In this surprise ending to the Literary Cottage Log series, I break up with a dream, end my marriage, and regain my best friend. Based on the honest and bold conversations described within, this chapter is co-authored by Steve Robinson-Burns.
Over months and months we grew and grew and suddenly it seemed, we were at the edges of the forest, facing each other so far away — a place we thought we’d never be.
Lockdown felt like a crowded cottage. With the city closed, we may as well have been in the woods: no roads between the hills and our front door.
We built a cottage dream to meet our desires in the middle. I took this on with a small ‘ok’ that I trusted would bloom into a bigger yes. He wanted to regenerate a forest, live closer to more climbing routes. For me, it made sense on paper. With hardcover copies of Walden and Wendell Berry I could find a way to make it literary. I started by writing it down, a series of Literary Cottage Logs on my blog. If I could tell the story well enough, perhaps I’d want to live in it too.
When I imagine my perfect writing spot it’s in the window, facing trees. A quiet space to gaze and think, poising my pen in its familiar spot against my coffee cup. I’d have a studio like Long Pond, instruments record-ready. So I moved my chair to face the window, set my acoustic, Sebastian, beside my seat, and poof. Dream come true. Still, this could all be in the woods, I told myself. I could have an even better view of better trees we grew together. After all, if I could write a book about Edinburgh’s best places without setting foot in a single theatre or coffeeshop, did I really need the city? (Oh yes, been meaning to say, I wrote this book).
As I look back, I remember such hesitancy in taking on the cottage, mustering energy to convince myself of it.
It was more diplomacy than dream. This for you, that for me, most of it for our dog. She would love it, no doubt. Mountains, we could agree, were for both of us. For climbing, for inspiring.
But now I see this is not my usual method of dreaming at all. It was so reluctant, albeit hopeful that I’d grow into it. When really, it kept me from growing in the ways I wanted. It was a compromise, this willingness to try. Absent was the usual fervour of my dream chasing, which looks more like Catherine Morland’s longing for adventures in gothic ruins, which I translate into song. Climbing for Steve is guitaring for me. High on separate joys, different kinds of callouses and new heights reached.
Our weekly walks, once our favourite thing, became a compromise for how each of us wanted to Sunday.
My head full of poems, he longed to climb bigger hills than the ones we’re on. When we met years ago it was in the mountains, it was the thing we did, so of course I’d come back around to wanting that too, right? Until then, could I at least bring my notepad? (fine print: I’d rather be writing.)
I’d dance in the hills pulling songs from the air and he’d help me remember the melodies. It was nice to share this middle ground, treading a version of his preferred afternoon, packing a version of mine in my pocket. It was nice, but not the best.
We carried on like this, getting so used to dimming ourselves, bartering priorities, that we grew numb together and forgot there was any other way of being.
By summer I determined: I needed to resign as dream manager. I couldn’t be leading this quest for cottage alone because if it was just me I wouldn’t be going. If it was just me, said Steve, I wouldn’t be going either. At the time this felt almost romantic: a dream for us together or not at all, no one left behind. I should have known then the clarity that arrived in September: that if neither of us wanted this, neither of us wanted this. Our final frontier of a project was the thread holding us together, and without it, how quickly we found we had frayed long ago.
We have lived and adventured our entire adult lives in partnership.
We are solid and certain of this: our closeness made us stronger. Our support for each other got us where we are. We are wickedly compatible at problem solving, at home economics. Over the entirety of our twenties, we’ve opened and opened, excavated our histories, uncovered our traumas, survived mental health crises, and defined pieces of our identities. I discovered my neurodiversity and demisexuality, new words for me that help me understand who I am. All the while, we were there for each other. We got better at expressing ourselves, sharing the hard truths we thought separately first — like how our closeness was becoming too crowded for our own selves to thrive.
As we claimed our own space within our togetherness, we each grew happier and more independent.
We organised time, each travelling to our preferred destinations, for hours, days, or weeks. It used to feel so hard to be apart, even not for very long, but we were recovering from our codependence.
A thought too wrong to voice, in my head, my journal, and especially out loud — There came a time when I found myself happier apart. He felt the same. Our scared confessions, midnight secrets turned to slumber party giggles as we realised in blinding relief: wait, you too?
We got married at 24 and 23, and this was not a mistake.
At that time in our lives we knew, so simply, we would live together, in the same country, full stop. (A notable adamancy far more certain than the cottage dream ever was). Marriage was a solution we fell in to facilitate that need, although we never defined our own promises to each other. This too, was not a mistake; back then we needed to believe in a vague forever. When I was younger I feared that our relationship would not last. Now I have learned to measure relationship success in factors far more valuable than longevity.
In this new level of maturity, we considered in our signature rational way, defining our relationship on our own terms. It could be anything we wanted. We could live separately, for a little, or for longer. We could take time apart, or stay anchored but non-monogamous. We talked through all the what ifs: what if we ever met people we wanted to be with more than each other? Or places? What if we never wanted to come home?
What Steve said in response to the hypotheticals rang with true love: What we have is so unbelievably good, that if I ever had the chance go beyond it without him, of course he would want me to. Like a sunbeam illuminating the warm truth in a hidden away cave, I knew for sure I felt the same for him. It was a risk to leave, but a risk to stay. The hardest thing in the world to suddenly let myself realise. Years of closeness became clinging became grasping became at times exhausting. It was time to let go.
Two trees at opposite edges of the forest, travelling trees like a Sunday walk in Birnham Wood: who would have believed?
In the aftermath of clarity, we shared tears and fears but mostly happiness for each other. Suddenly we had space for things we wanted, that we assumed were for a distant day. He could move closer to the climbing walls, get his own place with a pool table! I will stay here in our city home, for the first time, in rooms of my own. When I move out this desk, he said, a piano would fit here. Would I like a piano for Christmas? Our blessings for each others’ own paths are far better than anything we could have exchanged on a wish list.
Possibilities opened up, as profound as chasing individual dreams, as silly as dividing our cupboard excess of brown sugar. We laugh we cry we are still stumbling upon logistics and decisions. I’m keeping my name, I said, it feels like my name, this one we made together. His feels like his too. I might finally change from ‘Mrs’ to ‘Lady’, redeem the Highland Title from our Paper Anniversary. We are still family, still Humans of Snug, even if we aren’t luvvies (my personal preferred term for all couples).
Who will we now be to each other?
We brainstormed the lexicon of words for exes, but landed on ‘best friends’. Oh! That’s what we’ve been this whole time! Far more descriptive of our dynamic than spouses or lovers. I am filled – we both are – with this glow of happiness to call this what it is. We were trying to be everything to each other and now we get to be the best part. In compatible companionship we learned that we see love and relationships differently. It’s a relief, to keep what is most true, and leave space for the rest in parting.
We should do something to symbolise closure.
My suggestion: Cast our rings into the fires of Mordor?
His, less fictional: What if we planted trees?
Trees. This landed with a yes before my brain could articulate its significance. A forest was the future we were trying so hard to dream towards. We could plant trees without rooting ourselves where we didn’t want to be. We are a stellar team, with my intricate planning and his insistence on spontaneity. We kept the rings for now, our friendship rings. And so, off we go to fulfil our vision of growing a forest, in the best way for us we never knew we wanted until exactly the right time. To quote Literary Cottage Log 3: Off to even dreamier places, to our next forevers.
Until the Next Chapter,
P.S. I asked Steve if I could credit him on this essay as a co-author. He nodded and added “I feel like you’re the co-author of me.” I feel the same :)
P.P.S. Thank you to my family and friends who read this essay in advance. Thank you for allowing me to tell you like this, in the best way I know how. ♥️ thank you to those of you who responded with a song recommendation. I feel so loved and seen and in creative collaboration.
All Literary Cottage Logs: