Friday, January 27, 2012

Winning a game of hearts

Going with my dad to see Mamma Mia! in London a few years ago might have been when I experienced one of the most profound, beautiful and sappy moments of my life.

About half way through the second act, father and daughter are both dangerously close to becoming absorbed in the story. Regardless of the teetering strength of the cast, the dorky quality of the production or anything else, we became subject to any attack on pathos that the play was willing to dish out.

And dish they did. As Donna sang "Slipping Through My Fingers" to Sophie while helping her dress for her wedding, I began crying like I had never cried during a musical - especially during a peppy show like Mamma Mia!. My dad, ever the man in touch with his feminine side, followed suit. By the end of the song, we had both used up my entire travel pack of tissues, sobbing together in the middle of a crowded theater.

So as I sat through the song again tonight, waiting for that same extreme response, I wondered why the tears were just not flowing.

It wasn't expectation that spoiled it, that I know. When I watched Finding Neverland the first time I couldn't help but cry at the end of the film and all subsequent viewings have elicited the same response despite my awareness of the inevitability.

So if it wasn't that then it had to be that something had changed in me. And I came to a conclusion.

The answer came to me tonight during the next song, "The Winner Takes it All," in which Donna sings to her ex-lover about feeling she'd lost everything, playing the part of victim to his winner when he broke up with her 21 years before.

Though I teared slightly in "Slipping Through My Fingers," during "The Winner Takes it All" I was forced to tilt my head back to avoid smearing mascara all over my face. This visceral response came from somewhere deep within me, signifying a recent shift in my insecurities that I did not before realize was so poignant.

"Slipping Through My Fingers" is a song about parental loss. It's about childhood separation and watching people grow up and out of our lives. At the time that I saw Mamma Mia! with my dad, I was on the cusp of leaving home and going off to college 2,000 miles away from where I'd lived the first 17 years of my life. The song had been my sister's Father-Daughter dance song, which was an emotional strain in itself. It reminded me not only of the sadness and loneliness I felt as I watched my sister and my dad dance at her wedding, thinking of losing her as part of my life. It also made me think of my own eventual separation from my dad when I'm done with college, whether that be through moving away for work or getting married.

But watching the performance of the song did not affect me tonight the way it did a few years ago. In past months, a different kind of sadness reigned over me. Not separation from parents, but separation from a romantic notion of life. It's easy to reduce yourself to the terribly effervescent cheesiness of a slice of gruyere when talking about "lost love" as it were, and I won't even begin to pretend that I have ever been in love.

Yet listening to "The Winner Takes it All" connected with me in a way that made me re-examine how I feel about loss in general. The song frames itself around this narrative of the speaker (singer) losing a romantic partner and reflecting on the feeling of not just losing the person, but actually becoming a loser in the game of relationships.

I've had my fair share of loss. By 15 I was already living without a mother. But losing a loved one isn't really loss in the multiple senses of the word. Because while it does indicate not having something anymore, it has nothing to do with feeling like less of a person.

When Donna sings "I apologize if it makes you feel bad seeing me so tense, no self-confidence," I started to feel a kinship with her character more than I had with Sophie several years ago as she prepared to leave home. Because unlike "Slipping Through My Fingers" suggests, loss in the form of leaving is not true loss. No matter where I go, my dad will follow. Whether in reality or by phone or in my heart, I was never actually left by my mom and I won't be left by my dad. But relationships are another story.

It really is so easy to feel you're the victim to the victor when you've broken up. You want to apologize for seeming weak, but the sadness at being unable to stand up for yourself just ruins you even more.

When you're moving away or starting a new life, there is no winner or loser. While on the surface things are changing, in the heart things remain the same. And that's why the tears are less of an issue.

I no longer feel sadness at losing someone via growing up. Though I may still cry when I leave my dad after summer vacation, I'll never feel utterly devastated because the comfort of his love is unceasing.

But love, non-familial, non-parental, is something that isn't unceasing. There are so many barriers on it, so many expectations and limitations, that at times it can seem virtually unattainable. And when I've risked stepping over that ledge to try and grasp it, I've found myself losing my balance, falling off the ledge and losing the game.

I am still very much the young and frightened little doe that Sophie is, more nervous than anxious about the prospect of future life. But in light of recent events, there has been a clear change in what truly makes me sad. Instead of fearing the thought of not getting to be with people I care about, I now worry over losing my heart to those who don't care.

The people I may separate from in a physical sense are always a part of my world, always a part of me. Frightening is the thought of those who don't care to be a part of my world, despite how far I extend my hand to them.

What is most scary is the uncertainty of everything. Of winners and losers, of reality versus fiction and of love in general. In the game of Hearts, a heart in your hand costs you. And often life follows suit. But at least I know no matter what happens to my heart, my dad, my mom and the rest of my family are the diamonds in the rough that will salvage me from a poor score.

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