The Shifting Landscape of Longing

Whether I am at my best or my worst, I always try to read. I read more when I am the best version of myself. And at those times, I have a structured route map for where I am going with my reading. My life would be going somewhere, I would be getting over specific difficulties, trying to learn something new, or attempting to fit what I am experiencing to some philosophy, life path or self-help doctrine. But there are also the times when I find myself completely without a compass. I lose sight of the meaning I once derived from suffering, love, or the struggle to learn. At those times my reading becomes equally lost, and I read discarded pieces of ideas, or obscure titles that I want to sample or consume before passing on. I try to grasp for meaning in once cherished practices, and get once more in touch with my hidden longings.

In the past three years I experience profound changes in my inner life. I suffered a lot, but I thought that I came out as a better version of myself. I ran a marathon, ate healthful food, exercised and meditated. I read and wrote a lot. If not on this blog then at least in my daily journal, and in my gratitude diary. Yet everything else in my life was in a state of flux. I was in a holding pattern, dealing with the worsening toxic situation at work, and the constant mismanagement from my supervisor. When Corona hit, I was not sure what to do with my travel plans, my career, and my investments. Only my soul was following its own north star, and steering by it. I loved, and the love I felt overflowed to everyone around me. It lent meaning to my life.

In my native Arabic language, the word “heart” shares a root with the verb to shift, change or reverse. So it is not a good idea to place too much trust or meaning to the whims of the heart, or trust the shifting landscape of longing to provide a permanent map. My guided meditation practice often dwelled on the idea of “impermanence” so I knew intellectually that change is inevitable, and nothing ever stays the same. In fact everything can change completely in the blink of an eye. And this is what happened to me. I was already feeling disillusioned with my life. My struggle with the toxic work environment has reached a new high that drove me to draft a formal complaint, and apply to jobs in places that I did not like, just to escape. And my trust in the capacity of my own love was starting to erode. I retreated to a selfish state of self-preservation where I stopped opening my arms to embrace the universe (or to get stabbed in the chest by its inhabitants). I cowered instead in my shell, waiting to be acknowledged, sought, and consoled. I lost sight of my north star, stopped exercising and meditating, and simply devolved into a worse version of myself. Not quite the worst, but one I knew was so much inferior to the one bathed in loving kindness, and positive cosmic energy.

At this time, I met a strange book. It is an obscure volume by a British/South African author known for his police procedurals set in South Africa (Imago by James McClure). The book has some hints to the crime genre, by masking or hiding the motivation of characters and then showing the strange influence these motivations have on subsequent events. But in truth, the story is about a competent doctor who is suffering a midlife crisis. Tom the main character, is a married doctor in his early forties. We meet him, as he becomes besotted with the teenage daughter of a friend. In a space of a few days, his life takes an absurd turn as he pursues this love, with the stories he tells himself. He mis-interprets events, misreads the meaning of each encounter, and lies to cover up and misdirect in the manner of a confused teenager. I cringed as I watched his laser focus, which should have been on his work and patients, turn to this new object of his longings, to the extent that he only performed all tasks mechanically, as he went on inappropriate flights of fantasy.

The story takes its tragi-comic turns, with flawed characters who are blindly following their own route map of longings, and unrealised dreams. The irony of finding the book, when I did, was not lost on me. I did not think I was as delusional as Tom in my love story. I definitely had more evidence that the object of my longing had some feelings for me, but did I really? If I took the approach of hard logic to my narrative, I could have also been reading non-existent signs in the sand and misinterpreting innocuous kind remarks or facetious flirtations. It is all a shifting landscape depending what you are looking for, and what you believe. For Tom, the delusion gave way to something new, but it somehow mapped the rest of his destiny and pointed him to a new direction that answered to his longings. Maybe it will be the same way for me.

Shortly after the book found me, my world tuned itself around. I am now in the midst of switching workplaces, countries and continents. In two months, I will be departing from my beloved Africa, and starting a new life elsewhere. I am also leaving a piece of my heart here. My inner life is now coming into a state of flux, while my outer life is changing completely.

My heart still wants to believe that there was more to my love story than the void I am now left with. And I still long for the better person I was, when I loved. But I am not abandoning hope of one day finding a new meaning, a new direction to follow in the shifting landscape of longing. And while the evolving chance for change presented itself to me, by an unexpected, and welcomed, relocation, I will always remember the mesmerising blue eyes that first led me to search deeper into my soul.

Love is…

In the previous post, I tried to discuss love, aided by the definition* given by M Scott Peck, in his important book The Road Less Travelled. Today I will expand a little bit on the definition with my own ideas on the subject, by way of introducing my own experience of love as an intense soul connection.

As wide and varied the concept of love is, I think the Greek philosophers gave a good approximation of its various types and degrees. According to them there are eight types of love. The three most well known ones are: Agape – Spiritual, unconditional love; Eros – Romantic love and Philia – affectionate love. And then there are five further types: Philautia – Self love; Storge – familial love; Pragma – enduring love; Ludus – playful love and Mania – obsessive love. On this spectrum of eight types, agape is the most noble and evolved type of love, while mania represents a regressive type of love, that turns it sometimes into a destructive force, both for the lover and the beloved.

If we try to apply these archetypes to human relationships, we can see that they are not discreet. Because romantic love can be playful and affectionate. In rare cases, it becomes the enduring love of couples who have loved each other since their high-school days. It can also show the dark side of mania. Similarly, familial love can be affectionate, unconditional, and even obsessive.

At first glance, self-love might look like an odd one out among all the types of love as an emotional bond between humans. But it forms the unseen foundation for all types of love. Loving and accepting one’s self is a pre-condition for experiencing a wholesome and evolved love. It did not escape my attention that the definition of love in The Road Less Travelled, included an element of self-love*. It is important to understand here that healthy self-love is quite the opposite of narcissism and arrogance. True love, by Dr Peck’s definition is a quest for spiritual growth and evolution. It is a journey that starts with accepting our faults and continues with embracing others with kindness and forgiveness. And it has no end destination, the ultimate goal is to continue growing and loving. There are many spiritual traditions that aspire to growth through unconditional love for all of creation. For the Sufis, for example, the ultimate goal is to be one with the universe and its creator. This is the ultimate evolution of love, to embrace the whole universe in the heart, and to experience what is felt as the creator’s ultimate love, the highest form of Agape.

There is no one definition for love, because the way we love is dependent on the stage of our spiritual evolution. Love, the way it is perceived and given, mirrors the awakening of the soul. I came to this conclusion after I was led on my own journey of love, which is still ongoing. Up until then, I was convinced that love was a proclivity of youth. Hormones, physical attraction, and an urge to procreate drove this emotion. I had a lot of sympathy for my younger (and sometimes older) girlfriends who suffered heartache. But I was smug and happy in the knowledge that the years of my angsty youth, and the ticking of my biological clock were long behind me. I didn’t see myself as an easy victim for Eros, and I didn’t believe that other kinds of love existed, but destiny had other plans.

Heartache was a territory I knew, and was not keen to visit again. My biggest heartbreak thus far had been my first boyfriend. I cried my heart out over him, but the young heart heals fast. It is easier to replace one lost love with another. The angst of youth, the neediness, the wish to be attractive and desired, are all faults of youth that invite fresh heartache, but they also keep young hearts moving from one relationship to the next, healing old wound by acquiring new ones. It is said that the young have elastic hearts, so falling in love and out of love is much easier on them.

Love is easy on many older people too, depending on how they perceive love. The less evolved spirit would mistake animal lust, attraction or infatuation for love. The more mature spirit would settle for affection and friendship. Some couples get lucky and evolve together from one stage of love to another, arriving together onto a mutual level that is satisfying for both of them, or achieving enduring love. This makes me think of love as a mountain. All people are capable of stepping onto its base, some get to the top half, and very few reach the summit. I think of Eros as the base, and the most accessible part of that is simple sexual attraction. The next level is Philia and the farther limit of that is enduring love. But the true triumph of the spirit is to reach the summit of agape.

Almost all works of psychology take a secular view of love. They recognise erotic love as fickle and temporary, and accept Philia and Pragma as the only types of true love. So Peck’s work of love could be understood as working to advance from one level of less enduring love (like Eros or Philia) to Pragma. This is a very “pragmatic” and secular view of love. I feel that the concept of Agape, on the other hand, was overtaken by its devotional and religious content. Sufi love and devotion are a form of Agape, so is altruism and the love for all humankind. But in some cases this “Higher Love” is also possible between mortals, and when it happens then it is an ultimate love that can encompass all other levels. To come back to my mountain analogy, those who scale the summit have previously reached the lower base camps. Similarly, when you love an individual on the highest level, you are also capable of feeling affection and erotic love towards them. The only difference is that these emotions are not central to your connection.

Soul connections are not recognized by psychology. They only come up in esoteric spiritual traditions, mystic fringe beliefs or pseudo sciences. I was myself an agnostic, or even an atheist when it came to my faith in love. I wrote a post about this some years ago. Ironically, it was written while I was experiencing the first stirrings of my soul connection. My rational self, and my ego, were trying to remind me of what was real on earth. I rejected love, all the secular or garden variety types of it. And I would have laughed at anyone who claimed that true love existed. I thought that people who spoke, wrote or sang about the love that stir the soul, then rocks it and purifies it from the inside out were either using extensive poetic license, or mind-altering drugs. That is, if they weren’t nutcases or outright liars trying to sweeten the bitter fruit of love for the unafflicted. From where I stood, the lower slopes of love mountain looked rocky, barren and uninteresting. And although the higher sections looked greener and more inviting, I was convinced that I was too old to care about reaching them. The summit was completely invisible to my eyes, and I did not believe it even existed. I was trained to believe only what I could perceive with my senses.

But I was about to be taught life’s greatest secret, about the essential things that can only be perceived through the heart.

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

Le Petit PrinceAntoine de Saint Exupéry

Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

The Little Prince – English Translation

* In the Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck defines love as “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”.

Loving the One You’re With, is it really the Road Less Travelled?

A few months ago I read, with great enjoyment, an old but still very relevant book, The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck. The book is subtitled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, and it is definitely worth reading.

The author, is a psychologist by training and brings out several interesting ideas with examples about common types of neurosis and disorder in the human psyche. Yesterday I started reading the section on love, a main theme in his book as can be deduced from the subtitle. He defines love, as the ” the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth“. The author admits that his chosen definition might not be the only one, or even the correct one, but he is content with emphasising the choice and action elements of love. He refers several time to the “work of loving”.

The author also acknowledges that love is too big and too wide to limit to a single definition, so he tries to establish common grounds through a process of elimination. Because while philosophers and psychologist differed significantly on defining what love is, there is general agreement on what love is NOT. The books itself gives several examples on cases of dependency and self-sacrifice that are clearly not love. But the author also insists that love is NOT an emotion, it is action. He repeats several times that “love is as love does“. He also feels that the term “falling in love” denotes an emotion based on erotic attraction. It is nature’s way of tricking us into reproducing and preserving the human race. Once the honeymoon phase ends, he says, we slowly fall out of love and this is where the work of loving starts. What he calls real love, or true love, is rooted in the will, so choice and intellect play a huge role in it, unlike the falling in love, which is all emotions and seems mostly to be out of our choice or control.

Interestingly, he does not deny the potential and power of the emotion. He explains, that falling in love with another person destroys the boundaries of an individual’s ego. The lover becomes hugely invested in another person, and this destruction of the ego, feels exhilarating. When we fall in love we are reborn into the wonder of feeling unity with our beloveds. He compares this unity to the one we felt as newborns with our mothers and the whole universe. But the novelty of this feeling wears off, and we soon find out that our needs do not match those of our lover, and the ego boundaries rise again. For babies this is the moment of starting awareness and experience, and for a couple it is where falling in love ends and the work on loving starts. The journey of loving, as he sees it, is made of the effort of listening, giving attention and bracketing, the conscious act of putting oneself into the shoes of another, suspending judgement, and seeing the world through their eyes.

This rational view of love mirrored one I have believed in for the longest time. It is also rooted in the teachings of Christianity where the sanctity of marriage, and monogamy, need to be protected and preserved. It is also a simple practical tenet of life: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Or simply just love the one you are with and ignore all impulses of love that come your way, because they are an illusion anyway. True love is hard work and commitment to a common goal, to raising a family, to mutual spiritual growth. I agreed with this wholeheartedly until a few years ago, and I still agree now but with many reservations.

I have seen many working marriages, even good ones, that are based on types of partnership and reciprocity, on the work of loving, in the words of Dr. Peck. These marriages always have some rewards and fulfilment for one partner, or both, and they can be very solid, with each partner being courteous and attentive to the other. But while I once believed that attaining a good marriage through the work of loving is the only happiness possible, I now recognise that this type of love has its limitations.

There are times when two souls, despite all good intentions, can head towards two different paths of evolution. There are times, when one partner evolves, and another stays on the same path. No amount of loving work can fix this. The answer sometimes is to accept it, and continue to love, if not the husband (or partner), then the children (or the life/business/career/home) we created together. The mutual love for the children carries many marriages through. Countless women have settled for it in my culture. They married, they loved and adapted to their lot, their destiny, and that was their life. But sometimes there are other choices. The author himself admits, perhaps grudgingly given his Christian background, that he believes an “open marriage is the only kind of mature marriage that is healthy and not seriously destructive to the spiritual health and growth of the individual partners”. So deep down it seems that his belief in the work on loving, in exclusive monogamy, is rather flawed.

The work of loving, and the will to love are powerful antidotes to human promiscuity and experimentation. It will certainly allow many couples to experience gentle loving, and sometimes very happy, relationships. It is a good rule, but it does not explain everything there is to love, even if it accounts for most shades of it. From my observation, I feel it is rather the road we are most likely to travel towards a rational and secular type of love. It accounts for the true love of friends, companions and for most lasting partnerships. The rarest type of love, however, is the one that stirs the soul. And the journey to this type of love is truly the one very rarely travelled. I will try to delve into this in my next posts.

________________________________________________________________________________________

You can borrow a copy of the The Road Less Travelled from the Openlibrary, which is an excellent resource for reading out of print books.

Love in the Time of COVID-19

Difficult trials sometimes bring out the best in humanity, but they could also reveal its worst and most depraved behaviours. It depends on what type of news we want to hear. We could either see acts of solidarity and compassion, or witness domestic violence, looting and the re-emergence of dictatorships.

It has been a mixed bag for me. On the one hand I have been forced into a calmer simpler and more introspecitve existence. And on the other I have seen the revival of my inner recluse. The person who is happier with much less direct social interaction.

Even before the Corona Virus introduced the term social distancing, I had been practicing a form of it for years. I had trimmed down my connections to the few people I deeply care about, and those who bring positive energy into my life. While it took a self-quarantine order for some people to rediscover the comfort of retuning to what is essential, I knew exactly what this meant. A few years back, I realized that I only needed a few people in my life, those who understand me properly, and those who can be trusted with my pain, fears and darkest thoughts. I had little space for transient social acquaintances to drink, dine and party with, if the connection we shared was only over food, drink, good times, and trivial conversation. With less space in our lives now, most of us know who our true friends are. They are the ones we reach out to first, the ones we think about often and need to hear from. The rest are familiar faces we greet at the lunch counter or at the coffee station, in better times.

Today I count my blessings for being an introvert, and thus better prepared for long isolation. I am also lucky to have a steady income. I have a roof over my head, food in my pantry, and I get along with the two people I am confined with. One is a pre-teen who gets on my nerves at times, but I learned to smile at his antics and forgive his shortcomings. I can offer him the love and compassion he needs, because I have given them, and received them first from the other person I am stuck with, me. It is important to remember to care for, love, and get along with ourselves first. Because if we fail to nurture our soul with love and compassion, we will not be able to give them to anyone else.

Love yourself first. If you are single, console yourself with the thought that at least you are not forced into confinement with a partner you no longer love, or who had stopped caring about you. If you are on the other hand, thus confined, you can always try to look at that partner with a little more compassion. Perhaps dig down deep to what is essential, beautiful and still present between you. If you can, hold your child, and your partner a little closer. And if you care about someone and cannot hold them close, for now, tell them you love them more often. We need to spread more love around, to help us overcome this test, and survive.

Unwritten

Time passes quickly, and things could change in the blink of an eye. It has been over two months since I broke one self-imposed silence, and two weeks since we all had to self-isolate. I am glad that I met him while I could, before the offices, and our shared coffee stations closed. And somehow it was a necessary step towards letting go and accepting.

It happened on a Monday, my second week at the office after returning from holiday. I went through my usual routine of looking him up, to see whether he was away, or had blocked some busy times for meetings. His public calendar showed that he was free for the next 8 hours. I opened a blank email message, stared at it for only a minute or so, then drafted a single subject line. Do you have time for Coffee today? Without hesitation, I pressed send.

I don’t think I planned it. It was just a normal day, and on a normal day I think of him at least a dozen times. Thanks to technology and social media, I always know, in the broadest sense, what he is up to. I had needed to know, sometimes, even while I kept the pretense of trying to forget him. By the end of last year, I knew that my attempts at forgetting were futile. I also dreaded the prospect of a chance meeting that will disassemble me anew, and painfully remind me of things I never forgot.

The year I spent away, trying to get over him, had served its purpose. First, I walked away with my wounded ego, when I felt that he rejected my open adoration. Then I was confronted with the layers of my pain, and by chance discovered that it all originated from a deep unfulfilled need. Because while I had a wonderful childhood where I was loved and unconditionally by close and extended family, things drastically changed when I became and adult. As soon as I grew into a woman, I was judged superficially for my appearance rather than my essence, and found that I need to work very hard for genuine appreciation and validation from others, all the things that I received freely as a child. The moment of realization came one late afternoon. I was complaining to a close friend and colleague about lack of recognition from my supervisor, then I found myself talking with bitterness and pain about the abuse I suffered in my marriage. Finally, I dissolved into tears when I remembered the final rejection from the man I loved. This meltdown sent me on a journey of self-discovery, where I learned to be kinder and more accepting of myself and others. I now know that I can always offer myself the love and compassion I needed, and I no longer crave as much validation from others as I did before. The journey is ongoing, but I have gained a better sense of my genuine self, and I realized that letting go of the ego, means less pain or at least less suffering.

My trusty therapist accompanied me on this journey. After ten sessions of talk therapy, she told me that I was now better, and perhaps I did not need her on a weekly basis. At the time I was going on holiday, and it felt right to have a break. However, one question she asked stuck with me and tortured me. She asked me whether I saw the man I loved again, and I told her that I have successfully avoided him after our last chance meeting some three months ago. During the calm time of the Christmas holidays, and embraced in the safe caring circle of my family, I spent long times ruminating about this problem. Does avoiding pain really equate to healing? How can I be over my heartbreak if a chance meeting would tear me apart?

By instinct I knew that avoiding my almost-lover was useless. I always criticized others for trying to run away from themselves, yet here I was trying to avoid my soul’s deepest desire. How could I ever think that I could leave him, when he has never left me? But this had been a recurrent pattern of my life. My intuition and heart were always way ahead of my mind and intellect. So on that day in January, I let my heart lead my fingers as I typed the email asking to meet him.

When I sent the email note, I did not know that he was in the middle of one of his usual work crises. It took him some time to reply but when he did, he accepted my invitation without hesitation. Later he commented on my timing and how I caught him at the worst possible moment in his working life. I seem to have a knack of doing that all the time. He never asks himself why it is so, but I know that my soul must be very close to his that I feel his distress.

We did not meet for long. He bought me coffee and I filled him in about the most important events of the past year of my life. I filled him in about my trip home for example and the reason for it. He told me that he thought I had left, since he never saw me on the street. I said I was still here, but did not mention that my departure was still a possible future outcome. He did not say much about his life, preoccupied as he was with the immediate work concerns. I tried to point out that work was not everything, but he was quick to counter that it was a bad time for advice.

I did not need to tell him that I was still ‘weird’, I felt our connection just like before. I still looked at him in the same way, and he asked me, like he usually does, to stop staring. He said that we resembled an old divorced couple, and he joked that he did not remember the middle bit, just the divorce. He said it would be nice if we met again, every quarter, then left to resume his professional battles. I finished the rest of my coffee, alone but for the warmth he left in my heart. I knew that I still loved him, perhaps more than before. The pain was still present, but I would live with it. Neither of us could change what was and would perhaps remain between us. We were just one and the same. Time and space meant nothing when we were together.

I meant to write that love letter then, to tell him how meeting him, and recognizing him as my twin soul was one of the most unsettling and challenging events of my life. It was, and continued to be, my greatest learning experience, and the catalyst for my ongoing spiritual growth.

Before him, I was hiding inside my protective shell of cynicism and apathy. I saved my love and affection for only a few select people, and avoided the rest of humanity. Then he found me and eventually broke the artificial barriers I built around my heart, to shield myself from disappointment and pain. He broke through my defenses because he knew me, and I was not prepared to love so selflessly, to relate so completely, and to look into the mirror of my soul. The ego resists and rejects experiences of true love, because they threaten the boundaries we keep between the self and the other, between what is wholly ours and what belongs to God or the universe. But as love destroys the ego, it offers the clearest passage to enlightenment. I finally understood what God was. God is love, and love is where he is, in my heart.

I remember the only time I held him. In a hospital room, I told him that everything will be Ok. We will be fine. Then, I looked into his eyes and said: “You will learn something”. Undoubtedly it was my intuitions speaking even then, because -unbeknownst to my rational mind- my heart had already opened up to the spiritual journey, that our twin soul is destined to to take.

I never managed to write this letter, not on the first day we met, after such a long time. I still had so much to process. But I thought I would write it later here to celebrate his birthday in February.

But his birthday has now come and gone. I sent him a greeting on the day, even though I knew he was away, and invited him to a celebratory coffee a few days after his return. A day before the appointed time. His message ringtone chimed on my phone and I was dumbstruck at first then delirious with happiness. That ring tone has gone quiet for over a year, and I could never assign it to anyone else. For the past year, it had always unsettled me whenever I heard it from a stranger’s phone. The shock could hit anytime, in the supermarket, in the cafeteria, or worst while boarding a plane, and I would be back to the twin thrill and disappointment of hearing it, then knowing it was not coming from my phone. This time I was to keep the thrill. His text adjusted our meeting time, and I was drunk on my own happiness for almost 24 hours in anticipation of a small meeting over a cup of coffee.

That meeting was a bit longer, and he was more relaxed. He talked to me about his business trip to a desert kingdom, and his real and imagined adventures there. His real escapades included skydiving and bar-hopping and what I suspect some less important socializing. The imagined ones included running away to live with the Bedouins in the desert, and I said that I would join him for that.

While we were talking I thought I misplaced my phone and looked for it for almost a minute in my purse before I realized that it was sitting there next to my coffee cup. He confuses me this way, whenever he sits opposite me. He said that my forgetfulness reminded him of a movie he saw “The Notebook” where one character was suffering from dementia. I reminded him that I was not a movie person, and he said, that it was a nice love story.

This time I told him that I was waiting for news about an application I made to transfer to another duty station. He asked me when I would know the outcome, and I said, perhaps it would be a month. We parted, and I told him I was giving him a virtual parting hug.

That second meeting was tougher on me than the first. I felt more, and I feared saying goodbye soon. After I left, I shed some tears in the privacy of my office. Later at home, I realized that I had seen the notebook in December. My parents are TV addicts, while I only enjoy televisions programs as part of family time with them. I watch with half of my attention, while knitting or crocheting. Most of the time I listen to improve my German, but sometimes the story sucks me in. I was only half-watching for the first part of the movie. Two young people in love who end up together despite the obstacles. The second half seemed unrelated at first. An elderly man visiting a care facility and suffering the rudeness and maltreatment of a woman resident. He is often berated by younger visitors that he is wasting his time. At some points, we the viewers find out that the elderly man and the woman are the same lovers whose story we saw earlier. The man is retelling to the woman, through letter, or through this notebook he kept. He visits her all the time waiting for the one rare moment she returns, and recognizes him. I cried my heart out when I saw the movie. I cried again that Thursday evening, because that story was a metaphor for how I loved him. I was just waiting, never abandoning the distant hope, that one day he would, maybe, recognize me.

Since that second meeting that left me in tears. I reached out to him twice. Once near the end of February. He answered me that he was going to be unavailable for the next three weeks, on short leaves and then workshops. Then last week I wrote to ask him how he was doing with the self-isolation, but that email is not yet answered.

Perhaps my third love letter will remain in my heart, unwritten. But anything I write will not come close to the simple beauty expressed in one of my favourite Arabic songs, “The past is only what time has managed to change. But neither time nor space could make our love a thing of the past.” I have decided to embrace the truth of what he is to me. In this lifetime I will work on my spiritual evolution, to find myself. If he was the twin soul I think he is, then I will find him too. And if he wakes up, to his genuine essence, then he will recognize me. When he does, this lifetime or the next, I will be waiting.

Two Love Letters

I wrote so many letters to the man whose existence in my life was an outward curse but an inner blessing. Two of them, separated by almost a year of suffering, punctuate and chronicle the evolution of my feelings for him.

In the first, the theme was an awakening. I described a cynical woman who has long given up on human connection, let alone a belief in love. On a sunny afternoon, the woman was enjoying time alone with her book and a cup of coffee, when a tall older man, with charismatic blue eyes, intruded on her space and insisted to make a conversation, which evolved into a connection.

Their meetings for coffee continued, and they were always more than just chats. The two connected on deep levels, even while they joked about their funny friendship. When the woman had to be admitted to hospital, he watched her awaken from post-anesthetic haze, held her hand, and planted a chaste kiss on her forehead. She knew by then that she loved him, more than she had ever loved anyone in this lifetime.

The connection was too intense for her, she refused to accept it even when it was exhilarating. And when it became heart-wrenching during the longer periods they stayed apart, she yearned for the times she was free of heartache. More than once, she attempted to walk away. She tried to regain her autonomy, her freedom from this connection that sometimes felt like a restraint to her free spirit. Yet even when he was not around, even when she refused to speak to him or contact him, he stayed with her. He was always the first person she thought of when she woke up in the morning, and the last image her mind conjured before she drifted to sleep.

Sometime in that first year, the woman conceded defeat. She simply could not resist the pure joy, the energy that their meetings generated. She realized that the few moments of connections she experienced with her love were more precious to her than some years of her life. The mere thought of them waking up in the same city or listening to the same rain shower was sometimes enough to give her a smile.

By the end of the letter, I asked to restore the connection. I asked the man I adored to write to me, text or email me, every once in a while, because I knew that I could not severe our bond.

To my knowledge, this first love letter remained unread. He refused to look at it, for fear of being drawn into the web of what he thought of as ‘my emotions’. Instead he took a course of denial, trying to dismiss or disbelieve what is written in the stars.

The second letter, was meant as a goodbye letter. A letter to forget. It was never intended for his eyes, and was not even meant to be kept. The therapist asked me to write it. The theme here was letting go of grief for the unattainable, even if it was true love.

In this letter too, I told the story from the beginning. I described our meeting, and the growing awareness. There were more memories, the kiss on the cheek that I stole from him as he collected our used coffee cups, and the way I turned away and ran after this unusually bold act. The surprisingly profound pronouncements I made from my hospital bed, with my brain in the semi-dazed state of pain-killer haze. I told him, that I felt him, “here”, and pointed to a space on the left side of my chest right under the rib-cage.

I recalled how every meeting with him felt like a sunshine in the heart. And how every short stretch we walked in step together felt like a winged flight above the clouds. I remembered the moments I felt he cared. But I still reproached him for starting this whole thing up, for persisting on breaking me out of my shell then retreating behind an indifferent mask.

In this letter, I still struggled to make sense of the experience, to put it to bed, to bury it, and say goodbye to it, because even the beautiful memories caused me pain. I cried while writing about them and I cried again as I read the letter to the therapist.

I have been broken by this and emerged as a different person. You have made me what I am, like the sleeping beauty that was awakened by a prince, and this is something I wrote in the letter you never read. I read every book I could on grief and how to survive it. But I often return to the theme of love, which I think I finally understand. I was always skeptical about the concept of soul-mates, and scoffed at love as a passing fancy. Now I know better, because it is enough for me to see you from afar for all this to re-awaken and torture me. I wake up at odd hours at night with this sense of loss. As if a part of my soul is missing and I cannot replace it. When the pain is too much I miss the days when I considered myself whole and above any feeling of desperate love.

In all my other relationships there was this desperate angst. The constant questioning and worry: Does he love me? Doesn’t he? will I be with him? This is totally absent in this one. I see photos of you on the web or on Facebook and I am struck by the single thought, that you are simply my twin soul. I am also certain that I love best this present version of you. The older man with the eyes full of pain and unspoken words. Not the goofy younger guy who was extremely handsome. If I had met you as a young man we would have completely missed each other.

I have exhausted myself talking about this and cried several times in the process of writing. I just pray that you are happy and at peace. If not, then there is nothing I would not give to make your life a bit less sad. I write this and the part of me that used to be rational cringes at what a pushover I am. I am the quintessential desperate female, but surely I am not on the lookout for love, or affection. It is just you are the one person who moved my soul. Again, lots of poetry and quotes about love seems to resonate with me and describe my condition quite truthfully.

In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte makes Catherine say about her love for Heathcliff – I do not know what souls are made of but his and mine are the same. And Elif Shafak in Forty Rules of Love writes this– “Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.”

You were the only person who changed me so profoundly and for the better. I wish I could tell you this in person. Because I believe that, at least on some level, I changed you too.

It has been a while, but I think I wrote this letter before the wound of my beloved’s final rejection. Before he told me off for being weird, and invited me to fall in love with Jimmy the postman. My last attempt to walk away came as reaction to this rejection. It was my final stand for my ego, because after his persistence on breaking me out of my shell, and after his role in liberating my capacity for unselfish love, I felt that he had no right to deny me my right to express those feelings and live them.

I managed to avoid contacting him, writing him texts or love letter for 447 days. During that time, every chance meeting broke me. And he never left me. Perhaps I forgot about him briefly at times when I was preoccupied with my sister’s illness, or when I was visiting her. I might have felt invincible against the pain for some time after a long therapy session where I read that second letter, and for a longer euphoric period after I finished my first marathon. But when those events faded or settled back into normalcy, he returned where he belonged, in my heart. So perhaps it is time for that third, and final, letter.

On The Couch

On a recent visit to my therapist, we went through an exercise aimed at helping me find closure. I read a letter I wrote to the man I love, and tried to process it while listening to alternate drumbeats through the headphones. At the same time, the therapist, standing behind my chair, gently tapped on my right and left shoulders alternately. The session, as she explained, was aimed at taking the experience from the feeling side of my brain to the analytical side. I understood that this might limit my emotional reactions, and bring me back to the realm of logic. I am always in for that, but I am not sure whether it worked for me on that day.

I wrote the letter some ten days ago, on the same evening I had my previous therapy session. Writing it was heart-rending, I cried over the text several times and became exhausted by the memories it evoked. Reading was less intense, marginally. I could read some sections without emotions, so I am quite curious whether the alternate activation of my brain hemispheres did actually have some effect.

At the end of the exercise the therapist asked me to visualize the man, to make him progressively smaller. I jumped the cue on this and immediately visualized him very small and held him in my palm even before she asked me to do just that. Her aim was to make him gradually smaller, reducing his power over me. I am not sure whether that strategy worked for what ails me, where the man is concerned. As I saw him in my mind’s eye, small and vulnerable, my feelings for him changed, but not in the way the therapist expected. I felt tenderness towards the little creature he became, as if I held a tiny animal, a bird, a hamster or even a mouse. I wanted to hold him gently in my palm, and perhaps keep him safe, and care for him. I never had the urge to crush him or obliterate his existence.

When she finally asked me to do whatever I wanted with the miniature man, I turned him into a bird and let him fly away. Then, on her request, I imagined walking away from him and from the situation of my prolonged grief. I walked away towards a sunset on Shela beach in Lamu. The wet sand was glimmering under the sunlight, and I could see the green of the mangroves, and the metallic blue of the lagoon. I was at peace, but a tiny bit of my heart still wished that the little bird I set free would alight on my shoulder again.

The only power the man has over me is his love. And the love I carry for him has no remedy, at least not on the therapist’s couch.

Your Final Gift

Love is not measured in minutes or days. If I added up all the moments I spent with you they will be one or two days at most. Yet I grieve your absence from my life, like a widow who mourns the passing of a husband she loved all her life. Because in that brief time, you were that to me, the love of my life. I let you into my world and shared with you everything I know and love. You sat at a table with my closest family. I saved you a portion of every treat I enjoyed. I broke with you bread and chocolate. I bought you dates as sweet and soft as kisses, and juicy baby tomatoes bursting with sunshine and flavour. I introduced you to my favourite books and authors, and to my stories and memories. You shared some parts of yourself too, but I left nothing out, I was an open book. I told how I felt, and I even wrote you a love letter.

You sampled and tasted. You took the gifts, but rejected the underlying emotions. Apart from the times your eyes or words betrayed you, you gave very little, only some impersonal or discarded pieces of your chaotic universe. You liked to see me, but did not want to see my pain. You wanted me to look at you, but not look into you. You disliked me reaching into your soul. You liked to feel adored, yet you left the love letter unread, because reading is getting involved in the emotions of another. It did not suit you that I was expressive, that I spoke my heart, and fully acknowledged and accepted what I felt. You labelled me weird, where I was merely honest. I went through my own phase of denial, but unlike you, I eventually realized that love is a wholesale preposition. You cannot cherry-pick the joyful parts and discard the sorrows. I could not pick out for you the parts that you wanted, so I decided to keep everything that remained to myself. Now I am free to be honest and emotional. I can weep with the memory, and laugh alone at a joke or an anecdote that I am sure you would have enjoyed.

I left you because you rejected the most elemental part of me – that I loved truly and deeply. You did not understand that it was the one thing beyond my will or control. You could have asked for anything else. I would have plucked the stars out of the sky for you, but you went and asked me to deny or ignore the one truth I cannot change.

I left you but you did not leave me. I still see your empty seat at the table. My joy in the simple sights, sounds and tastes is now forever diminished. They were only perfect when shared with you. A small piece of sorrow remains for me at the heart of every joyful moment, each time I taste a perfectly brewed double cappuccino, and every time I read a brilliantly crafted phrase, or an engrossing and touching story. I will never stop looking for you to complete those experiences, even in moments we never shared. I look for you to walk beside me when I am taking a solitary walk on the beach. Alone in my bed, I turn to you on the pillow next to mine, to read you a passage I found interesting. And I see you looking at me over your reading glasses, and your eyes tell me that you are truly with me, listening to me, and seeing me with your soul, not just your eyes.

The last day we met I left empty-handed. You did not give me anything that deserved to be kept. I only have the memories I lived, and the visions I fantasize. The most lasting of your parting gifts has proven to be the grief I feel, the sadness that keeps assailing me and eventually flows out of my eyes. And since it is the last gift, I am reluctant to part with it. It is the only piece of you that is truly mine, and the final proof that you, and what I felt for you, were real.

This Too Shall Pass

I always dreaded a chance meeting with my imaginary lover. When this happened in the past, I used to get a terrible adrenaline rush, my heart raced uncontrollably and my leg muscles twitched and trembled in a fight-or-flight reflex. I felt close to passing out, and most of the time I needed to sit down. Later I would cry and suffer for days, like an addict with a relapse.

As late as last week, I wrote how his imagined form, that my subconscious mind summoned in a dream, was sufficient to break me, and put me out of kilter for a day or two. In time, that sadness passed too. My trials, however are not over.

Today I was supposed to be already on vacation, if it weren’t for my misunderstanding of my son’s holiday calendar. But fate has other plans. I had to extend my stay for one more week, and one unintended consequence was meeting him by chance, after over five months, and not once but twice.

My colleague and I have recently established the refreshing habit of going for a walk, around mid-morning. We talk about work, about our kids and a little bit about heartache. She has experienced a recent break-up herself, and I told her my own sorry story. I have stopped being ashamed of it some time ago, because it looms so large in my consciousness. And even if it had all the hallmarks of an illusory affair, it was real to me. In fact it is still real, because I am mostly still living it.

Ironically, I had little thought of my heartache today. We leisurely circled our block, cleared the parking lots near the modern blocks of his agency, the areas I usually ask her to avoid, and climbed up the circular path that skirts the compound. And all of a sudden a boxy 4×4 parks on the grassy shoulder right ahead of us. Out of the corner of my eye I see his tall figure climbing out. I think he lifted his arm in robotic salute and half-smiled but I looked straight ahead and did not acknowledge. My friend must have noticed that I chocked in mid-conversation. I muttered under my breath, explaining in shock that it was him. She was sweet, and tried to distract me with other subjects. I stumbled on, both in step and conversation, but deep down I was grateful for two things, the presence of my friend and the reflector glasses I was hiding behind.

We were still halfway through the path, when my friend said she was feeling tired and it was too hot. So we circled back towards the main hallway that returns us to our office. This time I had my sunglasses off and again in the distance I saw the tall, thin, bald figure I know so well walking towards the lobby in our direction. He was deep in attentive conversation with a much shorter Asian-looking woman, I am really not sure, as I only managed a short look at a great distance. As I took all this in within a fraction of a second, I said to my friend “please don’t tell me it is him again”. In another millisecond I know for sure, and I dive for my phone feigning intense interest in its screen, even though I cannot see a thing there without reading glasses. It is a well-worn, and obvious, device for avoiding eye contact. But I make it clear, I refuse to acknowledge.

At the office I feel a bit stunned. I have to admit that I still had the tiniest hope that he would perhaps acknowledge this rare meeting with a text, but my rational mind knew that it was not going to happen. I sigh now and realize that I survived this dreaded encounter, and it was not as bad as I imagined it to be. I remember that I also survived a surprise encounter with his wife about a month ago. My son and I were at the supermarket and I saw a tanned lady wearing an understated elegant white shirt over tan trousers and comfortable sandals. She carried a big leather bag with the shoulder strap across her body. I pointed her out in the distance to my son and said this how I imagined my friend’s wife looked like. I turned a corner in the shop, and next thing I knew, she was facing me in a supermarket aisle. The woman I only ever saw in the rare photos I stalked on public Facebook and Instagram pages looked at me gave me the warmest and kindest smile, as if she recognized and knew me. She also broke me that day to a thousand pieces. It was perhaps a message from the universe to let go.

The universe should know by now that I am listening. I received the message and I am doing all I can to let go. Even though he visits me in my dreams. Even though I spend most of my time these days translating the documents of his ineffectual and broken agency. I try to live from day to day and survive one month to the next. The tears will come either now or later, but I will still survive this day, as I survived the ones before it.

This was an important step forward for me. A chance encounter was bound to happen, and it is no use going out of my way to avoid it. Today the chance meeting hurt me less than it did a year ago, and I now have reason to believe that the next one, if it happens, when it happens, will hurt less than it did today. I also have to believe that the man I love exists only in my head, and still, to a certain extent, in my heart. The man I met by chance today is a stranger I do not need to acknowledge.

His Poisonous Arrow

A lazy and careless remark that he threw at me has found its mark. Like a poisonous arrow with delayed effect it hurt me deeply.

When he belittled what I felt from him and invited me to fall in love with “Jimmy the Postman” he did not only degrade himself but insulted me as well. As if I were so delusional and indiscriminate in my affection, that instead of loving him I could have loved any other John Doe. Not even having a taste for certain types of food can be put down in such ludicrously dismissive manner.

There were also touches of hypocrisy. While he sat there sharpening his poisonous daggers, throwing them silently and carelessly at me, he had the gall to contradict me when I stated that I would rather my son grow up a bit less sensitive to pain, than like me, the one who wears her heart on her sleeve, and who carries the hurt and pain of every person she loves. He begged to differ he said “do you mean it is better to hurt others than get hurt?”, and here he was hurting me, but it would have only mattered if he cared, and he was on  a mission to prove that he did not.

In a business communication course I attended some time ago, the facilitator chose to break the ice by elaborating on the South African greeting I am familiar with. The Zulu greeting is : Sawubona, and it means, “We see you”. The Bantu language in its simple wisdom recognised that acknowledgement and recognition are the first path to friendly communication. And so it is in all human relations.

The cruelest thing your loved one can do to you is not the rejection, but denying you the recognition and acknowledgment of your feelings. Sometimes all you need from the person you love is an acknowledgment. Yes, I see you, I know how you feel. I am sorry. The ultimate cruelty is not rejecting the love that was given, it is denying its existence, calling it an illusion, a passing fancy or a transitory moment of lust, when it is none of the above. The man I love is doubly cruel, because he led me there, fired those first sparks that burned the house down, then walked away pretending that it was an accident.

It is human to flirt with danger, and to covet the forbidden. We all make mistakes, and sometimes the actions we take or the things we say set off a chain reaction of unintended and regrettable consequences. I prefer to own up to my mistakes and take the consequences, other people choose to run. It is not a matter of courage or cowardice, it is a matter of maturity and taking responsibility for your action, as an adult.

Courage or cowardice should actually be neutral characteristics. Their context determines their value as virtues or vices. Some courageous acts can be foolishly irresponsible, and some cowardly acts are simply retreats in deference to other people.

So on that day in August when I met him, I grabbed hold of my tattered heart, and faced up to the man I loved. I did not wear my heart on my sleeve, I presented it to him, open, forgiving and asking for nothing. That letter I wrote and deposited in the cloud was a final offering and surrender. But even in my fragile state I proved stronger and more grounded than he is. I could feel his unease with my open adoration, and his discomfort at the prospect of reading my letter. He claimed that he might read it if he could find the attachment.

When I walked away that day I knew that he had broken something deep inside me. But I did not know then the depth and the extent of the damage. And I am only beginning to fathom them now.

I have received the ultimate rejection from the man I love. He either did not appreciate how deeply I cared, or he understood my feelings and was afraid to acknowledge them, along with his responsibility for their existence. In the interest of my sanity I decided not to ponder anymore whether his cruelty was out of ignorance or cowardly self preservation, or both. It is the same difference to this wounded heart.