A few days ago I got in touch with Q., my former girlfriend from college. Normally this is not something that I would recommend. After all, what good could possibly come from stirring up old feelings, especially 23 years on? But in this case, it was not done out of an attempt to rekindle long-lost emotion per se, but rather to gain some understanding of who I am based on who I was and where I came from.
Lately I had been feeling disconnected from life - closed down and suppressed, and generally without passion. I knew that part of it was from my job - for the previous year I had been involved with a project at work that was slowly dying from extreme management dysfunction. And part of it was just moving back to Seattle, which is just a huge step down from the global stage. After spending most of the previous 7 years in Beijing, Seattle just feels like a provincial backwater.
But there was more to it than that. Many of the most passionate pursuits I had over the years - from writing to performance to art - were just not there anymore. I found myself in engaging in fewer and fewer meaningful activities and more and more emotionless time-fillers, such as watching TV or playing video games.
My wife had notices as well - the passion was slowly draining away. But other than observing that it was happening - that there was a difference between NOW and THEN - neither of us could put our finger on why. The discussion went to when was the time in life when I felt the strongest passion, and that in turn led to those years in college when I was with Q.
Youth is wasted on the young
College of course is an easy time to be passionate. You are in a new environment, with little in the way of commitments or supervision to direct your emotions. You are young and full of energy, with nothing to lose and seemingly everything to gain. Of course, you have no way of knowing this at the time. It is just your life. It is like those stories of children growing up in war-savaged lands. They tend not to think of their childhood as traumatic - it is just their childhood. They have no other point of reference. But even taking all of this into account, the relationship with Q. was pretty dramatic.
Q. was my first Chinese girlfriend. I have since accepted that I have an extremely strong preference for Chinese females, but at the time I had no such notion. She did seem a bit exotic. I grew up in Sacramento, CA, which was not exactly a big city. We had horses and goats and chickens. Q. was from San Francisco. She was the first person I ever met who had multiple ear piercings or tattoos. She had an amazing tattoo on her back of a dragon fighting a phoenix. It looked something like this:
We had an extremely tumultuous relationship. At the start I treated her very badly and eventually broke up. Later we got back together and she returned the favor. Eventually we broke up again, but I maintained a slow-burning lust/obsession about her. On the one hand, I really felt we had something special. She had a powerful muse affect on me, and I was sure we could be great. On the other hand, I couldn't stand to be with her in a relationship. I wanted more commitment and exclusivity, but she was just not able to be that person. It was very frustrating, and we were never able to reach a stable state. She was the inspiration for a lot of poetry back in those days:
If I could only touch you
so that it would feel for you
how it feels for me to touch you
then I should
If I could only reach you
so that I could try to teach you
what your touch has taught me
that your destiny is not me
doesn't please me
but it ought to, for it must be
If you could only trust me
like I trust you
which I don't
but I will
And if your lips should kiss me
Maybe I could make you miss me
Like I miss you
which I mustn't
But I do
And if your flesh should know me
and your colors should enfold me
maybe I could thus inspired
be a prisoner of desire
and do things that I must but shouldn't do
In this future that I long for 'til my mind is 'most insane
All our sins they are forgiving but our longing still remains
For after all the yearnings
the mind-games, the enfoldings
the teaching reaching touching timid trust
After all the writings
the rhyming- threaten- frightenings-
Behind them lurks my multi-facet lust
Of course, I was different then as well. Here is a photo from that time:
Me with my 1964 Impala, around 1990 I think
After college, we moved apart. She still had a place in my heart, I think, although I think it was more like a wound than a room. Later, when my first marriage was falling apart, I used that relationship for a lot of my own comforting. Rather than face the terrible emotional truth, I leaned on Q., spending the emotional capital that had been built up in those previous years. In retrospect, that was a terrible mistake. Not only did it distract me from dealing with my bad marriage in a meaningful and mature way, it also destroyed whatever meaningful connection Q. and I might have had. After the divorce I was in very bad shape emotionally, and Q. really was helpful to me at that time, getting me back together and re-finding my worth. I will always appreciate her for that.
The last time I spoke the Q. was about 10 years ago. That was after a divorce and an eventual remarriage to W. I initially tried to keep her as a friend, but at the end of the day whatever relationship we had was not of friends, and was fundamentally incompatible with being married. Q. was either a 100% or a 0%. There was no comfortable spot in-between.
Once I made the decision to contact Q., it actually took a few days to figure out how. I didn't have an email address or phone number, and she didn't seem to be on any of the common social networking sites. Eventually I found an old email in an archive and we were able to connect via AIM.
Instant messaging is actually a pretty good format for that sort of conversation. It is emotionally neutral - not as intense as a phone call, but not as generic as an email. I talked to her at work over the course of a day, adding another line of conversation when I had a free moment.
In the end, I think it was useful. I was having some difficulty thinking about what was true passion and what was just my own youthful exuberance or desperate illness. Based on that conversation, I came up with a few action items for coming out of my emotional slumber:
- relentlessly pursue what you love - in the name of being practical or safe, I had been neglecting this in a big way. I compromised my goals in the name of career safety, financial gains, stability, etc. In the end, I didn't get any of those things either, so it was all really a false bargain.
- don't shy away from who you are - this was the big one. W. had mentioned this as well - that I had developed a habit of confusing who I wanted to be with who I actually was. After talking with Q., I feel that a big part of the passion I had at that time was because I was fulling accepting who I was, and not apologizing about it. That doesn't mean that you should not change or grow or otherwise work to improve - rather, it is that you must not deceive anyone - inlcluding yourself and those close to you - about where you are now.
- stay closer than close - the final insight was that for someone like me, who likes to be "on the edge", it is really important to stay extremely close emotionally to the people in your life. I think I got in an extremely bad habit of trying to protect W. from the risk of my choices. Of course, she is with me so this is not possible. All it did was confuse her and put a distance between us. Now I have a better sense that the proper action is to understand that wherever I go am I taking everyone with me, and to consider that carefully before taking action.
W. asked me later if she thought I would be talking to Q. again now that we have re-connected. Honestly I don't think so. I have more of a sense than ever that the person I was, and the relationship I had, was unique to that time and place. But we are both different people now, with different lives. There is no future. But - to paraphrase Rick in Casablanca - we will always have college...