i’ve had cave bears on my mind lately.
ah. let me go back a bit.
it all began with netflix. i’ve a few hundred items in my queue, yes, i am an addict, the worst kind, a junkie aesthete, though a full third of them are tv shows, which means anywhere from 6 to 60 episodes, which means it’s more like several thousand items. i justify this, partially, because another full third are documentaries. any kind of subject is welcome. the history of the helvetica font. the portrayal of native americans in cinema. the death of the electric car. educational, right? health food for the mind. i feast on a diet of learning.
one of my rules, yes, i have them, sporadic as they are, is that for every 3 or 4 movies or tv episodes watched, a documentary must follow. my latest selection was about the chauvet cave in france, newly discovered, that has yielded the earliest known cave paintings of upper paleolithic man, dated to approximately 32,000 BC. put into context, the artists were familiar with flint tools, and would most likely know how to play a flute. they used ovens to fire clay figures. roughly 10,000 years later, neaderthals would become extinct. another 10,000 years would see the first evidence of warfare. add a further 10,000 years, and the bronze age is smelted into being. a final thousand(ish) years brings us to the iron age, and the subsequent rise of the roman empire.
nestled above a picturesque gorge near the pont d’arc in southern france. the cave was formed by an infiltration of water, the entire area submerged for millions of years. vast chambers, some 400 meters in total, are populated now only by bones. ibex. wolf. cave bear. including a solitary skull placed conspicuously on the lip of a rock believed to be an altar. there are charcoal remnants from torches, and the soft, clay-like floor retains many animal tracks. and, they think, the impression of a child’s foot. one of the most unique features is the presence of handprints scattered throughout. walls filled with a pressing of deep red palms onto scraped-away rock, detailed enough to see the crooked finger of the artist, pointing back, almost at himself, as if saying here, this is who i am. i did this. here i make my mark.
nearly as fascinating as the cave are the scientists and archeologists engaged in its study. their passion, their knowledge of the subject, their deep need to know more, always more, some of them leaving behind old lives to take this journey into the dark recesses, a landslide having sealed off the entrance more than 20,000 years ago, preserving the interior in a near-pristine condition. the wonders they get to explore. think of it. all that knowledge, hibernating. tucked away, waiting for the right explorers to come along and open it up to the world again.
so, now the stage is set. or rather, the cave.
while watching the documentary a couple of weeks ago, i saw someone i knew. thought i knew. of course, it wasn’t him, but the resemblance was uncanny. unsettling. here, on the screen, was a man i had tried to forget.
put into context, he was familiar to me from the first moment. he fine-tuned me, pulled a fire out of me… and then put it out. he extinguished me. and since then i’ve been at war with his shadow, as i find myself formed into this strange shape, pounded, hammered, folded upon myself, rising only to be brought down.
it’s been years. and sometimes there are whole weeks, a month here or there even, when i manage to have a past that doesn’t include him. but the glimpse of a particular shade or maroon, or the smell of sawdust, or the vague way he would say “vague” and i’ve got his breath at my back again, and i’m helpless before the memories that awaken, never dead, never gone, simply hibernating. tucked away. waiting for the right triggers to open me up to him again.
he was the first man i fell in love with. opened myself to. fully. did i see that he would destroy me? yes. i saw. i didn’t care. i think i wanted him to, in some way. did i know that it wasn’t me he wanted, but a girl long lost to him? yes. i knew. i didn’t care. i wanted to be her, in every way.
but i never counted on my inability to stop loving him.
i didn’t see that one.
after it was all over, once he had finished pressing me with deep red palms, marking me as his mistake, signing his name to the scraped-away mess he had made, at the end of myself, i still loved him.
as he slowly faded from me, that faded as well. a lightening of his particular bruise until one day, i could look at the skin of myself and not see him upon me anymore.
but these minutes, these months, these millennia since, that is the reconciliation i’ve never been able to make. that i loved him despite the wounds. that i loved him.
and when he was suddenly in front of me again, his face, his eyes, i went under. submerged, fighting for breath, i thrashed about, grasping for that solitary thing that could push me beyond the debris. i swam through the bones of my past, searching, searching.
then last night, a light, showing me something i learned long ago, something i thought i had lost in the landslide.
it is never wrong to love.
will there be pain? maybe. probably. will there be joy? hopefully. that’s the most anyone can ask of love. that it brings you hope. but hope is a very powerful illuminator. and when placed upon the lip of a life, hope makes sense of the vast caverns around you. inside you.
think of it. the wonders you get to explore. all that love, showing you yourself.
last night, love showed me forgiveness.
not for him. for me.
i was not wrong to love him.
this reconciliation finally made, i leave the remnants behind, and leave my own prints on the yielding floor of my past, pointing to myself, saying here, this is who i am. i am more. always more.