I confess I have never been a fan of Valentine’s Day, even in the best of circumstances. I always suspected that Hallmark invented the damn day to offload all the pink ceramic bunnies leftover from the previous Easter. Especially during times of singledom, V-day can feel like lemon juice in a freshly opened wound.
Like many people, creating a stable and healthy love relationship has been a life-long challenge.
On my 35th birthday, while driving to teach an early morning class at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado, I passed a huge speed limit sign on the highway.
“35,” it said.
“Why don’t you add, ‘AND STILL SINGLE,’” I screamed.
It did not respond. I broke down and sobbed at the stoplight.
That was 15 years ago. I’m now 6 months away from my 50th birthday, and still single. That is probably the hardest sentence I’ve ever written. The shame and embarrassment are nearly overwhelming. I feel like a big fat failure. From Ego’s perspective, it feels disastrous. My Ego has been pummelled, destroyed, beaten to a pulp.
From a different perspective, however, this is great news.
Ego can’t hide anymore. We (Ego and I) (I and I?) can’t deny that life does not go as planned, or hoped. I am forced to accept the reality of my situation: that my desires have not been satiated. Suffering is real.
I wrote a whole book trying to come to terms with those feelings. So today, despite the terror that says “DO NOT publish this on your blog, what are you nuts?” I’m going to share an excerpt with you from my soon-to-be-released memoir, Diary of a Pilgrim: [deep breath]
Maybe my grandmother was right.
“You know what’s wrong with you, Deary? “ she said. “You’re too smart for ‘em. You need to learn to keep your mouth shut.”
Is that how it works? Play dumb and I’ll get my man?
My mother never questioned whether or not to marry and have a family; until 50 years ago, marriage and children were the assumed outcome of a woman’s life. My mother could expect to be supported by a man. She majored in Home Economics and married my father while still students at University of Miami.
Just a few decades later, it’s a completely different ball game. It’s fantastic that I am free to travel the world on my own, create my own life doing what I love and have the satisfaction of earning enough to pay my own way. But my generation was the first to explore that territory that Ms. Steinem won for us and she didn’t leave any maps. Women in my generation were mostly expected to work. It wasn’t really an option, especially for those of us who grew up in single parent households. Most of us women from this generation generally live an independent life before we consider starting our own families, so the dynamics have shifted. I don’t think they even offer degrees in Home Economics anymore, do they?
When I lived in Bhutan and India, the second question people usually asked (after: “Where are you from?”) was, “Are you married?” When I replied in the negative, I heard the whole gamut of responses: curiosity, suspicion, and judgment.
“Why not?” they wanted to know.
Some older women were in awe and quite openly envious.
“You mean you don’t have to cook for someone every day? So lucky!”
One twice-divorced man in Nepal replied, “Great! Then you can devote your time to spiritual practice.”
I loved that man’s response. Because some days are hard. Sometimes I hear the unspoken questions more loudly than if they were said out loud. Some days my one and only wish is to be able to utter that golden epithet: my wonderful husband.
Instead, my inner critic bombards me with its own selected commentary:
“Why can’t you maintain a stable relationship?”
“Why aren’t you like everyone else?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
Is there something wrong with me? Some days I wonder.
People are uncomfortable with a woman of a certain age who has never been married. A spinster. Old maid. Prude.
Some go into denial. “Oh you’ll meet someone and have babies just when you least expect it.”
Some blame me. “You choose the wrong kind of men.”
Some pity me patronizingly, letting their eyes glaze over as their head tilts imperceptibly to the left and give a ‘there there’ sort of condolence.
“She never married, we always wondered if she was a lesbian.”
And so on.
The truth is, I am conflicted. The traditional prize promised to me as a bright, beautiful, young girl from a respectable family line (home, husband, happiness, holidays) has not been forthcoming. And yet in its place is the Whole Wide World. Freedom. Independence. Creativity. Wealth. Adventure. The opportunity to pursue my spiritual path. I know I would be miserable as a caged bird, and yet life alone can sometimes be frightening. Who would know if I electrocuted myself in the bathtub in some obscure hotel in India? (Come to think of it, obscure Indian hotels don’t have bathtubs, but that’s beside the point.) What if I encountered a group of crazy Cambodians on a lost backstreet? (OH wait, I have.) But the safety and protection of the promised life is an illusion. Am I not better off accepting and even appreciating the truth that we all come here and leave alone? Isn’t it better to face my existential dilemma head on?
Do I accept my role as fore-runner in a generation with new territory to conquer? Write this off as my tragic character flaw? Bitch, moan and cry that some men are cruel, heartless bastards? The truth is I have been through the relationship wringer more times than I care to admit, and I am just now learning to see my part in the process. I am wrung out, finally. It’s humbling to say the least.
Maybe my grandmother’s advice held weight in her generation. For her, silencing her voice may have been a matter of survival. But the times have changed. For me, my greatest downfall has been NOT using my voice. Sure, it’s good to know when to keep your mouth shut sometimes. But I have kept quiet when I needed to speak up and ask for what I need. I’ve remained silent when I needed to say NO to disrespect. To protest when someone is careless with my heart.
And that’s a crime against all women, and men who want to escape that old paradigm of oppression. So that’s not happening any more.
Maybe we as women need to let our men know that it is no longer fashionable to disrespect us or keep us quietly under their thumbs. Maybe the sacred feminine voice is our greatest asset and men of the old regime should listen to us for a change.
My Valentine’s Day gift to you
The gift in all this is that I’ve learned strength. I’ve had to learn skills over the years and learn how to heal a broken heart. One of the best ways I know to do that is a practice called tonglen, from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Tonglen translates as “sending and taking,” and the practice is about exchanging our own suffering with that of others, to eventually realise that suffering is the doorway to compassion. This is the most powerful practice I know for working through heartache of any kind. Click here to listen to a guided meditation I recorded just for you. Because you are worth it!