dear hilary: the other side of the door

Dear Hilary,

I have a question. And it is this: how do you know when it’s time to move on? To give up? I said I wasn’t like anyone else. That I wasn’t going anywhere. And I don’t want to. What if the deep quiet love with a wild and crazy illogical side is the true love. I’m sure I could meet someone new some day and fall in love with them, have a passionate romance, what have you. But what if this is my only chance for that deep true sitting quietly by your side not saying a word just being there love? What if he is the person i could spend the rest of my life with, just like he was terrified of? How do I know whether to let go because clearly he isn’t ready to admit anything yet? If he even actually feels the same at all? and because i don’t need this back and forth pushing me away and pulling me back nonsense? Or whether to just be patient and hold on, because the wild quiet love is worth waiting for?

Steadfast and confused.

Dear Steadfast,

I pondered your letter the whole time I was away, driving along the autobahn or standing in museums looking at bits of five hundred year old German script or taking pictures in front of statues of Martin Luther outside churches. I pondered while I ate cake and drank black coffee – what do I possibly say?

Your letter asks the question I answer two ways and then ten and then back to one, and then wrap myself in a knot trying to sort out. I don’t have a clean answer; I can only tell you a bit about what other, wiser people have told me, and tell you a bit of a story, and hope that spreads a little glow on your path as you go.

Not too long ago, there was a guy – I’ll call him Mr. W – that I was firmly, steadfastly convinced that I would be in a romantic relationship with. We hadn’t had one up to that point, but we had the glimmering possibility of one. We had long conversations about what felt like everything on the planet, we liked a lot of the same books, we liked ideas, we liked to sit in bars over wine or gin and argue. There was chemistry, no doubt about it, and there were sparks flying, and I was sure that this was the love you talk about: wild and quiet and passionate and steadfast all at once.

But. That little word, every so often, would pop up – in conversations about Mr. W with my friends, or with myself. But. There was the irreproachable fact that we weren’t in the relationship I saw a glimmering possibility for. We weren’t together on the couch after a long day of work. We weren’t writing the letters, making the picnics, holding hands, telling our friends. I knew that possibility was there; but it hadn’t been made true.

So, Steadfast, I asked, point-blank, not in pretty words but in true ones. I put on makeup and thought about what I’d wear and ate half a grilled cheese in my brother’s truck beforehand because I was so nervous. And the answer was no.

Before the story gets too long-winded, I want to bring you with me, if you will, to an afternoon just before I asked Mr. W for the last time about the glimmering possibility of us. I am sitting on a couch in a brightly lit office, and my counselor, wise woman that she is, asks me how I feel about the prospect of having this confrontation. The words, awful, terrible, please don’t make me do this please please please come to mind. But there, clanging like an iron bell (thank you, Sugar), are the words I speak:

“The truth has already arrived, though, hasn’t it? I’m just going to open the door for it now.”

She looks at me in surprise, and I mirror the same expression back to her. Yes, she says, smiling. Yes.

Steadfast, I think the truth has arrived. I think you know this, from the letter you sent me, and I think you are now peeking at it from behind the door of your heart, and you have to decide if you open the door. Opening the door to the truth won’t mean you get special knowledge of what the future holds. But from everything you tell me, this guy, he is saying no, and that’s the truth standing at your door. The other things you know about him or his life situation, they aren’t knocking. They aren’t here. When all has been laid out on the table before you, and the answer is no, then no is knocking at your door.

My counselor told me over and over in the year before I opened the door that it takes the time it takes. No more and no less. So I’ll echo that to you, too. It takes the time it takes. You are allowed to be steadfast and confused before you open the door and walk outside and meet this guy’s answer and grapple with what it offers you and what it denies.

But eventually, I think, that’s where you must go. You must open the door. You must look that answer in the eyes and listen to it, and let it ache, and let it roam around, and let it lead you. Because the truth will always lead you somewhere. His no will journey you to a new place. Mr. W’s no took me somewhere completely unexpected. The truth does that.

And here is the other thing, for your fear (and my fear) about whether there will ever be any love like the one you express in your letter – the truth also always leads towards fullness. The guy in your letter, he doesn’t sound like he leads there. His no will not bring an end to the fullest love that you can imagine – it will bring only an end to one possibility, glimmering and beautiful though it was.

There is fullness and joy on the other side of the door. I promise this. And in the acceptable time, I have all kinds of confidence you’ll fling that door open.



dear hilary: the leap

Dear Hilary,

I have loved the same boy for most of my life. We’ve been dating now for two months, and he’s crazy about me and I can tell, but he’s reluctant to get more serious in case there’s somebody else who is “The One” for me down the road. I don’t think there will be, but I don’t know how to tell him so he’ll believe me. I think this might be a forever kind of love. But when do we know for sure? When does it just become time to take the leap?


Dear Cliff-Dweller,

When I was 17, the movie Enchanted came to the big screen. A sweet movie, one that cleverly and wonderfully plays with other Disney stories, a redheaded heroine, the city of New York… I loved it.

At the very end of the movie Carrie Underwood sings this song, “Ever After.” I used to imagine (I’ll admit it, because this is a place to be real) that I was Carrie Underwood singing that song. I used to imagine that “The One” would sweep into my life and play opposite me in a slightly-more-but-not-that-much-more-realistic version of Enchanted. 

Haven’t we all done that, somehow? We wait for the sign. We wait for the marvelous, the extravagant, the moment when there is nothing for it but to burst into song in the middle of a crowded street and hand out roses. We all want a One, and we all want to know for sure. We think that finding “the one” will give us the permission to be extravagant with our love. To proclaim and sing it, Carrie-style.

But I wonder if we, in our waiting for the big sign, we end up more afraid than we should be. What if that wasn’t the sign? we ask ourselves driving along country roads. Or what if there is someone else, in a different state/country/zip code, in a different college, with a different life story… we write in our journals. I wonder if he or she is really everything I think I want. I wonder if I should be as committed to this as I want to be… I wonder, I wonder. 

We could wonder ourselves to death waiting for someone to come in with a pot and a wooden spoon, clanging away, “The one is approximately 2.4 miles and 3 months away!”

If you want to know anything, you have to leap.

You’ve entrusted a big thing to me – this question about love – and I don’t take it lightly. I don’t think we are meant to be thoughtless or hasty before we leap. I don’t want to tell you or your boyfriend to do that. Ask each other hard questions. Ponder together what this thing is between you, and what you think it might or could become. Fight, and laugh, and even spend some time worry and pleading and joking and explaining and listening… and a million verbs.

All the million verbs point to the bigger point, though: live it. 

That’s what the leap is about. You won’t know before you go whether this is “the one.” You won’t know what kind of gift you are to each other. You won’t know if it is a forever kind of love. I can’t promise you that.

But I can promise you that when it comes to love, the only learning is in living. I can promise you that if you leap, whether you are a forever love or a season of love, whatever the nature and shape of your story, it will be lived. We can wonder alone in a dark room with the “Enchanted” soundtrack playing, asking for the sign that will make us sure that we are right about who this person is and what they are meant to be. And I think there is a special kind of love I have for those days, in all of our stories.

But I wish the fullness of leaping for the two of you. I wish the hearts that you’ll help expand in each other. I wish the bigger story, the one of unknowns and discoveries and all those million lived verbs.

There is a glorious kind of life in the leap together – wherever you land.