Erica Jong’s heroine asks in Fear of Flying: “Would most women get married if they knew what it meant?” She follows up by stating that perhaps in middle age, marriages would work better. It’s hard to say, of course, but seems reasonable enough to presume. But then maybe it’s more likely that a second or third marriage would work best, regardless of how old the participants are. The book’s protagonist is already stymied in her second marriage and seeking comfort elsewhere. Much ado has been made about “starter marriages” and the likelihood of future marriages working because you learn from the mistakes of the first. I don’t know what to make of this. It too seems plausible – but not applicable to me.
If this is true, what of middle-aged people who never married and got no “practice” other than in a collection of short or long-term, ultimately dead-end relationships? I cannot say because I am in this demographic: middle-aged and never married. I have had a couple of long relationships that never held any future promise and a lifetime, otherwise, of flings and experiments to which I would scarcely be able to apply a name or formal distinction. In between there have been shorter and longer periods of just being on my own, which have always been the happiest and most content times of all.
Confronting the ‘more’
While it’s true that being alone and – by extension – independent has given me a lot of joy, there are moments, often more frequent than in the past, that I imagine my calm life could be enhanced by the presence of someone else. I’ve already written before about not wanting to invite in ‘the wrong element’. After all, as Doris Lessing wrote in The Golden Notebook: “What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do”. It’s a delicate balance: you may finally confront the fact that you want and need to love and be loved, but to do so, is second-rate enough? Do you fool yourself into thinking that second-rate will do it for you? Can your view become so blurred that you think the ‘wrong element’ could be right? I’ve concluded that it’s most important to recognize the need for love – and go from there.
The ark of the ache of it
Many times I have cited Denise Levertov’s “Ache of Marriage” – and given a lot of thought to the ache one must feel within a marriage – but what about the ache you have without it? It’s something you feel without ever having had the missing part in the first place. It’s not constant but comes in waves. It can look so miserable when you look at it from the outside. Mundane, like a constant sacrifice of one’s own identity and preferences. What is it that softens us … age? The right element? The sunset? The need for warmth? Previous experience (which can also harden us)? The desire for daily soup? (Soup would really do it for me.)
A recent experience, brief enough to be like the blink of an eye, has contributed one significant thing to my life. It opened a long-closed part of me and made me realize it made no sense to close it again. I had so many times before let previous experience influence me, to close me off, to shut emotional responses down. And now… maybe it was this recent experience, maybe my age, maybe all the previous “practice”, maybe the starker-than-ever realization that there are only so many sunrises and sunsets ahead, maybe a combination of everything that convinced me to stay calm, and stay open?