Meditations on loss and longing.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: New York, NY.
“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have—to want and want—how it wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again.”
– Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse
When I was about twelve years old, I decided that missing people was a pointless feeling. The only cure for missing someone, as I understood it, was to see that person again, but not being able to see them was what had caused the emotion in the first place. Absence was an unfillable void, my response to it an unsolvable riddle. Yet I couldn’t seem to stop myself from feeling it.
Grief is the extremest form of missing. Death leaves a void that will never fully fill. The shock can take years to fade, as though the brain can’t process an absence that profound. One day a person is here; the next, they’re gone. If they mattered to us, we’ll miss them forever. Pointlessly or not.
Grief is a kind of want. The quintessence of longing.
Other longings, no less profound, can at least be channeled into action. Longing for work can propel one through infinite interviews or auditions. Longing for love can motivate one to go to an event or get on a dating app. Longing for companionship can lead one to new friendships, new hobbies, or new pets. The longing isn’t necessarily assuaged by these activities, especially if they don’t lead to the sought results. But at least we can indulge in the illusion of control.
In contrast, longing for someone who is no longer on earth, or no longer in one’s life, or geographically far away—it’s a boundless emotion, a kind of infinity. A perpetual reaching-out that never reaches its object.
Technology has bridged certain gaps over the years. When I performed in community theatre during high school summers, I left every closing night party devastated, because I knew I might never see my new friends again. We had landlines and letters, email and AIM—which was more than we’d had a few years earlier—but there was no texting, no smartphones, no social media, none of the instantaneous forms of connection we have now, which today’s teens take utterly for granted. The summer I turned sixteen and my family left for vacation the day after the show closed, I found myself on a train in Canada, completely disconnected from everyone I knew except my parents, thrilled at the adventure but simultaneously swamped by the ache of longing. My sense of isolation was acute—and no amount of analytical thinking could banish it.
In some ways it was an improvement on today’s hyperconnectedness: I had no choice but to live in the moment, to be exactly where I was, to cope with my irremediable emotions without the panacea of an iPhone. Soon enough, the missing quieted, the longing passed, and I enjoyed our journey, knowing the friends who really mattered would be there when I returned. But I’ve never forgotten the way I felt that day, curled up in my tiny train compartment, watching the countryside whizz by as I scribbled out postcards and poured paragraphs into my diary. The hollow space in my solar plexus, dark as a cave and bare as an open palm, is the same abyss I still fall into whenever grief comes for a visit. Whenever I long for someone who isn’t here.
Longing, yearning, desire, want—I find such feelings difficult to sit with, perhaps because they’re so visceral. Virginia Woolf describes their effects in vividly physical terms: a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. In the preceding passage of To the Lighthouse she writes, “For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? …It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind.” I first experienced the intensity of this body-mind connection in grad school, where my training in voice and Alexander Technique required me to breathe more fully than I ever had before. Stretching my intercostal muscles brought on floods of tears. Pressing a hand into my solar plexus released a grief so strong I wanted to make like a hedgehog and never uncurl again. I’d always known I had big feelings, but the magnitude of the ones that emerged from my body in my first year of actor training shocked me.
The response of those guiding me, however, was pragmatic.
“You picked the right profession,” said my voice teacher. “Imagine if you had to be an accountant.”
After just a few months, a new voice began to emerge from that maelstrom in my body—a rounder, more resonant voice, no longer hindered by the holding of old emotional debris. At first I walked around feeling like one giant exposed nerve, but after a year or so I reached a new sort of equilibrium. I learned how to let my emotions move through my body instead of holding them in. I developed an understanding of the physicality of my feelings that allowed me to play highly expressive roles without clamping down for fear of being swept away. I rode my emotional waves through breath work, meditation, singing, stretching, and movement. And I found that if I let those waves wash over me instead of putting up walls to keep them out, I always, eventually, found my way back to shore.
That lesson resurfaced much later, when death dealt three blows to my life in the space of a year. Over and over, I drowned in an ocean of grief. I thought I might never breathe without pain again.
Until one day I did.
To want and not to have; to feel as though every cell of your body is straining for someone or something that isn’t there…
Yes, Virginia, it does wring the heart. Again and again and again.