07 April 2014

Alone in the Abbey

I'm picking up on some writing again - building my portfolio back up in preparation for the possibility of a Masters in Creative Non-Fiction.  This is the beginnings of a piece that, so far at least, I feel has the most potential - still rough potential, but potential nonetheless. 

You don’t even notice she’s there if you aren’t looking.  Walking through the gallery, I only slowed because I recognized the painted spires as Westminster.  Then I stopped, out of duty to my love of all things England.  I admired the height of the spires, the detail in the saints.  I remembered how crowded it felt there - surrounded by the living and the dead.  Rubbing shoulders with the literal and the spiritual.  Accidentally rubbing lips to the stamen of a lily I'd bent over to smell, the powder of which stuck to my lipgloss and turned my lips an alarming shade of golden yellow for an undefined period of time that still makes me cringe to think about.  (How many people saw?!)

"In the Choir of Westminster Abbey" by Max Emanuel Ainmiller,
Neue Pinakothek, Munich
In the middle of my memory bursts this image of the woman.  There in the bottom corner of the painting, alone, sits a veiled woman dressed in black.  Her face is uncovered but she is so small that her face is indistinguishable as she sits near one tomb and stares at what the plaque seems to indicate as the tomb of Edward III.  She is not close to him.  Her grief is polite and distant, but more clearly directed toward the fallen king than to the occupant of the tomb she is closest too.  The light in the painting is all around her but shadowed nearest her - illuminating the feet of the tomb and most prominently the stone carvings of the saints to her right, but not her.  It’s as though Ainmiller intended to hide her from the common viewer of the painting - out of respect, perhaps.  To allow her the privacy to mourn.  Or maybe he is proving a point - how easily forgotten and pushed aside are those who truly and quietly feel.  

At first I envy her the luxury of mourning alone.  The thought of walking through and being in Westminster alone must, even then, have been a supreme privilege.  What must it have sounded like?  Did she hold back tears for the simple dread of having them echo back to her at horrendously magnified volumes?  Did she sit in as much silence as possible, avoiding even the rustle of a dress?  Or was the sound of resonating sobs comforting - as though highlighting the strength of grief that had to be politely restrained elsewhere somehow justified and relieved the pain?

Or perhaps, as I once did in finding myself alone in Milton Abbey, she sang.  I was on Study Abroad in England - a unique trip where we hiked from one place to another.  One day - a particularly long day - ended at a small Abbey.  The Abbey is on the property of a school, now - a boarding/day school that is in the middle of nowhere.  Our group toured the Abbey alone.  John, our director, told us to take as long as we wanted in the Abbey.  I pulled out my journal and wrote, and wrote - I realized that people were leaving but didn’t feel so inclined yet.  I wanted to be the last one there.  So I stayed.  And then, long after I knew I should have left and joined the others, found myself blessedly and spookily alone in the chapel.  Not a worker, tour guide or student in sight - just me.  I waited in absolute silence for a bit, then, knowing I may not ever get the chance again - sang.  I picked two songs - “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “Lead Kindly Light” - hymns seemed appropriate for such a setting.  It felt wonderful and sinful all at once, hearing my voice echo hesitantly through the chapel.  I wanted to hear what it sounded like and was scared to all at once - what if someone heard in an office connected somewhere and came looking to see who had intruded?  I knew I should have joined the others - knew that there was a possibility of causing stress from my selfishness, but for a moment it was me and the gods. 

I don’t think she sang, though.  She is clearly grieving.  Perhaps not even finding herself worthy to approach the tomb of what I’m guessing is her son. Instead she sits surrounded, stared at by stone and wood and glass representations of saints who, unlike her human counterparts, are not capable of turning away and allowing her some privacy.  It’s eerie.  It’s both sacred and scary, this painting, this moment in time.  This glimpse into the life of someone clearly prominent in their day if allowed to gain such personal and private access to Westminster - and yet still painted as so very, very small.  So insignificant and significant all at once.  Perhaps this is a bit of what Moses felt when he realized that man is both everything because he is God’s and nothing because of essentially the same reason.  Privileged in solitude, minuscule in it. Swallowed in stone and saints - magnified with the invisible, unpainted breath of the living.

02 April 2014

Single and Settled

In my corner of the religious world, being married is quite often seen as the design and existence for the first part of your life.  From a very young age (at least as a girl), you are asked to start considering what you're seeking for in a spouse.  You make lists of things that you want.  If you're like me you had your "responsible" section of the list and the secret unwritten dream list.  The responsible list has things like good education and goes to church and not destitute.  The secret unwritten dream list included things like taller than me and lean and brunette and likes to read and travel and knows how to dance and maybe looks a bit like Gilbert Blythe.

Growing up, I was pretty sure I had my life figured out.  Always a practical planning individual, I knew that I wanted to graduate from college, go to approximately 3 years of college, get married in my senior year, teach for about 3 years, and then have babies.  I knew that I wasn't the world's most attractive girl, but I'm not hideous or stupid or weird (ha!) so I figured that the dating slump I was in from high school could be blamed on the small population of eligible religious counterparts and that going to BYU would fix all my dating woes and find me "eternally tied".  After all, I was the good girl.  The one who went to early morning church classes before high school every day.  The one who actually participated in class.  The one who had direction and faith and never really experienced teenaged rebellion.  It was just karmic justice, right?  The perfect guy would fall into my lap like an angel from heaven sent to rescue me from the hell of single life.

Only it didn't happen (obviously).  And the funny thing was, the older I got, the more I looked around and saw so many people (both men and women) who are perfectly attractive and righteous sorts of people who were still single and I realized: wait a second.  Beauty and brains and obedience are no guarantee of wedded bliss.

And then I realized something else: people don't know what to do with me in the church.  Do they accept my singleness, or does that suggest they think I'm hopeless?  Do they ask me about my dating life or not?  It's easy to start feeling like a bit of a cultural leper.

Outside of Mormon culture, the average age of marriage is 27.  I turn 27 next month, which means that by all national trends, I've still got a hope of being within the range of average for about two more years.  My non-Mormon friends don't understand what all the fuss is about.  But inside the church, adults and married couples my age aren't sure what to say to me.  So here are some of my thoughts on the inherent challenges of being an older single Mormon and some suggestions:

The biggest challenge I feel is the expectation of being consistently unsettled.  I am counseled to continue in my education, to develop my talents, to serve in my church, to get to know people, and, essentially, to do everything that every human should be doing in or out of a marriage (minus things related to sex.)  But I'm also told that I have to be ready to drop everything for that perfect guy.  Love your job - but not too much!  What if you love it so much you aren't willing to leave it for marriage?!  Love your hobbies - but not too much!  If you love them too much you won't have time for dating!  Get to know people - but get to know the right people!  Get to know single people or people who set you up!  It's hard not to feel like the "object and design" of your single existence must, like the earth around the sun, constantly rotate around a singular purpose, and if your eye isn't constantly fixed on that purpose, then you are clearly losing your focus.  So that in mind -

1. Recognize that for an older single - particularly those out of educational settings - dating is an entirely different ballgame.  Dating in college is a bit easier.  Life is still a bit flexible.  Dating outside of college means that both parties will have to, of necessity, be a little more creative in how they connect.  This doesn't have to be a bad thing - in many ways it is a realistic set up for marriage as you have a couple having to decide where their priorities are.  It can work.  But if you married young, you probably just don't get it.  It's not as easy as it sounds to find someone after you graduate - and you can't stay in school forever.

2. Recognize and honor the ways that singles can contribute uniquely to communities, workplaces, and the church.

3. Recognize that it's not a crime or a sin to take advantage of the perks of being single.  At least for Mormons who believe that marriage is forever, being single is a very brief period of time in the grand scheme of things.  There are some advantages to this that, frankly, you're kind of ungrateful not to take advantage of.  If I had married at 21 like I'd planned, I would have gained a loving (I hope!) spouse, the responsibilities of a home, and eventually the responsibilities of children.  From what I hear, those are pretty amazing things.  I want them.  But since I don't have them, I get the opportunity to travel without my budget impacting the chance for my kids to participate in sports.  I get to teach.  I make decisions and don't have to stress too much about how those decisions will impact others.  I get to read uninterrupted.  I get to pee and shower without anyone interrupting me whenever they want.  Heck, I get a lot of time alone -something a quick trip to Facebook confirms to me - is a great luxury later.  While I've got it - I'm going to enjoy it, and I'm going to proclaim that this isn't selfish.  This is gratitude.  It's just the way single life works.  It is acknowledging the good that I have in my life instead of mourning what I don't have (and don't have lots of control over.)

4. Please don't set up single people with other single people just because they're both single.  Those dates are always the worst disasters.

5. Please don't be afraid to ask if you can set someone up, especially when you know them well.  At least for me, I'm not bugged.  I never turn down the opportunity to meet someone new.  It may not go great, but, to quote Carrie Underwood "It's not like I'm not trying, 'cause I'll give anyone a shot once."

6. Share your life with us.  I'm old enough and mature enough not to freak out when you get married or pregnant or whatever.  Really.  There was a time when I was younger (about 21-22) when every marriage/pregnancy from a friend or former roommate felt like a slap in the face but I'm totally over that.  I'm actually super happy for you because, from what I understand, marriage and babies are awesome and everyone should totally do them! (Have them?)  In return, ask me about my life.  Not just my dating life.  Ask me about my job.  Ask me about what I do for fun.  Ask me about books or movies or other things.  As an added bonus, this will make it easier for you to help out with #5 should you have the desire to help me find that perfect-for-me-man-specimen.

7. Don't be afraid to invite us places.  I recognize that sometimes there are couples events and date nights and you need those.  I support those.  Heck, I'll babysit for you if you want.  No big deal.  But every so often, being invited to hang out with people my age is awesome.  I don't care if you're married or not.  We can still hang.  You'll talk about potty training and I'll talk about smelly junior high classrooms.  It'll be a party.

8. Don't be afraid if we're happy where we are.  You know those newly engaged couples who see nothing but sunshine and hearts and sugar and want nothing more in the world than to spread that love to the rest of the population?  They're cute and a little annoying but they mean well, right?  I love when people are happy in their relationships.  I've seen enough stress in marriages of my friends and family by now to know that marriage is hard, so it's great to see when couples work and are happy.  It gives me hope.  It gives me something to work for and want - which is great, 'cause sometimes (lots of times) dating is discouraging (you're rejected more than you're not, after all.)  But in that same token, don't assume that because I don't have your brand of happiness that I am wrong to enjoy mine.  It's important for me to be happy with my life where it is.  I can be happy with new states of life too.  This is part of everyone's life, really.  What if you knew, for example, that at some point in your future you were going to be transferred across the country to a new job and a new neighborhood but didn't know when?  Wouldn't it be really sad if you missed out on the chance to enjoy your current job and current neighborhood just because you were going to move sometime?  What a wasted opportunity.

9. Trust us to do what is best for us.  Those of us religious single adults have learned to rely pretty heavily on faith and trust in the timing of the Lord.  We cultivate close relationships with Him and work to do His will.  Please trust our ability to receive revelation for what is best for us and understand that we may not want to justify why we do what we do, why we live where we live, how we spend our time, etc. to you - because that's really between us and God.  Please don't treat us like we still need to be babied through responsibility and the gospel.

10. Don't be afraid if we've accepted the possibility that marriage may never happen.  For most people this isn't resignation, it's determination.  It's the acceptance of God's hand in all things and acknowledging that if marriage and family aren't in the cards, then we still have to be OK.  We have to be MORE than OK.  We can't crumble into a pit of despair.  We can't live in lukewarm - we have to do something awesome with our lives!

Ultimately what most older single adults I know want, including myself, is to be treated like adults.  Like professionals.  Like competent religious participants in congregations.  We don't want to be defined solely by things that are largely out of control.  We want to be included, respected, and loved.  We want to be content with life - just like everyone else.