I threw a dinner party the other night. I used to throw a lot of dinner parties back in my married days, but then getting unmarried made the whole prospect of hosting a large dinner seem daunting. I felt unlucky to be unmarried. Unmoored. Unloved.
I also used to get invited to a lot of dinner parties back in my married days, but when you’re a single woman in the mostly non-single, fortysomething milieu, even in this Age of Flagrant Lack of Innocence, you end up becoming a modern-day Countess Olenska: Your independence is a threat to societal mores. You are seen as a pariah, an outcast, or, worse, a woman on the prowl. (Oh how I long to shake some of my married friends whenever I’m chatting with their husbands at a party, and they look at me askance, and tell them that, though I love their spouses dearly—dearly!—I would not fuck them if they were the last men on earth.)
But dinner after dinner spent solely in the company of my children made me long for that unique pleasure of passing a few candlelit hours amongst a tableful of my contemporaries. In the absence of invitations from others, it was up to me to make that happen.
This young couple I know—really young, she’s 20 years my junior; he’s a baby-faced CEO I once interviewed for a story—had recently found one another after a long hiatus, partially thanks to my middle-aged meddling. Their rekindled love seemed as good an excuse as any to whip up a big meal.
No, let me rephrase that: Just as I had Nicholas Sparksed this young man’s desire to fly across an ocean and reclaim the woman he still loved—only a few rom-com-esque weeks before her planned wedding to the wrong man—their intention-driven love became the spark I needed to also act with intention: to make my life happen instead of waiting for it to happen to me.
“You make your own luck,” my late father used to say, and when I was too young to understand this, I thought he was crazy. Luck was luck, I thought. You either had it or you didn’t. You couldn’t manufacture it.
As I’ve stumbled over and into life’s obstacles, however, I’ve realized how right he was: Luck is one thing, but intention is the glue that holds it together. It’s not that you’re actually “making” luck; you’re shoring up the holes in your life where luck might take anchor.
Take the people gathered around my table that night. Aside from the two lovebirds whose very existence as a couple would not have happened without fervent, insistent, even somewhat irrational intention—his to go find her, hers to cancel her long-planned wedding—there was the man I’d met on my first blind date ever. The intention it took just to seek out and then go on that date, 24 years after my previous date with the man who became my husband, still makes my head spin.
I spent days trying to figure out, once we’d “matched,” what to write in the dumb text I finally sent: “Hey, I have no idea how to do this, but wanna go on a hike in the woods near my house?” or some such idiocy—blech, I’m embarrassed even repeating that here. I felt nauseated on the subway to the restaurant where we ultimately agreed to meet. My legs turned into wet noodles, ill-equipped for forward propulsion. My heart, still freshly injured, hurt. And yet I showed up. And we talked for hours. And we found common ground in our broken lives. And that man has now become, eight months later, my new best friend: the person whom I contact whenever I want to share good news or bad; the sophist who taught me one of life’s most valuable lessons, especially when dealing with the crazier people in my orbit: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
Don’t just do something, stand there: Think about that.
It sounds, at first, like a whole lotta lack of intention, but sometimes not doing something—or at least not reacting to someone’s craziness—is its own form of intention. I intend not to react: a revelation, this phrase, and it has served me particularly well during this period of unraveling, as I navigate not only my newfound singledom but also friends’ and family’s reactions to that singledom. Which is not always generous or kind.
The others around my table that night were a couple I’d helped introduce and some new friends I’d met at another single friend’s dinner party. I liked the wife so much I actually did something that most middle-aged people stop doing: I emailed her and said, essentially, that I liked her and wanted to be her friend.
Do you know how much intention it takes, at 49, to say to a stranger, “I like you and want to be your friend”? A lot. But it’s amazing the reaction you get, when you’re willing to be open and raw. The truth is, most people are flattered when you come right out and tell them you like them. We just forget, in our moated lives, that there’s a whole world beyond the castle if we just make intention a priority.
At one point during the dinner, gazing out at this lovely tableau—the candles, the flowers, the food I’d spent a whole day preparing, and my friends, new and old, roaring with laughter—I felt one of those rare moments of transcendence when you suddenly, and with great clarity, feel gratitude for your life, however flawed and fucked up. In fact, I actually felt gratitude specifically for its fucked upedness, for having been forced to take the kind of vulnerable actions I’d simply stopped taking in the cocoon of marriage.
Then came the giant crashing sound, followed by my 8-year-old’s sobs. “I was trying to get from the top bunk to my desk, so I stepped on the shelf and broke it,” he said. The detritus of his shelf-stepping was everywhere: toys, coins, books, broken figurines, and large chunks of wall were scattered all over his floor. The same thing had happened two years earlier with the exact same Ikea shelf in my old kitchen. The shelf, poorly designed and weighted down with too many heavy glasses, gave out just as I realized I couldn’t take one more minute of my marriage. At our wedding, we’d broken one glass at the end of the ceremony, as a reminder of life’s precariousness. Forty glasses all at once is a whole other level of bad metaphor.
“It’s okay,” I said. “At least you’re not hurt. We’ll clean it up after dinner.”
My former first-blind-date now best friend is handy with a toolbox, so after doing my dishes, he asked for a sharp knife, some glue and a piece of wood, which he then proceeded to slice into tiny slivers the size of toothpicks. He dipped these, one by one, into the glue, and then shoved them into the now too-large holes in the wall where the anchors had been. “You sure you want to do this now?” I said. “It’s late.” He didn’t even answer. He just looked at me with the utter intention of the job he’d already begun.
It had taken me weeks to get around to fixing the prior fallen shelf. I’d drilled four new holes in the wall, just above the old ones. It looked terrible like that, but I knew I’d be moving soon, once we separated. The next family to move in could spackle it.
“Will that work?” I said, dubious.
“Yes,” he said, with the caveat that my kid should probably not try walking on it again. “It’s actually amazing what you can do with some toothpicks and glue.”
Still dubious, I held the shelf flush against the old holes as he screwed in the screws. By the time he was done, it felt solid as a rock. “Wow,” I said. “That’s incredible.”
We stood back from his improbable handiwork. Toothpicks and glue: That was all it took to hold up a fallen shelf. The answer was so simple. You take a problem and turn it into the solution. Holes too large? Shore them up. Make them even stronger than they once were. There were still chunks of wall on the floor and bits of toys and glass, and the dining room table was still covered in empty bottles and dirty napkins, but we’d set out, with great intention, to fix just one small thing, and we’d fixed it.
The rest could be cleaned up later.