Because he is a kind and thoughtful man the cartoonist texted me on Valentine’s day with the words that I most needed to hear.
“How are you holding up?”
I was in midtown, standing outside a flower shop. And it seemed as if every second person was buzzing about with a bunch of woundingly expensive flora.
My immediate response was to fire off a smart, sarcastic volley. “Every flower that I see is like a dagger to my heart,” was what sprung immediately to mind. But I decided to delete that and give him the courtesy of an honest reply.
“I’m okay.” I wrote. Or words to that effect.
Valentine’s Day made me think about what being single really means. And I’ve been thinking too about loneliness and solitude and love. And about the stories we’re told about that.
On Valentine’s day the message is louder, but it doesn’t deviate that much from the norm. It’s the same story, over and over again. You need another person to validate you.
Once, many years ago, I was dispatched to the office of big publisher to talk to a woman whose job it was to edit romance novels. And I asked her why romance novels are so reviled. She said that most people underestimate how difficult it is to write about falling in love. It’s one of the most powerful emotions we’ll ever experience. We remember that feeling; we covet it. It makes us feel clever and beautiful and funny and present. If you can convey that feeling on paper, the editor said, you will be rich.
Everybody wants to feel that way. All love stories end with boy meets girl. Or girl meets girl.
I also thought about falling in love when I watched the season finale of Homeland, where Carrie has to choose between Brodie and her career. And Saul lays out the options. There are only two. Be part of a couple, or live a sad and lonely life.
There did not seem to be an in between place, even for a show as nuanced as Homeland. Which I found disappointing.
Society, the media, marches in an impressively choreographed lockstep on this message. Be part of a couple or be branded as sad and somehow missing out. We absorb this message, and we don’t, for the most part, question it.
But is it really true? I’m not sure it is for everybody. I’m not sure it’s true for me. At least not now.
Recently I started to think about the times in my life when I was most happy and I settled upon London.
It was 1989. I was running around the metrop, unfettered, good job, good money, jumping on a train to the continent whenever I felt like it, and otherwise busy with parties and dances and dinners and the usual comings and going of a frivolous thing. I was doing exactly what a 29 year old should be doing; enjoying my youth and the fact that I still had a working metabolism.
And having thought about that, I decided to do a more thorough stocktake, based on on the cartoonist’s question; how are you holding up?
Short answer; I’m enjoying having my apartment to myself. I am ridiculously blessed with solid sterling friends and neighbors. I love my job and the people I toil alongside. I’m going to plays and dinners and concerts and taking trips and doing things that I would never have done had I still been married. (My ex has many excellent qualities, but love of his fellow man was not amongst them. It was hard to pry him out of the house.)
I hold parties and people still come. The only difference is I have to both cook and clean up, but I’m getting better about that as well.
I’ve also been thinking a little bit about my childhood, which was extremely solitary. My parents practiced a hands-off approach to the job. As long as I went to school and showed up for meals they didn’t much care how I spent my time. So I was mostly alone; reading, fishing, rambling, day dreaming. Barring riding my bicycle home from school here were no extra curricula activities.
My accomplishments are few, as a result.
But my upbringing taught me to be resourceful. And it taught me to guard the time that I need to do what I do best. I don’t think that I would have become a writer had I been raised by a tiger mother. Writers need the luxury of boredom, because only then do you start thinking, “what if?” Or at least that’s the way it is for me.
Solitude is a gift for writers. It supplies balance.
Fifty two and single. Not quite the same as 29 and single. It’s a little more freighted. But I’m coming to understand that it’s a case of calibrating what I actually want with what I think I should want.
I don’t want another husband. I don’t want a family. If I did, I’d already have one.
I like that fabulous, fizzy feeling of falling in love. I’ve felt it once or twice. But I know from this remove that it’s ephemeral. Sooner or later love becomes hard, hard work. And I’m not ready to go back into the mines.
As Albert Einstein said; “Marriage is the unsuccessful attempt to make something lasting out of an incident.”
And lately I see that there are lots of people in this city whom I admire, and who are not living the conventionally coupled life. They don’t seem to be suffering. In fact, they’re thriving.
So I’m thinking perhaps it’s time to question the message that we need to be half of something to be happy.
Lots of people get divorced these days. Perhaps it’s time to talk about this.
I’m not unhappy. I have friends. and my friends make me happy.
So I met up with the cartoonist a few days after Valentine’s day. And because he’s a kind and thoughtful man he enquired after my wellbeing. And he also wondered whether he should have sent me flowers, if that might not have made the day pass a little easier.
And I said no. His text was fine. Flowers were not necessary.
I have everything I need.