Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stay Away, Stay Away: Emily Dickinson's "The Bustle in a House"

A few weeks ago, I sat perfectly plump and pleased in front of a plate of baked spinach and ricotta milanese in a near-empty East Side Mario's. My very pregnant and semi-mobile friend (henceforth known as The Duchess) taught me how to order a virgin cocktail and as I sat gaping at a hot pink drink nervously swirling a swirly straw, we talked about big, ugly stuff: love, marriage, and finding "the one." Thankfully, it wasn't one of those painfully saccharine conversations that leave you feeling like you're hopped up on dopamine. If it were, I'm pretty sure The Duchess would have nodded politely, excused herself to go to the bathroom---and never returned. She was after all, eight months pregnant and any conversation that dwells too long on the bliss of true love has the tendency to make her convulse. Not because she's not in love and scoffs at the idea, but precisely because she is in love and knows what it takes.

At the first whiff of sugary salutations to the power of love and connection, The Duchess raised her hand and with a flick of her royal finger, wafted away any airy traces of misguided love-poem notions. She told me that in the first year of marriage, much of your time is spent squirting Visine into yo
ur eyes because you're constantly crying. And they're not tears of unadulterated joy. They're the kind that leave you feeling rumpled and raw. Why? Because it's hard.

I might just be the most incredible grouch because that's really it: being with someone is hard.

I realize that even if I briefly believed in the faerie-land dream scape of love we all love to love (even the men), my default is to look at all the loveliness of a solid and lasting relationship--the sharing, the caring, the sacrifice, the devotion--as profound trials.

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

This stanza from
Emily Dickinson's poem, "The Bustle in a House," appears after the death of a lover in the novel My Other Women by Canadian actor and playwright Pauline Carey. This is what you feel when someone you love dies. It's a funereal poem and upon reading it, I made rapid connections to love and marriage. In a trembling, curt, clean sweep there is death, but I also recognize the dim pulse of letting go and zipping yourself shut when you no longer care to give what love requires.

Because in beautiful (I'm willing to relinquish that), but terrifying ways, love requires so, so much. Love does not exist on its own, nor is it self-sustaining. It is cultivated through a careful (and alarmingly bureaucratic) management of...everything. For some, it's economical management (how much have I given? Should I give more? I must give more). For others it's management with an iron fist (nothing--not even you--will get in the way of our success). For many the goal is the constant and consistent management of feelings, dreams, money, and everything else that exists between two people who are committed to each other. They've decided to be together--and now they have to do it. They'll have to manage.

This all sounds so very tiring. Be together.

is so cleanly solitary and complete. You exist. Your struggle through life's trials is your own, and though at times lonely--there is an intrinsic strength that comes from being alone.
The fabric of who you are is influenced by everything and everyone around you, but if you are a very specific kind of singleton--you don't have dependents, in fact you are largely independent--there isn't this constant negotiation of wants and needs that grinds into your being once you have committed yourself to another person. When you agree to pair off with another, your being is inextricably linked to that person. This may be the beauty and allure of marriage--the sense that you complement each other in the best of ways and for some, a sense of completeness that could not have been attained if they spent life unattached. It's what wedding cards salute in glittery affection--the melding of two souls into one.

And maybe it's that haunting sense of disappearance that is most off putting. The feeling that the you, the I, no longer exists and that in a swirling rhythm of hormones, affection, and negotiation, the you is now we. That from now until eternity (or not), there is the heavy weight of responsibility resting on both your shoulders. You have to care. You have to share. You have to self-analyze. You have to accept being wrong and struggle to speak up when you're right.

If you're a relatively reasonable human being, these are things you already do with the people in your life. But there is something so much more weighty about negotiating through life with a mate. With others, you're never overwhelmed with this pressure to be joined at the hip forevermore--your goals united, your dreams intertwined, one person always affecting the other.
And perhaps it is this fear--the abhorrence of change, of becoming something other than what you already are (even if that may be an even better version of who you currently are)--maybe it is this fear that makes you shut off the part of you that could be open to another person, another life. Sweep it all up and keep it for later.

But I suppose it's possible. In the last few years, nearly all of my closest friends have swept gloriously into married lives. The aura of glory is in the superficial and obvious--the crush of silk and taffeta, the dull clink of gold bangles, the iridescent sheen of minute, detailed beading on every possible surface, and of course the handsome, supportive, and sensitive husband on their arm. It's in the satisfaction of being settled, in the giddiness of new beginnings, in the hope that now you have one thing in your life that is constant and stable. But, the glory is also in the subtle things. It's in the work. It's in the things that grind you raw, but in the end change you in ways that you could not have imagined.

Not all relationships subscribe to a Hallmark-heavy notion of siamese-existence. I'm positive there's the kind of love where you can exist as individuals and still go through life together. It doesn't seem so impossible. It doesn't mean it isn't hard, but maybe it's easier to bear. You know you're not going to disappear; you know you'll be just fine.


  1. "It's in the satisfaction of being settled, in the giddiness of new beginnings, in the hope that now you have one thing in your life that is constant and stable."

    I believed this. That even though it was hard - I had someone, someone that was going through it with me and would always be there.

    It's so dangerous to believe; the crash sucker-punches you out of the blue. And even when you tell yourself you're fine and you're over it, you can't let go of the fear of a repeat of your naivete.

    I still have a letter I wrote to you two years ago, when I was trying to make the tears stop and felt helpless but still hopeful because I thought everyone goes through that period and I'd get through it alright.

    /In retrospect it was for the best that things ended the way they did, but sometimes it drives me crazy in my head just wondering about all the "what if"s.


    1. I agree with you. Just as a fact of nature, people are not built to be a constant, stable presence, though we expect that from them. The shock of turning around and seeing someone bursting through the image we've built for them and emerging as something that at its best is just different, and at its worst is surprisingly ugly, is incredibly difficult. It feels like a violation of a basic trust.

      But I think its taught me to focus on the stability that I can build up in myself--if not stability, than at least a sense of knowing my purpose, instead of what I may or may not find in another person. It's a work in progress. ;)