simply me

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despite my own discomfort with that girl that incessantly talks about her perpetual singlehood, in some ways i believe i have become the very thing i despise. don’t think it’s not lost on me. in fact, i’m making a concerted effort to rid this blog of as much debbie downer-ness as it relates to the absence of a plus one as i can consciously manage. but the reality is, it’s not always of my own account that my singleness becomes sparkling dinner conversation. i get asked often, just as i would about the status of my family, job, and latest trader joe’s obsession. it’s an aspect of my life that can, at times, be of interest to both friends and strangers alike. and that’s okay. objectively speaking, it is still quite endearing to have someone show genuine concern over my marriage-less plight. but aside from “he’s just stuck in traffic” i’m kind of running out of things to say once the question is inevitably posed.

but this past weekend i stumbled upon a few articles that made me look at things entirely differently. they were all written by sara eckel, a full-time freelance writer and now published author who has made it her personal mission of sorts to write about another side of singlehood, the side that doesn’t point the finger at the singleton for the reason of his/her own solitude, but challenges the idea that maybe, just maybe, the right person simply hasn’t come along yet. sometime’s it’s not you.

the first and oldest discovery of the essay trifecta, “take me as i am“, was published in 2009 in self magazines may issue under the “happiness” portion of the periodical. my favorite parts are called out below:

Then, somewhere over Pennsylvania, it suddenly hit me: I didn’t need a therapist. Nor did I need to go on a meditation retreat or start cooking myself gourmet meals. I wasn’t still single because I’d failed to meet some mysterious standard of emotional development. I was single because I hadn’t yet met the right guy. That, I realized, is what I’d been trying to get my friends to tell me during my many whining sessions. I wanted someone to look me in the eye and say: “There’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t need to change or fix yourself—you just need a little luck.” As I gazed out at the sunrise through the plane’s oval window, I finally accepted that however long I waited, no one was ever going to say these words to me. But that was all right, because now, finally, I was saying them to myself. And most importantly, I actually believed them.

When I got back home, I declared my self-improvement project officially complete. If I ever found someone with whom I wanted to share my life, he’d have to take me as is.

It would be nice to say that I met my boyfriend the next week, or even the next year, to be able to draw a neat line between my epiphany and romantic bliss. Instead, my life proceeded pretty much as it had before. But something inside me had shifted: I no longer took my single state personally. I stopped reading self-help books and started volunteering for local political campaigns and tutoring at a drop-in center for preteens. I didn’t meet any men doing those things, but that was OK because, unlike my earlier forays into various activities, that wasn’t my intention.

At no point did I reach a place where I felt so fulfilled that I wouldn’t have welcomed a kind, handsome best friend to spoon with me each night. But I stopped criticizing myself for feeling a void—which relieved me of the pressure to be the perfectly autonomous single woman I’d always thought I was supposed to be.

I also stopped complaining. When someone asked why I was single, I responded, “I don’t know.” I didn’t solicit advice or feedback, nor did I offer a self-righteous speech about how freeing it was to be alone or how content I was with my friends, my books and my dog. I was neither fabulous nor pathetic. I was simply me. (read full article)

then i found a similar article in the new york times archives. entitled “sometimes it’s not you,” i could have highlighted and dog-eared nearly every single one of her sentiments:

When my long-ago date asked that question — “What’s wrong with you?” — I was, of course, outraged. I finished my drink, said I had to get up early. But honestly, his question was no worse than the one I asked myself nearly every day. It wasn’t full-blown self-loathing, more a hollowness that hit me in the chest at certain times — a long subway ride home from a mediocre date, a phone conversation with a married friend who suddenly said she has to go, her husband just took the roast out of the oven.

My solace came from the place where single women usually find it: my other single friends. We would gather on weekend nights, swapping funny and tragic stories of our dismal dating lives, reassuring one another of our collective beauty, intelligence and kindness, marveling at the idiocy of men who failed to see this in our friends.

Mostly, we would try to make sense of it all. Were our married friends really so much more desirable than we were? Once in a while someone would declare that married women were actually miserable, that it was they who envied us. But this theory never got too far — we knew our married friends wouldn’t switch places with us, no matter how much they complained about their husbands.

Of course, there are many popular books and television shows that detail the lives of such women, but in those stories adorable men constantly approach the heroines in parks and bus stops and ask them to dinner. The sitcom single woman is never alone for long. She skips from one man to the next, changing boyfriends as frequently as she does purses. My friends and I had various dates and mini-relationships, but mostly we were alone.

While many of us watched and enjoyed these shows — and didn’t entirely mind when people remarked that our lives were “just like” the protagonists’ — the stereotype they created of the over-30, man-hunting singleton cast a shadow over us. Being an unattached woman who would rather not be somehow meant you were a nitwit, a bubblehead who had few concerns beyond shopping, pedicures and “Will he call?” My friends and I had no interest in shopping or pedicures, but that didn’t stop us from feeling wildly embarrassed that we longed for love.

…Professing a need for love could also be taken as evidence that you weren’t ready for it. One December night when I was having drinks with a married male friend, he grew exasperated with my (admittedly annoying) complaints about having to spend yet another holiday season without a partner. “Sara, in almost every way you have it together,” he said, “but on this one topic you turn into this ridiculous girl!”

Like single women everywhere, I had bought into the idea that the problem must be me, that there was some essential flaw — arrogance, low self-esteem, fear of commitment — that needed to be fixed. I needed to be fixed.

…So I grew my hair out. I took bubble baths. And, of course, I started examining my issues. Was my failure a result of my latent commitment-phobia (cleverly masked as really wanting commitment), as one helmet-haired expert implied? Did I feel inherently unworthy and broadcast that low self-assessment to every man I met? (Another gentle suggestion.) Did my failure to “love myself” mean I was unable to love another?

A lot of good things happened during my period of constructing Sara 2.0. I went to artists’ colonies, taught storytelling to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, adopted a rescue dog, learned to do a handstand — all under the banner of “Learning to Love My Single Life.” And I made sure everyone knew my life was super-duper awesome with or without a man — my adorable apartment! my fulfilling career! my amazing friends! But I also knew I couldn’t play that card too often, lest the Greek chorus conclude that my well-oiled life left no room for love. As a male friend once told me, “Sometimes you see a woman who has her act together so well that you think, What does she need me for?”

My efforts yielded many friends and filled my calendar with fulfilling activities. I went on Internet dates, speed dates and blind dates. I had great hair and a confident smile. But I was still alone. And in the dark of Saturday night, I still asked myself, “What’s wrong with me?”

Mark and I dated for a month before I revealed my shoddy relationship résumé. When I did, he shrugged. “Lucky for me,” he said, “all those other guys were idiots.”

And that was it. To Mark, I was not a problem to solve, a puzzle that needed working out. I was the girl he was falling in love with, just as I was falling in love with him.

Six years later, this past June, he and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. My close friends — the ones with whom I had shared many impromptu therapy sessions — had come to the wedding in a small Brooklyn park. And so had their husbands.

Did we find love because we grew up, got real and worked through our issues? No. We just found the right guys. We found men who love us even though we’re still cranky and neurotic, haven’t got our careers together, and sometimes talk too loudly, drink too much and swear at the television news. We have gray hairs and unfashionable clothes and bad attitudes. They love us, anyway.

What’s wrong with me? Plenty. But that was never the point. (read full article)

finally, i came across her most recent new york times article, “the hard-won lessons of a solitary life,” published just this past thursday, and i marinated on her words again, savoring them like the last morsels of a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. yes, yes, a thousand times yes, i thought. i nodded my head along with her as i sat on the couch in the middle of the salon saturday morning with enough tin foil in my hair to get reception from the nearby resident’s television set.

If you have lived alone for two decades, it also means you can’t subconsciously (or directly) blame your partner if your professional or creative life hasn’t worked out as well as you had hoped. Whatever career and financial mistakes I’ve made (and there have been some doozies) are mine and mine alone. When you meet your partner at 40, there’s no mental backtracking: “I could have been a senior V.P. by now if we hadn’t moved to Tucson for his job,” or “I could have been a rock star if I hadn’t had to cover everyone’s health insurance.”

Most important, I’ve realized I never needed a long boyfriend résumé for the experience. In the 20 years before I met Mark, I learned a lot of hard lessons: how to be a self-respecting adult in a world that often treats single people like feckless teenagers; how to stand at cocktail parties while my friends’ in-laws asked me if I had a boyfriend; how to have warm, friendly dinners with strangers I had met online as we delicately tried to determine whether we could possibly share our lives together; and how to come home to an empty apartment after a rotten day at work.

I realize these less-than-giddy examples may conjure up those deadly words: “desperate” and “pathetic.” But I wasn’t desperate. If I had been desperate, I would have settled for a relationship I felt ambivalent about because I was afraid to be alone. Instead, I learned to relax into the open space of my quiet home and unknown future. I also learned there is a difference between feeling something unpleasant (loneliness, longing) and being something shameful.

Being a single person searching for love teaches you that not everything is under your control. You can’t control whether the person you’ve fallen for will call. You can’t force yourself to have feelings for the nice guy your best friend fixed you up with. You have no way to know whether attending this or that event — a co-worker’s art opening, a neighbor’s housewarming — will lead to the chance encounter that will forever alter your life. You simply learn to do your best, and leave it at that. (read full article)

so i tweeted at sara, simply saying that her article was just what i needed to hear and that it was not only beautifully written but also inspiring. if someone writes something that moves me, i’m a big fan of letting the author know. and in an awesome turn of events, hours later, i got a notification that sara had favorited my tweet. in the regular world, this might not mean much. but in shawna world, this was the equivalent of getting a sweater for half off at j.crew. it made my day and my weekend and all i want to do now is tell people all about it.

but my strides in the twittersphere aside, discovering sara eckel’s essays and, well, sarah eckel overall, was like tapping into an inner confidence that i had for a time forgotten. her words are the words i want to remind myself. the words i want to tell others when they ask the ominous single gal questions. and most assuredly, the words i want to remind my other single girls of when they lose hope that their guy is on his way.

her book, it’s not you: 27 (wrong) reasons you’re single comes out tomorrow. it’s already in the queue for downloading to my nook. 

image via: happily grey.

image via: happily grey.

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