Single Experiences: From Bad to Worse to Epiphany

His name tag said “Ask me about: TAYLOR GUITARS”. Mine said “Ask me about: THE BAND SPOON”, which no one did. Everyone in attendance was wearing an identical preprinted, personalized name tag, the plethora of CAPITALIZED WORDS meant to help us jump start conversation, conversations about “JAPANESE” or “GRILLING” or “DEEP SEA FISHING” and other scintillating topics!

And I loved Taylor Guitars, which is more than I could say about the LDS Single Adult mingle I was at. Approximately three minutes after I arrived at this beautiful Austin estate with its limestone mansion, multiple outbuildings, and sprawling grounds that bumped up against a stream, err, river, I realized that coming alone to the regional singles weekend had been a terrible mistake. Other people in attendance knew each other. Other people had arrived together. They went to singles wards together in cities where I did not live. They had attended other conferences before this weekend. But this was my first conference, and I knew no one.

After standing in a dark corner behind the swimming pool for another five minutes, petting the dog who lived at the mansion and who otherwise would not have received any of my attention, I willed myself to approach a group of chattering single adults, marshaling every ounce of extroversion I had in order to open my mouth and speak to this man whose nametag I had seen upon arrival.

“I love Taylor Guitars,” I told him cheerfully. “I hope someday I can play well enough to justify having one.”

“Cool,” he replied. “I have one.”

“Cool,” I said, wondering where my vocabulary had gone. Or his, for that matter. This conversation was not off to a lively start. But I continued, asking bright and lighthearted questions about Taylors in order to keep him talking. He answered them in a rather preoccupied way, his glance everywhere but at my face.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said with a feeble cough. “I can’t talk to you anymore or I will lose my voice.” And he walked away.

I stood there a little dumbfounded, then skulked back to the shadows in hopes I would find that slobbery dog.

Later, after I had consulted the schedule of events and noted that salsa dancing lessons were supposed to begin at 10 p.m., I ventured back to the main palazzo and willed myself – again! – to approach strangers and speak. “Do any of you know where the salsa lessons are going to be? Those look fun!” I asked in that same bright voice. None of them did, but a murmur spread through the crowd until an event organizer came over to me with some kind of an answer. “You’re the one who wants to know about salsa dancing?” he confirmed.

“Well, yeah. The program says dance instruction is on the schedule tonight. I didn’t want to miss it,” I said, my smile now permanently and weirdly pasted on.

“You like to dance?” he asked.

“I do,” I said, feeling like Captain Obvious’s somehow not obvious enough sidekick.

“Let’s dance then,” he said, taking hold of my wrist and pulling me into the palazzo area where NO ONE ELSE WAS DANCING.

A D.J. was playing music, but I repeat, no other single adult at this activity was dancing. I don’t mean no one else was salsa dancing. I mean that literally no one else was dancing in any form or fashion. Except for the two of us, now. He started to two-step, though the D.J. was not playing two-step music. Oh well, I can follow a lead, and follow I did as he spun me around the stones. The worst part of this shared moment, however, besides the awkward dancing, was that I could tell, I just knew, that he was doing this because he felt sorry for me. Then I felt sorry for myself that I was being ‘fellowshipped’ on the dance floor by someone who clearly thought I was a lonely loser who just needed a smile and a hand on the small of my back. But I did not want someone to pity twirl me, especially when everyone else was just standing around talking and stringing together glow stick necklaces, and I couldn’t just walk away, because I didn’t want him to feel like a loser. I felt bad for him feeling bad for me. Some party, right?

The next day was a little better, partly because I was staying with wonderful friends in Austin and also because the singles group got to clear brush at the Austin zoo for the morning service project. A couple of hours of hard labor and stick breaking definitely improved my mood…until lunch time arrived. Everyone was supposed to meet up at Whole Foods, but when I got there, I couldn’t find anyone else in the group, or the group, for that matter. This was probably because I knew no one in the group and had spent the hours at the zoo chatting to just one person, a physical therapist from west of Uvalde, Texas, while pulling weeds and trimming branches. 

I ate some tabbouleh by myself and then headed across the street to Waterloo Records to kill the rest of the lunch break; at least I had the afternoon activity to look forward to – kayaking at Zilker Park. This activity was the reason I had signed up to attend this singles conference in the first place. I love kayaking. I love Zilker Park, an Austin gem that must have a different kind of oxygen than the rest of the state or something, it’s such a lovely place to visit.

I drove to the kayak rental place. I parked. I walked to the dock. The empty dock. I looked out on the river, err, “lake” (Austin has its own way of labeling bodies of water), and saw dozens of kayaks on the water. Every kayak the business owned, actually. Turns out that the group had arrived ahead of schedule and got started on the afternoon fun fest a bit early, the attendant told me. And why wouldn’t they have started early? I asked myself as I felt tears welling up under my sunglasses. They didn’t know me. They didn’t know I was coming or that I was looking forward to the time on the water. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon meditating on a stone ledge in the park watching various roller bladers, cyclists, and dog walkers speed past while crying therapeutically into my sunglasses. And under that sunny Austin sky, I realized a few things about what it means to be a single Mormon adult:

1. Mormons really are great creative daters. I don’t think that this delightful quality of our tribe received the attention it deserves in this recent national Mormon Moment. The larger public probably doesn’t fully understand just how much fun people can have without alcohol … and how much work it takes to have that much fun without alcohol! Excuse me while I add another frozen pineapple ring to that punch bowl. Mormons organize the heck out of fun. They make sure that every minute is planned for, and they fit in a service project to boot. Always. God bless us, everyone, even when we’re trying to pair off in hopes that eternal happiness will not elude us, we make time to assemble humanitarian aid kits or tie fleece baby quilts. And Mormons aren’t just creative, they’re inventive in their dating too. In my younger Mormon dating days, I was invited to a dinner in an elevator, a dinner in an empty lot with a beautifully set dining room table  that had been carried in, a rooftop midnight ice cream feast, and a tandem bicycle ride. Bravo, you beautiful sweethearts who plan such delightful frivolity!

My deep appreciation for this beautiful art of socializing that my people have cultivated led to my next realization.

2. Mormons put way too much emphasis on the narrative arc of boy and girl meet, fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. We just do. I didn’t recognize this error in emphasis, however, until I had bungled up the narrative. My own marital narrative  was like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and I turned to page 116 instead of 45!  And only after the story ended way before it was supposed to did I realize that there had been more than one story choice all along. The happily ever after narrative arc does some of  us a disservice, I think, because it establishes these lofty expectations – and then some of us turn to page 116 and realize that the course action we had assumed would happen has been replaced with an accidental fall from the top of a waterfall. Better luck next time?

Don’t get me wrong – I think relationships can be great. I love being in love! They can be meaningful and maddening and intoxicating and instructive. They have theological implications too. I get that part too. My relationships, both familial and romantic, have brought me wisdom, joy, and lots of smoothed-out edges. But  this cultural narrative ‘s implication that we cannot be or are not fully happy until we have found someone else creates a good deal of unhappiness, I am afraid. There is this sense in our Mormon world that single people are, if not quite broken, then incomplete. This narrative leads to a fair bit of waiting around , I’m guessing, as people make life decisions based on relationship status above all else, and this narrative hides its central lie, which is that many of us will spend more time single than married. So no matter how many cheers we offer from the sidelines of life rah-rah-ing love, statistics about marriage, divorce, death, and the rest of it should give us pause. Single people are not broken, they are simply single. Married people are not more complete, they are just married. 

 And the third thing?

 3. I decided it was high time I buy my own kayak.