The Coupling Constant

I’m at that age. I’m at the age where everyone is coupling up. The age where things are done in couples. It crept up on me. I didn’t realize that this was a new baseline until it was impossible to ignore. I found myself on a long weekend trip of 11 people, five pairs of these 11 were (surprise!) couples. Let me add by saying that one of the sources of entertainment of the weekend was pairing up the lonely lingering one. The Couples were expected to do the entire weekend together. Maybe they normally do anyway. Still, the declared status of togetherness was overwhelming. People now come in pairs.

I found the realization disturbing whether or not you define yourself as being one half of a couple. It’s something that you don’t necessarily realize or care about when it’s just you and the other person. You’re wrapped up in life with this other person. Me and you. I suppose that’s what companionship is taken to mean. But with a group of couples, it seems to morph into something else. Navigation of the social space is different. You’re attached. You’re expected to know one another, complement one another, and present this to the world.

Now, I’m finding it a rarity for people not to be paired up. It’s all too tangible that this is the age where I should expect my peers to have significant others, husbands, and wives, if not families. Too many times in the past month have I already made decidedly wrong assumptions.

“So, you have roommates?”

“No, I have a family.”

“Oh…yeah, those are like roommates…”

It’s a different frame of mind. People come in pairs. Whether it’s the natural course of life, I’m open to debate. Companionship is, of course, a goal from a young age. It’s rooted in humans as the ultra-social species, perhaps even in our wiring for survival. The challenge of it all is maintaining independence and individuality within the couple, even if we’re horribly attached.

Gate 43

Newly polished shoes, he sits there drinking his 5 o’clock beer next to the family of four eating breakfast. Two strangers share an intimate conversation over coffee. The woman in the red heels nervously fixes her hair in a hand-held mirror. Probably off to see a love interest. There’s a girl crying just outside the restaurant. Minimal effort at concealing the tears. Leaving something behind. Family? Friends? Love? Herself?

There’s something about airports that makes them a concentrated microcosm of human experience. People are either leaving something behind or going towards something or, often, both. Excitement, dread, joy, sorrow, anxiety, banality- all of these coexist in the context of overpriced water and kitschy souvenirs.  Somewhere in this world, there’s a girl who knows more about me than some of my friends do because we shared a 9 hour layover in the New Delhi airport. Her name’s been long-wiped from my memory, her face is a blur, her hair could’ve been blonde or not, but her story, her feelings at the time- these I remember with vivid detail. The same level of detail with which I can recount a conversation over wine with a man who would slip in an out of life randomly, purely by happenstance, for years until finally one day, he called my name at an airport. Both waiting on delayed flights going in opposite directions, we swapped our vastly different feelings about a shared sadness we’d both experienced in our own ways. A sadness we’d both been dealing with throughout all those chance run-ins and late-night sing-alongs. A sadness that had never been revealed until the airport effect washed away standard conversation decorum and left in its wake, something raw and emotionally unfiltered.

And then there’s today.

In some ways, it’s appropriate- even poetic- that my drawn-out breakup culminated in an airport goodbye.  It’s interesting to me that the very thing I was trying to get away from by embracing the relationship at the start, is the same thing I’m going towards after entangling myself in a web of feelings and expectations and shared experience. It’s difficult and painful to extract yourself from another person’s world, especially when you can see and feel how it might be hurting them, but the trust you have to have in yourself to know that the disentanglement is necessary, can be a powerfully grounding force.  Our intertwined worlds gave us both (I hope) greater vision and a more robust understanding of the world we want to exist in. Not only did I get to share my world and experience someone else’s, which is always a gift, but through it, I also learned myself better. My decision-making feels more firm. My lifestyle, more purposeful. My values, more clear. Despite the headache I have from being the girl crying outside the restaurant, I would do it all over again because it’s become a part of the person I’m working towards being. At first, I was hoping to avoid feeling the hurt that comes with a breakup, but now… Now, I’m happy to feel it. I’m happy to know that my time was spent well, that it mattered, and that because of it, I will be better. And hopefully, he feels the same.

large

You have always been the place you need

For more than two years, a poem has bounced around my head. It has nearly one million views and I suspect at least 300 of those views are mine. Each time I watch the poem, it catapults in a previously unconsidered direction and reverberates for days, leaving behind bits of new understanding.

This poem is called “The Type” and it is by the poet Sarah Kay. It is a love poem, but it is not the love poem that I wanted or expected. This poem is not about romantic love, though it is not dismissive of it. This is a poem about self-love. This is a poem about settling into yourself.

For context, this poem was inspired by a line in the poem “Detail of the Woods” by Richard Siken: “…Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else.” Without going into detail, I will say that for all of the years of my adulthood, I’ve been searching for a place to call my own. When you are searching for this place, the danger (and I fall into this), is to mistake romantic love, or the possibility of romantic love, or just romance, or sometimes simply attention, for a more basic type of love. It feels almost reflexive to do this, to accept a mismatched love as the answer to a larger question.

The poem says what I don’t want to hear. Maybe this is because I want to feel special and her words make flirtatiousness and romance and even love seem secondary to something else. Maybe this is because I recognize my own mistakes in some of what she says.

…Sometimes it is not you they are reaching for…but their hands found you first.

…Do not mistake yourself for a guardian, or a muse, or promise, or a victim, or a snack.

…You are not the answer. You are not the problem. You are not the poem, or the punch line, or the riddle, or the joke.

Kay’s words mean different things to me at any given time, but the constant lesson is that romantic love alone will not fill my gaps or reveal my place. At the most basic level, only I can do this for myself. I don’t know when I’ll get there, but I have the tools I need. Finding my place is not mutually exclusive to romantic love (because come on, we want to find that too!!), but I will continue to watch this poem over and over to remind myself that, as Kay says, I need a place to call my own, but at the most fundamental level, I have always been the place.

– M

The Social (in)Significance of (Interesting) Hobbies

“So, what do you do for fun?” It is THE hated question of first-meeting-at-a-bar-small-talk questions. What do you mean, what do I do for fun?

It’s been a year since graduation. Everyone needs to have hobbies now – something that I spend my free time doing that’s different from everyone else and makes me interesting.

I begin crossing them off in my head – [Reading, lame. Puzzles, sad. Writing, “oh! What do you write about?” – uh no. Shopping, high maintenance. British crime dramas (yes, specifically British), embarrassing. Yoga, along with everyone else in San Francisco, Seattle, New York. Volunteer, self-righteous. I drink, semi-alcoholic? I can’t talk intelligently about cooking or baking. Politics is not typically appropriate to talk about in any setting let alone a bar, and neither is religion (and I’ve broken both those rules before), so nope. Making something up may make this conversation more interesting, but then I could probably never talk to you again because we know how badly I’d fail at maintaining anything I made up in the long-term. And now I’m starting to think that that may not be such a bad thing.]

“So, what do you do for fun?”

“Oh, you know. I just hang around, explore the city.”

Decidedly boring. But what did you expect me to say? That I farm tulips and socialize with my pet chicken on the weekends?? Or perhaps I happen to also be an amazing artist, so I spend my free time in studio? Or I can magically afford to travel regularly to exotic locales to work on perfecting my already perfect tan?

I have no more excuses in the form of – “oh, well, I’ve been busy studying this and that. I like to do this, but haven’t done it in awhile because school.” Somehow working towards the worthwhile personal goal of academic achievement lends itself to judgment less severe.

The fact of the matter is that I love my work. I spend a lot of time doing it. I also greatly enjoy spending my free time alone, probably more than the next person. I like being productive, and so spend my time (again, usually alone) working on pet projects that may or may not result in anything in particular. I like to read articles and take classes on nearly everything, but no, that does not somehow mean I could intelligently discuss Chinese art with you.

What could this someone in a bar do differently? Don’t require me to present my likes and dislikes on a silver platter, awaiting your judgment. There are plenty of other questions to answer and things to talk about that don’t require me to outline my Facebook profile of exceptional life events and ‘hobbies.’ You’re objective is to get to know me? It shouldn’t be so easy for that would only serve to relinquish the complexities that make each person intriguing. And where would the fun be in that?

So, if you want to ask me what I do for fun, don’t forget to bring me another drink.