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Forty

 

In 47 days I’m turning 40, a milestone that’s been stalking me for the better part of the past year – a shadowy presence in the dark corners of my mind and in moments when I’m alone and vulnerable.

I remember my parents turning 40, feted with black balloons and snarky cards about being over the hill. My father received a cane from his close circle of friends; my mother swore in slightly frantic tones that she still felt 29.

Forty has received a spiffy new makeover since then, but I still find myself approaching this thug of a birthday with slow steps, a white flag, and soothing words: “I come in peace.” Or at least I’m trying to. 

 

A couple years ago my granddad turned 90, a milestone we celebrated with an open house at my aunt’s place, a fishing-themed sheet cake, and my Uncle Kelsey’s beloved relish tray. My granddad, a lover of both holding court and pickled okra, was in heaven.  

When I spied my granddad alone in the corner of my aunt’s dining room during the party, a quiet moment amidst the reunion and revelry, I sat down next to him and asked what he’d learned in his nine decades of life. Surely this man who’d survived World War II, single-handedly beaten an alcohol addiction, and started and run his own business for most of his life had picked up some hard-won wisdom along the way.

He thought for a moment, then said, “Well, make sure you save your money.” As if sensing my disappointment that this wasn’t some profound secret to life, he continued, “And know that all men are animals.” He proceeded to illustrate this latter point with an anecdote from early in his marriage to my grandmother that I’m still trying to forget.

This odd little moment with my granddad has been playing through my mind recently, like a commercial jingle you just can’t get out of your head. I’m approaching an age when I feel like I should Know Something, be able to spout off some life lessons like I was looking for from my granddad. Perhaps knowing what I have to show for myself and my forty journeys around the sun will help me make peace with this age. I’ve certainly been painfully aware of what I don’t have to show for myself.

So I’ve been mentally retracing my steps, searching for what I know must be right here. Like a woman who’s lost her keys, turning over everything in sight, listening for the familiar jingling, the joy and reassurance of the finding.  

 

When I was a young girl, my family owned a light blue 1979 Chevy Nova that my sister Shelley nicknamed Cassie (as in Cassie Nova). That was back in the days when the front seat was a bench. So whenever our family of four piled into the car with my grandparents, I sat in the middle of that front bench. My father and grandfather’s seatbelt buckles would dig into my hips and I’d have to fight the cool air blasting from the dashboard from going straight up my skirt.

My mom, grandma, and sister would be having special girl time in the back seat, but because I was the youngest and smallest in our family, I sat in the smallest spot. I fit in and accommodated. I gave deference to my elders. I put others’ comfort before my own. And that’s pretty much how I approached life.

Because of this small, contortionist way of living much of my girlhood, by the time I got to my twenties, I was ripe for a lot of self-discovery. Thankfully, blessedly, that’s exactly how much of my first decade of adulthood unfolded.

Several months after my graduation, my family drove from our home in Kansas to my college town, helped me gather all my belongings in a rented orange truck, and escorted me to my new home in the Chicago suburbs. In between unpacking boxes and making trips to the store for paper towels and under-bed storage bins, we ventured to nearby Chicago. Standing before a pointillist painting at the Art Institute – my sister gazing at a Degas in the corner of the room, my parents meandering into the next hallway – I realized we were here in this city, in this museum because of me. I’d just expanded the geography of our family. Me.

When they drove away several days later, I felt lonely, small, terrified. And liberated. I’d just been given a blank slate, my own state – and my job on the editorial staff of a women’s magazine was helping me find my own voice. I interviewed authors and musicians, writing their stories with carefully crafted words. Then I started writing my own stories in a singles column on our website. I plucked these tales from my life experiences and arranged them just so for a growing number of readers, sometimes redeeming painful events in the connections they created with other hurting strangers. I started learning that the broken places in our life are much more of an invitation for deep friendships with others than the picture of perfection I’d been striving to project for years.

Most days I pulled into the parking lot of the brown brick office building where I learned these important lessons and got to play with words all day, practically giggling to myself that this was my life’s work. And they were paying me to do it.   

 

If my girlhood years were a car ride, my twenties were a plane flight. Work trips took me to L.A. and Dallas, Dublin and Sydney. A close friend married a man in the military who got stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. They invited me for visits to their three-flat off the base, tucked in a sleepy town I couldn’t pronounce. In their little white Jetta we drove to castles and cathedrals, to restaurants that had been operating since before America was discovered, to nearby France for a day trip of flea market shopping. 

I marveled that the world was so much bigger and more enticing than I’d ever imagined. I felt something deep inside me stir, a love of the unexpected comfort and camaraderie of strangers, a returning home with new eyes. And a realization that I was braver and more adventurous than I’d ever known.            

By the time I reached my 30th birthday, I’d just signed a contract to write my first book, had just settled into my first solo home, and had stamps from 11 different countries in my passport. When I reflected on my first decade of adulthood, it mostly sparkled like a big, rich discovery. 

 

I don’t recall how far into my thirties I got before I realized something had shifted. The sparkle had dulled. The discovery had given way to something darker.

The travel continued, but took me to tougher places. In Bulgaria I saw the big bland buildings of communism and the ever-present signs of mafia activity – shiny new luxury cars driven by broad-shouldered men – the power that rushed into the vacuum when the communist regime fell. In Cambodia I stood in the barracks of what had been a concentration camp during Pol Pot’s reign, saw the tiny concrete cells and the devices of torture that stole the prisoners’ dignity and their lives. In room after room there were black and white headshots of the people who had once been prisoners there, a deranged bit of accounting for the lives Pol Pot’s men were about to snuff out. Staring at face after face, seeing the defeat or confusion or horror in their eyes, I was overcome and had to walk out into the courtyard and sit on the uneven stone steps, weeping for the inhumanity that took place on the other side of the planet during my quiet, happy childhood.

I showed up to work one Tuesday morning and in an impromptu meeting in our nondescript conference room was told our magazine was folding and our staff was getting laid off. I was getting laid off, after 15 years at that job. That following Friday I walked out of the office for the last time, carrying an overgrown potted ivy, two framed pictures of my smiling family, and a stack of magazines with my writing in them. What followed was a harrowing year of unemployment, sending out resumes every week, going on occasional interviews, and grieving that my industry, my beloved world of writing, would never be the same.

The biggest disappointment was the fact that I was walking through these tough times alone. I felt a searing ache for the husband and children I thought I’d have by then, an odd missing for people I’d never met – and wondered if I ever would. I’d always thought this production I’m in would be a big funny play or a fanciful musical. But so far it’s turned out to be a one-woman show. And I’ve learned there’s a lot of pressure on that one woman to be profound and engaging, to fill up the stage with her presence and her meaningful words. And that can be downright exhausting.

The hardest part has been hanging onto hope, knowing that any day I could wake up and meet my great guy and squaring that with all the yesterdays when I didn’t. Mustering the hope to sit across another restaurant table from another single man, wondering what might unfold, and eventually feeling the familiar disappointment when we’re not a good fit. Trying to stay positive and open while secretly hating all the happy young couples who make it look so damn easy.

But being raised a nice girl, I didn’t have the words for any of this angst. And I didn’t want anyone’s pity. So I wrote and traveled and made the most of the freedoms of singlehood, pushing down the tide of disappointment and anger – until I couldn’t anymore.

The tipping point was the weekend of my thirty-fifth birthday, when a guy I’d met at a conference and had been communicating with for months drove all the way from Florida to my Chicagoland home to spend my birthday weekend with me. We ate tapas in a brightly painted bistro, saw a musical in our fancy dress-up clothes, stared at the same pointillist and Degas masterpieces I’d first spied with my family years before, enjoyed a leisurely walk under a cloudless sky along sparkly Lake Michigan. And then he told me he’d never really been interested in romance with me. After he left, I felt duped, older, alone.

And angry.

The floodgates now opened, I stayed pretty irate for a few years. Angry at all the men who’d disappointed me in one way or another. Angry at the great experiences in my life I haven’t shared with a special someone. Angry at the pitying looks and well-meaning advice. Angry that my possibility of becoming a mom is getting slimmer by the day. Angry at myself for letting this all get to me. Angry at God, at internet dating commercials, and my granddad for constantly telling me to “keep kissing those frogs.” 

At turns the anger felt overwhelming, unnecessary, embarrassing, and empowering. It worked its way into my writing, making my columns more honest – and sparking moving responses from others who resonated with the anger. It worked its way into my relationships, sometimes hurting my friends with unexpected caustic words and sometimes helping me set better boundaries as I learned to stand up for myself.

And eventually, recently in fact, it sickened me. I got exhausted of my bad mood. So I unclenched a bit, let go of my tight grip on my anger, trying to make room for something else. Something lighter. Again I felt a stirring deep within me, a new hunger for joy and hope. I began looking for them everywhere, realizing along the way that the search in itself was profound and healing.

Recently before the start of a movie, I found one of those moments of joy. I’d just eaten a delicious meal at the Thai restaurant in my neighborhood, one of my favorite haunts, with one of my favorite people, my longtime friend Kathryn. Then we’d walked up the block to meet two more friends before darting into a vintage movie theater to see a foreign film about some French monks caught up in Algeria’s civil war. My full belly, the row of friends in the creaky seats beside me, the quaintness of my neighborhood, the promise of a well spun story on the screen before us all swirled together in a delightful elixir of joy. I closed my eyes for a few seconds and breathed in the delicious moment of contentment, a feeling all the sweeter for its recent absence. 

 

In these final months before forty, I’ve sensed a new word emerging – replacing the discovery and disappointment of the past. Or, more accurately, linking them. The word and. The concept that I can be angry and happy, full of longing and contentment, grief and gratitude. Somehow these disparate things can coexist, be equally true.            

So I find myself feeling old – and more comfortable in my own skin. At times singleness feels suffocating – and wondrously unfettered. I think I had to go through both decades to get to this place, let the pendulum swing to both extremes before finding a better rhythm. As I approach my fifth decade of living, I’m trying my best to embrace the and.           

Because life is a discovery and a disappointment. And when you can live in the reality of both those truths, you’ve finally gotten to the good part. 

 

Thanks for this post...I


Thanks for this post...I followed your singles column for years, and today randomly decided to google you...I am still in that place of struggling, with the last few weeks being ones of despair and rivers of tears. But one of the things that always helps the most is having someone who understands, even if they can't do anything to change my situation. I don't have that in my life right now, so reading this post was strangely refreshing. Thank you again.

What God has been teaching me


Hi Camerin, I am reading the Unguide to Dating right now (great book! I am so laughing out loud as I read it!) and googled you hoping that God would have allowed you to marry since it was published in 2006. It made me sad that you are not :( Reading your book, I feel like I'm hearing from a good friend. My heart goes out to you! I am single again, almost 40, and childless, and have been waiting on God since my divorce seven years ago for "him" to show up. God recently showed me that I have also been waiting on joy--though I live a full life for Christ, He showed me that I have been holding a part of my heart closed. He encouraged me with Eccl 2:24, which says that there is nothing better for a man to eat and drink and enjoy his toil. I have been trying to focus one day at a time to receive these simple things from His hand and truly enjoy them, and this reminded me of what you wrote in your column above, about your pleasant evening out w/ your friend. God is showing me how when I can't control my circumstances (e.g. marriage), I respond w/ frustration, I become angry. As I choose to receive what God sends, if even only the simple things, I have joy. I am trying to learn a meek and Christlike response to what God is giving. Since that is God's goal for all things (Rom 8:28-29), I can cooperate w/ Him in being conformed to Christ's image. BTW, I had lunch today w/ a single-again friend in her late 50's. She was married to an abusive man and God allowed her out of that relationship several years ago. After many years of waiting for a good man, God has brought an absolute prince into her life. I am encouraged knowing that God can do that in our lives too. One last thought--have you heard of the list / site "fast. pray."? It's women fasting and praying together for God to provide marriage for those who desire it, to strengthen men to walk upright and into relationship, and for God to change us into the women He wants to be. I stumbled across it recently and am excited to fast and pray w/ these women to see what God might do.

Thanks


Thanks for being so honest about your singleness over the years. You have been an encouragement in my own singleness. I miss your columns such as this. Happy belated birthday. Keep on walking in Christ's light in your singleness.

You are one of the only


You are one of the only people who writes what my heart feels when it processes life as a single woman at 44! May God continue to bless you as you speak truth to us, and the rest of those around us who don't get it. I tell them to read things like this article, to taste a bit of the real world for us each day. Love your choice of words at the end. Perfect balance of the bliss and curse we journey.

It's the curse


The problem is that God made us want attractive people to be our mates but didn’t make us all attractive. It is part of the curse God put on us when Adam and Eve failed the test.

Thank you for being such an


Thank you for being such an eloquent and truthful voice about the single life. As my own birthday approaches (I'll be 38 in 6 weeks), I also feel that same sense of hope and angst, usually at the same time. It's comforting to read your posts and know I'm not alone. Happy Birthday!

40


Dear Camerin: What about the use of hyphen, as in "angry/happy"? Just a thought. Happy belated 40th birthday.

And?


I came across this posting as I was looking for an article that you wrote several years ago that detailed a conversation you had with an older man (former professor or something)while he was driving you somewhere (I know great memory). Any way the conversation involved him talking about the "external" factors for why someone might be single, I don't remember the details, but the point was something about singleness being another consequence of living in a fallen world. There was a purpose to my search and that was because I recently read an article from a fellow single gal where she made this statement: "I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me." I'm really struggling with these words... I can understand being single because of statistics (not enough single Christian men), but because God is abundantly good to me? That statement seems to say God wants me to suffer with job loss, housing, and yard work alone because I need to be worked on before he finds it abundantly good to bring a man into my life. Trust me I get the benefits of singleness, as I too have been able to travel and do things my married friends may never be able to do, but today abundantly good seems hard to swallow. Yet I know that God loves me and promises to work all things for the good of those that love him. So perhaps there is some balance to the wrestling of my mind in the word "and." Thank you for writing another poignant post. And as you enter the next decade may hope not be lost... Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday, though it's bittersweet


Every Sunday I ask God why. He doesn't answer. The church has couples and marriage seminars. Nothing for us. Men and women at church ignore each other - most never go out with anyone from church. Some don't go out with anyone at all. It doesn't make sense. Some have online ads but they could just ask out the girl they are sitting with. They don't. It makes no sense. I decided to go out with a non-Christian after all these years of waiting on the Christian men. And the alleged Christian who felt their faith was superior to mine were often complete assholes. I did't know your magazine folded. that really stinks. The print world is dying. :( I don't agree with everything you write, but I like that you write it. I feel like you are an important voice. Something of a friend in a way, though we don't know each other.

Thank you Camerin. I've


Thank you Camerin. I've missed your posts.

Wow AND thank you!


Wow AND thank you!

Another thank you


I wanted to add another "thank you" for your piece. I'm based in the UK but your columns have always hit the nail on the head with me, as this one has again - the single experience is very similar both sides of the Atlantic, it seems. I can absolutely understand that it takes a lot out of you to be so honest and real when you write, so thank you for continuing to do that, and for being willing still to stand up so the rest of us know we're not alone in our experience of this singleness journey.

Thank you


Thanks so much for posting this! I really enjoyed reading it. You have so many beautiful stories to share! I can't wait to read all the new ones that will fill this coming year.

Single Over 30


Ah 71 it was a good year. At least it would seem so. I was born in 1975. I have my down days wondering what in the heck God could be up to in my life. At the same time I can see many things He has done and that are still coming to pass as blessings from Him along the journey. We certainly have stories to tell as we get to these legs on the path. I hope by the time I am 40 all the things I find still a bit cloudy right now will have become clear. I am in the middle of getting a bachelors degree and raising a teenager who will be 18 by then. I should be well on my way to a career I am called to or more study if it is required. Either way the questions will be answered. The issue of marriage and future children could still be dangling like a hanging chad but I will keep praying. No matter what we are going through we are not alone. I was delighted just the other day to discover your web site and blog. It was through other single Christians I am encountering through Twitter and Facebook. Someone just invited me to one for those over 40 and they let me join even tho I am just a tad shy. I have sent you a friend request. I can share the group link when you reply.

Happy 40th Birthday! Your


Happy 40th Birthday! Your message really resonates with me. I remember when I discovered your column as a 19 year-old single girl in college. Now, I am a 30 year-old single girl. I always, always appreciated and looked forward to when a new column would post. I always enjoyed and identified with what you wrote. Even though, I don't know you, in some ways I feel like you're an old friend from reading your writing for so long. I'm glad you have found joy and hope again. I hope that the "and" comes easy for you and that in the next decade your dreams will come true!

36 not 40


Hello Camerin, It's been a long while since I read something from you and tonight reading your blog just amazed me and it reminded me why I loved you book Table for one and your single columns so much. You hit right on the nail for me. Thank you for your beautify and encouraging words. Painful but liberating as well. May God continue to bless and use you as he has done 'til this date.

Camerin- Thank you. Thank


Camerin- Thank you. Thank you for continuing to put words to what many of us feel in our hearts. You have an amazing gift with words and I so appreciate how you use them to enrich our lives. Blessings on your next decade! -Susie :)

A


Thank you for writing about your anger And the usage of "and". It really changes your perspective. Anger is not seen as acceptable in my Christian alcove. Thanks for being real.
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