Life is finding a predictable rhythm with fewer surprises lately, it seems. I’m grateful for it. Atlanta weather is confused about the February calendar, and it feels like spring. The flowering trees have busted wide open a month early, and there are tulips springing up beside the sidewalk as I walk across campus to class this week. We’ll have another chill in a month or so – as we always do before Easter. But for now, newness is here, ready or not. It always feels good to see the seasons change and usher in something new.
The kids had a little break from school with an extended weekend, so I got some extra time to myself. I caught up with a friend Sunday afternoon, worked late on Monday, and carried my coffee back to bed with me yesterday morning in my last few hours before kids arrived back home. I’ve all but abandoned my usual cornerstones of sanity lately – the little things that ground me – like quiet mornings alone and writing and reading and podcasts. But I am making an effort to get back at it as the seasons change. I caught the latest episode of On Being as I drove to meet my friend on Sunday, and it won’t stop tumbling in my head.
Krista Tippet interviews Alain de Botton, the writer most well known for “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” which was the most widely shared and read piece from the New York Times in all of 2016. The On Being episode features an hour-long conversation with him about life and love and the difficulties of being human.
I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships lately and choices and companionship and all of the things that go along with it. In so many ways, I am not the romantic I once was – or at least not as naive. But I think a strength lies in my realism in a way that I couldn’t exactly understand or articulate until I heard the conversation with Botton. He tells Tippet, “In a way, there’s a lot of mundanity in relationships. And one of the things that romanticism does is to teach us that the great love stories should be above the mundane. So in none of the great, say, 19th-century novels about love does anyone ever do the laundry, does anyone ever pick up the crumbs from the kitchen table, does anyone ever clean the bathroom. It just doesn’t happen because it’s assumed that what makes or breaks love are just feelings, passionate emotions, not the kind of day to day wear and tear.” That day to day wear and tear is no joke, is it? And it seems both liberating and depressing to realize that mundane and tiring details are often what makes and breaks love, not just feelings.
I’ve been teaching Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing this last few weeks in a composition class, and I’ve had a lot of conversations on these ideas with my students as well. What is love and what is marriage and what is the difference between those two things? What does Shakespeare tell us about those topics, and is his view restricted to Elizabethan England or is it timeless? I think as much as we like to laugh at his comedies of crazy fictional characters flying from one idea to another as a result of feelings, so many people in the modern world are not all that different.
I’m seeing someone a bit these days, and it is a hard topic to write about. (I mean what a brave soul he must be, right? What scarier topic can exist on a first date than your side job as a blogger and a writer?) But it is also a hard topic not to write about as I share nearly everything else on this journal, and it feels weird to hide it among other words here when I know what is between the lines.
For now, I will say that it is good and it is simple and lucky, and it just feels like a rest for a while after such a long season of no rest at all. For once, I am not thinking much about the past or the future. We owe each other nothing except attention in any particular moment we are together, and for now, that is more than enough. My past few years have brought experience after experience that softened and opened my perspective in ways I never expected, and I can see already that this is much the same – regardless of where it lands.
It’s funny how relationships begin, isn’t it? (And I don’t mean only romantic ones but friendships as well.) We put our best foot forward, that face that perhaps only the bank teller or the coworker sees. We smile and talk and share carefully chosen pieces and act as though we have it all together, but the cracks make their way out eventually. I am less inclined to hide them now that I am on the other side of where I came from. It gets easier to let your real self be seen as you grow older. Or perhaps I am just tired and left without the energy to conceal the mess.
Alain de Botton mentions this in the interview as well: “Look, one of the first important truths is, you’re crazy. … all of us are deeply damaged people. The great enemy of love, good relationships, good friendships, is self-righteousness. If we start by accepting that of course we’re only just holding it together, and in many ways, really quite challenging people — I think if somebody thinks that they’re easy to live with, they’re by definition going to be pretty hard and don’t have much of an understanding of themselves. I think there’s a certain wisdom that begins by knowing that of course you, like everyone else, are pretty difficult.”
I am difficult. Like anyone else, I am not easy to live with. I tire easily, and I crave time alone. I thrive on routine that probably drives others insane. I sometimes leave cabinet doors open, and I can be messy about the things I don’t care about and ridiculously picky about the things I do. I have lots of opinions, and sometimes I make judgments quickly. My kids are wild at times, and we have grown so used to life with just the three of us that I often wonder how I will ever fit anyone else into this shape we’ve come to know as home.
But as it turns out, I think I learned a lot about relationships by living through a very long and difficult one and watching it all dissolve. And in all the twists and turns of children and family in this past two years, I have learned even more. Love is love most clearly in the confines of a family. Botton expands on that best when he explains, “Families are at this kind of test bed of love because we can’t entirely quit them. And this is what makes families so fascinating because you’re thrown together with a group of people who you would never pick if you could simply pick on the grounds of compatibility. Compatibility is an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be the precondition of love as we nowadays, in a slightly spoiled way, imagine it must be.”
That last line blows my mind with all of my 21st century expectations. Compatibility is an achievement of love, not its precondition. I think what happens when you spend so much time alone and you grow and stretch and expand so much by sitting with the discomfort is that you eventually realize that self love is the best love and that the only person perfectly compatible with me is me. There is no perfect soul out there waiting to save me or complete me because I am already whole. But connection is still the best thing I can offer and the best thing I can receive.
The details of it all are just messy, aren’t they? You fumble and move along as best you can, and sometimes you are surprised with these most beautiful moments of connection and the simplest seconds of happiness without motive or reason. But underneath it all, there is still you. Still me. Same as I ever was, but flawed and true and real.