As I said in Part One yesterday, 2007 I had a new plan and a new attitude for surviving Valentine’s Day.
When I was married, it never occurred to me how much I needed women in my life. I was too buried beneath diapers to change, birthday parties to plan, coupons to clip, papers to grade, and a house to clean. My husband and children were my center. Anyway, all my girlfriends had also been body snatched, living for the men and kids in their orbits as well.
But when my world was thrown off course by the end of my sixteen-year marriage, my worldview was shaken. Despite –-no, because of—a lot of pain, I learned to reorganize my priorities. With the help of some wise, older women who helped me start over, I began to take care of myself so I could better care for my children.
I freed myself from the “shoulds”that said before I could play with my children, exercise, or see friends, I “should”… have a straight house, an organized desk, and an empty briefcase. But the one should I couldn’t shake was that to be totally happy I needed to be loved by the right man. While I’d refused to settle for dating just for dating’s sake and while I enjoyed time alone, I still believed a significant other was required to navigate Valentine’s Day.
Christmas can be filled with family gatherings, office parties, even Rudolph and Bing, but Valentine’s Day is for couples. And while kissing is part of New Year’s Eve, friends celebrate in droves whether at parties, bars, or Times Square. There’s something painfully exclusive about Valentine’s– tables for two. Having a soulmate is the sole focus.
Previously, if a friend had told me there’s anything better than romance and chocolate on Valentine’s Day, I would have thought her to be lying, denying, or just sadly settling. If she then really pressed her luck and told me there’s something better than spending Valentine’s Day with The One, I’d have told her to stop worrying. Though I am pathetically passionate which makes the weeks leading up to mid February painfully poignant, I really didn’t need her to go on Suicide Watch.
Then again, Homicide Watch might have been a good idea. Waiting on Cupid had become Waiting for Godot.. I really wanted to take a hit out on the little sucker for directing my dating life as absurdist comedy as I watched and waited for a leading man over a decade. He knew I wanted nothing more than to be Heathcliff’s Catherine…Johnny’s June…McDreamy’s Merdith… or Harry’s Sally. In fact, for the girl who fell in love with Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights as a high school senior, anything short of finding my soulmate who would proclaim, “I am Cindy!” seemed to be settling. But not settling meant I had to be patient. And again, instead of focusing on what I lacked, it was time to focus on what I had.
And that’s when I thought of Chocolat—not just because I love Juliette Binoche and all things chocolate. Not just because I adore Johnny Depp as Roux more than any other part he has ever played. And not just because I, too, have a pair of red shoes and my child asks me why I can’t be like “all the other mothers.” Like Vianne, I wanted to reach out to others—particularly the women in my life—because I think goodness is defined by what we do, not what we don’t do, by who we include, not who we exclude. Rather than invite only close friends from this group or that, I decided to bring together the amazing and unique women I knew. It would be a chance for them to network, to make new friends.
So I abandoned the usual ritual on V Day of taking an annual inventory of guys I’d dated over the past 12 month. Rather than analyzing why each love connection short circuited or never even had enough electricity to fizzle at all—I had dated guys ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties and in occupations from songwriters to businessmen to blue collar workers. Most had been the usual One-Date-Wonders. Turning my attention instead to my guest list, I found my women friends were even more diverse…and interesting.
Sports nuts and Art lovers. Nurses and teachers. A publicist, a coach, counselors. Never marrieds, remarrieds, forever marrieds. Moms and Grandmothers. Dog lovers, vegetarians, democrats, republicans. Horsewomen, runners, farm girls. Californians, New Orleanians, Yankee Italians. A band leader. A band leader’s wife. It could have been a disaster. But something told me to chance it anyway. I was worried no one would come. Valentine’s Eve fell on a weeknight and everyone is so busy. But shortly after the invitations were sent, the replies began rolling in. Everyone was excited.
Thus commenced the “Valentine’s Eve Hopeful Romantic Party.” Those with sweethearts could still celebrate with their guys and those without would be too tired from the party to care. Either way we’d all usher in the Big Day together.
So….make your guest list and get going! Whether you use Facebook, send an Evite or an invitation by mail—store bought or created by you—do it now. Just one week till V Day. And this year it’s on a weekend—a real bonus. If you’re inviting women who have sweethearts, then make it next Friday, on Valentine’s Eve. That way you can still see your honey, and if you don’t have one, you’ll be too tired to care.
I felt like such an imposter. Exposed. Naked. And in the very place I thought would be the answer to all my dreams.
Feeling like I didn’t belong wasn’t about money. Thankfully, I’d never been a gold digger. I was too much a romantic for that. I’d take Heathcliff over Edgar every time. If I married, it would be for love, not for cash. For a soul mate, not a sole provider. My prince could be a pauper as long as he had character and intelligence… and an edge that made him a little fearless and a lot fun. I would never be a “kept woman” because depending on someone else for money seemed the opposite of freedom.
Raised on the Beatles, I knew money couldn’t buy me love. Or at least not new money. Jay Gatsby had the biggest house and car, even a pink suit, but he was snubbed in East Egg (the West End of Nashville) where old money lived. And like his character, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote himself to death trying to maintain the high life to which his debutante wife, Zelda, was accustomed.
Like Gatsby and Fitzgerald, I was chasing down a dream. I had mapped my quest to not just any Starbucks but the one in Belle Meade. Why? Because I associated it with The Best. Even their Kroger carried rare cheeses I’d discovered in Italy. In Belle Meade people obviously had it all together. The place where little girls wore smocked dresses and wore big bows in their bouncing bobs. The place where the J.Crew sipped on coffee and leisurely read newspapers or wrote novels all day in the middle of a workweek. The place where couples in North Face jackets and custom running shoes grabbed a hot chocolate together. They all looked like winners, golden boys and girls, and I wanted to be one, too.
I needed to write a bestseller—to pay off debt, fund my kids’ college, and insure I could one day retire. I needed to write a best seller to free my schedule, free my mind, and maybe free others by giving them an escape—an excuse to laugh or cry. I wanted to tell them they mattered to God. And I wanted to write a bestseller…to matter.
The girl who used to joke that if she had money, it would have to be old money to count.
The girl who teared up watching the Academy Awards because she knew even if she were a movie star, she wouldn’t be enough unless she won an Oscar.
The girl who knew even if she had graduated first in her class, it wouldn’t matter unless the degree was from Oxford.
The girl who had always had such big dreams that she often felt she had accomplished so little. The girl who set the bar so high she was always straining to reach it–sadly obscuring her vision so she often lost sight of the blessings that surrounded her.
And as for the A Team, my insecurities hadn’t ambushed me that day in Starbucks. The stowaways followed me from home, escaped from the glovebox, and pulled up a chair once I finally stayed at one table.
“Just look at them,” they whispered—“the stay-at-home moms who aren’t staying at home. Isn’t it enough that they get to sip their coffee Monday-Friday from here or from china tea cups in their breakfast nooks while you’re chugging yours from a thermos on the way to work? How can they afford to give up a paycheck and treat themselves and their children to Starbucks when you have a fulltime job and do good to get here once a week? But of course, they have husbands to support and love them. Wouldn’t it be sweet to have their lives? Bet they have maids and nannies who watch the kids while they get their facials, massages, and manicures. And even if they don’t, they can give their kids 100% because they are never torn between their little ones and their jobs.”
And then the cruelest cut of all…”Bet they’re even caught up on their scrapbooking.”
Trying to dismiss such miserable thoughts, I turned to hopeful ones: That available looking guy over there is cute. He’s reading a book even. Maybe he’ll look my way. I don’t feel like writing anymore and I’ve got to get home, but maybe the day won’t be a total bust.
And then, just as I willed him to look up, he did…at some skinny, plain, smug girl who strolled over and hugged him. No doubt my feeling naked and exposed had turned into feeling jealous and angry. I was sick of being alone, of being rejected—by everyone but my own insecurities, that is. By the misery that loves my company…
The A Team was now tuning up for a full-on opera:
“Well what do you expect? Your divorce has benched you and your kids for life. So you’re on the B team. That’s really not so bad.”
“At least you realize now, before embarrassing yourself further by putting it all out there, that best leave this writing thing to others. To those who really have something to offer.
You gave it your best shot. I mean, since you were, what, twelve, you’ve told yourself that God is supposed to be enough? That is, you thought it, but you’ve never felt it–at least not for long, right?”
Despite my trying to ignore them, I realized that through the years, I had worked on myself and my faith… and I had not worked on myself and my faith—trying instead to rest in God since only He can show me the acceptance and unconditional love for which I ache. I really wanted God to be the lover of my soul, my truest soul mate, but I still struggled because I wanted a flesh and blood lover as well. He’d shown me I could survive—that I didn’t need a man. But He hadn’t stopped me from wanting one.
Still, I tried to refocus. A best seller would be my new Grail. Since my divorce, I’d been disappointed by too many gentleman callers. I’d depended on the kindness of strangers and been badly burned. I’d learned the lesson of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, that finding The One or the Whatever we think will make us happy—that “long delayed but always expected something that we live for”— is dangerous territory. Because when our dreams are deferred, we can become bitter. While it may seem we have more control over building a career than finding a mate, there’s danger in basing our joy on any one person, on any one goal. Especially when we see neither realized.
Then the A Team belted out the biggest lie of all…
“Wonder why God is withholding from you? I thought that Bible of yours says he gives good gifts to his children? Wonder why so many have been married off to good guys, but you’re still alone? It’s kind of like it’s Christmas morning and your sister just got a new bike, but you just got a stocking full of oranges. Or maybe you’re the female Charlie Brown…it’s Halloween and you’re left holding a bag of rocks.”
They really were cracking themselves up.
And honestly, I didn’t have the strength to pray. Maybe this writing thing was a bad idea…just like thinking I’d ever find The One. Just like thinking I’d ever had anything to offer…
And that’s when He cleared the seats at my table.
He left the agitators to find their own ride– but not to my home. One of my favorite college professors once teased me about my faith: “Do you really think Jesus shows up at your barbeques?” I told him I did, and we agreed to disagree. I’d love to see him after all these years and tell him that He even shows up at Starbucks.
Somehow, my panic-turned-resentment attack had subsided. And while some might understandably give credit to Jack Johnson singing softly from the speakers or to my own emotional exhaustion, I give credit to the only One who can ever really straighten me out and calm me down.
I saw the Starbucks crowd through neutral eyes. I saw them for who they were—no more, no less.
There were the bikers, the businessmen, the boy doing his summer reading. There were the fifty to sixtysomething guys in untucked, dress shirts, madras shorts, and loafers without socks—those who’ve retired and those who make their own hours. I even smiled rather than rolled my eyes when I (and everyone else in the room) heard an obnoxious guy loudly seal a deal from his headset. I couldn’t believe he was actually saying: “I get it—ok—NOW SHOW ME THE MONEY!”
There were artists and students in t- shirts, baggy cargo shorts, and flip flops. There were thirty and fortysomething career women who were well groomed, well exercised, well fed. There was even the occasional surprise, like the confident, twentysomething girl who looked like she might be a dancer at Ken’s Gold Club or Christie’s Cabaret—platinum hair, fake breasts, killer calves, dark tan. They all put on their pants, skirts, shorts, and g-strings one leg at a time, I thought. God levels the playing field. Their worth and mine rests in having one thing only: a God who loves us. Any true security and confidence we have has but one source.
Success doesn’t come from physical strength, riches or brains. It comes from knowing God as He really is—as He really wants to be known–kind, just, and loving. It comes from trusting that He is good even when my circumstances aren’t. That He is God and that I’m not. As much as I want a writing career to spell success, to be my Holy Grail, as much as I want to live somewhere between being too full of myself and cowering in a corner, the only thing I really need to remember is that I matter just because God loves me.
Later that summer, I met the author I’d seen get her book deal in Starbucks back in ’04. Turned out we had a mutual friend, so I asked her if she had time to read this very piece and give me some feedback. She declined, saying she was swamped with her own work. Though I had shaken my posse, I was tempted for a moment to recoil into my old imposter pose—the fetal position. To be fair, I realize now I may have seemed like a stalker. I had rattled off names of our mutual acquaintances and must have seemed like people who stake out local places where Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman drink their coffee. Or worse, like Kathy Bates in Misery just before she pulls out the sledgehammer.
Even if we hadn’t become fast friends and grabbed a Cappuccino, one of her books helped me that first Wednesday in Starbucks. She had dedicated it to every woman who had ever felt like a wallflower and said Christ invites us to dance. He’s wild about us. With Him, there is no rejection.
I already knew but had forgotten that His passionate love can even free imposters …something we all are when we persistently pose or push our way into some imaginary club where we think winners huddle. Whether we’re married or single, have kids or don’t; whether we live in Donelson or in Green Hills; whether we were a geek at a community college or a Greek at Vanderbilt; whether we’re a stay-at-home mom who stays at Starbucks or a career mom who doesn’t, none of it matters.
When I remember Christ loves me deeply and passionately just because I’m His child, I feel deeply accepted. And I know that he wants me to write—because of rather than in spite of—my imperfections and insecurities. He uses broken people—which we all are whether we realize it or not.
I called Brooke at the end of that summer to make plans to visit her in Chicago during my fall break. I shared with her that Starbucks hadn’t been the writer’s silent sanctuary, magical muse, or direct path to the Holy Grail I had hoped it would be, but it had been an arena for slaying inner dragons that huffed and puffed against me as a writer and as a person.
Without missing a beat, as a problem solver and PR major, my friend suggested I try instead Fido, a hip, privately owned coffee shop near Vanderbilt’s campus. And I should try Bongo Java…and Frothy Monkey near Belmont where songwriters gather. Creativity was bound to be in the air if not in the coffee.
I wondered…maybe I’d be inspired there, what with a younger, smarter, and more beautiful crowd. And I can report, now three years later, that I have written at all three places she suggested. Next on my list is a new shop in East Nashville… but honestly, I now really enjoy writing as I am now—my twelve-year-old golden retriever by my side, my son in his room, my cat staring at me from the other couch.
I’ve realized—and I’m not proud to admit this– that my insecurities aren’t always stowaways. They sometimes disguise themselves as pretentions, and I am ashamed to admit I often invite them along for the ride. Acting ugly or not, I often assert my Southern self (a paradox in terms), and tell them I will write without their escort. But I know they’ll come calling again.
I learned in the Summer of ’06 that I was already a writer. I knew I had no great revelations—only the desire to remind others of what I have to remind myself every hour of every day. That the holy grail of Life Ideal—or as close as we can get to it in this life—is not achieved by finding the golden key or magical portal, by running to keep step with the culture, by looking across at the competition, or by hanging behind in regret. It’s learning to live within the paradox of finding self worth and contentment in gratefully seizing this day—ordinary though it may be— while still trusting that God will fulfill dreams He has placed in our hearts in future days. Mid-life is just that—the middle– not the end.
And I must remember that even Type A girls with Team B complexes can rest in a little less striving and a lot more trust.