How many love letters are written for the recipient and how many for the writer? Perhaps we should assume they no longer exist, just text messages now with smiley faces and voluminous hearts or e-mails that we trust, or hope, will evaporate in that uncertain electronic mist of the internet. But some strays like this might remain, hibernating and even more vital while the years slip by even if they are only stored within a cloud.
The first half of this post meandered aimlessly through the murky damp streets of our old neighborhood in London. Earlier a man lay dying in the street, I heard footsteps in the apartment above and Mary’s voice only for the second time, my life started its shift. Over tea we learnt that we both had the misfortune of coming from stable families, no early drama or crisis, no luck of being fought over by divorcing parents we had to look inward and only had ourselves to make us feel special. And raised in suburbia hating the alienation, committed to never return to that nowhere land of pragmatism, neither city nor country. Glimpses and promises of another life were around us if we searched hard enough, for Mary a subscription to Interview magazine and myself through the Sunday Newspapers and later the magazine “World of Interiors” illustrating lives and homes which were the precise opposite of my own. It was often read lazily, imprisoned by a colorless indoors weekend with rain sweeping and drifting over the windows, the view blurred by watery condensation so all I could see were the soft bare outlines of tree’s and neighboring houses. We had both taken the first step away from all this, living first in London, then New York and the next twenty five years passed like the single beat of a hummingbird’s wing.
Some children seem to have nothing to do with their parents, others are transparent or muddy cocktails of them and Mary belongs to the former, the clear outcome of her Mother and Father’s rather extreme dynamics. From her Father there is a swagger and pride (I have a reoccurring vision of him comfortably rubbing shoulders with the Rat Pack) and from the Mother a giant heart that would adopt all the children of the state of Pennsylvania if allowed. The result is unpredictable, sometimes unstable wrestle between bravado and empathy which is frequently at odds and apparently un-reconcilable, played out at times during a single conversation. It’s also not a match that is always internalized and sometimes there are new friends who don’t take the long view (where in the end the kind side always wins) and drift away, and there are also those who know how to understand, accept and forgive these conflicts and will never leave her and others that try to jump into the ring to break up the fight, and that never ends well.
At a dinner party a few months ago I was talking to a young woman who asked how long Mary and I had been married and when I replied we are celebrating twenty five years in June, she asked about the “key to our success” as if she was asking for the ingredients of some magic sauce. It was in a Loft in SoHo, one that I had been to countless times, and which was furnished with all the quirks and idiosyncratic beauty one would expect from a long time resident and artist. Like pretty much every loft I had been to there were tall tin clad ceilings, huge windows which let in both light and the sound of angry traffic and an industrial sized steam heating which announced itself from time to time like a dragon waking during a troubled sleep.
I didn’t like the lazy question or the presumption, but the conversation had already been difficult for me, I had to work at it, and illustrated again the un-navigable void between generations, the woman held a patronizing arrogant manner used by the young talking to the (nearly) old and I wasn’t ready for that role, the wise middle aged man looking backwards, contented and dispensing wisdom, fuck you should have been my reply. But instead, my answer when it eventually came was equally as lazy, banal and full of platitudes; “don’t go to bed in anger with an unresolved argument”,” give each other space” the type of thing found on mid-career Sting records.
It was a relief to get away from that large, poorly lite space with its small minded conversations and step out onto the freshness of the street. The city had changed; more masculine now as an unexpected, and unheard, rain storm had passed by, it was steely and chrome with dazzling reflections from shop windows, car hood’s, cobbled streets and watery neon reflections in the large puddles of water which we jumped over like children crossing a rock pool. The scent of the city was also different, gone was that mustard garbage smell that followed us through the tight SoHo streets, replaced by a rare neutrality reminding me of what is missing; nostalgia for the countryside after heavy rain, the overwhelming feeling of re-birth in the complex green aroma rising up from the ground, pulling us down and rooting us to the earth.
Mary walked by me upright and with a proper pose, she was quiet and I could see by the slight silent movement of her lips that she was retreading some of the conversations she had at the party. I knew better than to disturb those thoughts, eventually “can you believe that this guy doesn’t know who Warren Beatty is?”, in a voice that implied a crime against humanity “I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who desires to be with a younger person” I replied gloomily but really meant it and we walked quietly home as we both let that register in our own ways.
Churchill said something clever about the US and the UK being two nations separated by a common language, and I learnt quickly that words must be used carefully and strategically. I remember an early conversation with a close friend of Mary who said sizing me up, Well, opposites do attract! Mary is so lively and funny, smart and caring, and yet you….. She searched without success for what to say next and I had to laugh, I know exactly what she meant and it wasn’t entirely a criticism. Words can trip us up. Many times I had to position myself in the role of a bomb expert, carefully diffusing an explosive comment, beads of sweat on my forehead and unsure whether it is the blue wire or the red to cut in order to avoid catastrophe. In New York you can meet someone on Monday and by Friday instead of saying “good bye, nice to see you” they might just as easily say “love you!” This is hard for the English, with a Shakespearian tradition where that word is used sparingly and is treasured like an inheritance which we hold onto tightly and are fearful of over spending. I was told by an English teacher, tongue in cheek, that only if you withdraw from the storm of battle mortally wounded or planning suicide by Asp then the word can be grudgingly given, it’s not a slight turn of phrase to be thrown away lightly into the breeze with indifference. I prefer it that way because it still means something of significance, at least to me, and I don’t want the word “love” to turn into a de-valued currency that weighs heavily in your pocket where one feels relieved to peel off the worn, dirty notes to hand out indiscriminately.
When we arrived in New York, we and our friend’s, were younger and mainly single. I used to be amazed at their dating requirements; an internalized check list as if they were looking in a market with a required amount of essential ingredients; minimum height, the good career, full head of hair, decent family, common interests, no glasses, the proper university and the incredible ego-centricity in how these are presented to us! Mary, do you know anyone like that? (Brad Pitt, I might answer under my breath, but I think he is taken). I’m sure if the night before we met, someone presented us both with a check list we wouldn’t come that close to either of our “requirements” and that’s partially because most humans are never truly self-aware, I realized early that a relationship is an adventure where letting surprise in is at its core.
In 1943 a humanistic psychologist called Maslow, living in New York, created a theory called the hierarchy of needs. For reasons I once understood but now no longer have room for, it was hijacked by the business academic community and provides the softer and more thoughtful side marketing theory. It’s a favorite exam question in the academic world, I suspect partially because it allows students to draw a pyramid, a welcome diversion from endless written texts and provides a little relief for the exam markers. But the simple idea is that there are five ascending motivational factors, at the broadest base there are the very basic physical needs like water, air, food, after this there are safety factors, physical and financial, then family and friends and a sense of belonging, then recognition of achievements and finally self-actualization. In retrospect it seems both astonishing and heartbreaking that this would have been written by a New York Jew in 1943, although it’s unlikely that the true horrors taking place in Europe were not fully known at the time. I wanted to know more about him, did he live near us during the time he taught in New York? Does his ghost still walk these streets? And how unfortunate to have written a theory of human needs when almost all were taken away from his fellow men and women in Poland and Germany; the internet is surprisingly silent about the man behind the theory.
I thought of Mary when I sat my last exam many years ago and how unsettling it would have been if she and Maslow had met. Would he have held the same conviction? Mary’s motivations frequently pass-by the safety aspects, she is someone who would give anything away and holds such low respect for material possessions and instead places recognition and friendship at a much higher plane than anyone I’ve met before. It’s almost an inverted pyramid of needs. But I also have an atypical one where she is at the very foundations, I will forgo air and safety, a day without her is one wasted. This evening on our anniversary we will share a kiss like it was in the gardens of Toynbee Hall and we will say loving words, I hope they are sincere because for me if they are not, it would be like receiving a strike from an iron bar. It was said that the riot that took place outside our apartment in Brick lane was over a soccer match, and how many would accept that insultingly slight and superficial explanation when we all know human needs and desire are vastly more rich and complex than we can ever guess.