Tag Archives: essay

Writing about people from the past

I sent the manuscript of my memoir to my agent on Friday. Big yay!! This is only one step of a long process, but it’s a significant one. It means that, for now, I’ve come to the end of myself with this book. I’ve written it, rewritten it, and rewritten it again. I’ve had Mike and family members read it and offer their thoughts. I’ve asked some friends to do likewise, and others to help me copy-edit. I even hired an external editor to offer her advice on how the draft could be strengthened.

What I hadn’t done until very recently, was think about how or whether I wanted to contact certain key people I’d written about to give them a heads up; certain key people who might be surprised or hurt by what I’d written.

Like Jason, who I dated seriously in 2004. And Ryan, whose writing about his life and work in Afghanistan I found so compelling that I became infatuated with him… while I was dating Jason. I won’t go into the whole saga here. I’ll just say that I am not particularly prone to regret, but when I think about certain things I did and said (and things that I did not say) during this period, I still feel ashamed.

I included the tale of these two, tangled, long distance romances in the book for many reasons that had nothing to do with me needing to exorcise that shame. That said, however, writing this particular chapter was therapeutic. By the time I was done drafting and redrafting this story a dozen times, I understood the person I was seven years ago a great deal better and I had largely forgiven her the weaknesses and willful mistakes of that era.

I had not, however, dealt with any of this openly with either Jason or Ryan.

Ryan I have remained in intermittent and friendly contact with over the years. In a bizarre twist he was also an acquaintance of Mike’s long before Mike and I ever met (Mike met him in Afghanistan). Last July Mike and I met up with Ryan and his lovely wife, Celestina, in Vancouver for drinks and dinner. With Mike’s full knowledge and encouragement, I had intended to bring up the whole subject over the dinner table but the moment never seemed right (although one does wonder when the moment would seem quite right to bring up something like that).

So, two weeks ago, knowing I was very close to submitting this book for possible publication I sat down to write Ryan a letter. Here’s how it started:

Ryan, you know how when you write a memoir you sort of forget during the drafting process that other people may eventually actually read it? And, even worse, that the day will come where you need to send the draft to people who appear in the pages in ways that require you to seek their permission for what you’ve included? And that some of those people have never before heard you admit anything along the lines of, “I once had a crush on you”, much less, “I was once completely infatuated with you – or the you I felt I knew via email – and I booked a plane ticket to cross an international border specifically to suss you out without ever telling you what I was doing?”

Yeah, well. For me that day is today. And for you, well, you get to raise an eyebrow (or two) and marvel at the range and depth of my craziness back in 2004.

I’m so much less crazy now, I promise. Also much, much, happier.

The letter to Ryan was relatively easy.  Jason, however, well that was a different matter. I hadn’t spoken to him in several years and I had written about things in this chapter he knew nothing about. I had been far more frank in the book about my part in the dynamic of our slow and painful breakup than I’d ever had the courage to be with him face to face.

Mike and I talked this over during dinner one night by the Khan.

“So are you going to write to him?” Mike asked me, shooing the cat that had jumped onto our table back to the floor.

“I don’t know…” I waffled. “I sort of want to, but it was a long time ago now, maybe I should just leave it alone.”

“Leave it alone in the sense that maybe one day Jason will pick this book up and read about it then?” Mike asked.

“Maybe it’ll never get published,” I said. “And maybe he’ll never read it.”

Mike stayed quiet while I squirmed, recognizing the temptation to deal with the issue the way I’d dealt with so many of the issues that had arisen while Jason and I were dating – by avoiding and deflecting.

“What do you think is the right thing to do?” Mike finally asked.

“To write to him,” I answered reluctantly.

So I took a deep breath and did. I told Jason I’d written about aspects of our relationship. I offered to send him the chapter to read if he wanted me to. But first, I told him in this initial email, I wanted to apologize for ways I felt I’d wronged him during the time we were dating. Then I told him exactly what those ways were.

It was not an easy letter to write and send, but part of the dysfunction in our relationship had been that I avoided conflict with him and didn’t speak my mind openly. Writing the chapter had helped me understand this. Writing to Jason himself finally helped me break those old patterns and put into practice the new strengths I have gained in the years since then.

I was very happy to receive gracious emails back from Jason both before and after he read the chapter, but regardless of his reply (or lack thereof) I think it would have been a healing exercise of closure. It’s taken years, but it brought full circle the process that was first started when I put pen to paper and tried to figure out where and how we’d gone wrong. It transformed understanding into action.

Have you transformed understanding into action recently? How?

And, writers, last week I touched on a dilemma faced by most essayists and memoirists in a post titled, Writing About Loved Ones: To Do Or Not To Do, That Is The Question. Writing about those you have known and perhaps loved in the past, however, is a slightly different kettle of fish. Have you encountered this? How did you deal with it?

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Banishing Love’s Twin

Last week, right after my boss had asked me whether I’d be willing to go to Pakistan this summer if need be and I’d said yes, the latest Humanitarian Policy Group report on providing aid in insecure environments crossed my desk.

It made for sobering reading.

The relative rates of attacks upon aid workers has increased more than 60 percent in the last three years, with a particular upswing in kidnapping, which has increased by more than 350 percent. The most dangerous location for aid workers remains the road, with vehicle-based attacks by far the most common context for violence. And the 2008 fatality rate for international aid workers exceeded that of U.N. peacekeepers.

On the bright side — if you can call it that — this massive spike in violence appears to be mostly driven by incidents in just a handful of countries. Namely Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Chad, Iraq and . . . Pakistan.

For me, this has brought forth yet again something that has been coming to mind much more frequently since meeting my fiancée and getting married in one delicious year-long whirlwind. Michael has brought much happiness into my life during the last 18 months. But right alongside love has come something else. Something I had not expected.

Fear.

Not fear for myself. I am the director of training for a California-based nonprofit that provides psychological support to aid workers. You run certain risks when you travel to Kenya or to South Africa, not to mention to Santa Monica on the Los Angeles freeways. When people ask me about that aspect of my work I sometimes laugh and quote Nevil Shute: “To put your life in danger from time to time breeds a saneness in dealing with day-to-day trivialities.”

Still, I know it’s possible — likely even — that I only have the luxury of this flippancy because so far I have escaped without being on the wrong end of a carjacking, kidnapping or serious accident. At some deeper level I probably still believe that it won’t happen to me.

The problem with that (or one of them, anyway) is that I seem to be incapable of applying that same casual tolerance to risks Michael runs. When it comes to him, I have no comforting illusion of invulnerability. After my stints as a young forensic psychologist working in a prison and with the police, and what I’ve seen since of trauma and aid work, I know full well that it could happen to him. And when I really think about it, this terrifies me in a way I’ve never felt before.

Imaginary trails

I’ve never thought of myself as someone who’s particularly prone to catastrophizing — taking a passing fear and following it doggedly until it dead-ends in a worst-case scenario. But lately I’ve found myself wandering down those grim, imaginary rabbit trails more and more often. The other day I was stopped at a red light when a car coming the other way lost control, skidded across the intersection, jumped the curb and took the top off a fire hydrant. As water sheeted 20 feet into the air it took only two seconds for my brain to leapfrog from: “Is that woman okay?” to “What if someone had been standing on that corner?” to “What if that someone had been Mike?”

I don’t even need that sort of drama to push me down these mental paths. While Mike was away completing a humanitarian project evaluation in Papua New Guinea last month, I found myself at odd moments toying with the idea of him being mugged and knifed in Port Moresby. While driving to the airport to pick him up, I thought of plane crashes. It’s as if, without really wanting to, my mind is trying these thoughts on for size, pushing me to answer the questions that automatically follow.

What would you do then, huh? How would you cope?

Perhaps I keep circling in this direction because I just don’t know how I would come back from a blow like that.

Logically, I know people do. If one of these awful scenarios were to unfold, I know there’s a high likelihood I would eventually recover to be a walking, talking, functioning member of society. I would probably be able to smile and mean it. At some point, I would likely even be happy again. But when it comes to this topic and these musings, logic fails completely to breathe life into my imagination. While I can picture the possibility of pain all too well, I can’t really see how I’d get past it.

As I’ve started to track these depressing mental calisthenics during the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed something else too. A fragment of a single Bible verse is usually trailing quietly on the heels of the bleak visions, towing its own set of questions in its wake.

Perfect love casts out fear.

I’d never thought much about this verse before, except to wonder why it was fear that is driven out and not hatred or apathy. After all, I’ve heard it said that the true opposite of love isn’t the passionate intensity of hate at all but the emptiness of indifference. But lately I’ve been seeing it differently. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the more you value something the more acutely you realize what its loss could cost you — that as love grows so does fear. Perhaps the point of the verse has never been about banishing love’s antithesis, but love’s twin.

A growing love

Thinking through a co-dependent link between love and fear kept me occupied for a couple of weeks before I found myself confronted by the next issue raised by those five words: What does perfect love look like then? If love and fear truly are symbiotic, logic suggests that perfect love would simply breed perfect fear, not cast it out.

When I finally went to the source, I learned that the word behind the translation of “perfect” in this verse from 1 John is a form of telios, which doesn’t mean “flawless” but “fulfilling its purpose” or “becoming complete.” Telios, in turn, is derived from telos, which means, “to set out for a definite point or goal” or “the point aimed at as a limit.”

When I put this all together then, what I think John was aiming at with “perfect love” is a rooted and growing love. A love that is firmly anchored in some sort of external, defined and stable point, but ever-transforming into a greater and more expansive state of completeness at the same time.

All of which then begs the question — what is that external, defined, stable point or outer limit?

No one gets any prizes for guessing what John’s answer to that question is.

God. And in a circinate metaphor that is truly mind-boggling if you dwell on it for any length of time, John also asserts at least twice in that same chapter that God is love.

This doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me, to be honest. Independent to a fault, I like sorting out my issues by myself and on my own terms. The last thorough personality profile I took bluntly informed me that I had “a defiant nature.” When, in the middle of our wedding ceremony, I stumbled on the vows Mike and I had memorized, I didn’t look to the one I was in the middle of promising to spend the rest of my life loving and wait to be prompted — I narrowed my eyes and said, “Don’t help me!” I don’t want to need a God the way a 5-year-old needs a light at night to soothe away fears of shadows in the closet, even if that God is the very embodiment of love.

Without God in my equation, however, love and fear seem locked in a cyclical struggle for dominance that my love, in its own strength, just can’t win. As long as I’m only looking at Mike, my love will always be shadowed by the knowledge of coming loss. That loss might not come this year, or next, or for 40 years. But it will come, that’s inevitable. In this chaotic and uncertain world it’s only in the context of a purpose other than just my own and a love that overshadows and outstrips mine that I stand a real chance of untangling the two and freeing the energy to nurture love without it also nourishing fear.

To savor the mystery

Many years ago John sketched out his take on this dynamic in 13 simple words — words that I hope, over time, will come to my mind as readily and vividly as the catastrophic possibilities I am so talented at conjuring.

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

Because whenever I sit with the mystery those words represent, when I really savor them, I breathe a bit more deeply. And as my lungs fill with air, pushing against my ribs from the inside, I sense my love expanding, too — growing just a tiny bit more perfect, making room for peace, edging fear out just a little further.

Fear will never leave permanently, I’d guess. Casting it out will be something that happens in fits and starts. In steps forward and steps backward. In a rhythmic, intentional orientation and reorientation that I hope will over time get both easier and faster.

Mike gives me reason to believe that that’s the case, anyway. I’m perfectly confident that he loves me, so he’s either currently much more practiced than I am when it comes to waging war on fear or he hasn’t read the HPG Report yet, because when I told him I may be headed to Pakistan this summer all I got was, “Oh.”

There was a very long pause, and then bright hope.

“If that’s not the month I have to go to Sudan, can I come?”

Love Long Distance

It’s my birthday tomorrow, and I can tell you something I won’t be doing… talking to my husband.

No, we’re not fighting.

He’s in Papua New Guinea.

Yes, again.

It’s been ten days since we got back from Australia, eight days since our Los Angeles wedding reception, and six days since he left for a about a month to do a consultancy with Oxfam. I’m relearning what it’s like to be alone, which is exactly the lesson every new bride longs to learn two months after her wedding.

To be perfectly honest, there’s something to be said for alone. Reading late at night and a whole bed to yourself, for one. No one pestering you to give them more than 10% of the closet, for another. But, on the whole, alone has been emptier than I’d anticipated this week. Quieter. And I have had to light my own candles, pour my own glass of wine, and turn on the mood music myself after I get home from work.

If I said that to Mike he’d roll his eyes and say, “Awww, it’s so hard, isn’t it? How do you manage to be you?”

But I can’t say that to Mike, because he’s in some remote village right now completely out of cell phone range and keeping company with fleas instead of me.

I was thinking, driving to work this morning, about how often we’ve been in this situation during the last year, and how few places there really are left in the world where you are literally uncontactable. Even in aid work that’s unusual now – most international NGO offices in Darfur have high-speed internet access – and when it comes to the reach of mobile phones the true wilderness of the world is shrinking faster than Antarctica’s ice. With an ever-growing number of access points – email, text, mobile, facebook, twitter – our ability to connect with others almost anywhere, almost anytime, is also expanding. And so are our opportunities to pursue love across the miles.

Starting during my wedding reception, more than a handful of people in the last few months have suggested that I start writing essays about married life now, while others have pre-emptively recommended that I not lay Mike’s life quite as bare as I appear to be willing to lay my own. Well, those concerned with protecting Mike’s privacy can rest easy for a while. For, as my sister said to me yesterday on the phone; “You haven’t really had any normal married life time yet, not a single day.”

“Yes we have,” I argued. “There were a couple of days there in Australia after honeymoon and before Matt and Lou’s wedding.”

“You were both on holiday, and living in Mum and Dad’s house!”

“Well,” I said a bit wistfully, “I wish that were normal. It was really nice.”

“Yeah,” Michelle said, in a tone that made it clear that any hopes she’d held that marriage would magically mature me had just been dashed.

So perhaps it might be wise to give things a couple of months and maybe some more time in the same country before I tackle my marriage in writing. But having Mike away again has highlighted something I can write about that we have a lot more experience dealing with to date – a long distance relationship.

Before we met face to face in Australia for the first time about a year ago, Mike and I spent three months writing letters. It was a modern beginning in some ways – we could transmit those letters instantly with a click of the send button – and it was decidedly anachronistic in others. We agreed early on, in our second exchange, that we wouldn’t consider anything more than friendship until we met in person (if we ever got that far), and we never talked until we met for the first time in Brisbane airport.

The letters we wrote during that time, an entire book of them, laid the foundations for the relationship to come. It was then, with little to lose and the extra protection afforded by distance, that we established the range of our discourse – and there wasn’t much that was off limits. We wrote about our childhoods and our families, our love/hate relationships with the work we are drawn to, mental health and what we’d learned from previous long distance relationships.

We wrote about the little things that made us smile that day, or sigh, or wonder.

It amazes me now, but we were so used to communicating via letters that when we met for two weeks in Australia we didn’t give much thought to whether or how we were actually going to talk once we’d decided to date. We also didn’t figure this out until some time after we had returned to our respective sides of the world.

Two weeks after I returned to LA last year I was sitting on the couch in my new apartment on a Saturday night, writing, when my mobile rang. The number came up No caller ID, which usually means someone overseas, so I picked it up expecting my brother, Matt.

The line wasn’t working that well, and neither was my brain, apparently, because before I relay the conversation I have to pause for some disclaimers. I didn’t know that Mike had my mobile phone number. I wasn’t sure it was technically possible for him to call me from where he was. And I was writing – I was therefore vague. Very vague.

Mike: “Hi. So you like surprises?”

Lisa thinks: Hmmm, guy’s voice. Probably foreign friend. Possibly foreign friend flying into LA tonight who wants a couch to crash on. Crap, I don’t want to drive to LAX to pick someone up tonight!

Lisa: “Uh… sometimes.”

Mike says something about sitting on a rock looking out over the Pacific Ocean.

Lisa thinks: Hmmm, mystery guy friend trying to mess with me by pretending to be Mike. Who would be that mean??? Okay, let’s face it. A lot of my friends would be that mean.

I really had no idea who it was, and for some reason I was firmly convinced it wasn’t Mike. After we’d traded a couple more sentences I finally sighed and asked, “Ah, who is this?”

Mike: “Your secret admirer from PNG.”

Lisa: Hmmmm, he didn’t say Mike. He said secret admirer. That’s something a mean friend might say.

It took me about three awkward minutes to accept that it was Mike and about thirty seconds after that, while I was still trying to pretend that I normally acted like such a weirdo at the start of phone calls, the line went dead. I was left with no way to call him back and no way to even debrief by sending an email because my new apartment didn’t yet have working internet. I went to bed with the phone that night in case he managed to ring again, and stewed all evening about the fact that I hadn’t recognized my own boyfriend’s voice on the phone and must have come across as a suspicious freak.

It was not one of my favorite long-distance moments ever.

In fact, I’ve never liked long distance in the moment. It’s not like I sit around thinking, I’m really glad Mike’s half a world away right now. But although I haven’t liked it, I do think it’s ultimately been good for us.

Having nothing to build a relationship with but words, forces you to cover a lot of ground. Doing this at a distance – unable to exchange text messages and only able to talk every couple of days in chunks of an hour or two when Mike was in Madang and the one high speed internet connection in town was working – bought us some additional benefits. It removed some of the pressure and pitfalls that attend expectations of instantaneous response and 24-hour accessibility. It slowed us down, granted us extra time and space to think, and encouraged us to be deliberate, thoughtful, and thorough in our communication.

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all rosy, and I’m not advocating that all my single friends looking for potential spouses should suddenly start corresponding with strangers living on technologically-challenged

islands in the Pacific.

It took effort and energy to rearrange schedules to talk, or prioritize writing letters when I was exhausted or flat. Intermittent week-long stretches of total silence like the one I’m in the middle of now have sometimes assaulted my sense of surety in the concept of us and prompted unexpected mood swings. Then there was the temptation to feel that my “real life” was on hold until Mike arrived – to live life in such a haze of anticipation that it obscured the complex beauty of the present. Probing pasts and futures, joys and sorrows, across the miles when we might otherwise have been discovering what snacks we each liked at the theatre provided us with a deep, solid, foundation in one way. But it also rendered our quirks as merely adorable abstractions, and robbed us of small daily opportunities to identify differences and head off or resolve conflict.

Mike knew that I was not as neat or organized as him, but I’m sure it’s been a different thing altogether to see me get absorbed in writing something and subsequently ignore dishes on the bench, hair in the drain, and the fact that it’s lunchtime. I knew he was a lark to my nightingale, but it’s been much harder to fully appreciate the togetherness when he wants to experience the sunrise with me in person. We learned a great deal about sharing our inner selves across distance, but little about sharing our space or schedules. Those particular lessons have just begun.

Some will see this unusual progression as too high-risk a game to play, and there’s definitely an inverse reward function associated with long distance relationships – at some point payoffs start to decrease and costs increase. But even now, nine weeks after our wedding and facing a birthday alone, I can say that high risk has so far equaled high reward and that long distance has, on the whole, helped us more than it has hurt.

I am however, looking forward to Mike’s return, even if it means sharing the closet and the covers. Skype dating has lost some of its charm – although I’d take it right now over incommunicado – and apparently, there’s this brand new adventure called normal married life that I have yet to experience.

Bring it on, I say.

Or, I will, when I talk to my husband this weekend.

In The Beginning Were The Words

After I sent out an essay in May about getting engaged I received more than a handful of letters from people on my mailing list complaining that they hadn’t even known I was dating someone, and that they felt they’d missed a few chapters in the story. A couple sounded quite aggrieved.

How did we meet? And was it true that Mike proposed after we’d spent a mere three weeks in the same city, or had I now taken to blending fiction and reality? What’s the story?

So here’s the rest of that story, from the beginning. It’s long, I’m warning you. But don’t expect any sympathy from me. You did ask for it. Or some of you did, anyway.

Early October 2007. I’m living in LA, working for the Headington Institute and preparing to take off for a month on the road in Kenya, Ghana and Washington DC. Mike is living in Papua New Guinea, working as a water and sanitation engineer for World Vision and preparing to take off for two months on the road in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. Erin, an old friend of Mike’s, is living in Atlanta and working as an acquiring editor for a magazine.

The story really starts with Erin. As she explained to Mike via email later, “Lisa’s publicist at Moody sent me the usual press stuff for the month including a one-sheet type thing for her book. ‘We’ don’t usually work with fiction, so I normally chuck those unless they sound really interesting. But the title was killer and the cover was quite nice (I judge books by their covers in general), so I read the synopsis and the little author bio blurb.”

It wasn’t my novel that caught Erin’s attention at this point, it was the fact that I worked for the Headington Institute. As Erin saw it, we helped “burned out and tortured aid workers”. She thought of Mike and his last six years on the field and knew she had to figure out how to sign him up for our newsletter.

So she went to my personal website, which was listed on the press release, and looked for a link to the Headington Institute. What she discovered first, however, were my essays. A couple of essays in and Erin suddenly found that she wasn’t as interested in hooking Mike up with the Headington Institute newsletter as she was in hooking him up with me.

Yes, she acknowledged to herself, the fact that I lived in LA was going to prove a minor drawback. But she also knew I was a third culture kid. My upbringing, she reasoned, had prepared me well for the challenging romantic equation she was visualizing. As for Mike – as she told him months later – “I was so overcome with giddiness at striking gold via one glossy sheet of press mess that I just had to brag to the people in the nearest three cubes that I had just found the perfect woman for my friend in PNG.”

So Erin wrote to Mike that day and strongly encouraged him to look at my website.

Mike, apparently, rolled his eyes and wrote back to Erin pointing out that he lived in PNG, with a dial-up internet connection, and wasn’t about to go browsing the website of a stranger living in LA.

Undeterred, Erin downloaded all the essays on my website, put them in a single word document, and emailed it to Mike.

Mike groaned at Erin’s meddling, but opened the document. Fifty pages later he was intrigued. Dial up connection notwithstanding Mike then visited my website, and as the photo on my homepage popped up he realized that he’d seen my face before – on the Facebook profile of Alison Preston, a friend he’d met in Melbourne when he was doing his masters there five years previously.

Mike decided to drop me a line.

Mid October 2007. I received a note from someone named Mike asking whether I would add him to my essay list, which I did. As he’d mentioned Alison’s name I also friend-requested him on Facebook. After he accepted the request I was more than a little surprised to see we had several mutual friends.

In addition to Ali, Mike knew the Scoullars – a family my own family had gotten to know very well when we all lived in Zimbabwe during my teenage years. Mike also knew another friend of mine, Ryan Schmidt. I learned later that Mike met Ryan in Afghanistan and how I got to know Ryan… Well, that tangent could be a tale unto itself. For now, suffice to say that back in 2004 I read some of Ryan’s essays about his experiences as an aid worker in Afghanistan and Mozambique. Raw and powerful, they were so compelling that I tracked him down via email and pestered him until he gave in an agreed to be my friend.

So, back to Mike. Five days after his first, casual, email, the email dropped into my inbox.

The email where Mike laid it all out on the table and said he’d like to get to know me better – that he really liked my essays, my smile, and my Australian passport (though he was also quick to point out he didn’t need said passport as he had already an American one that functioned just fine). The email where he confessed trepidation as to whether a relationship between LA and PNG would even be worth trying given the potential ordeals involved. The email where he acknowledged the massive information imbalance between us and sent me some of his own writing, told me to give it a think and decide what I wanted to do, and thoughtfully reassured me that regardless of what I said he wouldn’t turn into a Lisa stalker.

The email made me blink. And gulp. His writing made it clear that he’d lived and worked in Australia, Tajikistan, Uganda, and Sri Lanka in the last seven years. He struck me as someone who was either seriously interesting, or seriously crazy. Or perhaps both.

Now I was intrigued. I was also, like Mike, more than a little wary. My own previous long distance relationships had taught me a fair bit about those potential ordeals that Mike was referring to – and that had been without the added complications of an 18 hour time difference, jobs we loved anchoring us on different sides of the world, spotty internet access, and starting from the ground up with these constraints already in place. If ever I’d heard of an against-the-odds long distance scenario, this was it.

It didn’t make much sense to even consider this, and I knew that, but he was cute. Along with the essay he’d sent a link to thirty photo’s he’d compiled to celebrate his thirtieth birthday the previous year. He was only in one of those photos – he was kneeling, surrounded by children in Rwanda. Who has the power to stay untouched by that? And his writing, chatty and confident, was very compelling…

This issue, in and of itself, was one that had me particularly worried. Mike had been frank with me. Despite a sudden shyness, I figured it was the least I could do in return and I tackled this head-on in my reply.

“I know it’s an edited version of me that goes in those essays. All the boring parts, all those days and moments when I’m just flat, or exhausted, or grumpy, or uninspiring, or selfish… I know I’m not as interesting, witty, or attractive as those essays make me appear when read in a vacuum (not to mention the press photos for the book).”

My forays into long-distance relationships, I told him later in that letter, had taught me the very valuable lesson that, “The tangible, living, breathing someone will inevitably turn out to be very different from the idealized someone who springs to life in my head when I read their writing.”

But doing my best to convince Mike that I really wasn’t that interesting or attractive didn’t address the issue of what I wanted to do.

What did I want to do?

After some thought I put it this way.

“Let’s email. As friends. Or as people who think they might want to become friends. With no expectations of anything more until we at least cross paths in person, if we ever get there.”

And email we did.

During the next three months the two of us covered six countries, a dozen cities, and managed to exchange more than ninety thousand words – your standard novel.

In late November, about six weeks into emailing, Mike wrote to me from the Solomon Islands. He waited until the very end of a three page letter to drop a question on me – one, he said, that he trusted I’d answer truthfully and straightforwardly.

“So what do you think of me trying to come down to Oz sometime between Jan 10 and Feb 6 while you’re there? I’d like to try. If you think that would be okay.”

I was truthful and straightforward. I told him that I thought it was a good idea and would be lots of fun.

I knew when I answered that this would mean taking Mike home; there just wasn’t going to be any other sensible way to do it. Luckily, I also knew that when I informed my parents that I had just invited someone I had never met or talked to to come make himself completely at home with us for two weeks during our family holidays, I could count on my parents not to freak out. And indeed they didn’t.

The same cannot be said of the handful of friends in my life who were tracking this story as it unfolded. Several of them delicately suggested I may be crazy.

“What are you going to do if it’s a disaster?” One of them asked.

“Well,” I said. “All going well we’re planning on going to Melbourne to see mutual friends after spending ten days at home in Ballina. I’ve already bought those tickets and I made sure the dates were flexible. Worst case scenario, he gets off the plane, we have an awkward couple of days, I hand him a plane ticket to Melbourne and say “nice try, thanks for coming”. Mike has plenty of friends in Melbourne, he’d be fine. Look, we win either way. It’s either going to be a great holiday, or a great essay.”
I didn’t feel near as flippant as I sounded, of course. But we’d made the decision, what good was it going to do to freak out now?

That mantra carried me right up through to January 20th, the day before I was due to pick Mike up at Brisbane airport. Then I started to get a little nervous. By the time I actually made it to the airport on Monday afternoon I was about as stressed as I ever get.

I stood there in the arrivals lounge of Brisbane airport for an hour, scanning every Caucasian male who looked somewhere in the range 20 to 50. What if I didn’t recognize him? I’d seen a couple of photos on Facebook, but I’m terrible with faces. I didn’t even know how tall he was!
By the time he finally walked out I’d almost hugged three complete strangers and was having to remind myself to breathe.

I did recognize him. Or, more accurately, I recognized his smile. I saw that first, almost in isolation.

There were no Disney fireworks, or choirs of angels singing the Halleluiah chorus as we exchanged our first glances, and our first words. I don’t think either of us thought in that first moment, “this is it.” In fact, pretty much the only thing I clearly remember thinking during those first ten minutes was…

“Phew.”

Because it was easy. Despite the objectively bizarre situation, as we got in the car and began the drive from Brisbane to Ballina, it felt natural. And that feeling stuck around for the next two weeks as we slowly but surely, surrounded by my family and friends, figured out the answer to the question Mike asked me on his second morning in Ballina.

“What are we going to do, Lis?”

By the time we parted ways in Melbourne airport in early February we were utterly exhausted, emotionally overloaded, and happily determined to give this a serious try.

So there you are… That’s the start of the story. There’s more, of course, but I’ll save the trials, tribulations, and treasures of long distance dating for another essay.

In the meantime, Mike’s back in some village on an island in Vanuatu this week. No internet. No phone.

And I have a letter to write.

Shock and Awe in Love

I’d always wondered how someone is caught by surprise by a marriage proposal in this day and age. I mean, if you’re in a solid relationship, you’re both good communicators, it feels right, it feels easy… surely you’d have some idea if one party in that equation were scheming to pop the question, right? I mean, how dumb are people?

So, yeah, apparently I’m dumb.

Well, it’s one possibility. Another possibility is that Mike is crazy.

Or Mike could be both dumb and crazy. Or I could be. Or maybe we both are.

I’m still undecided and after the last week they’re all plausible options as far as I can see.

So let’s set the scene here – because setting the scene is a valuable life skill that should be exercised during the shaping of all excellent stories and, the last week suggests, quite possibly in advance of all major life-altering decisions.

I’ll bypass how Mike and I met. That’s another story for another day. Suffice to say we met in January in Brisbane airport for the first time after several months of emails bouncing back and forth between Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Los Angeles, Kenya, Ghana and Washington DC. He walked out of immigration. We smiled nervously at each other as we exchanged our first words. And then I promptly took him home and dropped him into the middle of “McKay family holiday” – which meant parents, siblings, eight month old niece, brother’s new fiancée, and approximately ten friends who cycled in and out of the house while we were there. And what were Mike and I doing in the midst of that, you might ask? Well, chatting lots and figuring out if we were going to take a chance on an against-the-odds long distance relationship, clearly.

Two weeks later we parted company in Melbourne airport. Mike headed back to PNG, I headed back to LA, and we set about figuring out a relationship across an 18-hour time zone difference when one of us lived in a town where there’s only one, unreliable, high-speed internet connection point. Despite some communication challenges that were exacerbated by intermittent electricity in PNG and Mike’s propensity to spend weeks at a time in the bush with no cell phone reception at all, we persevered. By April we’d begun discussing when between August and December Mike would leave the field and move to LA.

Fast forward to May. Mike was coming back to the US for a month and I was thinking something along the lines of… We’ve decided to put off talking about when Mike’s going to leave PNG until the end of May, so we’re all set to have a lovely, relaxed, fun month. A month full of plenty of talking, and all those normal date things that are pretty hard to replicate over skype –movies, candlelit dinners, picnic blankets, strawberries, wine, hand holding…

Meanwhile – from what I’ve managed to piece together in the midst of all the discombobulation of the last couple of days – Mike was thinking something along the lines of… We’re going to talk about when I’m leaving the field at the end of May. Big decision, that one. Major life implications. Lisa might like some assurance of where we’re heading before then, and I’ve been sure for a while of where we’re headed, so looks like May’s the time to pop the question…

Fast forward to Saturday night, the end of Mike’s first week in LA. Picture a picnic blanket, a grassy quiet hill, my favorite white wine, macadamia nuts, cheese and crackers, sunset and the Pacific Ocean.

“Ah, Australia,” we said as we toasted the Pacific, looking out to sea.

“It’s just over there,” I said fondly, pointing.

“Well,” Mike said diplomatically, “you could get to Australia that way… if you wanted to go through Ecuador first.”

He handed me a strawberry. “So,” he teased, “we have this whole list of topics to talk about that we haven’t tackled over skype. What weighty topic do you want to discuss tonight?”

Somewhat tired, I opted for the easy option. “You pick,” I said, smiling magnanimously.

“I don’t want to talk about anything on the list tonight,” Mike said.

“Oh, okay,” I said, thinking that Mike must have finally had his fill of intensity and was after light and fluffy conversation. “Pick something else then, any topic.”

“Any topic? Any topic it all? Do you realize the power you’ve given me?”

“Use it wisely,” I said, lazily wondering where he was going to go with it.

And that was when he got on his knees in front of me and asked whether I would marry him.

As best as I can remember, before total shock set in three seconds later, I thought, WHAT???? Lisa, focus! You’ve just been asked a yes or no question. The answer is absolutely, categorically, not a no. So, uh, it must be… yes?

So that’s what I said. Or, probably more accurately, squeaked.

There are a couple of things I do remember clearly about the rest of the evening. The restaurant where Mike and I met my parents later was gorgeous, and the food incredible. I took the fact that I was actually able to eat as a good sign (although worryingly, and completely out of character, I wasn’t able to finish desert). But as they filled me in on the backstory – Mike’s weeks of planning and data gathering via email, and how he and Mum and Dad talked all morning on Friday while I was at work getting mock-kidnapped by drunken militia at a checkpoint in Uzbekistan during a security training exercise… I started to get progressively more overwhelmed.

“What did you talk about on Friday?” I remember asking them.

“I asked for their blessing, and their concerns,” Mike said. “It was all very natural, comfortable. It was great.”

“I did ask whether he thought you’d say yes,” Dad said.

That counted as “comfortable” and “great”? I sneaked a look at Mike. He seemed unfazed.

“I said absolutely,” Mike said.

“I said I wasn’t so sure,” Dad said.

“Then your parents spent the rest of the morning telling me my proposal plan wasn’t credible enough and we needed to tweak it to come up with something that was absolutely credible,” Mike said. “You’re plenty smart and I really didn’t want you to figure it out and ruin the story. Because I know that you need stories.”

I bit my lip.

“Mike, you just proposed to me after we’ve spent three weeks, total, in the same country. I really don’t think story was ever going to be our biggest problem.”

After dinner Mike and I talked until almost 2am. By then a somewhat sobered Mike had begun to realize how far off our respective timelines had been, and I’d regrouped enough to say I wasn’t ready to tell anyone yet and that I needed some time. The answer, I said, was both “yes and wait”. I didn’t know whether that meant for two days, two weeks, two months, or two years. But one thing I did know in the midst of this out-of-body-experience was that I didn’t want to start on a long list of “people to tell” and risk repeated conversations along the lines of…

Lisa: “Mike and I are engaged.”

Good friend #23 (looking totally stunned): “Oh my WORD! Isn’t that a bit fast?”

Lisa: “Uh, yeah, I’m a bit thrown by that myself. I didn’t think we’d be addressing this question QUITE yet.”

Good friend #23 (delicately): “Are you sure you know what you doing?”

Lisa (edging towards hysteria): “Yeah, I think so. I really think I do. All my instincts say yes. But then I came home this afternoon and he was cleaning my kitchen and playing Shakira and I realized that I didn’t know he likes Shakira and I don’t know what music is on his iPod and is it safe to agree to marry someone when you don’t know what music is on someone’s iPod? Is it?? Huh???? HUH????”

Good friend #23: “Um…”

So at 2 AM after a rather exhausting conversation – the kind of conversation that anyone would want to have on the night they get engaged – I did something I’ve never done before.

I took a valium.

Well it didn’t take me two years, two months, or two weeks to regroup – at least partially – and when Mike asked me that question all over again on Tuesday night this week I was able to hang onto coherence and say yes without squeaking (and without the need to resort to valium afterwards). We’re celebrating this as progress.

Oh, and we’re also celebrating the fact that we’re engaged.

And that I am now able to anticipate conversations along the lines of…

Lisa: “Mike and I are engaged.”

Good friend #23 (looking totally stunned): “Oh my WORD! Isn’t that a bit fast?”

Lisa: “Don’t forget we’ve been getting to know each other since October last year. And, anyway, fast is all relative according to Einstein.”

Good friend #23 (delicately): “Are you sure you know what you doing?”

Lisa: “I never get 100% sure about anything in life; I don’t think it’s in my nature. But I’m more sure of this than any other major decision I’ve made. Definitely a statistically significant result on the surety scale.”

So as for crazy, dumb, or some combination of and/or in relation to Mike and me… I’m pretty sure neither of us is actually dumb even though I regularly do a vintage imitation. Crazy, however, is not as easy to dismiss, so I’ll just completely blame-shift on this front and posit a classical and elegant formula that goes: Mike is crazy.

But then again, life would be very sad, lonely, and boring without some crazy now and then, right?

I think so.

Yes.

I do.