Anne Morrow Lindbergh on Love’s Many Phases & How to Save a Relationship in Crisis

Human beings crave consistency.  We want our relationships, especially our romantic ones, to remain the same.  However, all things change.  Love goes through phases.  At different times, love waxes and wanes.

When we first fall in love, things are novel, exciting.  With the mere mention of our beloved’s name, our heart dashes, our stomach fills with butterflies.  In the beginning, the object of our adoration can do no wrong in our eyes.  Everything he says is endlessly captivating; we find his jokes hilarious, though they meander and he often doesn’t land the punchline.  We’re so in love that we can spend hours just staring into each other’s eyes.

But as days elapse into months and months elapse into years, our relationship inevitably becomes burdened by work and other responsibilities.  No longer are we two carefree, giddily-in-love twenty-somethings— we now have marriage, a mortgage, a baby.  We’re more likely to snap at our husband for forgetting to buy milk at the grocery store than stare at each other longingly.  Our conversations no longer contain hints of light-hearted flirtation and sexy bantering— they’re defined by practical, distinctly uninteresting topics like what to buy our nephew for his birthday and whose turn it is to fold the laundry.  Our relationship more closely resembles the relationship between business partners or roommates.

In her timeless treasure trove, Gift from the Sea, which also explained why we should seek out solitude and shed the shell of our ordinary lives and go to the beach, Anne Morrow Lindbergh reminds us all romantic relationships pass through such phases as certainly as night follows day.

The honeymoon phase— what Lindbergh calls the “double sunrise” phase— is pure bliss.  Because we’re not yet deadened and desensitized by habit, there’s still carnal connection, there’s still mystery, there’s still romance.

But when the flames of first love inevitably cool, we panic.  What— we wonder— happened to passion’s fiery flames?  What happened to the “spark” we had in the beginning of the relationship?  

But the fact is nothing is wrong with us if our relationship changes.  All things change: waves crash and recede, plants grow.  In much the same way that we only want to experience the flower-filled rapture of spring and avoid bleak, biting winters of the soul, we idealize the honeymoon and dread the moment we have to pack up our bags and come home.  But love is not the giddiness of a summer fling— it’s building a life with someone in the real world.  As Lindbergh writes, 

“It is true, of course, the original relationship is very beautiful.  Its self-enclosed perfection wears the freshness of a spring morning.  Forgetting about the summer to come, one often feels one would like to prolong the spring of early love, when two people stand as individuals, without past or future, facing each other.  One resents any change, even though one knows that transformation is natural and part of the process of life and its evolution.  Like its parallel, physical passion, the early ecstatic stage of a relationship cannot continue always at the same pitch of intensity.  It moves to another phase of growth one should not dread, but welcome as one welcomes summer after spring.”

Sometimes, however, there really is a problem.  Perhaps after decades together, we no longer make an effort to express our affection or spend quality time together.  Instead of visit the Van Gogh exhibit or make reservations at the French bistro, we spend our Saturday nights sitting next to each other on the coach, together but not truly together, as we mindlessly scroll through our phones.  In the rose-colored haze of nostalgia, we reminisce about the good old days when our lover surprised us with bouquets of tulips and couldn’t wait to chat over red wine and spaghetti bolognese when he came home.  

Bored of our passionless union, lonely and longing for connection, we might be tempted to seek excitement in an affair outside of our marriage.  After all, if the problem is our partner, the solution must be someone else.  Someone else will bother to plan a date every once in awhile.  Someone else will pamper us with flowers and thoughtful handwritten notes.  Someone else will occasionally listen instead of be endlessly engrossed by his phone.  

However, “someone else” is almost never the answer to our martial woes.  It’s futile to try to recapture the ecstasy of early love.  Even if we do find someone else who’s intelligent and interesting, our infatuation will eventually wear off.  At first, an affair can be sexy, stimulating: sneaking around to see each other, stealing clandestine kisses on our lunch break.  But after a few weeks or months, our furtive fling will be just as predictable as the marriage we so unsuccessfully tried to escape.

So what’s the solution?

Rather than have an affair, we should commit to rediscovering our sense of self.  Most often, a dissatisfaction with our marriage is a dissatisfaction with ourselves.  Despite the romantic notion that finding our Platonic soul mate will finally complete our incomplete souls, another person cannot save us.  Before we can be content in matrimony, we must be content with ourselves.  According to Lindbergh, women can find contentment by committing to their creativity and carving out time of their own away from the pressures of motherhood and domesticity:

“But neither woman nor man are likely to be fed by another relationship which seems easier because it is in an earlier stage.  Such a love affair cannot really bring back a sense of identity.  Certainly, one has the illusion that one will find oneself in being loved for what one really is, not for a collection of functions.  But can one actually find oneself in someone else?  In someone else’s love?  Or even in the mirror someone else holds up for one?  I believe that true identity is found, as Eckhart once said, by ‘going into one’s own ground and knowing oneself.’  It is found in creative activity springing from within.  It is found, paradoxically, when one loses oneself.  One must lose one’s life to find it.  Woman can best refind herself by losing herself in some kind of creative activity of her own.  Here she will be able to refind her strength, the strength she needs to look and work at the second half of the problem— the neglected pure relationship.  Only a refound person can refind a personal relationship.”

Though we can’t entirely resurrect the fire of first love, we can rekindle some of the flames.  One easy way to restore some of the romance of the “double sunrise” stage is to go on vacation and step away from our ordinary lives and usual routines.  At home, there are a million and one distractions that interfere with intimacy: carpool, crying children, client calls, endless emails and meetings.  But in a cabin in the countryside or a cottage by the sea, we can finally focus on our partner.  Nothing revives love like a hotel room in a foreign city (As British philosopher Alain de Botton so insightfully observed, new settings can inspire us to see things in new ways).

However, a romantic getaway doesn’t always have to involve traveling thousands of miles away.  We can rescue our relationship in our own kitchens— not just in bungalows in Bora Bora or villas in Tuscany.  Sometimes a quiet breakfast over orange juice and banana bread muffins is all we need to feel reconnected.  As Lindbergh writes gracefully, 

“Husband and wife can and should go off on vacations alone and also on vacations alone together.  For if it is possible that woman can find herself by having a vacation alone, it is equally possible that the original relationship can sometimes be refound by having a vacation alone together.  Most married couples have felt the unexpected joy of one of these vacations.  How wonderful it was to leave the children, the house, the job, and all the obligations of daily life; to go out together, whether for a month or a weekend or even just a night in an inn by themselves.  How surprising it was to find the miracle of the sunrise repeated.  There was the sudden pleasure of having breakfast alone with the man one fell in love with.  Here at the small table, are only two people facing each other.  How the table at home has grown!  And how distracting it is, with four or five children, a telephone ringing in the hall, two or three school buses to catch, not to speak of the commuter’s train.  How all this separates one from one’s husband and clogs up the pure relationship.  But sitting at a table alone opposite each other, what is there to separate one?  Nothing but a coffee pot, corn muffins and marmalade.  A simple enough pleasure, surely, to have breakfast alone with one’s husband, but how seldom married people in the midst of life achieve it.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh on Why We Should Seek Out Solitude

In our extroverted society, there’s not greater compliment than being called “sociable.”  We worship those who are gregarious and genial.  We aim to be the “life of the party” who charms with his clever jokes and interesting anecdotes— not the awkward loner shuffling his feet and staring at his phone.  Being popular and well-liked is a sign of good character; keeping to yourself is deemed pathological.

Though it is important to build relationships with others, it’s just as important— perhaps even more so— to build a relationship with ourselves.  In her classic guide to creative, contemplative living, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh suggests solitude is an oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of the modern world.  In one of the most gracefully observed chapters “Moon Shell,” she argues we must wake up from the collective delusion that we are anything but alone:

“We are all in the last analysis, alone.  And this basic state of solitude is not something we have any choice about.  It is, as the poet Rilke says, ‘not something that one can take or leave.  We are solitary.  We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so.  That is all.  But how much better is it to realize that we are so.'”

Is there anything that fills us with more terror than being alone?  Most of us would do anything to avoid being by ourselves: we crowd our calendars with constant busyness, plans and parties; we stay in toxic relationships; we engage in empty-headed chatter and pointless conversations with people we don’t care about.  Indeed, when we have no choice but to be alone— all our friends are busy, we’re stuck sick at home— we seek solace in the hypnotizing blue light of our phones.  Rather than endure a single moment of soundlessness, we mindlessly scroll through social media in search of cheap entertainment.  We can’t imagine going on a walk without headphones or cleaning our apartment without a podcast playing in the background. 

In a 1955 passage that is perhaps even more timely today, Lindbergh laments our lost ability to sit still with the self:

“Naturally, how one hates to think of oneself as alone.  How one avoids it.  It seems to imply rejection or unpopularity.  An early wallflower panic still clings to the word.  One will be left, one fears, sitting in a straight-backed chair, alone while the popular girls are already chosen and spinning around the dance floor with their hot-palmed partners.  We seem so frightened today of being alone that we never let it happen.  Even if family, friends, and movies should fail, there is still the radio or television to fill up the void.  Women, who used to complain of loneliness, need never be alone any more.  We can do our house-work with soap-opera heroes at our side.  Even day-dreaming was more creative than this; it demanded something of oneself and it fed the inner life.  Now, instead of planting our solitude with our own dream blossoms, we choke the space with continuous music, chatter, and companionship to which we do not even listen.  It is simply there to fill the vacuum.  When the noise stops there is no inner music to take its place.”

Despite our distaste for our own company, artists and writers throughout time have understood that silence and solitude are the seedbeds of creativity.  The mind needs quiet time to imagine, to invent, to devise and to dream.  Magnanimous spirit Brenda Ueland believed inspiration most often visited in idle moments when we were alone and not doing much of anything (“The imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering,” she wrote in If You Want to Write, her middle finger to the capitalistic cult of productivity).  

Not only does alone time nurture the seeds of creativity, it is a means of solidifying the self.  In the pandemonium of day-to-day life, our desires and beliefs are drowned out by the ceaseless chatter of the world.  But in moments of introspection, we can define our own tastes, develop our own thoughts, make up our own minds about what matters most.  Solitude is a source of replenishment and renewal.  Like negative space in a painting, it brings balance to the composition of our lives and defines the boundaries of the soul.  Life remerges more vital, more vibrant when we’re alone:

“It is a difficult lesson to learn today — to leave one’s friends and family and deliberately practice the art of solitude for an hour or a day or a week.  For me, the break is the most difficult.  Parting is inevitably painful, even for a short time.  It is like an amputation, I feel.  A limb is being torn off, without which I shall be unable to function.  And yet once it is done, I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious.  Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.  It is as if in parting one did actually lose an arm.  And then, like the starfish, one grows it anew: one is whole again, complete and round — more whole, even than before, when the other people had pieces of one.”  

What does it mean to be lonely?  Common belief says we’re lonely when we’re alone.  But as any one who has felt companionless despite being at a crowded party knows, loneliness has nothing to do with physical aloneness— loneliness is not an estrangement from others, but rather, an estrangement from self.

When we’re lonely, we feel like Robinson Crusoe, stranded on a deserted island far from our fellows.  If we want to cross the vast ocean of space between ourselves and other people (to “only connect” as E.M. Forester implored over a century ago), we must explore the frontier of the self.  We can only befriend others if we first befriend ourselves.  As Lindbergh writes:

“For it is not physical solitude that actually separates one from other men, not physical isolation, but spiritual isolation.  It is not the desert island nor the stony wilderness that cuts you off from the people you love.  It is the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger.  When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too.  If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others.  How often in a large city, shaking hands with my friends, I have felt the wilderness stretching between us.  Both of us were wandering in arid wastes, having lost the springs that nourished us— or having found them dry.  Only when one is connected to one’s core is one connected to others.”

How do we recenter ourselves when we feel pulled in a million directions by the world?  For Lindbergh, the solution is solitude.  No matter how seemingly indulgent, “every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year, some part of each week, and each day.”  In a genius reframing of Virginia Woolf’s feminist masterwork, Lindbergh declares all women must have “time of their own”:

“…the answer is not in the feverish pursuit of centrifugal activities which only lead in the end to fragmentation.  Women’s life today is tending more and more toward the state William James describes so well in the German word, ‘Zerrissenheit’— ‘torn-to-pieces-hood.’  She cannot live perpetually in ‘Zerrissenheit.’  She will be shattered into a thousand pieces.  On the contrary, she must consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today.  Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work.  It can be physical or intellectual or artistic, any creative life proceeding from oneself.  It need not be an enormous project or great work.  But it should be something of one’s own.  Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet in a crowded day— like writing a poem, or saying a prayer.  What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh on Why We Should Shed the Shell of Our Ordinary Lives & Go on a Summer Trip to the Beach

It’s been one day since I returned home from vacation and I already miss the long, languid days at the beach, the seemingly endless, formless hours stretching before me.  Most of all, I miss the sense of freedom from obligation and duty.  Monday morning and I’m back to my normal routines: writing, teaching.  Serious adult duties like emails and meetings.

What is so vital about vacationing?  According to wise and warm-hearted Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a trip to a faraway place can give us much needed time to recharge.  In the cramped corners of life, we have little space: space to rest, space to reflect, space to relax, space to dream.  Most women’s lives are a “caravan of complications.”  We juggle careers along with raising children.  We grocery shop and meal plan.  We mop floors and clear out cabinets.  We do laundry.  We sew and mend clothing.  We carpool our kids to piano and choir and soccer practice.  We pay bills and make doctor’s appointments.  As Lindbergh writes, “to be a woman is to have interests and duties, raying out in all directions…like spokes from a wheel.”  

Lindbergh suggests a serene island retreat can help us cut down on distractions and regain balance in an unbalanced world.  In her lovely book Gift from the Sea, Lindbergh writes of her own restorative retreat at Captiva Island in the early 1950s.  Far removed from the million and one obligations of her everyday life as a wife and mother, Lindbergh could finally reflect on what really mattered.  The result?  A book of timeless meditations on simplicity and solitude, love and marriage, youth and age.The state of modern woman is fragmentation.  She is tugged in a thousand directions at home, at work, as a wife to her husband, as a mother to her children.  While she’s spreading blackberry jam on her toast in the morning, she’s not delighting in the dawn or the invigorating smell of fresh coffee— she’s frantically reminding her daughter to put her math homework in her backpack and rehearsing her presentation for that day’s meeting.

Just as Alain de Botton argues traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts, Lindbergh suggests a different setting— an island paradise (or secluded mountain cabin or cottage in the country)— can teach us to live differently.  Far from our routines, we act out of the ordinary.  Rather than worry about tomorrow or obsess about yesterday, we can finally appreciate today.  Under a sweltering summer sun and Caribbean blue sky, there is only us and the reassuring crash of the sea.

On her holiday, Lindbergh finds immense peace in being an island, disconnected from the “real” world and cut off from the pressures of day-to-day living:

“How wonderful are islands!  Islands in space, like this once I have come to, ringed about by miles of water, linked by no bridges, no cables, no telephones.  An island from the world and the world’s life.  Island’s in time, like this short vacation of time.  The past and future are cut off; only the present remains.  Existence in the presence gives island living an extreme vividness and purity.  One lives like a child or a saint in the immediacy of here and now.  Every day, every act, is an island, washed by time and space, and has an island’s completion.  People, too, become like islands in such an atmosphere, self-contained, whole, serene.”

For Lindbergh, a sojourn to the sea can teach us the value of simplicity.  In the ordinary world, our lives are endlessly complicated: we have countless possessions, countless things on the calendar, countless responsibilities.  But on a beach with a small suitcase and an empty planner, we rediscover a sense of serenity.  Like a prisoner of war or monk in a monastery, we realize we don’t need much to be happy.  If we are to bring this repose to our regular lives, we must simplify.  We must ask, as Lindbergh does with lyrical lucidity, “how little, not how much, can [we] get along with.  To say— is it necessary?— when [we] are tempted to add one more accumulation to [our lives], when [we are] pulled toward one more centrifugal activity.”

May Sarton on Silence, Solitude & the Significance of Doing Nothing

Most of us don’t have the capacity to be alone.  Some of us seek a romantic partner to fill the void of our incomplete soul; others of us distract ourselves with endless social obligations and busy schedules; still others of us are so desperate to escape our own company that we’ll settle for the most frivolous forms of socializing, be it superficial friendships or meaningless small talk at a bar.  But no one and nothing can spare us from the frightening fact that— fundamentally— we are alone.

Despite our terror of loneliness, solitude is vital to leading a rich, contented life.  Henry David Thoreau, who famously sequestered himself on Walden Pond, found solitude restorative and rejuvenating: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.  To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating.”  Pablo Picasso believed that “without great solitude, no serious work is possible” while Marcus Aurelius asserted “nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.” Perhaps no other writer has plumbed the soul-stretching depths of solitude with more candor and courage than May Sarton.  In 1972, Sarton, a poet with no husband and no children, lived in self-imposed isolation in a sleepy New England village.  Her soul-searching Journal of a Solitude offers an illuminating glimpse into her observant mind and generous spirit.

Like most writers, Sarton struggled to maintain a balance between her exterior and interior life.  Without the drama and excitement of outward living— corresponding with friends, going on book tours, hosting dinners and attending occasionally glamorous, often uninteresting cocktail parties— her existence would be dull and not worth exploring.  But without time to reflect, life would disintegrate into incoherence and incomprehensibility.

For Sarton, solitude was salvation and sustenance.  In her diary, she could process the chaos of  everyday existence.  To be artists, we must— like Sarton— find a balance between life and writing, between action and introspection, between the demands of the day-to-day and the demands of the spirit:

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my real life again at last.  That is what is strange— that friends, even passionate love, are not real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. 

Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid.  Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.'”

What does it mean to be “productive”?  In our hurried hustle culture, productivity is getting things done; it’s getting results; it’s producing a concrete product.  The curse of capitalism is we become workers on an assembly line our worth measured in terms of input and output.  Reduced to economics, our value is calculated in dollars and cents, our status determined by how much we contribute to the deranged hamster wheel of production and consumption.

However, in writing and in art, productivity doesn’t always look productive.  Sometimes productivity is playing and puttering; sometimes it’s pointless daydreams and blissful reveries; sometimes it’s sitting at your desk all day and not writing a single sentence you like.  When we feel as though we’ve squandered our day, we must remember that idleness is indispensable to creativity.  As inspiring, incandescent spirit Brenda Ueland once wrote, “The imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling.”  

Often times, we’re accomplishing a great deal when we appear to be “doing nothing.”  When we’re doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, our minds are actually pondering the puzzle of how to conclude our symphony; when we’re luxuriating in a bubble bath, solutions to once unsolvable problems bubble up unbidden from our subconscious.  Indeed, we usually get our best ideas— not when we’re at our desks, completely and utterly absorbed in a project— but when we’re doing something seemingly unrelated: going on a midsummer stroll, folding fresh laundry (One is reminded of Mozart, who said it was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly”).

In a delightfully defiant passage, Sarton imagines what is (and isn’t) a waste of our time and challenges capitalistic notions of productivity:

It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours.  It is then that images float up and then I plan my work.  But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show….Time wasted is poison.”

What makes life worth living?  In a November 11th entry, Sarton suggests living a contented life depends on having a higher goal, a mission, a purpose:

“We are whole or have intimations of what it means to be whole when the entire being— spirit, mind, nerves, flesh, the body itself— are concentrated toward a single end.”  

Sadly, many people— particularly women— don’t have enough open, obligation-free hours to “concentrate on a single end.”  They’re too busy juggling careers, changing diapers, carpooling their children to soccer practice.  Most women’s days revolve around the needs of their husband and children.  Rarely do they have time to pursue their own passions.  The result?  They feel aimless, adrift.  Without a lighthouse to guide them back to the shores of the self, many women float without a purpose or direction.  Much like Virginia Woolf, another accomplished diarist and feminist, Sarton laments:

“It is harder for women, perhaps to be ‘one-pointed,’ much harder for them to clear space around whatever it is they want to do beyond household chores and family life.  Their lives are fragmented…this is the cry I get in so many letters— the cry not so much for ‘a room of one’s own’ as time of one’s own.”

If you’re feeling disconnected from yourself, heed Sarton’s advice and carve out time of your own.  In the noise of everyday life, you might lose sight of who you are but in the silence of solitude, you’ll once again hear the whisperings of your own soul.  

May Sarton on Why We Write & Why We Shouldn’t Worry About Worldly Definitions of Success

Why write?  In her legendary December 1976 essay “Why I Write,” the late great Joan Didion confessed, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”  Writer, teacher and all around wonderful human being Brenda Ueland gave an even more poetic answer: “Because there’s nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.  Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it.  And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it; i.e. share it with others?”

Few writers have pondered this perennial question more profoundly than poet, novelist, and dedicated diarist May Sarton.  In her timeless Journal of Solitude, Sarton records and reflects on her life during a single year at her quiet home in the idyllic woods of New Hampshire.  Written with a poet’s ear for rhythm and a philosopher’s insight, Journal of Solitude explores such themes as depression, despair, solitude, writing and the writing life.  

According to Sarton, many aspiring writers write for the wrong reasons.  Rather than focus on perfecting their craft, they worry about getting published.  They hunger for fame, fortune, success.  Their eyes glitter with grandiose visions of holding their New York Times best-selling book in their hands.  As Sarton writes in a September 17, 1972 entry, too many writers are obsessed with “making it” and buy into the myth of the overnight success:

“But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or craft.  Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’  I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines.  Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at the first try.”

Human beings are impatient when we want something.  Rather than plant a seed and watch it grow, we dig it up every ten seconds.  “Why hasn’t my flower blossomed yet?” we whine exasperatedly.  But a plant can only grow if we pot it in rich soil, water it every so often, tend the weeds, and wait patiently.  

The same goes for writing.  We can’t hurry the process, we can’t demand that we produce “x” useable pages like factory workers on an assembly line.  A work is born in its own time.  Our lives unfold in divine time— not according to the ego’s rigid, unrealistic deadlines.  Sometimes it will take ten years to realize our artistic dreams, sometimes half a century.  But as Rainer Maria Rilke once told a young poet, “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.”

Though she knows “making it” isn’t the most important thing, Sarton still wants success.  Her masterpiece of introspection unflinchingly charts the challenging terrain of the artist’s life: the peaks of a perfectly-formed sentence, the valleys of rejection letters and ripped pages.  Despite her undeniable talent, Sarton doubts herself, finds herself debilitated by writer’s block and gets frustrated at her dismissal by critics.  Like any artist, Sarton dreams of one thing: recognition. 

After receiving a scathing review in the Sunday Times, Sarton descends into a pit of depression.  Indignant and dejected, she confesses to her diary:

“The darkness again.  An annihilating review in the Sunday Times.  I must have had a premonition, as I felt terribly low in my mind all weekend.  Now it is the old struggle to survive, the feeling that I have created twenty-four ‘children’ and every one has been strangled by lack of serious critical attention.  This review is simply stupid.”

Despite her disappointment, Sarton finds comfort in remembering why she writes.  It’s not for acclaim or applause, it’s not to earn the admiration of millions or the rubber stamp of approval from the New York Times.  Though she reveres solitude as a vital seedbed for her creativity, Sarton ultimately creates to cross the vast seas of seclusion and connect with other souls.  By expressing her small, singular life, Ms. Sarton hopes to capture something universal— in other words, help her readers feel less alone.

In a revelatory moment of self-awareness, Sarton realizes she’s become too preoccupied with worldly notions of success:

“I have become convinced since that horrible review (unimportant in itself) that it is a message,  however deviously presented, to tell me that I have been over-concerned with the materialistic aspects of bringing out this novel, the dangerous hope that it become a bestseller, or that, for once, I might get a leg up from the critics, the establishment, and not have once more to see the work itself stand alone and make its way, heart by heart, as it is diverted by a few people with all the excitement of a person who finds a wildflower in the woods that he has discovered on his own.  From my isolation to the isolation of someone somewhere who will find my work there exists a true communion.  I have not lacked it in these last years, and it is a blessing.  It is free of ‘ambition’ and it ‘makes the world go away,’ as the popular song says.  This is what I can hope for and I must hope for nothing more or less.”

In Defense of Fashion: Alain de Botton on Clothes as a Powerful Means of Self-Expression

I have a secret: I’m obsessed with fashion.  During my lunch break, I salivate over my favorite store’s “just in” section.  I spend hours upon hours finding inspiration on Pinterest and scrolling through fashion influencer’s TikTok pages.  I approach clothes with a collector’s passion.  My closet is a carefully-curated museum, each piece is a work of art in my exhibit.

As a self-professed bookworm, I constantly chastise myself for caring so much about clothes.  Surely, it must be better to spend one’s time reading serious philosophy than skimming through Vogue!  Day after day, week after week, month after month, I scold myself for collecting fashion inspo on my Pinterest board instead of reading Proust.  In our culture, an interest in fashion has always been dismissed as empty-headed and shallow.  After all, who would care so deeply about a Chanel bag but a braindead bimbo?

Think of the 90s MTV show Daria.  Daria is a misanthropic outcast but portrayed as one of the only morally righteous and intellectually sound characters while her pretty, peppy younger sister Quinn is the embodiment of the dumb popular girl.  As the vice president of the fashion club, Quinn is only interested in two things: boys and the season’s latest “it” color.  Rather than discuss the day’s pressing political matters, Quinn and her midriff-exposing friends spend their meetings discussing such seemingly frivolous topics as whether acid-wash jeans are “in” and what belly chain to pair with what crop top.

But is fashion always silly and superficial?  Can you delight in a fine luxury handbag without being a materialistic, status-obsessed capitalist?  Can you appreciate the architectural perfection of the iconic Burberry trench coat and still be a serious-minded intellectual?

For British philosopher Alain de Botton, the answer is yes.  In his wise, witty, The Meaning of Life, Botton suggests clothes are a powerful means of self-expression.  “Despite the potential silliness and exaggeration of sections of the fashion industry,” he writes, “assembling a wardrobe is a serious and meaningful exercise.”

When we get dressed in the morning, we’re not just clothing ourselves for the practical purpose of covering our bodies— we’re communicating who we are.  Like a painter, we’re crafting an image, an identity.  Our materials are no longer a canvas and oil paints— they’re trousers and skirts, coats and collars, shoes and handbags.

Studies show that we form a first impression in as little as a tenth of a second.  In a brief moment, people come to lasting conclusions.  By carefully choosing what we wear, we can influence how others perceive us.  As Botton writes, “We act like artists painting a self-portrait: deliberately guiding the viewer’s perception of who we might be.”

Do we want to appear chic and classy?  We’ll wear timeless pieces like trench coats and ballet flats.  Do we want to be taken seriously?  We’ll clothe ourselves in a perfectly-pressed button up, bookish blazer and prep school plaid.  If, on the other hand, we want to appear edgy and non-conformist, we’ll ditch the conservative pant suit for denim jeans and a leather motorcycle jacket.

Garments are words in an unspoken language.  Different clothes transmit different messages: a pair of breezy linen trousers might capture the easygoing summer spirit; a milkmaid midi dress might suggest a delicate femininity and charming innocence.  The woman who wears jeans and a t-shirt is fundamentally different from the woman who wears espadrilles and a slip dress.

Ultimately, adornment isn’t just vain and empty-headed.  How we dress is a way of telling a story: about where we’re from, about who we are, about who we might be.  When we get dressed, to quote Botton, “we are communicating to others who we are while strategically reminding ourselves.  Our wardrobes contain some of our most carefully written lines of autobiography.”

Alain de Botton on How Work Can Transform the Wilderness of the World into an Orderly Garden

Dictators rise to power.  Countries wage war.  Economies crash.  Streets erupt in civil unrest.  Much of the world is mayhem and madness.

In his infinitely illuminating guide to finding value and purpose, The Meaning of Life, British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that— though life is often an unmanageable mess— work can give us a consoling sense of tidiness.  At home, many of our problems are complicated: we might find it impossible to summon the stamina and enthusiasm to sleep with our partner after a long day at work and two decades of marriage; we might harbor homicidal fantasies of killing our teenage son for— yet again— not washing his dirty dishes; we might struggle to find time for ourselves amidst the endless demands of raising children.

But at work, we can “get on top of a problem and finally resolve it.”  The doctor can diagnose an illness and prescribe medicine.  The entrepreneur can pitch an idea to investors, design innovative new products and fill holes in the market.  The plumber can fix leaky pipes and broken toilets.

Most of life is dictated by things beyond our command: natural disasters, politics, stock markets.  But at work, we’re no longer powerless.  We might not be able to control whether a deadly hurricane devastates the Gulf Coast or who wins the next presidential election, but we can teach our students how to solve a system of equations using the substitution method and lead a meeting of directors with poise and self-assurance.  

In this life, there’s many things we cannot know: why we were born, when we’ll die, the purpose of it all.  We can’t know why humans have 23 chromosomes or why— of Earth’s 8.7 million species— the ability to formulate thoughts into words belongs to us alone.  We can never fully understand ourselves or unravel the mysteries of other people.

But through our work, we can know at least one subject in great detail.  A biochemist can understand how CRISPR can genetically engineer cells.  An art professor can give riveting lectures on the bold, expressive colors of Van Gogh and explain the cultural significance of Picasso.  A sommelier can decipher the exact year the grapes of a vintage Merlot were harvested and detect that they originated in Bordeaux.  By becoming an expert in a particular field, we can— to paraphrase Susan Orlean — whittle the world down to a more manageable scope.

Though many of us resent having to go to an office, work is crucial to our contentment.  Without work, we’d be lost in the wilderness with no sense of direction, no meaning, no purpose.  Weeds would overgrow; bushy brambles would choke our path; there would be no water or food for nourishment.  But in the lovely words of Botton, work can help us create a harmonious, comprehensible garden from a tiny portion of the wild surrounding forest.  When we devote ourselves to something larger, we bring a pleasing order and symmetry to our existence.  Work transforms weed-engulfed fields into beautiful botanical arrangements.

Want more advice on how to make meaning in a meaningless world?  Read Botton on how to be a better storyteller, how to define meaningful work, how to find authentic work, and how work is an expression of our better selves.  Want to learn more about work?  Revisit groundbreaking psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on why work is essential to happiness and poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran on labor as a form of love.

 

Juno Dawson on Finding Love, Finding Yourself & Why No One’s Too Busy to Reply to a Fucking Text

What’s the secret to finding love?  Is it a convergence of  chance and fate?  Is it hard work or just dumb luck?  

Why are some people blessed enough to find the man of their dreams the first week of college when so many more of us have to wait what feels like eons until we find the right person for us?

If we complain about our doomed single fate to the happily-coupled, they’ll give us practical advice.  “Get on the dating apps!”  “Put yourself out there!”  

In the swipe-right age of Tinder and astonishingly in-depth compatibility tests, it seems like there’s no excuse for being single.  Of the millions of men at our finger tips, there has to be someone out there with whom we’re compatible.  

Despite the seemingly boundless sea of possible partners, we’ll never find love if we don’t first do the difficult work of finding ourselves.  In her tough-minded interview in Conversations on Love, author and transgender icon Juno Dawson suggests you can only discover long-lasting love afteras the old adage goes— you learn to love yourself.  After twenty-nine years of living as a man, Dawson made the courageous choice to transition.  Now as a woman, she has learned to embrace the truth of who she is, stop pretending in her relationships and ultimately create meaningful, authentic connections.  When asked how her relationship with her fiancé Max was different from her former failed relationships, she made an astute observation:

“What I would say is that this relationship isn’t necessarily different— I’m different.  There’s so much emotional literacy that goes into being with someone: instead of dramas, there are compromises.  Instead of tantrums and storming out, you learn how to read signals and when to back off and which hills to die on.  These are all things that are difficult to navigate without self-understanding.”

In the end, you are the common denominator in all your connections.  The quality of your relationships is directly proportional to your self-awareness.  You can find a handsome, intelligent, successful man who shares your love for Thai food and Otis Redding but— if you haven’t done the hard work on yourself— you’ll continue to encounter the same issues time and time again.

Say, for example, your first boyfriend cheated on you.  Your current boyfriend might be the most loyal partner on the planet, but if you’ve never taken the time to cope with that first betrayal, you’ll continue to have trust issues.  You might be so paranoid and distrustful that you snoop through your boyfriend’s phone.  You might pick fights with him for staying out too late at the bars because you’re convinced he (like all people of the male persuasion) is incapable of keeping his penis to himself.

The result?

Your unfounded suspicions and rampant insecurity cause such an irreparable rift in your relationship that your boyfriend breaks up with you.

Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”  Being in a committed long-term relationship requires basic compatibility but it also requires patience, understanding, forgiveness, mercy, compassion.  Love demands we become the best person we can be.  For love to last, we have to possess the self-awareness to know and communicate our needs; the willingness to examine and improve upon our shortcomings; the self-confidence to not be overly jealous or possessive; the selflessness to occasionally sacrifice what we want for the sake of maintaining harmony.  We have to know when to bite our tongue, when to just listen and shake our head sympathetically, when to have a difficult conversation to maximize our chances of being heard and minimize misunderstanding (not right when our husband walks through the door or when either of us is sleep-deprived, hungry or grouchy). 

Though love is our most demanding work, it shouldto some extentbe easy.  Yes, all couples encounter difficulties; however, we should never use the truism that “love is work” to rationalize staying in a tumultuous, dysfunctional relationship that is ultimately harmful to our well-being.  Love should be a source of joy— not torment and anxiety.  As Dawson writes with equal parts plainness and poetry:

“It’s like mixing paint: sometimes when you mix two people together you get a horrible color.  Some people do bring out the absolute worst colors in you and, if that’s the case, it’s the relationship that’s flawed, not you.  You’re not meant to lose sleep or cry over love.  You shouldn’t have to fight for it.  If it feels like a fight, don’t waste your time.”  

Before meeting her fiancé, Dawson— like most of us— suffered a string of shitty relationships.  After all the heartbreak, she learned one thing: have high standards for the person you’re with.  You should never have to beg for the bare minimum.  If a guy likes you, he’ll make the effort to make you feel loved and appreciated; he’ll shower you with attention; he’ll call when he says he’s going to.   (One is reminded of Justin Long’s iconic line in He’s Just Not That Into You: “If a guy treats you like he doesn’t give a shit,” he tells a slightly pathetic Ginnifer Goodwin, “he genuinely doesn’t give a shit.”)  In dating, there’s no excuse for someone to abuse/mistreat/neglect you.

Though this is obvious, nearly all of us have wasted precious tears crying over scumbags.  I can’t count how many irretrievable hours I’ve frittered away dissecting men’s poor behavior.  “Where is he?  Why hasn’t he reached out?” I’d wonder weepy and inconsolable after some jackass I was dating randomly decided to disappear.  How many weekends I’d spend, distracted and depressed, unable to enjoy myself!  How many sleepless nights I squandered overthinking and obsessing, worrying that some guy I was seeing was secretly seeing someone else!  After all the games, it’s a wonderful relief to be in a stable, long-term relationship with a supportive man who never makes me question his feelings and always directly expresses himself.

With humor and wisdom hard-won, Dawson reminds us dating doesn’t have to be a drama.  Love isn’t insomnia-ridden nights or wondering “will he or won’t he?”  It’s safety, security, and consistency:

“When [Max and I] met I was seething from a shitty relationship with an absolute time waster.  He made me into a crazy nightmare person who couldn’t sleep, because I didn’t know if he was going to reply to my messages for three days.  That’s an important lesson in love: no one is too busy to reply to a fucking text message!”

Need a sherpa to scale the Everest-like mountain of love?  Read Alain de Botton on idealization as the opposite of love, Natasha Lunn on love, loneliness & the torment of not knowing, Sarah Hepola on books as a source of connection, companionship & community, Dolly Alderton on friendship as a more satisfying, everlasting form of love and Emily Nagoski on the myth of “normalcy.”

Emily Nagoski on the Myth of “Normalcy” & How Letting Go of Impossible Expectations Can Improve Your Sex Life

In our culture, a satisfying marriage equals good sex.  To have a fulfilling union— we’re told— we must have mind-blowing, multiple orgasm-inducing coitus.  Sex columnists inform us there’s a “normal” number of times “happy” couples have sex.

Yet most of us fall short of these expectations.  Compared to Samantha’s evermore scandalous sexcapades on Sex & the City and the glossy pages of Cosmopolitan, our erotic rendezvous seem shamefully tepid.  Usually after work, we’re not racing to hit the sheets with our husbandswe’re looking forward to dozing off with some NyQuil and heading to bed.  Our time in the bedroom isn’t an X-rated porno— it’s most often as routine as reciting a grocery list.  After the blissful honeymoon phase, our lovemaking becomes more and more mundane and less and less frequent.  We make less of an effort to seduce our partner; we no longer surprise them with racy lingerie or experiment.  Our most imaginative sex position is missionary.  There’s no more provocative dirty talk or tantalizing foreplay.  The majority of our conversations circulate around practical, business-like things: who’s going to get milk from the store, who’s going to pick up Sarah from her soccer game.

For many, this shift in our sex lives is a source of endless doubt and insecurity.  Have we— god forbid— become boring?  After twenty years of marriage, have we let the fire of our lovemaking fizzle out?  Have we lost the lust and longing of our younger days?  Is something irreparably wrong with us if we’re not red-hot with desire for our partner or having sex the recommended once a week?

In her paradigm-shifting interview in Conversations on Love, writer, researcher and sex educator Emily Nagoski debunks many of the myths surrounding sex and normalcy.  According to Nagoski, desire isn’t the most important thing in a relationship.  In fact, biologically, our bodies only want sex because it’s a way to form attachment.  In the early stages of a romance, we feel more carnal longing for our lover— not because we’re so head-over-heels or because they’re so attractive— but because we’re trying to solidify our union.  Our desire is directly proportional to the instability of a connection.  If, for example, we’re dating an emotionally unavailable guy who showers us with affection one minute only to forget to return our call for six days, we’ll lust after him because, from a biochemical perspective, we want to secure the connection.  Ironically, the more safe and secure we feel with someone, the less we want to have sex with them.

“This is at the core of why desire is bullshit,” Nagoski says.  A decline in desire does not spell the doom of a relationship.  Our libido naturally wanes once we’re in a committed, long-term marriage.

In our rose-colored culture, we’re obsessed with romance.  Jack & Rose.  Rick & Ilsa.  Romeo & Juliet.  We want passion and infatuation and drama.  We hunger after whirlwind wedding proposals and bold proclamations of devotion.  We think that if we “loved” our partner as much as Jack loved Rose, we’d be overcome with all-consuming, uncontrollable longing.  Our midnight romps— we imagine— should be as fervent and frenzied as their steamy sex scene.  

When our sex lives aren’t as explosive as the ones we see on the silver screen, we feel like failures.  Why, we worry, don’t we ever just want to rip our partner’s clothes off?  Why do we so rarely feel filthy, primal hunger?

Surely, there’s something wrong with us.  

For Nagoski, the only thing wrong is our culture.  Though movies portray love as a heady, passionate affair, in real life, we rarely feel spontaneous desire.  After several years with the same partner, we seldom want sex out of nowhere; we feel what Nagoski calls responsive desire— we want sex in response to the act itself.  It’s like writing: when we first sit down at our desks for the day, we’re almost never in the “mood” to write.  However, the act of writing inspires us to write one sentence after another (“Writing will create the mood,” the phenomenally prolific Joyce Carol Oates once assured blocked writers.)

In the same way, sex creates desire.  We might not be in the “mood” when our husband first longingly looks into our eyes, butif we’re open— his amorous kisses and playful flirtations will often whet our sexual appetite.  If we want to sustain a relationship over the long haul, Nagoski suggests, we need to take a decidedly unromantic approach to sex.  Rather than wait until we’re magically “in the mood,” we must make the mood: light some candles, pour a few glasses of red wine, wear our raciest lingerie to bed.  The reality is our desire won’t always be a blazing flamesometimes it will only be a few glowing embers.  But love means reaching for our partner time and time again and trying to fan the fire.

Dolly Alderton on Friendship as a More Satisfying, Everlasting Form of Love & How Friendship Metamorphoses

When we’re young, friendships are romantic, intense, intimate.  We see our friends nearly every day.  Usually, they’re are at most a few blocks (if not a few doors) away.  Because our most pressing responsibility is turning in our term paper by 5 o’ clock on Friday, we have plenty of time to see each other.  Weekends overflow with mimosa brunches, spontaneous day trips, Saturdays in wine country.  In our twenties, our pals are there to help us weather life’s catastrophes and crises.

In our thirties, things change: people get married, have children, move several cities (or states) away.  Rather than see each other every day, we see each other only occasionally.  Burdened with the responsibility of working a full-time job and raising a family, we might only see our closest confidante once every few months instead of nearly every day.

In her poignant interview “The Beauty of Vulnerability in Friendship,” one of many profound pieces from Natasha Lunn’s Conversations on Lovemillennial memoirist Dolly Alderton explores this at times heart-wrenchingly painful change.  In an insightful moment, Alderton explains why it becomes harder to be honest in friendship:

“…you spend your twenties figuring out who you are, and so by the time you’ve carved out an identity you share less with each other, because the stakes are higher.  I think that’s true, you do spend your twenties trying to work out what your job is, what your politics are, what part of the world you want to live in; and you do that with a band of brothers and sisters.  You create an identity patchwork in a group, as well as on your own.  Then when you get to your thirties, you have to declare who you are in a permanent way.  It’s either, ‘I’m someone who is going to live in the suburbs’ or ‘I want to be a stay-at-home mother’ or ‘I want to retrain and start a new career.’  Your identity hardens.  You have to defend this edifice of who you are, because it’s too late in the game to change it.  One you declare that, it can feel more dangerous to say, ‘I don’t know if I should have married that man’ or ‘I don’t know if my job makes me happy.’  To admit that in an authentic, vulnerable connection with someone close to you is scary in a way that it’s not in your twenties, when everything is in flux.  For all those reasons, letting people in and allowing yourself to be unsure or vulnerable becomes harder.  It’s more of a potential threat.”

In our thirties, lives diverge in several different directions: many buy houses, settle down, have kids.  If our friends choose one path and we choose another, it’s hard not to feel abandoned.  Why isn’t our married pal making more of an effort to stay connected?  Sure, she just had a baby, but she can’t spare 5 fucking minutes to return our call?  Is she really so preoccupied with the all-so-important, all-so-consuming task of changing diapers that she can’t reach out?

It’s heartbreaking when we see our close friends, who were once starring characters in the story of our lives, fade into the background.  Rather than play one of the lead roles, they become minor characters who show up every few episodes.

In college, our best friend knew everything about us: they understood the dance move that signaled we were blacked out drunk; they could decipher the hidden meaning behind our text messages (ellipses meant we were upset about something/”I’m fine” translated to mean “I’m verging on a mental breakdown…come over with Cruel Intentions and some Haagen Dazs”). 

10 years later and our best friends no longer know the most basic facts about us.  When we do reconnect, we have to tell them what’s going on in our lives— they’re not there to witness them themselves.

At first, this shift in our relationships is devastating.  As she transitioned to her thirties, Alderton found herself missing her friends, who were once her surrogate family.  She yearned for the simpler days when she could spontaneously call one of the gals and meet up for martinis.  Now her former partners in crime were too busy juggling mortgage payments and engagement rings.  If she wanted to hang out, they had to make plans months in advance.  She missed their former intimacy.  Though her twenties was a turbulent period in her life, her friendships were marked by an effortlessness and ease.  Then her life was manicures and margaritas; now it was unanswered text messages and the blaring silence of the phone not ringing.

Though Alderton initially struggled to cope with the shifting topography of her friendships, she eventually learned to navigate the terrain.  Part of growing older, she realized, is coming to terms with how friendships change.  Yes, her and her friends might not see each other as often and yes, many of her friends with spouses and children might occasionally forget to return a text message, but that didn’t mean their bond was any less significant:

“…because your twenties are a fraught time, you spend a decade adjusting to the fact that you’re parentless.  I spent those years creating a surrogate family within my friendships, and that meant that I could go out and have a wild, risky and exciting time, both creatively and romantically, because I always had that unit to return to.

Now I’m more relaxed about how often friends and I speak or meet up, or how much time they spend with their partner as opposed to me.  I’ve sunk into the safe, precious solidness of their love for me, and I know that, although it will take work, it is also a love that will be there forever.  True friendship is about taking it easy on each other, knowing that life has tides that take you to various places, and that you’ll find a way back to each other at different points.”

Alain de Botton once said our lives are defined by two great love stories: the quest for romantic love and the quest for love from the world.  I’d argue our lives our defined by yet another story: the quest for friendship, what the ancient Greeks called philia and regarded as the highest form of love.  Though our culture glorifies romantic love, in many ways, the love between platonic pals is more long-lasting and far less fraught.  Lovers come and go— lifelong friends take up permanent residence in our hearts.  So though our friends might momentarily sail out to sea and stray far from shore, if they’re true friends, they’ll always return to port.