Letters at 3AM
By Michael Ventura
July 21, 1997: In the architecture of our lives, pattern is everything. Or almost everything. Pattern, and what breaks a pattern. Even love suffocates or flourishes within a pattern. And that usually looks something like this:
It begins with your basic, daily life -- a life that's more or less adequate, depending on the vagaries of the day. You work hard, there's never enough money, there are too many distracting chores. You have good friends, but don't see them often enough. You have decent relations with most workmates, but intimacy is rare on the job. If you're single, divorced, or a single parent, there isn't much adult company at home. If you have a family, you've settled into a predictable rhythm -- intricate, intimate, but often taken for granted. Single or familied, you can feel you're not seeing the people of your life as vividly as you might, and that essential parts of you aren't being seen.
You have a few vices, but they don't overwhelm you. You may be insecure about your health or future, but that's "normal." There's the anxiety of getting older, but you're not too obsessed by it. You're not too obsessed by anything. You have your entertainments, and they have some high points, but you've gotten used to them. Maybe you have some religious faith, or maybe just religious habits, or maybe you don't think about such things. Your bad times aren't disastrous enough to sink you, but most of your good times aren't revelatory enough for a heightened sense of life. Nothing is so very terrible, and yet something's missing.
It gnaws at you, this feeling that something's missing. Life should be somehow more than this. You don't really know why you feel this way, you look at the lives around you and they seem to do all right without "more than this," yet you can't escape the feeling that something is amiss, something is not quite there, some promise is not being kept.
You try not to dwell on it, but there are times when you realize that this feeling makes you lonely. Very lonely, if the truth be told. Yet you don't indulge that feeling very much, you're not a wimp; instead, you go on meeting the demands of your basically decent, basically satisfying life. But wasn't something promised once? Not by anyone in particular but just... promised. You felt the presence of that promise once, but it's hard to recover now.
If you're single, you may well think that the missing element is another person, a romance, a relationship, a love. But even if married, or in a long-term relationship -- even so, you have longings, the nagging remembrance of that vague but all-important promise, the promise that life would be more than this.
Still, life goes on, with its annoying, disheartening sense that something is missing. And it seems to make no difference whether you're well-educated, with plenty to occupy your mind, or a high-school drop-out with a limited vocabulary, some indefinable "something" is still missing. Life as you're living it just doesn't seem to be enough.
You meet someone, and then for a while nothing is missing. This new person illuminates your life in a completely different way. It's as though you can suddenly see a color that's always been there, yet you've never seen it before. And it makes everything glow. Not in some sappy sense. For the new light also casts shadows: Some things are suddenly murkier, darker, even repulsive, and you feel you must escape them; but some things shine wonderfully when this new light-giving person is around. The very rhythms of your life change, in order to sync up with this wonderful new person. You're in that state that F. Scott Fitzgerald defined as love: "a wild submergence of soul."
It isn't easy. Issues of your life that you haven't dealt with before, or that need to be dealt with yet again, start rising up. Old dreams of what you could be, or might have been, start haunting you again. Perhaps whole new parts of you (or old parts previously unsuspected) start rushing at you from within like inner strangers. It feels dangerous but it's heady. And, of course, all the silly songs seem wise again. Beauty is a possibility again, and more than a possibility -- it's touchable, right there in front of you.
But: There's still that workaday life to lead, for both of you. You both have to find some sort of rhythm for being with each other, some way to accommodate each other into the necessities of your life. Over time, new patterns develop. Things start getting predictable. Familiarity doesn't need to breed contempt; on the contrary, it often breeds endearment. But once your new inner selves have been brought to the surface of your life and have, in effect, become your life; once this new wonderful person has become your life; once you've developed a daily rhythm with each other, found the things you like to share, and explored that sharing; and once you've gotten past the glorious newness of this person and begun to discover faults, samenesses (she or he is really not so different, and maybe even slightly resembles one of your parents) -- that old nagging feeling nibbles at you again: Something is missing.
And then, if you're unlucky in your responses, perhaps you find yourself blaming this other person for the return of that feeling, that sense of something missing. Or perhaps you become more resigned than before, and just accommodate yourself. If you blame the other person, the relationship doesn't last. If you accommodate, it does -- but so what? Something's still missing. You're not quite back where you started, because you've had a significant experience and you know more about yourself. But you've still gone from the discoveries and liberties of passion -- that great sense that "anything is possible now" -- to the rueful limitations of security. And there's a voice in you that says: "Somehow or other, though we've done the best we can, I feel cheated again. The promise seemed in my grasp, and now it's not."
Of course, in many people the feeling is not quite so benign. Things get sticky. Messy. You're really angry that something is still missing, your old hang-ups (and those of your no-longer-new love) come to the fore again, you're arguing about things you never dreamed you'd argue about with this paragon. And then, at best, there's an unwelcome resignation and, at worst, there's domestic violence. You can't seem to forgive yourself or each other that something is still missing. Hopefully you manage a caring state in which passion returns often enough to remind you that you're still alive. But that doesn't happen often enough, does it? Mostly people, at this stage, either break up or secretly wish they could. And life goes on, with something missing.
Your wise friends and/or your therapist tell you that you're expecting too much of the relationship, and you either give in to that idea or you don't. But you wish to high Heaven that you had more of a clue. And then, maybe, another extraordinary thing happens, and you meet another person, and... well, you know the story.
What's happened? What's the pattern here?
A person in what we might called a closed system -- a life that's felt as somehow confined -- has suddenly broken out of that confinement. The vehicle for that breakthrough has been another person, in that state we call "love." For a while everything is in flux, and anything seems possible. There's an intoxicating sense of freedom. But this freedom has to be lived somehow, and life has limits. No amount of therapy or Prozac or self-help books can "heal" the fact that life has limits. So, gradually, this new freedom develops into another closed system. By that I mean: Change does occur, things are new, but the old necessities still have to be tended to, and a routine becomes inevitable. More often than not, the new routine comes to feel just as confining as the old. The new person was the "answer" to the "problem" of the old life. But now there's a new life, with its own problems -- and the new person is part of these problems. To use a Sixties phrase, the new love has gone from being part of the solution to being part of the problem. And it can be hard for two people to forgive each other for that -- though the process is almost inevitable.
I say "almost," because nothing but death is inevitable.
For there is pattern, and there is magic. Our lives tend to be about pattern, and our songs tend to be about magic. But that doesn't mean that magic can't take hold of a life and turn it.
Because I'm not cynical, not at all. I absolutely believe that sometimes, somehow, two people can look into each other's eyes and they will never need any other eyes, not ever in this world. I believe that then those two people will bear anything in order to have those eyes in their lives for the human duration of "forever." And that this can sanctify any pattern they create, and give them the power to break pattern's boundaries. Which is when love becomes freedom.
Still, for most... love just becomes pattern. And the answers, if there are any, need to be looked for elsewhere.
As for that vague, persistent, never-quite-fading promise that we felt so strongly once -- perhaps it's there to remind us that life is not really about pattern after all, but about breaking the patterns.
© 1995-98 Weekly Wire . Austin Chronicle . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch