Every year since I’ve become a writer I’ve done a “not a New Year’s resolution” post, starting here. This year’s, however, has been a little tricky. Basically, a bunch of things came to a head over Christmas and New Year’s that left me reeling, but positively. I’ve been dealing with a lot, but in a way that I’m really proud of and kind of wanted to share. That said, I debated writing this, not least because I’m never sure when personal is too personal. A few days ago, however, I received a lovely letter from a woman who is having rough times in a relationship, and who told me she found solace in my books.
So I did what I often do when I’m torn about an action. I think What Would Jane Do? And I knew that Jane would write this post.
Without further ado, here’s what I’ve learned, or am attempting to learn, as of right now. It’s pretty deep shit. And shit.
1) Grand Narratives Need Not Apply
I’m a super independent woman who knows she doesn’t want children and is meh about marriage. I can see getting married to have a fuck off big party and some tax benefits, but I never, even as a little girl, imagined myself in a white dress spouting Corinthians. I’m also a highly trained skeptic who is happy to call bullshit on all the “grand narratives”: those stories that frame our lives as Westerners, or Americans, or women, or whatever set of groups to which we belong.
And yet I let those grand narratives affect me on so many levels.
For example, I call daily bullshit on the following cultural fairy tales: I am happily ignoring my biological clock; I know that romantic love is a Western construct currently buoyed by advertising; that “the one” is a cockamamie idea; that “love at first sight” is a form of extreme narcissism in which we fall in love with the self we see reflected in the other person’s eye. This is just a sampling of me calling bullshit. And yet, every time I meet someone new I wonder… WILL THIS PERSON BE THE ONE.
Of course this person is not the one. No one is ever the one. And I can tell you why, according to at least fifteen philosophers (although there are more I haven’t read who touch on this subject).
I’m not beating myself up over this, by the way. For those cultural narratives are so powerful, they may as well be scripted over our DNA. We know that Richard Gere’s character will rescue our heroine, even though he’s in a limo and she’s a hooker. We have been trained to know these things. And the allure of these narratives is powerful: what woman doesn’t, at some point when she’s at her breaking point, want to be rescued? And what man, when everything has changed and men are no longer valued as they were, doesn’t want to be a rescuer?
But these narratives lie. They lie again and again and again. They sell a promise of perfection when it’s reality that is worth living. It’s the grit, the sweat, the tears, the smiles, the hesitant touches, the joy that requires pain to be felt–these are where the really grand experiences live. Not in the starched white confines of the Disney version of life the Grand Narrative sells.
Which leads me to my second thing…
2) This Shit Will Always be Complicated
I’ve been told time and again that I give “great advice.” I’ve lived pretty hard and I’ve read a lot. I know that life is complicated as all get out. So when something crazy happens to a friend, I am on it. I am right there at the front of the line saying, “Girl, your husband left you even though you know he loves you? It’s cuz shit is complicated.” “Sweetie, your boyfriend came out the closet? It’s cuz shit is complicated.” “Oh honey, you think you can never love again because you fall for the same douchebag over and over? It’s cuz shit is complicated.”
The problem with this sage advice (which is usually actually sager when not boiled down for comedic affect) is that I never really internalized the fact that it applied to me.
I blame the grand narratives (see above) that for some reason I thought love, while complicated for everyone else, would be easy for me. I’d meet the right person, the One!!!, and it would all fall into place, and everything would be easy. Because I’m so awesome, right?
Sorry, Charlie, life doesn’t work like that. The shit is going to be complicated. For my friends, for me, for you. And, inevitably, it’s not only going to be complicated; it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt so bad it lays you flat. It’s gonna feel like someone left a void in your chest that echoes with a cacophony of loss. And then the hurt is going to shit more pain into that void, as it laughs at you.
And yet, despite knowing this, we only have two choices, folks. We can crawl in our shells like little hermit crabs, or we can live despite knowing we’ll be hurt. Which leads me to my third revelation.
3) Marvell Had it Right
I’ve always loved Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” It’s a seduction poem–a man trying to get laid. But its last lines have always haunted me:
“Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.”
Some of you may recognize echoes of these lines from Tempest Rising, when Jane and Ryu first make love. Anyway, I’ve always adored the images here: the two bodies intertwining, their passion surging them forward till they’re moving so fast they come as close as humanly possible to claiming their own destiny–they can’t stop the sun, no, but they can nip at its heels.
And, in a lot of ways, that’s how I’ve always lived my life. I’ve always gone hard or gone home. I’ve taken enormous risks, sticking my neck out for all sorts of things.
But never for love.
When it comes to my heart, I am best diagnosed by 30 Rock’s Chris Cross, when he tells Liz Lemon that the only women single in their forties are “uggos, crazies, and bailers.” I realized, watching that scene, that I am a bailer.
I always have one foot out the door. I always have an escape hatch. I have countries to move to; careers to launch; other careers to nurture. The flip side of my propensity to bail is that I’ve often gravitated to certain kinds of men: the emotionally distant, the equally cagey/ambitious, the sweetheart so hobbled by goodness he would never chase me when I ran, and that one we refer to only as Bad Decision.
To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever really been in love. Not because individuals I was with weren’t worthy, but because I wouldn’t go there. The good thing, however, about dating certain kinds of men is that they deliver, with certainty. And at some point last year, after a stockpile of rather crappy deliveries, I realized that I am too old for this shit.
I’m too old to be a coward. I’m too old not to know and admit my weaknesses. I’m too old to deny my vulnerabilities. I am too old not to apply all that fierceness with which I live my life and love my friends to a lover.
Meanwhile, I was toying with these ideas for a while over New Years. And I was feeling more than slightly heart-battered when I read something by Sugar that made it all so clear. At first it was only the beginning part of this quotation that spoke to me. But then, as the weeks developed and my heartache turned into something more honest, when I was ready to take as much blame as I was doling out, I latched on to the second part:
“Do it. Doing so will free your relationship from the tense tangle that withholding weaves. Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word love to your lover has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel.
So release yourself from that. Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.
Like I said, I initially latched on to the first part. It helped me understand how I’d gotten so hurt by something I never saw coming. But then the second part of that quotation started to seep in, and it all began to come together as I acknowledged my own role in my romantic tribulations. First the idea I needed to tackle truly rejecting the grand narratives that I know make me crazy. Then trying to internalize the fact that shit just is and always will be fucking complicated. And then the hardest part: realizing that if I let myself run from complexity, I am going to become that person who withholds. And I’ve seen that guy. I’ve dated that guy. And I’m pretty sure it sucks to be that guy.
So I’ve been focusing on that second part. I’ve been trying to be brave. To be as authentic as I can be. And I’ve been telling everyone I love them. I’ve been practically yelling it at all of my wonderful friends who deserve to be told they’re adored. And I’ve even fumbled at telling the person who I’m most afraid to say those words to right now, because I’m so fucking terrified it might be real this time and I’m not sure what scares me more: that I’ll be rejected or accepted.
But despite the fear, I want to ring that iron bell. I want to hear it sound, clear and loud, and to know that I was brave. To ring it even as I know that making myself vulnerable will mean, eventually, that I will somehow be hurt. But I’m also learning it can mean such glorious things, like that feeling when you force out your trembling little hand in the darkness and, to your delight and surprise, his is waiting there for you. Admittedly equally clammy and terrified, but there, ready to clutch yours.
I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know if we’ll both be brave, or if one of us will bail. But I do know one thing.
I’ve neither world enough, nor time, not to chase my own goddamned sun.