Making myself whole again

I know I can be rather cynical and snarky sometimes, even though I know that neither looks good on anyone. It’s been something that I’ve been trying hard to change for the past few months – one of those resolutions I made when I moved out of my old apartment, along with moving forward instead of being rooted facing the past and leaving the past behind me where it belongs.

It seems to be the year of friends-in-couples moving in, becoming engaged, getting married, and having babies (many of whom I grew up with, including childhood friends and one of my own siblings). This weekend alone there were two weddings in my social circle, in addition to one happening last week and three more set for two weekends from now. There have been a fair number of first wedding anniversaries, too. My social network feeds are full of newborns in pink or blue hospital tuques and booties or of babies still in the “X months old” stage doing all their adorable drooly “firsts,” while the friends who aren’t quite there yet are posting photos of the new keys leading to cohabitational dwellings or of joined hands, one of which is now adorned by a dazzling ring.

And here I am – single, when a year ago I had stars in my eyes and hopes in my heart for all of these things with the person I thought was going to be The One. I would by lying if I told you I no longer swallow the bitter pill of breaking up whenever something reminds me that I’m single in the midst of all these happy couples in various stages of their relationships. I would be lying if I told you I no longer stop dead in my tracks in the middle of any given day because it hits me like a ton of bricks – that the dead-certain journey and destination I thought I had in my last relationships was, alas, just another one of those runaway trains.

It’s not like I can’t get out of bed in the morning and make it through the day, or that I have to keep faking smiles and fighting back tears. Trust me, I’m okay with things. Really.

But any love that you lose that you felt with all your heart, believed in with all the faith in your soul, and hoped for in any prayer is going to leave deeper cuts than you’d like to admit, right?

However, admitting to this is part of the healing, and after a long winter, fleeting spring, and sweltering summer, here I am in autumn, single and finally admitting to the fact that maybe I’m not quite as healed up yet as I’d like to have everyone believe.  I’m working on it, though.  Really.

I have never doubted that I made the right decision and, when sitting in Mass today listening to Father’s homily, I was reminded of that fact. You see, I’ve spent the last few weeks in a pretty rough patch that stretched across all aspects of my life and I was, at one point a few days ago, so close to tipping over the edge of regret and self-pity. But today’s Gospel included that bit about cutting off or tearing out the appendages that cause you to stumble – and as much as I had loved and cared about the other half of my last relationship, by the time it ended there was too much stumbling on both sides of the equation for it to have been healthy, on any level, for either of us.

But none of it was wasted time for me, because I was able to grow and I was able to learn over its duration, and coming out of it with that growth and knowledge gave me the foundation I needed to rebuild myself.

“There are many loves in this world,” as the saying goes, “but never the same love twice.” Even if you end up with somebody from a past relationship, it’s still a new kind of love because you’ve both grown and changed in that time apart.  I know I will never have that love – or any past love, for that matter – again, and I’ve come to accept that. However, when love does find me again, I know that it will be the right one if I go into it as a whole person and hold on to it for good reasons – reasons that don’t involve the fear of being alone, the desire to be adequate enough for somebody to take notice, or any one of the other things that played into why any of my past relationships happened.

In the meantime, though, I’m choosing to see singlehood as a blessing…because really, it is. It suits me at this point in my life, and for once I am in the right frame of mind to be doing things for myself on my own terms. It’s not selfish of me to do things by myself or spend money on myself if that’s going to improve who I am and make me a better, stronger, and more whole individual. It’s not cynical of me to hide certain posts from my news feeds that make me feel inadequate, unworthy, or unsuccessful simply because I am not in the same position as many of my friends and acquaintances, for that’s removing unintentional negativity from my immediate vicinity.

And it’s not spiteful of me to say I would never go back to any of my past relationships to recapture what they were, because if a relationship doesn’t make two people grow closer together towards a common goal, it’s not the right relationship. I’m single right now because I have not yet found the right relationship, and part of the reason is because I’m still a little too rough around the edges to be the best partner I can be for the kind of man I know I want – and I think that I’ll know who he is when he forgives me for taking so long to make my way to him.

But I’m on the right track now, I think, with all the things I’m doing to make the most out of my current state of singledom, and I’m sure that for the right guy that counts for something.

“Out of the womb of nature” in the middle of Kentucky

I’m currently in Ohio visiting my sister and her family on a short Labor Day Weekend vacation. Sure, Ohio might not be the most glamorous of States to visit, but I love coming here nonetheless. A visit to my sister’s West Chester home is everything a vacation should be: relaxing and refreshing, with good food and better company in abundance.

Yesterday we took a family road trip two hours south into central Kentucky, and on the way down we saw a wild turkey, some white-tailed deer, and a turtle crossing the I-75 (who we thankfully did not see lying belly up on the Interstate on the way home). We finally arrived at the Mammoth Cave National Park with an extra hour, having forgotten to take into account a one-hour time difference, and so had the opportunity to explore more than we’d anticipated.

Now, the surrounding countryside on the surface was a sight to see unto itself.  Being raised in the Fraser Valley gave me an appreciation for the great outdoors that I’ve carried with me into the concrete jungle where I’ve resided for the past seven years, and getting out of the city is always my favourite way to spend a long weekend.  It doesn’t happen nearly enough, but with landscapes like these all over North America, that could change soon…

The view from the trails above the caves.

The view from the trails above the caves.

After a quick picnic lunch and a ¾-mile nature hike, we piled into one of three buses alongside 130 other guests, drove four miles out into the wild, and descended 280 steps on a narrow metal staircase into the world’s biggest cave system.  Over 400 miles of cave systems have been explored underneath nearly 53 000 acres of densely-forested land, and as we walked ever lower into this “grand, gloomy, and peculiar place” on the “Domes and Dripstones” tour, I felt like we were entering a new world entirely separate from our own. Though adequate light sources few and far between – set up mainly to illuminate the more elaborate and interesting rock formations and features – we filed through the tunnels at an easy pace, congregating in three separate cave chambers to learn more about the caves and the park’s history from our fearless leaders, the amusing duo of Rangers Jason and Jeff.

This was probably the most amount of light we got down there.

This was probably the most amount of light we got down there…

...while the rest of it was more or like this.

…while the rest of it was more or less like this…

...and, more often than not, like this.

…and, more often than not, like this.

Even in these spacious caverns the lights were dim, and in one of them the Rangers turned the lights off entirely so we could experience the total stillness and utter darkness of the caves as they were before man came with firelight to illuminate their grandeur. According to the park’s lore, in the early days an explorer was left behind by accident in one of the chambers and was found nineteen hours later sitting on a boulder banging two rocks together. When praised for his clever thinking to use sound to guide his team back to him, he explained that it had been more for his benefit than anyone else’s: the total silence and darkness had been enough to drive him crazy.

I can believe it. What I’m still trying to wrap my head around is that some people were intrepid and daring enough to venture down into places like the Mammoth Caves with little more light than what’s afforded by a Zippo.  But nonetheless I’m glad they did, and the two-hour trip to the grand finale was well worth the careful stepping and occasional fumbling in near to total darkness.

The Frozen Niagara feature of stalactites and stalagmites at the end of the tour took my breath away. It’s one thing to see these formations in photos or in documentaries, but to experience them in real life is almost indescribably amazing and downright cool. There was so much to take in from that one section of the tour, and if we could have stayed down there longer it would not have been long enough for me to take in everything I could have. Alas, with the buses waiting at the surface to take us back to the visitors’ centre, I had to pull myself away from that underground display and ascend back into the light of the surface world.

Heading down into the

Heading down into the “Drapery Room” once we reached the Frozen Niagara formation.

Looking up from the bottom of the

Looking up from the bottom of the “Drapery Room.”

Just outside of the

Just outside of the “Drapery Room,” on the way back up to the surface.

It’s hard to imagine any degree of beauty or creation existing so far away from the surface where humans are best suited to life. But the wondrous subterranean landscapes of caves proves that beauty not only exists but truly thrives even in the dreariest, darkest places – and their surprising closeness to home reminds us that once you’re able to see beauty in the dark cold depths, you’re not as far as you think from the light and warmth of a beautiful day.

The 15-minute book club, #2: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” 

— Atticus Finch

My parents raised us with what I’ve come to describe as a blended education; between September and June we attended public school, but the education continued during the summer with lessons in Latin, grammar, history, art, literature, and Catechism.  Idle minds were not permitted inside our house and the summer housekeeping on our education, though loathed and unappreciated at the time, has continuously served us in good stead in our grown-up lives.

I remember it well:  the summer I turned my oldest sister was given the task of coordinating the literary component of our summer learning.  At the time my brothers were on the threshold of turning nine and ten, and although our interests were starting to diverge like the proverbial path in the woods, the “all for one and one for all” mentality still prevailed.    In retrospect my sister’s wisdom was already well-developed even then, for she chose a novel that managed to capture three young and very different minds from beginning to end.

It was a miracle that a novel narrated in the first person by a six-year-old girl was able to hold the attention of two pre-adolescent boys, but I suppose that’s part of the magic of To Kill a Mockingbird – not to mention the fact that it can exert that same strength on readers who revisit it as adults, and therefore read it under a different light.  It is a harsher light than the yellow halogen of a desk lamp, the bluish circle of a flashlight under a duvet, or the dappled summer sun filtering through a canopy of leaves and branches.  It is the harsh, bright light of experience that comes from within to illuminate the depths of words that we as children see but cannot quite yet fathom.

While I’m sure my brothers found the book’s “bigger picture” to be more interesting than the day-to-day happenings of the Finch family, that first encounter appealed to the tomboy I was back then for I could relate to Scout Finch on many levels.  From trailing along on the shirttails of older brothers who were starting to lose interest in their little sisters to enduring trials at school in both the classroom and the playground, Scout and I had a lot in common and I wished she and Jem could materialize in the real world so that we all could be friends.  Jem could be the male third my brothers were starting to long for when we weren’t with our closest cousins, and Scout could be the female best friend who had always been missing from my early life.

We in the real world even had our own version of the Radley House at the end of our street, complete with its own lore derived mostly from the overactive imaginations of neighborhood children.  My young mind would overlap that house with the one in the book and conjure up new inhabitants, and the adventures we would have there with the Finches always involved Scout and me teaming up against our older brothers and outperforming them in bravery and boldness.

My early years in school were similar to Scout’s, particularly where actual book learning was concerned.  I remember being told by the school librarian that children in grade one could only borrow from the section of the library where there were picture books – a rule reinforced by my teacher and, once it came to the attention of my parents, promptly ignored and undermined by means of my first card for the public library.  A year later, reading about Scout’s interactions with Miss Caroline Fisher on Scout’s very first day of school brought back the memory of being turned away from the school library check-out counter by the steely-haired, flinty-eyed librarian because I wanted to check out two novels “too advanced for my grade’s reading level.”

That summer flew by as I chased daydreams inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird but all too soon it was to become a thing of the summer – as short-lived as the sweet freedom of the season itself, and like the last rays of the sun on the final night before school started not even the light of that beloved book could outshine all that I was to learn in the next year.  When September arrived I found myself in the third grade under the tutelage of a teacher who supported my literary precociousness and encouraged me to read whatever I wanted.  When I told her what I’d read that summer and proved that I could spell, define, and properly use the book’s advanced vocabulary, I also told her that I had spent the previous two years bored to tears during class trips to the school library because I wasn’t allowed to venture to the other side where the novels were kept.   I don’t know what passed between my third-grade teacher and the librarian, but whatever words were exchanged my teacher’s evidently were stronger –  because from then on I was able to borrow whatever my heart desired from whatever shelf I felt drawn to any given day of the week.

To Kill a Mockingbird soon disappeared under piles and piles of other books.  Most were borrowed from the school library, the public library, and my father’s study; some were procured with pocket money from various book sales at the community centre and church; and a few – my treasures at the time – were  bought brand-new with birthday and Christmas money.  But it came back to the top of the pile in grade ten, when the English curriculum called for it as a class novel study.  I went along with the coursework, completing the entire book and assignment package in about a week – a feat that left me more time to delve deeper than my classmates into the story.

This was, perhaps, one of the first times I experienced how a classic book changes with the age of its audience.  The parts I had found highly hilarious as a child were, nearly ten years later, only amusing.  Adolescent retrospect made me see my childhood delights and daydreams as silly flights of fancy and I, like Jem and my brothers, chose to pay more attention now to the bigger things in life than to Scout and the world she inhabited between Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house and the Radley Place.  The novel, which my younger self had seen as amusing and entertaining, revealed to Teenage Me its more somber face.  As I dove deeper into it, trying to find out what Harper Lee was really trying to say, I was swept into the undercurrents of Maycomb’s society until I was washed up on disenchanted shores where I waded through muddy waters where history crashed against fiction.  I realized then that my first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird was only one way by which I might experience the novel, and that as precocious as I might have been at seven I had subconsciously skimmed over the later chapters of the book because my childhood mind could not quite understand why Harper Lee would have spent so much time on “boring, grown-up things” in a book that I thought to be about an idyllic and carefree childhood.

Soon, To Kill a Mockingbird disappeared once more under other books.  I gave it barely a thought during my university years, during which any reading I did was hardly for the mere pleasure of opening a book and forgetting a cup of tea three sips and two chapters later.  When Go Set a Watchman was released earlier this summer, its predecessor came to the forefront of my mind and I found myself more eager to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird than I was to discover Go Set a Watchman.  In my current phase of audiobooks, I was delighted – though hardly surprised – to find several audio versions of that beloved novel and immediately downloaded the edition narrated by Sissy Spacek.

The hormonal sullenness of adolescence now long behind me, I’ve found that I can enjoy the amusing portions of To Kill a Mockingbird with delight similar to that of childhood.  I’ve also realized that the novel has more amusing lines and passages than my younger eyes had ever seen, thus proving that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean you entirely lose either your sense of humor or your ability to find lightheartedness anywhere.  As for the parts where teenaged eyes could only see distress, discouragement, and disenchantment, my adult observations can now see what good can come out of the novel’s darker elements.

Although it reads as a memoir and a coming-of-age-story, Scout tells it all from the point of view of a child.  The words Harper Lee gives her to tell her story are mature and eloquent, but Scout recounts the events of her early life in a tone as straightforward and frankly as only a child’s voice can be.  Scout is suspended in time within the book, forever a child in an idyllic environment only just beginning to crack under the pressures of the larger world beyond picket fences.  Out here in the real world, I have aged; I have grown up in all kinds of ways, losing innocence in the process and therefore sometimes losing hopefulness and faith.  Though Scout grows up too, at the end of the book she is still in that liminal phase where life’s harder lessons are now perceptible but not quite yet tangible, not yet quite learned.

To Kill a Mockingbird keeps Scout in that safe zone within Calpurnia’s earshot, and because of that I can go back to the novel any time I please and be transported to a childhood whose memories and stories are perfectly preserved.  It means that I, now an adult, can still walk up to meet Scout on the porch and re-experience that childhood.  Enough years have gone by between my first meeting with Scout and now for me to be able to do any discussion about To Kill a Mockingbird the justice owed it.  Even though I see things now for what they really are in that seemingly lovely version of Maycomb, I have a child’s hand by which I might be led through those dusty red streets and by whose touch I am reminded to look through even the darkest moments of life with the hope and faith that a light may still be seen somewhere in it.

A toast to a happy couple

It’s hard not to think about weddings right now. For the past year I’ve received invitations to a number of weddings, including my brother’s and, just recently, that of a very dear friend. Hers is the second I’ve been invited to since my brother’s nuptials in April and I’m fairly certain it won’t be the last I’ll get before the year is out. And although she is a fairly recent addition to my circle of friends she has – quite quickly – found a permanent place in the innermost circle of confidants.

Unfortunately, because of time and distance and logistics, I won’t be able to make it to this wedding. I know a lot of people would be aghast to hear I won’t be present at the wedding of a person I consider one of my dearest friends, but I think the fact that she understands my predicaments is a testament in and of itself to how amazing she really is.  And while I won’t be present to make a speech when they get married in October, I’m still able to share what this particular set of nuptials means to me as a friend of the happy couple.

The invitation arrived today in the mail, though I didn’t get it out of the box until this evening as I was coming back up from loading something into another best friend’s trunk. The “something” in question is the Ex-Box I wrote about some months ago – the Indiana Jones Crate of my last relationship. Although I didn’t open the Ex-Box before handing it off to said best friend, I still know exactly what’s inside it…and I was thinking about all of those things when I saw that I’d received my friend’s wedding invitation.

I wish I had something dramatic to share with you about my reaction to the invitation. After all, I’d just mentally spent several minutes going over the contents of the Ex-Box – and almost against my will, because memories like that have a strange way of making you helpless and hapless in their presence. And I probably would have had every excuse and reason to fly off the handle upon receiving this invitation tonight, for she is marrying the younger brother of the Ex whose Box I sent to my friend’s house this evening.

But the truth is, I didn’t react in a way that would be worthy of Greek Choruses, and I don’t think I ever will about this particular wedding. I don’t see it as the day my ex-boyfriend’s younger brother marries one of my closest friends. I see it as the day two wonderful people will be starting a life together – a life they have worked so hard on and for which they have built with strong, solid foundations through every shared experience.

When I, the single half of this friendship, look at my friend and her fiancé, I don’t feel that deep twinge of envy that other young women might feel when they look at their engaged friends. I look at them and I see two people who are complete on their own and bring two whole people into one love. I see a young modern woman who is intelligent, independent, and strong – yet still feminine and gentle enough to bring out the best qualities in her hardworking, devoted, and golden-hearted young man. I see a couple that is on the same page and in each other’s hearts right next to God. I see two people who can do anything on their own, but when they’re together are truly unstoppable.

This is a relationship that’s been years in the making, and they’ve come through so much together over those years. I have only been a part of their lives for a short while, but I am so privileged and blessed to know their story, and to know them on my own terms.

If anything, being included on their guest list has reminded me that I am my own person – that my presence in somebody’s life is not contingent on me still being with the person who brought me into that life in the first place. It’s reminded me that the opinions some people might have of me aren’t the opinions of others, and that the people I cherish the most in the world will always welcome me and relate to me on their own terms. It’s reminded me that I as an individual am more than any relationship I was in before or ever will be a part of in the future – that my individuality, not my relationships, is what makes me worthy of the friendship and love of remarkable people.

Concerning my own, and still-theoretical, wedding day there are three non-negotiable elements for me. The first: that I sincerely hope that at least one person making a speech will open with the words, “Mawage. Mawage is what bwings us together today.” The second: that I will be wearing a white pair of Chucks with satin bows as laces, but they won’t be bedazzled. The third: that I will be walking myself down the aisle, because in my adult life what makes me happiest is being entirely self-made – being my own darn self.

And that’s the most important part, I think: being my own damn self and bringing the very best of what that is into my Happily Ever After, if and when it finally happens.