Mrs. Foster introduced a speech club when I was starting junior high. She asked if I would participate, and, flattered, I happily accepted. Basically, for those not familiar with the experience, you take some work, memorize it, then perform (though recite is probably the better word there) it for a judge. And if you win, you get a shiny medal!
I wanted the shiny medal pretty badly. Could picture where I’d put it in my room. How I’d show it to my parents and Grandma.
The choice was to be made at the beginning – were you going to pick a partner and recite a duet, or would you be “a solo” as they called us? (OK, fine, they called me. Everyone else paired up.)
I had a few thoughts. I was afraid nobody would want to work with me, and will quickly tell you I don’t want something if I can’t see a good chance at getting it. So insecurity played a role.
But there was also the thought that I would do better on my own. That I wouldn’t have to wait for someone to show up for practice, I could work at my convenience rather than going to someone’s house, and, bad or good, the fault or credit was mine alone. All of those factors were appealing, even at age 11.
Years later, my sociology teacher in high school said something that I remember vividly. We were talking about marriage, and he was going over what it meant and how society views it. Then, he said something I found rather profound.
“If you want to get married – really want to be with someone – you’ll get married. I guarantee it. Because there are enough people with enough different opinions that you’ll come across someone to love you. And if you want marriage badly enough, you’ll figure out a way to get there with that person. Or you’ll find someone else.
"I know some of you feel alone now, and I remember thinking that I would never find anyone when I was your age. I can’t promise you it’ll work, because we're covering divorce next week – but I can promise you that if you want it, marriage will happen. You’ll at least get the chance to try it.”
And he smiled at us fondly, one of the smartest men I'd known at that time. And maybe since. He’d been married for 25 years, then divorced. Since he had remained single for about 10 years when I knew him, I wondered briefly if he was lonely. If, during the days we’d read silently or write on any topic – oh, the pleasure, even then, of just writing – he yearned for having someone special to him.
I’ve remembered Mr. Leonard in writing this – and a quick google search assures me he remains in that classroom I remember, perched in the corner of the second floor, looking out into the branches of oak trees. He was kind and encouraging and lovely, leaving long notes on whatever I’d write. Exclaiming over my words, validating the importance of some of the topics I considered, making me feel smart and thoughtful and special.
He was good at his job. But of all the things he told us, that bit of reassurance about marriage is the most vividly recalled.
The book Fred so badly wanted me to have was If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, John Ortberg. Long title - decent book.
In reading it, I gained complete clarity on Fred and what he must have thought of our date. This have no fear because God believes in you and if you just trust Him, you can go for it and trust things will work out approach is sometimes valid and quite compelling. It can also, like many ideas, be taken to its extreme.
In my race through the gardens, somewhere between pulling over for the far-away ambulance and the final "big hug!", eager to just be done with this experience, he stopped and looked at the lake. Also pausing, I looked at him, closed my eyes and sent up a brief yet sincere prayer. He was sweet – his good intentions mixed with a miserably desperate delivery. To me, at that point, it was scary. More than I could handle. I didn’t know what to do, but didn’t want to hurt him. So I asked for help – for Fred to pull back, or for me to know how to respond in a way that was kind but honest.
So I walked over and stood a healthy distance away from him. And he started into this list of people who were going to hell. Irritated despite my newfound desire to be nice, I appreciate that his church was very conservative and had already declined his invitation to attend. The idea that his prayer group was praying that we would fall in love and marry quickly – well, that’s scary. In moments where I’m feeling particularly settled and kind, I can see the positive in that, but – my goodness – it’s still hard.
Lost in my thoughts of how to make things OK, smooth over my tension and his desire for this to work, I watched the ducks. Let myself smile because I do enjoy ducks. Always have. After praying once again, quickly, I felt peaceful – uncharacteristically serene in a really cool way.
“I’m a virgin.” I heard him, sent a look heavenward with a brief “Really? This is what you’re giving me to deal with?” to God. I sighed, because I didn’t know what to say.
I have no problem with saving yourself – nor did I then. However, I see it as an intensely personal choice, and sharing that information with the air of “so I’d really like to get married now, if you know what I mean” is, like so many parts of this story, poignantly amusing.
“Look at those ducks. I like ducks.” I finally replied, turning to walk again and waiting for him to join me. I tend toward movement when I’m nervous.
The one part of the book I remember clearly involves the message of being comfortable and proactive and certain in the knowledge that you’re loved and appreciated by God. So you had to be willing - eager even - to take some risks. And Fred, if nothing else, was certainly putting something out there.
I don’t remember what I said then. I’m sure I tried to ease both of us, because I like people to feel comfortable and good. In situations like these, where two people are so hugely incompatible that someone’s comfort is forced to come at the expense of another’s, I’ll take the fall. Let my head hurt, hear things I’d rather not, endure the experience for as long as I must.
But, lest I seem unfeeling, later, in the comfort of my apartment, I tried to hint at what happened for me through email. But he missed my point - ignored it, really, which is sad. Learning about people – trying to appreciate their motivations and see where they’ve come from – is amazing. That he would miss that – willingly turn away in favor of a more “pure” relationship with God, made me infinitely positive that he wasn’t someone I wanted to know on a real level.
His intense desire to be married, however – to belong to someone, indulge in some sexual activity – would end up proving Mr. Leonard’s point. I told him that in an email. That I did think someone would appreciate and love him. The interest that had so unnerved me could mean security to someone else.
That if you want to be part of a pair, you’ll find someone to oblige you.
So, for him, I was confident of the end. I kept frowning and thinking about myself though. I certainly didn’t want marriage that badly. Nowhere even close. So what did that mean? Was I destined to always be on my own? All the work and credit and blame coming to me rather than being distributed over two people?
And what comes next
There’s a section in Ortberg that discusses 2 groups of people who were going to make clay pots. The first group was going to be graded on quantity - they just had to produce as many pots as they possibly could. The second group was graded on quality - they could only keep a single piece as the proof of their efforts. They had as much time as the first group, but they had to look at each piece of work and decide whether it was good enough or if they should throw it out to try again.
So, of course, the best pots came from the first group, because as you try things, you learn and become better, even if your goal was just to do a lot of the same thing. The second group got all stressed out and over-thought the whole process, constantly trying to reconcile reality – the pot in front of them – with the mental ideal – the pot they thought they could produce if ideal circumstances happened to occur.
The second group sucked. By not finishing the process, seeing something through and noticing where it went wrong, then letting the path to the ideal occur naturally, they missed out on creating something special.
Delighted with this analogy that I could use for dating, though it’s not my own, I started to think that my friends who subscribed to the date for the sake of dating had a point. So, OK, I’d do that.
I set up lunch with Violet, who would become my dating advisor and biggest cheerleader. And as I consider this, I find that I tend to find the right people at the right time. Those treasures in human form that can listen and understand without judgment. Bolster flagging confidence, provide some reassurance, listen when I can't figure myself out. It occurs to me that some of you provide that now, by reading what's here, which is perfectly lovely to me.
Violet suggested a dating service. Hiring someone to set me up with men who were, in theory, compatible. Meeting men in bars was deemed too uncomfortable by me, and too dangerous by her. Online dating gave me Fred, so that was out. And counting on someone to just come along? Well, I’d formed a plan, and the decisive, driven Pre-Doc couldn’t tolerate any delays in seeing if this would work.
“Don’t sign up.” Violet warned me when I sent email that I had set up an appointment. “Just see what’s what, and then you can figure it out later.”
But somewhere between the blatant attempt at manipulation by looking through the success story binder while you waited in a room by yourself and the point where I signed an agreement and handed over a check, something went wrong.
There are lengthy personality tests – like 60 minutes worth of answering questions and rating preferences and choosing between various options. And that’s fine – it makes sense to know yourself. Then someone came in to talk and take notes, and I could feel the manipulation, but, well, it was effective.
So I found myself nodding when she told me how great it would be to have someone in my life, shaking my head when asked if I always wanted to be alone. So when she said that finding someone was hard work, and I shouldn’t feel badly for not having found him yet, that this was the responsible, logical, best step to take, I went for it.
Because, between the cool pottery analogy and wanting to prove to myself that I did want marriage enough to have it, per Mr. Leonard’s instructions, I saw a shiny medal of some sort at the end of this dating experience.
So there would be 10 men in 2 years. But those stories start tomorrow.