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The cat in my flat must go back

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Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Aug 3, 2010


I do not love this cat. I do not like this cat. I want to slap this cat. Can’t I send it back, this cat?


Dear Cary,

I recently adopted a young cat from the animal shelter. She’s very sweet and loving and is really not all that badly behaved. But she’s really clingy and has some annoying habits. She likes to lick me a lot. It’s slightly annoying until I go to bed, and then it’s really annoying. I can’t sleep. And when I try to move her away, she runs back immediately. This can go on for hours. Of course, she also does normal cat stuff at night, like meowing and making noise around the house. I’ve started putting her in the bathroom and using earplugs, but that really doesn’t seem like a solution.

I know I should give it time, but honestly, I want nothing more than to take her back to the shelter. I would feel like a horrible person and know that everyone would think I was terrible, too. I can’t imagine physically doing it. I’ve always looked at people who return animals as heartless and irresponsible. The whole situation is creating a huge anxiety problem for me. I’ve almost had panic attacks thinking about this cat, and I’ve nearly cried at work.

I’d been wanting a cat for at least a year, and I had one growing up, so I thought I was prepared. But I feel like I can’t handle committing to this cat for the next 15 or so years. I feel like I made a big mistake. I feel trapped. I just feel as though I can’t relax or be alone in my apartment anymore. Not just because of her habits, but just having her next to me all the time. When I leave, it feels like a relief. I’m terrified of commitment in general, but I never thought something this small would freak me out so much.

I don’t think this is normal. I have had problems with anxiety in the past, though undiagnosed, and have had a few episodes this year where I feel sort of depressed. So, I wonder if maybe I’m having ridiculous reactions because I’m already sort of unbalanced. I tell myself that plenty of people have cats and they don’t mind, and that I should feel happy that she’s got a safe home now, but it doesn’t really make me feel better. I can’t imagine facing the shelter people or explaining to my friends and family that I abandoned her, but I think a huge weight would be lifted off me. I just don’t know what to do.

Thanks.

Made a Bad Cat Decision

Dear Bad Cat Decision,

Well, now look. You can’t just go giving cats back. The cat is saying something to you more than meow. What story is the cat telling you?

I think the cat is telling you a story about abandonment and commitment. Think of yourself as the cat. Think of yourself as having been abandoned, and then having been rescued, and think of how it would feel if, after your rescue, you were abandoned again. If you can conjure up compassion for this lost cat, then in parallel, you will conjure up compassion for the lost parts of yourself. So treat this as a rare chance to find out what lost parts of you are hungry and crying for attention, and then give these parts of yourself the attention they are asking for. That is how to properly deal with this cat.

So trust the cat. Trust the impulse that led you to get the cat.

You chose the cat. The cat did not choose you. Not that it’s your fault and you’re bad. But the cat is a phone call from you to you. You have to answer the phone and figure out who is calling. You put your finger on it yourself. You have a problem with commitment. What is that about? It’s about control. Now, if you do not feel safe, then you feel the need to control every little bit of time, and you can feel that people are wasting your time and interfering with your grand plans for how to spend your Saturday mornings. So you have what we call a control problem, which is at root a spiritual problem: You have no trust in the universe; you have no trust that the universe loves you and is taking care of you.

The cat probably has more trust in the universe than you do. The cat trusted you because to the cat, you are the universe. So think about that cat. That cat is rubbing up against you because the cat knows that you are the universe and you are going to take care of it. If you betray the cat then you are betraying this universal principle: that when things come into our lives we respond to them. We meditate upon them and try to understand their code, what they are telling us.

Sometimes that means admitting that we were wrong about what we thought. We are continually wrong; that is what learning is; learning is discarding what we were wrong about and learning what is actually true.

Part of your motive for getting the cat was to recapture your past. But your past is gone. When we try to recapture the past, all we do is create a new situation in the present that is based on illusion and impossible longing. We do this over and over until we stop trying to recapture the past. So look at the cat in the present. You are not a child and this is not the cat of your childhood. This is a new cat.

So there you are with the cat. The cat is trying to tell you something. I suggest you spend whole days with this cat. Stop doing all the other things you are doing and just spend time with this cat. Look into the cat’s eyes and listen to the cat purr and try to understand the cat’s language.

You can always give the cat away in the future. But for now:

Keep the cat. Stick with the cat. Let the cat in your flat get fat.

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My mother is dying — how will I bear it?

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I know it’s inevitable, but I can’t imagine how to get through it.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 26, 2005 01:04 PM PDT

Dear Cary,

I’m writing because I love your advice and follow your column avidly. I don’t have the time or focus to make this pithy. I’ve always envisioned writing you a clever and insightful letter someday, and this ain’t it.

In a nutshell: I just learned my mother has a deadly cancer, her second round in two years. Despite what doctors are saying right now, I have a gut feeling that this is it: My mother is going to die young. She’s not even 60. I’m not even 40. She won’t meet my future children. She may not even be alive to see me get married to the love of my life. He and I had planned to get married next summer.

I am the only daughter, and anticipate being in the role of primary caretaker. My father and brother try their best, but I have always known it will be me who will help my mother die (or get well if there is some miracle). In fact, I have been preparing for this in therapy for over a year: trying to overcome my phobic fear of death, hospitals, illness, and least helpful of all: vomiting (people getting chemo vomit — a lot). I’ve made some progress, but I am still terrified and panicked that my fears will get in the way of being helpful or comforting.

She gets her first chemotherapy treatment next week, and I will be there (she lives in a city three hours away).

I’m beyond “why me, why her.” I know we all must deal with the death of our parents someday. Here is my question: How do people bear it? What can I do to overcome my fears and terror, and to offer my mother — who I love fiercely — solace and even meaning in the face of death? Is it even my role to offer this? How do I hold hope and death at the same time? She has been a wonderful mother — and devoted so much of her life to caring for me. How do I return the favor?

Heartbroken and Afraid

Dear Heartbroken and Afraid,

Much has been said to malign death, but little is said in its defense. Thus we fear it inordinately. But there is much about death that is wonderful. One thing that is wonderful about death is how little it requires of us, and how much we can count on it. Unlike a lover or a deliveryman, death will surely come, eventually, every time, to all of us. It will come whether we want it to or not, whether we are home when it arrives or not, whether we schedule it or not. The certainty of its arrival is frightening in a way — we might not be ready when it arrives! — but it is also reassuring. For once we do not have to choose. We bear no responsibility at all. If we do not make a selection, a selection will be made for us. When death arrives, it will not require payment or any form of reciprocity. It will not turn down the bed and then stand at the door waiting for a tip. Death, for the dying, need not be feared.

All death requires of us is that we bury our dead.

This is not to say that you are a silly and weak earthling caught up in weak and silly fears. I am not trying to pass myself off as some cold, imperious guru, impervious to fear of death. Far from it. I too fear death and dread the passing of those around me. I only suggest you try to make peace with death itself, in your own heart, to the extent possible, in order to lighten your burden, so that you can then move on to the issue before you with less dread and anxiety. You have probably made ample progress, perhaps more than you realize, by concentrating on this issue over the last year in your sessions with a therapist. You have been preparing. You cannot cure yourself, of course, or eliminate your natural responses to these future events. But you can prepare for them, and you have been doing so.

So take heart knowing that you are well prepared for the difficulties ahead. And take heart knowing that there will be many, many people around you who will care for you and help you when you need it. Your immediate family may disappoint you, but when illness comes, others rise to the occasion; wise caregivers and unexpected allies who were only on the periphery seem to step up and become central. Be alert to the people in your mother’s life who will now come forward. Look to them for the support you will need. That is how people bear such things.

It’s gruesome and terrible and frightening, I know, when the body is in the process of dying. But we do get used to certain tasks, however much we think we could never endure them. And death itself, once accomplished, is serene and quiet.

While you are taking care of these tasks, think of the immense procession you have joined — consider, as you empty bedpans, that you are taking your place on the great wheel, that we all go, every one of us, eventually, no matter what we believe, no matter what we have accomplished or destroyed, no matter how we have failed: We all go, and likely there will be someone emptying our bedpans, and someone emptying theirs, and someone emptying theirs. In this cycle of care and decay we are united. Your mother will go, and you will follow. My parents will go, and I will follow. Or perhaps I will go first and they will follow. We do not control the order of our going. Of this we can be sure.

I am not saying something as clichéd as that all this is happening for a reason. I don’t know that. But I do know that death comes to all of us eventually, and so to deny it when it is coming is, well, futile, yes, but also undignified. Without giving up — we must do what we can to live — we also need to embrace death, recognize its power, its omnipotence. Give it its due.

Perhaps some of our unease has to do with our guilt that we are not the ones who are dying. But really, unless we believe in a literal hell — and I don’t — what could be so bad about being on the other side? Why should we pity those who leave a little before us? For a time, some of us will be on one side, and some on the other. For a time, our friends are inside the nightclub and we are behind the rope. But before too long, we’ll all be over there on that side. True, the difference between the living and the dead is profound and fundamental, as is the difference between those inside the club and those behind the rope. But still, as Tom Waits sings, “We’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground.”

So I suggest you take responsibility for the things under your control, try to make the proper medical and financial decisions in a timely way, comfort your mother, tell her whatever you need to tell her before she goes, but give some measure of honor to death itself, as well. It is all of our fate. It is our inheritance. We will all be joined there eventually.

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Help! I’m getting older!

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I’m not ready for cats and pottery class, but I don’t know how to deal with the fear.

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 7, 2006

Dear Cary,

I find myself pondering the notion of dating again after the demise of a long-term relationship. I’m female and in my late 30s, and I find myself increasingly self-conscious about being “an older woman” on the dating scene. While I’ve always been aware of the power of female youthfulness, the volume of that cry for the young ones seems ever-increasing, and sometimes it gets downright mean, as if women who age do so out of spite. In this big bad Northwest city, it seems cruelly competitive, and even scrolling through the letters section of Salon, I come across nasty references to women’s “expiration dates.” I can’t say I blame men for wanting to date younger women, and I’m not looking for an explanation or justification for this state of affairs. I know men face ageism in dating, too, but it’s far less common on the other side of the gender fence. The whole thing scares me and I don’t know how to deal with that fear.

I do have a few things going for me in the midst of this onslaught of matron-itis: I keep myself in great shape, I delight in all the feminine trappings — from fishnets to backrubs after a guy’s had a hard day to debating politics because it’s sexy, plus I’m blessed with excellent health. While I don’t lie about my age, I could shave off some years and successfully pass (but it’s not about that for me). While I’d like to have a serious relationship (marriage, most likely) with kids in our shared life someplace, I’m not at the mercy of my biological clock. I wouldn’t mind adoption, stepkids, foster kids, or even just being the crazy aunt ‘n’ uncle to the kids down the street. So I’m not racing against time in that regard, which relieves some pressure. Plus, I am pretty flexible about age myself. If some beguiling 58-year-old presented himself as a potential suitor and we were compatible, I wouldn’t think twice about hopping into his sidecar and blasting down the road with him.

I’m not the type to adopt a fire-sale mentality when it comes to dating — hardly desperate, hardly dependent upon a man to define my value. But I still find myself psyched out by the fact that I’m not as young as I used to be, and that that may count against me in more cases than not. I don’t need to hear that I should date in massive volume to better my odds or that my own self-worth is more important than the worth anyone else might ascribe to me. I simply would like you to tell me, friend, how exactly to run between the raindrops of this age thing? I’m not quite ready for cats and pottery class.

Scared of Math in Seattle

Dear Scared of Math,

There are people who can give you advice on dating and so forth, but I don’t think I’m that person and I don’t think that’s what you’re asking for. You’ve made it clear that you don’t want to hear certain predictable pieces of advice or platitudes. Plus you’ve written to me, as opposed to maybe some other person who might be able to offer more in the area of practical advice. That in itself says something.

So after reading your letter, which was very enjoyable — I like the way you have thought this through, and I like the way you express yourself, especially when you note that some people seem to think women age purely out of spite (that was good!) — I went over it again looking for actual questions or problems that I could address. And I found this: “The whole thing scares me and I don’t know how to deal with that fear.”

Now that I can relate to. The prospect of aging scares you and you don’t know how to deal with the fear. That’s a very honest statement. I think it’s a great place to start. It’s a great place to stop, too, if you get what I mean. It’s not really about age, it’s about fear.

You’re dealing with aging very well already. You’re taking care of yourself. You’re thinking through the options it presents and what it requires of you and so forth. But you didn’t say you don’t know how to deal with aging. You said you don’t know how to deal with the fear.

The fear, the fear, the fear. How does one deal with fear? How I deal with fear is mainly I try to identify and make concrete what it is I’m actually afraid of.

Have you ever noticed that a person who is not afraid to state the facts as they are can seem fearless? A person who is not afraid to say I am a socialist or I am a Republican or I am 65 years old and who dares you to do something about it — that that person can seem fearless? What is it about saying the obvious? Well, it makes the obvious obviously less important.

Watch me: My name is Cary Tennis and I am a 52-year-old recovered alcoholic.That’s the truth. You want a piece of me? I had a friend who was a writer who lied about his age in order to seem more interesting. We’re not really friends anymore. I wonder why. I am attracted to people who can tell the truth. It’s a good quality in writing as well — the ability to tell the truth. So I suggest you tell people exactly how old you are and let them deal with it. I mean, do you really want to have a serious relationship with a man who can’t handle the truth?

Another thing I suggest you do about your fear is to make a list of the things that you actually do fear that are related to aging. Make them concrete. Say them out loud: What if a man should reject you when you tell him your age? What would happen then? Would you have to go to the hospital? Would you be unable to speak for a month?

Let me play too: I fear being thought of as an old person. That is too vague. We want to zoom in even closer. And let’s make it you instead of me. I’m not playing anymore. So who exactly would think of you as an old person and how would that affect you? Well, say a man you like were to think of you as too old to date. Say he were to lie to you and tell you he didn’t want to go out with you because he was too raw from a recent breakup, and then you find out later that was a lie and really it was because you were too old for him. What would be the consequences of that? Would that make you lose your job or walk with a limp? Or say that you have a relationship and then the man decides you are too old and breaks up with you and tells you that’s why he’s breaking up with you. What would the consequences of that be? You would probably be angry and upset; you might be more upset than you expected to be. The real fear there, it seems to me, is the fear of emotional pain. It’s normal to fear emotional pain — to fear pain of all kinds. Would it be worse emotional pain if he broke up with you because you were older? How? Because age is something you cannot control?

Possibly.

You are a smart person. You can see where this is going.
What happens when we examine our fears in detail is a couple of things. Either they seem to melt away as trivial, or they lead to more existential things that genuinely do frighten us but which are big universal conditions that we share with all people. It is understandable to fear things we cannot control. That is the human condition.

I could do this all night. The issue is fear.

It also may be helpful to know that you do not have to get rid of your fear. It is OK to feel fear and continue to do what you are doing. There is a book out called “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. I haven’t read it … but it’s a great title, don’t you think? It’s almost all you need to know right there.

The real problem is the fear … itself. Oh, boy, I’m not going to have to quote FDR, am I? Actually, it’s sort of bracing to listen to that famous speech. Maybe before you go out on your next date, just listen to that old guy FDR hammering out his lines. It’s actually, as I said, rather bracing.

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I’m an absent-minded engineer; my mind wanders and so does my wallet

I fear I lack common sense in life, and this affects my performance.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 24, 2008

Dear Cary,

How does one build common sense? I’m a 31-year-old who has been plagued for most of my adult life with this problem. I’m a software engineer by trade, but I really love the theoretical aspects more than the practical aspects: algorithms and design as opposed to debugging and being very, very careful.

Unfortunately, even though I work in a national lab that does research, most of my job is fairly mundane, building software, with occasional forays into the higher-level thinking I really enjoy. Also, I’m a fairly serious musician, and have been playing piano for 15 years, studying jazz and Latin music for the past six, practicing and gigging regularly and making a part-time living that way. I went to a top university, where I reveled in subjects in and out of my major, including chamber music, dance and drawing.

But this problem of common sense affects me in several ways. First, I tend to space out at work — often music is the culprit, or else ideas I happen to be thinking of at the time. I’ve become highly forgetful, from where did I put my wallet to the details of what was given at last week’s presentation at work, to the point of probably losing some professional standing. In a way, I feel like I’m living life as if insulated by some invisible suit, like there’s a layer between me and the rest of the world somehow. This layer goes away when there is an intense emotional experience, like when I’m really in the groove musically, or having a great conversation, or eating a great meal, or having my heart broken (i.e., pain).

I also have rather sporadic discipline; whereas in high school and early college I could be counted on to go above and beyond the call of duty in my own free time to prepare for some long-term goal, now my commitment wavers, whether it be regular daily music practice, regular exercise, keeping my apartment clean or reading science journals during spare time at work.

Overall, I’m doing fine, but I would like to increase my common sense and moment-to-moment awareness if I could. Or is it time to simply “accept who I am,” the absent-minded professor type with his head in the clouds? BTW, I do have friends whom I have a pretty good connection with and do not have much trouble with meeting women, but when out of my element I can be socially awkward, in case these are related.

Thanks!

Kind of Spacey

Dear Kind of Spacey,

Overall, you are fine. You really are. Common sense is overrated.

Now, I am no expert in software, but I know that software engineers seek elegant solutions. If a software program had 11 different places where one variable might be stored, and if every time this variable were needed the program had to look in 11 different places, you might seek a more elegant solution. You might say, well, let’s give that variable an address, or whatnot, and have it always stored in the same place.

Analyze the systems that are your own life. Analyze them as you would analyze a software-engineering problem. Define your wallet as a variable. Define your glasses as a variable. Look at all the places your wallet could be. Look at the system of where you put your glasses. You didn’t mention glasses, but that is probably because they are lost. We will help you find them.

As if from space, watch your movements through your house, through your town, through your office. Map your movements and see where the glasses go. Take notes for a week on where your glasses are. Where are the weak points in the system? When you stop to do the dishes, for instance, or when you answer the door? Or when you come in the house? Where do you put your glasses? Where do you put your wallet? Do you put them just anywhere? If you put them just anywhere, stop doing that. Put them someplace. Name the place. Name it: front table by the door, or kitchen counter. Name all the places.

Basically you have two stable areas, your home and your office. And then you have this phenomenon of travel, in which you are moving through space. You may be in a car or on a train or a bus or you may be walking. When you are traveling you are wearing clothes and you are carrying something. Your glasses are probably in a container and the container is either in your clothes or in what you are carrying. Your wallet is in the cargo area of your clothing.

Analyze the travel of the glasses and the wallet, their journey through space. Analyze your body’s proximity to the glasses and the wallet. Is there any way the glasses can always be attached to your body? If they were on a strap or string?

How many places can the glasses go? Eliminate most of those places. Do the same for your wallet. Stop when you are taking out your wallet and ask, Why am I taking out my wallet? Is it because it is jammed into my hip most unnaturally? Examine the architecture of pants. The back pocket attracts wallets. Naturally, the wallet seeks shade and warmth. So it gravitates toward the back pocket. But perhaps it does not belong there.

Today’s clothes are built with several cargo areas. Examine the cargo areas. As the status level of clothes changes, so the cargo area changes. High-status men carry no cargo.

Couldn’t there be just one system of wallet carrying? The left inside pocket of a blazer works. But then you take the blazer off. The wallet has cards and money. It has secrets. If you take the blazer off and hang it on a hook, you take the wallet. You might need it at the table to display your card status, your remaining strength, your devolving credits.

The wallet is inefficient. Soon electronics will solve that. It will all be in a device. Then where will we carry the device? The hip is no place for a device. It makes you look like maintenance. You are not maintenance. You are big-time. You are aerodynamic. You are not encumbered by key rings or pouches. The architecture of your ensemble forbids it. So where will it go?

The backpack or biker bag seems to be the way. The man purse or fanny pack is not the way. But a backpack or a biker bag can be manly. Strap it to you like a weapon. Keep things in it.

If you have a bag that is always with you, assign that bag as the place where the glasses always are. Practice putting them there. For a week, even though it may at times take more effort or time than you feel is efficient, always put the glasses in the bag. Carry the bag with you and always put the glasses in the bag.

Once you have mapped out a system for tracking your glasses, think of your attention as a pair of glasses. You always want to have your attention with you but sometimes it is not there. Where is it? Where did you leave it? Where did you put it down? Watch yourself as you go from the house to the mode of transit to the office: Where does your attention go as you travel? Watch it and see what it does.

The difficulty of this is that the attention is moving even when you are sitting still. It is hard to carefully observe the attention when the attention is in motion. So slow down the process by meditating. Sit for 15 minutes on the floor and breathe in and out. Watch your attention. See where it goes. After a few minutes you may see that your attention slows down. Like a bird, it settles somewhere. Take note of how long it settles and when it moves.

Scientists first observe. Then they hypothesize. In this case the instrument, or method, is the meditative pose. It is a duck blind from which you observe but are not seen. Observe where your attention wanders. Watch what it does.

After a while, you can learn to call to it. Call to it in a whisper. Say, Hey, attention. Over here.

It has, of course, its own devices. It is autonomous and wandering. It flits. It can be skittish. You will never control it completely. It has notions. But you can learn its habits and how to find it. You can learn to call it when it seems lost.

So to sum up, my suggestion is that you not worry too much about common sense because common sense is common. Instead, bring to these questions your unusual intelligence and your training. Analyze these phenomena as you would analyze something in your area of expertise. View them as systems. Become alert to the way they twist and turn, how they vary, how they wiggle. Elementary particles wiggle, don’t they? Wallets wiggle. Even time wiggles as it flows close to its opposite-flowing twin, does it not? Are we not in a tangle of strings? Is it not all music?

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Will I ever find happiness in the U.S.?

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I could not have stayed in my country of birth, but I feel like my life in America is just unlucky

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 1, 2010

Dear Cary,

I am so glad you are back. Thank you for still caring deeply for others while you are battling your health issues. I really need some advice at this point in my life and I need it to come from somebody who does not know me.

The problem is probably more pervasive than I can describe here but I gotta start somewhere. There is something really wrong with me and I don’t know what to do! I just can’t seem to be happy. Don’t get me wrong, I am usually a fairly funny and upbeat person and I always help people with their problems. I can hold myself together for long stretches of time, but I eventually always end up in the same state of mind again.

Let me describe:

I grew up in a different country under a fairly strict regime. Let’s just say that criticism is the choice of communication over there; not as much anymore, but still considerably. As I got older I did poorly in school; I barely made it out of there, had to repeat a grade, and I was a huge disappointment to my family. The focus in the classroom was on repeating prepackaged information and in that circle of negative feedback I always felt out of place. I started not seeing any point in living at around 16. When my parents had me they weren’t even in their 20s yet. I understand that they didn’t have the time, energy or experience to deal with a depressed daughter who couldn’t fit in. This is where I learned not to show any of my weaknesses because my family was overwhelmed with everything anyway. My issues in addition to theirs would have killed them.

As soon as I could leave I did. I came to the U.S. a little bit after graduating high school and it was awesome. It was new, I was independent, and I found some new friends. I finally felt like there was a place I could … maybe … possibly call home. Even though I only stayed for one year (visa regulations) I knew I’d go back eventually. After working my ass off and being put down constantly in an ungrateful job for a few years back home, I finally tore down all the bridges, I sold everything I owned, got rid of my apartment and moved back to the U.S. I moved in with a guy I had met online and figured I could go from there. I won’t even describe the disaster that this turned out to be. Can you tell I sometimes make irrational decisions? Well, it sure shocked the hell out of my family.

Anyway, I am a little better now in the sense that I cleaned up my life a little. I got rid of the guy and went back to school here in the U.S. My relationship with my family is fine. I graduated college at the top of my class, and I am now in a graduate program at an Ivy League university. Needless to say, I have no money whatsoever. Everything I make goes straight into my education. Everybody around me is in the midst of living life. All my friends have spouses, houses, children, jobs, and they deal with their little issues. At the end of the day they go back home and they sit down for dinner. They plan vacations and they decorate their homes. They bring their car to the mechanic and they drive to the grocery store to buy some bread.

And at age 32 I have nothing. I have no house, no apartment, no car, no husband, no nothing. I am alone. I rent a room. I scrape by from day to day. I can’t legally work as much as I would like to and I am losing my patience. Nobody wants to hire me full-time because then they’d have to sponsor a work visa for me. I will be graduating next spring with a master’s degree and a lot of knowledge about research and I don’t even know what to do then. Nobody even responds to my applications for summer jobs! What’s going to happen when I attempt to get a real job? The uncertainty is killing me. What did I do all this work for?

And here is the real bummer. Even though people tell me that I am attractive, smart and funny, I can’t seem to find a guy who wants to be with me. Seriously, I think I am like chopped liver to men. They stare at me on the street but they never talk to me. They ask other women out and bring them flowers, but they never do that for me. I have dates but we never seem to click (I do, but they don’t). They marry cute little women, but apparently not somebody who is freakishly tall like me. In short, nobody ever truly wants to be with me.

Honestly, Cary, I am back to zero here. I just want to cry all the time. I feel like everywhere I turn I get roadblocks. I am the ugly and dumb kid in high school again. I watch while other people date and get A’s. I even went to see a therapist a year ago, but if anything, she was predictable and forgetful and I’m not going back there again. She, like many other people in my past, made me feel unimportant and uninteresting.

So what the hell is wrong with me? What am I supposed to do to crawl out of this hole? I am worried that I will always be alone. I’ll never find somebody who loves me for me and enjoys my company. I want to get married and have children. I want to have somebody I can rely on. At night I want to go to bed with someone I trust. Why is this such an impossible thing for me to find? Other people do!

Thanks for listening.

Unlucky at Cards and Unlucky in Love

Dear Unlucky,

As I mentioned the other day, I have been reading some stories by Richard Ford. They were mostly stories, though one was a selection from his novel “Independence Day” and one, the one I read this morning, was “My Mother, in Memory,” a memoir.

So the thing I like about Richard Ford’s writing, and I hope I do not lapse into imitation of him as I say so, is that he struggles, as writers are supposed to struggle, to sum up, or crystallize these vague and insubstantial notions we have from time to time about what a life is or should be. He gropes to find a shape for life. And one thing that emerges from that seems to me to be an abiding sadness. But it is a serious sadness, a sadness that is responsible and clear, that does not arise from unconsidered expectations but inheres in what we can observe and experience. Thus there is some nobility and promise in the sadness. There is the promise that we will come to know life as it is, on its own terms, and when we do that, we can stop grinding our teeth and tearing our hair out and just live out our days with some abiding simplicity and peace.

To you I would say, under the spell of Richard Ford, as he says of the wordless understanding that passed between him and his mother regarding the mystery of what life gives us and does not give us, “Yes. This is what it is.” Your life as it has come so far is the life you have been given, and it is not inferior to the lives of others. In some ways it is magnificent; it involves significant overcoming, significant courage; it involves your recognizing that there was some stuff you just would not take, that you did not have to take; you realized that you could do something about it, that you didn’t have to have things as they were. You needed things that weren’t available to you in your family or your town; you didn’t belong in that kind of life so you set out to find a life you did belong in. And you found it. You found the kind of life you belong in.

You haven’t gotten everything. And perhaps you are aware that expecting to get everything is an error, an indulgent error that you have allowed yourself. Well, you’ve suffered enough, why shouldn’t you get everything, the boyfriend, the money, all of it? But in allowing yourself this indulgent expectation you are only torturing yourself. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get the boyfriend and the money and the apartment. Nonetheless, you have done something to carry you forward. You have done something wonderful and admirable. You have saved yourself. You have escaped the major, soul-killing awfulness that drowns so many others. You have carried yourself out of hell and found a place for yourself that is mostly OK.

Those of us like you and me who were not OK where we were and had to wander, we don’t completely belong anywhere. We suspect that we’ve blown it somehow. So it helps to remember that we did what we did — leaving family, leaving our birthplace, our origins — to save our lives. It was not an amusement. It came from a deep place. We knew we did not belong where we were so we set off to find someplace where we would feel more at home. I came to San Francisco. It was my kinda town. But I’m not completely at home. I have done well in certain ways. But there is always a nagging suspicion. I can let it nag or I can try to dig deeper to honor the larger story: that I was in a place I did not belong, that I felt if I did not leave I would be missing out on some life that was waiting for me to live it, like a suit of clothes hanging in a cabin across the mountain, waiting for me, and me alone, to mount the steps of the cabin and step inside and put on the clothes and find that they fit perfectly, and then to step out on the porch of the cabin and join a life. Something like that was the notion I had, that a life was waiting for me. So I went west and sort of found it, only it was not really what I had imagined. Instead of becoming a novelist and short story writer, I found myself writing these letters to people; instead of becoming a professor and conveying the words of others to people, I found whatever I can convey about the world comes from my own hard-won experience. I do not so much teach as commune with others in mutual learning. Still, that is what I did. So far I have done what I had to do, and life has turned out as it did. That is all I know.

What you need to get through this period is courage and self-regard. You need to know that you have already rescued yourself. You have done what you needed to do and you can be proud of that. One of the hardest things to do is take at face value — or value highly enough, or honor, I should say — the ways in which we rescue our own souls. It sounds so kooky to say that! It sounds kooky to say you rescued your own soul. There are other ways to say it but that is what I most want to say, because that is what I really feel about such actions: Something in us needs to leave where we are, so we pack up and go. And then later maybe we pooh-pooh what we have done, saying it turned out badly. We forget how desperately important it was to do what we did; we forget how much it seemed an act based on a high truth; we forget how right and noble it felt. And I think it right true and noble because it was. We confuse taking such true and noble action with how it all works out in the end. How it works out in the end is not our problem so much. Our problem is to follow our deepest instincts and intuitions and do what we have to do, because in that way we are taking care of our souls.

That’s how I see it anyway. I know the language is a bit corny but it will have to do.

So what you need now in your life is some peace, and some self-kindness, and I hope you can go through your days with the inner knowledge that what you have done already is enough for now, that you have gotten yourself out of a terrible land, and you have rescued yourself, and the rest will come in its own time. The best thing you can do now is find some peace, and be patient, and know that so far you have done the right thing. Wait for the next right action to occur. If you are in the habit of praying, ask for the next right action. Or just wait for it. Just know that the next right action will come to you if you wait. It will come to you. Trust it when it comes. You might not recognize it. It might surprise you. That is OK. Often the next right action comes as a surprise to us, and we do not trust it at first. We don’t see where it is leading. But trust it. You’ve been OK so far. Trust it in this time of difficulty, and wait.

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Advice for Writers: 10 Fun Things to do with that nasty inner critic that is trying to murder you

10) Rudely talk over her.

9) Ignore her and when she doesn’t go away keep ignoring her until nightfall.

8) Listen to her and look for possible kernels of truth in what she says.

7) Regard her with mute compassion as a split-off part of the self.

6) Get used to what she’s saying and tune her out like a bad radio.

5) Pause in your writing until she has had her full say and then continue like nothing happened.

4) Tell her to go fuck herself and remember that she can’t hit you.

3) Write down everything she says and give it to your most evil character.

2) Find the strength in her vitriol and turn it on an enemy.

1) Make writing in spite of it your sweetest revenge.

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Afraid to drink at the wedding

Dear Cary,

I’ve been off and on, but mostly on, alcohol for over 20 years. Currently on.

About eight months ago, I was asked to be a bridesmaid for a friend I’ve known since kindergarten. We’ve stayed close through the years but I was rather surprised by the request.  Come to find out this will be a lavish affair; I am one of 12 bridesmaids and God knows how many other members will make up the wedding party. I am always an anxious type in such situations, but am even more so as I will be somewhat in the spotlight. Throw in the open bar and temptation doesn’t just loom; it haunts.

As the wedding draws near, I am invited to numerous showers, lunches, brunches, cocktail parties along with the obvious rehearsal dinner and wedding.

I don’t want to get drunk, but I know myself, and I know this is a drinking crowd. What do I do? Do I risk being The Drunkest One, hope that I can toe the line, or teetotal it the whole weekend?

I’m afraid to drink, and I’m afraid to not drink.

Respectfully,

Genevieve

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Dear Genevieve,

I feel for you in this situation, because I have been there (although not in the bridesmaid dress). I mean, I have been in stressful situations where I knew I could not drink or I would be The Drunkest One.

Obviously, the smartest choice is just not to drink. No matter how you look at it, being boring and not having such a great time is better than being remembered as the one who passed out and had to be carried to her room. So I suggest you not drink anything at any of the affairs. Go completely dry.

But it’s a hard spot to be in. If you don’t drink, you’ll feel nervous and out of place and boring. You won’t have much to say and you won’t be funny and it will feel as though the whole thing is moving on without you.

But here’s the big, amazing secret about not drinking: not having a great time won’t kill you. That’s what I found when I stopped drinking. You can be nervous and ill at ease and that’s just fine. Lots of people are nervous and ill at ease. They don’t feel the need to fix that. They just accept it. Learning this is very freeing. You don’t have to be cool and relaxed and “on” all the time. In fact, it’s kind of cool to be a little aloof and withdrawn; all the coolest people are a little aloof.

If you do drink, you may feel comfortable at first, when you hit that early sweet spot, but then with the tension and the fear and seeing all these people, you will drink more, and you will hit that point after which there is no return, and you will not have a good time. And you will not wake up feeling good.

As you may know, I quit drinking a long time ago, so for me the answer is easy. The sad thing is, if you just quit for this event, you won’t have much experience not drinking, and will find it hard to negotiate all the social events. If, however, you already had some experience not drinking, you would know better how to relax and pace yourself with all the interpersonal stuff, and you might actually have a pretty good time.

That is why I suggest that you get sober now, while you still have some time before the wedding. You say you have been “on alcohol” for 20 years. That’s not a good thing. I suggest  you seek help now, to get off alcohol. Then by the time the wedding rolls around you will have learned some skills to use in a party situation when everyone else is drinking.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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I’m pulled like taffy in two different directions

My first boyfriend is no dime, plus he broke my heart — but I feel the old attraction

Cary’s classic column from Thursday, Sep 2, 2010

Hi Cary,

I’m an avid reader of your column and on more then one occasion have been found at my desk nodding and pointing in agreement with your thoughtful advice. So I thought you would be perfect for this problem. I’m 24 and have been in a “serious” relationship for five years now, but people have recently come into my life that have opened my eyes to the docility of the relationship.

The person is my ex-boyfriend who cheated on me and broke my heart when I was 19 years old. He recently found my phone number and contacted me with the pretense that he wanted to ask for my forgiveness. In short, we have met up a couple of times, kissed, have talked about pursuing something more, but I keep putting it off because I feel terrible about what’s already been done. At the same time I feel like there has to be a reason for me sneaking behind my bf’s back and doing this to him. We have had our fights, and honestly I have tried to break up with him, but when I do so he always sways me otherwise. My ex is not a dime, either, as he has his baggage and I know I wouldn’t want him as a replacement — immediately anyway. My ex always brings up the fact that we should give it try since we loved each other once, and frankly they both seem like the same person. Ahhh!

Taffy (Pulled Two Ways)

Dear Taffy,

I like that word “docility.” You say your eyes have been opened to the “docility” of your relationship.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “docile” is “Apt to be taught; ready and willing to receive instruction; teachable.” Its second definition is “Submissive to training; tractable, manageable.” As in, “The docile wife would obey without a murmur.” Docile, like docent, comes from the Latin root “docere,” to teach.

So you have been teachable. Perhaps you have been taught all you can be taught and are hungry for new knowledge.

You want some excitement that you are not getting in your relationship and you are getting it by kissing this former boyfriend. But you feel bad about that.

Yet you say, “I feel like there has to be a reason for me sneaking behind my bf’s back and doing this to him.”

There probably is a reason, which is not the same thing as a justification. You’re doing to your current boyfriend what your ex-boyfriend did to you.

Perhaps you hope that sneaking around behind your boyfriend’s back means that he deserves it somehow. The logic there seems to be, “I’m doing this, therefore it must be OK. For why would I do it if I didn’t have a reason?”

Of course, the reason isn’t the point.

So the wheel turns. You’re in the grip of powerful forces. As are the titans of Wall Street, whom we vilify. Money and sex. It’s not like we could just tame them.

I also like your use of the word “dime,” as when you said your ex “is not a dime, either.” I had to look it up but I liked what I found, i.e., a metonym for a “10,” the term “10” having been immortalized by the Blake Edwards film, which one might say is “eponymous,” a word I used to detest in rock album reviews as it seemed so unnecessary when one could say “of the same name” just as easily.

And note the difference between metonym and metaphor: “When people use metonymy, they do not typically wish to transfer qualities from one referent to another as they do with metaphor: there is nothing press-like about reporters or crown-like about a monarch, but ‘the press’ and ‘the crown’ are both common metonyms.”

That is, there is nothing “dime-like” about your ex-boyfriend, even if he were a 10. And all this comparison reminds us of what’s going on in the relationship. You are restless, and you are thinking maybe there’s something better out there, and there’s something about the act of ranking pleasures that leads us to consider if we might do better elsewhere.

“‘Blake’s timeless original encapsulated the fallacy of “the grass is always greener” in relationships,’ said (Hyde Park chairman Ashok) Amritraj,” who was at that time, two years ago, talking about doing a remake.  (Are they still working on the remake? Man, that movie sure made for lots of posters on undergraduates’ dorm-room walls.) By the way, have you ever seen the original poster for the move “10”? We don’t tend to remember that one.

But we digress. But thank you for sending me on that little trek! It’s one of those digressions I’m often vilified for. But this one was suggestive, or productive, and I don’t mean like a productive cough. It was illustrative of my point — that we all want to stray from whatever is familiar. We grow tired of the routine. We seek things that make us light up. Our brains seek things that make them light up. That’s what the brain is for, aside from figuring out wiring diagrams. It’s for lighting up. And what does it light up? Is there a “spirit” or “soul” that lights up, or is it purely the lizardlike reflex of a faceless bundle of neurons?

I dunno. I really don’t. But I feel that we can all be much healthier if we tone down the moralizing and recognize that much of what we struggle with is beyond our control, neither good nor bad, just the car we’re riding in. We’re just trying to stay in the car we’re riding in, or drive the car we’re driving, or some other equally tantalizing and yet idiotic pseudo-mystical metaphor.

The truth is simpler. He turns you on.

You are young and easily turned on. It’s an animal thing. So don’t feel bad. I can’t tell you what is right or wrong.

I can suggest this: I suggest that you act in a way that makes you feel strong and unafraid.

Try that. Try acting in a way that feels strong and unafraid. Whatever that means. It might mean telling your current boyfriend the truth. Or it might mean continuing to see what happens. It’s up to you. It’s your show.

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Proof: The Jerk-Weasel constant exists!

Write for Advice

Is it just me, or is the world seriously not living up to its potential?

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, NOV 5, 2009

Dear Cary,

I have decided to start keeping a journal, beginning each new entry, “Dear Cary.” It seems to propel my writing in a focused way. Unfortunately, not so focused that I’m able to solve my own issues.

My problem is that I’m 27 years old and have already become indescribably disgusted and distressed with the state of corporate power in our country. I am seriously considering steps to self-reliant hermitage (is that redundant?) for my family. Or, conversely, I’m considering going to law school despite my lack of interest in practicing law, just so I can protect myself and my family and friends from the crap that goes on. It seems every time we open our wallets or sign a paper, we are walking a tightrope, and waiting underneath are the sharp teeth of another manipulative, greedy, scheming, powerful company.

I should probably just take a chill pill. I have an amazing family, husband, newborn son (and two loving dogs). My husband’s family is also incredible. My husband and I are both employed and enjoy health benefits, which we rarely have to make use of. It’s just that, no sooner am I reminding myself of these positive aspects of my life than something else comes along to slam me back into misanthropy and cynicism. While I’m certainly not going to resort to acts of violence because of this, I would say I’ve crossed the line from empathy to sympathy for those who were deemed to have “gone postal.” I find that mere positive thoughts are no match for the distress brought on by yet another round of calls to some company’s national call center, just to have to bully someone into doing something that should be standard service … or worse yet, to fail to accomplish anything despite hours of stress spent on the phone.

Perhaps instead of a figurative or literal chill pill, I should cultivate schizophrenia so that one personality can remain calm enough to comfort the enraged personality. These are the kind of ridiculous thoughts that enter my mind when I’m at the end of my rope. In case you’re curious, this letter comes on the heels of a protracted insurance company negotiation, which followed a major issue with our former bank a month ago, which followed a rental arrangement gone bad a few months before that … all on top of years of watching my parents fight their way through many similar battles. My aunt was laid off recently for blowing the whistle on a pharmaceutical company she had worked for for years. My uncle was laid off recently from a bank so that the bank could hire fresh blood at a lower cost. I really don’t think I have a persecution complex; or, at least, I don’t think I was born predisposed to developing one. Rather, I feel like a very reasonable person worn down and disenfranchised after only a few years of adulthood and independence. All of this is worsened by a recently resurgent belief that a large percentage of people in this country cast votes and voice opinions according solely to what they perceive to be best for them, skipping past cooperation, generosity and grace and instead taking up a combative, self-protective, greedy and distrustful stance immediately. It’s all adding up to a very bad attitude, when I’ve always considered cheerfulness, energy and enthusiasm intrinsic to my personality.

My questions for you (as someone who has both the power to maintain an objective perspective and the personal experience to have gained a unique wisdom) are: a) Do you understand or have you yourself felt the kind of disgust I’m talking about?, b) If so, how would you recommend I begin to cope with these issues better than I have so far?

I hope you will be able to respond, because, unfortunately, the cathartic benefit of expressing my thoughts and feelings is increasingly drowned out by the frustration of mentally reliving my bad experiences.

Outraged in Ohio

Dear Outraged,

I am glad to hear about your journal. Many good people like yourself are trying to live in the world as though it were a kind, welcoming place despite crushing evidence to the contrary.

So do you mind if I just repeat one of the sentences in your letter? It sums up something many of us experience with alarming frequency:  “It seems every time we open our wallets or sign a paper, we are walking a tightrope, and waiting underneath are the sharp teeth of another manipulative, greedy, scheming, powerful company.”

I think that what you sense is real, and that it has a historical foundation, and that you could call it something like a weird, messed-up form of postmodern fascism — an amorphously distributed, decentralized fascism, if you will, if that’s not totally contradictory.

But that would take a really smart person to make clear. Here is my slightly more idiosyncratic view. The human universe is filled with something I like to call Jerk-Weasel matter; and, as Planck’s constant obtains in the world of physicists, a Jerk-Weasel constant obtains in the human moral universe. It is not possible to say whether Jerk-Weasel is indeed matter or a wave phenomenon. But the Jerk-Weasel force is constant and unrelenting.

You take your average concentration of Jerk-Weasel matter suspended in the population, it can be tolerated well. But Jerk-Weasel matter has attractive qualities such that it can nucleate around a dense aggregate, such as a Hitler, say, or a Pol Pot. So you have to try to keep the Jerk-Weasel matter in the universe in suspension, diluted, and not let it concentrate.

What tends to make it concentrate? In our time it seems to attach itself to large institutions of business.

There is its opposite, luckily, which you might call the Trinket-Granola force. The Trinket-Granola force seeks to weaken Jerk-Weasel matter by interpolating laughter and critical reasoning in the permeable membrane between particles of Jerk-Weasel matter. The Trinket-Granola force creates thin barriers that prevent Jerk-Weasel matter from concentrating in the kind of density that can reach critical mass and cause every credit card in the universe to explode.

Complicating all this is the Twinkies-Auschwitz continuum, in which gravely murderous multiples of Jerk-Weasel matter become indistinguishable from trivial and ridiculous particles of short-lived “Twinkie Matter,” and the two live in symbiosis, feeding off each other. This is a dangerous combination, as people who encounter it in the dark don’t know whether to laugh or draw knives.

How do you deal with all this? Well, first you decide not to kill yourself. For many people, that’s easy: Nope, not going to kill myself. Going to go on living for the few morsels of ecstasy and meaning available to me legally or otherwise. For others, it’s harder. In either case, it’s the first step in facing the difficulty ahead.

Having decided to ride it out for the duration, you settle back and get comfortable with your own disgust. You say, There’s nothing wrong with me except I thought the world would be better than it is; I thought that people would be more idealistic and courageous than they are; I thought that institutions would foster more creativity than they do; I thought people would not be as backstabbing as they are.

You admit to yourself: I was wrong. Actually, people do suck. You admit that man is a frightened, weaselly, vicious creature who builds elaborate and powerful institutions in his image.

Reeling from the shock of this recognition — your first up-close glimpse of the horror of Jerk-Weasel matter — you look back over your life and you see, wow, maybe I’ve spent a lot of time in a sort of cocoon. Maybe the cocoon was an elite university in an upper-middle-class town; maybe the cocoon was a family whose members were tolerant and wise; maybe the cocoon was a lifestyle that gave you the time and fresh air and liberty to enjoy your own thoughts, express yourself and be rewarded for being who you are, living out, essentially, the kind of dream espoused long ago by the founders of this country. Whatever it was, it was a lucky and beautiful thing. You were blessed to have a view of life as a nurturing, profound experience.

But now you are coming out of that cocoon and looking around and going, Man, what was I thinking? This place is seriously messed up! Like, even more messed up than I realized, even though I always knew it was messed up. Wow!

Good for you for seeing that this place is sick and messed up. It did not get sick and messed up all on its own with no help from people. We invented the atomic bomb and we came up with methods of mass slaughter and starvation and police states and widespread torture and repression. That was us.

We came up with this stuff because we are tragically ill-equipped to live together in peace, and we are indeed troubled by the incongruity of what we know to be true and our daily failure to act in any meaningful way to change it. We don’t face the limits of our resources, plan realistically, or care for the poor. We hoard, we squander and we plunder. We live in fear. If we did not live in fear — if we lived in a religious bliss or an ecological harmony, well, things would be different.

But we don’t. And they aren’t.

You should have seen what happened a few weeks ago when my wife and I were up at Marconi Conference Center with our new iPhones trying to get AT&T to give us the free Wi-Fi service to which we are entitled with our exorbitant monthly subscription to AT&T. It was a hall of mirrors with which I am sure you are familiar, involving, at one point, the suggestion to my wife that she have me fax my driver’s license to some unseen office in a parade of unseen offices and conflicting information. It took hours.

Something indeed has happened to the way we individuals communicate with business organizations. Something monstrous and ridiculous has indeed happened. Advances in technology have outstripped human capacity for organized behavior; our machines are godlike, but our organizational instincts are still apelike.

So … I hear you. I don’t have the solution. Mainly I keep my head down and feel grateful for the chance to write every day and to be in communication with people who see some of the same monstrously strange and weird things that I see.

My suggestion? Stick close to your loved ones. Invite kindred spirits to dinner. Keep writing in your journal. Care for those around you and keep a cabin in the woods stocked with food and water.

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My marriage was a mistake

Write for Advice

I wanted to be the bride but I don’t like being the wife. Now I face the toughest decision of my life.

Cary’s classic column from Friday, Aug 15, 2008

Dear Cary,

I am a 25-year-old woman with two dogs and a sad marriage. I’ve been married going on three years and for the past one year or so have been seriously thinking I’d be better off without him.

We met about four and a half years ago, and fell for each other pretty quickly (which is how a typical relationship always seemed to start out for me in the past). We dated for 11 months before getting engaged, and then five months later we tied the knot. It all happened so fast and there was so much excitement — but now I think that deep down I didn’t really feel like he was the right guy for me … I was young (a whole three years younger — wow, huh?) and I don’t think I was finished being independent. I just wanted to be the bride — and everyone else wanted it for me too.

After we got married he started traveling a LOT for his job. Of course, he traveled before but since we waited to live together until we got married I was now spending a lot more time by myself (that was before the dogs came along). So, I knew we’d have some times apart and I knew it would bother me a little bit — but it’s gotten to the point where when he is at home I wish he’d leave again. I don’t feel an attraction to him at all. I don’t want to be hugged, kissed, or even touched … we fight about it when he’s in the mood and I never am. When we try to talk about the subject of sex and why we don’t have it anymore, I tell him I don’t feel good about myself and maybe when I lose a couple of pounds I’ll feel better … I’ll tell him anything just as long as I don’t have to say, “I’m not attracted to you anymore!” I really don’t want to hurt him — I know he loves me, but I’m getting tired of living like this.

I feel also that I should say that he’s not a bad guy. He’s nice, has a good job and all that other stuff. Sure, he has his moments (we all do) where he can be a real jerk … but for the most part there really isn’t any particular reason why I don’t love him anymore … I just don’t.

I’m convinced that I married him too quickly and that I should have waited and dated a little bit longer. I’ve always been somewhat of the “heartbreaker” in my relationships. It was always me getting tired of the other person. I was hoping that it wouldn’t happen in this relationship … but I’m afraid it has — I’m afraid that what I felt for him at the beginning was really no different than what I’ve felt for other men in the past. Sounds sleazy, I know, but it’s the truth.

I want to divorce him. I want to sell our house and live my own life with the money that I make. Maybe I’d move away, maybe not — I want that freedom.

I guess the only thing that’s really slowing me down is my family. They love him! Also, I was raised in a religious family and divorce is a sin — of course, we all sin every day — but I feel bad about wanting to leave my husband. I feel that my parents will be so disappointed in me along with all of my siblings, and extended family for that matter (we’re a close family). His family is great too … but it’s not enough to make me love him.

Before my husband left for his last trip we decided to try marriage counseling. We were going to start as soon as he got back home. He’s been gone almost two weeks now and I’m still willing to try — but we haven’t said one word about it on the phone since he’s been gone. I don’t know if the marriage is worth saving. Right now I hope someone tells me it’s not. But I guess life would be easier too if I could fall for him again. I don’t know — I think I’ve put up a wall; my marriage is on one side and my freedom is on the other — I want my freedom.

I feel quite selfish for all these feelings that I’m having but I’m just not happy. I want to be happy again.

What do I do?

Sincerely,

Confused (sincerely!)

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Dear Confused,

If someone were to ask you today, What was the most difficult thing you’ve ever done? what would you say?

I ask this in order to understand what you are facing and put myself in your shoes.

I’ve been sitting here in the cafe trying to think of the most difficult things I did before I was 25. There is a bit to get through but I will get there. You’ll see.

I wasn’t exactly the heartbreak kid. I was the guy who waited to be broken up with. So I never divorced anybody or even left anybody. I just let things fall apart. When I think about decisions that I knew were necessary and were going to cause me pain and cause others to be mad at me … I don’t think I made any!

OK, how about this. When was the last time you realized you’d made a decision selfishly that affected another person’s well-being, and then found yourself obligated to rectify it? When was the last time you looked at something you did and not only saw that it had been a mistake but saw that you had done it knowingly for selfish reasons?

Stay with me. It gets better.

When I look over my first 25 years, I see a guy making easy decisions and then taking actions to make them even easier. I see a guy with amazing luck. I see a guy who got out of scrapes. I see a guy who drifted, followed, looked for signals, tagged along. I see a guy who mooched and cadged, whined, cajoled, pleaded, charmed, faked, seduced, flattered. I see a guy who skirted, fumbled, hid from difficulty, head full of poetry, skipped out when the bill came, left before the cleanup, felt above it all, thought he knew it all. I see a guy who hid his fear, ran from trouble, avoided avoided avoided. He took refuge, fantasized, pretended, dreamed, borrowed.

I see a guy who never honestly broke up with anybody. He just waited for things to fall apart and then moved on.

It’s possible that at that age, how he’d grown up, the role models he’d had, the stresses he’d been under, the fear of the Vietnam War and the draft and the early drug use, the hippie culture he was ushered into, he did not have any choices the way we think of choices. How would he have acted differently? What model was there to follow?

So the outward behavior was not exemplary. But we do not always know what we are doing — what we are protecting, what it is within us, exactly, that is surviving through our apparently selfish and chaotic actions.

Through all that, I see a kid carrying a gift like a kid in a fairy tale, carrying a precious gift under his arm wrapped in newspaper like the Maltese Falcon. He’s been charged with its care and upkeep through war and poverty and homelessness. He’s given a gift by his parents before leaving home, and he travels, knowing that if he could just get through the forest without losing this gift, keeping it close to him, sleeping with it next to him in the forest, hiding it from jealous thieves, disguising it from those who might recognize its true value and want it (and also from those who might recognize its true value and disparage it, wounding him, knocking his confidence out), if he could just hang on to it through hurricanes and bitterness and winter streets of windblown trash and rat-run alleyways under rattling windows, if through all those nights of traveling, shivering under wet blankets, if he could hold on to just this one thing, then later, eventually, if he survived, he could work out the rest of it — what to do with the gift, how to operate it, how to use it, how to keep it running. Years later he would realize that the gift was not a metaphor. In a moment of stress a vivid memory would come to him of being a very young child and clutching something to his chest, lying on the floor kicking and screaming and crying and holding on to this thing. And he would see that this was not a metaphor, that it was physical, it was a book or some writing, it was a Bible or a journal or a story he had written. There was something he cared about more than anything else, something he would live for and die for. There was one thing at least that was not a joke. There was a bottom line, a real thing not a totem, one thing he was living for all those years of wandering.

Think about it. When you think about the most difficult thing you have done, or the most sacred thing, or the most precious, is there one thing you can latch on to?

This is hard because at that age we don’t know it. Or maybe we do. Maybe we know it but don’t have the word for it. Maybe we know it but are afraid for it; we protect it by not naming it. We think that if we name it we may harm it so we keep it secret. At that age this one most precious and dear thing may be the one thing that no one knows about — not because we are ashamed of it but because we are protecting it from their careless murder.

So you have come to one of those points where the most difficult thing you have ever done may also be the thing that defines what is most sacred to you.

You must have the courage to do this. Where will you find the strength? You will find it in this hidden sacred object or idea, this thing that you are protecting by leaving. For you, perhaps the secret object or idea is a form of joy and freedom. Perhaps you are the heartbreaker because the lifelong song you sing is the freedom song. Perhaps that is the course of your life: Love, experience, freedom. That could be. It could be that you are the secret spirit of freedom, raised — this is fate’s fiat! — in strict religion and thus hiding this spirit, protecting it, not exposing it to ridicule and at times not even believing in it yourself, but all the same secretly at night knowing that the spirit of freedom is the thing that defines you and that if it were exposed they would destroy it. Knowing, too, that to keep their love you have tried to live within their world. So the hardest thing you have ever done may turn out to be just facing it: You are not the good wife. Nor were you meant to be. You are the adventurer. Not the adventuress, in the censorious Victorian sense of a selfish, scheming woman, but the free spirit, the woman who will not be chained. Maybe that is you. Maybe it’s the call of freedom in a very pure sense. Maybe there is great power here. Seek that power. Visualize it. Crystallize it. Make it real. Hang on to it. Don’t let them shame you into submission. Keep it. Protect it. Meditate on it.

Then as you do all the necessary things to free yourself, you will have this northern star in your sights. You will have your heading. You will know where you are going even though, because of the nature of what you seek, your seeking it makes you appear to be without compass, groundless, spinning. You are not groundless and spinning. You are going somewhere. You are going toward freedom.

Go in this direction and you will know where you are going. You will be going toward freedom. You will be always going there. It is not a place you ever get to, but a place you always head for.

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