vendredi, mars 14, 2014

love, the second time around

A gorgeous piece from the New York Times' Modern Love essay series.

Modern Love: A Second Embrace, With Hearts and Eyes Open
 I looked across the restaurant table at my date, an attractive brown-eyed man with two young children and a broken marriage, as he recounted his romantic history.

“I used to think the relationship part of my life was settled and I never had to worry about it,” he told me. “Now I think, if you love someone, you have to take it one day at a time. And you have to work at it one day at a time.” There was a hopeful gleam in his eye.

I smiled and thought, “I could be in a relationship with a man like this.” In fact, I knew I could. Reader, I had married him. On this night, long after we had thrown in the towel on us, here we were again, crawling back into the ring. This time, though, it would be different. We just never imagined how different it would become, or how quickly.

Our unraveling had not been a swift, decisive catastrophe but a smaller series of no less destructive forces. We came apart the way many couples do: via the gradual realization that we were unhappy, and the inescapable conclusion that our relationship was not a refuge from our unhappiness but a cause of it. We were two nice people who had been deeply in love but who found themselves, nearly 20 years later, in love no more.

Neither of us wanted to spend the next 40 years going on as we had, seemingly safe within an institution but deprived of its most essential nutrient. If we had not had children, it would have been simple. We no doubt would have disappeared amicably but entirely from each other’s lives. But we did have children.

As my friend Linda, whose husband left her while she was pregnant, once told me: “No matter what, it’s a lifetime relationship. I’ll be at my son’s wedding and my ex will be there.”

Likewise for us, there was never any question that the good will we had once shared, combined with our love for our daughters, was stronger than any current disappointment we could harbor toward each other. We sat together at school plays and parent-teacher conferences. We shared holidays and birthdays. We even took another apartment in the same building, to make the situation easier for the children. After a while, the wounds of the breakup healed, and a new friendship was formed, a bonding unique to the front lines of parenthood.

The end of a long marriage, especially a marriage with children, will shake your world to its foundation. If you’re lucky, you’ll eventually come out of it a little braver and wiser. It wasn’t long after the split that I realized I liked the new person inside of me that this heartbreak was forging.

What I hadn’t expected was that I’d like the person he was becoming, too. Then one day he said something funny and I laughed, and then he looked at me with a directness I had never seen before and said, “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m flirting with you.”

I’ve always been a sucker for a man with a smooth line. So I flirted back. And when he asked me to dinner, I said yes.

A short time later I strolled through a museum with my friend Lily, a woman who had recently reconciled with her husband after a yearlong separation. “How did you know?” I asked her. “How did you believe again, after everything you’d been through?”

“He said what I needed to hear,” she said, “even though I didn’t know what I needed to hear until he said it. You’ll see.”

Soon after that I went on a date with the father of my children, and over a plate of plantains, I did see.

Our reunion, low key and unmarked by flying rice though it was, prompted a variety of responses among our friends and family. There were enthusiastic cheers from the romantics, and there was skepticism and concern from others, who remembered all the miserable details of our unraveling. But falling in love again after a breakup is no simple matter of retreat. We are not the people we were when we met two decades before, and we had no desire to relive a marriage that had, to the best of both our recent memories, failed unequivocally.

Yet if we had taken the leap of faith it takes to end a long-term relationship, surely, we figured, we could muster the even greater trust it would take to open our hearts again. Besides, it was nice being with a man whose emotional baggage from his crazy ex I could really understand. And my children were happy about Mom’s new man.

What ensued that summer we began again was a blissful period of lazy days and tender nights. Then it took a severe swerve. On Aug. 10, I had updated my Facebook status to read, “Best summer ever.” On Aug. 11, I learned I had malignant melanoma.

As I lay in a hospital a few nights later, doped to the gills, bleeding from three surgical sites and hoping I was clear of cancer, he and I held hands and watched “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” on TV.

“I’m sorry about all this,” I said groggily, “because now you have to stick with me. Otherwise all our friends will think you’re Newt Gingrich.”

“I see you had this planned all along,” he said. “Well played.” But later, when I told him I knew this wasn’t the reunion he’d had in mind, he just chuckled and said, “You’re not getting rid of me that easily this time.”

As I recovered through the bleak period that followed, through a grim rediagnosis that left me with a prognosis of mere months to live and then into a clinical trial that shocked us by eradicating my disease entirely, he cooked dinners and did laundry. He arranged playdates for the children and read them stories. He picked up prescriptions and cleaned up enough blood to make Eli Roth shudder. He left me awed at a strength in him I had never seen before. I had never had to.

Our relationship already had attained a bittersweet edge by virtue of its status as a second go-round, but there’s nothing like journeying through the wringer together to take that whole skipping-through-the-daisies aspect out of your dates. Although our experience has been far from sexy, it has been peculiarly romantic.

Nobody writes songs about sitting on the edge of the tub while a man applies topical antibiotics to your oozing skin graft. There are no poetic odes to women with gaping scars, no sonnets to men who may be wearing the same shirt for the third day in a row.

But maybe there should be, because everything I thought I knew about love at 24 seems pretty absurd now. I didn’t know then that a wonderful relationship would one day become unsustainable. I couldn’t have imagined that later on, strangely enough, it would become a new kind of wonderful.

The wedding ring I so optimistically slipped onto my finger long ago, the same one I despondently removed many years later, is now permanently retired. But I wear a small moonstone on my hand, the symbol of hope. Hope for healing in all its forms.

Neither of us sees the world in guarantees anymore. We recognize them as the comforting fictions they are. We accept that you can’t always keep the promises you made when you were barely above drinking age. You can’t know how you will change, or what life will throw at you.

Having our marriage fall apart and having disease come in and try very hard to kill me did away with our cozy assumptions that the future looks just like the past, but with more laugh lines. But he and I have learned, because we have had to, the difference between the illusion of security and the liberating joy of the present, between obligation and choice.

And choice, terrifying as it can be, is so much better. We had to leave each other to discover that: to understand what it really means to decide to be with a person, one day at a time, however many days there may be. Love isn’t a fortress. It isn’t a locked room. It’s full of doors and windows and escape hatches, and they’re not scary. They’re how, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, the light gets in.

A few weeks ago, after an exhausting round of tests and doctor appointments, we flopped together into bed, almost too tired to speak. We watched the ceiling fan spin, lulled by its hypnotic rhythm, until at last he spoke just six words: “I’m glad I didn’t lose you.”

I looked into semidarkness at the man I love, the man I once left, and said, “I’m glad I didn’t lose you, too.”

Mary Elizabeth Williams, a senior writer for Salon, is working on a book about her cancer experience.

mardi, mars 04, 2014


My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-- It gives a lovely light. - Edna St. Vincent Millay

on beauty

Over the years, I've spent plenty of time thinking about what to 'fix' or alter about my appearance to make me more attractive.  I've never been very into my looks, and after becoming a mother, I would sometimes be startled that I hadn't looked in the mirror in days because I was either looking at my deliciously gorgeous children or just too tired to contemplate putting on something nicer than yoga pants, much less makeup.   I've never been a fashionista and have always put more stock into my brains than my brawn or my beauty.

Still, as a young girl (indeed, until I was in my 20s), it was about trying to tame my uncooperative, naturally curly hair. In college and later, it was about the unbearable weight I literally and figuratively carried.  Seven years ago, one friend whom I'd met in a divorce support group commented on how well-adjusted I was (despite a crazy mother and a dysfunctional marriage and the subsequent divorce). But the compliment came out wrong when she said "the only thing wrong with you is that you're overweight".  And that was when I weighed 30 lbs less than I do today.

My point is that it is the human condition to be somewhat unsatisfied.  Progress is made by those who channel their dissatisfaction into new inventions, new art, and new ways of approaching the world.  But things go sideways when we focus that dissatisfaction on ourselves and our physical appearance. Women don't have exclusive rights to this obsession, but I would wager that we spend much more time focused on our complexion or our 'imperfect' eyes or thighs or teeth or fill-in-the-name-of-your-'problem-area'-body-part here.   I'm always startled to learn that the women whom society deem the most gorgeous seem to be the most insecure about their looks --even the ones who are brilliant and have other talents.  (And don't even get me started on how hard it must be to be a gay man in what I see as even more youth- and body-obsessed subcultures...)

Despite my annoyance with my weight and vanity as I watch a mole on my face continue to grow larger as I grow older, I don't see the surgeon's knife as the solution.  I will admit to being horrified when I was on a flight last week and saw a sitcom.  I didn't bother to put on the headphones and perhaps the absence of sound was what made me focus on the visuals.  The men in the all-ages cast of "Parenthood" looked mostly 'natural.'  I say that because they had laugh lines, were able to scrunch up their foreheads, curl their lips, and use their faces to communicate meaning.  The women were another story.

Bonnie Bedelia has had what to my untrained eyes looks like a facelift.  Her skin is stretched taut over her skull and she has what one person called 'duck lips'. It might have been the resolution on the plane's monitors, but she looked less human than the lovely face I was used to seeing in her previous acting.  Monica Potter (I guessed she's in her 30s, but imdb says she's in her early 40s) had an expressionless face throughout the show -- no matter what the situation. I'm guessing botox is why.  I found it distracting to see how the rest of her body language was so emphatic that it appeared she was overacting because it was out of sync with a face devoid of expressions and any sort of lines.

Today, I saw a photo of Goldie Hawn at the Oscars and was shocked by how her lovely face has been altered by plastic surgeons, presumably to look more 'youthful'.  Nasty things were said by Donald Trump and the Twitterverse about Goldie, Kim Novak, and Matthew McConaughey's mother, all women who are older and had either had plastic surgery or were wearing dresses that the pundits deemed 'too young' for their bodies. My point in citing this example isn't to tear down Goldie, Kim, Bonnie, or Monica.  It's to think about the double standards for men and women and why we are so youth- and beauty-obsessed as a culture.  While I have my theories, I don't expect that my voice will be heard by the masses above the din of mean girls, internet trolls, and snarky comments about appearance that even nicer-than-nice people like Ellen DeGeneres make.

My solace and focus is on my children (especially my daughter) and giving them positive messages about their self-worth that have nothing to do with how they look and everything to do with how they act.  For now, at least, my voice is a strong one for them and I plan to use it.   I especially love Lupita Nyong'o's beautifully penned words on the topic of how she hated -- but eventually came to love her incredible skin -- by finding beauty inside.  Her mother's voice resonates with me and gives me the right example and talking points for my children (and for my inner critic).

 "My mother again would say to me 'you can’t eat beauty, it doesn't feed you' and these words plagued and bothered me; I didn't really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be. 
And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. 
 It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away. And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. 
There is no shade to that beauty." 

Here is the entire speech:
 Read Lupita Nyong’o’s Moving ESSENCE Speech By Lindsey Weber 2/28/2014 at 9:20 AM
 Lupita Nyong'o was awarded Best Breakthrough Performance for her work in 12 Years a Slave at yesterday's ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon. Just like at the Critics Choice Awards, her acceptance speech was sad and inspiring and beautiful — all at the same time. Here it is, in full:
I wrote down this speech that I had no time to practice so this will be the practicing session. Thank you Alfre, for such an amazing, amazing introduction and celebration of my work. And thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of such an extraordinary community. I am surrounded by people who have inspired me, women in particular whose presence on screen made me feel a little more seen and heard and understood. That it is ESSENCE that holds this event celebrating our professional gains of the year is significant, a beauty magazine that recognizes the beauty that we not just possess but also produce.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty, black beauty, dark beauty. I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: "Dear Lupita," it reads, "I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me." 
My heart bled a little when I read those words, I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.
I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before. I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted, I would listen to my mother's every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened. 

And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no conservation, she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then … Alek Wek. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me, as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me, when I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty. But around me, the preference for my skin prevailed, to the courters that I thought mattered I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me you can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you and these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be. 

And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away. And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. 

There is no shade to that beauty.