I read something about love. (There is a book out, apparently.) I feel the familiar stir of rage. It’s not because of love; I love love. It’s because the old, old assumptions are there, lurking beneath the lines, between the lines, sometimes right in the lines. The assumption that makes me crossest is that somehow romantic love is the work of a woman’s life.
I shouldn’t be cross really, because all of us humans are wrong about stuff all of the time. If someone wants to think a woman is incomplete without a great love of her life, that is their business. I should smile, and nod, and carry on down the road.
But I’m not quite so grown-up or evolved. I feel the rage. I want to throw heavy objects. I want to yell: don’t bloody put me in a box. Don’t diminish all my various and complex loves. Don’t think just because I’ve got ovaries that I somehow won’t be complete without a big old bloke. (And it always is a bloke; lesbians somehow don’t count, even if they’ve got the best relationship you know.)
You may be able to tell by now that I don’t do romantic love. People sometimes ask; I say, smiling, ‘It’s really not my skill-set.’
It’s not that falling in love has not been highly tried. I chose all kinds of glamour boys and lost boys and broken boys. Some were beautiful, some were moody, some were ridiculously good at sex. Some were very funny. One, who wasn’t an in love, but was a long-standing friendship that sometimes shaded into a relationship, ended up on the telly. I smile at the memories every time I see his dear face.
And then, at some point, I gave up. I was comically bad at it, romantic love. I always chose the wrong ones, the ones who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, love me back. I spent a lot of time crying and listening to Leonard Cohen records on a loop. I also started to realise that I didn’t want the things that all these men wanted. They all wanted to get married, for starters. Even the most emotionally shut-down of them. Most of them wanted to have children. They certainly wanted to get a house and make a home with a family in it. I didn’t want any of those things. So even if I’d got better at the romantic love and stopped the crying and didn’t know all the words to Famous Blue Raincoat, I’d still have run into a crashing impasse. They would have wanted their thing, and I wouldn’t have been able to give it to them.
Deciding to give it all up was such a lovely, clean solution. It sounds like a defeat, but it was in fact a victory. It was possibly the most liberating decision of my life. First of all, I didn’t have to go on doing something I was catastrophically bad at. Second of all, there was no more handing over your happiness to someone else, no more waiting for the telephone to ring, no more lying in bed at night with a person beside you and feeling utterly, achingly alone. I have lived alone for twenty-five years. I have never, in all that time, had a day of loneliness. I needed other people to make me feel lonely, so I gave them back.
The liberation was in the huge and the very small. I no longer watched romantic comedies with a yearning twist in my stomach. I didn’t have to squint at any biological clocks. I had no need to compromise.
I could give my love, which was vast, to the people and things and places that appreciated it. I could give it to the dear friends, to the dogs and the horses, to Scotland herself, to the written word. People sometimes say, kindly, ‘You have a way with words’. It’s one of my favourite compliments, because I gave twenty-five years of love to words, and that’s why I got good at them. That’s why I learnt a way with them, and it’s a way I cherish.
I love teaching, that’s another of my loves, and many of my clients are married with children, and I have to help them try to carve out the time to write with a spoon, because woman are supposed to put the family first. ‘Three minutes,’ I will sometimes say. ‘We’ll start with three minutes.’ That’s all the time they can spare.
I got to give all my hours to the thing I love and I don’t take that for granted for a single day. I didn’t have to hunt around for three minutes down the back of the sofa because someone wanted to know when lunch was ready. (And I know that sounds like a stereotype and a cliché but I’ve heard the stories, from so many of the women I work with and so many of the women I love. Stereotype and cliché aren’t in it.)
When I was younger, I was self-conscious about not wanting to be in a couple, not wanting marriage, not wanting children. I’d occasionally write about that, and I’d overdo everything, just as my red mare used to overdo being the boss in the field. She’d never been a lead mare before she came to me and she did that thing that people do when they are uncertain of their ground: she tried way too hard. There was operatic leaping and dancing and plunging and swerving; the other members of the herd would watch her in mild bemusement. Now she gives considerably fewer fucks because she knows herself and she knows her leadership skills and she doesn’t have to make a drama about any of it. She has nothing to prove. In my younger days, I had so much to prove: I’d write endless lists of all the other loves, the non-romantic loves, because I knew people were looking at me and calling me a freak-girl. Society doesn’t quite know what to do with people like me. It once frowned its face and called us spinsters and ignored us or scorned us or felt pity for us. It mostly used us for housekeepers and schoolmistresses. Then, for about five minutes, it thought we could be unconventional and interesting, and then it shook its head and reverted to the mean: it wanted meat and two veg, and honey still for tea, and the nuclear family. Society is amazingly conservative, with a small c; it adores what it knows. It can’t work out single females and it feels to me like it’s given up trying.
But the lovely, lovely thing is that now I am an old single female, and I’m like the red mare: I don’t need to leap about the field any more. I know what my loves are; I don’t need to list them. I don’t need to throw them at you, to say, ‘See? See? I am not sad and atrophied and bleak with lost chances. I am so full of loves that I don’t have room for them all.’ That’s what I used to do – make the lists – because I didn’t want people to give me the pity face; I didn’t want to hear that slide of unbelief that comes in a voice when it says, ‘You didn’t want to be married? Ever?’
I am smiling as I write these words, because I am thinking of my loves. One of them is lying at my feet. He is called Darwin and he’s big and goofy and soft and he wakes up every morning thinking that the world is fine and all the humans in it are going to be his friends. That’s not a bad love to have, on a quiet Sunday.
I cried yesterday for another love, because he died. I’d never met him even, but he was a great love. (I don’t cry just for anyone.) He was a horse and if you don’t follow racing you won’t know his name or what he means. If you do, you will say ‘Galileo’ and you will know why my heart is a little bit cracked and bruised today. You will know why I suddenly have a memory – a flash of something glorious, something that takes us humans above the mundane and the ordinary – and tears fill my eyes. There’s a love, if you like.
I don’t need to bang on about the hills and the mares and my posse; I don’t need to tell you about the hundred loves which have nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet. You will have those too. You might not dare to speak their name, because, well, you know – society and the pity faces – but you will have them. You will know that the things which make your heart fly are not always the expected things, no matter what other people say in their books. You too will know the flinging freedom of finding love everywhere, all by yourself. Perhaps you will write a book of your own about that. I’d like that. I’d read that.