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To enter the dark marriage

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[1982-1983]: I was living in Pensacola, working as a programmer and still feeling aimless and disconnected from other people, as I had in fact all my life. I had been seeing a counselor at the University of West Florida, a gracious and kind young woman named Susan who had a wisdom far beyond her years. One of the things she told me in the course of my many sessions with her was about the importance of being open to trying different things in my life, so that I could find out for myself which things worked out well for me and which things didn’t. She said it was important to keep the spirit of experimentation alive in one’s life so as to avoid getting stuck in a stagnant life. This meant being unafraid to meet new people and to have new experiences, even if you have to push yourself a little bit outside of your comfort zone (actually I never really had a comfort zone, so for me to push myself to do something that made me feel a little uncomfortable was not much of a stretch). In other words it’s unwise to try to stick to playing a safe game all the time. This advice rang true for me, and I took it to heart. One of the things I decided to try, which seemed quite bold to me at the time, was to volunteer at a local community mental health center as a volunteer telephone crisis counselor. I thought it might be an interesting learning experience. I took the training class and then I started doing it, taking the calls, and it turned out to be a fascinating, though sometimes challenging, experience. I learned a great deal about human communication in the course of doing this volunteer work and I developed some great friendships with my fellow phone counselors. The volunteer group even became like a family to me.

Eventually I had enough experience in phone counseling that I was asked if I’d like to lead a training group of new volunteers. I did, and one of the people in my first training group was Diana, a divorced mother of three kids who worked as a data-entry clerk at the Navy base. She was clearly very smart and talented, with an engaging wit and a charming smile, and I thought she liked me. After the end of the group training I called her and we went out on a date.

Over the course of a few dates I became increasingly impressed with Diana’s brilliance and creativity. We always had interesting things to talk about. It seemed sad to me that she had been relegated to such a stupid job as a data-entry clerk, just entering numbers into a computer screen all day every day, when she obviously had a great deal of intellectual and creative potential.

Whenever we were together our conversation seemed to take on a life of its own, drawing both of us into it, with an energy and momentum that carried us along. It was a close and engaging rapport such as I’d never experienced with anyone before. Diana did mention at one point that she used to be under the care of a psychiatrist, when she was going through a period of great stress after her previous husband had left her for another woman. I wasn’t at all put off by this revelation, in fact I felt an increased admiration for her because she had been through some difficult life challenges and had overcome them. After all, I too had suffered a great deal of emotional difficulty in my younger life so I felt that I could relate to her troubles. We were two kindred spirits, two people who had been through a lot of emotional crap and had (mostly, I thought) overcome it.

So we became a couple. In the course of our dating though I started to notice a few things about Diana. She was mostly very positive in her outlook and in her emotional demeanor, but every once in a while she had attacks of acute anxiety and depression. Sometimes she became very upset about her job, sometimes she was upset about her kids, but sometimes she was upset for no reason that I could see. It was also clear that she still had a lot of emotional distress about trauma from her past, especially her two ex-husbands who had both dumped her, and about the death of her father.

I loved Diana but I felt frustrated and helpless at these times when she was in such emotional difficulty, and of course I wanted to help. Unfortunately I was at a loss as to what I could do to help her. In my naïve and idealistic romantic way I hoped that my presence in her life would be an emotionally stabilizing and positive influence, and that in time she would learn to relax and enjoy her life. After all she was obviously very intelligent and so it must become clear to her eventually that there was really nothing to be upset about, right? So I thought. I thought the natural way of things was for us to inevitably become closer and to be joined by a bond of understanding, and that certainly took a certain amount of time to develop so I had to be patient. Sometimes Diana’s responses really puzzled me though, such as the times when she became fearful because I had expressed a liking for a book or a movie or a work of art that she didn’t like or didn’t understand. Her anxiety response seemed out of proportion to the thing she was anxious about.

As things went on, there were a few times when I would find Diana sunk into such profound despair that it actually scared me. At these times she would sometimes blame her depression and anxiety on her job, which was tedious and stupid for sure but then most people probably work at tedious and stupid jobs, don’t they? So it seemed to me. Sometimes, and with increasing frequency, she blamed, with a great deal of accompanying rage, these deep dark moods on her kids. I found this to be especially disturbing because I thought this blaming of the kids was completely undeserved, and furthermore no mother should have such hostility toward her own kids.

But Diana could also be charming, warm, witty, and full of enthusiasm. Everyone who met her liked her. I was probably the only one other than the children who knew of the other aspect of her personality, the strange dark depths of her. All along I kept expecting that she must eventually come to a point where should would be able to relax and just enjoy her life. But her “episodes” continued. We had agreed to marry but I was developing some misgivings about it. I felt a great sense of responsibility and commitment to my fiance. I couldn’t abandon her. Yet I had the growing feeling that I might very well be heading into a very difficult, and maybe even disastrous, situation. I was committed and felt that it wasn’t possible for me to change the path I was on. I was like a train on a track heading toward something that might or might not turn out to be a wreck, but there was no turning back.

A few days before we were to be married, feeling great anxiety about the coming marriage and in need of some kind of reassurance, I called a woman a knew named Leah, a friend (in whom I had no romantic interest) and fellow volunteer from the crisis counseling service. I asked her if she would take a walk with me. It was early spring and the weather was clear, cool and very windy. We met in downtown Pensacola and walked down South Palafox Street down to the pier that goes out over Pensacola Bay. I can’t remember now what Leah and I talked about but I think it was probably nothing of any great importance. I was very anxious about my relationship with my fiance and the upcoming marriage but I don’t think I talked about that. I think I just made small talk. What I remember most was a beautiful day of brilliant sunshine, and the winds whipping up whitecaps in the bay as we walked, and pelicans hovering in the wind over the pier, and that for a little while I was in the presence of someone who simply cared about me and respected me. That was all. Nothing big and deep, it was just a matter of being with a good person who allowed me to be myself. But just to be in the presence of such a friend was an enormous comfort to me. I never forgot it, after the marriage to Diana and the terrible divorce that followed, and even after all the subsequent bad relationships and painful breakups, so very many sad experiences, all down through the years. It’s strange how some very small and apparently insignificant act of caring can stand out large in one’s memory after so long a time. After all the years of sorrow I would still remember that brief walk in the sun and the wind.

Sailing alone

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[1972]: Right after I graduated from high school my father moved our family from the east coast of Florida to the Florida panhandle. We lived in the little town of Gulf Breeze, a suburb of Pensacola. I enrolled at Pensacola Junior College. I did well enough in my classes when I was able to concentrate on them, but unfortunately my attentions and my focus fluctuated quite a bit. I variously considered majoring in art, philosophy, music, and math. I felt scattered out in all directions and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. Some days I just wanted to sit and read books–nothing that was relevant to the classes I should have been studying for unfortunately–and do nothing else. I spent a lot of time in the college library browsing their collections at random and reading bits and pieces of anything that looked strange and interesting, especially in philosophy, religion, literature, psychology, and art.

My father bought a small sailboat and gave my brother and me some rudimentary instructions on how to sail it. Our house was close to the Santa Rosa Sound, a huge long body of water that is part of a long inland waterway that parallels the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes my brother and I sailed together on the Sound but I preferred sailing by myself. For years I had had an instinctive compulsion for wandering alone, but now it had expanded out onto the water. When I was on the sailboat I was wandering free, still following my old instinct to go farther, to always be trying to escape from wherever I was.

Sometimes when sailing the boat, if conditions were just right, I slipped unexpectedly into a state of mind that I could only describe as a state of extraordinary naturalness. At such a time I felt clearly focused (something indeed unusual for me, a perennial scatterbrain) but relaxed, and at the same time keenly aware of every nuance of the wind and the water’s movement through my contact with the mainsail sheet and the tiller. I felt poised and balanced in the middle of my life, as if I had always been there like that, sitting on the edge of the cockpit with the sheet wrapped around my wrist and my other hand holding the tiller. I felt synchronized with the world around me, instead of my mind either lagging a little behind it or impatiently pushing ahead of it, as was my wont. For this brief time I suffered no anxieties and no self-hatred, and harbored no false ideas about myself. In fact I had no ideas about myself at all.

I would come to remember those moments sometimes much later in my life when I was going through periods of great difficulty and emotional anguish (usually self-inflicted, I admit). I would remember that it was possible to find in myself authentic peace and strength. I knew it, because I had experienced it for myself on that boat. It was a tiny sliver of hope that helped to keep me going during some of the dark times of my life.

Moving east

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[1969]: When I was sixteen my father moved our family from southern California to the east coast of Florida, ostensibly because he felt that southern California had become intolerably overcrowded. And perhaps it was, but the more basic problem as I came to see later was that he was fundamentally dissatisfied with any place in which he lived. There was an ideal place he held within his mind, the place where he really belonged and in which everything would be good for him. Southern California was not it. Perhaps Florida would be it.

We settled in a small house halfway between Cocoa and Titusville, on the east coast near the Kennedy Space Center where my father had gotten an engineering job. I was not happy about the move, about having to leave what few friends I had to go somewhere where I knew no one. I felt lost in a strange place that I wasn’t sure I belonged in.

Our house was small and modest but comfortable. But for me the best thing it about it was that it was within walking distance of the Indian River. The Indian River, despite the name, is not a river at all but a huge long lagoon. It separates the mainland, where we lived, from the long strip of barrier island where the space center and the beaches were. As often as I could I walked down to the Indian River. It became my refuge. I spent a lot of time walking up and down its shore, to no purpose other than to see the water and the sky and to be walking.

Sometimes there would be a launch of a rocket from the space center across the Indian River, and I would walk down to the edge of the water to see it. There would usually be a crowd of people gathered there to watch. To view the launch seemed to bring my confused life into some type of focus then, if only very briefly. I went from being mostly aimless in a strange place to having a momentary sense of clarity and of energy. For a moment, watching the liftoff, I became that energy. Go, go, go, a voice inside me said.

The psychic

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I met JoEllen at Help Line, a volunteer telephone crisis-counseling service in Pensacola when I was a young volunteer there, and she was another of the volunteers. I didn’t know her very well but she seemed likable enough. She was in her 50s, a genial and gentle person with a direct, penetrating gaze. She was unpretentious and had a whimsical sense of humor. She also had a reputation as a psychic. She herself didn’t make a big deal out of her supposed psychic ability, and in fact very rarely mentioned it, but other people at Help Line believed that she had such ability. Actually no one else made a very big deal out of it either, everyone acted like it was just one of the things that was characteristic of her, one of many things such as being a good golfer or having exceptional taste in clothes.

Every once in a while, sometimes at a Help Line party, JoEllen would agree to do psychic readings for whomever wanted one. At such times she would dress up in a gypsy sort of costume, but the costume was intended in a whimsical spirit and she didn’t really take herself all that seriously. At one of these events, a Help Line party at the home of one of the volunteers, I had JoEllen do a psychic reading for me. I think it was at the suggestion of one of my Help Line friends, I’m sure I was too shy to initiate it myself.

JoEllen was in a back room sitting on a cushion. She was dressed in some kind of robe and had her hair tied up in a red scarf and had many copper and silver bracelets all over both forearms that made tinkling sounds when she moved. She invited me to sit on a cushion in front of her. She was relaxed and confident as if sitting on that cushion in that little room was the most natural place in all the world for her to be. She sat quietly in front of me with her hands in her lap for what seemed a long time, though it was probably only a couple of minutes. Her face assumed an expression of thoughtful concentration. Then she spoke.

As best I can recall this is the gist of what she said. “You are very unusual.” She paused, seeming to search for the best way to formulate her thoughts. “What I am sensing is an unusual spirit, the spirit of a person whose heart is committed to a higher world, a person who has the soul of a monk or a priest.” She paused again, apparently in great concentration and searching for the right words. “But a monk or a priest who is not afraid of getting messy and who has decided, for whatever reason, to live an un-monklike and un-priestlike life among ordinary people.”

I didn’t quite know what to make of this. JoEllen didn’t really know me very well, and yet there was something about what she said that struck a very deep chord in me and gave me an uncanny feeling of recognition. Was it because I wanted to be the kind of person she described? Or was it because I was afraid of being such a person? I wasn’t sure.

A little discussion between friends

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Many years ago I worked as part of a small civilian computer-support group within a Naval station in Panama City, Florida. I was a programmer and Rodney was the other programmer in the group. We occupied adjoining cubicles in a group office. Rodney was of a far more conservative frame of mind than I was but I respected him and we were on a friendly basis for the most part.

One day he was sitting at his desk and, during a period of casual chitchat in the office he said something to the effect that when the U. S. Supreme Court prevented schools from having classroom prayers in public schools this was the start of a long process of moral decay for the whole country. I of course being of a much more liberal outlook and having a sometimes unfortunate tendency to spontaneously blurt out whatever is on my mind, immediately replied with a comment disagreeing with him, and attempting to point out the flaw in his reasoning. He replied to my reply, and I replied to him, a little more insistently and a little more forcefully.

Normally it was my habit to avoid getting involved in such useless arguments with other people no matter how strongly I disagreed with them, but for some reason something about this discussion set me off that day, and I stubbornly refused to back down. We both gradually escalated our argument and it went on and on, to the point where it became a very heated shouting match. Our boss Gary left his desk and walked out of the room, shaking his head and muttering in disgust. We screamed at each other for well over an hour, with Gary a couple of times sticking his head into the door to yell at us, “Would you guys shut the hell up?!” But Rodney and I ignored him and continued our verbal fisticuffs. It was like we were both locked into some kind of deadly embrace from which we were unable to extricate ourselves. We just couldn’t stop yelling at each other.

Finally after almost two hours of this crap our argumentation started to run out of energy. I think we were both just getting tired. The argument eventually ran its course and we just sat there looking at each other, not having anything further to say. One of the Navy technicians came in and asked us if we could help him set up some computer equipment for some diving equipment tests they were planning to do. Rodney and I both got up from our desks and went out. We spent the next couple of hours working together on this little project. We worked well together and as we worked neither of us said anything about the huge altercation we had just had in our office.

Afterward as we were walking back one of the techs asked us, “What was that ruckus going on in your office earlier this afternoon? We could hear it all over the building.” I replied, “Nah, it was nothing.”

Walk with me

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Many years ago I was living in Pensacola, working as a programmer, 32 years old and about to get married for the first time. My fiance Diana was a brilliant and creative divorced woman with three kids. I had met her while we were both volunteer telephone crisis counselors at the local community mental health center. When we had first started dating I had felt a close and engaging rapport with Diana, but over the course of our courtship I started to feel things getting occasionally strange and disturbing.

Diana had occasional attacks of acute anxiety and depression that had no cause that I could see. I felt frustrated and helpless at such times, at a loss as to what I could do to help her. Sometimes she would be sunk into such profound despair that it actually scared me. At these times she would sometimes blame her depression and anxiety on her job, which was tedious and stupid for sure but then most people probably work at tedious and stupid jobs, so why couldn’t she just get over it? Sometimes she blamed, with a great deal amount of accompanying anger, these deep dark moods on her kids. I found this to be disturbing because I thought this blaming of the kids was completely unwarranted and furthermore no mother should have such hostility toward her own kids.

But Diana could also be charming, warm, witty, and full of enthusiasm. Everyone who met her liked her. I was probably the only one who knew of the other aspect of her personality, the strange dark depths of her. I kept expecting that she would eventually relax and that, being the intelligent person she was, she would eventually see that there was nothing for her to be angry or fearful about, and so just let go of the anger and the depression and the fear. But Diana’s episodes continued. We had agreed to marry, but I was gradually developing some misgivings about it. I felt a great sense of responsibility and commitment to Diana. I couldn’t abandon her. Yet I had the growing feeling that I might very well be heading into a very difficult relationship. I was committed, I felt that it wasn’t possible for me to change the path I was on. I was like a train on a track heading toward something that might or might not turn out to be a disaster.

A few days before Diana and I were to be married, I called a woman a knew named Leah, a friend and fellow volunteer from the crisis counseling service. I asked her if she would take a walk with me. It was early spring and the weather was clear, cool and very windy. We met in downtown Pensacola and walked down South Palafox Street down to the pier that goes out over Pensacola Bay. I can’t remember now what Leah and I talked about but I think it was probably nothing of any great importance. I was very anxious about my relationship with Diana and the upcoming marriage but I don’t think I talked about that. What I remember most was a beautiful day of brilliant sunshine, and the winds whipping up whitecaps in the bay as we walked, and pelicans hovering in the wind over the pier, and that for a little while I was in the presence of someone who cared about me and respected me, and I have never forgotten that even after my marriage and the later divorce and the many other relationships and breakups, all through the years.

To the north

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February 1995: I was living in Panama City, Florida and working in the defense contracting industry, which I despised. But after many months of seeking I finally got a job offer that was NOT in the defense biz, in another city. The city was Ithaca, New York. When I told my father, a lifelong devotee of warm places and a hater of cold weather, that I planned to move up north to Ithaca he was at first incredulous, assuming that this was yet another of my crazy impulsive ideas and that I would eventually come to my senses and drop the idea of moving north. But I didn’t drop the idea, and I started making moving plans. When my father eventually saw that I was really serious about it he reluctantly agreed to help me move.

On a cold (well, cold for northern Florida anyway) and sunny day we headed out onto the highway heading north, driving a rented moving van full of my meager belongings and towing my car. My father and I took turns driving. We drove ten hours the first day. We talked little during the long drive, but then we never did have a lot to talk about. He just stared ahead of him at the road with an air of quiet resignation. I supposed that he must have been wondering how he had managed to raise such a crazy son, a son so demonstrably devoid of “common sense.” Why can’t you be like me? He never said it in such words but it was clear from all of my experience with him throughout my life that this was the gist of his relationship with me, his eldest son.  Why can’t you be like me, exactly like me? 

We stopped at a motel in Charlotte, North Carolina the first night.  We bought a six pack of beer and split it between the two of us in the motel room.  The next morning we were up and out on the road early, driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The world rushing past the truck windows started to seem fluid and intangible to me.  Just colors and shapes in motion.  Images of sad small towns, poor and lost-looking places for the most part.  This is America, I thought, a country of poor and lost places.  Maybe it doesn’t matter much where one chooses to live.

I started to become aware of the cold.  I felt that it was a new and different world that I was entering, a world of cold and snow, a world where people were in thrall to the changing of the seasons.  Crossing into Pennsylvania we started to see patches of snow on the ground.  We drove on I-81 through an ice fog, passing several cars that had slid off the road into the ditches.  I got off the highway with a great sense of relief (my nerves being somewhat shaky after my first experience of driving on icy roads) in a small town and found a motel, and we drank another six pack in the room.  We still didn’t have much to talk about.

The next day we crossed into New York state and went on up to Ithaca.  We returned the van and drove in my car to a hotel.  The next morning I drove my father to the bus station so he could take the bus back to his home in Seagrove Beach, Florida.  It started snowing as we were on our way to the bus station.  He muttered and griped abut the snow as we walked into the station.  I saw him off on the bus.

Several months later, in the summer, he drove back to Ithaca and I got a chance to take him around and show him how beautiful the countryside is in the summer.  I recall taking him on hiking trails and showing him spectacular waterfalls, gorges, forests, lakes, rivers, and valleys.  I think he was impressed, in spite of himself.  I think he realized that this really was a good place to live after all.  He stayed a few days and drove back to Florida.  That was the last time I ever saw him.  The times I tried to call him he would usually be drunk and so I became reluctant to call him.  A year later, in the middle of summer, he died of a heart attack.  He would be eternally in summer from then on.

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