The heart's desires

February 14, 1994|By Stephen Vicchio

FOR most of my life I have felt a craving for something. I'm not sure what. This unnamed desire, like the sultry voice of bachelorette No. 3, hovers on the other side of the partition -- communicative but disembodied. This secret desire -- more like a longing, really -- has remained so constant, so forceful, that I think of it as an inherent part of my life, something like a birthmark.

Before the longing entered me (I don't know how else to describe it), I used to think of myself as a sailor, bending over the maps of my possible lives, thinking of the many courses I might chart. But I no longer think of life that way. I now realize that the nature of the trip, including the destination, is determined far more by the wind and the tides than by any ideas the captain might have about where the craft is headed. The ancient Egyptians must have understood this. That is why the heart was the only organ they left intact in their mummies.

Over the past few years, living in the midst of a career, a growing family, and with a busy wife who wishes not to be considered the only care-giver at our house, I have come to understand that it is the desire, not the objects of the desire, that has been so important to me along the way. The longing has had no simple referent; it is more like a condition than a destination. Meanwhile, the objects of the longing change daily. They compete with each other like a room full of children with a favorite teacher.

What has remained constant about my desires is that I so frequently seem to be under the spell of what is most distant, that it is the nature of my longings not to want what is near at hand. And so I tell my wife I love her, and mean it most fervently, when she is away on an overnight business trip. When she is gone a few days, I walk into her closet and press her clothes to my face in order to experience the scent of her. When she returns, I do not let on, not because love is absent but because the desire, the longing, somehow becomes replaced by another that demands more of my attention.

When I am away, I line up their pictures: my wife, our two small boys. I set them out on the hotel nightstand, next to the Gideon Bible -- an assembly of talismans warding off the possibility of a life of loss. Before falling asleep, I try to remember every detail of their faces. Then I try to imagine a hole in the picture, like the old television commercials for life insurance. One by one I try to remove the faces until it all becomes too painful. Somehow I find the way to sleep, but the loss of my family usually follows me down into my dreams.

I know this sounds like a man with the right desires. Yet, when I return home a few days later, I get my wife to help with homework or to walk a fussy baby, because I have not finished reading the evening paper. Or I worry too much about the noise my 7-year-old makes, failing to realize that he makes the noise partly because he's happy and relieved to see me.

Too often when I am home, my life is taken up with an array of small things that go into the making of a big desire to be somewhere, anywhere else. I am perfectly willing to trade love and a sense of belonging for thinner, more manageable desires: an uninterrupted cup of coffee, an hour to write, an evening of sleep unpunctuated by the sound of a baby crying. This willingness to trade desires goes on and on until eventually all that exists are the yearnings for the tiny things. The larger longings, mysteriously, seem to disappear for a time.

This is why I think of Valentine's Day as a special day, as important as Christmas or New Year's. It is a kind of secular Day of Atonement, when we publicly state the relative worthiness of our different desires. Some of my friends who, like me, are approaching middle age, have trouble sorting out the value of their longings. That is why they sometimes leave their wives and kids and buy new sports cars.

It isn't surprising that many of these men still send their ex-wives flowers on Feb. 14. Just for a moment, the relative importance of their desires becomes clear, as pristine as the first swipe of intermittent wipers. But then things get all cloudy again, and they need women half their age to fulfill new desires.

When Valentine's Day approaches, I always think about my longings as well, about how they are so frequently at odds with each other. I think that my relationship with those I love is like one of those Chinese finger locks I had as a child. The harder one pulls away, the tighter become the interlockings. I think about how love is a trap, but the quarry and the bait are identical. My friends who have left their families must have felt the same way, so they chew off their fingers like those desperate animals caught in steel traps in the woods.

What I like most about Valentine's Day are the cards and red boxes of candy -- how the hearts are always laid open, lush and red, ready to be wounded or healed. The rest of the year, our

other desires conspire to make us clumsy surgeons busy with the knife, but for a single day in the coldest month of the year we apply salve to the heart.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

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