“Her heart was a secret garden and the walls were very high.”
William Goldman, The Princess Bride
On our first official date, he took me to a beautiful little restaurant for breakfast. Then, it was chilly – an early spring, just barely pre-Covid-shutdown morning. We sat inside and looked out at the partially thawed stream trickling past.
First dates are strange, I think. Prior to that day I don’t think I’d had a first date in close to thirty years. My marriage and my last relationship were born of friendships. We were friends who loved each other, then we loved each other. I said to Mary in the week leading up to the date – “I have no earthly idea how to do this. People DO this?? This is so weird. It’s insane, actually. How have we not re-thought this process?”
But then on the day, it wasn’t weird at all. Which was weird. We asked all of those exploratory questions you ask when you’re trying to get a sense of a person – the delighted laughs when you realize you have something in common or they say something that resonates. It was attraction and curiosity and newness. And fear.
Months later, on a balmy summer morning, we went back to that little stream. Outside this time, holding hands, we watched the torrent of water rush by, the sunlight filtering down through the trees. I looked into the face I’ve come to know so well, and met the gaze my nerves had me studiously avoiding that first day.
I think I’m the one who is guarded in this relationship.
His gorgeous blue eyes crinkled up at the corners as he smiled that smile at me. Not like it was funny, well- maybe a little like it was funny. This did not appear to be brand new information for him the way it was for me. It was more like he’d been waiting for me to know it, too. Like he was glad we finally both knew it so we could work through it. That’s the way he is. Here is the thing. Let’s look at it squarely and talk it out calmly. It’s bizarre.
So, it was one of those unforgivably obvious things and, once acknowledged, I couldn’t un-know it.
I thought about it every day. I talked to my people about it. Matt mostly, because he always gets it. He always gets everything. Not just in the “I understand” way, but in the , “Oooh, YEP.” way.
Thank you, God, for Matt.
I came to realize the walls around my heart by way of our vacation. We’d just returned and I needed to quarantine for two weeks for work, which would have us together for three weeks straight – which, we can all agree, is SO MANY DAYS. Anyway, I’d be at his place. I had all my vacation clothes and all my work clothes (because I dress for Zoom. You know I do.) for the next stretch. I was trying to organize it all in a way that made sense in my bags and he said,
Would you like a drawer in the dresser?
He’d barely said it, and just like Harry says in When Harry Met Sally – the words were just HANGING there, like in a cartoon bubble.
No. No. No. NO. Nooooo, that’s okay. It’s fine. This is fine. I’m fine. I’ll figure it out. I mean, thank you. But, no. Uh-uh. Nope.
He smiled at me and said,
So, that’s a no, then.
And then I vamoosed into the bedroom to Jenga my belongings in such a way that they would take up as little real estate as possible, and be in a state of already packed and halfway out the door. You know. Just in case.
I texted Matt immediately and informed him that I am a jerk.
My friend Matt is my emotional touchstone. He and I are wired so similarly it’s a little ridiculous. I’ve talked this through a lot with him. My fears, my hesitance, my preparedness – the way I seem to be keeping one eye on the door at all times. I’m like an emotional doomsday prepper. Quick to perceive threats, ready to go underground, primed for the worst case scenario.
Here’s the thing about love, it never comes without risk. Ever. Anything and everything outside of you can be taken away. And likely will be, at some point, in some form or fashion. And the more you love, the more you invest, the greater the loss if and when it happens. Trust me. I’ve done the research.
There are some losses associated with the demise of my last relationship which I simply have not allowed myself to think about. Overnight I lost my home, the kids I helped raise, my pets, my favorite place on earth, and my partner of seven years. It is still shocking to me. My initial feeling, once I got up off the floor, was that I did not ever want to put myself in a position to be hurt like that again. That I would rather be alone forever than give someone else the power to harm me that way.
I’ve been afraid to lean into that pain. I’ve been afraid if I really let myself feel it, I would not be able to get out of bed in the morning. So I didn’t for a while. It’s a gift born of trauma, actually. The ability to put shit on a shelf. I can compartmentalize like a boss. Right up until I can’t. It’s only ever a temporary strategy, of course. It’s pain on layaway. I knew full well I would have to pay the balance at some point, and there’d be interest accrued for having waited. It feels like it’s time to maybe get some help with it. I’ve got to be honest, though, I’m sick of healing. I’m sick of doing work. But I want to travel light. I’m tired of the weight of this anger and grief and fear that seem to insert themselves into things when I least expect it.
Doing the work to heal is the only way to be free to really love wholeheartedly. It took me a while to get to a place where that even seemed like an estimable goal again. In this new relationship, I didn’t want to meet his kids early on, because I was afraid I would love them. I did my level best to keep him and them at bay. As it turns out, I am just not wired for that. And so, I have to decide whether I want to keep my heart safe or to use it as intended.
I think about people who skydive, and how when I see footage of them perched on the edge of the door of the plane I wonder how it is they will themselves to do something that every survival instinct you have, codified in your very DNA since the beginning of time, must balk at. How is it that you come to the decision to fling yourself into the vast and bottomless sky? It’s counterintuitive at a cellular level.
But then I think about our primordial ancestors, and how they dragged themselves out of the ocean in a quest to evolve. They left the relative safety of what they knew to grow into what they were intended to become.
Massive risk, certain hardship, wild discomfort. I guess that’s the cost of a new life, but only every single time.
How fun. What a terrific system.
Recently, I went for an early morning walk with Scout – I am always seeking to improve my conscious contact with Dog as I understand Her. I’m an early morning person, frequently rising before 5:00 a.m. I sometimes snap the leash on her pre-dawn, at what my friends call Zero Dark Thirty, or stupid o’clock. We typically have the park to ourselves – even the squirrels are sleeping, much to Scout’s dismay. On this day, though, we ran into a young woman and she made a joke about how her dog just wants to be friends with the squirrels. I said, “Mine doesn’t. She wants to eat them. All of them.” She laughed and I smiled. Hahaha.
But it’s true.
Scout is, as my grandmother would have said, living the life of Reilly. She is adored and well fed. She routinely eats better than a lot of humans I know. Every need she has is met and then some, but that’s not how her life started off.
Scout was a stray. The first time he met her, a month or so after we started dating, he fed her salmon from his plate. He marveled, “She likes it!” Um, yeah, dude. She was feral less than a year ago. She ate trash. Does she like salmon? She sure does.
She is safe and spoiled now. She is adored and indulged. I am not going anywhere. Still, that’s not the story she lives out of. When you come from real scarcity, it’s hard to trust abundance. When you’ve not been able to count on another being to have your back or meet your needs, you learn to rely solely on yourself. When you are accustomed to there being no soft place to fall, you walk around braced for hardness.
When you’ve been harmed, you expect harm.
It’s funny. I’ve posted about my early morning city walks with Scout, and have gotten many people expressing concern about my safety. I had one reader frame it in a way that got me thinking. I said something about being mindful of where I go and aware of my surroundings and she said, “Yes, but do you FEEL safe?” My knee-jerk response to that was, “Sure, not that it matters.”
I’m constantly on guard, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I have come to realize very recently, that, for me, it does not feel safe to feel safe anymore. I don’t believe in safe anymore. Y’know, as a concept. And I am afraid to love again, even though it’s obvious to anyone paying attention that it’s too late.
The thing about being feral is you understand safety is a feeling, not a fact. You know that while you may be in a moment of comfort or plenty, that it can all go away without warning, so staying in survival mode seems not only wise, but necessary.
Scout is pretty sure I’ll feed her, but she’s perfectly ready to have to fend for herself at any given moment, thankyouverymuch.
My friend Cis recently posted a meme about how ultra-independence is a trauma response. Um… yeah. It sure is. That and its good buddy, hyper-vigilance.
I don’t know that there’s a solution, other than time and grace. It’s been a little over a year since I moved into my new place after the life I let myself feel safe in was ripped out from under me, and I’m still finding my footing. A year. How is that possible? A year and a half since my relationship of seven years and a friendship of thirty-two was thrown away, like so much garbage. I’ll never understand having an off-switch like that, which is fine. There are things worth understanding. That’s not one of them. I don’t really want to be someone who understands that.
Matt visited me a few months back. In my head it’s because he was scouting my city out so he can move here and be my kooky next door neighbor and we can have slumber parties and he can sign off on my outfit every morning. I recently asked his new boyfriend what was the appropriate number of visits to me per annum. It was part of our interview process. He guessed quarterly. I like him enormously, but the correct answer was 47.
Anyway. Matt was writing and I was watching him do it. We were talking about his break-up and my walls. We’re so much fun, I swear. I was talking about saying the words “I love you” and how they don’t really mean anything to me anymore. And how I don’t even know what being IN love means. Basically, romantic love is bullshit. That’s the cliff notes version. Matt just looked at me and said, “LAURA.” the way only he can. I looked up from my coffee into one of my favorite faces in the world and he said, “God, that’s just the worst thing I’ve ever heard. That is, like, awful.”
All of a sudden I heard my defensive chatter through his ears. I heard how my guarded justifications for keeping love at bay sounded to this person who has come to be one of the most valued and wise sounding boards in my life. Someone who tells me the truth no matter what. I had one of my best friends, maybe the person in the whole world who is most like me, mirror my cynicism and fear back at me.
It was painful and sad. But also good, you know?
This thing, barely ten months old, is worth fighting for, I think. I am trying to open up, I am trying to trust him- but it’s not even really about that. I am trying to trust me. He keeps joking about removing bricks from the wall, but ultimately he can’t. Not because he isn’t reliable (he is) or deeply good (he is) or because he really wants to (I believe he does.) He can’t do it because it’s simply not his job, and we can all only do our own work. It’s mine. Well, me and God. It’s our work.
The first month I had Scout, I got held up at work one day and was gone for a longer stretch than usual. I came home and she’d gotten ahold of a pair of my glasses and destroyed them. She lost her mind when I walked in the door. Half mad at me, half over-joyed I was back. She wasn’t sure of me yet. She wasn’t healed from previous mistreatment. We were still learning how to love one another. Now when I am gone for that same length of time she barely lifts her head when I walk in, she just lies there, tail thumping in happiness. She’s glad I’m back, but she knew I would be. She’s surer.
“But love is much like a dam: if you allow a tiny crack to form through which only a trickle of water can pass, that trickle will quickly bring down the whole structure, and soon no one will be able to control the force of the current. For when those walls come down, then love takes over, and it no longer matters what is possible or impossible; it doesn’t even matter whether we can keep the loved one at our side. To love is to lose control.”Paul Coelho