Sexless in the City

Sometimes reading romance novels doesn’t quite prepare you for a love life...

For this 30-year-old urbanite, love is always a misadventure: The Harvard Lickwit, Hippie the Groper, the 5% Man, and the Ad Weasel. These and many other men wander in and out of her life — but never her bed.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Sea-legs, pt. 2

Last weekend’s post about restlessness really seemed to strike a chord with some of you, so I thought I’d say a bit more on that. I think much of what drives it — in seasons like our 20s, at least — is seeking a calling or purpose. For me it’s been hard since I never planned on using my degree or having a career outside the home. Shortsighted, sure, but such was the myopia of childhood dreams. Since I’d never dreamed of being much more than a mommy (well, and a writer of some sort, though I was in denial of that), I resented the struggle to figure out what jobs I should get and how to proceed without assuming I’d ever have a family — while choosing in a way that didn’t complicate motherhood should marriage come along after all.

Basically, I’d wanted for most of my life to define my identity in terms of marriage and family. Once I faced the uncertain hope that was, it left me to find some other source of meaning. For which work and career seemed the obvious alternative … except that I’ve never been overly ambitious that way. I like the life of the mind, sure, but the things I like intellectually, I don’t have to do or get from a job, you know? And writing has always felt more organic, relational and creative. It’s not “work” in the same way.

The paying-dues blues
But I had to work. And since I had not an English or j-school degree, nor recent clips of my own, I despaired of ever finding work as a writer. Editor, yes; writer, no. And then there was that final disadvantage: since I went straight through to grad school, all of my age peers (in this oh-so-competitive city) had two more years of work experience. Though having an M.A. gave me some cachet, it was often confused with a theology degree — not something all that useful. I wasn’t quite an entry-level worker, but neither did I have the experience for the next level up. As much as the inefficiency and sheer boredom of my jobs was galling and humbling, there was no way around that year of two of being “underused” and paying my dues.

What I’ve learned from this and from watching my other friends is that, like it or not, most folks don’t jump into their dream job right away. All careers begin with a few years that test your character more than your skills or ability. If you’re of average or more intelligence, expect to feel frustration, but try to develop patience. You never know how these short-term “indignities” may bear fruit in the future. And if you’re a Christian, we know God puts a spiritual value on learning to persevere and rejoice in all things (which I don’t mean to say tritely or as if it’s easy; I know too well it’s not).

The funny thing about restlessness is, it’s partly a valid response to imperfect circumstances, partly an infirmity of the heart; the trick is knowing the difference. Much of my discontentment did abate once I started blogging and made peace with being a writer. Landing my current part-time job made much more sense of various jobs and interests I’d had, with seemingly little to connect them. There is a great peace that’s come from that, and I try to be always grateful.

Firmer footing
But not even these major blessings, as good as they are, have supplied that elusive sense of “purpose.” Then last fall, after launching into a “break-up” with my guy friend of highest esteem, I had an epiphany. The moments I’d felt my humanity most intensely were when I’d stopped to talk to homeless people (though some encounters moved me more than others), and when I’d been talking to folks about why the story of Jesus gives such hope to my life. When I thought about this, I realized these activities had in much common with Jesus’ work on earth, in which he later involved the disciples. Perhaps it was in seeking first God’s kingdom — the restoration of all the Bible says was lost with Adam’s fall — that I could find an ultimate purpose. Whether being single or having a family, writing a blog or a book or just random emails, all of my life no matter its course could be subsumed to that primary purpose.

That, at last, has finally given me peace and quenched a lot more of my restlessness. To the extent that I now live not for the approval of certain people or “success” in conventional terms — but for the pleasure of God alone — my sense of meaning and self-worth are based on fixed, unshakeable things. Even when I have a bad day and screw up, I can still take all of it to God, heap my pile of rubbish on the altar, and remember Isaiah said He deems even my best works to be no more than filthy rags. Sure, knowing God’s love isn’t based on what I’ve done means I have no “leverage” for demanding what I want, but it also means my standing with Him is based on something as sure as gravity, the sufficiency of what the Bible says was Jesus’ work on the cross.

If that’s not true, I am, as Paul told the Corinthians, “to be pitied more than all men.” But if it is true, then I have a purpose and calling and meaning in life that can survive losses, uncertainties and travails like none I know. I’m staking my life on that. Sure, Jesus only mentioned food and clothing as the things we should not seek first, but which God knows we need and will provide as we need, but I’m starting to think love and marriage are the same. If we who have surrendered to God through Jesus seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, He will provide things like spouses and children as He sees fit. Besides, who knows what depends on the children we’ll bear and the lives they’ll have? If so much is at stake in our dates and commitments, surely God can be trusted to do as He has appointed, and surely we are most ill-fit to try and run that part of our lives.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

I didn’t expect to imitate Carrie this much ...

But yesterday, while on the Internet, while doing my normal thing, I heard a sudden, ominous click from iBaby 2.0. Uh-oh. Programs stopped responding. And when I restarted in hopes this bad dream would prove just my paranoia about computer failure ... nothing. No icon, no smiley face, no un-smiley face, just ominous sounds of my disk-drive spinning, the hard drive trying to mount ... then nothing.

Prayer, no good. Frantic texts to Poster Boy, little hope: a problem best suited for the Apple Store. Gulp. Ad Co.’s former Apple Tech said much the same. So I packed up my baby, swallowed down tears, and readied to spend precious subway fare on a desperate trip to the Genius Bar (at $2/trip, I try to ration errands into Manhattan; on good weeks I spend not much more than $10-$12). I halfway debated what shirt would ensure the best hearing for my plight, but decided that that would be too much.

Once inside Soho’s Fruitville, I found the place totally swamped and more confirmation that sinking-feeling-in-stomach was probably justified. “Try booting it from the software disk and come back tomorrow morning,” he said. But then he confessed that it probably was a “major” problem that minor fix wouldn’t solve.

Sure enough, booting from CD: no good. Tests this morning confirmed that the hard drive is toast, without butter or jam. For which I consoled myself with a bunch of lilacs from the flower stand next to Tekserve. It was that or burst into tears, really, and I hate the way crying leaves salt splatters on my glasses. At least I backed up the book this weekend! No way I could cover the $500 recovery fee to retrieve it (which is only if they are successful; no guarantees of that). Apparently when you style yourself Carrie’s analog, you get a share of her writer’s woes as well. Sigh.

Feel free to use the donation button below, if you’re so moved. Looks like I’ll have to invest in a better back-up system.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Learning to find my sea-legs

First off, two reader shout-outs. I know someone who reads this mentioned something on her blog about sending cookies to U.S. soldiers. If that’s you, please shoot me an email and I’ll tell you how to reach my sis. She’s a second lieutenant overseeing several Marines, so your eats would feed not just her but several of those under her. Secondly, a big THANKS to the reader whose recent donation helped me cover not just the cost of filing my taxes but one bag of Trader Joe’s dried apricots. Mmmmmm.

It’s funny how such ordinary pleasures — dried fruit and lattes — have become my little indulgences. Once a splurge had more to do with charging a bargain found at Urban Outfitters (some candle or a t-shirt), or having a nice dinner out. Not that higher-end things aren’t still on the “save for when more flush with cash” list, but something has gradually changed in me. When I first arrived in this city, four years ago this August, I’d come here to flee suburbia, a life too boring and tepid. And since I was poor and jobless at first, how much was now near but still out-of-reach overwhelmed sometimes. As I wrote home in those early months:
New York is a walking city. … Though this amounts to a kind of egalitarian pedestrian experience, it somehow serves to reinforce one’s own sense of being without so many things that other people have. Because the streets are shared by everyone, poor folk like me ;) brush shoulders with very wealthy people, or those sufficiently comfortable with debt to dress as such. Never have I been in a place where I was so aware of the material goods I was doing without or could own — and I don’t think it’s just a weird-Anna thing; I’ve talked to other people who comment on the same thing. There’s an odd sense of the material here, and consequently a different sense of one’s material-goods-related class, relative to others’, than most other places I’ve been.

Sometimes it starts to get you down a little (or me, anyway). At times I feel like I’ve ordered this amazing créme brulée that’s been sitting in front of me for nearly two months. It’s both sickening and tantalizing at times, but I can’t really get below the surface to enjoy all the exciting contents beneath; seems like I keep scraping flakes off the top.
My clothes, my income, my evenings seemed all too ordinary compared to the restaurants and shops and outings I saw my street-mates partaking. But everyone seems to feel both that inadequacy and envy. I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to here, whose “day job” is someone else’s dream job, though they work pay the bills while pursuing some other passion off-hours. The papers are in on it too; besides the New York Times, two tabloid-sized rags keep the masses abreast of what star is seeing whom and wearing what. Why do we care? Why are we so committed to worshiping and reviling them by turns?

Because, I think, such celebrities live out the dream of many of overcoming humanity, progressing to an extraordinary existence. This, as my pastor pointed out last night, is the salvation most of us long for: not a redemption of our day-to-day life in its normalcy and subtle peaks and valleys, but an escape to something grander that seems to supercede our humanity.

And when you’re in your early twenties, this thirst for escape and quest for adventure tends to define your nightlife. At least it did mine. The last thing you want is a boring, quiet — *gasp* — ordinary Friday night at home. What clearer sign of loserdom? Or not.

Maybe this is just proof of my spinsterhood, but I can no longer count how many vanilla Friday nights I’ve passed in Brooklyn. And since I’m now leading a fairly suburban life after all — except at a higher cost than one finds in other parts of the country — I sometimes wonder if I need to live here at all. But that’s neither here nor there. My main point is, when I think about the experiences I long for these days, they’re not quite as exotic as they used to be.

Sure, I might miss the fish ’n chips I had in New Zealand three autumns ago, or long to revisit Malaysia’s tea plantations, but what I loved the most about those trips was reveling in the simple pleasures of eating a good meal with family, laughing at my brother’s fake accents, or nursing a steaming cup of tea. Although those trips took place in rather “extraordinary” settings, our greatest joys were savoring ordinary moments.

I’m starting to think the secret of contentment is not learning how to “escape” from life but to enjoy it for what it is — not sorting out the conditions just so, finding someway to stop the boat’s rocking, but learning to keep your balance no matter how smooth or rough the seas. The trouble with the old me was that I hoped a boyfriend and marriage would save me from boredom and the travails of a normal life. And since I secretly feared it might let me down in that, I made sure to like men more wrong than right for me. Having my dream of the perfect escape was preferable to having that dream come true and still be stuck here in a life most banal.

What is it you think you need in life? What do you hope it will save you from? Perhaps we fear our dreams’ fulfillment more than this longing interminable because we sense the problem is not in our circumstances, but restlessness. The problem is not what you have that I don’t, but my ever-renewing envy.

Pondering no more

Sorry, dahlings, still drafting Friday’s post (yeah, I know; a little late for that). While you’re waiting, check out this related story from NPR (thanks to my editor for the reference), or the coffee-themed podcast at Woot today. Back soon ...


Friday, April 14, 2006

Why we wait

Had a call from the Lickwit last night, inviting me to spur-of-the-minute drinks. I’ll confess: as broke as I’ve been lately, the prospect of probably free drinks with a witty blond held much appeal. (Especially since I’m always shocked when men who’ve passed me by still care that I’m breathing. I know — “protection not rejection” and all my well-intentioned opining — but sometimes steeling your heart against cynicism is might hard to do. Especially in this town.) But since I had much work to do, and had already bailed on plans for Maundy Thursday services, I asked him for a rain check.

Later I was reading an old friend’s new blog (which, if you liked Blogfather’s style, you really might want to check out), and thought how terribly fond I could be of this friend when thus reminded of his strong points. And somehow that brought to mind this time I hurt his feelings once — in a talk about why I wouldn’t consider changing my standards for him. Seen from a secular, masculine point of view, I could understand how it would seem insulting — like, “You’re not good enough for me.”

But I realized last night the slight was caused by my failure to explain myself and the reasons why I wait. It’s not a question of men being unappealing, or those particular guys not making me question my standards, but of esteeming them (and myself) too much to use them like that.

There have been lonely times in the past where I looked at my current closest guy friend and wondered if we could be more than friends — not because I wanted to marry him, or invest deeply in his life, but because I was lonely and wanted an intimate affirmation. That’s viewing sex and human relationships in a mercenary fashion: “What can you do for me?” or “What do I have to do for you to give me what I want?” Self is the underlying interest.

Sex is pragmatically polite instead of more genuinely other-focused and kind. (Not to say the latter is completely altruistic, but as a general rule it tends to be more sincere.) To give a man I wouldn’t marry — in other words, wholly commit myself to — mere sex without much more besides that is to spurn the rest of his personhood.

This is the fundamental difference between the Bible’s approach to relationships, and how we most often operate. The Bible says we should strive for a selfless, self-donating relationship with others — a posture of sacrifice (though this does not mean always giving them what they want, since that’s not always in the other’s best interest). And because it’s a model of whole-self giving, it means resisting attempts to break the other into compartments of emotional, professional, sexual, spiritual. You deal with the whole person.

In most situations, however, we not only fragment ourselves into pieces, we tend to privilege one part above the rest and measure our whole self worth by how that part of us is perceived. Encounter a person who doesn’t acknowledge that part as your most essential self, or offer homage to it like you’re used to, and that’s understandably disconcerting.

I should know; I used to lead with my sexuality. When men took the bait and rejected the rest of me as fairly incidental (before discarding me in a sexual sense as well), I was naturally hurt. But when the Christian men I met refused to deal with my sexuality, and consequently not much of me besides that, I felt even more demeaned and rejected. Not only did they not care about the part of me I thought most central, they didn’t seem to care about me at all!

Then a friend spoke into my life with some of the hardest words I’ve ever heard. Ever. He finally tackled directly the way I had fragmented my self and put sexuality on top. He talked about what that meant for my writing. Ouch. Normally I would have slapped on the band-aid of self-loathing as fast as I could, turning to my self-protective treatment for such wounds. But this time things went differently. There was in his words a gentleness and respect in which I sensed God Himself cajoling me to abandon this self-fragmentation to live as the whole person I was meant to be.

It was perhaps the first time that an unrelated male had shown me what whole-self-giving love really looks like, or how it at least begins. It’s not just caring about who you are right now and what you can do for me, but who you will be two decades from now, and what you are doing that’s hurting yourself and others.

For the Bible, you see, says the love we Christians are called to imitate is the ultimate self-giving, sacrificial love that’s shared within the Trinity, and was demonstrated most vividly when the king of the universe lived among his people in disguise, as it were, risking even the death that befell him, so he could rescue them from their oppressor. It’s a paradox: the fate one always fears such a king will suffer was actually how he secured our freedom. The way he showed us such love was by condemning our actions so strongly as to be deserving of even death itself but serving as our substitute in the gallows since he valued us too much to part with us.

So that, friends and readers, is really why I’m still waiting. Not because I’m better or you’re unattractive, not because I think sex itself is bad or will be better this way. No, I wait because I’ve learned through God and through friends the freedom it is to be whole and how much more lovely and precious the whole of you is than just the favorite part you show to me. I know it’s unlikely we’ll age together, or talk more than now and then, but in what what moments we do share, I want to engage not just the witty, urbane and charming parts of you but what it is that makes you spend your money frivolously, drink yourself into tipsy confidence, or date men you somewhat despise. As much as you’ll let me, in other words, I want to be the friend to you mine was to me. We both know that isn’t sexual, but we also know the true mark of friendship isn’t what favors you’ll trade but if you’d willingly give up your life.

Peace to you on this Good Friday ...

Friday, April 07, 2006

All that she wants is to be his lady

A number of you latched onto my remark from last time that sometimes what seems like rejection might really be divine protection. The reason I say that is a funny pattern: the men I liked the most, whom I was most willing to bend my standards for are the ones who pursued me the least and dropped me sooner than anyone else. But the ones I liked less (which relative disinterest was a protection in itself) hung around a lot longer and pushed to see how much they could get from me.

I realize that could sound like me just putting a quasi-spiritual, fairly superstitious spin on mere coincidence, but consider the deeper truth. As much as I thought I sort of liked any one of those guys at the moment, as a sum total they were space-fillers. Pretty much every one left something unsettled inside — even the good ones I liked for months. I always sensed a reason, a flaw, bad timing — something — that accounted for me not getting my way. So to call all that “rejection” was just my self-pitying way of complaining when God didn’t give me what I wanted, on the schedule I thought He should.

And many times, the liking was as much about my thirst for drama, for promise of something exciting and unexpected, as it was the guy himself. I didn’t know how to get through life without a man on the horizon. The only difference between me and other serial daters (who rarely have a break between relationships) is that my current guy was rarely more than a crush. In principle, though, we faced life the same way.

So the final reason I can’t really call it rejection is the in-retrospect test. When I look back, do I wish I’d had a relationship with that guy? No. In the secular cases, I wince at what I did with my dates. And in the case of the crushes, I realize we weren’t in a place to be good together. Even if we both had good intentions, neither those guys nor I was ready to be in a relationship leading to marriage. And that’s all I ever wanted. I never dreamed of being a girl who had a thousand dates or legions of boyfriends, who needed five memoirs to catalogue all the men she knew (thankfully, that isn’t who I’ve turned to be either). I just wanted to be someone’s wife and make family together.

Rejection implies that what happened to me was a bad thing, that my life would be better if it had turned out differently. No question, some men have hurt me and they did in fact reject me or my standards, but even that was protecting me from something I thought I wanted that really wasn’t good for me. It’s appetite confusion: sometimes you don’t really know your needs or desires at all.

So what about the pain they inflicted, am I somehow calling that good? No. But pain is not the surprise in life, it’s the given. The glorious thing is that sometimes pain and tragedy become a soil in which good and even growth sprouts up — like daffodils. Those have always been my symbol for redemption, you see, ever since the saga with Married Man. He was, I thought, all that I had ever wanted in a man ... except not a Christian, not single and so on. But somehow I got it stuck in my head that he was my tragic fate.

Pain, anguish, heartache. Eighteen torturous months of it. One day I realized it was as if I’d been given a longed-for sandcastle only to realize it wasn’t made out of sand at all but shit. Someone had made me a giant present of a mockery of my desires. The only hope I could find at long last was the knowledge that even shit gives birth to flowers in a way that sand could not have. Perhaps my shitcastle would be redeemed someday by exploding in riotous color as it turned into a flower castle.

That still hasn’t happened, but neither do I still feel the pain of that crush. And each spring that I’ve lived here more and more daffodils have sprung up — as if to symbolize the hope that God is good and faithful and hasn’t forgotten those longings of long-ago. Last year there was one daffodil that I spied in my backyard, surely left there long ago by a now-departed gardener. This year there are three or four plants at least, though no one has tended the sod but God. As I’m learning now that we compost at the local community garden, it takes time to transform waste into a soil that feeds new life. But just because my compost is still decaying doesn’t mean God won’t eventually reap a harvest from all my mistakes and pain and waiting.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

If he, should you, could you?

This week’s question raises a topic I’ve actually been writing about in the book: when you think the best that could be in store for you is someone who neither pursues you nor meets all your standards. What’s a girl to do?
Dear Anna:

Question 1: Is it in any way a good idea to anonymously send a mix cd of songs that express the feelings I cannot and that are tearing me up inside to a guy who a. is in a relationship, b. shares the same best friend as I, and c. that I have had romantic feelings for for approximately 4 years or more?

Question 2: If said guy, who has professed his attraction to/desire for/interest in me at several times over the above mentioned approximate 4 years or more ever wakes up and decides to date me, would it be fair to expect him to be in, let alone understand, a sexless relationship with me? In other words, if we finally get together after years of hidden feelings, missed opportunities and various “misunderstandings,” how could I expect that this guy would be down for no sex? I don’t know his status as a man of God, other than that he is a very sexually experienced Catholic. Could/should I, in order to prove myself selfless, put aside my chastity to make happy a man that I think I could make so very happy in other ways, or stand my ground, even if it means forever missing out on him and us?

Conflicted Christian
Oh, honey. That’s a doozie, for sure. But the good news is, you can get through this, you will get through this, and someday you’ll look back with great relief that you didn’t settle for less-than-perfect Mr. Passive. Trust me. Married Man was my Mr. Passive (except more than taken, married) and now I shake my head to think I ever found him so essential to the future I thought I wanted. But don’t let me get ahead of myself.

First off: question one, the mix CD. Can I be one of your girlfriends for a minute? No, no, no, no, no, no, no! If you have to cloak it in secrecy, you know there is a problem. My advice: hone the perfect playlist and publish it on iTunes. But lest I sound too harsh, let me assure you I have been there. Been there, sitting at a concert, hearing a jazz legend, tears rolling down my face because I couldn’t call the jazz-loving man I liked and play him some of the show (I’d sent him a letter asking we cease IMing but had heard nothing in reply). Sitting there, crying, texting furiously to a girlfriend, asking if I could block my number then call him up. I guess you can tell she managed to talk me down.

So I know it’s hard, I know you’re going crazy, but you’ve got to find a way through this that doesn’t depend on changing your circumstances or trying to provoke something with him (would he really fail to guess it’s you?? Do you really want it that badly?). If you’re meant to say those things to him, to share those songs, the right time and setting will arise. There were things I once wanted to say to the Captain but never had a chance to. Then one day while we were talking in church a long while later, I had my moment. And that’s just one case; the pattern has been the same with various guys.

I know we hate to admit this, but things never work as well when they are forced. They just don’t. Either the right time and energy is there, and things work out because they’re sposed to ... or they don’t. My hunch is, things haven’t worked out with this guy because we both know — hell, maybe even he knows — that it wouldn’t be for the best. You don’t want a guy who would make you change yourself or your standards just to be with him! And this is not an issue of saying, “I need a man who dances” or something frivolous like that. This is a valid, sincere — and might I add, reasonable — standard to hold. You stick to your guns, honey. Just because you can’t see it now doesn’t mean God doesn’t have better things for you — and I’m confident He does.

Let me tell you a secret. I believed for years no man who wasn’t already related to me could love the real me — at least enough to stay in my life. Christian men never got close enough to see all the flaws, and secular men only wanted sex. But God had different things in mind, so finally he brought a friend along who didn’t run from my chastity ... or my then too-salty tongue. It’s a long story you’ll have to read the book to hear, but this guy is the first single, unrelated man in my life to unflinchingly call me on my crap yet tell me in the same conversation that he respects me. Sure, maybe he doesn’t have romantic love, but he’s been a true friend. If he could show such kindness and patience to me — a woman neither his girlfriend nor sister (except in a spiritual sense), how much more could a man who wants to grow old with me?

Four years is more than enough to stay locked in this box of hoping and waiting and secretly grieving because you know this falls far short of what you really long for. Feminism be damned, men still pursue when they really want something. The right man will, if there is one. And don’t look at this man’s passivity as a measure of your worth. He’s blind to your true value, sure, but maybe it’s a grace that he can’t see you for what you are.

I’ve never had a boyfriend, right? Handfuls of dates at the most, but nothing more. Christian men rarely ask me out, and secular men always dumped me because of my chastity. For a long time I considered that a history of rejection — which affirmed the broken view that I was worthless. But then one day it dawned on me that perhaps it was protection — which would say much about my worth in God’s eyes. So think about that. And when you feel yourself sinking down again, in despair, hold what you’re believing up to the light and see if it’s true or not — for truth will set you free, not keep you in bondage.