A Post-Valentine’s Day Dispatch: on Desire, Anne Carson, and Stepping Back

Generally speaking, I’m not big on restricting myself.

It’s February in Minnesota, for Christ’s sake. Since 2016 started, I’ve been encountering more virtuous people on various “fasts” and “detoxes,” barring themselves from ingesting anything likely to induce bloating or joy.

My response: perhaps I’d join them, were it not for the fact that I’m exerting every ounce of discipline I posses to simply wake up (in two-ish degrees), dress myself (in clothing that is warm/comfortable/masking of Winter Weight) and leave the house (aka scrape the frost/snow/ice from my oversized windshield and freeway to the suburbs, or don the numerous, ridiculous, identity-concealing accessories required to mount my bike and ride to the gym or coffee shop).

Life, in other words, is hard enough.

Which, in part, explains my initial reaction to my therapist’s suggestion (one I’ve since embraced) to take a pause from dating.

For six months.

“Oh,” she said, offering a vague extension of her arm, when I replied to this idea with an expression similar to the one college freshmen habitually give me upon being asked to read or write more than five consecutive pages. “I didn’t mean to suggest that it wouldn’t be hard.”

“Right,” I said, my eyes fixed on the floor.

At the time, I was two weeks into what I’d then labeled a one month hiatus. I’d shown up at her office all smug, content that I’d made it (mostly) so far; feeling slightly anxious, even, about the prospect of getting back on Tinder! 

But
six months: the concept sunk my ribs. I stuttered a series of opposing arguments:  I’m not that young. I want a familyI’ve been alone so much.

She nodded, patient and compassionate as ever.

“I know,” she said–reiterating that it wasn’t a requirement, just a suggestion. “But it’s something different to choose being alone.”

Here’s the thing: I’ve spent many winters by myself–as in, outside of a relationship. (Essentially, with a handful of interruptions, all of them between 1983 and now.) 

Rarely, though, have I made it very long, through any season, without the prospect or promise of another person.

So while I’ve become accustomed to living my life independently, I’ve also become accustomed to that life including some form of longing. 

And, as said therapist likes to point out, that longing is chronically misdirected–hence, the pause. (For more on said misdirection, I refer you to the preceding six years of this blog/most 30-somethings who are still single.)

*

If you are going to be alone on Valentine’s Day, you would be fortunate to spend it as I did: at a cabin-like house in deep St. Paul with the company of a sweet, shaggy dog, two angora rabbits, some coconut red lentil soup and a copy of Anne Carson’s Eros, the Bittersweet. 

I’m only a quarter of the way through the book (“forgot” to mention another V-Day companion: an embarassing number of New Girl episodes) but already, it is proving itself the kind of text that challenges you not to underline every phrase. The book’s premise is that Eros contains a paradox: a perennial tension between love and hate; through an examination of philosophy and literature, Carson explores why. 

She writes that eros is “an issue of boundaries”–that desiring another “alerts a person to the boundaries of himself, of other people, of things in general.”

“If we follow the trajectory of eros,” she writes, “we consistently find it tracing out this same route: it moves out from the lover toward the beloved, then ricochets back to the lover himself and the hole in him, unnoticed before. Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole.”

When we experience desire, wherever (or however mis-) directed, we carve out a part of ourselves–we recognize our incompleteness.

Longing for someone can consume, excite, intoxicate–and distract from ways in which we feel less than whole. It can take us away from ourselves. 

Ourselves can be a hard place to spend time.

But, as the woman said, hard isn’t the same as not worthwhile.

And so, here I am, rather contentedly, now (the sunny porch and cuddly dog, temporary gifts, do help): shacking up.

You can’t, of course, turn off the very human tendency to seek love.

And I don’t expect that I will. (Also, I tend not to believe in radical denials–see above.) Already, I’m interpreting this hiatus loosely: I’ve gone on a couple dates, I’m open to being available were the right person to come after me. (It feels rather dramatic, in the end, with or without the accompanying forehand-to-forehead sweeping gesture, to declare myself unavailable until June.) 

But I’m not making it a priority. I’m not allowing fantasies of a particular person to take up the parts of me they so often do. I’m hoping to spend some time getting to know those parts, instead.

It might be, in some moments, difficult. But it in others (such as, say: a dance party with countless attractive women and fewer desirable men, or whilst choosing to stay home for 48 hours and eat a not insignificant amount of Extreme-flavored goldfish), it can be liberating, a relief.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a talk about sex delivered by a celibate Buddhist nun who says she’s learned more about desire while abstaining from sex than she did while having it. (I could, and probably should, write a whole nother post on this; but first, all of us should listen several, or several more times.)

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll discover about desire or love or the dimmest depths of my spirit and soul.

But for now, at least, I am settling into the promise that I might gain something: some new awareness, some shards of clarity that might equip me to begin again.

 

4 thoughts on “A Post-Valentine’s Day Dispatch: on Desire, Anne Carson, and Stepping Back

  1. Thanks for the smart, honest, funny post, friend. I’m picking up Carson’s book ASAP and scheduling a drink with you. xo