On Putting Myself First

Just before I started dating Caleb, a close friend of mine married a man named Caleb. My friend and I had been single together for quite some time, and ours was a good-time friendship. We were both adventurous. We both liked to travel, and skinny dip, and dance late into the night. When she started seeing her Caleb, her life changed. He was a kind man, but more serious than her. Their relationship moved quickly, and soon, they were married.

I remember going to visit her at their new home in a ski town that was near Boise. It was cold and snowy, and a wood stove kept their home toasty warm. My friend and I went snow shoeing. When we returned, she baked bread and made homemade noodles. His friends came over, and they were much older than us. They were medical doctors. We played cards, and I was bored. I was happy for my friend, but her life didn’t appeal to me. Still, I thought that her home was lovely, comfortable, and domestic. In a large window, she had a prism, and it refracted rainbows over the entire great room.

I thought that her life would someday be my life. A life of peace. Quiet.

“When you’re ready, it will happen,” my friend said. And I liked that idea–when I’m ready.

I drove back to my studio apartment in Boise. I was sweaty and sore from snow shoeing. I took a shower, and when I got out, Caleb was there. We went to my bed and tore into each other. My thigh muscles groaned from fatigue as he gripped them, but I didn’t care. The sex was always good between us–from the start of the relationship to the end. When we finished, we dressed and walked to the hipster bar where we had met. We drank, danced, and laughed with the many friends who had joined us. I forgot that I was tired. It was a joyful evening. I was maybe the happiest I had ever been at that point.

Maybe I’m ready, I thought to myself.

A month later, I was pregnant.

I wasn’t ready.

A year or so later, my friend divorced her Caleb, and I had an infant. Our roles were reversed. I remember how shocked I was when she told me that she was leaving him. I thought she was making a mistake. How could she let someone go who was so stable? So responsible?

I thought longingly of how I wished that my Caleb was more like hers. But her Caleb didn’t excite her, she said. He didn’t tell her he loved her.

My Caleb excited me, and he told me he loved me, but he was such a beautiful mess. He needed me to take care of him. He was quicksand, and I was up to my knees.

After my friend told me about her divorce, Caleb and I went to a craft fair and saw a booth full of the same prisms that my friend had. He bought me one for my birthday. We were so poor that it was difficult for us to even afford the most simple version, but I wanted it, and Caleb indulged me, so we bought it.

That prism accompanied us to every home that we lived in. It cast rainbows across rooms that were heavy with sadness. When I left Caleb, I took the prism with me. Reed and I moved into a tiny apartment in a student housing complex. It wasn’t a good place to raise a child (or even to be an adult), but it was clean, safe, and it had good light. Reed and I saw more rainbows in that apartment than we had anywhere else.

The hope that those rainbows foretold was real.

12e78-rainbow2bheartThings got better.

I am writing this post at the kitchen table in my favorite writer’s house. She is an activist, an artist, and a good person,. We met when she spoke at my university, but she meets lots of people. I don’t think that I made much of an impression at that time. Shortly after her visit, I published my most-read essay, and she emailed me. Then, she friended me on Facebook. Then, she came through the Forest Service guard station where I was working, and I caught her with her face buried in a tree. I think it was a white pine. We had so much in common, which is probably why her writing had always resonated with me strongly–her mixture of artistry and activism.

And now, she is a mentor. And a friend. And she offered me her home to write in for two weeks. And what can I say to that?

What I can say is that her home is as beautiful as I had imagined that it would be. It is as beautiful as she is, and it is precisely the home that I would have thought she would live in. For a period, I get to live in this energy, and I am a sentimental person. I could not be happier. In this apartment–where I get to do what I love (which is make a living as a writer)–I am no longer in quicksand.

At the end of my marriage, I was up to my neck in quicksand, but I didn’t let it overtake me. And now, I’m here. I’m free.

I hesitated when she offered me this time in her home. I was in Belgium at a writer’s residency, and the night before I left for Belgium, I reconnected with River Guide, who is no longer river guiding very much. I knew that I wasn’t going to see him very much this summer. I knew that the time in her home would overlap directly with the time that he was going to be in my hometown. I knew that I would likely miss all of my time with him. I chose to come here instead.

I chose to place myself first.

And, when it came down to it, even though the timing wasn’t very convenient, he drove to my hometown to see me before I left.

When I put myself first, he put me first too.

It was magic.

River Guide and I are in a relationship, but it is not a relationship. Last year, I wanted more from him, and he couldn’t give it to me, so I ended things with him. I was sincere in that conclusion, and I’ve written about it before, so I don’t feel that I need to go into more detail.

During the school year, when I have Reed, I am essentially a nun. This is not an exaggeration. Reed is always, always my priority, and that does not leave a lot of time for dating. Still, because I had ended things with River Guide, my emotional space was freed up during this past year, and I was attracted to other men, which was a significant step for me.

I moved on. And so, when River Guide offered to let me stay at his home the night before I left for Belgium, I felt confident in doing so, and if I am being totally honest, then I have to say that I knew exactly what was going to happen.

But he did not. He was surprised. He had taken me at my word when I had ended things with him the summer before (which is very sweet), but, still, he jumped at the opportunity to be involved with me again, and so, here we are.

I don’t have relationships like this, he said. I am not very smooth.

I don’t know what to do, he said. You don’t even know where you’ll be in a year.

At one point, I stood in the river while he sat on the beach facing me. The water came up to my ankles, and I was in a sundress. The water was cold, but the sunshine on my shoulders was warm. I felt as though I glowed. Happy. He looked sad though. He kept sighing and looking away. I wanted to tell him to quit it. I wanted to tell him to–as my friends would say–shit or get off the pot. 

I did not say that. Still, later, when we were at my home, I told him that I had moved on. I told him that our relationship works just fine for me as it is, that I am busy with my own life, with my career, and my travel, and my friends, and that frankly, I don’t want to expend my energy on a man who doesn’t know what he wants. I told him that I am happy to see him when it happens, but that, I am not going to stop looking elsewhere, and if I meet someone else, someone who inspires me to commit to them, then I will end my relationship (but not my friendship) with River Guide.

A friend recently said to me, “You are a relationship person. I don’t think that I had realized that before.”

And I am. I like intimacy. I like deep connections. I orient heavily towards monogamy. I am faithful in committed relationships. I have never cheated on anyone. I have never knowingly been the “other woman” either. I am not saying that this is the right way to live, but it is the way that I live, and I am trying to learn how to live with myself.

So, River Guide is a stretch for me. Things are not black and white with him. They are all kinds of gray. Last summer, that gray unsettled me, but this summer, I can handle it. I told one friend that my relationship with River Guide works for me right now. It allows me to have some intimacy, and someone to care about, without really interfering with my life in other ways. I told her that I don’t really want to stop my relationship with River Guide.

Her response was, “Why would you stop that when you’ve got life by the balls right now?”

And River Guide’s response? He understands. “You’re placing your own needs first,” he said. “I’m glad for that.”

But he didn’t actually sound glad, and he was a bit (a lot) reserved that night and the next day.

Still, the next day, after we had gone on a hike and a drive, we stopped at a campground. He strode up from the river. I smiled at him, and he smiled back. He took my face between both hands and kissed me so tenderly. I felt that kiss all the way into my toes.

Later, when our time came to say goodbye, he said, “I always enjoy spending time with you because you challenge me.”

I may be challenging him, but I am challenging myself more. I am learning. I am growing. I am putting myself first.

His needs are not my concern. He can take care of himself, and I refuse to listen to my toes.

On the weekend before River Guide came to see me, a good friend also came to see me. I have never felt more loved than I do right now . Maybe it is my age–the fact that I’ve had so many years to cultivate friendships–but I feel overwhelmed with loving people in my life, and I mean that in the best possible way.

This friend has known me for many years. She knew me before Caleb. At one point, she said, “I think that you’re the happiest now that I’ve ever seen you. You’re even happier than you were before you met Caleb. You were always pretty happy before you met Caleb, but there was just something missing.”

I thought about her words for a long time because I knew that she was right. Though I have PTSD, a history of trauma, I’m raising a child on my own, and I’m still in school, I am happier than I have ever been; I am complicated.

I am not my trauma; I am the joy that follows.

Still, some days I am only my trauma, and I am allowed to be both. Don’t tell me that I can’t be both.

That night by the river, after River Guide had looked at me sadly, I curled up next to him on the beach, and we talked about sadness. He doesn’t read my writing because he doesn’t want to feel sad. He acknowledged that he avoids sadness as much as possible, and I forgave him for not reading my writing, but I told him that his refusal to read it means I can write about him with impunity (see what I’m doing here?).

He told me that he thinks his avoidance of sadness is healthy. He said, “Maybe that’s selfish of me.” And I responded that I had read some articles that claim that selfish people are actually happier. It was, I am sure, not what he wanted to hear.

I told him that I am more interested in living a meaningful life than a happy life, and he did not even understand what that meant. What was a meaningful life, he wondered? (For reference, he is a scientist).

I wasn’t really sure how to explain it. I told him that I thought a meaningful life was when someone affects change for the better on the world (or people) around them. He then said that he lives a meaningful life because he teaches high school (and he’s quite good at it). I agreed with him, but I knew there was still a disconnect between what we perceived as meaningful. (Let me be clear, though, when I say that he is a good person–an ethical person–and one who makes the world around him better. I care about him deeply, and he has made my own life better in an infinite amount of ways.)

Later, I realized what that disconnect was: To me, meaningful change occurs in intimate relationships. I do value the relationships with my students, but ultimately, those are surface level (and tend to be one-directional) relationships. What I value more (for myself) are the relationships with those who are in the trenches with me, and River Guide doesn’t really want to be in the trenches with me. He is in the trenches with me, but he wants to have a surface level relationship, and that’s completely okay. Still, he doesn’t get to call that relationship meaningful.

My friend–though–the one who drove to see me? Now, that’s a meaningful relationship. She, too, is a scientist, but she reads my writing. She’s told me that it makes her cry, but she reads it anyway because she wants to really know me. She wants to know what happened to me, and to know where I’m coming from.

And you know what? She still thinks I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. It turns out that my life–writing and all–is not so scary.

When my friend and I went to the Farmers’ Market in my town, we saw the prism guy. By then, my own prism had grown kind of dingy with time, and I wanted a new one. As I talked with the prism guy, I realized that I was finally in a position to replace the prism that Caleb had bought for me. I can afford it now, all on my own, and I don’t even have to wince at the cost because I’ve put myself first enough that I can now support myself.

So, I bought a new one.

And you know what? It’s brighter, and it has more facets.

Just like me.