When “Our Song” Became Just Mine: Feeling the Break-Up Song

In my favorite movie, L. A. Story, Steve Martin’s character stares out the window at the rain, Enya swelling in the background, as his lover sits staring out her window on a plane, about to leave him. “Why is it we don’t always know the moment when love begins,” he says, overhead, “but we always know when it ends?”

I love that movie. But I have no idea what he means.

Frequent readers might notice there’s been a considerable gap between my last essay and this one, and it’s for the saddest, most ironic reason: the last post was about falling in love and finding our song, and this one, the one I’ve been avoiding writing, is about the end of that—both the finding and the falling. The turn away from love, for him, was so sharp, so sudden, yet the break-up itself took weeks, limping through silences and empty promises to come over and talk and the dark spaces in nights when I’d wake up at 4:00 a.m., expecting him to come to me after work, to come home, and crying when he never came. The turmoil of his waters created a corresponding movement in my own, not of falling away but falling into an anxiety so foreign, so crippling, I couldn’t even wonder what had happened. I only knew something was injured, and I couldn’t reach him.

We’d been to a wedding—a fun one, a beautiful one. I’d met his friends. I liked them. They liked me. They liked us together. At one point in the evening, we found one of them gazing thoughtfully at us. “You guys have a really intense relationship, don’t you?” she said. It was a statement more than a question. We looked at each other, somewhat startled, but in agreement. Yes. We do.

We did. How then, could what followed be any less intense?

Certainly, he was hung over and tired. Perhaps a wedding, when we’d been talking about our own as if it were a certainty, made me extra-sensitive to needing to feel close to him. I woke up in the hotel, and he was already gone, out to smoke. And somehow, I felt lonely for the first time in our relationship. I had so looked forward to this weekend, to having this time with him, particularly because his night job made going to sleep at the same time an impossibility, and waking up together a rarity. Turning my body to emptiness, I opened my eyes and missed him as if he’d left the continent, instead of just the room.

The morning was fine, and we were mostly quiet on the drive back. And in the two or three hours we had at home, before he went to work, the seeds of the break-up were sown. I said I’d felt vulnerable that day: “Love me up a little extra?” And the face I loved, to which I felt nearly addicted, with all its emotional mobility and sweetness, the face that usually lit up when it looked on mine, this face went cold as an empty bed. “That just seems really insecure.”

I wonder if my own face, then, registered how stunned, surprised, I was, so sure that he would understand, if not why I was reaching out, then maybe what a gift it is to ask a lover for their hand when we are in the water—not because we can’t pull ourselves out but because it means so much to have someone to ask. I tried to explain what I thought was the difference between vulnerability and insecurity: vulnerability is having the courage to express a need, however irrational it might be; insecurity lurks and is insatiable in its neediness. He saw no difference. Worse, he compared me to the most insecure person he knew, who knew he didn’t love her but would ask to be told that he did, which seemed less insecure to me than sadly insightful, a sideways glance at a truth she wanted not to know. He said, “Why can’t I just tell you I love you when I feel like it?” We looked at each other, something like fear welling up in each of us. It was time for him to go to work. I drove him. “I love you,” I said. “We’ll talk.” And he still said, “I love you, too,” with eyes I still understood. We did talk.

But then, the next night, at an Of Montreal show, I had too many drinks, and the show was visually chaotic, and as we walked home and I brought up the insecure comment again, saying how much that hurt me, he said that was proof I was insecure, and I said, “Fuck you.”

And it was that moment, he told me later, “That moment was the moment I fell out of love with you.” He told me two weeks later, two weeks of those nights in the dark, uncertain as to what had happened to warrant his departure from my life, since I remembered only that we had been upset but not what I had said That moment had been the end of love in his eyes. “That was the moment I fell out of love with you.”

Is any single sentence more devastating?

Of course, there were other, more significant reasons we broke up, some of which I knew were problems as I rolled over in an empty bed to find him already gone, the need for a cigarette greater than the need to see my face upon waking, than holding me close in the long morning of our first weekend away together. But knowing he had a moment in which he knew his love for me had ended . . . what else could I do for weeks but stare out my window, eyes fixed on that moment which, unfortunately, swam hazily back up from the recesses into which it had been drunkenly tucked, the bad seed into the dark earth of memory, bursting suddenly from husk to the fully-grown vine that would choke out all the beauty of that love, kill all the goodness like an unexpected frost?

The hardest part about having a break-up song for Jason is that unlike him and Steve Martin, I have no moment when love ended for me. If I needed to have a moment, perhaps it could be the moment when his lovely face went cold. His face is a serious face and defaults to a frown; maybe it could be the moment when that frown was directed at me. But I don’t have a moment, and as I try to recover, it is no surprise to me that the song to which I feel most drawn, the one that seems right, is not a break-up song at all. It is Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” and it is not a song of endings but a song about the desire to love and the difficulties of doing so, an expression of need that is vulnerable, not insecure, because it asks for the partner to be with her on a journey to be their better selves:

All I really, really want our love
to do
is to bring out the best in me
and in you, too

Joni Mitchell asks for recognition of her vulnerability, as I did, even as she takes ownership for her own role in the pain: “Do you see / do you see / do you see how you hurt me, baby? / So I hurt you, too, and we both get / so blue.” But the pain is not the point of the song; the point is that she wants to do so many loving things for this man, “to knit [him] a sweater / write [him] a love letter / wanna make [him] feel better.” She wants to “make you feel free.” And that is what makes it my best stab at a break-up song for Jason, who once wrote me, in his own love letter, that “when something so great becomes so necessary, so quickly, it is NOT unreasonable to ask if it can be forever.” Jason’s forever ended in a moment, and he stepped off of our path, while I am

on a lonely road, and I am traveling
traveling traveling traveling
looking for something—
What can it be?
Oh, I hate you some
I hate you some I love you some
Oh, I love you
when I forget about Me.


Aspiring to the Condition of Music: A Meditation on Knowing Your Song

“This is our song,” I tell Xstina, over red wine on my red couch. The singer is Kishi Bashi, an electronic violinist, ethereal and epic; the song is “Q and A,” with this chorus:

You are the answer to my question
You are my accomplice in all crimes
You are my wing woman, and I did I mention
We were together in another life
In that dreaming, you probably were my wife.

I am in love again, and it is big. The best thing about falling in love when you’re 40 is how much easier it is, how much less frightening, to contemplate realistically the future with the beloved, or, as Jason, my lover, says, “The fear of asking big questions and giving big answers subsides with the realization that, when faced with something so good that so quickly becomes so necessary, it is NOT unreasonable to ask if it can be forever.” He said that. Beautiful. True. Big. I am in love.

“But how did you decide it’s your song?” asks Xstina. “Did you first kiss during it or cry during it or dance?” She tells me the story of her song. It was their first date, they were on the hill in Gasworks Park; Drew had brought his iPod and a plastic cup to amplify the sound. He played First Aid Kit’s “Emmylou.” She cried. He held her.

This is a good question, especially since I’d just told Jason two days before that our song is “Here Comes the Night Time” by the Arcade Fire. “It HAS to be an Arcade Fire song,” we agreed, for we would have never seen each other again, never known this love, if not for the two free tickets I had to the Gorge to see them. If not for the fact that no one could go with me, I would not have posted a last-minute offer on Facebook; if not for that offer, Jason would not have sat on his porch for two hours, wondering if he should write me, even though we hadn’t seen each other in four years; if not for that deliberation, his brother would not have told him, “What’s the worst that could happen? Write her.” If not for Facebook, Jason, a former student of mine in 2003 and 2004, when I was a grad student, would never have been in contact with me at all. Furthermore, if there had not been compassion in those years for a depressed freshman, he would not have contacted me at all, would not have saved, as he just realized this week, every paper he’d written for my class.

On a different set of “if not’s,” if not for Ed’s betrayal (this is a forthcoming essay–look for it soon), the breaking of my own heart, Ed would not have sent me these tickets as a thank-you for forgiving him, for trying to return from lover to friend. That break-up, so awful I moved without telling him, sobbed a rib out of place . . . if not for that, I would not have the memory of standing on the observation deck of the Gorge with Jason in a summer twilight, golden as that entire day, as he told me about playing cello, and the whole world, that giant crowd, receded in the face of his face.

Does it, then, have to be the Arcade Fire? But is “Here Comes the Night Time” the right song for our song? It does emphasize the uniqueness of that night, the sense of something big and epic and beautiful coming, of the importance of music in our relationship. “If there’s no music in heaven, then what’s it for?” So that song goes. It explores making choices against dogma; it reminds us “if you’re looking for hell, just try looking inside.” So much of our conversation that night was about the power of reflection, how to work well with pain, instead of letting it make you bitter. So surely, this is our song—the finale, with its erratic rhythmic shifts, confetti canons, the Haitian drum breaks celebrating the other side of reflection, which is insight: “when you look at the sky, just try looking inside—God knows what you might find.” We were beside ourselves in that moment of the show—that is, we were the same.

Or is our song the simpler island song, “Haiti,” during which these two relative strangers turned to each other and briefly slow danced, suddenly pulling away at the same moment, out of . . . what? We think nerves . . . or recognition.

Is it the song during which I felt Jason’s arms around me from behind for the first time, a spontaneous hug, as he shouted in my ear, “I am so glad you took me!!” We both remember this moment, the profound moment of contact. We don’t remember which song, exactly, it was.

In his thank-you email to me the next day, subject line “I’m Still Feeling that Show!,” Jason tells me he has been listening to “The Suburbs” again, the Arcade Fire’s previous album. We have not yet told each other we are falling in love, and so he tells me, instead, how this concert was a needed gift, how “timing is everything,” when it comes to understanding a song, how his new favorite song is “Ready to Start.”

And we both are—ready to start this new creation, which feels like a whole album, a discography in the making, not just a single or even an EP.

“All art aspires to the condition of music,” my beloved Walter Pater says, for it is only in music that analysis fades away and we are left finally with the evocative, the “not-quite-yet-just-so.” We are left with pure feeling, the sensation of something real beyond the Real we can articulate. That realness evolves, the more real we become to each other. Every day, I feel this as we love each other, and so, every day, we have a new song.


Interlude: Ordain Me Now

This post is actually a mini-essay I discovered on my hard drive today. I must have written it in 2002 or 2003, years on my mind right now, as I reconnect with people from that time. What strikes me now is my distance from intimacy in it, the doubt in myself that clearly inspired this. I don’t feel like that anymore.

For many prophets and gurus, their calling comes to them in dreams, a voice across space and time, a light that fills them so suddenly and fully that others respond and follow. For others, it is the conviction in charisma, a sense of self that goes beyond self. When my best friends Erin and Blaine called me one month and asked me to perform their marriage, I took the calling literally and went to the website of the Progressive Universal Life Church. Whereas Satan sat Jesus on a pinnacle and promised him death or power, I was presented with similar but much easier options: Cancel or Ordain me now. I chose the latter.

You can ordain yourself for free with the Universal Life Church, but for $19.95 to the Progressive Universal Life Church, you get a certificate and a wallet-sized card, which my friend promptly laminated for me. The laminated card is important; it is what I pull out to remind me of my duty when times get hard or when someone questions my credibility; and, in a pinch, I can stick it through the collar of a black button-up shirt to double as a priest’s dog collar.

It took me seven years to finish my doctorate in Victorian literature. In five minutes, I was the Reverend Bryn Gribben. In fact, I am the Reverend Doctor Bryn Gribben. Like Martin Luther King. “I can be like Martin Luther King!” I told myself. And it’s not the doctorate that will do that. It’s the “Reverend.”

You can tell when something transcendent is about to happen, sometimes, when the ground on which you stand starts shaking. Sometimes, this is an earthquake; sometimes, it’s the clouds parting. For me, the year I became a minister had been a hard year—all those years in graduate school, if nothing else, make you tired of living for the future. But, like most major religions, they also convince you that in the sweet by and by, there’s manna in the desert. I needed that manna. I’d experienced the ever-humbling double whammy of being terribly in love and of being in my fifth year of teaching. The nearly unbearable sensation of being loved unconditionally holds within it the sneaking certainty that there has to be a hidden condition somewhere. Teaching creates the nearly unbearable realization that, at some point, especially if you’re an English teacher, you are a martyr to budgets and students who view education as a faulty product they want to return before they even open the box. Morever, you’re convinced that this martyrdom is both good and inevitable. How Jewish is that?

And while some say true love and a true vocation are the solid ground on which to plant your feet and find yourself, I was finding my love of teaching and my love of being taught pushing across each other like the plates of some kind of psychic continental drift . . . with the result more like Marx rather than Hallmark: “all that is solid melts into air.”

So when Erin and Blaine asked me to marry them, I felt like I’d been lifted from my sinking ground to a different plane, a better one. Only old friends, who remember you when you were cocksure of your own uniqueness in college, could or would ask you, their last single friend, to perform their marriage, give you credit for knowledge about things you haven’t done. And that means you need to figure out how to be special again.

Combatting egotism is a hard and necessary battle, it seems, for any chosen one. “My God, my God,” wails Jesus, “Why have you forsaken ME?” This, to the god who has it second in the Ten Commandments that “thou shalt not have other gods before me,” who kills nations for what we’d now consider healthily multicultural elementary school displays of mixed idols. When I was 20, one of my male friends insisted I was a goddess. Granted, we were drunk, and he was also insisting he could tell this because he was of “the darkness,” but when my friend Suzanne asked me to baptize her baby because I was the “most spiritual, secular friend she had,” I thought about what it might mean to be a secular priestess without being completely ridiculous about it.

In earlier times, I could have been a contemplative nun, shut away to roam cloisters where doubt was a secret as long as your vow of silence lasted. I could have been St. Theresa of Avila, a contemplative who voiced her criticisms of the Church , paving the way for “contemplative” as I now understand it: as a state in which you analyze it until you can’t stand it anymore and you insist that something must change. But just because I understand my contemplative nature in that way doesn’t mean anything changes, and my doubt never returns me more fully to any god. It just stays full.

The Progressive Universal Life Church insists that its only tenant is that you accept everyone’s chosen path as valid and useful for them. This is the part I have trouble with. I’ve tried to get around it by focusing on the semantic: if someone actually “chose” their path, then I might be able to roll with it. This immediately exempts anyone who’s merely continued along the religious pathway of their culture or family from my ministry, as well as born-again lunatics who insist they were touched by the spirit and couldn’t help but join the Lord. Those kind of sneak attacks don’t count as choice in MY Progressive Universal Life Church.

Years later, I still can’t explain the oddness, the fullness of choice I felt as I clicked on “Ordain me now.” I felt like I’d made a real decision, a decision with weight. I would try, I said to myself—despite the doubt I felt in my abilities, both intellectual and emotional. And I felt special—that suddenly, I had made ground materialize from the air, that somehow, when I said “by the power invested in me by the Progressive Universal Life Church,” it would stick. Or at least, I’d always have the card.

A Song with No Words for Love that Could Not Speak Its Name

The other day, on Facebook, I’d posted a picture of my friend Jessica drinking the Whiskertini we’d just invented (vodka, Chambord, white whisker from my cat Judy as a garnish). Amid the “likes” and occasional “ew” comments I saw his name, both warming my heart and making it stop. Ryan Farris was a friend of Jessica’s (true to FB friendships, she didn’t, at first, remember why they were friends), but he was far and away the most important boyfriend of my 20’s because with him, I realized the consequences of not understanding how you love. He was, to twist a phrase, the love that could not speak its name. “Could not”—so different than “dared not.” While the love that dare not speak its name is the closeted homosexual love, a love hindered by disapproval and the judgment of others, the love that cannot speak its name is what I had for this dark-eyed George Harrison of a man, a love in which I was the only hindrance, my judgment clouded by my first full immersion in an emotion I couldn’t articulate. I say “immersion” because loving him felt like drowning.

This wasn’t his fault. Ryan was the most loving, the kindest, the hottest. There was so much love. I understood that I had not, before, actually known what it meant to make love before him. He was good. It brought out the worst in me. We broke up (I broke up) five or six times over two and a half years before calling it quits for good. There’s a famous modern dance piece called “Kiss” in which two dancers swing towards each other in harnesses; whenever their ropes twist, the female dancer slowly, painfully pulls away, spinning away from the body against which she was, a moment ago, so blissfully pressed. After the first year, I felt like that every day—involved in an untangling, rather than a simple break-up. I fell in love with Johnny Horton (see “Paint It Blacker”). I fell in love with another Ryan. Every day, I would walk the Burke-Gilman trail to school and catalogue the lies I was telling to cover my affairs, those weak attempts my spirit made to show my weaker flesh this was not the man for me. “I am not a liar. I am a truthful person,” I’d tell my bewildered self each day. Each day, I’d hear my rational self swim up from the emotions in which it was drowning: “Then why are you doing this?”

I didn’t know—that is, I couldn’t talk about this love in ways that made me feel at home with my heart, but I knew it was love. But drowning . . . it also felt like drowning. I’m a Libra, an air sign. I’m at my best when I am in mental free play with someone. Ryan was a Taurus. Earth. The Bull. The first time we ever sat together on the shared porch of our group house (he lived on the top floor, and I, on the bottom), I started to ask him questions about his childhood, about what shaped him. “That stuff will just come out,” he said, stretching back on the ratty couch. “Let’s just hang out.” Startled, I leaned back and tried to enjoy the small talk. I didn’t. That wasn’t, still isn’t, how I hang out. I interview. I analyze. I try to reach insights—I don’t wait for them to drift past me like the warm air in the night. As we fell in love, I literally felt a cord between the two of us, much like the one the dancer struggled to unwrap from her own separate cord. That cord was real, and heavy.

Even in our music, that silence was present. Though we were both hippies, our words meant different things. For me, “hippie” was folk music: the Indigo Girls, Bob Dylan, and blue grass, while he favored world music and tablas or Jaco Pastorius, World’s Greatest Bass Player. That first summer, we rode around in his jeep listening to Akbar Ali Khan, and Ry would look at me all the things that could ever be said. He sang little made-up songs about me constantly, which I loved; our favorite was “Come and Stay, My Love.” It went something like this: “Come and stay, my love / You’ll never have to leave, my love.” We hummed it often. Once, dreamily listening to John Coltrane, I was startled out of my reverie by the realization that something was familiar. “Ryan! This is ‘Come and Stay, My Love’!” It had been subliminally remixed in his mind, those chords so deeply played inside of him that they were not longer recognizable as anything but his own heart. That stuff finally had just come out, unintentional plagiarism.

My favorite song in high school was Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.” Why was it exactly that I couldn’t do with Ryan? Now I can see the value in just “liking” the photo of us with a Whiskertini, but I couldn’t then. I needed to know why my heart felt like it did, how that cord could hold me to someone without choking me, how, as in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” deep water didn’t have to mean drowning. That first summer, I didn’t know, and I would watch him silently as we slept. I didn’t sleep for months. One night, in the dark, I put on Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” and tried to let it be enough to fill the silence I felt between me and this beautiful man, tried, as I would until the end, to trust in the beauty of a song without words.

“Fleurette Africaine” by Duke Ellington


Day 7 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook, a Meditation Challenge: Sullivan’s Cold Rice Salad

Oh, look at that—it’s months later, not, in fact, one day (or even one week later). Perhaps one of the trickiest thing about trying to develop a writing practice is that, in writing, you tend to lose yourself in time, which results in a heightened sense of Time as a Construction. We think we “lose it,” we think we never “have enough” of it, but really, as all writers know, it’s about “making it,” making Time, like you’d make a pie or a cold rice salad.

We return, thus, to The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook challenge, and on this final day of the “week-long” challenge, I reflect on Sullivan’s Cold Rice Salad. Sullivan was the grandson of Thisbe’s/Erin’s grandmother’s neighbor, and their visits to their grandmothers coincided enough to make a friendship of sorts evolve. (How often we make something out of what we have: mountains out of molehills, love out of nothing at all, friends out of random boys when there’s nothing else to do.) When their grandmothers’ neighbor Myrtle died, the authoress and Sullivan found themselves reunited, sitting shiva together, sharing the food brought by other mourners and their collective, if limited past. Erin/Thisbe brought Wacked-Out Will’s Chicken Wings (another recipe in this cookbook), and Sullivan brought a cold rice salad. It sounds really good—it contains almonds (I will eat anything with almonds), and, best of all, it makes use of leftover rice. You always have leftover rice. The authoress insists that it went extremely well with her chicken wings, which led her to contemplate whether she and Sullivan would have gone well together romantically, if things were different. But they weren’t, and nothing romantic ever happened, and so they grieved and ate together.

Moral of the story: Making do can be more than enough, but we always wish there could have been more.

As the super moon last week drew near, the man I’d been dating the past six months broke up with me. Just as the distant, shining globe of a moon pulled itself closer, an urgent partner interrupting a slow dance, Dan came suddenly into contact with the realization that he was done with our own dance. We’d orbited together, illuminating hours of the night I’d known only in insomnia instead with hours-long conversations and acts of intimacy. As the orbit drew its nearest to the earth, though, he noticed something he hadn’t in awhile: other girls. And it was time to go back to that world. He did it gently. “Please don’t tell people I broke up with you just so I could see other girls,” he groaned, and I know it wasn’t just that. He wants to be present for his age and the experiences it brings, instead of in a private universe of two. I miss him, but I don’t fault him. Whenever you date with a considerable age gap between you and your lover, there are some things you accept—not as inevitable, but as probable and possible.

But I’ve been surprised by many friends’ easy dismissal of this relationship. We began dating shortly after my major break-up, and to some, it might have seemed that he, like Sullivan, was simply sitting shiva with me, a lover found simply by looking to the side and picking who was there rather than by a vetted and careful deliberation about suitability and shared interests. Even Dan shared this perspective, to some degree: we first kissed over the drinks we were having because he’d heard about my break-up and wanted to check in on me. We had a lot of drinks. But we also discovered we went really, really well together—like chicken and rice. We are both quick, both curious, both able to shift topics and make connections in ways that create new things, instead of just fragments.

Primarily, though, saw himself as a companion to me during a difficult time, a fragment disconnected from the larger wholes of our separate lives, visitors thrown together, like children visiting their grandmothers. When I asked him, near the beginning, how he imagined our relationship ending, since neither of us envisioned a longer-term relationship with each other, he said, “I imagine you will meet a Spanish intellectual who will whisk you away and be the partner I can’t be. And I’ll find my ax wench who wants to live in a basement and play D and D with me, when we both don’t need five hours of alone time.”

So, we had dinner every Monday and Wednesday night: pizza and gin or Thai food and white sheets and cool white wine. We were reading Tennyson’s Idylls of the King together; we were up to “The Marriage of Geraint.” We had a cafe and a place to get Stockholm Buns, which we’d eat as we walked on Golden Gardens beach on Thursday mornings. I made him CD’s, even though he said he didn’t like music, and he made me a Valentine, which he walked over to deliver to me on Valentine’s Day proper, even though I wouldn’t be getting home that day until much later and wouldn’t see him. I wrote him poems. “Brynny! I deserve humorous limericks! Not beautiful poems with complex rhyme schemes and intricate imagery,” he wrote in response to the poem at the end of this piece.

But that’s what happens sometimes. The person you thought was simply beside you is a real person, and I love real people. I found that I loved this real person: full of confidence, able to make me laugh uncontrollably by imitating his dog becoming suspicious while eating, someone who claims to be bad at conflict but who was often first to offer a useful solution, the deep voice in the dark night, a man already, despite his own ambivalence and the hobbies he claimed would always keep us apart.

At some point, we all think that what we DO is who we ARE; we believe our hobbies and beliefs MUST be shared, in order for someone to prove they know us well and that they approve of what we know. How else would we know how to play, when we are small? I have Barbies, and you have Legos; it can be hard to share a landscape, even in imagination, so we begin with what seems most obviously to hold us together. But what I know at this point in my life is that it’s not the toys that make the landscape: it’s us. And even if we start out side by side, accidental friends in our grandmothers’ apartment complex, sometimes we find the way to real love, our differences complementing each other, as do spicy chicken wings and cold rice salad. We need others—not just to define who we are through difference but to have our own flavors enriched.

Rice salad alone . . . it’s ok, I guess. But, having had enough, I would rather have more.

“Terza Rima for Dan”

Once-near star, his lost light
lingers, fixed by all cold space,
still, vast, and endless as a blight.

New star, I look upon your face,
our constellation from a different sky,
now shining in this place.

The Southern Cross is flipped
like a light switch. I’m in darkness there,
on fire here, an ember dipped

into the ether. Your hair,
my legs, our lips erase
the stars, leaving this night.

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: Day 6—Love Can Never Be Junk Food

Today’s story: We meet today Ralph, of “Ralph’s Popcorn Cake.” Firstly, I find it incumbent upon me to remind everyone that these are not my stories. This cookbook is an ACTUAL cookbook by Erin Ergenbright and Thisbe Nissen, who, my friend Catherine informed me, teaches at her university in western Michigan. (And look at Thisbe’s super-cool notebooks on osperies! She and I should be friends.) Thisbe has a Wikipedia page; Erin does not. Oh, writing: it’s hard to determine what makes someone visible in the literary world. They both did MFA’s at Iowa—the very Iowa to which Hannah from Girls was accepted. On the show, they act like it is a big deal—and it is . . . but it’s not like being in the Mafia, where you can become a “made man.” One thing I find hard, with flashes of finding it wonderful, is that every time you achieve something big, you think you’ve got it made. Sometimes, one big thing opens you up to other big things. Sometimes, you (meaning me) hit it big and then simmer. I hesitate to say “recede.”

This leads us to Ralph. Apparently, Ralph made one of the authors popcorn cake, and she fell in love with him for it, only to “spend the next two months trying to extricate yourself from a relationship that was suddenly not what you thought it was.”

I had a popcorn cake for, I think, my seventh birthday. Or ninth. It was good—think “bundt cake-shaped popcorn ball, with M and M’s.” This version includes gumdrops, which seems like overkill, and pushes it into that category of Midwestern “delights” that you make for a coastal potluck, years later, and can’t believe you ever ate multiple pieces of something that sweet.

The lesson: One big hit does not equal a lifetime of love.

Jerry Seinfeld put it another way:

Of course when you’re a kid, you can be friends with anybody. Remember when you were a little kid what were the qualifications? If someone’s in front of my house NOW, That’s my friend, they’re my friend. That’s it. Are you a grown up.? No. Great! Come on in. Jump up and down on my bed. And if you have anything in common at all, You like Cherry Soda? I like Cherry Soda! We’ll be best friends!

Yeah. I still do that.

If you’ve been reading my “Music and Intimacy” essays, you KNOW I still do that.

I offer my love for a song, literally, pretty often. When I was at Kansas State, a guy drove me out into the country and played Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill” for me, while we lay on the warm car hood and a cool summer breeze blew over us. It was the first time I’d heard the song. If you didn’t fall in love then, you are made of stone.

Other times, it’s a sentence a student writes that shows they are moved by something in the world, or a sympathetic look someone gives you at a party that makes you think that even though they don’t know you at all, they totally know. One of my favorite UW students, Nicolene, told me about her deep bond with a friend over a misreading of a line in The Catcher in the Rye. My own best friend from high school, Amy, and I often ended conversations with the words “You know?” “Yeah, I know.” As if tacit understanding was all you needed.

But sometimes, it is. Why does this lesson usually have the implicit moral of “and so, don’t do that again”? It’s true that the “Running Up that Hill” guy wasn’t as spiritual as I thought he was; he was just Christian. Also true is that the student’s beautiful sentence doesn’t always bespeak a complex intellect and struggling soul.

I don’t care. I think I could count on one hand–maybe even one finger–the times those connections really weren’t worth it. Is it really wisdom to start mistrusting those small offerings, those tiny gestures that reach you, even if that person wasn’t reaching out? Are you shallow if you respond equally to a shared secret and popcorn cake? Last week, I told my already-wonderful, brilliant British literature class that I had started watching Game of Thrones. Later in the week, one of them was talking about Heathcliff or Hareton (almost same diff), how he was both part of the family, yet not part of the family, and I said, “So, he’s a Greyjoy?” They erupted in laughter. I swear to God (on all the gods that be!!) class has been even better, even livelier.

I think of my beloved Walter Pater, whose conclusion to The Renaissance inspired the title of this blog: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” This is why I will never be the kind of cool that listened to punk rock. Although (of course) I love the Ramones song, I don’t wanna be sedated. I want to be ignited—even by the tiniest of matches, even if, like Hans Christen Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl,” the flame burns out quickly. She is left colder than before and dies, when her matches run out.

I will never run out of matches.

Day 5 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: I Will Always Love the False Image I Had of You

Day 5 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation challenge finds us with “John’s Spinach-Orange Salad.” The authoress meets John, an art history grad student, at a laundromat, where she astutely surmises that he is, in fact, a grad student because he’s doing laundry—with a stack of papers to grade and a six pack of beer—on a Saturday night. (Once you’re actually done with graduate school, you are just home on a Saturday night, listening to “The Swing Years and Beyond” or watching your 90th hour of Game of Thrones. With a bottle of wine.) He does something truly amazing—he asks her over for dinner the NEXT NIGHT, which leads her to believe he is going to be awesome. And I will say this for graduate school: because you have so much to do, so incredibly, terribly, so much to do, you never ONCE say, to a person in whom you have any romantic interest, “I’ll call you later.” You will jump at the chance to stop working on your dissertation, particularly if it means real human contact. (Again, once out of grad school, your connection to the real world seems to contract and you will, instead, watch two days of Game of Thrones—sense a pattern?—before remembering you met a cute girl on the bus. Oh yes–by “you”? I mean “dudes.”)

Anyway, she goes to John’s house and is somewhat startled that this seemingly classy art history graduate student has plastered his walls with pictures of scantily-clad women—not “vintage” pin-ups but, like, Victoria’s Secret “angels.” (Oh, Coventry Patmore—is this what you had in mind with “The Angel in the House”?) Worse, each image has a thought bubble, attesting to John’s sexual prowess, making requests more suitable to a bad OK Cupid creeper than a seemingly suave art history student. But, as with Rhett of “Rhett’s Quesadilla Things,” the narrator stays for dinner, and John takes her picture . . . before they have a “nasty fight about the validity of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and [she throws] a glass of wine in his face.”

The best part is that, four pages later, she gives us a recipe for “Josh’s Spinach-Strawberry Salad.” Josh was—you guessed it—John’s twin brother.

The lesson for today: I called in my neighbors, Natalie and Andy, on this one. Natalie, who self-reports as unsentimental and “not the type to nickname,” asserts that the moral is “Some people take themselves too seriously”—by which she means the authoress. “He was being ironic,” says Nat (who is nicknamed, and often, herself). “He’s basically doing the equivalent of ‘That’s what she said.’ He was ahead of the curve.” Andy agreed. When I hedged, they asked me if I would have thrown my glass of wine in his face, and I said, “When I was in early grad school? Yes.” I once had a “nasty fight” with an ex-boyfriend, Colin (I’ll provide a link when I post my music essay about him later), when I realized in his 300+ CD collection, he had one—ONE—CD by a woman. Misogyny!! Worse than misogyny because unintentional!! Blind to his own tendency to oppress!! Patriarchal secret agent!

I probably wouldn’t throw my glass of wine in anyone’s face now, but that’s probably because I wouldn’t stay for dinner. The last time I even came close was when I found out the guy I was seeing was a Republican. (I was having a dry spell, and I was so unhappy I didn’t even let myself suspect it, preferring, instead, to just keep making out and letting him make me dinner. It was a dark time.)

I think there might be two lessons here: one specific, one general. The specific lesson might be that some “clever” men of a certain age don’t decorate for themselves—they decorate for other men. Or men don’t think anyone will ever come over to their apartments. Or they don’t think the women they invite over can read. Or see.

The general lesson might be that everyone in whom you are interested will manifest at least one deeply revealing, if seeming contradiction. With John, it was that a dedication to art history doesn’t make one classy.

This week, I went out for drinks with a 24 year-old friend; we made friends with the handsome bartender, who was 34 and seemed really thoughtful and complex. He gave Katie his number. I felt somewhat hurt and, then, incredibly, sheepishly aware of my egotism. I was hurt because I thought someone that thoughtful was clearly capable of being attracted to a 40 year-old woman—namely, me. I went first for the satisfying interpretation (actually articulated for me by another male friend, lest this post read as unjust in its male representation): men would rather try for the woman 10 years younger than the woman closer to their age because it is easier. BUT—thank you, Natalie and Andy—maybe I am missing the more obvious, less complicated point here. Katie is totally beautiful and smart and fun, and I date younger men all the time. Maybe he just thought she was prettier, and I am a big hypocrite, despite my fancy-free approach to what-is-appropriate-in-dating.

As you drive down Olive Way, in Capitol Hill, you will pass a mural on the side of one building. It’s a mural I’ve loved since Colin-who-listened-to-no-women’s-music and I lived two blocks away. A woman stands with one arm raised, holding up a wreath of real, rusty nails; across her chest is a Miss America-style banner that reads, “I will always love the false image I had of you.” Was the bartender less complex than I thought he was? Or am I?

Capitol Hill Mural

Day 4 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: When is a Quesadilla Worth It?

Day 4 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: Rhett’s Quesadilla Things. I have to just quote the author on this one: “Is it karmic law that at some point everyone has to put in her time with a devastatingly attractive, brilliantly witty, total misogynist jerk who’s incredible in bed? He was everything I’d never wanted in a boyfriend: didactic and argumentative, moody and uncommunitive. He assumed all women read Cosmo, was prone to statements such as ‘You know, I probably know more feminists than you do.'”

The lesson for today: Hmmm. This is harder. I think it might be this: when you find yourself putting up with more than you ever thought you would, there must be a pay-off to which you’re drawn. It might be a negative one. It might be a quesadilla.

I’ve definitely put in my time with these guys, but really, not for long. I don’t have much patience with someone telling me what I “really” think or need, which is not to say that I haven’t had to hear it. Please step forward if a guy has never broken up with you on the grounds that he knows what’s best for you, and tell me how you avoided hearing that single most obnoxious statement uttered because I would pay my eye-rolling weight in jeweled gerbils for that secret. But back to the jerky boyfriend. Many people assume that you must have low self esteem—that you believe you “deserve” to be treated that way. I am 100% confident that, like the authors of this cookbook, I fall firmly into another camp: the camp of “I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear you say that because there is just no way anyone attracted to me would say that.” It’s not that you believe you deserve it—it’s that you can’t believe it happened.

But when you do, finally, believe, you have to figure out the pay-off. As the authors note, really great sex is . . . sometimes it. But there’s no finite market on that—the road to hell is paved with irritating, virile young men.

How did this meditation help me understand anything this week? Well, I’m still teaching Wuthering Heights, a novel in which every single character puts up with lies, rage, abuse—we’re talking Heathcliff throws a KNIFE at Isabella, and it sticks below her EAR—all in the name of love. They put up with it, largely, because they live on the MOORS, which sounds romantic until you visit them and realize they look just like parts of Kansas—which means you can watch your dog run away for three days. There is simply no one else around. Cathy, Jr. badgers Hareton, then falls in love with him, because the pay-off for hating him is simply more isolation. It gets boring. She got bored.

So, we turn to love, sometimes, when we are tired of feeling superior.

Elsewhere in my life, I took a yoga workshop intended to help us transition into Spring. Jessica, my beloved yoga teacher, has also been working through a break-up, so she was focusing us, literally, on rebounds: on the possibility of the mind, the body, and the spirit to snap back, to be resilient. It was a concept that I realized I don’t honor enough because, frankly, my default to happy is pretty quick. I don’t really “earn” my resilience; it just happens, usually. I don’t have to struggle to find the pay-off; “happy” is usually the pay-off. (Brady Becker is the exception here–the relationship in which I decided “hilariously funny” is not an adequate pay-off for “unkind.”)

But the idea of finding the rebound when we are pushed down made me think about my own rebound relationship. For what it is, I have some happiness. I am not purely happy for the obvious reason: it’s not the partnership for which I felt ready, at this point in my life. Occasionally, I hear faint echoes of the detested “I know what’s best for us both” in his assertion that he “causes suffering” and that he only wants me to stay as long as the happiness outweighs the suffering. But he’s not a jerk. When our limited relationship makes me sad, it does not depress me thoroughly–a deep thumbprint in the dough. The (light) weight of the connection means I can try to grow in small increments, openly acknowledging what doesn’t make me happy and talking about it with him, without having to push or be pushed hard in order to get some sense of spring, of invigoration. When you are faced with a Rhett, their sheer, unbelievably bad behavior eventually yields you the high pay-off of knowing you are the better person. Sometimes you date them so you can hate them cleanly, later. Sometimes, like Cathy, Jr. you hate them until you’d rather date them. But hate is boring, if pure; it does not require you to think, aside from “What was I thinking?” And so, we find stimulation in these other, messier moments, putting up with low-grade annoyances, the pay-offs minimal but satisfying, like a good quesadilla.

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation. Day 3: Kittens on Your Stomach

Day 3 on The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook meditation challenge: Today’s story was “Poor Donald’s Chicken Enchiladas.” Donald was a blind date who had just done mushrooms before the author picked him up. He wouldn’t let go of her hand, insisted that she stay overnight with him, and his cat gave birth to kittens on her stomach.

The lesson for today: Sometimes, beautiful things can come out of going along on someone’s bad trip.

“Poor Donald’s Chicken Enchiladas” is my favorite story in the whole book.

It’s so awful, so ridiculous: you agree to go out with someone you haven’t even met, and he doesn’t even have the decency to try to put a working foot—much less his best foot—forward. As I try dating again, it is simultaneously so laughable, so painful to have something like this happen. It’s like somehow it’s become socially acceptable to agree to go out and make zero effort. “At least I tried,” such an effort seems to squeak, from its separate corner in the room, far, far, from your corner. But I guess I’ve never had someone show up on psychedelics before. Once, when my high school friend Amy was in town, I convinced her that it would be fun to pick up my new kind-of-lover and go watch the fireworks on Fourth of July. When we got to his house, he was drunk. I don’t remember what Amy said, but I think the phrase “Real Winner” was uttered.

Nothing beautiful came of that particular experience, and it was a hard meditation to impose on my day. I suppose it could apply to the fact that, in a bizarre twist of fate, I only have one person in my spring freshmen composition course—ONE—and I have to figure out how to make it interesting and less painful for that poor, intelligent, stranded student. She’s good and we are getting along, but no kittens on the stomach yet.

I suppose I could use the story to consider a new angle on my new sometimes lover. As I mentioned in the previous post, I have trouble with “sometimes.” While he’s actually very present and is neither on mushrooms, nor is he clinging to my hand and insisting I don’t let go, I find MYSELF clinging. I am Poor Donald. He reminded me last night that he has, in fact, done multiple things to show me he cares about me; in no way am I being left to go on my own bad trip, completely by myself. I oscillate wildly between kittens on the stomach and sick to my stomach. I enjoy our new, silly games; this morning, we composed a track listing for an album all about necrophiliac love songs. The album title? Necromantic, of course. But then I can’t help wondering how I will ever meet someone who wants to spend as much time with me as I like spending time with him. The new lover likes me; he’s just got other enchiladas to make, other kittens to fry. “You already see me one and a half times more than anyone else in my life,” he said.

It’s not that I doubt I will ever fall in love again or meet anyone again—with regards to THAT stuff, it’s kittens on the stomach all the time. I excel at finding love. It’s just that Eli and I met on my front lawn and literally didn’t separate for months. Over the years, I could count on him to meet me wherever I was, at whatever happy hour we were, with whomever I was. Now, I am trying to remember that there are, potentially, a lot of Poor Donalds, but the kittens will be up to me to find, sometimes. And I have to try not to BE Poor Donald—so wrapped up in your own trip that you don’t recognize when you have held onto someone’s hand so tightly it’s turned white . . . even if there are kittens in compensation.

The thing I like some much about this story is that it makes me think I would love the author: a woman who, like me, is so easily reeled in by the unexpected, so startled by the miracle of a shared experience, that she would overlook the insanity of the trip it took to get there . . . a woman easily blinded by all those kittens.

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook: A Meditation Challenge. Day 2: Immersion as Blindness

Today’s act of bibliomancy centers on an entry titled “Jared’s Holiday French Toast.” Apparently, Jared made over $1,100 in 3 weeks playing Santa in a department store but lost either Thisbe’s or Erin’s interest shortly thereafter. (You really must get The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook by Thisbe Nissen and Erin Ergenbright –it is truly fascinating how these escapades belong, ambiguously, to both co-authoresses, as if to insinuate that, hey, it could have happened to the best of us–or all of us.) Why? Because he kept role-playing Santa, insisting that she sit on his lap and tell him what she wanted for Christmas.

The lesson here, I decided this morning, might be that obsession or immersion are admirable things, but we can’t expect others to stay immersed with us for very long. Too soon, the joke becomes old; the game becomes creepy. Personally, I’m just not that into French Toast, and romantic breakfasts of sweets alone become tiresome when one begins to crave the savory dish, the less predictable. Thus, we must be mindful of our obsessions, remembering that no matter how much you love it, not everyone will want it all the time.

It didn’t take long today for this particular meditation to sink in, turning to the random page, as I was, on my way out the door to have coffee with my sometimes new lover. The thing is, I’m not very good at the “sometimes.” Ironically, we are starting Wuthering Heights tomorrow in my class, and I have spent a lifetime trying to convince students of what I can never fully convince myself: that such a love, rooted in possession, mired in misidentification, is not love. Merged souls? Bad, bad, bad. Or, as Nelly Dean answers Cathy, as Cathy tries to answer why she has chosen Edgar over Heathcliff, “Bad . . . bad, still . . . worst of all.”

Yet here I was, trotting out hand in hand with someone who cannot be my partner, who, while fond of me, does not love me as, at times, I find myself wanting to love him. This is not news. This was the deal from the start: a role-play of a relationship, a chance to experiment with an old acquaintance in a different way. I’ve sat in his lap and (forgive me) Christmas has come more than once a year. We are not made of the same material. I will never haunt him. I have loved and lost so many that I put Tennyson, who coined the phrase, to shame. (He took seventeen years to write In Memoriam; I took twenty to really accept that my first love had been little more than one person’s chemicals dressed in the sheep’s clothing of romantic murmurs. See my post “These Arms Were Mine.”)

But I don’t go by halves–not even when they’re half my age. I never have. It’s why my first love still calls me when he’s in dire straits. Why my students don’t understand how hard it is for me to cut texts from the survey course, accept that if I teach Wuthering Heights, it means they might never read Jane Eyre or, worse, never read Villette–all texts, by the way, in which there is one speed, and that is All You Have. It’s why I teared up this morning, while having a perfectly good time with the sometimes lover, because I wanted to know again what it feels like to be part of a pair so immersed in the other that there’s no question of what you’re doing that weekend–you’re going to be with each other.

The famous lines from Wuthering Heights, of course, are these:

My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.—My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable . . . .

It’s disgusting. It’s the paragraph that has warped love for millions of readers, probably young women, who thrill to the notion of immersion in another. The Santa hat stays on forever, and Jared serves French toast for every morning. It’s the paragraph quoted in Twilight, for God’s sake. So, as I drop off my sometimes lover back at his house, I shake myself by the shoulders inside and whisper, “This is not your whole world, and it will never be his. There’s a time to strut and fret your little part upon the stage, but your life is not a stage.”