The Dating Sabbatical

It is a truth not universally acknowledged that increased dating effort does not result in finding a romantic partner. In the world of instant results, why can’t someone click a button and find their person? You can find a person, but maybe not your person.


You couldn’t convince me of this unfortunate truth at the start of 2017. I went on a lot of online dates. Most were not fun. There was the farmer who I walked with for 8 miles throughout Golden Gate Park and the surrounding neighborhoods — but the whole time he and his dog were a good five steps ahead of me. Or the actor, who after our second date wrote a scene about me — and it was terrible. Or the actually great guy — who froze when I moved towards him for a kiss.

I knew I had traveled off my dating path. I also knew what needed to happen. Like any malfunctioning piece of technology, I had to be returned to factory settings.


Routinely, I would declare to my married friend (K) that I was DONE with dating. I needed a break and now I would take it.


Then, according to K, two weeks later I would be talking about another guy.


She told I needed more time between relationships, that the periods of solitude were too short. So I did what any mature adult would do in the face of sound advice: I asked a different friend.

J, who I thought would disagree with K, to my dismay agreed with her. Over gin drinks at the Riptide Bar, J suggested taking six months off from dating. This was not going as I expected.

And yet, I trusted both of them and their advice resonated in that annoying way only wisdom can.


So on June 15th, I committed to a dating sabbatical that would end December 15th. I wasn’t completely sure what needed to shift during that time. I just knew something had to change.


One of the shifts I longed to make was my uncanny attraction to emotionally unavailable men who needed a lot of time alone. I’d have to constantly adjust and negotiate the time I needed to feel connected, but it never felt like enough. When we were apart, my brain would be hijacked with thoughts of them. It was frustrating: I wanted to be in love, and be able to think about other parts of my life.


Hoping for that change felt nearly impossible. Yet, there was a small voice of the divine that assured me this sabbatical would be worthwhile. I entered into the six months trusting that inner knowing but also terrified of the loneliness that was sure to surface.


As these things tend to happen, within the first week someone asked me out. I probably would have said yes… but sabbatical. With time and reflection, I realized I wasn’t interested in him, I just liked the attention — a common factor in several of my mismatched dates.


The comedy of timing during this sabbatical didn’t stop there. Men from my past continued to surface throughout the six months, and I found myself playing “unhealthy dude whack-a-mole”. There was the author who gaslit me in a three-sentence email, the friend asking too earnestly what I was looking for in a partner, and the Big Ex who texted me late one night to tell me “therapy is working!”

While exhausting, each response felt like I was laying to rest an old way of being — that desperate Dani who would rather take anything over nothing. The sabbatical made me realize nothing was better than most things. 


Since I wasn’t dating, I didn’t have a hijacked brain and a lot more free time. So I created a life that felt more me: starting a radio show, co-hosting live concerts, changing jobs, writing and preaching a couple of sermons, and finding kindred community. I learned more about who I was and who I wanted to surround myself with — in both friendship, and a romantic partner. I also realized that the same tall order I always wanted in a partner hadn’t changed, and if anything he got more specific and seemingly rare. Exploring the terrain of who I was and what I was looking for made me realize I was worth what I longed for in a partner, even if it meant being single for a while longer.


This six-month period wasn’t all victories over exes and positive self-discovery, though. There was also a lot of loneliness and grief I had to face. Grief that perhaps I would never build a home or family like I imagined all these years. Grief that the tall-order of an emotionally-available and affectionate man who was aligned spiritually, politically, and creatively meant I would date less. And a gnawing insecurity that I was single because there was something wrong with me.


Throughout the sabbatical, I carried around a small dull ache in the center of my chest. It never lasted long but would sweep in like a wave at low moments: when I was sick at home alone and wanting care, when the sludge monster of depressive feelings would raise its grey head and I’d lose my appetite, or when I was in a mass of couples at a party. I’d remind myself that even though I felt alone, I wasn’t. I’d reach out to friends for comfort, or have solitude with the divine. Sometimes I’d rage at God about my frustrations. At my lowest depressed moments, I still found my resilience, whether it was the strength to push through or self-compassion to cancel plans.


That is what I am most thankful for discovering during this time: Not my achievements or creative endeavors, but finding and experiencing my inner strength. It felt part divinely given, part me co-created. And I was grateful for all of it.

By the time the sabbatical was nearing the end, I surprised myself by not wanting it to. Life was good, and getting back to dating terrified me. I didn’t want to give up the life I had cultivated on my own and was worried I would go back to my old ways of having a hijacked brain over unavailable men. But I still desired to be partnered. What I hadn’t fully realized was that there was a snag in this sabbatical that ended up making the transition back to dating a lot easier.


Let’s call that snag G. Throughout these six months we had been going to shows together. He was in a dark place like I was, had similar spiritual leanings, and we enjoyed the same music and each other’s company. I had a small crush on him, but ignored it and focused on the internal work of the sabbatical. I did notice he was communicative, present, and unlike anyone I had dated. And the last month or so, I fell for him. Hard. I knew that when the sabbatical ended, so would our platonic courtship. Turns out, he knew it too.


I hesitate to include him as a part of this story. The sabbatical was impactful because I faced my loneliness and grief and not only survived but thrived — not because I got a boyfriend.


But it’s now almost three months out of my sabbatical as I write this, and I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude and pride for taking on that challenge to better care for myself. And the work continues with a new challenge: holding this new strength and solitude from the sabbatical with this new tender and connected relationship.

It’s a foreign experience to have both a boyfriend and a working brain. To be totally in love and also be thinking about the other aspects of my life, asking “What’s next?”

The lie of grieving well

Ten years, a decade.

Grief is such an ever-changing experience. Each year a different facet of that gem shines bright in my eyes around the anniversary of my dad’s passing, and most years it is so bright that I cannot ignore it. Years 7 and 8 were the exception. The anniversary came and went and I looked at photos of Dad and spent time with my sister, but mostly they were days dotted with guilt for not feeling more. Then last year came around with its existential angst while sitting at my friend’s birthday party, and I wondered what year 10 would bring. I had hoped it would finally feel like some kind of heroic “grieving well” threshold.

When my Dad died, I was a mess, of course. I was angry and depressed, and wore it loudly. I perceived the rest of my family to be more together: my mother and stepfather took care of the family, and my sister built a little shrine to Dad. They cried at the funeral, but, from my moody perspective, they were “grieving well.” I, on the other hand, was disruptive. A wave of ache would hit me and I’d run out of the room. I spent nights after family dinner drinking wine and painting at the kitchen table, glaring at anyone who would try to talk to me. I went back to college and used the shock of my dad’s suicide as a barrier to keep people away. It wasn’t the kind of quiet, steady grief that I perceived to be the right way to grieve. It wasn’t hidden, curated, or polite. It is only now, ten years later, that I realize it was the perfect response from me to my father.

Bob Scoville was the most manicured, put-together person I’ve ever known. A single hair was rarely out of place, his polo shirts perfectly tucked into his ironed jeans, with a small plastic holster in his belt for his flip cellphone. He frequented the same restaurants weekly and made sure to know everyone’s name and a detail about their life, so when he’d walk in for a meal he could say “Hey Bill! How’s that International Studies degree going?” He was kind and generous, but I never knew how much was for performance, and how much was sincere concern. He did kind acts in private too — feeding the local cat by his office, letting my friend who was having a hard time at home stay with us for a night, etc. But the desire to always seem together was his downfall. He hid so much from everyone — that I still to this day fantasize about finding his journal so I could finally understand what was beneath the veneer. He didn’t keep a journal though, and I only know the major events of his life, as told to me by others. I knew he lost his dad when he was baby, that after high school he was a Marine on the ground in the Vietnam War who killed and saved lives, and he had three marriages end. And he never sought out help. It was a lot to keep to himself. But the car was always shining, he daily went to the gym, and often had some beautiful woman to take out to dinner. The only times I saw him cry were at funerals and watching war films. And he never wanted to talk about it. He asked great questions and listened carefully, but couldn’t handle that kind of examination turned on him.

And we butted heads. A lot. Mostly for fun, jousting and roasting each other over dinner. I took the counterargument for the sake of being contrarian. He’d laugh when I’d zing him, and insist I was going to law school. I refused. There were real fights too when he tried to control me and I’d resist.

And despite my constant rebellion against my father, in life and now after, I am my father’s daughter. There is a part of my that deeply cares how I appear to others. I want to seem like I have it together. Even with this decade-aversary, I wanted to be “grieving well.” To host a party where I show photos of my father and share only the good stories. The reality, though, is this last week or so, with increasing magnitude to today, I felt messy. I listened to Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” on repeat yesterday. My emotions were scattered and bled into other aspects of life. There was nothing heroic or polite about it.

A wiser part of myself knows that grieving looks different for each person, and different for the same person over time. I know it’s better to create space for letting whatever comes up come and being with it today. I realize now that I’ve been chasing after a lie that tells me there’s a manicured, easy-to-digest way to honor someone’s memory. But there is only honesty — at least, if I truly want to learn from and honor my father’s memory.

Staring down the long road of loneliness

“So are you seeing anyone?” This is typically one of the first three questions a friend asks when we’re catching up at a party. Recently I’ve been answering, “I’ve been seeing people, but no one in particular.” The last few months, I’ve been on an online dating spree and let me tell you… it’s exhausting. Find a profile, write a message, exchange some witty banter or ask the few need-to-know questions, and make a plan to meet. Then I spend the distance between my apartment and the date trying to not puke with nervousness. There’s the awkward hello and hug, the get-to-know-you chat, and the inevitable good night. All the while, I’m checking in with myself about whether or not this man is someone I want to see again.

While the men I’ve seen have all been safe and varying levels of kind, aware, and compelling… I needed a break. Closing down my accounts was harder than I expected. I feel something sink from my ribs into my stomach. It opened up: dark and vast. It’s then I thought “oh hey, loneliness.”

Loneliness is an old friend. A companion, my teacher. Sometimes quiet, other times an almost tangible presence. I sense it in others, but it’s almost like a Patronus — everyone’s looks a little different. But no matter my age or season, mine feels about the same. Whether I’m 23, friendless, and have just moved to San Francisco, or now 31 and building the next layer of life on my own: loneliness makes everything a little tender. Every interaction or opportunity for connection has a little more pressure riding on it. I walk a bit slower and notice more of my city landscape because I don’t have to get anywhere quickly, no one is waiting for me. This freedom allows my steps to be softer, my eyes to trace the tops of the buildings, and building colors to become more vibrant. I find myself in awe of the city I’ve lived in for over 8 years. Loneliness is a lens cleaner for my awareness of everything around me (including me and how I feel) — it’s all a bit clearer and crisper.

When I share about loneliness with my happily partnered friends, their faces drop in sadness. While I appreciate their gentle love and longing with me, the mistake they and I make is equating loneliness with weakness. I feel quite empowered in my loneliness. There’s strength in resilience while staring down the seemingly long road of loneliness … and staying with it. Embracing it, rather than distracting myself or numbing out.

But looking loneliness in the eye feels terrifying.

I shared this season of loneliness with my therapist, and she said “Trust your karma” — meaning trust the work that’s before me and trust in the outcome from it. (My therapist and I use different language for the divine and the spiritual journey, but I know we’re tuned into the same wisdom.) The work before me is this loneliness — turning it over in my mind, noticing it throughout the day, pawing at it in different situations and seeing what happens. Watching what happens inside of me when someone asks “So are you seeing anyone?” The questions, the tears, the noticings, the frustrations, the humor (some of these dates make great stories) — taking it to God and, again, waiting and seeing what unfolds. Noticing, waiting, and processing. There’s no fast forward button, no matter what the dating app advertisement claims.

And loneliness is not solely the banner of the single. I have friends in various stages of dating, marriage, parenting, and divorce who are working through their own kind of loneliness. Loneliness while next to another carries its own unique sting.

When looking loneliness in the eye feels too terrifying, I remember the lonely heart who did this work before me, Henri Nouwen, and his wisdom on the matter:

But the more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is actually like the Grand Canyon — a deep incision in the surface of our existence that has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding. Therefore I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing: The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift.
Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for those who can tolerate its sweet pain.

Reflecting on this “promise” of loneliness during Holy Week feels appropriate. Holy Week, where we Christians stare down the long road of Good Friday: a day of mourning and death. A day of losing and defeat. We see it coming, every year — the inevitability of Good Friday. Where my church dresses in black, lays flowers at an icon of Jesus in the tomb, and repeatedly kneels and lays on the floor in mourning and prayer. Maybe it’s my inner goth girl, or my familiarity with grief and loneliness, but I love Good Friday. It places my various life experiences into a larger story, with ancestors who have gone these paths of grief, loss, and loneliness before. The days between Good Friday and Easter must have felt so long.

And yet, there’s a promise laced throughout Holy Week. That after Good Friday, Easter comes: the defeat of death. The breaking down of what was, into some new, yet resurrected. And then, a while longer after Easter, is Pentecost. Where we become unendingly connected and in union with the divine.

I trust in something past this seemingly unending loneliness. And in the meantime, I’ll hold its gaze.

 

On grief and time angst

Nine years ago today, I was 21 and walking from my 19th century English novel course on the UC Santa Cruz campus. I was crossing the bridge beneath the redwoods and returning an urgent call from my mother. Prepared to hear that a grandparent had passed, I instead hear that my father’s body was found in his car at LAX airport, with bullet wounds to his torso.

Some years May 1st passes through and I barely remember his passing. It’s not until a note from a relative arrives on my phone that the guilt sinks in that I forgot. This past week, though, I’ve felt the angst of time slipping away. I was crabby at a party where there was too much small talk. I got angry that all my travels meant I fell out of practice with writing. I avoided Netflix with much determination — that at least this week my free evenings would be productive.

This time of year reminds me how ephemeral life is. Even though Dad chose to leave this plane of existence, death became a reality 9 years ago. And I feel it perched on my shoulder ever since, always inquiring if this way of life or that person is truly how I want to spend my limited resources. Or, as Rilke puts it: “Ah, the knowledge of impermanence | that haunts our days | is their very fragrance.”

I’ve found myself in desperate collection of kindreds in this existential angst. I know them immediately. There’s an urgency to getting to the real stuff of life. There’s a joy and an appreciation of beauty big and small. And there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the status quo. There’s also a calm grace and acceptance of limitations. These are my people, and I immediately recognize them as home. It’s how my dear friend Kat and I met — huddled away in a corner at a party, talking God, recovery, and different kinds of therapeutic approaches. I know nothing I bring to her will be too woo woo. And it’s such a relief to have those people on speed dial.

Each May 1st, grief shows up in a different way, from a slightly new angle, and it reminds me that it never completely leaves throughout the year. I am a mix of guilt and acceptance about today being more about me than him. In a way I’m grateful for what the time angst has propelled me into choosing. Here’s to what it brings in the future.

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Photo by Mark Scandrette | Artist unknown

And I miss Dad. He was a giant pain in the ass and my biggest cheerleader. For those of you who know the heavy weight in the center of your chest that is grief, I’m right there with you. And I’m here to talk, if you need. No two people grieve the same way. But there’s something unquantifiable and comforting about simply being around others who know grief. So here’s my little note out into the internet abyss. Hi, I get it. You’re not alone.

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Dad teaching my sister how to bowl