(with a nod to Mandy Hale)
My Buddhist friend says the right books find us at the right times, and that’s certainly held true for me in this season of my life. Books all but jump off shelves into my hands, and they’re exactly the ones I need at those moments. One such was Mandy Hale’s You Are Enough, which turned out to the best, most authentic book I’ve ever read about being a single woman.
Her chapter “Why I’m Still Single (the Ugly Truth)” resonated powerfully with me, because she says things that I feel a significant chunk of the time, but I’m ashamed to admit:
During the dark nights of my soul, I think the reason I’m still single is because I’m inherently flawed.
Bad. Ugly. Undeserving. Screwed up. Unlovable. (p. 43)
I wrote “YES” in the margin. Because I feel this keenly: There must be something terribly wrong with me; I’m too damaged to deserve or attract love. Things beyond my control have ruined my life, and all I can do is try to find some semblance of meaning in the wreckage that remains, but it’s never going to be what I want, never enough to bring joy or even satisfaction or a sense of purpose.
Those are the dark thoughts. The ones that spiral when I feel anxious, tired, and overwhelmed. I try all sorts of strategies for fighting them, but nothing works when things get bad. I’m exhausted with experiencing life as something to endure rather than as a gift, a source of joy and delight. And I don’t know how much longer I can keep going alone. I don’t know if I have another spring in me, another holiday season, another birthday. Not if I have to keep traveling this road by myself.
But when I step back and use what my counselor calls the “thinky part of my brain” (as opposed to the “feely part”), I have to acknowledge that one reason I’m still single is because God has protected me. Every man I’ve been involved with has ultimately proven to share certain characteristics: unkind, controlling, manipulative, immature, underachieving, and unwilling to see me for who I truly am. They have fit these criteria regardless of how I’ve met them (including through people I trusted) and how they initially present themselves. And these are not traits that make for healthy long-term relationships. They are not traits I want in a partner or a lover or a friend.
Over the past ten months, I’ve done a lot of work and had several light-bulb moments that have helped me understand why these kinds of men have sought me out, and why I haven’t expected or demanded better. Long ago I decided if I couldn’t have love — and it sure as hell seemed like I couldn’t — then at least I’d have interesting stories. And I do have them, in spades. But I’d trade every story for a genuinely good man who loves me for who I am.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Yoruba vodun ceremony. Vodun is not, of course, the spiritual tradition I grew up with, but I had always found it intriguing and read quite a bit about it, particularly as it developed and is practiced in New Orleans. When I discovered that I live a few hours from a traditional Yoruba community that welcomes visitors, I planned a trip.
During the tour of their village, I learned about a way of life very different from mine — so different that it became obvious this was not a spiritual path I could follow, but I also saw much to admire and emulate, including how women in their society interact with each other. That afternoon, I attended a ritual that celebrated a female orisha (deity), and watching all the women of the community join together in a joyful, uninhibited dance was a sacred and powerful experience.
I was still reflecting on it after I left the village. I didn’t feel quite ready to focus on driving home, so when I passed a roadside museum, I decided to walk around for a bit. And while I browsed in the gift shop, a woman came in wearing her Sunday finery. She informed the two employees and me that God had told her to stop on her way home from church, because God had a message we needed to hear. And then, looking each of us in the eye, she said, “Never become less than you are for a man, and never settle for a man who is less than you are.”
That might sound obvious, but it was one of the first times in my life that anyone (outside my feminist rhetorics class in grad school) had told me not to diminish myself for a man. I grew up hearing the opposite, in fact. My grandmother said if I didn’t act less intelligent, I’d always be single. (To their credit, male cousins emphatically contradicted her.) Another relative told me I’d have trouble finding a man willing to “put up with” all my books. A male high school teacher said, “It’s too bad you’re so smart, because as a woman, you’ll never be able to do anything with it. I guess you could homeschool your sons, but it’s not like you can actually have a career.” I’ve been told I’m too picky, too weird, too independent, too desperate, too emotional, too serious, too excitable, too enthusiastic, too fat, too skinny, and too messy to attract a man. I have too many pets. My hair is too short. One boyfriend even said I needed to pluck my eyebrows differently or no one but him would ever find me attractive(!).
Most of my straight female friends have similar stories. We spend our lives hearing that we’re too much, that who we inherently are will drive away men, so we have to censor ourselves and keep the ugly truths tucked out of their sight and put on pretty, happy faces. Most of us aren’t encouraged to embrace our full identities and too-muchness or reminded that anyone worth having in our lives will embrace us too.
And we need to hear this. We need to hear it constantly, so it drowns out all the critical voices that tell us to reduce and neutralize who we are, to make ourselves less.
The day I attended the vodun ritual and then met the strange angel at the museum, I was grappling with whether and how to extricate myself from a situationship. I knew I was settling, but getting involved with this guy had lifted me from a depression, and I was tired of being alone, and although he didn’t treat me well, he wasn’t awful. Plus I didn’t know how to end things without hurting his feelings. So I was leaning toward sticking with him until I met someone better (he’d been the one to insist on no commitments, so I didn’t feel this was exactly unfair to him), even though I wasn’t happy.
The woman’s words gave me a needed wakeup call. Because they caused me to acknowledge that I was compromising my identity and goals for someone who was less than I was. Not less because of intrinsic inability or lack of worth, but because he had no aspirations or dreams, no desire to improve or change or become anything beyond what he already was. He had no interest in growing, with or without me, and because of that I’d never grow, either, as long as I stayed with him. In fact, I would need to shrink in order to fit into the box in which he wanted to remain. So when I got home from that weekend of incredible women, I broke things off.
I thought about those experiences again last week as I walked in the woods with my dog. The sun slanted through the trees, and as I glanced to the side, I had this sudden sense of power, of a primal energy running through the forest and the air and thrumming through my veins. And I realized I’ve been afraid of my own strength. Afraid that unless I diminish myself and try to fit into a tame, relatable, even-tempered, tidy, neither-independent-nor-needy, smart-but-not-too-smart container other people have designed, I’ll be alone.
But I’ve always been alone. Even when I’ve had boyfriends, I’ve been deeply, profoundly alone. And it’s a terrible aloneness, that sense of not being known for who you really are. The suspicion that if you let someone see the truth of you, they will leave. The devastation when you finally risk opening yourself, and they take one look and run away — often in the most destructive and hurtful way they can think of.
If I’m going to face rejection and loneliness anyway, I’d rather face them for being who I am than for masquerading as someone I’m not.
I’m tired of hiding my light. Of diluting the beautiful essence that’s me. Of making myself less than I am or could be — less intelligent, well-read, nerdy, eccentric, emotional, chaotic, authentic, vulnerable, honest, engaged, passionate, loving — because I’m scared of who I really am and of how people might respond to her and whether she proves too much for some man to hold.
And as I walked through the woods, bathed in power and strength, peace and love, I felt that the right man is out there, the man with my name written on his heart. I could sense him striding through the trees on a trajectory set to converge with mine. Noble and focused and strong, secure and confident enough to inspire me to be my best self. He knows what he wants, and when our eyes meet he’ll recognize me. He will soar with me even if the currents sometimes take me a little higher, because he’d never clip either of our wings. He loves me enough to want all of me, undiminished and real, raw and wounded, healing and loving. He’s not close enough yet for me to discern his features, but he’s within view, silhouetted by the setting sun.
Walking with purpose and determination, just as I am, to the place where our paths meet.