Immortal beloved, all that: didn't happen in this lifetime. At this point I'm finding that different kinds of love are more sustainable
Ninety minutes from now I will be leaping into a tuk-tuk and heading off to see the three great temples of Chiang Rai. Right now I am sitting quietly on my porch in a subdued part of the smallish city, the sounds of motorbikes delivering food to guests putting in the distance. More importantly to me are the sounds of the night's insects, the chittering birds and the light breezes which move the unfolding lotus softly over the surface of the pond.
I am in love. Not with someone, but with life itself.
And in love with that part of me which has finally embraced love of self enough to give myself these gifts.
That's been a journey, to say the least.
Last night I got a treat. After my first week in Chiang Mai, crammed as it was with visits to elephant facilities and massaging tigers, several quiet days in the lesser-sister Chiang Rai to that bustling city were intentional. Here, the small "resort" sits on a pond, surrounded by shadowing trees.
Each day we've had showers. Last night we had two big fat storms, the kind that march in and sweep all the leaves from the roof and threaten to crack the branches. Rain fell hard, twice, pounding the tin and nearly sending the curtains into the neighbor's yard.
I love storms like that. Thunder boomed and lightning cracked, reminding me of how life can be taken so swiftly, and how fortunate I am to have life for however briefly.
I don't need to be in love to love.
After years of hating myself, hating my body, hating this or that about myself largely as the result of others' hate of themselves, I love my life. I don't seek or need the validation of Great Passionate Love, the kind of love that inspires movies and poetry and grand gestures.
What a world this would be if we could fall in love with ourselves in such a way that we celebrate life itself, rather than chase others, whether for sex or whatever it is we seek. What a world mine has become as I have left most such transitory desires behind.
Sex for me is complicated. Anyone who has experienced incest and/or rape as I have has a most difficult journey to begin with.
Add to that a society which both denies and utterly immerses itself in sex, and you have a lot of mixed messaging. For example:
The US is the biggest consumer in the sex trafficking business:
It's no wonder we sexualize everything and over-glamorize love because we conflate it with sex. Sex isn't love isn't sex. Ask anyone who's been raped, we'll tell you. Sex in that context is nothing more than rank brutalization. Domination, control and abuse.
Tends to undermine a lot of things, including trust, which is a fundamental component of love. If you suffer from a history of incest as I do, you learn very early on not to trust your body. A young child's mind often assumes that if something happens like that it must be their fault. You, then, are not trustworthy. That goes triple if the family denies or blames you for its transgressions.
Being able to love your own body becomes not only hugely challenging but loving someone else is damned hard. Trust got broken for me very young, and love demands trust. Absolutely.
Trust begins inside me. It was years upon years before I was able to trust myself to set boundaries. True love, love of self, love of others begins with healthy boundaries, the right to say no, the right to say not now, back off.
America doesn't recognize boundaries, most especially as it relates to the female body. We are a case study in sexual predation as a nation.
But we don't stop at women. We brutalize boys and men, too. It's a statement of the species that we have such compulsive needs.
We don't recognize boundaries anywhere at all. The credo of the USA is what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine. That of course is true of all colonizing countries but this isn't that article.
I survived childhood only to be hurtled into sexual assault, gang rape and more in the military. At the ripe old age of 23, when most of us are seriously looking around to be partnered. I kept being taught that men=danger, pain and abuse.
Frankly, that experience set gets in the way of the Prince Charming story.
However, the lifelong search for love, that elusive promise of the Perfect Partner...well.
Not only did that elude me completely, but each time someone would float into my life I learned the eternal lesson that if love doesn't begin inside me for me, then it will never blossom like the lotus which eagerly embrace the sun on this pond.
Writers like Bella DePaulo take on issues of what she calls Singlism, the unique and divisive dunning of those of us who aren't partnered. Society is deeply uncomfortable with those who live vibrantly but un-partnered, and in particular those who choose not to procreate but yet we still celebrate life.
However. Here's where I am going with this.
Love comes to us, too. It just lands in different forms.
That we were born at all is an act of love, for it allows us to experience this world.
That we were given a body and senses with which to experience this world is an active of love.
That there is something sacred in each one of us, acknowledged or not, is also an act of love.
To that last, I don't need to fall madly, crazily, passionately in love with someone to see, feel, hear and understand the sacred. Even if the lessons I am given by that person are painful.
That is also sacred work, and an act of love. If anything, we might wish to love them more for such lessons, as hard as that feels.
In our search for the Perfect Partner we often leave behind the kinds of love which can sustain us far longer and with greater richness. To that, I offer this magnificent treatise on friendship, which I now understand to be the kind of love which has enriched me far more than those fleeting sexual exchanges society so elevates to sacred status:
Quoting Andrew Sullivan in this piece:
For me, friendship has always been the most accessible of relationships — certainly far more so than romantic love. Friendship, I learned, provided a buffer in the interplay of emotions, a distance that made the risk of intimacy bearable, a space that allowed the other person to remain safely another person.
Those partnered people whose great passionate love has slowly but surely evolved into lifetime friendships are beyond fortunate. That kind of deep respect and regard for another is so often lacking when we so badly need to possess or be possessed in fiery embrace of sexual passion.
It's not that I didn't eventually come to enjoy sex. Not at all. I've been fortunate to have good partners, but those partners tended to value sex far more than the friendship which would have stood us both over time. Eventually, when the flame of initial attraction wore out, so did interest.
The other day I spent some six hours or more in the company of a young woman from Sierra Leone. Fun, bright, funny, and very engaging, about a third my age. I had more fun talking with her all day than any day spent rolling around in bed with someone and constantly wondering when he would leave. How soon would my bed be cooling again? Will he call? Was that all?
Freed of such compulsive idiocy, I can fully engage with old friends and new. I am passionate about those friendships, however, and find far more value in those connections than in those where sexual passion ran high but there wasn't much to discuss after the shower.
So...how about those Bears?
Did I miss the boat entirely? Did I lose out on life itself because some great passion didn't happen?
Look. I lost the man I consider the love of my life to a plane crash back in 1973. Could that have been The One? No clue. I was all of twenty. That loss continues to reverberate through my life. His death was in many ways a gift.
This article touches on the need for passion when we are in or seeking a relationship:
Lovely, I get it. However at this point in my life, I find my lengthy, deeply important and sometimes damned hard discussions with my friend Melissa in many ways so much more satisfying. She is gay and in relationship with someone with whom she cannot quite have those same discussions, so we talk several times a week.
When I travel, as now, we are both acutely aware of the loss of the regular contact.
Melissa just underwent surgery. Happily, she's fine. She is 65, and as with so many of us at this age, we both notice who is no longer with us. Some of those losses are deeply profound, and we often don't begin to realize that until afterwards.
When a great friendship leaves us behind and passes into memory, so distracted are we at times by the pursuit of romantic love that we might not realize that something far more fundamental has been removed from us.
Andrew Sullivan, as quoted in The Marginalian, above,
A part of this reticence is reflected in the moments when friendship is appreciated. If friendship rarely articulates itself when it is in full flood, it is often only given its due when it is over, especially if its end is sudden or caused by death. Suddenly, it seems, we have lost something so valuable and profound that we have to make up for our previous neglect and acknowledge it in ways that would have seemed inappropriate before… It is as if death and friendship enjoy a particularly close relationship, as if it is only when pressed to the extreme of experience that this least extreme of relationships finds its voice, or when we are forced to consider what really matters, that we begin to consider what friendship is.
Still, first and foremost, I must first be that friend to myself.
Over time I have become far better at this. That means kinder self- care across all the spheres of life, from eating well (and far less), to moving more, to taking the time to just sit quietly and appreciate the gift of being.
Like right now, watching the life of the pond move, fish eat, insects leap and the insect symphony recede with the sunrise. What a gift.
For me, that has also meant making vast and often uncomfortable changes, driven by circumstance and preference. I want to travel more, and I want to adventure more, but first that will require some repairs. I'm in the middle of that right now. There is pain involved, of course, but at the end of it I will be spat back out raring to go and ready.
That commitment comes of loving myself and my body enough to invest in such things, and trusting that I will take care of myself along the way.
Nobody else can or will do as good a job. However, my friends will step in where I need them, and I for them. My closest friends know that I will drop everything and show up as needed, if needed.
No passionate love affair, no man I ever met would have done that for me.
So I lean into love of life, love of self. Not the egotistic kind. The deeply appreciative kind. My friend Maggie once wrote me that the body, as we age, sends us love letters about how we treated it over the course of our lives.
We need to earn that, the friendship of our bodies, most especially as we age. For time and hard work leave their marks. Those marks deserve our love.
My passion is reserved for being in life. For being in this body, which is aging well, barking at me often, and allowing me to explore, better understand and serve.
The puckish, very funny, extraordinarily wise and wonderful author Bill Bryson wrote at the very beginning of his gorgeous A Short History of Nearly Everything:
“If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here-and by 'we' I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.” (author bolded)
I agree. The older I get the agree-er I am with this (I made that up, grammar police go spit).
I now count my friendships, beginning with the one who stares back at me toothless every single morning before the toofs go in, as more sacred than any Man of My Dreams. He doesn't exist. Never did. And that includes, I will admit, my mooning over Brad Pitt in both A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall.
I mooned all right. But I didn't want. Wanting, longing lead to great suffering, as I have found. What has not led to suffering has been the long, slow, steady process of learning to befriend what I already have, beginning with me. To further treasure those precious people who have populated my life.
Those have allowed me to live passionately in ways that no Prince Charming ever could. For that, I am deeply grateful.
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