Tag Archives: Alain de Botton

Someone turn the lights back off

The title of this blog post is a slightly modified line from the lyrics of a wonderful Tom Wait’s song, I’m Still Here. That line resonates with how I feel right now. Read on to find out why.

“You haven’t looked at me that way in years
You dreamed me up and left me here
How long was I dreaming for
What was it you wanted me for

You haven’t looked at me that way in years
Your watch has stopped and the pond is clear
Someone turn the lights back on
I’ll love you till all time is gone

You haven’t looked at me that way in years
But I’m still here”

Nun or slut 
In the past six or seven months since I left my husband, I have been focussing on picking up the pieces, rebuilding my confidence and self-esteem, but I also built up some walls and temporarily shut the door to my heart to protect myself from being hurt.

After a separation, people tend to go towards one of two directions: they either shut down emotionally for a few years in order to heal, shunning involvement with the opposite sex, or they go completely wild, seeking comfort and a distorted form of self-confidence in indiscriminate or extreme sexual adventures.

I have done well in that I did not go for either extreme. I did not put up a sign outside my door saying, “No sex please, I am divorced”, although I do treasure my space and freedom right now and would like men to respect my boundaries and my need for solitude.

I did not choose the ‘slut’ route either. Because the idea of sleeping with random men for the sake of proving to myself I am still desirable feels like sad desperation. It is self-prostitution, let’s face it. It is selling yourself dead cheap in a flea market. I may be battered, but I know my value; I won’t settle for cheap.

Slow desire
Do I miss sex? Not the way I knew it. Forgive the coarse language, but anyone can have a ‘shag’ or a ‘wank’, where your biological needs get instantly satisfied on a practical level, but I am sick of feeling like an on-demand ‘pleasure hole’ for men.

I have had a ‘whore complex’ since my early 20s. There’s a long, sad story behind it, which I won’t go into today, but suffice it to say at some point in my life I got into my head sex was something a woman had to ‘suffer’ to keep her man, NOT something she should be enjoying herself.

Only as a much older adult did I discover I was an extremely sensual being, who gets turned on by slow seduction. There is nothing more sensual and powerful than a gentle and gradual awakening of desire.

I once had a boyfriend who was into aromatherapy massage, scented candles and bath oils. Almost a meterosexual, he was deeply in touch with his feminine side. We had many baths together, barely managing to squeeze into a tiny bathtub (he was very tall). We would sit opposite each other in our aromatic bath water, with candles lit all around the bathroom, just appreciating the sight of each other’s naked bodies in semi-darkness, or touching each other with our toes.

I loved this part of our ritual, as it was more sensual than sexual, a perfect long foreplay, but I discovered men with a strong feminine energy don’t really do it for me at the end of the day. His massages with wonderfully warm hands were amazing, but when we ‘got down to business’, he did not have nearly enough passion, nor imagination, to match my fire.

I guess what works for me, and probably many women out there, is a man who will seduce me gently, like a pussycat, then possess me with the appetite of a tiger.

Let’s go back to the seduction bit.

It is incredible what happens when I absorb the essence of a man with all my five senses: first I see him, his whole body, then I move on to the parts, my eyes looking for the parts I like the most, hands for example…I love a man with beautiful hands (maybe because subconsciously I like to fantasise about what those hands and fingers will feel like on or in my body); I hear his voice, his breath, and, as I get closer, the rhythm of his heartbeat; I smell the smell of his skin, a male scent, or perhaps the hint of an aftershave; I taste him when we kiss wet, hungry, exploratory kisses; I touch his hand, his face, his back, the nape of his neck and feel the warmth of his body, the aliveness underneath the skin. I take in all these things while the beast me in me slowly awakens.

Finally there’s the brain, the ultimate seduction tool. You thought size mattered? The size of a man’s brain does. An intelligent man, who can articulate well and without arrogance, is sexy, no matter what his appearance might be like. Take Alain de Botton, for instance. Bald, tall, average looks, perfectly pleasant. You would not necessarily fancy him if you saw him in the street. Yet, every intelligent woman I know, who has ever read any of his books or heard him talk, says they would like to f*** if not his body, at least his brains.

But enough of sexy talk. There’s something else I miss more than sex, as I have discovered, and that is intimacy, which is a totally separate thing.

In my view, it is perfectly possible to have sex without intimacy. It is the case when you have casual, no-strings-attached sex, but it can also happen to couples when the relationship becomes stale or sours for any reason. Sex can lead to intimacy, and intimacy can lead to sex, but I believe a man and a woman, as friends, can also achieve intimacy without a fusion of bodies, although that is a tricky line to draw.

The other day, a friend made a comment that got me thinking: “Very intimate communication can be almost indistinguishable from love.”

So intimacy can feel like love, but isn’t love always about intimate communication? Isn’t true love about being able to expose one’s vulnerabilities to another without fear of being judged? Isn’t it about feeling so comfortable and accepted when you are with someone, you can be yourself all of the time, warts and all? Isn’t it about being able to let the other peer into the deep, dark recesses of your mind, in the safe knowledge that their love for you won’t be tarnished by it?

Going by the definition above, I know many couples who are together without true intimacy. They would rather be imperfectly together than scarily on their own, but the communication is flawed, there are secrets they hide, and games being played.

I was thinking the other day how rarely I fall in love. In my entire lifetime I may have been in love with two, maybe three men at the most. My ex-husband wasn’t one of them. The men I went out with before him weren’t one of them. I did not entirely trust them, so I was guarded, or played the role that was expected of me.

Yet, from time to time, I a man crosses my path who disarms me with his own sincerity, or I can sense so much beauty in his soul, he makes me forget to put the lock on the door behind which I hide.

I nearly allowed a dishonest robber to steal my heart recently because I got distracted by his intelligent conversation. Because I was impressed that he managed to return an interesting comment to each and every topic I brought up. Because he had made me laugh, because I made him laugh too. Because his kisses were fiery and delicious. Because his hand felt so warm and comforting entwined with mine. Beautiful sinewy hands. Because, in an unguarded moment, he opened up and let slip his vulnerabilities, and I let slip mine.

Because it had been so long since I had experienced an intimate connection with anyone. Because I did not have to pretend I liked him for who he was, as I had been doing for the past 10 years, laughing politely at unfunny jokes, letting the men do all the talking while I nodded, as they could not relate to anything I had to say.

Lights on
The dreamy moment is now gone, shattered to pieces, but I cannot return to the past and erase what happened. A door in my heart that was shut before was left ajar, like a gaping wound, which now throbs during the day, while I try and fail to focus on work, and throbs at night, waking me at 3.30am in a flood of tears.

Someone turned the lights on when I was comfortable in the dark, alone. Now I can’t turn them back off because I am suddenly aware of what I missed and craved the most: not necessarily sex, not necessarily a relationship, only the closeness and warmth of another human being as imperfect as myself.

I cry at the realisation that I stopped believing in love about 10 years ago and have since been fooling myself into thinking there would be alternative ways of being happy with a man. There aren’t. I now know that. Everyday, I grieve over that knowledge.

Small hands
I will leave you with my favourite poem by e.e.cummings, which makes me shudder at its delicate yet powerful imagery: the rose, the snow, the fingers, the hand, the opening, the closing. This, indeed, is what intimacy feels like to me. What about you?

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

If you would like to comment on this blog post or share your own story but does not want to do it publicly, please email me at sehensucht2013@gmail.com. 

When an old flame goes out: cutting the cord of love

cut the cord

“Much of life is about correctly determining on whom and on what we should finally give up.”

The above is a quote by author and philosopher Alain de Botton, and one that hits the nail on the head for me.

How good are you at letting go? Because I am hopeless at it. You see, I am, by nature, persevering, tenacious and accommodating. These attributes are very helpful and produce great results in my sales job because I am an optimist and never give up, but when it comes to men and relationships, they completely backfire.

Someone Like You
I recently bumped into an old flame in China, of all places. I was in Beijing, on business, attending a reception party, when I heard my name and felt a hand on my shoulder from behind.

I was gobsmacked when I turned around and saw him standing in front of me, smiling, looking as tall, as dark and as handsome as ever. He had started a long sabbatical last year, had moved back to his home country, on the other side of the Earth; I did not expect to see him again for a good few years.

This wasn’t just any old flame; this was THE old flame. Fifteen or so years ago that charming smile had made me swoon and become besotted with him. I had heard bells ringing; I had seen us happily married, sitting by a pool, while our two kids played, chasing each other, me discussing books and the state of the book industry with his intellectual parents.

I had met nice, attractive men before him, but he had been the first one my brain had registered as “husband material”, and not only because of his looks or personality. We worked in the same industry, we were both salespeople specialising in Asian territories, he was learning Japanese, loved Oriental foods, jet-setted round the world. He had grown up in a middle-class family like mine, who valued hard work and perseverance, he was highly ambitious and driven, yet totally modest, and a gentleman through and through. He ticked all my boxes, and more. I fell for that, and hard.

That was a long time ago. He is now happily married with a couple of kids; they probably live in a house with a swimming pool, just as I had once dreamed. You know Adele’s song, Someone Like You? Story of my life.

We are still friends, very good friends in fact. But I was in love for so many years the process of letting go of that pang I felt every time I walked into him at industry events and trade fairs was a long one. I only recently achieved some kind of closure, long after I had myself got married. For years I blamed myself for being one of those “women who love too much” and my inability to give up on things and people not worth fighting for.

When it comes to love, how do you measure how much of it is healthy and when does it start becoming obsessive? Where do you draw the line between controlled loving sentiments and unbridled passion? And is there anything wrong with loving someone so much that it hurts? 

I once went out with a psychotherapist, who told me we seek love again and again because we crave the intensity of the pain brought on by yearning for someone. The pain makes us feel alive, he said. There might be some truth in this, but I reckon love only causes hurt because we wish to possess and control the object of our desire. 

If we…if I…could only learn to love without wanting to enclose or entrap the loved one; if I could love, even when I cannot have them close, how much more liberating and easy love would be. But is it realistic?

I have met other men since Old Flame ceased to burn a hole in my heart. Many were like ships passing in the night; a few others left deeper marks, and one, I suspect I may still be in love with. As it were, because when you think about someone from the past, you assume they haven’t changed and you haven’t changed, but you have, and they have. You are in love with a memory, not a real person.

This is what I felt when I walked out of the party in Beijing, leaving Old Flame surrounded, as usual, by a flock of women who had gathered, trying to make small talk with him. In the past I’d have dropped everything for a chance to be alone with him; I’d have ignored and put up with the gathering crowd while he played out his role of popular/everybody-loves-me guy and successful entrepreneur. I’d have sacrificed my self-respect for a minute of his attention.

But I didn’t this time. I realised I could never finish a single conversation with him because someone always barged in and started another. It occurred to me that being liked by a generic all was more important to him than being liked by a specific one. That talking to anyone who led to a business opportunity took priority over catching up with an old friend. I think I always knew that but didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to believe he was Prince Charming and could not put a foot wrong.

I’d had it, I left. For once, I put myself first. I chose to go somewhere more private for a drink with a good friend and giggled the whole evening, sipping Bloody Mary, not once thinking about Old Flame.

Starved of oxygen, the fire is long extinguished and for that I am relieved. But I was astounded by the realisation that the person I once loved so deeply and for so long was not someone I would have loved now, nor would I care to fight for his friendship.

The relentless ambition I used to admire so blindly now feels tiresome and jaded: how often does one have to prove oneself and what for? A day or two later, at the breakfast table of our hotel, he tells me he is doing an MBA, planning a new business, running marathons, playing competitive tennis in different continents, making his kids learn Mandarin, as it’s the language of the future. I listen, unimpressed. I notice, dispassionately, his bulging biceps and the hunky torso underneath his yellow Nike T-shirt, the result of years of disciplined training in the gym. I see the beautiful, familiar green eyes that look at you but rarely through you.

What I used to deem the “perfect” man no longer floats my boat. Instead, I catch myself being attracted to men who wear their vulnerabilities on their sleeves, whose most interesting bulging parts are their flaws, their weaknesses and human failings. Perhaps because they represent a reflection of myself as an imperfect human being, who awkwardly makes mistakes again and again. It’s a good sign. It is a sign I like them because I also like myself more.

Old attachments are like warts: they have been part of you for so long, cutting them off is like self-mutilation. Of course it hurts, of course it bleeds, but it is a necessary evil for you to move on.

Old Flame was, in the end, a surprisingly uncomplicated door to close. But I have other past attachments I believe go beyond the sexual; they are more of a soul-to-soul connection, and those I am not confident I can ever sever because I love their spirit as much as or more than their physical representation on earth, if you know what I mean.

Yet loving with longing is painful; longing to be close when closeness is not possible is cruel and masochistic. Those I cannot let go, I have no choice but to continue loving, but loving without the yearning, loving without controlling, without expecting, without wanting.

There is letting go and there is letting go.

It is ridiculous, I know. I am not a monk, give me a break.

But then I am not capable of living without loving.

Are you? Tell me, are you?