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.

Sarah Hepola on Books as a Source of Community, Companionship & Connection

Though “love” is an expansive word containing a multitude of meanings, most of us have a rather restricted definition of the term.  Love, we believe, is limited to wedding bands and chocolate-covered strawberries, candy hearts and Valentine’s Day cards.  Rather than celebrate love in all its fathomless forms, we tend to glorify romantic love.  Indeed, our monomaniac obsession dominates films and top 40 music charts.

Despite our cultural fixation with eros, there are many perhaps more important and enduring types of love.  In her gorgeous, glorious book Conversations on Love, generous spirit Natasha Lunn celebrates reading (and writing) as one as of the purest, most perfect expressions of love.  If love is— as Lunn suggests— “a way of understanding and being understood, of seeing and being seen,” nowhere can we find more love than in the shelves of a local library.

Though as human beings, we fundamentally want connection, companionship, and community, we’re more lonely than ever before.  We’re not getting married, we’re having less sex, and studies show we have fewer close confidantes.  Books offer the intimacy we lack in the alienated modern world.  What’s wonderful about books— and films and paintings and poems— is they connect us with the finest minds from centuries and civilizations ago.  With the turn of a page, a lonesome 21st century reader can find a friend in Tolstoy or Kafka, Hemingway or Fitzgerald.  

Like a close friend who comforts us during dark nights of the soul, a good book can cheer and console.  Books remind us we’re not alone in our anxiety and neurosis, our despair and sorrow.  Losing ourselves in the world of another, we realize our feelings belong to the whole of the human race— not us alone.  Books are rafts we can cling to when life’s thunder-stricken storms leave us stranded far from shore.

In her insightful interview from Conversations on Love, unflinchingly honest memoirist Sarah Hepola suggests reading can be an inexhaustible source of love.  Though she has yet to meet someone in her 40s, her life isn’t without a love story: she has the love of family and friends and, most of all, of books and writing.

Poet J.D. McClatchy once observed that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”  Sadly, most of us overlook the simple pleasures and little delights our lives bring.  The first cup of coffee in the morning.  A bouquet of tulips.  The fact that nearly every day we possess the freedom to do whatever we want.  Instead of notice the magical and miraculous, we focus on what we don’t have, what we have yet to achieve, why who we are and what we’ve accomplished isn’t good enough.  Our habit is to stumble mindlessly, mechanically.  Our natural state is discontent, dissatisfaction, craving.  But to be happy, we must shift our perspective and appreciate our bountiful blessings.  As Hepola writes so beautifully, 

“As humans we have a default setting that’s cranky and lazy and self-interested and slothful.  The people that I see that live good, meaningful lives have rigorous exercises to push back against that setting, whether through prayer, meditation, gratitude journals or running.  We’re creatures of wanting, but also of consciousness.  So the way that we can push back on longing is to pay attention to what we have.  I can see the fact that I live in a house alone as a prison sentence.  Or, like this morning, I can wake up and spend time with my beautiful cat and feel so grateful to be alive in this world.”

When Hepola feels lonely or self-pitying, she finds company in her library.  For her, reading is a passionate love affair, a marriage of two like-minded souls.  The pages of a book are a one-of-a-kind space where two people— of different genders, of different races, of different ages, of different sexual orientations, of different cultures can infiltrate the walls of “us” vs “them” and find commonalities where there seem to be none.  In those magical moments when a book expresses exactly something she’s seen or heard or thought or felt, she remembers her interconnectedness with all of humanity and feels less alone: 

“[Reading] is an emotional realignment, like somebody’s cracked my spine.  If I get lonely, I reach for those pieces of writing that feed the soul.  That can lead you back to the best in yourself, or articulate the things that you can’t find words for.  When you stumble on something you didn’t know that somebody else felt too, you think, oh my gosh, I’m not the only one.  That is a falling in love— it’s the self recognized in someone else.  A union of souls.”

When asked Lunn’s final question— “what do you wish you’d known about love”Hepola responds:

“That the love of a partnership can be an incredibly important and transforming experience, but only one of many important and transforming experiences…I think that the search for love, as I understand a lot of my life and my work to be, is also the search to see that I already have it.”

For more warm-hearted wisdom on the love, read Natasha Lunn on love, loneliness & the torment of not knowing, Alain de Botton on idealization as the opposite of love & the manifold miraculous ways to live this life, Juno Dawson on having high standards while dating, and Emily Nagoski on the myth of “normalcy” & how letting go of impossible expectations can improve your sex life.

Natasha Lunn on Love, Loneliness & the Torment of Not Knowing

After you’ve broken up with someone, your calendar transforms into a terrifying abyss.  Without a significant other, weekends becomes an agony of loneliness.  While you used to look forward to the weekend, overflowing as it was with adventure and excitement— mimosa brunches and flea markets and seaside picnics and romantic dinners and day trips — after a breakup, Friday thru Sunday feels as interminable as a root canal at the dentist.  As Elena Ferrante once said, an empty day is a “noose to hang yourself with.”

The weekend feels especially lonely if most of your friends are in serious long-term relationships. While your married friends are busy with soccer games and children’s birthday parties, you have too many hours and too little to fill them.

In her lovely essay “The Unbearable Unknown,” one of many insightful pieces from Conversations on Love, wise, warm-hearted writer Natasha Lunn reflects on the sometimes intolerable loneliness of being single.  As a single twenty-something, Lunn always made an effort to visit a cafe on Sunday mornings to combat weekend loneliness.  Though she was still alone, she felt comforted by the grinding of coffee beans and murmur of strangers’ conversations.  On weekends like these, empty hours beckoned with possibility: she could read a novel, she could take a yoga class, she could go on a hike, she could visit an art gallery, she could take the tube to the city.  Yet none of these things sounded appealing without someone to do them with.  “I resented time for underlining my loneliness,” she writes, “and I resented myself for wasting it.”

What’s the most difficult thing about the quest for love?  Lunn argues it’s the torment of not knowing whether you’ll ever find it: 

“The obvious story was that I was unhappy being single.  Beneath that, a private fear that I always would be; and worse, an anxiety born from not knowing either way.  The simple fact of the unknown was one I could not resist wrestling with.  Like hauling a heavy suitcase up the stairs at a station, I imagined it would be easier if there were an endpoint in sight, because when you see the top of the station stairs or the finishing line of a run, it’s easy to dig deep for an extra bit of strength to get there.  What I found tiring about looking for a romantic relationship was that there was no way of knowing for certain if there would ever be an end point.  I would tell friends, ‘I don’t mind if I don’t meet anyone for another ten years, I just want to know that it will happen one day.'”

Unfortunately, uncertainty is a fact of our existence.  We can never know if a meteor will strike Earth, if Europe will erupt in world war, if the stock market will crash or if human civilization will obliterate itself in the next hundred years.  We can never know how long we’ll live or when we’ll die; we can never be completely assured that our choices were “right.”  Did we make the right decision when we walked away from our tumultuous ten-year marriage?  when we quit our office job to study French cooking in Provence?  Though this “not knowing” is often torturous, it’s what fundamentally unites as humans.  As Lunn so beautifully writes, 

“Unless you believe in psychics, all of us will face some measure of this uncertainty— it’s part and parcel of existence.  Maybe there is comfort in knowing that, whatever we have or don’t have compared to each other, we share this same vulnerability to randomness.”

The unknown is a terrifying void, a fathomless, frightening darkness.  However, it can also shine with potential and possibility.  Not knowing when (or if) she’ll ever find a partner, Lunn finds herself suspended between two possible futures: how will her story end?  She isn’t sure but she knows the experience of being single will teach her invaluable lessons in resilience and self-reliance: 

“Maybe not having something you want wakes you up to another kind of romance.  And when life forces you to live in the intensity of the unknown, between two possible futures, it’s also a chance to develop the inner resources and love that will serve you well in the years ahead.”

In her pursuit of romantic love, Lunn forgets a crucial fact: love can take many forms.  Though she doesn’t have a partner, her life never lacks love.  In fact, her so-called “lonely” life already overflows with many of the things she wants: connection, companionship, passion, tenderness, intimacy, physical touch.

Most of us imagine we’ll be happy when we attain “x”: when we buy a house, when we get married, when we land the promotion.  Happiness, we contend, exists in the future— not this moment.  Lunn is no exception.  Throughout her single years, she believes the equation for happiness looks something like this: happily ever after = finding the “one” to share her life with.  The result?  She misses boundless opportunities for contentment in the present.  Love, she soon realizes, isn’t going to gallop into her life as a charming prince— it’s right here, right now in her life as it’s currently constituted:

“[I was so] focused…on receiving love instead of giving it; on waiting for it, instead of building it.  Many of the things I was looking for a relationship to providephysical company; connection; the opportunity to be a mother— were actually available to me without one.  And yet, at the time, I could not see the role I played in my own loneliness.”

Rather than bemoan her unfortunate fate, Lunn decides to write a more empowering story about her singledom.  She doesn’t have to be a lonely cat-lady spinster who dies alone under mounds of decades-old newspapers— she already has the love she desires.  In the end, romantic love is only one piece of the puzzle: the good life consists of the unbreakable bond of family, the miracle of friendship, the unparalleled feeling of fulfillment upon reaching a long-awaited goal, the magic and marvels of small moments.

After what feels like an endless stretch of singledom, Lunn eventually does get her “happily ever after.”  In a contemplative moment, she imagines looking through the space/time continuum at her former self, the sad, lonely girl at the cafe who worried she’d never find a partner:

“Part of me wants to…tell her…that one day she will sit at the exact same table, eating pancakes with a primary schoolteacher she’s been seeing recently who she’ll grow to love.  And that, even then, even though that will be wonderful, it will only be one of many memorable mornings she will spend in that cafe.  There will be the coffee with a new friend who will become a great love; the one time she will come there to grieve; the breakfast she will share with her brother in the sunshine when they first to decide to move into a flat together round the corner.  And then all the Sunday mornings she will come there on her own, to write this book, to understand— finally— the difference between loneliness and solitude, and the romance of trying to find meaning in the latter.  But perhaps I would not tell her, even if I could, because to do so would be to steal the strange, complicated, sometimes tiring gifts of the unknown.  The thrill of all the places she has yet to go, all the faces she has yet to know.

Maybe, then, this is how you try to bear the burden of the mystery with grace: by finding humility where you once saw self-pity, and opportunity where you once saw absence.  By saying, ‘Even if I don’t get what I want, I have a good life,’ then paying closer attention to the small details that make that life beautiful.  And by never forgetting that not knowing what will happen next also means that anything could.”

Want more thought-provoking and heartfelt essays from Conversations on Love?  Read Alain de Botton on idealization as the opposite of love & the manifold miraculous ways to live this life, Sarah Hepola on books as a source of community, companionship & connection, Juno Dawson on having high standards in dating, and Emily Nagoski on the myth of “normalcy” & how letting go of impossible expectations can improve your sex life.

 

Alain de Botton on Idealization as the Opposite of Love & the Manifold Miraculous Ways to Live this Life

What is love?  Though we often imagine love is restricted to the romantic arena, there are many kinds of love: there’s the helpless obsession a young girl has for her first crush; the tender, unconditional love a parent has for their child; the deep intimacy shared between a brother and sister; the miraculous mutual understanding of friends who’ve known each other since they were 12.

Love can be romantic, platonic, erotic, familial.  It can last a single night or persist over a lifetime.  It can be as red-hot as an affair in Paris or as routine as folding laundry, as fun and frivolous as flirting or as serious as cosigning a mortgage, as giddy as a middle school crush or as steady as a 25 year marriage.  As Cheryl Strayed so beautifully said, love “can be light as the hug we give a friend or as heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children.”

Love is easy and effortless and hard and steep; love is rapture and torment; love is ecstasy and agony.  Love is everything and nothing.  Love is both in the small moments and grand gestures, the open doors and “good morning” text messages, the string quartets and bouquets of flowers.  Love touches our tenderest branches and shakes us to our very core.  

In her lovely, large-hearted book Conversations on Love, Natasha Lunn explores this mysterious element of the human experience.  Determined to shed light on this oft-uttered, but often misunderstood concept, Lunn asks artists and writers, philosophers and psychologists, sex experts and advice columnists to share their experiences.  Her conversations focus on 3 central questions: how do we find love?  how do we sustain love?  how do we recover when we lose it?  Part personal memoir, part reportage, Conversations on Love features interviews with wise, wonderful minds along with Lunn’s own musings and meditations.

One of my favorite chapters comes from Britain’s beloved philosopher of love Alain de Botton, whose work I cherish and write of often.  Botton, who himself has written extensively on the subject, argues the trouble with love is we romanticize it: we think our significant other should be our soul mate, a divine, consummate creature— not an ordinary mortal with difficult flaws and displeasing habits.  

With the cynicism that is characteristic of his British heritage, Botton suggests we’d be better off if we adopted a more realistic attitude and patterned our romantic relationships after the less rose-tinted love between children and parents: 

“One of the best models of love is how parents love their children.  At the same time, sometimes they don’t like them— they get bored of them, they think they’re awful, they want a break from them.  And all those things go on in the love that an adult might have for another, too; sometimes we’re fed up and aware of someone’s glaring faults, but still very much on their side.  They annoy us and we still love them.”

Botton defines love not in terms of what it is but in terms of what it is not.  Despite the romanticized portrayals of love in cheesy rom-coms and sappy Hallmark cards, love is not idealization— it’s seeing (and accepting) someone for who they truly are.  As Botton observes, 

“No one really wants to be idealized— we want to be seen and accepted and forgiven, and to know that we can be ourselves in our less edifying moments.  So to be on the receiving end of somebody’s idealizing feelings can be alienating.  It looks like we’re being seen and admired like never before, but actually, many important parts of us are being forgotten.”

For those of us who have yet to find a life partner, how do we hold on to hope, especially when our society expects us to “date in our twenties, find the ideal partner by twenty-eight, and have children by thirty one”?  Botton maintains we must let go of timelines and relinquish control.

Sometimes we’ll love someone and they won’t love us back.

Sometimes we’ll endure countless dull conversations in dimly-lit bars and go home alone to an empty bed.

Sometimes we’ll sign up for every dating app and go on date after date after date and still not find someone.

Our fates are a convergence of choice and chance.  The idea that we’re masters of our fates is a reassuring but ultimately untrue myth.  We can’t control if we’ll meet someone— or when.  We can only create a Tinder profile and put ourselves out there again and again.

No matter what our society says, there are no “right” partners, no “right” choices, no “right” ways to live.  We can follow the well-trodden road— get married, have children, buy a house with a white picket fence— or forge our own path.  We can find the love of our lives in college or when we’re 77.  We can choose to commit to one person or stay single.  We can get married in a poofy princess dress in a formal ceremony or barefoot on a Brazilian beach in front of only a few people.  Our dream life can contain toothaches and play dates and Play-Doh or world travel and boundless freedom.  When asked what he’d wished he’d known about finding love, Botton says:

“To be calmer about the whole process.  And that things would work out or they wouldn’t, and even then, that would be fine too.  This black and white model of ‘it’s got to be like this and then it will be perfect’ just doesn’t work.  It doesn’t matter who you meet or when you meet them; there’s pain and joy on each side of the ledger.  So don’t stick rigidly to one story about what your life means, because it’s likely to be wrong.  In fact, there are many ways of living this life.”

When a relationship ends, we often find it difficult to move on because we imagine the life we could’ve had is infinitely better than our life as it actually is.  We’re haunted by the phantom of our other possible existence.  What if we could have actually worked things out?  What if I/they finally changed?  What if we suddenly reconciled all our issues and fundamental incompatibilities: our dissimilar taste in movies, our contrasting views on marriage, our completely opposite political beliefs?  What if we finally moved to our dream city and built our own life in our own house?

In a poetic, profound passage, Lunn suggests it’s unproductive to romanticize what could have been.  Would we be happy if we didn’t end our relationship?  Perhaps, but that doesn’t negate the possibility for happiness in our lives as they’re currently constituted.  Every choice involves gain and loss.  If we chose the other path, our lives wouldn’t necessarily be better— just different.  As Lunn writes, 

“Alain made me see the situation of being alone not as an unflattering reflection of my ‘less impressive sides,’ but as an unimaginative story I was telling about connection.

All the times I had been casually rejected, I realize now were either future blessings or facts to be accepted, rather than resisted.  I had wasted energy trying to keep these relationships afloat; there was no need to waste more asking why someone didn’t love me, what I could have done differently to change the outcome.  The only outcome was the one that happened.  And as Alain pointed out, ‘There’s pain and joy on each side of the ledger.’  If I’d stayed with someone I’d met in my early twenties, moved to the seaside, got a dog and had a baby at thirty, there would have been wonderful and mundane chapters to that story, just as there were wonderful and mundane chapters to the life I lived in those years instead.  For every depressing date, there was a precious friendship formed.  For every lonely Sunday, a new ambition discovered.”