I was describing it when it vanished. Describing it the way you might describe the falling snow while talking on the phone to a friend. I wasn’t explaining or complaining or trying to be right. I was just describing it.
I had been in love with Susan for more than a year but was holding back, struggling with a dilemma that had always been a part of my relationships with women. Whenever I got involved with someone, I would begin to feel trapped. For a long time I simply cheated on my girlfriends and lied to cover it up, but it became increasingly difficult to rationalize my lack of integrity. So, I stopped lying. I didn’t always refrain from getting involved with other women, but I did stop lying about it. Naturally, this precipitated some painful breakups.
Having simultaneous uncommitted relationships was not the solution either. I would end up missing the love and intimacy made possible by commitment. So when I met a woman I cared for, and who cared for me, our relationship would become exclusive and the tension would begin again. This vacillation characterized my relationship with Susan, too. Although I was in love with her, Susan knew intuitively that I was not a good candidate for marriage.
Late one night, as we were lying on the living room floor watching the fire, the conversation came around to my difficulty with commitment. We had talked about the issue many times, but that night was different. I was describing my dilemma in a strangely unattached way. I remember gazing at the glowing coals as I spoke about being pulled in two directions. Suddenly, as I was talking, the struggle ceased, and I felt a release of tension in my mind and body. I was stunned. “My God, it’s gone!” I said. There was a pause as Susan stared at me in bewilderment and I looked at her as if I were seeing her for the first time. Then I said, “Will you marry me?”
That was almost twelve years ago. Each year our love deepens and our marriage grows stronger. I still find other women attractive but feel no compulsion to act on the attraction. I have often tried to recreate that experience, to apply it to some other part of my life I want to change, but I never can. That moment was irreproducible: a state of grace.
The smell first began to bother me when I was sitting with Cathy on the sofa. It’s a smell like a girls’ dorm, only much more concentrated — a combination of hot water, soap, food cooking, cigarette smoke, and too many women in a small space.
I’d known Cathy since I began volunteering at the day shelter. She was nice to me when I was new and feeling shy among strangers and strangeness. She was thirty-seven years old then, but looked much younger, tall with a brown ponytail, and she smiled out of the corners of her brown eyes like a playful child. She’d been looking through the donated clothing, putting together an outfit with a decided style, like that of someone who buys chic from thrift stores. “I’ve never had so many clothes as since I’ve been homeless,” she said. She was admiring her long-legged reflection in a dress that had been shapeless on the hanger but now looked fashionable draped on her.
I remember feeling happy then — happy that I had found a place where I could help out; happy that there was a surplus of clothing and well-prepared food; happy that Cathy looked good in the dress. I could almost forget who and where we were; forget how incongruous it was for her to be living on the streets. It was like laughing with a girlfriend.
That was a year ago. Now things are much different. There are so many mentally ill homeless women that the shelter is overcrowded, even though each woman is now allowed in only every other day. I see a few familiar faces, but mostly there seems to be a relentless stream of new women. We have to stretch the food budget with cheaper food, sometimes running out before lunch is over. The donated clothing is gone in an instant as so many women scurry for it. There is no humor. Sometimes fights break out. The women look more desperate. The three small rooms seem airless with so many people, so much unmet need.
I hadn’t seen Cathy in a long time. She’d been hit by a car and had been in the hospital for months. “I had gotten up to go to the bathroom,” she said, beginning her story without waiting for me to ask. “I left my tent to go to the restroom across the street. A car ran me down. Then the driver stopped, backed over me, and ran over me again.” She grimaces at the memory. “I just wish I hadn’t gotten up then, you know what I mean?” There were tears in her eyes for a moment. “My legs and pelvis were crushed. The doctors put me back together with pins and plates.” She is pointing to spots on her hips and thighs. “I have pins here and here and there, and plates here and there.”
“Will they ever remove the plates and pins?” It is all I can say to such horror. Can “they” create some order here again?
“No. They’re permanent.”
“What do you do for pain?”
“Nothing. There’s nothing I can do. Their medicine doesn’t help. I can’t drink enough to help.”
Now I watch her shifting her position on the sofa, occasionally pulling herself up with her crutches, then carefully rearranging her body and sitting again. The effort it takes is apparent. Her face is a picture of pain. You could use it in a medical book captioned “Human Pain.” That playfulness, that childlike-ness, is gone. Her mouth is just a line, her eyes — I could hardly bear to look into them, though looking into them is all I can do, just to share her pain for a little while.
My mind danced away, searching for solutions, for some consolation. What does a woman who has no home, friends, or family, in a body put together with hardware, do for consolation, for the never-ending pain? I found myself almost wishing her dead. If I couldn’t fix her, I could wish the driver had succeeded in killing her. Put her out of her misery. Put her out of mine.
And so we sat, two women on the sofa, me with my healthy, unbroken body and her with her crutches and no comfortable place to be. It was then that the close, cloying smell of the place began to get to me.
I took December off from the shelter. I was busy. I found much to do on Saturdays besides working at the shelter, like hiking in the canyons with my girlfriends. In January I agreed to work only one Saturday, then called Darlene to cancel it.
In late January I cleaned out my closets and delivered two bags of clothing to the shelter. The room was full of women, none of whom I knew. Carolyn, one of my favorite staff people, was there and came over to ask me about a retreat center I’d visited. I cut our conversation short, telling her I’d parked illegally. But of course it wasn’t the parking ticket I feared. It was the smell.
Santa Monica, California
I’ve never given up smoking, yet I haven’t had a cigarette in years. No, I haven’t switched to chewing tobacco or nicotine gum; the secret is a change in attitude.
I still want to smoke. I want a cigarette right now. These days, though, I choose not to light up, not to stop at the corner store for a pack, not to keep an ashtray by the bed.
I don’t think anything is really “given up.” “Giving up” simply means changing behaviors, doing things differently. The choice is what matters.
I had gotten married in the Sixties while going to graduate school at Stanford. I had passed my Ph.D. qualifying exams but was having increasing difficulty choosing a thesis topic. My fear of failure was growing daily, and now it looked like I was headed toward a divorce, too. My wife finally decided to end it all by leaving me and moving in with a fellow from our encounter group.
My world caved in. I decided to take a vacation for a few weeks to visit some friends in Austin, but it didn’t help. The fall semester was about to begin, but the thought of going back to California and facing what lay before me there — a failing marriage and a failing degree — was too much to bear.
The day arrived when I was to leave Austin. I drove to a gas station, and while the tank was filling with gas, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to drive to my mother’s house in San Antonio, just seventy miles away. But I also knew that this would be giving up in the worst way.
The tank was full of gas, the windows were cleaned, the tires and water were checked. The entrance to the interstate lay in front of me. To the north and west was California, to the south was my mother’s house. I decided to go north. But within a mile, I began to shake uncontrollably, so I turned around, and headed toward San Antonio, beginning to sob. Within minutes, I knew that I was only postponing the painfully inevitable, and turned around again. I drove back and forth like this for quite a while.
At last, it was all too much. I couldn’t go back to California, and I couldn’t go to San Antonio. So I did the only thing I could do at that moment: I gave up, I just plain gave up. I drove off in another direction, off the interstate, into rural Texas. I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t care. Through the tears, I just drove and drove and drove. Toward sunset, I stopped in a dusty town with only a gas station and a few stores and a large stone building which I later learned was the county courthouse of Paint Rock, Texas.
I sat down under a tree next to the courthouse and tried to figure out what I wanted to do — not with the rest of my life, but at least for the immediate future. I wanted to go back to California, give up my house, give up my graduate assistantship, give up my marriage.
I gave up everything and moved to Austin. Eventually, while living in Austin, I finished my thesis. A few years later, at an encounter group no less, I met the woman with whom I have spent the last eighteen years. Perhaps it’s true that you have to give it all up to get it all.
The psychologist’s legs are crossed. I am in love with his pink and green argyle socks.
As usual, we talk about my teenage daughter.
He says, “What you want is impossible.”
“I can’t give it up,” I tell him. My voice needs to be glued back together. When I think of how my daughter has left me, I feel like a beat-up cushion on a dirty rug.
I want her back.
I have wanted her back for a year.
Wanting is a hole too huge to leap over.
“Concentrate on yourself. You have no control over what your daughter does.” His vest matches his socks, like a dance that took lessons at Arthur Murray.
I nod maturely. I vow to turn inward. I will quest, I will pray, I will give up restless dreams. I breathe and feel my strength, my wholeness. I leave wondering how I could have been so tiny and troubled.
In the parking lot I see a tight-jeaned teenager arguing with her mother. My strength is suddenly a melting popsicle, my heart a rejected child.
All I can think about is, I want her back.
Five months ago, without a major fight or an ugly scene, my wife and I gave up on our marriage. Since then I’ve heard, here and there, how we didn’t give it a chance, or that we didn’t fight to stay together, or that we weren’t strong enough to endure the conflict inherent in marriage. These opinions come from people who believe divorce is failure. I disagree. Our giving up was simply an end to an experiment.
A little more than five years ago we met; a month after we met I moved in; a month later we were married. We talked about the marriage as an experiment, an attempt to live with another in ways we had never tried. (We were both in our early thirties and had never been married.) We wrote a special vow declaring our reverence for individuality. The purpose of the marriage was to augment our individual and idiosyncratic lives. If at any time one of us became stifled, trapped, or demeaned by the other, then it was a signal that the relationship would end. Either of us changing to suit the other was out of the question.
Our society seems to value sticking things out at any cost. We admire and praise martyrs, self-sacrificers, and “success” stories. But I see divorce as part of the natural flux and flow of individual lives, as part of a larger life, an evolving metamorphosis occurring day-to-day. I’ve learned that nothing is as fixed or static as we would like. The comfort we get from believing in unchanging realities (Self, Love, Relationship) is the ground from which our suffering and disappointment grow. Few of us want to give up on the definitions we’ve used to conveniently pigeonhole ourselves and our situations. We’re hung up on staying, commitment, and success, especially in relationships. Even in divorce, we don’t want to give up our possessions; we’d rather fight, even kill, than give up.
Yielding to the truth, recognizing differences, and dying to fixed beliefs is what giving up means to me. If doing so leads to reconciliation, fine. The experiment continues. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. A new experiment begins.
Mark K. Bennett
Elk Grove, California
As a therapist working with adult children of alcoholics and other survivors of childhood trauma, I hold up signposts on the path of recovery. “This Way to the Walk of Buried Tears.” “Stop: Remember the Path of Wanting to Fix Others Leads . . . into the Valley of Unknowing.” Every day I give up wanting to save them, showing them how to give up on people they love who refuse to help themselves.
They tell their stories of alcoholic fathers who shouted their praises drunkenly in public and bellowed “shut up” at the dinner table. Stories of the seventy-year-old mother, finally sober, who lapses into chronic depression. Memories of crying underwater as a child, diving again and again to hide tears of shame. Together we discover there is no cure for this, only learning to cry on dry land, to cry for the child who now inhabits an adult body so that she may grow into herself.
My own mother, living with cancer, comes to the door in her red coat and Mexican scarf, showing off a new haircut. She gets up early and has plans for the day. I learn to give up wanting to save her and this leaves space between us for her to tell me how she feels. She sometimes asks me what to do about one decision or another and I resist the temptation to invent an answer. We get the hang of this after a while.
I am piecing together the story of my father, who died twenty-two years ago from the cigarette addiction he gave up too late. When my mother finally left him after fifteen years of drunkenness, he got sober. (I was only three, too young to remember any of this consciously.) He had lost himself as a painter, lost a business and a brother because of alcoholism. The threat of losing his wife and only child sent him to Alcoholics Anonymous and a psychiatrist. Loving him as life itself, wanting only to be with him, my mother had finally given up hope. She gave up and he saved himself.
I guarded the secret of my own neediness until I began to learn the painful healing art of giving up: giving up the facade of imperviousness; giving up my own voluminous outpouring of letters, a symptom of my need to be there for others, forsaking myself. Did I wait for answers, sifting through the day’s junk mail like an eager child? Sure, but I told no one of my disappointment until I began to give up on the power of my words to redeem anyone but myself.
I learn to give up one day at a time, over and over. I want to write one more letter, one more impassioned message full of insight and understanding. Surely this will get the response I want. Each time this urge comes over me, I remember all the years of unanswered letters. I let myself feel the pain of longing, the fear of irretrievable loss. Letting myself feel, I give up the compulsion to fix others, to deny my own humble self.
I don’t believe I’ve ever Given Up — except I’ve stopped playing baseball. I was with a team called Pizza Haven in 1966, and I made it to the Minor Leagues (within the Inwood Little League) and got a new uniform, grayish, with PIZZA HAVEN written on the back. I was in the outfield, worrying and thinking, one afternoon — a Sunday — when the ball was hit near me into a mud puddle.
I paused. My beautiful uniform, should I ruin it to retrieve a round sphere? While I was thinking, the second baseman got the ball and threw it to first, with a look to me one might give a man who had bombed a Boy Scout troop.
So the batter got on base, and now I am a writer. I’m not sure if he scored.
Perhaps I would have preferred being in a Little League Fashion Show. I didn’t like competitive ball. It’s horrible to be in a performance art where, based on the score, you have to get drunk afterward half the time because you feel so bad.
Yes, and later I gave up on being a saint. I decided I liked sex too much.
Hmm, anything else? I would like to give up on the United States, but how can I? I love New York City too much.
I still have hope for a revolution, and that the homeless will have homes, and that I’ll publish a book.
The Train To The Bronx