I wondered what the day would bring, a wide-open day that let me sense my own wide-open and tenuous life, and I walked out into the living room and everything, everything was pouring with life, yes, I can say it, brimming with love — the red sofa, the chairs with their pattern of roses, the prints of Rothko, the embroidered tree of life from Iran, even the coffee table with its scattering of books: everything was alive with beauty and the presence of being.
I knew then that seeing the world through these eyes, I could never be alone and that I belonged on this earth as surely as an oak tree or a gazelle.
My heart spilled open and the world came alive, and all for no reason.
By grace rather than by any effort of my own, the tenderness inside became present without apology or shame, and for a moment or more I was undefended. The undefended heart carries the fragrance of love and bestows a kindness on ourselves and the world.
Being transparent in this way in the presence of another also happens because it happens — by grace.
I recently met an old friend, Athena, whom I had not run into for a couple of years. We had finally managed to arrange a lunch date and were sitting across from each other in a café in San Francisco. “Let me tell you my news,” she said. An attractive professional woman in her early fifties, Athena had been in a few relationships since her divorce twenty years earlier, but nothing had felt right. There was always something missing. So she spent most of those years on her own.
At different times she had struggled with the fact of being single and had found it difficult to understand why she had not attracted the right partner into her life for such a long time. She had done all the usual things — online dating, meeting friends of friends, going places where people with similar interests would be — but nothing seemed to amount to anything. It was a puzzle, both to her and to her friends.
Eventually, she gave up trying and contented herself with the life that she had, which would have been more than fulfilling for most people. But then, she told me across the table, Simin, a young Afghan woman who had become like a daughter to her, reminded her of a promise she had made the previous Christmas.
“Athena, you promised me you would have a boyfriend by this Christmas,”
Simin had told Athena over breakfast. “Christmas will be here very soon. I have a strong feeling that this is the year you will find the right man. I know you are happy as you are, but will you do something for me? Please, just for me, try going on Match.com for a couple of weeks. You know, lots of people meet their beloved that way. You just never know what might happen.”
“I had gone on Match some years ago and sworn to myself I would never try online dating again,” Athena told me. “It felt like a market, so impersonal. But Simin was so insistent that I agreed to try it for just a week, for her sake. I procrastinated for a few months, but after another call from Simin in which she wanted to know my progress, I connected online with this man who lived locally, and we agreed to meet in the bar of a hotel near the waterfront.
“I arrived a few minutes early and the place was crowded with Google employees attending some sort of conference. There was nowhere to sit at the bar, so I came back into the lobby, where there were plenty of seats, and exchanged a smile with a man who was sitting there on his own. I don’t know why, but I walked back and asked if the seat by him was vacant. He nodded. As I was sitting down he said, ‘You have such a beautiful, open face.’
“It was a spontaneous and genuine comment, and it caught me off guard. (Later, he told me he felt so open it was scary.) I felt warmed by it, and I thanked him. When I was settled he asked what I was there for.
“I paused for a second. What have I got to lose, I thought, in being completely honest with a total stranger. ‘I have a Match.com date,’ I said. ‘I have not met him before, but I don’t think he’s arrived yet. His name is Jack.’
“‘Oh! Are you nervous?’ he asked. ‘I would be so anxious if I were in your shoes.’
“Within minutes we were talking like the best of friends. His name was Rocco Capobianco. He was as good-looking as his name sounded, and he had an edgy, hip style that I loved. He was in town to give a speech at a tech conference. Despite his name he’d never been to Italy and had always wanted to go. Italy is my favorite country, and I go there whenever I can to learn the language and take cooking classes. Rocco told me he had always wanted to take an Italian cooking class.
“He looked at his watch. ‘Hey, it’s 6:00 pm,’ he said. ‘I’ll help you look out for Jack. By the way, I love your boots!’
“‘Thanks! This is my first-date outfit. What do you think?’
“‘You look amazing,’ he said. ‘Jack will think he hit the jackpot.’
“Only later did I realize the unintended irony of that exchange. In moments we were laughing at the situation, he pointing to someone, me shaking my head, then looking out for the next likely fit to the photo. Fifteen or twenty minutes went by, and in that time we had the easiest conversation — you know, the kind that happens when the chemistry is there and you are on each other’s wavelengths.
“I went to look in the bar, but Jack wasn’t there. When I sat down again Rocco looked at me and said, ‘Look, I know this is weird because you are here waiting for a date, but will you have dinner with me tomorrow night?’
“‘Of course, I’d be delighted! I’ll phone you now so you will have my number.’
“Rocco looked up from his phone and then nodded in the direction of a man who was walking toward us, with a benignly confused expression on his face.
“‘I think that’s Jack,’ he murmured.
“Flustered and embarrassed, I shot up from my chair, and without even saying good-bye, I went over to Jack and accompanied him into the bar. In half an hour it was evident that he was not someone I would meet again. On my way home I texted Rocco and apologized for not saying good-bye; I had felt so awkward I hadn’t known what to do.
“He replied, saying, ‘I saw your awkwardness, and you’re perfect. Are you still free for dinner tomorrow?’
“That evening was the most delightful I had ever known. It was like meeting a long-lost friend — except it was clear that he was going to be far more than a friend. Our tastes and approach to life were uncannily similar, but it was more than that, more than I can say. A year later we are building a house together.”
The two of them let themselves be borne on the wings of fate without even knowing it was happening — a classic example of the erratic principle, or chaos theory, at work.
Neither one was trying to make something happen. Neither had sat down with any expectation of saying a word to the other, never mind with any intention of a romance. It was one of those serendipitous moments that have their own rhyme and reason, their own mysterious intelligence.
It all sounds so easy, a dream of a meeting. And yet Athena had been working away inside for years in the way that Rilke implies:
Those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey.
Through her own challenging experiences of both love and solitude, she had come to know that love is first and foremost an inside job — not in the sense of trying to love herself with positive affirmations but rather in becoming intimate with her own experience, with allowing herself to be transparent to herself and others rather than protecting her heart for fear of being known too well and then rejected.
She was also engaged in a creative and fulfilling life that she loved.
As an individual ripens, becomes something in herself, as Rilke puts it, there is less need to find someone else to fill the missing gap. Athena wasn’t averse to an intimate relationship; on the contrary, she knew that she wanted one, but she didn’t need it. All this, I believe, along with her willingness to show up without disguise, contributed to the ease of her encounter with Rocco — who also happened to be so open it was scary.
Excerpted from the book Dropping the Struggle: Seven Ways to Love the Life You Have. Copyright © 2016 by Roger Housden. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
About the author
Roger Housden is the author of Dropping the Struggle and numerous other books, including the best-selling Ten Poems series, which began in 2001 with Ten Poems to Change Your Life and ended with Ten Poems to Say Goodbye in 2012. He offers writing workshops, both in person and online, with an emphasis on self-discovery and exploration.
Visit her online at www.RogerHousden.com.