A, my late husband, decided in his early seventies that he wanted to learn how to play the cello. In his sixties he’d decided to learn Hebrew, the language of his tribe. While he was at it, he took up the ukulele, and he started teaching Shakespeare’s comedies in classes run by the University of the Third Age.
All the years we were together and before them, A. took himself to a variety of therapists and psychiatrists in his pursuit of self-knowledge and what is popularly known as personal growth, a term he loathed. I did the same. Sometimes we went together, united in our curiosity about the mysteries of the self, our mutual desire to make sense of being here, our longing to deeply understand our family stories and the story of us, and to learn how we might assuage past griefs, and so free ourselves for present pleasures.
I never felt I would run out of discoveries about A. I loved his vision of other people: he unfailingly recognised their complexities, and that, wondrously, included mine. I was, he told me, the “richest” woman he’d ever known, and while to myself I seemed boringly ordinary, he never found me so.
I was used to being described as “difficult” “intense” “volatile” to which descriptions I would respond by donning a suit of chain mail and brandishing my lance. But when A. revealed me to myself as “rich” I lost my defensiveness, and my shame at apparently being outside the parameters of normal. This is what the sustained loving vision of another can assist into being: love and acceptance of the self.
We also fought, furiously. We shouted, and wept and threw things. I don’t know how it could have been any other way between us as our progression wasn’t always synchronised, and one would inevitably, if temporarily, leave the other behind. The left-behind-one felt anguished rejection, while the forging-ahead-one grew impatient and felt shackled. These roles never entirely belonged to either one of us: we shared them. It was his turn to feel left behind, or it was mine. This exchange took place quite without the conscious knowledge of either party: we were, on a level inaccessible to our everyday awareness, committed to fairness and equality of experience.
Both writers and academics with considerable expertise in the spoken and written word, both with a high degree of psychological savvy, our fights were fierce and wounding. We knew how and where to strike.
We also struggled, as every couple must, to find a balance between the familiar, and the ultimate unknowableness of another human being. The familiar can indeed breed contempt, the contempt of taking for granted, of being unable or unwilling to see the complexities of the other, of being afraid of any change in the other that threatens the comforting familiarity. The fear of this loss can compel one to subdue the other’s struggle to change and develop. It’s a terrible thing that humans can do: hold another back, because we fear what their advancement might do to the familiarity that is our security.
It’s possible, I think, to be familiar with another and not know him or her very well at all, because familiarity is not the same as knowledge.
To settle for familiarity is lazy, and demeaning to both parties, is the conclusion I’ve reached. Love is dynamic, love is an action, a practice, love refuses familiarity and its seductive comforts. Love sings self and other into becoming and when I’m engaged in becoming, I never arrive at a final destination.
A. is gone now, though he always said he believed we become energy in the universe and in that sense, never die. But he is gone from me in his human form. I consult him, in my imagination, on all kinds of subjects, just as I did in our life together. He isn’t always helpful.
After his death, a mutual friend told me he had once confided in her that he’d had the best sexual experiences of his life with me: I was immensely embarrassed, and momentarily pissed off with him. He’d tell people anything, he really would.
I see now that was a most extraordinary thing for a man to say about his marriage, and his partner of thirty years, and that while our bodies and minds and hearts were inevitably familiar to one another, their fundamental unknowableness remained to the last.
Respect the unknowableness, is the only advice I’d give. Of everyone. Of everything. Then you will truly be alive.
A. talks about poetry shortly before his stroke.