In Ireland, in the 70’s, boys were everywhere, or at least it seemed that way. They crowded Saturday night dances and thronged youth groups, hiking groups, every kind of group. They struck up conversations on the street and hovered around the gate to my all-girls high school. While such plenitude made starting a relationship appear easy, there was a skill involved, a dance of enticement and feigned indifference that everyone knew was an act, but pretended to believe was real. It was a dance I never mastered.
I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t smart. I couldn’t bring myself to laugh at jokes that weren’t funny, or figure out when to lie about having other plans, and I didn’t know how to use meanness as a strategy. Most of all, I cared inordinately what a boy thought of me and believed without question that he didn’t think much of me at all. But I kept that to myself, corralled it into an enclosure for secrets that can’t be shown to the world. Like The Scarlet Letter I was reading at the time, they branded me inferior to requirements, itself a source of intense vulnerability and shame.
Somewhere between late teens and early twenties, the downhill rush to marriage began. Boyfriend, marriage, children. That was the norm. That was the nature of the universe. As a boyfriendless teenager, I was a little odd, a little to be pitied. As my husbandless years ticked by, I became ‘strong’ and ‘independent’, greatly admired by women who were relieved not to be me. I listened to their well-meaning consolations – praise for my college degrees, my career, my travels in America, still a distant and exotic place back then. These were euphemisms for failure. At twenty six I was a failure as a woman. It seared to the bone. Despite my precocious feminism, I too secretly believed my life was nothing without a man. I longed to be normal, but believed I never would. And then, age thirty, I got married, just in the nick of time.
It didn’t matter that pain often lurked behind the façade of marriage. By the time you discovered this hidden-in-plain-sight secret, you were already married. You were in the cocoon of normalcy. So what if there was a little suffering involved, and sometimes more than a little? Suffering is part of life, absorb it, corral it firmly and get on with living.
But, as my contemporaries and I reached middle age, something happened, something we didn’t see coming and wasn’t even legal when we got married: Divorce. It affected everyone randomly and indiscriminately; girls who snagged husbands early and those who married late. Twenty years and one marriage later, the cocoon abruptly split and spat me out into a world I didn’t recognize.
In this new world, women were everywhere, blossoming, post-divorce women. They seemed happy. I felt like I was breaking apart. I did the usual: changed my hairstyle, bought new clothes, took an art class. It wasn’t enough. I was suffocating so, when the opportunity presented itself, I moved to another country, a country famous for reinvention.
In my new home, I joined groups. I joined a faith group, a meditation group and a hiking group. All women. I joined a writer’s group. Two married men and more women. I make friends easily, so I made wonderful friendships with women of all ages, but why wasn’t I finding a new relationship? Other women did, often just months after divorce. Once again I was out of step. My whole world had changed and yet nothing had changed at all.
“The internet,” one of my thirty-something friends sighed. She played with her phone for half a second and handed it to me. “Dating websites! Start with this one, it’s free.”
I filled out the profile, found a photograph I didn’t hate, and waited. My in-box filled up rapidly. So this was where the boys had gone. They were hiding in dating websites. I surveyed profiles. Then it hit me with the impact of an epiphany–in this medium I could choose. I could approach men, declare interest and it was ok, not forward, not slutty, normal. I felt liberated, powerful, optimistic for the first time in years. I liked this new world where there were no dances and I had at least some chance of success. I picked a man and sent a ‘smile’.
Michael responded immediately. Mid-50s, long divorced, he grew his own food. He had to be nice if he grew his own food. He also played guitar and wrote music. A 70s boy turned man. The future opened before me, shimmering with possibility. Then I got sick and couldn’t get to my e-mails for three days. And there it was–the furious, lashing out, what kind of a bitch are you, have a nice life e-mail. He thought I’d stopped communicating and this was the reaction. The back to nature 70s boy had picked up some baggage on the way to being fifty.
The depth of dejection I felt astonished and frightened me. But something was different. I couldn’t corral the emotion. When I was married, I had few friends. When marriage ended, friends seemed to appear out of nowhere. They knew better than I did what I needed most; to talk. So now, I talked about Michael and slowly a glimmer of logic, faint but real, penetrated my gloom. Michael had his own problems. It wasn’t all about me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t blame myself for losing this one.
A few weeks later ‘Bird Man’ (because he ‘liked to soar’) arrived in my in-box. His profile looked promising but he was pushy about meeting. The Michael experience had been sobering. Better talk first, I wrote. So we did. He was friendly and warm and liked to cook. He particularly liked to cook for his lady. Did I like to eat? He liked a lady who could eat. Hmmm…Maybe it was the way men talk in this new world. Bird Man lived on three acres in the mountains to the east of the city. He was a farmer, and a writer, and a political lobbyist and a CPA. Something didn’t add up.
“I’ve business interests in Canada too,” he announced. “I have to go to Canada next week. We could meet when I get back.”
“Eh…maybe.” I’d gone into this without an exit strategy, my skills of rejection as weak as my skills of attraction.
“Will you hug me when we meet, Catherine?”
Hang up, now! a voice in my head insisted. This voice was new, strangely decisive.
“I might shake hands,” I heard myself say and felt a distance open between us. I’d given myself space to reject instead of being rejected.
“Oh, Catherine, you’re so hesitant. You need to feel the edge of a real lover.”
Hang up, the head voice boomed.
“I like to sing. I’ll sing for you. Holy God we praise thy name. / Lord of all, we bow before thee…” I knew this one from eternities of elementary school choir practice. It was long.
“I have to go,” I blurted, “I’m meeting some…”
“I’m a poet too. Do you want to hear my poem? I wrote it for you.” He launched into something about two eagles soaring to an azure sky. The eagles lock talons and plunge together into their nest. “The eagles are you and me, Catherine,” he explained lest I missed that subtlety. “We’ll have our own nest, just you and me.”
Hang up, you moron, the voice screamed.
“Goodbye,” I said abruptly. Abruptly enough to be offensive. I felt no remorse. I felt good.
After Bird Man, I stopped replying to messages. I wasn’t willing to sever my lifeline to normal by ending my site membership, but I was also not willing to take another failure. About three months later Joe contacted me and something about the calm no-rush demeanor of his e-mail enticed me into a response. We e-mailed. We talked on the phone, him unhurried, me hyper vigilant for flickers of anger, or weirdness, portents of future rejection. There were none. We arranged to meet for lunch.
“Not a date,” I told myself, “just lunch.” Why was I talking like this? The date had real potential. Why now did I so desperately want to cancel?
Joe was fun, a good conversationalist who also asked questions and listened to the answers. We had a lot in common and some interests we didn’t share. He was a calm, gracious, confident man who didn’t dance, who liked me…who wanted another date. The pizza we shared turned to paper in my mouth and, like a skittish steeplechaser, I reared up at the final fence. He asked again about dinner later in the week. I hedged, all stiff and secretly terrified but the terror wasn’t as well hidden as I thought.
“This is too hard for you, isn’t it?” he said. I nodded. “Maybe you’re not ready. Maybe you need to be alone for a while. It’s okay. Everyone does.”
We hugged and parted company and I began the two mile walk back to my apartment. As I crossed the bridge, Joe’s words replaying in my mind, I came level with the crowns of the huge cottonwood trees that lined the riverbank. In the crystal light and thin air of the high desert, there’s nothing more stunning than the brilliant yellow of cottonwoods against an empty autumn sky. I ran my hands through the nearest leaves, each one an exquisite blending of yellows and golds. A month earlier they had all been green. Some still held a trace of their old color and no two were exactly alike. As they passed through my fingers, for the first time in my life, I felt the bubbling joy of being totally and completely alone. And it was beyond OK; it was wonderful. In this universe of infinite difference, I knew with certainty that there really is no such thing as normal. And it wouldn’t matter anyway if there were.
Catherine Dowling has a Bachelor’s in English and History with a minor in Psychology. She holds a diploma in Rebirthing (breathwork psychotherapy) from the Association of Irish Rebirthers and is a founder and former chairperson of the Irish Rebirthing Psychotherapy Association and co-founder of the Federation of Irish Complimentary Therapy Associations. She’s also a former president of the International Breathwork Foundation, the networking body for breathwork therapists and supporters with members in over twenty countries. Catherine’s blog can be read here.
Read an interview with Catherine here.