Past Loves


I just read a quote attributed to Vincent Van Gogh: “Love is something eternal—the  aspect may change, but not the essence.” It reminds me of the way I regard my former romances. Those powerful emotions are still out there—emotions are a form of energy and energy cannot be destroyed—but they exist in my wake. We molt out of necessity, just like other creatures who shed feathers or shells or skin in order to renew themselves.

Now, I am not talking about the sort of love from which we do not emerge, the people we cherish beyond time and reason. Many of us become so deeply involved in our partners that we cannot recover when we lose them. The subtraction stays with us, alters us; for the rest of our years we live with an absence. The grief subsides, allowing us to eat and move about, while the love goes on as if nothing happened. The love will not be denied or replaced. It is a bare fact. We remain alone, not out of faithfulness, but because we lack even the smallest interest in acquiring someone else. We are bound and free at once.

So what happens to the loves we do leave behind, the tears and vows and rages that fueled those erstwhile affairs? What becomes of the rampant need we had for someone who now brings nothing but a shrug?

When I consider my old romances, I picture neither their ruin nor their passion. I see these people in random snapshots that leave me curiously unmoved, aside from faint sympathy for whatever happened to us. Like the rags of the dream, the details fade away and nothing is left but mercy.

I loved these people, loved them to my marrow. Which I guess is why I keep them safe and tidy into eternity. I see them in the order they arrived, set some distance from one another, on the side of a winding highway. I see them as packages wrapped in brown paper and white twine, and each one has a name printed on it— no address of course. They are not going anywhere.



Photo credit: <a href=””>lemonhalf</a&gt; via <a href=””></a&gt; / <a href=””>CC BY-SA</a>

Cellular Memory

You can stop me in my tracks with a program or story about ancient Rome. My stomach flutters when I look at photos of the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Forum, and imagine the people who filled them, 2000 years ago. Gazing at lustrous marble statues of curly-haired emperors,  elaborate friezes of grappling soldiers, I feel almost holy, as if I’m approaching important truths, closing in on a memory.

The cells in our bodies have age-old intelligence. Consider migration, the way in which a creature knows, from birth, precisely where to head. This innate intelligence works in the background, constantly informing us, keeping us alive. If a pathogen from the past resurfaces, our bodies know how to handle it. We are now learning that this cellular memory is also evident in organ transplant patients, particularly heart recipients, who will sometimes assume the habits, behaviors and preferences of their donors. Every breath we take and every bite we swallow is composed of atoms that have been here since the earth began. Perhaps we are stirred by the places and cultures we were once a part of. If you love the violin, your forebear might have played the lute.

So, along with my blue eyes and cautious ways, there’s a reasonable chance I was born with this tenderness toward ancient Rome. I once wrote a story about Pompeii and became lost in the research; for weeks I could think of little else, and even my dreams were filled with fire and pumice.

I have spent some time thinking about the Coliseum and what went on inside those massive walls. Commissioned by Emperor Vespesian in 72 AD, the project was completed eight years later. With a population of nearly one million, Rome was becoming unmanageable and agitation was on the rise. Vespesian hoped to quell the anger and gain popularity by staging deadly combats between gladiators, as well as animals fights—over nine thousand animals were killed in the inaugural games. If a gladiatorial struggle did not end in death, the presiding emperor would decide the fate of the fallen: thumb’s up or thumb’s down. Sitting in rows according to their social status, 55,000 Romans cursed and cheered as they watched the slaughter below. When the crowd grew more restive, the games grew more bizarre, but as the empire neared its end, nothing could appease the frenzied masses.

While there are many reasons for the fall of the Roman empire, the problems began with the politics. The Senate, designed to govern fairly and wisely, became riddled with corruption. Consuls and officials offered positions to those who could pay for them. Bribes were accepted in exchange for favors. Unscrupulous emperors took control, while merciless minions carried out their atrocities. At last, there was nothing for the masses to do but form coalitions against their own government and eventually overpower it.

Aside from a vile few, people today would not tolerate the butchery that went on in the Coliseum, but we do have our own ignoble forms of entertainment on the small screen. Buckwild. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Amish Mafia. Bridalplasty. If we can’t watch people kill themselves, we can at least see them at their lowest. Some say that reality shows, having gotten so bad, are on the wane. If so, we are one step closer to freedom.

Before the Roman coalitions became a real threat to the government, before they began to take back their own lost power, there must have been ancient Occupy movements, small groups of loosely organized plebeians desperate to be heard.

We know that history repeats itself. To see that nothing is too big to fail, all we need to do is look back. The change that must happen is already upon us. In my cells I can feel it coming.


2007 A.D.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD the sight of that monstrous mushroom cloud bewildered the citizens of Pompeii. For weeks there had been small quakes and tremors, which were common for the area, and people had gone about their business without much concern. Not until the sky began raining pumice did people take notice.

Too weak to run, the old and sick were buried in their homes. The rest of the townsfolk stumbled in the dark over rising mounds of fiery pumice, blankets tied to their heads. No one knew where to go. Those in houses ran into the streets; those in the streets took cover in buildings; people in boats rowed madly for shore; people on the shore sprang into boats.

Some railed at the gods, others begged for mercy. Exhausted and choking, many gave up and took shelter where they could: slaves and bureaucrats, dogs and dowagers, all crouched together in their last hours on earth. Some managed to reach the city walls and even beyond, and as the falling debris began to let up they must have thought the worst was over.

It wasn’t. The mushroom cloud finally collapsed, sending six surges of ash and searing gases down the mountain. The first surge vaporized the flesh of every living thing in Herculaneum, the fourth surge decimated the people of Pompeii: those who were fleeing, those who were hiding, those who had already suffocated.

In the weeks and months after the eruption, many tunnels were dug into the ruined city. Robbers and treasure hunters risked their lives to take what they could: bronze, lead and marble; tools and trinkets, anything of value. By the time they were excavated centuries later, some of the grandest homes were found empty, their frescoed walls scarred with holes.

In 2007 the US housing market collapsed. Like the eruption of Vesuvius, the destruction  was swift and incomprehensible. There were stages, warnings, but these were largely ignored. The market had faltered before and no lasting harm had come of it. A wily few understood what was happening and stole away in time. The masses were trampled.

Officials issued ominous threats. Our financial institutions were “too big to fail.” For our own good, we had to make a sacrifice, we had to appease them. We did and they weren’t. Our banks turned their backs on us.

For Sale signs are still popping up, in neighborhoods both modest and posh. Formerly desirable developments are now pocked with weeds and stagnant swimming pools. Forced from their homes, crazed citizens are stealing their own countertops, hardware and fixtures before trashing the houses they once loved. Who could have predicted it? Homes selling for a dollar. Cities filing for bankruptcy. Disparate relatives elbowing under one roof. People with six-figure incomes fleeing in the middle of the night.

We are living on precarious turf. There is no telling what stage we are in, how many more surges we can expect. We no longer trust what we are told. We move cautiously, using our own instincts. We give thanks for what we still have.

In Naples, Italy three million people live on the edge of a volcano. They know the danger, they can see it out their windows. How many times a day do they cast their wary eyes on a mountain that might be their undoing?

For the three hundred million people in this country, life is not so different.