By the time I was fourteen, most of my friends were college students.
I grew up on a university campus, sort of a fundamentalist Baptist enclave. The school had an elementary and high school as well as the college, and I graduated from all three.
From third grade on, I was what I now think of as the class scapegoat – my classmates cast all their fears upon me and drove me outside the camp. At best, I felt tolerated.
My seventh grade year I struck up an unlikely friendship with a junior who was new to the school. We both read through lunch hours, and soon found ourselves reading through our lunches companionably together. When she graduated, my social world moved with her to the university.
I will always be grateful to those college theater majors who welcomed an awkward teenager in and never made me feel like an outsider.
And of course, I had crushes on most of the guys. Talented, good looking college men who were more than kind to me – what teenager wouldn’t?
I was so full of longing.
Romantic longing, yes. But also longing for affirmation, for belonging. Longing to be seen – not to be invisible. Longing to be valued for who I was, not just tolerated out of obligation.
My longing, however innocent, was deep. And good. Longing tells us we’re alive to the world.
I remember sitting in the kitchen at some point in those years, talking to my mother about it. I’d realized that a crush was about who I wanted someone to be, rather than who they really were. If I wanted to get beyond a crush, I was going to need to really get to know them and love them.
We only ever get to love someone for who they are, where they are.
Love may come to see possibilities, may hope for more for someone (or even with them), but it can only live in the present. In the reality of here, now.
I’d like to say I’ve gotten good at it, thirty years later. That it’s easier.
Those years have certainly given me lots of practice, and it’s become, at least to some degree, part of who I am.
But if anything, it’s only gotten more complex. Loving doesn’t always diffuse the longing. Sometimes they coexist, and often in circumstances that make that coexistence less than comfortable. Sometimes they are even intertwined.
I still try, though. I still think about it. And with every date, every encounter, I try to own my longings and let loving surpass them.
It never quite feels the same. Sometimes the longings rage with the power of a summer storm over the Lake. Other times they are more like my cat when I wake him up in the morning – sleepily insistent on making his presence known.
Loving means listening to something other than the longings. Or more accurately, someone. We only really get to love someone for who they are, where they are.
That listening is so hard, and I get it wrong. I wish I were better at it than I am most of the time, but I keep trying. I hope the trying shows.
And even when I think I’m doing it well, there’s probably nothing in my life that’s harder. To let loving surpass longing – oh, dear God, it hurts sometimes.
But I keep choosing it. For the first date that will not turn into a second, as well as for the relationship that is developing. For the attraction I cannot return as much as for the one not returned to me. For all the possibilities that won’t be.
I do not believe that the love I give, whether it’s returned or not, whether it’s even spoken, has ever diminished me.
It hasn’t diminished my longing either.