'Keep your head up' is an idiom I never really understood until I was driving home hung-over this morning. --Brehnen Keilin

Love And The White Whale

First Posted: May 9, 2016, 12:22 a.m. CST
Last Updated: May 10, 2016, 10:56 a.m. CST
This is an article written based on my experience in therapy and my history with relationships and love. This is my perspective framed in the context of my experience as I work out the complicated nuances of interpersonal relationships. I am a man of letters and as such I am a writer and avid reader, so I use literary landmarks much as a traditional traveler uses geographical landmarks to determine where he currently stands. I share this with the intent that you may find it helpful, but be warned: If I cannot be the good example, then let me be the horrible warning.

Sometimes.
I believe no man knows the female body better than I do. It is the locus and inspiration from which I draw much of my artistic endeavors from. I have drawn it in pen and ink; wrote countless poems and sonnets. They have been some of my closest friends and my fondest lovers. She gave birth to my sons, and indeed, to my own being. Yet she has broken my heart and my will. She has cut me down to my soul with and left me with my bones broken and bleeding. But I have hurt her as much as she has bled me. It has been the subject of endless academic study; perhaps a futile attempt to understand what so eludes me.

Sometimes nothing scares me more.
She is my greatest fear, my Grendel, my white whale; a murky form gliding just below the surface – lurking in the shadows of my Id. Present always, but never in focus; skirting the periphery of my consciousness. She is both myth and substance; a ghostly apparition that eludes my grasp. The harder I tried, the more she slipped from my grasp. It’s like sailing for the horizon, you never truly cross it. So in time, I just stopped trying.
Is sex good? Or bad? Is it right or wrong? Is love sex? Or is sex about love? A sin? A Taboo? Or God’s gift…or the downfall of man? Are we supposed to enjoy it? Or feel dirty and guilty? At the start of therapy, I had to come to terms with my own sexuality and, yes, orientation. Up until I entered therapy, I took my orientation for granted, a “biological fact,” and not as a choice I had made. We all have opinions that are based on a lot of things that really don’t have anything to do with sex or love. We as individuals have in some way or form drawn that ‘line in the sand,’ and that line is based on our opinions and beliefs. But as I work through this difficult issue in my own therapy, I realize that those opinions and beliefs informed that decision and the choice I had made. However, opinions and beliefs are seldom facts, though sometimes they feel like it because we so desperately want to believe it. That is to mean that we want to believe that someone must love us….that someone – loves - me. Nor is sex necessarily about love or love about sex. Unlike a well ordered Shakespearean sonnet, life and love are a messy business.

Some fancy love in this modern world as somewhat of a Hollywoodesque romantic kind, like it is a Shakespearean sonnet in perfect rhythm and meter; complying with all the rules and etiquette of civil society. In this way, the old adage is true to some degree that love is like war. There is our own vision, if you will, of our fairytale ending – the happily ever after. In war, there is what we envision war to be in our evolved civilized state with rules of engagement and codes of conduct, conventions, treaties and laws of combat. Then there is the reality of combat: ugly, brutal, and barbaric. So it is with love, we learn that our most intimate relationships are filled with imperfections and absolutes like “I will never hurt you” do not hold. We….or I discovered my own My Lai, my own Haditha – full of moral ambiguities and uncertainties where no one was innocent and guilt was measured only in degrees.

I had to confront my own romantic and not so romantic notions as well. I saw love as my tempest sea; calm and serene at times and tumultuous in others; and subject to the fickle and ever shifting winds of woman’s emotional state. This of course was an opinion and not fact. In Hemmingway’s novella the younger fishermen, still looking for their identity, call the sea ‘El Mar,’ in the masculine sense, like she was a prize or trophy, a destination, an object, a race to win, or some contest between winners and losers. It is adversarial in nature. I suppose in my day, I was like the young fishermen, the young Turks, looking for a conquest, a trophy, rather than a partner or an equal. Was I like Don Quixote chasing an ideal rather than a flawed human being? Someone to complete me? To fill some aching void in my soul? To fulfill some manufactured social construct called the “American Dream?”

The old man of the sea, saw in the Marlin, his conquest of a lifetime, the final trophy to crown his life’s efforts. But in the end, his beloved trophy was fleeting and was feasted upon by the sharks. Despite all his efforts and the struggle he endured, the sea won out. He returns to his home, tired and exhausted, and collapses unto his meager hovel with nothing more than a memory to hang on to. And that was already fading. Like the old man, I am left emotionally exhausted with nothing more of than a memory. Like an old sailor who has sworn off the sea yet at the end of each day still finds himself at the shore’s edge with the waves lapping at his bare feet and the familiar siren song playing in his ears. The woman was my siren; and love a fleeting memory. I do not write this to win anyone’s sympathy or pity, I am where I am now because of decisions and choices I have made and the consequences are mine to live with.

Melville wrote that there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. We are defined by the thing that opposes us. The fishermen are defined by the beasts of the sea, a hero by his enemy, a man by the woman. Ahab was defined by the white whale he sought. The traits we often dislike in others are traits we detest in ourselves. Melville ponders the relationship between earth and sea and how they sit in juxtapose to one another. In his novel about the white whale, the subtleness of the sea, he wrote, hid its most dreaded creatures beneath tranquil waters, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. I suppose I saw women and love as such; a menace beneath the tranquil smile. And in comparison, Melville talks of earthen land as ‘the green, gentle, and most docile earth;’ consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as Melville wrote the appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lays “one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy,” but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life: the tempest sea. Try as I might to create that insular Tahiti divorced of the unpredictable and chaotic seas; the aspect of love and the female form continue to haunt me in the quiet depths of my heart. The truth is that one cannot exist without the other.

In therapy I have explored this ‘strange analogy’ as Melville calls it. There’s a little bit of both in us: a little bit of Cain and Able, of Adam and Eve, of earth and sea, and Ahab and his white whale. That is what Melville meant about nothing exists of itself. In the context of my therapy this is presented as Logical and Emotional mind; the Spock to the James Kirk in all of us; always in conflict, yet connected, the ying to the yang. I was not immune to this. I was more about the logical side and in the emotional side I saw the chaos of a tempest sea. I saw myself as the stable, fixed, solid land, and women as the sea: tumultuous, undulating with emotion and volatile unpredictably, a shark trawling beneath ‘the loveliest tints of azure.’ I was like Hemmingway’s young Turks, I was adversarial in my approach to women; to love itself. Both were something to conquer; to force into submission; a wild bull to ride and to tame.

Of course, one of the first things I had to grapple with is my own sexuality; to be more specific, my own sexual orientation. Was I a hetro, gay or bi? Certainly not an easy thing to take to task particulary given society’s view of of such topics. You don’t exactly broach the subject with friends at the local sports bar or with women you might be dating. A woman and a friend that I dated for a very brief period posited one evening when I had failed to perform with the vigor she expected that perhaps I was gay. “Afterall,” she whispered in the cool awkward silence, “your brother is gay.” Like “gayness” or sexuality is a pair of jeans we lend to each other from time to time. I am Catholic and am good friends with my pastor, but Church is neither the place to explore such topics. They are social taboos we often have to navigate alone. It can be isolating. You are at your most vulnerable state, yet that is what intimacy is about is it not? Being able to allow yourself to be vulnerable with another human being? Therapy was the only place I could explore this subject openly and without judgment or bias.

Like that ancient mariner, the old man of the sea, he knows that it is by the sea that he is defined and it is by the sea that he is undone. Love for me is my tempest sea. The female form is the siren calling from beyond the horizon. She is my muse and my mistress – she is my inspiration and my strength, yet I am at my most vulnerable around her. I feel I am close to her, yet miles apart. She is a rainbow I am chasing; a horizon I will never cross. No matter the leagues I travel or the days I weather, I am no closer to her than the day I set sail. She is my white whale, my marlin. I spend my life in pursuit of a white whale; and I ask myself am I chasing a person or some impossible ideal?
Hemmingway wrote that the old man always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Cuba when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used motorboats and the conveniences of modern science, bought with the fortune that the sea had brought them, spoke of her as 'el mar' which is masculine. The young Turks spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even as an adversary, an enemy, But the old man in the novel always thought of her, of the sea, as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.

At first the women I was involved with fell in love with the poetry, the ideal; and in the end, they found the poet disappointing and sadly far too human. The man no longer lived up to the romantic image that they originally fell in love with. And I, thinking I had found that “insular Tahiti,” my better half – the missing piece that would finally complete me, I thought of women in the same frame of mind. I had found my prefect lover. But I was not looking for a woman but an ideal. My “Holy Grail;” and that was it… I objectified my ideal of a woman, and over the years that ideal became more myth that substance. In my own mind I was slowly creating a boxwood maze whose walls were built stone by stone, hewn from fear and ill advice. Within this maze with walls erected by years of trauma and hurt, the perfect ideal, my Venus, my Aphrodite, more myth than human, was the prize at the end. And I was brave Theseus, or perhaps more like an absent minded Don Quixote, navigating this self-created maze to find my true love. So long had I labored building this maze, with its paper dragons and elaborate tests and traps, I had forgotten the treasure I had hid within. A sergeant of mine once said, “Bullshit. I’ve been divorced twice, we don’t fight for our ‘girlfriends and wives’ back at home. That’s a load of crap, we fight for an ideal not a woman. If we truly fought for our real wives and girlfriends, we would never pull the trigger. They’re too much like us – too human. Imperfect. Who the hell wants to die for a miserable sonuvabitch like me??? Fuck that. I don’t need that.” That is a stone hewn from ill-advice. I had a girlfriend who was with another man when we first became entangled, and after six years, she left me in the same fashion. The is a stone hewn from fear. Fear of rejection, of betrayal, of hurt.

And when they weren’t ‘perfect’ and the relationship unraveled, I took it as failure and I looked outward for the blame. In therapy I have learned that it was not the woman but how I perceived her, and learned to dissect my own ideal and root around the dungeon of my Id, that part of my psyche that holds that unconscious labyrinth. In the therapeutic context, the Id is the source of instinctive impulses that seeks satisfaction in accordance with the pleasure principle and modified by the ego and the superego before they are manifested in overt expression. This was a difficult and painful process for me. I had to tear at walls I had spent years building from bundles of sorrows and rock piles of taboos. Walls that had stood for so long my consciousness no longer saw them as walls. The path was so well worn; I no longer saw the walls on a conscious level.

Perhaps at first that ideal was a human being. Nicole Lathom in middle school, a woman of flesh and blood, with auburn hair, freckles and green eyes, but as every heartache and sorrow came my way, betrayals, lies, divorces, that ideal became less and less human and more abstract. A vague recollection, with no concrete features; it transfigures into the fog of myth – lost behind impregnable walls of a boxwood maze created out of fear and hurt. Perhaps our own humanity won’t allow it. I am still in therapy, so I am still working on those walls, and a long way away from finding my Ariadne. I had spent so much time lost in the labyrinth that I no longer knew what she looked like. She was no longer human with physical traits, but had become a collection of anecdotal ideals. Like my sergeant had said, I was no longer fighting for a woman and had replaced her with a mythical ideal. Perhaps that maze will never be completely torn down. Perhaps I will never return to that innocence where my ideal was a green eyed, freckle faced little girl that over the years had been replaced by a checklist. Because in my mind, ideals cannot betray you, they cannot hurt you like a person can. Like a woman can. Perhaps, like Theseus, I will leave Ariadne weeping on the beach whilst I sail off after my “white whale.” Perhaps I will never find my white whale. But I have set down this path and all I can do now is to follow it to where it will take me.

Melville once wrote that the truth uncompromisingly told will always have its jagged edges. And I have my own jagged edges. But who doesn’t? Who amongst us mortal men can put out such a claim of complete innocence from any sin or vice? Perhaps in my rehabilitation, I am now too honest and open about my flaws and human blemish. But here I stand and I can do no other. “Begrudge me not my imperfect life, blame not love my tempest sea.”



This article was written by Joaquin Rafael Roces. Joaquin is a Marine Corps Veteran, is active in his faith community, and has served as a Eucharistic Minister and Religious Education Instructor for over 15 years. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus, and recently became involved in the parish’s Youth Ministry. He has a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Borderline Personality Disorder and has been in recovery for three years. In 2015 Joaquin was trained by the National Alliance for Mental Illness to be an In Our Own Voice Presenter. Joaquin travels throughout Northern Nevada working with NAMI to change attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes by describing the reality of living with mental illness and sharing his recovery story. Through the In Our Own Voice presentations, people with lived experience with mental illness share their powerful personal stories.

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