|Connally Gilliam earned a Master's of Teaching (English) degree from the University of Virginia and has taught high school and college writing. She now works for Navigators as a life coach for twenty-somethings in the Washington, DC, metro area. She loves sharing coffee with friends and discovering how God is real, even in a crazy, changing, and unintentionally single world.
Another Dateless Holiday
By Connally Gilliam
In addition to displaying drawings by her young Picassoesque grandchildren, my mother’s refrigerator is home to an endless array of cartoons, some as old as twenty years. The cartoons reflect my mom’s values and sense of humor. Some are self-deprecating—mocking, for instance, my mother’s longtime love affair with health foods. Others are tongue-in-cheek social commentary. But there’s one that has always cracked me up. A lone, silly-looking man sits on a stool in his kitchen, party hat on, blower in hand, with a big banner behind him. The caption reads: “Horace Snodgrass celebrates his 20th homeschool reunion!” That idea just makes me chuckle. A homeschool reunion of one. Poor Horace. I look at the cartoon, shaking my head and thinking with a low-level, cartoon-grade compassion, Ah, the epitome of “The Dork.”
On New Year’s Eve, at the age of thirty-six and still highly chagrined that I was about to be thirty-seven and could no longer call myself “early thirties” (a descriptor I felt I could reasonably use until that point), I headed back to DC from a Christmas spent with my family in central Virginia. Much to my delight, I’d had three invitations to New Year’s Eve events and had finally decided on a dinner party with a group of former colleagues, now friends. That way I would avoid the smoke-laden chaos of the mass, parking-challenged, downtown party, while also sidestepping the group of quiet, serious reflectors who would want to recount their thematic discoveries of the past year (I do that a lot naturally and wasn’t in the mood for it on a holiday). Pleased with my decision, I e-mailed the host couple, Alex and Sarah, and said, “Love to come. What can I bring?” Alex suggested that I help out with the beverages and told me that he was expecting eleven to thirteen people. He reminded me not to wear black (their dog had a shedding problem) and said how glad he was that I was coming.
I stopped by the grocery to grab drinks and went on my way. Dressed in my nonblack clothes, I arrived a little late and joined the already lively conversation. I was innocently nibbling my mini-quiches and baby carrots when it began to dawn on me that I was the only person at the party not attached to another. Suddenly I found myself wishing for that group of quiet, serious reflectors with whom I could share all my deep insights! I’d been so busy during the Christmas hubbub that I hadn’t focused on Alex’s comments. If I had, I might have realized that both eleven and thirteen are odd numbers, which, if divided by two (the number in a couple), leaves a remainder. In an adrenaline-induced flash, a rather painfully electric insight coursed through my entire nervous system: “YOU, Connally, ARE THE REMAINDER!”
Faced with this most nauseating realization, I figured it was time for a regrouping trip to the restroom. In my little silent cell, I managed to assess the situation. Hey, here I am. I’m okay. I’m not a loser. I like these people. I’m confident in myself. Plus, maybe God wants to love people through me or something! Right, God? It’s not supposed to be all about me? Right? It’s about caring for others? Right? Can’t say I that I really heard anything in response, but a few minutes later I emerged, lipstick redone, ready to go. I marched back in, filled up my plate, got a drink, and began conversing here and there, picking stray dog hairs off my sweater, and periodically reminding myself, Remember, girl, you had three invitations!
For a few blissful hours, I lost track of the numbers and enjoyed just being with my friends as midnight approached. With about five minutes to go before the ball was to drop and Dick Clark would do his thing, Alex passed out blowers and confetti and poppers of all description. Standing up together, we all counted down . . . five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one. “Happy New Year!” we all shouted at the top of our lungs. “Happy New Year!” And then it happened. One of a single woman’s top ten nightmares. I was standing there alone, with my pointy party hat and blower, while every person around me magnetically embraced his or her significant other. I was floating alone in a sea of long, celebratory, impassioned, wet kisses.
On Baywatch, when all the beautiful, well-sculpted California lifeguards are called down the beach for a rescue, the action is always filmed in slow motion: Barbie- and Ken-like bodies languidly leaping and bouncing along like hypnotized fairies. In the same way, in Alex and Sarah’s living room, Dick Clark’s flickering image suddenly seemed to fade far away and the in-house action seemed to last ten times its normal duration. Standing there alone, trying to look perfectly natural and positively delighted to be blowing my blower—repeatedly—there crept over me the frightful feeling of kinship with dear Horace Snodgrass from the fridge. I thought to myself, “Connally, you are a dork!”
Eventually, perhaps out of pity or plain friendliness, Alex broke what I’ll call the suspended animation of the moment (“magic” just doesn’t have quite the right connotation). He stopped kissing his wife and kissed me on the cheek. “Happy New Year, Con.” I managed to reply, “Oh, uh, yeah, Happy New Year, Alex!”
Single girlfriends and I have laughed until we’ve cried revisiting that story. And my dad, in spite of his well-trained attempts to be sensitive to his emotionally high-maintenance daughter, about fell out of his chair when I shared it with him. Honestly, the laughter alone has almost redeemed the experience. But something else has been born from that story of single social “mistfitness” and ones like it: I have learned a greater degree of empathy than I ever would have hoped. I have learned what it is to be the odd one out.
Growing up, though I often felt left out, I never particularly looked left out to others. Okay, I didn’t get on the homecoming court in high school, and I didn’t win “Best All Around” in the senior superlatives (not that I’m bitter), but on the whole, I did okay. With the help of two best friends, I somehow found a third way between the super-popular, cool, party kids and the smart, nice, do-the-right-thing kids. As a result, for the most part, I was not the last person picked for the kickball team, so to speak, and even managed to be a captain occasionally. But in this whole mating game, I was—and am still—standing by the fence, waiting, my singleness evident.
Of course, the way I’m talking, it sounds like singleness is some horrible disease. It is not a disease. A few weeks spent in India showed me people with real diseases. Even closer to home, I have friends who have carried with them both physical pain and emotional wounds that they cannot laugh about. So I want to keep the Horace-singleness analogy in its right place. Having said that, however, there is something about being unintentionally single that can leave one feeling “dis-eased” in a couples’ world.
In the hysterically funny, if profane, book Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget, the single, thirty-something protagonist, finds herself seated at a dinner table with all couples. “Bridge,” asks the female half of one couple, “why are there so many single girls in their thirties?” With a feigned innocence, Bridget cheekily replies, “I don’t know. . . . Perhaps it’s because beneath our clothes we have scales all over our bodies?” It is a funny line, matched only by the humor of the couples who awkwardly attempt to respond. But it’s also a memorable line. Almost every single woman I know who saw the movie remembers it. It matches felt experience “spot on,” as Bridget would say.
While home with me for a Thanksgiving holiday (during which I’d been thinking, I should be here with a husband and kids, not friends), a friend of mine said that “no offense,” but she was glad I was single. Not knowing exactly how to respond, I paused, then asked, “Uh . . . why?” She went on to explain that my being single didn’t make sense to her. In her analysis, there were no major family issues. No residual hatred of men that she could observe. No big, hairy warts on my nose. In short, she couldn’t see the reason. And that was a comfort to her. Strange reasoning, I thought. For her, however, it was a small reminder that, contrary to what she was always tempted to believe, unmet desires are not necessarily divine punishment for a flaw. Sometimes, when we line it all up, life simply is not fair.
More important, my friend continued, my unintended singleness made me more approachable, more human. As she experienced it, my disappointment was a chink in the armor of my personality that let more of my heart out and gave others something softer to grab on to.
Frankly, I didn’t really want to hear that. My heart was already soft enough, and even if it wasn’t, I still think I could come up with roughly 153 alternative means for accomplishing this same heart-changing end. But that Thanksgiving conversation has stayed with me. I knew, and still know, that she was right. My unintended singleness, in addition to giving me some humorous stories that help me entertain or bond with a willing audience, undeniably has changed the contours of my heart. In bringing me into all-too-tender touch with my inner (and outer) dork, for lack of a better term, I’ve grown kinder, and I’m glad for the change.
I think back to that cartoon of homeschooled Horace. It still makes me chuckle. I wish you could see it. But I think what’s funny, too, is that the quality of my chuckle has changed over the years. (The cartoon has been on the fridge for a long time!) Had I laughed at Horace or a flesh-and-blood counterpart twenty years ago, my guffaws might have carried with them a fearful undercurrent of, “Oh, Lord, let me never be a social reject like Horace!” But this crazy singleness thing with its collection of “standing with the blower, alone at the party” experiences has changed a lot of that in me. I think that if Horace wandered onto our field after school now, I’d be far kinder to him than I would have twenty years ago. I might even be able to give him an empathetic grin and ask him to play on my kickball team.
Excerpted from Revelations of a Single Woman: Loving the Life I Didn't Expect, copyright © 2006 by Connally Gilliam.
Used by permission.
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