You Are Capable Of Passion, No Matter How Old You Are

Em Unravelling

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This morning the Apple News app spiked me with an algorithmically targeted dart right to the heart. “The Price of Passion!” crowed the headline, above an article in which the acclaimed novelist Isabel Allende “reflects on her reckless choices”.

Her “reckless choices”, as I read on, didn’t seem to be as legion as the subheader implied. Seemed, to me, that she’d only made one truly reckless choice and that was one time in the 1970s when she fell helplessly in love with a musician and sped off with him to Rome for a passionate summer of romance and love in the sun.

It was reckless, by the way, because when she did that whole falling in love thing and then the moving to Rome thing, she had a husband and kids already. (They didn’t come with her to Rome, by the way. She left them behind).

“Passion,” Allende says wisely in the piece, “can destroy you as much as define you.” As soon as her eyes were opened to the truth of the destruction she’d left in her wake, the grief of her children, and the reality of her lover’s personality — he was not consistent or kind, not like the husband she’d left at home in Venezuela — she rushed back home, penitent, straight into the arms of her husband and her “skinny and sad” children who had missed her desperately and who all welcomed her back.

She got another chance, and she threw herself back into her wife and mother role. She rebuilt her relationships with her husband and children.

I read the first few paragraphs of the piece, and part of me thought “oh hey me too!”. I mean, I’ve absolutely been there. I too have been a liar and a cheat, and my generous husband also gave me another chance, and I have also been permitted to throw myself gratefully and fully back into my motherhood role.

Like Allende, I teetered in my 30s on the edge of an abyss into which I might have thrown forever both my relationship with my beloved babies and my view of my own self, but I was able to clamber back before I smashed my life fully on those spiky rocks. I’m very grateful for this opportunity. As I’m sure, was she.

The next few paragraphs of the article, though, made my heart sink. After nine more years Allende left her husband again, this time for good and for a new husband. And then she left that husband too, although not with any degree of scandal.

Isabel Allende is in her seventies now and has finally found her forever love with her third husband, but she credits “following her heart’s impulses” with the fact that she has experienced so many loves in her life and learned so much about herself in the process. Apart from the regret of leaving her children, she’s unmitigatedly glad she followed her passions.

Good for her. Genuinely, good for her. But honestly, though, isn’t it so very tiring: the idea that passion’s stubborn flame perhaps won’t be extinguished by the calm coolness of intelligent logic as we travel through life and learn its myriad lessons? Why are we wired like this, why?

I love my husband. I love my children. I know that affairs lead to no good things at all. I know that even at best, they end in a life tinged by a faint stain of everlasting shame, haunted ever after by the specter of an old email inbox full of blistering rants from an angry little man who’d once seemed like the answer to every question but swiftly became the antithesis of any hope at all.

But what if some other passion grabs me between its greedy jaws as I segue into some later stage of my life? What if? I can hardly bear to think of it. But I know that I didn’t plan or anticipate what happened last time, that seismic rupture I blithely allowed to cleave my life into pieces. I know I wasn’t sufficiently on-guard, but I definitely wasn’t what you’d call receptive, either.

It offends me on a deep level, the knowledge that one’s own intellectual wiring can be short-circuited even in middle- or old age by the electrifying jolt of an illicit connection with another human, a connection that begins to feel strong enough to power all sorts of poor decisions and life changes and even betrayals.

I know that rationally I should feel optimistic and alive in the knowledge that we age only externally, and that the heart’s desires are as strong at 50 as they are at 15. But honestly, as I read about the rollicking ride of Isabel Allende’s wild and unwieldy life, I realized that it just exhausts me to think of it.

What has occurred to me and the lesson I intend to take from Allende’s bare and admirable honesty is this: I can and I probably will have more passions in my life. I can look forward to them, in fact, so long as I remember to choose them more wisely, take the passionate paths that don’t lead to heartbreak for other people.

Maybe I will develop a thrumming, deep-seated need to learn to skydive. Or fall giddily in love with a country, or a language. Or a religion (unlikely. But you never know). There are unmet friends out there with whom I might have an electric, sizzling intellectual connection. There are words in me that I have yet to write and that might, one day, emerge onto the page in a form that comes somewhere close to satisfying me.

Isabel Allende was right. Passion can destroy as well as define. But it’s OK to be defined by it, all the same. Just so long as the reckless choices remain fairly few.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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