Single On Saturday

Snowed In On Saturday

It was Saturday, and I was snowed in.

My favorite internet meteorologist had given us a heads up about the weekend’s impending storm a week in advance. By Wednesday night I was confident Richmond would be getting a good snowfall, and my excitement grew. Normally, early January depresses me as I pack up Christmas decorations and fall off my new year’s resolution wagon. But the possibility of a snow day, even a weekend snow day, never fails to brighten my spirits.

My favorite thing about a snow day is how it puts a stop to our normal busyness, sometimes for days at a time. It is a reminder of just how powerless we are in the face of Mother Nature. It is a forced Sabbath. And as long as I’m prepared with all the necessities – bread, milk, toilet paper, hot cocoa – I’m happy to be homebound for a day or two watching the gentle quieting of the world.

This Saturday, I did not eat the bread, drink the milk, or even open the new package of TP. But I did enjoy the cocoa in the company of one of my favorite people – Floyd.

I’ve been writing about Floyd on Holeyheart.com since the very beginning. I may not have used his name, but he is the “fella” to which I’ve referred now and then. In fact, he is one of the main reasons I started this blog in the first place.

I had been separated from my children’s father just a few weeks when Floyd and I became more than just acquaintances at church. The kids were not with me one Sunday morning, and he asked me how they were. I said they were good, they were at their dad’s this weekend (I’ve since learned that’s “code” for “I’m single.”). I guess that’s when our relationship started, because he immediately suggested I read a book that helped him get through his divorce, and the next week, he gave me a copy.

After that, we’d occasionally chat on Facebook, or say hello to each other after Mass. I had a lot of emotional baggage to unpack, and getting into a romantic relationship right away was very specifically on my “NOT To Do” list. It wasn’t even on my radar (although I can’t deny the butterflies I felt whenever he was near me). Dating was not his intention either. One of our first conversations was about how he’d made the decision early in his divorce not to get into a serious relationship again until after his kids were done with high school. He knew his focus needed to be them, and this gave me pause about my own future plans. He still had a high school senior and sophomore, and an eighth grader, making him a “safe” friend for me. Also, he was quite a bit older than me. Neither of us saw it coming.

I turns out the only things necessary for a romantic relationship to take root are time, attention, and a little bit of chemistry. By the end of the summer, it became apparent to me we’d better go on a date, because the flirting and innuendo were making us both a bit silly. I figured we’d go out a few times and it would fade, like most of my pre-marriage dating experiences.

That was five and a half years ago.

My divorce, however, wasn’t even final yet. I was not ready to be in a relationship, no matter how nice the guy seemed. I resolved to break up with him; a solid, “no contact” kind of break, otherwise we’d just end up back together. I talked to him about it, and I’m sure he tried to understand. He promised to honor my request, but he was understandably hurt.

So was I. I may have had good justifications for ending it, but what I really wanted to do was take his hands in mine and pray with him that God would guide our relationship. Praying with a partner is, in my opinion, the highest form of intimacy there is, but I avoided it. I thought I knew better. If we prayed together, I thought, it would make breaking up that much harder, that much more painful. I had been through it before and it was excruciating. I didn’t want that for him, or me.

So, on Christmas Eve 2011, when he whispered “I love you,” into my ear during the sign of peace at Mass, so softly he probably didn’t even think I heard it, I knew he meant it. He wanted what was best for me, even if that wasn’t him. And as a distraction and an outlet for all the feelings I was experiencing as a newly separated mom of three who had just had her first real post-divorce heartbreak, not with a jerk, but a truly wonderful gentleman, I started this blog one week later.

That was five years ago. Needless to say, we got back together. No contact did not work; forcing solutions never does. I’m a little embarrassed to say I don’t know how many times we got back together after needing “space.” He’s had more first kisses from me than I can remember. About two years ago, I decided to do what I had wanted to do in the beginning – turn my relationship over to God. I let go of my fears and gradually opened up emotionally. Ever so slowly, the world’s most patient man started to trust I wouldn’t walk away, and opened up more with me. I let myself fall in love with him again, as he did with me. It has been the most uncomfortable two years of my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yes, uncomfortable. One of the pieces of emotional baggage I’ve uncovered in recovering from my divorce is a deep fear of intimacy. This came as a surprise to me, because when I was married, the lack of emotional intimacy was one of my biggest complaints. Turns out, that wasn’t my ex’s problem . . . it was mine. It has taken five years of being in a relationship with one person for me to learn it’s ok to let the person I love see me weak, anxious, falling apart, angry, tired, sick, on my period, gassy, grumpy, stinky, and downright afraid. I’m still not convinced it’s ok to leave dishes in the sink while he’s here, but I leave them there as practice.

This weekend, we planned to be snowed in together. At my house. (With my dirty dishes). Dating when you have three kids leaves very little opportunity for one-on-one time for more than a few hours at a time. We’ve gone on a few trips together in the last year, but trips usually offer plenty of activities and distractions that can get in the way of emotional intimacy. 24 hours of togetherness with no distractions made my heart beat fast, and not the “good” way. The only people who get to have that much uninterrupted time with me are my children, and they have to love me. He doesn’t have to. What if I had to fart and couldn’t hold it in that long?

Apparently, it doesn’t matter if I can’t hold it in that long. We had a really great 24 hours, during which we lazed around on the couch under blankets, watched TV, ate snacks, and engaged in one of the most intimate acts two people can do together.

That’s right. We cleaned my refrigerator.

Even my mother, who isn’t timid about tackling my dirty dishes or making my kids’ beds when I’m not here, has never broken the boundary protecting that inner sanctum from outsiders.

I had condiments with expiration dates from ten years ago. There’s a certain amount of shame attached to that truth, and I shared it with a man whose opinion matters greatly to me.

I’ve unlocked a new level of intimacy with this man who for some reason still wants to be in my life after the ups and downs I’ve put him through. After letting him see the contents of my fridge, there’s little else I would keep from him. I hope we get a few more snow days together this season.

Tending the Temple

The Loneliest Bayou

Last week I went on the first vacation I’ve had since my son was born almost 13 years ago. (I don’t count the family trip to Disney two years ago as a “vacation;” that was more of an “event!”) My fella Floyd took me to his home state of Louisiana for five days, to do some sightseeing in New Orleans and visit his big, beautiful extended family.

To get to New Orleans from the Lafayette airport, we had to drive over the Atchafalaya Basin (yes, I CAN pronounce it!), which is the largest wetland in the United States. As we embarked upon the almost 20 miles of bridge through swamp and cypress trees, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and asked, “Do you know what is the loneliest bayou?” A brief pause, then both of us exclaimed in unison silliness: “Bayou Self!!!!”

I’m not in the habit of traveling with other people. In thirteen years of being a parent, I can count on two hands the number of overnight trips I’ve taken with my kids, and still have a few fingers left over. In nine years of marriage, we had one week of honeymoon, one week of a beach vacation with friends, and one long weekend in Pennsylvania Dutch country. I went to a three-day conference on church stewardship in the middle of Kansas, and a three day direct sales conference in Las Vegas in July, pregnant. After my divorce, I took a long weekend to Washington, D.C. That is a woeful lack of time off.

Before I got engaged in 2000, I booked a two-week solo trip in Ireland which remains the gold standard of vacations to which all others will be compared. Two weeks of glorious solitude, away from my stressful advertising job, with a week of taking public transportation to hand-picked sights well off the beaten tourist path: the tiny town of Bunratty, the even tinier town of Kilfenora, the Poulnabrone dolmen, the seaside music town of Dingle, the Aran Islands, and a week of intense horseback riding in Adare. It was all about me and my interests.

When people I met along the way learned I was recently engaged, they were surprised I was making this trip all by myself, which should have told me something. But I couldn’t imagine having a traveling companion during those hours walking the countryside, or waiting for the sun to set so I could get just the right lighting for a photo of a rock wall. Being alone was, and still is, my comfort zone, and the way this introvert typically recharges.

Still, when I got married, I had fantasies of us vacationing together, and vacationing with our children, just like I did when I was a kid. I grew up with a family that travelled to see grandparents, and I loved family vacations. When married life didn’t deliver, I assumed it was because he didn’t like to travel. But after a few years on my own with only one long weekend out of town, I’ve had to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

The visit to Louisiana was not my first trip with my sweetheart. We planned a weekend trip to the mountains last fall, to see if we could handle a whole weekend of uninterrupted togetherness without getting sick of each other. I was nervous for days leading up to it, but we had a fantastic time, and found a new level of intimacy (the kind that develops when you learn more about each other’s bathroom habits and you let him watch you curl your hair and apply makeup). So when Floyd told me he wanted to take me to Louisiana (and promised no surprise “questions” or “jewelry” associated with said questions) I was excited and ready for a real vacation.

Or so I thought.

The Big Easy was not quite so easy for me. Uncomfortable emotions hit like unexpected tidal waves. When a client had a quick graphic design correction that turned into more than an hour’s worth of work, I was worried he’d be angry at me for wasting our precious vacation time. When we didn’t have a plan for our day, I felt anxious we wouldn’t make the most of our limited time there. When I was tired after a full day of walking and could barely keep my eyes open at 10 pm while my heart wanted to be out enjoying the night scene, I felt guilty. I felt sad we didn’t get to take a carriage tour of the French Quarter. And when I met his family at the end of the week, I was worried they wouldn’t like me, and PMS didn’t help. To top it all off, I felt shame for all the craziness going on between my ears.

I feel a bit crazy just admitting all of that now, and I’m seriously debating whether I’ll ever let this post see the light of day, except I know there’s probably someone else out there who might also have a touch of social anxiety, and maybe, just maybe, my sharing will give you courage to step outside of your comfort zone.

Because here is what happened, in spite of my dis-ease:

My fella didn’t get mad at me for working on vacation.

Although we didn’t even scratch the surface of what we could do in New Orleans, I saw Bourbon Street and ate a beignet at Cafe du Monde, I rode the streetcar and walked through the garden district and sat on the limb of a beautiful live oak and drank my first Bloody Mary (with breakfast!) and ate crawfish and slept really hard every night and woke up refreshed every morning.

I didn’t bother to curl my hair, I wore only lip gloss, and I got stuck in the mud 4-wheeling on his brother’s farm. I learned I love roasted oysters and that kumquats are to be eaten with the skin on. I felt truly welcomed by all his brothers and sisters and in-laws at a big cookout at the Hollier home (yes, I can pronounce that, too!). I listened to his father reminisce about his mother, and I felt the loving presence of her spirit in the house Floyd grew up in, and in the souls of all the people who made him into the man I now get to hug and kiss and hold hands with.

If I had taken a five day vacation by myself, I’m sure I’d have had a relaxing time. I would have captured many wonderful photos and seen plenty of sights, and I wouldn’t have been plagued by the insecurities of traveling with another person after so many years of flying solo or not at all.

But now that I’m back at home, what I realize is this: for much of my life, I’ve been living in a self-imposed loneliness that has become my comfort zone. Solitude may have been a source of creativity and rejuvenation, and it certainly served a useful purpose in temporarily protecting me from the pain of rejection, not just in recent years, but going way back into childhood. Being alone has been an integral part of my identity for 40 years. But maybe I’m ready to let it go in favor of connecting more intimately with the people closest to me, instead of trying to escape from them.

While driving through the swamp, we could catch a glimpse now and then of a shack on stilts, where some Cajuns still live off the “land.” Floyd told me if you go wandering in there and don’t belong, there’s a good chance you won’t come back out. Those folks are serious about keeping to themselves and being left alone.

I don’t want that to be a metaphor for my heart. I don’t want to be the loneliest bayou anymore. I want my heart to be a big Louisiana-style outdoor kitchen, with more than enough seats for everyone and all their cousins, with kumquat trees and live oaks filled with tree-climbing youngsters, and three generations grilling together.

Ça c’est bon! And, merci beaucoup, Mister John Floyd. For weeks I’ve been thinking the reason I haven’t been able to write is because I haven’t had enough “alone” time. Turns out, all I needed was a good vacation, and you delivered!

Tending the Temple

High Maintenance

Last week a male friend from work called me a “high maintenance” woman.

(Yes, he lived to tell about it, but my revenge is to immortalize him as fodder for a blog. That’ll teach him!)

To which I replied, “Any woman worth keeping is worth maintaining.”

I was shocked those words came out of my mouth. Not sure where the girl with low self-esteem went, but her replacement has a quick wit and a healthy sense of her own value.

I have never wanted to be high-maintenance. I’ve always tried to be sweet and accommodating and understanding and compassionate. I’ve been a great listener, an encourager, and not usually demanding. Although there was a time when I’d smother a guy with advice (and clothing suggestions), I’ve learned in more recent years to keep my opinions to myself unless I’m asked (most of the time). I’ve diffused conflict with humor, and I’ve done my best to meet my own needs so thoroughly that I wouldn’t need to ask for help from a romantic partner. I rarely asked for much of anything, and if I felt neglected I stuffed those feelings and made a gratitude list about my partner, or nursed a silent list of resentments and sulked in self-pity.

That doesn’t sound high maintenance does it? (All the men I know are probably laughing right now. Yeah, I hear you.)

The girl with the low self esteem also believed that a woman worth keeping was worth maintaining. But her perception was distorted. When she plugged her experiences into the formula, the answer she got was that she must not be worth keeping, since no one seemed interested in maintaining.

That kind of thinking has a self-perpetuating momentum to it.

It never occurred to her that she hadn’t ever given them the chance, or that she had a habit of turning toward good-hearted guys who simply weren’t capable of maintaining.

People are not high maintenance. Relationships, especially those worth keeping, are.

They require open communication and honesty. They require courage – courage to be ourselves, and courage to allow the other people to be themselves, exactly as they are, right here, right now.

Relationships require time. Time is an investment, and some investments are inherently risky. Time creates attachment. Even though we each have 24 hours in a day, not everyone is able to invest the same quantity or quality of time in a relationship. That doesn’t make them “bad” people; it does, however, make a relationship with them a riskier investment.

Relationships require an emotional investment, too. Some of us (yours truly included) seem hard wired to make generous donations of emotional capital only to bankrupt ourselves with emotional charity. Abundant giving to a child or to a geriatric parent or grandparent or a sick family member is laudable. But if I’m over-giving to a grown adult who isn’t willing or able to give back, that’s not healthy, in spite of what our culture and maybe even our religious faith may have taught us.

Love by its very nature is unconditional, but healthy relationships are not. I think it’s ok to expect a return on investment in a relationship between equals. But as the old saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone, especially if you don’t even tell the stone what you expect. You can’t go to the hardware store and expect to buy bread.

Which takes us back to having the courage to accept ourselves and our “partners” exactly as we are, even if an honest assessment means we aren’t really partners at all.

In hindsight I can see that believing myself to be “low maintenance” has lead me to settle for low maintenance relationships. Wanting more is often seen as “high maintenance” in a disposable culture that values ease and comfort over effort and endurance. But I do want more. I want effort and endurance. I want relationships worth keeping. I’m high maintenance and proud of it.

What I’ve learned from meditation and journaling about this whole “high maintenance” business is that maybe I’ve acted low maintenance because I didn’t have the time or emotional capital to invest in a relationship worth keeping.

That’s a difficult place to be – knowing your value, wanting the best, but not being able to afford it. I could mortgage myself. I could go into emotional debt, but I would have to work twice as hard to pay it off, if I even could pay it off. That leaves less time to invest in that “relationship worth keeping” later down the road, when the infatuation wears off.

There’s another choice. I could invest in myself. Every bit of time and emotion I focus on myself will earn interest, or so I’m told. My parents taught me to save up for the things I want. I saved for two years while my gorgeous bedroom set was on layaway, bringing home one piece at a time. I saved for almost a decade and worked overtime to be able to afford a two week trip to Ireland, and the down payment on my first house came from my savings. I know how to do this in “the real world,” so it’s just a matter of applying those skills to my “emotional world.”

I didn’t deprive myself during those years of saving; I was just more frugal. I can be frugal with my time and my emotions. I can learn to maintain myself, which is not the same thing as never asking for help and resigning myself to loneliness. Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers,” and it’s as good advice for 39 years old as it is for 6. Supporting myself means asking appropriate people for appropriate support, not being a rugged individualist boot-strapping my way through two jobs, three kids, and single parenthood.

Education is another way we can invest in ourselves. When I was first separated I read a fantastic book about rebuilding after divorce, and one of the chapters was on “growing” relationships – that is, temporary situations that help both parties grow. It’s an investment of time and emotion, just as going to college is an investment. But we don’t expect to stay in college perpetually, do we? We expect to graduate with skills and confidence that will serve us going forward.

Most relationships are of this variety, whether we admit it or not. I have a double major in depression and emotional unavailability with a minor in codependency. I just got my master’s degree in detachment with love, and I’m hoping to earn my doctorate in acceptance before this life is through. Having kids is a bit like a practicum course, and some of my dating experiences have been like unpaid internships, most valuable for the experience they provided.

And that’s where I’ll end the metaphor, because relationships aren’t like a job you qualify for with higher education, interview for with your best rehearsed answers, and use as a stepping stone to the next best paying gig. Relationships are a gift that you have to be ready to receive, and there is only one I’m guaranteed to have – a relationship with myself. And I can have a relationship with God, but only if I want it. I’m not entitled to anything else, no matter how hard I work. Everything else is a gift of grace, which I can hold only if I learn to let go of the things not meant for me and keep my hands and my heart open instead of clenched tightly in fear.

Being open requires daily maintenance. Worthwhile maintenance. The highest of maintenance.

Tending the Temple

A Gem from My Journal

I really fight journaling. But if I go back and reread what I wrote a year ago, two years ago, 26 years ago, I can see the benefit. I get to see how much I’ve grown, and I also get a reminder of who I really am.

Recently I reread last May’s entries. I had just ended a two-year, on-again off-again romantic relationship, and I was feeling lonely, contemplative, and also hopeful about the future. Someone whose guidance I trusted suggested that I use my newfound singleness to make a list of the top five qualities I was looking for in a partner.

True to my personality, I made the task much harder than I had to; I had several journal entries exploring this topic.

Also true to form, my first attempt was probably the most accurate. Rereading it a year later, I find the first list resonates more than the stuff I came up with later in the exercise:

1. Humility

2. In love with me – the whole me

3. Committed to spiritual and personal growth

4. Playful

5. Puts God first, followed by self-care, then relationships

Sure, there are other qualities that would be nice to have. Good cook. Kind. Funny. Responsible. Handy with cars and drills and yards and electronics and odd jobs. Patient. Good with kids. Great in bed. Straight teeth and thick hair and defined pecs. Mmmm.

I’m surprised that “common faith” and “same political views” didn’t make the top five. From personal experience I’ve seen how NOT having a religious faith in common can become a wedge in more than one relationship.

It’s not that faith is no longer important to me; I’ve simply come to see that there is no such thing as a common faith. I have friends who call themselves atheists whose faith in a “higher power” looks more like mine than does the faith of a legalistic catholic or evangelical Christian. It’s so personal, that relationship with God stuff. I’m kind of ashamed I ever pushed my own beliefs on others, although being able to talk about theology and learn from each other is and always will be important to me. (That’s why “humble” is at the top of my list. Only with humility can the chasm of faith be bridged.)

In some ways, having the same political beliefs is more important to me, and yet that didn’t make the list either. Why? Maybe it’s because as fixed as my political beliefs seem to me, I see far more that unites my beliefs with the beliefs of other persuasions. Focusing on what unites rather than what separates and differentiates helps all of my relationships, not just the romantic ones.

As I practice radical acceptance and trust in unity, I find these issues of belief are less and less important, as long as I feel respected and heard, and as long as I remember that I don’t have to change or lose myself if I don’t want to.

It’s interesting that last year I never journaled about my non-negotiables; I do have a few. No smoking, drugs, or alcohol abuse – period. No weird body piercings or unholy holes. No significant cultural differences (relationships are hard enough between two people of similar backgrounds). No excessive back hair, and no full beards or mustaches. A girl CAN have preferences without making a moral judgement.

There’s an old high school acquaintance I’m friends with on Facebook. Truth be told I don’t remember much about him in high school, but the man he is today inspires me so much. He’s had the courage to fall in love, and he just got married to the woman of his dreams. For the past year I’ve been seeing gushy love notes on his FB feed, and it has been lovely to observe (although, on my low days I kinda wanna slap him). The other day he posted this quote:

“Take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are magic.”

Is that a prerequisite for a healthy relationship? In my experience, the magic is only visible to one side or the other, and that’s just heartbreaking. Or, sometimes both of us see the magic, but not at the same time, or we just take it for granted, and that, too, is heartbreaking. If I ever find myself in a “we” that continues to see the magic in each other, day after day, year after year, I think that would be pretty amazing.

Have you ever considered your top five qualities? I also did this exercise back when I was married, and I made the mistake of sharing it with my then-husband. You know what he told me? He told me I was not looking for him – what I really wanted was to be married to myself! Needless to say, this did not go over very well.

But he was right. I’d been married long enough that I lost my identity, lost my integrity, lost my passion. I wanted someone (presumably him) to give those qualities to me. I was being lazy, though I certainly didn’t realize it. But once we were separated, I realized I had to be responsible for my own identity, integrity and passion.

I’m also responsible for those top qualities of a partner. Not just the top five – all of them. Because, as the old wisdom goes, we attract that which we fundamentally are. If I want a partner who is humble, is in love with all of me, is committed to continued spiritual growth, is playful, and puts God first, self-care next, and relationships following that, then I’d better be those things. For myself. By myself. Without leaning on a romantic partner to make it happen.

I don’t know how humble I am or am not – and that’s probably a good sign. I’ve certainly made progress on the self-acceptance front in a year’s time, and as a result, I find myself being more accepting and genuinely in love with people – all people, especially those who are different from me.

Spiritual growth sometimes takes a back seat to the responsibilities of single motherhood, but at least I’m persistent in the small things – gratitude lists, reading inspirational meditations, asking God to be a part of the mundane details and finding blessing there.

Am I playful? My inner child wants to break out so bad sometimes it physically hurts. I want to have fun, but I’ve forgotten what it looks like. I want to be creative, but I’ve been making money with my creativity so long, it takes the playfulness right out. Until I remember: that’s how I always played. It was serious business making ships out of egg cartons and dollhouse furniture out of recycled bits of this and that. It was serious business creating a newspaper, serious business writing half-finished novels, serious business drawing house plans and caring for high-maintenance cabbage patch dolls with my invisible husband. I’m serious when I play, still. I hike. I take pictures. I travel. I pick blackberries. It’s serious fun. So I make sure I dance around the house badly and make up limericks, and I make sure my kids see.

God, self-care, relationships. These are the tripod upon which my life rests. That doesn’t mean I neglect everything else; actually, being responsible falls under self-care a lot of the time. Bill paying and laundry are self-care too. But if I’m having a bad day and need a nap, I take a nap. If I’m lonely, I cut out of work a little early and have lunch with a friend. I get my butt to church even when I don’t feel like it. I never regret it once I’m there.

The top five qualities I wanted in a partner a year ago turned out to be a pretty good measuring stick for my own progress. Am I ready for seeing “magic” and allowing someone to see mine? Who knows. I think I’m a pretty good catch though, as long as he’s a good cook. Kind. Funny. Responsible. Handy with cars and drills and yards and electronics and odd jobs. Patient. Good with kids. Great in bed. Has straight teeth and thick hair and defined pecs.

Or none of those things. Maybe he’s just magic and that’s the only quality I need as long as I have eyes to see it.