Monday, December 19, 2016

Bright Stars, Painful Memories, & Beautiful Ambitions

I love beautiful things. I wonder sometimes that it may be the desire to possess beauty that has kept me single. On the one hand, one does not, or rather one should not, possess another person--when I was psychologically possessed by another person, it was the most miserable and unhealthy state in which I have lived. Moreover, a spouse is not a curio cabinet treasure, to be admired as an object, dusted off and displayed. But I do like male pretty, and I have a collector's eye for fine examples. Too bad the transient superficial is often all there is, or connected to selfish pride, and that men are often attracted to women as beautiful or even more so than they, all of which suggests that I am doomed in the spousal pulchritude department.

I just finished listening to Edith Wharton's "The Dilettante," which I wish I had read decades ago – as I have myself been the emotional victim of dilettantes such as that so ably portrayed in this incisive short story. And at least once I have likewise proven unable to invest my emotions in a romantic relationship. While I was dating my only boyfriend (a score of years ago!), I still remember my father almost busting a gut with laughter when I mentioned to him that I was concerned that the boyfriend in question had a heart ailment, because when we kissed his pulse would race. Apparently this is normal. My heart, on the other hand, thudded along at its usual dull rate because I was not in the least emotionally engaged, and I soon realized that the apathy that suffused all of my interactions with this otherwise estimable character was not going to lift.

A sylphlike colleague at the museum where I was working at the time told me that she had had sex simply to see what it was like. A friend had lent her her boyfriend for the experience, which I found odd on multiple levels. But later, I realized I had no room to talk (in kind if not in extremity), as I had kissed somebody I didn't have any feelings for simply because he had expressed an interest in kissing me, and it seemed the sort of "normal" thing to do. When I discovered that he actually loved me and was planning to propose to me, I realized I couldn't continue the charade into matrimony. Perfunctory marital relations would have been ridiculous. I had thought that I would eventually begin to feel something if we dated for a while, but six weeks passed, and then 12, and though I certainly appreciated the man on an intellectual level, I was simply going through the romantic motions, absorbing his devotion without returning any, which filled me with guilt. He deserved better. So I broke up with him. He was crushed, and went off to France for a year on a Fulbright. Then he met and married a nice woman. Their children could be teenagers by now, for all I know.

My heart has been touched deeply twice, once by someone who was a dilettante, and the other time by one of whom I was mistaken. The former left me badly wounded, while the latter had the courtesy to wait offstage until I was recovered (and a few years later I had totally forgotten that I had any attraction to him whatsoever, which was a comfortable and pleasant realization). So it is possible for me to be emotionally engaged, but I wonder at the miracle it must take for me to come to like someone who is reasonable and for him simultaneously to like me. I think that most people must take this as a matter of course, but I don't.

My ability to communicate my feelings, or lack thereof, has definitely improved as I've gotten older. I hope that my spirit has gotten both stronger and softer, that the worst of the psychological scars of a quarter century ago have faded while the lesson of not being drawn into an exploitative relationship has ingrained itself into my marrow. I thank God that that first fellow whom I adored one-sidedly was an effectively asexual dilettante, given that I have since seen other controlling people introduce elements of romance into their power play and thereby brutalize their victims even more thoroughly.

I can see the point of perfunctory affection if one is in a marital relationship. There is duty, and the heady emotional involvement that accompanies early infatuation does not typify day-to-day existence over the long run, though Lord willing it will return regularly. I do earnestly desire a marriage grounded in comfortable, pleasant coexistence, but I also want to like to be touched by my spouse. Not just sex and kisses, but having his hand over mine, his arm around my shoulders. Hugs are awesome when they are from someone you love. Being able to snuggle up to someone who doesn't consider me physically repulsive, who doesn't withdraw unconsciously, and about whom I feel the same…that would be so nice. Someone whose face will crinkle into further little smile curves over the years, so we both can beam companionably at one another over the breakfast table in our old age. That's the sort of relationship that I really hope and pray God grants me. Someone who finds me admirable and fascinating, and someone whom I likewise admire and with whom I am fascinated. One of the things that I have observed in successful Christian marriages is that each spouse is impressed with the other's skill. They clearly enjoy the other person's character, and his or her being able to do certain tasks, from building things to sewing things, from cooking things to arranging things, from writing things to thinking things. They see beauty in the other person and his or her handiwork and celebrate it.

The past three years have been a humbling experience for me. I have glimpsed (and repeatedly shut my eyes to!...there's a limit to how much realistic self-assessment I can handle) how small I am in the face of the universe, and how little my gifts account for relative to the broader population. My current job has been particularly illuminating in this regard: I have overseen the editing of about 100 biographies of people who exhibited both great and lesser literary skill, the one area of ability in which I have always aspired to excel. God has given me a better sense of where I am to fit, and has encouraged me with the realization that even small spheres prudently occupied can be far more beneficial than large swaths of power mishandled. A beautifully influential life resembles a star in space. From our terrestrial viewpoint, in that empty stretch of infinite darkness a comparatively tiny glimmer shines across vast time and distances. In notes too deep for the human ear to hear, the star's voice throbs through the reaches of the universe. The human eye is naturally drawn to the light, however infinitesimal it may at first appear, and even at its death, it yields spectacular beauty. Thus, I will subscribe to what I call a "little woman" theory of history rather than to the "great man" theory of history. Even if I cannot enjoy the beauty of a beloved spouse, I can, through God's grace, be a twinkling (if slightly batty) inspiration to a small circle.

If I may continue to indulge in free association ("like a tea-tray in the sky..."), Lewis Carroll is prompting me to a bedtime cuppa. Maybe the chamomile will let me enjoy a solid night's sleep!

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