Interview – Talk to me #7 : Barbara Radecki, with daughters Stefanie and Michele

Posted May 2016 on

Talk to me #7: Barbara Radecki, with daughters Stefanie and Michele
Where you learned to love. 

Barbara: The easy answer is that I learned to love at home. I have loving parents and sisters and I grew up in a safe environment. But when I was a child, my parents were very busy and often away and my independence was both a natural character trait and a gift to them. I remember being by myself a lot and practicing love. Oh, how I nurtured and coddled my baby dolls. Oh, how I conjured romantic liaisons under a tented sheet in my bed. Love was as much a product of my imagination as it was a real-life experience.

When I met my husband, Phil, I learned the difference between idealized romantic love and what it means to commit to someone. When I had my children, I learned what it means to love so expansively, you’d do anything to nurture and protect. And then I had to learn how to love unconditionally and still claim myself.

Michele: I’m not really sure where one learns to love. It starts with one’s family and friends. Then most likely from romance stories and the media. Then from those initial lusts, forays into love and romantic relationships. And then finally, finally, once all of that is said and done, one truly learns love from oneself.

Your first cut – was it the deepest?

Barbara: I’m going to get this out of the way right off the top: I met Phil in college in Montreal when I was 16-years-old (if that math doesn’t make sense, I skipped grade 3, and high school in Quebec only goes to grade 11). We studied drama together, and we’ve been together ever since.

However, he wasn’t my only boyfriend and I’m embarrassed to remember just how deep that first cut was. I was 15 when I started dating my first serious boyfriend. I hadn’t even noticed him before he asked me out, and in hindsight I think I fell prey to that specific infatuation that’s triggered when someone falls for you and you see yourself for the first time as being objectively loveable. Irony was, he only loved me for a brief period and after our break-up all I did was pine for him. My newfound lovability didn’t just unravel, it imploded. Crying jags, drunken pleading, hopeless grovelling, that’s what I remember. Cringe.

I think that experience did affect my outlook afterwards: “You must work harder at being a good girlfriend. You must be better at being loveable.” I think it’s one of the reasons I didn’t nurture female friendships for so long. I was too busy focusing on how to be good at love.

Michele: I think my first cut also made me think that I had been doing something wrong. I decided for a while I had to start acting like other people in order to get or keep the love that I wanted. It took me a while to undo that thought.

Your love who got away.

Michele: I’m going to quote from a John Steinbeck letter to his son about love: “If it is right, it happens. The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.” (Italics are mine.)

Your “type” – and why. 

Barbara: Here’s the one thing I know from having found my “type”—this is a nebulous and intangible quality. When I first saw Phil, it was as if light bloomed around him. It wasn’t because he was handsome and smart and funny and made me feel wonderful that I fell in love with him—all of which are true. It was because he had “it”—that special alchemy with me that can’t be manufactured. And everything after that beginning was about him having the same commitment to our relationship as I do. That’s my type.

Stefanie: I don’t really believe in “types”. I think it limits our vision of other people and our capacity to love. But if there is anything that could be called a type for me, it is the feeling that I can be absolutely truly myself with that person.

Your favourite literary romance. 

Barbara: It might be hard for me to choose “the one” since I devour books and never re-read anything, no matter how beloved. If I have to choose without a thorough re-read, I’ll go with A.S. Byatt’s Possession. It has it all: meaningful connections; a drawn-out mating dance; breathless romance; delicious writing.

Stefanie: Anything by Haruki Murakami or Milan Kundera. I love diving into the solitary and intimate worlds of their characters and then watching those characters come together and try to navigate the complexities of love in their own (often conflicting) ways.

Michele: Wuthering Heights.

Your thoughts on friends being lovers.

Barbara: Romantic cliché: My husband is also my best friend. But he wasn’t my friend when we got together. Our friendship was definitely secondary to that alchemy. However, when I counsel my daughters on anything love-related, I do place value on friendship. If you have chemistry in the bedroom but also have an emotional/intellectual bond with someone, that’s gold.

As a general rule: I place huge value on friendship and would never want to lose one for what might turn out to be a fling. One of my favourite couples started off as good friends and they were surprised and delighted to discover much later that they also had chemistry. They’ve been together now for over 20 years.

Michele: I would never want to be lovers with someone I wasn’t also friends with. Friendship builds trust and comfort. That just makes love better.

Your thoughts on the net amounts of pleasure and pain. 

Barbara: Every moment with someone you love can be calibrated on a pain/pleasure scale. If there’s a lot of pain, is it worth it? Are you gaining something—personal growth, a deeper union, physical gratification, spiritual insight? And you can ask the same of pleasure—is it worth it? Pleasure can re-wire our brains. It’s incredibly powerful and persuasive. So either really has the potential to be a curse or a gift.

Your story about unrequited love.

Michele: It’s hard for me to write about unrequited love because I’m still so young and everything feels so close together, like I don’t have the necessary distance. But the biggest thing I can say about it is shame. Feeling embarrassed and ashamed that you tried to ask that person for love and they said no.

I no longer believe in that notion of unrequited love that makes one person better or more desirable than the other. There are so many factors that go into love. Not getting the relationship you wanted with a specific person has nothing to do with your self worth. 

Your favourite author/artist on love.

Barbara: Frida Kahlo. We know of her abiding, passionate, tumultuous love for her partner, but she was equally dedicated to self-actualization and expression.

As for writing: maybe this doesn’t count because it isn’t fiction, but Michele gave me Bell Hooks’ All About Love, and that’s an amazing manifesto. So many precise, vigorous, unflinching meditations on love. Bell references M. Scott Peck’s definition of love, which I think bears repeating and repeating and repeating, and which I’m going to paraphrase here: love is nurturing your own and someone else’s spiritual growth.

That strikes me as very true. Love isn’t only a dewy romantic feeling. Real love is an evolution of souls.

Stefanie: I’m currently obsessing over David Whyte’s poetry. I feel like his words unlock certain very true and very secret things about my own experience of love.

Your reconciliation of the domestic and the erotic.

Barbara: When my daughters were little, my husband’s work began to take him on the road a lot. Not only was I suddenly on my own with two little girls, but I was trying to find my creative voice amid a houseful of dreary chores. I loved being a mom, but resented that domestic drudgery. I took it out on my husband. It took me a long time to realize that either I could writhe with resentment—while still having to do the dishes and laundry—or I could just do the work and let it go. Believe me, you feel a lot sexier, a lot more attracted, when you’re not listing all your partner’s mundane shortcomings in your head. And the chores lose their onus very quickly when you’re not seething about them. Anyway, in the end, domestic obligations balanced out between us.

Best reconciliation of the domestic and the erotic: the at-home date night.

Your thoughts on marriage. 

Barbara: There’s still a kind of innocent belief that if you get married, you sidestep pain and loneliness. Like a money-back guarantee. Of course, we all know that’s bullshit. But isn’t the idea of a wedding lovely? The dress, the flowers, the dancing. And what about the possibility that you’ll make it to the end together? Someone to eat dinner with. Someone to grow old with. Someone who understands you more and more each day.

When you have grown children, it’s hard not to imagine that one day they might get married. Yeah, I like that picture. But do I think my girls should get married? That their lives will be better for it? Safer? No.

Stefanie: It’s really tempting for me as a young woman to want to follow that ‘scripted’ timeline of relationship, marriage, children. I’m coming to that age where I get at least one engagement notification on Facebook per month. It’s easy to compare yourself to your peers and wonder, “Am I supposed to be doing that?” But following that trajectory can become a destructive fantasy if it causes you to neglect or ignore other things that are important to you.

Love changes when you have children.

Barbara: My husband and I had a lot of fun years together before we had our girls. He didn’t think he was ready for children, and I didn’t care, I wanted them so badly. Thankfully, when the first one was born, he very quickly grew into his new role.

Yes, when you have kids, your heart gets flooded with an unfamiliar, unexpected, intense, immense love. You want everything for them. That love fills you and consumes you. Then one day you blink in the light and remember that you also have this foundational relationship that means a lot to you and that it also requires regular feeding and changing.

We still loved each other through those early years, but we also needed to remember to “see” each other. Your partner isn’t a mirror on which you project your needs and wishes. The good news is that when the kids grow up, you really get to discover each other again. Fall in love again.

Michele: I remember coming home from university one year and noticing that my parents were falling in love again. Not that they had ever fallen out of love, but they were just going through a new round in their love life. It wasn’t weird to watch at all and instead inspired and excited me.

Your thoughts on resisting temptation.

Barbara: Resisting temptation is critical for me. I’m a monogamous person. I feel freer, less inhibited in a devoted relationship. I think some people soar only when they have no constraints and some people soar because of constraints.

It actually hasn’t been that hard for me to resist temptation. When I swoon over a piece of art, I don’t need to steal it to appreciate it.

Your advice on breaking up.

Barbara: This one I can address by way of advice to my kids. There is no easy way to break up, to break another person’s heart, or to have your heart broken. It’s always going to be hard and sad.

Be as honest as you can. But about yourself. What you’re going through, how you’re changing. Ultimately, that’s what every break-up is about: not what the other person isn’t, but what you are.

Use the post-breakup period as catharsis to your own development.

Michele: Yeah, I always have you cheesily repeating, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” And I think that is true, despite any and all pain that I may have experienced in heartbreak. I also think remaining honest with yourself and your feelings, fully admitting to how heartbroken, lost or sad you are, is the best way to go through a breakup. A lot of the time it speeds things up because you aren’t exhausting yourself by repressing what’s there.

Stefanie: I agree completely that the most important thing is absolute honesty. You have to be willing to look into yourself without judging any of your feelings, and you have to be able to discuss those feelings with the other person, even at the risk of hurting them. It’s terrifying but I think facing that difficulty head on shows you how much strength you really have. There’s no other way to heal and change.

Barbara: It’s very difficult to watch your children experience heartbreak. I definitely go into “fight mode”—I get busy nurturing. I try not to overstep any lines—I let them have their space and am present as a support system. It’s against my nature to give absolute “you should/shouldn’t do this” type of counsel, and the few times I’ve broken my rule, it’s been physically painful. But both girls want to hear my honest opinions. They remind me that they’re capable of disagreeing with me and making their own decisions. Of course they are! And that’s a lesson I’m learning: if I’m coaching honesty, I need to be honest too.

The influence of Love in your work.

Barbara: I actually think a lot about love when I work. Even though I love being in love, and I’m in a long-term relationship, I’m very conscious when I write that I don’t want the message to be: your life only has meaning and purpose when you’ve found a lover. The hard work in life is finding and loving yourself. Shit happens, whether you deserve it or not (and you usually don’t), and your lover isn’t going to prevent that, or even make it easier to deal with. But who doesn’t love reading about love? We all want to experience it, to have it. Love is so elemental, so affecting. So I’m also aware of that when I write.

Michele: I feel like you write like a single person sometimes. Or your advice doesn’t seem like it would come from someone who has been with their partner since they were 16. I think you’ve remained very independent and separate as people, whilst also having this love relationship together. But I’ve never seen one bleed into the other.

Your lessons from love. 

Barbara: When my kids were young, I always told them not to be afraid of loving people. Even if it wasn’t obviously reciprocated. I’d draw a picture of a heart and put our names inside it, then draw another heart around it and put other family members’ names inside that, and then more hearts and more names. A simple pictogram for the truth that the more people you love, the bigger your heart gets.

Stefanie: Yes, I really feel like I’m still learning that every day from you! Giving love and being kind only makes your heart fuller and your life richer.

Michele: Yep. I remember this heart. This heart lives on forever in my mind.

Your greatest regret in love. 

Barbara: I only have one true regret in my life and that’s that I stopped writing from my teenage years to my mid-30s. I convinced myself that the love I shared with my husband and children was enough to make up for the void in my creative life. And that turned out to be the biggest lie I ever told myself.

Michele: Yeah, when I noticed you’d left “the one that got away” question blank, it made sense because I know you don’t have any lovers that got away. He’s in the kitchen or backyard right now. But then I thought, You do have a lover that got away. With fear and insecurities you let your writing “get away” for many years. Luckily first love never dies and you’ve found each other again.

Stefanie: Not listening to myself and what I really wanted deep down. I have a tendency to place the needs of my partner above my own in relationships, and it has caused me to ignore a lot of pain that I have felt over many years. It took a big wake-up call for me to realize I was repressing my true feelings, and just how depleted my energy was.

Your thoughts on infidelity – one night stand, fling, or affair.

Barbara: The defiler of trust.

Your feelings about the existence of a soulmate.

Barbara: The question of soulmates comes up a lot in conversations with my girls. They see their parents in a long-term relationship and it seems obvious that we’re soulmates. And we would probably even say to them, “Yes, we’re soulmates.” But I get a bit squidgy when I use the word because it sounds so magical. Like lucky happenstance. Like it’s a promise from the gods that on having found each other, these two soulmates will never have any difficulties or challenges. And that’s not true. It can’t be! How do we grow and learn if everything is sweetness and roses? If we’re not questioning on a regular basis where we’re at?

To me, a soulmate is that person who agrees to go on the ride with you, like the marriage vows say, through good and bad. Who drives you wild, drives you crazy, drives you to strive, drives you places. The soulmate stays.

Michele: I think it can be intimidating to have parents who’ve been together for so long and maintain a loving and healthy relationship. It’s intimidating because so few of my friends have that and they’re often captivated by it. It obviously influences me and my desires to find something similar. I think that kind of connection is a rare and special thing and I see so many benefits within it. But I do believe you can create a soulmate within anyone—friends, parents, lovers—if you are both willing to truly listen to the other person and share your honesty with them.

Your ideal love: madness or redemption?

Barbara: Redemption.

I googled the following phrase because I was so sure I’d recently read it somewhere, and now I can’t find it. So I give credit to someone else, but I write it here for posterity: Love is forgiving each other every day.

Stefanie: Maybe a bit of both? I’d like to think the ideal love would be absolutely wild and still have the ability to release/deliver you.

Your advice on making love last. 

Barbara: Truly see the other; truly listen.

My wonderful improv teacher reminds us that very often when we have conversations with people, we spend the whole time either drafting responses in our heads or just going off in our own world. How can you really hear the other person through all that inner noise? She uses the educational aphorism “listen to learn.” This makes all the difference in every relationship, and is critical to long-lasting love.

Michele: I think a true test to finding someone you really love, and actually enjoying your life and the love that’s in it, is to truly be yourself and relax within yourself. If you’re busy trying to be someone else to please that person then you’ll never really know how you feel and you won’t be able to genuinely enjoy the love that is there.

Barbara: I want to wrap things up on a sweet note. Love is much easier than we make it. It’s our choice to give and feel. Love is the single element that makes life transcendent.