Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Why I waited

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see some TV commercial or facebook post extolling the virtues of being different. Just the other day I saw an ad for some damn thing, I don’t remember what, where these cool, rebellious people leave a stuffy party and go outside to dance in the rain. Golly, that’s sure stickin’ it to the man. I’ll quickly pass over the obvious irony inherent in asserting to a large audience how important it is to be unique, in part because if I started sneering, I’d be a bit of a hypocrite given the subject of this post. The truth is that no matter how cool it is to think of yourself as unique, the really unique people of the world are laughed at, joked about, teased, and otherwise not seen as desirable for emulation. And don’t think you’re different in this regard; you’ve done it too, edged away from someone marginal, distanced yourself from a fringe element, felt anything from discomfort to outright hostility toward someone who does things in a way that just doesn’t seem right—because it’s not the way you do things, nor anyone you know, and you can’t understand for the life of you why they’d want to do it that way, so clearly there must be something wrong with them.

Want a for instance? Picture this: you’ve just met someone and found out that they are nearly 50 and have never been married. What’s your reaction? Regardless of how you answer that, you probably will have a reaction—because not ever getting married is still, to this day, not mainstream. And, like many things that make a person truly different, this is not one that appeals to a lot of people, for good reason. The thing about being different is that in a conformist culture—and most cultures by definition have a degree of conformity—difference comes with a price.

I chuckle when former students of mine lament “still” being single at 25 or 30. At the same time, I’m not going to tell them they’re better off this way. It is not an easy thing, being alone. For all that we like to think that America is a country of independent individualists, we’ve still got some pretty wide streaks of conformism. Don’t believe me? Tell me, when was the last time you ate in a restaurant alone? I’m not talking fast food or Starbucks; I’m talking about a nice, sit-down, cloth-napkin-in-your-lap dinner, with at least two courses and an adult beverage, and done by choice, not because you were on a business trip and didn’t have anyone to eat with but because you were dying for ratatouille or rack of lamb and didn’t feel up to cooking it yourself. There is no reason why eating dinner absolutely must be a social activity any more than reading a book should be; while you can certainly enjoy talking about the food or the book after you’re done, the activity itself need not involve others. And yet most people are horrified at the idea of eating out alone—or going on vacation alone, going to the movies alone, going anywhere alone. Even staying home alone is something we have to hide or else talk about with jokey pathos—as in, boo hoo, what a loser I am, eating cereal in front of the TV on a Friday night, ha ha ha.

Even if you don’t care what people think about you for being alone, there are still practical matters that make singleness tough. There are things a single person, male or female but especially female, probably shouldn’t do alone. I don’t run alone at night, even in “safe” neighborhoods, and while I’ve traveled solo a lot, there are parts of the world where I wouldn’t want to be by myself—and parts where I would be forbidden to be by myself. And of course there’s the loneliness. Yes, we all know a person can be lonely in any situation, in a crowd, in a family, in a relationship, but when you’re alone, your choices are more limited. If you’re in a crowd, family, or relationship and you want to be alone, you can usually find a way. If you’re alone and feeling lonely, it’s a lot harder to find intimacy other than the fleeting, largely illusory type.

So given how sucky singleness can be, why did I wait? Why am I nearly 50 and about to be married for the first and I’d like to believe only time?

Obviously singleness isn’t always sucky, not in the least. We all know the benefits because, if we’ve spent any amount of time being single, people have told us—we have told ourselves—how great it is. The independence! The freedom! The sense of empowerment that comes from making your own decisions and being your own boss! Yeah, all that, sure, but there are some significant logistical factors to keep in mind as well. First off, I never wanted children, which made getting married far less of an imperative. I like kids well enough, but I always thought I’d be a little like the Laura Brown character in Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours: someone who loves her kids, certainly, and enjoys spending time with them, but gets infinitely greater enjoyment from being alone reading a book. If you know how The Hours ends, you’ll understand why I say I don’t want to be a mother because I don’t want to mess up anyone’s life but my own.

I always felt my own mother was kind of like this, and I don’t mean that as a complaint. Up until I turned 10, my mother was a stay-at-home mom of the blue-ribbon, first-class variety. Crafts, baked goods, beaming smiles at everything my sister and I did, the works. And yet even as a child I had the sense that there was a part of her holding back, something that distanced itself from us and our father. Eventually that held-back part went front-and-center; she started a business, threw herself into it, worked days, nights, weekends, holidays. Sometimes I felt sorry for myself because she didn’t go to my crappy piano recital or wasn’t there to console me when I didn’t get asked to the prom, but right or wrong, she decided she wanted something in life that was hers. That had a huge influence on me, and for most of my adult life I focused on making that life mine.

There are other reasons why I waited. I come from a family long on wanderlust and short on rootedness. We were never part of a close circle of friends and relatives, weren’t members of a church, didn’t participate in community activities, barely celebrated the holidays, pretty much did our own thing at all times. As such, it was very hard for me to do what a lot of girls still do and picture my dream wedding. Who in the world would be there? I remembering hearing someone talk about a “small” wedding of “only” a hundred or so guests. I couldn’t even think of a dozen people I’d invite. Because I didn’t go through that period where everyone around me was getting married and I felt compelled to follow suit, there was no real nuptial timeline for me, no clock ticking, no deadline looming after which point I would be deemed a sorry old maid (or else a closet lesbian, which people still believe even today, as if being a lesbian were something shameful that I would cover up by wasting time pretending to crush on assholes).

Because I never married or had kids, I was able to do a lot of things I couldn’t have done otherwise. This is not to say that I think my life was better this way—or worse. Is it better to get married or get a PhD? To travel the world or raise a child? That’s a pointless question. Neither is better or worse than the other; if you’re fortunate and determined, they are options you can choose in any combination.

In the end, I think I waited partly by choice and partly by randomness. As they say, the right person didn’t come along until now, though honestly I wasn’t looking all that hard, which probably means that I myself wasn’t the right person to get married until now. Marriage is unquestionably a significant aspect of our world—witness how hard people had to fight in recent years to make this truly an option for everyone, as well as the baffling ardor with which other people fought against making it so—and because of this I can’t simply shrug and say, eh, I’m 47 and haven’t been married, so what, no biggie. It is a biggie in the sense that it does define me to a certain degree. Am I sad that this is changing? Not at all. One thing you learn being on your own for so long is to embrace new experiences. Being married may be a known thing for most people, but it’s a brave new world for me—one that, for a change, I don’t have to experience alone.

Monday, January 4, 2016

So, as they say, this happened

January 3, 2016

The BF and I are not beachy people, me because I grew up on an island and it’s frankly very hard to wow me with just any old stretch of sand and sea, him because he grew up in landlocked USA and has spent just about all of his life pursuing interests that have nothing to do with sand or sea. As such, as soon as we recovered from the all-day three-plane journey to Grenada, where the BF is teaching a week-long course at St. George University, we eagerly planned on traveling away from the coast and into the lush, green interior. In particular we wanted to hike the Grand Etang National Forest, located in the middle of the island. The bus system in Grenada is pretty good, but the busses don’t go that far into the interior, and it’s questionable whether any vehicles should go there, since the roads are steep, windy, cracked and potholed, and though traffic goes in both directions the roads at their widest can accommodate approximately 1.47 cars. We were determined to hike, however, so we hired a car and hoped for the best.

“You see way up there? Up there is the best view of the bay.” The driver waved his hand toward some buildings on the tall ridge above St. George. “Up there is the prison. The prisoners get the best view in Granada and they get free meals every day. Very nice, isn’t it.”

Our driver clearly had a good sense of humor, but he also had a somewhat odd sense of what landmarks he felt were necessary to point out to visitors. “Here on the right we have many car dealerships.” He pointed to a row of cars. “Isuzus.” We murmured appreciatively at the Isuzus.

“Up there is where they blasted the mountainside to get gravel to make houses.” We could see the area where he was pointing, stripped away, starkly ugly against the lush greenery. Well, people do need houses, I suppose. We observed the stripped mountain appreciatively.

“Here is a factory. They make flour.”

The BF and I exchanged glances. We had not yet gotten accustomed to the local patois and we weren’t quite sure he’d heard him right. Flour?

The driver sensed our uncertainty. “For baking things.”

Ah, flour. Still we were confused, since it seemed unlikely that Grenada, the only flat section of which extends for approximately one square meter, has managed to cultivate a tropical variety of wheat grown in terraces like rice paddies. “We get the wheat from outside,” the driver continued. Ah, outside. That made sense—sort of. We nodded appreciatively at the factory.

Grenada is frankly a little odd. Its history is like a game of colonial ping-pong between the French and the English, which is why there are a few areas with French names (L’anse aux Epines, where our lodgings are), some with quirky English names (True Blue, location of the university where the BF would be teaching during the week), and some with unknown etymologies (Mount Qua Qua, where we hoped to finish our hike). Because it’s in the Caribbean, there are of course tourists—but not really all that much tourism. There aren’t nearly as many chain restaurants and hotels as in other vacation getaways, and in truth when the cruise ships aren’t in and the university hasn’t started its term, it pretty much looks like a place where people live their lives and not some kind of tropical fantasy world where people visit and wish they could live, believing as they do that people who do live there never have to worry about the stressful or the mundane. Grenada is a poor country—the hillsides are dotted with corrugated tin roof shacks, out front of each one a skeletal dog or two—but the residents display a lot of love for and pride in their home. It’s not perfect, and they know it; there is poverty, the police are corrupt, there are massive environmental issues, the island still bristles under the colonial yoke (the Brits won the ping-pong match, and the Queen’s face graces all Grenadian currency though the royal family has likely never set foot here), but if we only loved what was perfect we’d love nothing at all.

We made it successfully to Grand Etang and began our hike carrying picnic food and an extra canvas bag, the type given to marathon participants for swag but in this case to be used for catching lizards. Seriously. The BF is teaching a class on reptiles and unfortunately nobody at the university thought to supply him with the specimens needed for instruction on handling live critters. He figured if we managed to find some lizards in the forest, we might catch them and bring them back. Iguanas would be ideal, but that was even less likely to happen than lizards. Unfortunately, while we saw some lizards, they were too fast to catch. There was a monkey on a railing at the trailhead who stared disdainfully at me before peeing, and there were some frighteningly large caterpillars that looked like they might have been sons of Mothra in the making, but not being reptiles, they were left alone.

The signpost at the trailhead said that Mount Qua Qua would be an hour and a half one way. We figured, smug in our ultrarunning prowess, that the estimated time was a wimp’s time. Surely it would take us a lot less than that. It didn’t take us long to retract our hubris. The trail was shoe-suckingly muddy in a lot of places, steep and rocky and rooty in others, and frequently all of that at once. There were stunning views and magnificent plant life, but at some point, filthy with mud, scratched up by branches, and nowhere near the summit, we wimped out and turned back.

So instead of having our lunch at Mount Qua Qua (which frankly I really only wanted to see because of its awesome name—say it! it’s fun!), we hiked to Grant Etang Lake and ate salami sandwiches and Chips Ahoy cookies in a rain-soaked picnic gazebo by the lake. Some locals were picnicking at another gazebo; we figured they’d probably take one look at us and snicker at the idiotic tourists, tramping around in the mud for no good reason, but surprisingly they did not. “You hike to Mount Qua Qua?” a teenage girl asked politely. We nodded. “Very muddy,” I added unnecessarily. She waved her hand, and it was clear that she’d done the hike herself. “Oh yes, of course.” (In fact, later on our driver himself even confirmed that hiking isn’t just something the crazy white people do here. “Yes, it is very fun. You hike a little and slide back down the mud a lot, hike a little, slide a lot. It is a great thing to do!”)

In our soggy gazebo, I finished my sandwich and fished around the plastic bag we’d carried our food in. “We’ve still got some paper towels left,” I said. “We can at least scrape off a little of the mud.”

“This isn’t how I planned it,” the BF said.

I didn’t quite register his words, wasn’t sure what he was talking about. I put down the mushed up paper towels and looked up to see something entirely unexpected.

He was handing me a box. A ring box.

There was a ring inside. I put it on and said yes.

He had wanted to propose on top of Mount Qua Qua, since I’d been so tickled by the name, and we’re both people who would rather be hiking in the woods than dining in a fancy restaurant. Though it hadn’t gone as planned, it was exactly how it needed to be. I do not believe that you need to seek the perfect person, the perfect place, the perfect anything. I believe you find the person who will walk through this life with you knowing, as you both do, its contradictions and imperfections. Prisons with views, factories by beaches, mud and a ring. You won’t be prepared for everything, and that’s OK. That is, perhaps, the point.

“There,” the driver said as we went back down the mountain. “That over there is the Coca-cola factory. They produce Coke there.”

We nodded and smiled appreciatively. There was so very much to appreciate this day.