears, all of it — takes time and courage, and I am screwing mine up daily. I hope you are, too, especially if you count me as a friend. I could, for example, say more about the awful state of my marriage when I left it, or how he left me countless times before (maybe to make myself look better in your eyes and in my own). I could tell you more about all of the little heartaches we suffer every day in this house, or about the unbridled joy I sometimes feel guilty for having stolen from a life that wasn’t mine. I could tell you that I wonder if she will one day leave me and I will have to start again. And I could say that I have played it all out countless times, and it always turns out just fine. I could tell you that I live in fear of never being good enough — for myself, for my beloved, and for my children, or that I fear you will no longer like me when I turn out to be the best. I could tell you that I wonder about your own life. Is it happy and free? And will you one day find both happiness and freedom in the relative tameness, the boundedness, that makes our shared moral life even more possible?