It’s true enough, within the context I was describing — the Hanon exercise is just as real (and should be given just as much focus and attention) as the Mozart sonata, and so on.
But there’s one huge exception, and I didn’t fully understand it until this past year:
The only thing that is real between two people is what they create together.
I want to tell you the story of how I learned this, but it’s not fully mine to tell. Instead, I’ll tell you about all of the times I didn’t understand this — all of the relationships where I was sure my reality (“I love you! We’re a great team! Let’s figure out all of the ways in which this can work!”) would triumph over the other person’s reality (“I’m not sure this can work, I’m not sure I want to move in with you, I’m not sure I’m fully happy in this relationship.”).
Notice how my reality, hidden even from my parentheticals, also included “I’m not sure I’m fully happy in this relationship.” Because if the truth of what we were creating between us had been we both feel loved, happy, and secure, I wouldn’t have been pushing so hard for my alternate reality to prevail.
Coincidentally, Captain Awkward wrote about this exact same concept this morning:
Don’t plan your life around anybody who isn’t choosing you. “I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love again” and “I’m getting used to the idea” don’t spell “You are the love of my life, let’s fucking do this.” Nor does “If we can get through this, we can get through anything.” HE HAS TO SAY THE WORDS. Do not build a habit of guessing them. Han isn’t the love of your life until or unless he asks you if he can be so and tells you that you are his, at which time you can see how you feel about that.
But this isn’t just about the big, DO WE REALLY LOVE EACH OTHER kinds of questions.
It’s also about the everyday, how-we-live-our-lives stuff that is created between two people who do love each other, and who do feel happy (most of the time) and secure (nearly all of the time, which is the more important factor).
The moment when one of you says “Boy-oh-boy, Wii Bowling is our favorite thing, I’m so glad we love playing Wii Bowling so much” (to use an example that is both outsized and outdated) and the other person says “Actually, I don’t like Wii Bowling all that much, I like playing it with you because I like spending time together, but I don’t really want to say it’s our favorite thing because that feels like a lie. What would it look like if we found something we both loved, instead?”
This doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships, of course. If a child believes that they have been treated unfairly and a parent believes that they have treated their child fairly, what is real is neither the fairness nor the unfairness — it’s the conflict between them.
It doesn’t just apply to dyads, either. If a group of people — well, I’m going to follow our president’s example and quote St. Augustine on this one:
If one should say, ‘a people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love,’ then it follows that to observe the character of a people we must examine the objects of its love.
The common agreement is what matters.
Even if the only thing the people involved can agree on is that they disagree.
“But how is this kind of reality created?” L asked me, when I was talking through this post with him. Then he answered himself: “This is what Hofstadter’s writing about in Gödel, Escher, Bach, isn’t it.”
Not to spoil an 800-page philosophical/mathematical text that most people don’t actually finish reading, but GEB, at its core, is about how systems acquire meaning. How we agreed that numbers were, and that language was — and if you take it back far enough (and Hofstadter does), how our consciousness blinked at itself and asked “hey, are you thinking what we’re thinking?”
A bunch of brain cells, for lack of a better metaphor, agreed that what they were creating between them would be called an I.
(Even though we only have the word I because later on, a bunch of Is agreed that I would be the phoneme we all used to refer to ourselves.)
(My goodness, this gets complicated.)
And, at some point, L and I agreed that what we were creating between us would be called love and home.
And if only one of us had thought that our relationship felt like love or our house felt like home, it wouldn’t have been real.
And both of us think that finding this shared meaning is the luckiest thing that ever happened to us. ❤️
One of them is ours, and one of them is the one we’re trying to create for the people we love.
The thing is that I think these could be the same Christmas — or at least the same kind of Christmas — but the temporal nature of the holiday makes it difficult.
I mean temporal in both senses of the word, of course; the one that means “bound by time” and the one that means “worldly and secular.” It seems obvious, at least on the surface, that these two definitions work in tandem to give us the kind of holiday that no one really wants.
The kind that’s performance-based, not process-based.
The kind that I am frantically trying to make happen for my parents and nephew and extended family, not the kind that L and I are quietly making on our own.
There is a certain amount of holiday-related stuff that has to be made to happen if you want it to be part of your celebration. Trees must be retrieved, either from the tree farm or the internet or the box in the basement. Gifts must be purchased. Food must be purchased, or made, or (in most cases) both. Matching pajamas must be ordered online, in the correct sizes, ideally in time to take advantage of Black Friday discounts.
But what you’re really trying to make happen is the feeling — and I’m not even sure what the feeling is, except maybe I love all of this, or I love our home, I love our life, I love you, which is what L and I have been saying to each other every evening as we sit in front of our tree and our stockings and our fire.
Last Sunday I told L that I’d already had everything I ever hoped to get out of Christmas, just in that past weekend, with him and me together. We were sitting down to one of our favorite meals, with a very good bottle of wine (by which I mean a $12 bottle of wine, don’t get any ideas) and for dessert we had peppermint bark and English toffee that I’d stirred together earlier that afternoon. We’d made origami stars and worn flannel pajamas. We’d gotten in the car to drive around town to see the lights.
We’d even given each other small gifts, since we had an Advent calendar that we’d been filling with love notes and music suggestions and ideas for holiday activities and, in this particular weekend’s case, small gifts.
“This is everything I ever wanted Christmas to be,” I said. “What are we supposed to do for the rest of December?”
L smiled. “More of this.”
The thing about the kind of holiday that L and I are currently having, the kind that is based primarily on “doing stuff we already like to do, but Christmas-themed,” is that you can have it every day — and you might not even get tired of it.
I mean, if it all comes down to “making food you enjoy, wearing attractive and comfortable clothes, enjoying wine and conversation and doing something creative, all while giving the people you love regular reminders that you love them,” then the only difference between Christmas and real life is the former’s tendency towards excess.
Not just “making food you enjoy,” but stuffing yourself with it.
Not just “wearing attractive clothes,” but stuffing yourself into velvet and sparkles.
Not just “giving someone a reminder that you love them,” but spending a pile of money on stuff they may or may not actually want.
And — probably the most important part — not doing any of this together. Dictating, to your partner or family or extended family, what Christmas Should Be — and then performing it as if it were a school pageant.
Which brings me to the Other Christmas.
“This is our first Christmas with my family,” I told L, as we unloaded the dishwasher together. “I don’t want to mess it up.”
Messing it up, in this case, could mean any or all of the following:
Not sending gifts on time (which is already going to happen, since two of the items we ordered from small, indie retailers are experiencing shipping delays)
Not wrapping the gifts very well (in my family, I am known for being The One Who Is Bad At Wrapping Presents)
Not getting holiday cards out quickly enough, even though I’ve already told my extended family not to expect any cards until New Year’s
Not being on time for the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
Not being able to get the tech to work for the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
Wearing the wrong thing during the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
Saying the wrong thing during the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
And so on.
It’s worth noting that these anxieties (like most anxieties?) are entirely self-inflicted; my family has already told me that it doesn’t matter if the presents don’t arrive on time, for example, because their presents probably aren’t going to arrive on time either. That said, I still want to live up to whatever it means to be a daughter and an aunt and a sister and a niece during Christmas. There’s a way to do this that isn’t a performance (and one of my hopes for this year is to figure that part out, with L’s help), but since so much of Christmas tends towards the performative — the deliberate appreciation of gifts at the beginning of the day and food at the end of it, for example — it’s hard not to worry that you’re going to fail to deliver.
There would be much less concern about failure if we were not working towards a targeted Big Day with its Big Experiences that will be remembered and discussed for years to come. If we could do the family Christmas the way we’re doing our at-home Christmas — as a series of small joys passed between people who are still learning what brings each other joy — that would be something else entirely.
A different kind of memory, though it might require a different kind of discussion in advance.
You know how every new couple is all “I wish we could make our own Christmas traditions,” except there’s always someone else’s calendar of traditions that is already taking up all the time and space and energy?
The minute we realized that “decorating the tree” was starting to feel like a chore, for example, we switched over to “hey, let’s just put one or two ornaments up every night.” (We’re also telling each other the story of every ornament as we put it up, which is turning out to be an excellent way of learning new things about each other and about our respective families.)
L and I also decided, pretty early on, that we wanted to spread the presents out over the entire month, just like we spread our favorite Thanksgiving dishes out over the entire four-day weekend. Not only does that give us more time to enjoy each individual gift, but it also gives us the option to refine and iterate as we see how each gift is received.
And I know that the whole “let things take the time they take” and “figure out what you want to do together” business might not work as well when you’ve got more people in your home, with needs and wants that are more likely to compete with each other and with the limited amount of time we actually have available to us, as much as L and I are trying to pretend otherwise.
If you only have two hours to get the tree up between all of the other stuff (holiday or otherwise) that usually fills up the calendar, you force that tree into position even if you spent the entire year wishing that this task could feel more like something you were sharing with your family and less like something that you had to cajole and/or rush everyone through.
So yeah, I get why the kind of Christmas L and I are discovering together, tucked away from time and from the world, might not work as well in other types of situations. But it seems like it could, if people who love each other could agree to care enough to figure out how.
Because that’s the only kind of holiday I ever want, from now on.
There’s one more thing I need to tell you.
As soon as L and I started making Christmas happen — both the holiday we are creating for ourselves and the parts of the holiday we are creating for other people — we stopped making anything else.
I’m not writing in the evenings. L isn’t studying jazz. We’ve given up on Godel, Escher, Bach. We’re still practicing the piano, and we’re still playing chess, but all of our other various creative activities have been displaced by the activity of creating Christmas.
Even our delicate, beautiful, private Christmas takes effort — if you want to know how to delight someone, you have to pay very close attention — and even something as simple as sitting in front of the fireplace and saying “I love this house, I love my life, I love you” takes time.
This is the choice we are making, because this is the time of year to make it.
This is also, perhaps, why one cannot actually have Christmas all year long.
Why it needs to be temporal, in at least one sense of the word — because the other thing people often realize, at the end of holiday stories, is that there is more to life than this.
“It’s Christmas Day! I didn’t miss it!” they say, by which they mean I got the feeling I was supposed to have, the one that comes when you give and receive joy.
And then they start asking themselves what they’re going to do next.
I don’t know how everyone else came up with it, but when I turned to L and said “wait, we could spread our favorite Thanksgiving foods out over the entire weekend,” I honestly thought it was an original idea.
It was still a very good idea, in the same way that shifting our lives from a clock-based schedule to “things take the time they take” was a very good idea. Instead of trying to fit fourteen side dishes into a single meal, we had… well, I guess we had four. Three, if pie counts as a dessert and not a side.
So it was turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and bacon, fresh cranberry relish, and pumpkin pie on Thursday; leftovers on Friday; beet salad with oranges and walnuts and goat cheese on Saturday; and more leftovers plus fresh cornbread dressing (using Kamala Harris’s recipe) and chess pie on Sunday.
This also gave us the opportunity to improve our cooking skills as we went along; the chess pie was significantly better than the pumpkin pie because our first pie crust came out soggy and we made it our goal to make our second pie crust as perfect as possible (turns out you’re supposed to chill the crust before you put the pie filling in, who knew).
There are two points to this story.
The first is that I hope this tradition of “spreading out the Thanksgiving foods over the entire weekend” sticks, for as many people as possible who enjoyed it as much as we did. I understand why it might not; the reason you have fourteen side dishes in a single meal is because some of the people you want around your table at Thanksgiving can only be there for a single meal — and because everyone wants to cook and/or eat their favorite Thanksgiving food, so you might as well make ’em all.
But if you also divided your Thanksgiving meal into multiple days, did you also notice how pleasant it was? To be able to focus your attention on a few treats and experience them thoroughly? To leave the meal feeling satisfied, not stuffed? To cook a bit here, and a bit there, and make the second pie better than the first one?
The second point — rather like the second pie — is that our first Thanksgiving together helped us figure out how to spend our first Christmas together, and BOY HOWDY was I worried about Christmas.
I actually wrote a song about it, which I sang to L as we were cleaning up the dishes after dinner on Friday. (It has a tune, but it’s enough like “When You Come Home to Me” from The Last Five Years that you can go ahead and substitute that one.)
When I have someone of my own
I won’t have to sit in the most uncomfortable chair
We’ll be able to sit together on the couch because we’re new
And my sister will have to sit on the chair (because somebody will have to…)
When I have someone of my own
They’ll send us a box of Christmas treats from Harry & David
Because only couples get boxes of treats from Harry & David
And single women have to wait for someone to share (and they never do…)
“Ah, the fifth wheel song,” L said. “I’ve sung that song before.”
“No, wait,” I said. “There’s a bridge. It’s the important part.”
And he will buy me
Everything that’s shiny
All the gifts that no one ever gives a daughter or a sister or an aunt…
I have been, if you’ll forgive me mentioning it, a little demanding about Christmas. It is not only our first Christmas together, but also my first Christmas with a partner and the first Christmas I’ve ever spent in a for-real house, not a group house with roommates or a studio apartment with no kitchen where you have to wash your dishes in a bus tub and dump the dirty dishwater in the toilet. (True story.)
So L started our Christmas planning by saying “You know I’m not really into presents or stuff, I’d rather have us spend Christmas Day having a good time than opening a bunch of gifts, and most people our age buy ourselves everything we want anyway,” and I countered with “Look, you can do as you like, but there will be a box of pears wrapped in gold foil and a tin of peppermint bark and some very expensive chocolate truffles, and you already know that there is exactly one gift I want you to buy for me which is a snow globe that is also a music box and inside the snow globe there are little houses that light up and a train that moves through a tunnel, and that’s fine, I’ll buy everything else I want myself.”
And the next day I said “I’ve started buying all the stuff I want for Christmas, I will surprise you with it soon,” and the day after that I started crying because we were doing it all wrong.
L had said that I should go ahead and buy myself everything that delighted me, but I wasn’t delighted. Turns out — and this is the plot of basically every Christmas movie ever, so spoiler alert — getting everything you’d ever wanted isn’t any good if you don’t have someone to share it with.
Especially if the person you want to share it with lives in your house.
Of course, I was also crying because I assumed that I’d have to send all of the stuff back. The matching holiday pajamas, the Advent calendar shaped like an Alpine village (that lights up), the commemorative Mary Poppins Living Magic Sketchbook Ornament (that is also a music box). Our Christmas would be devoid of kitsch and glitter, with nothing to do but play chess and listen to music, like we already do all the time — and sure, eventually we’d eat a ham or something, even though I told L that the whole concept of a once-a-year holiday meal was just as much “stuff” as anything they sold on The Bradford Exchange (and he agreed with me).
And then the miracle happened.
The stuff started showing up, right about the time we began turning Thanksgiving from a single-day stress-fest into a four-day, “things take as long as they take” celebration.
The boxes I had bought were instantly less interesting than the pies we were making together or the cornbread dressing we were baking together or the freshly-killed Christmas tree we were driving out to the tree farm for and then dragging into the house together. It was clear, to both of us, what the true meaning of our two-month-long winter holiday season would be: Making things together. Like we already do, all the time.
But the stuff was not worthless. We put on glittery holiday hats when we did the big family Zoom on Saturday, and we kept the hats on when we started decorating the house on Sunday, and when the matching jammies arrived we both knew that it would be more fun to do whatever it was we would end up doing while wearing matching holiday pajamas.
One of those things, as it turns out, will be “making origami ornaments.” L suggested it, and it was instantly more interesting than the Disney Magic Sketchbook Living Movie Characters Also a Music Box thing I had purchased, but would we have come up with the idea of making our own ornaments if I hadn’t said “hey, ornaments are important?”
(Maybe we would have. But let me have my miracle.)
And then — and here it is, the surprise third point of this whole story, the way The Gift of the Magi could have gone if O. Henry hadn’t been a candy bar — after we had this lovely Thanksgiving weekend in which we made food and brought in a tree and visited with family and created a holiday together while occasionally wearing themed clothing, I came down the stairs the next morning and said “Hey, I don’t want to buy the giant tower of treats from Harry & David anymore. What if we learned how to make our own peppermint bark instead?”
And later that afternoon L said “Hey, I think I’ve got something that you’d really like. It’s this old box of holiday decorations that I’ve never done anything with because I never had a home I wanted to decorate before. Do you want to see what’s inside?”
There were scented candles and ceramic snowpeople and so many reflective surfaces — but the first thing I pulled out of the box was your typical Norman Rockwell-esque Santa sculpture, Saint Nicholas and His Sleigh, by which I mean it was delightful. Especially when I turned it over and wound up the key at the bottom.
You’re probably wondering how the experiment is going.
(If you don’t know what the experiment is, go read this. I’ll wait.)
(Are you caught up now?)
Last night, I went to bed around 11 p.m.; this morning, I woke up a little after 7:30. By 8:30, L and I were side-by-side in our matching bathrobes, digging into the Ruy Lopez. We hadn’t planned on playing chess this morning, but we had been studying chess last night (after we went through the five Peano postulates and how they related to Hofstadter’s typographical number theory) and the board was already set up, which made it easy.
But everything we’re doing has become a lot easier now that we’re integrating our lives together instead of trying to fit each other into our free time.
And — impossibly — we’ve both ended up with more free time. To spend together, and to spend on our own.
How did this happen?
Some of it has to do with logistics. Now that the two of us are going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time (instead of me going to bed and waking up two hours earlier), our circadian rhythms are more in sync, which means we are more likely to want to do the same things at the same times of day. This, in turn, makes us more likely to do them.
I also did something ridiculously simple that completely transformed the way I slept — I swapped out my cheap, synthetic “down alternative” comforter for a cotton quilt. Technically two cotton quilts, since it’s getting colder at night; one that my mother made for me when I was a little girl, and one that L made with his grandmother when he was a little boy.
I don’t want to say “this one weird trick cured my insomnia,” but it did stop me from waking up in the middle of the night covered in sweat, which means I’ve been sleeping better than I’ve slept in, like, years.
But the real reason we’ve ended up with more time than ever — somehow, impossibly, improbably — is because we’ve started giving everything we do as much time as it needs.
After we moved into our new home, and after we got the piano set up so that I could start practicing again, I began working on two new pieces: Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major (K. 332), and Schumann’s Papillons.
L, who is a piano teacher, often compares the process of learning music to solving a series of problems. The trouble is that many musicians, even reasonably accomplished ones like myself, don’t solve each problem in full. They get the piece to the point where they can play through it well enough, accurately enough — even though many of the technical aspects are still unaddressed and/or unspecific.
Maybe they haven’t finalized a particular fingering, for example — or maybe they’ve decided on a fingering but haven’t worked out the accompanying arm weight, or standardized which part of the finger attacks which part of the key.
Maybe they’re still fudging a tricky articulation.
Maybe they’re leaving out a rest because they’d forgotten it was there (or never paid attention to it in the first place).
Maybe they can play that chromatic run most of the time, which nearly counts as all of the time, because nobody can play it right all of the time — unless you take the time to look carefully at what you are doing, figure out why the run isn’t coming out the same way every time, and make the necessary adjustments.
And taking that kind of time takes time, for lack of a better phrase.
So I decided to take it.
As much as I wanted.
I told L that I was going to learn these pieces until I had solved every problem in them, and I wasn’t even going to play past the first eight measures until I’d solved every problem those measures presented — because I knew that if I got in the habit of playing “well enough” and telling myself I would get more specific about solving problems later, I’d have to unlearn all of that unspecific playing.
I told L that if it took me the rest of my life to learn that Mozart sonata — to play it the way he and I thought a piece could be played — it would take me the rest of my life.
I don’t know how much longer I have to live, but so far I’ve spent nearly four months on the first movement and am just starting to address the second.
The idea that I would not let myself play past the first eight measures until I’d solved all of the problems in them worked, in theory — but in practice (pun intended) I quickly discovered that every stage of the learning process generated a bunch of new problems.
In other words: you learn eight measures and tell yourself that you’ve got the fingerings and articulations and dynamics all solidified, and then everything changes when you speed up the tempo, or try to play from memory, or begin the transition from measure eight to measure nine. I just realized this week that the reason I wasn’t able to consistently play a chromatic run wasn’t because my fifth finger wasn’t always striking the same way (even though that was part of the issue); it was because I was using a fingering that created a problem with the interval leap at the end of the run, and switching to a non-standard chromatic fingering (the one recommended by the editor, coincidentally enough) also solved the fifth-finger striking problem.
And if I hadn’t told myself that I had unlimited time to work all of this out, if I’d been trying to get the piece put together to play for an audience by a specific date — or if I’d been trying to have something to show a piano teacher by the end of the week, to “prove” that I’d “practiced” — I wouldn’t have taken the time to address and readdress every tiny inconsistency.
I’m playing better than I’ve ever played.
The idea that you have unlimited time is, of course, not true. Certain aspects of life, including the length of it, come with deadlines — and everything you take the time to do takes time away from everything else you could be doing.
And, although disconnecting the idea of time from the idea of the clock and the calendar has given me the freedom to be more present in the present, telling myself that I have unlimited time to learn K332 or work on this piece of music I’m composing — or, for that matter, that L and I can take as much time as we want to talk with each other, or linger over dinner, or cuddle — has also prompted me to think seriously about whether the life I’m living is worth the time I’m giving it.
Is this particular Mozart sonata worth an unlimited number of hours of study?
Is my relationship with L worth an unlimited amount of time in each other’s company?
Is the house we’ve bought together worth the unlimited amount of time it takes to make a home?
Is the piece of music I’m composing worth an unlimited number of revisions?
Interestingly, the only question I’d answer no to is the last one. I told L, when I started arranging Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18 for tenor and piano, that I was doing it mostly because I wanted to make something, and literally making anything might help me figure out what I wanted to create next.
So I’ll finish it, because I’m pretty much done — but if I weren’t, I might give it up. The composition is fairly pedestrian, a little bit derivative, and not worth my unlimited (and also very, very limited) time.
An original idea, on the other hand, might be worth it.
The harder part is choosing which disciplines, and which indulgences, to pursue.
I started this new method of practicing by trying to study both a Mozart sonata and a Schumann waltz suite, for example — but even though I told myself I had unlimited time to solve all of the problems both composers presented, I only really had enough time to focus on Mozart.
Likewise, L and I went from trying to study chess, go, and bridge simultaneously to focusing just on chess — and then focusing on chess openings, and then focusing specifically on the Ruy Lopez opening.
Which is what we began our day with, at 8:30 this morning.
Not because we planned it — but because we chose it, together, and decided to give it as much time as it needed. ❤️
It won’t be today, of course, the day you are reading this. It’ll be a few days after today. Probably Friday.
Today’s today, the day I am writing this, is November 4, 2020 — which means that nobody will really want to read this today, the only thing any of us really want to read is some kind of confirmed statement about the presidential election, and none of us are going to get that today.
Probably not even by Friday.
Every year on my birthday I take a picture of myself, generally tagged “this is what 39 looks like” or whatever the appropriate age is. A borrowing of Gloria Steinem.
Here is what 38 looked like:
And here is 39:
I could have taken a posed one, like I did last year. With a respectable professional-person blouse and very red lipstick. I could have taken a series of selfies until I hit one that I was happy with.
I took this one, instead.
If I look a little wan in this photo, a little tired around the eyes, it is only partially because of the election.
I mean, it isn’t really because of the election at all, but I feel obligated to say that it is because I know that’s what everyone else is thinking about right now.
I’m not thinking about the election. (I did vote; at this point, the rest of it is out of my control and no amount of thinking will change the outcome.)
I’m thinking about the adventure I find myself called towards.
The adventure I have to choose whether or not to accept.
If you know anything about me, from any of my writings on The Billfold or Lifehacker or Nicole Dieker Dot Com, it’s that I love structure and order and the kind of discipline that eliminates a lot of decision-making. Wearing the same basic outfit every day. Eating the same basic meals. Knowing what I am going to do at 6:30 every morning, and at 6:45, and at 7:15.
There’s a comfort in this kind of ritual — that every day I will rise before dawn and light a candle and write three pages and drink a cup of hot lemon water with cayenne and compose two measures of music and put on NPR’s Up First and begin doing sun salutations on my yoga mat.
And after that I will practice the piano and open my laptop and start sending out invoices and replying to emails; I’ll have breakfast and then lunch and then go for a walk and then finish up my freelance assignments; then it’s a half-hour dumbbells routine on alternate days and then a quick tidying of the house and then dinner, all before a terribly early bedtime.
That might have worked when I was 38.
It will not work when I am 39.
You do see what is missing, don’t you?
Or, more accurately, whom?
At first I thought that L and I could have the hours between dinner and bed, and I could have, like, all the rest of them.
And L, because he actually loves me — which is still uncomfortable, I am still not used to this — was actually on board with this plan.
It would seem to be the same kind of plan that many people have, especially couples without children; out of the door every morning with a quick kiss on the cheek, back at the end of the day for a couple hours of relaxation and/or television before starting it all over again.
It would seem to be the kind of plan that could work. It is not an unfair plan, not necessarily.
But it is not the plan that either of us want, which means I have to consider The Other Option.
It all started to fall apart when L and I invited a few people over to socially-distance themselves around our new fire pit. Although L had originally planned for the evening to end early enough for me to keep the kind of bedtime you’d give a fourth-grader (because he loves me, because he knows these kinds of things are important to me, because I still cannot believe all of the care this man is giving me), the gathering lasted until nearly 10 p.m.
This is where I start feeling embarrassed on my own behalf. Ashamed, that I should be so loved and behave so poorly.
Because I left the party early. I went up to bed to give myself enough time to relax and wind down before my disciplined little bedtime, which meant I said goodnight to everybody at an hour that had an 8 in it.
Which could have been fine. It was not an unfair thing to do. L and I had agreed, beforehand, that I could do it.
But it wasn’t fine. If it had been fine, I wouldn’t have spent the next four days losing sleep over it.
Then it was Halloween. We dressed as foxes and built a candy chute off our front porch. I was already several days sleep-deprived and I ate much more candy than was good for me and it came around to 8:30 p.m. and L asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with him, to say hello to the neighbors and see the full moon.
And that could have been a wonderful experience. We could have had a wonderful time.
But I was tired and unhappy and overstuffed with chocolate, and after our walk, when we should have been celebrating how well our first Halloween had gone, I started complaining about how miserable I felt.
And L, because he loves me, did not say you are ruining the goddamn evening.
But I knew I was.
The next morning. Samhain, and the time change — though it didn’t matter because I barely slept that night, and by the time the sun was up I had made my decision.
“The way I am living isn’t working,” I said. “We can’t have the life we want if I need to be in bed by 9 p.m. every night. We’re going to want to have more parties, we’re going to want to go to the symphony, we’re probably going to want to play with the symphony or do theater again or take a dance class or something like that.”
“What about your early-morning writing time?”
“I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People between 9 p.m. and midnight,” I said. “I only changed my schedule after that because I started doing freelance jobs that required me to be ready to pitch stories by 8 a.m., and I don’t have any freelance jobs like that right now. I could switch my schedule around — go to bed around 11:30 or midnight, wake up around 7:30. It could work.”
L agreed. “It would put you more in line with the rest of the world.”
“Plenty of people wake up before 6 a.m. and go to bed by 9,” I said. “But this schedule would put me more in line with the world you and I want to live in.”
I’ve always said that you should begin as you mean to continue, so that day I stayed up until 11:30 p.m. by the new clock. Midnight-thirty by the old one. Nearly four hours after I usually went to bed.
The next day I woke up with a plan for every hour — same old Nicole, just chrono-shifted and slightly jet-lagged — and it all went beautifully until 9:30 p.m., when I had slotted in work on the composition I’d been previously tackling at 6 a.m. and L picked practice the piano and we discovered that you cannot do those two activities simultaneously.
The day after that I woke up ill and exhausted; I spent much of the day in bed and almost missed a freelance deadline.
Then my birthday. Up and at ’em and time to light the candle and write in my journal and — no, wait, L is also up now, he’s inviting me to join him for a cup of tea, I want to have tea with him but I also want this little precise comforting life that I have created for myself, if we have tea and it goes a bit too long I might miss the time I’ve set aside to practice the piano — and at this point, still jet-lagged, I become completely discombobulated.
So we talk about it. Because L loves me, we talk all the way through it.
And I realize I have two options.
The first option is to remain as I am. To assign a task to every hour and to keep myself attentive to those tasks. L will support this plan, if I choose it.
The other option — or, since I capitalized it before, The Other Option — is to begin to integrate our lives. Both of us are self-employed, and at this point in our careers both of us have workdays that require approximately five consecutive hours of sustained focus. L’s workday is fixed; he teaches piano online in various time zones, and he’s got nearly all of his lessons batched between lunch and dinner. My workday is more flexible, but I could adjust it to overlap.
Which means that we could have our mornings and our evenings free. Literally. We could go to bed when we were tired and wake up when we weren’t. We could have tea for as long as we wanted, or we could say “This morning is too beautiful to stay indoors — let’s go for a walk.”
We could play chess at 9 a.m. if we wanted to, or at 10 p.m., or keep a board open and alternate moves all day long. Currently I have “chess” blocked off for Monday evenings only, and before you start laughing, keep in mind that before I created that schedule we weren’t playing much chess at all — we were just saying I think we should play more chess and then watching television instead.
That’s the first challenge of The Other Option (or, as I called it this morning, going “Full Artist”) — that we’ll spend our days dillying and dallying instead of thinking and creating. We want to make things on our own and we want to make things together, and we will have to figure out how to integrate our time in a way that balances both discipline and indulgence.
The second challenge is that I might not feel comfortable asking for the time I need to make the things I want. When you set a schedule and tell yourself “this is what I am going to do with my day,” you save yourself the trouble of having to make decisions — and when you tell your partner that you are going to run your days by a certain schedule, you save yourself the trouble of having to ask permission.
Not that permission is the right word, but there’s going to be some morning when L asks “would you like to go for a walk” and I’m going to say “well, I really wanted to work on this piece of music I’m composing,” and my worry is that I won’t actually say that.
But I’ve already written paragraphs and paragraphs proving to all of you just how much L loves me and how ready he is to give me the time I need to do the things I want to do. Proving to myself, in a way I didn’t realize until I wrote it.
So it seems obvious what I should choose.
The Other Option.
The integrated life.
The call to adventure.
And — let’s be honest — the call to growth.
I don’t know what other gifts L has gotten me yet (we’re going to do presents later this evening) but I think this may be my favorite one. ❤️
I suppose I should tell you a bit about what’s happened to me this year.
At the end of July, I bought a house with someone — no, he can’t be “someone,” we can’t go around calling him that until the end of time, so we’ll call him L.
I’ve known L for a long time. The first time I knew him, he was one of the most important people in my life. We fell out of touch for nearly twenty years, and then I had a dream about him; the two of us, standing together in his front room, just talking.
I think that’s all I’m going to say about that. When you share your life with another person, there are some parts that you don’t necessarily want to share with everyone else.
But I’m still going to share my ideas. What I’m thinking about. What I’m working on, and the problems that I’m trying to solve along the way.
This week, for most of the whole week, I’ve been trying to figure out whether love makes you more creative.
There’s not going to be a conclusion to this, btw. If you were expecting one. This is a question that I am still answering.
Because my first thought was that no, love does not make you more creative. It still has to come from you. You still have to make the decision to make the thing, and you still have to decide that you’re going to set aside time to make the thing, and you still have to come up with the focus and fortitude to see the thing through to completion.
And then my second thought was that, well, love can help with all of that. If you’ve got someone (we’re not calling him “someone,” we’re calling him L) to support you, either morally or mentally or simply through sharing the day-to-day work of living together. If you’ve got another person to help you process what L calls the “threat matrix” — the big worries about health or family or pandemics and elections that can get into your head and become the thoughts that occupy your thoughts. If you’ve got a first reader, as it were, to respond to your work and help you make it better.
But that answer’s kind of a cheat, because most of it is about logistics and very little of it is about love. Does being loved, which I am still trying to define because it is so new to me — and which I am currently Venn-diagramming as some intersection between “being seen,” “being cared for,” and “being stimulated” — does that experience actually inspire you to produce more interesting, more complex, more honest, and/or more vulnerable creative work?
And what about the other end of it? Does loving someone else make you more creative?
Here’s where it gets very interesting (and complex, and honest, and vulnerable) because I wasn’t very good at loving L at first. I thought I was — in fact, we said our life felt like a honeymoon — but I didn’t really know what I was doing. You can see it, in my journals. They’re still about “me” and “him” as if we were two separate things that needed to be balanced and negotiated. What’s best for me vs. what’s best for him, and so on.
Then I realized that I was thinking about it all wrong. It has to be what’s best for us. What will make our relationship stronger, and what will weaken it.
And somehow, loving the relationship — seeing it, caring for it, and stimulating it — made me better at loving the person.
There’s a song L and I like to sing to each other, from the musical Once Upon a Mattress:
Yesterday I loved you
As never before
But please don’t think me strange
I’ve undergone a change
And tonight I love you even more…
I used to think that song was about the emotions associated with love. Now I think it’s also about the actions. The little choices you make, every day, intuitively or deliberately. To love, after all, is a verb.
And I am not sure whether love makes you more creative, or whether either being loved or loving someone else helps you produce better creative work. The results are not yet in.
But I am fairly sure that love is a creative practice.
And I only figured that out this morning — which means that if creativity is defined as “making connections between things” (which might not be true, but it’s how I defined it in my last post) this particular connection might be one example of love making me just a little bit more creative. ❤️