A little over a year ago, I was invited to write a letter to a newborn baby, Toby.
In it, I wrote about the benefits of being generous, and in particular generous in love: (
“I’ve also given away lots of love. Often that love was returned, but sometimes it wasn’t, which was painful. But as Billy Joel sings in The Longest Time, “I have been a fool for lesser things.” I believe it is always worth taking a chance for love.”
I remember hesitating after writing that: would I come across as pathetic or needy? Was the Billy Joel reference too common? (Maybe I should have quoted someone more “intellectually impressive”?)
But I went with it, and was glad I did. Honesty and boldness are their own rewards, since they help you overcome shame and feel more secure in your own skin. And I did get a couple of emails from people who said my email inspired them to take some risks in love.
Here’s the incredible thing, though…
Not two weeks after writing that letter, in the kind of coincidence you would scorn if you saw it in a book or movie, I re-met a man I dated thirty years ago (when I was 19!), and we became a fast couple. Jan was newly single after a 27-year marriage, and had come to Boston on sabbatical. We hadn’t been in touch at all during those thirty years, save for a couple of emails after each of my books was published. But we were able to pick up immediately from where we left off, and it was great!
Because my work is portable and his isn’t—he’s a physics professor at Kalamazoo College—and because being in a relationship is important to me, it was a given from the beginning that I would move to Kalamazoo if things worked out. (The word Kalamazoo, by the way, derives from the Potawatomi for “boiling waters,” a reference to the fast-moving Kalamazoo River. However, I tell Easterners it actually translates to “twice the real estate at half the price.”)
And so, here I am! In a new living situation in a new city, in a new part of the country; buying new furniture with a new partner. It’s not really the thing you’re “supposed” to be doing at age 54: you’re supposed to be more settled. And it’s not always easy. But I’m beyond grateful to be facing this particular set of challenges. I know many people who are facing, or have faced, much worse, including my parents, who were settled in their fifties, but in the most miserable way.
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Happy to be “Happy Enough”
It’s funny: I’ve been thinking about this newsletter for months, and have written it in my head probably a dozen times. I’ve always imagined it to be a cheerful and upbeat missive. But now that I’m actually in Kalamazoo and writing it, I feel more reflective, and even humble. I’m aware that I lucked out spectacularly with Jan—and being the beneficiary of great luck is humbling.
For another, love now seems a more complex phenomenon than it did when I was younger. Like everyone else our age, Jan and I have complicated pasts, and we carry those pasts with us into the future.
Finally, even though we hope our future will be glorious, we obviously can’t predict anything. At our stage of life, we can reasonably expect, at the very least, some health challenges. So happily-ever-after is even more a reductive, perfectionist (http://www.hillaryrettig.com/perfectionism/) myth at this age than it was when I was younger.
But we can be happy enough: and that, in itself, is worth the struggle.
I will leave you, optimistically, with the great George Eliot (from Adam Bede):
“How is it that the poets have said so many fine things about our first love, so few about our later love? Are their first poems their best? Or are not those the best which come from their fuller thought, their larger experience, their deeper-rooted affections? The boy’s flute-like voice has its own spring charm; but the man should yield a richer, deeper music.”