It came to my attention after my last blog post that my friends really believe in love, and they believe in the possibility of love for me even more than I do for myself. It’s not that I don’t believe in love or haven’t kept my eyes open for it, but I’ve gotten used to being content by myself, for myself, with myself.
Some of the friends who gave me public and private shout outs are deeply in love themselves, and others are on the blade side of searching. Some know this love thing firsthand and want me to have something similar, and others, like me, are on the serrated edge of (still) believing (still….) in the possibility of a thing that feels more like herding cats than cuddling on the sofa with one.
These friends said “Happy for you!” and “Cheers , Mario and Jaime!” They said “perfection,” “Thanks for the inspiration,” and “Worth the long wait.” One sent an essay about a deep love that didn’t last forever, and I appreciated that too because it’s good to prepare for everything.
I’m trying to be realistic here, but I’m also not trying to blow it or coerce something innocent into failure.
I’m struggling to simply stay present.
“Worth the long wait” confused me. Did she mean worth the long wait for the blog post, for love to arrive, or for me to finally soften to allow some love into my life? It’s hard to say, but likely it was some of each. Friends congratulated me on something hot-off-the-press brand new, something it was technically premature for me to share— but I couldn’t help myself. What I was experiencing felt so solid and secure—yet simple—that I couldn’t help but say, “I’m choosing love. I’m making a statement about what I want.”
I’ve been busy being independent, capable, and strong. I’ve been busy making plans for myself outside of a relationship because inside my last two relationships I lost my direction. In the wake of my last heartbreak I made a conscious decision to not allow the dissolution of self to happen again, but I’d also made that decision in the previous breakup so I wasn’t confident in my sketchy track record.
The line between protection and building impenetrable walls is as fine as lines come.
It’s not to say my last two relationships were bad—because in a lot of ways they were so good, and just exactly what I needed at the time—but in both I focused on the needs of my partners and neglected my own. As one of my friends said, in the midst of both, “You’re acting like someone you wouldn’t tolerate.” I love when friends are so spot on, and when they are astute enough to assess a situation and know when and how to deliver the truth not so it stings but so it guides away from inertia, the goddess of thwarted progress.
It’s natural to lose yourself in something you love. I’ve seen my friends lose themselves not only in romantic relationships, but also in their children, their work, their remodeling projects. We become unrecognizable to each other and sometimes even to ourselves. When the mirrors show up it can be hard to look so we look away, sometimes we even say “I don’t know what you’re talking about” and sometimes we say “I don’t know who you are,” but what we mean is, “Where did I go?”
I went to a palm reader once in a shopping center next to the spa I worked at. I drove to work that morning in San Francisco rush-hour traffic with a gut feeling that my first appointment wouldn’t show, and I said that if she didn’t I’d go next door and have my palm read.
I had a lot of questions about my current relationship which was filled to the brim with love, but complicated by the fact that my partner’s life contained a myriad of moving parts and I always had one foot out the door. The reader asked me to close my eyes and picture myself with my boyfriend.
We were standing in the Marin Headlands with the Golden Gate bridge as the backdrop. It was one of those days with weather so perfect you want to cry, and I nearly was crying in that photo in my mind—a replica of one we took in real life—because I knew as well as he did that what was captured with the lens wasn’t actually real. Or was it?
I had that picture in my head, as the palm reader held my exposed, naked palm and asked me to just focus on it and see what happened. It didn’t take long before the photo pixilated and I began to dissolve from the top down. First my brain, then my eyes, mouth, throat and heart, fairly slowly at first, then quicker as the momentum of my disappearing built speed. In the end I went as quickly as a stepped upon sand castle.
We think it’s the wave we need to look out for when in reality it’s the loss of balance and a misplaced foot.
In those things in which we lose ourselves it’s just as possible to find ourselves though the process can be a bit longer. Losing oneself and finding oneself aren’t the same, though one often leads to the other.
If a person finds herself, if she really sees and owns and embraces her flaws then she allows herself to be found as well. Without the seeing, owning and embracing trying to find love (I’m stealing these words from my soul sister Emily Walter) is “like trying to find cashmere at Target. Sure, it says cashmere, but doesn’t feel like cashmere.”
We’re not looking for short-strand love, people. We’re look for top-notch, authentic, real-deal love. We’re looking for the cashmere–the love–that comes from the belly, from the gut, from the place that doesn’t lie.
In the past couple of years that I’ve been mostly single a few friends (and also a few strangers) have pointed out that I’m a decent package and it shocks them that I’m “alone.” I finally came up with a way to answer this question that often feels like an inquisition: I’ve figured out what questions to ask. I know what will break a relationship for me, and I know what I require in a partner. I’ve also retired from trying to fix people and I’ve turned in my badge on being a mommy to any man full-grown enough to require a razor in his dopp kitt. I’ll add that if he doesn’t have a dopp kit we probably have another set of problems, but I add that last bit only because I like to end most of my spiels with a touch of humor, and because so much seriousness is said in jest.
As the final curtains dropped on those last two relationships, one thing was irrefutably clear: We didn’t want the same things. When we each pictured a life together we pictured different things, leading to the conclusion that there was, in fact, no “together.”
I sought therapy in both cases, wondering where I’d gone wrong, why I repeated the same mistakes and how I might achieve a different result in the future. Both therapists came up with a similar assessment: I need to choose. Being chosen is great, but it might behoove me to do some choosing.
I need to feel like I’m choosing not only the partner but also the partnership, and not dodging my own wants and needs to make room for someone else’s. Not only does that behavior not make a healthy relationship, but it’s also an unwieldy tool for distraction. When our focus is on others then we can avoid focusing on ourselves. Ouch. It’s my legacy to love like this, but it’s something I strive to change.
But here’s the rub: why is it so damn hard to break a pattern?
Ellen Glasgow was a complicated woman, but also a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who wrote mostly fiction though one autobiographical work was published posthumously. I was introduced to Ellen Glasgow a few years ago when I discovered this quote and since then I’ve worn it on my heart like a tattoo:
So I’ve taken a break, a big, two-year break to offer myself a return to myself. In that time I’ve moved a lot. I’ve always changed houses a lot, but this time I was in actual motion (not some static excuse for progression) and in two years I’ve had addresses in four states along with several other temporary posts including a couple outside the United States. I even moved into the house with my mother and grandmother to rise to an occasion I didn’t know I was capable of but which I capably and courageously handled when faced with the inevitable.
I’ve paid close attention to what feels right and what feels like struggle; I’ve paid extra close attention to where those things overlap. I’ve sat with all of it—the joy, the discomfort, the unease, the hope—to see what my future might look like both alone and in a partnership. I came to few conclusions except, as has been the case for most of my life, I was pretty much up for anything.
I experimented with a few men, but kept enough distance so that I could bow out gracefully from what was wrong as opposed to my former pattern of blazing ahead with blinders on. I also revisited a few old relationships to see how those felt right or wrong, and what it was in them that I craved and what simply wouldn’t work. In the end it was a feeling, more than a concrete thing to put a finger on.
It’s not, in the end, about if a man is tall, handsome, or rich. It’s not about what he does for work or if he gets along with his mother. It’s not about all the stuff that I thought maybe it was about. It goes beyond the superficial to the core: how do I feel with this person? Do I feel safe, secure and like myself, or do I fashion myself and cherry-pick my beliefs to fit someone else’s ideal?
I met a woman on Ibiza about a month ago who’s been married by way of arrangement for twenty-five years. She told me that her husband is a nice guy, but she wouldn’t call it love. She travels alone and sleeps alone, but they’ve parented together and there’s no way around the fact that they will stay married. She observed me and my independence, telling me that I don’t need a man, that I’m clearly taking care of myself, and that if she were me…..
Then I met a couple—last week in Rome—who met in college and who got engaged three weeks after graduation. I asked if Mindie knew that Cory was going to ask her to marry him, and Cory said, “She told me to do it! A diamond dealer friend brought stones to graduation and then she picked out her setting!”
They were in Italy celebrating twenty years of marriage, and in all those years they’ve only spent a few nights away from each other. Other than the fact that they’re American and we started talking because of problems in Italy with Verizon, our cellular provider from home, we didn’t have a lot in common, at least not on paper, but the time they hopped in a taxi Mindie Coopersmith Jacobs and I were frantically waving goodbye like old friends.
Later that night she messaged me about how good it was to meet me and how much fun lunch was because of me, I was asking if I could write about them in a blog post, and then she was inviting me to their home in New Jersey whenever I find myself passing through. These are good people. They’re honest, they like to laugh, and the genuinely care about other people. On the surface we might live our lives very differently, but at the core I believe we share a lot of the same values.
Mindi and her husband Cory are practicing Jews, and although I was first Greek Orthodox and then Catholic I approach religion more like a buffet (but not like a potluck). I take a little from here and a little from there, but I don’t actually bring much to the table. Maybe the lasagna isn’t supposed to sit on a plate so close to the borscht, but I’m not afraid to mix and match. My gut is lined with iron.
The Jacobs had a guide plan their trip for them down to train tickets and tours, and on my second day in Rome I still hadn’t picked up a map and hadn’t booked a ticket to anywhere either within Italy or out of it. He works and she takes care of the three kids. They have a house in the suburbs and a house at the shore. They spent three years planning their anniversary trip. They’ve traveled mostly to all-inclusive resorts and even when abroad they prefer to eat American food.
Mindie and Cory would never take a risk with street food or stay abroad in a non-chain hotel. I look for where the locals eat and rent rooms—sight unseen— in strangers’ homes. He wore a money belt; I’ll drink the tap water.
They had as many questions about my life as I did about theirs, but my big question was “What’s the secret to your love?”
It’s not that I want their life—I could have had it, and actually had one step in that door when I was a bride a month after my 24th birthday—but I wanted to understand that kind of love, the kind where a woman can’t imagine why other women take girls’ trips and the only argument they had in ten days traveling together was when he couldn’t get the picture she wanted in front of Pisa where it looks like she’s propping up the leaning tower. He eventually got the shot she wanted, and the “fight” became a good story.
Cory wished Mindie wouldn’t wear so many dresses while they were traveling, because he didn’t want to feel obliged to wear collared shirts while on his holiday from his lawyer job, but it wasn’t an actual problem between them: it was something to laugh about.
I like to laugh in relationships, but I’m also a boat rocker and have a genetically inherited skill for making a problem where there isn’t one. It’s as if I’m egging on my partner(s) to agree or disagree, and in the cartoon version of that image I’m wearing pads and a helmet, dancing on my toes, fingers beckoning my opponent forward while he juggles balls from every sport but the one we’re playing.
Love is not a contact sport.
When I’m sifting through the legions of photos I take I often stop at this one, that I took in Barcelona my first time there.
Back in May I spent nine days in Barcelona, divided between the beginning and end of my trip and two other time I passed through en route to somewhere else. I was a bit of a homing pigeon for the city where my feet touched European soil for the first time. I thought maybe it was just Europe, but although I love the other places I’ve visited, Barcelona was the one and only place where I felt, without a doubt, “I could need to must live here.”
After a night flying over the ocean and not sleeping I felt awake and alive upon arrival in Barcelona. I got disoriented a couple times in the first few hours, but never completely lost. I quickly got my bearings and a metro card and I hit that ground running. I loved:
the street art
the dogs (and the tea)
the city beach
the little bodegas that remind me on NYC, AKA home base
the old women who remind me of Mimi
the (not so) secret messages that seem to be everywhere
But that was then, and there’s a present moment to deal with and a sweet man I’m going to see in a few days in Barcelona. I spent seven weeks working at a yoga retreat on the north coast of Ibiza, then ten nights in the south—in the historical center—before leaving the island. I met Mario on the street about an hour after I arrived in town, and although he was working at night we spent ten of the eleven days I was there together. The only day I skipped was number two, when I asked myself, “Am I really going to spend every day with this guy? For what?”
I had to shift my thinking and urge myself to realign the question. The answer was a resounding yes. In those days of brilliant sunshine where I (mostly) followed my heart with the trust of a child I kept thinking of this passage from Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I focused on the lines: “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?”
I altered it a bit to fit my circumstances: Who am I to believe in this love? Who am I not to?
Mario and I think each other is something special, though I’m aware this could be just a “summer camp thing,” and taken to a new location the connection might not hold. Mario believes that “everything is possible” so he isn’t afraid—not even after five days—to talk about what a future might look like together. He talks about a simple, cozy home filled with beautiful things. He said we’ll cook together. When he said he wants to have a biblioteca (library) in the house my heart nearly exploded.
Mario says we should have two Labradors (he prefers black) so that when we have a disagreement we each have a dog to hold. He loves my expressive face and is naturally skilled at reading it, so after he said that about us disagreeing he squeezed my hand and said, “We will disagree sometimes. It’s normal. It’s okay.”
I don’t know if it was a premonition or a dare, but that afternoon we had our first stupid fight. It was actually a series of fights that had an eye of the storm, and then a sucker punch that had me wondering exactly how much of a self-sabotaging animal I really am.
In the eye of the storm Mario had a revelation. “I know why you’re acting like this,” he said, “You love me.” I just crumbled and sobbed because of course he was right. I was trying to ruin the love between us because I wasn’t sure what to do with it, or if I am ready or if I have the stamina for it.
I cried and then he cried and then I cried more. We spoke slowly and used our words carefully. In the midst of it I took this picture so I would always remember what it felt like to be cracked open and still feel safe.
In order to make room for this relationship I was going to have to let go of a few things. We made a plan to make a little ritual the next day so I could do just that. Mario took me to a place at the top of Dalt Vila, built in the sixth century and the oldest city in the Balearic Islands, which has views of the whole bay and walls around it that protected it from the Greeks and Romans.
Mario told me to get a padlock, and I had a small one so I brought that. When he saw it he worried that it might not be big enough to go around the iron post in the wall, and when we got to the spot we saw that not only he was correct, but also that the shank of mine was just big enough to go around his, already in place on the wall. He left me alone on the wall to think about what I really need to get rid of in this life, and I put all of those thoughts into the lock, clamped it to Mario’s and tossed the keys into the sea.
Perhaps I’m supposed to keep it a secret, but I’m not much for secrets these days. I said, “I don’t need to do everything alone. Being independent doesn’t have to mean being alone. Being in a partnership doesn’t have to mean given up freedom.”
Back in May, Emily and I took nine days in Portugal together to celebrate both of our birthdays but mostly it was to celebrate us. We fell in love with the Portuguese light, wine, seafood, and wind. It was a restorative, amazing time where we worked through the past and paved the way to the future. You could say our future might be paved a bit like the Portuguese streets—rough but with love—but Em and I are simply not afraid. If something seems scary we just downshift and grind through it, never thinking to shift into reverse, or worse: risk stalling.
I’ve already posted this photo in a blog about that birthday trip and it might be cheesy as hell to say this, but it’s true: the road can be both rough and full of love simultaneously.
Yes: rough and full of love at the same time. These things do not have to be mutually exclusive, and YES, I feel like I might finally have woken the fuck up from some fog where I was confused as hell about what romantic love is and isn’t. I’ve gotten friend-love down pat, but the romantic love: man that’s a squirrely little bastard.
Anyway. Emily and I are born four days apart. My birthday was toward the beginning of the trip and Emily’s was toward the end. We had full days, and I think only once or twice did we stay awake past midnight. The night of Em’s birthday eve we stumbled on a tiny pub with fun, live music. It was the kind of music you want to sing along to, and sing, smile and seat-dance we did.
We didn’t want to be wiped out for her birthday and our journey to Sagres—the place formerly known as the end of the earth— so we walked back to our apartment just after midnight and snuggled into our twin-sized beds in the upstairs bedroom. I fell asleep quickly and had a dream that I told Emily to “take my hand.” In real-time my arm was flung out of the bed and she took my hand.
I awoke startled—it’s always a shocker when the dream world intersects with the real world—and I heard Emily’s voice whispering to me, “Soph, I’m scared. Someone is trying to break in.”
My first thought was to say “that’s impossible,” but what I did was listen. Emily and I held hands in the dark and I didn’t hear anything, but then I heard what scared her: bang, bang, bang.
It was the sound of a body flinging itself against a heavy wooden door that was set in concrete. I thought about the door to the roof deck and didn’t hear noise up there, but downstairs there was definitely a door ruckus going on. It happened again and my skin prickled.
Our apartment had no cell or internet service. We had no phone to SOS the front desk. What the hell were we going to do? We’d both traveled alone extensively long before cell service, but it was 2014 and other than continue to hold hands I really didn’t know what we’d do besides turn over our passports, American Express cards, and iphones.
It turns out we really just needed to keep holding hands.
Every hair on my body stood up as Em squeezed my hand tighter. I heard voices. I heard laughing. I heard the noise again. I knew she was really scared, and I knew that it was my turn to be the brave one. After what felt like forever I figured it out.
“It’s okay, Soph,” I told her softly, “That’s not the sound of a door opening. It’s the sound of a door closing.”
I realized that the people in the apartment next to ours must have been going in and out of their front door, and their door, like ours, was probably heavy and difficult to jam into the ancient doorframe. Like ours, it seemed to requirer a few solid hip checks before it latched closed. The banging noise we heard was the sound of our neighbors getting their door closed, not the sound of someone breaking ours down.
Love is scary. The feeling of a new door opening to the possibility of new love can be just as disorienting as the feeling when a door closes on a love that once held hope and promise. As Emily and I witnessed, they can even sound the same.
The reason that Sagres was once known as the end of the earth is because although the early navigators knew the earth was round it seemed like Sagres—with its intense wind, dodgy current, and strong tides—might be a decent place to stick a flag in the earth and declare it: THE END.
Even when things feel like the end, they’re just a hair away from a beginning. It can be confusing and disorienting when figuring out if the fear comes from what has passed or what’s to come. A door closing can sound almost exactly like a door opening because—in the blink of an eye—that’s almost exactly what it is.
And when in doubt, eyes open and on the horizon is always a safe bet.