Monday, June 11, 2007

The Old Apartment

Broke into the old apartment
This is where we used to live…

The Barenaked Ladies

I don’t know how other people’s marriages end. There is the myth that people get divorced on a whim because they’re bored, because they’re selfish… I’ve never met anybody like that, though boredom and selfishness may contribute to all the actions and inactions that culminate one day in a moving truck loaded with exactly half of the still-unused wedding gifts: the china plates detached from the crystal goblets; the VCR unhooked from the TV.

When I left then-husband on a sunny day, almost as bright and clear as today, the most striking element was the utter surprise of it. I was unhappy, but in a stable, prosaic kind of way. I was used to my pedestrian unhappiness and only a few hours earlier my entire concept of the future had been invested in that ordinary, imperfect marriage of mine. Then the tectonic plates of my life shifted, and I went home to my mommy, who made me applesauce and vanilla pudding and fed me on mashed potatoes until I was able to chew solid food again.

Do you remember the show Sliders? It was about a boy who was searching for his home, sifting through parallel realities trying to get back to where he began. That was my life for the next three months. I went to school, taught my tutorials, and went out with friends, but all along part of me was crouched on the balcony of my old apartment, peering in at the life that had somehow failed to materialize – the self that no longer lived there, the marriage that no longer existed. This sense of unreality was neither happy nor sad: it was not a feeling of regret or longing, but neither was it a feeling of relief. I felt all those things at other times, but when I pictured my old life – the one I had planned, the one that had evaporated so utterly without warning – what I felt most of all was surprise. I imagine it must feel similar to lose a limb.

I can see the appeal of multiple universes, the idea that each choice we make spawns a parallel universe. There is a world in which I got that job in Ottawa, a world in which I went to England for graduate school – a world, even, in which I’m still married to my ex-husband. It would be fun to go on a sci-fi field trip to that world, to watch myself struggling to raise children with a husband who contributes nothing beyond his complaints about the absence of peak experiences in his life. Perhaps in heaven we can simply pick which set of choices we prefer and live a life crafted from hindsight.

It’s kind of like the appeal of the block universe: the idea that the world exists in four dimensions, including all that was and all that will be. "Now" is simply a matter of perspective, referring to what I perceive through the electric pulse of my consciousness as it flickers along its linear path. The past, according to this view, still exists in its entirety and someday perhaps I’ll be able to go back and watch myself smashing a plate and driving down that tear-blurred highway. The vagaries of memory will give way to perfect knowledge.

But the price of the block universe is a high one. I’m not willing to become a determinist – my nostalgia is not quite strong enough to outweigh my desire for a future that is open, a shimmering sea of possibilities not yet realized. But if the future were like a mortgage, I wonder if I would be willing to risk the variable rate. Would I not prefer the security of a fixed-rate mortgage, with its assurance of modest returns, its protection from catastrophe? If I could wrest from the block universe a promise that no disaster would come to snatch my children from me, wouldn’t I bargain away my free will in a second for the sake of that guarantee?

36 comments:

slouching mom said...

Fascinating post.

Who's to say that if we were able to cobble together a life made up of what we perceived to be the best of our options that our interpretation of "best" wouldn't be colored by current circumstances?

My mother is fond of saying things like, "Well, if that [fill in the blank with some undesired event] hadn't happened to you, then you never would have done X, Y, and Z, and subsequently you would never have given birth to Ben and Jack."

It's true. And I use that logic often to appease myself when I am frustrated with my life as it has unfolded (or as it has failed to unfold).

But. But. A small voice within me always wants to answer my mom by saying, "I wouldn't have known Ben and Jack, but nor would I have known what I was missing by not knowing them."

A tough one, B&P!

Veronica Mitchell said...

I don't think you would, you know. The safe but deterministic world would still be a world without hope. It would be too much like Camazotz.

painted maypole said...

beautiful. my thoughts and reactions were very similar to "slouching mom" - that by making one choice you open up the door for some choices, but close the door to others. You just don't know. And so we move on, cobbling our choices together in hopes of making a life worth living.

From what I've read you've done that.

And now one of my favorite BNL songs takes on a whole new meaning...

Karen said...

I alarm myself with my ability to be so limited in what I think is best. Sometimes when what I think is the worst has happened, suddenly my brain opens into some other reality that has not happened and I see that there is "worse" than whatever loss I am in, that rocks me to the core, to know that I don't have everything it takes to know what's best for me and mine, that my thoughts aren't high, deep and wide enough. But, hope remains and faith that my thoughts & decisions don't have to be all there is: I like my free will with parameters around it.

Jen said...

We have talked about this before a bit I recall. How my Mom is fond of telling me things happen for a reason a thought I both agree and disagree with.

The choices you make do change the course of what follows, that goes without saying. But, in effect the choices you didn't make also do the same.

When I emerged from my long-term relationship (8 years, all of high school and beginning of University) I felt exactly as you described. I wanted it to end, I am the one who finally ended it; yet I mourned that loss. The sense of shock was something I have never experienced since. I had images of driving to this person's work and home and staring until I found answers. I was used to my despair and chaos, it was my chaos and I clung to it long after it was gone.

Would I go for the fixed rate? Oh how I am straining to say, yes. My heart of hearts sadly says, no. Life is for the living and whether you are being dished out hammocks and sunny skies or thunder clouds and a leaky roof you must take what you get.

B&P this is a brilliant post.

niobe said...

That's precisely why I don't like that song. It reminds me too much of mistakes that it's far too late to undo.

But I very much like the way that tectonic plates shift to just plain old regular plates before the story ends. The experience becomes not so much earthshattering as crockery shattering.

Christine said...

Wow. This was a wonderful piece. I especially like: ". . .a life crafted from hindsight."

I think I'd like to take a peek at the past, but not interfere, you know? Just observe a little. But not the future. I, too, like the endless sea of possibilities.

But a guarantee like that would be hard to turn down.

bubandpie said...

Veronica - Camazotz, yes. That's exactly what it would be. Would going to the beach be the same if I didn't see in every tiny wave the faint shadow of an undertow?

But my actual mortgage may be a different matter. It comes due in a few weeks, and I don't know if I have the guts to go with the variable rate. ;)

Karen - Sometimes I think that there is a block universe, one that contains all the possible parallel worlds - and God is the sculptor, shaving off edges here and there, foreclosing certain possibilities, then letting us blaze our own trails through what remains.

Julie Pippert said...

I don't know how random things are.

My husband and I, for example, both elected to not go to one university (the same one) in favor of another (the same one) at the last minute.

What if one or the other hadn't chosen to switch? What if both of us had stuck to our original decisions?

I think there are many paths to the same destination.

Still, I'm ambivalent about the "things happen for a reason."

I'm not sure what I would or wouldn't bargain away. I wouldn't like to make that choice.

I'm usually pretty glad to not know the future. I'm definitely glad I can't go back and change things (or be tempted to).

What a burden.

Bon said...

i loved this.

i always thought i'd reject the fixed-rate mortgage life...even eventually rejected my fixed-rate first marriage because of the slow-burning sadness and contempt that was taking it and me over. but now that i've been a little more burnt by the lows of variable drama than i'd ever really expected, i'm wary to say i'd pick this road of risk and peaks and valleys all over again. yet my heart of hearts, like Jen's, still says i would.

of course, i can say that because i'm happy right now. i have the person i chose to risk all those highs and lows with. if i could see ten years in the future, and what i saw was me peeking in the windows where he & i now live, oh, my heart would break.

and yet i've lived long enough to know that broken hearts heal...i wonder what that does to the equation?

in terms of parallel universes, my ex and i - whom i decided i loved, just like a brother - tried to live our parallel universes for awhile, being friends. it was comforting, because it was still so hard to imagine that this person who had been so much a part of me could just exit my life. sometimes it still surprises me. so fragile, these relationships we base so much of ourselves in.

Lawyer Mama said...

So many fascinating topics in this post B&P. So many. The idea of being able to visit your parallel lives to see what might have been is tempting. But, then I think about the movie the Family Man with Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni. He sees what might have been and falls in love with it - his family, his children - but they don't really exist. It would be easy to get caught up in the "what ifs" but I can't help but think that's a dangerous path. At least for me. Because I wouldn't want my life without my children and every choice I've made has led me to them.

Jenny said...

Wow. So provocative.

I think "things only happen for a reason" when they are bad things. I'm an idiot, but at least I'm aware that I'm an idiot.

More reflection is something I need...but something I'm too afraid of to do.

Di said...

Completely non-related to your post...I see that Operating Instructions is one of your random books from your library. It is one of my favorites...and Anne Lamott one of my favorite authors! Have you read it? I just finished her latest.

painted maypole said...

Oh, Bub and Pie, you rock. What would my blog be without you? No links, no fun themes for my blogroll, "about me," etc. I've made some changes, including your suggestion. Thanks! (oh, and you are now a "Darling Bud of May." How could you not be?)

bubandpie said...

Di - I haven't read the new one yet - but I gave it to my mother for Mother's Day, so I'm hoping it will come to me when she's done with it. And yes, Operating Instructions is one of those books that made me interested in writing about motherhood - hence, this blog. (I couldn't access your Blogger profile - do you have a blog?)

kgirl said...

I'm ok not worrying too much about the 'what ifs,' though it would be interesting to see what would have happened if I had stayed abroad long enough to miss the window of opportunity through which I met Chris.

Nah.

Omaha Mama said...

When I read this post - I was all ready to compare it to a great movie that I watched once and liked. With Gwenyth Paltrow. So I googled it. Sliding Doors. Duh.

Anyway - I thougt this was just a great post. Well said, and so honest.

My sister and I both escaped our first serious relationships before they resulted in marriage and we call those guys our first husbands, both total jackasses. Our lives would have been so different had we stayed on that path. It's frightening...and fascinating.

Mad Hatter said...

I used to love time slip and time travelling fantasies as a kid. Now, not so much. Have you read His Dark Materials? In it it's not so much parallel lives that we lead but rather the infinite possibilities provided by parallel everythings. Lyra's Oxford is tantalizing even it it would entail wearing my soul on the outside. Hey wait, that's motherhood.

I don't think I would want to watch the various possibilities play out simply b/c doing so would ruin my ability to enjoy the present. As for the future, I like fixed rates and am not as invested in that variable tickle that others seem bound by. In fact, I sorta wrote a post about that today. I won't be posting it until tomorrow night, though.

Pieces said...

I love the idea of heaven being a life crafted from hindsight. It may very well be. That and a rockin' body.

NotSoSage said...

I thought I might have lots of insightful responses to this post, but in this universe, you just got that darn song in my head and I can't think past it. In another universe, I'm writing a very compelling comment on regret and resignation.

flutter said...

I can never think of you as pedestrian and prosaic...how could you have chosen any differently than you did?

bubandpie said...

Omaha Mama - I saw Sliding Doors in the theatre with my ex-husband, who liked it a lot less than I did (the whole "ditch your cheating boyfriend and move on" theme didn't appeal to him for some reason). Then, a few months later when we broke up I bought the video and watched it again - it was my theme movie, the way her life was running simultaneously on two tracks, which is exactly what mine felt like. And I liked the way the two tracks converged at the end, the idea that there is a certain gravitational force exerted by destiny, that it doesn't rely on any one set of circumstances.

Tye Anderson said...

sometime i hear,sometimes i listen...
most of the time i'm stubborn and indifferent...
often i sad,knowing what i'm missing...
and all the while, i'm wishng things were all so different...


take it as you may...could mean many things.

Beck said...

There's something extremely diverting in imagining our other possible futures, like what would have happened if I HAD married my kind-hearted and wealthy but sadly geeky ex-boyfriend? What would that life have been like?
I always return to this one, though, this happy life, which made up as it is of so many bad choices and unwise decisions, feels like it could only have been guided by Providence.

nomotherearth said...

I am really glad that we are not given the choice of choosing the mortgage rate for our future. I would invariably choose the safer route, thinking it best, and be disappointed. I much prefer not knowing what is going to happen, but it does scare me so.

I loved Sliders!

Her Bad Mother said...

I love each and every one of your posts, but this one made me catch my breath. Travelling to that parallel universe - so tempting. But so dangerous. Would you even recognize you, I wonder?

My last serious - very serious - relationship before HBF ended badly. I recently was directed to this person's website. In a flash - a very, very powerful flash - I knew that I had really dodged a bullet. I'll have to write about the details sometime, but I'll say this now - seeing his current life (and I should stress, it would be a fine life for many people) made it abundantly clear that travelling along that parallel path would have been a mistake, for me.

As close as I'll get to sci-fi version of visiting parallel universes, I suppose.

Jenn said...

What an amazing post.

I often think of the life that some parallel part of me is living.

While she probably has a much skinnier tush, she is still rocking out to the Barenaked Ladies.

"Why did I have to break in, I only came here to talk"

Kyla said...

Ouch. My brain hurts. I'm glad I don't have those options. I'm not good with decisions.

Beautiful post.

PT-LawMom said...

Wow, what a post. It's hard not to slip into that other universe. Sometimes, like last night when I was ready to throttle my dear husband, I have to look into my son's happy eyes and think about what giving up on "US" would mean in his life. It's hard and it takes sacrifices and I wage a regular battle over whether it's worth giving up so much of my identity. Your post today really spoke to me.

Aliki2006 said...

This is a great post in that it contains so much to think about. I don't spend much time on the what-ifs myself--to imagine a different husband and, subsequently different kids just is beyond my comprehension. Whenever I let my mind wander to the past and the possibility of different roads chosen I keep coming back to the thought that if I hadn't picked this one road I woulnd't have my kids.

bubandpie said...

I'm nostalgic, but I don't think I'm regretful either - for all the reasons all of you have given. I think my nostalgia has more to do with my packrat instincts - it just seems so wasteful, the way everything keeps disappearing into the past. I do the best I can to hang onto it all through the imperfect media of my memory and this blog ... but so much of my life just keeps slipping away into the past. I like the idea that someone is keeping it all somewhere, safe and whole.

And if the alternate universe theory means I really CAN have my cake and eat it to - so much the better.

Mimi said...

Okay, first off: are you actually talking about mortgages? ;-)

Second, Pynchon sang this song to me today while we were talking about life in our old apartment.

Third, what an interesting set of questions to think about -- variable versus fixed. I don't know. I do know that I sometimes imagine the what-if scenarious like you've described ... hypnotic.

Em said...

Oh I love how you make me think... really think... I've made a few huge crossroad decisions in my life and the direction I have chosen to travel has no doubt had a huge impact on who I am today and how I live my life... but I sometimes wonder if it is the little choices that we barely think twice about that have even more lasting impact...

Hmmm

Gwen said...

Dayumn. I finally figured out something to say in response to this lovely piece and 33 comments in, it is just too late.

There's some regret from me.

WhyMommy said...

One of my favorite topics, the alternate universe...

Sorry I'm so late to the party! Been tough around these parts lately ... it's nice to drop in and read and catch up with you, though....

Jessakah said...

great blog, I will be back :)