the last bit of mourning

last leafPEOPLE WANT ME TO SAY SOMETHING intelligent about divorce. I have nothing intelligent to say. This is not because I am one of these stiff-upper-lip characters who try to shrug off the greatest changes in their lives. Far from it. If I could articulate it, get it down good on the page, I would do it.

“You should just write it all down and be done with it,” a good friend told me over coffee in Viljandi. “You can should call it the last bit of mourning, the ‘viimane leina tükk.'”

I don’t know if I can even mourn anymore, but I do know that I have at last reconciled myself to the changes in my life. This wasn’t always the case. I remember how angry I was when I read Jaan Tätte’s book, Vaikuse Hääl – The Sound of Silence — just a few years ago. I remember where I was exactly, in Haapsalu, how from a high window I watched a lone truck driving along the Suur Viik with the autumn sun setting behind it, the book open in my lap. “Monogamy is not encoded in us, it is but a cultural recommendation,” wrote Tätte. “No one belongs to another,” he said. “We all die alone when our time comes.”

Such was Jaan Tätte’s grim prognosis for the married life.

As Estonia’s principal renaissance man, a sailor-adventurer type with a guitar, wispy hair and those steely eyes, it was hard to be angry with Tätte. But I was furious with the man.

Mostly because I knew he was right.

Divorce is something that illustrates his idea well, I think. We cling to the illusion of stability, to permanence, but when it ends, things do get windy. It’s like an airplane door being opened mid-flight, creating enough pressure to suck the passengers out and into the air where they float, vulnerable.

Sometimes I think of two mountain climbers roped together, suspended over an icy crevasse. One slips and is pulling the other one down, so the top climber pulls a knife out and then decides to cut the rope and let the other one fall.

It’s not the fear of colliding with the ground and dying that scares you, but that recognition that you are in free fall, that exhilarating and death roes sensation of being left loose in the air, that moment when you realize that you really are on your own and there is no one there to catch you. There is such wind all around that your lungs feel heavy and hurt deep.

It’s like ozone poisoning.

For months that sensation of falling would revisit me. I would feel it in the supermarket, or while I was driving. I would read sometimes or listen to music just so that wind would die down. Another friend promised it would get less windy. Maybe there would be a gentle breeze? I hoped he was right.

Sometimes I really felt like someone had died and I felt like mourning. But we both survived, fortunately, and there was no one to blame for what had happened, because nobody can control the wind. Only in recognizing your loneliness can you at last look across the line and empathize with the other person, who probably felt as much in free fall as you did. You must mourn, you must feel sad. Then you must decide to let go.

This is something you must decide to do.

When my Viljandi friend mentioned mourning, a final image came to me: a solitary tree with one last leaf. We have all seen these autumn trees, how those last few leaves cling. Until another stronger wind comes along and frees them and they float slow and elegant to the crisp piles on the ground.

And then it’s done, just like that: the last bit of mourning.

The “viimane leina tükk.”

the breaking point


IT MUST HAVE HAPPENED SOME TIME AGO, around the time that Fred Jüssi, the naturalist, pulled me aside in Tallinn and asked me how old I was. It was at a library. He had come to read from one of his favorite books. He must have known something was going on with me. But what was it?

“Thirty-five,” I told him. I was at the time.

Jüssi has a solid countenance — you could chisel that old face into rock — but when I answered him, he winced a bit, as if I had shown him a flesh wound. “Thirty-five?” he said. “That’s tough.”

When I asked him why, he gave me his rundown on life. “The thirties are hard on everybody, but they are especially hard on men,” said the venerable Jüssi. “At some time during this decade, you will reach your murdeiga — breaking point.” He clasped me on the shoulder with a heavy hand.

“Breaking point?” It sounded ominous. “What does that mean?”

“Everything that once mattered to you will soon become meaningless,” said Jüssi. “And suddenly things that meant nothing to you will become the most important to you and mean a great deal.”

With that Fred released his stone grip and headed along on his way. Jüssi is in his eighties now. He knows.

I think of Jüssi’s words now that I am on the other side of this imaginary breaking point. At least, I better be on the other side of it. It’s hard to even imagine or conceptualize such a break. A fissure in the ice? A fracture in the bone? A darkening horizon? Whatever it is, it makes sense. You begin life as an idealist or optimist, and so you remain, deep into your twenties, when decisions are made and paths selected.

By your mid-thirties though, there is a breaking down, a diminishing, an unraveling of the dreams. Reality trickles in with those first few gray hairs, those divorces and drama. You live through it, true, maybe even feel tougher for weathering the storm. What is harder though is to see others, male and female, a little younger or older, entering their own eras of upheaval, their own hurricanes of discontent, and then being asked to take on the role of Jüssi, to grip them by the shoulders, give them the wise old man talk, tell them it will be all okay when nothing is for sure.

Each of my friends’ stories is different, but they do a share a common theme — a loss of interest, a diminishing appetite for life after some kind of setback. It is that awesome moment of awakening, arriving on time, as Jüssi said, in your mid-thirties when you learn what people are really capable of, that leaves only emotional devastation and confusion in its tsunami wake. With all great hopes dashed, life’s beautiful chaos floods in, sinking once reliable philosophies and belief systems. There is no faith anymore, there is only heavy water. It rushes in and commands you to swim in it.

This is the real breaking point, the breaking of the waves on the shore, that moment of clarity when you understand you absolutely must swim. You must. The only alternative is drowning, and we have seen too many people do just that. So you leave behind your old self, you suffer a tiny death, you must use muscles you never even knew existed only to propel yourself forward. There is a kind of majesty to these kinds of life changes and Jüssi’s words ring out true. Everything that once was was, and everything that will be will be. What else is there to do but swim on, happily.