Spinning

I made a post to social media that inspired some response that I didn’t expect. This is what I wrote:

Another “overheard” moment… I was in line at TJMaxx and there was a pair of 40-somethings behind me. I don’t know their relationship but (going off stereotypes) picture a tidy spinster and her sassy gay friend.

She: (poking around in an impulse buy bin) This store has so much kitsch. You know, there isn’t a single item in my home that isn’t meaningful to me.

He: (snort laughs) Well Honey, your life is FULL of meaning.

I thought it was perfectly benign thing to share, but a few of my older female friends replied to say that if I didn’t know this woman I shouldn’t call her a spinster. I got the sense that the word was offensive to them, and I was surprised.

I like to refer to myself as a spinster. I am not. I’m actually a divorcée, which is a word that I hate. It is a grey word that is dour and weighty with implication and story. It is constricting and old-fashioned, like a corseted Victorian dress. Yes, I got a divorce ten years ago. But can’t I just be single now? Do I have to wear a scarlet D on my chest for the rest of my life?

If I can’t be single I would rather be a spinster. That word is lithe and awash in color. It is fun and reckless, like a wooden top, darting in unpredictable directions before flying off the table. Or a child twirling so her skirt fills the blurred space around her until she is overcome by joy and falls in the grass.

Older women don’t seem to feel the same way about the word. Perhaps to them, the connotation is darker. It is a spider in the corner of a room, dark and entombed in silk, watching the action of the home from a distance and ruminating on small insects and speculations on what might have been.

The word “spinster” actually means exactly what it says. “A female spinner of thread.” It dates to the mid fourteenth century and comes from a time that spinning thread and yarn for textiles was one of few money-making options for a woman. This would allow a woman to contribute to the house hold, but also was a way for a woman to live independently of a man’s income. In time, the term “spinster” became synonymous with a single women, and then with single women who were passed the age where they were likely to marry. By the 1600s it was used in legal documents as a shorthand for an unmarried woman.

I haven’t found this specifically stated, but I must assume that the term was always pejorative, as the idea that a woman might approach life with goals that she prioritizes above marriage and family is a new idea. (In my experience, it is even still controversial, but I live in Utah so that might be region specific.) It is clear that by the nineteenth century there was the added stigma attached to the unmarried women in the middle class, which was that they were too fussy or choosy to accept a man when they opportunity arose. Or that they had been passed by due to their inherent lack of desirability. Or, in the case of Dicken’s Miss Havisham, destroyed utterly by disappointment and her own frail heart.

Of course, the other evidence for negativity attached to the word is revealed in the search for the male equivalent. An unmarried man is considered a “bachelor,” a word that doesn’t ever seem to break or expire. A man is either an eligible bachelor or a confirmed bachelor. A state which I have never sensed is shameful, regardless of the circumstances, but especially if the man in question has chosen career over matrimony.

There appears to be a movement now to redefine or reject the term spinster. In England and Wales, the word was formally thrown over in favor of the word “single” in legal documents in 2005. In Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Kate Bolick tells her own story of following her career away from the more traditional choice of husband and family and encourages women to celebrate their singleness and reclaim the word “spinster” as a legitimate choice for the third-wave feminists of today.

I love the idea, but I personally don’t feel invited to join the party. Not simply because – as I mentioned earlier – there was a time that I chose to get married. But also because I would have welcomed the chance to have a long-term relationship competing for my attention. I am proud of what I have accomplished with my career, but I don’t feel like I am living a full life. I tried many times after the divorce to find a relationship and make it work, but it didn’t happen for me. Not yet anyway. I don’t feel like a failure as a feminist because I feel that way. But I don’t feel like I can “celebrate my chosen singleness” in earnest. It isn’t as though I made that choice. And if I am being completely honest, perhaps there is a part of me that fears becoming the spider in the corner, spinning silk and watching my nieces and nephews grow into adults, trying not to think of the things that I missed out on.

I think about these things often but I try not to write about them. It feels indulgent and whiny. I know that no one gets everything that they want. We are all compromising all the time. Furthermore, I realize that I myself am giving these words the power that they have over me.

The word “divorcée” is a pronouncement about my past. Something I would like to shed and leave behind. And the word “spinster” is an assumption about the future, which may or may not prove to be accurate. At present, I am “single,” and going forward that will be my word. I’m living in the moment, doing my best to succeed in all areas of my life. I’m letting go of the past and I’m open to whatever the future holds.

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V-Day

I don’t write much about my love life here.  Long ago, in another blog far away, I used to write about it a lot.  But that was back when I never imagined that I would be divorced for ten years and still live alone.  The dating adventures were fun and made funny anecdotes for my goofy blog.  Then, somewhere in there, it got sad.  I met some guys that I really hoped to make a connection with, but it never worked out.  There came a point when I realized that I wasn’t laughing at the anecdotes, I was just bitching.  I didn’t stop trying to find love.  But I stopped writing about it.

I’m a happy person with a full life and a lot of interests and accomplishments.  The relationship piece is missing, and I feel its absence.  It’s tricky because I feel so much gratitude for the life that I have.  And as a feminist I feel ashamed when harping on about being lonely or feeling incomplete without a man.  But I do feel incomplete sometimes.  And there are times when I wonder why – exactly, why – it is that I wasn’t able to make something work with someone after all this time.  My ex-husband is married with two kids.  Meanwhile, I feel like I haven’t made any progress down that road since we split and went our own ways.

A few days ago I was catching up on podcasts and I listened to the first of a three-part series from Dear Sugar, an advice column which has transitioned to audio format.  (I’ve written before about my love for Cheryl Strayed as a writer. Dear Sugar is her podcast.)  The title was “Looking For The One,” wherein “The Sugars” (Cheryl and Steve Almond) discuss one of the most oft asked questions they receive, “Will I ever find the one?”

A quick re-cap… They related the stories of the askers, all women who are single but range in age from their twenties to their fifties, who are trying to come to terms with single-hood.  They want relationships and they, like me, feel shame when they say they need a man.  And like me, they also feel anxious about the complexities.  What is wrong with me? Why her and not me? Am I going to be able to have children? I have a great life and this is the one thing that is missing, but if someone had asked me early on to choose between career and relationship, I would have picked the relationship. But I never got to make the choice.

I was sucked in, completely. This is my story! And they were talking about it in such a candid and empathetic way.  I have been at a point where I am feeling pressure to come to terms with my situation in a final way and find some acceptance, and to hear this discussion and the letters of other women in my situation was meaningful to me.  If I were to break it down to a list of the three primary takeaways (because let’s face it, I LOVE lists!), it would be these.

A). I’m not alone.

If this is the most common question that The Sugars receive, then that is informative to me.  Perhaps it shouldn’t make me feel better, and I’m not sure it does.  But five years ago, I had a lot of women in my circle of friends who were in the same situation.  Now, there are still a few. But not many.  It is good to be reminded that I’m not the only person who hasn’t found a chair this long after the music has stopped.

B). Of all the women who wrote these letters, most will find someone.  And some will not.

Thank you! Thank you, Cheryl and Steve, for saying that!  I can’t explain how much it made my heart sing to hear someone admit, “Actually, yeah – some of these women will not make this happen for them.”

I am so tired of reading that if I just keep trying and “put myself out there” and “never ever settle,” that I will find some dreamy and delicious relationship that was totally worth waiting for.  Because it isn’t true.  I could “put myself out there” and go on thousands of first dates and keep my heart open, and it still may never work out because frankly: I do not have control over the outcome.

Also, isn’t there a contradiction in telling someone to “keep their heart and mind open” and also, “never ever settle!”?  At this point, after a decade of being on my own, I don’t need to be told not to settle. I have seen what my options are.  If I do decide to try to make something that is less than ideal work, you can trust that I thought out that decision.

I have taken breaks from the search but, to date, I haven’t given up.  I know that being alone for the rest of my life is a distinct possibility.  But if it doesn’t work out, it wasn’t because I didn’t try.  It didn’t work out because sometimes it doesn’t fucking work out.

C). There are many kinds of ‘life partnerships.’

Amen.

There is a point in the episode where Cheryl makes a point of saying that they aren’t prescribing remedies or tactics for these women. But she did remind me that there are people in my life that have partnered with me for the long term.  I have two sisters and a number of wonderful friends who are on this journey with me.  They have witnessed and help me keep my history. They are loyal to me and know that I am loyal to them.  They would have my back in a bar fight.  Of that, I am certain.

Today is Valentine’s Day.  There were years in the last decade where that little day would creep up like a bad flu and then it would hit and I would suffer through it.  It wasn’t an issue this year.  It was just another day.  I mostly took note of it because I wanted to plan around the restaurant crowds (food: my other life-long partnership).  In fact, when I got out of bed this morning I had forgotten it was a holiday.  Then…

First thing in the morning, I had a text from my niece sending love and wishing me a happy Valentine’s Day.  I was touched.  People don’t give millennials a lot of credit when it comes to thinking beyond themselves, and yet that girl remembered to send a Valentine to the single auntie in her hermitage, and I appreciated it.

Then my friend Gina sent a message asking me to be her Valentine’s lunch date.  She’s in a newish relationship and I know they had evening plans for the big day of love, but still… she carved out time for me.

My friend Stef then got in touch to ask me if I wanted to do yoga.  We have a standing Sunday thing but I thought she might pass on Valentine’s to over plans with her husband.  But she wanted to go.  And what was I going to say?  “I can’t go; I’m busy”?  I went and it was great (especially when it was over).

I also got to talk to my younger sister and her son on FaceTime.  And I even heard from my older sister’s family, even though they are camping and off the map for the President’s Day weekend.  I didn’t expect to have either of those connections today.

I love.  And I am loved.  Not in a traditional Valentine’s Day way.  But I don’t care.  It is more than enough.  It is profound.  And I am full of joy and gratitude.

Don’t get me wrong; it would have been nice to get laid today.  But I suppose that goes without saying.

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