Every Single Season: 'Leaving Single Better than I Found It'
“I went over the list twice, and it’s just not there.”
I could hear the voice on the other end of the phone line, my mother’s face grim, as if she didn’t want to share the news she knew I had already heard.
“Well surely it’s a mistake, maybe we can call about it Monday morning.”
My mom ended the call and the silence hung between us, thick like the humidity on a southern summer day. I was 11 years old, in the beginning stages of my awkward pre-teen years. Lanky, long legged and in desperate need of braces, my parents couldn’t afford. I had tried out for the Jr. High cheerleading squad and all my middle school hopes and dreams of entering Jr. High on the cool side of life were shattered.
My name wasn’t on the list.
How could it be? It had to have been some kind of joke, or a mistake even. Maybe they got my name wrong. I have been called Stephanie more times than I could count. Was there a Stephanie Tolbert on the list? Because I had done everything right. I went to cheerleading camp every single day. Came home and practiced my cheers, the dance routine and tumbling, which I wasn’t very good at, but it was passable. Even the older cheerleaders told me I was so making the team. So how in the world was my name not on the list?
I’ve wondered all this time why, whenever I have felt rejected in life, I am always brought back to that memory. Singled out. The irony of that phrase stings my ears and hangs in a lump formed in the back of my throat.
That’s kind of how it feels to be single at 30. Surely, there’s been a mistake. Because, after a bad run of luck with boyfriends in my early 20’s, I’ve done everything right over the last 5 years of being single. I’ve read books on marriage and dating well (because how do you pass a test you don’t study for, right?) I have prayed, fervently, for my husband and been on plenty of awkward first dates. I’ve tried online dating, blind dating, Facebook dating and church dating. I’ve dated guys that weren’t particularly my “type” because my type hadn’t really served me well in the past. I’ve wondered if I really even have a type at all.
But for some reason, my name still isn’t on the list
And in all of my frustration and confusion, I can’t help but think, even at the precious age of eleven, that God was preparing my heart for the current challenge of being single amongst a sea of marrieds. Because life doesn’t always work out the way we hoped it would. Life sometimes feels like being stuck on a train, waiting for your stop only to watch as everyone else comes and goes. Tickets stamped. Bags checked. “Nice to meet you, where are you headed?”
“I am on my way to married,” I would say.
But who are you going to be while you're on your way to married? Am I just killing time on the train?
Because truth be told, you don’t have to sit still and wait on this train. You can get off. Anywhere you like. And that’s the beauty of these single years of life. We can be whoever we want to be, go wherever we want to go and see, taste, smell and experience a different kind of life than marrieds.
And as the rolling landscapes of life have passed me by, after making pit stops at places like becoming a Nurse Practitioner, traveling the world and becoming a photographer, I have learned that being single has never been my burden, but it is, in fact, a gift.
It’s been the gift of time, reflection, and renewed sense of self after a few hard years riddled with bad choices and the consequences that came with them. Time to heal all my gaping open wounds. Time to stop the bleeding and heal the broken pieces of my heart and my spirit. Time to mend fences with those I had left behind in pursuit of things that weren’t the best for me. Time to start new adventures and see dreams come to realization, dreams that I would never have thought possible before now.
Time to let go of my expectations of others and relearning the lost art of friendship.
Clinging to role models like Ruth in the scriptures and learning what it means to reach beyond myself and give until it hurts without expecting anything in return. Because relationships are hard. Selflessness, in a selfie, self-absorbed society is hard. We are taught from an early age to look out for ourselves, take care of number one and do whatever it takes to get ahead. How easily we forget the old saying, “it’s lonely at the top.”
I’ve learned to find my people and stick with them hard, even when feelings get hurt, choosing to love and give grace. And even though I have walked through the valleys of infertility, job loss, and illness, mountaintops like, weddings, first babies and promotions with my friends, I have learned even the most simple things mean the most. Being there for birthdays is typical, but coffee on a random Saturday to tell a friend you’re thinking of her after her husband lost his job, dropping what you're doing to sit and pray with a friend after difficult news about her unborn baby is where it counts. Friendships are born over common interests but they’re rooted in sacrifice.
I am who I am today, because I have been single. I am no less of a woman because I am without a man. And even though my desire for marriage runs deep, my desire to be the best me I can be runs deeper. Being able to give my husband the best version of myself is the best gift I can give. And the good news is, one day, my name will be on the list. The man of my dreams will pack his bags, stamp his ticket and sit down next to me on this train of life and I will get off on my stop at married, leaving single better than I found it.