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first person

I got lost in what I thought my life should be, and what it actually was, Sophie Nadeau writes

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A solar eclipse happened to fall around the one-year anniversary of my relationship ending. When it came to my love story, the sun had gone out long ago. To mark the occasion, I ran through Toronto's High Park trying to avoid couples entangled on the lawn drinking Champagne. They were thrilled for the chance to witness celestial magic. I was considering where chasing magic has gotten me. Love, it turns out, is something you should avoid looking at directly.

Working, writing and seeking out beauty and good people have helped me feel better. But, after more than a year on my own, I wish could go back in time to give my 20-year-old self a reality check. Had I started in a different place, maybe I wouldn't have needed to shield myself from romance as I ran through the park.

In my 20s, I was that girl who watched every romantic comedy and took mental notes. I was obsessed with When Harry Met Sally. I was looking for a romantic arc anywhere I could find one. Harry, running through New York on New Year's Eve, breathless: "I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible." Sigh.

Man, did I ever hold on to the idea of romantic love for dear life. I met a guy, wrote the script, cast the movie and, for a while, thought I had it all. We have a beautiful daughter. She's the kind of kid who lights up a room without trying. Over 11 years, we built a life. The business end of being a couple was chugging along fine. The love part wasn't.

I forgot to account for the fact that humans are infinitely more complicated and unpredictable than we can know. I forgot to calculate for my imperfections. My failings. We plummeted out of love. It would be satisfying for some to hear me lay blame. It would be easy to get angry. The truth is our paths were destined to diverge. I held on longer than I should have. Over the past year, the most difficult of my life so far, I dismantled the story of perfect love, sentence by sentence.

Now, I try to remember that love can't last forever and rarely looks the way we imagined. We can't control our romantic outcomes any more than we can control the sun. The churn of life pulls at the threads of love in unexpected and unforgiving ways. It's brutal. But, as a battle-worn friend reminded me, "Life doesn't care." No kidding.

I'm not a religious person. I normally find support in the kindness of other humans. I try to find comfort in the idea that there is more good than bad in the world. I want to be soothed by the belief that if I offer love and understanding I'm more likely to earn it in return. However, after a year's worth of personal misery, coupled with the drumbeat of depressing news, I'm having second thoughts. Shared trust is more precarious than I expected.

My globetrotting brother recently returned to Canada after years abroad, including lots of time in East and South Asia. He encouraged me to view my experience through the lens of Buddhist truths. Basically, we suffer because everything is impermanent. We suffer because we hold on to the things, the people, the routines and the sense of reality we feel we need so we can avoid the brutality of change. Change finds us regardless, cue the drama.

For me, clinging to ideas and expectations creates the worst kind of misery. It is easy to get lost in the space between what we think life should be and what is actually possible. I am heartbroken that, despite doing many things right, I can't protect anyone from the hardships of life. The people I love are vulnerable. I am too. Life is a speeding train. I've been using every ounce of energy I have to try to change its direction. I have learned this year that choice is wasted effort.

Buddhists recommend we avoid attachment and live in the present moment. They say we should consider the bigger picture so we can see life for what it is. These choices should, in theory, help us connect to the world around us with compassion. Putting these ideals into practice takes a lifetime and probably more meditation than I can pull off. After all, I can barely manage to stay off my phone many days. But, still, worth a try. My brother did remind me that despite the drama of our experience in North America we are fortunate. It wouldn't hurt to stop trying so hard to control the world around us.

I've come to understand that there is little about life that is neat and tidy. I should stop waiting for the perfect outcome. I can't write the ending to my story after all. It is what it is.

Love might be the rapturous thrill of one stolen kiss. Or maybe it's about holding hands in rocking chairs after years of battles and companionship. Or perhaps it's the wealth you gain from accumulated kindness and support from friends and family. The joy of a million moments we never expected.

I've spent too much time trying to figure it out. It is a fool's errand. Reason and love are incompatible. Love happens. Submit to reality. Show up with compassion. Move through life – mess and all – with gratitude. That's the job.

At the end of my run I walked up and across the pedestrian bridge over the train tracks that leads to my home. My neighbours lined the bridge, their heads tilted, eyes focused on the sky. They were buzzing with anticipation for the next exciting thing. I was not compelled to look. I'm focused on letting go.

Sophie Nadeau lives in Toronto.