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Recently my sister asked me a question about my relationship with the man in my life (let’s call him Greg). She was wondering about whether I think Greg is the “One and Only” for me, seeing as I have already been married to someone else, and have had a few previous loves in my life. How could I know that he was the one, and if I didn’t have that reassurance, was I not troubled by it?

That got me thinking. It is true that I feel a certain sadness about losing the blind, naive conviction that the man I am with is the only one for me.  I am slightly jealous of the high school sweethearts celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. A few lucky individuals still maintain an absolute belief that the person they are with is uniquely engineered for them and they – for their other half. Alas, it’s hard to maintain such a belief after having thought it four, five times. There is that slight sense of loss, yes, but also – an overwhelming sense of blessedness.

For a woman who could always count the number of close female friends on one hand, each romantic relationship has been precious and vitally important. To love and to be loved, to know a person intimately (though not necessarily sexually), to become vulnerable and to see the person you cherish open up, blossom and reveal his inmost essence – what a critical part of my life that has been. Each man that I have loved has given me much that I still carry with me. Each relationship formed me – turbulent, agonizing and exhilarating as it was.

As I write I cannot help but think of the ugly words we use to describe people who have had multiple partners. What a paradox this is: God has placed in our hearts the passionate love that He himself embodies, burning as fire, selfless, profound. And yet we are to pick one partner for the rest of our life and shun all the rest. So much rejection. So many broken hearts. As if each person has only enough love for one other.

I sometimes envy the courtesans that Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes in his novels. These are not the malnourished, beaten down young women forced into sexual servitude. These are the matrons who have stepped outside of society’s rigid constraints. They live in their own homes on the outskirts of the city. The living rooms are lush with greenery and exotic birds, the breeze blows gently through the linen curtains, the tea is always hot and date cakes await the weary visitor. The women are fiercely independent, and yet they will comfort and love, arduously, diligently, anyone who comes through the door. Unlike the street prostitute, they do not charge a fee. Love cannot be sold or bought, and theirs never runs out. The source seems  eternal. When I read about these women, idealized through Marquez’s magical prose, I often think of someone else who loved indiscriminately all the shunned people of the Earth…

And yet, monogamy runs deep in our culture, and in my veins. So much is gained through the conscious, willful abandon of freedom. Humility and strength both come when you acknowledge that you are desperately dependent on that one other person, and he – on you. Yoked to your permanent mate, you plod through the seasons of your lives together, learning ever more, fronting new challenges, making new discoveries. And the good news is – you don’t have to start each day from scratch; you have a history of your struggles and triumphs to look back on together.

A good friend of ours once told Greg and me a story. He and his girlfriend of several years were experimenting with polyamory – the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. They are a pretty liberated, enlightened couple who felt that deep, committed relationships should not be limited to a single partner. And so one day, with the full support of the girlfriend, our friend went to spend an intimate night with another man who was in love with him. He returned home the following morning and started telling the girlfriend about his interesting, educational (as he put it) experience. As he was talking, he noticed that his girlfriend’s expression changed, and shortly she was shaking uncontrollably. He stopped his story and they quickly decided that polyamory was not going to work for them. I often think of this story as a telling example of how something that seems so beautiful in theory can prove impossible in practice.

But where does all of this leave me and my one and only? I don’t remember what I told my sister that day, but what I might tell her now is that I am not troubled. As I grow, my capacity and flexibility to love grows. I do not love Greg less because I have loved others before him. In fact, with my love for him comes a more vast love that I feel towards the whole world. And this is something that I learned from him: to love generously.

A week and a half ago, Sunday, the kids and I went to church. As usual we were late, and as usual I made my way to an empty seat during the worship part of the service. There were empty seats on both sides, and as I often do during worship, I sang and looked around the people gathered in the sanctuary that Sunday. (The sanctuary is amphitheater-shaped, so it’s easy to see the folks below and around you.) And yes, as usual, I saw families, couples, groups of people that I knew came there together. As I raised my hands high and bellowed out praises, I felt a pang of sadness seeing the empty seat next to me. How many times had I come to church alone? How many times did I long to share with my spouse the joy of worship, of that greatest communion of believers? I wondered if the couples standing and sitting below me truly appreciated what they were experiencing there, together, refreshed and united through word and song. Yes, sometimes my husband came. But he was not with me – he would often leave before the service began, or endure the sermon, fighting sleep and boredom. Sitting next to each other but desperately alone, abjectly looking forward, we did not feel any closeness.

I also thought about Eve and her curse. Two lines haunt me often: Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. That curse is as relevant today, as it was when it was first uttered. On a global scale, man continues to dominate over woman, holding most positions of power, violating women, killing them through war, political conflict, domestic violence. And on the level of each family, each couple, the husband more often than not dominates not only because of his sheer strength and cultural/ethnic traditions, but because the woman desires him . Her desperate need makes her vulnerable, and even if the man does not mean to do so, he has control over her. In the end, she is ruled by her own desire and her desperation. The tragedy of the curse is that both people become hostages – the woman needs from the man that which he cannot provide, the man feels inadequate because the woman’s need is too great. Of course the answer is simple: the woman needs to turn to God.

Only the Lord can fill that need. But how incredibly difficult it is to change focus! All we need to do it turn, and God would heal us (Matthew 13:15). But within the context of the intoxicating draw that women feel towards men (and vice-versa), this conversion seems to border on impossible.

The singing continued, and I imagined the possibility of another man standing next to me. What if there was someone out there, who would want to live worship together? Who would understand the importance of this shared experience, who would do it gladly, openly? I glanced at the seat again. It was still empty but suddenly I fancied that I saw Jesus there, smiling and worshiping, grinning at me. It’s like He was saying, “I’ll come – take me along…” And I imagined the various scenarios from the minutiae of getting to church – buckling the kids up in their car seats, me climbing in the driver’s seat, Jesus hopping in the passenger, popping Ella and Louie into the CD player, rolling down the windows… Walking to church, me holding Leo’s hand, Him holding Vierra’s. The pain lifted. I grinned back and sang louder.

Sunday came again, and again we went to church. This time my husband wanted to go, and we went together, all four of us, as a family. The kids went to their program and we went to the worship service. And so we sat there, peaceful in the eye of the tornado of our marriage unraveling all around us. The tethers and cords that held that frail entity in place were snapping, tearing off, breaking under the strain of so many hurts. But there in that warm and well-lit place we felt safe. My husband put his arm around me, and I instinctively huddled closer. Now we looked like that stereotypical, happily married Christian couple. Now I had finally received, after many years, that which I had yearned for. But I…

I didn’t need him there anymore.

Some people may feel out of their comfort zone when they are sleeping behind a mere millimeter of nylon protecting them from Mother Nature, torrential rains, armadillo, spiders and buzzards. Some may feel their limits stretched when they are forced to pick up any creature that has more than four legs. Or when they move to a place halfway around the world without knowing anyone there. Or when they have to go 24 hours without showering (heaven forbid!) or several days in the same pair of pants…Some feel uncomfortable speaking in front large crowds of people, or writing about very personal things, or trying new foods or making a fool of themselves in public.

Not me. This does not scare me (case in point).

But in less than a week I will put on high heeled shoes, wriggle into a slinky dress, “do” my hair, paint my face and possibly even locate a hand-bag. I will be in a jovial mood, laughing loudly and giggling and sauntering around on my heels, throwing my hands in the air, yelling something incongruous over the thudding music, telling people NO THANK YOU I DON’T WANT TO DANCE WITH YOU (and hopefully nothing else). Yes. I will be completely and utterly out of my comfort zone because I am going to my very first bachelorette party. I am more than a little scared.

Pick your poison!

Granted, two days after that my sibling will be making the biggest commitment of her life, and it is a bit absurd to fret (her word) over my little insignificant comfort zone given the scope of the main event. But I know for a fact that the wedding itself will go fine. And sibling: you’re gonna have an awesome adventure of a life with Seanster. He loves you and he’s willing to work with you, to have fun with you and to try and understand you, and that’s saying a lot. And you love him so just don’t forget that in the midst of all of those vanities upon vanities, and you’ll be fine.

I, on the other hand, may have issues. Ok, so I can handle heeled shoes. And I can do “dress up”. Not so sure about the make-up…someone will have to help me there. I can even do my hair pretty and be genuinely excited (because I am!). But to generate enough kinetic energy to squeal and be loud and to dance in the high-heeled shoes (which is quite uncomfortable) while trying and failing to carry on a conversation….THAT I am not sure of.

It’s just hard to imagine, sitting here peacefully in front of my computer, puttering away in my scarf and drinking my hot tea, that I will be able to so transform myself. And even more, to leave self-consciousness and the observant social scientist in me at the door to the dance club, next to the bouncer.

But fear not, sibling, I will pull myself together and be the quintessence of Girl’s Night Out party fun!, just for you. And I will even enjoy myself. Genuinely.

I had always been weary of doing the right thing and then being sorry I did it. Especially when this concerned making sacrifices for the family and then unconsciously holding a grudge against them because I still regretted not getting to do something else, something so vital to my own sense of fulfillment and meaning in life. I didn’t want to have those grudges, and so, my mantra became: no regrets.

Let me develop that. You can regret something that you did, and you can regret something that you did not do. I always opt for regretting things that I do , instead of avoiding potentially wrong choices altogether. Because at least this way, you know how it would have turned out. Regretting not having done something is the most torturous kind of regret, because of all the “could have been”s.

So how has this been working for me? Mixed results. I went to Paris and married a young man that I fell in love with, four months after meeting him. And spent the better part of the next six years regretting it. What was I thinking when I married him? Well, I didn’t want to live with the regret of not having married him; of letting an absolutely unique and talented individual become a stranger when he wanted to weld his life with mine. Did I consider for a moment that we were incompatible, literally unable to function as a single unit? No, I didn’t think about it. See, I was all about no regrets.

Went to graduate school when my kids were 2 years old and 1 year old, pushed through so that I wouldn’t regret not having obtained an education due to the fact that I had young children, and unconsciously hold a grudge against them for life. Do I regret it?

Maybe.

And then there is the vending machine predicament. I stare at the variety of death treats, wondering, if I get a reeses, will I sit there eating it wishing I had gotten cheetos instead? Listening to my inner gut, I try to discern what it wants. My mind says, stick with the peanuts. But I don’t want to regret not having gotten the Snickers…Ultimately I end up regreting whatever I get, and when I get nothing…well that never happens because that would be the cardinal sin totally negating my mantra.

The same happens at night. I get ready for bed but then my husband invites me to a game of chess. Can I say no? But then I will never know how the game could have turned out. And sleeping is always so predictable…

But wait.

I know this. Peeling out of the covers before the crack of dawn, hurridly taping my drooping eyelids to my forehead, really far back for that EXTRA bushy-tailed look, peering in the bathroom mirror only quick enough to say, “Oh boy…”, I know exactly how each late-night game of chess turns out. And the mystery snack options all yield the same yucky aftertaste, and the what if’s get more and more predictable.

Still, I vote for no regrets. Now though it comes not as a result of my action or inaction, but as a natural consequence of the decision I make, when I have the strength of spirit, to not regret things.

It’s that simple.

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