Learning to be alone: The struggle

The cognitive dissonance in our culture is strong. We say one thing and yet we do another. Whether it’s climate change, racism or interpersonal relationships, we struggle with uncomfortable truths and instead cling to immature hopes and dreams, because the vast majority of us have never been taught to face life as it is and to take that reality, no matter how uncomfortable it is and work for something better.

Today’s post is a departure from my usual fare because I am grappling with some issues and, as a writer, the only way to work things out is to write.

It’s been a little over two years now since I left my husband. It was not a dramatic ending—simply two people who, despite loving each other, were simply not meant to be life partners. Instead we now soar as friends, coparents and business partners. To say that we confuse people is an understatement but we found the courage to accept that love is not enough and that we are simply too different to be life/romantic partners. The differences that endear our friends to us can make for many uncomfortable moments in a marriage.

Ours is a culture that lives for love and too often the endings of relationships are seen as a sadness rather than the end of a single chapter (or a few chapters…or several) in the book of our lives. Too many of us run from relationship to relationship looking for our next hit of love because it’s what is expected.

For cis-gendered, heterosexual  women, the pressure to be paired up starts early on in life. I was raised in a family where women were expected to marry. All your achievements are great but a husband and kids is the crowning achievement. I learned that lesson early and married at 18 and again at 24. While many women today don’t marry as early in life as I did, for many of us, marriage or a life partner is our end goal and anything less than that feels like failure.

In the two years since the former spousal unit and I split up, there are a few questions that have become so normal, I know when to expect them. Have I met anyone else and has he met anyone else?  In other words, have we moved on? I thought when I left the family home, I had moved on but apparently, one must have a new partner to truly move on.

When we first split up, I knew that I wanted to spend some time alone figuring out my life. After all, it took getting into my 40s to finally be alone and standing on my own two feet sans a man. The reality is that I didn’t even spend a full year alone (if memory serves it was about 11 months) before meeting someone.  It was a complicated and brief affair that served to solidify a few things for me. I am not interested in marriage, living with anyone or additional kids. In fact, those are my three non-negotiables and I am not interested in wasting anyone’s time.

Since that relationship ended early this year, I have vacillated back and forth about whether or not to date again or to simply make peace with being alone. The truth is it’s a hard decision. I am a woman with needs and frankly, it would be lovely to have a companion to attend events with (including my own work events, which is another layer of complication) and just to have a special person in my life. On the other hand, my life is full. I have one kiddo still at home, my son and his family including my grandson, and a host of friends and colleagues. My professional life is full and I am filled with goals that only now am I in the place to work on.

My latest adventure in dating has left such a bad taste in my mouth that now more than ever, I am questioning whether I have the intestinal fortitude to even deal with the madness of dating in a swipe right or left world. It’s also making me examine why being alone, especially at middle age, feels so challenging. Is it because no matter what we say, we judge the unpartnered? We have created a world that assumes one is partnered and when they aren’t, it feels wrong even though we never question why it seems wrong.

This past summer, I took a mini-vacation alone and it felt like such a huge leap to experience pleasure alone and yet in the end, I had a fun and relaxing time by myself. Too often, though, such moments are viewed as an exception and not the rule.

How often do women feel incomplete without a partner? How often do we send the message that a woman is incomplete without a partner?  Why have we created the narrative that essentially tells us that our real life begins when we settle down with someone rather than seeing that what we are living is our real life whether we are partnered or not?

More importantly, how often does the societal expectation creep in and affect us in unconscious ways?

I wish that I could say that I have the answers to these questions but instead I am trying to figure them out myself. In the meantime, I am working on learning to love and cherish my solitude and make peace with my life in this moment. To see that being alone is not a curse but actually a blessing as it allows me the time to pursue the things that are important to me.

If you are over 40 and unpartnered, I would love to hear from you. How do you fight the societal expectation to be a duo act instead of a solo act?


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On holidays and assumptions…

The holiday season is barreling down on us. In a few days here in the States, families will gather together to gorge on a dry bird doused in fattening gravy with a plethora of sides and a healthy dose of football games and conversations. Never mind that the roots of Thanksgiving should give us all a healthy case of heartburn; no matter what, it is accepted as a cultural norm that from now until the end of the year, we will come together, eat too much and hopefully have a groovy time.

Except that for millions of people, the holidays are anything but that idealized dream that is served up as a societal norm, so much so that we feel perfectly comfortable asking people we barely know about their holiday plans.

Until 2001, every Thanksgiving in my life was spent with my family of origin. Some years it sucked, some years  it was great but until 2001, that was my norm. Then I moved to Maine and the first year in Maine, traveling home to Chicago for the holidays simply wasn’t practical and then in my second year in Maine, my mother was ill and we put a hold on turkey day so that my mom could recover, never realizing that in a few short months, she would be gone…forever. In fact it was on Christmas Day 2003 that we would learn that her cancer had metastasized to her brain.

Thanksgiving 2004, my dad and brother made the trek to Maine and I attempted to keep the family traditions going but the truth is that for our family, the winter holidays would never be a joyful affair. The loss of our leader combined with the fact that her last holiday season on earth had been our personal hell just took the joy out of the season.

I would later attempt to create my own traditions as is often suggested especially after my daughter’s arrival. But being a tiny family in a place with no family and not really any close friends either often meant the holidays for us didn’t feel much like any other day except that I was worn out  by a day of cooking and cranky as hell, so much so that we all agreed that my cooking the holiday feast was a bad idea. Thus the tradition of gussing ourselves up and going out to eat on Thanksgiving was born. The first year it felt strange but with each subsequent year especially after the eldest child went off to college and couldn’t always make it home, thus reducing us to a trio, it made sense. For Christmas we decided to opt for Chinese for dinner with me preparing a reasonable brunch with homemade cinnamon rolls during the day.

Yet in choosing to find a way to get through the season of joy while not entertaining  the ghosts of a life long gone, it is has been interesting to see the reactions of others. Yet I am interested in why we assume that everyone approaches the holidays from the same paradigm. Considering that families are getting smaller and more spread out, why does this notion of a picturesque holiday season loom so large in our collective thoughts? Why, in our attempt to connect and make conversation, do we feel it appropriate to ask people we barely know about their holiday plans? I suppose one could say that I may be thinking too much on the subject but after finding myself engaged in one too many conversations about my own upcoming holiday plans, I was reminded of conversations with a dear friend who is almost 50 and single by choice. He has no kids and isn’t particularly close to his family of origin. Some years ago, I admit to being baffled by his comfort at what seemed at that time “odd” to me only now to realize that perhaps it was odd of me to bring my baggage to his door on holidays.

The truth is that growing numbers of us are living lives that fall outside of the Ward and June Cleaver dream. We live in an era where family relationships are destroyed or altered over Facebook postings yet we cling to this idea that we will get together, break bread and it will be joyful. But at the same time, it makes us uncomfortable with other people’s comfort at accepting the hand that they have been dealt when it comes to family.

Early in my career, I worked at a homeless shelter and homeless shelters don’t exactly close for the holidays…hey homeless person, go back out on the streets today so that we get  the day off…nope, it doesn’t work like that. Being the low lady on the organizational totem pole, it meant that I had to work holidays, which meant a few years of truncated visits with my own family on the holiday. My mom, bless her heart, was pissed but she understood. Yet seeing people in the world who truly were alone and reliant on the kindness of strangers in many ways has served me well as I navigate a life that falls outside of the norm. I am comfortably uncomfortable with the remains of family that I have; after all, what are my options?

While I may be comfortably uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean that I want the pity of others just as my old friend didn’t want my pity. Instead we ought to do a better job of holding space and accepting that we all walk different paths. For me, it’s the pitying tones that just set me off because it’s in those moments that I feel like “other.” Gee, I am a Black, middle-aged woman in Maine, newly separated and I have virtually no family aside from one sibling and an aging father…can you say: Stands out like a sore thumb? I can’t raise all the family members lost to early death up from the dead. I cannot manufacture a life that does not exist. Instead I wish that we would make room for everyone’s realities and experiences. In fact I am convinced that if we did this in all areas of life, perhaps we would all be a little better off on this dusty rock. So enjoy the start of the holiday season if you are in a place that celebrates Thanksgiving Day and if you are alone or in a space where you aren’t celebrating the holiday, may you find a moment that feels right to you.
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On islands and change…a personal update of sorts

Growing up in Chicago working class in a good year and downright poor in a bad year, it never dawned on me that regular people lived on islands. Typically, when one thinks of an island, images of warm, tropical spaces and fruity drinks come to mind. Then I moved to Maine, where I would learn there were hundreds of barrier islands, many uninhabitable (or at least uninhabited) but more than a few that were places where real people lived.

Early in my Maine journey, I would meet a woman who actually lived on one of Maine’s barrier islands and throughout my graduate school journey, I would take just enough rides on the ferry to meet with this woman (who became my grad school adviser) to become completely smitten with the idea of living on an island. Of course, I would settle down in a sleepy, near-coastal hamlet in a house about five miles away from the ocean, yet that burning desire to live on an island and be enmeshed with the sea would never fully go away.

Which is why many months ago, when it was clear that the marriage dance was winding down, I reached out to an island-living friend asking her to keep an eye out for a reasonable rental. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would secure a year-round island rental on one of the more popular (with tourists and residents) islands, nor that it would be at a price that I could afford on my salary. Yet sometimes our dreams do come true, even in the midst of the most uncomfortable of times.

In recent weeks, I have fielded many inquiries around my decision to move to an island from people who keep worrying I’ll feel too isolated (ironic, considering how socially isolated I’ve been for 12 years in a mainland town) to my poor family back in Chicago, whom I don’t think quite know what to make of my move…but I suspect they will make peace with it soon enough.

As for me, the closer I am to the sea, the more at peace I am. The older I get, nature feeds my soul but water specifically is what nourishes and recharges me, perhaps it is my Aquarian nature.

Life transitions are never easy, not even when they have been well-planned, and yet it’s a time for a course correction. To tweak one’s life, to search for the life that feels right and not merely like a pair of ill-fitting hand-me-downs that are worn when there are no other choices.

I can’t lie: With an office in downtown Boston and a kid who splits her time between the island and the sleepy hamlet where her dad lives, some days I don’t know whether I am coming or going. My life is coordinated on four different calendars so that my staff, my co-parent and I know where I am supposed to be on any given day. Yet the joy of being in my tiny little space is worth it, and my travel schedule most certainly keeps away any of the isolation that can be part of island living. I think the larger issue for me in managing what increasingly feels like rebuilding my life is accepting the loss of connections…the friends who suddenly treat the marital break as if it were a contagious disease. The empty promises of support made on Facebook that never materialize when you reach out. The questions that border on “none of your fucking business” or the assumptions that are made. The snide comments about me made to my co-parent, which people assume I will never know of because of their assumptions that we couldn’t possibly still be amicable (and, indeed, very close friends still). The wondering if it’s even possible anymore to connect on a deeper level with people in the era of social media connections.

However, through it all, there is the sigh of relief that the tensions that were part of our family’s daily life for so long are dissolving. The muscle pain that I have lived with is lessening as it dawns on me that the many healthcare professional I have seen in the past year may have actually been telling the truth about stress causing my muscles to essentially lock up. The relief at being our real selves and yet still being a family.

In the meantime, I am settling in and allowing myself to go with the flow as I start over and rebuild. The longer I live, it’s clear that sometimes we will have to hit the restart button more than once.
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Black Girl in Maine runs on passion, a need to write, and reader support. If you enjoy the musings, I would be honored if you would please consider making a one-time contribution or becoming a monthly patron. Thank you.