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Love: could you really give up hope?

Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 19.47.48I am a regular reader of Oliver Burkeman’s Saturday Guardian column, This Column Will Change Your Life. I haven’t noticed any changes in my life as a result, but his columns certainly give me fodder to ruminate on for the rest of the week.

Last Saturday Burkeman wrote a piece against hope. His argument was that hanging on to hope can actually make us feel worse. The whole debate was triggered by some German statistics published in The Economic Journal, which concluded that reaching retirement age for the unemployed brought them considerable life satisfaction, as those people were finally delivered of the hope of finding a job, which was causing unhappiness in the first place. Similarly, says Burkeman, in trauma, people who lose their jobs take longer to recover than those who were widowed, presumably because widowhood is irreversible: a widow(er) may find happiness again but you cannot bring your loved one back to life so you may as well give up.

I believe the implication is that when there is no hope of changing a situation, we have no choice but to accept the status quo and get on with life, whereas hope, like a carrot dangling from the stick, can string you along for miles on an unforgiving, arid path, which may not even lead to any oasis. Philosophically speaking this makes sense because hope is always linked to an occurrence that may or may not happen in the future. When you let go of hope, you automatically start living in the now, being fully present. It can only be liberating.

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now , would say this is the only way to live, as would many other spiritual teachers out there. It is a way of life I personally believe in and try to practise on a daily basis. But I have been struggling to accept how anyone can possibly live without hope when it comes to love and relationships.

If you are not in a relationship but you would like to be, it is only natural for one to hope meeting someone special, who will make you feel butterflies in your stomach. Or if you are in a relationship but it is stifling you, or for whatever reason it no longer makes you happy, you hope to find an alternative exit route, or a more suitable relationship. Don’t you?

If Fate was a clairvoyant you could actually speak to, and he or she told you there will never be another relationship in your life, how many of us would be able to carry on?

The promise of love and companionship is often the fuel that keeps us going for one more day, one more week, month or year. Having that promise taken away…would that not be tantamount to being told by your doctor that you have terminal cancer and only months to live? Isn’t love the oxygen that keeps us alive, be it love for life, love for the self or love for others? Aren’t we humans made to seek love from the moment we’re born? Isn’t love the purpose of life?

I applaud those who are so self-sufficient, or so enlightened, they couldn’t give a monkey’s whether they have a partner in life or not. I can hear them saying that the most important relationship of all is that with oneself, all the others are ancillary to that one, and they are absolutely correct about that.

But the majority of us still want to embrace that hope for a relationship with another. Even if we know it may not necessarily improve the quality of our lives, or bring us the happiness we imagine it will. True happiness must be found within, that much I know, and I am not so deluded that I fantasise Prince Charming and I walking hand-in-hand towards the sunset in some dramatic happy-ever-after finale. No. Prince Charming will keep me awake at night with his loud snoring and fart liberally under the duvet when familiarity sets in. He will drive me nuts by leaving the toilet seat up, splatter the bathroom sink with dried-up toothpaste, and God forbid he leaves dirty socks scattered all over the bedroom floor, as my ex used to do. We may row about silly things, and sulk for hours, we may even slam doors on each other from time to time, who knows.

The mention of these things brings back memories of my married life (I am separated now) and reminds me of how tough life as a couple can be. But even those daily irritants would have been significantly more tolerable, even ignorable, had there been mutual understanding between us on an emotional and an intellectual level.

I guess it is that understanding we crave for: being with a person to whom you need to say two words and they get four, or six, or eight. Or no words at all, as silence is also a form of language. Long-term couples that know each other well hardly need to speak to sense each other’s wishes, approval or disapproval.

I am not a desperate, lovelorn woman. I love my life as a single woman, I love my own company. I can spend days on end at home without speaking to a single soul and feel perfectly content with life. But, had I been told by Fate to abandon hope, as there will never be another great love in my life, I would probably quit my job tomorrow and go work for an animal charity in the wilderness of some African country, as Jane Goodall did; I have always wanted to be a zoologist anyway. If Fate will deny me love among humans, I shall seek it within the animal world.

Communication among animals, and with animals, is free of the background noise that exists in human communication and, for that reason, much purer, much clearer. When your dog wants food, it tells you it wants food; when it needs a pee, it will tell you it needs to get out of the house; when it is in pain, it will whine and tell you it is hurting. Animals never lie, or feign to be okay when they are not, or vice versa.

Our problem is that we only show others what we want others to see/hear. Yet I know some people are so “present” in their communication, they can see through your mask and hear you through the noise. They will sense your true love and will love you back for you, not for the roles you play in the theatre of life.

Maybe these are the people who had to let go of hope. Perhaps they stopped believing there was anything better to look forward to in tomorrow’s programme and started paying attention to what was available here and now.

I have watched animal documentaries on TV talking about sound frequencies that cannot be captured by the human ear, as when bats navigate in the dark. If there was a way we could recalibrate our ears, we would probably start hearing a myriad of wonderful sounds that are beyond our human reach.

Finding a special someone, who speaks your language and completely “gets” you, may also be a matter of recalibrating our hearts to be more in tune with theirs. That way we will be less blind and less deaf in case our paths cross theirs.

They say special ones are often much closer to home than you imagine. Or hope.

Yes, HOPE. Always.



The life of others and why you can’t have it

Photo credit (c) Jeremy Pushkin

Photo credit (c) Jeremy Pushkin

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the expression “life of others” in the context of grass always greener on the other side. You know when everybody else’s lives seem to be blooming wonderful except your own?

Everyone around you seems to have a lover they gallingly call “my other half”, probably amazing sex lives worthy of being directed by Lars Von Trier, popping babies out like rabbits; they are successful in their careers, getting pay rises and promotions, buying fancy cars, getting mortgages to buy a house, planning their post-retirement years cruising the Mediterranean.

And you..well…you come home to your bachelor or spinster home, eat your frozen ready-made meal from Tesco standing in the kitchen while you check your emails on your mobile phone. Maybe you have a cat to feed, who scuttles off as soon as it’s had its meal. You turn on the TV to watch a mind-numbing programme you are not even interested in, open a can of beer… Maybe you masturbate, maybe not, maybe you fall asleep on the sofa, maybe not, maybe you call a friend, maybe not. You have no plans for tomorrow nor the weekend, let alone next year. Your answering machine says “zero calls”, but then who calls landlines these days anyway? The last three missed calls on your mobile are from your mother, but you can’t be bothered to call back, knowing she will want to revisit the same discussion you had last time on why you are still single.

Okay, okay, my life is not that bad. I cook myself healthy meals every evening, I may watch a film or the news on my iPad (I don’t own a TV), read articles I’ve bookmarked during the day, I may even blog. I seldom feel lonely, as I enjoy my own company and have plenty of great friends. I hate talking on the phone so I never call, instead I email, or text, or tweet. But lately I’ve been getting lax even about replying to emails, not because I don’t want to but because I’ve been too mentally drained to put a coherent sentence together. I tend to shun company and retreat into my solitude for comfort.

These days all I want to do is sleep. And sleep and sleep and sleep. Sometimes I wish I’d never wake up from my sleep, that tomorrow may never come. And when I do wake up, I can’t get out of bed and am late for work everyday. It’s become a standing joke in the office though no one dares criticise me as I work long hours and am also the last one to leave the building. When I told a colleague I had no motivation in my job any more, his answer was, “Yes, I can tell.”

The pursuit of happiness
In reality I can’t find the motivation to live, full stop. The hardest thing about being single and not having a family is that when you are down and feeling defeated, there is nothing else to keep your fight going. When you at least have a child who depends on you, you think twice before slitting your wrists in the bathtub, don’t you?

I am not seriously contemplating any variation of harakiri in the bath, but in the past few months, in my attempt to find self-love while practising selfless love, that is, giving without a desire to possess or control, my emotions have become so torn and muddled I often do not know whether I want to laugh or cry, commit suicide or just stuff my face with chocolate until I’m sick.

They say the more you love yourself, the more you can love others without depending on being reciprocated to achieve happiness. But every time I catch myself smiling and saying “How lovely,” when my heart is breaking inside, I am convinced such valiant actions should belong to the realm of the superhuman alone. They are too ridiculous and impracticable for us self-serving mortals.

After all, isn’t it “normal” for us to desire happiness for ourselves? Why do I congratulate happy events in other people’s lives more often than I rejoice in my own? Or is it just a case of greener grass on the other side…?

The other day, when I had to be tested in hospital for signs of ovarian cancer, I was surprised to find myself perfectly calm at the prospect of a possible early death. So many bad things had happened to me already; one more or one less didn’t seem to make a difference. And if my fate is to die now, I will die happily, embrace death as I embraced life, with total acceptance.

This may sound morbid, but it isn’t meant as such; it is simply a survival tactic. Life has taught me the best way to survive it is to accept each moment as it comes, whether it is good or bad. The lives of others, however enviable they may seem from the outside, are their own script, and have no bearing on yours. Their timeline is not your timeline.

Last week a friend of mine had her first baby, one which was conceived two years after her divorce and soon after the start of a new relationship. At the time she announced her pregnancy to me, I was recently separated from my husband, at the peak of my fragility. As I read her email late at night in a hotel room in Tokyo – I was away on yet another business trip – I felt hot tears streaming down my face (I blogged about it here). Why did everyone else’s love stories have a happy ending whereas mine…I didn’t even have one any more.

Yet, when the news of her baby’s birth came through, I caught myself quivering with emotion. I could hardly sit still; my impulse was to drop everything to be by her side, give her a hug, hold her newborn without any of the resentment I had harboured nine months earlier.

This was her happy moment, and I had no reason to be jealous of it. Two or three years ago, she might have been where I am now, wondering why the lives of others look so much rosier than her own.

Life changes at every moment, as point number 10 of this blog post has reminded me. Have you seen Sliding Doors? One split second is all that’s needed for your life path to shift direction.

“A seemingly innocuous decision rattles our whole world like a meteorite striking Earth. Entire lives have been swivelled and flipped upside down, for better or worse, on the strength of an unpredictable event. And these events are always happening to someone else right this second.”

Knowing this doesn’t make me feel better about my current predicaments, nor does it fill me with schadenfreude in anticipation of a possible reversal of fortune for all those who seem happy today.  But it helps me re-focus on my own story, my own life.

What you have today may not be yours tomorrow; this applies to everything – money, job, property, loved ones, pets, your health. Conversely, what is not yours today could suddenly fall onto your lap tomorrow. Life’s a bit like a lottery game.

An author I once met on a flight back from Bologna to London told me that the sinuous streets in Italy reminded him of how unpredictable life was from one moment to another. “You never now what new world awaits you when you turn the next corner,” he said. The thought made me smile.

I may be a fool. At the next corner there may be a mugger who’ll rob me, a car that will run me over, a banana skin on which I’ll skid and break my back. Yet I have no choice: it is my life, my corner, my turn.

Who said love is about finding “the One”?

Earlier this week I shocked one of my youngest colleagues, when she asked me what I thought of the male character in 7.39, a BBC drama in which a married man and an engaged woman meet on their commuter train to London and embark on an affair. I had told her it was not an improbable situation and I didn’t feel at all critical about his actions.

The colleague, who is in her mid-20s, thought it was unforgivable for a married man to be unfaithful to his wife just because he was bored with life/having a mid-life crisis.

When an affair happens, there is usually far more to it than just a man and a woman in crisis seeking solace/refuge/fun; there isn’t a simple right or wrong. In my 20s, however, I would probably have reacted the same way, as I too used to naïvely believe in fairy tale romances, Prince Charming, and the existence of “The One” – the perfect man or woman with whom you will walk hand-in-hand into the sunset…

What a shedload of bollocks!

This excellent article in the young people’s sex ed site sensibly explains why believing in “The One” can make our own lives harder, make us overly dependent on our partners as our central source of happiness and validation, or trap us in relationships even when they are making us miserable.

On days like Valentine’s Day, it can also make you feel like a failure if you are single because the opposite of having “the One” would be having “zero”, as if not being in a relationship was the most tragic things that could happen to anyone.

The One myth
Someone we fall in love with or fancy may temporarily feel like “the One”, but life circumstances are not static, and, most importantly, we are not static, so how can there only be a single “the One”?

The author, Justin Hancock (@bishtraining on Twitter) rightly says:

“[…]there isn’t just one ‘One’ – but hundreds, thousands or millions of ‘Ones’ all over the place.”

We change on a daily basis. We are influenced by what we see, hear, read, what happens in our commute (ahem..7.39), people we meet, conversations we have, what happens at work, things we remember.

Our needs also shift with time. After a complex and difficult relationship, we may seek relief in an uncomplicated one with an undemanding, easy-to-please partner. But over time this partner’s agenda may also change to one where expectations are of a firmer and more demanding commitment, which may then tip the relationship’s balance; what was easy-going and fun suddenly becomes too serious and uncomfortable for the other.

Is monogamy for me?
If circumstances and people are always changing and relationships constantly reach a crisis point as a result, how can anyone ever be happy in a long-term stable relationship, you ask?

Tauriq Moosa points out in this Guardian column, Dissecting Relationships, that monogamy and the one-partner-for-life model do not occur in the majority of mammals in the animal kingdom. That is not a justification for us humans to become serial adulterers, but if you look at those who call themselves polyamorous, with multiple lovers in open, mutually consenting and satisfying relationships, we can conclude that monogamy is not necessarily the only path to achieving happiness in love.

Even knowing monogamy goes against our animal nature, we can still consciously choose to have a long-term, faithful partnership with a single lover, produce children, and be the “happy family” society expects us to be part of. But that decision, in order to be lasting, should be taken from a place of openness, honesty and maturity from both parties.

Moosa says:

[…] this is showing we genuinely care about our relationships and our partners: we care enough to treat both with the proper adult respect they deserve, talking about deep, hard truths – not bombarding with Valentine’s gestures. If a relationship can’t survive such important discussions, then perhaps it’s a relationship not worth wanting – and then we’ve done ourselves a huge favour in seeing that now, rather than later.

The line between love and relationships 
Having been through marriage and separation, I have discovered the following:

1. not believing in a “One” worked against me; when my (ex-)husband proposed, I was convinced there wasn’t a “One” for me. If I didn’t say yes then, I reckoned no other man would ever love/marry me, so I compromised.

2. once you go through an unhappy/traumatic/abusive marriage/relationship followed by a not-so-amicable separation, it takes a long time for you to recover your faith in relationships again.

3. it is possible to love, and enjoy love, without being in a conventional romantic relationship.

Let me elaborate on point 3. Although love and relationships are often used together in the same phrase, and we grow up thinking they are inseparable concepts, I have come to understand, and personally experience, that one can exist without the other.

I thought I was rather abnormal, or at least far too unconventional in my way of thinking, until I read this wonderful blog post, Casual Love, by songwriter Carsie Blanton. It made me insanely happy to find out I am not the only one who thinks it is okay to love outside the context of formal relationships.

Imagine if you could say to a casual partner, “I love you. It’s no big deal. It doesn’t mean you’re The One, or even one of the ones. It doesn’t mean you have to love me back. It doesn’t mean we have to date, or marry, or even cuddle. It doesn’t mean we have to part ways dramatically in a flurry of tears and broken dishes. It doesn’t mean I’ll love you until I die, or that I’ll still love you next year, or tomorrow.”

Despite advocating a casual kind of love, Blanton does not discount the possibility of a long-term commitment:

“…dating, marriage, cuddling, etc – are options, and there are an infinite number of other options (Skee ball, sailing around the world, double suicide). These are all things you can now choose or not choose, as two conscious adult human beings. The important distinction is that none of them is implied just by saying the word ‘love’.”

Love for the sake of love
This ties in nicely with what Moosa says in his piece, basically that committed relationships, marriage,etc are options for grown-up men and women in love, not a compulsory final destination. Why can’t we love for the heck of it? For people like me, still nursing wounds from an emotionally abusive past, the simplicity of it feels like the perfect “groovy kind of love” as Phil Collins would say.

To love in this way is no different from when you love within a relationship.

The other day, while I was away on a business trip, I helped edit a CV for a friend, who I knew had been having a tough time since being made redundant last autumn. I was working all hours of the day and night, hardly managing to squeeze in four hours’ sleep a night, but I still worked on his CV for 15-20 min each evening until I passed out with exhaustion. This went on over almost two weeks with comments and counter-comments going back and forth on email between us until the CV looked shipshape.

My friend – actually an old flame – was so grateful for the help and pleased with the results, he jokingly said I should start an HR consultancy business. “You fool,” I thought, “Don’t you know I only did this for you because I love you.”

He possibly does (know). It doesn’t matter because we have both moved on in different directions, and he is now a father and a husband. It doesn’t matter because time, distance, marriage, kids, none of these things made us stop caring about each other.

I do not wish to ‘own’ him, or claim him from his family; it is not a grasping kind of love. There are no expectations, except I want him to be happy; even if not with me.

Loving casually, loving truly
He is not the only man I love in this way; there are others.

All my life I sought what most people expect from love – loyalty, commitment, attention, gifts, dates – only to find disappointment in the end. The problem was I did not love myself first and was always expecting someone else to meet my emotional needs.

But now…now I enjoy my own company, am happy being single and do not need a relationship to make me feel attractive, valued or wanted.

Loving without following a rule book is liberating and empowering. Relationships become an option rather than a target destination, so you can focus on the love itself rather than on the superficial things that you thought represented love: flowers, sex, meals at posh restaurants, expensive rings, talks about marriage.

I love because I met a guy (this applies to any man) who is intelligent, cultured, and has great conversation, who makes me laugh and thinks I’m funny too; someone who shares many of my interests, my quirks, my dirty secrets. Someone who doesn’t mind my filthy mind and my straight talking. Someone I can be myself with; someone who is always himself with me, and we still like each other like that. Someone I can freely cry and laugh with without feeling ashamed.

I love even though we part and always go our separate ways. I love because even when we’re apart, we’re together, in our thoughts, our energies, occasionally in dreams, and that suffices. For now. I am still healing, still learning to love – and trust – again.

Sometimes I wake up from a dream and cry because I miss him so much, because I miss being in love.

It has been so long since I truly loved. This may be my Sehnsucht, my yearning for the unknown.

The Casual Love blog concludes:

“I suggest we take a page from the casual sex book [….] lift some of the weighty grandiosity off the shoulders of love, and allow it to be what it is: a sweet, ephemeral, exciting feeling to experience and share.”

Why I wish I could play the piano (when words get in the way)

Image source:

Image source:

I have always loved words. As a student, I used to save months of pocket money so I could buy dictionaries and thesauruses. I was such a word nerd, I’d even take dictionaries to bed so I could browse through the entries and learn new exotic words to express myself with.

When I read a novel, it was more for the pleasure of learning interesting words and expressions than for the entertainment provided by the plot.

I was a deep-thinking child, a mature head on young shoulders, but I was also extremely shy and introverted. What I was unable to express verbally I committed to paper.  Sometimes my thoughts were so complex I needed more words than what was in the remit of my vocabulary to describe them, and that’s where the dictionaries came in handy.

As I get older, however, I find that communication becomes more and more of a challenge. Even though I know more words now than when I was a child, words often miscommunicate. Could that be because feelings in adults are not always straightforward? Could it have to do with the fact that we lack the spontaneity and natural honesty we possess as children? That as adults we have more at stake, more to lose, faces to save, appearances to maintain?

Word blunders
Have you ever tried to say sorry to someone you’ve upset, yet, at the last minute, the words deserted you and you ended up mumbling something else that made the situation worse? Have you ever tried, and spectacularly failed, to let someone know you loved them, or that you didn’t love them any more?

The other day I tried to tell someone I missed them, and I wanted to see them for two minutes even though my schedule was crazy-busy. But, in my awkwardness, I used words that did not even remotely convey those sentiments, resulting in complete misinterpretation (“missed interpretation”?), hurt feelings and communication breakdown.

With animals, who don’t use words, messages are always clear and unambiguous. Our dog used to come and lie by our side or rest his head on my knee to convey he wanted love and attention; but when we had been away for a few days and came back, he would give us the cold shoulder to indicate he was in a huff about being left at home.

Why can’t we be like that?! Why can’t we just go sit by someone and say, “Hey, haven’t seen you in a long time; I miss you.” Sometimes we can. Other times, we pretend we do not care and we do not feel…anything…because admitting we care leaves us vulnerable, like an unprotected wound anyone can poke a finger into.

Whenever I get disgruntled with words, I remember I once wanted to become a pianist. My parents nearly bought me a piano when I was a child. Their friends had offered to sell us theirs because they were moving back to their country. But my student schedule was already filled to the brim with language classes and private tutoring, on top of regular school.

“Where on earth are you going to find the time to play?” Mother said, and declined the offer.

But I wanted it, I wanted the piano badly. Not that I was musically gifted at all, but the idea of mastering a new form of expression that did not require the complexities of grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary building was highly appealing to me.

Also, I listened to a lot of classical music as a child; I particularly liked piano pieces by Chopin and Liszt but my favourite was probably Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I liked to close my eyes and imagine how wonderful it must feel to be able to play it.

Last autumn, when one my closest friend was dying of motor neurone disease, I suddenly felt frustrated again that I could not play the piano. There were no words I could possibly think of to comfort a man who had been told he would die. But, if only I could play beautiful, healing music for him, if only I had taken those piano lessons… I thought maybe then I could convey to him how much I wanted him not to die, how much his friendship meant to me, how lost I would be when he went. Things I could not say in words because words would have been too hurtful.

That was when I came across a recording of Alfred Brendel playing Moonlight Sonata, which moved me to tears.

I had listened to Moonlight Sonata hundreds of times in my childhood but there was a certain sentiment in Brendel‘s interpretation that resonated with how I feel when I see the moon in the sky. Brendel’s notes felt like a gentle caress, as when warm moonlight streams into a room through a window, in absolute silence, and quietens all your troubled thoughts.

I was in awe: one man, and a piano, managed to convey all that as well as so many other subtle sentiments I could never find the adequate words to describe – not even with 100 dictionaries at hand.

In an excerpt from Brendel’s book, A Pianist A-Z: a piano lover’s reader, published in the Guardian last year, he makes a commentary about music under each letter of the alphabet. This is what he says under “S”:

“Silence is the basis of music. We find it before, after, in, underneath and behind the sound. Some pieces emerge out of silence or lead back into it. But silence ought also to be the core of each concert. Remember the anagram: listen = silent.”

Sometimes we need to shut the words down and listen to the sound of silence, the absence of semantics, the absence of noise and chatter. Because words can be just that: noise. We make too much meaningless noise, while the words that really matter remain hidden in our hearts.

It is amazing what you start to see and hear when you surrender to inner silence. It makes me feel rather ridiculous too. All those years learning so many clever words in so many languages, only to find all my answers in the absence of them. Only to make a fool of myself using words that didn’t mean what I meant to say.

If only I could play the piano…The computer keyboard I type on now would be the piano keys where my fingers would glide. My music, and my silence, would have spoken, wordlessly, of love and longing, fear and loneliness, the joy of knowing you [all of you who are dear to me], the sadness of not seeing you [all of you whom I miss].

There would be no more blogs, only music. What could I play you? What would you play me?

You Don’t Need Time for Love

DaliYesterday I came across a beautiful New York Times article called  Learning to Measure Time in Love and Loss by Chris Huntington, which made me reflect on my own anxieties about the amount of time available to us in life to find happiness. It is well worth reading it in full.

Huntington, a Singapore-based author, talks about what he learned through his work in prisons, as a teacher, regarding how we measure time. On being asked by Huntington to reset a clock, an inmate laughs:

“A few minutes off? We need one that goes by months and years. What do we care about five minutes?”

A convicted rapist, who has already served 16 years, with at least 8 more years to go, talks of his limited prospects for the future:

“There are some things I’m never going to do. And I can spend my life being mad about that, or I can try something else.” […]

“I decided to be the best prisoner I could be.”

Huntington, who overcame depression following his divorce, fell in love in again, re-married and now has an adopted Ethiopian son he adores, is aware that for everything he gained in life, there was also something else not fulfilled: “Our story, so full of love, is also full of loss.” Yet, he concludes:

It doesn’t matter what time it is. Think in months. Years. Someone loves you. Where are you going? There are some things you will never do. It doesn’t matter. There is no rush.

We all moan about lost opportunities in our lives and how much time we have “wasted” in an unhappy relationship, a badly chosen career, etc. We are angry because we feel life is short, and the time frame within which certain key events we believe to be conducive to happiness should happen, such as finding your soulmate, getting married, having children, is restricted.

The other evening I read a post written by one of my younger followers, in her 20s, complaining that she has been single for too long. Below the post, one commenter had written that in the time it took her to recover from one relationship, another friend had got married, popped out a kid, got divorced and found a new man. How did these people do it?!

I had to laugh. While for some people love and relationships happen faster and more frequently than they change their dirty knickers, for others, finding one special man or woman can be like watching paint dry. It could be that the Speedy Gonzalezes of Love are less picky and more aggressive in their pursuits, or it could be sheer luck.

Unfortunately, we have the habit of setting timers to when things should happen. How long is it acceptable for one to remain single?

That is why chronic singledom makes for an excellent topic for jokes at dinner parties while you’re young, but once you get past the age of eligibility, that is, when you turn into an overripe fruit, it stops being so amusing to become a sign of grave social ineptitude.

When every social function from dinners and parties to weddings and funerals seem to be tailored for couples, being single can feel as awkward and embarrassing as having halitosis. But it shouldn’t do.

Cougars and desperados
Because popular belief is that the best opportunities in life are linked to youth, single people over 40, for example, tend to feel this way:

  1. You are invisible in the dating scene; who wants to date a middle-aged man/woman?
  2. Most people in your age bracket are already married or otherwise taken; those who are still single must have something seriously wrong with them.
  3. Your biological clock has practically stopped ticking, so your chances of starting a family, even if you find your ideal partner, are greatly reduced.
  4. If you do meet the love of your life, chances are they will have kids from a previous relationship. You will have to be step parent to them and, if you have kids yourself too, blend the two families together.
  5. It is too late for love…actually.

Women feel particularly disadvantaged because few men, given the choice, go for older women. Biologically, that could be governed by their instinctive need to procreate, so the younger = the more fertile. Younger women also constitute a more valuable trophy for them to show off to other males, especially if they are past their prime themselves (the message being ‘I can still pull!’). And when a young man goes for an older woman, it is generally perceived he is only after her ‘experience’, but he will eventually dump the ‘cougar’ and use the acquired experience on a young chick instead.

With prospects of finding love being so poor for the more mature woman, every year, every month, every week and day even that goes by without a sign of romance can seem like another huge shovelful of sand going down the past-the-use-by-date hourglass. That is why so many older women sadly become ‘desperado’ and seem to latch on to anything in pants that moves at every social gathering they attend.

The Fruits of Self-love
I have had my moments of “it is too late” myself. One of my biggest regrets is that I did not choose to have children when my body was wanting to, in my early 30s. But I was with the wrong man then, and any child conceived under those circumstances would have had to pay a price for my selfishness.

Now, separated and childless, and not exactly a spring chicken any more, I could easily go down the desperado route. Except I am not ‘desperate’ for anything.



Being single to me does not feel like ‘lack’ at all, nor do I feel too old for romance. On the contrary, since I’ve become solo, I have literally reverted into an impish teenager full of mischief and see naughtiness everywhere; for the first time in my life I am also happy with my body image; and I feel more lovable and desirable than I ever was within a relationship. All this was the result of making peace with myself, finding self-love and self-respect at last.

Best prisoner
I too want to be “the best prisoner I can be”, where “prison” would be however much time I have got left in my own life.

It may not be life as envisaged by a 25-year-old: whirlwind romance with a young lad, proposal, marriage in bridal gowns, children, grandchildren. The fairy tale stuff may make a great John Lewis commercial, but who said that is my formula for happiness? Just because society dictates that’s what we should aspire to, it does not mean it works for everyone. I am not everyone. I am unique; you are unique.

With the time I have got left, which could be as short as a few hours in case I die in my sleep tonight, I only have one main goal, and that is to live life being 100% true to myself.

  • I have learned to stop creating “what if” scenarios and take one day at a time;
  • I no longer write story boards in my head before dates and try to act them out;
  • I follow my gut instinct, always;
  • I smile and laugh a lot because I have so much love to give;
  • I ask people lots of questions about them because understanding people makes me understand human nature better;
  • I praise lavishly because I like to make people feel good about themselves and proud of who they are;
  • I express affection openly and generously to people I care about. I can’t tell them I love them from my grave.

Time for everything
Exactly two months ago one of my closest friends passed away at the age of 51, barely five months after being diagnosed with an incurable disease. He always thought he’d live well into this 90s. While sorting out his wardrobe after the funeral, his widow said, in tears:

“Peter had so many nice clothes, shoes and things he had bought and was saving ‘for a special occasion’. What a waste; there won’t be any more occasions now. Now I know there’s no point in holding anything off for a future that may not come.”

Someone once told me, “Don’t worry; in life there’s time for everything”. It seems hardly applicable to my now deceased friend, robbed of at least four more decades of life he thought were his.

But perhaps life is not supposed to be like a novel with a beginning, middle and end structure. That is only our perception of time in the dimension we inhabit. But there might be other dimensions out there where linear time does not exist. Maybe life does not end with physical death but goes on and on in a loop?

My view is that life is supposed to be just this: this very moment. The future is an illusion: when you reach the next moment, the future becomes your present. Our problem is that we live with half our minds regretting the past and the other half worrying about things that may or may not happen.

The only “waste” there is in life is the time we waste forgetting to live and love in the now. We had better use our time wisely and love as abundantly as we can.

Dear Stranger or The Reason I Do Not Jump

Photo credit ©Zach Bonnell

Photo credit ©Zach Bonnell

Dear Stranger…

….or shall I call you Fellow Passenger, as nothing strikes me as ‘strange’ about you any more. How long have we been travelling on this train together? Days? Weeks? Months? Feels like years, does it not. Forgive me if I am vague; for I have lost track of time. The journey has been long and rough; my mind is tired out.

May I remind you that thanks to you I found myself hurled into a dank, dark carriage, where light was so scant for the longest time I could not tell day from night. In the interminable darkness, I wept constantly. No one heard; you, least of all.

I should have jumped right then.

I contemplated the jump, even braced myself for the impact of the fall. But…oh hello dear Stranger, we meet again… Was it you I collided into when there was that jolt, the one that pushed me head first into the carriage of hell? Can you even begin to imagine how terrified I was I would never surface again.

But surface I did. And, in my confusion, I broke my vows of silence, forgot my thirst for vengeance. Was I hallucinating or was my vision distorted by the evil in your spell? The very beast that caused my fall transmuted into an angel of light, how ironic is that. I followed the light out of the tunnel.

I am sorry, you said. I said nothing.

Do you know where this train is bound for, I asked you. You said dunno. You said do you, I said no.

We talked, at times with words, at times in code, at times in silence but we talked…rather a lot. I said this is madness, we don’t even know where the train will take us, I said surely every train has a destination. We should get off, we agreed, as there is no sense or logic in this journey, not like this, together.

You first, I said. No, you, you said. This is awkward.

I can’t, I said, can you…first? I can’t, you said. I…don’t…want to… Do you want to…? I can’t, I said, again, do you want me to. But we must, I said. Do we have to decide this moment, you said. Guess not, I said, calmly, screaming inside. Sh sh sh…

Have I told you…my latest joke, you said. Stop it, I said. This is no joke.

We return to our seats and feel the rattling of the train in our bones. Isn’t there a friggin’ conductor on this train?! Someone must be able to tell us where it’s going.

We reconvene. Okay, this is preposterous. Do you know what will happen if we stay on this train? It may take us somewhere we will loathe; what if the breaks don’t work, what if it crashes against a wall; we will hurt, we may die. Train crashes happen all the time, you know. Yes, we say.

We go away to think again. Of getting off, of cutting the journey short.

You now have the distant look of one about to bid farewell, leave the country, emigrate. Your facial muscles are stiff, your eyes no longer smile. You never smile much anyway though I’d have gladly taught you to.

I put my arms around you for a last embrace. For the road. Courage, I say, although courage is what I need. But you don’t hug me back. An unfeeling monster is what you have turned to? You will do it at last, good. You hate me, don’t you, I dare you: hate me and jump. Adieu and farewell dear Stranger. No one should be on board a train with an unnamed destination. Go, go, GO!

I turn my back on you so I don’t see you jump. I turn off the lights so I can obliterate the memory of the unsmiling face I am beginning to hate. Sh sh sh sh…

God how I hate you.

I retreat into another carriage, certain I am now the only passenger left on board. My turn, I murmur, under my breath. I open the door and observe the gravel below and the stretch of ground where I should hope to land. Sh sh sh, the train carries on. I close my eyes and hold my breath….my heartbeat pounding in my ears. Sh…

“Hi!”, says a voice I recognise. I open my eyes and see you peeking in. Smiling, the cheek! I jump. Not off the train; off my seat.

What da…? What in the name of Christ the Lord are you doing here? Thought you had jumped? Thought you had, you say. No, I say…. We are pathetic. Hmm, you say.

We sit in our carriage, silent you and I, staring blankly into the distance as the train travels on; the landscape changes, the weather turns, day follows night, sun follows moon, the stations speed past, one after another. Sh sh, we hear.

Sometimes you even…smile…a little; oh, you are learning to smile?

Hey, fancy a game of Scrabble? you say. You mad?! I shout. Are you out of your f***ing mind?!

I notice you are sitting close to me, like before….before you became aloof and hateful and you looked like you were really going to do it. You look smaller in this light but it is not you that has diminished. It is my anger which has abated, run out of steam. Is it possible I have become bigger than you, and in that space there is room even for tiny you?

You should really jump, I say. Or I. We have come so far, too far. We should have jumped long ago, one of us. Only one of us needs to jump.

You say nothing.

Why do you say nothing?!

You say nothing.

Together? Jump together? One-two-three, go? I say. In Japanese it’s called ‘shinjū‘ when a man and a woman make a pact to die together. But shinjū is always romantic, it means they are in love but they can’t live out their love so they die. But this? This is…just…a woeful comedy. Isn’t this a tragi-comedy? Huh? Why are you not laughing?! We don’t want to be travelling together. What is the point in living or dying with you. You are pathetic. Don’t you think you’re pathetic?

You say nothing.

I say no more. I feel…pathetic.

The train carries on, sh sh sh sh.

Dear Stranger, I was travelling alone. I travel everywhere on my own, I’m like that. But you boarded my train, you walked into my carriage and picked me for a stupid game of Scrabble. You know I like words. Making words with you gave me a reason to dream. Completing words where you had left off, completing what was incomplete. Learning…new words. Sometimes the words are obscure, weird, sometimes wonderfully weird, and we grin from ear to ear like naughty kids celebrating our discovery. We are like that.

Now bound together on a train with an unknown destination, we struggle. And the more we struggle the more tightly bound we are in a pact of death we cannot escape.

Not long before we talk about jumping again. This is our new game: who first?

“Hey, whose song was it that goes ‘I really don’t know life at all'”?

“Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now”, I hear you answer, though not a word has been spoken. Because I haven’t asked you. But, had I…asked, you’d have known, as you always do. It would have made me smile as your answers mostly do.

“I love that song.”

“What?” you say. “Nothing,” I say.

I take your hand in both of mine and place it close to my chest, but in my mind only so as not to distress. I don’t want you to think I want you to stay. Because I don’t.

“You can stay”, I whisper, too hoarse to scream. “For today.” I look away.

Don’t, don’t look at me now.

Just a moment longer, just another game, just another stop, I think but don’t say.

I never say, you never say. We are like that.

Trapped on a train with an unnamed destination, turning corners that may be our last, we face each other saying nothing, playing Scrabble, making words we no longer need.

Dear dear you.

Sh sh sh sh…

NOTE: This blog was my first experiment with an unconventional style of writing, blending a Pinteresque style of dialogue with steam of consciousness and a semi-poetic approach to rhythm. The train journey is obviously metaphorical, as are many other elements in this piece, but it is based on real situations and real characters. I would heartily welcome any comments you may have on either the content or the writing style. If you would rather email me privately, please write to: 

My 12 lessons on love and relationships from 2013

©2013 Connie J. Sun

©2013 Connie J. Sun

As the year end draws near, it is time for some reflection…

Looking back on the past year, here are 12 things I have learned about myself, others, about human nature and the workings of the heart. What have your lessons been?

1. Sometimes you just have to walk away

Just that. They don’t deserve you, you know that. You don’t want to think badly of them because you believe in the good in people, so you’ve given them a second, a third or a fourth chance. But again and again they have let you down. It is time to close the curtain on that act and call it a day. You’ve tried, that’s what matters.

2. Lies people tell themselves are worse than the ones they tell others

An astonishingly large number of people live in denial of their own feelings: that their marriage/relationship is not working/making them happy, that they are with who they are with for the wrong reasons, or that they love someone else. I used to be one of those people too but I now live with absolute honesty all of the time. It is liberating.

3. Some people get stiff necks, others have stiff hearts

You can, at least temporarily relieve stiff necks and shoulders, by going to a good masseur and getting a deep tissue massage. Swimming is also a great exercise for unknotting those painful, hardened bits. Some people, however, have stiff hearts, and no amount of massage or exercise can soften them up. They may and often eventually do thaw out, and the moment it does is one of profound beauty. But it may take a lifetime. By the time it has happened, there may not be much of life left for them. Remember: that is their script. You have your own to live out.

4. People’s reactions are always based on their own experiences of life (and relationships)

You may tell the same story to 10 different people. People react according to what their own experience of what you are telling them felt like. In general, older people tend to be the least reactionary and most philosophical in their feedback. Younger, or less experienced ones, often hold an idealistic notion of human relationships. Many people, irrespective of age, view the world through a black-and-white filter and label people and events right or wrong, good or bad, open or closed. I find most things in life are neither one nor the other; most things stand in the middle of the spectrum.

This is why maturity brings suffering. We understand too much: that real life and real relationships are not fairy tales with a perfect happy ending. Humans are complex, love is complex. Sit back and learn to enjoy the complexity of human relationships.

5. Some old loves you can never let go; but that’s okay

Eric Clapton singing Old Love (you can listen to it on YouTube) makes my heart ache every time I hear it: “And it’s making me so angry to know that the flame still burns. […]. When will I ever learn? Old love…leave me alone.”

We all have an old love or two we cannot forget. I have previously written about letting go of one big old love, and it was almost like ‘growing out’ of it, as I myself matured and changed.

But some loves we can never forget, and they never get ‘old’ however much time passes. They make my heart melt every time I hear from them because I can feel the old warm affection behind every word, because I know time may have changed them but not the core beauty of their soul.  My life feels richer just knowing they exist; they teach me that the human heart’s capacity for love is incredibly resilient.

6. Not everyone can cope with man-woman friendships

At every stage of my life, I have had very close male pals, with whom I spent a lot of time talking about intimate topics and sharing fun activities.  I am able to make friends with a man as effortlessly and comfortably as with a woman, and it does not bother me one iota that we are not of the same gender. I can be as affectionate with a guy as with any woman without turning it into a sexual move. Friendships with men are wonderfully comforting, cosy…fuzzy, without all the emotional pitfalls of a romantic relationship.

Is it that unconventional to think there’s nothing wrong or inappropriate about loving a guy friend just as you would a girl-friend?

I have noticed most people around me have a hard time accepting male-female friendships. Every time I form a friendly bond with a male colleague, for example, rumours circulate that we “have a thing for each other” when the only “thing” we have is a relaxed mutual appreciation.

Some men can’t take it either; they fear they may be “betraying” their partners by being friends with another woman (even though there’s no sex involved) but, if you ask me, that says far more about their own insecurities regarding the relationship they are in than about the friendship on offer. They are probably nervous because they feel sexually attracted to me, even though they have a wife or girlfriend, and they are not entirely sure they can trust their self-control..because men are..well…men.

The funny thing is, I can. I can be friends even with a guy I secretly wish was my lover but knowing we should never cross the line because we would be better at being friends than being lovers. But that may be because experience has taught me not everything in life is black or white, and sometimes it is okay to appreciate the various shades of grey in-between.

I am a freak no doubt.

7. Always give the benefit of the doubt

Everyone has their side of the story. Everyone’s fighting a battle you know nothing about. Give them a chance to tell their story before you pass judgement or do anything radical. It is well worth it, I promise you.

8. Write as many angry emails as you like but NEVER click the Send button

I have a few of those saved in my Drafts. Emails I was up all night writing when I was drunk, or when the depression monster raised its ugly head, making me feel small and unloved and I wanted to blame this person for the way I felt.

Every time I wrote one of those, I made myself wait 24hs before deciding to send or not, and boy, am I glad I did. Things always look differently in the cold light of day. Remember: you can’t un-send a sent email.

Had I sent out those angry messages, I would have hurt them all right, but I would have hurt myself more. Most of the time you did not mean the spiteful, hateful words you wrote when your bruised pride was hungry for revenge.

What you wrote: “This is such a total waste of time; what’s the point of us ever talking again when you behave like you hate me. You are a selfish w***er who doesn’t give a s**t about other people’s feelings.” What you meant: “I was hurt by what you said/did but I don’t want us to be like that with each other; let’s talk again soon, have a cuddle and make it better.”

9. Social media’s Delete and Block buttons destroyed our need to communicate 

On Facebook, Twitter, or whatever other social network, these days everyone uses the Delete, Unfollow and Block buttons to indicate they are angry and no longer wish to continue their relations with someone else. The ease with which we can delete people from our Timelines has sadly done away with the need for people to communicate with each other, explain themselves, say ‘I’m sorry’, or ‘let’s talk about this’.

You can block as many people as you want from your social media sites. But in order to nurture a healthy and strong relationship, you need to unblock your heart first and follow your gut instinct, be true to yourself.

10. I have an enormous capacity for forgiveness

I have discovered forgiving is a wonderful act of self-healing, no matter how bad it was what the other person did to you. When you let that anger go that imprisons you and weighs you down, you are also setting yourself free to love again.

11. Being single is glorious

Who said life after a separation had to be sad and miserable? I love my own company, I love my own space. You need to learn to be happy on your own before you can be happy with someone else.

Besides, being single means you are free to fancy as many men as you want; you can check out those cute guys on the train, in the street, in your office, at the supermarket while you pick up your weekly groceries, on your social media accounts. It means you are available for dating again. You can choose to get serious, or you can just play-flirt for fun. The world is an oyster. If that isn’t glorious, I don’t know what is.

12. I want an alpaca boyfriend

Click on the cartoon at the top of this blog post and read it. I can relate to that. Relationships are not the only things that can bring joy into your life. Right now I need a fluffy alpaca friend who can give me hugs, lots of cuddly-wuddly hugs, when I feel like crying but I can’t because I have run out of tears.

Because life was damn tough on me in 2013. Because my heart was broken so many times by so many circumstances, I can’t even feel the pain any more.

The only way now is up. 2014, bring it on!