DeAnn birthday dinners started very simply, with brownies and a story that should have ended in the horrible death of an urban legend. That was two years ago—when DeAnn was still kind of new here, so the party consisted of grabbing a beer at a local pub. I didn’t know her that well yet, but I thought that she should definitely get chocolate for having lived another year, so I made some brownies and we sang “Happy Birthday.” She told us about this time she was in England and went dancing with a stranger—being led to unknown destinations, etc. It sounded like the story was going to end with a black market organ harvest, but instead concluded with her infectious smile and a toast to “What was I thinking!?” We all proceeded to tell similar stories of imprudence or danger, with a cheers to “What was I thinking!?”
That was not the first time I had been surprised by DeAnn, but I had one of those epiphanies when you realize that someone inherently transcends the limited impressions you have of them. When you first meet DeAnn she seems exceptionally cheerful, friendly, bright, and devout—because she is. But she is also someone deeply averse to conventionality disguised as piety, who is honest in moments of darkness, doesn’t flinch when you get angry or ugly, and hates safety for the sake of safety—a woman with a strong sense of identity apart from her pretty laugh and smile. DeAnn is nice, but she’s also bold and tough and unyielding (for the right things). As much as anyone else, DeAnn has taught me how to be a single Catholic adult.
DeAnn and I met when I was getting out of a four-ish year relationship. That ex-boyfriend and I started dating right when I graduated from college, so I literally didn’t know what it was like to be single as an adult and it kind of felt like my life was ending. People who live in New York or Chicago are probably thinking I sound insane, but living in Texas, where people get married younger, and being a part of the Catholic Church, which understands every person to have a vocation either to marriage or religious life of some kind (as a priest, monk, nun, etc.), makes you hyper-aware of these kinds of things. And regardless, it’s just hard sometimes not to have a partner.
Watching DeAnn (and other friends who had been in the Church a long time, like Michael) navigate and talk about the weird not-vocation of being single gave me many sign posts and much hope in a sub-culture where you can feel like you don’t have important stuff going on if you’re not having kids or joining an order. DeAnn is a good friend to make during a hard time, but she was an especially good friend for me to make during that hard time because (though she’s honest about how hard it can be to be single) her relationship-status does not define her as it does for so many women—single or married.
It’s easy to think of women who can’t be alone, stumble from relationship to relationship, and only talk about who they’re dating as weak and lacking in identity or a sturdy self-conception; but women who say shit like “you’ve never loved or even lived until you’ve held your own baby in your arms” can be expressing the same thing from the other direction. I mean, that’s different from saying “I never loved as deeply before I…” Love is reserved for no station in life, and every relationship status comes with its own worthy challenges, lessons, and gifts.
Don’t get me wrong; being a parent is one of the best, most important things that humans are capable of doing. However, being so clearly important, motherhood can sneakily become a marker of identity to hide behind rather than a form of identity to live into. That sounds weird. What I mean is that women (or men) can use motherhood (or fatherhood) in the same way that we use careers or clothes or books or music—as crutches we want to do identity-defining work for us, instead of expressions of deep, true identities granted by God and hard-won by character—something that does not depend on our ability to make loads of money, win awards, get a spouse, or bear children. Obviously marriage and parenthood have some inherent character/virtue-developing effort built in (in ways that other things don’t) and I do believe in marriage as a vocation (meaning that many people are truly made to be married and become parents—that they are meant for and formed by that good, serious, sanctifying work). But you can still misuse or try to hide behind the title—which “independent women” and bachelors (and priest and nuns, for that matter) can also do.
I think everybody kind of wants to tell mopey singles or serial daters to figure out who the hell they are apart from the security of a relationship. Get over it. You are more than that. But same goes for people who are in relationships. When you’re feeling lost or small or alone it’s nice to have a bunch of titles around so you can be shielded from dealing with yourself directly. “I’m a lawyer; I’m that guy’s wife; I’m that kid’s father; I’m a folk music enthusiast; I’m a collector of antiquities.” I know I used to find a false sense of comfort in just being someone’s girlfriend (even when I was miserable in the relationship!), as if that said something about who I actually was. It reminds me of a scene my sister and I always quote from the movie Airplane—the plane’s in trouble and the doctor asks a couple women how they’re holding up. The first woman replies, “I’m scared. I’ve never been so scared. And besides, I’m 26 and I’m not married.” And the second woman says: “Well, to be honest, I’ve never been so scared. But at least I have a husband.” Hilarious. When my sister and I are talking about difficult things going on in our lives, we’ll often say “But at least I have a husband” or “and I’m not married!” Because we’re funny. But also because, as much as those statuses provide opportunities to shape who you are, they don’t do the work for you or provide any ultimate consolation.
It took a long time for me to realize that my weaknesses and frustrations aren’t going to fundamentally change in or outside of a relationship. Their occasions and manifestations certainly will, but either way I’m me: with the same ol’ problems to work on and the same ol’ need that no mere person is going to solve, fix, or fulfill.
Anyway; some of that’s related and some of it’s not. Getting to know DeAnn, seeing the ways that she knows who she is when she’s dating someone and when she’s not, seeing how she has an idea of who she wants to be/who she’s meant to be and won’t compromise that through shoddy work or a convenient relationship, has been invaluable for me. We haven’t even talked about all this stuff explicitly; it’s not that she’s always spitting advice; she just lives in a way that expresses this. I have wonderful married and parent friends who do as well, but it’s easier for me to track with DeAnn. She doesn’t think or act snottily like she has everything figured out, but I’m still surprised when she asks my advices or seeks out my opinion because I generally ask myself what she would do when I try to make moral decisions.
When I am tempted to date people who aren’t right for me out of boredom or impatience or selfishness, to hide behind my intellectual interests as a copout identity-marker, to disappear into a social persona rather than truly know or care for people, DeAnn is one of the best exemplars I have for choosing a harder, better, more ultimately rewarding life—to try to actually be the person I want to be, instead of just looking like it—regardless of comforts or helpers. I met her when all of my hopes and plans for the future were turned upside-down and her example has helped to significantly improve the kinds of hopes I develop now. Because, whichever vocation I have or want to have or see other people having matters only in that each might end in the same place. All of our titles and labels and roles are the different paths we take to get there; so they’re important but they’re never ends in themselves.
Anyway, geeze; this was supposed to be about a birthday party. When I toasted to “what was I thinking!?” with DeAnn two years ago I didn’t really think about how I’d be toasting to “I almost died when…” the next year and then “You may not believe this, but…” the next. When I met DeAnn I didn’t expect her to hate safety or tell hilarious embarrassing stories or be instrumental in my learning and being able to articulate all the things I just described. Luckily, our expectations rarely coincide with reality. I’m immensely grateful to know DeAnn and look forward to getting to for many years.
Since I went off on identity and character and singleness and marriage and love, I’ll save the recipes and dinner party-recap for next week. Apparently I’m on a roll, so I might actually tell you about all the things I’ve listed that happened over February. Until next time, here’s a photo of DeAnn talking to MLK at Mardi Dahm: