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When I was young, we talked about being “in relationship” with other people. This didn’t necessarily mean sexually, but it denoted the sensual, meaning that the two people (or more) knew each other’s smell. We conditioned ourselves to each other’s distinct metaphoric cocktail—we were “in relationship” with them. Smells, the warp and weft of behavior, grade of the cheeks, touchy subjects, locomotions and abandonments vis-à-vis their parents—these I stored. I disregarded sun signs, fashion, and other emoluments, plus food and reading preferences, as I proudly beat my chest, announcing “I’m only interested in the heart center.”

I’m now “in relationship” with a number of difficult people. Deep down, I know they are more of the problem than I am—I have just put up with a few things for longer than I should have, since I am a good citizen. In the crumbling of our superstructures, there are certain characteristics that I’ve cultivated throughout my life: “obliqueness” and “opacity,” which have contributed as much to my relationships’ dissolution as well as their difficulty. Let me explain the “obliqueness” and “opacity” because it may seem that these terms, or values—my blank, but open state—are just fodder for relationships where one party is brutalized until it must strike back and blow-up. This can occur in the seemingly humdrum relationships that one tends to hold to in one’s fifties, those not sensual because our bodies begin to sputter and whirr and we don’t really want to subject them to too much touch unless it’s the big one. The “obliqueness” and “opacity” grew out of my self-Zen training in my twenties and thirties. What I took away added up to drawing down my emotions, to let things flow and not to get too bothered—this worked, for a while. I soon found the people who made more sense for me to be “in relationship” with and we made merry and laughed and made love with a certain co-detachment that brought our souls into eclipse, union, and, finally, separate restitutions. It’s when you’re not thinking that no one can hurt you. When we began to consider deeper issues beyond our souls matching, like money, toilet seats, and the Marxist elements of patchouli, we came apart. We could talk art and nature, but when we spoke of day to day necessities, without climbing into bed for soul union, we were doomed. At some point in my forties and fifties, I shucked off Zen-style living—or should I say I found my anger and became impressed at how good it felt to express it. Things I wanted came to me more quickly, so I simply decided to want more things. This didn’t work very well with other people, so I just put more of my heart into material things since they never let me down. 

And so I continued on, into relationship with people I might not have taken a second look at in my Zen-ish days. Difficult people are actually all difficult in the same way. They want something ridiculous and I can’t see myself giving into them. Yet I continue to be “in relationship” with them. I won’t let them go. I’m curious, though, if they will. I don’t really have much to offer them, I don’t know anyone important and I’m not important. I’m also considerate in that I keep my relatively mature anger from them—when I’m mad about something they do or how I feel because of it, I go home (I’m actually mostly at home anyway) and punch pillows or rip up newspapers and magazines, crumple up the pages and throw them at my mini basketball hoop for a few minutes, before I’ll just stand up and continually slam-dunk the pieces until the hoop breaks—usually it only takes a few dunks for that to happen (I have about ten hoops stored away for the inevitable breakages). I wonder if I should tell the difficult people that I’m angry, and about the punching, ripping, and breaking of the hoop. But I also need my little secrets—I think anger requires them. In Zen-living I didn’t have many secrets, nearly any, and I think, in the end, that bothered me. Secrets are healthy—one doesn’t want to reveal too much of oneself. At least I don’t, now that I am more knowledgeable, have more things, and am a little more angry.

I realize I have not actually described the difficult people in my life—I wonder what this says about me. I think it might point to the fact that they really aren’t as bothersome as I think, maybe we all have similar issues—not me so much, but maybe it tells me that I should be a more understanding friend. But why am I angry all the time? I know it’s good to have some anger but I’m not sure I should have it as much as I do. I want to braid my anger with the “obliqueness” and “opacity” to make a strange hanging verbena that people will see when I walk in a room or when I appear on the street, no matter my outerwear. But enough about me… I was speaking of the difficult people…

The afternoon sun is falling slantwise on the city I live in and each time I take an accounting of the weather I know some of this same weather is afflicting the mostly difficult people who live in my city. I know I said “my city,” but do believe me when I say I know I share this great land. I’m not the mayor or a senator—the possessive just makes me feel a little less anxious. Otherwise I would just offer my anxious-side to people, though possibly I already do, since I’ve attracted so many difficult people. I do though make allowances. Sometimes I discuss one person’s difficulty with another, who I also find difficult. I want them to agree with me, and they eventually do since they might fear I could be mad at them, and if they didn’t agree with me, I probably would be mad. I walk away from these encounters still puzzled and dissatisfied, as if we are all much more unhealthy—and we are. That’s why we are “in relationship,” to deliberately alienate each other’s unhappiness—to build an incredible shrine to unhappiness that would be seen for miles in a flatland, if such a shrine could be visible. Though it is visible in other ways—on our drooping and seemingly uncurious faces that harbor dark vindictive pleasures no one would ever imagine could possibly satisfy us in off hours. The shrines, though built in the name of our most difficult person, are really about the builder and the builder’s own problems, since the shrines are named for the patron, who pays for it with their difficult person’s sins, but the artistry of the shrine is ambiguity brocaded in the builder’s insignias and colors, that is, neurotic and codependent criterions. In actuality, I wish these shrines could be visible. We could learn abundantly about each other—how the other sees us. Yet, in a magical swerve the shrines really do encounter each other, more so than the people who made them. When people encounter ordinary people there is no love or hate, there is a tawny aspect that never rubs light or dark, and we pretend to open our arms for the redoubtable nothing we expect. We create something for those we love and hate, those we came for. Unhappiness follows us our whole lives, so it is natural that we present it in a dressed-up format that will appease our desire to admire while repelling the unhappiness, and not letting it take us in.

I go and sit at my desk. I’ve had the desk for many years, but I don’t write at it, I sit at it. The wood is cured with twists and knurls. I run my finger over its length to dust and when I’m finished I squish this finger inside my palm like I’m applying chalk on a pool cue. I am going through a hard time, though I’m not sure exactly when it started or what it is all about. I’m cut off from people, but I was never altogether close to them in the first place. I suppose I’m reluctant to call on these difficult people to help me, even if we are still “in relationship.” I doubt they can give me what I need.


image: Jack Delano