Grief feels like a race against time while I wait for my memories to fade—the memories of a happy life, the memories of a shattered life, the memories of the pain. Distract yourself with new activities, meet new people, make new connections is the advice I am constantly given. And strangely enough sometimes being with other people makes the grief and my sense of being alone worse.
Reading Paul Valery’s writings. on “Eros” in the final sections of his Cahiers/Notebooks 1 has especially struck a cord with me as I think about memory, grief and love. Valery had an eight year love affair with poet Catherine Pozzi and much of his writings about Eros are influenced by his love for her. I’m not surprised he used the Ancient Greek word Eros for love—Eros is a complex figure that is unpredictable; Eros both elevates men and ruins them. Many see love as a distraction or a drain on one’s time and energy but Valery suggests that real love gives us more energy to accomplish other goals in life. Valery had some of his most productive and creative years of writing when he was with Catherine and she even gave him notes and encouraged him to publish his notebooks:
Happy love mobilizes all our strength. It creates superabundance, which is the supreme good, and the need for the finest works, making them necessary, easily accomplished, a relief. The happy lover is rich. He’s a physiological and psychological millionaire. He’s the king of expenditure.
To be profoundly loved, is the greatest thing in the world. It was the impossible object of God. ‘Profoundly,’ this is not about pleasure, nor about pride. But to received this obscure warmth of the soul, to warm yourself at the life which glows only for you…
What is a true, deeply loving relationship? What is it, exactly, that I’ve lost? Alan wasn’t a distraction from my job or my reading or writing, but instead he enhanced it. I think he would agree that I wasn’t a distraction from his work or his motorcycles or his camping, but I enhanced and encouraged and supported these things. I hadn’t thought about this until Alan’s death, but I realize now that our lives were intertwined in a way that allowed us to complement each other; and since my old life has been destroyed I feel that every day is an attempt to slowly build back my own foundation—find new supports, new ways of carrying on. Valery uses the metaphor of roots and a tree to explain this relationship-as-support idea beautifully:
Love grows like a plant and what we see of it, namely the leaves and flowers, the fruit and stem, is nothing without what we don’t see, the roots. Nobody knows them exactly, neither their extent, nor their depth, nor their precise trajectories, nor the state of them.
For nothing imaginable explains the penetration, the vitality, the development of this plant by the apparent conditions of its nature.
Any love love which can be reduced to a few things that can be counted out, described, understood, foreseen is a small plant of no importance.
But when we lose this kind of love Valery describes having a “soul-pain.” When he is apart from Catherine and when they finally go their separate ways for good the intensity of his grief is unbearable—something to which I can certainly relate. He writes about it simply and concisely as, “The one thing I think of tenderly, I think of also with pain. What is that thing? It’s you or it’s me.”
Valery feels that the only true comfort for the pain is fading memory—he calls this a “fruitful forgetfulness.” When everyone tells me what I really need for the grief to pass is time that is what they are essentially saying—as the memories fade, so will the pain. Valery writes:
The more or less powerful faculty we have…of diminishing the importance of something by taking other objects into consideration with it, by introducing a very different scale , or a much broader angle of view, —it seems that time, of its own accord, exercises this faculty automatically through the weakening of impressions, forgetfulness. Although intense pain can scarcely be weakened by thinking of or looking at other things, by reducing it to the point of the body where it’s apparently produced, still the succession of time undoes it and cancels it out little by little.
New people, new connections, new memories; grief as a race against time…
And so, is the pleasure, the beauty, and the intensity of love worth the pain? I keep asking myself this question over and over and over.
The answer to this, I think, is the last thing that Alan taught me. We were always learning new things from each other and his final “lesson” was probably his most important. His last text message to me said, “Goodnight, I love you! See you soon.” And my response, “I love you too. Can’t wait to see you!” If given the choice to send a final message before he was killed, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have sent this same message and sent it to me.
I suspect that when my own time is up that I won’t think to myself that I should have worked more, or worked harder or spent more hours making money or starting a business or fixing my house, or doing one of the million other chores I fret over everyday. Today especially I’ve learned that people, connections, relationships and love are so much more important than any of the number of things or tasks we spend hours of our time and effort on. It sounds clique and almost silly to say, but the true measure of a successful life is love; that’s what we are here for and nothing else in the end really matters—even when it ends in incredible pain and tragedy and heartsickness—nothing else really matters.
And so the natural question for me is, “Now what?” Do I close myself off to new connections, new relationships, new love? Do I want to suffer that kind of pain again?
What would Penelope have done if Odysseus never came home?
A dear, kind, astute friend write to me recently and gave me an answer that has changed my thought process: “Consider the Universe and his possibilities,” he said.