Tuesday, May 14, 2013

affairs of the heart.

It's hard to be the Cool Girl, to pretend indifference. It's hard for me, anyway. I don't hide my emotions with even a modicum of grace, hard though I may try. Part of the problem is that I have too many feelings to hide. I wear my heart on my sleeve. Sometimes, really, I feel like my heart's wearing me. Which is good, I think. Hard, but good. More and more I'm realizing that I'd rather teeter on that heartbreaking edge, so full of love and nerves that I'm sure to fall right over, chest first. I'd rather feel too much than too little.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I am absolutely horrible at dating. I have no poker face, and I am an emotional fire cracker, and I REALLY hate it when people don't intuit all that super quickly. It never ends well.

When I started dating, I was a WHOLE lot worse. I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. I was coming off a five year relationship that had ended badly, and naively hoped that the next dude I met would be the dude I would marry. I didn’t have time or energy for any other outcome. This could be--no, WILL be--the one, I'd always say to myself, though I never really meant it. But it's nice to hold out hope. I'd hold out hope, and I'd let people get away with a lot. Oh, you're in a 12 step program? That's okay, I am really happy that you're on the path to recovery. An ex accused you of date rape? Well, acknowledgement is the first step toward atonement. Sorry you forgot your wallet, no no, I've got this one. You're falling in love with me and telling me so on the third date? Great! Yeah, maybe we SHOULD move in together! In those days it was a very short path between the first date and my best friend coming over to help me change my locks. And yet, I pressed onward. Over the years I learned to steel myself against the inevitable insanity of riding in cars with boys, but it was all purely superficial. I could only hide my heart so much, and nine times out of ten I'd end up betraying my Cool Girl exterior, letting my utter excitement or complete disappointment shine through.

And here's the problem with that: in dating, it always seems like you end up feeling the exact opposite of how you ought to, in any given situation. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man you really really like on the first date would probably prefer to be friends ("You're such a great girl, though.") and a man with whom you shared absolutely no chemistry would like to marry you ("I can't stop thinking about you, here is a terrible poem."). Affairs of the heart exist in a delicate balance, and the scales are perpetually tipped in the wrong direction. This is a really hard thing. It makes you feel like you don't really know what you're looking for in the first place. It makes you feel untethered and uncertain. And when the good things do come along, it makes you wonder if you can really trust that they are the good things. You start feeling like you need to play a version of yourself rather than trust your own instincts, like you need to protect yourself. And it is fucking exhausting.

I don't really have a great piece of advice to tie this one up. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be working on figuring it out for the rest of my life. But recently I was on retreat with my first teacher, and she told me something that amounts to this: if you feel firm in your own foundation, rooted down somehow, you'll be grounded enough to let things into and out of your heart. You'll be secure enough to open up. You'll know what's right. I really liked that. I'm not there yet, but I hope I will be someday.

So yeah, I still give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I'm a little more careful now, but I'm also a little more certain of who I am and what I need. As I get older, I get more and more comfortable with the fact that I might not get everything I need from one person. And yet, I foolishly still believe in soul mates. Granted, I'm pretty sure I'm never going to meet my own, but I bet he's out there, trimming his beard and thinking about writing a letter to the editor about community gardening, considering which version of Bob Dylan's Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You he likes best (It would be great if he was into the one from the Rolling Thunder Revue recording, but I'm not picky, I'm really not). Knowing my track record, he's already married to someone else. Maybe I'll catch him on his second pass. Till then, I'll keep on looking. I'll let more people in. I'll take calls from boys I've never met, boys who live far away and yet seem to know me better than I know myself. I'll let the ones I have met drive me home and keep me warm. I'll keep promises and accept them from others too. I'll keep on looking. Something's out there for me, and I might not know exactly what it's supposed to look like, but damned if I'm not going to seek it out.

(Footnote: It's wicked hard to find ANY original version of Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You on the internet, so here's a worthy substitute. Really, as long as he's into Nashville Skyline, he can stay on my soulmate roster.)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

some nights.

Some nights you don't mean to be out till all hours, but it happens. You intend to just stay put, but then one of your oldest friends calls and tells you he's on his way past your house and is coming to collect you. You walk up to his place, taking alleys and shortcuts, sneaking cigarette drags. Spring fever looms large and it's easy to justify spending too long with people you don't see often enough, old friends and their girlfriends, husbands and wives. You walk home after midnight and can't get to sleep. You can't believe how long your trail spreads back behind you, how long your stories are getting.

Some nights you stay up too late after getting up too early. You go out for too many drinks before the evening's really begun. Someone who seems to be around a lot more these days picks you up, and you end up at a karaoke bar. Through a series of circumstances and uncertain steps in a new direction that do not warrant a public airing, you're feeling nervous and self-conscious and more than a little drunk. You cope the only way you know how, by singing your heart out. Your rendition of Midnight Train to Georgia impresses the table of well-intentioned and equally tipsy fiftysomething women next to you; you've always been good at making friends with people twice your age. Later, driving home, there's a Smashing Pumpkins song on the radio, and as you pull up to the house where you're spending the night, you try and remember the first time you ever heard it. You think to yourself that when you were young, you probably imagined that things would be simpler by the time you got to where you are now, that you would be certain of more. Granted, it is hard to be certain of much at 2:00 in the morning, other than the promise of sleep, the strength of arms wrapped around you, the relief that the night is over.

Some nights you can barely keep your eyes open till the sun sets. After spending a day outside, keeping busy in the garden in an attempt to stave off a creeping anxiety that too often takes hold, you feel spent, and yet you cannot bring yourself to relax. It takes the gentle prodding of someone you've never met, someone whose voice on the other end of the line always manages to make you laugh and calm you down, to set you straight. Go to sleep, he tells you, gently. Alright, you reply. How your heart can want so much, so many, so very far apart, is beyond you, and maybe it always will be. But sometimes you realize that's not for you to sort out right now. Sometimes you just need to be told what you already know.

And some nights you walk home from yoga and marvel at the fact that the sun's still up, that it's warm enough to wander without a jacket. You have that quiet, heart-full feeling that you get after you practice, sad and happy and opened right up. You listen to Wilco, because that's always what you feel like listening to on your way home from yoga. The streets are still bright, and you smile shyly at the people you pass, feeling vulnerable somehow, but also hopeful. When you get home, there's a message from your best friend that another member of your sweet karass is in the final stages of labour, about to push out her first beautiful baby. Welcome to the world, little girl, you think to yourself. It's smaller and bigger and harder and easier than you could ever imagine. It's a hell of a place.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

back and forth, forever.

These days I work in the same neighbourhood I went to highschool in. It's a bit of a mindfuck, albeit a pleasant one. I love the feeling of bumping up against my past all the time, I really do. Walking streets I used to know, taking shortcuts and remembering classes missed, fears realized, hearts broken. I'm not one of those people who has a particular nostalgia for highschool itself (the opposite is true, in fact), but I sure do look back fondly on the emotional education I got during those years.

The neighbourhood I work in is also close to Hamilton's only university. There are student houses everywhere, couches on porches, pickup trucks full of beer parked nearly perpendicular across ill-paved driveways. It gives the streets a pleasantly anarchic feeling that I find comforting. Yesterday things were even more ridiculous and messy than usual--April 30th, move-out day. As I walked around on my lunch break, I saw countless U-Hauls, decimated Ikea shelves, frustrated mothers and methodical fathers, young adults hauling armloads of clothes and pillows down rickety front steps. I heard in their voices that particular mix of relief at the end of another school year, and resignation to the fact that they would be spending the next four months in a childhood bedroom, suddenly accountable again after a year of total independence. Those are strange times, liminal times. Times between times, when you're not really sure who or where you are. Are you a student, mature and thoughtful and On Your Way Somewhere, or are you a daughter, dependent and uncertain and skulking back home? You don't really know, not when you're filling a borrowed truck with all your worldly goods, saying goodbye to the best people you've ever met.

Watching it all unfold, I couldn't help but think back to the many move-homes I've known. The one that came to mind immediately was the very first, in May, 2000. I had spent a transformative, sketchy, unforgettable year living at St. Hilda's College, surrounded by amazing women and annoying girls (and some who were both at the same time), across the street from the boys' residence, where we'd go for meals and beers and general insanity. A few weeks before the end of term I'd started dating a boy who felt different than the others. We liked all the same bands. We read all the same books. For weeks before we even kissed we'd stay up nearly all night talking about everything and nothing. Sometimes he'd call me on the phone and we'd talk that way for hours, even though he lived right across the street. I was falling in love with him, just as I'd fallen in love with the friends I'd made and the life I'd somehow forged for myself. I did not want to go. The prospect of leaving him, leaving my friends, leaving the tiny basement room that was now my home, terrified me. I was heading back to my real home, a place so unfamiliar to me now that it might as well have been Siberia.

One quiet Friday night my dad drove in to haul home my last load. The boy I couldn't get enough of had left for his parents' house Oshawa earlier that day, and already I felt like I was missing a limb. Before he left I thought about telling him how deep my feelings for him went, but I couldn't get the words out. The uncertainty hung between us as he walked away, hovered around me as I finished packing up my room before Dad got there. I remember those last few minutes, bringing the final boxes upstairs, cramming them into the back of the car, and then just standing there crying. A handful of the girls with whom I'd shared the last eight months were still around, and we all hugged and bawled like a bunch of tweens leaving summer camp. The air was warm and the sun was setting. My dad waited patiently in the driver's seat as I sloppily bid farewell to the best year of my life. As we drove back to Hamilton, further from my Toronto life, further from my eastbound love, I sunk back into the passenger side, exhausted. Everything that mattered felt so far away. In hindsight, it was the end of the beginning.

Of course I didn't know it yet, but that absence would make the heart grow fonder. I'd spend that summer working at the library. Nearly every night I'd run off to one place or another, often ending up in one of the same parks I'd spent my highschool years running off to. I wasn't looking for trouble the way I had been when I was younger, just a soft place to land. Every weekend I'd find myself either getting on a train or meeting one, following the path to my secret heart. Each time we'd see each other we'd get closer; each time we said goodbye it would get harder. Every train ride away from him made me feel like I was living that last day in front of St. Hilda's over again, dying another death, letting another great and wonderful thing come to an end. Come September we'd land back in each other's arms and vow to stay there for the rest of our lives. It would be exhilarating and terrifying and I would feel more alive and more secure than I'd ever thought possible.

That part wouldn't last either. I guess the point is, nothing does. Like it or not, we're bound to spend much of our lives in these liminal states, between things, between stops, between homes and great loves and times both hard and good. The silver lining, I think, is that eventually you get it. Eventually you see the changes coming, see that they're part of something bigger than you, know that you are strong enough to handle them. Eventually you make yourself your own anchor, and just hold on.