On the Loss of Old Dreams

This pandemic holiday experience has turned out to be a lot like the rest of this year—it has done away with a lot of my excess hustle and bustle and given me the time and space (given is a generous way of saying forced) to sit with some difficult emotions. I am realizing that though I love this time of year, it also comes with its own set of complicated emotions.

I have spent the last five years constantly running, trying to rebuild my life here in Victoria. It has been good and healthy to a point—it has kept me facing forward and moving, and now I have a life I am pretty proud of. The downside (or up, depending on how you look at it) of that frantic hustle is that I have been too busy to notice certain currents of emotion. I could ignore them in favour of something more urgent to fix/make/clean. I never noticed how the hustle and bustle kept the grief at bay, that I had any sentimental feelings around the holidays at all.

I came across a PHD thesis yesterday that asked women who divorced in midlife what the hardest challenge of the whole experience was. The top one? The loss of the “happily ever after” dream. It makes sense; after all, that was what the whole marriage/family was about, wasn’t it? To create something larger than yourself, a support network, a port in the storm of existence, so to speak. A place to find unconditional love and sanctuary amidst the chaos.

For me, the “happily ever after” dream manifested as a vision of J and me growing old together. First of getting our children through childhood, and then regaining some of the freedoms we had before they were born while we were still young. I dreamed of quitting my job once the kids were out of high school and transitioning to something that allowed me to write more, that gave me the freedom to accompany J on his tours. Then, when the kids were older, receiving visits from them, maybe even with grandchildren. We would be the cool grandparents, the ones that spoiled them just enough but were too busy with their own projects to get too involved in their lives.

The grief of that dream of a whole life lived together is the lingering pain of divorce. I was really invested in that dream. I really thought I would grow old with J, that we could weather anything that came our way.

Instead, here we are, strangers to each other, disconnected from a twenty year history. When I imagine our past, I imagine the severed arm of an octopus, flailing around in the dark abyss, disconnected from its own timeline. There is the absence of limb where it used to be. The scars as artifacts of something that once was but is no more.

This time of year is particularly hard for those of us foolish enough to have invested in that dream. I’ve been watching a lot of holiday movies and most of them feature some sort of glimpse at married life, a lot of them featuring old couples who get to look down from their silver-tipped, octogenarian noses at their adult children and grandchildren gathering in the old family home for the holidays.

Don’t get me wrong. I never thought everything would be perfect. Marriage, like life, is messy and hard. But I thought we would be able to have, as June Callwood said about her very long partnership, many different marriages. That is why the dream is so powerful—because if you get to that point, you have literally stuck together through better and worse. You have committed to something bigger than yourself—a partnership, a family.

Here is what I just realized. This old dream, that I had grown and nurtured for twenty years, then grieved like a lost limb for five more, is just that—a phantom pain for an amputated limb.

The dream of growing old with J, though I still cherish it and still mourn for its loss (the way I mourn for that configuration of family before the divorce) is being replaced. Not by another dream, but by a friendly mist, where I can see the silhouette of me but that’s all.

As Virginia Woolf said: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.”

That dream of growing old together with one’s love is a beautiful one and I envy those who manage it. But it is not the only way of growing old. In fact, I have a pretty great template in my mother on how to grow old alone but not lonely, how to have a fulfilling life without a partner.

I don’t know what the future holds. I just know the past. I know I loved fiercely once and that love resulted in two amazing daughters, in a history full of small kindnesses and cruel misinterpretations, in an infinity of small gestures that brought us to where we are now. There will be a part of me that will always mourn this loss.

And, at the same time, I will continue to welcome the future, in all its hazy glory, because it is the only thing I have. It is the only thing we all have, really—the next moment and then the next and the next, until there are no more moments.

I have learned that a dark future is not a bad thing, but a potential thing and I am ready to welcome it no longer with trepidation but with curiosity.

On this, the last day of one of the darkest years the world has seen in a long time, let’s honour those lost dreams. Raise a glass to all the hopes that have not come true and then turn around and raise another to the unknown ahead, ready to be filled with new dreams and better ways of being.

I leave you with the words of Rebecca Solnit, whose definition of Hope has always resonated with me because it involves action:

“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. “

Hope is not knowing what is going to happen but acting to exert our influence for a better outcome.

Happy new year my friends. May we mold the unknown into a better future for everyone.

2 thoughts on “On the Loss of Old Dreams

  1. Well re-membered. Happy New Year. May you know how your relationship with words connects us to our own hearts.

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