In college one of my writing mentors pulled me aside. We had been in a group, gabbing about Joyce and Salinger, evenly divided about who the more important writer was. Although I adore Joyce, and spent an entire year reading both Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses in an independent study with 3 other students (one of the greatest, most rewarding, fulfilling, and exciting learning experience of my life—that same semester I had an independent study in religion on C.S. Lewis; liberal arts at its very best), and I can honestly say that, although I recognize without question the importance of Joyce in literature, as someone who loves books and words and stories, I’ll take Salinger any day. The characters in Joyce’s stories (even in brilliant form like in the Dubliners, or Portrait of the Artist) always left me a bit paralyzed, a bit afraid. These were people to whom life happened; they were spectators and passengers, run over with track marks and gravel imbedded in their skulls. It terrified me how very little these people did. Salinger’s characters are just as destroyed, but for very different reasons. Life overwhelms them, they run full on into walls and carry the scars for their effort, but at least they fucking run. There’s something heroic in that, and to me what Joyce has to say about the human condition is truly terrifying. One writer speaks to the heart, and the other to the intellect; one writes for the soul, the other for the id. For Joyce, I’ll paraphrase his wife’s words when she read an early draft of Ulysses. Everyone already knows you’re the smartest writer who ever lived, so stop showing off.
Somehow we started talking about love, probably discussing it from the books in each oeuvre, but it moved into our personal lives. We were all in the writing program, all pretentiously self-involved with our own ideas of who we thought we were. We were heady, important, bright people; you couldn’t pull the wool over us, no sir, we knew what the fuck we were doing. So we started to stretch our personal loves into yarns and bullshit romanticisms. At one point my mentor asked me into the kitchen for a water or a beer.
“You’re going to struggle with this, you know?”
“What, the writing?” I asked.
“Stop fishing for complements. Hell, no. Love. You’re going to struggle with love, and I don’t mean because of your mother.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that. It’s going to be hard on you. You’ll open yourself up too fast, reveal too much, soak into the sun and burn your skin to a crisp.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I just see a lot of myself in you, that’s all.”
“Do you think you’re being entirely fair here?”
“Do you think it’s going to be easy?”
“No. But I’m not sure why you think so.”
“Because you have something in you that’s very hard to understand, and the worst part of it is that you don’t yet understand it. You will, you’ll grow into that, but you’re going to require more understanding from someone than you realize. You’re a challenge, on every level. Don’t take it the wrong way; I’m actually trying to tell you something I went through, too. You’re difficult, but in a rather rewarding way, but you’re still very difficult. You’re more than worth knowing, beyond, you have a ton to share, but if you don’t meet someone who’s up to the challenge, you’re going to railroad over them. If you don’t meet someone you respect, you’re going to eat them alive. They damn well better challenge you, and you owe it to them to make sure you are challenged, because otherwise you’ll hurt them. Badly. Without even realizing how you did.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I do, and you know it. It’s one of two options: Fall in love with someone who does something so much different than you, whose world is outside your expertise so you can learn from and be excited by them, or fall in love with an artist who understands what you are trying to do. But most importantly, make sure what they do, their writing, their drawing, their whatever, make sure you are in some way in awe of it. You have to be. If you can’t respect someone else’s artistic efforts, you’ll stop respecting them.”
I didn’t know if she was right at the time, but she was largely on point about my experiences with love since then. I am a parachutist who likes to jump, most of the time without all the proper safety checks and customary precautions. I just simply trust that the weight I feel on my back is a parachute, and when I pull the chord nylon will eject, billowing me softly to the ground. You can imagine my surprise as, many, many times, I’ve reached around to find nothing there. No chord. No jump pack. Hell, no pack. Just me and the ground and an overwhelming smack as my bones break into the ground.
I’ve dated three artistic woman over the past few years (four if you count Mel), and more than a few professionals. One was a girl who was both a poet and a painter. It didn’t last long, or at least any longer than it took her to show me her poems. Sexually, we were more than compatible. She was an adventurous lover, bold and vocal in bed, grabbing me in public spaces like lunch hadn’t been a mere 10 minutes ago. But her poetry spoke of a lesser appetite. “I walk the streets / among the people / I don’t want to stare / but I do.” I’m trying to remember, but I think the writing when into my eyes and flew out my ears seconds later. That was it. All the excitement I had was gone. It wasn’t just one, single poem, it was everything she had given me to that point. It’s a baseless criteria, really, a hypocritical stance, because within my reaction lies the implication that I think I’m some hot shit world beating writer. I don’t. I just didn’t connect with what she was writing, what she was painting. More than that, I just didn’t give a shit. Any promise of a relationship ended right there, and for her it ended two weeks later when she ultimately broke up with me. “You’re unemployed,” she said. “You have too much time on your hands and you wear me out. I can’t have another one of your conversations.” She was right, although shortly after my unemployment would end. Still, I felt like Jerry Seinfeld, when he’s dating the girl who ends it because he’s not funny enough. “But you’re a cashier!” he says. I understood his indignity.
In the post I wrote yesterday about forming some grand collective of brilliant artists to take the world by storm (if you pause for just a second, you will realize that, given the state to world today, it’s not such a bad idea, really) I said that one of the most important elements of my hypothetical collective would be a mutual respect for the talents and ideas that each person brought. Intrinsic within this is a fucked up connection is the fact that you have to value what they do. If you don’t, and I don’t know how this happens exactly, you somehow devalue them as a person.
I hate the argument that “I do such-and-such for a living, but it’s not who I am.” People who say this have lame ass jobs, because what I do for a living is exactly who I am. I am what I pursue, and I wouldn’t know how to separate the two with a crow bar and pliars. If I somehow did, I’d probably find myself halved in a way that was no longer functional.
Yesterday Mel e-mailed me the paintings that are going up in her latest exhibition in Sydney. Some of them are scattered within this post. I'll look them over and write the text that will be posted inside the doors and on the fliers. When people ask me why I’m still in love with her, it’s as if they've partly forgotten that I jump with no chute, and partly as though they've simply chosing to forget what we were like together. If anyone wanted to know what it is about her, what parts of her I fell for, the answer is somewhere within these paintings. I’m in awe of what she’s doing. As an artist, if I can call myself that, I don’t feel like I’m quite up to her level, but I’m game to get better. I know I have it in me.