| I spent the past two astonishing days at reunions for my elementary school (grade 6, class of ’63) and my high school (grade 12, class of ’69). These reunions were brilliantly and lovingly orchestrated by three of my fellow students from those days: Grant Mitchell, Nancy Gray, and the fine actor (and dear friend) Nick Rice. For most of us, this was the first time we had ever attended a reunion, and most of the 70 or so attendees had to fly in from wherever they now live to Winnipeg, where we went to school so many years ago.
In the tumultuous late ’60s we were an extraordinary group, academically successful, ambitious and confident we could and would change the world. We remain an extraordinary group, many with lowered expectations, some famous, most somewhat battle-scarred but almost all thriving, happy, remarkable.
With few exceptions, we had not seen each other in thirty or forty years, so the atmosphere was electric with curiosity. As I spoke to those I knew, or thought I had known, it was clear that a considerable number of us were looking for more than just renewal of old friendships. We were looking for closure.
In the Spring of 1969 I fell deliriously, profoundly in love with a tiny, intense young woman of quiet and staggering intelligence. Joanne was an accomplished pianist and flautist who planned to study music at the renowned Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. I wanted to study philosophy and political science and creative writing and an extensive and incongruous group of other subjects. But most of all I wanted to travel the world with Joanne, to transport us to some wondrous, distant place, wrapped in a mutually-woven cocoon of idealistic emotional and intellectual passion and protected from an outside world that I saw as nothing more than a coarse and rude intrusion into the perfection and purity that was we two.
The brief time I spent with her that Spring was filled at once with ecstasy and exquisite terror. I was utterly in awe of her, her incredible talent and intellect, the way her eyes filled with fire and then tears as she expounded passionately, gracefully on subjects that I could barely grasp. Her mind was like a Bach fugue, operating on several levels simultaneously, artfully, weaving several ideas in tandem that she would finally resolve in a handful of words and then look right at you, right into your soul, showing that she understood, and questioning, pleading to see whether you understood as well. I wrote poetry and played music on the stereo for her, in homage to her — Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony and Second Piano Concerto — and lit scented candles. We talked for hours about philosophy and the environment and politics and economics and language and literature and music and ideas and emotions and how to save the world.
Every day, every meeting with her was an impossible challenge, an exhausting, gut-wrenching performance, an attempt to keep up, an artless and inarticulate wooing of this magical, wonderful, incredible person who wholly and flawlessly personified my every ideal, my very purpose for living. Every evening alone was an agonizing re-enactment of that day’s performance, a humiliating admission of unworthiness, unworldliness, incoherence, and a shattered preparation for the futile attempt to do better the next day. I dared not try to make our love affair physical, where I was even less competent and self-confident than I was emotionally and intellectually. Besides, I felt no need to do so, and hence squandered the opportunity to deepen our incandescent relationship further, though into what unfathomable abyss that could have taken us I cannot say.
Rapturous, living in mid-air, I tried to feign casualness, pretend that this was merely clever intellectual sparring, the mental equivalent of a pair of otters playfully circling each other in an elegant ballet of point and counterpoint. Joanne of course saw right through this. I have no idea how much she loved me and to what extent she only endured and encouraged me because my amateur and desperate adoration flattered her. She did spend every spare moment with me for those few short weeks. I would give anything, put up with anything, to feel like that again.
When it was time for her to leave Winnipeg, I went into emotional shock and began to come unglued. Agonized, exhausted, helpless, I shrugged her off, told her (ridiculous, rehearsed words that haunt me to this day) that it was the wrong place, the wrong time, and maybe, maybe…. After I walked away she ran after me, and told me, crying, never to do that again. If I had not been already, I was undone.
She came to visit me a year later and I repeated my callous, inept, distant and outrageous act of indifference. I wanted to die. The next three years were a blur of nihilism and numb denial, and then, with some money saved and my idealism seizing control, I wrote and asked her to drop everything and go traveling with me. I was so broken I hadn’t and couldn’t think my proposal ahead any further than that. Her postcard reply was short and ambiguous “not now, Dave”. To resolve the ambiguity I went to visit her and spent a few short hours with her asking why not. Whatever she said, I did not hear, after the word “no”. Even then, she left a door open, saying she was surprised and flattered I would travel so far just to see her. Fucking idiot that I am, I failed to determine whether this meant “don’t give up” or was just politeness. As I walked out of her parents’ house that day I died.
It took me many years after that to put the shattered wreck that was left of me, through no fault of anyone but myself, back together. Over the next few years I visited Joanne’s house once more, and called one desperate night by phone, both times talking to her tactful father, since she had moved away.
It has been thirty years since I last saw Joanne. My wife of twenty-three years saw some promise in me in 1980, shook me out of my self-indulgent trance, and has made me whole, successful, content, productive, a competent provider and a responsible citizen — I owe her everything. It is a debt unpaid, an extraordinary favour unreturned. But that is a subject for another story.
For the last three days I have been wondering, half with curiosity, half with dread, whether Joanne would come to the reunion. I expected that if she did, there would be a rush of emotion, a catharsis, an answering of thirty-year-old unanswered questions. Closure. I cried on the plane, listening to Helplessly Hoping and Baby Boom Baby and I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day and, of course, Rachmaninoff.
This afternoon, Joanne came to the reunion. We hugged, traded histories, acknowledged significant others, spoke of getting together, the four of us perhaps. There was no rush of emotion, no catharsis. There was no asking and answering of questions, although she offered the opportunity. Whether there was closure or not, I do not know. I suspect that (my fault entirely) there was not. Thirty years…
There is a dragon here, and unlike the dragons I’ve written about elsewhere this one is at once real and fabrication. The dragon is the half-true story that I made up thirty-four years ago. Like any wonderful or terrible story it gets better, richer, truer with time and re-telling.
But it isn’t really a half-true story. It is a toxic mix of two stories: What actually happened and what might have been. What actually happened, what we really had and felt for each other, is a true story with a lot of missing facts. It is possible, though far from certain, that we will one day know the missing facts, and the true story will be at least complete, if not free from nuance, from ambiguity, from doubt. There could be closure to this story.
What might have been from the fateful day thirty years ago to today, is not a true story. It is fiction. Like any might-have-been story rooted in regret it is of course dangerous, larger-than-life, unambiguously wonderful and full of joy and redemption. It is tyrannical and the cause of grief, guilt, discontent and madness. The power of this story is our wish that it be true, and the impossibility of proving it ‘false’. It can only be defused by recognizing it, deep inside, as unreal, an impossibility, a fiction. What might have been is what was not.
Joanne’s visit has at last allowed me to recognize my might-have-been story as fictional. That’s not a denial that, if (huge if) something that did not occur had occurred, it might have been. But, like a vivid science fiction story that describes what might have been if an asteroid had hit the Earth in the 1970s, it is still a fiction. Once you’ve read it, you put it away and don’t think about it further. It is unarguably unreal, fictitious, even a lie.
Without the toxic catalysis of the might-have-been story, the what actually happened story becomes moot. Can’t change that. Done and decided. Can’t go back again.
Can you regret what actually happened? Of course, and closure, knowing what actually happened and why, can help deal with that. But with the might-have-been story back in the bookshelf, closure of the what actually happened story isn’t really that important. Yesterday’s news. Far more useful, and satisfying, is to talk here, now, about philosophy and the environment and politics and economics and language and literature and music and ideas and emotions and how to save the world. And maybe even actually make it happen. Now there’s a story.
Fellow graduates and readers that stumble on this strange and sad reminiscence, may you find peace and closure through discovery of what really happened in your own history, and may you have the extraordinary sense to put your fictions of what might have been, to rest.
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Dying of Despair
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What is Exponential Decay
Collapse: Slowly Then Suddenly
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Making Sense of Who We Are
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
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Complexity and Collapse
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What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
If We Had a Better Story...
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
A Short History of Progress
The Boiling Frog
Our Culture / Ourselves:
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The Right to Die
CoVid-19: Go for Zero
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The Tragic Spread of Misinformation
A Better Way to Work
Ask Yourself This
What to Believe Now?
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May I Ask a Question?
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
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Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
Learning From Nature
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
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How Change Happens
What's the Best Possible Outcome?
The Perpetual Growth Machine
We Make Zero
How Long We've Been Around (graphic)
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
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Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
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The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
Reminder (Short Story)
A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
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Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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