Walking along the beach at the Lake today, it occurred to me that learning how to date post-forty has been a bit like looking for beach glass.

When I was little we used to go to North Myrtle Beach on the South Carolina coast twice a year. My mother and I would walk up and down the beach, along the shoreline, and I learned to look for shark’s teeth from her.

For years, I collected shells I liked – buckets of them, while she brought home a few black slivers of shark’s teeth.

Now I walk along the Lakeshore looking for beach glass – those small pieces of broken glass the waves have tumbled into smoothness. They come in brown, a milky white, green, and very rarely, deep blue.

It takes the same kind of effort I learned from my mother – a kind of concentration that gradually trains your eyes to notice a particular difference in the assortment of small stones that blanket the Lakeshore.

Online dating can be overwhelming (particularly when dating has meant years of famine). At first, I said yes to meeting anyone who was not a clear “No!” And that was good. I began to understand what questions I needed to ask, what kinds of things I needed to look for.

But it’s not all about knowing what you want. So often I catch a glimpse of green in the water only for a wave to cover it as quickly as it had revealed it.

It’s hard. So many times the possibilities of a promising date are unexplored because of timing and circumstances. Though of course, it’s also timing and circumstances that have revealed possibilities where I never thought to find them.

The analogy breaks down (they always do). I’m not collecting dates. I’m looking for a unique relationship with a partner.

But I am doing my best to collect the gifts the dates bring me.

I don’t mean literal gifts – the only two first dates I would consider unmitigated disasters included gifts. (Online dating tip: don’t show up to your first meeting with a copy of your self-published self-help book, and don’t spend the whole time talking about the special insight and technique you’ve developed to address every kind of emotional struggle. Book pitches do not work well as dates.)

Everyone I’ve met has given me a gift, though. Always the gift of time and conversation at the least, but most often, also the gift of something of their life and self and story.

There was the man whose long struggle with brain cancer ended in a miraculous cure. (His marriage survived the illness but not the cure, and he still longed for his wife.)

The former Benedictine Monk who decided final vows were not for him, and seemed to be making up for his decades in black with some of the most colorful business clothes I’ve seen on a man.

The black attorney who loved scuba diving and really wanted to go to seminary.

The pastor who’d started his career with the Chicago Police Department so young that his mother had to sign his gun permit, and then quit a few years shy of his retirement eligibility because his church needed him.

They each gave me something – often questions about life and what it means. Sometimes realizations. Sometimes affirmation. I hope I gave them similar gifts in return.

And while I don’t collect dates, I do collect the gifts they’ve brought me – like sparkling beach glass.

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