One of my favorite love stories, the BBC adaptation of a Victorian era novel, North & South, features two very strong and compelling characters.
The first, Margaret Hale, the cherub-faced daughter of an English clergyman, is forced to move to the industrial North after her father’s resignation over a matter of conscience. The other is John Thornton, a mill-owner, a handsome man with piercing eyes, brooding and intense, and interest in the demure young woman.
Things started fairly well. But, that doesn’t last as the differences in their perspectives becomes clear. Margaret, compassionate and having lived a sheltered life, interprets the actions of John in a negative light and pulls away after witnessing his harshness towards an employee caught smoking. What she sees as just cruelty was actually Thornton’s concern for the safety and wellness of his workers given the extreme risk of fire.
It is in the last and final act where there’s a scene where the tension between the two finally disappears. Throughout the middle-act Thornton’s truly good character is slowly revealed. And, Margaret, having returned South, has reconsidered her own idealistic notions, now sees the merits to living in Milton, and decided to return North again. Meanwhile, John is going South, the two cross paths at a station near the midpoint and cue the music.
There is this wonderful part of the soundtrack in this climatic station scene, Northbound Train (listen here), that so perfectly accompanied the moment. It is understated and elegant, reflective, that builds in waves to crescendo and then slips away as wistfully as it came. Thornton’s steadfast devotion is finally rewarded with a kiss and happily ever after begins despite the painful struggle to get there.
When the Story Goes South…
During my pursuit of the impossibly (a preacher’s daughter, like Margaret) this story brought a little hope with the similarities to my own. It wasn’t that we were so terribly different in our desires as it was she never heard me. Her conclusions formed before the conversation even began. She had pronounced “you’re thirty years old living in Milton” (the actual name of the town) meaning, in translation, that I would hinder her big plans. And could not understand it was her boldness and ability to get out that attracted me.
My thesis then was that a composite of our unique strengths, seemingly incompatible, bound together by Christian love, would exceed what those of similar abilities could accomplish. My thinking outside the box combined with her represention of the Mennonite standard. And, while I’m never good at getting things started (hence being stuck in Milton) I’m extremely loyal and willing to sacrifice for the team. I knew my age and life experience was an asset. But she could not see my value.
Still, for the year or so following her initial rejection I believed. What a wonderful story we would have when all was said and done, right?
Anyhow, that music, Northbound Train, had seemed like the perfect bridal march. Partly in innocent faith, partly to bolster my failing confidence against the deluge of rational fears, this image of the impossibly walking the church aisle dressed in white. As would be the case in real life, tears would stream down my cheeks as the nightmare of the past decade was replaced by this wonderful dream of marital companionship and completeness.
The strong emotions that came with that gentle harp being replaced with one violin and then two, have now disappeared. The music is still beautiful, but my feelings of numbness have long replaced that panging desire for a well-defined conclusion to over a decade of struggle. What I got instead was a world more complex. The cynicism that I had fought tooth and nail was confirmed.
The sunshine through the clouds, endings sweet and perfect are not for everyone. And the reason we tell such lovely tales is probably because they’re so uncommon, the exception, and not the rule. Sure, we can see ourselves as the characters. But the impossibly will likely go on seeing me as the villain in her movie, her conventional guy as the hero, and has never once shared in my fairytale that love would prevail over our differences.
As Far As the East is From the West
It is hard to believe that nearly another decade has passed and I’m still alone. I’ve moved from Milton, left the religion of my childhood behind, even traveled to the complete opposite side of the world twice, and have changed from that guy perpetually unsure of how to find direction. No, I’m not a missionary, but I do genuinely love people and probably accomplish more of actual value than those duty-bound Evangelical types who see ‘the lost’ as their get-into-heaven projects.
More importantly, I’ve found another impossibly, a beautiful Filipina flower, a little lost sheep when I found her (struggling abroad, in Taiwan, to support her son back home) and now the one who keeps me strong despite our torturous wait. Unlike the Mennonite impossibility, we do not share a cultural or ethnic identity, our lives have been very different, yet we have our simple and devoted love in common—which has been just enough to sustain us through these past years.
However, after all I’ve been through, holding on to hope is hard. Could my visions of her arrival at the airport, on American soil, with Y-dran in tow, also be a delusion?
It has been over two years and eight months since we’ve held each other that one last time before we parted ways in Taoyuan International Airport. I had known the immigration process would be difficult, but could not have anticipated the pandemic and travel bans that make it nearly impossible to be with Charlotte. It really does start to bring those worries that I might be cursed to the forefront again and sometimes the despair does win.
The eternal optimism of youth wiped away by the rejection of the Mennonite ideal, now facing my rational fears and the fact that I’ve been hoping longer than Jacob worked for Rachel and without so much as a Leah in between, I can now fully identify with the wife of Job, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.” The frustration is real. How long does one go on dreaming? When is it justified to wither away into bones, with life never to return again?
As far as the East is from the West is an expression, in Psalms 103:12, used to describe an impossible distance that cannot be bridged. And it could seem that, despite the abiding love of my bhest to encourage me onwards, I’ve jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire. We have had a bit of good news since I’ve last published a blog here, the USCIS approved the application, and yet will this impossibly ever become possible?
I see the successful couples. So lovely together. To them it feels preordained, meant to be, a dream come true. For me, on the outside looking in, there is now more uncertainty than certainty, not everyone gets that music at the end.