Sunday, 31 January 2010

How Not to Be Crushed by Crushes

Almost everyone gets crushes. What is a crush? A crush is a strong, usually inordinate, attachment to another human being. It is not necessarily sexual. Most twelve-year-old girls who get crushes on older girls either already or eventually get crushes on boys, too. My very first crush object was Speedy Gonzales, the cartoon mouse. My second crush object was a little boy named Richie. Like Speedy Gonzales he was short. He had long eyelashes, too. Strange that I can remember that after 32 years, but there you go.

Crushes are uncomfortable, and if unrequited, they become acutely painful. In an ideal world, you would never get one until you were 26, had an income, got a crush on a cute person at Mass who got an instant crush on you, too. Then, after some shy glances across a crowded parish hall, he/she would come up to you and chat, and eventually ask you for coffee, and then for dinner, and then, after six happy sinfree months, to marry him/her. But this is not an ideal world.

If the adult you has a crush, the best thing to do is to get rid of it as soon as possible. Either turn your crush into courtship or let it go. Let it go onto the breeze. Yes, this IS easier said than done.

Crush into Courtship

If you are a man, you traditionally have more options than women do. If you see a girl, and find her attractive, the most proper thing you can do is find a mutual friend and ask for an introduction. This mutual friend may also be a helpful source of information. He or she might be able to warn you right away if the girl is engaged or almost-engaged or has a lousy reputation for breaking hearts left and right.

This information should not be taken as a challenge but as a caution. Meet the girl regardless, but use your head. Meanwhile, in Catholic and student activities, you can usually skip the formal-introduction-by-a-mutual-friend-stage, and just talk to the girl. Actually listen to what she says to get clues to her character. Charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeting, and go look up the rest in Proverb 30.

If you are a woman, you can do things the old-fashioned way and be safe, or you can do things the feminist way and fall flat on your face. Again, the most proper way to meet someone is to get a mutual friend with insider knowledge to introduce you.

It's less traditional, but you do have the power to go up to a man and say "Hi". In general, a man who is very much attracted to a woman looks at her a few times before deciding if he should go up to her or not. (Keep an eye out for this guy before going up to Mr. Cute Guy You Saw First.) If you go up to a guy and talk to him, and he keeps looking at another woman, forget him. Forget him NOW. But if you are at a party glancing at a man, and he keeps glancing at you, and you like the look of him, smile. This should be encouragement enough. If instead of coming up to you he shyly ducks his head and runs away, well, uh... Maybe he'll screw up some courage later, like when he grows up. Boys seem to take longer to grow up. And how annoying is that?

Both men and women can say, "I'd love to continue this chat over coffee..."

The courting man then adds, "How about Tuesday? What's your number?" The courted woman, if she's NOT interested, can now say "Oh, Tuesday's not good. I'm so booked up right now. I don't know when coffee could happen. I'm so busy. I'll get back to you." (This is "no" in womantalk.) But if she is interested, she can say "Tuesday's bad. Maybe Saturday? Here's my number."

But the courting woman should add, merely, "...sometime. See you!" If the courted man is interested in the courting woman by the end of their little chat, he will ask her for her number/email or look her up on Facebook. And he will say/text "What about that coffee?"

The very worst thing you can do, as a Single person of marriageable age, is do nothing and yet let your crush grow and grow without ever really getting to know the person you have a crush on. Your imagination will build an imaginary person to go with the near-stranger you think you're in love with. And eventually you will either grow angry with this imaginary person, or you will grow angry with the real person for not being the imaginary person in your head. Deliberately feeding an inordinate desire is a sin. Pray for detachment, and don't you dare get angry with an innocent person for your own out-of-control need for him/her to "love" you. Don't beat yourself up, though, either. Go chat with your confessor. He'll probably be nicer to you than you are.

Crush Crushed

If you are not in a position to pursue honest courtship (e.g. being under 18), or the guy/girl you admire is just not appropriate (e.g. a priest, married, on drugs, of poor character, engaged to someone else, twenty years younger or older), the only thing to do is to kill the crush. The three ways I know how to do this are as follows:

1. Get picky.
2. Find someone else.
3. Laugh at it.

1. Getting Picky

Our crushes are usually based on first impressions or just plain old wishful thinking. I adored Richie because he was short and had long eyelashes. But Richie wasn't very nice to me: when I teased him (in a lovestruck kind of way), he said really mean things that hurt my feelings. This proved a good cure.

But more often the people we get crushes on are actually nice, if only in a polite, decent-human-being kind of way. A friend of mine had a crush, when we were 13, on an older altar boy at church. And the way she cured herself was to fixate on something about him she really didn't like: his beaten-up trainers (running shoes). Whenever he came gallumphing down the aisle with crucifix or candle, she forced herself to look at his shoes and thought "Ugh."

But even more than dirty shoes, it is the content of a man or woman's character that can really heal a crush. Some of the men I was maddest about were dead boring. Yak, yak, yak. Me, me, me. Another turned out to be nasty (of the scary, "I love you, you bitch" type of nasty). Once you really force yourself to see what your crush is really like, you are on your way to healing.

To go back to feelings, if being around any man or woman makes you feel really badly, it is a sign to stay away from them. Never mind about "becoming friends."* Stay away. Be polite but reserved. Spare your time and energy for people who are dying to spend time with you, like your parents, or your pals, or that cute person by the punch bowl who keeps sneaking peeks at you. You will not find Mr/Miss Right if you're wasting all your time on Mr/Miss Wrong.

Finally, the whole point to The Rules, which so many people hate, but which contain a lot of sense, is to get women to start admiring the men who admire them and to stop admiring men who don't give a damn. The book helped me; it might help you.

2. Find Someone Else

Most of us long to be loved. It is a little sad. Our warm, generous impulses towards others sometimes mask a need for others to love us. That sucks. Only the greatest saints know that God's love is truly enough. I'm thinking St. Thomas Aquinas; I'm thinking St. Ignatius of Loyola; I'm thinking St. Teresa of Avila. Most of us don't get there in this life. Nope.

Well, anyway, I once had a terrible crush on a seminarian. I felt so bad about it, that I prayed and prayed and prayed to be freed from it. And then I promptly got a crush on someone else. Unfortunately, he was married. So I prayed and prayed and prayed to be freed from that, too. Life is difficult. Have I mentioned this? Anyway, if you are fighting a crush, don't spend hours mooning over the person's picture, listening to sad songs or reading sentimental poetry or sinful (i.e. most contemporary romance) novels. Go hang out with your real friends.

3. Laugh at it

The most embarrassing part of Seraphic Singles for me is the story of my crush on Max the Much Younger. But it was something I could write about with a sense of humour, and I still giggle over it after repeated readings. It was painful to have a crush on Max the Much Younger, but I knew it would be much more painful to have a real relationship with Max the Much Younger. Even if I did manage to squirrel him away into my life, I would have lived a hell of jealousy because of Max's great youth and beauty, a beauty not invisible to other, prettier, and younger girls.

Knowing from experience that crushes come and go, I decided not to bother fighting this one. I wasn't going to follow Max around town or anything, and I certainly wasn't going to ask him out for dinner. I was just going to put up with my crush on Max as if it were a minor, and not entirely unpleasant, illness (like being drunk). How it all ended, I will let you read for yourselves in my book. For now I will just repeat: crushes come and go. Sometimes we are emotionally helpless and the best we can do is to fervently pray, "Dear God, this feeling is too much for me. Please take it away!"

Married people and people in consecrated life also get crushes. But if they have any sense they 1) don't tell 2) don't feed them 3) don't worry. Crushes come and go. Don't make yours into something bigger than it has to be. This too shall pass.

*I think men are the caffeine in the cappuccino of life. They are sexy and fun and life would lack zip without them. I am in love with my husband, and I enjoy spending time with him and his male friends. But for a real heart-to-heart chat fest, for real you-go-girl friendship, for hugs without hesitation, give me a woman friend.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

St. Andrews Cath Soc Lecture Update

As February arrives Monday, I will be putting in some long hours in the National Library of Scotland to prepare for my upcoming lecture (to the Catholic Society) at the University of St Andrews about the vocations to the Single and the Married Life. You see, I don't have a vocation to the permanent Single Life, and I only got my vocation to the Married Life in October 2008, so I will have to do some research about what theologians think these vocations mean.

Having studied Dogmatics (Systematics), I only went into vocational stuff as a sideline. My particular specialty is waiting for your vocation, and I got so excited thinking about that, I wrote an article about it and sold it to the Toronto Catholic Register instead of saving it for St A's. Whoops.

It would be a lot of fun just to show up at St Andrews and tell hilarious stories about seminarians who date and the drawbacks of Catholic dating websites, but it's a respectable university and so I must roll up my sleeves and come up with the brainy stuff.

If you are at or near St Andrews, you might enjoy hearing what I have to say! The lecture is on Wednesday, February 10 in The Canmore House, The Scores, St. Andrews, and it is sponsored by the Catholic Society.

The schedule is as follows:

7:00-7:30 PM : Mass
7:30-8 PM : Biscuits
8:00-9 PM : "Seraphic Singles, Seraphic Spouses"
9:00-9:30 PM : Questions, Group Discussion, Seminarians Who Date Anecdotes, Etc.
9:30-10 PM : Compline
10 PM-onward: PUB!

As a special bonus, B.A. will be there, too. Maybe I'll get him to read a haiku or something.

It would be nice if anyone of university age (fresher to post-doc) asked me some questions in the com box right now, so I can get some kind of idea what people are likely to ask. If you want to know if I think the right way to go about telling someone you fancy them is to stay up late at a boozy party and then confess all drunkenly at 4 AM, the answer is No. Not even in the U.K.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Fabulous Friday Brussels Sprout Soup

Poppets, I am soooo tired. All I have for you Singles today is the revelation that you can make my Broccoli Cheddar Soup (see Recipes) with leek stock and brussels sprouts. This means you can have this yummy soup on meatless Fridays even without broccoli.

To substitute chicken stock, take two leeks, wash them throroughly, chop them into half-inch rounds and simmer them in a soup pot of water for 30-40 minutes. Then pour the leek stock through a sieve and chuck out the mushy leeks. Reserve the redolent leek stock. It is so delicious you could eat it alone.

To substitute broccoli, cut the ends off an equal weight of washed brussels sprouts and then cut the sprouts in half. Simmer them in the butter-onion-garlic-pepper-stock mixture until they are tender (about 7 minutes). Then whisk in the flour-water mix and the cheese. Salt to taste. (Check first, though, as the cheese itself is salty.)

This is the first recipe I ever invented all by my little self, so I am extremely proud of myself. And brussels sprouts are very good for you, says wikipedia.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Socialist Single

Last night B.A. and I watched The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) again. I first watched it with my last boyfriend Volker, which I mention to underscore the transitory nature of most romantic relationships. Anyway, Volker saw The Lives of Others from the perspective of a German whose grandmother fled the East, and B.A. saw it from the perspective of an actor who loves music.

Here on the internet, we don't worry about secret police: we willingly offer up our secrets to spies. In perusing the Daily Mail, I came across a woman who wrote about an affair with a married man, claiming she had a "Catholic" need for confession or self-flagellation. She is 43, and still hasn't found lasting love, and writes a sex column for G.Q. She's a very beautiful woman, but her chances of marrying a Nice Catholic Man seem rather slim, given her habit of confessing her sexual sins for pay.*

But such is the Decadent West. In the Repressive East of 1984, a Stasi (East German secret police) captain named Wiesler (Ulriche Muelre) is given the task of spying on a playwright, Georg Dreyman, and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, to catch out Dreyman in some unsocialist activity. As a matter of fact, Dreyman is a committed socialist; his real crime is being the boyfriend of the woman with whom Wiesler's gross chief Gruebitz is obsessed.

Wiesler is also a committed socialist, and it is clear that he has been passed over for promotion because he just does his job efficiently and doesn't suck up to people in power. In the Stasi cafeteria, he sits down at a table reserved for subordinates, against the wishes of his piggish friend/superior, who indicates the bosses' table.

"Socialism must begin somewhere," says Wiesler drily.

Knowing that he is spying on Dreyman and Sieland just so that his chief can break them up, Wiesler begins to help them as he can. And, unbeknownst to them as they innocently go about life in their bugged flat, the couple introduce the man to a rich world of literature and music far removed from his ugly high-rise and ill-fitting grey jacket.

Wiesler is a single man; his own flat is spartan. Suddenly overcome with loneliness, he books in an appointment with the local Party prostitute, a maternal-looking woman who does her job just as efficiently as any Stasi agent, and refuses to stay longer: she has another appointment at 1:30 AM. The next day Wiesler, the stiff, straightbacked, man of Party integrity, kneels by Dreyman and Sieland's rumpled bed and touches the coverlet wistfully.

But Wiesler is neither bitter nor envious. His chief, of course, is a self-deceiving idiot, who thinks that he has what "our little Christa needs," something he has decided her beloved Dreyman doesn't have. Despite his great job, his wedding ring and his seemingly endless power, Gruebitz is corrosively envious of the playwright. Not Wiesler.

And this fascinates me for, as I know all too well, the great temptations for the long-term Single are envy, bitterness and self-absorption. Yet our Socialist Single, our Stasi Single, is touched and ennobled by his clandestine witness to love and the lives of others.

*Let us be clear: I'm not throwing stones at this woman for her sexual sins. It's just that I think that writing about them is terribly, terribly naive or foolish for a woman who wants to marry one day.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Operation Valentinus

Okay, poppets. Here's the deal. Valentine's Day is three weeks away. I know, I know. Ugh. Why remind you so far in advance? Well, it is all part of my cunning plan.

Valentine's Day can be a tough day for everybody. If you're Single with no sweetie, you feel utterly left out. If you're Single with a sweetie, you are a mass of anxiety. Will he propose? Will she like the scarf I bought her, or would she rather some furry earmuffs? (Jewellery? Wha---?) If you're Married, you have a nervous eye on the bank account. If you're a Priest, you may find yourself booked for overtime comforting crying Singles and disappointed Wives. And the cheap Valentine's Day stuff in John Lewis department store in Edinburgh is so tacky, I wonder myself, "Why bother?"

Frankly, there's not much we can do for Married people on Valentine's Day, short of suggesting that the female half of the comedy duo not have any expectations. Yes, she can expect a card and maybe a box of drug store chocolate because, unless he's blind, her husband is going to know that it is indeed Valentine's Day and that women love Valentine's Day and that husbands who ignore Valentine's Day get into trouble. But don't expect roses with petals like velvet and ruby earrings. If you do get them, they will be a delightful surprise. But if you expect nothing, and then get a new pair of suede gloves or a juicer, that will be a delightful surprise too.

Let us turn to Single people, both the merely anxious and the utterly left out. I want you to make a list of your Single friends. Women, get a pen and a piece of paper. Start writing. I can wait. Write, write, write.

Okay, now, look at my statistics on Single people and their attitudes towards Valentine's Day presents. It's on the right-hand side. (Scroll up a bit.) If you can't see it, type in your browser and find if you can see it now. (Feb 4 Update: Poll gone. Just see below for the results.)

Welcome back. My Valentine's Day present results show that the vast majority of Singles who answered the poll would be delighted to receive a Valentine's Day card and chocolate on Valentine's Day. Of them, 33 would be delighted if a Single friend sent them and 3 would be cheesed off. Then 22 would be delighted if a Married female friend sent them and 8 would be ticked. Finally, 28 would be delighted if a relation sent ye olde card or candy, and 6 would be annoyed.

Now look at your list.

The Mission

If you are a Single woman, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to send chocolates and/or cards to the people on your Singles list. If you're short of cash, just pick the first 3-5. Make the girls priority.

If you are a Married woman, you are sending stuff, too, only you're going to think much more carefully about this. Cross off the Singles on your list who have serious sometimes-I-hate-you-now-that-you-are-married stuff they're still struggling with.

If you are a relation, go for it, but NOT if you have a track record of asking at every family function, "Find anybody yet, honey? Oh, too bad! Maybe if you...blah blah blah." Pick the sisters, nieces, grand-daughters and aunts you send presents to at Christmas. Don't make this Valentine's Day the only time in a year you've communicated, or they may mistake your sudden rush of affection for nagging. And Mom always deserves a card. Always. For any occasion.

Men should think very, very carefully before taking on this mission themselves. Go look up the meaning of "Bull in a China Shop." Valentines and chocolates from Single men friends to Single female friends will usually be construed as courtship gifts unless their platonic friendship is of long and firmly platonic standing. Chocolates and cards from a married man, a priest or a elderly widower can freak girls right out.

Meanwhile, women should think carefully about which Single men friends they might send stuff to, for how terrible if the Single man friend should take this as the signal to carry you off to Gretna Green or Los Vegas. Eeek!

The Message

For Operation Valentinus, a blank card with a cute front is the best medium.

Single women are in a position of moral strength and assurance when sending Valentine's Day cards to other women. They can write, to Singles with no sweeties, "From one Single to another, Happy Valentine's Day." Writing this to Singles with sweeties, Singles who might be hoping for The Ring that day, is a bit trickier. "Friends Forever" is a nice sentiment that doesn't stress a perhaps onerous Singleness.

Married women might want to use this "Friends Forever" message. Or they could underscore what they and Single Pal still have in common: i.e. femininity. "Girls Rule!" would work for me.

Relations can ponder their relationship to their beloved Single relation in their message. Sometimes no message is necessary. The best Valentine's Day present of my entire life was a box of gold-wrapped chocolate hearts that just mysteriously appeared on my desk. It was from my dad. Dear old Dad has no sisters, went to a boarding school for boys, is really not into girls' stuff. But some impulse made him buy all his unmarried daughters at home chocolate hearts that year. And I was, like, "Yay! Best Dad in the universe!"

I really hadn't been expecting anything that day, and so Dad's gift was such a nice surprise, I want to pass it on in the shape of Operation Valentinus here.

The Acceptance

If you are Single and you receive Valentine's Day chocolate and/or cards from your other Single friends, from your Married friend or from your relations, your mission is to enjoy them. When a suitor gives you something, unless it is an engagement ring, it might be (in the long run) meaningless. Suitors come and go. But if your female friend or your relative gives you something, it does mean something. It means that people care for you. You have friends. You have real love in your life, even if it's not the kind of love peddled by the Disney movies. So bathe in it. Eat the yummy chocolates and send a thank-you note.

Meanwhile, my little Singles and Marrieds, if you take on this mission, I can assure you that when you wake up on Valentine's Day, you will not do it with dread. You will do so knowing that you have done your bit to take care of your beloved Single friends on a psychologically difficult day. You rule.

P.S. Don't send anything until Feb. 1. And write "Don't open until Feb 14" on the envelope or package. The goal is to give beloved Singles a lift on the actual day itself.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Landmark Birthdays

Today I turned thirty-nine. No, wait! Don't turn your face away in fearful embarrassment. I've still got it. I'm still hip. I still know how to party!

Thirty-nine is a heck of a birthday for women of my culture. It isn't forty, but forty is considered so bad, so much of a hideous jerk, that turning thirty-nine seem very solemn too.

But I know what you're thinking. I can feel it, all those thoughts bouncing from your brain to mine:

But at least you're married.

True. And, yes, that makes a difference. I know it makes a difference because I was always a Searching Single, even when I was trying very, very hard to be a Seraphic Single willing to become a Serious Single at the Lord's say-so. And I bet that if I were still Single, I would at some point, despite my book and years of talking up the Single Life, call up a pal and complain "I'm 39 and not married!" But I know I would also go out and party because that is what I did on my 30th birthday when I really was Single.

When did we come up with landmark birthday suffering? Women are crazy about birthdays, but in a weird schizophrenic way: we love the cake, the cards, the presents, the attention, but after 21, we hate the numbers. The numbers scare us. The numbers make us do stupid things. As far as I can tell, men don't start fearing the numbers until they turn 40. And only then do they start doing stupid things.

Take turning 25. Women are afraid of 25, and for this we can blame history and our 19th century chick lit. Anne of Green Gables, upon turning 25, was told that she had turned "the first corner". And Jo March, of Little Women, by 25 thought she was firmly on the shelf, i.e. too old for marriage. Around the age of 25, many women start worrying "What if I never get married/find a permanent partner?"

Of course, some girls begin worrying even before that. I know girls who think they are "old" because their mothers married at 18 and have lived happily ever after, and there they are, 20 years old and not married yet. Horrors!

I put some of the blame for my first marriage on my turning 25 that year. It may be that I wouldn't have gone through with it if I hadn't been having a panic about being 25 and a spinster and blah, blah, blah. And now I feel sorry for my poor ex who was even younger than that. Goodness, what a brace of babies we were. I hope he is happy and thriving and rich.

Age is terribly relative. A twenty-five year old with a hangover who makes faces at herself in the bathroom mirror may think she looks haggard, but I would probably think she looks like a dewy rose, a shining pearl, and a million times better than me. And a sixty-five year old woman, staring at both of us, would probably think we were both beautiful young things.

"Take out the word young," I instructed an editor of the blurb to go on the back cover of my book. Young appeared three times. "I was 35 when I wrote the book. I wasn't young, and although young women will love it, it's thirty-somethings who need it most."

The editor, revealing her age, said 35 seemed very young to her.

One attitude towards aging that has stuck in my mind was by an essayist who said that when she looked at photos of herself at 35 (or whatever it was) she was struck by the memory of how old-looking she thought she was at the time. Now, 50, she saw that she had been utterly beautiful. If only, at 35, she had revelled in her beauty instead of hating herself for being 35. She decided to love her looks at 50, seeing them from the perspective of her imagined self at 80.

So my advice to you this morning is that, however old you are, you revel today in your present beauty. And if you are a Searching Single, reflect that even though there comes a day when you can no longer give birth, you will never be too old to fall in love and get married.

Monday, 25 January 2010

"I Thought Marriage Would Make My Life Easier"

Now, my poppets, you know me. I'm not one to trash the holy state of matrimony. Neither am I one to trash married people, even the ones who forget their Single friends once they get married. The catechism says that virginity (read: single life) gives honour to matrimony and matrimony gives honour to virginity (read: single life), and that is that. And so far I have desisted from "This woman's marriage sucked, so count your blessings" posts, although I have, over the years, been tempted.

Teenage girls dream of marrying millionaires. This is not because millionaires are such fabulously kindly, sexy men in themselves, although they always are in romance novels. It is because it seems like the easiest way of getting rich without having to work very hard for a very long time at one of the few jobs that pays very well. I remember, as a teenage girl, running into a teenage girl I knew slightly at the mall. She was shopping on her much-older boyfriend's credit card. I was slightly shocked by this, although I was too innocent at the time to put two-and-two together about their relationship. I just knew it was dodgy and wrong to go on shopping sprees with an older man's credit card, no matter what he said. But teenage girls and money...

Sometimes joining economic forces with a man, in adult life, does indeed make you better off financially. I'm not denying that. In my own case, I live in about the same circumstances as I did before I was married, only with better architecture and wine. I have more household chores, though: boo! (That was my Inner Child talking, B.A.!) Meanwhile, if B.A. lost his job we'd be in a fix. And B.A.'s job is more of a labour of love than a labour of wealth, so no mad shopping sprees at the mall for me. Indeed, we both finger beautiful clothes in fine shops as I wistfully remark, "If my books sell...."

The reality of adult life, only dimly guessed by some shopping-mad teenagers, is that ordinary life is expensive, and for most adults, only a fraction of family income can go on cute stuff, nights on the town, snazzy vacations. For most, married life includes rent or mortgage, taxes, food on the table, the heating bill, the electricity bill, the phone bill, running a car or paying bus fares, and, if Baby comes, all the expenses associated with Baby.

And husbands get sick. Husbands get hurt on the job. Husbands get laid-off. Husbands get sacked. Husbands sometimes even die. I was once at the funeral of a 26 year old husband, a lawyer. His wife was pregnant. Husbands are no guarantee of lifelong comfort. In fact, since they have personalities and wills of their own, au contraire.

Here is the sad story of a woman I'll call Amanda because she deserved to be loved. She was a woman of African extraction at the calling centre we both worked at. I think she had come over from the Caribbean as a baby. At any rate, she had no accent and, seeing me from behind, she thought, "There's a new black girl!" until I turned around. (In Toronto, many black women dye their hair light red.) Dying to know if I was mixed race, Amanda struck up a conversation, and we became work buddies.

Amanda had recently brought over her husband from his country, one of the countries Canadians go to on cheap holidays. (She had, in fact, met him on one of these cheap holidays.) She had paid a lot of money to bring him over and had tackled a mountain of paperwork. She was a single mother, so this was a big, big deal. But she was passionate about her husband, who was slightly younger than she, and he had been passionate about her. Amanda was a big woman, and her husband came from a place where big woman are considered sexy and thin women are considered poor.

But things changed when Ronaldo (let's call him Ronaldo) came to Canada. Amanda found him a job in construction, and from hanging out with his new friends, Ronaldo discovered that in Canada big women aren't considered that sexy. It's thin women who are considered sexy. So Ronaldo stared nagging Amanda about her weight. And Ronaldo, rather than sharing daily financial burdens with Amanda, worked as rarely as he could get away with and spent his money on his friends and clothes. When Amanda complained, Ronaldo would feign lack of understanding and try to charm her into a better mood.

So Amanda, already the single mother of one child, was starting to think that she was now married to one, too. And she was growing increasingly frustrated. "I thought marriage would make my life easier," she fumed.

That poignant cry has stuck in my mind for seven years: I thought marriage would make my life easier. It's the story the bridal magazines, with their glorious photos of kitchenware and china, sell; it's the story life experience tells us is not a universal truth. And what adds to the sadness is that Amanda had a really terrible job. I hated that job. It stank. I quit as soon as I could. But Amanda stayed, busting her butt every day to put food on the table and a roof over the head of her child, herself, and her good-looking, charming, wastrel husband.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Strong and Independent

Somewhere there must be a town, an influential town, where when the men are asked what they look for in a woman, they all say, "Oh, she's gotta be strong and independent."

I'm picturing a diner here, with farmers and tradesmen in baseball caps, somewhere in the midwestern USA.

"Yah," says one guy. "I think independence is the best. It's okay to have a docile or skinny-armed woman around as long as she's independent."

"Get George," says another guy and all laugh. "No, seriously. For me its all about strength. I don't care about looks and all that crap women care about today. For me it's strength."

And as if underscoring this love of female strength, there are muscular, flat-chested, fully dressed women tattooed to their arms and painted on their trucks. There's an old-fashioned calendar behind the counter showing U.S. women senators.

I have a terrible habit of reading comment streams on online newspapers. The stream of bile flowing after one Telegraph (or was it Daily Mail) article by a divorced single mother in her 30s trying to find "Mr. Right" through personal ads was very icky. But one merely bitter male comment stuck in my memory, and it was about women whose personal ads proclaim them to be "strong and independent." To this guy, "strong and independent" was an upfront confession that the writer was a, to paraphrase, battle-axe.

Last night I picked up our latest London Review of Books and looked at the personal ads. As usual, a woman described herself as "independent", and I wondered why, if she's so independent, she's got a personal ad in the LRB.

Now I don't have a problem with strength. I loved being physically strong, back in my athletic days. I loved my muscular legs and my triceps. (How I miss my glorious triceps, such works of art!) And I must be, in some ways, very strong emotionally and morally, since...uh...hmm...since people used to tell me so all the time during my M.Div.: "Oh, Seraphic, you're such a STRONG woman!" I think they meant I presented my arguments forcefully, which I did. But, frankly, I'm not so sure it was me who was so strong, but my ideas, which were mostly identical to those of Thomas Aquinas and my favourite professors.

I likewise have a great admiration for independence, if what someone means by independence is that they rely solely on their own income and their own company to get through life. That's really good. I have tons of respect for people like that. Lots of people, men and women, insist on paying their own way through life, but not as many people feel so comfortable in their own skin that they are happy to go it alone.

Me, I am not independent at all. Are you kidding? Take B.A. away, and I'd be on the next plane to my mummy and daddy. Take mummy and daddy away, and I'd be stuck. I'd flop on a friend's bed and listen with half an ear as assembled friends discussed what should be done for me. I guess eventually I'd get up and get another job teaching writing.

Now, the amazing thing is that I have admitted that I am kind of weak and not independent, and yet I have not been struck by lightning. The police are not banging on the door shouting, "Open up, hen! We know you're weak and dependent in there!" B.A. is not going to come home at lunch and tell me its time for marriage counselling, for he can't take my weakness and dependence anymore. And maybe, just maybe, it is not claims of being "strong and independent" that pulls the men to you in droves.

So be strong (goodness, yes!) and be as independent as your character allows you to be. Being very weak and very dependent is not terrifically attractive or healthy. (We wish that poor Marilyn had been stronger and more independent.) but for goodness' sake, don't think these are the characteristics men are primarily looking for in a woman. Sometimes it's our softer qualities that make us attractive, and it is when we are weak that we are strong (2 Cor 12:7-10).

P.S. This is not permission to be blatantly vulnerable on dates.

1. You must always project happiness on dates--unless your date is nasty or rude, in which you project hauteur and then leave.

2. You must never have a breakdown in front of a romantic interest unless you're actually engaged to him. If you ever burst into tears on a date, excuse yourself. Don't talk about it. Go to the ladies' room, pull out your mobile and call a female or platonic male friend. Never tell a man you're neurotic. He'll believe you.

3. Getting smashed and taking off your clothes in public are not actually sources of female liberation and power. The flip side of this is that it isn't nice to get drunk just so that other people will rescue and take care of you. I've done this second thing myself and, uh, sorry.

4. Go watch Steel Magnolias.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Details on a Date

I went on my first date when I was fourteen. I'm amazed my mother let me go on a date at fourteen, especially as Doctor Spock held that girls ought not to go on dates until they were sixteen. However, my mother's hands were tied by the historical fact that she had been invited to a formal dance when she was fourteen, and Grandma had let her go. She probably made her a dress, too.

This date was a parish youth group dance, and my date, whom I decided I didn't like as much while dancing with him to "Careless Whisper" (by Wham), kissed me on the cheek good-night. I thought this frighteningly forward and told all to my friends in the parish hall kitchen. They were underwhelmed and said it didn't count.

Anyway, that was my first date. It totally beat a friend of mine's first date, which was to her graduation formal, or as Americans would call it, the prom. Her date kept taking nips from a bottle all through dinner and generally behaved like a jackass. When the girl who had arranged this date for my friend demanded of the young man why he had behaved in such an appalling manner, he said that he had never been on a date with a virgin before and didn't know what to do.

I think I should have a "Worse Dates Ever" weekend, in which you all send me stories of the worse dates you ever had and the worst dates you ever heard of. This would be followed by a "Best Dates Ever" weekend, to cheer us all up and restore our faith in humanity.

Three of the best dates I ever went out on were with someone who liked going on dates with respectable women but didn't really want a serious girlfriend yet. He was a perfect gentleman, took me to great restaurants, and paid the tab. No stress, no more than air-kisses, mwah mwah, gentle flirtation, lovely.

But on one of these dates, the second one, my dress exploded.

It was a strapless dress, made of grey pinstripe, resembling businesswear, only sexy. And, once zipped up, it was tight. It had been a bargain, and halfway through dinner, as the zipper began to sneak down, I realized why. Somehow I managed to back away from the table before my dress fell off and found a waitress, who couldn't find a safety pin but brought me a straight pin. The straight pin worked but inperfectly, so I had to make another escape or two to the loo to adjust it.

I learned from this that one must always carry safety pins in one's handbag. ALWAYS!

Another great date tip, which I shared with a friend the other day, is that the way to keep your perfume going all night is to stick a Q-tip in the bottle and then poke it down the centre of your bra, with the perfumed end sticking out a bit. My friend said this was genius, and I said, "I don't think I will be mentioning at my vocations lecture at St. Andrews in February." But it is genius so, St. Andrews girls, take note now.

Also, if you are wearing fantastic high heeled shoes on your date (or anywhere), put a pair of cheap and skinny flats (like you can find at H&M) in your handbag. That way, once your date is gone, if you have to walk anywhere, you will be comfortable. (Also handy if, God forbid, you have to actually run away from your date.)

Finally, there are the date rules that everyone should know, and I will repeat here:

1. Always meet a blind date, an internet date or any man you don't know well in a public place.
2. Never ever let a man you don't know well into your house or flat.
3. Make sure your mobile (cell) phone is charged up and has enough money on it for emergency phone calls.
4. Carry emergency cab fare.
5. Carry an emergency credit card. I have a friend whose date ordered a huge meal, ate it, took off and didn't come back.
5. Tell someone (e.g. mother, best friend) the name of the man you are meeting and where you are meeting him and when you expect to be home.
6. If you are absolutely stuck for something to talk about, look at your date and say, "So tell me about yourself." If he, conversationally challenged, says "What do you want to know?" Say, "Well, I find it interesting that..." And fill in whatever it is that made you decide to go on a date with this guy in the first place. In general, men like to talk about themselves. So let them.
7. You don't have to kiss him if you don't want to. Seriously. Just don't. You don't have to do anything you don't want to except breathe, excrete, get sick, and, eventually, die. Human freedom is a wondrous thing.
8. If dating a suave, silver-tongued I'm-not-religious-but-I-am-spiritual man, look out on the Third Date. Don't go back to his place. Don't let him into yours. Be prepared to give The Speech over dinner. If you're a Catholic or Evangelical girl, you know the Speech I mean. Yep.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A Widow

Every January 21, I think about a little widow in a trench coat and beret. Every Sunday for many years, she walked or took a bus to my street, chatting with the driver, and came clicking along the road in her boots or high-heeled sandals to my house. At first her hair was dyed a uniform silver, and at last it was white as the filling of the vanilla cream cookies she brought with her.

This was my grandmother Gladys. She was widowed at 60 and lived to be 86. For 26 years, she was my principal model for the Single Life.

Grandma had been happily married, and Grandpa had been her constant companion. They had had only one child, and perhaps it was this situation that left them so free for vacation travel and sociability. Widowhood was a terrible shock to my grandmother, and it was said that she had had a nervous breakdown. I don't remember this time particularly well, having been only four. I seem to remember being in a hospital waiting room as my very pregnant mother went upstairs to her father, leaving me and my brother with my father, but memory is a funny thing.

I remember with more authority my grandmother's weekly Sunday visits. When my grandfather was alive, we all went to their house for Sunday dinner. Now Grandma came to us, bringing store-bought cookies wrapped, two in a package, in paper towel. It was years before I lost the taste for these objects which, for at least ten years, tasted faintly of cigarette smoke. Grandma was a cheerful Sunday addition, at first arriving when the rest of us were at Sunday evening Mass. Grandma, mysteriously, was a Protestant and never went to church.

She officially didn't babysit, either, although she must have, if only very occasionally, for I remember her weak threat to "skelp" us, a linguistic leftover from her family's Edinburgh past. But mostly she didn't, because of her Nerves.

"Oh," Grandma would say, her habitual cheerfulness momentarily vanishing, like the sun disappearing under a cloud, "my Nerves."

I have Nerves, too, so in hindsight I sympathize. It isn't easy having Nerves. And I might have thought, as a divorcee, that I had better reason for Nerves than Grandma, who at least had a nice house, a pension, a daughter and five bonny grandchildren.

Grandma worried about my divorce, especially since I was Catholic. She had got it into her head that Catholics could never, under any circumstance, marry again after a divorce and, like many a Protestant, could not get her mind around the theological gymnastics of the annulment procedure. She feared I would be perpetually lonely, and she advised me to turn to the radio for solace.

"It has always been company for me," she said.

But she certainly had more than the radio. She had her friends, who volunteered with her at the local nursing home. She had her Saturday raids on K-Mart, searching for bargains and doing her Christmas shopping months in advance. She went to a seniors' centre, where she took exercise classes and may have played cards. She had her hair set and her nails done. She did not date. She had no interest in remarriage, although her sparkling personality attracted the odd widower here and there, who invited her for coffee in the McDonald's closest to the cemetery the local widowed frequented.

And, of course, she had us, and as we were so many, we provided a lot to think about even though, taken altogether, we were too much for her Nerves. Eventually we visited her singly or in pairs at the same nursing home she had volunteered at. It was only three blocks or so from our house.

"My grandchildren keep me young," she said. Her one wedding photo, taken on the steps of a United Church (a union of Canadian Presbyterians & Methodists), was pinned to the bulletin board behind her bed.

When she died (liver cancer, and quick), a thread to my childhood, and no doubt my mother's childhood, was broken. But because she was so much a part of the family, because her visits for so many years had been weekly, memory of her is deeply layered in my mind. The sight of anyone smoking in a kitchen or sitting room is enough to bring her, the only open smoker in the family, back.

Young, suave man: Do you mind if I smoke?

Seraphic: Oh, please do! It reminds me of my grandmother.

Young, suave man: Slightly annoyed look.

But sometimes I need no trigger. Snatches of a song she used to sing as she swept the kitchen table, made a cup of tea or taught me the foxtrot just come bubbling up to the surface of my mind:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.
I'm half crazy all for the love of you.
It won't be a stylish marriage-
I can't afford a carriage.
But you'd look sweet upon the seat
of a bicycle built for two.

My great regret is that she didn't live long enough to meet Benedict Ambrose. She would have been tremendously pleased that (despite being Catholic) I was going to marry a Scottish boy and go to live in Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Our Lady of Sorrows

Years ago I went to a parish where people flocked to hear the parish priest. He loved his parishioners, and we loved him. I had special reason to love him, for he counselled me through my divorce and annulment. And I knew that he, too, had known suffering and loss: years before he heard his call to the priesthood, his fiancée had died. His mother thought he would go off the rails, but in the end, he straightened out and went into the seminary. Result: one pastorally amazing priest.

So I was startled when I heard this good priest announce from the pulpit that he wished he could paint smiles on all the statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I can't remember why he wanted to do this--to cheer us all up, perhaps, or to underscore the joy of the resurrection. But I certainly remember my dismay at Father's suggestion that we whitewash Mary's sufferings with a painted smile.

We lived in a mill town. The economy was shifting towards the service sector, but the town's identity came from three steel mills. It was a tough town, a small, tough city, and bad stuff was not as easily hidden as it is in a big city. There was a statue to men who had been hurt or killed on the job. There was a belief that guys who retired from the mills didn't live long enough to enjoy their pensions. There was TB down by the docks. There were mob killings and police with rifles on the roofs during mob trials. And, of course, there were strikes, lay-offs, rumours of closings. So all was not rosy.

The Italian and Portuguese populations were big; there were a lot of Franco-Ontariens, too. Lots of Croatian refugees. In some ways it was a Catholic city. And I thought about what a local woman, the kind of local woman with a picture of Padre Pio on the wall, would do if her husband got hurt or killed in the mill, or if her kid got hurt or killed in crossfire, or if she had a miscarriage. Who would she turn to in her prayers? In whom would she see understanding of her woman's suffering? The Sorrowful Virgin, Our Lady of Sorrows, that's who. Not some woman with a painted-on smile.

I don't know so much about men, so I'm going to restrict my remarks to women here. And these remarks are going to be very Catholic, maybe a bit of a mystery to those of the Reformed tradition, who don't see why I don't just talk about Christ Crucified (which I do, incidentally, in my book).

When women are in pain, they naturally seek out other women. Men and women deal with stress differently: men have fight or flight responses; women have fight, flight and complain to other women. We assume that other women "get it", and we get mad when they don't. Mary the Mother of God, who is herself, of course, not divine but a human saint in heaven, is also a woman. And because she saw her Son die, and "a sword pierced her heart," other suffering women know she gets it.

Suffering, ordinary suffering, can do two things to you: it can corrode you with bitterness and it can make you a deeper, more sympathetic person. This is not always your choice, and sometimes it can be a lot of work to rise above corrosion. But if your suffering makes you a deeper, more sympathetic person, then your suffering has a silver lining for somebody: your suffering is a gift for the woman who needs to see the maternal, understanding face of the Sorrowful Virgin and sees it in you. Your suffering, and your ability now to sit in sympathy with other women who suffer, makes you a true daughter of Mary.

Many Single women feel their loneliness and their disappointment with men acutely. I sure did. I felt it from about the age of eight. I felt it in high school, when my "prettier" (actually, more socially gifted) friends found boyfriends. I felt it in university, when it looked like my religion was a barrier between me and the most interesting men. I felt it when I was engaged and married to a man who turned out to despise my religion. I felt it after my divorce. And throughout all this loneliness and disappointment, I held views most recently summed up by the contemporary pencil case motto: "Boys are stupid. Throw rocks at them." These views were corrosive.

I was very impatient with women who didn't understand what I was going through. Girls who had been popular with boys all their lives didn't get it. Women who had been treated kindly by their husbands all their lives didn't get it. Women who had never been divorced didn't get it. Women who had never gone through an annulment procedure didn't get it. There was a lot of not getting it.

But some women did get it, and these women were gifts to me. Other long-term Singles, other young divorced women, other young divorced-and-annulled women. Just by knowing first-hand what kind of things I had gone through, they were helps to me. And when I realized that I had something to say myself to fellow Single women, I started a blog to be a help to myself and you. The companionship and solidarity I found in readers, plus reading about inspiring Single men and women, helped me rise above corrosion. And because of your sufferings as long-term Singles, my Searching Single readers, you can--as you fight the battle against bitterness--be a help to other suffering Single women.

P.S. Bitterness is to be overcome, but sometimes you have to fight for your right to feel your own sadness. I remember saying, quite sternly, through tears, "I am CRY-ing because I feel grief and loss. CRY-ing is a perfectly healthy response to grief and loss!"

I also remember bursting into tears on 9-11, after watching the towers collapse on public televisions. A woman with a pasted-on smile--she looked a bit mad, actually--asked me if I was all right. I either said or thought, "Of course, I'm not all right. I just saw thousands of people die." Although I agree one should wear a stiff upper lip when there's work to be done immediately, you've got to give vent to your grief some time.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Divorce Present

There's a heartfelt article up at the Daily Mail today about the crassness of divorce parties. Celebrating a divorce, says the author, is like celebrating a miscarriage.

I am of two minds about this article, having gone through a bitter divorce and skin-peeling annulment procedure although not, thank goodness, a miscarriage. On the one hand, I agree that celebrating a divorce is in very bad taste, but on the other, I think a divorcé or divorcée may feel in need of extra comfort on the day the divorce becomes legal.

I'm not sure I did. I recall my sister coming upstairs at midnight, knocking on my bedroom door, and saying "You're divorced now." My reply was, "Yay! I think I'll get married again."

"Maybe not just yet," said my sister, which was rather witty for a 15 year old, I thought.

But whatever the day itself was like, I found myself crying a lot beforehand. I cried so hard at a funeral that an elderly priest mistook me for the widow.

"Dana," he said, voice shaky with sympathy and age. "I'm so sorry for your trouble."

"I'm not Dana," I said.

"Oh," said the priest.

So I cannot say I sailed towards Divorce Day with a light-hearted tra-la, although the divorce was definitely my idea and for a few years I celebrated the day I ran away. What I really wanted was to be absolutely free, the freedom that only an annulment could bring.

I was not looking forward to being "a divorcée". Divorcées in 20th century pop culture are rather raffish, sometimes unsavoury, figures. I saw them as wearing leopard print, long red fingernails, cigarette holders. (Of course, this strawwoman had rather softened by then, 1 in 3 marriages producing divorcées of all kinds.)

So it was a great surprise when my best friend, not a Catholic, gave me a divorce present. The divorce present was wee, just a trifle, and it was, in a sad way, supremely funny. It was a tiny notebook, bound in leopard print fabric, hanging from a key chain. I suppose the unsavoury divorcée of the mid-20th century might have used it to collect gentlemen's phone numbers.

I loved that little notebook. It had everything: the element of surprise, a friend's desire to comfort, my worst fears made tiny (the leopard print), and a nod to my love of writing. Where is it now, I wonder.

So although I am down on divorce parties per se (shudder), I cannot say that giving a tiny divorce present, if intensely meaningful, given by a best friend, would always be wrong. At very least, asking your friend if she'd like to go out for dinner on the Day would be kindly.

Divorce is a supremely touchy subject for Catholics. Having had no children, I could have gone through life without telling anybody about mine. And indeed, I generally kept it to myself once I got beyond my mad post-divorce talking stage. If a Catholic asked after the ex, I would mention my divorce and annulment in the same breath.

This always got a friendly word from Catholics of a traditional outlook. But to my surprise, it did not endear me to Catholic divorcées less willing to beg Rome for freedom. If a Catholic woman of a certain age* confessed that she was divorced, and I volunteered the information that I, divorced-and-annulled, understood where she was coming from, the divorcée would stick her claws in about the annulment: "Oh, well THAT makes you better than me, doesn't it?" This happened twice, so I shut up.

A few years later, I discovered that even Catholics of a traditional bent were beginning to second-guess annulment decisions. John Paul II had apparently been annoyed by the number of them in North America, and this had cast doubts on the validity of our declarations of invalidity, rumoured to be rubber-stamped by "liberals". When I mentioned mine in "Seraphic Meets Bridezilla", I received some the nastiest messages my blogs have ever received. Complete strangers spat on my happiness in being free to marry B.A.

Fortunately, there is an old Latin motto to deal with such second-guessing. It is Roma locuta, causa finita: "Rome has spoken, the matter is done." And any frightened doubt I may have had about the validity of my decree of nullity has been completely dispelled by concrete experience. My first marriage had none of the fruits of the Holy Spirit--a situation that tipped me off to the fact that something was seriously awry. But this marriage, my sacramental marriage, has them all. Deo gratias.

*Annullées of the John Paul II generation can be hilarious. When I told a remarried one about mine, she said, "A virgin again!" and we giggled like loons.

Update: I've just received this blog's first negative comment: it was in response to this post. It was anonymous, from someone looking up "marriage, annulments, Catholicism" on Google, so it wouldn't have been posted anyway.

I am telling you all about it, as it helps prove my point about the supreme touchiness of the subject of Catholics and divorce. It could have been by your run-of-the-mill anti-Catholic, but it could have been by a soul in pain. There is just so much pain around divorce---a very strong reason for no-one to "settle" and for everyone who marries validly to make their marriage top priority.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Friends and Loss

I will be going home to Canada in late March. In one way, I can hardly wait. I miss my family and my friends, particuarly my girlfriends. When I was Single, my family and friends were my greatest social and emotional support. Now that I am married and across the ocean, I really miss them. Thank goodness we live in the age of cheap telecommunications.

The problem is that I know that as soon as I leave Scotland, I will begin missing my husband. And here we have the central tragedy of the foreign spouse: a heart always divided between this country and that.

But if there is one thing that women, especially Single women, are trained in, it's loss. A Single woman's depression during or after a wedding is not necessarily caused because she wants to get married, too. It's sometimes because she has, in some ways, lost her friend. If the groom is her friend, a significant fence has gone up between them. If the bride is her friend, they are now living two different kinds of life. The bride has moved into the married sphere, and the Single woman has one (or two) fewer Single friends.

We begin our training in loss with the books we read as children. The Anne books, Little Women, Little House on the Prairie: there always came a moment when a girl got married and left her family and friends, and those family and friends felt the loss of her. Anne was cut to the quick when she came upon Fred proposing to Diana. Jo was revolted when she discovered that John Brooke was in love with Meg. (Carrie) Laura... Well, (Carrie) Laura** said good-bye to Mary when Mary went to blind school, and to her parents when she married her husband Alonzo.

Then there comes that moment when a best friend cancels her plans with you because her crush object has finally asked her out. It would be nice to think that in these grrlpower days, this no longer happens. But I can still remember that day in the Eighties when I got the phone call and said "Of course, we can cancel." I soon discovered that, in high school, a friend with a boyfriend was a friend one didn't see very often any more.

The most poignant part of Little Women for me, after Beth's death (which I still cry through), was Jo's loneliness. Meg had married, Amy had married Jo's boyfriend*, and Beth had died. This left Jo up in the attic, scribbling away, convinced she was on the shelf at the age of 25 or whatever it was. In the story, Jo is fetched out of the attic by a German professor. In real life, Louisa May Alcott stayed at home with her father, and was happy never to marry at all.

Jo (and Louisa May Alcott) faced her Single life with dignity, and if she sometimes felt lonely, she still had her sisters and parents to talk to, her niece and nephew to play with, and her friends to visit. She also had her work and pride in the money she earned for herself and her parents. She had her American Trancedentalist's faith in God. The more poignant Single figure in Little Women is actually Professor Bhaer, who has two nephews to take care of, but no close friends.

My advice about friends and Single Life is to maintain ties with best friends as well as you are able. Sometimes there are irreparable ruptures, but this shouldn't be because your friend has gotten married or even moved away. I remember saying to a friend "Don't ditch us once you are married." She replied, "Don't you ditch me once I am married!" I was touched that, in all her happiness and planning, my soon-to-be-married friend was already thinking about the role her friends would play in her married life.

Some women make the mistake of thinking friendships won't change at all when marriage happens; others make the mistake of thinking they will change drastically. I didn't realize what messages I had imbibed about friendship and marriage until I hit her ceiling in fright when my friend's husband came home from work. "In my culture" (not sure what culture this is, The Honeymooners?) a married women's friends are expected to be out of the house or off the phone by the time the Husband comes home. This Husband, formerly just the fun, smart, twenty-something guy dating my buddy, told me to relax and stay awhile, and I saw him as himself again. (As I tell this story, I can just see my grandmother's green china dogs and smell the stale cigarette smoke in her drapes.)

What I didn't expect to happen, when I assured my bride-friend that I wasn't going to ditch her because she was married, was that I would eventually get married myself and move across the ocean. A foreign student, she officially emigrated to Canada after getting married, and to our surprise I emigrated out. All the stuff I assumed, like we'd be having coffee every Friday and that I'd be Auntie Seraphic, babysitting her kids, turned out not to be true. But this is something belonging to the challenges of Married Life, not Single Life, so I'll leave it there. I'll just say that if you are missing your Married friend, she is probably missing you too. Email her right now.

*Oh, let's face it. He was.

**An anonymous poster has reminded me I meant Laura. Of course. Carrie was the baby sister, right?

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Joys and Woes of Women in University

"It is hard to be twenty," I reflected today. "It is also hard to be twenty-one. It is hard to be a undergraduate woman in general, actually."

I was drawing mostly upon memory, mind you, since my twenty-something's undergrad days are long behind me. But I remember them as a restless, anxious time when I tried to balance jobs and classes, Catholicism with popularity, my wishes with the wishes of others and productivity with what I now realize to have been full-blown clinical depression. Many young women dread turning 25, but I can honestly say I am glad I have seen the back of 25 and will never see 25 again.

Interestingly, I did get a second chance at being an undergraduate. When I went to theology school to do an M.Div./STB, I think I got the "undergraduate experience" that I had wanted the first time: a smaller community, professors who had hours of time for me, a less frenetic social life, manageable challenges and, primarily because I was spared from depression, better grades.

There are women who become so involved in their studies that they barely look up to see if there are any cute men around. I envied these women. Women like them tend to get top grades. They are determined to succeed. They are singleminded and successful. They do not read Goethe's The Sorrows in Young Werther and sit around gloomy quadrangles thinking sad thoughts. They get on with their work. Eventually they get good jobs and great salaries and buy houses and it-bags.

Then there are women who want to know where the boys are. Goethe is not so much someone to study but a guide to life. I remember actually quoting from Doctor Faustus (Marlowe's, though) to encourage a hottie I had a huge crush on to mend his ways. He didn't. Sadly, such women seek their happiness not in their absorbing studies or burgeoning careers, but on their social lives and the general thrills that being like by boys provides. Oh, alas. C'etait moi at twenty.

If I could do undergrad all over again... Oh wait, I did. Well, if I had a daughter about to begin her undergrad, I would draw her aside and say, "Never mind about the boys. You're probably not meant to marry until 30 anyway, so just stick to your books and make friends who stick to their books." Hmm. Maybe I should work on the wording.

Women who succeed at their studies are more likely to get professorial encouragement nowadays than when women first bravely stormed the universities. The annals of women-in-science are full of utter horror stories of male research scientists determined to keep women rivals and colleagues down by any means, including stealing their work.* We have the example of Lise Meitner, who was not just a woman but Jewish in early-20th century Austria. Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. She should have been awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize with her college Otto Hahn, but she was not. She did, however, manage to get out of Austria before the Nazis got her, no thanks to colleague Kurt Hess.

So today, as I think about how difficult it is to be an undergraduate woman, I salute those women who found their happiness in the highest echelons of thought despite the machinations of others. And as Lise Meiter was one such woman, she is our Seraphic Single of the Week.

*Of course, they have probably done this to fellow male scientists, too.

Update: Welcome, sailors, from Ship of Fools!

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Brilliant Banana Bread

This is a great recipe for Singles because it solves the problem of the bananas slowly turning black in a bowl on your counter. And it makes only one loaf, which I think will keep for a couple of days if you cover it in plastic wrap. (It's so yummy, I never found out for sure.) I got this recipe from my childhood cookbook Let Me in the Kitchen by Susan Mendelson. It is very easy.

Brilliant Banana Bread

2 ripe bananas
2 eggs
1/2 cup (125 mL) vegetable oil
1 cup (8 oz/250 mL) brown sugar
1 1/4 cups (10 oz/300 mL) flour
1 tsp (5 mL) baking soda
dash of salt
1/2 cup (4 oz/125 mL) walnut pieces

1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C).
2. Mash bananas on a plate with a fork.
3. Beat eggs in bowl, then add oil, sugar and mashed bananas. Whisk.
4. Sift (or stir, as I have no sifter) flour, soda and salt into the mixture in the bowl. Whisk until mixed
5. Add the walnuts to batter and mix.
6. Butter the bottom of a loaf pan. Pour batter into pan.
7. Bake for one hour.
8. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes.
9. Run knife around sides of pan, and tip bread onto a wire rack or plate for further cooling.

As I don't have a loaf pan right now, I soon will try baking this recipe in a muffin tin. I've tried throwing chocolate chips into the dough, but I think I like it better without.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Hang in There, Soldier

It's Friday. For Catholics, it's traditionally a day of penance and, interestingly enough, identity renewal. If I go all day without eating meat, as I generally do, I feel a sense of belonging, not just to other traditionally-minded Catholics alive today, but to generations of Catholics in the past.

Many of the old traditions and metaphors had (and have) an importance not fully appreciated until they were allowed to lapse. The "good news" that British Catholics didn't have to stick to fish or veg on Fridays turned out not to be such good news after all. It did a number on their sense of identity, and it took away something we all need training in: healthy renunciation of, and healthy detachment towards, created things, to say nothing of acceptance of God-sent suffering.

The primary metaphor in my Confirmation classes was "adult in the Church." The second one was "priesthood." I don't remember much about "priesthood" except that we fourteen year olds all wore stoles to our Confirmation. B.A. looks at the my Confimation group photo and screams, utterly screams, with horror at this exaggeration of the "priesthood of the laity." However, I somehow got the sense that "adult in the Church" was an even more bogus concept. I mean, I was just fourteen. I still wasn't allowed to get my ears pierced, never mind driving, buying booze, seeing a restricted movie or voting.

Fortunately for little me, my school never bothered burning the pre-Vatican II religion textbooks I found in a classroom cupboard. This religion textbook was really cool. It made being a Catholic Christian sound like the most important thing in the entire world. And it said that Confirmation was when boys and girls were transformed from children of God into soldiers of Christ.

Soldiers of Christ! When I was 14, I wasn't thinking, "Oh, militarism is sooo bad. It is horrible. What a terrible image, soaked in blood, responsible for the sufferings of Africa, blah blah blah." When I was 14, I still thrilled to the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings and gobbled up RAF stories. For me, Soldiers of Christ was a deeply chivalric image, and what I thought particularly cool was that girls, like St. Joan of Arc, could be knightly too.

The textbooks also said that on my Confirmation Day, the bishop would slap me. This slap would be a reminder that being a Christian is hard and that sometimes I would suffer for my faith. As a matter of fact, the bishop did not slap me, but he did clunk his heavy hand down upon my shoulder, and that was almost as good.

Beforehand, sitting there in the Church, I thought about the (minimal) preparation of my religion class ("The bishop says he won't confirm anyone who doesn't know the Apostle's Creed") and the stirring images of the old religion texbook. What did Confimation mean? The two things that popped into my mind, so clearly that I still remember them today, were that Confirmation meant 1. I couldn't have sex before marriage and 2. I might be martyred by the Soviets, should they finally invade. No-sex and death. Yee-hah! Well, look at the sufferings of Bilbo and Frodo in their journeys. No guts, no glory. No crown without a cross, bay-bee.

Listen. This Single Life thing? It can really suck. I've been married (happily this time) for eight months, and I haven't forgotten the dire suckitude being Single can be. But that's the mission God's handed you for now, soldier. And there are two basic ways of living the Single Life.

First, there's the half-assed way of trolling bars and dating sites, and hanging with just anybody, and compromising your religious principles, or going to strip bars (male) or reading racy romance novels aka erotica (female), wrongly thinking they will help you blow off steam. Then there's the dignified way: thinking very carefully about whom to spend time with, planning ahead for emotionally-difficult times (Christmas, Valentine's), praying, managing one's TV and reading habits, and balancing social, work and alone time.

Post-divorce, I've been down both roads, and the dignified one is better. Much, much better. You're a soldier, and you can be a lousy soldier ( Private MacAuslan comes to mind ) or you can be a great soldier, a hero soldier like Sir Douglas Bader. Speaking of Douglas Bader, my biggest hero when I was 14, it is true that sometimes, spiritually speaking, you get taken into captivity by the Enemy. But, then like the guys in the Great Escape, your mission is to dig your way out of Stalag Luft III.

Do you get some medals, some nice reward, for all your suffering, for all your derring-do? I don't know. Don't ask me. What I know is that when all this is over, you're going to be dead. And so am I. Life is one big battle nobody survives. However, when it's over, you're going to have to look your Commanding Officer in the eye, and you are going to want to hear Him say, "Good job, soldier."

So hang in there.

Update: My latest column in the Catholic Register is about Vocation. Once again, something for Single people!

Thursday, 14 January 2010

My Ideal Singles' Club

I don't know how to get my Searching Singles readers spouses. From time to time I ponder how it could be done. My favourite dream is to have some sort of central Seraphic Singles jamboree, in London or Warsaw, say (and wouldn't you love to see Warsaw?), at which all readers could meet up and dine and dance the night away drinking champagne. I don't know what my publisher would think of this dream. Maybe I will float it past my PR woman.

At any rate, I take a Catholic "Zen" approach to the subject which is probably not Zen at all and just intensely Christian: Fear not and know that God is God. I see three stages to Seraphic Searching Singledom:

1. Petitioning Prayer: "Saint Anne, Saint Anne, send me a man" is my favourite.

2. Encounter Prayer: "Dear God, I need a spouse. Where is my spouse!? Give me a spouse! ARRRRRRRRRGH!"

3. Acceptance Prayer: "Father, Thy will be done."

But I still occasionally think about the ideal Singles' Club because Single people without children--including priests--need solidarity and friendship like nobody else.

My Seraphic Singles Clubs would be open to all Catholic and Catholic-positive Singles over drinking age. Anyone under drinking age is too young to be fussing over whether they are Just Single, a Serious Single or a Searching Single. They should concentrate on their homework and who loves who, like normal teenagers.

Possibly there would be two branches of the Seraphic Singles clubs: the 21-40 branch, and the 40-60+ branch. I would make it a rule, though, that both branches must have dinner together twice a year. And I would also make it ironclad that once you turn 40, you are out of the Junior Branch and into the Senior Branch. No sentimental hanging about, like the aging no-longer-a-student hippies at CSUs and Newman Centres across Christendom. Forty year old women don't mind chatting to flirty sixty year old men, but twenty-one year olds do. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but it is true.

Second of all, I would emphasise that these groups are for Singles' solidarity. The point is for the Singles to get together, complain about Single life, listen to interesting lectures of interest to Singles, and then go to dinner or a film or dancing. The clubs are NOT for dating. Members would be encouraged to see each other as FRIENDS, as brothers and sisters in arms, and not as marks. This would not be lavalife, people. It would not be speed-dating. And it would definitely be several cuts above floor-hockey in the parish hall. (Ugh!)

Of course, what would happen is that various members would date each other behind everyone else's backs. When the pressure is off, and men and women approach each other as friends, brothers and sisters in arms, and not as marks, true romance has a chance to grow. And a little bit of necessary restraint--like the threat of being kicked out of the Seraphic Singles Club--always adds sauce.

If the sneaky members get engaged (to each other or to someone outside), they have to tell the Chapter President by letter. The Chapter President then formally kicks them out (in absentia) at the next meeting, reading the resignation letter to the other members, who boo loudly, venting their own frustrations, and then club together happily at the next meeting for a wedding present.

(I wonder what religious orders do when one of their members runs off to get married? Their sense of betrayal is a lot more serious than the envy of my Seraphic Singles Club members. I imagine they don't do anything--I bet they just complain separately to their superiors and then cry in their rooms. This seems to me wholly inadequate. Surely there must be some ritual for the others to vent their anger together, allowing them to blow off steam and open their hearts naturally towards real and healing, not fake, wimpy and forced, forgiveness? They should solemnly burn the chap's or gal's habit or vestments in the back garden at very least.)

Members of the Seraphic Singles Club would be given gold stars and mentioned in a special Mass for their 1st, 5th, 10th, 20th, 25th, 40th and 50th anniversaries in the Club. It is high time Single people (who aren't priests) got a nice anniversary of their own, celebrating their state in life, and so there they are.

The only drawback to this Club so far, in my opinion, is that just being engaged gets you kicked out, and being married I would not be able to join and therefore I would not be able to run everything myself.

Meanwhile, as soon as I know, I'll post exactly when and where my book launch will be. It will be in Toronto in the second half of March, and I bet it will be a great opportunity for my readers, long-term and short, to come and meet me and mix and mingle and drink as good a wine as Novalis thinks it can afford!

The photo is of me becoming an aged no-longer-a-student hippy at a Newman Centre Advent Ball. Note the two glasses of beer. One might have belonged to my friend, but I forget. Meanwhile, I feel ripped off, as a young matron, that dances don't have chaperones anymore. Now that I am married, I want to sit in ballrooms with a handy sewing box/first aid kit, offering advice and comfort to young things, lending them clear nailpolish to stop up their stocking runs, etc. B.A. could rescue wallflowers. I've seen him do this at a ceidhli, and he's marvellous at it.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Chastity Lectures

I've been asked to give at talk about vocations to Single and Married life at the University of Saint Andrews in February. (Details to follow when I get them.) I am very excited because St Andrews is the oldest university in Scotland and is famously beautiful. And as one of my readers opined that all the Single men in the Saint Andrews CathSoc want to priests, now I have the chance to find out for myself if this is true. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

My specialty, though, is neither the vocation to the Single nor to the Married life but the vocation to wait and see. It just occured to me that in the Scriptures, prophets never say, when they get the chance, "Lord, am I supposed to be married, Single or ordained?" No. They tend to say things like, "Oh, do I have to?" and "Gosh, that's a really big whale" and "Marrying your half-brother's widow is a big sin." Just throwing that out there, folks.

What I won't talk about too much in my lecture is chastity. Since I'll be talking to CathSoc, I'll assume they all know the score. Sex before marriage = ontologically bad. Sex after marriage = (usually) ontologically good. Besides, chastity lectures give young people a thrilling excuse to listen to people talk about sex in mixed company, and do I want to be party to that?

Let the truth be told! Let it resound from the mountain tops, and let us all giggle. When I went to pro-life confences as a youth, my friends and I always opted to go to the chastity lectures. Woe to that speaker who had a lecture on at the same time, for his or her room would be empty of youth. Youth would be sitting expectantly elsewhere, waiting for the heavily-made up lady, usually of Evangelical persuasion, to tell us about the badness and goodness of sex. Sex talk! Yay!

This lady always had a comforting narrative that jived with our worldview. It had easily predictable arcs and outcomes. She (or other protagonists) had been sexually unchaste and terrible things had happened. Unplanned pregnancies. Broken hearts. Disease. Abortion. Depression. But once this lady (or other protagonists) had seen the light, accepted Jesus as her own personal Saviour, and gotten married to a Christian gentleman, life was fantastic. The sex was fantastic. Sex was the best thing ever. And sex would be the best thing ever for you, kids, if you held on to your virginity until marriage. The end. Standing ovation for Chastity Lady.

Now, I understand that chastity speakers have gotten a bit more savvy in the past twenty years. And this is great because when Catholic kids go to university they notice that a lot of their friends are having sex and yet manage to avoid unplanned pregnancies, broken hearts, disease, abortion and depression. Some even manage to get married to a supposed-to-be one-night-stand and live happily ever after.* What the hell--? And some poor Christian virgins get married to other Christian virgins and are divorced within two years. Wha---? Life is not always as simple as Chastity Lady's narrative, which is why Christian kids need something better than Chastity Lectures.

First, Christian kids need to learn the difference between servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear is when you don't do something wrong because you're afraid of punishment. Filial fear is when you don't do something wrong because you love God and don't want to hurt your relationship with Him. So the unmarried Catholic should strive to avoid sexual sin not because he or she is afraid of pregnancy or disease but because he or she loves God. Incidentally, Thomas Aquinas found the whole idea of great sex as a divine reward utterly repulsive.

Second of all, Christian kids can learn more from good old-fashioned common sense than from lurid stories. Good old-fashioned common sense can feel like a bucket of water over your head: unpleasant but strangely refreshing. Here's some: "Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?" Argh! Blah! Yuck! But a lot of men still think that way, and some women now think that way, too. And these are not necessarily wicked people. They're often just people so afraid of marriage that they need some serious incentive. Society use to provide incentive (e.g. "When are you going to make an honest woman out of that poor girl?") but now society is more tolerant, i.e. apathetic.

Here's another, "If he loves you, he'll respect you for wanting to wait." That one is also tried, tested and true. If he (or she) doesn't love you, he (or she) will bitch, complain and leave because you don't put out. And although painful, it's like lending 20 pounds or dollars to someone who avoids you ever after: it's painful to lose 20 quid or dollars, but it's a relatively cheap way to get rid of a false friend. Meanwhile, a man who loves you will put up with practically anything. You could dye your hair pink or quit your job to go to clown school or chain yourself to a historical building slated for demolition. He'll still love you.

You don't want to sleep with someone who doesn't love you, do you? Well, maybe you think your love is enough for you both. You're wrong, though. God made you: have some respect for God and His works, tadpole. Oh, tip: men don't fall in love with women because these women sleep with them, but women sometimes do get addicted to the men they sleep with because the men slept with them. It is very unfair, but biochemistry is unfair. Nature red in tooth and claw.

What's your favourite time-tested and generally true sex-and-marriage cliché? I wish there was one about chastity and really short engagements because so many devout Catholics I know move heaven and earth to get married a few months after contacting the parish office, screaming with horror at the "one year's notice" rule. My engagement was officially five months long. FIVE. Nobody say "Married in haste, repentant at leisure" because it certainly didn't feel like haste, believe me.

*Others, of course, may have gone through private hells, and also laid the foundation for some bad habits.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Marrying Late

Today I heard that the novelist Barbara Cartland believed that the best way to arrange social life was for girls to marry at seventeen, and then there would be no trouble. I have a great respect for Barbara Cartland, for she is one of the best selling writers of chick lit ever. However, she was also born in 1901 and, as we delicately put it at my house, came from money. Today marrying off girls at 17, even girls who come from money to men with even more money, seems to me a recipe for complete disaster.

My mother was encouraged to get her Bachelor of Arts degree because it would be "something useful to fall back on if you don't get married, dear." It has become traditional to sneer at this observation so often repeated by women of my grandmother's generation to women of my mother's. But it made a lot of sense to women who--let us remember--had never had the chance to go to university.

Mum married a good catch and never needed anything to fall back on. But what I know, and Grandma didn't, is that the more education a woman has, the better her children are likely to do at school. So, from my self-absorbed point of view, Mum's B.A. came in very handy after all.

From Mum's own point of view, of course, there was more to her university degree than something to put on a resume and a beneficial influence upon her children. There was the fun of studying something challenging for four years, and there was the general social polish and opportunities university provides. There was, shall we say, a good dollop of personal development to be had.

Graduate study and careers add to personal development, and careers add to bank accounts. There is nothing like getting a nice pay cheque with a biggish number on it, as I hope most of you know. I wouldn't mind getting a lottery cheque and I do love a birthday cheque, but there is something about a pay cheque that makes my Scots-Canadian/Irish-German-American soul sigh with satisfaction.

So it is not a huge surprise that many women now spend long years in training or graduate school and seek high-paying positions instead of grabbing a pink-collar job after high school or a less obviously pink-collar job after college. (A Canadian civil service job, I have concluded, is secretly rather pink.) The net gains are enormous personal development and, sometimes, good salaries. Some women Ph.D.s make as much or more as the girl who went to beauty school at 16 and now owns her own chain of salons.

The sacrifices, of course, can be huge. One sacrifice of hardworking women in careers or prolonged training or school is that of time spend at parties. You can't go to evening parties if evenings are taken up with research, papers or briefs. And so you can't meet men. Another sacrifice is professionalism at the office. If you're worried about being seen as professional at the office, you can't date your co-workers. I once temped as a receptionist in an office full of single women. And who went out with the most eligible bachelor in the office, a policy analyst with great hair and a snazzy car? Little me. Receptionists get dates. (If I could spin this truth into 200 pages, I'd have a bestselling book.) Finally, the higher up the career-and-money path women go, the harder they have to look to find a husband who is of higher or equal career-and-money status. The men of higher or equal career-and-money status are usually either married or dating the receptionist.

When I announced to my family that I was going to do a Ph.D. in the USA, a programme about which I still have actual nightmares (e.g. last night), my sister-with-the-kid asked, "How long will this take?"

"Five or six years," I said.

She looked appalled.

"But when will you have babies?" she asked.

My heart sank to my socks. Reader, I could have killed her. And in a way, she was right. There was not much opportunity to have babies in the Ph.D. My programme was full of the usual suspects: men who married at 22, men in religious life, priests, a couple of nuns, men with long-term girlfriends, a few men with SSA, and a lot of single women. And as the programme and I weren't getting along, it seemed insane to be sacrificing so many of the last of my fertile years to it.

So where does all this leave the ambitious woman of today? Well, for me it comes down to Providence. It's the only answer that works for me, so I don't have an alternative one for atheist gals, save "get a job as a temp receptionist in an IT or law firm on your vacation." If God wants you to marry someone, He will just have to stick that man before your face. That's what I told Him, and that's what He eventually did. And why? Because He wanted to.

That's me, exchanging small talk with a sheep on my wedding day. As usual, I offer myself as an example of a woman who married late and thinks the guy she married was worth the very long wait. I wouldn't mention this except that some readers, when I got married, said it gave them hope. I like giving hope, and I love stories about women who have babies after 40 because they give me hope.