Céline Semaan and Colin Vernon have the type of love story that will keep your hands pressed to your face and your heart in your throat in anticipation of the outcome — even though they’re sitting together before you, telling the story of how they met, with the kind of turns-taking ease that comes with years of partnership (over nine, in their case) to practice.
Céline Semaan is a designer, writer, advocate, speaker and founder of Slow Factory and The Library. Her husband, Colin Vernon, also known as Collis Browne, is “kind of a post-new-age renaissance person blending music pan-instrumentalist and producer, tech geek and ‘creative visionary.’ They collaborate together on Le Design Team and are partners on The Library. This is the story of how they met, how they came to be and all that happened in between.
Amelia: So, how did you two meet?
Céline: I worked for Colin. I was hired by his former business partner.
Colin: He and I had a design agency. We made websites, built software.
Before Céline was officially hired, we met in front of the office as a, like, “Here’s the new person! She’s probably gonna work for us! She’s awesome!” thing. I was like, “Awesome. Let’s go to lunch.”
Céline: The lunch place was a neighborhood little restaurant in East Montreal. The restaurant was run by an eccentric couple who worked in theater. There were all these vintage lamps stuck to the ceiling. So I enter into this very Alice in Wonderland kinda scene and we sat down…
Colin: I had been going there for a while, so I’m saying hi to all the people who work there.
Céline: And they ask, “Who’s this girl?” And Colin’s like, “Oh, this is Céline.” Then they ask, “Is this your girrllllllfriend?” And we had just met!
Amelia: Was there something there between you two right away?
Colin: No! The thought never crossed our minds.
Céline: It was purely professional. (Also, I thought he was gay.) I ended up getting hired as the visual/user experience designer; that was my career at the time.
We worked out of this big, beautiful loft that Colin and his former partner owned, and in the back there was an even bigger loft — mind you, this was in Montreal, so everything’s bigger than in New York. The first part of the loft was a big agency, and the back was a beautiful hidden music studio, with all the musical instruments, maybe 2,000 vinyl records and turntables, organs. So every day after work, around 6 or 7 p.m., they would all go in the back and jam. Musicians would come and record music. I was in heaven. I compared it to being on Captain Hook’s boat in Peter Pan. I was Wendy. He was Peter Pan.
Colin was very playful. He bounced around all the time and was always doing crazy shit, and I was like, “Oh my god, he’s very cool.” And he was very grounding. The energy in the studio — they all came from this place of radical love, radical respect. They cared about their employees so much. It was almost like a startup mood, before the startup mood even existed. It was real and radical and nurturing. I felt like I was on a magic boat. I almost never left the space.
Amelia: Before we get deeper into this story, what were both of your past relationships like?
Céline: Mine were complicated. I spent a lot of time in the wrong relationships. I would attract wounded birds and nurture them to life, then they would leave me. I was 25 at the time Colin and I met and very career-driven. I didn’t think I would have children or get married, ever. I imagined that I would end up rich and old and alone, with lots of lovers.
Colin: At this particular moment that Céline and I met, I thought I was never going to get married or have kids.
I’ve always known that the straight life is not for me. Like all the artificial binaries: friend/lover, gay/straight, boy/girl — it’s all wrong to me. Even the metaphor of a spectrum doesn’t offer enough dimensions for reality. Before I met Céline, I was five years out of a 10-year-long committed but non-monogamous relationship. So I had been, for 15 years, polyamorous and poly-sexual and multidimensional.
I’ve always been committed to the deep honesty that is required for oneself and everyone else to live a complicated life of radical freedom and integrity. It’s a lot of effort to actually care and be real and in the moment — it’s a lot of hard work. The fun stuff is what comes from the hard stuff, though, and the hard stuff means being deeply honest and committed to who you are and who you want to be.
Amelia: So how did you two come to be?
Colin: So it was Valentine’s Day, which I don’t give a shit about, and my buddy was in town. This is three months in of Céline and I knowing each other.
Céline: Out of those three months, we didn’t see each other for more than a month and a half; I worked remotely from Lebanon for a bit.
So anyway, it was Valentine’s Day and I was on the internet and saw that there was a huge explosion in Lebanon that day. The prime minister was assassinated by a car bomb. I was shocked. Colin and his partner stopped work to talk politics with me for three hours that day, which made me feel so comforted.
We finally got back to work. Then around 7 p.m., Colin’s friend came by — he and Colin had dinner. My first thought: “Okay, that’s his boyfriend” because he’s so beautiful and for sure they’re together. Then they asked if I wanted to come to dinner with them. And because it was Valentine’s Day, I was like, “No, you don’t want me! I’d be the third wheel.”
Colin: And I’m like, “No, it’s chill. We’re just gonna have a dinner.”
Céline: We went back to that same crazy restaurant.
Colin: They roped each table with, like, gauze —
Céline: And mesh! There were little frogs on each table (like the story about the princess who kisses the frog). Very cute, very crazy. They also had the most amazing French food.
Colin: So the three of us were having dinner. And over the period of an hour, my friend saw us fall in love.
Colin: I swear to god. It was all chemical. We were both very aware that we had just fallen in love during this hour and a half.
Céline: After dinner, we all went back to the studio and had a private party until three in the morning. We played records and danced. And we felt so in love.
Then the next day, I was so scared. I was like, “What if it was just last night? It must have been the food.” But there was more and more attraction.
Then a couple of days later, after work, Colin told me, “I am in love with you.”
I told him, “Me too, I think. I’m scared.”
Then he said, “But I’m polyamorous.”
I’m like, “What does that mean? What is that?”
He was like, “Love multiplies.”
And I was like, “Yes, love multiplies!”
And he was like, “Love is infinite.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, love is infinite!”
Then he was like, “And I have many lovers.”
And I was like, “Huh?”
Colin: The sound of the record needle skipping.
Céline: So I was like, “What?! No, no, no, not for me.” I know myself and I’m very jealous. “Maybe in another life, when we’re both cats,” I said. “Not now.” Of course, my heart shattered. I’m super-possessive; I’m a Scorpio. I’m jealous. I knew this was never going to work. So we left it at that, basically, but we kept hanging out.
We said we were never going to sleep together because he had lovers and I could not accept that. I told him, “If you want to be with me, you have to literally break up with everybody. He was like, “No, no. Love multiplies.” And I would say, “No, that kind of love is on the surface. My kind of love is an archeological introspection. You find treasures within. You have to be mine to find my treasures.”
It was spring in Montreal, and Colin had a motorbike. We rode around on his motorbike all the time like nothing was happening, but at the same time, everything was happening. It was so romantic. I was falling more and more in love with this guy.
Colin: These motorcycle rides were our way to be intimate without consummating our relationship. On one ride, we stopped in front of a church and decided to go in. For some reason, once inside, I lit a candle and I was like, “Help me do the right thing.”
When we walked outside, the motorcycle was stolen. There were many things like this that were big and symbolic and crazy during this time — but when the motorcycle was stolen, I was like, “What does this mean? Does it mean we should stop seeing each other entirely? Does it mean that the motorcycle was a bad excuse and we have to go for it?”
Céline: But until he cleared his plate and made room for me, I couldn’t.
Colin: In general, especially during this time, I ran a lot on my “wolf brain,” somewhere between your lizard brain — the emotionless brain — and the human brain, which is complicated and ridiculous. The wolf brain is empathetic and communal and understanding, but also very close to the wire and reactive.
At some point, I reached a clear dilemma. I became very torn. Maybe we can even extend the metaphor of torn and say that there was a tear initially that was continuing to tear and put more and more strain. One of the things in life is that you cannot unsee something.
Céline: He could not unsee.
Colin: I could not unsee her.
But it was complicated. I was her boss at the time. I respected her and her values and how she saw the world. I’m very aware of the respect required in power dynamics, and I take all of this very seriously, so when it came to someone I was caring more and more about, it wasn’t an easy thing. And it began to spiral downward.
Céline: We were very close, we were working together, we were seeing each other every day, we were clearly head-over-heels for each other. But he’s the fish, and I’m the bird, or the opposite — you know that saying?
Colin: I think I’m the fish.
Céline: Okay, I’m the bird. So, we couldn’t live like this.
Colin: On the one hand, there was the dimension of boss and employee, and on the other, the dimension of very different values of what personal and loving relationships are. And we come from very different cultures even.
Céline: I knew I loved this man, but not in this life. I thought, “There is no way that this life is going to bring us together through all of the things that separate us.”
I wanted to have a strong career, I wanted to change the world and I also saw that this relationship was not going to go anywhere. He still had some lovers that he couldn’t say goodbye to for me, so I thought, “Maybe it’s not meant to be.” So I quit. I left Montreal in two weeks, and I got a job in New York. I changed my phone number and I cut complete ties with him.
Colin: I cut ties with everyone else I was in relationships with.
Céline: Except for one, and I couldn’t handle it.
My whole life, I’ve been on the run. I’m at ease leaving, and my struggle is making roots somewhere. It means a lot in our relationship because he grew up in the forest of Canada, and he’s like a very old tree. (Again, metaphors.)
And me, I came to Montreal as a refugee. I was on the run a lot. In the past 35 years of my life — I’m 35 — I’ve lived in 28 homes. I’ve moved a lot, and I don’t have the grounding and stability that he has. I think that’s the most soothing thing for me about Colin: how grounded and stable he is. I dealt with a lot of trauma — we all deal with trauma, but for me and my experience, he grounds me. It’s something spiritual almost.
At the same time, this relationship was not grounding at all and it was torturous, so I had to leave. I thought, “I’m used to leaving and I’m used to war zones. This is a war zone — this is an emotional war zone.” So I escaped.
Colin: When she left, part of my spirit went with her. Close friends of mine would tell me that I wasn’t the same.
Céline: I came to New York and cut ties, but even in my heart, and in my shadow — I’m going to be intense here — but in my shadow, I felt Colin was around me. I was like, “Wow, I still feel him with me, this is crazy. I just want to live my life and stop thinking about him.”
On my very first day in New York City, I was with a friend of mine who came with me to New York to help me settle, and a fortune teller ran out onto the street and chased me down.
Colin: She told Céline, “It’s your first day in New York.” She actually said that.
Céline: Yes! She said, “It’s your first day in New York. You’re very broken and your heart is broken.” She ended up reading my palm. She told me, “There’s someone, and he’s a musician,” and Colin’s a musician, essentially, even though he’s an engineer musician. She said, “There’s a musician and his name starts with C, and he’s not done with you, sweetie. He’s not done with you,” and I start crying, and she said, “He’s going to come for you. He’s going to come to New York to get you.” It sounded like a threat at the time. I thought, “Oh no.”
Four months passed, and I went back to Lebanon for the holidays. My mom asked what was wrong with me and I told her I couldn’t stop thinking about Colin. She asked me why I couldn’t get over this person I wasn’t meant to be with. I didn’t know why. It had been months and I still couldn’t get this person out of my head.
When I got back to New York, I decided to look at his Flickr page. (At the time, we were all on Flickr; there was no such thing as Instagram.) I saw that every single day since we’d stopped talking to each other, he had posted an image for me. Every single day. On my birthday, every single day. I started crying. I was so in love with this person.
I saw he had just posted one that day, so I commented on it. I said, “I see you.” I thought that was terrible so I deleted it, but then he commented, “I see you, you’re here,” and then he deleted that. We went back and forth, commenting and deleting comments — the first time we had communicated in five months. He writes something, I refresh, it’s gone. I write something, he refreshes, it’s gone. It was like Snapchat before Snapchat.
Finally, he said that he was coming down to New York City for a concert and said he would love to see me and asked if we could go together. I said, “Hell no.”
Then he told me he was coming for a Robert Ashley concert. I love Robert Ashley, and this was probably going to be his last show.
Céline: Colin said he’d pay for my ticket, but I told him I could buy my own. A few days passed, and I thought that maybe I should go. So I posted on Flickr that I bought a ticket. We knew we were both going to go, but we didn’t have any other communication.
Colin: For all the viewers at home, if you don’t know who Robert Ashley is, he’s a huge inspiration. He’s amazing. He makes these modern operas that are a mix between opera and spoken word and performance art.
Céline: So that night came. It was snowing. My girlfriends at work had braided my hair, and one put makeup on my eyes. I stood outside the theater waiting for Colin. I was so nervous. Then I saw his big-ass furry Canadian boots, and there he was. We hugged for a long, eternal time. Then we went inside together.
Colin: At least half of the performance spoke to our story.
Céline: We held hands and cried uncontrollably. It sounds so cheesy, but it is what it is. After the show, he told me he bought us dinner tickets to have a private dinner with Robert Ashley and his wife and his crew. They gave us advice on love and being together, and after that dinner, we never left each other. That was it.
Colin: I went back to Montreal to get my stuff, but every weekend I would drive or fly to New York, or sometimes she would go to Montreal. Every week for eight months.
Céline: Then he asked me to marry him.
Amelia: Colin, you were so set in your polyamorous approach to love and relationships — what ended up changing your mind?
Colin: The evolution of my thinking was that love is infinite. Love is like a renewable resource. The more that we can all have more deep and meaningful relationships, the more that everyone gains. I’ve seen how that works with sexuality.
But I realized that while love may be infinite, time is not. That’s real. When Céline left, I felt broken and empty. I was moving forward with my company and my music, but there was a part of my spirit gone.
I had a friend living with me during that time who was coming from a pretty intense, pretty long-term heroin addiction. She’s amazing. She went to the first intense detox and then to hospice, and then came to live with me for a month, and actually we ended up being really healing for each other. It was a really interesting time of healing and recovery and introspection.
Céline: I was healing on my end, too. I had a healer here who helped me a lot. My goal in life is to heal and rise up to a higher consciousness; she helped me to let go. When we connected again on Flickr and saw each other again in New York at the opera, we honestly knew that time clicked back again in our favor.
We had done so much work on ourselves, and we completely disconnected. When you allow yourself to be alone like this, you figure out who you are. You really know your limits, and you know what you’re made of, and you heal. When we met again, it was like we recalibrated time. It went quickly from there. A month later, after coming every weekend, I think it was a month —
Colin: A month and a half later, maximum, I asked her to marry me.
Céline: It was on Valentine’s Day, February 2009 — a year since that night we fell in love. I was shocked, honestly. I cried.
Colin: I surprised her. Freaked her out. I left after work Friday and arrived at 2 in the morning and came into her apartment and freaked her out.
Céline: Can you imagine? Someone walking into your bedroom at 2 a.m.
Colin: I had learned some phrases in Arabic on the internet. I learned some phrases and then I wrote a song, and as I played her the song, she realized that I was asking her to marry me.
Céline: I cried uncontrollably. Nothing in my life had happened like this before. I never had this healthy of a relationship with a guy before.
In June, we went to Beirut so Colin could ask my father for my hand in marriage.
Colin: We ended up getting married in Montreal in December in a Lebanese Maronite Church.
Céline: We married in my tradition and the priest spoke in three languages: Arabic, French and English. In Lebanon, we speak three languages constantly. He told me in Arabic, “Now that you’ve married a foreigner, it is on you to carry the culture towards your children,” and I started crying in the middle of the church.
Colin: Everyone cried. The whole church.
Céline: It was so beautiful. I wish I could marry again to make different aesthetic choices, though.
Colin: We can! We’re going to marry in 10 years again. But it was beautiful. It was perfect. The best wedding ever. For the reception, we rented a cabaret — red curtains, all round tables and since we are very musical, we sang songs together. I sang a song for her —
Céline: Everyone, all of our friends, sang songs for us. We had musical instruments.
Colin: My family played a song together. My dad wrote a song and played guitar. I think it’s the only song he wrote in his life.
Céline: No, he wrote a song for our second baby, too. But that’s it — we married and lived happily ever after. We’ve just celebrated eight years together.
Amelia: How do you get to eight years?
Colin: It’s been eight years since we were married, and 10 since we knew each other. For me, the foundation of deep, spiritual connection is the most important thing. It’s knowing that a wedding is for everyone else and that the root of what you’re doing is about committing. It’s easy to plant seeds and even to sprout things and even have a first flower of love. But you’re growing a tree.
You’ll go through winter every year, and the flowers fall, but you water and the flowers come back. You have to know that there’s cycles to it all.
Céline: We change and we morph into different beings. The key here is to have enough of a spiritual connection where whatever you become, it doesn’t matter. Like if I want to change careers, I feel we can support each other in these types of changes and this type of growth. We’re basically growing together.
Sometimes I want to move into my studio alone because I want my privacy, because we live in New York, we have two children. But I’m obviously not going to do that, so it’s like, okay, well, let’s talk about it. We came up with this system where we become each other’s shrink, but we have to imagine that there’s a third person. When we argue, one of us has to impersonate the psychologist. For example, when I’m like, “I hate it when you do that and you don’t respect me,” Colin will say, “I think what Céline is trying to say here is…” We try to understand one another this way.
Colin: Sometimes we yell and scream. There are some things that come very naturally, and there are things that are hard. The hard stuff is when there are major shifts, when you have to sacrifice for the other one.
Emotions are natural, and maybe there’s an overemphasis on putting emotion aside and solving things. Don’t put it aside; go through it, live it. But putting ego aside is important. If I go halfway and you go halfway, we barely meet. If I go way more than halfway and you go way more than halfway, then we really overlap and have strength together.
Céline: We both allow each other to freak out and second-guess and reimagine what we could be.
Colin: You need generosity to give each other space to freak out — and then don’t let yourself freak out about it. If your partner is going through an existential crisis, which obviously means existential crisis for existence, then that obviously includes you, but don’t take it personally.
Céline: In addition to love and joy, we celebrate sadness. Things don’t always work out, and you cry, and it’s a lot of emotions. I take a moment to thank the emotion and the bad stuff that is happening to me because it allows me to see what I must learn or must let go of.
Sometimes we pop Champagne at 10 a.m. on a Saturday when there are zero things to celebrate but life.
Amelia: What’s some advice you have to offer — to anyone, about any of this?
Colin: A piece of advice I’d like to give to anyone who wants to be in a healthy relationship: Up the symbolism. Your life is the only movie and you are the star and the person that you’re with is your costar, and that’s all there is. Do more, be more grandiose, and realize the person that you’re with is worth being the star of his or her movie. Their movie is worth being dramatic and beautiful and out of the ordinary.
To be in a loving relationship is often the biggest thing that happens in movies and mythology, so do it big. Especially when you’re wondering what to do, do it bigger and more symbolically. You probably want to communicate something meaningful — words are not equal to the thing you’re trying to express, anyway — so do it bigger and more meaningful and wilder —
Céline: Fearlessly, I would say.
Colin: Yes, fearlessly. Beautiful. There’s no “because” — because the person is worth it.
Céline: My advice would be to all of the women out there who want to have children, who have children of their own or children by marriage or adoption: Know that you are the mothership, the vessel, and you have to carve time for you.
That I learned the hard way, after my back surgeries. You have to have time for you, away from guilt. Don’t do it out of guilt; don’t do anything out of guilt. If you can, replace the emotion of guilt with love. When I say love, I’m talking about self-love. If you’re running on guilt, you will run out of juice and steam. Fuck FOMO, fuck everybody and what they’re going to say — you have to spend time with yourself alone and heal and love yourself because you’re the vessel of energy.
Especially if you have children. That’s something that I’m not done learning: having a balance between when it’s my time and when it’s their time. Sometimes they follow me to my bedroom and I say, “I need time for me,” and they say, “We’re a family, we don’t separate.” And I say, “Sometimes it’s better. You know how sometimes mommy becomes mommy-monster? Well, I don’t wanna be mommy-monster. I want to be Sleeping Beauty and then I can go play with you.” You need time. It’s too much giving, giving, giving. You need some time to give yourself a little bit, guilt-free.
Colin: Forgive yourself. If you’re like, “How do I not feel guilty?” forgive yourself. Forgive all the people you think are judging you, whether they are or are not.
Céline: Practice non-judgment and when you judge, don’t judge yourself for judging. It’s normal; we’re human. I haven’t mastered this yet — that’s why it’s my practice. When I realize that I’m judging myself so hard that I’m not even able to get out of bed, I have zero energy, I’m scared, I notice — literally, because I’m in a fetal position under my covers — something’s wrong here. I try to get out of my own judging and I ask, “What’s the point?” Identify that you’re judging yourself and try to forgive yourself for doing so and send love. Energy will come. It’s a practice.
Colin: I have one more piece of advice, and it’s to straight men: Inside of you is a woman. Find her and love her, and let her speak.
Céline Semaan is a designer, writer, advocate, speaker and founder of Slow Factory and The Library. As a child refugee, she has ever since been advocating for human rights and the preservation of the environment. As a director’s fellow of MIT Media Lab, her work blurs the lines between science, art, design and activism.
Colin Vernon, a.k.a. Collis Browne, is kind of a post-new-age renaissance person blending music pan-instrumentalist and producer, tech geek and “creative visionary” businessman, role model and coach. His vinyl-only record label, No Weapon, features artists who make the music scene in Montreal, where he lived for 15 years before moving to NYC. He recently joined Hello Alfred as their CPO.
They collaborate together on Le Design Team and are partners on The Library.
Photos by Edith Young.