Finding Love and All Its Quirks, Even If 2,654 Miles Away – The New York Times
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“Radical honesty” on Sarah Lenz’s dating profile, along with no geographical restrictions, led to Stephen Paskey road tripping for love.
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In the summer of 2019, Stephen Paskey was on vacation, sitting in an Istanbul cafe, smoking a hookah. As much as he had hoped to meet a life partner by then, it just wasn’t happening. In a few years, he thought, he would retire and maybe move to South America.
Eight months later, back home in Buffalo, he connected with Sarah Lenz online. Given how well they clicked, both say that under normal circumstances, they probably would have met within a day or two.
But things were anything but normal. It was late March 2020, two weeks after the country shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. And then, of course, there was another obstacle: 2,654 miles.
Ms. Lenz, 57, who was in Santa Rosa, Calif., at the time, had recently moved from her home in Philadelphia across the country to live with her father Peter Dodge, who had Alzheimer’s disease. She changed the parameters on her OkCupid account to show the highest matches possible, regardless of geography. Mr. Paskey, 60, registered as 99 percent.
Ms. Lenz had already learned a thing or two from online dating. The first time she tried it was after the end of her marriage — she and her former husband had been together for 30 years and had two children — and she felt she had nothing to lose. Embracing what she called “radical honesty,” she felt she would rather be up front about who she was from the start. She followed that approach this time, too.
“He, too, put some really vulnerable stuff in his profile,” Ms. Lenz said.
“Sarah’s willingness and fearlessness in being honest is what brought us together,” Mr. Paskey said.
Ms. Lenz is a graphic designer and artist. She grew up in Berkeley, Calif.
Mr. Paskey was raised in Kalamazoo, Mich., and is a lecturer in law, legal analysis, writing and research at the University at Buffalo School of Law. He spent more than a decade working in the Department of Justice bringing to trial Nazi collaborators who went to the United States after the war. He began his career working in desktop publishing and typesetting, the field in which Ms. Lenz also began her career.
Between the shutdown and the distance, there was plenty of time for long, rambling conversations by phone or online. Mr. Paskey shared about his two short-term marriages and other relationships, while Ms. Lenz had a more recent story. Ms. Lenz had met her husband when she was 18; theirs was an open marriage. In 2013, she left her husband, taking a few years to be on her own for the first time as an adult. She moved to Philadelphia, where her first grandchild was born. Inspired by one of her sons to go on OkCupid, she met someone and fell in love. They were living together in June 2019, also in a polyamorous relationship, when he was diagnosed with metastasized colon cancer. Six weeks later, he died.
Ms. Lenz said that one of the last things he said to her was, “I’m not worried about you. You will find love again.”
Ms. Lenz believes that he not only gave her permission, but he willed it to happen. Ms. Lenz flew back to Philadelphia for his memorial service in March 2020, only to turn right around and fly back. It couldn’t be held because of Covid-19.
Ms. Lenz went on OkCupid for the second time after she returned. Within days of Mr. Paskey and Ms. Lenz connecting, they were talking and texting numerous times a day.
Given their mutual love of language, Ms. Lenz quickly fell for how Mr. Paskey expressed himself. “And there’s a way we relate to the world that’s really similar,” she said.
But words were not the only way they used to expressed themselves long distance. They also have a fondness for emojis, and Mr. Paskey used them to tell Ms. Lenz he loved her within weeks.
About six weeks in, they began discussing the logistics of meeting in person. With flying not an option, and Ms. Lenz’s need to be with her father, Mr. Paskey calculated he could drive across the country between the end of the semester and the start of summer school, as he could teach remotely from anywhere.
The possibility that their online chemistry wouldn’t translate to real life was broached, but both sensed that this wouldn’t happen. In fact, a week before he left, Ms. Lenz said she told a friend, “I think I’m going to marry this man.”
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In late May, he set out, with a hand-lettered sign in his back window, saying “Love or Bust, 2654 miles.” Each day, he crossed out that number, going from 2654 to 2149, to 1793, to 1202, to 730 to 223, posting his progress on Facebook, until he met Ms. Lenz on June 1 in a park in Santa Rosa. Crossing out the last number fell to Ms. Lenz.
“He felt so familiar and it was so comfortable,” Ms. Lenz said. “It was such a confirmation of what we already knew.”
A few days later, they went away for the weekend, to the Sea Ranch, an unincorporated community on the Sonoma coast, where her father had designed some of the homes.
“Sarah has this remarkable resilience, and I love the open and curious, engaged and joyful, nonjudgmental way she approaches her life, and thinking about her past, present and future,” Mr. Paskey said. “And how she can go from talking about rainbows and unicorns with her granddaughter to long conversations with me about how we experience time, or how language shapes our thoughts.”
Ms. Lenz echoed his sentiments: “I love him for his brilliant mind, and that he’s a total goofball.”
The night they returned, they were having dinner in Mr. Paskey’s trailer rental, when he told her he had a retirement account whose beneficiary needed updating. He asked Ms. Lenz if he could name her.
“I don’t want you to do that unless you’re going to marry me,” she said.
Even though Mr. Paskey hadn’t planned on proposing yet, he dropped to one knee.
With most of the state shut down because of the pandemic, there was little to do but take long walks. Soon, Mr. Paskey began joining Ms. Lenz and her father for dinner.
After two months, Mr. Paskey returned to Buffalo. By now, Ms. Lenz’s father had moved into a memory-care facility. Soon after, it was Ms. Lenz’s turn to drive across country. When she entered Mr. Paskey’s house in Buffalo, she felt instantly at home.
On Mr. Paskey’s agenda was showing Ms. Lenz a spot in an industrial park that he could envision their wedding; when they visited it, they saw a white stag. Mr. Paskey’s close friend lives nearby, and while deer are known to frequent the area, she had never seen the stag before.
“It felt like the magic of our relationship, so unexpected and precious, and once in a lifetime,” Ms. Lenz said.
They were married at 12:34 p.m. by Arann Harris, a Universal Life Church minister, on an overcast April 3 (4.3.21) at the Sea Ranch Chapel in Sea Ranch, Calif. A photographer was the only other witness, along with a stuffed teddy bear, which contained the ashes of Ms. Lenz’s late partner. The partner, she said, “encouraged me to look, and there was Stephen.”
Ms. Lenz and Mr. Paskey have agreed to what they call an ethical non-monogamous relationship.
“Rather than simply accepting prevailing cultural norms and prescriptions for love and legal marriage, you stand together now to be explicit about your commitments to each other,” Mr. Harris said. “You share the understanding that love is abundant, and every relationship is unique. You choose to build your relationship on love and respect rather than entitlement.”
During the ceremony, Mr. Harris read a number of emails from friends, “filling the space with the wishes of our communities,” Ms. Lenz said.
“The pandemic has been exhausting in every way, and watching the two of them find each other, despite all the obstacles, both real and ridiculous, has brought me such delight, and delight to everyone I’ve told about them,” said Robyn Rime, one of Mr. Paskey’s close friends. “They’ve managed to transcend what’s going on in the world.”
When April 3, 2021
Where The Sea Ranch Chapel, Sea Ranch, Calif.
The Attire Nearly every clothing item was handmade by artisans, mostly in Europe, except for Mr. Paskey’s Utilikilt, which he wore with a Guatemalan fabric vest made by a woman in Germany, and a blouse. Their boots were handmade in Greece; hers were turquoise with a purple stripe; his were purple with a turquoise stripe. (Ms. Lenz’s hair is often dyed purple and turquoise, for the wedding it was even more brilliantly hued.) The bride also wore a fairy crown made by an artisan in Spain, adorned with antlers made on a 3-D printer that represented the white stag they saw together, with a white felt coat with purple accents.
The Promises Among the things they said in their vows were to: “cherish and delight in your spirit, and ask only that you be your authentic self; to witness, with total acceptance, the radiant, imperfect beauty of that self, of who you have been, and who you are today, and who you will become; and to be radically honest with you, with myself, and with others and to hear the truth you tell me.”
The Reception and After The following day, a few family members and friends of Ms. Lenz’s gave the newlyweds a surprise outdoor brunch outside at the Esherick Mini-Mod, a cabin at the Sea Ranch. On April 5, the couple left California — this time driving together — for Buffalo, where they now live.
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