Dating: An Unexpectedly Positive Experience

So, it’s true. I did get called a “stuck-up punk bitch”. And a manhater. But, that was while messaging online. On the other, and much more substantial side of the coin, the four in-person meetups I have had, with four different men, have all been positive in different ways.

The first man wrote one of the kindest dating rejection letters I’ve ever received, in which he said I was awesome and listed out a couple of reasons why (easy to talk to, doing something inspiring and admirable with my divorce/keeping the family together/new partnership). He said he wasn’t the guy for me, and wished me best of luck in my search. It was a genuine note, and I really appreciated it.

The second man and I spent three hours talking at a restaurant, followed by an hour and a half of conversation later on. When he started texting me multiple times a day following that date, and then queried me about my lack of response (in one day), I told him that I’d meant what I said about not wanting to jump into a relationship, and that daily messaging like that felt too much like I was treating him like a boyfriend. He wrote an appreciative text back that started, “Wow, you’re direct. I like and respect that.” He understood and has respected my boundary, and still was willing to extend himself emotionally by telling me that he was really looking forward to our second date. I don’t know if I’ll wind up with romantic interest in him or not (way too early to tell), but so far he’s definitely someone I want to get to know better.

The third man was interesting, direct, very affectionate in nature, very interested in me. I don’t think he’s the guy for me (not a very involved parent, super sure that men and women are fundamentally different in wiring and makeup, a frequent interrupter, among other things). But he was nonetheless respectful, and asked if he could kiss me (thank god, because I HAVE to have that sort of commitment to consent, or I run the other way – too much really negative history) which gave me a chance both to say no and to thank him for asking.

The fourth man was sweet, shy, funny, shared some significant personal history with me, and is an admirable and very involved father. I am not, at least on first blush, attracted to him physically. So I replied to his post-date message telling him that I would like to be friends (which I would; he is someone I want to get to know better). In reply, he sent me acceptance, and a most wonderful compliment it took courage for him to be vulnerable enough to offer, in which he told me “you have a heart-melting smile, so someone that lights your fire should be along soon I’d think”. I was so moved.

This is all a new experience for me. Not adhering that closely to the beauty standard, and as well being insecure and sometimes downright self-hating, I have not been a person who has attracted the interest and attention and desire of multiple men at once. Doing so now feels like a challenge to my self-identity, in fact. But it is also revelatory in various ways. I weigh more than I ever have in my life. But I am as comfortable, if not more so, with my body than I ever have been in my life. I am carrying myself differently. I am inhabiting my body differently. I am more centered, more sure of myself. I am not going on dates worrying about how I look. I am not worrying about whether the guy in question will be attracted to me or like me. I am more open to possibility at the same time that I am not feeling the need for any particular outcome.

And I am meeting men who are willing to share their hearts and minds with me, who have all been kind in different ways, and who have all had interesting stories to tell, and who have been interested in mine. It’s a diverse bunch of people, too, in terms of race, background, profession, etc.

I did some internet dating in 1999, and again in 2005. This is by far the best experience of the lot overall. I think it has partly to do with age: by the time we’re pushing 50, many of us are more relaxed, more experienced, and more open. And it has to do with where I am and how I’m expressing myself.

I’m really grateful.

Dating and Other Social Conventions

I have not ever been much of a dater. I have either been single, or been paired off in a monogamous relationship. Now, at the ripe old age of 48, I am dipping not just a toe but both feet and maybe even a knee into this odd experience. Doing so is rapidly bringing me up against some of my areas of challenge, my discomforts, and the realities of our misogynistic world. It has also been revelatory in unexpected ways.

First off, filling out the “About Me” sections on a couple of the sites was an enjoyable process. I wasn’t thinking at all about how someone would perceive what I wrote or who I am: I just wrote out a thoughtful and to the point description of myself and what I like. And, to my immense surprise, my primary emotional reaction to doing so was, “Hey! I like myself! I am not just saying that I am strong and smart, etc.; I actually believe it!”

I like me. That is an enormous victory. I see that I am an extraordinary person with many gifts, and I am proud of what I have learned, the work I have done, and what I am doing.

Secondly, I am deliberately going against my historical pattern of spending so much more emotional energy on whether someone would or does like me than on whether I like them, that I over-accommodate and react and give away way too much before I’ve even realized it on a conscious level. So this time around I am consciously setting aside the question/projection of whether the guy would like me or not (and I have to keep doing so: this is an ancient pattern, hard to change) in favor of answering the question of whether or not I’m interested in him. I am swiping right whenever the answer to that question is, “Yes”, or even, “Maybe”. I am practicing “Yes”.

Doing so is showing me how automatic and firm our categories are, and how I have obeyed them over the years. Ie., “He’s traditionally handsome and fit. I don’t belong in that category. He won’t be attracted to me, and it’s totally reasonable that he won’t be.” Now I’m attempting to assess, as much as is possible, the whole person presented on the screen in front of me, and to answer my internal questions: “Would I like to have a conversation with this person?”; “Is this person emotionally/psychologically attractive to me?”; “Is this person physically attractive to me?” If the answers are yes, I swipe right, or like the profile. If the answers are no, I don’t.

Thirdly, I am encountering language from which I am usually bubbled off, and having to figure out how and why I am reacting to it in the way I am. For example, I have disliked the words “lady” and “gentleman” for as long as I can remember. One man described me in his message to me variously as, “young lady”, and “sweet lady”. To my significant surprise, when I wrote him back and said that as a feminist, the word lady is outside my vernacular, he had a direct, non-offended, and respectful response which included the following: “I like your profile because of the way you are talking about your past experiences. You write about yourself so freely that I can recognize the feminist you are. Talking about previous partners is not a common thing to see in man and woman profile; that include me too. I admire your courage and again the feminist you are.” So I wrote him back.

The exchange caused me to think more deeply about why I dislike those words. And here it is: they are associated with a morals-based code of thinking, dressing, and conduct which is problematic for all of us, in my opinion, but especially for women. Women who are “ladies” are expected to dress conservatively (don’t be a slut); act modestly (don’t be a slut); speak gently (don’t challenge the “natural” authority of men). Women who abrogate those rules can be punished in a variety of ways, from small to large. If someone calls me a lady, that is likely to tell me that he has expectations of women in particular and me in specific that feel dangerous to me. So many guys feel entitled to the attention, smiles, sexual availability, support, etc., of women. So many men feel entitled to sex if they pay for a meal. So many men feel entitled to a smile if they pay you a compliment. The list goes on.

I am not a lady by the regular definition: while I do my best to be respectful and polite to people in general, I am also direct; sometimes quite authoritative in my manner; have a powerful personality; have a pretty strong libido; don’t dress conservatively; and am only interested in having men open doors for me if they’re interested in reciprocal courtesy from me. Etc. Etc.

So my question is, if a man thinks I am a lady, will he actually respect me? And yes, that turns the traditional equation right over on its head.

Fourthly, I am allowing and encouraging myself to say no whenever I feel like it: not capriciously, but in accordance with my intuition and judgment. A man who does not appear to be interested in self-reflection is a man with whom I don’t wish to have either a friendship or a romance. A man who responds with hostility or diminishing language to my setting of boundaries or being clear is a man with whom I don’t even want to have any further conversation. Instead of accommodating, being silent on the subject, or making excuses, I am setting boundaries and saying no when I want to. I am practicing “No”.

I joked with a friend yesterday that I’m sometimes tempted to use the Evil Willow (from the TV show “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”) line: “Bored now.” I won’t do it, because I am aiming to treat others with respect and consideration. But sometimes I have to resist the urge to include the gif in my messages.

Fifthly, I am very conscious of the fact that women are quite regularly assaulted. Well-behaved women might rarely make history, but they are also frowned upon by quite a significant percentage of society. Going out to meet a man whom I don’t know feels inherently dangerous. And before you say this is an overreaction, look at the stats. I wish it weren’t so. I wish this were just a process of figuring out whether attraction is mutual or not. But it is not that simple. It just is not. And I have that voice in my head which says that if something happens to me, if a man does harass or assault me, I am to a degree asking for it by spending time in his company. That is a hard voice to quiet. So, I will have to take some precautions when I do agree to meet up in person with a man. And I will have to accept the risk. And I grieve and rage that simply by dating, I am increasing my risk. And I am moving forward anyway, because I want to have a full life, including a love relationship.

My conclusion is that dating, like everything else, presents rich opportunities for personal growth. I am hoping for some fun, too.

Matryoshkas, or, “There Be Dragons”

We think we know people. We spend our lives being surprised in ways little and large, when we discover newly observed things about them, or when our projections are revealed as coverings which prevented us from seeing who was actually on the other side. We cannot know anyone fully, but practicing openness and observation, learning not to personalize other people’s being, their actions and their words, can help us know them and us better.

Then there are the coverings we make for ourselves, the layers of person-like substance used to shield or project, to interface or to confuse. Sometimes they’re consciously designed; often they are the accretions of childhood experience, created in parts of our subconscious mind for defense or role-fulfillment, enjoyment, necessity.

I think of Matryoshkas, Russian nesting dolls. I think of dolls made not to blend, but a different personality in each layer, showing the complexities of which we all are composed.

The unexpected revealing of such layers can be a cause of celebration, of trauma, of delight, of pain, of confusion, etc. In any long-term relationship such reveals are inevitable, and can result in anything from rupture to consolidation.

A huge part of my current grief and pain is the shock I feel at discovering that my ex-fiancé was capable of doing things I would have sworn he would not. I feel betrayed, but I have to keep compassionately reminding my inner child that though some of his actions did betray our relationship, the reveal of more of his personhood is not about me at all. And really, as a grown-up I know that people are capable of all kinds of destructive action, as it is part of our human nature. When I look at the first sentence of this paragraph I realize that rather than grieving the fact that he *could* do X, Y, and Z, I grieve that he *would*, and did.

My loss is real, and not real. I did not have what I thought I did. But none of us ever do, quite. Because what we know of ourselves and of others is incomplete.

I am in the middle of a sea-change. I can’t see the shore behind me, and I don’t know where I’m going.

But I believe that we spend our lives creating ourselves, through thought and action, through the choices we make. And so as I open this self-doll to see the next one, I know I have some choice about who/what she is/will be.

As does the man who has been my beloved.

Self-care, modern and ancient

Some things of note in this time, during which I have been grieving the loss of an important relationship, my engagement to my ex-fiancé R.

The other day I was feeling quite uncomfortable in my body, walking home, feeling swollen and blistered and heavy in that self-hating way. So, I started enumerating out loud my body parts and sending them love: “I love my nose, I love my toes,” etc. When I said, “I love,” I meant, “I am sending love to”, and thus making the distinction between “I love = I feel good about”, which is not always possible for me, versus, “I love = I am treating myself with love”, which I can do even when I’m feeling self-disgust or self-hatred.

After several minutes of this, I started feeling better, more comfortable in my body, more at ease. I have to note this for the record so I remember to do it again later.

My friend Z showed me an app last night called, “Habitica”. It is meant to help you stick to your tasks by turning the whole thing into a game where you can go on a quest and get points for carrying out your list. It seems super fun, and has already helped me get this morning’s stuff done more completely than usual. You can also go on joint quests with other people, and we are going to do that. Therefore, you get community and mutual support, communication about your day, etc.

One of the things that I need and want to do, but with which I have been having a hard time getting into the rhythm of consistent practice, is my meditation/breath class homework. This class is based in Sufi traditions, and the homework includes saying repetitions of mantras. It is amazing to me what doing so brings up. This morning I actually did my homework, and it brought up for me the alienation and othering, and the sense of permanent inferiority due to my gender I feel in any context that has a religious element. “God” is portrayed as being masculine in fundamental nature. Therefore, being female, I am other, and I am lesser. This ties in with family of origin stuff. It affects me deeply. As I repeated the mantras, however, I was able to sink beneath the level of gender and access the meaning of what I was saying differently. By the end I was feeling more connected. Like any significant practice, it’s all about the long-game, and not my current mood-reaction, but I appreciate when it helps me in the moment, too.

I have been to a degree not aligned with improving my health and well-being, because getting better means (to that part of me) that it’s really over with the man who has been the love of my life. So I’m trying to treat all parts of me and my heart with compassion. And I know that no matter whether I ever get to have a powerful and mutual romantic relationship again, I am responsible for my own life and well-being, including how I approach things like food and sleep, as well as remembering to reach out and stay connected to my friends & family and wider community.

Now I am going to go buy a printer cartridge so I can print out the music for my next concert (after first tackling my intimidation and figuring out how to install said cartridge in said printer).

One step at a time.

The trap of the Asshole/Wimp dichotomy

I was recently going through Facebook posts from a few years ago looking for speech-related milestones for Joanna. Back then, I posted something every night, just about, on my blog. That is astounding to me. Such a rate of posting is now impossible in my current life. But it was neat to see. I have to remember to print those all out at some point, as a record of my kids’ early years.

Having been reminded of the existence of my blog, however, I decided that I wanted to note some of my thoughts on a topic which has been occupying my brain (and heart) lately. And that is, our cultural definition of masculinity and how it emasculates men.

Obviously, these are my own thoughts, not based on research directly, but on my personal experience and on things I’ve read over the years.

One of the cultural vices society places on women is the Madonna/Whore complex, in which there are only two options for women: be sexually chaste (and ignorant) and thus maintain your virtue long enough to arrive safely at your wedding day; or claim and express your sexuality, and in doing so embody Eve’s sin, damage your value to any husband you might trick into marrying you, and reduce your chances of ever being truly happy to zero.

This post is not about that, but I mention it to demonstrate how it prevents women from experiencing or expressing their whole authentic selves, as well as setting them up for all kinds of pain in relationships. And the answer to the problems presented by the perpetuation of that belief system (given specific life by Freud, of course) is not to attempt to find a magic spot somewhere in the middle, but to walk away from the paradigm altogether.

Similarly, I think, men are presented with two options in our society, from the very beginning of their lives as male-sex-organ-possessing babies. I’ll call this the Asshole/Wimp complex for the purposes of this post. To be more accurate in the way guys who are perceived to fall into the second category are derided, I should really use the slang term for female genitalia, but will desist for the sake of politeness.

Many other people have written about this, of course. But it has recently struck me with force how the definition of strength for men is exactly the opposite of what strength actually is, in my opinion.

I think that two of the most important lessons human beings can/should learn are: a) how to take care of themselves, and b) how to ask for help from others. In our culture, however, asking for help is viewed as such a sign of weakness, that the messaging boys and men receive is that they should resist with all their might even being aware of what they need, let alone asking for those needs to be met. And in lieu of doing so, they become focused instead on what they want, and then those wants get redefined as needs, which leads to a destructive sense of entitlement that has sometimes terrible consequences for themselves and everyone around them.

Men don’t need to rape women. But they’re told that their desire for sex is so natural and so powerful that of course they can’t be expected to contain it in the face of the provocation of all the whores out there. (And yes, of course rape is about all sorts of things, but I think it originates with a sense of entitlement to take what the rapist wants, in an exercise of power.)

Human beings do need connection. We are social animals. But we elide our need for connection with the want of having that connection be made and maintained with a particular person in the way we want it. And we respond to that elision in different ways. Men who are socialized never to admit or communicate what they actually need then sometimes just take what they want because that is the tool they’ve been taught and the tool they’ve exercised. And that is the Asshole side of the equation.

And other men who have been socialized never to admit or communicate what they actually need then sometimes pretend everything is fine while burning with building resentment; or they entirely suppress their awareness of their own needs; or they attempt to redirect those needs into a channel that feels safe to them. And that is the Wimp side of the equation.

As I said above, I believe that the answer to the gender dichotomies presented by society in the polarized characterizations and expectations of men and women is not to try to find a place of balance in between the two extremes (which is truly impossible to do, and equally limiting). Instead, we have to walk away from that construction altogether. But doing so is incredibly difficult, and cannot ever be totally managed. Patriarchy is the air we breathe, after all.

I think it takes incredible emotional courage, strength of will, psychological fortitude, and consistently practiced self-awareness to reject these paradigms.

For me, self-reliance in men looks so different than it has been characterized: it can be seen in a man who can and will put in the effort to be self-aware using both mind and heart to gain that self-awareness; it can be seen in a man who can and does communicate what he needs and wants, accepting that no one person can meet all those needs and/or wants, or is obliged to do so; it can be seen in a man who will allow and encourage other men and boys to explore the full range of their humanity; it can be seen in a man who listens to hear and not to rebut the voices of women and girls; it is a man who will stand up for himself without knocking others down.

We need to be having conversations about what we need, what we want, and what will work in any given situation and relationship. And we have to honestly state those wants and needs before we can move to practical, fair, and balanced solutions to the inevitable conflicts we humans experience.

Men, please say what you need and want. And be prepared for the fact you may not get it. But it is SO MUCH EASIER to figure out what to do with all the relevant data on the table.

Thank you. This has been my personal PSA for the week.

Listening to anger

I get angry a lot. Sometimes the anger is apparent externally, and sometimes it is just simmering within me. Its arrival, regardless of its appearance, demands an instant response. And for me, most of the time that response shows up as criticism. Especially with my kids and my partners, people close to me.

Very, very often, shame follows on anger’s heels, and even mixes itself into my response, twisting it and shutting off the exits, making it hard for me to back down or change course. Because of the shame, part of me feels compelled to emotionally justify my feeling and my response to that feeling.

I get to where I feel pretty disgusted with myself. And then I wish for the impossible: if only I were a nicer person, a better person; if only I didn’t get angry, or I only got angry in a measured way in entirely morally justifiable circumstances.

But what if anger doesn’t truly demand instant action? What if anger is a messenger from within, a demand to pay attention not to the people in my external environment, but to myself? What if it is a clarion call for self-care? What if it takes anger to get my attention, because I’m so used to devaluing what I actually need in the moment?

Suppressed anger toxifies. Instead of flashing like lightning, it rises like gasses in a swamp, coalesces in the gut and drips down as a rain of bile.

I think of myself as an angry person, but I am coming to suspect that isn’t true: the anger speaks, over and over, attempting to get me to hear the message, but instead I react and then choke it (and myself) with shame.

So often the advice given about anger is to stop, count to ten, and then continue talking in a more calm way. This misses the effing point by about a mile. The stopping should be a chance to communicate with oneself, NOT to suppress one’s feelings.

Here is my goal for the month: a) notice when anger shows up; b) stop and ask anger what its message is, telling my kids that’s what I’m doing: “Hang on a minute, I have to listen to myself”; c) determine my self-care steps; d) ask for (or say) what I want (if that’s part of the self-care steps) and/or let my kids know what I need to do.

And in that communication with my kids, remember to give them the reason first and the request second. They respond (as do I) so much better when things are presented in that order.

I don’t want that acid to burn me, or my kids. Anger is necessary. But weaponized anger really hurts people. So I’m going to try to do a better job of listening.

Body image lessons by way of my children

I learned in 3rd grade that I was ugly. I may have suspected it before then, but it was confirmed in the sing-song tones of childish torment that told me I was fat. And I needed no one to tell me that fat=ugly.

Humans come in so many different shapes and sizes. Some people are angular; some people are curved; some people are a mixture.

I am round. I have round arms and legs, round belly, round butt cheeks. No matter what I weigh overall, my body is curved. From very, very early on I learned that I didn’t fit, that I spilled over in ways that should rightfully embarrass me, that my body was shameful and something I should not inflict on other people any more than I had to.

And not too long after that, I learned that it was my fault. I was greedy. I ate too much. I was morally inferior, and it was showed plainly in the shape of the body I inhabited. By the time I was in 7th grade I had come to hate my body. Anyone who told me different was obviously lying, either from spite or in a misguided attempt to make me feel better about myself.

A high school relationship not grounded in consent or good communication did further damage, and by the time I got to college I literally could not feel touch or receive love or appreciation. Stomach churning with my terror of intimacy, I vomited during or after more than one date.

Now, at the ripe old age of 48, I have, by dint of ongoing work, come light-years from that place. I can look in the mirror at myself, and not only not recoil in disgust at the sight of all that fat (as I did for long, long decades), I can see beauty, vitality, evidence of the way I love and move and act in the world. I can see thick wavy hair, dark eyes, strong legs, capable hands, a bountiful chest, and even, sometimes, a belly that stretched and increased in capacity to nurture three human beings in two pregnancies, and whose skin is a map of those gifts.

My two youngest are twins. They are very different from each other, though when we brought them home from the hospital we put fingernail polish on J’s nail so we could be sure that we didn’t get them mixed up. At that time they were alike in their tiny-old-man wrinkled hairlessness, very similar in weight. Now, they are growing into very different bodies and temperaments.

J is taller, slender, lighter-haired, elfin. E is shorter, rounder, darker, powerful.

Looking at E this morning, I realized that her arms are a smaller replica of mine. Her limbs are sturdy, like mine. J’s arms and legs are longer and not just thinner, but a different shape altogether. She has lines where her sisters have curves.

There is a part of me which has really struggled, seeing H, my older daughter, develop a body like mine, too. That self-hating, fat-phobic piece of me which is desperate to see thin rather than thick legs, a flat belly rather than one which is round. I must have compassion for that piece of me, wounded so early and so deeply.

They all eat the same thing, a pretty healthy diet which prioritizes vegetables and protein over carbs.

They look different. They have different bodies. This has nothing to do with failure or weakness. They are different. I was the plump person in a family of thin people. I was not worse. I was just different.

This morning I had an orchestra rehearsal. Walking back to my car carrying my cello in the sunshine, I could access gratitude for my body, with which I make music, hug my friends and family, cuddle my children, make love with my partner, see blue sky, hear birdsong, feel the textures of my clothing, make and taste food. My body, which tells me when I need food or rest, which carries me and nurtures me. My body, which I can decorate. My body, which houses my heart and mind and spirit. My body, which is beautiful with life and vitality, tenderness and expression. I need to keep listening to my body, caring for my body, appreciating my body rather than taking it for granted.

I owe myself just as much love as I wish to offer my children. And while my children do not owe me love, they offer me loving lessons every day. I am grateful for their presence and their authenticity.