Happy Birthday to Me: What the Men of My Life Have Taught Me–A Birthday Contemplation
Tomorrow I will have completed 41 years of life in this body, on this planet earth. When I was younger, 41 seemed the definition of old, and yet — as many others before me have observed — I don’t feel old, at least not in the way that old appeared to me back then. I don’t look old yet apparently either, having, by the grace of Juno, been spared a Resting Bitch Face, those around me still treat me as young.
I recall how I spent my 21st summer at a volunteer workcamp on an alternative, sustainable, organic farm in Umbria, and fell madly in love with the workcamp leader — a communist (well, re-founded communist party to be precise) a hirsute, chain-smoking, cheery, food-loving idealist whose smile and twinkling eyes made me tingle all over but who, to my profound distress already had a girlfriend. After the camp, I visited some friends — a couple in Germany, and when I had told them about my impossible love, the man replied: “Oh, I am so glad that that time is over for me! Such drama, it really takes away one’s energy. Now I can focus on my life’s work.”
That was almost 20 years ago! And here I am, still dating, although there have been periods of singleness, if not yet singularity; in fact, most of my life I’ve been alone in between bursts of dating, flirtations, hookings up, flings, affairs, obsessions, fallings in love or lust, pining away after some prince-like dream-mate. There was also a brief period of matrimony, which I refer to as a tragic military tale in a prior life as an enlisted soldier.
What have I been up to over the past 20 years? Have I not been “focusing on my life’s work?” I did earn degrees, studied languages, served in the military, attended theological seminary, and decided not to become a pastor, generally reinventing myself many times over. And many of the reinventions, inventions, and my becoming were related to the men in my life.
At one point, after listening to my latest misadventure in love, my wise and ever-patient mother asked me: What is it about this (one particular) man that you like? Maybe those are the qualities that you would like to have yourself, in which case you can consciously cultivate them.
The list was a long one. There were so many attributes that I valued in these men but did not think I possessed: Strength, intelligence, clarity, accomplishments, power. I realized over the years how these masculine attributes were always at the top of my list, but the feminine qualities and skills (empathy, listening and communicating, relationship-building) only much later made it onto my wish-list.
I stubbornly and quite unhappily clung to these masculine ideals, even while making myself sick trying to fulfill them in roles and careers (military and defense) where they were valued, and in fact ignoring the value of my proven skills and abilities in these traditionally feminine areas.
Through the men in my life, I have discovered who I am, but also importantly, I have discovered who and what I am not; what I am not interested in, cannot be, or do not wish to become. In retrospect, I see someone who practically demanded mansplaining, by seeking out some male representative to tell me how to live, what to study, what to think, and value.
Another timeless gift that I received from my mother was a list of “12 Qualities to Look for in a Mate” by Jungian psychotherapist Clarissa Pinkola Estés from her book “How to Love a Woman.” I kept that list in my journal for many years, always remembering Point 12: “Choose someone who makes your world bigger, not smaller.” Sometimes in relationships, I realized how small my universe had become, and how I had tried to fit myself into someone else’s limited world, whether his interests or worldviews, from which I would have to break free again.
Still, my life has been enriched immeasurably by the men I have known, whether it was just one Okcupid date in which a conversation opened up a new perspective on the world or I got to know a new kind of music or a longer relationship that lead to travel adventures or going down intellectual rabbit-holes to discover conspiracy theories and subcultures I never would have known existed on my own.
I am thankful to the men I’ve encountered, from my father who taught me to appreciate much I otherwise would not have, even geology, to the other teachers, professors, therapists, pastors, boyfriends, and many dates for helping me to clarify my goals, for mirroring and challenging me, however unconsciously on their part, to become myself.
I am not a communist. I am not particularly conservative. I am not a mystic, nor a musician, nor a priest, nor computer expert, nor a lecturer, nor a parent, nor … But I am a woman, a linguist, a writer, a lay-sociologist, and a lover of people, culture, and the world. I am a daughter, a sister, an auntie, a roommate and neighbor, a listener, and I am myself. I am now able to say that, and joyfully celebrate this discovery and congratulate myself for being the person I have been longing for all these years. The person I want to be with. As strong, intelligent, accomplished, and powerful as I am empathetic and communicative. This is a birthday of selfhood and of becoming me.
*Grateful for editing from Michael Ronall