Gateways in our Lives, Rites des Passages, Can we Really be Reborn?


When I was 25, I thought my life was as close to perfect as life could be.  I was a graduate student at Harvard University.  I had a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship and a National Geographic Society grant to conduct archaeological research at one of the greatest archaeological ruined cities in the entire world: Chichén Itzá, Yucatán.  I had good relations with the Mexican archaeologists of the National Institute of Anthropology & History (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) both in Mérida, Yucatán and Mexico City, and the support and admiration of, if not all, quite a few colleagues in at least four or five countries.  My life seemed charmed.

In May of that year, 1985, I met a diminutive young Greek girl with large real breasts and fake-blonde hair named Elena Kourembana.  I teased her that just looking at her she reminded me of the title of a famous American Movie, namely “Roots” and was otherwise initially quite viciously cruel to her, every chance I got, but she was different from anyone else I had ever encountered.  She was an “old world” witch—none of these new age crystals for her. She never ever wore a bra under her loose fitting tops and flirted with me intensely from the moment I met her, despite the fact that I had quite a wonderful sweet, and loving American girlfriend at the time…. oh well, I’m a worthless cad—always was, always have been—couldn’t cure it then and I certainly can’t cure it now.   Within two and a half years we were married, twenty five years ago to the day on December 5, 1987.

Now, 25 years later, we could, might, should, would be celebrating our Silver Anniversary.  I’m actually hanging out, at the moment, at what would have been a wonderful house and place for a 25th Silver Anniversary.   I am in Maui, Hawaii, living (albeit temporarily) on a hillside, looking at an ocean, beautiful and still…. In case anyone who reads this is too young to recognize it, which probably everyone is, those are lines from a duet Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza sang each other in the musical made from James A. Michener’s South Pacific.  

The songs from that particular musical were always very important to me, but the emphasis on cultural distance and crossing cultural boundaries in Michener’s novel and the musical became extremely important to me in my life with Elena.

By some truly bizarre consequence, I had also just been hired as a consultant by James A. Michener and was traveling with him fairly regularly in Mexico, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.   Mr. Michener also by coincidence moved to Austin, Texas, and there he died in 10 years later, 15 years ago this past October 16, in 1997, just as my own life was facing a major meltdown in Austin……   James A. Michener’s wife Mari Yoriko Sabusawa was Nisei Japanese.  Mr. Michener obviously loved his wife intensely and to my observations was never separated from her even for a minute, even after 39 years marriage.  I Mari utterly and completely insufferable for many reasons, not least because she was constantly extolling the virtues of interracial marriage (I guess it worked for her…..).  Mari predeceased her mass-producing novelist husband by three years and led to his last depression, and slow suicide by disconnecting dialysis….

But now, 25 years have passed since the December 5, 1987 when Elena and I got married.  We have been totally and completely separated for more than ten years, since late July 2002.   She has managed completely and totally to alienate me from my son, a project she worked on intensively from, well, basically, the moment he was born.

I have thought of many epitaphs for my marriage, including “I married Medea.”  My son might as well be dead to me now for all the contact and communication I have with him, even though just two years ago we were (I thought) fast friends.  It turned out he kept a lot of things secret from me, I guess, at his mother’s instance or not  I have no idea.  But we apparently were not nearly as close even in his last years in High School, Summer School sessions at Harvard, and Freshman year at Saint John’s College Annapolis as I had imagined.  So, “I married Medea” is definitely a possibility—and an old friend and (another) former sweetheart came up with this analysis and comparison entirely by independent invention on hearing the story just recently.

I have tried very hard to “blame the system” and society for the failure of my marriage, but I’m sure I had at least something to do with it.  On the whole, looking back, I would trade absolutely everything else I’ve ever had in my life NOT to have had that catastrophic marriage which (literally) destroyed absolutely everything I was and had before I got married.  Medea?  Another possible goddess identity for my “tiny tiger bride” as I called her when we got married in 1987 was the Hindu Kali—the inverse of Parvati, Siva’s perfect wife.

There is a little known (at least in America) movie in Swedish by Russian Andrei Tarkovsky (in large part a tribute to Ingmar Bergman) called Offret “the Sacrifice”.   It is by far the most moving of all the Ronald Reagan era movies about the end of the world.

(Still another of my girlfriends from that era, a brunette art-historical Yalie named Mary Ellen, had recurring horrific nightmares about nuclear holocaust and the end of the world—too many “duck and cover” exercises in her elementary school youth I guess, followed of course by Reagan and Bush talking the Cold War into nearly Hot Life in the 1980s….).   Ronald W. Reagan and George W. Bush both seemed quite willing to launch a nuclear war if necessary to end the Cold War, and whether they were or not, Reagan’s Star Wars (Strategic Defense Initiative, of SDI) quite justifiably sent a lot of folks completely over the edge—and made a lot of other people, especially around Harvard and Bostons’ Route 128 generally, regions where absolutely everyone either hated or at least convincingly pretended to hate Reagan, quite unjustifiably rich.  The American movies of this genre, like The Day After, were simply dreadful, barely tolerable melodramas.

But Tarkovsky’s Offret was something else: it was the story of an individual man’s choice to sacrifice himself to save the world. When a television newscaster announces the end of the world and darkness begins to consume the world, the “hero” named Alexander makes a Faustian vow to God and embraces (it’s never clear, either divine faith or earthly magic) to change the destiny of the world.  He prays as low flying planes and the sounds of war begin: “I’ll give Thee all I have, I’ll give up my family, whom I love, I’ll destroy my home and give up Little Man.”

I have so often wished I could make a time-and-destiny changing vow of this sort, to make the mute speak, as “Little Man” does at the end: “In the beginning was the Word.  Why is that, Dad?”  In some ways, I am no better off now than was Alexander at the end of “The Sacrifice”, but in other ways I am in this beautiful spot, in a place full of the scent of tropical flowers enjoying a couple of weeks in a vacation villa that’s much more luxurious than old 17th-18th century Hacienda Chichén Itzá ever was or could have been back in the 1980s, even when I rented the whole place from Carmencita Barbachano and had it just for my dissertation project…. To Carmencita on the one hand and Elena on the other I owe my decision to move from archaeology to law…..Carmencita had one lawyer named Alan Molina who always worked to make feel like the most worthless and insignificant of worms…. and another Licenciado Humberto Rosado Espinola in her office, a kindly old criollo Yucatecan man whom Molina considered an idiot….who died on that famous Martes Trece when Hurricane Gilbert went through Yucatán on September 13, 1988.  The oppression I felt from and through Licenciado Alan Molina Montes, even while living at Hacienda C.I. for the better part of three solid years (1983-1985) was part of what made me think I should be a lawyer, or at least acquire the knowledge and skill of a lawyer.  Elena pushed me for completely ignoble reasons: she didn’t feel that an archaeologist could ever make enough money to satisfy her (but neither could a lawyer).

It would be wonderful if life’s gateways were reversible, if you could walk back through a portal after you walked in.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word.”  But what word was that?  Was it “Love”?  When we are young, we are stupid for love and its mere alter-egos sexual passion and infatuation from afar, but that is all Eros.  Agapé in modern Greek has become just another word for love, although in Ancient Greek it seems to have meant so much more.  Nothing is more trivial in modern Greek than to call a lover or child, agapimou (my love).

For me, my marriage, the little Greek girl, the wedding in the heart of Athens, even our two honeymoons, one in Colombia and a later in Eastern Europe, were unidirectional gateways from which there was no return.  Either I could not, or simply I did not, I failed to make the necessary sacrifice to reverse it all.  If my son ever reads this, I hope he will know that I would like to have made such a heroic sacrifice for him.  But he will probably never read it.  His mother has achieved (now that he is an adult) the censorship she could never achieve when he was a child/adolescent/minor.

I have completed 52 years—the twenty five I lived before I met Elena, the two and a half years of our courtship and the twenty five years since—and now I am nearly 2/3 of the way through my 53rd year.  My son has completed 20 years since the eve of Hurricane Andrew on August 23, 1992.  I know my wife hated me from before he was born and certainly ever since.   My son has not yet quite finished the first half of his 21st year.  He has not spoken to me since May of 2011.   Either he or someone using his e-mail occasionally sends “phatic” messages—but they convey nothing of his life.  “Hello” and then no reply to my response.

And so I live for the moment in a beautiful place, knowing that

Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate.

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