Say a little prayer

My Christian boyfriend decided we should stop sleeping together because he wasn't sure I was "the one." Should I break it off altogether or settle for less than a whole relationship?

Published January 17, 2001 8:52PM (EST)

A peaceful winter morning in St. Paul. Days ago, a young Czech woman arrived to spend a year with us and to care for our child. She walked in and smiled and spoke and immediately we wrapped her into our family. A bright and thoughtful and warm young woman who drinks tea in the morning and coffee after dessert and sleeps with her window wide open and hopes to see the Grand Canyon. And now we are speaking English with a little more care. Having her under our roof reminds me of a few summers ago when, as a favor to friends, we took in two daughters from two different families as boarders, an experience that broadened Mr. Blue's perspective considerably. I had forgotten how long young people can sleep at a stretch -- 12 hours, if they put their minds to it -- and how long young women can sit and talk and not repeat themselves. And how socially adept they are, compared to young men I have known, and how extravagant their feelings. Every romance is tumultuous, a big purple novel in the making, and the suffering breaks your heart. Mainly, the grief is caused by the young man's opaqueness, his unreadable moods, his dark heart. And then I met the young men, and felt a sort of fatherly grumpiness toward them, and we grunted and sniffed each other and marked territory and eventually settled down to a little stilted conversation. A splendid summer. A great tonic for a dour old man to have kids in the house. Life gets small and constricted for us ambitious hard-working people and how stunning it is to get something completely different, such as a couple of talkative boarders, to brighten our gray industrial life.

It's hard to judge from one letter, of course, what all is going on in a correspondent's life, but in so many of the letters to Mr. Blue, the writer seems marooned on an island of trouble, brooding by the window, obsessing over the novel that won't get written or the opaqueness of the lover or the Great Question whatever it is (Should I have children? Should I eat a peach? Should I wear my trousers rolled? Should I leave New York and go to L.A.? Should I divorce this weasel?), and you suspect that the isolation of the writers is a big part of the problem. You want to tell them, "Maybe you need to get outside more." A person sits by the window and the shadows start to close in and ghosts hover and old sorrows come and whisper in your ear. And the first course of action is simply to get out of the room and go live your life and live it more largely and don't spend so much time anguishing. If you're not actually in the valley of the shadow of depression and you don't require rescue by the Psychiatric Patrol, then you need to attach a rocket to your rear end and light the fuse and blast yourself out of the house. You need to clang around and bump into people and put your dignity at risk and have the adventures you've been meaning to have. Me, too. But first I'll take up today's mail.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a smart, attractive, well-educated 33-year-old woman with a history of making bad relationship choices -- I tend to date men with high passion but low commitment quotients. About a year ago, I met a wonderful guy: smart, kind, hardworking and quite gainfully employed, noble and honest. One unusual factor (for me, at least) is that he's a Christian -- not preachy, but devout and thoughtful. We were "together" for about six months, and then he decided we shouldn't be sexually intimate since he wasn't sure I was "the one." But when I tried to break off seeing him to protect my own feelings, he was quite upset, so after a thoughtful couple of weeks, I agreed to continue seeing him as "friends."

Now, several months later, we still spend a great deal of time together: We confide in each other, we laugh and very occasionally we even sleep together. He buys me gifts, takes me out and really listens to me. In fact, it mostly seems like dating without (much) sex. My friends say that in light of my record of self-destructive relationships, I should just enjoy spending time with someone who obviously cares for me and treats me well; but I periodically wonder if I'm "settling" for something less than a whole relationship, or perhaps sabotaging my chances at meeting someone who is capable of a fuller commitment by spending my Saturday nights with a man whom I love, but who is clearly hesitant to plunge into a life together.

I should also mention that I live in a city notoriously short on single, straight men -- something that no doubt clouds my decision-making faculties a bit.

What's your opinion on this strange setup?

Saturday Night Lady

Dear Saturday,

The arrangement seems quite convenient for him, but if there's no commitment on his part, then you should feel free to see other guys. Switch him to Sunday afternoon and keep Saturday free to be yourself, a single straight woman. You seem to admire this man but you don't say you're in love with him and so he's apparently an interim figure. He's being slightly less than honest in having sex with you occasionally, given his moral stand of a few months ago, and you ought to call him on it. A Christian is not offended to have his behavior questioned in a loving way. I'm a little confused about your dating history, though -- in the first paragraph you've made bad relationship choices and in the second they've become "self-destructive." It's a long way from one to the other. Why blame yourself for every man you dated who turned out to be a flash in the pan? You choose to go to the dance with him and he turns out to be whoever he is and that's his responsibility, no?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am cursed by an incapacity for romance. I am 25 years old and am described by friends as "handsome, smart, and sweet." I meet wonderful women, smart, funny, educated women whom I can talk with for hours. Yet for some reason, I am incapable of being seen as anything more than a friend by them. My confidants tell me that I need to be less polite, more aggressive, less modest, more self-confident -- essentially, be more of a brash, aggressive asshole, if I hope to get women to see me as more than just a nice, harmless guy. I don't want to believe that the only way I will find romance is to become the kind of man who usually makes my skin crawl. Unfortunately, after a lot of frustration and rejection, a sort of desperation is beginning to grip me. Is there an alternative to pickup lines and forced macho behavior, or am I doomed to a passionless life of pleasant conversation?

Romantically Impaired

Dear Impaired,

Are you attracted to women? Do you feel the urge to hold one in your arms and feel her cheek against yours? If so, how many of these wonderful women have you met, sir? Six? Ten? Forty-three? We need to shop you around to a good cross-section of smart, funny, educated women, not just three who live in your village, or the two who belong to your church. And we need to fix your desperation. Forget about pickup lines, whatever those may be, and of course any sort of forced behavior will be instantly detected and you'll sense people edging away from you. I don't know what your confidants see in you that they think needs changing, but their advice strikes me as dopey. You haven't yet met a woman who excites you and who you agonize over and ponder your next move and who you dare to take a step toward and reveal your heart to. Nobody is incapable of romance. When we get downwind of the right person and those old pheromones come sailing in, any one of us is capable of becoming very foolish in an instant.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Since the age of 17 my only goal has been to become a novelist. This led me into journalism and now I'm an editor in an investment bank, making more money than I'd ever dreamt I would, but I feel that I'm betraying myself and that I've sold my soul. Complicating matters is that I have several mouths to feed. Given my new high salary, I could probably go into semiretirement in a few years. But it may be too late by then. All writers have a peak -- some younger, some older -- and I'm worried that I may be wasting mine helping rich people get even richer.

Lost in the Corporate World

Dear Lost,

You're not. You're as capable of writing fiction as you ever were; you simply need to manage your time. No soul has been sold that I can see. You are a spy behind enemy lines. Take notes. Remember dialogue and write it down later. Write descriptions of your colleagues, from the shoes up and the hair down. Don't waste the time berating yourself for something you didn't write in the past. A writer is not someone who thinks about writing, but a person who writes. So be one.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a stand-up/improv comic, and those who've seen me perform say I'm quite good. But I feel sad and pathetic, depressed, fragile -- one bad performance, and I retreat to my bed for six months. One casual rejection by a female, and it's six years. I feel unable to relate to others the way they seem to get along among themselves. Clearly I use humor as a defense mechanism, winning the immediate approval of others while simultaneously keeping them at a distance, ultimately feeling empty and detached inside.

What am I so afraid of? Is such unrelenting emptiness simply the companion of comedy? Must comedy always come from tragedy?

Whiny Prick

Dear Whiny,

Woody, you've got to stop writing to me here. Every week, the same letter. Give me a break. Accept your success, the fame, the wealth, the great seats at Knicks games, your lovely wife, your kids, the street life (what there is of it on the East Side), and get over the fragility, OK? Just make people laugh. Yes, it comes from tragedy, and yes, we all experience emptiness, and what you're afraid of is the same thing the folks in the theater are afraid of. Do your job, pal. It's a great line of work. Good luck.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a sensible Midwestern woman, 24, who has gone and fallen in love with an amazing man of 30 who has two boys, 10 and 4, and an ex-wife. His boys are wonderful, and he has a pretty good relationship with his ex, but I don't know if I'm ready to be a stepmom to a 10- and 4-year-old, and I have no idea what I will face in that role. I am very much in love with this man. He makes me feel like I deserve the world, and he will be there to help me attain it in every way possible. We work together well. But my own family is rather disapproving. They feel that I am a vivacious young woman with the world at my fingertips, so why should I settle for anyone seemingly "less-than-perfect"? I cannot imagine finding someone else who is so wonderful for me. Should I listen to their advice and try to find someone who has less "baggage" or listen to my heart and do the best I can with this amazing man?

Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught,

You're in love with him and you trust him and you like his boys, and this is nothing to walk away from. Of course your family is worried for you, just as they'd fuss if you set off on a long trip, but love is meant to conquer doubt in this case. Being a stepmother is nothing anybody is ready for -- it's nothing anybody aspires to or plans for, but there you are, and if you want to be with him, then you can figure out how to be a stepmom. They aren't baggage, they're boys, and obviously they respect you and respond to you. Listen to your heart; it's speaking to you clearly.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm an actress and look 30, though I am in fact 12 years older. I've found it professionally advantageous to say I'm 30. Now I've met a wonderful 30-year-old man. Things happened pretty quickly between us and, of course, I keep meaning to tell him my secret, but the moment has never seemed right. I don't want this man to think less of me for all of my "lost years" (mid-20s to mid-30s) when I was wandering around trying to grow up. He's a real go-getter, and I think it would be inconceivable to him to be 42 years old and just waking up to a real adult life (as I am).

He is smart, funny, dynamic and loving, but I don't know if he'll be able to handle knowing that when he was just learning to walk and talk, I was already in junior high school. How do I tell this wonderful man he's dating a much older woman?

Late Bloomer

Dear Late,

Telling the truth gets harder the longer it's postponed. And you do want your lover to know the truth about you. Lying is a killer when it comes to love, a real assassin. So choose your occasion and lean forward and say, "How old do you think I am?" and he'll say, "Thirty," and you say, "Forty-two." It's that simple. Do it soon. If he has a problem with it, let him have it now, not a year from now. After you turn 30, age becomes less and less important. What matters isn't how long you've been around but how many years you have left, and nobody knows that for sure. Hope you're looking 40 when you're 70.

Dear Mr. Blue,

He was the guy I'd waited for all my life. We'd known each other casually nearly 10 years and once we were both free from long entanglements, we got together. It was the best year of my life. We wined, we dined, we shared long passionate evenings. Our plan was to relocate together to Los Angeles, where my job was taking me. Then, poof! He met someone else. A whirlwind ensued. Within three weeks, he ended it with me. Within two months, they were engaged and I had plunged into The Abyss. After some long, hard months, I climbed out, met someone new who adores me and gave me back my shredded confidence. However, I'm 42, and he's 28, and we both know this has nowhere to go. Now I've met The Guy again and it was just as wonderful as before. And he says he's doesn't want to marry Miss Perfect, and is still as confused and unsure as ever. It's now countdown time for me to move to L.A., where I really don't want to go, although career-wise it's a good thing. I know The Guy is still screwed up, but he's the only one who ever rocked my world, and fed my mind. Should I encourage another meeting and see where it goes?

New York Woman

Dear New York,

I think you need to meet him again and see if you can rebuild your friendship after that hard jolt it took. But think twice about moving to L.A., and don't go unless you're clear in your mind about why and what for. You're not going there for him, you're only going for yourself and your career and for the adventure. It has nothing to do with him. He's no more than a friend and a confused one, at that. What to you was the best year of your life was, to him, a night on the town, and his confusion is only going to get more confused if you launch into reruns. Don't see where it goes -- you know too much about him to pretend innocence. Decide that it's going to be a fine old friendship, and take it there and leave it at that. And think four times before going farther.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been writing the same novel for close to 15 years now. Same setting, same protagonist and many of the same major characters. Other than that, things keep changing. I've completed six different drafts and numerous incomplete drafts; each has a different ending, and the motivations and actions of the characters are quite different in each version. I am now about a third of the way into yet another "final draft," and I can already see everything that's wrong with the opening chapters and how they will have to be rewritten before I can send it to the agent who has expressed interest in seeing it based on a couple of sample chapters she read a year ago. I seem to be able to write a chapter that will get people excited, but I somehow can't pull it all together into a book that really works. (To be fair to myself, in the course of writing, I've quit smoking, gotten married, supported my husband, and had a baby who is now 8 years old.) But is this normal? Will I ever be able to finish this book? How do you ever pull so much material together and make it work as a single story? As time goes by I become more terrified that after all this work the book will never be published.

Writer Without a Novel

Dear Writer,

Courage. This novel is turning out to be your education as a writer and that's good, and if that's all it turns out to be, that's OK. I do hope you're using a computer, not a typewriter. With a computer, we don't really count "drafts," we just keep going back and going back and going back. I'm working on a novel now and couldn't tell you how many times it's been gone over. Immaterial. What matters is the result. I don't think you should finish this latest rewrite if you're already dissatisfied with it. Go back and rewrite the early chapters, as you see fit, and send them to the agent. While she's looking at those, print out the draft that you like best, at least for structure, and tape the pages of each chapter together to make a long tail. In a separate room that nobody will disturb, tape or hang the chapters on the wall so you have your whole book arranged in front of you and you can get a spatial sense of it and walk from chapter to chapter. Keeping the reader in mind, try rearranging the pieces with an eye toward creating movement and drama and contrast while maintaining an absolutely clear narrative line. Having the book in one place in front of you will let you see the forest, and you will undoubtedly have strong intuitions about organizing it that wouldn't occur to you viewing it paragraph by paragraph on the screen. But if the novel doesn't yield to you soon, then put it aside in as clear shape as you can manage, and put your mind to something else. And return to it in a year or two. This happens to writers often. A more experienced writer might have set this book aside years ago. It's impossible to sustain attention for 15 years, I say. You've done awfully well just to keep going.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a recent college graduate in the Midwest who wants to leave and try to make my way in the Big City. The problem is, I don't want the woman I love (and whom I've lived with for five years) to come with me, at least not right away. I want to find my way on my own, separate from the emotional and mental support she offers that I believe I too often use as a crutch and an excuse. Of course, this has led to severe problems in our relationship, which have been temporarily assuaged with vague promises of us living together out there in the undefined future. Is it selfish of me to want to leave but to keep her as well? Should I invite her to come with me right now, or break up with her outright?

Guilty Dreamer

Dear Guilty,

You can go on your own, if it's important to you to step out and feel free, but unless you make definite plans to reunite, you can't count on keeping her. If you're imagining the move that way -- you head for the bright lights, cut your swath and the little lady waits by the phone -- you'd better think again. It's not selfish to crave independence, to want to try your wings, to have a solo adventure, but if she's part of your life, then you need to negotiate that. Your last line about breaking up with her outright suggests that maybe you two are not a solid item: We don't casually consider breaking up with someone we really love. I recommend that you do what you have to do -- go to the Big City -- and see if distance doesn't clarify your feelings toward her.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have always been an indecisive person, but now I am perplexed about one of the most important decisions of my life. I am 36 and in a long-term relationship with a man I love dearly. But we are at the point where we need to decide whether to have a child and we are both having trouble making this decision.

We love children and I think that our lives would be greatly enriched by having a child. But we have been together for nine years and we are both a little selfish and kind of hesitant about messing with the good thing we've got going. I am also very afraid of the pain and messiness of pregnancy, although I think I can manage to get through it. If we don't have a child, I fear that we may someday regret it. Lately, we have become kind of careless about birth control, maybe letting fate make the decision. I'm not sure how this is possible, but I find myself simultaneously hoping that I get pregnant and genuinely dreading the possibility.

A friend of mine once told me that, when faced with a decision, you should always opt for the more difficult choice because this will make you a better person. Do you think this is true?

Skinny Lady

Dear Skinny,

There is a decision to be made here, and if you back away from making it, then you're making the decision backward. Maybe that's what you want to do. But try to make a reasoned choice. Take a year to think things through. Borrow a child for a while, the younger the better. Maybe what's confusing you is the feeling that you don't really have a choice, that the presumptions are all on the side of parenthood and that childlessness is a dark destination full of bitter regret, and so you feel yourselves being pushed in the direction of parenthood without really choosing it. I recommend that you imagine being a couple without children. Look at the good life you have. Are you a couple who would continue to cherish the freedom you have and use it to see the world and read Dickens and comfort the sick and follow your star? Or would you feel bereft, unanchored, deprived of one of life's fundamental satisfactions? No life is without regrets, and we simply learn to live with them, whatever regrets we're dealt. The regrets of the childless are, I think, not more tragic than a lot of other regrets. And do know that the arrival of a child in your life is dramatic and explosive. A bomb goes off and nothing is ever put back the way it is. But the parent (speaking for myself) can't imagine having it any other way.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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