The Good, the Bad, and the Raw: A year of lessons learned from spilling my guts and heart out to thousands of strangers around the world.

It’s been a year since my NYT essay, “Does My Virginity Have a Shelf Life?” was published. Here are the lessons I’ve learned.

The buzz phrase these days may be “Be Authentic.” But when it comes down to it, people are uncomfortable with being vulnerable. They are even more uncomfortable with others they (think they) know making themselves vulnerable. Many friends and acquaintances I ran into on the trails, at work, at church, in the gym, at the grocery responded to my NYT essay as if they’d seen me naked, almost embarrassed to admit they’d read it. And so, I decided to take it a step further. In June I went ahead and had actual professional nude photos taken, black and white photographs which focus on specific shapes and curves in my body. It was another awkward but freeing experience. Like publishing a piece of writing dear to your heart, the nude photo session required me to grant myself grace in my imperfections (or at least how I saw them). Another experience where, if I felt confident in my own skin and showed myself some compassion, I was safe.

Privacy and a sense of safety involve constantly renegotiating boundaries with yourself and others you care dearly about. I didn’t think twice about publishing my essay on my virginity. I felt strongly about putting it out there. But when I woke up in the middle of the night it went live online, I freaked out when I saw I had emails from as far away as India and the Middle East. When I let on to my parents the next morning that I was afraid, I remember my father candidly saying, “You’d better be ready. People are going to be out to get you.” I felt like I was 16 again on the track with 200 meters to go in the race. I could hear my father yelling, “They’re coming!” It was at that moment that morning I realized, so long as I appeared calm to my parents, they wouldn’t let on to their own fears. By “faking it” a bit, we kept each other both feeling safe. Expect controversy if you open a discussion and be ready for it.
There’s a fine line between pride and shame. When the NYT article was published, I wanted to shout it from the mountain tops. A minute later, I was looking for the nearest hole to hide. I know my parents were proud of me but they also had mixed feelings about how much personal information I’d shared. The Sunday morning it was printed in the NYT Sunday Review, I called home and my father answered: “Do you have any clothes on?” he asked sarcastically. “Oh, just reminiscing about the essay,” he joked. One stressful night before leaving for NYC for the Katie Couric show, my mother and I got into it. “You never asked Dad or me if we cared about you sharing naked stories with the world!” To which I retorted, “You never said I couldn’t when I shared the essay with you two!”  The truth is, I didn’t want to ask, because I knew they’d be uncomfortable with it.  The other truth is, they didn’t want to voice their opinion, because they were also excited for me. It was interesting monitoring my reaction watching my mom deal with her decision to share or not share with her friends my essays and appearance on Katie Couric.  In some ways, I wanted to control who in our community knew, and in other ways I wanted her to share and be proud of me. I realize I had put her in a tough situation. I am beyond blessed to have the sort of relationship with my parents that I do.
Think twice before marketing your heart. I constantly have to remind myself this as I hear the chatter of others advising me to capitalize on the media attention while the subject is “hot”. I was not writing about the newest trend in marathon training or a new gluten-free cornbread recipe, I was writing from my soul. I have felt like I’ve been riding a wave for a year, not knowing when and if I’m going to “run out of time” and crash into the shore. If it’s a wave, then I have no control over what happens. If it’s a sail boat, then I feel the pressure to continue to adjust my sails to catch as much wind as possible to get as far as possible…whatever that means. There’s a fine line between adequate and over self-promotion. I have to monitor my competitive nature when comparing myself to writer friends I see posting on Facebook their awards and book signings. The bottom line is figuring out what feels comfortable and good to me. It’s a delicate thing marketing your heart when you know there really are others out there who benefit from it. The sweet emails of support amongst the critical ones are the glimmers that have continued to motivate my writing.
Don’t tell me, “You’re brave”. I only hear, “You’re stupid”. It’s like when someone says to you, “Wow, you look really tired.” What you hear is, “Wow, you look like shit.” What felt good to hear was, “Wow, you put your heart out there.” Because I did.
When someone asks you, “Why did you write it?”, “Because I wanted to” is answer enough. One ex-boyfriend sent me the following message the day it was published: “I read your article and the point of you writing it and your goal of sharing it escaped me as it apparently did the vast majority of people who read and commented on it.” I told him, “I didn’t expect you to get it. I started writing it 7 years ago originally to cathartically work through issues and then decided to try to publish it as a voice for many other women (and some men) who are also not understood. Luckily the NYT ‘got it’ and thought it was a voice/opinion and a piece of writing worthy of being heard/read. And frankly, that’s what matters to me right now.” Sometimes it’s hard not to listen to your subconscious that shouts, “WHO CARES?!”  Somebody does.
Don’t make your essay title a question if you don’t want advice. I received more emails from 50+ year old men giving me fatherly advice than I ever imagined. Of the 600 online comments, I read about 6 of them and then stopped. I didn’t write the piece for advice; I’d already thought about the subject enough to drive me almost mad.

Readers aren’t judging you. They’re judging themselves. Sex, particularly virginity, is such a trigger topic for everyone because everyone has his/her own set of experiences. It’s hard to write about your personal experience without others inadvertently thinking you are judging them.  In reality the writing makes them judge themselves and then turn on the writer projecting on him/her their own feelings.
It’s a blessing to be able to write about and have published something so dear to your heart. Hundreds of writers write vacuum cleaner reviews, police reports, and book reviews their whole lives and never have the opportunity to truly share what matters to them in their writing.
Media thinks someone choosing to be a virgin based on their own principles is more interesting than based on religious principles. And yet, no matter how many edits made, they are highly intertwined. The NYT, Elle and Glamour all edited out most (if not all) mention of religion in my essays. However, I wouldn’t be who I am today if it hadn’t been for my sense of self-worth instilled in me through Christian teachings. I still believe in and love God today. And I still (yes, still) believe that sex is sacred, even if my goals have changed since I was a chaste teenager standing in front of the church congregation for a “True Love” ceremony (ironically alongside a friend I later learned was already having sex).
Wait! Who is in control is debatable: the discipline or you. The Elle article I most recently published argues that my identity is not defined by my sexuality. In many ways my identity has been defined (through athletic and academic training) by discipline. And yet, as the year has progressed I’ve continued to question my discipline to wait to have sex in a mutually exclusive loving relationship. Has my disciplined nature created an inescapable situation? Does waiting have a control over me? Just as love is winged cupid or death is depicted as the Grim Reaper, I’ve wondered what “waiting” would look like if he/she were animated?
“Ground down to rise up.” I love this often quoted line in yoga class. With all the attention and hype around the Katie Couric show and the NYT article, it was easy to get caught up in the questions, expectations, and criticisms of others. In order to rise above the meaningless chatter in my head, I had to ground myself in what mattered most: my family and friends who knew me and loved me at my core and my own heart.
And the final lesson: All is well if you know you’ve written honestly from your heart and protected those you love.

Mattresses

The mattress was an easy give away before my move. Unlike the letters I’ve kept. Or the fans, tapestries, decorative boxes, and figurines I’ve picked up on travels or been gifted from international friends/students. It had been a hand me down mattress from a friend. By getting rid of my mattress I thought I was symbolically starting fresh with relationships.

I forced myself to go mattress shopping. This required me to go lie on a couple dozen beds while mattress men tried to sell me on each one. I learned that each store names their mattress lines differently even though they’re basically made with the same materials. Another great analogy for men (i.e. I’m not dating any more Tom’s.)
It was an odd situation to lie on beds while men stared down at me. One even did a muscle test: my arm raised in the air, he instructed, “Now, don’t let me push your arm down.” We tried this on three mattresses and then he asked, “Which mattress makes you feel stronger.” Oddly enough I had an answer. And he had an explanation. He encouraged me to try one of their therapeutic foam pillows on sale for only $80. When I asked him if he had one, he said that since he was a mattress geek, he made his own. The Durango is the most accommodating mattress, he informed me. “That’s the kind of man I usually dump in the first week,” I blurted out. His business pitch hit a road block.

I settled with a plush posturpedic Serta mattress. I “advanced” from a full to a queen size bed: build it and they will come, right? After 2 weeks I have found that, despite apparently being stronger on a softer mattress, I sleep better on the old hard full size one. After complaining to my father about my recent poor sleep habits sleeping alone (I’ve always had housemates), he suggested, “Maybe you’d sleep better on a smaller mattress.” This translates as, “Maybe sleeping on a smaller bed you might be less aware of the empty space.”

Another mattress man informed me that studies show people sleep better on bigger beds.  “I sleep better in small places….like a dog in a kennel,” I told him. He didn’t seem convinced.

In shopping for a new mattress, a refrigerator and washer/dryer during my move, I’ve realized that scratch and dent sales are another good analogy for relationships. Divorces. Kids. Admitted (and awareness of) mental illness. When you get to shopping for a husband (I know that language sounds awful) at 36, you find yourself weighing options in the scratch and dent aisle, and frankly, there are some killer deals. BUT you have to recognize that the clearly noticeable dent on the front door doesn’t affect the function of the machine. Reconditioned doesn’t always mean repaired. And I admit that I have my own scratches, dents and repairs.
Since closing on my home, I’ve received a variety of family and home magazines addressed to “The McCracken Family”. The most interesting of these is American Girl, a magazine selling dolls that identically match (in clothing, facial features, and skin tone) the little girls who desire them. I don’t have a child but apparently everyone thinks I do now that I’m 36 and have just purchased my own place. When shopping for the refrigerator, I was told which ones I could easily wipe off a child’s fingerprints. I was told I needed to get the safety on the stove installed in case my child pulled it on top of him/herself. The Comcast woman on the phone tried to upsell my request for basic cable/internet by explaining how a security device made her feel safer at home with her three children. Numerous people I’ve called to request services have referred to me as “you guys”. When I stood with my male friend outside at the cable box speaking with the internet installment guy, he looked at my friend and asked, “Are you wanting XYZ?” How did he get confused? It was me who had been speaking with him (on the phone and in person) all along. “It’s her place,” my friend explained.
My name is on the seemingly hundreds of papers I blindly signed at closing through a flood of tears. My money is what I pulled out of the bank and handed over, physically sick to my stomach, to the title company.
But mentally “owning it” is what I struggle to do. Especially when it has meant repeatedly explaining to strangers that I am a single childless woman (something, more recently, I don’t want to be).
I cried like a 3 year old at the closing table, sadly making everyone at the table uncomfortably speechless. The layers of emotions were knotted up in my heart that morning, but all I could manage to say to explain my sobbing was, “I didn’t want to do this alone.”

Melodic Men

Below is an excerpt (poem) from an essay I’m writing on our futile attempts to control our memories related to travel and relationships.

There’s no tossing or repacking memories triggered by such things as music.

Men melt into a batter of melodies, chocolate chips-impossible to extract and slightly bittersweet.

Tremolo

Les Yeux Ouvert break Mobile hearts

Even…just dancing in the dark

Kissing in the stairwell, your lips

pursed in French they sip

Caesura

Smalls, West 10th St, New York City

Velvet jazz bars in gay Paris

Letters written silky as your sheets

A green girl waiting to AWOL beats

Ostinato

Metallica Black Sabbath

You followed, not my desired path

Hard, but not your member, whiskey

To caress and embrace me

Brioso

Americana snap buttoned plaid twang

Taste the cigarettes you sang

Your soft spun curly hair

Kidnapped, kidnap me if I dare

Pianissimo

Kind of Blue, a theme, yet faint

The sky and fleshy clouds you paint

My body under your brush strokes

In the Iowa fields you broke.

Coda

Babies grow up to be cowboys

Lasso summer girls as decoys

Distract your mood pendulum

Swinging from the rope you hung

What’s the shelf-life of a text offer?

What’s the shelf-life of a text offer?

After six years of off-and-on dating, my dad proposed to my mom at Melvin’s pizza joint. Her response? “It’s the best offer I’ve had yet.” Of course she was being sarcastic (sort of).

In many ways we do wait for the best offer. Our culture trains us to do so.

So what’s the shelf-life of a text offer? How long until we assume that the recipient doesn’t have the balls to step up and say, “No, I’m not interested,” and we save them the trouble by saying, “Never mind.” I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten that include “I’d like.” What’s hidden in those two compact words is the elusive word “would”, loaded with condition.

One of my current favorite comedians, Aziz Ansari, addresses in this clip on Conan this extremely frustrating form of modern day dating communication via text: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UM_x7eUSaE
“It’s pretty much like you are a secretary for this really shoddy organization scheduling the dumbest shit with the flakiest people ever,” he explains.

Technology and society today have programmed us to wait to see all the possible options before committing. Facebook lines up our events for us to choose from at the last minute, even events we aren’t invited to it is gracious enough to “suggest”. Online invitations give us the option to say “maybe”. Online dating and shopping sites encourage us to “favorite” items and people so we can come back later to decide if we are still interested. Most anything we can return these days (with or without a receipt, used or not). If we’re especially cautious, we can buy trip insurance in case something doesn’t work out. It doesn’t work that way with someone’s heart. You can’t take out insurance for an experience that doesn’t go as hoped.

Only in the case of some professional businesses policies is there a monetary penalty for canceling last minute. I think the next time someone cancels on me last minute (because something better came up they aren’t willing to admit) and asks for a rain check, I’ll ask for them to write that rain check out for XYZ because that’s my going hourly rate for massage, teaching, and writing.

Friends do it to: “We need to get together!” Ok, so why don’t you ask me to do something? Suggest when and where. That sort of text message is like throwing your foot in the door before it slams in your face.

I confess, I’m guilty of being a commit-o-phobic. I’m also aware based on recent dating experiences how rude it is to keep someone waiting for a response. Again, I know I’ve done it too. I’m a recovering poor decision maker. In college my dad gave me a wallet size card that illustrated a decision making map for when I got stuck. I kept my poor high school prom date’s offer waiting until my mom threatened to punish me if I didn’t make a decision.

So, if I do any of the above and you’re my friend, call me on it.

Let Go, Let Go

For about a month after I went on the show, you’d have thought I was on hormone therapy. I could be talking about the experience with a complete stranger and in mid-sentence begin bawling.

It was healthy. Really.

My living motto became a line from Frou Frou’s song Let Go, “There’s beauty in the breakdown.” Or at least I convinced myself of this beauty through dripping snot and puffy eyes and a worsened between-the-brow wrinkle.

The first emotional release came once I got backstage and met the associate producer who brought me on the show, “Katie Couric told me I should just have sex!” I burst out crying. She was immediately empathetic and concerned. “I’m so sorry! She shouldn’t have said that!” she excused Couric for verbalizing her opinion. Meanwhile my mom calmly stood there telling the producer not to worry and that I was just having a meltdown.

I recovered for the afternoon until I got on the four hour airplane ride back to Denver where I sat between two sleeping (aka unavailable to talk to) women. This was a recipe for an emotional disaster as the wheels in my head spun out of control. All I had with me to read was a Glamour magazine filled with articles on sex and relationships. I should’ve visualized myself running a marathon or doing a hundred salutations. My anxiety wound itself tighter and tighter around my heart and throat until I made myself get up and walk to the back of the airplane to request something to read. Before I could get the request out of my mouth, I lost control of the tightly wound string and it quickly unraveled….all over the poor flight attendants in the back. “I went on the Katie Couric show to talk about my virginity today. I’m a mess now,” I blubbered. The male flight attendant suggested a group hug and then offered me his personal stash of cranberry dark chocolate. I ambled back to my seat pacified with the dining section of the New York Times in hand and dark chocolate in my mouth.

I managed to drive myself home that night through a snow storm without another release until the next morning when I left the house for yoga and my neighbor asked how the show went. I cried my way to and through my yoga class. I rested for extended periods of time in child’s pose and just sobbed into my towel as quietly as I could. “Through connection we find release,” the teacher intuitively said as I released all over the classroom.

A day later, sitting at happy hour with my boss (a rare event) and colleagues, questions arose about the show. Not what I think they were expecting me to discuss, I gushed all over the table how my mother was not given a seat in the KC audience. The ache in my voice reflected my deep sadness for the disappointment she felt. The ladies showed sympathy but clearly were at a loss for words.
Church rolled around Sunday and I surprised myself by practically running to the front for prayer after the service. I sought out Jane, the pastor (of four) who oozes maternal love and care, and told her through tears a brief rundown of my story. This time my concern was fear I had disappointed God by somehow denying my faith on national tv. Because I had focused in the interview on personal (not religious based) choices surrounding virginity, I worried that I had inadvertently committed heresy. Jane gave me no answers. But she prayed. With her hand on my shoulder and her children tugging on her skirt for attention, she prayed comfort and peace right into my fragile self-berating soul.

I’m not sure I would’ve felt this sense of guilt had it not been for a religious relative who, through verbally processing her thoughts around my essay and interview, told me she thought it was a contradiction to say I was a Christian and that my decision to remain a virgin was personal, not because Jesus was in my heart. I decided it was for her to wrestle with and not an inner battle I needed to fight (at least not now).

Processing this experience involves recognizing potential battles and deciding to let them go. When my student Googled my name upon hearing that I was in NYC for to be interviewed on TV, he found my NYT essay. When he revealed that he knew this information, I felt a sudden flip of authority. “What did he know now that could hurt me (particularly from a professional standpoint)?” was immediately where my mind went. It was my wise father that squelched my fears when he said, “It’s no different than someone announcing their sexual preference. What’s wrong with that?” True, I thought relieved with this view through which to see the situation. I’m so blessed to have parents who think.

The problem with opening up to the world is that unrequested advice comes pouring in from people who have never felt the authority to lean in with their two cents, including childhood acquaintances. I received a Facebook message from a guy with whom I ran high school track who advised me to have sex with the next man I fall in love with. Upon receiving that message that morning before work, I threw myself back in bed to sob for a good ten minutes in my pillow. It wasn’t that I cared what he thought. The message seemed like such an easy fix to the problem but it struck a chord: I had been in love with men. They just hadn’t loved me back.

The releases still come sporadically but with bigger gaps between them.

I’ll be processing this experience in my body long after my mind has let it go.

Katie Couric’s “advice” at the commerical break

My Tri-Delta Sister

My Tri-Delta Sister

No, we didn’t exchange our mutual sisterhood of Tri-Delta handshake.

“You should really just have sex,” she said in a matter of fact tone immediately once the cameras went to commercial break.  I could tell throughout the entire interview that she was dying to say it. I doubt she told the gentleman interviewed after me that he wasted his time waiting for the woman he married.

Katie had no idea how much sexual and other  fun I’ve had these past 15 years. I haven’t been sitting on a shelf waiting. I think she ought to run a half marathon at elevation in the Rocky Mountains just to see how exhilarating the descent is at 10,000 feet.

She continued: “The people who work here at the studio think you have fairytale princess syndrome.”

“What do you mean?” I asked fearing that she was suggesting that I thought of myself as too good for anyone.

“Meaning you’re waiting for your knight in shining armor to sweep you off your feet,” she explained.

I responded right away (unlike some of the other answers I wavered on): “I’m more realistic than that and realize that it’s unfair to expect any man to live up to those expectations.”

And then I was escorted to the front row.

First of all: Is this what you tell your daughters? Not to make a big deal out of sex? That it’s just part of a healthy life? To just go ahead and do it?

Second: I’m clearly not in the market for a knight in shining armor, but if you know where I can find him, please send him my way. And, what’s wrong with being swept off your feet?

It’s a shame she didn’t ask this question on air. There are plenty of people who think I have too high of expectations. Even the camera man for the first mini video made the day before the KC show, asked me if I was going to lower the bar now. “Now?” I asked for clarification. “Now that you’re 36.”

I’m not going to settle just because I’m older and my biological clock is ticking. I know I have my own flaws. I also value my decision and hope to find someone who values it as well. I still have hope; I just don’t have control over the timing.

My friend confidently told me in a recent phone conversation, “God has a plan for you.”

My response: “I hope he plans for me to have sex sometime really soon.”

Question 5: Is this more about your identity?

This question was not one I was given 5 minutes before I went on stage. However, I had mentioned it to the interviewers, weeks before the show was filmed, as something I was chewing on in my head for an essay (NOT a 10 second response on national TV). Below is a more thorough answer since they show cut out my crappy response. The 37 year old make was not questioned about his identity.

 

Maybe if I had made a vow to God to live the life of a nun, I could consider virginity something I clung to as my identity. But instead I’ve made a vow to myself to wait until it’s the right time and the right man. Is “waiting” really an identity if one’s intention is to eventually pull the trigger? Perhaps, as one philosophical friend suggested, I’m waiting for a “shift” not a transformation. Why does my sexuality have to define me and my femininity? By me not having sex, my story doesn’t fit today’s script of a “normal” woman in her mid-30’s.That bothers people.

In Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (a book published in 1962 that made feminist waves) she says, “I feel she (a virgin) eventually finds social, religious, and maternal approval quite inadequate compensation for not ever really belonging to anyone and her state of purity becomes almost an embarrassing cross to bear…it is my belief, she is no longer a virgin by freedom of choice but is instead hopelessly trapped by her own inhibitions, drastically reducing her chance for happiness and/or marriage.” Wow. I reread that passage a couple of times. It’s 50 years old and yet it still sounds like the same tune I hear from feminists today. However, my identity is mine to change so long as I don’t allow myself to believe that other people’s responses and expectations should or do have any reflection on who I am at my core.

 
My identity is a disco ball with hundreds of reflective mirrors trying to become the best “me” I can become by picking up and blending characteristics of those that I admire (the reflective mirrors on a disco ball). I’m a teacher, an athlete, a massage therapist, a poet, a coach, a gardener, a photographer, fisherwoman, a devoted granddaughter, sister and daughter. I have swam from Alcatraz to shore, plunged a toilet with my fist, jumped off a 3-story high cliff in Dubrovnik (into the sea), puked out my nose in the last 100 meters of a half marathon, traveled a week around Japan with a 90-year-old Japanese man, flown across the country to surprise my brother for his birthday at a drag show, traveled around the world on a ship, completed 7 marathons, one Ironman and over 30 triathlons, kissed a complete stranger on the Eiffel Tower, guided a blind triathlete to a gold at the World Paratriathlon Championships. And I have loved.

Virginity does not solely define my identity.

 
My mom, friend Kristen and I followed up the KC show with lunch at Katz Deli where the famous fake orgasm scene was filmed in When Harry Met Sally; you know the line: “I’ll have what she’s having.” I pointed to the picture of Katie Couric on the wall (plastered with hundreds of pictures of other famous celebrities eating at Katz Deli) and told the waiter that I’d just been interviewed by KC on virginity. A smile spread across the waiter’s face, “Are you a professional?” he asked in what I presumed to be a thick NYC accent. Hmmm, I thought, “I guess that’s relative to one’s opinion.” Do I identify as a professional virgin on a career path? Seeking continuing education and building my resume? Dear God, I hope not! What would a virgin’s job description look like? Probably different depending on each individual’s opinion depending on culture, gender, family and religious influences.

 
This past weekend I returned from my grad school’s housemate’s wedding in Maine. I counted on the plane that since I was about 22 I have been to at least 35 weddings: in 7 of them I’ve been a bridesmaid, in 4 of them I’ve read scripture, 29 of them I’ve been to without a date. That means I’ve saved a lot of friends a lot of money. I’ve been a non-plus-one for the majority of my life. Usually I’m not even given the option. When you’re 22 and going stag, it’s not a big deal. The majority of the wedding party is single and shacking up with each other by the end of the night. Now when someone optimistically says, “Oh don’t worry! You might meet someone there!” I roll my eyes realistically aware that the only men who might hit on me are the caterers (not such a bad option I thought last month), my uncle’s perverted college buddy, or the inappropriate married men whose wives are off running after small children.

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