"If the wings of the butterfly are to keep their sheen, you mustn't touch them. We mustn't abuse something which is to bring light into both our lives. Everything else in my life only weighs me down and shuts out the light. This thing with you seems like a window that is opening up. I want it to remain open...”
According to Francoise Gilot, as recorded in her memoir, Life With Picasso, these were Pablo's words as their relationship began. Granted, Pablo was a self-serving monomaniac who didn't see much in people apart from their own contribution to his art. But Francoise, to her credit, understood this from the beginning and, to her discredit, resigned herself to it early in their love.
On the way home from Canterbury a few weeks ago, the King and I argued over the meaning of the word “ego”- or maybe even its value. He denies its existence, perhaps worrying about the dualistic implications. He seemed so certain that it led me to hush and stop trying to explain why the word is a useful tool in helping us to understand our behavior and motivations in the world.
In English, the word “ego” is usually taken to mean “I” or “self”. It was never used prior to the emergence of the modern, self-conscious self- the one that lives in continuous awareness of how it is perceived by others. When I use the word “ego”, I refer to the rational, self-interested self- the part of us which responds to the world and asserts its identity in the world. Honestly, the ego leads us to the altar of marriage or partnership with only poetic asides to the need for sacrifice and empathy.
When I got married, I assumed somehow, like Picasso, that the ego could remain untouched (perhaps even flattered) by the attention we call "romantic love". In a sense, the King could be a complement to my existing self, an appendage, if you will, to help me reach all the places and spaces and sentiments I couldn't reach on my own. Imagine my surprise to discover that marriage demanded more from me; that marriage required a metamorphosis- an opening up of my spirit and self to absorb the feelings of a separate human being....
"I don't do demands," I insisted, hoping to preserve this separate self I'd cultivated over the years.
One way we keep from loving is by insisting on seeing things from the limited perspective of our own egos. "If you want me to do something, you have to request it nicely..." In other words, I won't even consider anything that doesn't sound fun or fine or satisfying to me. And I'll use the way you express it as an excuse for not listening. Don't ask me how my feminism became an excuse for refusing to listen or love him because, honestly, anything makes room for an excuse when we're determined to find one. Don't ask me how infidelity becomes a way of life; don't bother to ask because I'm going to tell you.
The word “fidelity” is a noun that means “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support”. Its original meaning regarded duty in a broader sense than the related concept of fealty. Both derive from the Latin word fidēlis, meaning "faithful or loyal". Being faithful to that sense of self that I acknowledge as my "ego" often required me to be unfaithful to the beautiful and forlorn creature known as our marriage. I didn't have an affair with another person; I simply continued my decade-long affair with myself. Since there wasn't another man or woman involved, it didn't fit in the usual boxes of infidelity, and I reassured myself that anything less smacked of co-dependence.
Co-dependence, of course, is just about the most ingracious insult one can hurl at a woman who always insisted on her own independence from the gaze of men, from the vagaries of media-driven culture, from the lame demands of first-wave feminism's attempt to mold us into sexier versions of the masculine stereotype.
"And yet I love him," I thought to myself, as I sat at the desk, planning the next day's events, trying to ignore the way his hurt morphed so quickly to anger. Truthfully, I love him more than I can bear. And so I didn't bear it. I found ways to distract myself from it- hobbies and social engagements meant to dignify the distance I maintained between my self and him.
“Loving someone is giving them the power to break your heart, but trusting them not to,” says a famous Broadway actress and film star. Oh, that she knew how to add a sequel to this statement.
"Above all, don't lie to yourself,” insists Dostoevsky, his words in the pages of The Brothers Karamazov. I listen for more, and he continues:
“The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love."
Is there no reprieve?
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image,” writes Thomas Merton. He continues, “If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
I want to grab Merton by the robe and tell him, "But he's not the man I thought I married!", knowing Merton would tell me that loving the man I thought I married would be far less interesting than loving the man I actually married. It's not his failure to be a knight that bothers me; it's my failure to love that hurts me so much. I imagined myself to be such a good lover of all things great and small. But my penchant for post-modernism refuses to apply itself to loving a post-modern man. I want to think outside the box while keeping him snug within it.
"And yet I love him more than seems possible.... or reasonable.." I tell myself as I consider whether to bother brushing my teeth this morning.
So why do I insist on loving a version of him that I've created for my own consumption? Why don't I have the balls to love him for who he is? What keeps me from giving him the freedom of being loved as himself? The mirror tells me my answer looks like the rebellious, anti-toothbrushing woman staring back at me, eyebrows raised, not innocent so much as looking for the counter-attack, looking for the reason to insist on her own perogatives.
"But I love him..." I whisper once more. The right to say these words requires me to give more of myself to "Us" and less of myself to the old dullard known as "Me". Loving him doesn't mean I need to keep the house cleaner or making an effort to look "attractive" or learn some recipes and start cooking dinner or find pairs for all those mismatched socks heaped in our bathroom. Loving him means giving him more of me.
It's not easy to love in the era of endless self-helpery. It's not easy to love under the auspices of competitive capitalism, where the means (ceaseless mate selection and competition) justifies the ends (breast implants and pole-dancing, agreeing to compete with the pornography as if we could do so and still remain whole).
"It's a rollercoaster, this life," I say to no one at all. I fear the moments when the roller-coaster plunges and we can't see for screaming. I relish the moments when it slows long enough for us to look at one another and feel the ground beneath our feet. I know he is the only one I can ride alongside because he's the one that won't tell me to get back in my seat and put on my seatbelt when I crawl into his lap, close my eyes, and imagine that our bodies are one and the same- that his fearlessness is mine, something we share, as sacred and certain as sunrise.
“Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.” Neil Gaiman grins and hands me the pen. I pick it up and feel sure of its solidity in my hand. I love him. I trust our story. Every day, I learn a little more how to let go and live the ride.