Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Philosopher and the Sailor

(Note: this post will make more sense if you've read prior posts- Love Letters, and The Gift.)

I’ve finally finished reading the letters. How many? Well, Els and Frank were apart roughly six months out of the year, for four decades. Els wrote maybe three times a week, Frank probably once a week on average. So, that equals 3,840 letters, give or take a few.

Back when I first discovered them and spent a week or so reading as many as I could from random years (before I had yet to order them by date), I wondered, “When will I ever have time to read these?” Now, being pregnant, unemployed, and especially motivated to work on this project thanks to a small grant, not to mention an impending due date, I have been provided with the perfect window to settle in.

People ask me if I’ve been writing lately, and I tell them, with a slight sense of guilt, that mostly I’ve been reading letters. It’s easy to do. I take out a stack of them after I’ve done my morning journaling, and this often leads to the “just one more” mentality. I make it through a year, let’s say 1975, and then I notice how the next year—1976—is so much thinner than the previous, so maybe I’ll read one more year. Then, by the time I make it to 1977, I’ve practically made it through the whole decade, so maybe I should just finish the 70s off. But when I get to the 80s, I figure, this is the final decade to go, why not just finish them all? And in this way, I have plowed through, and saved much of the writing for this project for “later.”

Although I feel like I should be writing more than I have, reading all of the letters does actually feel necessary, as opposed to other procrastination methods like, say, Facebook. And there is something to be said for reading all the letters in one continuous swoop and absorbing the big picture of their correspondence, marriage, and life.

The big picture reveals some amazing, yet sad, tedious, and often painful reoccurring themes.

Let’s start with the ways in which we repeat ourselves. The ways in which we stay in situations for years or decades that we have so many misgivings about. The ways in which our minds feed on loops, and we constantly talk about the same things. The ways in which our lives and our dreams disappoint us. The ways in which, the older we get, the more our ideas of what is possible for ourselves and our paths seem to shrink.

Els started complaining about her marriage sometime in the mid-sixties when she was in her early forties -- about how lonely she was with him away at sea for so much of the year, and about Frank’s poor communication and his lack of support of her ideas and her writing. Her discontent continued to grow stronger, as did her accusations of his selfishness, verbal abuse, and controlling ways. I’d always known that they’d had problems in their marriage, but to read the steady progression of complaints, depression, and despair, letter after letter, has been sad and surprising to me. Could Frank, this man that I’d grown to respect and revere as an adult as one of the most generous and mellow of souls, really have been so selfish and demanding of his wife? How much of Els’s point of view am I to believe, especially when Frank’s letters offer little to deny nor support her claims? It is hard to not to sympathize more with Els. Since she wrote the most often and with the most detail, it has been easiest to see their story and marriage primarily through her lens.

One abbreviated version goes like this: Here was a man who chose to be away half the year at sea (working as a merchant marine), wandering through exotic ports and living a bachelor’s life, then coming back to home base for a few months to be nurtured and fed, before taking off to travel for a few months with his wife, who cooked and baked profusely each day inside the hull of their sailboat or out the back of their station wagon. He loved to read old classics and history, especially Joseph Conrad, and claimed to be content with his lot in the world. Determined to live the way he wanted to live, and not worry about the things he couldn’t save or change.

And here was a woman who stayed at home alone half the year alone, tending to the house on a frugal budget, writing to her husband about things she wanted to repair or stocks she wanted to invest in, given permission to do as she saw best, but always first seeking his approval. Wanting to prove that she was a good saver and wife, that she could be entrusted with his hard-earned money. At the same time, trying to forge a creative path for herself, to find a sense of purpose in her existence outside of the household duties. Becoming involved in various causes, but ultimately seeking something more. Increasingly bitter that she never birthed a child—a decision that seems to have been made by Frank. Becoming obsessed with various philosophies, but disillusioned by imperfections she found in each of them, none quite reflecting her precise worldview. Wanting to write her own book to solve this problem, and also starting to write more poetry. Yet her husband didn’t like her poetry, nor did he like her analytical mind that grasped at theories. So these were pleasures that she clung to and could not share with her spouse, passions in life that she felt she needed to defend.

More and more, it was as if they lived separate lives. “We don’t really communicate,” Els complained, “it takes two.” “I have to admit to myself that I am dissatisfied, that I have been a long time. Our way of life was your choice, not mine…” And, “I realize you like to always be on the move. Since we bought this house it has been home base to you but not home, you really don’t live with me except on the Hoko,” (their boat).

In the early seventies, Els got serious and wrote to Frank about getting a divorce. She was embarking on a new phase of her life, empowered and psychologically freed by her discovery of Transcendental Meditation and the several weeks she spent meditating in Northern California. Then, a year or so later, her talk shifted to getting a legal separation. Then, who knows what happened, almost all talk of separating disappeared. In most letters, you would not even know there is any discontent. They still call each other by names like ‘Lover’ and ‘Darling Wife. In fact, even in the letters where Els complains about their marriage, oftentimes in the very next paragraph she will go on to write in a chatty tone about the plants in the yard, her daily outings, or financial business, and sign off with love and affection. It’s almost as if this dialogue of discontent went on for so long that it grew to be one of many ongoing conversations, perhaps mostly carried out in her head.

Most of the time, it is hard to tell what was actually communicated because Frank would barely respond to her words directly. Els would write long diatribes about his shortcomings in their partnership or about her epiphanies about her life and the universe, which would be answered by Frank’s terse news of when they’d reach this or that port, and an occasionally descriptive travelogue recounting some new port. In all of his letters, all I can find that answers her pleas for a change is a line here or there of token acknowledgment, such as, “Some of the things you’ve said hurt my feelings but there isn’t anything you can’t say to me,” or “All I can say in reply to all you have said is that I love you and hope we can continue to live together the rest of our lives.” What woman wouldn’t go out of her mind if that was the kind of response she got from long letters where she’d poured out her heart?

Indeed, Frank always proclaimed his love and devotion and addressed her with terms of sweet endearment, and I never ran across a cruel word or tone in his letters, which makes me think that he couldn’t have been as verbally abusive as she implied. And yet, who knows what his words (or more likely, his silence) was like in person.

At a certain point, one cannot tell how seriously either of them took her words, especially once she’d backed off of her resolve to take charge with a divorce. And there is no way for me to know what was communicated during the months when Frank was at home. What was said in person. And what bonds of friendship, shared experience and understanding kept them together despite it all. After all, they both loved nature, simple pleasures, living frugally, and authenticity in people and art. They both were kind, curious, and compassionate people, even if these traits were manifested in different ways. Perhaps they were able to reach some resolutions, however temporary, before Els’s next wave of discontent arose. (Although I suspect that their in-person communication was not a whole lot better than their letter writing, for Els also complained of this.)

I know that from the beginning of their marriage, Frank warned Els that he was not much of a letter writer. And one can also forgive him a tad for belonging to a generation (or some might say species) of males who do not readily speak of their feelings. His letters are the most vivid and interesting when he is visiting a new port, describing his forays into the back streets and markets, and his encounters with locals in cities like Bombay, Valpairosa, Singapore, and Belawan.

And for whatever reason, his letters got more descriptive in the 1970s and 1980s, whereas they were much shorter in the 50s and 60s. Maybe he was finally warming up to this “letter-writing business,” or maybe he grew lonelier and more sentimental as he crept into middle age. “I tend to lose my identity when I’m out of touch with you for too long,” he wrote. Perhaps he’d already reached the peak of his wanderlust, and yet could not bear the thought of staying in one place and settling down at a 9-5 job.

As I read these letters, I go back and forth as far as who I sympathize with, or who I identify with more. Mostly, I find myself sympathizing with Els, even though her mind, her depression, and her obsession with philosophy and figuring out the universe, would surely have driven me crazy if I had to live with her. Yet from real life, I know that it is Frank that I identify with more closely as an adult, however closed off his emotional world was, or at least his ability to express it.

Probably I would have connected more to Els in my twenties, when I too was a tad obsessed with trying to name and define my spiritual path and system of beliefs. But once I found a certain level of trust in what I knew what was important to me in life, and could start to separate the difference in what I believed versus what I knew for myself, I eventually let go of the intense sense of struggle that had once surrounded so many of my finer spiritual questions. Perhaps I’ve simply have entered a phase where this focus doesn’t interest me so much, and maybe later down the road I will I return to those questions with a renewed sense of gravity. Maybe this is a common phase for those like me who are in a home-, family-, and career-building stage of their thirties; or maybe it is simply because I feel at peace with my life right now, and am supported by a wonderful partnership, and so I don’t feel as great of a need to cultivate meditation practices (besides writing, walking, and occasional yoga), to join spiritual groups, or to pray and connect with the greater source of life that feeds me—and that ultimately, behind my daily list of to-dos, I still am humbled and amazed by. Perhaps some day I’ll be struck by some great heartache or opening again that will reorient me in this direction, but for now, my spiritual life feels less heavy and esoteric, and more of a mellow and laid back constant, an ongoing intuitive response to what each day brings, from my heart.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. All these generalizations feel somewhat glib and too simple in light of having just read almost 4,000 letters. There is so much more I could say, so much to digest and absorb, so many tangents to reflect on, and so much to take care not to summarize or surmise too quickly, as if these letters could ever tell the whole story.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a fascinating project! Can't wait to read the writing that will come of this. :-)



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