When I picked up this book, my first thought was, "Is this white woman going to understand what it's like to be a person of color in this country?"
"Where's my husband?! Where is he?!!" I joked to camera while filming the first season of my BRAVO reality show, "Miss Advised," late in 2011.
I was 30 years old, with a decade of Carrie Bradshaw-esque dating columns under my belt, and no ring on my finger. Actually, screw the ring -- I was having trouble just keeping a steady boyfriend. The producers found it ironic: relationship columnist unable to actually maintain relationship. Har, har, har. Hilarious!
I cried myself to sleep every night … and then I found Annie.
I met her at a conference, during which we were asked to say something about ourselves to the hundred plus crowd. I stood up and announced, “Soooo … I’m actually looking for a husband -- if you know someone up for the job, point him my way! Um … Not already a husband to someone else, preferably?”
(Keep in mind that this was a marketing conference, not some sort of relationship summit. No one else confused it with IRL eHarmony.) The room erupted in laughter; my mannerisms suggested I was joking.
But as it turns out, I also wasn’t being completely truthful, either. Not just to the conference attendees, but as Annie pointed out later, to myself.
You see, Annie is a love coach. Yes. A love coach. When I’ve described her as such to friends of mine, the response tends to run toward incredulity, as if that’s the most arcane job title they’ve heard in their (terribly worldly) existence, as if she makes poets look prosaic. Their somewhat judgey subtext: employing a love coach seems as much of an unnecessary luxury as employing a doggy masseuse.
But we have doctors to tend to our bodies, dentists for our teeth, stylists for our hair, dermatologists for our skin, ministers for our souls ... and no one nurturing, guiding, unblocking that most sacred vessel in our lives, our hearts? What’s crazy is that everyone doesn’t have a love coach!
Annie specializes in “love, sex and conflict resolution,” the former two I don’t have nearly enough of, and the latter I have altogether too much. She tells me that she helps her clients “resolve toxic patterns, develop romantic esteem, assuage shame/blame and cultivate deep, resilient relationships that last a lifetime.”
Basically, Annie laundry listed my romantic problems. My love life: toxic. My romantic esteem: in the shitter. My dating past: riddled with shame and blame and regret.Desperate for solutions, I’ve medicated with a particularly modern concoction of self-help books and slightly obsessive girlfriend-enabled over-analysis for years. Despite all that, I can’t seem to figure out the one thing I most long to have: a lifelong love.
I want to fold her up and put her in my suitcase and take her home with me until I work out all my ish.
But back to the conference, and Annie’s skeptical face. “If you really wanted to get married, you would. There must be a way being single is serving your needs, although you might not consciously know it. Is what you really want a husband? Or a fulfilling relationship between two individuals?”
She was right. I didn’t really want a “husband,” per se ... I wanted a partner, a teammate. I wanted a last call of the day. I wanted someone to hold me at night, to hug me and kiss me. I wanted someone -- besides my mother -- to worry about me. I wanted someone to wonder where I was, and if I didn’t come home, I wanted someone to notice. I wanted someone to want my love.
But after 15 years of repeatedly falling in love, only to watch it fall apart, my heart slowly rendered numb by the scar tissue, I had become a cynic.
“Cynics,” Annie points out, when I ask her forlornly if I’ll ever recover from the insidious disease of disappointment, “are simply failed idealists. All cynics started out as romantics, but their dreams got bashed against the sidewalk. So they give up, they say ‘Fuck it, it’s never going to work. I’ll never find true love.’ But inside every cynic is this tiny burning ember of a romantic ideal. They’re just too terrified to reopen that dream.”
I was terrified. God, how I was terrified. Love had become dangerous to me, full of inevitable pain. I’ve seen men I love cheat. I’ve seen men I love leave. I’ve seen men I love tell me I’m their everything, I’m the one, I’m all they ever wanted ... and then I’ve seen those same men change their minds. I’ve seen men who told me they wanted to marry me ... marry someone else.
My relationships -- far from the safe harbor I so yearned for -- were not safe. And that belief was not only devastating -- but, Annie said, it was undermining me receiving the one thing I so desperately wanted: lifelong, lasting, unconditional love.
I began my work with Annie that evening, and as the months stretched out, so did our conversations. With a degree in human biology and philosophy, she integrates psychology, evolutionary science, neurochemistry, sexuality and social dynamics into her coaching ... and I watched as she unraveled some of the knots that have been tying me up for years.
“I don’t know how this is ever going to change,” I tell her, almost in despair one evening. “My heart is surrounded by armor. I don’t want to let anyone in ...”
“Julia, my open-hearted priestess-of-love in the making,” she said to me (yes, she talks like that). “That’s fear. Can we invite the fear in and welcome it? There’s a part of you that is terrified of opening up your heart again, then losing it, and having to feel the pain. There’s another part of you that’s young, idealistic wonder-filled kid that is open to adventure. And both of them are interested in your development. Both parts are fighting for you to stay happy and survive -- they’re not enemies. That fear is a part of you that’s taking care of you. Not your enemy. The fear has a commitment to making sure you don’t have pain. We honor the fear.”
“You talk about your heart having scar tissue,” on she went. “The heart is a muscle. How do bodybuilders build muscle? They make little tiny rips, which grow back with scar tissue, making the muscles bigger and stronger. Whether you realize it or not, thanks to that pain, you have a profoundly enlarged heart. Think of it that way.”
And I do. I sit with that for a minute, and I take it in. A profoundly enlarged heart. I like that. I breathe, and I feel my heart relax, just a little bit. It's a start, I think. And it was.
But seven horrific months of going on first dates, plus love coaching (with cameras rolling) later, I'd given up. Our season was a wrap, and it ended with me sobbing hysterically as yet another completely uninterested adolescent-esque 30-something asshole dumped me, about an hour after he asked me to run to the corner store to pick up some beer for him. Classy!
I'm over it, I think. Not just him, but all of it. Men. Dating. Love in general. I'm over it in the most cliched bitter cat-lady way possible. I'm done. I'm not doing this anymore. My heart can't take it. I look into freezing my eggs, and it's not for a punchline.
Maybe love wasn't meant for me. Maybe I'm not anyone's One.
Annie senses my heart needs tending, and she calls me. Letting go, she tells me, isn't the worst thing in the world. Releasing my white-knuckled death grip of control over my life will allow me to actually experience whatever I was meant to experience, she argues. In other words, I don't get to decide everything, including when I fall in love.
Exhausted -- by the invasiveness and intrusion of cameras, by 15 years of dating, by my repeated inability to love myself -- I let go, metaphorically -- and literally, I crumple to the floor, aching, alone. I grieve.
And then, in that moment of surrender, a paradox emerges: I sense a crack, an opening in my heart. Just a tiny one, but it's there.
It feels a lot like relief, even joy, or some strange emotion that isn't entirely negative. My logical brain cannot fathom how that could be possible. In my darkest moment, contemplating the rest of life sans a partner to love me, how could I feel relief?
"See?" says Annie. "You're beginning to let it unfold," she quotes the tattoo on my left wrist, three tiny letters "LIU" I emblazoned on my skin in honor of my Grandmother, who wisely repeated it as a favored aphorism to her list-obsessed granddaughter.
To bastardize a "Sex & the City" quote, perhaps you have to let go of the life you thought you would lead in order to lead the one you were meant to lead. It somehow made sense. I'd been holding so tight to my fantasies of this perfect man, who would finally fill the gaping void in my self-esteem, and that man wasn't coming. He just wasn't.
And so I began to imagine a future in which -- yes, it's shocking, I know (sarcasm intended) -- I made myself happy. I took care of myself. I nurtured myself. Most importantly, I loved myself. All rah-rah self-help-isms, to be sure -- and all of which I simply wasn't doing.
Two weeks later, my beloved Grandmother passed away, at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. I got the call from my father, and fell to the ground, hysterical. My Grandmother taught me everything about love. My Grandmother WAS love.
During our last conversation, my Grandmother had asked me her favorite question, "Have you found your true love yet?" When I answered that I wasn't sure I ever would, she looked at me and said softly, "You will. And you'll be a good wife and mother, even if you don't think so now."
It was May 9th, the day she died, and I stumbled out to the beach near my house, watched the sun rise, and sobbed. I hadn't ever experienced loss like that, loss of a primary love. I had never felt that kind of pain. I had meetings that day, which I canceled, of course. But I also had a first date that evening, with a young man I had never met before.
All logic told me I should cancel the date … but I had an inexplicable feeling that I shouldn't. My Grandmother was a very spiritual person, with a deep and abiding faith. She believed there was more to this world than meets the eye.
So I didn't cancel the date. And as he met me that evening, for a sunset walk on the same beach I had gone to grieve my Grandmother 12 hours earlier, a sense of calm I couldn't explain washed over me.
"Oh," I thought. "Something's different."
Several hours later, he kissed me for the first time, and wrapped a blanket around our bodies as we cuddled near the shore. I felt waves of unconditional love wash over me, and I felt my Grandmother's presence, like an angel.
The man I met the night of my Grandmother's death is now the love of my life. We've been together 9 months, and it feels completely different than any relationship I've ever had. He is the kindest, most honest, most humble and giving human being I've ever met. It's like every movie cliche: He makes me want to be a better woman. I like to believe Grandmother sent him to me, as her final gift. I know that I cherish him all the more for it.
My Grandmother and Annie have something in common: They were both my love coaches. In fact, we all have love coaches in our lives, people who allow us to see our heart's potential, who never give up on us experiencing the exquisitely wrenching dance of intimacy, who teach us that love and pain and fear and joy cannot be separated, they can only be embraced together. People who teach us that love and loss are two sides of the same coin.
And so this story has become the greatest lesson in my life: Love giveth and love taketh away; out of the pain of love lost was the ecstasy of love gained.
This is the meaning of life, in all its devastating glory. Let it unfold.