When Marriage Becomes God

This is not a take down of marriage. I am old enough to know that I know very little about almost everything. I am ill equipped to critique an institution that has sustained societies around the globe for generations. I am an expert at staying in my lane and minding my own business. Why some single women can’t envision an entire lifetime lived without a husband is not my lane. Questioning women who expend energy trying to salvage fractured marriages is not my business.

I will own up to this: I don’t get it. Marriage and why some would want it — crave it, even — yes, I completely get that. Building of wealth. Support while raising children. Commitment to more than just passionate, romantic love. Yeah, I dig why this would be a goal for folk. What confounds me are the assumptions about those of us who don’t crave the institution.

In one of the many online women’s groups I belong to, relationships were discussed. Someone commented on women who “allow” men to date them for years, never requiring — demanding — a wedding ring. The implication seemed to be these women devalued themselves. Were “allowing” men to waste their time. Most who replied to the post agreed that women (of a certain age) who did not end up with at least the possibility of a ring after a year or two of courtship were failing themselves. “Why would you continue to date with no goals for the relationship?”

I didn’t comment on the thread. It was far more informative to read all the perceptions of what made a 21st century partnership acceptable. And these perceptions seemed to have not evolved much from those born out of the 18th century. If a woman over the age of twenty-five enjoys the company of a male companion and they profess love for each other, then the escalator should arrive at marriage with expedience. The further away from thirty she was, the more it could be understood why she might be on a slow-moving escalator. However, if there were no eventual marriage and the couple did not both get off the escalator, then…this was a failure. And the bulk of the blame should be placed on the shoulders of the wasted woman who had allowed herself to be in a loving, monogamous relationship for years with no “goals.”

For a surprisingly large number of women, there is nothing else that validates a relationship more than having paperwork done on it. The assumptions about a woman who ended up unmarried after more than three years in a relationship were absurd. First, it was assumed that the ringless woman wanted to be married, but was afraid to pressure the boyfriend and chase him away. It also seemed to be understood that long term courtships not leading to marriage were just 36 months of hook ups with the same dude. “It’s like they’re just having good sex and then when that’s no longer fun, they move on.” This comment made me chuckle. As is the case in many adult relationships, unmarried couples are intimate. And just like when a married couple decide to end their union and the sex stops, the unmarried couple who dissolve their relationship also stop having sex with each other. When they meet someone else they feel connected to, they start having sex again. How is this evidence of anything other than grown ups behaving like grown ups?

What I don’t get is the deification of marriage. I am confused about how in this, the century of our lord: the 21st, matrimony is still being held up as if it is Christ on the cross offering women salvation. I will show up to anybody’s wedding with a nice gift and my hand reaching for a champagne glass. I will congratulate bride and groom and with sincerity wish them well. However, I would do that for my homegirl who decides she is quitting her job and starting her own business. I would big up a co-worker who bought a house. If my homie stayed in her job and never opened her own business, I would see no reason to be concerned about where her career was going. If my co-worker remained in his rental apartment, I’d see that as just a lifestyle choice. Why is there such a high moral value placed on the lifestyle choice of marriage? Why is the acquisition of a spouse seen as some sort of a prize and to not win one is to signify a loss?

When I chatted with Tracy Adams about her decision to divorce her husband, she spoke about how many people placed the word only in front of the words three years when they found out she and her husband were splitting up. “Y’all giving up after only three years?,” they asked incredulously. The implication being that to make such a choice required more suffering and agonizing than she had already put in through those 36 months. See, this was not the same as the homegirl who started her own business, realized she was better meant for the stability of being an employee so closed the bakery and went back to her old job. This was not the same as the man who began saving for a down payment on his house, but after doing some investigating into the housing market decided it better to continue renting. Tracy’s decision to hand back her prize after only three years represented a moral failure. She didn’t simply try to live a choice, realize it was the wrong one and then correct the error.

As Tracy said on Unchained. Unbothered., there is an expectation that women value being chosen so badly that they continue to work doggedly at a marriage, even when their gut tells them the marriage is not right. Non stop emotional labor is a fair trade off to hold on to the living, breathing proof they had won.

For Single Girls (When Having a Boyfriend Isn’t Enough)

I learned early on into my life as a single woman living overseas that I’d have to put in the work to rebuild the social network I’d left behind in New York City. This was not difficult for me since I have always been a gregarious person who relished the company of cool ass women. In Kigali, small town life had its advantages because meeting friends who shared my interests happened almost instantly and maintaining those friendships involved a simple, five-minute moto ride to someone’s house or a local pub. Shanghai proved itself a greater challenge as it is one of the largest cities in the world and I live and work a significant distance from the city’s center. My first year here, I used wechat groups to forage for female friends. I spent a lot of my free time going to a plethora of “black folk events” with various types of black folks. At this, my third year, I have developed authentic friendships with a core group of women who now serve as my sister circle.

“I don’t know how you do it,” a co-worker said to me after I turned down an invitation to go to an after-work event because I had other plans. “You are always off campus and downtown doing stuff.” I had come to expect this reaction from the other Ex Pats at the international school where I work and live.

“Are you coming to the Thanksgiving potluck,” they’d ask.

“No,” I’d smile politely. “Got a homegirl in Pudong who hosts our Thanksgiving dinner each year.”

“We’re doing brunch and a spa day at the end of this month,” they’d offer.

“Sorry, going to Chengdu with my friend to see the pandas,” I’d reply.

You know other people here?, their wide eyes would ask.

I have answered these awestruck eyes more than once with: You know, you, too, can have a life outside of the school gates. It does take work, but it is not impossible. Usually, I get some version of the same response. “I am too lazy to find friends outside of the ones I see for 40 hours each week.” However, one response from a female co-worker has stayed with me long after our conversation.

“I just hang under my boyfriend.” She giggled as she waved off my suggestion that she didn’t have to force friendships with the other teachers she didn’t really like. She could find women here in the ‘hai who could become her crew. “I probably should make more effort to have friends, but me and my man keep each other busy enough, I guess.” This woman was well over 40. I was dumbfounded by her statement.

To be clear: I greatly appreciate the company of a male companion. Particularly when that company involves nudity and good conversation. I have dated often enough since living overseas and have found myself in love a couple of times. However, it never occurred to me that once in a relationship this should be it for me. That the extent of my community should stop with him. This one male human. I don’t know what to make of women for whom a boyfriend is enough.

I have witnessed some crazy shit here in the ‘hai alone. I’ve had no desire to share some of these shenanigans with a boyfriend because he wouldn’t get it. He would listen. Maybe ask the right questions. But he just wouldn’t get it. And more importantly, I didn’t need him to get it. My homegirls would. Immediately. They would skip over the questions and get right to the judgments. “Well, that’s some bullshit right there,” they’d say. “Nothing but fuckery and foolishness. I can’t even…” We’d carry on together until the timid little Chinese barista would ask us to quiet down just a little, please.

When your community begins and ends with your man, who do you go to when you need to find a gynecologist whose staff speaks decent enough English and who does not shame women who are over 30 without a husband or child? Who do you ask to buy you a quality bra on their trip back home and entrust with this crucial assignment after only handing them your size and cash? Who will listen with authentic delight as you describe each bite of the succulent molden chocolate cake that you experienced at an unassuming café? When your entire time is spent keeping busy with Bae, who do you go to when you start to question why you are even with Bae? Who do you confide in when you realize you are only with Bae because this relationship is just a lil bit better than loneliness and long stretches of celibacy?

A loving man who respects you can only give you so much. It seems impractical to put so much on the shoulders of a romantic relationship.

A few weeks after my co-worker explained she was relying solely on her boyfriend to be her village, she shared that she was not extending her contract and would return to the States for a while. The boyfriend had no desire to leave Shanghai and even less desire to live in the United States. “You mean, you gon’ leave Bae?!” I joked with her. She offered up a half smile and just nodded her head. “Well, I need to go back home and if he doesn’t want to come, I don’t have much choice.”

In that moment I felt bad for her. Here she was with a relationship at the beginning of the end and a life transition repatriating back to a country that was on fire. She had no village with whom she could share her story. No healing hands of women to engulf her in a hug and say, “I know you are scared and unsure of your next move. But, look, here is a cake I baked. And some wine.”

I wished her well on this next transition and wondered what would become of her when she returned to a country she had not lived in for most of her adult life. Would she try to boyfriend her way back in or would she employ the more sensible strategy: reconnecting with old friends and making effort to meet new ones?

I know what I will be doing when I return to the dumpster fire that is America. My circle of healing hands knows, too.

Narratives That Give Love a Bad Name

Ever since I was a girl, I’ve fantasized about seeing the world. Even when I was a pre-teen, I knew that by seeing the world, I did not mean vacaying in swanky resorts that felt like a night at the downtown Hilton in any nondescript American city and going on cruises, choosing the snorkeling excursion to add some adventure. As an avid reader, my imagination ran wild and when I played that “what do you want to be when you grow up” game in my head, I knew my life would involve leaving American borders for extended periods of time, if not forever. Something has happened to me these last several months. Perhaps, it is because I am looking at a solid decade at a wonderful job which I love in the best city in the country, but I am also beginning to feel the soft legs and mushy muscles of a woman too comfortable and in need of challenge. Perhaps it is because I am gleefully approaching 40 and realizing that this grand number warrants a grand life shift to accompany it. I have decided that instead of the vague “sometime in the future when the time is right” non-deadline, NOW is the ideal time to put my childhood dream into adulthood reality. Around late October, I decided to take baby steps along the way to the next phase of Keturah: global citizenship.

I set an ultimate move date: Summer of 2015. Picked an area of the globe that spoke to my heart: Africa, with specific focus on South Africa, Ghana or Ethiopia. As part of my plan, I spoke this goal into being – telling friends about my impending move and networking with colleagues who could be helpful in job searches. I have even plotted out my auditioning of countries where I’d like to live, planning a trip to Ghana in July with the possibility of exploring other countries in West Africa as well. I’ve picked the brains of numerous Africans – both living in Africa and here in New York City – and spoken with Black Americans who have travelled extensively across the continent. By speaking this almost reality into existence, I have already felt the soft gauze of lethargy and monotony float from my person. I am excited about my move even though it is almost two years away.

Out of all of the conversations I’ve had these last few months, the ones that have been the most revealing are chats I’ve had with friends about “What will you do with your man?” I’ve explained to friends that while The Yankee and I are definitely in love, neither one of us feels that this love is necessitated by marriage. Since we are staying together, we obviously are perfectly content with the status of the relationship and have talked about revisiting and reexamining it when the time comes. Like me, The Yankee is also fighting his way out of inertia right now. He, too, has just begun a new journey in his life. His journey is not necessarily tied to a move to another continent. In two years, it still may not be, either. With that said, I’ve shared with friends that my move to Africa is imminent. It is a pivotal step in the next phase of Keturah. It will happen. I would prefer it happened with The Yankee. But, it will happen regardless of him.

Saying this in the presence of women “of a certain age” has been a little unsettling. When I have calmly spoken about planning my life around my desires and those desires are not attached to what will or will not become of my romantic relationship, I have been startled by some of the love narratives on which many women base their decisions about relationships.

Love Narrative #1: The Ring Trumps EVERYthing (and I do mean every single other thing that you, as a woman of a “certain age,” should want for your life)

“What if The Yankee proposed to you in 6 months?” My friend, Theresa, asked me this bizarre question after I had spent a good 15 minutes explaining how important this move was to me and how not fulfilling it would leave me with a sense of discontent.

“Huh?” I truly was baffled by this question.

“I’m saying, what if he asked you to marry him because he wanted you to stay and create a life with him? Would you still go?”

While the sentiment in this question is one of genuine love of a man for his woman, if you truly examine it, the implication is a bit insulting. So, what if your man wanted you so badly that he had to stop you from fulfilling a significant goal in order to keep you? I mean, you do get something out of the deal; he will marry you, after all. Why not just put that global citizenship business aside for later? Take the ring, Girl. Take. The. Ring!

I asked Theresa if she had been listening to anything I had just said. Unless The Yankee proposed marriage after he had decided on his own that an international move was something he wanted to explore, why would I even consider saying Yes to his proposal? I asked her if she would have married her husband had he shown a disinterest in having children or raising them in the Christian church. Both of these are values that are supremely important to Theresa. If she found herself in a relationship with a man whose idea of family so drastically differed from her’s, no matter how much she loved him, marrying him would make absolutely no sense as his preference in lifestyle was not congruent to her’s.

“I actually would find a marriage proposal from The Yankee under the context you have set up rather manipulative,” I explained to Theresa. “Why would a man who loved me want to keep me from my heart’s desire?”

“Girl,” she sighed. “Most women would be like: ‘I got me a good man who loves me. Let me make this work.’ You are on some other level.”

Which brings us to…

Love Narrative #2: The Scarcity of the Soul Mate (in other words, romantic love is so rare and so limited, that when you have something that even slightly resembles a soul mate, you must NEVER, ever, NEVER, ever let him go!)

Although Theresa is a good ole Christian gal, many women with diverse values and points of view truly believe the narrative underlying her “you got a good man; don’t let him go” comment. Narrative #2 implies that the universe has placed a glass ceiling on love. There are finite experiences. Limited amounts of potential partners. If you have one truly amazing, fulfilling relationship that results in mutual growth and happiness, the chances of your having that again decrease with each passing moment.

Not only is this a hyperbolic fear that is often implanted solely on the psyches of women, but it is also illogical and makes little sense. Much like I am not the first woman to love The Yankee, he is not the first man to love me. It stands to reason that we are rather lovable people. No, we did not find each other easily and there were some dreary crazies in between our love just like there were some dreary crazies in between our past respective relationships. But, we have consistently sustained loving relationships that have brought us benefit and joy. If we decided to part ways, don’t our past experiences predict that there is even greater love out there for BOTH of us?

This fallacy that we will only find meaningful love with “The One” perplexes me. While I am not a cynic, neither am I a woman who believes that love is anything more than a choice to grow with someone. That choice requires you to make a host of other choices as you create a partnership with someone who shares your values and worldview. If I am being love at every single moment of my life, why would I not attract it more than once in a lifetime?

Love Narrative #3: In Matters of the Heart, Women can not Engage the Mind

This last narrative insults me more than #1, actually. It has been a subtle assertion by more than a few who truly find it surprising that I could walk away from a man I loved when there was no “real” problem with the relationship.

“I hope he comes to his senses when it’s time for you to move,” a friend commented after I explained that The Yankee was not hearing the call of the Motherland like I was.

“We shall see,” I responded. “There is still time so things could change. If they don’t, then I’ll have to make a difficult decision.”

When I have spoken about this inevitable decision, I have presented it as one that is not terribly complicated. Either he will want to come or he won’t. If he doesn’t, then I will have to end our relationship. I will eat a cheese cake. I will shed some tears. The sun will rise in the east; it will set in the west.

I have been told I am strong and evolved for being able to even think about this possible dilemma so calmly. While I will never dismiss any compliment, I am disturbed by the notion that ending a romantic relationship is fraught with purely heart-wrenching emotion. A near-crazed woman who can not face the reality of her relationship because of intense emotions taking over her still seems to be the dominant image of a “woman in love” that plays on the subconscious of even the most progressive men and women.

Yes, if I have to end my relationship, there will be sadness. It is not a decision I will come to lightly or joyfully. But, if the reality of my life and its circumstances means ending it, I am more than comfortable allowing my brain to take over when my heart is ill-equipped to do so. I fully endorse raw, messy emotions being underneath decisions in love, but I refuse to believe I am the only woman who’s more than capable of using her head even while her heart hurts.

I am sure many women proudly live by at least one of these narratives. And some would even say it is BECAUSE of these narratives that they have found themselves in loving relationships that have enhanced their lives. However, it should be noted that at the root of each of these beliefs is fear. Is it just me who finds it problematic that something we all agree is deeply important to the human experience should be rooted in a belief structure that appeals to our lesser selves? Shouldn’t we cultivate love narratives that perpetuate the belief that romantic love comes from a place of power? A place within our greatest selves that has not given in to the fallacy that we are fearful, weak creatures. The best romantic love is empowering. Our belief system about it should mirror this power.

How to Meet A Man

Recently, I received a text message from a good friend. It read: “What site you meant your boo on? I’m determined to have a boo myself in six months.” This was not the first time I had been asked this question in the year since I met and fell in love with a sweet Yankee who adores me. Another friend asked me for not only the online site where I met my boyfriend, but extensive advice on how to approach online dating because “you’re the only woman I know who has been successful at it.”

It doesn’t take advanced analytical skills to figure out what my two friends were really asking. How you got this man?

Trouble is: the answer to this question is not simply: “okcupid.com.” Because I don’t want to detract from their pro-active approach to finding love, I am reticent to tell them the full truth: Using okcupid (and any other dating site) had little to do with the resultant love I found.

I have utilized online dating sites for upwards of 7 years – well before the stigma of admitting you had to do more than simply show up wearing a form-flattering dress to any place where men congregated was removed from the reality of dating over the age of 21. My “success” rate had not been any better or worse than when I met men at social events, through friends or brave “Hey, how you doing” flirtations at the grocery store. Sometimes, I went on mediocre dates that fizzled into nothingness. Occasionally, I embarked on shaky relationships that “could be something” only to have them dissolve for the standard reasons shaky relationships don’t really make it past those first few months.

So, what do I tell my friends? Do I admit to them that when I faced the truth of who I was and made concerted efforts to overcome that truth did I find myself (quite unintentionally) in a very strong relationship?

Who I was/am: A deceptively detached and distant woman. I use the word deceptive because most people would not think of using these adjectives to describe me. I am quite a personable, social person. I love being around people and engage with them fairly easily. But what most people did not see (and what I did not see for a long time as well) was that my “friendliness” saved me the trouble of actually CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE. In many ways, my ease in joking and chatting people up were ruses. If you make enough clever jokes and spar well in witty banter, people are often so busy enjoying your cleverness and wit that you can exonerate yourself from having to show them anything else. You don’t have to open your life to these fellow human beings nor come up with an appropriate excuse (couched in witty humor, of course) as to why you don’t possess the energy or courage to enter their lives, either.

Do I place more difficult truths at my friends’ feet and tell them that this distance, this detachment was not exclusive to my relationships with men? And that in order to fight against it, I had to work just as hard not to succumb to my patterns with my best girlfriends as I did with the men I dated. I had to push pass my cursory dismissal of people’s desire to really know me EVERY SINGLE DAY. I had to be honest about what was underneath my distance from people. What was the cause of my quiet belief that genuine relationships with people took too much energy, required too much effort, asked me to risk too much. So, my fight to transform myself occurred at the sub-surface level and below the surface as well.

Yes, I did put some time and thought into my okcupid profile. Yes, I did log on several times a week just to “show my face and keep myself out there.” Yes, I emailed all the men who approached me even if there was not immediate evidence that we were a “match.” But, I’d done all that for the last 7 years.

My approach to dating had not changed prior to meeting the Yankee. The transformation was much more pivotal: Me. (Yes, it is really that simple.)

I am still actively creating causes to continue that transformation. And if the Yankee and I end up parting ways in the immediate or distant future, this transformation will not stall as a result. Just like the truth of who I was/am was not exclusive to my relationships with men, the work I plan on doing towards my human revolution is not exclusive to my boyfriend. It supercedes him.

So, it is about time for me to come clean and admit the title of this post is intentionally misleading. No, ladies, I can not tell you how to meet a man. What I can tell you, though, is the reason you are having trouble meeting men is likely linked to the reason why although you love her to death, you have great difficulty making that weekly “check in” call to your mother. Your disenchantment with the game of dating likely resembles your disenchantment with your boss, your co workers, and the field in which you have chosen to work. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you know that weary look you get when breaking bread with a guy who is “okay, but…?” Well, you get that same look with some of your friends. The ones who make you slightly uncomfortable, but you don’t know why.

Yes, you can do the arduous (and sometimes painful) work of unraveling the truth of who you are and what you believe. But no, it will not guarantee you success in the search for a mate. It won’t even make the journey to love any easier or even fair. But, here’s the thing: if you are fortunate enough, you will have to make hundreds more weekly calls to your mother. If the universe deems you worthy, you will also have to negotiate relationships with that demanding boss and those “lazy” co workers for many years to come. And your frenemy just might leave your circle of friends to find another, but the likelihood of her replacement causing the same discomfort in you is pretty darn high.

It benefits you to DEAL WITH THE TRUTH. To work to create a belief system that honors you and all the humans with whom you will come into contact in this lifetime. Whether it results in love is really irrelevant. The only relevant outcome is your own transformation as a human being.

Love, Actually: Living Off My Father’s Inheritance

My father is preparing for his imminent demise. He is choosing to prepare for this by preparing his children for his imminent demise. This holiday season marks the second time we have been summoned to the house for a “family meeting.” Last year, I, personally received a letter in my mailbox in New York City. My father called me to make sure I had received it and to restate what the letter had already made clear in his careful, ALL CAPS handwriting. “I want to inform you of our family meeting to be held at 1 p.m. on December 31 at 1416 Meadow Street in Metairie, Louisiana.”

This year my father’s flare for the official (and melodramatic) has subsided and he has simply said to each of us: “Come to the house on New Year’s Eve. I need to talk to y’all again.” It is at this second meeting where I begin to sit with the reality that my father will be dead soon. Last year, his verbose explanation of how we were to handle his funeral, the house, our inheritance were merely reminders of how responsible he is and protective of the modest safety net he has built for us over the years.

But, this year his breathing seems a bit more labored, his step a bit slower, his energy even more clipped. I and one of my brothers are the only two of his children who know the doctor has suggested that our father would need to be put on dialysis in about a year. Because he is our father, he has told the doctor this will not happen. Unlike the doctor, my brother and I are positive that our father’s calm, yet certain refusal will remain even when the doctor’s suggestion has graduated to the recommendation stage.

This second meeting, which repeats much of the information from the first meeting, is only a guise. A way to seat the four of us together for three hours and remind himself that he has reached the most pivotal of goals. The son of a junk man who survived the Jim Crow South, “seperate but equal” public education and several major hurricanes beat the system. He has been able to build his own house, live off a good pension for the last decade and now, leave this house and some money to his children. He has proven to this country that despite its attempts to beat it out of him, this negro boy has, truly, lived the life of a MAN.

I feel myself begin to be overcome by…something. I do not know what this something is. I only know what it is NOT. I am not overwhelmed by the thought that in a few short years, my brother is likely to call me to come home because the result of my father’s refusal to be put on dialysis is our attendance at his funeral. I do not think my eyes get itchy because I know deep down I will never again live in this house that has become a symbol of victory for my father. A part of me thinks my eyes are itchy partly because it has occured to me during this meeting that I will never again live in the only city which my father and his father called home. (I think?)

What I know is that when my father hands us all our original birth certificates, my eyes somehow find their way to the section where my parents’ names and ages are listed. The yellowed paper tells me that on June 4, 1975, Marva Kendrick was 29 years old. This legal document reminds me that before she was thirty, my mother had been the wife of Gerald Kendrick for several years and had just given birth to his fourth child. This is not new knowledge for me, but for the first time I am aware of the sharp contrast between her life and mine. I have never been anyone’s wife or mother. For 36 years, I have simply been: Keturah, pursuer of passions, traveler of the world, observer of people.

And this is why my eyes are itchy. My mother’s is not the only life that is in direct contrast with mine. For my father, a life is created by staying safe. 1. Plan to stay in a pensionable job for 25 or 30 years. 2. Do not risk that job by paying much attention to boredom or the lack of challenge or growth you feel. To me and most of my generation, job security has become an oxymoron in the best of circumstances, a plain ole pipe dream in the worst. I have vaguely planned my career track based on my interests, talents and desire to feel challenged in every aspect of my life. Anytime I have been able to parlay any type of employment that is not a standard job that one finds listed in the newspaper, my father is absolutely awed by my ingenuity.

Looking at my mother’s information on my birth certificate undescores how drastically different my story has been from my parents and how different it will continue to be. For one, I doubt there will be children to sit down at my kitchen table with whom I will go through important financial documents. While I do own property, it is no more a smybol of my victory over the system than my secure, reliable job as a public school teacher. The condo I own now can be easily traded in for a flat in London or even sold simply to rent a nicer apartment in a better neighborhood. My Department of Education paycheck can be suspended for a year or two while I spend a year teaching in South Africa. I may marry. I may divorce. Neither will do much to add to or subtract from what I envision as a happy, fulfilled life.

And as I sit at the kitchen table in my childhood home, I come to the most powerful realization. My father is going to die. He may have already been told this by his doctor. And I, his doting daughter, will be able to handle it with grace. I am not afraid of his death nor my own anymore. I am not dreading the phone call as I had been years ago when I first began to notice his whezzing and coughing. I am prepared for it mainly because unlike my parents, I have chosen Nichiren Buddhism as my spiritual practice, a religion that is not based on Christianity’s premise that salvation from this cold, cruel world is granted by an all knowing, all powerful deity. While I do not propose that the Christian faith is not valid and unable to bring comfort to its believers, I am aware that I, unlike my parents, ventured out in my spiritual path just as I have in my profesional and personal paths as well. I CHOOSE the religion that brought the most to my life as opposed to remaining in the one that was the most familiar to me. The one with which others were most familiar. I chose Buddhism because it has been most congruent with the truths of life and the world than other religions. It has also been the most useful tool for transforming my life than the Christian faith. This reason for my being a practicing Buddhist instead of a practicing Christian, too, seems to be in direct contrast with my parents’ reasons for being psuedo-Christians all these years.

So, perhaps what had and still has me “overcome” by my father’s second family meeting is gratitude. A sense of sincere appreciation for the real inheritance he has already given me. I want to cry because I am thankful that he had the courage to navigate a world that was so limiting to him and for doing so in the most dignified way he knew. I am grateful that he prepared this country for me. If I didn’t fear it would steal his thunder, I would interrupt his auto-eulogy by thanking him for my inheritance. And explaining that it is, in fact, more than this four-bedroom brick and mortar victory in which we all now sit. It is so immense it can not be whittled down into numbers on a check.

A Thank You to the THING

When I was in my 20s, I used to hear about the THING that would happen to me when I was in my 30s. The THING would cause me to put away such childish notions as “it’s me against the world” and the rather irrational theory that modern day feminism translated into a complete refusal to compromise with any male person (PARTICULARLY the male person you were sleeping with). It would also slowly chip away at my refusal to pick up a pot periodically, throw some food in it and put said food-filled pot over some fire. Because of the THING, I would cease to mock the girls who had spent countless semesters in college grooming their boyfriends for husbandry and would (like magic) obsessively begin to hoard bridal magazines, finally understanding that it was my destiny to wife. To mother.

The THING did eventually happen. Kind of. I realized that isolation
from other humans was merely cowardice draped in the fancy dress of “independence.” Once I stopped working so hard not to allow my Self to be swallowed whole by romantic need, I began to enjoy the comfort and safety GOOD men brought to my life. I even took up cooking. If only because my 30ish body held onto restaurant food a lot longer (and positioned in disturbing places) than my 20ish body did. The THING didn’t do much for my indifference to marriage, though. Six years into my 30s, I have only managed to graduate my “Marriage? Hmmmm….I guess” to “Sure, if I met a cool guy…who I loved…and who was an adventurous eater/traveler…with an acceptable FICO score…yeah, Dude could talk me into marriage…why the hell not?”

I have ruminated on whether I am just too stubborn in my indifference to matrimony to ever be fully won over by the THING. I have been attending weddings for about a decade now, devoid of the latent animosity I hear women who have been gripped by the THING feel. Amidst my happiness for the couple, a silent “When will it be my turn” has yet to whisper its way into my psyche. When I am at the beginning of a new relationship, I don’t ask trick questions that are designed to decipher if the object of my affection will be ready to walk down the aisle in roughly a year or two.

I figured this was one battle of modern single womanhood from which I had been exonerated.

Until….

I attended a very symbolic wedding. The bride was a friend and former colleague whose presence at the school where we both taught has been missed since she left. The other bride was this friend’s girlfriend of 5+ years.

There was nothing particularly unique about Monique and Michelle’s wedding. A get together at Monique’s childhood home the afternoon before the ceremony in which she and her future wife gave out gift bags to all those who had helped plan their wedding. Loving wise cracks from one of the bride’s father at the reception, where he admitted: “the only time Monique disappointed me was when she went to that college in Ann Arbor….but she met her life partner there so I guess I can forgive her for that.” There was a meticulously planned ceremony that expressed the personalities and cultures of the couple. There was an endless parade of professional and amateur photo sessions that made me wonder just how stressful weddings are for the people who star in them. Food. Grown up beverages. Lots of smile. Lots of love. Nothing too unique as far as weddings go.

Except….the state of Michigan didn’t deem Monique and Michelle’s commitment worthy of legal recognition.

It was this fact that made me truly envious of the love that marriages, in their purest form, represent. Monique and Michelle decided to follow the African-American tradition of “jumping the broom.” When this tradition showed up in the ceremony, I naturally assumed it was just another standard way of honoring the Black American experience. Until the minister explained the tradition to the uninformed. “Slaves’ marriages were not legally recognized in this country. They developed this tradition of jumping over the broom as a way of having a concrete symbol of being married. As the brides honor this tradition today, they want you to reflect on the reality that their commitment is treated with the same disregard as the marriages of the ancestors of one of the brides here.”

So, Monique and Michelle spent thousands of dollars (and twice as many planning hours) on this wedding to stand in front their families and friends, committing their lives to one another with the complete understanding that they would not be “really” married? What was the point of this ceremony?

The answer to this question is what I now realize the women who have been completely gripped by the THING really desire. It is what I and every other living being intrinsically seek the older we become. Love that goes beyond fickle feelings of passion and romantic euphoria. Love that even extends beyond the two people who are at its center. Love that connects two families; thus making the two individuals in the love responsible not only for each other, but also accountable to the many people who were instrumental in forming them into the people who had the courage to commit to each other.

So, this matrimony thing is much bigger than the wedding dress? It is of much greater significance than the exchange of rings and vows? It is two people saying, “We need you here to witness this. When arrogance, selfishness, doubt weasel their way into the life we have created and try to convince us that we don’t have to bother anymore…we brought you here so you could remind us that we promised each other and all of you to do the hard work of loving.” It is that sentiment, that unabashed need for the kind of love that requires the love of extended family and friends that almost brought me to tears. Here, these two women understood the REAL reason why we marry. They understood it so much they took it on with none of the built in safety nets that their heterosexual counterparts receive with no questions asked.

The THING has won. I want to love that completely. Whether or not I marry is still irrelevant to me. What has become more relevant is my desire to become the person who accepts that such a level of love is what contributes to my humanity. It is what makes me like every other human being. Perhaps, that is what the THING ultimately does to you. It shakes you out of your youthful delusions that you are somehow different. That the way to do adulthood is to reinvent the wheel. Redesign the whole entire bike until the ride is much more difficult and complicated than it need be.

The THING is over 30 itself. (It is probably well into its 40s, actually) It likes things simple and plain. When people are in relationships, they compromise. When people are hungry, they cook. When people love, they commit.

Love, Actually: Lesson Learned

Several months ago, I enrolled myself in an independent study course.  I was going to learn more about love.  In all its forms.  From those who had been treated fairly by it and those who had been repeatedly burned by it.  I would engage in a series of conversations about love with friends, my only expectation being to gain insight about love from others’ life experiences.  In this self-guided course, I have also used more than conversations with friends as resource material.  I have also been watching clever romantic comedies that manage to honestly and wisely portray love’s complexities without giving in to sentimentality or relying on the trite depiction of a modern day, “independent” woman suffering through lonely nights of bitterness until some  random mediocre man enters her life and chases all the suffering away.

Recently, I watched the well-written indie rom-com, 500 Days of Summer.  Unique in its take on love, 500 Days follows an overly romantic young man, Tom, who spent much of his boyhood fantasizing about meeting “the one.”  When he does meet her (Summer), he is so blissful enjoying the reality of what had until now been only a fantasy, that Tom is left crushed and unable to function when Summer inevitably breaks up with him.  For the next 500 days, he replays all the memories he shared with Summer, trying to do what brokenhearted lovers have attempted since humans crawled out of trees several hundred years ago.  Figure out how such amazing memories could have culminated in a painful, abrupt end and more importantly, load those memories with enough power, enough sincere hope, that they would magically summon his soul mate back  into the fantasy he had spent most of his life envisioning.

Critical to Tom’s ability to move on was his personal little yoda: his 12 year old sister.  In all of the conversations I have had so far in my course on love, this little sage shared the most insightful tidbit of knowledge.  “I don’t know why you thought Summer was the one,” she admits to Tom one day.  “I never did.  When you go back and look at everything you think the two of you had, maybe you should look twice.”

For the past year or so, I had been looking back on the memories I shared with my male version of Summer.  Much like Tom, there was an almost constant replaying of the moments in our relationship that for me, signified our status as hopelessly in love.  When I voluntarily reviewed these memories, they brought me equal amounts of comfort (it was good while it was good) and confusion (if it was so good, why didn’t it last).

Tom looked at his Summer memories twice.  And so did I.

Much like Tom, a second scanning of my heartfelt memories with the male Summer revealed me to be an expert in revisionist history.  Upon second viewing, the memories I most cherished held glaring signs that what the ex and I shared was pretty much doomed from the start.  My favorite memory was the one where he was introduced to my friends.  At a small dinner party in my apartment, he was charming and loving, draping his arm around me several times and making sure everything was running smoothly.  During the requisite how-could-this-go-wrong months following my first break up with him, I thought long and hard about that night.  How he seemed so eager to be my boyfriend.  How his whole demeanor that night seemed to scream: “I am falling in love with you.”

That astute 12 year old gave her brother some damn good advice. Like an obedient Tom, I relived that night slower, with more clarity.  Looked twice.  What I saw was the part of that night that was more convenient not to remember.  When my friends had gone home and we were going to bed, I told him proudly: “I can tell my friends really liked you.”  The second scanning brought back his look of discomfort.  His avoidance of talking about the dinner that had just happened and the realization I didn’t need to voice out loud because it had already settled solidly in my bones: He is unsure about this.  He does not want to be here in the same way I want him to be here.

Almost every memory that had served as evidence of my being in a “healthy” relationship did not hold up under a second, more thorough viewing.  It is slightly ridiculous how flimsy the memories really became.  How paper thin our relationship had always been, without my noticing. After thoroughly scanning my cherished memories, I was able to revise a common cliché about l.o.v.e.  No, love is not completely blind; it just needs glasses.

It took Tom a few more weeks before he could admit the truth of his love for Summer.  That it was one-sided.  That he had chosen a woman who was indifferent about him and openly disinterested in commitment, particularly commitment to HIM.  And perhaps the hardest for anyone to admit: He knew all of this.  In the deepest part of him, he knew the love story taking place in his head was not the one playing out in his life.  But, he went along with it anyway.

I am happy to report I am much smarter than Tom (and almost as smart as his sister).  While Tom was still refusing to believe he had revised a great deal of he and Summer’s  history, I was deleting my Summer from my phone.  After months of justifying why I should not completely erase him from my life, the deletion process had become amazingly easy.   I simply held  firm to the truth of our memories and what our relationship really was instead of what I remembered it to be.

The love-clouded mind is truly an unreliable source.  It is shrewd in its ability to write a complete work of fiction and then pass off its creative little novel as a memoir.  Perhaps the lesson isn’t to look twice at your memories of passionate love, but to be aware that your mind is not always accurate.  And memories, although comforting, can also be quite misleading.

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