The pillar and the beam

The title of this post comes from ‘My Friend’ by the sublime Bill Callahan. I’m pretty sure this song is about a horse, but that need not concern us here.

Two of the most important relationships in my life took a turn for the worse in recent times, and so I’ve been thinking about relationships a lot, as I always do when they go squiffy. Perhaps I over-think (or perhaps other people under-think? That must be it). Here’s what I want to share: my thoughts on the word ‘relationship’ and what I think it means.

It was most unfortunate for one of the people in question (let’s call her Metallic Trainers) that the other person (Hates Commas) behaved very much better in terms of responding to this crisis. A mistake that I have seen people make again and again is putting time and energy into the wrong relationships. I’m sure that my (many, many) readers can easily name friends, relatives and assorted acquaintances who have poured themselves out for the sake of people and relationships that were emphatically Not Worth It.[1] I suggest that these same people often expend good energy after bad in pursuit of relationships that do not merit so much attention and time, while at the same time leaving themselves too spent to put time and energy into other relationships that would merit it: relationships with people who would respond in kind, rewarding that effort and love tenfold. Hates Commas and I will always be friends. This is not because we love each other (although we do), but because we work hard at our friendship. It matters to both of us, so if we fall out over something, we fix it. We apologise heartily; we try to understand how it went awry in the first place; we agree to make changes so that this never happens again; and we do our best to pick up where we left off, chastened, changed and profoundly grateful to still be in each other’s lives. This process of working at a relationship is what holds it together. It is like the layer of jam in a Victoria sponge, if you will.[2] Without the jam, this is just some food on top of some other food. In other words, if you don’t work at your friendships, they cease to be friendships. They are merely some conversations that you have had and some things that you have done and some things that you used to feel with or about people you know (and will presumably cease to know the moment that some actual effort is required).

Metallic Trainers and I will probably never communicate again in a meaningful way. This is not because we don’t care about each other (although obviously we care a lot less than Hates Commas and I, or we wouldn’t be where we are). It is because we disagree fundamentally about what constitutes a relationship. I think a relationship is something that you work at constantly, over months and years (and decades, if you are so blessed). People will say this about (and even attempt to apply this to) marriage, but I think it should apply to all important relationships. Metallic Trainers appears to think that a relationship is something you fiddle with now and again in an idle moment; something you pick up and turn over in the light, as you might do with an ugly ornament of a size and shape that perhaps makes it difficult to be sure exactly what it is supposed to be. When you have finished examining it, you replace it on the metaphorical mantelpiece and remove it from your mind until the next time you happen to be at a loose end in that room[3], and you wander off.

I also think a relationship has to be mutually satisfying. It must give back some of what you put in, even though (and I think this is the key) you should always give more than you expect to get back. Maybe you take turns in putting more into it at different stages of your life and health, and maybe it doesn’t always feel equal, but taking the lifespan of the relationship as a whole, it must be sustaining for this to be a worthwhile use of your time and energy. This is particularly true when you consider that you can only give a finite amount of time and energy. Unless you are a bottomless well of love and patience (and only the divine can claim to be such), you must neglect some people and invest in others. So it really and truly matters where you direct your feelings, and how you decide to express them.

It is an oft-repeated truism that you shouldn’t love something that cannot love you back[4]. This is a principle that only makes sense to me when applied to other people. Loving someone that cannot love you back in the way that you want them to is a waste of love, and it is kinder to both of you to simply sigh, shake hands and go your separate ways. In the case of myself and Metallic Trainers, the sponge is dry: jam-less and pointless. It used to be a cake, but a pale, inedible sham of a cake. It used to positively drip with jam, but all the Goddamn jam came from my store cupboard. What jam remains is precious to me, and therefore I am trying to make my peace with the idea that Metallic Trainers and I have nothing to say to each other. This makes me sad, but it should also, eventually, make me free.

[1] Softly, now. Do this in your inside voice, particularly if you’re at work.

[2] The sponge represents what Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young describe as ‘what we’ve said and done and felt about each other’. You can listen to a version with all the words, or I also found this rather wonderful piece of banjo-ified nonsense. I also think the mutual acceptance and support that I expect from a real, rich friendship is neatly summed up in the same song by the repeated lines ‘I am yours/You are mine/You are what you are’.

[3] To overstretch the metaphor, in my conception of what the word ‘relationship’ means, the ornament would be something that you carried around with you (in the pocket of your figurative dressing-gown, perhaps), turning it over with your hand as a constant source of comfort and support in times of trouble. You wouldn’t care a jot for its ugliness or obscurity, and would search for ways to make it better, tenderly and painstakingly repairing it if one of its baffling limbs broke off, and always knowing where it was and why it was important.

[4] What nonsense. Why should I not, for example, have affection for a building or a book or an instrument? They cannot love me back, but I don’t need them to. See also Charles Simic’s rather wonderful poem ‘Things Need Me’, which I think expresses a touching affection for objects.


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