Healing after Loss through a Relationship with Nature and the Land

by Mark Miles

The month of September was very difficult for me. It was the year-and-a-half anniversary of Bobby’s disappearance, and it seemed there were memories around every corner. (Full story here.) This was distressing because I honestly expected that my feelings for him would have dried up and vanished by now. I thought for sure when we broke up in February of 2016 that it would take no more than six months for me to recover from the loss of our relationship, a year for me to forget he ever existed, and a year and a half to be in another relationship with someone who would treat me as an actual person deserving of love and respect rather than a piece of trash to be discarded at the nearest dumpster.

Yet somehow I find the loss of our relationship still haunts me from time to time. This happens whenever I encounter something that reminds me of Bobby, especially anything to do with skiing, fencing or freerunning, all of which he enjoyed. This also happens when I watch certain movies that remind of him for one reason or another, especially The Princess Bride, Sense and Sensibility, Music and Lyrics, or Howl’s Moving Castle. And most of all it happens when I listen to music that evokes the feelings which I harbored for him for so long, with two pieces in particular possessing the uncanny ability to reduce me to shambles in less than a minute flat.

It was the first of these, “Farewell to Stromness” by Peter Maxwell Davies, that triggered my latest relapse into sadness. I heard it for the first time about six months after Bobby and I parted ways. It’s an immediately hummable tune that many people recognize even if they don’t know the composer. The background is particularly resonant with me because of the way Peter Maxwell Davies used this song to oppose the mining of uranium on the Scottish isle of Orkney, where he lived for many years. “Farewell to Stromness” is intended to evoke the image of townsfolk who are forced to leave their ancestral home forever due to the contamination of uranium mining. It also evokes the sense of leaving behind a loved one who will be forever cherished and remembered, despite the pain of parting ways.

The other piece of music that’s become indelibly linked with Bobby in my mind is a work by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. “Spiegel im Spiegel” means “Mirror in the Mirror” in German, and the significance of this title is immediately appreciable when you hear the endlessly repeating melody that slowly but inexorably builds from the simplest groundwork into one of the most heartwrenching edifices of minimalist music. “Spiegel im Spiegel” is the sonic equivalent of placing one mirror in front of another, standing between them and seeing the repeating likeness of yourself stretching before and behind you indefinitely. There’s also the sense that the two mirrors could be two people, who look into each other and see the love they share reflected back in an endless cascade.

So with these two works floating in the background of my mind, I found myself thinking about Bobby throughout the month of September. It seemed I couldn’t go a day without a piece of conversation, an image of his face, or a snippet of his voice passing through my mind like a ship on the horizon. I was frustrated, sad, and lonely, and I didn’t know what to do.

But then one night in the middle of September, something changed. I was talking to a friend about how I thought I would never be in a relationship again. I am after all thirty-four years old in a small, religious and extremely homophobic town where the dating pool for gay men in their thirties looks like something out of a horror movie. Think Psycho meets Catfish with a side of Mean Girls.

Then I looked at my cat Heidi and my dog Bella. They were in the same room with me, gravitating toward me as if they knew I needed something, perhaps a gentle nudge in the right direction. I didn’t think much of it at first, but then it clicked. I’m already in a relationship, though obviously not of the same kind, with them and with others in my life who mean a great deal to me. It may not be the kind of relationship where I’m seeing stars every moment of the day and thinking about how much I hope we have children, but there is a healing relationship between us nonetheless.

Then I got to thinking about my garden, which isn’t much and hasn’t produced nearly the bounty of herbs and vegetables that I hoped when I installed it. But it has nonetheless provided a sanctuary for rosemary, fennel, zinnia, blackberry, strawberry, gourd, and sage plants who’ve given me a reason to be active in my own backyard. They’ve also given me something to look forward to from one season to the next as they wax and wane in growth, reminding me that it’s ok if I too experience a diminution in my energy and productivity from time to time. Usually it just means I need to rest, allow time for healing, and take better care of myself.

Finally I thought about the places where I hike and the relationship I’ve developed with the land as a result. When I started hiking on a regular basis in 2015, I never imagined it would come to mean as much to me as it has. Without hiking around Occoneechee Mountain, Eno River State Park, or the Hillsborough Riverwalk, I would never have discovered so many amazing places that are practically in my own backyard. I never would’ve come to love the rock formations, the curves in the river, the enveloping canopy of the forest, the musty smell of earth and sweat and all good things. This healing relationship with nature and the land–which has come to me through my animals, my garden, and my hiking trails–may not be the same as a relationship with another human being, but it’s absolutely necessary for a rich and meaningful life.

References:

Farewell to Stromness, piano interlude from ‘The Yellow Cake Revue,’ J. 166,” All Music, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

Infinite Reflections: Pärt’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel,’” The Cross-Eyed Pianist, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

Spiegel im Spiegel,” Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

The staggering simplicity that makes ‘Farewell to Stromness’ a work of complete genius,” Classic FM, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

The Yellow Cake Revue,” Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

Love and Lies on Instagram: My Online Relationship with Bobby Rolando

by Mark Miles

A year ago I had the worst breakup of my life. There was a period of time in the months following when I wasn’t sure if I would survive. I’ve encountered depression after traumatic occurrences in my life, but this was something else. It felt as if a piece of my heart had been stolen, as if someone had taken from me the ability to breathe, as if I had lost the one person in my life who understood and cared for me better than anyone else.

When Bobby Rolando and I started dating, I never imagined in a million years what lay in store. We became acquainted through Instagram in January of 2015, and I was tentative about getting involved with him on that basis. As much as I use social media, I fully recognize that there are concrete limits to the fulfillment it can offer. I’ve seen firsthand how friends of mine have been lured into online relationships with people who claim to be one thing and turn out to be another, and I wasn’t keen on the idea of the same thing happening to me. So I kept him in the friend-zone for several months.

Despite our distance from one another — Bobby lives in northern New Jersey and I live in central North Carolina — we nonetheless had many common interests on which to base our virtual friendship. I love photography; so does he. I love hiking; so does he. I love animals; so does he. I love running; so does he. I love the outdoors; so does he. Some of this was the natural byproduct of his membership in Snowboarders and Skiers for Christ as well as his employment at a Christian day camp, but secretly I began to wonder if Bobby wasn’t simply agreeing with me in order to score points and make his way out of the friend-zone. To this day I’m not sure how much of what he said about his interests was true and how much was a lie.

Regardless of that, he had the pictures on his Instagram account to prove that he was indeed interested in photography and hiking, and it was through his photography that I became acquainted with some of his favorite places. I began to feel as if the forests, hills, and mountains of northern New Jersey were in my own backyard. And with that sense of shared landscape, it was much easier for me to think of Bobby as a kindred spirit, as someone who cared about the same things I did and would respect me because of that. Little did I know at the time.

So we continued to get to know each other through an entirely virtual forum, never meeting in person, never establishing the physical existence of the other person, never looking each other in the eye without a screen coming between us. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea, but slowly I was starting to consider Bobby a good friend, perhaps even a better friend than people I’ve known in real life for much longer. It was a curious and irrational phenomenon, but it was inescapable at the time.

After we’d known each other on Instagram for six months, Bobby finally started to make his move. I’d previously gotten the impression that he wasn’t entirely heterosexual, but it was only a feeling. There was no way I could substantiate it. Then, out of the blue one day for no apparent reason, he asked me if I was “into guys.” I explained that I was, and that was when he really started to turn up the heat.

For a few months after that, we dated. It was never official: he never asked me to date and I never agreed. But there was an unspoken understanding between us. We started to talk on another app called Kik — which is primarily text-based and allows for better conversation — and before long we were spilling the beans about everything. Bobby’s alias on Kik was “anonymous anonymous,” which should have been a major red flag in retrospect. But I was willing to overlook his alias and other suspicious behavior because he had been so nice to me and seemed genuinely interested in being my friend. Little did I know at the time.

In the process of chatting on Kik, we covered many topics. I told him about the guy who’d cheated on me in my previous relationship; he told me about the girl who’d cheated on him. I told him about the time I was assaulted in a parking lot; he told me about the time he was assaulted by a roomful of frat guys. I told him I wanted to be in a loving and committed relationship; he told me he wanted to be with me “longer than either of us would live.” I still remember those words to this day, if only because Bobby Rolando was the first person ever to say them to me. Now I have to wonder if those words were ever anything but lies.

In addition, we had many conversations of an intimate nature, almost all of which Bobby initiated. In these conversations, Bobby gave me more compliments than anyone I’ve ever known. He told me I was “super hot,” “a friggin porn star,” “amazing,” “awesome,” and even “perfect.” At the time I believed him, so it was easy for me to let down my guard and allow him to push our relationship to a level that I never would’ve considered otherwise. (In the interests of fairness, I did initiate some of these intimate conversations by the end of our relationship. But I only did so because I saw him pulling away from me, and I thought he would stay with me if I gave him what he wanted, which was almost always sex. Little did I know at the time.)

So we kept getting closer and closer without ever meeting. I can’t say definitively when we went from dating to a relationship, because once again nothing between us was ever official. Bobby never asked me to be “the one,” and I never agreed to be “the one.” But at some point around September or October of 2015, we became monogamous. He stopped talking to other guys, and I started incorporating him into my fantasy life. We started talking almost every day, and frequently we had conversations that would last for hours at a time. It felt like something out of a fairy tale, but that was only because I didn’t know the ending.

In December I finally blurted out the big question: “When are we finally going to meet?” There was no definite answer from Bobby, and I probably should’ve taken this for a warning sign, but I didn’t because I believed his lies with the naive innocence of a child. As ridiculous as it sounds, I was beginning to think he was the love of my life. I’m not prone to flights of fancy, and I’ve only felt similarly for a handful of people in my three decades on this planet. But I felt it for him, and I felt it was time for us to make the big step from an online relationship to a real-world relationship. By this point we’d known each other for a full year, and it only seemed natural.

Then, in January of 2016, out of the blue and for no apparent reason, Bobby disappeared. He stopped responding to my texts; he stopped responding to my snaps; he stopped responding to my comments on Instagram. This was utterly shocking to me because there’d been nothing to precipitate such a radical shift. We’d been getting along just fine; we’d still been having great conversations; we’d still been planning to meet. I was paralyzed and heartbroken for weeks. I didn’t know what to do. Then, with time and thought, a plan materialized.

On Valentine’s Day of 2016, I put up a post on my Instagram account telling the story of how we fell in love. I tagged Bobby in the photo and mentioned him by name to make sure he’d know I meant it for him. I thought he’d be happy about my display of affection, that he’d come back to me with open arms, that he’d tell me all he ever wanted from me was a definite sign of my love, and that now we could be in a real relationship. It’s embarrassing to admit in hindsight how deluded I was, but I believed him when he told me he wanted to be with me “longer than either of us would live.” And if he’d been telling the truth, how could that have changed after a mere month? I couldn’t accept the possibility that he was a lying, manipulative, duplicitous scumbag, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Little did I know at the time.

Bobby’s reply to my post left me dumbstruck. His words were, “You’re hurting me more than you can know. If you do love me, let me go.” It was like he’d stolen prepackaged lyrics from a Katy Perry song and then dumbed them down for a preteen audience. Not only were the words insulting to the English language; they simply didn’t make any sense. How could I be hurting him when all I was doing was reciprocating the feelings he’d expressed for me on more occasions than I could count? And beyond that, how did my truthful and heartfelt story come to deserve a warning from Instagram that my post had “endangered” another user and that it had to be removed as a result? None of it made any sense, and I was getting desperate.

So I took an unplanned step. I sent a group message on Instagram to a number of Bobby’s friends and family members explaining to them everything that had happened and asking for an explanation for his increasingly erratic and nonsensical behavior. In response to my message, I received numerous allegations that I was a “fake,” a “stalker,” and “spam.” If my truthful and heartfelt story wasn’t enough to convince these people that I was being perfectly honest, then something more was required. So, without thinking, I gave what I had: a picture of Bobby in a position of partial nudity, in which he told me how gorgeous I was and how much he wanted to be with me. It was a sudden decision and one that I didn’t have time to think out. All I knew was that I had one chance to prove my case and that I had to do it fast. If the group had decided informally that I was a fake, they would’ve ignored me and destroyed my one chance to get an answer from Bobby.

Finally Bobby started to talk. He was seriously angry now, and he called me (for the very first time coincidentally) to give me a piece of his mind. I was both terrified and relieved. On the one hand, I was terrified he would say he never loved me. But on the other hand, I was relieved he was at least talking to me. We spoke on the phone for fifteen minutes, and in that time he broke down in tears and explained what he was dealing with. He explained that he lived in an extremely religious family who would never accept the prospect of his being in a relationship with a man. He explained that he’d seen his cousin Henry effectively kept under house-arrest by his own family after it became known that Henry had been in a sexual relationship with a man. He explained that he was terrified of what would happen. And most importantly he told me that he loved me.

Whether Bobby was telling the truth or a handful of lies is anyone’s guess. After this conversation, he and I got back together briefly on the condition that I delete the message that I sent to his friends and family. This I did without delay. For three days, I was happy. Then all hell broke loose again. It turned out his sister Jess had seen the message I sent, and she confronted Bobby about it. He decided at that point to tell his family about our relationship, revealing for the first time to his extremely homophobic relatives that he was not in fact perfectly heterosexual.

A day or two later, he texted to tell me we couldn’t be together. I asked for some explanation, some rationale for his erratic behavior, but all I got from Bobby was a static monophonic line: “This is my choice, nobody forced me to make it.” It was like he was a robot repeating a mechanically predetermined dictum or a politician repeating the expedient lies of a corporate sponsor. There was no thought, no feeling, no conviction in it whatsoever. And so I asked him to call me the following day.

The following day arrived, and Bobby called. I asked once again why he was breaking it off with me, and he finally spilled the beans. His family had been considering legal action against me, for what reason I had no clue. I was utterly shocked and flabbergasted. How could the act of explaining a relationship — which did include sexual elements but was not in any way pornographic on my part — constitute grounds for legal action? How could love be a prosecutable offense? I had no answer, and he gave none that made any sense. The conversation ended, and that was the last time I ever heard his voice.

Nonetheless we did continue to text for a little while longer, leading to a series of threats and counterthreats that I still can’t explain or make sense of. We both became increasingly angry with each other, and it reached a point where I began to fear for my safety. Though I had good reason to do so, I wasn’t the one to put the nail in the coffin of our friendship. On the contrary, that was Bobby’s handiwork. At the end of what was to be our last conversation, he told me never to speak to him again. I gave no indication of how distraught I was, but after that conversation I broke down in sobs. I was utterly heartbroken, and to be honest I still am.

Since that day at the end of February, 2016, I haven’t heard a word from Bobby Rolando, though he does still maintain his Facebook profile. He hasn’t asked me how I’m doing or if I’m okay or if we can be friends or if there’s anything he can do to make it up to me for all the needless pain and suffering he caused. He’s taken the easy way out; he’s done what his family wanted; he’s allowed them to destroy our love, the equivalent of which he’ll probably never find for the rest of his life.

As you may have guessed by now, there is no happy ending to this story. I’ve gone on with my life in the year since we parted ways, but there’s no mistaking the hole Bobby Rolando left in my heart. Despite my best efforts, I often find myself thinking about him, about what went wrong, about whether there was anything I could’ve done differently to avoid our estrangement. The truth is that no action on my part could’ve changed the outcome when Bobby’s family was bent on the destruction of our love. This is the sad, hard truth of the matter.

Despite this, I’ve managed to find consolation in other areas of life. One source of consolation has been the work of a thirteenth-century female troubadour, the Comtessa de Dia. She wrote a song about the man she loved, a man who abandoned and betrayed her after she had been true and loyal. Even though she died nearly a millennium before I was born and wrote her music thousands of miles from where I live, the feelings conveyed in her music have resonated with me and helped me to know I’m not alone.

Another source of consolation has been the relationship I’ve developed with the land around Occoneechee Mountain, where I frequently hike. I often think of Bobby when I go there because of our shared interest in hiking and because I wanted to take him there for our first date. Something about the steep and craggy terrain in the park reminds me of the steep and craggy relationship that unfolded between us.

My final source of consolation has been equally helpful and reassuring. It doesn’t hurt that it comes from the pen of William Shakespeare either. When I heard the following sonnet in Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, I realized for the first time in my life why Shakespeare is still one of the greatest poets in the English language.

Sonnet 116:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no! It is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken.

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

 

How My Cat Disappeared and Taught Me a Lesson

by Mark Miles

Living with a cat is rarely boring. I’ve known this for a long time, but Heidi has reminded me of the fact in numerous ways in the time I’ve had her. Since the two-year-anniversary of her adoption was last month, I’ve been thinking about those early days lately. It was a time during which I was almost certain I would lose my hair or my sanity or both. I didn’t, but it was a hard road that led to the relationship we now have.

First of all, I was given Heidi by a friend of mine who knew I wanted a cat and took the initiative to help me to find one. I wasn’t picky about the details, so she ended up settling on one from Craigslist who was in a family that already had too many other animals and needed to find someone with the time and energy to devote to her. I’m passingly familiar with Craigslist’s reputation in general, so I was bit a hesitant but relented when I realized the amount of paperwork that many shelters require of potential owners. Consequently I found myself with a new cat, and the adventure soon began.

From the beginning Heidi was a handful. She was thankfully housebroken, but that was basically the extent of her socialization. She was extremely confrontational, rarely made eye-contact, tried to attack me, had little patience for my dog Bella, howled in the middle of the night, refused to eat virtually anything, and was generally a pain in the ass. Nonetheless, I realized that a great deal of her attitude was simply the result of being taken from her home–however overcrowded and neglectful it may have been–and being brought to a new place about which she knew nothing and where she had no reason to trust anyone. I understood the difficulty for her, and I gave her time to acclimate accordingly.

The biggest problem turned out to be her nocturnal proclivities. She was extremely active at night and would frequently jump very loudly from one place to another directly outside my bedroom. She would also howl with the most infernal regularity. As much as I didn’t want to resort to it, I eventually got her a kennel and started to use it at night to keep her out of my hair so I could get some sleep, which I desperately needed.

The kennel, however, presented issues of its own, which I soon discovered. Heidi is extremely energetic, and when I would put her in the kennel at night, she would struggle valiantly to resist my efforts. It was really frustrating for me and obviously traumatizing to her, since she had no way of knowing if I would forget about her and leave her there permanently. Of course I never did and never would, but she had no way of knowing that.

So we continued the nightly charade. I would attempt to round her up using whatever means I could, and she would jump from one surface to another attempting to evade capture with the agility of a trained athlete. By the end I would generally find myself frustrated, exhausted and guilty. At the same time she would be disgruntled and ready to take advantage of any opportunity for payback. Tension was rising, and a breaking point was inevitable.

Finally it happened. I’d been making sure to keep Heidi inside, since I was afraid she’d run away and get hurt, and I’d been successful in preventing her departure until this point. Then the day came when I opened the front door, didn’t pay attention to where she was at the time, and promptly saw her bolt into the wild blue yonder with all the speed that a homesick cat can muster. I was sad to see her go, but strangely I was also relieved–relieved that I wouldn’t have to deal with her contentiousness, relieved that I wouldn’t have to clean up her litter box, and relieved that I could get a decent night’s sleep for the first time in weeks.

But I was still worried. The first day passed, and my worry was at a manageable level. I figured that she was scouting the terrain and acquainting herself with the neighborhood animals. By the morning of the second day, my worry was at a moderate level. I was beginning to think of how easily she could be run over and how awful I would feel if that happened. By the morning of the third day, I was basically grief-stricken and had resigned myself to the inevitable. I assumed that I had seen the last of her and that our story had come to end almost before it had begun.

And then, on the night of the third day after she’d left, I heard a plaintive meow coming from my backyard. I was at the back door and started searching for her with the intensity of a blue-tick hound. I called her tentatively, and with hardly any hesitation she sauntered up to me from the shadows and rubbed against me as if nothing at all had happened. In that moment, I was more grateful than words could say.

As a result I stopped shoving her in the kennel at night. Instead I kept her in the laundry room and gave her free reign of all its considerable shelving. I also started making a habit of letting her go outdoors whenever she wanted, since I realized that the danger to her was lessened if she had the experience and confidence to handle herself in the outdoors on a daily basis. If I had attempted to force her to stay indoors, she would’ve resented me, escaped at the first available opportunity, and eventually done something stupid because she didn’t have the experience to know to avoid it. And that would’ve defeated the purpose of everything I’d done.

And so a new peace was established between us which has lasted to this day. She comes and goes as she pleases, and I rest easy knowing that she can handle herself with skill and composure in a variety of situations. She sleeps anywhere in the house she wants except my bedroom, and I get a good night’s sleep without having to hear her howling to the moon. I can genuinely say that we’re the best of friends, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Though what she gets out of snuggling amongst my underwear is anyone’s guess.