All Hours Are Not Created Equal

I have been struck lately by the way in which different hours in the day and different periods in life seem to have very different weight. The morning hours speed by before I can even catch hold of them, while afternoon hours march on ever so slowly. Unfortunately, those slippery morning hours are my most productive, so I am forever trying to figure out how to tackle the bulk of my to-do list before they slip away. Monday time feels so very different from Friday time, and then, weekend time is another thing altogether.

And when I think of time on the scale of a lifetime, I am amazed at how the briefest moments can rise above the rest in technicolor memory, while all the rest seem fuzzy in black and white. I must have spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours researching and writing papers as a student, but I can’t pin down any one of those hours in particular. Each was a tiny drop in the bucket toward the slow and steady process of learning to make an argument, tell a story, or craft a sentence. Those hours were only significant because they were many.

Instead, I remember a handful of conversations on couches or in coffee shops and the brief exchanges of empathy that made all the rest of it easier. I remember the food and drinks shared as a currency of love and friendship and understanding. I remember a certain slant of sunlight hitting the table, finally, one spring afternoon.

In comparison to many months and years spent living in one place, it feels like just a few weeks spent traveling changed everything.

There must have been hundreds of walks along the same path to and from campus, but on one in particular, a classmate caught up with me and not so very long after, it seems, became my husband. We’ve been married nearly six months now, and sometimes it seems like only a moment has passed. On the other hand, I wonder whether perhaps we’ve always been together.

The hardest thing about time, I think, is knowing in the moment which of those moments count and which will fade quickly, which to hang onto tightly and which to let go of gracefully.

A Year

I’ve been in the same place for a year.  I know because the lease is up.  It’s one of those weird tricks of time that it feels shorter and longer all at the same time.  Shorter because I can vividly remember the beginning: Slowly moving in, unpacking things I hadn’t seen in over a year, little treasures and mementos, my furniture unpacked from storage and graciously carted the hour and a half journey by my parents, the elation at being in our own place and the shock that we ended up here in the middle of nowhere. Longer because there’s been so many memories made between then and now: visits from family, traveling around the state, eating at the local diner.  There’ve been new jobs and adventures, afternoons spent playing video games and sipping cocktails and quiet nights sitting and reading together.

A year ago I dropped my husband off at work, and drove the thirty miles to our new home. I found the key where the landlord said it was hidden, unlocked the front door and walked in.  I walked through all the rooms, making sure they were just as I remembered. I open and shut cabinets, peered into the refrigerator, flipped light switches, and then I danced around in the living room like a total spaz.  My husband and I had been living with family members for a year and a half, having our own place again was Christmas morning to me.  Family (both his and mine) are amazing, but there’s so much freedom when it’s your own.

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A year ago I was excited to be moving into a place of our own.  But I was also a little lost.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I was going to do, I was still job searching, scouring the internet for a job I could do from my new home. I was also still a little broken; I hid it well, but deep down things weren’t peachy. I was upset about the way I came to be back in the states, I felt the universe had forced my hand and I didn’t understand why. I was afraid to examine the feelings too closely so I shuttered them deep within and ignored the fact that I couldn’t speak about the fact that our plans, my plans, went up in a cloud of smoke. I ignored the fact that I wasn’t sleeping well.

Soon I found a job, one that I could do online with a company I respect.  Not long after that I found the Equals Record, summoned up my courage and sent a fan-girlesque letter to Elisabeth and Miya. Slowly I started hanging pictures on the walls and setting out knick-knacks. I settled in to this strange new existence and accepted that maybe things do always happen for a reason, and maybe this was the reason. Maybe I needed time away, time spent in a quiet rural area, time spent with just my husband for company.  Maybe I needed the time to slowly heal and accept, and then I needed the time after that to celebrate and see the possibilities again.  I needed mornings spent sipping mimosas, afternoons full of video games, and evenings spent writing thoughts on a page.  I needed the room and the place. I didn’t know it, but I found both a year ago.

Marriage Equality

equality

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing cases that will determine the constitutionality of DOMA and the legality of Prop 8. It saddens us that we have to even write this, but we believe in the fundamental equality of all human beings. Love is love is love. Here are three pieces from our archives on the subject: Renee explores the difference between Civil Unions and Marriages: The Same, But Not Equal

Nora ponders what she and her wife will tell their son about marriage inequality: On Inequality

Miya argues that marriage equality is about families, and has ideas about what laws should come from this battle. Family Equality and the Legacy of the Struggle

Please read, enjoy, discuss, and share.

Swept Away

Asking For It with Sibyl

Hello Sibyl,

Last summer while at the Paris airport on a layover, I met a guy who was also there on a layover.  We emailed and texted and he came to visit me in Amsterdam in November, and again in December (he lives in Venezuela). During these first visits, he opened up and told me that since meeting me he was thinking about a future with me and that he has never done that before.  We fell in love, discussed marriage and where we could both live together (he has a 5 year old son, so cannot move here, and after a recent visit, I know I could never live in Venezuela).

Once he was home (in January), I mentioned something about the future, and he said he could not talk about it.  I wrote him a long email explaining that HE was the one who brought up the future and talked about plans, etc.  He said he was sorry, but just needs more time, and for me to please be patient.  

I do understand we need to be patient and get to know each other better, but it seems like he has changed.  He used to be very open about sharing feelings and affections, but now seems to have pulled back (I visited him 2 weeks ago in Venezuela).  Plus i wonder if there is a future between us given the distance and the fact that it would be difficult to find someplace to live together.

I wonder if I should end it now or just enjoy the times when we see each other?

Thank you very much and kind regards,

Futuretripper

Dear Futuretripper,

In the short time since I started this column, I have received several quandaries like yours.  They are from women who are disappointed by the men in their lives, but claiming that they love them, and hoping for a future with them still.  Here is what is missing in these letters: any indication of what there is to be loved about these men, why they are worthy of such undying love, and what makes them eligible to be a good life partner.

From your letter, it's clear that the two of you had an immediate connection that went very deep, and made both of you want to hang on it to forever, by planning a future together.  However, other than the fact that he's a father, and he lives far away from you in a place that you never want to live in, what have you told me about this man?

Paraphrasing The Little Prince, I want to know what his voice sounds like, what games he loves best, and if he collects butterflies.  I want to know why he is worth the struggle of a long-distance romance.  Just the fact that he changed his mind and no longer wants to talk about the future with you is not enough to end the relationship, as most people have trouble with commitment.  However, it does seem like there is some denial of the reality of the issues the two of you are facing, if you chose to go forward with this relationship long-term.

You had a lovely Before-Sunrise-esque connection with this man.  However, not every connection one makes with another person needs to be followed to the fullest extent.  Some people, no matter how deeply we feel we are cosmically drawn to them, are meant to just be brief interludes in our lives.  It's hard to make meaning of those experiences and let them go, but otherwise, it is like trying to hold the ocean in your hands.

Of course, there is a chance that you do indeed have a future with your cross-continent lover.  However, my advice to you is to hang back, and give the relationship room to grow.  You need to let it breathe, and see what transpires in the space between the two of you---which for you, is a lot of space!  Just let that be the reality.  Don't force anything, and use the time you used to spend planning the future reflecting instead on why this man is so special, and what he can really offer to your life.

And then write back and tell me of all his stunning substance, and how it resonates with who you are and what you need.  But please, if you find that you only like this man for nebulous reasons, and if he doesn't seem to really want all that you are willing to give him, release your hands, and let him float on.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here

What it sounds like

I didn’t notice how quiet winter was until spring came along. Last night, I fell asleep to birds chirping, and this morning, I woke up to more of the same. Since the frenzy of our wedding came and went in October, a funny sort of quiet has settled over our lives. It is the quiet of two quiet people smiling at each other over steaming cups of tea. It is the quiet of a sleepy dog curled up in a pool of light beneath the window and the quiet of a corner apartment at the end of the street.

It is the quiet of working hard, mostly, or of searching and watching and waiting for work. You can count on the gentle clacking of keyboard keys and the clicking of mice at any point during the daylight hours. Sometimes the hum of the dishwasher or the rumble of the dryer kicks in with a sort of baseline, offering signs of domesticity.

It is the quiet of staying in on Saturday nights for any number of reasons, the foremost of which is that we like each other’s quiet company. It is the quiet of a few plants nearly dying every few weeks and then graciously coming back to life when I remember to water them. Much to my surprise, a certain hand-me-down orchid has been quietly sprouting tendrils right and left despite my careful neglect.

It’s the sort of quiet I’ve always wished for, and it’s even more lovely than I’d imagined. I grew up in a tiny, noisy house where the TV was always on and voices were always raised. I wanted nothing more than to shut out the constant tumult of lives lived stubbornly, passionately, and loudly, but the sounds always seeped in through the crack under my bedroom door and boomeranged off the walls. I hoped very much that one day, I would trade in all that noise for a quiet place to read and rest, to love and be loved. I might have even been convinced, until last weekend, that keeping quiet is the surest path to a life well lived.

But when we arrived in Baltimore last weekend for the wedding of friends, I was bowled over by the raucous, brilliant sound of joy. The singing and dancing and stomping and toasting and clapping and whooping and laughing kicked off on Friday night and didn’t stop until the lively mass of revelers reluctantly dispersed toward sundown on Sunday. I may or may not have enjoyed the expert plucking of both harp and ukulele strings in the very same weekend. And I can’t say I’ve ever witnessed so many blessings shouted from the tops of tables and chairs and anything else that would help the sound carry. I was exhausted as we drove away, but I left with a full heart and a certainty that love can, and should, be lived loudly too.

Of Road Trips and Adulthood

From the passenger's side, I feed my handsome driver PB&J in bite-sized pieces as we sail along at 70 miles-per-hour from Atlanta to Baltimore. For my own part, I am a nervous and inexperienced highway driver. I am slightly more useful as a navigator and even more so as a DJ. We are on our way to the wedding of friends, and by the time you read this, we'll be on our way back from the whirlwind weekend. The excitement of these impending nuptials finally dawns on me when we get on the road, so I spend the first bit of the drive giving my companion a rundown of the schedule of festivities and the many people he will meet. He is a captive audience.

I run through the list of college classmates and friends from Boston and then brush off the rest with a wave of my hand. "Those are all the people our age. I can't tell you much about the grown-ups."

I am caught off-guard by the absurdity of my statement and add the caveat that perhaps we technically qualify as grown-ups too.

In one of Joy the Baker's recent posts, she lists off some of the commonly perceived barometers of adulthood: getting married, having kids, doing your own taxes. Of course, as she explains, none of these are particularly useful or accurate benchmarks of adulthood. They are significant milestones, certainly, if they happen to occur in one's life, but they don't have much to do with the definition of "grown-up."

I'm not sure there's a definition, really, or a destination we're trying to reach. As we count off the last few exits before our stop, I figure this whole marriage thing and the being-grown-up thing has a lot more to do with the journey than with the arrival. This may seem obvious, but it's not necessarily what I had expected. I used to imagine adulthood as a very serious state of being, in which you feel like you have some level of control over your life and then work really hard to maintain it.

Thankfully, this stage of life that I looked forward to for so long is a lot more fun, if also much more chaotic and unpredictable, than I ever let myself imagine. It is a series of small rituals and choreographies, punctuated occasionally by surprises, for better or worse. Some things are hard, but also funny. Some things are just hard, and the rest is just funny.

It helps to have a kind companion to cry and to laugh with as we sail along. I'm more grateful each day to be on this road together.

How To Train Your Dragon: Letting Doubt Into Marriage

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, I am writing because I feel afraid. I got married in August to a man I adore and feel such a comfort with, but we are so different in every way (not the least of which being that I am a minister/chaplain and he is not a person of faith, and our cultural differences). We have had conflicts over the last four years that I would call "normal" for most couples but this weekend was one of those conflicts that left me wracked with doubts.

Doubts like "with this divorce rate what am I thinking?? Are we going to make it?? Is this rocky adjustment period a horrible sign or is it just the reality of marriage?"

He is a genuinely good man. My family loves him. I can be myself around him---except on nights like this when I am super defensive and analytical and miss my parents like a two year old does and cry nonstop. Then we have to go to separate corners.

Anyway, I thought that better than blogging about this would be writing to someone who seems to find the beauty and depth precisely in the imperfections of life and relationships. So I am wondering if you are someone who has somehow made all this work, against all odds.

I hope against hope that we can too.

Sincerely,

Newlywedded but Doubting Bride

Dear Newlywedded,

It's beautiful that you are allowing doubt into your relationship.  Doubt is the creature that lurks at the door, and you fear it, imagining a dragon, when really you should let it in and set a place for it at the table.  Once it's been well fed and seen in the light, you'll see its scales will fall off and transform into something more human.

My husband and I have been married for nearly a decade.  We have had our share of bitter heartbreaking periods in that ten year span, but are now in a place that is so good, that we often joke that we should produce some "It Gets Better" videos for young couples who are starting out and wondering why on earth they should stick with something so tragically difficult.  The fact that it is hard is the very reason it turns out to be so rewarding, as time goes on.

Everything gets better if you stick with it: the sex, the communication, the spiritual connection.  Just this past weekend we lay in each other's arms, totally naked, wrapped around each other like ribbons on a May Pole.  Our time together was brief---soon we'd have to hit the grocery store to get food for dinner, pick up our child from the babysitter, and be back to the grind of life.  But that moment felt infinite, as we bared our hearts and bodies to each other.

So, what advice would I give to a newlywed, especially one with some big differences to overcome?

1. Let each other grow and change, even if it looks like you are growing in different ways.  Lets go back to the ivy branch image from last week, as a metaphor for a relationship.  As you grow, you branch out in different directions, but you also twine together in places, always coming back to the same root and source, which is your love for one another.  Don't be afraid of his interests that are different from yours---encourage them.  Give him time and space to explore those very things that you don't enjoy---but also take an interest in them, at the very least asking him to explain to you why they are so meaningful to him.

2. Learn to fight.  One of the first lessons my husband taught me, when we were first dating, was that I couldn't curse at him and lose my mind in our arguments.  It took some practice, but rather than saying, "Aw, forget it, I just won't talk about this stuff with you", I worked on it, and we found a way to talk about the hard stuff with respect.  The biggest mistake I see couples make is avoiding difficult topics.  I have seen that ruin marriages more than anything else.  Marriage is all about getting in to those sticky places in life that you were hoping to just skate by, together.  Try to have a sense of humor in the midst of it---my husband and I have found that being able to make each other laugh is the best way to defuse an argument and get to the bottom of what's really bothering us, without our defenses up.

3. Keep having sex.  Just keep doing it.  Sex is a huge bonding agent.  Have you ever noticed that if your communication is just off, and you are snapping at each other more often, that just getting laid really helps?  Yeah, that's because when you meet each other nakedly in the bedroom, you can see each other in kinder light. My husband and I have had major dry spells with sex, but in those times, we have never been okay with it.  It's never been "Oh well, I guess I'm not such a sexual person".  Sex is the glue of the relationship.  So, even when it was infrequent, we were talking about it all the time, trying different things to get it going again.  You have an entire lifetime to figure out each other's bodies, so enjoy.

4. Ask for help when needed.  The early years of marriage are like resistance training workouts---you build the muscles of finding a way to heal what seems totally broken, again and again. You live in hope. And when things seem just too foggy for either of you to see the way through, you get help. I know a couple that goes to a therapist when they feel they need a "tune-up" or have a conflict they can't settle on their own, OR every five years, whatever comes first.  I love this perspective, because it takes the stigma off of the desire to have someone help you with your issues, and creates space for you to allow things to arise between you that are unexpected.  And please don't tell me you can't afford it.  If you invest in making your home nice to live in, your car run well, or your body to feel good, you can spend money on your relationship.

It sounds like you have a good partner at your side, one willing to do the difficult work and share in the spoils of love and creating a life together.  Hold on to one another, for when the really hard times come, you’ll remember that you sailed through stormy waters in the beginning, and came out afloat, doubts and all.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Paper Hearts

In the Balance

I love my wonderfully magnificent husband.  He loves me right back.  Today, however, I will not be receiving anything heart-shaped from Kay Jewelers.  We will not be spending $250 on dinner at a restaurant where we typically eat for less than half that price.  Although it is entirely possible that I will gorge myself on chocolate treats (this is essentially known as “Thursday” in our house) and while it is fundamental to our marriage that we demonstrate love openly and frequently, it feels forced to do so specifically on Valentine’s Day. Aside from the fact that the Holiday originates in the veneration of a Saint (which is not really our thing), Valentine’s Day has never seemed terribly significant in our lives.  Perhaps it is this way for many married people, couples that have been together for a while or couples that came together a bit later in life.  I said, A BIT.  But before you decide that I am the exact opposite of fun or light-hearted, please know that I have certainly done the whole shebang for Valentine’s Day at various points in my illustrious romantic career.  I have coordinated and participated in elaborate spa getaways, decadent meals, surprise concerts - you name it – as well as the giving and receiving of delicately packaged items.  I do also recollect from my dating years the buzzy thrill of a person asking you out for Valentine’s Day - a sure sign (much like the first road trip together) that the relationship has bumped up to the next level.  And we haven’t even touched on my experience working in retail flower shops for days on end to prepare endless vases with floral expressions of love.  I have been there.  I have done that.

It should also be noted that I am in full support of the tradition of children crafting Valentines and learning to formally display affection for others.  I think it is ridiculously sweet to introduce any mode of creative correspondence, particularly for children growing up in the age of the iPad mini.  When parents and teachers of young children are sensitive about distributing classroom Valentines, it presents a genuine opportunity to learn about inclusivity.  I recall concrete lessons from my early elementary years about making each of my classmates feel exceptional.  For many little ones, the template for empathy comes from this kind of social experience. 

I think my primary issue with Valentine’s Day is that like with so many things in our culture, we have decided (somewhat arbitrarily) that this is the single day each year that we publicly acknowledge the love we have for the people around us.  I am much more concerned with keeping my relationship fresh and conveying appreciation during the daily slog.  It is not tremendously complicated to throw money at one of the many clichéd offerings on February 14th.  The real labor of love, in my view, is to make eye contact and tender a bear hug during the morning greeting; to remember to ask your partner how the big meeting went today; to not finish all the ice cream yourself.  Enduring love means being the one who gets up before dawn with the baby because your cohort doesn’t “do mornings.”  It means not freaking the fuck out even though this has got to be the 794,375th time you have picked a ball of socks up off the floor.  It means never, ever, ever checking out mentally or emotionally.

I haven’t picked out a card or made reservations anywhere.  I will be wearing regular, nondescript, cotton undergarments all day.  But I hope he will consider my abiding commitment to nurturing our life together a most treasured and heartfelt Valentine.

Lessons from a Valentine's Day...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Happy Valentine’s Day! I know it seems a little corny to be wishing you a happy valentine’s day, but this is one of my favorite holidays. While some people see it as sappy and romantic, or commercial and forced, and granted, it can feel that way sometimes, I prefer to see it as a celebration of love among family and friends.  It’s an opportunity to recognize people who are important to us openly, and also an opportunity to recognize people sometimes a bit more secretly.  After all, who isn’t flattered by secret admirers?

My fondest Valentine’s memory though was a gift from my mother.  I was 12, and she woke me up early before her call shift at the hospital to give my gift: 3 pink Bic razors with a small can of shaving cream, all wrapped up in red tissue and in a small gift bag with hearts on it.  It couldn’t have cost more than a few dollars and I remember it like it was yesterday.  I had been begging to shave my legs, like all the other girls at school, for months, and I thought she would never say yes.  Turns out, my mom was more progressive (or perhaps more understanding of the need of junior high vanity) than I thought. . . It meant the world to me, and every year, I think of how excited I felt that she really took to heart what I had been wanting.

Here is the way I try to celebrate an extra touch of love on this day:

  • Give valentines to everyone: When you’re young, hopefully in school they’ll get you in the habit of including everyone in Valentines.  Want to know why? Because it’s such a nice feeling when you’re included; and it’s such a sad feeling when you’re not.  Try to make room for as many people as you can in your Valentine’s day heart.
  • Wear at least a little bit of red: Nothing over the top, but having a little touch of red, even if it’s somewhere not everyone can see, will put you in the holiday spirit and remind you to be extra loving towards those around you.
  • Be weary of set Valentine’s menus at restaurants: In my experience, these never turn out for the best, neither in food, nor in your enjoyment of the evening.  If you go out, find a restaurant that treats this as a normal day, or prepare a celebration with a group in a non-traditional spot.
  • Leave a surprise for someone you admire: Valentines are about relationships, but not everything has to be defined as a couple.  You can feel admiration for someone and not necessarily feel it in a romantic way—just don’t confuse the two for them.
  • Be extra mindful of anyone you care about in “that way”: No matter how much people say they might not like or not care or not endorse Valentine’s day, I think everyone ends up holding out a little hope for it in the end.  So if you are with someone, make the effort to do something a bit more meaningful.  It doesn’t have to be serious, and it doesn’t have to be heart shaped boxes full of chocolates (unless they like it)—but do something that shows that you’re thinking about them and appreciate them in your life.

Wishing all my love to my darling Valentine,

Mom

Trippin' Out Before the Trip Begins

mind the gap

There is an axiom, said by Confucius or Carnival Cruise Lines:  the couple that travels together, stays together.  In the five years I’ve been dating Zack, we’ve been to Europe and South America, the California coast and Los Angeles, Boston and the British countryside.   We have not, thus far, killed each other.  We’ve made it through the Spanish siesta time where every restaurant closes at exactly the time your stomach begins grumbling. We’ve survived a white knuckled bus ride that careened around Ecuadorian cliffs, dropping us several thousand feet in elevation in approximately 10 minutes.  When we’re fighting on a damp British day, we can look back at our pictures from a beach in Columbia, me in a bikini, him with a sun burnt nose and beer in hand and say, oh yeah.  I remember when everything felt wonderful. This, though, is not a column about traveling with a significant other.  It’s not chock full of tips about how to make it a rewarding experience for both of you (be flexible about scheduling your days!  Take time to explore by yourself!  Take probiotics; a wildly pooping partner tends to dampen the romance!).  Today, I’d like to talk about what happens before the trip even begins.

I am a planner.  After booking a flight, I’ll spend hours perusing TripAdvisor, Google images, Lonely Planet and Rick Steves (whom I may or may not have a small crush on).  I’ll Wikipedia the history of my destination; I won’t book a hostel until I’ve cross-referenced it on at least three sites.  This is in stark contrast to my regular life, where I spend much of my time searching for lost keys or money, or solving the case of the missing shoe.

There is a school of thought that suggests most of the happiness gained from a trip comes from the act of planning it, rather than being on the trip itself.  A study of 1,530 Dutch adults showed that planning a vacation boosted happiness for 8 weeks prior, while after the vacation, happiness levels quickly returned to normal.  The pleasure, it suggests, come from the anticipation of the vacation more than the vacation itself.  This is me, to a T:  when I’m on-line, scouring for deals and reviews and background, the picture of the place that I’m going is coming into tighter, brighter focus.  Instead of any beach, it’s a white sand one with turquoise water and an unusually good donut stand; instead of any Old Town, it’s the one where I can still see the bullet holes in the stones from World War II.  The more I know, the more I can picture myself there, and the more excited I get.

Zack, on the other hand, likes to wing it.  We’re planning a trip to Portugal and southern Spain right now, and when we were trying to figure out what cities we wanted to include, his eyes glazed over somewhere between Lisbon and Lagos.  “If we spend more time in Lagos,” I said, “we’ll have more warm beachiness, but then we’ll have to cut out some time in Cordoba.”

He sighed.  “What’s good about Cordoba again?”

“Here.”  I turned the computer to face him, and began clicking through images I’d opened.  “I’ll show you.”

“Liz,” he said.  “I don’t want to see all of this.”

“Why not?” I asked.  “I’m not planning this trip on my own.”

Here is what the study does not address:  when your partner is unhappy, you will likely be unhappy.

“I don’t like doing this,” Zack said.  “Going through pictures, getting an idea in my head of what it’s going to be like.  The real thing will never be the same, better or worse.   Flooding yourself with the place before you go removes the newness you get to experience when you first arrive.”

I paused; I’d never thought of this.  Still, for me it was simple math:  given the choice of happiness for a few months prior to a trip and slightly less happiness in the week or so I was on it, I would always choose the former.  For Zack, the authenticity of the experience mattered more than the fantasy leading up to it.  No amount of happiness derived from planning could make up for marring the moment itself.

Most things travel related merely serve to magnify that which exists in normal day-to-day life; this is why traveling is a test of a relationship.  I tend to be a person who thrives in fantasy. I write books and hang out with characters that are only real to me all day; I’ve always been someone who will spend much of the time in the present dreaming wistfully of another time.  Zack is more grounded in reality: he’s constantly assessing the world as it is so that he can invent products that fit in with it.  The constraints when he’s making said products are grounded in the real world; is there an existing part for this element, or does he need to create one?  When the pieces are in place and he flicks the power switch, he can’t write a successful outcome; it needs to actually happen.

We haven’t entirely solved our problem. I take the lead on planning now, just as I clean the bathroom or he handles the laundry, both tasks the other despises.  Still, there’s a part of me that misses sharing those dreamy moments with him, and I have no doubt there’s a part of him that craves the surprise reveal of the picture falling into place in an instant.

Do you and your partner sync up in your approach to planning, or fantasy in life in general?  If not, how do you deal with it?

 

Women Who Will Never Die

word traveler

Yes, literature has a gift: making people and feelings immortal. Over the years, I have stumbled upon many women characters portrayed by writers who were obsessed by their beauty and being. I’ve always felt like I wanted to know everything about these women. What was so special about them? What inspired poets and writers to grab their pens and start writing? Were they worth so much attention? I admire the power of these women, those very peculiar qualities that made them live through the ages in fiction and poetry. Many of them fascinate me, and make me feel a bit envious, too. I think I actually have a number of favorites, and in this list I will only mention three of them (casual order):

 

1. Alice in wonderland. Who was the real Alice in Wonderland immortalized by Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Dodgson? I have always felt some kind of attachment to Alice’s story. When I was little, my mother used to feed me with tales. My favorites were the ones that became Walt Disney’s classics, Alice in Wonderland above all. I watched the cartoon so many times I actually still know the words by heart. Alice Liddell Hargreaves was an unrestrained child, naive and innocent at times, but also incredibly aware of the world around her. Alice’s father was the Dean of Westminster School and was soon appointed to the deanery of Christ Church, Oxford. Dodgson/Carroll met the Liddell family in 1855. The relationship between the girl and Dodgson has been the source of much controversy. Dodgson entertained Alice and her sisters by telling them stories, and used them as subjects for his hobby, photography. There is no record of why the relationship between him and the Liddells broke so suddenly, but what remains are some very beautiful pictures of the little Alice (and a WONDERful book!).

“Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.”

 

2. How not to wonder about Beatrice’s life? We have no pictures, of course! (Yes, paintings!) What we have is Dante’s description of her, which appears in La Vita Nova. When he first saw her, she was dressed in soft crimson and wore a girdle around her waist. Dante fell in love with Beatrice at first sight, and he describes her with divine and angelic qualities. One afternoon, while Beatrice was walking the streets of Florence, she turned and greeted him. On the very same day, Dante had a dream about Beatrice, who became the subject of his first sonnet of La Vita Nova.

To every captive soul and gentle heart

into whose sight this present speech may come,

so that they might write its meaning for me,

greetings, in their lord’s name, who is Love.

Already a third of the hours were almost past

of the time when all the stars were shining,

when Amor suddenly appeared to me

whose memory fills me with terror.

Joyfully Amor seemed to me to hold

my heart in his hand, and held in his arms

my lady wrapped in a cloth sleeping.

Then he woke her, and that burning heart

he fed to her reverently, she fearing,

afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

                            from La Vita Nova - A ciascun´alma presa e gentil core

 

3. Traveling back in time, there’s another woman who got my full attention. Her name is Lesbia, and Catullus was the poet who fell deeply in love with her (her real name was probably Clodia Metelli). I still remember how much passion my Latin professor put during that class in high school, commenting each and every word from this beautiful poem below. I seriously think this and other ancient poems were what motivated me to classical studies.

To every captive soul and gentle heart

into whose sight this present speech may come,

so that they might write its meaning for me,

greetings, in their lord’s name, who is Love.

Already a third of the hours were almost past

of the time when all the stars were shining,

when Amor suddenly appeared to me

whose memory fills me with terror.

Joyfully Amor seemed to me to hold

my heart in his hand, and held in his arms

my lady wrapped in a cloth sleeping.

Then he woke her, and that burning heart

he fed to her reverently, she fearing,

afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

                                         from How Many Kisses

 

Who are your favorite women in literature?

The Vanishing Man

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, This summer, one of my best friends from childhood contacted me.  Actually, he was the first person I ever Loved.  As a teen, I hid my feelings from him for five years.  Finally, I told him how I felt in a letter, and said that if he didn't feel the same we shouldn’t continue to be friends.  I didn't hear from him again until this summer---fifteen years later.

When I heard from him, I was both excited and wary.  It was great to have him back!  At the same time, he was newly divorced after being separated for a year and clearly looking for something.  He said that he had a crush on me all those many years ago too, and that he had thought about me many times.  He started to talk about wanting to come visit.  I live over 600 miles away.  His tone became more and more romantic, and it was around this time I decided to do a reality check.

I didn't say I wasn't interested.  On the contrary, I was very interested, but I said that if he was going to keep talking romance, I needed to see him.  I told him that I really want children and a family, and that if he wanted to get together I would need him to be open to exploring that possibility with me if things went well.  

He responded that he cared about me, but that his relationships usually happen more 'organically'.  I said I understood and was sincerely grateful for his honesty.  We both said we were still very much interested in maintaining the friendship.

I didn't hear from him after our conversation for four months.

On Christmas, he reached out.  Although my feelings were mixed, I was mostly happy to finally be hearing from him again.

He dated someone briefly in the intervening time but is once again alone.  A few months ago, he was checked out by a doctor and learned he is sterile.  He bought a house in order to move toward a place where he can have a wife and children.  He knew he was sterile when he bought it, but he hopes to have a family through non-traditional means.  He was not in a good place on Christmas, because he had just spent the whole day around family with lots of little children.  He was feeling lonely and sad.  I doubted when I hung up the phone that I would ever hear from him again.

Since then, he has apologized several times for being a bad friend to me, and the two of us have been communicating almost every day, texting or emailing.  It has felt good to have him back in my life.

My love life has been complicated recently, and I let him know that the first time we talked.  For the first time ever, I’ve had a Friend with Benefits.  My FwB is great, but I always knew he was moving away. In fact, FwB just left this morning.  

The longer my old crush and I talk the more I realize I have major unresolved feelings for him.  In fact, I have been unable to climax since our initial Christmas conversation.  The one time I successfully came, it was because I was concentrating really hard on pretending I was with Old Flame instead of with my lovely FwB.  This has never been a problem for me in the past.  

Mostly, boundaries with Old Flame have stayed platonic this time around, but last night, on the eve of my FwB's departure, I texted that I was considering spending the next six months in celibacy.  Old Flame texted back ('jokingly") that I should visit him so he could “knock the bottom out for me instead”.  We flirted with each other and with the idea of me visiting.

I know this situation is emotionally precarious.  I really do want a family and a partnership, but after years of searching, I’m also feeling exhausted.  I want to have fun.  I want to have sex, hence the FwB.  I want romance to just happen for me the way it seems to be happening for ALL of my friends without having to work to meet that someone special.  

Even more powerful than these needs for sex and fun is the feeling that this man still has lessons to teach me.  Maybe he's just going to teach me more about heartbreak, but there's only one way to know for certain.  I want to find out.

I want to visit.  I want have sex with him, but I don't know if the flirting is genuine.  If it's not, I definitely need to ask him to stop.  At the same time, I'm tired of being the boundary police, the one who has to bring up all the serious stuff.  I’m also dreading bringing it up since the last two times I brought it up he completely disappeared.  If it happens again, do I keep letting him back into my life?  Our relationship has meant so much to me over the years, I don’t want to cut him out.  How do I even start this conversation?  Again?

Sincerely, Deja Vu

Dear Deja Vu,

Sweet baby jesus, you have a LOT going on here, girl.

The first thing I need to point out here is that you have not seen this person in fifteen years.  Fifteen years.  I know he seems quite attractive and interesting over text, email, and the phone, but things can be very different in person: is he comfortable in his own skin?  Does he tip waitstaff well?  Is he a road rage driver?  Can he dance?  These are things you'll never know on g-chat, and could be deal breakers.

The thing is, I am getting the sense from your letter that nothing would be a deal breaker for you.  You want to correct this past hurt that you’ve held onto for all these years, and you’ll jump at any chance to do so.  It was not too much that when you expressed your desire for kids, he disappeared, or that he came back saying that he's sterile, then vanished again.  So far, this "relationship" is completely on his terms, and you are hanging on his every whim, like. . . well, like a teen with their first love.

It's like you took a snapshot of him at that time, over a decade ago, and you're in love with a photograph, not the real guy.  You're dying to get back that hormone fueled fusion the two of you shared, which, even then, was rooted in you pursuing and him distancing.

I understand your strong desire for a relationship -- the part of your letter that was about your longing for love, fun, and sex was the most relatable piece.  However, I have to be the un-fun boundaries holder that you no longer wish to be.

Reality is, none of your friends' loves are as easy as they seem from the outside.  Love is always messy, fraught with doubt, and everyone eventually has to do massive amounts of work to come to a good place with the other person.

To sum up, dear Deja Vu, Step One is to meet this guy.  Go ahead, have sex with him, get all your curiosity and teenage dreams fulfilled.  However, if there is even a glimmer of the pursuer-distancer pattern between you in person that you've established across the miles these past few months, run, Lola, run.  You don't want to spend your life offering him things just so he can turn them down.

I know you want a relationship with a long-term partner.  However, don’t settle for Old Flame if it turns out he’s really just looking for a flash in the pan.

Love,

Sibyl

The sound of one door closing

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I’ve never liked the word “closure.”  I know what people think they mean when they say it---this relic word from a self-help era gone by.  The concept of closure seems almost darling, with its naiveté, it’s aspirational quality.  In my experience, if you are employing this term, it is in the context of searching for answers and resolution to the wholly chaotic and mysterious.  Human relating is sloppy and the sad fact is that much of it never ultimately makes sense.  Whether relationships are historic or enduring; whether they are romantic, familial or with friends. . . chances are you might never totally get what they were as you look back or how to operate successfully within them moving forward.  And this is actually good news. At the beginning of the end of one of my young relationships, I was confronted with the fallacy of seeking tidy understanding when it comes to other humans.  I sat in a therapist’s office, where I had come week after week, unpacking stories of conflict and misery.  I was living with a man (a boy, really) who didn’t know himself and didn’t appear to even particularly like me most of the time.  I spent countless hours and too large a ratio of a non-profit salary on parsing this mess.  I’m not sure whether my therapist had just had it with me or whether she saw that I was ready to be nudged along, but when I said something about needing “closure” in order to walk away, she simply said, ”Why?” (a question, I later learned in my own clinical training, you almost never ask a client).

I had taken for granted that this is what adults did in relationships.  I assumed the idea was to make a careful, rational selection of a partner, ride the arc of the relationship to some logical conclusion and then part ways with a mutual understanding of the facts.  It goes without saying that I never made any kind of clear-eyed choice when it came to being with this man and virtually every moment with him was one baffling disconnect after another.  So, damned if I wasn’t going to try and exert some control over its’ ending.

What I learned from her “Why?” and the succession of “Whys” that followed---pursuing my train of thought until I ran out of answers (“Why do you need to make sense of it?” “Why does it matter what people will think?” ad infinitum.)---was that most of the need for closure was about him or other people.  I was completely engrossed in his behavior, what it all meant, whether or not he was capable of change, what it said about me (to whom?) if I just gave up on this person I had claimed to love.  It was also a way to remain perpetually engaged in a relationship that I felt terrified of ending.  What a brilliant excuse for staying stuck if you just continue to hang in there until you make your way out of the labyrinth!  Except that almost nobody emerges to see the light of day when they are entangled like this with another person.

Like for most people, true lightning bolt moments are incredibly rare in my consciousness.  This happened to be one of them.  I felt the gears shift in my brain and a single thought shoved all others aside---“There is no reason why.”  There was no explanation THERE WOULD NEVER BE AN EXPLANATION for why he acted the way he did or why I felt the need to spend many foundational years working on the calculus proof of this person.  The very instant I accepted that closure wasn’t necessary, wasn’t even possible, I had no other choice but to leave him for good.

It was fucking beautiful.  I don’t say this so much as an endictment of that particular relationship as much as acknowledging the liberating psychic gift it was.  Once you realize that full and true understanding of others, especially when you are embroiled in love, isn’t critical or all that promising, you are much more free to go.  Paradoxically, this also gives you the best chance at making it work.

Today I have a few friends mired in relationships or wrestling with ghosts of relationships with the aim of achieving this emotional state of closure.  I want so much to release them from the bondage of this notion.  Days, months, years pass with large swaths of their emotional lives occupied by this thing that will never happen.  The fantasy of closure is that you will be somehow elevated to more sophisticated relating in the future, if you can just get some perspective on the thing that came before.  The bottom line is that when you are engaged with an appropriate partner, you evolve together and tackle things along the way and could therefore never be left holding a heavy bag of unanswerable questions at the end.  The trick, then, is to choose well at the outset or recognize that you are barreling toward a dead end.

The Same but Not Equal

I’m a big believer in asking questions.  Lots of them. Ask until you understand or until the person you’re talking to runs out of explanations, then ask some more. There’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a few years now. What’s the difference between marriages and civil unions and why is it important.  From the outside looking in, I just didn’t understand, not really.  Was it a name thing, like you say potato I say potahto? Was it an injustice, a matter of civil liberties? Was it black and white or shades of grey? Was there a right answer? I just didn’t know. And I didn’t ask enough questions.  I didn’t push for answers or ask the folks who would know, and I had opportunities to. I accepted that it was different, that it was less than, and that was a bad thing. But I didn’t really get it.

Sometimes you experience something and it strikes you to your core.  Maybe you read it, maybe you saw it, maybe you heard it, but all of a sudden there is a wealth of knowledge and emotion that wasn’t there before.  That’s how I felt this week when I read This.

I have a cousin who lives in Illinois.  She’s quite simply amazing, and when Illinois passed legislation allowing civil unions she and her equally awesome girlfriend joined thousands of other couples and got unionized (no, that’s not a real word). They’ve been a couple for longer than my husband and I, so as I was reading the article I couldn’t help compare, my relationship to hers.

For example, I’m married everywhere I go.  Alaska, Hawaii, Texas, Mount Rushmore and Disney World.  Always Married.  My cousin is legally committed only in the state of Illinois.  Only.  If she so much as crosses the border into Indiana, poof, she’s single.  Her legally recognized partner is now her girlfriend.  And those rights she has in Illinois, don’t apply in Indiana.  She has no legal claim, no legal responsibility, no legal anything with a woman she has committed to.

If my husband and I are (god forbid) in a car crash in Tennessee, I have rights. I can talk to the doctors, I can make decisions for him and about his health if he were unable to do so himself.  My cousin and her girlfriend might as well be college roommates for the legal rights they would have in such a situation.  I cannot imagine the pain and helplessness of such a situation.  I think of my husband. I think of the unthinkable, if something happened to him, and I was told I had no say, no rights, no voice. I don’t know how I wouldn’t live in fear of that every day.  I don’t know how that wouldn’t break me, the mere thought of it.

I hesitated before writing this.  I hardly ever talk politics, even with my closest friends and family, for several reasons---one of them being I believe people have the right to make choices, and just because someone makes a different choice doesn’t mean that they’re wrong and I’m right, it just means we made different choices.  Did I really want to get political on the Equals Record?  Then I realized two things: one, just because this has been made to be a political issue, does not mean that is all it is. And two---this is the Equals Record.  So maybe it’s a good place to talk about equality.

I believe my cousin is equal to me in every way but those she surpasses me.  I believe her heart and her brain are roughly equal to mine as are her abilities to reason, to make decisions, and to love.  She and I are both the same in that we love another.  But that is where the similarities end, at least for now. One of us is married, and one is not.  I don’t have the words to express how wrong that is. To express the injustice. To express the pain and the fight.  I just don’t have them. I hope someone else does.

Blowing in the Wind

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, I was recently left by a guy that I thought was going to be a long-term boyfriend with a future.  We had only been together for five months but we had been chasing each other for half a year before then and I know he had been interested but thinking he had no chance for way more than that. When we finally got together, we were the dream couple to all our friends and the times we spent were most often in mutual genuine bliss.

Then one day, he invited friends over on a Friday at 1.30 am when I had said that I was tired from a long week. So I was a bit pissed off and went home. He broke up at 4 am with a text and confirmed that in a conversation the next day saying: 'We have nothing in common, he can't see his friends (far from true), I'm reactive--he's proactive, it won't work out so he'd rather end it and it's better for me as well.'

I was devastated. Most friends said it's just gonna be a few days. So I took it with dignity, kept my public appearance, including Facebook, happy and optimistic and left him alone for about 5 weeks. But believe me, I was devastated. I had no idea what was going on and friends told me he wasn't being himself either. So I had hope he'd come to his senses.

Then I saw him at a festival. Snorting mountains of cocaine. Everything became a bit clearer to me. Throughout the weekend I learned that he had re-started cocaine the night before he broke up, been doing loads of drugs since then and that he had lost his job. He did continue to want this breakup but deliberately stood next to me very often and started crying during songs. I have told him now that I don't want any contact for a few months. That included that I didn't want a 'Happy New Year' email either. I thanked him but told him again no-contact.

But now I don't know what I will do after that. I can't avoid him forever. Will he come to his senses? Would it be a good thing if he came to his senses? Should I try and stay friends? Should I avoid him in my life---tricky because we have zillions of mutual friends that I don't want to lose. I think that it's not a lack of love but a fear of failure and of commitment that he's suffering from. I know the cocaine phase is temporary. So is the unemployment. Part of me wants him back after that. Another part thinks that he can't be trusted ever again.

What do you think?

Yours,

Brokenhearted in the U.S.A.

Dearest Brokenhearted,

There are so many ways to cheat on one's partner.  You can disengage emotionally and start up an internet friendship with a long lost fling.  You can sleep with a member of their family, their best friend, or a random person you meet out dancing.  In your case, Brokenhearted, the cheating wasn't sexual at all.  His mistress was cocaine.

When I was a teenager, my best friend lost his mother to cancer, and I, to my great surprise, lost them both.  I adored his mother, and had fully believed that my fervent prayers to save her would turn her illness around, right up to the very end.  By the time she died, however, I was not surprised, having visited her several times in her final days.  But I was completely shocked how my friend reverted into himself, eschewing my friendship for people who never knew his mother, and would not bring up his pain.

I wouldn't take no for an answer.  I wrote him long letters, parked outside his house and waited for him to come home from school, and, when he did let me in, sat with him for hours in silence while we inexplicably watched tennis on his tiny television.  It was all he wanted to do.  Or so I thought---I slowly learned that all the times I couldn't find him, he was off with his new friends, consuming as many drugs as was humanly possible in the provincial area we lived in.

Since that experience, I've learned to look for the presence of mind-and-mood altering substances any time a person has suddenly disengaged in a primary relationship, especially when there is a precipitating loss of some kind.  For whatever reason, your boyfriend's unemployment was more than a temporary career setback---it was a huge loss to his sense of self.  Instead of being able to let you in to that pain, he turned to something to shut it off, in this case, cocaine.

The only bright side is that he broke it off with you the moment he chose drugs over connection with you, even if he wasn't truthful about what he was doing.  This is actually sort of admirable, because most people in the throes of an addiction just take down whoever is closest along with them.  You dodged a bullet, and when you realized the kind of dangerous behavior he was engaged in, you wisely instituted a no-contact policy.

The piece I have to gently warn you about, Brokenhearted, is your assertion that his cocaine use is a "phase".   Drug use is not like body piercing or thinking you're an evangelical Christian.  It's not a phase, it's an addiction, especially if it's been caused by depression because of his unemployment, caused him to do something so drastic as break off a healthy relationship, and if he is truly snorting "mountains" of it at festivals.

I know that in your pain of losing him, you wish he could come back to you, untouched by your time apart.  But he will not be the same person then, even if he does.  He has started down a long road that will take him a good while to return from, and in fact, he should be a different person, if he really digs in to the recovery process.

So, my suggestion to you is to only invite him back into your life if he is a) in some kind of recovery program, and/or therapy, b) willing to discuss why he sought out drugs instead of connection at that time in his life, and c) interested and able to hear from you how it hurt you to lose him in such a way, and what boundaries you need going forward.  Finally, he should agree to never break up with anyone ever again via text message.

In the meantime, tend to your own broken heart.  Think less about him and his choices, and mend your own wounds, sewing them up with the support of your friends, with new experiences that bring you joy, and comforting practices like staying in to intricately braid your hair and read your favorite book over again.

Your boyfriend made a sad mistake, choosing cocaine over you.  Don't follow him down the rabbit hole.  I have seen many people throw away their dignity for the lure of the seductive drug user.  There's something desperate in those hollowed-out eyes, and we are sure that if we can just harness that desperation, we can turn it into passion---for us, rather than the substances.  Instead of chasing that dragon, stay close to yourself, on your own side, in the realm of human, rather than chemical, connection.

Soberly,

Sibyl

It Always Was

I wasn’t the girl who grew up dreaming about her wedding.  I didn’t play pretend wedding and neither I nor my Barbie dressed up as a bride.  In college when a girlfriend was having boy drama, I was the one telling her she was enough on her own.  I didn’t look for love, I didn’t pine for it or dream about it. It was a non-question, as was marriage, I didn’t think about it except in the abstract. And then, exactly 10 years ago this week, this guy kissed me. And that was it. It just was. It was everything and nothing all at the same time; so perfectly ordinary that it was extraordinary.  From that moment, that one perfect moment, we were together. We just were.

Someone asked me once when I knew we were serious, when we had that conversation. I had to think about it then, and I thought on it again on this milestone. The truth is, there never was a conversation. I’m sure of it. Perhaps there was a word or two before we got engaged, but I don’t remember them.  There was certainly nothing prior to that and nothing that ever involved questions of ‘Should we do this’ or ‘What are we’ or ‘When will we’. It seems odd, most relationships have those status checks. I can’t explain it except to say we just were, from very early on.

That’s not to say our relationship was placid. It isn’t now and it never was. I’ll say we’re spirited conversationalists.  We’re not afraid to air our grievances and then move on. But in all those conversations and discussions, there was never a question of ‘what if we weren’t us’.

I’m don’t think I believe in soul-mates or fate, which is why it’s so hard for me to understand how someone so perfect for me, in ways I could never have guessed or anticipated, would be a part of my life. It would be easier I think to say it was fate.  Easier to say our relationship was destined to be.  Without that predetermination, the chance involved means we could have easily missed each other. I could have gone to a different party, he could have gone to a different school. We might never have met and then he might never have kissed me on that cold January morning.

But he did.

Ten years ago I didn’t know; I didn’t know what my life would be like today. I couldn’t have possibly imagined if I tried. Ten years ago I wasn’t thinking about marriage or the future.  I just knew it seemed right. I just knew, in the way you know the sky is above the ground. I just knew I was in the right place, with the right person. Just as I know it now.

I still don’t know what the future holds. I get dizzy thinking about what my life might look like ten years from now.  I don’t know where I’ll be or what I will experience in the next decade; I couldn’t dream it if I tried.

But I do know who I’ll be with.  I know who I’ll cuddle under the covers with, who I’ll wake up when I’ve had a bad dream.  I know who I’ll trade ‘you are’ comeback lines and lame jokes with. I know who I’ll debate over beers and cuddle with during movies.  I know who will get me ginger ale when I’m sick and chocolate when I’ve had a bad day. I know who I’ll talk with, argue with, laugh with, and dance in the living room with.

I know who will be holding my hand.  I know who will be kissing me.

Because it was never a question.  It always was.

 

A Christmas Present

A Christmas Present

A lovely video by Molly McIntyre

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading lauren

Lauren Kodiak is a Connecticut native living in Portland, Oregon with her boyfriend and her slightly overweight cat. She has a master’s in Educational Policy, Foundations and Administration, but still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. She loves to spend hours in the kitchen, practice yoga and eat ice cream for dinner. My boyfriend, Drew, is an MFA in creative writing candidate, so every inch of our tiny studio apartment is occupied with books of all kinds. I rarely have to make a trip to the bookstore or library when I’m looking for a new read, as I have a seemingly endless supply at my fingertips. Since reading is such an integral part of our relationship and life together, I thought I’d extend the invitation to him to share a favorite book with you all. Perhaps in light of the tragedies our nation currently grieves, our picks lean toward the darker side, full of raw emotion. But in these stories, as in life, there is always humor and light to be found if you choose to look for it.

Lauren: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live by Joan Didion Comprised of seven books of nonfiction, dating back to 1968, this is certainly a hefty undertaking. But what I love most about it is that I’ve been slipping back and forth between books here and there, in no particular order. My first foray into Didion was just this past year, when I read The Year of Magical Thinking. I found myself captivated by her precise observations and minimalistic prose. I kept rereading sentences, trying to decipher what it was exactly about each one that elicited so much emotion. After reading from We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live—specifically The White Album—I see now that it’s not the how, but the what. Sure, her sentences are sparse, but what they contain are stories of a nervous breakdown, of her multiple sclerosis diagnosis, and of the paranoia and anxiety she experienced while living in California during the unsettling time period of the 1960s-70s. She shares everything, spares us none of the unsavory truths. As I read more of Didion, I’m beginning to understand that writing about deeply personal issues is not synonymous with depressing others. Actually, these dark anecdotes inspire and reassure, universalizing anxieties and fears we all have felt at some point in our lives.

Drew: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt As a graduate student of creative writing, I’ve read some great literature. And while I enjoy much of what I read, I sometimes agree with the opinion that criticizes contemporary literature as plot-less and humorless. Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers reminded me why I fell in love with literature in the first place. A hilarious adventure set in the old West of Oregon and California, the novel drives forward in short, sometimes mere page-long chapters, which force things to happen—force horses to fail, whisky to be drunk, and gold-seekers to be murdered. The voice, younger brother Eli’s first person account of a manhunt undertaken with his brother, is pared-down, even keeled, sharply chiseled and oftentimes downright hysterical. Yet at its core, The Sisters Brothers meditates family and the moral compass of a mercenary. These topics, of course, are potent and worthy of examination in imaginative literature. Lucky for us, deWitt doesn’t crutch on his sentiments to carry the book; instead he juxtaposes them against a hilarious cast of characters, situations and killings gone wrong, all of which make this the best novel I read this year.

Both: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout We have a soft spot for coastal Maine, the setting of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of thirteen linked stories, Olive Kitteridge, and the title character—a crotchety, opinionated retired teacher—serves as the collection’s nucleus. Regardless of whether we are inside Olive’s head or see her through the lens of others, her big, boisterous character is ever-present. Despite Olive’s abrasive and callous demeanor, we can’t help but find her loveable as she lumbers through life. With such emphasis on Olive, it would be easy for the rest of the book to fall to the wayside, but the scenery of Crosby, Maine and the lives of those that inhabit it are richly illustrated. As you become privy to the gossip and secrets of the townspeople—an elderly couple is held at gunpoint, the mother of a killer becomes a hermit, a widowed old woman finds love in the least expected man—it’s difficult not to feel intertwined and invested in this little community. The range of emotions and experiences expressed throughout Olive Kitteridge are representative of those of the human condition. We both got lost in the day-to-day trials and misgivings of these characters, and cheered for them when they found glimmers of hope and happiness. A must-read for all!

Naughty or Nice?

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, My older brother has a girlfriend for the first time in years. I'm super psyched that she's going to be around for the holidays. I've already got her gift lined up. I'm looking forward to being able to hang out with her and get to know her. I've only met her once so far.

Earlier this week she texted me about a Christmas present for my bro. Super sweet. But here's my worry: I pretty much know he won't get her anything. He is always broke by choice and quite cheap. Love him anyways, of course. I'm aware that I might be projecting my own fears onto her (no gift = no love), and I know in my heart things just don't work that way. But I'm still freaked. Part of me wants to just buy a gift for her from him without her being the wiser. I know my bro would approve (unfortunately). But something tells me I shouldn't do that.

Should I say anything to her? Should I do anything? If this is all my own problem, what can I do to get over it?

Thank you! Santa's Elf

Dear Santa’s Elf,

First of all, congrats to your brother on his new relationship, and to you on your connection to her.  I can understand your excitement, relief, and hopes that big bro will be loved in the way that he deserves.  However, I have to advise you to pull that elf hat off right this instant, and burn it on sight.  It’s not a good look.

Here’s the thing: YOU love your brother despite his Scroogey ways.  What makes you think she won’t do the same?  Is it because it really, really sucks not to receive in the manner in which you give?  Yes, Sibyl knows this feeling well.

Love is fucking disappointing.  At times it can be wonderful, but at others, it makes your heart so sick that you’re sure it’s detaching from your chest.  I remember that I was several years into my marriage when I realized that marriage is even more heartbreaking than the cycle of getting together and breaking up that makes up the dating scene.  I spent a sleepless night with a pile of old love letters, crying over what was lost and what might still be.

Your brother is going to disappoint his girlfriend.  She is going to let him down, as well.  What will be most important for them to work out as a couple will be: is the way in which they disappoint each other inherently traumatic to them, because of things that have happened in their early, shaping years, or can they survive the disappointments and grow stronger because of them?

It is good that she is learning now that your brother does not really value gift-giving.  If it is something that is very important to her, hopefully she will tell him that, and he will either be able to change and grow, or he will say, “Well, I’m never going to get you anything, that’s just who I am.”, which could be the end of the relationship.

Listen, I know you would do almost anything to make this relationship stick.  You love your brother and it sounds like you desperately want him to be happy.  But if you interfere here and give his girlfriend what you think she needs and wants here, you're writing an emotional check for your brother that he may not be able to cash.  It's love forgery.

So, if you can't get his girlfriend a soy candle and tie it up with a raffia bow and do your best impression of his handwriting on the to-from tag, what CAN you do?  Well, you can tell him that she contacted you, and is planning to get him something nice.  You can lay your cards on the table with him, and say, "I really like this girl, and you seem happy for the first time in a long while.  I think you should consider getting something for her for Christmas.  Perhaps you don't have any money, but you can do this.  You can make her something, you can give her a coupon for a great date, or you can be really frugal for the next few weeks so that you can afford to buy something.  I think it's worth it, and I hope you do, too."  Then, you can buy the girlfriend that soy candle, and put your own damn name on it.  It won't erase the awkwardness and frustration of not getting anything from her boyfriend, but it will express to her that you are excited about her presence.

After all, if you swoop in and compensate for the ways his expression of love falls short, not only will you be making promises that you can’t really keep, but you are taking something else away from them—an opportunity to grow as a couple.  It is through feeling lack that we change.  Without the chance to feel loss, we’d have no impetus to look within ourselves and see what needs work.  Will your brother step up to the plate and find a way to show his girl he wishes her all the best this year?  I hope so.  But if he doesn’t, I hope even more that they find a way to talk about expectations and disappointment, an important conversation for any couple to have.

Wishing you and your family Happy Holidays,

Sibyl

Do you have a quandary that you'd like Sibyl to help you with? Submit it here!

A Wedding Wish

This week my brother-in-law got married in Bangladesh.  His new wife is a lovely girl and I couldn’t be happier for the both of them.  Before the wedding, I tried to think of something wise or profound to say, having experience with happy marriage myself.  Of course I couldn’t come up with anything more unique then ‘Congratulations’.  Further pondering has led me to this list of wishes: I wish for you a lifetime of laughter.  I hope you laugh every day, I hope you take particular joy in making your spouse laugh. I hope you prize each other’s individuality. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, some you already know clearly, some you may anticipate, and some will catch you completely off guard.  May you celebrate and embrace each other’s strengths and protect each other’s weaknesses.  You both have unique life experiences, histories, and backgrounds, you have different opinions, beliefs, and personalities- and that’s wonderful.  Don’t ever try to agree all the time or be clones of one another.  Being married doesn’t mean you have to share a single brain.

I wish for you a lifetime of patience and understanding. There will be disagreements, heated discussions, and yes, even arguments, and that’s ok- each of you is as important as the other both of your voices should be heard.  Life isn’t supposed to be a boring walk through the park or a sale on a placid lake. It’s the jungle that you navigate and the storms that you ride out that prove your strength, both individually and as a couple.  Arguing isn’t the end of the world, or the end of a relationship, I wish for you to know that. I wish for you to always fight fair and never try to hurt the other’s feelings. And while we’re on the subject, don’t ever be too proud to say you’re sorry. In fact, be proud of recognizing a wrong and apologizing for it.

I wish for you a lifetime of hugs. Take care of each other and never take the other for granted.  Say I love you Every Day. It’s the most important phrase in your vocabulary.  Never take it for granted.  I wish thousands of date nights and coffee dates. I wish you breakfast in bed and dinner at midnight. I wish for you romance. I wish for you hours of sitting next to each other, enjoying the silent companionship. Even champagne and roses lose its appeal day-after-day.  Celebrate the everyday, enjoy the little moments you spend together. I wish you movie nights curled up on the couch and trips to the grocery store. Your entire life is now a celebration of your love, I wish for you to remember that.

I wish for you a lifetime of dreams, whatever they may be, wherever they may take you.  I wish you adventure. I wish you stories that you’ll tell again and again, interrupting each other as you retell a shared memory.  I wish you quiet smiles and loud laughs. I wish you joy that takes your breath away and love that brings a happy ache to your heart.  I wish you a beautifully blessed marriage full of tenderness, excitement, and the proverbial spark. I wish for you, everything my marriage has given to me.  As my husband said, go ahead and ‘Write Your Own Story’

With heartfelt congratulations,

Renee