Throughout my posts this week, you will see travel as a recurring theme. Forgive me. I’ve been on the road a lot this last year, on the job market, and with a “we’ll see,” rootless attitude. It’s been difficult to get the pacing of highway travel out of my head.
I was driving through the Midwest recently. That heavy feeling was upon me. You know the one. When it seems you’ve left the good stuff behind, and that you’re driving in the wrong direction. The radio wasn’t kicking out any winners. I was about to shut it off, but then James Taylor came along with his song, “Fire & Rain,” and saved the day, as he sometimes does.
James and I mused as we cruised through Indiana. We talked about the past. Of course, we reached no conclusions, but we enjoyed the musing.
While having dinner with a close friend who lives some ways away, I told him that I doubted we would ever see each other again. I often say this to friends during dinner. And lunch, and coffee. It has become a thing. But at the time I say it, I believe it. Very little about any of my companions’ situations or my own seems stable enough to assume otherwise. My friend, on the other hand, had no doubt that we would see one another again.
On top of this conversation, we had ordered pig ears, and we were feeling very guilty about it.
Goodbyes often hold these two desires nestled into one another: The first is the need to move on with life, and the second is that pull to see the person again. Of course, much literature, and many marriages and friendships and revolutions, revolve around these two desires. To stick with the somewhat impersonal, you have Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, and Brideshead Revisited. Then there are some of the more recent films on the subject—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, My Blueberry Nights, and even Francis Ha.
Typically, one of the characters will see these desires as working against one another: a bright future v. being with the other central character. This is one of the reasons why we read and watch so intensely, to see what this character will throw away in order to move on or move past. Like packing a suitcase, these characters can only fit so much. Then they leave the bed, the room, the apartment, a mess of love letters and shoes and vitamins that didn’t make the cut.
Of course, there is always the one possibility where both of these desires are satisfied. That is when the two characters move on together toward a new thing, go forth on a new path or paths.
And of course this possibility is ignored by, or invisible to the character doing the leaving. The story wouldn’t be interesting if they did. But someone always sees it, whether it’s another character or the reader/viewer or your mother or your lover. And the arc of the whole thing is the negotiation of whether or not this will come to be.
I did, indeed, see my friend again. And again.
I have grandparents who eloped in Galena, Illinois. Elopement is the most romantic gesture in my book, or one of them. My friends seem to practice it regularly. But these grandparents were farm kids from Wisconsin, the children of Bohemian immigrants. It was the Depression. After they eloped, they were afraid of returning home—What would people think? The family? Would they be welcome? And so they went to live with their cousins, the Pertles, in Chicago. They stayed there for months.
There can be, of course, and usually are, twists on the plot of leaving behind and moving forward. One is being sent away. Or viewing someone’s absence as the result of your sending them.
One of my great friends has been suffering a particular heartbreak for over a year now. As we know, heartbreak can last for longer and shorter periods of time, but a year is nothing to shrug your shoulder at. After a year, I sent her this quotation from Philemon:
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
These sentences, Paul’s, are written in the midst of imprisonment. All three parties in the passage had been involved in a situation or a labor or a deprivation that was forced on them. Paul allows a startling absence in his own life, and then the person is sent, given, freed—and possibilities exist again. Things can be better than they were before.
Other translations replace “heart” with “stomach,” or the more grisly figures of digestive speech. When the sadness is on you, it’s best to pay those other translations no mind, and to know, I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me….
And then there is another kind of sending, Sam Cooke’s:
Darling, you send me. Honest, you do—honest, you do—honest, you do.
When my grandparents felt it wise to return home from the Pertles’, the siblings they had left behind with the farm work, took off. They traveled, the burly men, across America for months, and sent postcards. The postcard backs were filled with questions about the crops and about everyone’s health.
The questions, in the grand tradition of postcards, were left unanswered until the brothers returned.
The questions signaled that they were, in many ways, still there with the family, the land, the cows. The inability to be answered contained the hard fact that this was their time for going, to be gone. The answers piled up.
This morning, I am sending a postcard.
That day spent driving, unexpectedly, with James Taylor, driving away from some and towards some others, we talked, among other things, about John Donne and his wife and some lines about distance.
“So let us melt,” Donne writes in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” It sounds romantic enough. And then he closes with this:
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
The melting, whatever physical or spiritual closeness enables it, is not for the purposes of melting into one another, or for “Fading Into You,” as Mazzy sings. The poem includes no diminishment of self for human love. No falling or weeping. No, the melting allows them to be apart. For their souls and love to expand, beautifully, “like gold to airy thinness beat.”
I told James Taylor that I’d found, for the last several years, great comfort in the thought of such an expansion. And James told me that he was sure that love did not work that way. And he changed the station, which had been getting fuzzy, and like that he was gone. Replaced by a song about the basic mechanics of sex.
So let us melt.
My dear, the Pertles no longer reside in Chicago, and there’s work that needs be done on the farm.