When I was in high school, I dreamed of being a romance writer. I suppose the “Sweet Valley High” series, along with others such as “Couples” and “Sweet Dreams,” which my friends and I voraciously read and traded, were to blame.
I even wrote a few of my own teenage love stories — never mind I was a senior in high school before I had my first date or that my magical first kiss, by said date, was anything but.
(There were no stars or singing birds, only my racing to the bathroom upon returning home at the end of the night to scrub ferociously at my mouth while my mom laughed at my very mature pronouncement of how gross it had felt.)
What I lacked in actual experience I made up for with a vivid imagination. I also had the enthusiastic support of my friends — a copy of the “Romance Writer’s Pink Pages: The Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Romance Novel Published” given to me by my friend Mollie at the time still sits on my bookshelf — and so I began penning my tales of bright and beautiful girls swept off their feet by handsome, intelligent boys. The romance, of course, would eventually be soured by some uncovered secret or reckless act that both would have to overcome to find their happily-ever-after.
As I got older and traded my young adult paperbacks for adult romance novels — LaVyrle Spencer and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss were among my favorite authors — I kept writing, despite a tendency to excitedly begin one story that I would then abandon when the next best idea popped into my head.
Although I completed drafts of two young adult novels before college, I never attempted to get them published, nor did I finish any subsequent projects.
Somewhere along the way, I lost interest not only in writing romance novels but reading them. Though I know millions of women share a deep affection for such books — reportedly, a romance novel is sold every four seconds somewhere in the world — I was reminded why I’m no longer among their ranks when I recently picked one up on a whim and was left utterly unsatisfied at its conclusion, despite the eloquence of its prose.
To me, reality is simply more romantic.
Where I’d previously turned to these novels for a glimpse of stirring and passionate love that triumphs over all, I believe true victory in love is more than reconciliation after heartbreak — with the fiery kiss or tender declaration that saves the day — but encompasses the growth and self-awareness that comes with being tested and challenged in our relationships. The stretches we make and the lessons we learn, about ourselves and each other, are what ultimately deepen our capacity to love.
We disappoint, we blunder, we strike out and besiege with the baggage of our past. Often, the hurt we cause is unintentional, done without realizing the wounds we carry ourselves.
But if we believe in love as a teacher and a healer, we do not flee in those moments of careening doubt and fear or build a fortress that will keep our loved one out. No, we hunker down, we talk it through, we listen and we take responsibility for whatever our part may be in the tangled threat of demise. Sometimes, we walk away — we must — but if we are brave enough to do so amid honest introspection and a willingness to tend to our own lives with greater care and attention, we may find our way back to a love more beautiful than what was shared before. Or we move on and allow what we’ve learned to refine our next relationship.
We don’t wait for someone who will complete us, or languish until love returns, and then so, too, our joy.
It may not sound very romantic: a willingness to stare down what confronts, even if it is a less-than-appealing part of ourselves or our partner that we never knew existed, and then acknowledge what needs to be changed or fixed while still appreciating all that is good and sacred about being together. But I’ve seen in my own relationship with my boyfriend Zane how our toughest moments, including those where we’ve been tempted to give up, have been some of our most powerful invitations to deepen our love and connection.
Rather than the romantic fantasy where two broken and imperfect individuals discover love as the balm that effortlessly rights all wrongs and soothes all aches, once they’re willing to admit they’re in love — which is exactly what happened in the novel I recently read — it’s the leaning into the rough edges and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with our partner that can lead to a more fulfilling relationship.
Recently, when a good friend from college asked me to perform the ceremony for her wedding next year, she was worried I would say no, given the struggles she and her fiancé had faced. She knew, too, that in our circle, none of us were ever quite sure of their match, wondering if she had contorted herself to fit a flimsy ideal. Yet over the years, she nonetheless hinted she would want me to preside over her wedding when the time came. Now that it was here, however, she wasn’t sure I’d feel comfortable marrying a less-than-perfect couple.
As we talked, more frankly than we had in years, she acknowledged they were still still patching up the holes from previous mistakes, only this time they were having honest and open conversations about the ways they’d hurt each other and the things they needed from each other to build a sturdier partnership. But rather than focus solely on their relationship, they also were digging into their individual histories to assure each would be the mate they wanted to be. And for the first time in the six years they’d been together, I saw just how much she loved this man who would become her husband and how genuinely he loved her. It was clear how much she’d grown and was growing still as they navigated these new waters — and I told her I would be honored to marry them.
Since then, she’s brought a new layer of certainty and happiness to each discussion we’ve had, though she doesn’t claim to have found the elixir to guarantee a path free of future obstacles.
What she’s realized is this: “Love is flawed, people are flawed, but I know we can get through anything.”
And I do believe there is something ultimately more rewarding about a love that flourishes from this place, a love that has brought us to the worst and most-fragile parts of ourselves only to steer us toward the better.
Sometimes, it’s the journey we travel that makes for the greatest of romances, leading not to a fairy-tale ending but a lifetime of discovery, of fumbling and soaring and growing into ourselves through the courage to love and be loved in return.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times