When time has elapsed, and you can put enough distance between yourself and whatever it is that has been getting you down, a sense of perspective will descend. Sometimes you might even see the funny side. Between the saddest lines we speak and write and think, there can often be a gentle take on it all, a more light-hearted reflection as to why it things went wrong. Take, for instance, the woman who described to me the straw that broke the camel’s back. “My husband wouldn’t let me keep my tomato plants on the kitchen windowsill. So, I left him,” she said simply. Or the man who told me he ended it all when he discovered his fiancé had never heard of Pablo Neruda: “I knew then we could not share in one another’s future.” In this instance, maybe it was she who’d had the near miss.
You might say these are ridiculous grounds on which to make such important decisions – but are they? I’m sure, in both examples, there was more to it, but, as the saying goes, dripping water can erode an entire mountain. If the little things begin to cloud your vision early on, then how are you going to cope when the big issues begin to roll in like a fog from the sea? How do you know when not to ‘sweat the small stuff’ when they may be portentous of things to come? How do you know when to do yourself a favour and nip it in the bud? Maybe it’s all a crapshoot. The chameleon valentine turns out to be an utter swine. The one passed by so quickly with just a glance in the coffee queue could be the one for you. And how is it that everyone else has a crystal ball when you don’t, with stage whispers of, “well, I saw that coming….” from the sidelines of your life. One-sided devotion is never a good start, described neatly in the phrase, “If she could eat the dinner for him, she would.” No, out of kilter love is not the best springboard.
Yet, all is not lost, it never is. For, out of kilter love is full of energy. Love rebuked has always been an effective springboard for poets, songwriters and painters, all of whom have harnessed it as a source of inspiration. In the time-honoured tradition of sweet suffering, they alchemise the sorrow of love-sickness and transform it into something beautiful. Take the meddlesome Neruda (who came between my friends); where would he be without that well of sorrow from which he drew to propel his pen along the page with flowing lines?
‘Tonight I Can Write’ by, Pablo Neruda (abridged)
“Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Write, for example, ‘The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’
The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.
I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.
Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.”
One cannot write the saddest lines in the absence of the saddest times. This week, someone shared a poem with me that she had written 45 years ago. Her son, searching for an envelope, had found it in her bureau (the only place to store old handwritten poems). A single sheet of brittle paper, yellowing with age. Four decades later she was taken by its immediacy and rawness, how pure and true it was. “I couldn’t write it now,” she said, adding with a wry smile, “thank God.” When you find yourself in a state of sweet suffering, write the saddest lines you want, let them spool and spill and scribble it out. Then bury it in a bureau and wait forty years to be reminded of what you had eventually forgotten: that there is happiness to be had in feeling lousy. Pablo and Pushkin both knew it, and I shan’t argue with them.
‘I Loved You’, Alexander Pushkin
“I loved you, and I probably still do,
And for a while the feeling may remain…
But let my love no longer trouble you,
I do not wish to cause you any pain.
I loved you; and the hopelessness I knew,
The jealousy, the shyness – though in vain –
Made up a love so tender and so true
As may God grant you to be loved again.”