by John Wolfstone
This series is written in support of the Kickstarter campaign for the forthcoming Visionary Documentary, LOVE SCHOOL— examining new models of love in community for the 21st century. Please watch the pitch and contribute.
“Love isn’t there to make us happy. I believe it exists to show us how much we can endure.” — Herman Hesse
I fell in love in the circus. Samantha was 19 and shy, with a soft face, brunette hair and the warmest honey-brown eyes I had ever seen. What made me fall in love though was how she saw the world and found refuge in what I found to be the darkest aspects of existence (like the time we spent an afternoon staring at dying flowers). In short, Samantha saw beauty where others couldn’t; it made her beauty almost divine.
In the winter of 2009, I asked her to be my partner in an acrobatic dance skit for the upcoming annual spring show. She agreed, and we spent the next four months gradually falling in love as we poured our souls into a creative union. After the show and a dazzling series of performances, our sexual and romantic tensions finally broke…and we kissed.
A few weeks later, I invited her on an overnight camping adventure in a secluded section of old-growth redwood forest. That night, under the full moon, we had sex for the first time and I realized what it meant to actually make love. Never before had my sexual expression been so entangled with the landscape of my heart.
That summer we traveled like honeymooners all over Southern Mexico and Guatemala, working with an organization, Caja Ludica, that taught circus arts to youth in rural indigenous Mayan villages as a means of empowerment. This summer of love (with its own share of trials and turbulence) was nothing short of magical, and I naively thought it would last forever.
In the fall, as we prepared for college classes to began again, and still riding the highs of our summer, Samantha and I decided to move in together. Soon, however, our connection began to falter, and we became increasingly isolated in our relationship. For months we spent every night together, and in that time our lives had unknowingly become entangled in codependency and a thinly veiled fear of separation.
She tried to break up with me numerous times, and on each occurrence I would question her. Why? She never had any real reason except that it just felt like what she should do. This revelation would send me into a state of panic. I would use my cunning with words, explanations and promises to — in keeping with a classic masculine mind — diagnose our “problem” and lay forth a brilliant case for its resolution, leaving her no room to justify her feelings.
In my desperation I was manipulative, and Samantha succumbed to it numerous times.
Our relationship waned on for six months longer than it should have. I was never going to back down from my conviction that we were “meant to be.” And my power with words would always dominate Samantha’s proclivity to feel instead of rationalize (a quality for which I loved her deeply and secretly envied). It wasn’t until I was gone for a month on a feature film gig that she found the space, support and finally the courage to make a definitive choice about our separation.
It was the last night of my film shoot, and weary from four weeks of 18-hour days, I was excited to return home to my love. I called Samantha that night to tell her how excited I was to see her. We hadn’t talked in a week, and her tone was unexpectedly cold. Our conversation was terse and after hanging up, I realized something was wrong. I called her back immediately and confronted her, naively expecting a minor household problem — like a fight with a roommate or a sick cat.
Hesitantly, she said, “We need to break up. I can’t be with you. I’m sorry.”
Then she hung up.
* * *
I imploded. A man held together by the need for someone else crumbles fast once they step away. I didn’t sleep that night, and the next day — consumed by denial — I spent the entire five hour drive home planning my strategy to win her back.
As soon as I arrived, I rushed to her house. Her roommates, who were also close friends of mine, answered the door. “What do you want?” I was caught off guard by their combativeness, but in desperation said, “Where’s Samantha?”
The woman who answered the door, my friend, rolled her eyes and said, “Leave her alone.” But from the back room I heard her other roommate quietly reveal something about her being at a park.
As soon as I heard the word “park” I took off, sprinting toward the neighborhood park a few blocks away. I rounded the final corner and saw Samantha sitting on a bench. Her hair was pulled up into a crown of braids, and she was wearing a wonderful summer dress I had bought her in Mexico. Her beauty was stunning, especially given that she had rarely dressed up in the past few months. In between gasps I managed to yell out, “Samantha!”
She turned to look at me, and tears began rolling down her face. At that moment, my myopia faded and the rest of the scene hazily appeared: across from her on the bench sat a blonde man, his blue eyes glued onto Samantha in a manner only indicative of one who is smitten. It hit me at once:
She was dressed up for him — they were on a date.
My cry garnished his attention as well, and he stared at me with a befuddled expression. I kept looking back and forth between tear-soaked Samantha, mascara now streaking down her cheeks, and this blondie blue-eyed fuckface. I was flooded by emotions of sadness, heartbreak . . . then rage. I clenched my fists, ready for war.
Samantha let out a whimper, breaking my trance. I turned to her and said, with tears now welling in my eyes, “I need to talk to you.”
“I’ll come to your house in 30 minutes,” she replied.
I turned and ran to my house. When I got inside, I completely lost it. I had never experienced such psychological fallout, and what happened next must have occurred in a state of total blackout: I don’t remember any of it.
My roommate told me later that I began a treacherous march of insanity throughout our house — yelling, crying and beating my fists on the wall. Apparently I was about to punch through our sliding glass door when he restrained me, throwing me onto the couch and sitting on me until my breathing slowed and I regained lucidity.
Samantha never showed up. She wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. In the next four months, throughout the entire fall semester, we spoke only three times. She began dating blondie blue eyes, and I would often ride my bike home only to be met by them kissing in her front yard, which stupidly was only three houses down from mine (it seemed like a GREAT idea when were dating).
I was a wreck. One day I had a panic attack in the university library when I saw them walk in together. I barely showed up to class, and I stopped talking to most of my friends. I started to spend most afternoons smoking rolled cigarettes on my front porch and staring into the abyss. I wrote pages and pages of poetry and played Leonard Cohen’s heartbreak ballad, “Hallelujah,” each night before I went to sleep. I felt like my life was over, and I remember one somber and rainy Sunday afternoon, looking at myself in the mirror and yelling, “Your story isn’t over!”
I didn’t believe it.
And yet somehow life pulsed on in my veins. In October on a rainy Friday night, two months after I was dumped, a friend encouraged, no, nagged me to read one of my more epic heartbreak poems at a local poetry slam. I reluctantly agreed, having lost all will to resist.
When my name was finally called to read, I walked up to the small podium in the corner of a crowded art gallery, and my hands began to shake. I grew up with a s-s-s-st-st-stutter, so public speaking was not exactly my thing. The thought of anyone not being annoyed to hear another cliché heartbreak poem seemed rather impossible.
But as I began to speak, something incredulous happened. My back straightened, my eyes stiffened, and my voice boomed loud, clear and defiant of any trepidation. It was as if I had been struck by a cosmic lighting bolt.
After my last poetic breath, there was a hush of silence, and then the crowd erupted in applause and cheers. As I walked off the stage I was beaming, surprised at how much people loved my poem. For a moment, the pain of my loss retreated into the background and the joy of life reemerged.
An old friend I had not noticed before suddenly approached me. Her name was Iris and she was one of those wise, earthy, mystic women who speak more with their presence than with their lips. Iris walked up to me, stared me directly in the eyes and said:
“You have a broken heart. How wonderful!”
With that she gave me a quick but deep hug, and then turned around and vanished into the crowd — leaving me stunned, fumbling to comprehend her words.
How wonderful? . . . She must be crazy — this is the worst thing ever!
But she had spoken with such conviction and immediacy that I knew deep down that her words were truthful.
I went home that night both elated and crushed, obsessively thinking about her words as if they were a precious Zen koan given to me by a master. I didn’t sleep that night, and I remember banging my head on my bedroom wall, tears staining my shirt, thinking, “Fuck! The only thing worse than heartbreak is a witch riddle pressuring me to make this tragedy somehow wonderful.”
* * *
I’ve spent the last four and a half years trying to understand that riddle, much less being able to live its truth.
Heartbreak is suppose to suck, right? I mean, that’s what I’ve learned from its myriad of glorifications in pop movies and songs. So how could it not just totally suck?
“It’ll be OK!” I heard this phrase over and over and over again from friends, family, counselors, even random old ladies on the bus. It seems that everyone in this world not currently experiencing heartbreak has the misconception that the best medicine for someone experiencing the wretched pain of loss now is to promise them future happiness.
I know these people were well intentioned, but as anyone in a state of immense grief knows, what a fucking stupid idea! Empathy is what people in states of immense pain want, not sympathy. (If you’re confused by these terms, see this great animated piece from Brene Brown.)
I don’t blame these people. They’re simply voicing, as they were trained, what has become a cultural mania for being “OK.” Yes, the backhand of the pop-cultural idea of heartbreak suckage is the future assurance of being “OK” — and the faster the better, for no one wants to be around people who aren’t “OK.”
This is part of the reason that our society has enclaves, mental institutions and prisons: to put people who are “not OK” in far-off places so we, the “OK” ones, don’t have to see them.
And thus when one is going through a heartbreak, our pop-culture has built two super highways back to its god of “OK” — one for boys and one for girls (for pop-culture wouldn’t dare bypass the convenience of such gender norms!)
* * *
In the boys’ story, men are trained to fight — just look at any popular Hollywood film. The repeated masculine cultural narrative around love is based on the heroic build-up of valiant men who “win” the girl (usually a princess archetype) by “defeating” other men, and maybe a dragon. Similar to how most of what we call America was gained, men in our pop-culture receive love not by courtship, but rather as a hard-wrought spoil of war. Battles, victory, heroism and other relics of the “great fight” are the attitude we men have learned to adopt in the face of something as painful as the loss of love.
American women, however, are culturally trained into a different, albeit no less immature, narrative. Already a casualty of 6,000 years of patriarchy, the cultural woman is not trained to fight (for she is viewed as a helpless princess), but rather to fantasize — what else is there to do while she dotes around in the castle waiting to be saved?
This fantasy is generally built around the myth of The One, the idea that a “knight in shining armor” will one day, as destined, come and save her. All the woman has to do is be beautiful — and helpless — enough, and the archetypal man will magically come rescue her.
From these accounts it’s easy to discern what is horribly problematic about these narratives — they both tend to polar extremes, and thus carry little nuance. The female narrative breeds complete disempowerment, regaling their happiness, livelihood and safety to an idealized, flat and rather barbaric image of man.
For men, the narrative skirts the opposite extreme: one not of not empowerment, but rage-fueled “power” that often leads to violence, destruction and sometimes even death.
The cultural messaging given to us in the face of unrequited love is either extreme fantasy or extreme anger. The greatest casualty of this — beyond the gross reinforcing of destructive gender stereotypes and the immeasurable contribution to domestic and sexual violence — is the missed opportunity to bear, and thus transform, the pain of heartbreak.
We fight or fantasize to avoid feeling the pain of loss, since as a culture we demonize pain — especially emotional pain — as something we shouldn’t have to experience. But what if we were to fully feel this pain? Where would that journey lead us?
Amidst incredible heartbreak, I was about to find out.
* * *
Part II —The Paradox of Love
The previous is written in support of the Kickstarter campaign LOVE SCHOOL: THE FILM — examining new models of love in community for the 21st century. Please watch the pitch and contribute.