Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Orthodoxy and the Single Girl

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Lately, I've really been pondering my status as a single girl in the midst of several countercultural movements.

One counterculture in which I'm delightfully involved is geek/gamer culture. Granted, our outcast status has diminished with the advent of nerd chic and the popularity of video games and The Big Bang Theory, but I still think that tabletop RPGers (you know, those of us who play with polyhedrals, pencil and paper, and imagination) remain the outliers of this culture; that is to say, the people who play popular first-person shooters are a little embarrassed about us. Nevertheless, I fly the geek flag proudly, feeling a little flutter of giddiness during discussions of how Star Trek has helped shape our current and future technology (life imitating art), or at hearing references to saving throws or rolling for damage. And as a single girl in this culture, I feel rather daring and heroic, like a Paladin looking for my holy grail.

In another counterculture, I frequent late night gatherings, most of which are clean and sober, dancing myself into a euphoric frenzy to the rhythms and sounds of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Indigo Swing. In this counterculture, perhaps more than the others, it seems less unusual that I am single and able to share physical contact with another human being for three minutes, each of us moving in response to the other in this ecstatic language of sound and motion. Here there is no jealousy, only freedom to have that brief embodied conversation, a conversation that is playful, but not overly sexualized. This is a counterculture of heartbeats and nostalgia and joy set in motion.

And finally, I am in a religious counterculture, at least in terms of the American religious landscape. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I am part of a tiny minority among American Christians. And even within Eastern Orthodoxy, I feel like I'm in a tiny strange grey area because I'm a woman in her mid-40s who's never been married, even though I've always wanted to be. I felt strange when I first entered this particular counterculture six years ago, watching so many young people meet, fall in love, and marry, or seeing so many established couples who  had successfully withstood the difficulties of marriage, children, and time. My prayers had often centered around the desperate question of why I'd been denied these things. They still do, as a matter of fact.

Of these countercultural portions of my identity, I feel that being Orthodox is most important. It seems important that I not skimp on this one element. It's important because I've always, always wanted to be able to worship with my romantic partner, no matter what religion I was involved with at the time. Especially now, being involved with my Church and with religious activities usually is when I feel most at peace. It's exactly these times that I'd like to be able to share with a boyfriend (and later, a spouse). At the same time, that tiny percentage works against me. Of those already-small numbers of Orthodox in America, how many are single and in their 40s (without, of course, being a monastic)?

Among my options is missionary dating: dating someone in the hope they they'd become Orthodox. But that doesn't work either, does it? It's based on the fact that there's something very important missing from the relationship. It's based on the idea that someone is awesome except for this one very important thing, that they need to change in a very fundamental way in order to marry me. That doesn't quite seem right, either. I don't want to have a deeply involved relationship predicated on the idea that they'd have to change to see the relationship to the next level. Before I became Christian (and even for a while after my Chrismation), I didn't really get this part. I didn't really understand the importance until I experienced the conflict between myself, my faith, and my partner.

Of course, there's always monasticism, which is often viewed (in the Orthodox Church) as the other choice, the choice for someone who may not want to get married. But I'm not sure I'm well-suited to the monastic life (although it does have its attraction). I think at this time in my life, I like dogs and dancing and gaming and writing blogs too much. And I don't feel called to it like I feel called to marriage. Am I just being stubborn?

Recently, I was in a four month relationship; and it just ended. There were a few reasons for the breakup, but one big reason was his absolute refusal to even try to experience Orthodoxy. He fasted with me, although it was not for spiritual reasons. He would patiently listen to me talk about my day at Church; he even asked for a prayer rope. But he just wasn't willing to share the experience with me on a deeper level. The one thing I always wanted in a relationship, he just couldn't bring himself to do. It didn't seem like I was asking too much. It still doesn't.

As a result, I didn't go to Church as often (if at all) during the middle of the week. The peace that Church brings to me decreased in my life, and I became really grumpy. I felt like I was always divided between quality time with him, and quality time with the people and doing the activities that I loved. It became unbalanced. I became unbalanced. I began to realize, too, that Church helps me contain some of the demons that plague me the most: despair, anxiety, even loneliness. How can I feel lonely, surrounded by icons of the saints, knowing that there's a whole community in Heaven and on this earth who share my journey with me, and who pray for me? But when I was dating someone who didn't share my faith, and didn't even seem interested in it, the loneliness got even more pronounced. I'd look around at all the people I love in my parish, at all the icons of the saints whose lives inspire me, smell the incense and listen to the Divine Liturgy, and I'd wish more than anything that I'd be able to share this with the man I was dating.

I don't resent my former significant other's own spiritual leanings, and his own pursuit of spiritual peace. Far from it. What troubled me most was his insistence that the Christianity he'd known most of his life (and that had caused him so much distress) was the same as the Christianity that made me feel so peaceful. And it isn't. The Christianity in which he was raised, and which was the source of so much pain in his life, is far removed from the Christianity of the East, from the Ancient Church. It's debatable whether they can be called the same religion, the differences are so huge - not just in practice, but in theological basis. But he wouldn't know that unless he came to see for himself. Information is very different from experiential knowledge.

I realize, too, that he was contending with a convert's fervor. When I read about Orthodoxy, or experience a new layer of my faith (and there are endless layers!), I get a feeling like I've stumbled across a big secret that everyone should know about. It's the thrill of discovery, of finding a beautiful gem hidden away in a hole in the desert. I want to send up a flare to let everyone know where to find it. So, it hurt to have my significant other tell me that this gem is just another rock in the landscape, and that he has no interest in experiencing it. My treasure was seen as a flimsy piece of dust.

I know that my enthusiasm is better utilized in making my life a good example of Christian faith, and love for humanity, rather than sending up flares. My enthusiasm is better used in showing others by example why this gem is different. And although I tried that, I didn't seem to do a very good job, especially if I ended up relinquishing time with that gem.

And so I'm back to being single, as well as Orthodox, a geek, and a dancer in my 40s. I live in paradise, renting a room on five acres of beautiful land, in the company of good people and wonderful dogs. I live in a city that hosts both a major swing dance event and a major celebration of science fiction and fantasy popular culture. I have an amazing life, so amazing that I think I shouldn't have to work that hard to find someone who wants to be a part of it. This kind of sets me up as a quirkyalone, a term used to describe someone who wants partnership, who wants marriage, but who won't settle for something they won't be able to live with for long. In other words, I'd rather be single and wait for the right person - a person who will treasure all these different parts of me and want to experience them with me - than get married to meet social expectations, or out of loneliness.

So I wait - on God's timing, on me to grow a bit more, on everything to be right so that this little dream can come true. God hasn't let me down so far. He's the One Who brought me here, to this place, to this parish, so filled with love. I can wait a little while longer.

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