In case you missed the tweet, I was both thrilled and a little sad to read Arden Leigh’s recent post about breakup. Sad of course because it’s my friend who is heartsick and going through this, but thrilled because (as is her wont) she turned the experience into something that we all can learn from. I tend to trust people much more who say “I’m going through this, and it sucks, and here’s how I made it better, maybe it’ll work for you” than people who say “I did everything right, and if you do too, you can be like me!”
If you haven’t read it yet, you should. There’s some fun zingers in there (“Are you kidding me?? Do you know how much amazing sex I have had with toxic people??”) but more to the point, some fascinating things about brain chemistry. Go ahead; read it. I’ll wait.
Ok, done? Here’s the part that I found extra fascinating: the part about brain pathways.
…in that awful stage after your breakup where you start to think about all the things you’ll now never get to do together, with each scenario you imagine, somewhere in your brain a neural pathway rips apart.
Arden’s friend Adam Lyons was talking about the ways the brain can fool itself into thinking that the things you plan to do with someone (or with yourself) are actually things you have done. Depending on the level of obsession with the plans and schemes you have with your partner, it may be that your entire world feels ripped apart.
That’s what it felt like about five years ago when the plans I’d had for the family I had then fell apart in breakups, divorce, and other nasty separation-type things. It felt like I was suddenly wandering around a blasted landscape filled with the broken ruins of my life. “My tribe is scattered!” I would moan to myself, probably because I had Stanley Kunitz’ The Layers running on constant repeat through my head. It’s a beautiful poem, but like a lot of goth music, it’s easy to mistake the metaphor for the reality, and think that lines such as “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was” imply the death of the self, rather than simply a fact of life.
Things change. The paths we create for ourselves are ideas, and may seem real, but they are no more real than the memories of the paths we’ve already gone on. That is to say, they are subjective, and they may bear some resemblance to reality but only from one perspective. What one may call a dream of success will be to another a mindless sinking into consumerism; a long-lasting and stable love may look like a stifling and unequal partnership to another.
All are real; it is only, as Arden reminds us Shakespeare informed us, “…thinking makes it so.”
Plans & Schemes & Hopes & Things
So here’s where perhaps I redeem myself, just a little, in the eyes of those who have not liked the slamming on hope that I’ve been doing. If it is the pathways that create these things that we call “memories” but that really are simply our views of what happened, regardless of past or future…why shouldn’t we enjoy them?
Why not dream of the intimate dance? Why not plan out the perfect living room? Imagine of the taste of lasagna with a fine shiraz? Speculate on the look of a lover’s eyes through the steam rising from your coffee on a crisp fall morning, think of what it would feel like to take your partner’s hand as you go up an escalator because you’ve both gotten too old for stairs? These are all things that can be wonderful, and the more you think about them, the more you can enjoy them, the more you can bask in their feeling…even though they may not have happened. Even though they may not ever happen.
I’ve been having this Miles Davis quote going through my head for the last few weeks, rattling around in various incarnations: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” The problem I was having was that every time I started trying to write around it, I found myself sounding at best maudlin and at worst whiny.
But I think that Arden’s turned me on to the right track: the way to deal with relationships that end, or ones that haven’t burst into fruition, is to enjoy not only the notes you played together but also the notes you didn’t play together. Both form the shape of the love that was shared, and both can be enjoyed as long as there isn’t some absurd idea of reality attached to them.
This is how I remember love: that which I did, and that which I hoped for. Both are worthy of joy, if only I let them be.