I wrote my first Modern Love essay by the light of my headlamp, on the banks of Chilcoot Lake in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. The words spilled onto the pages of my journal, and my hand raced to keep up. I wrote for me, and I wrote for a man I had met a few days prior in the Lander Bar, who was likewise a backpacking instructor and who was in a tent across the range working on his own Modern Love essay. We’d connected at the bar over our mutual love for the weekly NY Times column, and decided over drinks that we’d each write our respective stories and share them with each other when we returned from our month long wilderness courses.
At the end of that month, after leaving the mountains, after assisting a car load of mangled teens who were in a deadly car accident on our route home, after dry heaving in the sage brush after said teens were lifted into helicopters and ambulances and hauled away, after scrubbing packs and pots and pans and thirty days of dirt and sweat and mosquito bites off my body, after eating a cheeseburger with bacon and jalapenos and avocado and a mountain of salty, ketchup laden fries, after the old cowboy bought me a drink at the bar, after I bought myself a couple more drinks at the bar—I met that man in a tiny room, with a simple bed, and we shared our most intimate stories of love and loss. I had left my great love. His great love had left him. After we read and cried, we made love. And I felt certain this was how our stories truly ended. Broken hearts finding redemption in a small Wyoming town. Heartache justified. Searching done.
But that night turned out to be the only beautiful moment in our brief relationship. His interest was short lived—my fantasy about us was not.
Meanwhile, my great love (the one I’d written about) got in touch, saying he was willing to reconsider (something I’d begged him to do for months). And I was so wrapped up in my new story, of this shiny, sexy, everything my-old-great-love-wasn’t man that I ultimately told him no. I couldn’t.
I read my old-great-love my Modern Love essay by way of explanation, and he said to me when I was done, “You’re only telling part of our story here.” And he was right. I was telling the part of our story where our broken engagement made sense and was justified. But it was, in fact, only part of our story. I could also (now) write the story of how that moment when I told him, five months into our engagement, that I couldn’t get married didn’t make sense at all—that it was a terrible mistake. And the uncomfortable reality is that both of these stories are true. And some day, on down the line, there will be a new and different story that is truer still.
But this story isn’t about either of these men. This story is the story that pre-dates all of my other Modern Love (or Modern Crush or Modern One Night Stand) stories. It starts on the floor, on the fourth story of a brick boarding school dormitory, with my face pressed into a grey industrial carpet, sobbing, hoping that somehow if I get closer to the ground I’ll find a way to breathe again.
This is the fourteen year old me. The girl who just a year prior was running around in overalls, carefree and happy. But now, I am painfully lonely, over 800 miles from home—a chasm that feels like eternity—and I wonder if I will ever laugh or smile again. I pause on a run and watch a car hit a chipmunk and a hawk swoop down and carry off the tiny body all in the flash of a few seconds on the side of a grey New England road, and the brutality of life feels familiar and crushing.
I have always had real, live-giving friendships, but somehow I can’t make friends here, and that loss unmoors me entirely. My grades are perfect. I have a role in the school play, which is unheard of for a freshman. My dorm parent tells me one night that he’d consider having another child if he knew he/she would turn out like me. I’m asked by the Head of School to speak at revisit day—an honor conferred upon the most successful and well adjusted new students. Nobody seems to realize that I am in hell. And the loneliness of that realization makes my initial loneliness all the deeper and sadder. I want to disappear. In fact I start to. I stop eating real meals, I start running long distances, and my tiny frame gets skeletal.
By the time my parents arrive in June, and we load my bags in the back of the station wagon, I am a shell of girl. My only friend, a beta fish named Darcy who kept me company throughout those miserable months, dies in the cup holder on the way home. The happiness that was such a companionable friend until I left home seems to be gone forever. And in her place is an exacting demand of control. I scramble to fill the void of happy human connection with less calories and more miles. The algorithm doesn’t make sense, but I cling to it with tenacity.
This is how it starts. The story that I should hate myself for reasons X, Y, and Z. This baffling, unreasonable, narrative that has no basis in reality, and yet touches my lived reality with such a firm and unrelenting hand.
This is not however, how the story ends. The truth is, I know I would have crossed paths with deep sadness sooner or later. If that school made our meeting come a few years early, so be it. Being down in that hole of despair precipitated the question: “How the hell do I get out of here?” And then, when I started to resurface the question became: “What makes life worthwhile?” And those questions have led me through numerous mountain ranges, countries, books, journals, and conversations over the last decade and a half of my life.
And now, at age thirty, I am back within spitting distance of that fourth floor dormitory room. Living in the one geographic location, I vowed I’d never return to. I moved here, in part, because I hoped this would be a good place to find partnership. In actuality, it has been ripe with so many other kinds of love, but as it stands now, I am single. And it seems that perhaps while I came here looking for the flesh and blood love of a partner, what I actually needed, and am getting, is a chance to reckon with that initial fall—that first brush with suffering. And to recognize the growth that only reveals itself to you when you return to an old place or person.
This month is reserved (by Hallmark at least) for celebrating romantic love, which is all well and good if you have that kind of love available to you. But if you don’t (or even if you do), it is worth remembering Brian Doyle’s words from his exquisite essay, Joyas Volardores: “We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart.” So the most primal relationship is not the passion of lovers, nor the fierce loyalty of a parent, nor the live-giving love of a friend, but rather, it is the relationship to self—the love of self.
I’d like to reach across time, and pick that little girl up off the floor and hold her tight, and tell her that there is a horizon beyond the grey industrial carpet. That new and better stories await. It is easy for me to feel tenderness for her. What is harder sometimes is feeling tenderness for the woman who she has become. The woman who is writing this essay. The woman who is learning, slowly, in fits and starts, how to love herself, right now, in this exact moment. This story, the one that is unfolding in real time, is the story that pre-dates all of my other love stories. An ancient, Modern Love essay. A coming home to self.