Finding balance in the second half of life

Archive for the ‘Romance’ Category

How to Say Goodbye to Your First True Love

In Fulfillment, Romance on February 16, 2017 at 4:41 pm

First, when a mutual friend calls you out of the blue and says it’s time, are you coming, say yes. Cancel all your meetings and appointments except your haircut. Hate yourself for caring about looks at a time like this. Cancel the haircut.

Tell your husband of 30 years where you’re going. Try to explain why. When he nods, mentally give him 100 points on the running tab you keep of your marriage.

Turn the house upside img_3946-2-1down looking for a specific photo—the black and white one you took from the audience when he was playing first chair in the orchestra. The one that shows off his cheekbones. Give up after two hours. Settle for the one you took of him cradling his dog like a baby. Hope it will make him smile.

Think about what you will say to him. Time will be short. He can’t focus for long. Never has it felt so important to be concise. Eloquence would be nice, but clarity is job one. You decide on “I came because I wanted to say thank you. You made a difference in my life.” Write it down. You will be nervous and might forget.

Think about what you will say to his young adult children. They likely have never heard your name until today. You decide on “I have to be honest. I feel awkward being here and I’m afraid I will say the wrong thing. Thank you for letting me come so I could tell your dad he made a difference in my life.” Write it down.

Forget to think about what you will say to his girlfriend.

Take food. It’s what people do. Bagels are good. They can be frozen for later. You buy a dozen bagels, fresh, and cream cheese.

On the drive to his house, get lost in the fog. Not just turned around, but so lost that you can’t find north. Think of how it’s a metaphor. Pull over and try to learn the car’s navigation system. Curse technology. Set the route. Get back on the road.

To calm yourself, take deep breaths and recite Nessun Dorma. When you get to the last two lines—“Until I say my real name on your mouth/Let all lights shine and no man sleep”—let yourself weep, but only for two miles. After two miles, allow for another 20 miles. Better to get the ugly stuff out of the way now. Wonder why, exactly, you are sobbing. For him? For your long-lost youth? For the loss of possibility?

Ignore the navigation system when, five miles from his house, it says, “You have reached the end of your charted route. No more information on your destination is available.” Acknowledge that you are off the map in more ways than one.

After you park, give yourself a pep talk. You can do this. It’s important. Forget to review your notes lying on the passenger seat.

Go inside. Introduce yourself—just your name. Don’t take off your coat. You’re not staying long. Thrust the plastic bag of bagels into his daughter’s arms. Silently berate yourself for not thinking to put them in a nicer container. Say, “Nice to meet you. Thank you for letting me come.” Forget everything else.

When things cannot possibly get any more awkward, make your way to the hospital bed set up in the living room. Find a fifth gear somewhere inside yourself. Do not show you are alarmed by how small he has become. Even though his eyes are closed, his children and girlfriend are watching. Be cool. By all means, do not think of the shape of his arms when you knew him, sculpted from wielding a planer all day. Touch his hand and say, “It’s me, Chris,” even though you go by Christine now, because that is what he called you back then.

Say, “I came to say thank you. You made a huge difference in my life.”

When he arches his eyebrows and answers with genuine surprise, “I have?” don’t panic as everything that was the you and the him together comes rushing back at the sound of his voice, which you had forgotten, the distinctive way he shapes his vowels. In a heartbeat, it will level you.

Regroup. Do not let all that is in you come pouring out. Do not tell him how often over the years he has shown up in your dreams, not as a lover but as a priest of creativity. Too complicated. Stick to the plan.

Smile so that even though his eyes are still closed, he can hear the smile in your voice. Say, “Yes. You showed me a different path—art and music—that a creative life was possible. You changed the direction of my life.”

Don’t be disappointed when he doesn’t respond. You have done what you came to do. Squeeze his hand. Say, “Rest well.”

Make small talk with his children. Say, “I knew him when I was just 18 and it changed everything.” Leave it at that. As you are walking out the door, remember the picture of him looking down at his dog. Hand it to his son. When it makes him smile, give yourself over to gratitude—for this, for everything.–Christine MacLean

Too Patient for Words

In Family, Romance on October 22, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Every now and then a text arrives like a feather floating from the sky. This one arrived a few months ago: “Is it possible to be too patient?”

And the question haunts me.

In the abstract, of course, it is never possible to be too patient—if the patience is authentic. “Patience is a virtue,” I told my kids. And I believed it, and still do. Being willing to wait, to suspend judgment, to dispel irritability, to maintain an even temper—these are messages of love. Being patient generally communicates that you’ve settled into an admirable equanimity—that you know you are not the center of that waiter’s universe, that not everyone knows exactly what you know, that everyone doesn’t walk at the same pace or attend to the same details, that reading Goodnight Moon for the 112th time is more important than your to-do list.

When I think about times I’ve been “too patient” myself, honesty tells me it’s not patience at all I was exercising. I let a member of my team struggle for too long without seeing the situation for what it was—a perfectly good person in a job that was a nightmarishly bad fit. I put up with too much in several relationships, most notably a marriage that called for endless stores of “patience” that was really martyrdom and victimhood.

Because it’s awfully easy to confuse being patient with many other things; unfortunately, the confusion often lifts only with time. Sometimes when you tell yourself you’re being patient, you’re really avoiding confrontation, “picking your battles,” rejecting the alternatives, even being cowardly. I suppose the way to tell is whether you could in any sense describe yourself as “seething” as you’re “patient.” If you’re grousing, you’re not patient. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grouse; it likely means it’s time to admit you’re not patient (even if you wish you were) and figure out what else is going on.

A friend and I were talking last week about how nice definitive tests are—like pregnancy tests, which have (almost always) a clear, unambiguous answer. Wouldn’t it be handy to have that for all the varieties of emotional diagnosis? Am I patient, or only too tired to care? Am I depressed, or only a little sad? Am I in love, or only quite fond? Pee on a stick, and see what the color tells you.

I can’t quite come up with a physical test, but I can approximate a Cosmo quiz for determining whether you’re really feeling patient or something else altogether:

Are you gnawing on the inside of your mouth?

  • It’s bleeding (5 points)
  • Gnawing is a strong word (3 points)
  • I’m serene (0 points)

Have you looked at your watch or calendar more than twice in the last five minutes?

  • More like 10 times (5 points)
  • Now that you mention it, I have (3 points)
  • I’m not wearing a watch (0 points)

Are you casting your mind back to any of the dozen times this has happened before?

  • Dozen times? More like 73 times that I can specifically remember. (5 points)
  • I haven’t counted the times it’s happened before. Yet. (3 points)
  • I can’t remember this happening before. (0 points)

Have any curse words formed themselves in your mind, whether or not they’ve come out of your mouth?

  • I’ve gone through my entire vocabulary (5 points)
  • Do “frickin’” and “jiminy cricket” count? (3 points)
  • I can’t think of a curse word right now (0 points)

Are you fantasizing about getting into your car and driving for eight hours in any direction?

  • Eight hours is not nearly long enough (5 points)
  • Only to the nearest bar (3 points)
  • I’m happy sitting here (0 points)

If your score totals more than 12, you might spend some time thinking about whether you’re experiencing something other than patience.

Because that feather of a question arrived out of context, with no particular bird to attach it to, it could have had nothing to do with relationships. But in my own life, it was a relationship that befuddled my judgment for the longest stretch of time. I claim no expertise in relationships. It seems to me that miracles, good friends, synchronicity, and happenstance are what took me from a relationship that required the daily exercise of “patience” to one that requires much less actual patience, even as it makes it easier to achieve. And I do realize, of course, that I’m not actually involved in my kids’ romantic lives. They’re adults, usually.

And yet, in spite of having no role and no expertise, I can’t get over being a mother, thinking that I should be able to offer some kind of helpful counsel and support, just as I offer homemade bread, neatly folded clean clothes, and free haircuts. I wasn’t sure I knew what to do when they told me at the hospital that it was time to take that first seven-pound bundle home, either. “Really?” I thought. “Me? Just take him home?” I made things up for at least those first 20 years, and we seem to have made out okay.

So just in case it’s helpful, I offer this second Cosmo quiz for prospective partners—before a relationship gets to the point at which you’re wondering whether it’s a lack of patience or a loss of faith that you’re feeling:

In a restaurant, do you have to discuss how to share food?

  • I never share food
  • I’ll finish whatever s/he doesn’t eat
  • My plate is his/her plate and vice versa

If your life is a construction project, what phase are you in?

  • The blueprints are final, the materials are purchased, and the contractors are hired
  • A napkin sketch that’s awaiting the ideal collaborator
  • I don’t understand about phases

How would you describe your role in past relationships?

  • Caretaker
  • The Decider
  • The Romantic

How far are you willing to go to make my son/daughter happy?

  • At least across the street if the traffic’s not heavy
  • Fifty miles or less off the interstate
  • To Mars if s/he asks me

Scoring is difficult on this one. While “never shares food” might be a red flag, “my plate is his/her plate,” while it sounds very generous, could be creepy in practice. Partnerships work best when they’re collaborative, but two people can generally negotiate a compromise more easily than they can manufacture an entire vision. A caretaker is handy, until it’s clear that there’s baggage that comes with that. And going to Mars seems romantic, until you consider that it requires an absence of at least nine months and there’s no guarantee of return.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees anywhere in love, even based on the best research results. That’s the toughest part, I guess, of parenthood at this point in the game: Heartbreak is out there in many forms, and it’s impossible to predict and prevent. What I’m left with is my wish for my kids—and for everyone else, of course, though somewhat less fervently—is that they find someone with whom they can be who they want to be and do what they want to do, someone who understands what miraculous people they are, someone they can find miraculous. I hope they have partners with whom they can share laughter, tenderness, and creativity, partners who understand the value of the private joke and a spontaneous touch.

And when their hearts are broken, as they may well be, I hope they don’t give up on love. I hope they’ll find patience when it’s deserved, be impatient when they need to be, and be true enough to themselves to tell—always—one from the other.

–Lois Maassen

Don’t Sweat the Shirt

In Fulfillment, Romance on January 6, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Tara Parker-Hope’s piece on sustainable love in The New York Times last week highlights recent research suggesting that what we really want from a romantic partner is someone who will help us become who we want to be.

As one of the researchers put it:

“People have a fundamental motivation to improve the self and add to who they are as a person. If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.”

TheMichelangelo Effect” — in which close partners “sculpt” each other’s skills and personality traits over the course of a long relationship — has been identified by a number of studies as an important ingredient in happy and stable partnerships.

The trick though, is that you can’t try to shape your partner into your notion of his ideal self. You’ve got to promote and affirm and cultivate his own vision of the person he wants to be. So the other day, when I attempted to sculpt My Loving Partner free from a certain gray sweatshirt, I was  contributing neither to his “self-expansion” nor the future happiness of our relationship.

Despite this slip-up, when MLP and I took the Sustainable Marriage Quiz designed to measure how much your partner “expands your knowledge and makes you feel good about yourself,” we each got scores in the “highly expansive range.”

But there’s room for improvement. I’m working on expanding my notion of my ideal self to include becoming a person who is okay with the sweatshirt.

–Debra Wierenga

Marriage (an All-Over-the-Place Post)

In Romance on December 22, 2010 at 3:00 pm

My wedding anniversary is later this month. That, coupled with all the press  lately about how the institution of marriage is changing, has made me think of Age of Unreason. In that book, Charles Handy discusses mostly business ideas and his concept of a portfolio life (“a portfolio of activities–some we do for money, some for interest, some for pleasure, some for a cause”). But he also throws in the idea of a portfolio marriage. His vision isn’t one of changing marriage partners; his vision is one of changing patterns in a marriage–“a portfolio of possibilities,” he calls it.

Handy believes that in successful marriages spouses are able to flex over the lifetime of their relationship. Sometimes you get to take the lead, other times you play a supporting role. There will be times that your roles are ambiguous and overlap and other times your roles are clear and separate. Occasionally you might be “friendly rivals” in your careers and there may be periods when you each want, above all, just to pursue your own interests–maybe in retirement.

Writes Handy, “Too often a change in partner is the way many people match their need for a marriage with the need for change. . .If they do not realize that it is only the patterns which are changing, then it is the relationship which breaks.”

There are many reasons marriages founder, of course, but I do think Handy was on to something. Circumstances change, people change, relationships change, and we (the two people in the marriage) have to be open to all of it and adjust.

I think the same is true on a societal level. Almost 40% of people think that marriage is becoming obsolete, but if we (the collective we) could flex a little, say on the whole gay marriage thing, we could preserve what’s best about the institution–love, commitment, devotion, continuity. But if we don’t realize that it’s only the patterns of marriage that are changing, then the institution might break.

I don’t think it will, though. If you look at the history of marriage, as Stephanie Coontz did, what you realize is that marriage is the cockroach of institutions. It’s a survivor.

 –Christine MacLean

No Thanks

In Community, Family, Romance on November 24, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Thanksgiving dinner @ Sanctuary Farm

For weeks now I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with Thanksgiving Day. One son is in Ireland. The other two will be in Indiana, eating turkey with their dad and his new wife and my former mother-in-law who makes the best pumpkin pie ever. My own sweet dad — he of the soup-chilling pre-dinner toasts and the table-panning video camera — has lately become dead; wherever he is on Thursday, it won’t be at my dining room table. Neither my good friend Kate, whom I counted on for years to provide the family-tension-reducing Talking Dog Joke, nor Belgian-born Janine whose creamed onions were to die for, nor my sons’ friends Wade and Emma and Spencer and Anna Lisa and Jack, nor the parents of my sons’ friends who became during those noisy years friends of my own, will be passing the cranberry sauce to me this year.

For the first 25 years of my life, Thanksgiving was a big family dinner at my aunt’s or grandmother’s or mother’s house. For the next 25 years, it was a big family (and friends) dinner at my own place. Now it is a big fat hole that I am desperate to fill.

This morning I suggested to My Loving Partner that we use the holiday to fix up the wood floors in the dining room.

“You still know how to surprise me,” he said, after a longish pause.

I don’t want to go out to dinner. I don’t want to stay home and cook a pseudo family dinner for two (Honey, will you carve the Cornish Hen?). And I don’t especially want to sit at my long, empty, dining room table making a list of everything I’m thankful for. But I also don’t want to be a whiny, ungrateful wretch.

So, I adopted a turkey.

His name is Reese.


He will be enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends at Sanctuary Farm’s California shelter.

And I will be sharing a hearty lentil stew (or something) with MLP, who was actually considering the floor fixing idea and for whom I am sincerely thankful.

–Debra Wierenga

Dating, Tamed

In Romance on March 20, 2010 at 6:59 pm

In a few minutes, she will come again, my son’s first girlfriend, she of the long, blonde locks and plate-sized china blue eyes. She will ferry my son away from us, not across the River Styx but on a crossing at least as treacherous–teen dating. When she arrives, he doesn’t rush to leave, but he is eager to be off.  He never looks back.

I’m ill prepared for this. It feels like an embolism in my chest that will surely burst when he leaves for good.

But. Her arm encircles his waist and her hand rests on his belt. But. He smiles in such a way that I know the rest of the world–his dog at his feet, the hockey playoffs on TV, his father at the door, me on the stair–are in soft focus for him. And I remember.

I remember Robert, who parked his car at our house and rode to work every day one summer with my father. He was tall and dark with a slow, winning smile. I started showering in the afternoon. I set my hair in pink sponge rollers.  And I made sure I just happened to be outside at the very moment he and my father came home. I was smitten. I was ten years old.

My affection was not returned. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even noticed. I was devastated to learn, upon snooping through his glove compartment and finding his cigarettes and  love letters, that he loved some girl named Nancy. Misery loves company and I had plenty: my four older sisters were all in love with him, too. It’s because of Robert that to this day, I find the hint of smoke on a man sexy.

It took me a few years to recover from that loss and start dating Paul, my first real boyfriend. I remember Paul. He was shorter than I by about three inches, but what he lacked in height he more than made up for in what he taught me. (No, I’m not going there.) Before Paul, I thought studying for a test meant looking at the material for a few minutes. But Paul, who was a socio-economic class or two above my farm family, was a serious student who eventually graduated at the top of his class. Paul studied five or six hours every day, and it was by watching him that I learned how to be a good student.

Then came Greg. I remember Greg. He smoked pot. I didn’t. We stayed together for longer than we should have. I don’t know why. Oh, wait. Maybe I do. He was good looking. Remember Robert? Yeah, he looked like a younger Robert. I was going to say that I learned nothing from that relationship, but then I realized that Greg taught me to play tennis, and tennis has been a hobby of mine ever since.

And I remember Keith, who was waiting for me when Greg and I broke up. Funny, athletic, and personable, he liked to lift weights–and use me as the weight. We laughed a lot. From him I learned that dating could be fun. He was the quintessential nice guy and I broke up with him in a hallway conversation between classes–an approach that strikes me as a precursor to the text break-up. I was a jerk. I regretted breaking up with him later, when I realized that nice, funny, personable, athletic guys who are fun on a date are pretty hard to come by.

I remember the things I learned in those early dating relationships that helped make me who I am and shaped my preferences. I remember that all those relationships prepared me to see that the right man who finally came along was the right man, and to treat him right.

Now when I see my boy-man son and his girlfriend together, I try to think of all he’s learning (no, not that,  although that occurs to me, since she’s older than he is and has had other boyfriends). She’s a good student and she has some ambitions; I wouldn’t mind if some of that rubbed off on him.

And she plays on the tennis team, which is why twice last week he asked me to go hit some balls with him–my son who has stonewalled me whenever I’ve asked him to play over the past five years.  Until now. In that way, she has not only given him back to me, but given us a new common interest that might connect us even as he pulls away, even as the embolism throbs near my heart.

She’s breezing in the door now, smelling of roses and french fries. She can ferry him across that passage and I will be waiting, racquet in hand, on the other side.–Christine MacLean