Unlocking Unrequited Love

So now what?

I didn’t realize how often I thought of him at night, until it became too scalding, too final, too over, and in his absence, there was only black space. 

Instinctively, I searched for another face, one I had summoned at times in the void, in the weeks and months when he had drifted back into the mists. I tried to recall a phantom from the past, all of them phantoms I see now, soldiers in the unrequited army, but no one came.


It is like a blanket I wrap around myself, this desire, this moment of possibility. It is not the fantasy of fruition, it is more the texture of ache, of the “please, God, yes, finally” submission. I have trained myself in this, not even knowing that I was tapping into this place of ache and desire and possibility, because, perhaps, I never imagined I could have more, or that more never felt like enough–not this exquisite and piercing, in the anticipation, in the profound intensity of it.

I can trace it back to the 7th grade, when Jacob Wallace left me quivering and flushed between the temporary buildings of  my middle school, not knowing what to say, or how to say it. He was gorgeous, with thick soft brown hair parted in the middle, the flowing feathers of the 70s. I can see him in slo-mo in my mind’s eye, shaking his head, hair falling just into place above those eyes, slanted above high cheekbones, a crooked smile, tall and thin.

He asked me “to go” in that barren courtyard–I can still see the scrawny shrubs and dirty blacktop–and I was so surprised, wanted it so badly, could not believe it was real, didn’t know what it was, that I thought he was making fun of me, and that his friends would leap out from the bushes and laugh at me if I said yes…all I could stammer was, “you’re kidding, right?” He stood his ground, which I now realize had to be awkward and confusing, since he must have known I liked him by the way I gathered superhuman strength in his presence, cheeks flushed and energy shooting out of my childish frame. “I’m not kidding.” “You’re kidding.” “I’m not.”

I don’t remember how it ended. My memory cuts from the blaring in my head, the hot flush over my body, the powerful handprints of shame on my cheeks, to the waiting.

The next day a boy I don’t remember approached me, “If Jacob asked you to go again, would you say yes?” “Yes,” I said, my voice a blur, a regret I did not know how to unwind from, a mistake I could still not fathom. 

I spent the rest of 7th grade tracking his movements, learning his classes, strategically positioning myself so that we might casually pass during the day, allowing him to ask me again. Every morning, I worked at my hair, cut in the Farrah Fawcett style of the time, but looking more like the mom in Modern Family, rolled sausages along the side of my face. I brushed my braces. I was a late bloomer, still looked like a little girl, maybe that was part of my own disbelief. I was not prepared for this part. But bodies, oh, our bodies, they betray us! 

And so it began. Every night, alone in my bed, staring out at the streetlight, I would imagine the ways it might happen. That moment when he would come up to me, and say the words, and this time I would say yes. I remember only getting up to that moment, that feeling of surrender, but I do not remember thinking about what it would feel like after, the walk hand in hand, the meeting in between classes, making out outside of woodshop. It was the moment leading up to it that I was practicing. 

It lasted a long time. I can’t even tell you how long. Forever. Years. Thousands of nights. And after him, there was another, and another, none perhaps so intense and so palpable, but always someone to rehearse that moment with. Even when I was “happy” in a relationship, even when I was married, there was always someone.

It might be about my relationship with relationship, and who I get tangled with. I have felt passion and connection, but I have also felt lonely and misunderstood when I’ve been in love. Or smothered, unmatched, unseen. I understand immersion, and disconnection, and not a lot in between. So that leaves room. There is that piece.

It might be about feeling matched erotically. My ex-husband–he was 13 years older–knew what he liked, and I tried my best to follow along. It was a wild world of blues and debaucherie and altered states–and in the silence between submission, surrender, and shame, I found myself thinking about younger, healthier, vibrant, communicative men. Men I thought I couldn’t have. Men that perhaps were a healthier version of me, if I were not chugging tequila and snorting meth and hiding my talent behind my husband and in my darkest fears. A different version repeated in the relationships that followed.

So there is that piece. Definitely that piece, a longing for a connection that seems natural, returned, effervescent, even, if only I had the courage to step into it.

And it could be a cliche, always falling for, fantasizing, about the impossible man. My fantasy man is hot, maybe even ridiculously hot, but with a great smile, and humility, either doesn’t know he’s hot, or reaches deeper. Very likely he has a girlfriend, and if he does, she is amazing, someone you’d want to be, or be friends with, and, if not, his lover might be the sea. So he is unavailable in an almost mythic way. Usually there is at least the promise of attraction. He knows who I am…if things were different…If we were single…or less honorable…but the feeling is always that it would just be for the moment, and never more.

The unrequited obsession.

I could it make it all about this obsession, this peculiar relationship, this man, or that one and I like to do that. But it came to me yesterday in a Moses moment:  that the man is not really the point. That this is a key to a lock that I could not see until now.

When I started writing this, I was exploring that empty space. Now that “The One I Have Been Wanting” has lost his power (it’s not an act of will, they have a life of their own), what do I put in its void? It had been long, this one, and palpable, and sometimes even real, via text, via pictures, dear God in body and soul once or twice, so the void was vacuous. I have been digging at the emptiness trying to see the full picture. What IS it?

I was in a place I never am. Alone, by a pool, no children, none of the twenty million Angelinos nearby, a waterfall trickling beside me. My back was sore, unusual for me, and I thought the sun on my skin would help it. I felt the warmth on my back, seeping into the skin.  And it was suddenly…just…quiet.

I do understand quiet, and I cultivate moments of quiet. I walk in nature. I meditate. But it is never really silent. Even when I am trying not to, I know I am listening for something: clarity, luminosity, guidance.

This was different. It was like a long pause. It gave me almost a start. I don’t know if I felt like a child or the eyes of God, but I can’t remember a time where I had no thought at all. No reaction to sound or smell or vision. I don’t know how long it lasted…it might have only been a few seconds, but when it was over, I heard this clear question, a loud voice, “WHAT ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT?”

I almost looked around. “Uh…right this minute?” 

And I knew the answer was, “Always.” 

In that same state I saw the minds of millions, their faces, eyes, turned toward the highway, toward their children, their beloveds, their computers, their bank balances. I saw the worry, the pinched faces, traffic faces, knitted brows, scattered, searching, unfocused stream of thoughts, a mask of every human emotion.

And the real question was, I realized, what are WE thinking about, the great We, the One we are all with each other?

I know there is nothing original about refocusing thought. Mae West said it, L Ron Hubbard, The Secret, I understand that. I can’t explain it, I just GOT it in a way I never did before. I have practiced “thinking a better thought,” and “telling a better story.” As I have focused on a larger vision, I think a lot about that vision and can truly embody the feeling of its presence. I know how to raise my vibration. I think about those things, but those are the conscious thoughts, the thoughts I summon. The thoughts I try to “correct to” when the other stuff is running. The other stuff that runs…that’s another story.

Many years ago I worked for a highly successful writer. He had been successful in almost every way a writer could be successful–journalism, TV, film. He was the first person I had ever known who was successful at something I would aspire to. I had known businessmen and lawyers and even actors and agents and producers, but I never had any interest, so didn’t study their habits or their thoughts. He was different. The thing I noticed first, (and immediately resented), was his incredible discipline. At one point, with a newborn son, an ailing father, three other kids, wife, an ex-wife, a deadline on a huge project on which his reputation depended, he got up every day at 5AM and worked on his novel, for which he was not even getting paid.

He was a former Marine, a Marshall Scholar, someone who seemed utterly out of my league, and yet, and yet…being near him ignited a hunger in me to be so much more. 

In a way, those six years are a microcosm of my life, any life.

The thing he tried to teach me, overtly and inadvertently, was focus. But, I argued to myself, my work with him was often mired in details, tossing between the creative and the mundane. His creative, my mundane. I would want to go on and on about the futility of health insurance forms, or the recent injustice at Staples, and he would look at me with those laser focused blue eyes and say, “think about your novel.” Uggghhh!

Right, I was writing a novel. 

Just after my 30th birthday, I spent the night alone in the ER. I had driven myself there when the pain in my chest after a yoga class had stopped my breath, then was wheeled at top speed through the hospital with cathodes on my naked body and doctors rushing all around me. I had just moved to Austin, my then husband was in another state, my new boss as well, and I knew no one. I truly didn’t know if I was going to die. As I lay there, I did not have the urge to call anyone, not even my mom. I had this sudden realization that we are born alone, and die alone. And I had this powerful impulse that I didn’t know if I could ever live the life I really wanted, but I had never even tried. I had kept myself distracted with relationships, drugs, alcohol, failure. I was an anomaly, because, dressed up, I looked so normal, so bright, had so much to offer, but inside…Dagobah.

So lying in the bright light, the beeping of machines all around me, I wondered what my life could look like? And the answer was: be a writer, of course. Not a huge secret. I had studied writing. I had always “tried” to write. I just didn’t write. 

They never figured out what happened to me, but it didn’t happen again. And through the long winter–my new husband, a musician, was away for four months on the road–I had time to write.

But what to write? I had tried short fiction, poems. None of them ever did what I wanted them to. I wrote a children’s book about an ostrich who wanted to fly. It wasn’t bad.

Then I decided, honestly, the only life I knew anything about, was mine. So I would try that.

So I began the novel whose toil would last seven years, was finished, but failed, led to everything I am as a writer now, my love of surfing, my daughter, and so much that is good in my life, and yet…and yet…it was so hard for me to “think about my novel.” 

I know I can pin it on ego. The gap between where I was and where I wanted to be was so enormous, I was consumed by envy. One day I would be on a call with Tom Hanks or director Robert Zemeckis, or in a room with Sean Connery as we broke down and brainstormed the essence of story, and the next on the phone battling an insurance company on the family’s behalf. I suffered at my lowly plight. In those creative sessions, I was not the most important person in the room. I was not a player. I burned with the desire to already be that person. 

Outside of the creative sessions, I not only occupied my mind with the small tasks at hand, I obsessed on them, even hid behind them. Instead of soaking in the glory of the masters around me, allowing it to all percolate, letting myself surrender as apprentice, even servant, I missed moments by being consumed with jealousy, with the feeling that I would never be this much, never be enough.

Looking back now, I realize there were two major problems. The first, I never got to the heart of what I wanted. The second, I didn’t have a clue how to get from here to there. Where was the guidebook? I suffered from the injustice of the universe, cursed with insufficient talent, insufficient clarity. And my real burning desire was not that of truth or expression, but of the need to be accepted and celebrated. 

Without real clarity, I articulated between frustration and jealousy, tremendous desire, and grandiose visions. One minute I was slogging insurance forms, the next I was accepting an Academy award. Just like with the man, I would bring myself to the precipice of surrender, of passion…then skip to the award, but never work the process.

So what does this all have to do with spending my nights in a fantasy of the edge of surrender? 

I realize I do it in everything in my life. I bring myself to the precipice of the love, of the surrender, of the passion, of the career. Then, in my mind, I skip to the end, like Cinderella and the happy ending. And it sounds cliche, but the ending is just the beginning. The real stuff of dreams is the sticky gooey part in between. It involves interaction with another, a dream, a work of art, yourself, the world. 

And, now that we are in Epiphany Central, I am putting it all together. 

This act of fantasy keeps us in a perpetual state of rehearsal. It is not the same as vision. It is not the same as clarity. My Oscar win, my day with Oprah (okay, that is NOT fantasy, that is going to HAPPEN) is rehearsal for another type of unrequited love. Even though it is a powerful symbol of what I might want…the glamour, the recognition, the acceptance…it has nothing to do with the feeling of doing my work in the world. Just like that moment where the man wants me, pursues me, invites me, needs me, has nothing to do with what we could create together. 

I realized I don’t allow myself to have what I really want, even in fantasy. More importantly, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I REALLY WANT.  I am afraid to even admit that I want what I want long enough to see it.

I remember Cheryl Sandberg talking about this in a different way, talking about Leaning In. She talks about how we start lying to ourselves, and then we lie to everyone else, and we forget about what we are lying about.

I know many of us feel this restlessness, like we want something we either can’t quite put our finger on, have given up on, or are embarrassed to even want. Maybe it is an every day feeling, to have a partner who is our best friend that we can’t keep our hands off, or a moment, to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, to sing with Adam Levine. Maybe it is everything. 

I have spent the last two years drilling into this–call it purpose, your dream, your heart’s desire– through coaching and programs. One of the most telling processes I’ve heard is one Derek Rydall uses, which is to ask someone, “If you could truly live the life of your dreams, if you knew you would succeed, what would that look like?” Almost no one can answer. They are too afraid to even GO there. A lot of times, when they start talking, they want to lie on a beach somewhere. So Derek might say, you’re tired, that’s a fantasy, lie on that beach for a month. You’re rested. You’re full of life. Now what? Then a slow, shy, agonizing revelation begins.

It touches people at every level of success. The other day I was listening in on another coaching call, and a magnificent, beautiful, brilliant woman whom I have met, revealed that even she was terrified to get to the bottom of what she really wanted. Here she was embodying so much success, so much courage. Anyone watching her, knowing her, would know she could do whatever she wanted. But she was afraid to want it.

So I go back to the man, and to the unrequited, and to the surrender. And, of course, for me, it comes back to rejection. A deep, universal type of rejection. “You don’t get to have what you really want.” “Only the chosen get to have what they really want.” “You are not the chosen.” Which boils down to, “You are nothing. You are not important. Not as important as that one over there.”

But I am. I know I am, because I can see that every other person on the planet is. I can see it, I can feel it, I can see their light, their brilliance, their gorgeousness. Your gorgeousness. It is blinding!

Recently, a high school student did a short film project where she recorded people as she told them “I am doing a project on beauty, and filming things I think are beautiful.” The camera captures the moment when they take that in, if they can, and they ARE beautiful. We are all so beautiful. As Rumi says, “If only you could see your face through my eyes, you would realize how beautiful you are.”

So I am making this commitment to myself. To do whatever it takes to open my heart and soul to what I really want. Even, especially, if it is embarrassing or impossible. With men. With work. With life. I want a man who will make me tremble and want that surrender. I want a man who will meet me, take me, to places I cannot imagine. I want a life where I create, and am of service, and am steeped in the blue Hawaiian waters every day. I want to sit with Oprah. I want to play her my hit song.

And I am making the commitment to fail. It turns out the guidebook I was looking for does exist. Its chapters include unflinching honesty,  commitment, practice, completion. Like finishing this article, which I began months ago, and has tortured me, and taken me to all kinds of places I did not expect, and could not reign in, but I so get it now!

I will keep unpeeling what I want. Practicing, focusing, working, walking towards it. And loving it, when I can, the gooey, sticky in-between of it all.

As my 7th grade self would say now, if she could, “God, yes. Absolutely! Let’s go.”

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