Learning Love (a farewell to 2018)
how do you feel?
How do you walk?
How do you communicate?
How do you keep your belly full,
your head high,
your happiness - indestructible?
All on your own?
how do you run your own enterprise,
and not let the weight of the world do you in?
how do you know your purpose?
Is there one? Should there be?
Or how should you judge right and wrong?
A personal agenda or another's?
I want to feel San Francisco
like dim sum on Sundays
and the fog outside my window
and sometimes New York makes me feel so small
I love so many things with such passion
so apparently there isn't enough room for any one thing to be good enough
tell me why everything I've ever wanted seems to fall so effortlessly into their hands
and finds my hands too slippery to hold on
or why my journey is so lopsided
when I know I could show them the world they've never seen
like you always told me
tell me the part where it gets easier
I don't want to fear anymore that I will never earn my spot -
I still need reason and reorientation to believe that I deserve it at all
how much of it is a lie?
How do I breathe,
not like a steam engine,
bursting and bubbling with heat and hurt and anxiety, like my brain cannot catch up to my body,
like my heart is on fire, being scorched at the stake,
but like the cat that snores gently on the side of my bed,
the way you breathed when I was in your belly,
like every transit of air nurtured my growing bones, my neurons into place, my fingers and toes.
How much of it do you see,
does the world see?
It may be more appropriate to ask -
What do I communicate?
Why do I walk?
What do I see?
Why do I feel?
I know you used to have all my answers.
Do you have any more left?
The only response she can muster is initially unspoken, smiling pools of tears gathering under her green-gray eyes. She knows there is much to say, but the hand of time reaches out to pull us away too soon. Me, back to New York, and her, back to San Francisco, to Metier, to my dad, to our tuxedo cat, Bijoux, our blind black lab, Marnie, and to a house that only grows more empty with time. She reaches her arms around me and holds me like the best friend I've ever known. “Sasha, you really shouldn't be so hard on yourself. You are doing everything you should be right now, and that's all that matters.” She pauses to look at me, her eyes bloodshot from salt and tears the same way they always are when we part to say goodbye. “And I love you so much.”
I've never actually asked my mom these deeply existential questions. It's the kind of thing you show, not tell. She's been more of a compass as I've grown up and these questions have revised themselves in my head. Although I ultimately learn to define things on my own, it takes the perspective of those you love to put everything into focus. A perfect allusion is the development of technology – a black and white, grainy screen, being able to interpret efficiencies for higher resolutions over time. Our vision embraces greater complexity, which consequently makes everything harder. But the smaller the pixels and parts, the more beautifully defined and multi faceted the projection. The technicolor, high definition screen that results after years of constant adjustment makes our black and white, lo-fi world that once was, seem infantile. And it is the people and the communities we love who we trust to adjust our personal lens into focus when we independently don't know where to look, where to go.
In order for this necessary process to happen, you need people who love you. The paradox is that you also need someone to give you a compass to find people you love, yet compasses need fostering love to already exist in order to form. You can theorize on and on about love but it's as if it doesn't make it any clearer.
Mom, how do I know the right way to love?
The pragmatism in me does not understand the answer.
My mom and I's relationship has shifted over the years. She has watched me take those questions and test them in real life. At some point, I joined the same universe as my mom, where it seemed that the regular exercise of attempting to solve these riddles of questions makes you something called an adult. Much was lost in the transition to the adult universe. But one thing that hasn't changed, much to my amusement, is her asking about the people I date. We'll talk about my next recording session, filing taxes, investing in an apartment after school. And then, at the shift of a sentence, it's as if it were 2010 again and I had just gotten home from the middle school dance. It seems that the idea of love can bring you back to that innocent, optimistic place...right?
“So, how are the boys?” She asks me over FaceTime, half joking, half not.
“Mom, I haven't dated anyone serious in a year and a half. Nothing has changed.”
“What about that one guy over the summer?”
“He didn't have ambition. And he was an alcoholic. We were too different.”
“Or that one guy you got coffee with? The one who goes to New School?”
“He definitely has a girlfriend.”
“Isn't there anyone cute in your jazz program? There's got to be someone who's just head over heels in love with you.”
“Hmm. Well, okay.”
The only difference about this conversation, besides the obvious location and priorities factors that change with age, is that it doesn't bother me to be single. I have never spent such a period of my life diving deeper and deeper into myself. But I do have to ask how much of it has to do with wondering when I'll meet someone who actually sees my worth in the way my mom so effortlessly does. And so the speculation of one of the big questions of the world begins. Is her love only that effortless because of time and observing two decades of growth? Is it because after all the years of being ostracized and outcasted in middle school and high school, is she really is one of the only people who can take away something tremendous from my presence and my contributions? And then, the fault is questioned in regards to the self. If I grapple with depression and anxiety, does society deem me ineligible, or even worse, threatening, to the idea of love? The market of love? The capitalism of love? Or so they call it?
I've had so many men move in and out of my life, definitions of love and how to love getting remolded like clay that never makes it to the oven to set. This Letters to a Young Poet type solitude and reflecting on love has only seemed to confuse my understanding of it. Society seems to push it as something you can have as easily and quickly as picking up a penny off the ground. Not only that, but it is nailed into our heads that pennies are abundant, and that whenever you see one, whether they're clean or dirty, you should be picking them up. It is made the greatest public shame to have no pennies at all.
I remember that when we talk about relationships with my family during the holidays, it is like recovering disposable mementos from the past. Not love.
“Oh, no, she dumped the alcoholic guy about a year ago. She's on to the new guy, the guitarist from Denver.”
“What ever happened to that one guy you were dating? He's done now? Oh, okay.”
And yet, it is constantly a topic of discussion, treated like a search that should constantly be pursued.
I realized I only knew how to pick up pennies and got angry that they never miraculously became the brilliant gold coin I actually sought. But how could I know better?
It occurred to me that my relationships have never looked quite right. The first man I ever thought I loved threatened to physically hurt himself on multiple occasions if I broke up with him. The second man I ever thought I loved was marked by moments holding back tears as I watched my him receive the music opportunities I should have gotten.The guy I lost my virginity to sold Molly to my friends and showed up to dates on Xanax. My best friend asked me if I had ever truly lost my entire being in someone and I hesitated. The worst part was that I knew that that was exactly what I wanted - that I was selling myself short, investing my personhood in someone who was toxic for me, just in order to act like I really knew what this word meant.
So the compass needs to be consulted for reorientation. I figured my mom could at least tell me what she loved, even if the how remained in question. My mom's history of love has looked starkly different from what I see out in the world. She only had two serious relationships, one being my dad, and one being the guy she dated before my dad. I realize one of the things I admire about her most has been the ultimate embodiment of patience, a defiance of our times in which love should not be left to age.
“Leaving Tom was super hard,” she said. “He had watched me change as a fundamental human being.
He left notes inside every single one of my kitchen drawers saying 'I love you'. We dated for 10 years, you know.”
“Didn't he come over to our house one time when I was, like, ten years old?” I asked.
“Yeah. He's married and has kids and everything is completely fine. We're still friends to this day, and I don't regret anything.”
“And dad never got jealous?”
“No,” she laughed. “Your dad isn't really that kind of guy. Thank god. But he understands – we shared so much time together. You can't just let that kind of thing go. I do love him, but in a different way. A reminiscient way. I'm not in love with him. He just saw me become the person I am today. That's meaningful.”
“So why was it dad instead?”
“Well, he's your dad. You know.” It's as if her initial thought of him was stopped short of words. “He's incredibly smart, funny, cute, everything I could have wanted and more. And I wasn't expecting to be with anyone at that time, but Stephanie had set us up and I figured I would give it a chance. And it just kind of went from there.” She pauses for a moment as if to think, but without the pained face of being lost in it. “We had kids together. I don't know. It's hard to explain. He's my life partner, and it's been hard as hell. But you go through all of that because you make this commitment, this feeling, that just overrides everything. Makes it all worth it.”
I realized that's what makes me and my mom so drawn to artistic lives, even if we believe in the pursuit of knowledge or investing in material goods. We seek some sort of intuition in a world that is based on everything but. The power of time and intuition are not valued as a society that relies on calculation and efficiency and capitalism more than lived, learned, wordless experience. Humans have always had the chemicals in their brain that enable them to be capable of this, for years before language was invented. And it is something that we have much more patience for – and yet take much more for granted – with friends and family, where it may already exist in its purer form. That's how that feeling of love that my mom has for me exists, or me for my best friends, or the hardest one of all – love for oneself.
It seems the one thing I thought my mom couldn't answer for me, or who's answers don't correspond with what I see out in the world, is possibly the first thing she ever taught me. She just didn't need words to teach me it, and in a world of anecdote and analysis leading to a lens focusing in all the right places, a feeling is the last thing you would consult. But it was there, showing me before I knew words as a baby, holding me, bearing me, even when I learned to do it all on my own. It is no wonder that I am upset, looking for that kind of sacred understanding and love in a guy who saw a photo of me on Instagram and wanted to get a drink once. I know they will not cry like my mom every time she gets the chance to see me, so overwhelmed with feeling that she can't speak. It cannot be summoned by words or by trying over and over again. There is nothing to be figured out besides being honest with what you feel. I am still learning how feelings can become just as viable reasons as the logical ones, but if I can love anything like the way my mom loved me, loved the people in her life, then maybe my compass has learned of a new direction. And I want nothing short of what becomes of that.
Dear mom, the ultimate teacher of one of the most difficult things in human existence -
I have been feeling
I have been walking
I have been communicating,
keeping my belly full,
my head high,
my happiness – becoming indestructible
to those who treat it like the temple that it is,
All on my own.
I admire the mindset you have
even when the weight of it all does do you in.
you know your purpose,
if there is one, if there should be one at all
how to you judge right and wrong
balance your personal agenda or another's
I want to feel San Francisco
like jasper romping and barking at fort funston when Cole and I were kids,
and flower beds inside golden gate park
and New York's chaos can pay its price to obscure all of that
thing they call feeling
I love so many things with such passion
it will only be a call to work that much harder
I know one day I'll get loved the way I want to because you do
which is stronger than what falls into who's hands
and who slips
and what journeys are lopsided or straight
I know if it was easy it wouldn't be fulfilling,
The nightmares don't seem to like so much
when I tell them I'm still here
and I vow to leave a bad ass fucking impression
because you told me I could not settle for anything less
I will breathe like a steam engine,
when my heart is on fire, being scorched at the stake,
and I will breathe like the cat that snores gently on the side of my bed,
I will breathe way you breathed when I was in your belly,
like every transit of air nurtures my growing bones, my neurons into place, my fingers and toes.
I think I know what to communicate,
Why I walk,
What I see,
Why I do actually feel it all so much.
I love you so much,
even if I am still learning how one expresses this level of gratitude.
and if love is anything like us,
I'll know I have come to my answer.
Dedicated to my mom and dad, Sheri Evans and John Berliner. Thank you for everything.
*note - this is a memoir, and while based on true events, some smaller details have been changed or expanded upon for literary effect*
Copyright Sasha Berliner (2018), all rights reserved.