Too little, too late

He wants to reconcile after telling me I'm too old and overweight and that he never loved me.

Published February 6, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

The Republican readership has risen up as one to protest my use of the term "Shiite Republican," saying it is inaccurate and enclosing long disquisitions on Muslim factions cribbed from the encyclopedia and accusing me of insulting Islam and defaming religion and offending the soul of man, but the term is one that originated among Republicans in the Texas Legislature to describe the religious-tinged reactionary fringe in its midst. These folks are a phenomenon in politics because they are utterly implacable, and politics is all about reconciliation. I am sure it's a term that has crossed the lips of the president, a plain-spoken man in private, and I am so glad to have used it, if only to enjoy the spectacle of these red-eyed zealots decrying intolerance of the Muslim faith. That was a treat. As for the tide of right-wing mail that continues to wash up on the shore, I'm saving the letters for a book. As we say in the trade, nothing bad happens to a writer, everything is material.

My cold-water response to the American man who fell in love with a Swedish woman and was happily contemplating making a life among the delightful Swedes drew a first wave of rebukes from folks who had done similar things and lived to tell about it, and then a second wave of affirmation from folks who had done likewise and come to grief. I am one of the latter. So my advice was colored by personal remorse. I recall only too well my daily walks down Fiolstrade to my Danish lessons and my joyful encounters in Danish with shopkeepers and waiters and passersby who had asked me for directions, my Danish conversations with my indulgent mother-in-law and the schoolboy's pride in success, and then the cold water of reality whenever I attended a party and was surrounded by torrents of Danish and couldn't get a grip on any of it, and realized that I already have a language, English, and a country, the United States, and that if I went back there and went to a party, I'd be having a much much better time. A valiant thing to do, and of course one does not regret the adventure, but when marriage is involved, there is a heavy, heavy price for failure. And when you're 45, as I was, and in midcareer and have good work to do and strong attachments to home, it just plain ain't possible, Jack.

One of the second-wave letters came from an American man returning from a 10-year adventure in Sweden ending in a collapsed marriage and lost career there, and it's a sad letter, of course. On the other hand, to enter into another culture and language deeply enough so you sometimes lose track of your own is a liberating experience like no other. For a young person, it's the experience of a lifetime, like a big romance but without the messy breakup at the end. (See One More Satisfied Customer Dept.) For the high school senior, for the junior in college, for anyone in their 20s who is groping and floundering, I think it's a terrific, terrific idea. It's a great idea when you do it for your own good reasons. When you enter into it through a mist of romance and sexual desire, it's like any other sort of drunkenness -- you often arrive in places you have no business being.

Dear Mr. Blue,

About three months ago, my husband told me that he didn't love me anymore, that he had never loved me and that our seven-year marriage had been dead at the beginning. I was too old, too overweight and too independent. (I'm a 45-year-old lawyer.) He said there wasn't Another Woman. He then went to a hotel for the weekend. I was prostrate. Last month, we reached an agreement, and I moved to my own apartment. I discovered, when I returned to the house to pick up a box of shoes I had left, that another (smaller) woman with an imitation lizard vest had moved into my closet. I have been able to resume work, with a fantastic support group of friends, and am determined to renew myself and make a new beginning. This past week, he e-mailed me and wanted to reconcile. We met for two hours, and without saying that he missed me, he tried to make me think he has been leading the life of a hermit. His take seems to be that our separation helped him out, and I should be glad it happened.

Mr. Blue, am I overreacting by thinking this is too little, too late? I feel like he's just reaching out to be able to say that he attempted to reconcile.

Rather Confused

Dear Rather,

Much too little and far too late. Get your life together and let him hunt lizards. The guy is clueless. Don't have any more meetings with him until he is sobbing on the telephone that he misses you and can't live without you. Real sobbing, chest sobbing, not just light sniffling, and phrases like "dumbest thing I ever did in my life." This guy is too cool for words. I hope you've gotten a lawyer working on this.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I don't know ...

In principle, everything's fine really. I'm in love with my husband, I have two beautiful sons (with another on the way) and we live in a beautiful house, in a beautiful spot with good neighbors.

It's just I feel sometimes that I can't keep up with things. We both have busy, well-paid jobs, so our children are in day care. I'm wracked with guilt about this at times, but when I stay at home for any length of time I go stir-crazy. I'm worried about how I'll feel about three when I feel this bad with two! I'm constantly fretting that one or other of them will get some horrible disease and it'll turn out to be my fault, something I did or failed to do, and everybody will know it. Last week the youngest boy had a bug and it was a nightmare trying to organize everything so that one of us could spend some time with him; there was nobody else but us to take up the slack. I just wanted to be with him, and did so, by just dropping everything else. It just doesn't seem worth it.

I like my job, I like my colleagues and we do good work there, but I resent the time and emotion they take from me. I love my kids, but kind of ditto there too. That's awful! My family lives about seven hours drive away, and I miss them terribly. I can only see them a few times a year, and as more kids come along, it gets more and more difficult to get to see them at all. I was with them at Christmas, and now it'll be Christmas again. That's 12 months! I guess I just miss having their support (practical and emotional) when things get a bit hairy up here.

It's not much really when you write it all down, and it's hard to put your finger on where the problem lies. I'm a generally positive, busy person and it annoys me that I feel so bad. I paint, I sew, I do woodwork and sometimes I write. Lately I've started to think I just need a few good nights out on the razzle to "sort me out," but I can't do that either because I'm pregnant. I've talked to my husband about this, and he's awfully good and understanding and says we can move back to my hometown if I really want. And I don't know if I really want. I just can't get it straight in my head, if that is the core of the problem or will I just be dissatisfied there too. I've talked to my mum and she says she often feels like that, and you just have to get through it; she says she'll come up and spend some time and take the pressure off. I've said I'm fine.

I spend all week looking forward to the weekend, and then wonder why, when all I do is housework and shopping for groceries. I know loads of people, some with kids too, who I know I could just "drop in on" on Saturday for a coffee or whatever. But I don't feel like it. I feel like getting the hell away from everybody. I want to just jump in the car and drive off and not have to talk to anybody ever again. If it's not people I want, then what the hell difference would moving closer to my family make? I regularly travel for work, and I love getting on that plane, away from home, to a quiet hotel, on my own. Yeah, I'll have to deal with people during the day, but the evening is mine, no dinners, no children, no homework, just me, and the newspapers and polite but anonymous staff. I dread it when colleagues want to go out to dinner or somehow entertain me for the evening. Like I might want to spend my precious time with them? I sound so selfish. I think I'm so selfish to want me all to myself, and feel so guilty for thinking that way that I end up going round and round in circles getting nowhere.

Is that it? I think it is, you know. I think deep down it's just not having enough time. Everybody wants a bit, don't they? And I'll probably look back on this time in years to come and envy/admire this person who was so needed and so in demand. And loved really. It just doesn't feel like that now. It feels like being pulled apart.

How can a person be surrounded by so many people and still be so lonely?

Can't Think Straight

Dear Can't,

But you can, and you do. Your letter is quite rational and concise and you articulate the questions very well and then you give the right answer. This isn't a request for help; it's an essay about Life in Our Time. You're living rather heroically, with a big-time job and a life and two kids and one more in the oven, and traveling and all, and I don't know anybody who's bred for that life -- the folks I know all require time to lollygag around and lie in the grass looking at clouds and browse through the bookstore and stroll around pondering things -- and someone so disciplined as to perform tasks lickety-split 16 hours a day and never need a break is someone you wouldn't care to be. Is loneliness really the problem? Maybe the lack of solitude is, and your guilt at wanting time alone. It's not selfish to let yourself eat dinner alone while reading a newspaper. Everyone needs sanity and good humor and dignity in her life, and a mother of two (three) children needs more than most, so you must do what you can to defend it. Probably this means defending your time day by day, cutting corners where you can, resisting the encroachments of work, rather than making a Big Move. I do think that if you don't have household help now, you should get some, if you intend to keep working. Three kids, a job and housework and cooking are too much, too much, too much. Get a Czech au pair and let her help you. She can take up the slack if someone gets sick, she can fix some meals, she can herd the kids while you sit in a bubble bath and read the paper. Or get someone to come clean your house twice a week. And frankly, you've got to take steps now before the third bairn comes along and things get totally out of control. And now I am going to lie down. It's exhausting just to think about having three small children.

Dear Mr. Blue,

As a young woman I never wanted to have children and therefore never had them and didn't think twice about it. Instead I took the intellectual path and made an interesting life for myself.

Now at 43 I am feeling odd for being single and childless. It's excusable to be one or the other, but heaven forbid, not both! Many people, including relatives, think that I am lesbian, and it's hard to try to slide it into a conversation that I am not.

I have no conscious regrets, but something inside me wonders whether I really did miss the boat, or if I am actually dysfunctional and unable to form intimate bonds. If the latter is true, that means I am also delusional about my well-being.

Surprisingly, many women tell me they are jealous of my freedom, that their men are more trouble than they are worth, that their children are too demanding and that they wish they could travel and read and take naps like I do. Still, I feel like an anomaly.

I can recite Proust and recognize a dozen bird calls, but I can't wear heels or manipulate a child's car seat for the life of me. Please tell me I am OK.

Beaten Up

Dear Beaten Up,

OK, you're OK. In fact, you sound fine. Being single and childless is nothing you need to explain to anybody. At 43 you can afford to stop worrying what people may think about you. Let them deal with it. If they care to ask, you can choose to tell them whatever you want them to know. But you cannot, cannot, cannot try to slip a denial of lesbianism or liberalness or Lebanese ancestry into conversation. It makes me sad just to think of you doing that. You missed a boat that you chose not to sail on. You're sailing on another boat. The world is yours, Proust, birds, books, naps, the adventure of travel, and delight yourself with it and let the beauty and grace of the observed and experienced world drive these night thoughts into the corner where they belong. And in this delight, perhaps, if you wish, if you will it, you'll suddenly be surprised by an intimate bond with someone. Enjoy your life, my dear; it is the only one you'll have on this earth, and it's a good earth.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Two years ago I was in Honolulu. I was in great shape, had a tan, bleached hair, wore toe rings and had a lot of friends to go windsurfing and dancing with. Now I'm a librarian at a college in a small town in Alaska. I feel like I've aged 100 years in the process.

People don't go out on the town, there's no night life, everyone is married and into their own little domestic cocoons. (I'm single.) And my new "librarian" image is such a drag. I used to be a free spirit and an artist, a wild and crazy girl ... but now I'm a book bureaucrat. I've gained weight. I feel bad. The rainy weather depresses me. I can't go out and get a little crazy for fear people from campus will see me and tell tales. My job here is the best I've ever had. Should I be thankful and give the place a little longer, or should I cut my losses and try to get out now before I have to go up for tenure next year and possibly end up weighing 300 pounds?

I'm so afraid I'll move to a new city and still be a lumpish librarian, only now in a new job that I detest. Should I stay or should I go now?

Former Free Spirit

Dear F.F.S.,

If you had three kids in school, a troubled husband, a whopping mortgage and were on probation for possession of illegal toe rings, then it's a problem. But you're single and free as the wind and the answer is simple. You cut your losses. Two years is more than long enough to make up your mind about this gloomy town. One year is enough. Six months is enough. You've made up your mind. You love the job and that's great, but librarianship is like writing; the skills are portable, the profession crosses borders. There's a job you will love as much or more in a city with a hospitable climate and a social scene that lets free spirits go out and sing to the stars. It's a big country, kid. Start polishing up that résumé and sending it out. Start saving money for the move. Get on the treadmill. Look forward to making a new start somewhere.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm in my early 30s, and I've been with a man I love dearly for six years. We have a reasonably healthy and loving relationship, and we plan to spend the rest of our lives together.

Lately, I've begun to realize that we have fundamental emotional and philosophical differences. He is a down-to-earth guy, not much given to self-reflection or questioning his place in the universe. I'm at a point in my life where I feel the need to grow and explore spiritually and emotionally. I know that this is a personal journey, but I want to be able to talk with him about my doubts, questions and, hopefully, my eventual epiphanies.

The problem: He thinks I'm strange for wanting to explore these subjects, and he has no desire to spend time talking about them with me. I feel like I have to hide a special and vulnerable part of myself or face his (gentle, but still painful) ridicule. Mr. Blue, I truly love this man, but I'm wondering if love is enough. Should I stay with the man I love, or strike out on my own while I'm still young enough to find someone who wants to explore the mysteries of existence with me?


Dear Searching,

We're all reflective, searching, brooding over our place in the universe, even your guy. (I guess he feels his place is down to earth.) We simply use different terms, and some people are more self-flaunting and like to put on diaphanous gowns and rejoice in the Life-Giving Goddess of Dance and burn the mystical incense and throw the sacred earth into the air, and other people like to sit and whisper about auras and potents and omens, and others just drop in at the local church, say the Lord's Prayer, suffer the sermon, partake of the sacraments and come home and have pot roast. You should embark on your journey, find texts and teachers that speak deeply to you, ponder matters in your heart, discuss them with cohorts and let your spiritual wisdom shine in your life. Don't insist that everyone in your midst must salute your flag or be banished. Don't dismiss a good and loving man for a little satire. Just let your light shine.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a middle-aged woman (assuming I live to be 110) and have an "interesting" past chasing lovely romantic musicians in Los Angeles during the magical '60s. A few years ago I moved back to the old hometown to care for an aging family member. I've packed on a few pounds and maybe lost a bit of my idealism. My children are successfully raised and launched, but my love life is nonexistent. Do we only get a certain number of lovers and then there is nothing more? Did I use up my allotment? In a crowded theater, if I sit next to a totally strange man, I sometimes fantasize about just for a moment putting my head on his shoulder. Here I am in the Midwest wondering where the men are who are my age, smart and funny and not primarily interested in women my daughters' age and not so encumbered with past baggage that they are just problems looking for a solution. (I have to emphasize the "smart and funny" part as I do not suffer fools gladly.) How can a lonely, aging, ex-flower child, overweight but formerly considered beautiful -- did I say lonely? -- smart, discerning, slightly cynical, liberal, idealistic female find happiness? How?


Dear Blue,

I suppose everyone does have an allotment, but you can't know what it is, so you keep moving cheerfully forward, realizing that in middle age, the hill starts to get steep. Women of 55 can't chase men the same way. And probably you're looking for a man who's 65, just retired, ready to start rock and rolling after a lifetime of productive work. And while a man may bring some adventure into your life, he isn't going to be the fountain of happiness. Try to take a long view and think about what you want to be doing and where and with whom in five years, when you're 60. It's time to settle down and provide for your comfort and happiness in a lot of small ways that you already know about. This is starting to read like a fortune cookie. ("You believe in peace.") The truth is, I don't know.

One More Satisfied Customer Dept.

Last year I wrote you a letter about a quandary that seemed overwhelming at the time. I was stuck in a comfortable life, a good job, but couldn't expunge thoughts of Europe from my mind. Your prescription was to leave it all and give in to my wanderlust. Thank you, Mr. Blue, for giving me the extra push that gave me the courage to go live a dream. I went clam digging on the Jersey shore and ate fine Edam in Rotterdam. In Brussels I wore wooden shoes and swooned at the big stone cathedrals in Heidelburg. I masqueraded in Florence. In Stockholm I skated on a frozen lake and fell into the arms of a Nordic ice queen. Then there was Copenhagen, a city where I can sip good coffee, eat rich pastries and forget that there exists a world where stock options and 401K's are worshipped deities. It is here I remain, Mr. Blue, working as a travel writer, getting used to this new skin I'm in. I'm not sure how long this season of bliss will last, but for the first time in a really long time I feel vibrant, creative and alive. That alone is worth whatever pitfalls lay ahead.

Wanderlusting No More

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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