A couple of weeks ago I received a fun email. My memoir, Love at the Speed of Email was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Life Stories category of the 21st Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards.
The Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards honor exemplary self-publishing. I don’t know how many people entered this year (books published between 2008 and 2013 are eligible), but a couple of years ago they reported about 1800 entrants in the nine categories.
Writer’s Digest awards one first place and a handful of honorable mentions in each category, so I’m thrilled that Love at the Speed of Email has received this recognition.
So is my son, Dominic. It’s still his favorite book. Well, that and the The Hungry Caterpillar.
To celebrate the win, I thought I’d post an excerpt from the book this week. In this section, Mike and I had recently met in Australia and decided to give a long distance relationship a go. After spending two weeks together, I returned to Los Angeles and Mike to his remote corner of Papua New Guinea (a small town that offered only one internet access point fast enough to enable us to Skype). We spent the following several months separated by 7000 miles and trying to figure out our relationship. I thought some of you might be able to identify …
Having nothing to build our relationship with but words for the following three months forced us to cover a lot of ground. Doing this when we couldn’t exchange text messages and were only able to talk by Skype every couple of days for an hour or two also removed some of the pressures and pitfalls that attend 24-hour accessibility and the possibility of instantaneous response. Distance slowed us down, granted us extra time and space to think, and encouraged us to be deliberate and thorough in our communication.
But the distance was also often difficult. There was the temptation to feel as if my “real life” was on hold until Mike arrived in May for a month of holidays – to live in such a haze of anticipation that it obscured the beauty of the present. It took effort and energy to rearrange my schedule so that we could talk, or to prioritize writing letters when I was exhausted or flat. Mike was sometimes out in the villages and beyond even the reach of cell phones for a week or more, and these stretches of silence sometimes assaulted my sense of surety in the concept of us and prompted mood swings that hit without warning. I could be grocery shopping, looking forward to a quiet night at home with Indian food, red wine and my laptop, and then glance up to see a couple ahead of me, hand in hand, and I’d be swamped by a sudden wave of longing or doubt.
In those moments I never had the option of reaching for the phone just so I could hear Mike’s voice, and even when we were talking during our carefully scheduled Skype dates, it wasn’t guaranteed to be smooth and happy sailing. Occasionally we’d be chattering away easily one minute only to find ourselves mired in a messy miscommunication the next. Or we’d be laughing and a moment later one of us would have blundered unexpectedly into a virtual minefield.
This was the situation we found ourselves in late one night, about a month before Mike was to arrive in L.A. for his May holiday. We’d been talking for an hour already, but before we wrapped up I suggested we dip into the question box.
The question box was a game we used sometimes to help move us past the whats, whens, and hows of our days. A solid plastic rectangle, it held hundreds of small cards each printed with a different question.
What is one special holiday memory from childhood?
If you had to move to a foreign country indefinitely, which one would you choose?
What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?
This night, however, the card that I randomly selected focused on a topic much weightier than ice cream. I took a glance and wondered whether I should throw it back and pick another one.
“What’s the question?” Mike asked after I’d been silent for a couple of seconds.
“Okay,” I said, deciding to stick with it, “what’s the most important quality in a marriage?”
“Commitment,” Mike said immediately. Then he paused and talked around this concept for a while, trying on words like honesty and forgiveness.
“No,” he finally said decisively. “Commitment.”
Sleepy and relaxed, I opened my mouth and started to think out loud. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I think it’s affection or warmth or … kindness. Yeah, kindness. I’d rank that above commitment.”
There was silence on the other end of the Skype line.
“Hello?” I said.
“Is that because commitment would already be there?” Mike asked.
“I guess so,” I said. “I can’t easily see a relationship that’s full of affection and kindness not being built on some foundation of commitment, but I can envision it the other way around – a committed relationship lacking kindness – and that’s just ugly.”
“Hello?” I said.
“I’m a bit paralyzed right now,” the distant Mike finally replied. “I think I’m better at commitment than I am at affection. I don’t think I can discuss this anymore at the moment. I have to get back to the office over here anyway.”
“Oh,” I said, startled. “Uh, okay. That’s not one of my fears in relation to us by the way, that you’re not good at affection, but all right.”
“It’s not you, I’ve just stumbled over some of my own inner furniture,” Mike managed to reassure me before signing off. “We’ll talk soon.”
We did talk soon, but not before I spent an uncomfortable couple of days wondering where I’d gone wrong. Perhaps, I ventured to my parents after thinking it through, it was the moment when I opened my mouth after Mike had bared his soul and insinuated that I didn’t think commitment was that big a deal and that I’d be in a marriage only as long as the other person was being kind.
“Yeah, that might have done it, I’d say,” Mum said.
“Mum!” I said.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said, negating any reassurance the statement might have delivered by laughing immediately afterward.
“I do think commitment is hugely important,” I said. “And I know any commitment – to marriage, to a place – is going to have times when it’s tested. I was just saying that I’m not sure commitment is the be-all and the end-all. I mean, would I really want to stay in a marriage indefinitely if commitment was all it had going for it? Commitment might be effective glue, but surely kindness or something else has to be present much of the time to make it worth holding something together?”
Mum didn’t venture to touch that one.
“What do you think is the most important quality in a marriage, then?” I asked her.
“Balance,” she said.
“Balance?” asked my father, who’d been listening in from the other side of the study.
“Balance,” my mother repeated firmly. “What have other people said?”
“Well, two of my colleagues said trust,” I said, “and another one said goodwill. They defined that as the commitment to hold a good image of that person in your mind even when you’re not liking them in the moment.”
“Does anyone want to know what I think?” Dad asked in my favorite tone of voice, that of the patient martyr.
Apparently it’s Mum’s favorite tone of voice, too, because she was quicker off the mark than I was.
“Not really,” Mum said breezily.
“Yes, Dad,” I said, rolling my eyes at both of them. “We want to know what you think.”
“A commitment to love,” he announced. “It combines commitment and kindness.”
“That is not a single quality,” Mum replied.
“And balance is?” Dad asked.
In one way, this opportunity Mike and I had to probe our joys, sorrows, and thoughts across the miles when we might otherwise have been discovering what snacks we each liked at the movie theater was providing us with a deep and solid foundation. But it was also rendering our quirks as adorable abstractions and robbing us of small daily opportunities to identify differences and head off or resolve conflict. Then, when we did happen to stumble into these differences or miscommunications, they often seemed magnified by the miles between us. I had made huge progress since the end of my relationship with Jason, and I no longer shied away at the first hint of potential conflict. I still didn’t enjoy conflict, however, and although Mike (despite his fears on this front) was excellent at communicating affection across the miles, we couldn’t always resolve a conversation satisfactorily when one of us stumbled across our inner furniture. During those times, I had to battle to control my own insecurities and learn to live with the tension of the unresolved until we could talk things out. …
Thanks for reading.
You can learn more or buy Love at the Speed of Email here ($7.47 for kindle on Amazon). Have a good week, folks.