Marry? Scary! On Fairy Tales and Fears, 2

Some days the thought of getting married terrifies me. And I’m not talking about the fear of making bad decisions, like inadvertently hiring a DJ who insists on doing the chicken dance in full costume, or the inevitable wacky wedding day mishaps: a dropped bouquet, forgotten socks, a delayed bagpiper (ask my brother about that last one). I’m talking about the actual marriage part, specifically the 24/7 commitment to sharing not only my heart (which I give gladly) but also my bathroom and my brain-space.

I love Steve and always enjoy his company—as well as the company of his two smart and funny grown sons—and it will be nice to have someone else around to take care of scary spiders. But it does make me anxious to think about bringing not one but three people onto my permanent radar, into the closest circles of my heart and head. After all, aside from felines, I haven’t had a long-term roommate since 1995. At times I’ve been lonely, even profoundly so, but on the whole, I enjoy solitude, and as an introvert and a writer, I require a fair amount of it to function. I spend a lot of time in my head, reading, thinking, processing and, well, writing, and I’ve grown used to devoting much of the brain-space and energy not claimed by work to creative endeavors.

I’m also what’s known as an HSP, a Highly Sensitive Person. There are lots of great articles that describe what it’s like to live as an HSP, as well as an online diagnostic tool for the curious. In brief, HSPs are extremely sensitive to and deeply affected by sensory stimuli, which has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, HSPs tend to startle easily and often cannot tolerate loud or constant noise, and they may feel overwhelmed by visual excess. For example, when I’ve visited my brother and sister-in-law’s very full house (2 parents, 5 kids, 3 friends, 2 dogs, and 3 cats, plus grandparents at its peak), the sheer number of people and sources of sensory input—conversation, computer games, clinking dishes, cat meowing,  television, piano music, a Facebook video on another computer—make for an intense experience. There is also much love and warm laughter—a truly beautiful sound and something I feel privileged to share. Still, after a while, Aunt Sandee needs to fold up in a quiet corner to recover and re-boot!

On the positive side, HSP’s heightened sensitivity also increases our awareness of subtleties. We tend to pick up immediately on the emotional tenor of a group of people when entering a room, and we often experience art, literature, foods, and the environments we encounter more deeply. My keen color sense is no doubt attributable to being an HSP. And there’s a somewhat counter-intuitive flip-side characteristic: HSPs may crave and seek out new and intense sensory stimuli that is pleasurable, because it is a powerful natural high. I have an almost physical response to a pleasing color combination or a beautiful line of poetry. I even love wandering down a big city street, absorbing the cacophony of crowds and cars and shops and signs—but only for short periods of time. A little goes a long way.

Thankfully, one reason Steve and I work so well together is because he understands how much I need to be alone. In fact, long before he ever proposed marriage, he proposed something else that told me he was a keeper. “If we had a house together,” he said, “maybe you could keep a studio or an apartment that you could go to when you needed some alone time.” You would do that for me? I thought. You would be willing to invest in something like that so I could have us AND solo time and space? Of course, he would get solo time and space in the bargain, too, which–an introvert himself–he also enjoys and requires. But that’s when I knew he really understood me. Continue reading

What’s Age Got to Do With It?

So, after someone asks, “After all these years, how did you know?” you focus first on the “how did you know” piece. After the third or eighth or seventeenth sales clerk/prospective vendor/random person in public sees your forty-something self with wedding-related items and assumes you are the mother of the bride instead of the bride-to-be, you start thinking more about the “after all these years” piece.

Is it possible to laugh out loud while grimacing in rueful recognition? Ladies and gentlemen, Garfunkel and Oates, in “29/31”:

Lest you’re wondering, no, I’m not 29-and-holding; in fact, I’m quite a few orbits past 31-and-kvetching. (Well, okay. I cop to the kvetching.) Actually, it amuses and bemuses me every time I hear a news story about how the average age of marriage has risen dramatically in the past few years. To 27. Of course, that is an average. Just doing my small part to blow the curve.

I don’t know that I ever felt as confident and glib as “29,” though I definitely shared her naivete–especially the bit about how love and partnership “just happen.” I didn’t hit “31’s” wall of angst until I turned 36. Forty was closer than thirty…when did that happen? Suddenly I saw with clarity how the trajectory of my life, in terms of readily available dating opportunities, had progressively and steadily narrowed: the wide-open spaces of college in a big city when most everyone my age was unmarried and so “available”; grad school in a slightly smaller city, where the increasing demands of school and teaching meant I mostly met men in my department, a good third of whom were already attached; then my first full-time job, even more demanding, at a small college in a tiny Georgia mountain town with a charming square, great festivals, and six eligible bachelors. Okay, maybe seven.

The year I celebrated the pivotal 36th birthday, I’d moved to Virginia and broken off a relationship that distance proved to be a mismatch. Over the next five years I had two revelations: (a) If I wanted to meet people (not just potential partners, but anyone outside work) and see the world, there was no time for or sense in waiting; I was going to have to go against my introverted grain and, to quote a mentor, “make my own luck.” And (b) it was entirely possible that despite whatever efforts I made or adventures I embraced, I wouldn’t find a lifetime partner (unless felines counted).  And whether I did or not, I was going to be okay.

More than okay, actually. I was going to be awesome, because I could choose to live an awesome life, whether I lived it alone or with a partner. Or alone or with a partner with cats.

Not long ago, NPR ran a great piece on Morning Edition I wish I could have heard many years ago: “For Single Women, ‘An Infinite Variety of Paths’.” The piece ran as part of their current series on “The Changing Lives of Women,” and focused on an interview with Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry. My favorite comments from Traister’s interview are those the title is drawn from: “…we make a mistake when we create a binary between, you’re either married or you’re unmarried. Once you lift the imperative that everybody get married at age 22, what you get is an infinite variety of paths. It’s not simply some argument that single life is inherently better than married life. The fact is there are all kinds of married lives and all kinds of single lives, and more people are now free to go down a variety of paths.”

“An infinite variety of paths.” Which may be walked (or strolled, or skipped, or stampeded down) at an infinite variety of ages. Remaining single at 31, or 36 (or 43 or 55 or or or) doesn’t mean life is “over”; getting married at any age is simply the start of another exciting (and, for me, as yet uncharted) path. Not all who wander, as they say, are lost, and if we’re lucky, we’ll have the chance to experience many different paths within one lifetime, each with its own challenges, riches, and joys.

Some of them have annoying sales clerks.  But some of them have cats.