2.16.2014

"Just" Friends


“Just friends” is an inadequate expression. It’s dismissive of friendship, as though there were some more precious form of relationship and our “just friend” is standing in for the real thing. “Oh, this old thing? It’s just a cubic zirconia friendship I picked up on sale.” That’s bullocks. Any true friendship is as powerful—if not more powerful—than a love partnership. Time and again, friendships outlast love affairs and marriages. My marriage, anyway.

And yet there is such an allure to romantic entanglement! I long for the thrill of the crush, the obsessive intensity, the ache to be together, the electric shock of physical chemistry! Even writing about it gets my heart rate up.

But I decided that I can’t be in a “relationship” (read: romance) right now, meaning that it’s a bad time for me to meet men. That’s because I have some ISSUES to resolve. Nothing big, just your ordinary, self-indulgent, developmental, spiritual, existential, quintessential, heavy-duty, midlife-crisis kind of shit.

So why not attend to that irrelevant drivel AND step out on the town with a hottie at the same time? Because my mind is a crafty thing. I can rationalize my way into, out of, around, and through anything. I can ignore red flags, turn a blind eye to my soul’s flare guns, and act on misguided instinct with the best of them.

And sometimes choices made in the throes of passion are not healthy for me in the long term. Because when I’m coupled up, my focus turns outward... “Me” becomes overshadowed by “we.” I don’t attend to my ISSUES because I’m too wrapped up in developing this “us” thing.

Now you have to understand, this deliberately single idea is remarkable for me. See, I have no problem committing to faithful (or serial) monogamy, but I struggle mightily to remain alone. Struggle. Mightily. Because when I’m alone, those ISSUES are there waiting for me.

So when it came time to acknowledge the need for a dating hiatus, I dutifully disabled my online dating profile. But not before something extraordinary happened.

I had met up with Dave a few weeks earlier, after we made contact on okcupid.com (or okstupid as it is commonly known). Dave turned out to be a handsome, creative, talented, warm, articulate, affectionate, loyal, well-educated, sexy dude. I’ll give you his number later if you want, but first let me explain what happened with Dave and me.

We embarked on our meeting with the intention of being “just friends.” We had discussed briefly the obstacles to anything else, most notably that Dave is moving to New York later this year. Now typically, when I meet a man whom I find attractive AND who is available, I’m gonna’ go for it, baby! That’s what people do when they meet someone compatible, right?

Except when, like me, they need to work on their ISSUES. Distractions like existential questions have never stopped me before. But at my advancing age, I can’t indulge in the “high” of a romance (read: diversion) at the expense of my personal growth process. So what is a woman to do about this handsome, artistic, talented, warm, articulate, affectionate, loyal, well-educated, sexy dude?

Talk to him. Dave and I shared our relationship histories, our codependent narratives, our mutual tendencies to rush in, eyes a-sparkle, only to be disenchanted when things don’t turn out to be as promising as we’d thought. We fondly recollected all the times we’d played and lost... when the chemistry downshifted and we were left with: friendship?
Uh, usually not. Those firecracker moments at the beginning derailed rationality and higher purpose. Real friendship was never established or cultivated in the first place. So after the smoke clears, there’s that stark moment of revelation when we ask: are we even friends? Or were we “just” lovers?

So Dave and I have challenged ourselves-- individually and collectively—to turn down tickets for that codependent rodeo. I have other things I need to accomplish. And along the way, I just might need a friend.

2.11.2014

Heartfelt

I'm in the midst of a Process (capital P).

It's largely a Process of cracking my little heart open and doing nothing. Just giving it freedom to breathe, change, remain the same, or otherwise be heartfelt.

I've been rather fond of labels. I wield my arrogance and credentials to dub this one "Sir Simpleton" and that one "Lady of Lunacy." I carve the same labels into my skin like scars; I affix them to my identity like sticky notes.

Labels are useful to describe certain things, like grocery items, poison chemicals, street names, and laboratory urine specimens. When slapped onto a human being's forehead with a smear of Gorilla Glue, however, they become less useful. Instead, they're downright pesky.

I expect that there are a few labels that are beyond my power to eliminate or that are a fair estimation of some inborn quality used to distinguish me from other animals. But the other labels I wear around have become tiresome. I don't want to discard classification entirely-- I shall still claim the ones I like: Daughter. Sister. Friend. Creative. Artistic. Funny. Geek. Mind Ninja. Platonic Soulmate... I could go on, but, well, I've exhausted the list of labels I intend to keep.

Hear this.
This is my year to care more about others' minds and less about what those minds think of my ideas, words, appearance, beliefs, and behaviors. It's my year of discarding the stigmas I've carried regarding being "different." My year to claim weirdness, non-conformity, quirks, and balls of odd. And any other kind of balls I choose.

This is my year to care more about myself and judge less. To celebrate rather than evaluate, to sympathize rather than criticize. To create more and edit less.

No more disclaimers. No more explanations. I will not apologize for me any more. Or at least I'll do my best. I SAID it was a Process.

(Note: This Process was inspired in part by this book: Born to Freak: A Salty Primer for Irrepressible Humans Read it immediately, if you know what's good for you.)

Moving On

Like many triggers for growth, it came upon me suddenly: an internal knowing that was reinforced by sign after sign.
 
Nine months into a relationship is a natural time to take an emotional inventory, to hold the thing in your hand and feel its texture and heft. The thing I held in my hand felt the same as when it began, safe and companionable, but hollow. Sweet and fluffy, like cotton candy. And with a similarly fleeting experience of joy, a moment of pleasure soon dissolved and forgotten.
 
Friends would ask: "How are things with Kevin?" My consistent response: "The same. We get along and have a good time." I never called him my "boyfriend," just "the man I'm dating." And that was enough.
 
Until it wasn't. After nine months, even that sounded hollow, necessitating justification for the time invested in a relationship synonymous with "meh."
 
This isn't any criticism of Kevin. In fact, he is a lovely man and everyone likes him immediately. I like him. He is sweet, attentive, witty, generous, affectionate... mild, safe, unthreatening, and, ultimately, utterly unlike me.
 
We had little in common, aside from enjoyment of dining out and sex. (And maybe a little Rock Band action here and there with our self-created band “Butter Spank.”) In fact, I felt very much like an unmarried trophy wife. My part of the deal was to be chatty and sexy and fun. His was to wine, dine, admire, and laugh at my jokes. We shared bedroom responsibilities and rewards.
 
It was an unfamiliar arrangement for me, but it was alluring to be desired and spoiled with gourmet meals and gifts. I knew it was superficial, but I savored the taboo, forbidden aspect of it: in my social circles, intelligent women of substance didn't let themselves be objectified. On the contrary, we insisted on being admired for our sharp wit and informed opinions. We split the check at dinner. We certainly didn't enjoy showing cleavage and getting mani-pedi gift cards from our beaus.
 
Yes, that aspect of letting myself be taken care of rather than cared for as an equal... there was something shameful about it which loomed just beyond my field of vision. It caused me to feel that I needed to justify why I stayed in a relationship that didn't intensify, didn't mature, didn't become more intimate. To justify why I preferred cotton candy over tiramisu.
 
I justified it with some valid reasons. There was a simplicity to it. Our roles were clearly defined and there were no demands. We saw each other weekly, and might stay in touch with a daily text message. One, not dozens, or none at all. And it felt fine. Nobody's feathers were ruffled, no resentments built. There were no long phone calls or confessional emails to be savored over and over. No falling in love. No fear of loss or emotional vulnerability.
 
At nine months, I felt the shadow of a year approaching. What did I have to remember this year by? A year with a man whom I barely knew and didn’t love.
 
I started to feel the power shifting, from the excitement of being a toy to the point where I had outgrown the excitement of the forbidden. And just like with a toy, without conscious decision, you reach a point when the toy is no longer your favorite and you leave it behind because it is... the same. You've outgrown it.
 
At some point I realized (guiltily) that I was unconsciously checking for wedding rings on attractive men at the dog park. Despite my adamant commitment to monogamy in relationships, I was moving throughout the world as though I were single and unattached. And I was, in fact, unattached in most senses of the word.
 
Kevin was a mirror, one that reflected back an idealized and attractive image. He was an agreeable and even-keeled presence that didn't threaten my need for attention and validation. Never an argument, never a complaint. Narcissus' reflective pool. And yes, that makes me Narcissus.
 
Buddhism endorses the concept of non-attachment. One can love and be grateful, but in order to be free from suffering one must accept “what is.” I wasn't suffering—not in the least. But I needed to detach from a relationship that was not serving my spiritual truth.
 
Each moment, we make choices about what to hold and what to let go. Each commitment, object, and relationship potentially stands in the way of something else that might better suit the person we are becoming. Or at the very least, it might reinforce patterns that no longer serve us.
 
I want to make my choices conscious. By letting go of Kevin, I choose to engage in a process of reflection and growth to ensure I don't fall prey to habit or safety—especially when change and experimentation might bring me closer to my best self.
 
Thank you, Kevin.  And goodbye.
 

The Move

I wanted to move. As a young(ish), single professional, I reasoned that I could find a home more suited to my personality and lifestyle, with retro bathroom tiles, wood floors, and indie-rock-loving neighbors. I could even get a cheaper place to save money that I desperately needed to pay my stubborn credit card balance.

I was paying too much for my tiny cinder block place surrounded by weeds, stray cats, and inebriated neighbors with junk cars and piles of trash sharing my driveway. Sure, it was close to work, had good neighbors, and a quaint view, but I wanted to walk to my car in the morning without having to traipse through wet grass, loose dirt, and gravel to where I parked my car. I wanted to wear high heels without getting scuffs just walking to the mailbox. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind having house numbers on my apartment, washer and dryer hookups— even central heating and air! A girl could dream.

The hunt began. I scanned Craigslist, met with property managers, and toured a dozen “adorable” apartments. My sights became attuned to any 12”x18” sign proclaiming “for rent.” I drove for hours on the weekend and after work through desirable and affordable neighborhoods, writing down phone numbers of potential leads. I cruised the areas that were home to my favorite restaurants, quirky shops, and cultural venues… Ooh, five minutes from the Florida Theater… walking distance from brunch at Biscotti’s… a short bike ride to Five Points. I was determined to find a better place, one that carried possibilities of dinner parties and redecorating and sexy rendezvous with a newer, more swanky, and less frank boyfriend than the one who kindly reassured me that my place “isn’t that bad.”

I went through cycles of hope, excitement, trepidation, exasperation, and moments of “almost, but not quite.” I excitedly told friends and family about the impending move. I imagined it would revive my flagging spirit and relieve my burnout at work. The move promised a change of scenery… a fresh start in a place more reflective of my quirky, stylish side. A place with curb appeal and a dishwasher. As simple as my needs were, that sounded like a dream come true to me.

At some point, though, the hunt started to lose its luster. Nothing was quite right. I found a great place in a great neighborhood but someone else just put down a deposit. Then there was the perfect duplex apartment: kindly landlord, washer/dryer, big windows, fully renovated and bursting with character! It was a steal and the place I had dreamed of! The moment I walked in I fell in love. I decided to think about it for a few days. That was when, reluctantly, I was forced to acknowledge its not so perfect location right next to a busy— AND LOUD— train track. Yeah, that.

With each near miss, my attention shifted away from the search for my next home to the unique charms of my current one: a neighbor who was now a dear friend and confidant, a safe yard where my dog Luna and I could play after a long day at work, and the picturesque setting of a tidal creek that soothed me with its cypress-framed vista and soft breeze.

"Adorable" and "bungalow" would be overly generous, but I had to admit that my simple surroundings did have the slightest flavor of a rustic cabin getaway. I lived each day amidst herons and birdsong and brushstrokes of of sunrise and sunset— even rainbows— reflected in the lovely water’s surface. The dock welcomed me home and offered a serene platform for yoga stretches after my run. In season, figs and Japanese plums and pecans were ripe and bountiful for eating straight off the tree. Neighbors shared luscious tomatoes and peppers from their gardens with me and always had a smile and a greeting; yet they respected my privacy completely. I felt safe here. At home.

As I started to let go of the urge to find a new apartment, I sensed a wise part of me tug at my spiritual shirt sleeve like an insistent child. When I stopped long enough to listen, it calmly and firmly asserted this truth: you don’t want to move. You want to move forward.

I didn’t want an apartment, I wanted a renovation of my self. I was keeping myself stuck, overlooking important realities just as I had almost been willing to overlook the deafening train that would have been my neighbor had I moved into my “dream” apartment. I lived frugally but was accumulating debt ever since my divorce. I worked long hours for little pay. I told myself I didn’t mind, because I liked my work and was gaining the experience I needed for licensure. I told myself it would get easier, that I was in transition after the divorce, that I would learn to manage my time better, that this was where I needed to be right now. But all the passion and emotional rewards in the world didn’t satisfy a nagging sense of disappointment and dis-ease.

The divorce was 3 years ago, not 3 months ago. In my work I had accrued the necessary hours for licensure months before. Why hadn’t I moved on? Why didn’t I live in a gorgeous apartment, drive a nice car, and have time to unwind and enjoy? Why didn’t I at least have the counseling license to show for my abilities and experience?

Why? Because I sold myself the myth that I didn’t have a choice. I had chosen the yoke of martyrdom and claimed I wouldn’t be able to move on until I had my license. That excuse held for a while, but there was nothing in my way now except my own self-pity, avoidance, and procrastination. The metaphorical blood was on my hands; I held the incriminating knife of self-sabotage. It was a familiar feeling, one associated with a long tradition unfinished projects, abandoned hobbies, procrastination, somedays, and underachievement.

I had a backlog of messes ranging from a rusty grill in need of gas to a pile of documents waiting to be shredded; unread magazines stashed under coffee tables, clothing to be mended, and vacation pictures boxed with empty photo albums; overdue dental appointments and unanswered emails. The piece de resistance was a small stack of pre-addressed thank you cards from my wedding 8 years before. 8 years! Most had been sent just after the ceremony, but somehow I had allowed myself to put off the most important ones— those to our family members who hosted, funded, and attended to the details of that special ceremony. I told myself they needed special sentiments that would take more time to write. But 8 years wasn’t what I had in mind.

Everything was in bad shape. But professionally, the biggest shadow was cast by the foot-dragging of my licensure application. For months I had been qualified to take the exam. I had completed the required supervised hours that took two long years to accrue. Yet I had avoided making a move. Until now.

Once my tragic neglect of self-responsibility was exposed to the light, tasks beckoned me. Instead of guilty, I felt determined. Motivation overtook complacency. I gained momentum with each small step, and my goal appeared more and more manageable. I diligently applied for testing permission, registered for a test date, set a study regimen, and trudged along through the process of studying until I reached the point of saturation.

I passed the test with ease. I took the required continuing education classes, sent the fee, and now I am a licensed mental health counselor. I now have the credentials to do what I’ve been doing for years anyway. Perhaps it’s just a piece of paper. But to me it represents perseverance. Completion. Integrity.

Now, where did I put those wedding thank you cards?