The Shapes and Spaces of Love

The Shapes and Spaces of Love

Love changes us, or at least it does me.

Being loved has changed me. It’s helped me recognize who I am and dive deeper into who I’m meant to be. Seeing myself as capable of inspiring love, regardless of how life may get in the way, has been profound.

It’s impossible to quantify, but sometimes it feels like loving has changed me even more.

Loving someone makes room in my heart for them, a space that grows to accommodate and welcome a particular person. And the thing is, that’s not a generic space – it’s a space uniquely shaped to who they are. Other things get adjusted and changed to make room as the space takes shape.

And it goes beyond the person themselves.

I notice things I would have missed before. I ask different questions – of myself as well as of the world. I’m continually inspired to try to see things through a different perspective that is not my own.

And in the process, how I see changes. What I see changes, and how I understand it. I’m stretched and grow into – not someone else – but someone who is both a broader and a deeper me. I become more myself in ways I never imagined, and I find things in myself I never knew were there. I love that journey (even while it’s scary as anything).

Venturing into love is always stepping out into the unknown. It will always show us things we didn’t know about ourselves and the world. And all those things won’t be pretty.

I’ve discovered things within myself I’ve wanted to look away from and forget, but love means facing them and dealing with them, as hard as that may be. I’ve encountered things in our world, things that wound and shape others, things that should never be. But love doesn’t look away. Love steps up and steps in closer to embrace it all.

Kiss the demons and name their lies.

But I also discover profound beauty, both in myself and others. Strength, kindness, generosity of spirit, courage, forgiveness, hope, longing. Minds that are dreaming a better world and turning those dreams into reality.

Love is always an adventure. If you’re in it for an outcome you already have all the architectural drawings for? Well…then you’re in love with an idea that’s dead. Life is always changing – growing and fading and creating something new along the way.

Love creates shapes and spaces that weren’t there before. It recreates our lives and it recreates the world. We can enter and embrace that with wonder or with fear (mostly we can’t help but have a mix of both).

But if we can let the wonder win out…the possibilities of the journey are glorious.

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The Art of Riding the Wave

The Art of Riding the Wave

I have a secret ambition to be a beach bum – a Sea Doo rental shack with a hammock in back. Living with the rhythm of the waves and the sun and the seasons.

It’s completely unrealistic. I love the beach, but that would never be enough for me. I’d get restless and antsy for something new all too quickly, for something that mattered.

But there’s still something there that draws me. It’s the reason I have a collection of surfing movies – mostly documentaries. The waves and the sun and the laid back thing are all part of the appeal, but it’s more than that.

There’s something that connects with me about the predictable unpredictability of life.

We plan. We read the tides, the rhythms of the waves, the seasons, and our own capabilities. But in the end, we have to dive in and just ride the wave we catch, and this – now – is the only moment we have to catch it.

We’ll never control the wave, but we can learn the art of dancing with it. Learn to feel the water and how to meet it. Sometimes we will wipe out, overwhelmed by something impossible to plan for.

But sometimes…sometimes we get it just right, and the curl of the wave comes at just the right place, and it propels us to greatness, to something beyond what we could ever do on our own.

There are tides to learn, and seasons, and reefs just below the surface to beware of. But the ocean will always be the ocean, and it will always surprise us.

I’ve never actually been surfing. I’ve never had the chance, and odds are I’d be terrible at it. But there’s a reason I love those documentaries, that dream.

Planning is important – you’re not going to get far if you show up without a board or with a sprained ankle. You need to know the beach and what’s below the surface and how the waves brake. And never surf alone, without someone to know if something goes wrong.

But at some point you’ve got to stop planning and just ride the wave.

Life, as consistent and unpredictable as the ocean, will never fail to surprise. And all the planning in the world won’t teach you how to improvise with the waves.

I planned for a long time. I planned for waves that never came and for wipeouts I couldn’t control. And I learned something from all that planning and observing.

But that’s nothing compared to what I’ve learned since I dove in and started trying to catch some waves.

Love in a Multiverse

Love in a Multiverse

So many things could have been different.

Everything, really.

Sometimes I think of who I might be if my daddy hadn’t died. It’s an entirely different life, an entirely different me, so different I can’t imagine.

This universe with this particular me is only one of an infinity of possibilities. So many choices –many mine and many not – have created this one. But the others are there, too.

There’s the one where I died, as I nearly did, before I was even two.

There’s the one where I went to the secular university I wanted to, a completely new world, instead on the Baptist university I’d grown up at. I wonder who I’d have turned out to be.

There’s one where the first boy I dated in my mid-twenties decided I might be his type after all and I married him as I was ready to do. I don’t doubt we could have made a good life together, a good family. But I would be a very different me – a far more conventional me.

There’s the one where the first boy I kissed didn’t have the sense to recognize that we fit in all the worst possible ways. I wouldn’t have had the sense to walk away myself, and we would’ve been a disaster.

There’s the one where I never stopped and went back to check out the book with the scandalous title – “A New Kind of Christian” – on the new non-fiction shelf at the public library. Who would I have been had I not found others were asking the questions I was? Thinking the thoughts I was? And that there was somewhere to go with those thoughts? Had I not found a path out of fundamentalism?

It gave me life but it was smothering the life out of me.

There’s the one where my seminary boyfriend wasn’t so afraid. I’d be different had we stayed together. I would’ve held myself back, and I don’t know that we could’ve made it.

There’s the one where I never got that shove into real dating. Never got past the fear of that unknown. Never found my way through the risks to know who I am and the freedom to explore who I can be.

And there’s the one where I never met you. Never was challenged by our conversations, never shaped by the dance of our friendship. Never had to figure out who I am in just the ways who you are pushed me to. Never had to think about your questions and change because of the answers. Never learned to love in the particular way you were there to love.

You’re the reason this is the universe I’m in instead of so many others that could’ve been.

(Inspiration owed to the brilliant ending of La La Land and the songwriting of Heather Styka.)

Meant to Be

Meant to Be

“When it’s meant to be, you’ll know it.”

“It just wasn’t meant to be.”

After 44 years of being single, I long ago lost count of the times I’ve heard these kinds of things, from both loving friends and clueless acquaintances, about all kinds of circumstances, but mostly about dating.

And no.

“Meant to be” doesn’t exist, at least not in that way it’s used.

There is no fate. There is no “God’s will,” at least not in that fatalistic, stand-in-for-fate sense.

God’s will is simply God – the beginning and the end of all things – drawing all of our chaotic randomness to that end like metal shavings to a magnet. The path will eventually get there however we twist and turn it in the meantime.

The only sense in which “meant to be” is true is in what is. Now. This moment. With no guarantees of where it will or won’t lead.

So many things that are meant to be never will be.

Sometimes you do know. In those first moments, there’s something that says, oh, this! This I was made for!

And you’re not wrong. But one or a hundred choices along the way – both already and yet to be made – mean what was meant to be won’t be.

Life is a series of grievings for what was meant to be. It is more than that, but it is that.

The denial may help some, but it’s never comforted me. It denies the often crappy reality of choices and their consequences. Some of those choices were mine. Some of them were about me, and some weren’t about me at all, but the result is the same.

Someone chose to walk away from what was meant to be. Because they are afraid of it. Because of some lie their past has taught them. Because of what they are afraid they’ll miss out on. Because they’ve bought what someone is selling about what they’re supposed to want. Because, for whatever reason, maybe even a good one, they’ve chosen a different possibility.

But sometimes, for this single moment, we can hold what was meant to be in our hand, just by recognizing it.

We will only be able to grasp it if we can let go of – grieve – what we want it to be in other moments, what we want to make it.

But if we can let go, it can be beautifully and imperfectly what was meant to be for this one moment. And whatever may come cannot destroy that.

Neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, not height or depth, not any powers, not even the future, can separate us from the gift of love. Even the gift of love that is only a moment.

The only thing we ever really have, the only gift we’re ever given, is now, in this moment and in its memory.

What good to turn away because it isn’t guaranteed to be there tomorrow?

Beach Glass Dating

Beach Glass Dating

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.

Love and Longing

Love and Longing

By the time I was fourteen, most of my friends were college students.

I grew up on a university campus, sort of a fundamentalist Baptist enclave. The school had an elementary and high school as well as the college, and I graduated from all three.

From third grade on, I was what I now think of as the class scapegoat – my classmates cast all their fears upon me and drove me outside the camp. At best, I felt tolerated.

My seventh grade year I struck up an unlikely friendship with a junior who was new to the school. We both read through lunch hours, and soon found ourselves reading through our lunches companionably together. When she graduated, my social world moved with her to the university.

I will always be grateful to those college theater majors who welcomed an awkward teenager in and never made me feel like an outsider.

And of course, I had crushes on most of the guys. Talented, good looking college men who were more than kind to me – what teenager wouldn’t?

I was so full of longing.

Romantic longing, yes. But also longing for affirmation, for belonging. Longing to be seen – not to be invisible. Longing to be valued for who I was, not just tolerated out of obligation.

My longing, however innocent, was deep. And good. Longing tells us we’re alive to the world.

I remember sitting in the kitchen at some point in those years, talking to my mother about it. I’d realized that a crush was about who I wanted someone to be, rather than who they really were. If I wanted to get beyond a crush, I was going to need to really get to know them and love them.

We only ever get to love someone for who they are, where they are.

Love may come to see possibilities, may hope for more for someone (or even with them), but it can only live in the present. In the reality of here, now.

I’d like to say I’ve gotten good at it, thirty years later. That it’s easier.

Those years have certainly given me lots of practice, and it’s become, at least to some degree, part of who I am.

But if anything, it’s only gotten more complex. Loving doesn’t always diffuse the longing. Sometimes they coexist, and often in circumstances that make that coexistence less than comfortable. Sometimes they are even intertwined.

I still try, though. I still think about it. And with every date, every encounter, I try to own my longings and let loving surpass them.

It never quite feels the same. Sometimes the longings rage with the power of a summer storm over the Lake. Other times they are more like my cat when I wake him up in the morning – sleepily insistent on making his presence known.

Loving means listening to something other than the longings. Or more accurately, someone. We only really get to love someone for who they are, where they are.

That listening is so hard, and I get it wrong. I wish I were better at it than I am most of the time, but I keep trying. I hope the trying shows.

And even when I think I’m doing it well, there’s probably nothing in my life that’s harder. To let loving surpass longing – oh, dear God, it hurts sometimes.

But I keep choosing it. For the first date that will not turn into a second, as well as for the relationship that is developing. For the attraction I cannot return as much as for the one not returned to me. For all the possibilities that won’t be.

I do not believe that the love I give, whether it’s returned or not, whether it’s even spoken, has ever diminished me.

It hasn’t diminished my longing either.

Goodbye and Hello

Goodbye and Hello

When I was 25, like so many other young evangelicals in the ’90s, I kissed dating goodbye.

Of course, it was a bit easier since I’d never been on a date.

I was a late bloomer to put it gently. From elementary school on I was a social pariah with my peers. By Jr. High, I was spending my free time with college students (fundamentalist Baptist theater majors, to be more precise), and by the time I was actually in college and at a reasonable dateable age, I was firmly ensconced as the kid sister.

When I was 25, I struck up a conversation with a guy I knew slightly at an outing for my singles group from church. We ended up talking that whole evening, and after spending several more group outings in a similar fashion, we had a conversation. He’d been married before and divorced, and he wanted to do things differently — he wanted to do courtship instead of dating.

Courtship meant you didn’t do things one-on-one unless marriage was in the offing. The man asked the girl’s parents for permission to court her. And nothing physical — not even a kiss.

I was all in. The idea that one should take these things seriously appealed to me. I had been explicitly taught, “Don’t go on a first date with anyone you wouldn’t marry — then you won’t have to break their heart and yours down the line.” My parents have lots of wisdom, and maintaining a conversation with them as a part of the process made sense.

And other than telling him that, no way was my first kiss going to be the public one on my wedding day! (a compromise he agreed to), I was content to honor the physical boundaries.

(In retrospect, most people miss how bone-melting holding hands can be when you’re not wondering how far you can get away with — or he will try — going.)

We courted for an intense three months until he showed up for our Valentine’s date and broke up with me, glad “things hadn’t gone too far.”

For him maybe.

I was blindsided. When he showed up for the date and asked if we could go for a walk, I was honestly thinking, “Well, I know we’ve covered money and kids and all the important stuff, but it’s really too soon for him to propose!”

A few years later and a second relationship ended, I did some counseling with a pastor who told me, “I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but you really need to learn how to casual date.”

It was so true. While the courtship model was intended to honor men and women and help them take romantic relationships seriously, for me it gave a first date the weight of near-engagement. I had to be fully invested from the start, just getting to know someone, and the results were devastating me.

It took well over a decade for me to find a context where I could learn to “casual date.” Evangelical churches and seminary contexts are so messed up on dating that approaching it casually is nigh to impossible. And it was particularly so for me — it’s hard to take a first date lightly when you’re only being asked out once every couple of years. Maybe.

I now realize that may have been because while I certainly belonged, I just as certainly didn’t fit the conservative evangelical contexts I was in.

I made my own chance a few years ago when, after being affectionately bullied into it by a friend, I dove into online dating. There’s nothing like ten first dates in three weeks to help you learn to take a first date lightly!

I decided to say yes to meeting anyone whose profile didn’t scream (or whisper) “Absolutely not!” and give myself the chance to be surprised. I found I could take the person seriously while taking the date lightly. And I found that men who hadn’t been raised in an evangelical culture tended to be more emotionally and relationally mature (though there are always exceptions going both directions).

I kissed dating hello, and I began to understand how to enter a story without needing to know what the ending could or should be.

For more stories about “Life After I Kissed Dating Goodbye” see http://www.lifeafterikdg.com/