My friend S sent me a poem, included at the bottom of this post, after I told her that my three-yearlong relationship had ended. I don’t know what to call him for the purpose of this piece: do I call him Ex? It feels too soon to call him that. Or Him? That makes him sound like he has been the only Him, and that isn’t true. So, do I call him by his secret nickname, and tell you about a day, years ago, when we laughed together, our legs tangled up together, staring at an ugly tattoo and that’s where we were and how we were when his nickname was born?
You see, when anyone who is worth loving is lost, you’re faced with the hard work of burying a whole world. And the soil you’re breaking and shoveling and opening up is a wound inside of yourself, from the moment you began to realize it’s over, and now you have to dig—it’s over, it’s over—until it’s large enough to hold the nicknames, the tangled legs, and the tens of millions of seconds besides that have tick tocked while you were together. It is a tearing of the tissue, and it isn’t clean. It’s blistered soil, it’s fiercely laid bare. That interior grave plot is dark and bellowing, and you know you need to bury something—someone—precious to you.
So, here I am, days away from the epicenter of this ending, and I’m standing over the broken soil, with days of digging to go. So I grab a paintbrush.
When I moved into my apartment last year, my bedroom walls were the color of sand. Not sand-by-the-surf-in-a-sunset. No. Think desolate-sand-wasteland-in-what-was-once-a-lakebed. It didn’t catch the light well. it didn't make me feel energized or calm or inspired. It did, however, contrast nicely to the white splotches of spackle from the previous tenants, so poorly applied that it looked more like a paintball gun fight had happened in my bedroom than a repair job. A paintball fight with white paintballs. And the room lost. Back then, I assumed I’d be getting married or moving out of town by the time a year was up, and so I ignored the walls for a whole year. Well, I didn’t ignore them exactly--they bugged me often enough--but I tried.
Until this Sunday. With the help of my roommate J, we dragged all of my bedroom furniture and worldly possessions into the hallway, and then drove to Home Depot to peruse the many walls of wall color swatches. “I hate yellow, it makes me anxious,” I told J. “Me too," she said. She encouraged me to pick out a color that wasn’t too dark, and I thought about ivories and designer blues with snooty names, and then I thought against them when my eyes settled in on a couple of blue-green-gray swatches. “Do I want Valley Mist or Coastal Mist?” I asked her. She shrugged and then supported me when I settled on the former, and we drove back to our home, and turned on the Slumdog Millionare soundtrack and started sanding, taping, and dusting. By the end of the night on Sunday, my room was laid bare, covered in a fresh coat of paint, and smelling too strongly to sleep in.
I woke up yesterday with sore muscles and a sore back from sleeping on the couch. But, as I pulled the painter’s tape down, and swept my floor, and moved my bedroom with great intention back into itself, I felt that the work I had done in my physical environment, somehow, mattered on the inside. I had taken down the pictures of us, carried them out, and they didn’t come back in. For now, they’re in a box for the day when I can look at them with a heart full of peace and gratitude for torn tissue, for animal woundedness, for burials. A shirt of his went into the trash can. Now it’s buried in between the roller brushes and dust bunnies.
And last night, I laid in my bed and considered the newness of a familiar space, surrounded by these smooth, peace-colored walls. I know there are patched-up nail holes, sanded globs of spackle, magic erased oil slicks and that wasteland color that I used to open my eyes to everyday when I hoped for something beyond this bedroom, when my legs and heart were tangled up. That's all covered up now. But my diptych is still there, and I still wake up to the image of Mary, holding her baby in a loving embrace. The prayer of St. Francis de Sales is still written on paper in this space, beginning with the words I've since memorized: “Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life, rather look to them with full hope as they arise.” And in the corner of my room I still see the picture of my little sister and I, laughing together, and I still drape my nightstand with a small woven cloth my friend gave to me when she was first learning to weave. There’s my great-grandmother’s writing desk, and photographs of the Grove of the Patriarchs on Mount Rainer, those thousand-year old trees that I’ve reached out and touched with these two hands of mine, that have held many hands and have been held, and have now painted this room and made a new home here.
The good news this week is this: I know the words of this poem are true. I have known what it feels like to be animal, wounded, to find the smile from a stranger or the taste of watermelon or the warm body of a dog sleeping beside me utterly, sensually, sustainingly filled with grace, even more breath than my breathing and beat than my heartbeat for now. And this: I remember the seasons after a breakup are as intense and meaningful to me as the seasons in which I first fell in love. And in that, it's really more than a break or a burial: it is life. It is the tying up of one circle, and beginning on the arch of another one.
And this circle, slowly drawn at first, will have its blushes and beginnings someday. It'll have a pair of eyes that catch me off guard, make my mind seesaw. It holds music and poetry I haven't heard yet. It'll have its first touch of my hand and my hesitant light standing beneath heavy black pines. This circle holds the taste of saltwater in the air, and more sanding, more painting, more making a home in myself. And someday again, there will be a first realization that this was all meant for me, even from this day, though I can't even fathom from this early on how it will all shake out. But I feel it--it's the fruit flesh around the pit of my gut, which is that I am made, loved, and kept.
A Blessing for the Breakup of a Relationship
by John O’Donohue
Now you endeavor
To gather yourself
And withdraw in slow
From love turned sour and ungentle.
When we love, the depth in us
Trusts itself forward until
The empty space between
Becomes gradually woven
Into an embrace where longing
Can close its weary eyes.
Love can seldom end clean;
For all the tissue is torn
And each lover turned stranger
Is dropped into a ruin of distance
Where emptiness is young and fierce.
Time becomes strange and slipshod;
It mixes memories that felt
The kiss of the eternal
With the blistering hurt of now.
Unknown to themselves,
Certain small things
Touch nerve-lines to the heart
And bring back with color and force
All that is utterly lost.
This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.