Call Me Old-Fashioned, But...

I don't want love.

You're thinking, "This is classic single girl denial, right?"

Well, no. I don't think so anyway. There are lots of things I'm not ruling out here, and, to be fair, I sacrificed accuracy for a dramatic hook.

I'm in the middle of Emma, having just finished Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion, and given Austen's typical subject matter, I've been inundated with perspectives and approaches to marriage. Austen's heroines are situated in a somewhat different social context, to say the least. As women, they are fairly limited in their life aims: learn a variety of amusing occupations--embroidering pillows or playing a few, lively country songs--, cultivate personal charms, and hopefully set oneself in the way of an appropriately wealthy man of either similar social status or sufficient independence to overlook a want of connections. But, though their circumstances are fairly homogeneous (with the exception of Emma Woodhouse, whose situation renders her slightly more independent), their attitudes toward marriage are somewhat more varied.

There's Charlotte Lucas, who observes to Elizabeth that it's better not to know someone's flaws before marrying them nor to require too much similarity of taste and disposition, because people change greatly in the course of their lives. She follows through on her sentiments by marrying the undeniably silly Mr. Collins without having any particular love for him, but desirous of the security and material advantages that the marriage will obtain for her. Elizabeth, of course, turns down Mr. Collins, finding little incentive where Charlotte, seven years her elder, is not so discriminating. However, she does marry a man with a large estate and ten thousand a year, so whatever the strength of her feelings may be, they've conveniently also improved on Mr. Collins quite substantially. I don't mean by that observation to cast doubt on the sincerity or depth of her attachment to Darcy, though, because Elizabeth of all people has seen the unhappy result of a marriage without regard, in viewing the relationship between her own parents.

Young Anne Elliot is prepared to marry for love of Captain Wentworth, but allows herself to be dissuaded on the grounds that he cannot properly provide for her, so her love is conditioned by practical concerns, even if they are largely imported from Lady Russell. Emma Woodhouse, being already well-situated, tells Harriet that she has no reason to marry, except for love. For the parentless, connectionless Harriet, however, Emma is somewhat more circumspect. She wishes Harriet to reject Mr. Martin and to attract Mr. Elton, the latter having many superior qualities and higher status, but she does so by encouraging her to be attracted to the latter. Of course, following on all of these, there are the likes of Elizabeth Elliot and her sister, Mary Musgrove, who are so fixated on status that they want neither to marry nor to be connected with anyone of inferior rank.

While the word "practical" does not have a romantic ring to it, I think it's one of the things that I like best about the relationships portrayed in Austen's novels. When seeking any sort of long-term relationship, the charms of a well-spoken, amiable individual like Mr. Wickham or William Elliot make for a rotten foundation, but they are certainly attractive--not only, in Wickham's case, to the foolish Lydia, but also, at first, to the more sensible Elizabeth, who takes his case with such blind partiality that she abuses the right man in favor of the wrong.

My circumstances differ somewhat from those of Austen's heroines. I don't have to rely on marriage to supply my living or social status. I have Emma's luxury, of marrying entirely for love, and only if I so choose. But consider Emma's choice: she doesn't fall for the handsome, young vicar, who writes love riddles and praises her every gesture. Instead, she chooses the older family friend, perhaps not so wildly romantic or dashing, but still a good life companion, partly because he's able to see through her to both her admirable qualities and her deficiencies without dwelling on either to the exclusion of the other.

So I suppose it's not that I don't want love, but that I don't want to choose someone on the basis of a giddy feeling or a rush of chemicals, and those are so often the pictures associated with love. The person whose interest is most likely to gratify my vanity right now is quite possibly not the person who possesses the sort of qualities that are likely to contribute to a lasting relationship. After all, communication skills and being wise with money, just to take two examples, don't tend to manifest themselves in physical features, and if what we're vying for is the approval of others, we'll desire the appearance of a Wickham far more than the good judgment of a Mr. Knightley. Not that there aren't people who unite the two worlds, but in our self-imposed limits ("at least 5'9"," or "not more than 5'4"..."), we may overlook what is right in front of us because it doesn't look like what we've decided on for ourselves.

It seems, by comparison with Austen's worlds, that it's nice to have the luxury of choice to marry or not to marry, and then, if marrying, to do so on non-economic grounds, but the option of "marrying for love" has not diminished the truth that someone who is likely to love long and well will do so, not because they can take Abercrombie model couple selfies with you or can set your heart fluttering with a single melting glance, but because they have good character and know you, not as a convenient fulfillment of their romantic dreams, but for who you are, flaws and all.


Fingers in the Current

I'm sitting on the second floor of a Caffe Nero, overlooking a brick-paved shopping area that ends on a beautiful park. It's not quite the charming country spaces or the splendid architecture of the Cambridge colleges, but it's still a very English scene to me. Meanwhile, I scroll my Facebook wall to see pictures of American friends, news items from American politics, and status updates about the weather back home. I feel like Harry looking into the Pensieve: suddenly swept into another world, from which the return is a shock of ice water. One moment, my mind is tracing the streets of Media, the next, it's taking in a scene set a thousand miles away. So close, so far away.

Every stage of this journey has brought its own challenges, from overcoming fear of the unknown to venture forth and try new things, to traveling and appreciating the people and the sights beyond exhaustion, to enduring through the mental weariness of the final few months. The emotions run wild, following their own curves and spikes to make no day like the last. And now, I cannot simply nestle into my surroundings, locked in a present filled with delight and wonder. There are tomorrows to be faced, and the tomorrow is rapidly approaching when this will not be my home.

It's hard to figure out how to live in this moment. Do I start reaching out to friends back home, making plans with them and locating all of my hopes there? Do I begin the long, slow process of withdrawing my heart from this place that I've come to know and appreciate? The underlying question: how to balance the tensions, when I am homesick for Pennsylvania and lovesick for England.

But there is no simple way to reply. This moment's answer does not always hold in the next. And that's the project and the game. Being able to live in the present, fully and fiercely, and being able to adapt to the demands that each situation brings. Not giving up or hiding in my room for the next seven weeks in an attempt to cushion the pain of farewell, but not throwing myself so wholeheartedly into these weeks that I fail to provide for the return journey. Life doesn't stop, and in its unstoppable unfolding, we have two choices. To live in one mode, one time, and thereby cheat ourselves of the full richness of experience, or to embrace complexity and dwell in all times, allowing each day, each judgment to be informed by a past that's unforgettable, a present that's unrepeatable, and future that's unavoidable.