Life, Love and Up in the Air

It’s been a long time since a movie made me think about life, love, loneliness and mortality.  Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” did.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, who works as a career termination consultant.  His company is retained by other companies to fire the employees they don’t have the balls to fire.

(Although the job is presented in the movie as being rather distasteful, it actually sounds like a great idea to me. Firing people is difficult, tricky business, and most managers completely botch it.  Many terminated employees would be better off in the hands of a professional firm.)

Clooney’s character is so good at his job because he has almost no emotional attachments. He is a committed bachelor. He spends most of the year traveling. He buys ties at the airport Brooks Brothers outpost. He fits everything into one rolling carry-on suitcase.  His apartment even looks more like a Residence Inn-type hotel room.

The theme song of this movie should have been Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady.”

Eventually, of course, he meets a woman, Alex (the stunning Vera Farmiga), with whom he shares an instant kinship. She is a fellow traveler, living in and out of airports. The relationship starts as an on-the-road convenience, but Ryan comes to want more. Clooney and Farmiga have a easy, believable chemistry that makes you root for their budding romance, as improbable and doomed as it seems.

A subplot about Ryan’s sister’s wedding injects a good deal of humor into the story and allows Clooney to deliver the movie’s knockout line and ultimate theme: “Life is better with company.”

That line resonates as the movie progresses to its uncertain conclusion, and long after the credits have rolled.

It’s a simple and unavoidable truth. Life is better with company.

“Life is better with company” explains why people stay in bad friendships, relationships and marriages. It explains why people have a hard time letting go of their kids. Why they spend a fortune caring for their sick and dying pets. Why end of life care is such a tough subject.  Why divorce statistics fail to tell the true picture of what is wrong and what is right with the institution of marriage.

It is hard to let go of people. It is hard choosing to be alone.

I should know.

I stayed in a bad relationship for more than eight years. I married my ex-husband four-and-a-half years into that bad relationship, even though it wasn’t working before we got married, and I knew deep in my heart it was never going to work out.

I didn’t love my ex-husband. He wasn’t good company. He belittled every thing I cared about. He criticized everything I did, or tried to do. We fought constantly, physically on occasion.

And yet I stayed with him, had another child by him, married him seven days before that second child was born, because I could not stand to be one of the few black female partners at a major law firm and yet, just a “baby momma.”  I hated not being married to the father of my two kids, even though I didn’t think he was good husband material.  I believed that it would be harder to raise those children alone than with company, even bad company.

If he had been able to be just a little bit nicer — just a little bit kinder — I would still be with him today.

Of course, I was wrong. And of course, it didn’t work. Before my son’s 3rd birthday, we had an Amazing Race to the courthouse to file divorce papers. He beat me by two weeks — including the extra week it took to convert my complaint into an answer and counterclaim.

I have been single ever since our separation.  I did not date during our separation, in part because he had accused me of infidelity, and I didn’t want to give that lie any substantiation.

I did not date for many years after our divorce, because somewhere deep inside, I believed everything he had said about me for most of our relationship: that I was fat, unattractive, stupid, unworthy of my Harvard Law School degree, a bad mother, bad in bed, just undesirable on every level.

I don’t blame him for the fact that I internalized the things he said. I didn’t have to. I chose to. I consumed his steady diet of negative comments and failed to counter them with positive, self-affirming beliefs. In litigation, expert testimony generally is deemed pretty credible. When my ex-husband made comments about my appearance and desirability, I gave them the weight of expert testimony. 

Somewhere inside,  I said to myself, “Well, he’s a man, he would know whether or not I’m desirable. So it must be true.”

But it’s been five years since my divorce.  In that time, I lost a lot of weight (even though I could have viewed myself as desirable with or without the extra pounds). I got a new job and regained confidence in my abilities as a lawyer. I began writing again on a more regular basis, and felt empowered by the positive feedback I received from others.

And yet, in the five years since my divorce, I have remained single.  I do not date on a regular basis. I am not seeing anyone currently. I haven’t been in a relationship since I separated from my husband.

“Up in the Air” made me question why.

There have been times, many times, where I’ve found myself saying to myself, “I don’t need a relationship. I’m not lonely. I’ve got these kids in the house with me. That’s more than enough company.

“I do all I can to escape them to find some alone time. The last thing I need is some man making demands on my time.”

Some days, I really believe this.  I am not at the Ryan Bingham level of detachment, but I do feel even the best love/sex relationships can be burdensome. And I agree that less-than-ideal relationships are excess baggage better off discarded. You really can move a lot more easily and freely through life if you heed Erykah Badu’s advice and “pack light.”

As a mom, I miss my alone time. The kids don’t respect my privacy. They barge into my room day and night. They get into my bed and try to stay there all night. My daughter goes into my closet at will and tries on my clothes, my shoes, my boots, my coats.

When I do manage to carve out some private space, I hold it dearly and protect it fiercely.

I am not sure I want to share that rare private space with another person.

Except — life is better with company.

I saw “Up in the Air” alone. Before the movie started, I smugly compared myself to the couples searching for two seats together in the crowded movie theater.  It was easy for me to buy a single ticket and find a single seat in the crowded theater. Watching a movie is such a singular, solitary experience, so why do people bother going to movies together, I wondered. Why go through all the hassle just to sit next to each other, silently watching a movie in the dark?  

After the movie ended, as we all filed out of the theater, people were discussing and even arguing over what the ending did or did not mean. I had my own thoughts on the subject and wanted to join one of those discussions, but couldn’t, because I’d gone alone. I was then reminded that the after-movie discussion is why people go to the movies on dates, or with friends or family. 

Being alone in that moment,  having just watched a movie about a man who wants to be with someone but who will probably wind up alone, made me feel sadder than I’ve felt in a long time.

Watching “Up in the Air” made me realize that being without a partner is a choice I’ve made.  It’s not because it’s so hard to find people to date and eventually be in a relationship with, despite the current “why can’t successful black women marry?” topic that has become so disturbingly popular in the media.

I’ve chosen to be alone, much as George Clooney’s character did in the movie, because for a while, it was easier to deal with life without carrying around the baggage of another person. After the divorce, as I worked at establishing myself in a new job and making a new home and a new life for myself and my children as a single parent, it simply was easier to do it alone.

But it’s not an irreversible choice.

At one point in “Up in the Air,” a character asks Ryan, about marriage, “What’s the point?” He answers, truthfully, that there is no “point.” Because it’s not like getting married and having the kids and the grandkids will change the ultimate outcome of your life.

We’re all going to die.

Life is short, and getting shorter by the day.

But everything that happens between birth and death is a choice. 

For years, I chose to be alone.

Perhaps now, it’s time for me to have some company on this journey.

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3 Responses to “Life, Love and Up in the Air”

  1. Alysha W Says:

    Such an honest piece, Carolyn. Nicely done. 🙂

  2. Marilyn Says:

    Carolyn,

    I also appreciate the plain-spoken honesty in your writing. I came to your website after reading a few tweets this morning about how you’re clinging to comfort, or maybe just the familiar. I’m stuck in a similar place, but I’m swallowing hard as I continue to pray and seek guidance and inspiration–including a poke around on Twitter!

    Thank you for the courage you show writing so beautifully about your journey. I’d also been pretty fearless in my early years, but after I experienced a serious stumble, I’m finding I don’t trust my judgment as much. I’ll continue reading more of your posts, and I wish great success for you in your pursuits … great companionship is possible and lovely!

  3. LaDonna Says:

    Wow. I read your words and kept looking around the empty room like someone was reading my mind. So, I am not alone. I have believed the lie that ‘bad company’ is better than no company. Now diagnosed, I will now proceed to treatment. Thank you for your transparency. I feel freer reading your words. Life is better with company. Until I have company worthy of me, I CAN travel alone.

    Feeling (strangely) courageous,

    LaDonna

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