Then Is Now, But Now’s Not Then

I wish our social traditions included using the same word to mean hello and goodbye. There’s something more…local…about it. Without a separate greeting and parting, meeting and conversation has no grand entrance or big-number exit. It’s just acknowledgement of start and stop.

And then when two people meet, there is no finality to it.

And when two people meet, its beginning is a mirror of its ending.

And then when two people say goodbye, its ending is a mirror of its beginning.

I have been spending the past two weeks a bit out of sorts, sorting through my reactions to the film Ciao. For the amount of time spent in my own head and especially my own heart, I sit here in wonder that I have not written a speck about the film since before I saw it. Impossible.

Then again, reality has distorted itself somewhat. Brains are really good at bending objectivity into a subjective reality that makes perfect sense at the time. And sometimes, subjectivity descends upon and envelops you. In the dark. With gorgeous colors and even more gorgeous people. Such subjectivity is always welcomed in, has to be welcomed in. Like vampires. But vampires don’t give you anything back. The right actors, direction, writing: those are the agents of change. External forces which interlope never get in to where all the good stuff is: too many defenses snap into place.

It’s a choice to see a film: $10 or no? It’s a choice to sit through it: you can leave any time. It’s not entirely your choice to let it in, but let’s face it: you paid for the ticket (or at least accepted it—hi, Yen! 🙂 and you sat your ass in the seat and you let it happen.

You say “Ciao” to the experience as the room goes dark. You say “Ciao” to the film as the credits are done rolling. The film says “Ciao” to heart and head and memory and viscera. No one contravenes that kind of communication. No one can.

Now, I have written any number of times about Allen Howland, the man who was my partner. He left us all too soon. He was six years older than I when he died. He died at the young, young age of 37. Actually, 37 and a half (I wouldn’t omit a single second of his life). He will have been dead 13 years in six days.

The accompaniment of personal memories to the film is undeniable, but that doesn’t explain it all. It wasn’t ever the harmony I was trying to get at—conversations among people who all agree are insufferably smug and self-righteous—it was the discordance I heard as the film rumbled through all of my memories, shaking them a bit and lighting them from strange angles as they passed.

My memories of the time with Allen, including my caring for him the entire time (he didn’t want to die in a hospital, he wanted to be home with me), are intact. In fact, they’ve all gotten together and locked themselves into a latticework in the shape of a fancy. Of all things!

Even though that fancy has an excellent view—the Long view—it has only one seat. A seat reserved only for me: from there I could see the outside. From there I had easy access to any given memory. From there, I started to believe only I could create such a thing. From there, I could establish labored analogies that get in the way…

Thing is, intellectually I knew there were other men and women who went through what I did: the loss of a partner. The loss of most of your own workaday, liveaday life: things change drastically. Fast change itself is a huge change after the slow-but-occasionally-punctuated change for the worse. Imagine how much of a change the asymtote that is Death is.

The memories are all mine, jumbled together so that no one single memory can dominate any other memory, any other me.

This is all head-work, though, a trap that I still fall into with alarming alacrity. Old habits die hard. My life with Allen was not a problem to be solved. There was only the experience, valor on his part, dread on mine. I worked hard at….well, at everything.

And I think this is the point where working out my reactions and the changes within me precipitated by viewing Ciao itself were exactly representative of the ultimate solution: I led with brute force thinking instead of open, vulnerable, honest, candid feeling.

Ciao opened my eyes to the amount of thinking I’d done in the past. And how much I refused my own feelings in mapping out a life After.

Please note that my feelings towards Allen were never in doubt, never neglected. Each and every day he declined a little and my love for him grew to fill the space of his withdrawal. It’s that in making the whole experience just mine and mine alone, the responsibilities when he was alive became a burden on myself to remember it all for fear that no one else would understand exactly and that it was important enough to not let it disappear entirely.

I realize now that what Ciao showed me is that while Allen was unique and our relationship was as well, my feelings, joy, despair, contentedness, worry, devotion, resentment, all were things that were accessible to other people. Who hasn’t felt those things once upon a time, individually or even altogether at once? Who could empathize with me if they didn’t have access to their own experiences and feelings? I rejected every attempt at sympathy: I have no use for that because it inevitably becomes yet another burden. You have to be grateful, after all.

In removing the thinking out of it all, I don’t merely remember the past, I can inhabit it at will. In inhabiting the past, in seeing it all in first-person instead of third, I understand that there are plenty of friends and loved ones who empathize. Yen Tan and Adam Smith and Alessandro Calza can empathize. Though both my parents are alive and so neither could know exactly how it feels to lose a partner, they’ve both lost both their parents. Plenty good enough.

Do I feel diminished because my feelings were not unique? A month ago I would have lashed out had anyone told me that, but I feel surprisingly—welcomed back. Back to life in the main and among the world and not sequestered to a sidebar.

I have re-experienced that time of my life in a much closer and ironically much more personal way. Ciao was the key. I suppose it could be argued that this is my time for this discovery, but it wasn’t just anything that did it. It was Yen Tan’s film.

There is such a thin thread that brought me to the film. Yen Tan, all magnanimous and curious, gets the credit for that. Alessandro Calza, too, an online friend for years who I met at the screening of a film about online friends who were supposed to meet up for the first time. Even Adam Smith, who I expect to meet in LA in a couple of weeks is a singular discovery, easy to like even at a distance.

I no longer feel required to gather my experiences to my chest and huddle in a dim corner with them, all protective. I have use for the sunny days that occurred back then. I feel as if life has restarted at the mindset I had when I’d reached the end of the long shadow of his death. Renewal, restored and happy that I’m still here.

PS This was not at all easy for me. Please forgive any rambling.