Saturday, January 07, 2006

Because we can

A friend of mine, lets call her Jay, asked me a question at a Christmas party, and I have been chewing on it in the background of my mind ever since. At least I guess I must have been, because I woke up yesterday, or maybe it was today, with an answer.

This question is pretty intense for a woman that I only know slightly, and with whom I don’t always feel I have much in common. I struggle not to be too casual in dress; she loves shoes and gets manicures. She is social; I’m an introvert. She has a grown son; I love my dogs. But we are both of an age, and we like each other. More than once, casual conversation has abruptly shifted, and we find we are talking about things that matter to us deeply, things that usually take a lot more care to introduce into polite conversation. Things like mental health and what it is really like to be a woman in the predominantly male world of finance and our shared love of hands on home improvement and our bemused appreciation of men.

“Why is it so hard for me?” she wants to know. This is not an insecure person, and I understand that she is not asking “Why doesn’t anyone want me?” She is bright and beautiful and funny and good company and financially secure. She is asking a different question, and I am flattered that she considers that I might know any part of an answer. The fact is I have the same question: “What is wrong with me that I think it is okay to live alone? Shouldn’t I want someone in my life? Shouldn’t I want people closer to me? Am I being too hard on the people who love me? Am I shutting out relationships that might bring joy into my life? Have I failed to grasp the tradeoff between working on a relationship and avoiding loneliness?” She is asking the question in the context of an insistent potential lover, while I am not--at least not at the moment--but I can see that my question is what has kept me in bad relationships.

Even at Christmas, I knew part of the answer. If there is no magic, if there never has been that spark of connection in the attraction to the other person, it’s not worth it. Relationships that start with magic are hard enough to navigate, and we are long past the age of arranged marriages. I am grateful that it is not now as rare for women to live alone. When I was first divorced twenty years ago, I had to work hard to accept my new state. As a good southern girl, there was very, very few single women in my extended family who weren’t perceived as having a little something wrong with them. It took a long time for me to decide I would rather have something wrong with me than stay in a bad relationship, and I have repeated that wrenching decision a few times now.

Eventually, I may get it right. It seems that the challenge of my lifetime is to learn to let go once the magic has receded. Despite my deep fears that I give up too quickly, the truth is that I give up far too slowly. Too little self respect or over-responsibility for the other person keeps me stuck until I wake up one bright morning and realize that I can just walk away. That’s what I am trying to learn. Again and again. Still.

Why do I live alone? Because I can, at least right now. I can afford my own house and I can pay my bills As life goes on, things change and I may not always have this luxurious option. I may need to have a roommate.or move to lower cost housing, maybe even give up my well loved dogs. For now, I am happy.

There are downsides to living alone. Aside from the expense, there isn’t anyone to share chores, and it often takes me a long time to figure out how to accomplish some household projects. At the end of the day, as we would say on Wall Street, it is a business decision. Do I give up what I have for a risky prospect? These kinds of decisions take analysis of pros and cons, then a leap of intuition and faith and love.

When I married at nineteen, I made that leap. It paid off big time. I had several years of joy before things changed, then a few years of struggle to accept that my world had changed. Would I make the leap again? In a heartbeat. But only if the magic is there.

I am pleased to say that one of the things I love about Vermont is that I see hints and whispers of magic everywhere. Almost everywhere I go, I meet interesting men that show real promise. Nobody yet for whom I would give up my current life….well maybe one. Or two. The riches of possibility enliven my life. And if nobody comes along, the downside is that I live alone in the luxury of my own home until old age or illness requires otherwise. The long term future I imagine is an apartment or one-room house, but as age advances, I may have to live closer to services and dogs will become increasingly problematic.

To answer Jay’s question. Why do we live alone? Because we can. Because we are financially and emotionally secure enough that we have that option.


Karen said...

A big celestial ha ha! After I wrote the above, I read today's horoscope:

You tend to stick to difficult relationship situations for far longer than is actually necessary. The celestial configuration is helping you to understand just how soul-destroying it can be to hang on when every aspect of your being is urging you to move on and get out. You need to develop a little more compassion for yourself and give yourself a chance to change when and if necessary.

zhoen said...

No marriage is better than a bad marriage. It takes a great man/woman to be better than none at all. And you can't have a good marriage with a bad person.

I've done a bad marriage. I have a good one. Never settle, as I did in desperate lonliness, the first time. I got lucky, and then made sure I kept the luck I'd been offered, the second time.

It does take effort to keep the magic alive, but it's not "hard work." It's being on his side, and him being on your side. It's about respect and kindness and each feeling like they are getting the best of the deal- on average. The warm, solid magic of well lived lives shared.

If you share your well lived life with friends, dogs, family instead, then it is as much or more a well lived life. Some folks just don't need to pair up to live well. Some do. Most don't bother to really find out, and just go along with what they are told.

Karen said...

Z, thanks so much for this comment. You put your finger on something that has always made me a little queasy--the idea that "relationships are work." That has not been my experience. Rather I have had more the experience you describe that if you truly want the best for another person, it is not work at all but joy. Even when you don't get what you want for yourself.

That's the magic and the miracle, I believe.

Jola said...

I thought of you when I read this letter in the NY Times this morning.

The decision of whether or not to cohabit or marry is another dimension of the idea of a woman's "right to choose." Clearly many women in different cultures and historic periods have not been empowered to do so, so it's a hardwon, important freedom. Plus, you never know, the right guy may come along... And then - retaining the female perogative - you can always change your mind!