I like to tell this story whenever I go to the swamp, about how a friend and I used to go there in the depths of summer to draw the alligators. Once we went and sat down to draw this alligator that wasn't so far from us, and we'd look down to draw, and then look up at the alligator, and every time we looked back up, the alligator was a little closer to us than it had been before. Nothing had seemed to have changed; the alligator had just gotten closer.
The story isn't completely true. It wasn't a friend; it was a lover. We both liked to say he "lived in New Orleans" in the summer, although that was a stretch, because he only ever stayed for a month or so. I didn't draw, he drew. I have no idea what I did. I watched him draw, I guess. Those were days when I was always watching him draw. I made my whole life about being the kind of person who could do a relationship really well. Here are things I was great at:
- Birthday presents
- Long lists of compliments
- Making dinner
- Making SURPRISE dinner
- Driving great, long distances to get to wherever someone was, bearing some kind of present, usually chocolate
- Knowing favorite things, and applying knowledge of favorite things to everyday life (example: Was your favorite color red? Was your favorite article of clothing mittens? I would buy you red mittens. LIKE, ALL THE TIME)
- Mix CDs
- Writing e-mails to moms
- Sending letters and care packages in the mail
- BJs (Well? It's true.)
I wish this wasn't my entire identity for at least ten years of my life, but it was. For ten years of my life, I believed that my calling was to work so hard at being loved that my significant other couldn't not love me. Eventually, of course, my significant other would stop loving me. But here's the thing: It wasn't necessarily me; it wasn't necessarily them. Sometimes people just stop loving each other. It's a simple, ugly, true thing.
Yesterday the Internet went crazy because Gwyneth Paltrow and that guy from Cold Play decided to break up, but they couldn't do it in a normal human way (which I feel like we all should have expected from a person who named the first big thing to come out of her vagina "Apple"). Instead, they called it "conscious uncoupling," and had psychoanalysts weigh in on how sometimes successful relationships just "come to their natural close." Everyone said this was super-dumb, and that Gwyneth should crawl into a hole and die.
But maybe there's something to this graceful departure from a relationship. Maria Bellow wrote about a way less nauseating version of "conscious uncoupling" in Modern Love earlier this year. She talks about leaving her husband, whom she still considers a partner, and being romantically involved with a woman, whom she also considers a partner:
And I have never understood the distinction of “primary” partner. Does that imply we have secondary and tertiary partners, too? Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with? I have two friends who are sisters who have lived together for 15 years and raised a daughter. Are they not partners because they don’t have sex? And many married couples I know haven’t had sex for years. Are they any less partners?
It's all very complicated, this being-in-a-relationship stuff. The lover who came to the swamp with me to draw the barely-moving-but-definitely-moving alligator had made big plans with me to go to the swamp many more times. We were going to go and sit out there and draw all day. He liked the shapes of the palm fronds and allium roots. I liked the way the heat out there made the cicadas click like mad and cottony fabric stick heavy to your skin. We were going to go again, and spend the day, and draw, and talk, and eat peanut butter and watermelon. But we never went any more times.
I did go yesterday. It's actually the second time I've been to the swamp this month. The old lover is in Montreal. I am still here. I told the story about the alligator; the people I brought with me laughed at it politely.
Here's the thing I love about the swamp: I don't go enough that anything ever seems the same. Every time I wander out there, the biosphere is completely changed. Sometimes there are fat yellow-and-blue banana spiders catching fist-sized shiny black crickets in their impossible webs. Sometimes there are thick, coiled snakes hiding under the palms. Sometimes there are even scores of coy armadillos, creaking through the brush with comically grave caution. This time, amidst the requisite alligators and thumb-sized black lizards, there were these magnificent, spiky thistle plants that exploded upward into purple starfire blooms. I'd never seen them before. I will probably not ever see them again.
I appreciate that the swamp itself acts like the surreptitious alligator in my story: it moves forward; it changes; but it also stays the same.
So are we, on our paths. Things will change. They just do. That is the nature of things.
These days, I am not so defined by my relationships and my ability to appear "good" at them. I am not so worried that I have built card houses so tall that to lose them would be an insufferable tragedy. I am still loving out on limbs; I am still making lists of compliments; I am still cooking surprise dinners, and buying mittens. To you, it might look mostly the same.
But if you looked closely, you'd see that tiny things have changed. I no longer watch anyone draw. Instead, I draw myself. I no longer feel like my whole identity is knotted up in how one other person feels about me and is able to validate me. That seems good. Like thistle flowers.
Things will change again, in ways we could never hope to guess or anticipate. We must weather it. We must watch it. We must bow to it, when the climate demands.