The Romantic’s Disclaimer: A book excerpt

I love romance and thinking about love. It’s an affliction that was only worsened by a childhood reading list of titles by authors like Sidney Sheldon, bell hooks, Cornel West and a lot of Harlequin Romances, Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel.

I’m writing more about this in another book, but it’s important context: my mother, a single parent with undiagnosed bipolar and borderline personality disorders, left me alone as a child and teenager for long stretches of time while she was working or going to school.

In those long, often boring, stretches of time, I became a writer, a dreamer and a hopeful romantic. I also learned how to live by watching television, movies and reading a lot. My life experience and the people I was blessed to meet along the way helped dispel or reinforce relationship notions in one way or another.

But my earliest ideas about love and romance came from a mixture of popular culture references like The Color Purple, The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker, the love poems of Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez and June Jordan and so many television shows and movies from the 80s and 90s that I couldn’t even start to list them all. (Scenes from The Women of Brewster Place still pop up in my dreams, for instance.)

Having all the time in the world to jump from one seedy or sappy narrative to another was the best structure I had to craft a robust inner life. The soundtrack of my youth is all Jodeci, New Edition, Boyz II Men, Bell Biv Devoe, Johnny Gill, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and Bobby Brown: baby-making music.

Yes, and I loved them anyway

The images from those books – A painting of the blond Fabio caressing a damsel in his arms; descriptions of the dark-haired and ruthless Lucky Santangelo getting her revenge as a scorned lover in Los Angeles; the bucolic love stories of Danielle Steel involving horses and green fields – worked in tandem with music lyrics to feed the epic story that the love of a man was just over the adulthood horizon. To love and be loved was the central goal of womanhood, so if I was really going to grow up and be a woman, I needed to know these plots and their narrative arcs.

One of the consequences of my mother’s mental illnesses, though, was that I had a misshapen sense of what it meant to be intimate with another person. The side effects of bipolar disorder include euphoria, manic depression and violence.  Almost right up until my mother died in January 2012, she was always in love with somebody or something. She was never without a suitor.

Mom loved love. “I think he’s in love with me (smiles but serious)”: this was her constant refrain. I only know of one black man she courted seriously – my father – but the rest of her lovers were like representatives of the United Nations: white, Mexican, Pakistani, Russian.

Mom was loud, bipolar and a beautiful disaster, as Kelly Clarkson sang. I was her polar opposite: quiet, observant and reserved. While she spun through the world, giggling at one intimate encounter or another, I became a student of people and relationships.

For women, mothers are the templates for womanhood and what we believe about being a woman in the world. As a result, I believed that love and sex were interchangeable. Sex in exchange for affection looked a lot like the dramatic, florid romances I read.

Unfortunately, it would take many years to learn the difference between sex and love.

Dealing with rejection

A good reminder, I guess, even though it feels like it might kill me.

I was reading this blog from the fantastic Crunk Feminist Collective a few days ago, after wading through some heavy transitional growth crap that I’ll write about in a little bit:

Truth be told, it sucks to feel like on the one hand, good long-term relationships are hard to come by (and 70% of Black women with advanced degrees are single, mind you) and on the other hand, your sexual empowerment strategy is literally a life and death situation, every single time.

This is the kind of ish that professional women of color confront on our journey to trying to find the balance, the all, that highly educated professional white women rarely have to think twice about. {Good reply here though.} I mean, fuck ALL. Can I just get some?!

But I know my desires are healthy. Human. Holy, even. I also know that #AClosedMouthDon’tGetFed. So I have no choice but to keep asking, hoping that in “asking, it shall be given, that in seeking I will find.”  And along the way, I will remember Joan (Morgan)’s most important words from Emotional Justice:  ”I try to be as fearless as possible in my love practice.” Word. May courage be my angel.

Reading it made me think about all of the advice I’ve heard over the years about how much men really love a forward, assertive woman. Common conceptions related to this theory include: Guys always have to approach women, so they like it when women take the pressure off and flirt with them first; A truly confident woman is really sexy and attractive to guys; The early bird gets the worm.

You get the point.

I tried this theory on for size a couple of times. I thought,  If only I could start going after what I wanted in relationships the same way I went after what I wanted professionally, I could absolutely undercut those stupid statistics about educated black women. Because I am totally on Team Awkward Black Girl, this led to all kinds of hilarious moments.

I maybe mentioned this before, but I’m taller than the average woman. I go to the club and I spot a handsome man so much taller than me, that I feel like I have to say something. He’s probably 6’7”. I am in his general vicinity, wondering why approaching him isn’t as easy the movies make it look.

When he’s close enough, I still have to shout because the music is really loud. (Matthew McConaughey, by the way, was in a VIP section that was so small he was the only person in it, standing behind a velvet rope.)

“I bet people always ask you how tall you are, huh?”

He looks down at me with an awkward smile. He blinks at me. “No, never.”

Oh, but my sarcasm meter was broken! Was he being sarcastic? He had to be right? And then…I don’t know what to say now… “Oh, ha, ha. That never happens to me either.” Awkward pause. “Are you from around here?”

He shook his head, turned around and walked away. My brain screamed Fumble! before I finished my drink and tried to go find my friends to help me dance with my wounded ego. No, it wasn’t fatal. But I felt like it was really, really close.

On the bright side, I learned that night to have compassion for men who are brave enough to make the approach. I still have this idea that guys  should “man up” and go for it anyway, but I do understand the sometimes fleeting humiliation that comes with being rejected. I think that guy was the last one I even tried to holler at. Maybe that was over five years ago now. When the wounds are deep, the time just all becomes a blur.

What The Notebook & Ryan Gosling taught me about love

It’s summer and I love being in love in summer and thinking about love in summer.

I never feel like more of a romantic sap than when I see Ryan Gosling in a meme, or just in general. In my brain, he’d be the perfect boyfriend, but I’m basing that silly notion completely on the 500 times I’ve watched “The Notebook.”

You should know that when I was a little girl, I had a thing for Harlequin Romances. Like, the kind with Fabio on the cover.

And so, because I don’t have a Kindle or other e-reading device, and I can’t hide the cover, I don’t really indulge in reading too many bodice-rippers anymore. But something good and sappy like “The Notebook” is totally within my rights! So are all the subplots on “True Blood” related to unrequited love and every other rom com imaginable.

Anyway, I started thinking about the things I’ve learned about love and dating from “The Notebook.” I have no idea if this is good or bad or what, but here goes:

  • Romance never dies: I mean *spoiler alert!* isn’t it the goal of relationships to not have to even die alone and perhaps die in your lover’s arms?
  • If you’re a bird, I’m a bird. Yeah, this is the mind-meld thing that sometimes happens in relationships. And it’s always nice at first. But sometimes I want to be a night owl and my partner wants to be a pigeon. That’s no good.
  • Love letters beat everything. Even if the post office is dying and some hater might hide them all for 20 years in the trunk of her damn car.
  • You want to date someone who will just burst out laughing as soon as there’s a torrential downpour in the middle of a lake and you’re surrounded by haughty (but very very pretty) swans.

I know, there are some of you out there who will never understand what the big deal is about “The Notebook” or Ryan Gosling. But I’m telling you, there’s lots of wisdom there. I totally get it, Gosling. If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.

Single People Stuff: Letters to yourself

The reason the financial decline of the U.S. Postal system makes me sad is because I adore handwritten letters.

I fell in love with them accidentally.

My mother started many of the mornings of my youth with letters that are currently pressed into my journals from over the years, with a penmanship so lovely pressed into the pages. She had worked as a secretary for many years and knew shorthand…so the beautiful loops of her handwriting looked like calligraphy. Because I came of age in the 1990s, before the Internet and I went to boarding school, the best and cheapest way to communicate with my friends was through written letters.

This note, which was circulated on Facebook as one written by Phylicia Rashad, made me start thinking about the letters I wrote to myself when I was younger and some of the best letters I’ve ever received. On my writing desk, for instance, is the only letter my father ever sent me, postmarked December 27, 1995.

There is some great wisdom to draw from in these letters, particularly the ones that I wrote as letters to myself. I’ll post a few of them here eventually.

I totally posed like that in my mirror at home in my 20s.

Dear Phylicia,

Romantic involvement distracts you and can blind you to what’s really in front of you. And what really is in front of you? You are. You don’t even know yourself yet. You think you know and you want to assert that you do, now that you’re a certain age, but you don’t. What’s in front of you is a whole world of experiences beyond your imagination. Put yourself, and your growth and development, first. There are long-term repercussions to what you’re doing now. Everything you do, every thought you have, every word you say creates a memory that you will hold in your body. It’s imprinted on you and affects you in subtle ways—ways you are not always aware of. With that in mind, be very conscious and selective.

With high hopes for you,
Phylicia

Amanda Hess on reframing romantic relationship narratives

GOOD executive editor Ann Friedman, who has no interest in getting married, has proposed reframing the term “spinster”: “I want to reclaim it, like ‘bitch,’ until it carries the same connotation as ‘bachelor’: free, fun, independent, loving life.” For long-term singles like us, constructing jokes around the #foreveralone hashtag helps recode activities society sees as lonely and pathetic to ones we see as lonely and awesome. I often listen to a sad song that has a lyric that goes like this: “I know you feel how I do, too, and even though I’m close to you, I can’t be what you need, ‘cause you’re just as lost as me.” He sings it like it’s a sad thing, but I think it’s really romantic—one of my life goals is to be close to other people, but not to get tied down to them, and that song helps me remember that.

From: “How to Ditch Happily-Ever-After And Build Your Own Romantic Narrative.”

I liked this piece for a lot of reasons, but my favorite concept is the one she mentions at the end — having the goal of creating intimacy with people without being “tied down to them.” I think part of getting to happy for most of us – in relationships or not — is learning how to be in relationship with people without being suffocated by the roles that come with that. One of the scary, alienating and sometimes adventuresome and exciting things about being single is that you get to choose the boundaries of what it means to be close to another person romantically or socially. Since our culture is in flux, I think it’s even harder to determine what a normal version of that looks like romantically.

Reads for the Weekend: Tips for being happy when you’re single, Valentine’s Day & International Quirkyalone Day

I’m going to follow The Oatmeal’s advice here. Less complaining. More sexy rumpus. I got you.

Laurel House, known as QuickieChick, on surviving Valentine’s Day as a single lady.

Agapi Stassinopoulos talks to The Happiness Project about what makes her feel good when she’s blue. Fluffy pillows and reading whatever she wants are involved. It made me happy just to read it.

Yes, it’s true, you can tell by the fact that no one can make any reservations at their favorite restaurants for a party of one that the mega-holiday of marketing love genius celebration is approaching. I love you Valentine’s Day! It’s also International Quirkyalone Day, started by the phenomenal Sasha Cagen. If you wanted to have a party of other self-loving, non-coupled folks, here’s a party pack to get you started. If you don’t know if you classify as a quirkyalone — it doesn’t matter if you do or not, we’re all very accepting and totally non-judgmental — take this quiz. Or, just follow the advice below. & have a great weekend.

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