After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security.
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,
And you learn to build all your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.
After a while you learn…
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.
So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure…
That you really are strong
And you really do have worth…
And you learn and learn…
With every good-bye you learn.
-Jorge Luis Borges
I know this poem because it was taped to the front of my mother’s refrigerator when I was a teenager. I don’t remember what kind of paper it was on or when it showed up, only that it was there, in front of me, a constant during my teenage years.
Presumably, someone showed it to my mother in the aftermath of the divorce, and she attached to the message of it. I do not know for sure. It was not something we ever talked about.
In my adult years, many years ago, after experiencing one disastrous relationship after another, I rewrote the poem to focus on the joy of dependence instead of glorifying independence. That was long ago and far away. Sadly, I don’t still have the rewritten version.
I remember the sentiment behind writing it, though. I felt my independence was the reason my relationships didn’t last. I thought because I didn’t need anyone, I wasn’t able to love.
I thought love meant leaning.
Recently, I’ve started revisiting these thoughts. The line, “love doesn’t mean leaning,” has been in my head, spinning and cycling like a song I can’t stop singing.
It’s not because I’ve met someone. I’ve started thinking about someday meeting someone. And I’ve started thinking about what that someone might be like, and what I’ve learned in these past couple years that will make me seek a different type of relationship moving forward.
I still think love means leaning. But as the poem says, even sunshine burns if you get too much. It’s appropriate to lean on people. It’s not appropriate to expect them to carry you.
I have erred too far in each direction in the past. I was fiercely independent and tried hard not to lean on anyone for anything.
Then I met the Narcissist. His name is James, by the way. I’m sick of not saying his name, of thinking of him as Voldemort, as if his name has some power that I have reason to fear.
The Narcissist’s name is James.
When I met James, he leaned heavily on me from the start. I found it exhausting. I didn’t understand his inability to take care of himself, his need for me to do everything for him. Nor did I understand why he kept telling me I needed to ask more of him or why he seemed to think that he already did a lot for me.
I was exhausted all the time and he said it was my fault. I was doing too much for him and he was capable of taking care of himself, he would say. Until I stopped doing as much, and then I was being unfair. I wasn’t engaging in appropriate self-care for myself because of everything that always needed to get done, but that was my fault because I wasn’t asking him to do more, he would say. Until I would ask him to do more, and then I would upset him either by asking “the wrong way” or because I would be unhappy when it didn’t get done.
That’s not leaning. That’s something else, something entirely unhealthy and unacceptable. I get that now.
Leaning is what I do with my friends. Everything in the poem (minus the kissing) is how I am in my friendships. It’s how my healthy relationships look.
Which is why I say I want my next romance to be more of a friendship than a passionate romance.
I want love to mean leaning. I want to be able to say, “I’m not doing well right now,” or, “I need hugs,” or, even better, “Here’s this fun event I found and I’d love it if you went with me.” I can do this with my friends. I want to have that with a partner, too.
I want to build roads on today but also know those roads aren’t going to dead end. My friendships are like that. They’re here today and tremendously appreciated, and I know tomorrow’s ground isn’t too uncertain for plans. Good relationships are built on a solid foundation. The roads don’t simply stop.
And my friendships allow me the freedom to grow my own garden and decorate my own soul. Good relationships do that. They don’t stifle or control. They set you free, and the other person knows you’ll stick around because they trust you to want to be there.
Good friendships don’t put expectations or pressure on you to be something you’re not. They allow you to be yourself, in all your messy, strong, independent, wonderful glory.
I’ve learned through my goodbyes that I don’t want the full independence offered by the author of this poem. But I’ve learned I don’t want the full dependence of my last relationship, either.
I want the middle ground. I want to be leaned on and to know I can lean as well. But, lightly. Gently. Appropriately. Because if you lean too heavily, if you aren’t able to support yourself at all, you risk falling down hard instead of only stumbling a little if the other person has to walk away. Which they might do, because they too are independent and they have a life outside of your needs. As they should. As is healthy and appropriate.