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Every Day I Write the Book

So, the long-distance relationship, or LDR for short. According to a recent statistical report (http://infographicjournal.com/long-distance-relationship-statistics-in-the-us/), 10% of US marriages now begin as LDRs, and 2.9% of marriages operate on a long-distance basis. The report estimates that 14 million couples are engaged in LDRs, that the average length of time couples live apart is 14 months, and that 40% of them end in failure (70% when “changes aren’t planned for”, whatever that means). These numbers are partly due the separation of military families, and nearly 1/3 of those who claim long-distance status are college students. Others are kept apart by jobs, caregiver responsibilities, or custody arrangements that keep them bound to particular locations. But the increase in the LDR phenomenon seems largely a product of the internet–couples are more likely to meet online to start, or if separated after meeting in person, at least have faith that they can rely on online modes of communication when apart.

I’ve counted myself as one of the 14 million in an LDR for the past several years. And it’s hard, y’all. Along with the love, there are obstacles, obligations, and frustrations galore. What does this have to do with reading, or writing? Lots. Communication is the most important part of any relationship, and in an LDR, the amp goes to 11. So much depends on writing and reading—emails, texts, letters—and it’s easy to get fixated on what every little communication (or lack thereof) means from 800 miles away. Even a cute-puppy birthday card can seem fraught with meaning. We fire off urgent inquiries that aren’t received as such, we demand responses, we lament inadequate declarations or gaps in the correspondence. We write what we think are eloquent declarations, which on later review seem shrill diatribes. Even an innocent missive can misspeak, or be misinterpreted on the page or screen.

As a longtime librarian and incorrigible analyst, my first instinct in the face of difficulty is to do research. How does this work, what are the stats, how have other people approached the problem? I’m generally allergic to self-help books, and the suggestions presented by LDR handbooks (“Try watching a movie together on Skype!” “Make sure to send an encouraging text to your loved one every day!” “Cook dinner together and describe the process as you go!”) seem at best impractical, and at worst positively goofy. There are plenty of young adult novels about LDRs (Jennifer Smith’s The Geography of You and Me and Robin Talley’s What We Left Behind are two good ones), but they are about teenage problems with teenage stakes, and not particularly instructive for a midlife LDR questor. So, where does a girl go for suggestions, inspiration, or examples of those who’ve succeeded? I decided to start with famous love letters—maybe the correspondences of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (all writers I admire) would provide instruction on how to communicate with more clarity and consideration.

I went straight to the Mac Daddy of historical LDR participants, Napoleon Bonaparte, who spent the majority of their relationship (from their meeting in 1795 to their divorce in 1809), apart from his beloved Josephine. Though their relationship was tempestuous and thorny, N’s letters to J are considered some of the most passionate in history. Why not start big? The letters’ reputation doesn’t prepare you, though, for this: while some passages are lovely, others are frankly bonkers. Just days after their marriage in 1976, Napoleon decamped for Italy to lead the French troops. One of his first missives from the battlefield celebrated how the mere thought of Josephine could both invigorate and soothe him. “When I am tired of the worry of work, when I feel the outcome, when men annoy me, when I am ready to curse being alive, I put my hand on my heart; your portrait hangs there, I look at it, and love brings me perfect happiness, and all is milling except the time I must spend away from my mistress.” But in November of that same year, this: “I don’t love you, not at all; on the contrary I detest you—You are a vile, mean, beastly slut” (translations here vary—this is one of the kinder ones). He ends this same letter with, “I hope before long to crush you in my arms and cover you with a million hot kisses, burning like the equator.” Talk about mixed messages! Others reveal a frantic adolescent clinginess, like this from July of the same year: “Your tears rob me of reason, and inflame my blood. Believe me it is not in my power to have a single thought which is not of thee, or a wish I could not reveal to thee.” He goes on to declare, hopelessly, “Without his Josephine, without the assurance of her love, what is left him upon earth? What can he do?” (Which had to be at least a little flattering to Jo, considering that he was at this point the most powerful man in all of Europe.) And as in most relationships, LD or otherwise, Napoleon also shared his angst with others. On learning of an affair of Josephine’s, he writes to his brother in 1798, “The veil is torn…It is sad when one and the same heart is torn by such conflicting feelings for one person…I need to be alone. I am tired of grandeur; all my feelings have dried up. I no longer care about my glory. At twenty-nine I have exhausted everything”. Ennui like this, at 29? LDRs, and their associated exchanges, are exhausting.

Come to think of it, Fitzgerald died at 44, believing himself to be a failure and estranged from Zelda and their daughter. Oscar’s most important letter to Bosie, titled De Profundis, was written from prison and decried his lover’s betrayal and abandonment of him. And despite their nearly decade-long affair and tireless correspondence, neither Virginia nor Vita ever left the safe confines of their respective marriages. So, do words really hold any power in the LDR game, or are they just a shout into the void?

Napoleon’s letters were (literally and figuratively) all over the map. Though they may be indicative of the chaotic and changeable nature of LDR communication, they gave me bubkis on how to be a clearer and less strenuous correspondent myself. When two people are both writer/editors, and at least one (guess who) is a chronic over-thinker, brevity may be king. Protracted attempts to try to make yourself understood run a risk of containing something inadvertently insulting, too obscure, or just plain pissy. Johnny Cash (another writer I admire), who spent countless time on the road, wrote this to June Carter when they were no longer touring and singing together:

Hey June,

This is really nice June. You’ve got a way with words and a way with me as well.

The fire and excitement may be gone now that we don’t go out there and sing them anymore, but the ring of fire still burns around you and I, keeping our love hotter than a pepper sprout.

Love, John

Johnny and June’s love story, full of extended travel, homecomings, then more travel, lasted 35 years. Their love letters straddle adoration and simplicity. If I don’t manage to write myself out of the long distance relationship gig, I’ll be thinking about learning to walk the line.

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