Hey Girl

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I spent all week camped out on this island with two other teachers. They nicknamed us “the Island of Misfit Toys” but we knew who got the better end of that deal.

Sean sent me this email the other day, and it struck me just silly with happiness. He says he doesn’t mind my sharing.

Hey girl,

Liberation looks good on you
but your liberation also looks good on me.
because as MLK said,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
kickass or what?
Sean and I radically changed our relationship a year or so ago, and I’ve been struggling to find the right words to talk about it. I made an attempt at it around the campfire last week and it went okay, but I’m still not totally able to articulate things. There isn’t a label that satisfies me. “Open Relationship” is pretty close, but I’m not totally comfortable with it for the following reasons:
  1. People tend to assume that an open relationship is about “getting” (isn’t it weird how people use that word, which assigns connotations of privilege to something that most folks disapprove of?) to have sex with more than one partner. Folks get pretty hung up on the idea, and it isn’t really an important part of what I want to say. It’s distracting.
  2. It uses that word “relationship” with the significance that I’m trying to separate from it. Relationships are everywhere, and I think it’s arbitrary how some get the capital R and others don’t. The most significant relationships in my life are not always with romantic interests

What I want to say is about liberation. I should have known I could count on Sean to help me find the words. He’s dead on.

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Sleeping out under the pale night sky was awesome, and running upriver some sixty miles with hardly a sign of humanity was staggering (we passed another boat only once, cruising down from Circle with a snowgo strapped on). It’s hard to explain how it feels to find yourself in the middle of country as vast as the sky. Humbling and freeing, too.

I was under a lot more pressure than I realized, back when we were in a conventional relationship. Pressure to always be happy together, pressure to follow the standard relationship plot (love, marriage, babies, die together), pressure to be satisfied with the physical and emotional intimacy within the relationship, pressure to prop up the parts of the relationship that weren’t working to protect the parts that were. (I caused an important relationship to implode, once, by trying, in a very clumsy way, to confront these problems, and I’m still dealing with the fallout from that.) Every time I acknowledged my feelings of dissatisfaction, I felt guilty for letting Sean down. Things compounded.

It boils down to this: The relationship was constraining me, not supporting me (NOTE: don’t conflate the relationship and Sean. Sean has always supported me in every way). It limited my emotional expression and made me feel guilty when I stepped outside of those limits.

What a whopper of a realization that was. And it wasn’t Sean’s fault, or mine. We’d done everything right: we loved each other, we supported each other, and we trusted each other. We’d followed the recipe for success, so it was a sucker-punch when we failed.

The Yukon is full of gravel bars that are often completely hidden under just a few inches of water. Geoff explained that he avoids these by hugging the cutbanks where the water runs fast and deep, and by looking for swirls on the surface that indicate depth and power below. This is basically the opposite of what I learned as a kid on the ocean, where it's important to avoid squirrely looking water because it usually hides a submerged hazard.

The Yukon is full of gravel bars that are often completely hidden under just a few inches of water. Geoff explained that he avoids these by hugging the cutbanks where the water runs fast and deep, and by looking for swirls on the surface that indicate depth and power below.  This is basically the opposite of what I learned as a kid on the ocean, where it’s important to avoid squirrely looking water because it usually hides a submerged hazard.

Things got pretty bad last fall, at work, and I finally gave up and tried a little slash-and-burn, figuring I could start completely fresh: I quit my job and told Sean I was quitting him, and I cried a lot and promised myself I’d stick with it because temporary agony was better than a lifetime of tepid, nagging discomfort. It didn’t work well. There was too much to lose.

So, instead of cutting loose, Sean and I ended our old relationship and rebuilt a new, different one, where the key was liberation and mutual empowerment. The relationship would be flexible, all doors would remain open, and we wouldn’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations, difficult feelings, or unconventional confessions.

To make this happen, we did away with commitment in the usual sense: We don’t count on a future together. We are not exclusive. We are reliably there for each other. That’s enough.

Security is a huge part of typical romantic relationships, and I now think that’s some bullshit. People lean on their partners to make them feel confident and wanted when they can’t love themselves, and that sucks. Typical romantic relationships impose limits on the partners so that both can feel safe.

I spent last week sleeping in a tent with the door open to the night sky and the river breeze and all the wild things in the wilderness. The yukon flats are not safe, but I wouldn't trade the cool air and the sunset for walls and a ceiling.

I spent last week sleeping in a tent with the door open to the night sky and the river breeze and all the wild things in the wilderness. The yukon flats are not safe, but I wouldn’t trade the cool air and the sunset for walls and a ceiling.

Security should come from inside, like it’s the opposite of insecurity or something (duh). So Sean and I are working on helping each other feel secure from the inside out. The future is uncertain, but each of us is going to be awesome enough to deal independenty with whatever comes up. That’s our commitment. That’s our security.

It seems really stupid, now, but when we killed our old relationship, it felt like a big deal for me to get my own bedroom: I could stay up all night reading without bothering anyone (or not), I could have as many blankets as I wanted (or not), I could invite cuddles (or not), and I didn’t have to feel guilty about any of those things because we weren’t in that kind of a relationship anymore. I had always felt guilty before about wanting my own space (both the walls-to-decorate kind and the room-to-grow-as-a-person kind), like denying my partner access to my whole world was a sign of failure.

I think if I had been less-inclined to challenge myself and prod my discomforts (guilt, claustrophobia), things would have been different. I know people who are happy in conventional relationships, and I envy them the simplicity of that comfort. For me, though, I know now that it can’t work. The typical restrictions that a relationship imposes are too uncomfortable.

Typical romantic relationships impose limits on love, intimacy and sex.

  1. Mainstream culture treats love like it’s a limited commodity, and it’s plain to me that it isn’t. I’ve noticed that the more confident and secure I feel, the more broadly and deeply I am able to love. This used to look like a paradox: when I was happiest and most loved, I was most inclined to extend love beyond the romantic relationship. Instant guilt trip! Pow!
  2. Emotional intimacy is limited naturally by space, time and luck, but typical relationships impose other limits (and have other limits imposed on them by society, as I described here) that are, at best, pointless and, at worst, cowardly. There’s this idea that intimacy between partners diminishes if the partners are close to other people, too. Dumb.
  3. Then there’s sex. Why does mainstream culture make such a big deal about sex in the terms and conditions of acceptable relationships? Isn’t emotional intimacy more important, anyway? No, it turns out, not to most people (I learned that the hard way). I talked to Sean about this last night, and he said something like “meaningful, emotional intimacy is way more important, but you can’t see it or measure it or even always recognize it, so people use physical intimacy as a symbol.” Swoon. There’s also a long history of oppressing women here. I don’t think I even need to touch that, but I want to mention that it’s time we got over it.

Why is it that there are socially-acceptable degrees of non-intimate relationships, but when sex or love is on the table, polarization occurs? Either you are, or you aren’t “together”, “dating”, or “in a relationship”. Bullshit. I’m in a relationship of some kind with each person on the planet. Why shouldn’t each relationship be unique? Why shouldn’t the people involved get to decide the terms and conditions?

I know some people who, in reading this, will miss the point. They’ll say, “wait, are you guys broken up, or not?” I asked Sean about that, too, and he said “that’s silly. If they hear what you’re saying, they’ll understand that ‘Breaking Up’ isn’t in the jargon for you anymore. You don’t cut someone loose just because something isn’t working, you change the relationship and find something new that works better. Creating space isn’t the same as failing. If they think that, it’s because they need a paradigm shift, not because you aren’t explaining it well.” He’s right, too, my brilliant partner.

DSC03534From where I stand now, I don’t have to feel bad about wanting space and fresh air and freedom. The feeling is mine, and I love me, so the feeling can’t be wrong. I can embrace it and follow through on it, and the best part is that having space of my own somehow makes more room for Sean, too. I am not kicking him away to make space for myself in our relationship anymore: I am inviting Sean into the limitless space of my life.

I no longer have to wall myself off against new intimacy in order to protect someone else’s feelings. I can blur the usual lines between friendship and love to suit what’s in my heart. I’m more honest about my feelings now than I’ve ever been because there’s no need for guilt or censorship or dissembling. My discomfort, my crushes, my cravings for solitude; all of this I can embrace as mine and speak of freely. There’s no need to push down the stuff that wells up because, no matter how peculiar or unwelcome it may be, it’s mine and it’s part of what makes me awesome.

Now, I don’t have to think about someone else’s future when I make my own. I can move to Alaska without a plan to come back. I can say “I will never get married” and “I am going to buy a boat” and that’s it. It’s done. There’s nobody I must consult.

It’s a little scary, living outside the walls and ceiling, but it’s awesome to finally find a place where all of me fits comfortably.

Isn't this cutbank on the Yukon extraordinary? It's something like 25 feet of sand with a think layer of soil on top. We stopped to watch chunks of sand the size of my torso fall from the bank and plunge into the river.

Isn’t this cutbank on the Yukon awesome? It’s something like 25 feet of sand with a thin layer of soil on top. We stopped to watch chunks of sand the size of my torso fall from the bank and plunge into the river. Nothing in Alaska is slow or small in its magnitude.

In conclusion, I return to the beginning:

Hey girl,

Liberation looks good on you
but your liberation also looks good on me.
because as MLK said,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
kickass or what?

Love Letter to Living Alone

I like living alone.

I have never lived alone before, unless you count my cupboard on Angelique or the tent I camped out in, in high school. I’ve always had a family or a roommate or a live-in boyfriend. Always.

I like having two plates and two cups in the cupboard and keeping them always clean, and waking up in the morning with my mug already on the stove, waiting for tea, right where I left it when I did last night’s dishes.

I like coming and going as I please and bending my plans to please only me.

Is it selfish that I like that nothing is shared? I like the freedom of carrying my own supplies and going places on my own power.

I like that when I’m in social situations, people take me seriously because there’s no one nearby to speak for me. Men don’t perceive me as background scenery, and women don’t perceive me as a part of a larger organism.

It’s shocking and liberating, being suddenly free of those perceptions. I feel like part of me just stepped out of a shadow and shook off a heavy pack that I didn’t know I was wearing, and now I’m featherlight and running. I feel fearsome. Noticed and heard.

I’ve felt this way before when I’ve had a long-distance love. Confident, laughing out loud, spotlit, brazen in full breath, and supported.
Like the man in the phrase “behind every great man there’s a great woman”
Like I’m suddenly standing in front.
Like I’m taking risks and looking really cool and feeling really giddy, and nobody knows I have a secret safety net.

Maybe I like having all the privileges of independence with none of the risks.
If things go wrong, my other life is waiting there in the wings. I could go back to Arkansas and pick it up where I left off and little would have changed, but I don’t want that. I’m too young to be a pseudopod on a family amoeba, and I’m too old to make excuses.

I want this. I want to carry my own independence.

Sean and I made the decision to reevaluate our situation in November because I realized that I wasn’t happy. I was crushed in the commitments and obligations of our partnership, not made greater and freer by its support. I think now that that’s in part due to the way the world perceives and acts on women in relationships.

I wanted my own identity. He wanted me to have it.

We talked about it a lot and decided that we are strong and trusting and honest enough to shuck conventional relationship rules, to live independently, and to tackle challenges as they come up. I have a great person standing, not behind, but beside me, and it’s friggin’ awesome.

Someday, I will live in a world where I can stand beside a man and not disappear. Until then, I’m standing alone in full arctic sun, working on growing strong enough to glow blister-bright in any shadow.

It’s a little scary that there’s not an end-date on this arrangement. Sean doesn’t want to live in Alaska, and I’m not planning to leave until I’m ready to go joyfully into a new adventure of my own choosing. There’s not a clock ticking down to a conventional future for us.

Ha!

That’s okay. That’s kind of the point. Maybe in about a hundred years I’ll be ready to build the rest of my life with someone, but right now, I just want to live the life I want when I’m not compromising. Sean’s with me, and his support is making me greater and freer.

Keely