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February 7-13, 2007

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Lost in space

Lost in Space

Searching for the lexicon of love's loss

By Michael Shapiro


I'm lost. For the first time in my life, I don't know who I am. First I was a son, then a student, later a fiancé and eventually a husband. I'm still married, but my wife and I have decided to divorce. Fittingly, there's no word to describe who I am right now.

When you choose to marry, society and language recognize you as a fiancé. The word is a bestowal of approval. You're on the road that your family, your society and perhaps your religion have always believed you should travel down.

There's no word for someone who is dissolving a marriage. There are no rituals, no gatherings of friends or relatives, and of course no culminating celebration.

But there is something to recognize. Moving from marriage to divorce is a rite of passage, one that ends about half of all marriages in the United States. Yet there's no map for charting this challenging course. And no word to describe who I am right now. I'm even groping for metaphors. Am I drifting, unmoored, like a boatman without a rudder? Or a hiker lost in the snowy mountains who can't find his way home?

The night before last I dreamt I was alone in a spaceship that was unable to return to Earth. In this dream, I had the horrible realization that I would ultimately die in space. Death was not imminent, which made it worse: I might survive for a while but would orbit endlessly until I expired.

I didn't fear death in this dream; I feared not dying on terra firma, not returning to the earth that gave me life, never again having my bare feet touch a warm sandy beach or a cool forest floor.

Never again to be embraced by gravity.

Language grounds us. By telling us who we are, words give us a way to figure out how we fit into the mosaic of our world. Without this identification, we can drift.

Deep down, I know that identification ultimately comes from within, not from how others see us. I often think of the story of the Indian sadhu who goes into a bank. The teller asks him to identify himself, so the sadhu pulls out a hand mirror, examines his reflection, and says, "Oh yes, it is I."

I realize words can be confining. But by identifying us, words confer expectation and limitation, and sometimes these demands are hard to bear.

But right now, I yearn for connection. I want a tether to the larger world, a world I feel I'm losing, and one that, because I'm no longer traveling down the prescribed road, sometimes feels like it's letting go of me.

For the moment, I'm still married, but I've recently removed our ring. As I write this, it's been less than a month since we agreed to divorce. I've just moved to a new place, leaving my wife, my home and my cat. Leaving a set of familiar routines my wife and I have developed during more than a decade together.

After we file our papers and complete the legal chores, we will be divorced. And there will then be a word for who I am: divorcé.

In my spaceship dream, I somehow manage to point the spacecraft back toward Earth. I see a long runway in the distance and prepare to land there. I don't feel I can properly control my craft, so I brace for a rough landing.

As I descend, I see that the runway is a busy avenue on Manhattan, where I was born. There's no way I can abort the landing. My thoughts rocket from fear of injuring myself to concern about hurting people on the ground.

I slam against the earth and everything goes black. When I come to, I look around and hope I haven't wounded anyone. I think I've landed safely, without causing serious harm to anyone, but I'm not sure.

I get out of the spacecraft, immensely grateful to have returned home. My feet are back on the ground. I've begun, just barely begun, to reclaim my place, to find my way.


Michael Shapiro is the author of 'A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration.' He lives in Sebastopol.


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