Breaking Up Was One of the Best Things to Ever Happen to Me

BreakingUp

A couple of friends on social media have posted recently about the difficulties they’re having after breaking up with their boyfriends. I can empathize. That emotional vortex can tear you apart for a few weeks and make you feel like your whole life is destroyed. But, for me, it turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to me.

Relationships are wonderful things. We humans seem to crave them. We can feel isolated, lonely, and incomplete without them, as if our lives have little or no meaning unless someone else is there sharing it with us.  And there’s good reason for that. We are by nature social beings. (Most of us, that is. There are always those rare birds who thrive on being unattached.) I think it’s built into our DNA — the only thing recorded in the Genesis creation story that God said was not good was that man should be alone.

But what happens when those relationships end? For whatever reason — irreconcilable differences, death, infidelity, or simply growing in different directions — the sudden absence of someone who up till that moment played a significant role in your life, in your identity, can leave you reeling. You have to begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild yourself, rebuild your life.  And that can be a wonderful thing. A gift. An awe-inspiring blessing. It was for me.

We’d been together for 15 years. It was a rocky relationship, full of its ups and downs. Emotional highs, heights of passion, random warm moments, holidays, birthdays. Arguments, shouting matches, feeling completely misunderstood or neglected, … holidays, birthdays. Yeah, all of it. But in the final analysis, we weren’t happy. Not that we expected each other to make us happy — we both knew happiness was our own responsibility. But when the chemistry of two radically different personalities creates more negative reaction than positive, it’s time to reconsider the relationship. And we did. And we mutually agreed to end it.

The separation didn’t happen overnight. We discussed who’d get what, who’d move out, who’d stay, which dogs would go with whom. And we allowed time for that to happen. I kept the house (since I was the main bread-winner and he couldn’t have afforded to keep it), and he made plans to move across state to be closer to his family. And I itched almost every day, waiting for everything to fall into place so he could be gone.

When the day finally came, we packed up a U-Haul truck and moved him out. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Literally. It felt like I could breathe again.

BreakingUp2The first thing I did was rearrange the furniture. I was going to make the house “mine.” Then came all the other little changes. The decisions. I decided to eat better, to cook more, with more organics and meat that was humanely raised — and even for my dogs to eat better.  I decided to drink better quality coffee. To live more earth-friendly. To improve my social life. Dating — sure. (The whole world had evolved since the last time I’d dated. AOL was the thing back then. My friends had to clue me in about Adam4Adam, OkCupid, Match, and the host of phone apps available to help meet new people.) But also simply spending more time with my friends, going out to dinner, theater, movies … just rebuilding my life without him in it.  (I wrote about some of this back in the early days of my new-found singleness in “BYOB – Gay and Single (Again) After 40.”)

And this one word kept going through my head. “Rediscovery.” I wasn’t just “re-inventing” my life. I was rediscovering myself, who I was, digging back up those aspects and activities I used to love that had somehow become buried over the years together. Things he didn’t like to do. Parts of my personality that got overshadowed by the “us” of being with him. I rediscovered what it was like to be “Steve.”

I even stuck an index card on my refrigerator to remind me every morning —

“Create a life for yourself
that reflects your values,
builds on your gifts,
fulfills your purpose,
and satisfies your soul.”

The power of those words burrowed deep into my soul. “Create a life for yourself…”  It was an active process, not something I just sat back and let unfold. I spent time re-evaluating just what were my values, my gifts, my purpose? What satisfies my soul? I had the chance to re-create my life. I had that power. It was like a rebirth.

Oh, and yes, I did jump into the dating game. I was online every day, checking my apps multiple times during the day. Going on coffee dates (the safest thing for first dates, I discovered), getting to know different guys. There were months of feeling almost desperate: “I gotta find somebody. I wanna be married again.” I got emotionally attached to a couple of guys, even knowing there was no real long-term possibilities there. Got my heart broken once or twice. But gradually, as the clouds of desperation slowly faded from my mind, I woke up one morning realizing that I actually liked being single. I enjoyed my freedom. I loved the fact that I could meet someone, spend time with them, but go home afterwards to my own place, my home, my refuge, my dogs. And be okay unwinding on the couch, grabbing some movie off Netflix. By myself. Without having to worry about what someone else wanted to do.

I began to love myself again — and to like myself.  Whoever the guy was who’d eventually play a significant role in my life again, he’d have a pretty tough act to follow. He’d have to treat me and love me better than I loved myself. I wasn’t gonna lower my standards.

It’s been 4 years now. I’ve found someone who doesn’t trigger my red flags, who doesn’t irritate me (most of the time), who treats me with great respect, who has a depth of character and integrity that is a “must have” for me, and who has a life already established for himself. He’s good for my soul.

But more important than that. I’m happy. I wake up in the morning, grab my first cup of coffee of the day, and gather my thoughts. I pray. And I thank God for this good life. I think about the things I’m grateful for, the things I’m relieved about, excited and expectant about. The future. The present. The simplicity of things. A deeper spirituality. And the second chance at building my life.

The breakup gave me that chance. I got to re-think, re-define, re-discover who I was, and re-introduce elements of life that bring me joy and peace. Even my friends have commented on the change. I’m a better person now than I was before, and my life is richer. That break up with my ex was one of the best things that ever happened to me.


A version of Stephen’s post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.
Photo credits: Jonathan Emmanuel Flores Tarello, cc; “Bachelor Pad,” crystalsquare apts, cc.

The Sacrament of Cooking Bacon

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Growing up as a Protestant, I had an inherent distaste for ritual. Liturgy, routines and orders of worship (even though every church has one) … were all equated with “religion,” the imitation of true relationship with God. “Religion = Death” was a mental slogan, even if the words never quite formed that way in our minds.  Even habits. You hardly ever heard about “good habits.” Mostly, habits were referenced in the context of sinful things we did, that our “flesh” compelled us to do. Habits that needed to be broken. The genuinely spiritual person was free — free from form, free from ritual, free from habits.

And surely, those poor Catholics who “mindlessly” recited the rosary were missing out on a real connection with God. And all that incense waving and candle lighting … all imitations of spirit. Cheap substitutes that were empty of meaning and devoid of power.

Of course that’s not true. It was just the fuzzy logic floating through my head as a Protestant kid who probably thought too much about incidental things. I had no appreciation for the sacramental, no understanding of the connectedness between things of the world and things of the spirit, how one can help enrich the other.

Now, witnessing the “multi-tasking,” “spontaneous” activity of so many of my friends — myself included — as we flip between phone apps, texting, snap-chatting, tweeting, clicking photos to share on Instagram … all that freedom. And is it really freeing us, or just making us prisoners of the immediate? With our 1500 friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, do we even know who we are anymore? Are we even in touch with ourselves?

mind full - mindfulYears ago, when we thought about our elders growing senile, we used to say that they’re reliving fond memories, that it’s okay that they don’t remember our names or faces: they’re in happier times.  Recently the thought occurred to me: am I even making memories to relive? I’m so busy jumping between projects, between shows on Netflix, between apps and games and programs. What would I be “reliving” when I’m 85 and have lost my mind? “Oh yes, those golden days. I remember this one tweet …”

This struck me more powerfully the other day when I was frying up some bacon. I’d finally learned how to do it right, without smoking up the whole house or covering the stove top (or the inside of the oven) with bacon grease. It’s a bit of a slow process, frying up 2 pounds of bacon (I cook up a batch and store it in the freezer for quick snacking), and I caught myself going from stovetop to laptop: flip the bacon, check Facebook. Add another slice to the skillet, post another comment online. And I stopped myself.

I was missing out on something. The simple joy of the experience. The sensuous sizzle of the bacon in the pan. The smell of the smoked meat as it crisped up, filling my nose with that hardwood saltiness that makes the mouth water. The heat from the rapidly accumulating grease as I added more slices to the pan. The changing color of the meat as it cooked. The popping of randomly splattering grease. Sights. Sounds. Smells. Sensations. And I forced myself to stand there and just take it all in. Facebook can wait. This is living in the now.

This! This is wonderful. Bacon is wonderful. It’s a gift from God (apologies to my Jewish and Muslim friends). Let me just enjoy the full experience, this moment of grace that is doing something unexplainable to my soul.  I’m smiling. I feel good. I’m looking forward to munching on ALL these delectable slices of heaven piling up on the plate next to the stove. This is a memory I might enjoy reliving in my twilight years. Even if not, it’s doing something to me now.

It was an exercise in “mindfulness,” of being present. Of dismissing the distractions, and the A.D.D.-driven activities. It was a sacrament, an instrument of receiving divine grace.

Over-stimulation is killing our souls.

There is a place for ritual in our lives. There’s a need for it. Familiar routines fire “comfort” sensations in our brain. Our thinking slows. Our nerves unravel. We become calm, peaceful. And in those moments, more receptive to the world around us. More in tune. Whether it’s a morning run outdoors, a late-night workout, or quiet times of prayer and meditation, routine grounds us, makes us stable. It makes us happy.

We need to slow down a bit. Maybe buy a French press, and make your morning coffee a drawn-out ritual. Even if just on the weekends. Make tea, in a pot. Let it steep a few minutes before your drink it. Sip it with both hands. Taste it. Really taste it. Experience it.  Cook more; eat out less. Allow yourself the luxury of chopping vegetables, of making a salad with multiple ingredients, of grilling a steak. Bumping into your partner as you both maneuver the kitchen. I even started making a cake on Friday evening, just to help slow down, as I mix the ingredients and wait for the oven to preheat. Doing something with my hands since I work all week with my brain. And a Sabbath! We should all get back to the habit of taking one day a week where we just relax, where we hang out at home or do simple errands… to unwind. Refresh. Or just sit on the patio for an hour with a book.

We need to build moments back into our lives where we can receive grace. That life-restoring energy, reconnecting us here and now.

cafe_au_laitWe need to cultivate rituals — things to make us pause for a moment and just appreciate what is right in front of us. Even if it’s the simple delight of pouring real cream into your French-roast coffee and watching the color change. Or holding your favorite mug in your hands. Buy yourself some wind chimes, and occasionally turn off the TV just to listen to them for a few moments.

Like God on the first day of creation, impose some order and peace on the chaos that our lives have become.

We Protestants have missed out on this aspect of worship, of reverent living. We don’t do rosaries. We don’t recite prayers. We haven’t built mechanisms into our lives that allow us to slow down, to relax the brain and the rampant rapids of our thoughts. To find stillness. Even our Sabbaths are hectic. Maybe the simple act of lighting a candle can help reconnect our faith that our prayers are ever-ascending before the Throne of God. We are human, and we need tangible objects, simple acts, to help focus our thoughts, our prayers, and our lives.

I’m not about to sell my 50″ flatscreen. I’m not going to cancel my subscription to Netflix. But I’m enjoying the tactile sensations of cooking again, the simple pleasure of my favorite red coffee cups, the random music of the chimes outside my living room doors. I jealously guard my Saturdays, when I (mostly) ignore my phone, and take my dogs to the park. Or my Sunday afternoons, after the hub-bub of church, when I can grab some quiet time on my patio with a book. I need those slow-down moments. You do too. Being quiet. Being present. Being in the moment, in the now. And receiving a touch of grace. Even when it’s just cooking up some bacon.

 

photo credit: I Believe I Can Fry, via Flickr, cc.
“Cafe au lait,” NukelarBurrito, via Flickr, cc

Why I Keep Dog Food in my Car

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A few summers ago I was driving back to work after having lunch with a friend, and I saw this scrawny yellow dog hoofing it across a busy intersection. It was a hot afternoon, and the dog caught my attention because it was tagging about 100 feet behind a couple of people who’d crossed a minute or two earlier, panting and looking thirsty. What really sucky pet owners, I thought, letting the dog cross by itself.  The light was red, so fortunately the poor dog didn’t have to dodge oncoming traffic, but I was still cringing inside. I kept an eye on it – and the people – watching to see if they’d stop and wait for the animal to catch up. But they didn’t. And the dog still padded after them (or at least in their direction) on the hot pavement.

My animal-loving instincts kicked in and I quickly realized that the dog was just following them, looking for company, maybe hoping to be rescued, taken home, fed, and loved. So I made a quick detour around the block and turned down the street to follow the dog. It went up on a few neighborhood lawns, sniffing things, but obviously had no real place to go. I drove farther down the street and pulled over. I got out of my car and knelt in the grass by the sidewalk, waiting for the dog to come my way. Sure enough, she came over and sniffed me, wagging her little tail. No collar or tags. She was scrawny, I could feel her ribs when I pet her, and she looked a little desperate (to my emotional mind), lost and hungry.

And I was at a complete loss of what to do. I couldn’t take her home with me and the city animal shelter was located at the opposite side of the city. I had some bottled water, so I poured some out for her, but that was it.  I hated the idea of calling Animal Control on her; they’d pick her up and if no one claimed or adopted her, she’d end up being euthanized. But in the end, that’s what I did. Better to be taken care of, kept in a cool place with water and food, with a little hope, than to continue wandering through busy streets on hot pavement.  I explained the situation, gave them my location, and they said they’d send someone over immediately.

I decided then and there to carry a container of dry dog food and a bottle of water in my car at all times.

This morning I took my dogs to the local park for our regular weekend stroll. Actually, I only took one of them since the other was being particularly rebellious this morning and didn’t want to have his collar put on.  “Ok, fine. I’ll take Ziva, and you can stay home.” When I got to the park, my heart sank. I try to go early, when no one else is around, so I can let the dogs run free, unleashed, but today there was a guy sitting on the near-by bench with a big Rottweiler on a short leash. Great! That thing could eat my little Chihuahua in one bite. And Ziva is still learning complete obedience. Sometimes she’s a bit slow to respond when I call her to me. So … not a good situation.

I walked in the other direction, hoping the guy would move on, but instead he kinda walked the big monster around in small circles around the bench. Then I noticed his stuff. Looked like he had some bags with him. Homeless. Or maybe just “on the road.” Ziva and I walked in the other direction to avoid a potentially violent doggy situation, but I kept looking over my shoulder. He walked near my car, then back again. Something tugged at me. He wants to say something to me; he needs something.  And sure enough, on my way back, putting Ziva into the backseat of my car, he called across the short distance between us, asking if I had a cigarette I could spare. I yelled back, “sorry, I don’t smoke,” got in my car and drove home.

But I know that tugging in my gut when I feel it. That nagging feeling that I should do something. Not a guilt-inducing, “help the under-privileged” kind of feeling, but a sense of compassion. I want to do something for this guy. But what? I didn’t have any cigarettes, but I know smokers. A cigarette is often a substitute for food, so maybe the guy is hungry. I pulled out my wallet. Empty. I don’t use cash.  Great.

Then it occurred to me. The dog food and water.

I dropped Ziva off at home, and made a few quick changes. That dog food is a year old, so I dump it, refill the container with fresh dry food, and pull a new gallon of drinking water out of the cupboard. After a quick stop at a nearby ATM to get a couple of bucks, I drove back to the park. Yeah, he’s still here.

rottweiler_5830118982_94997b6000_bAs I walked in his direction, he starts talking to me. Guess he recognized me from a half hour before. And he begins to tell me his story, how he’s just waiting for his girlfriend to pick him up, doesn’t know when she’ll get there, she’s helping her grandmother and taking some cats to the animal rescue. I listen, not quite believing what he’s saying, and make small talk a bit (you know how hard that is for an introvert?). Meanwhile, the Rottweiler is quietly growling at me, and images of having those vice-like jaws clamp onto my arm, and blood pouring down my hand flash through my mind. But I know dogs. I hold my hand out to the dog, palm down, a foot away, waiting for her to sniff me and see I’m no threat. The guy, Jeff, he tells me, chides her reassuringly, telling her it’s okay, that I’m a friend. She allows me to pat her.  They both look hot. It’s not yet noon, but the sun is shining, and sitting there on the bench with no cover, I could tell they were uncomfortable. So I offer to help him move his stuff under the shade of a tree close by, and he seems inappropriately grateful. Why? They’re just a few plastic packing containers (now that I see them close up), a blanket, food and water bowls for the dog. But they’re heavy. This guy, maybe 20 years old, obvious isn’t “on the road”; he’s been kicked out.  He pulls out a photo album from one of the boxes and shows me pictures of the dog, while explaining how his phone is dead so he can’t call his girlfriend to see how much longer she’ll be.  When I offer him my phone, he explains that she’s with her grandmother, and the woman doesn’t really approve of him, so it’s best not to disturb them. Umm. Okay.

Despite his story of his girlfriend’s imminent pickup, I talk to the dog a bit. (Yeah, I know. Weird.) “You hungry, girl? Thirsty? I know it’s hot out here.”  “Oh, I fed her this morning,” he says.  “Hey, I’ve got some dog food and water I keep in the car for when I’m out with my dogs, if you want.” I offer it casually. “Okay, that’d be great. I’ve got some dog food here, but I want to save it for later.” “Cool, no problem.”

I walk back to the car, smiling. I fetch the dog food, and pour it in the dog’s bowl. I hand the fresh gallon of water to the guy so he can peel off the seal and know that it’s safe. He’ll be needing this as much as the dog, I’m thinking. The dog wolfed down the food, almost finishing it before he can fill her water bowl. I honestly hope she did get her breakfast this morning, but somehow I doubt it. After throwing a ball around a bit for the dog to chase, and making a bit more small talk with the guy, I make my excuses. “I’ve gotta get going. Hey, I don’t have any cigarettes, but maybe you can buy yourself some while you wait,” as I pull the cash out of my wallet.  The gratitude on his face was confirmation enough that he needed just a little bit of human kindness in his life at that moment.

And I headed home. I’ll check back tomorrow with a fresh batch of dog food and water to see if he’s still “waiting”.  Reminds me of that scene in the bible where Peter and John run across the lame beggar on the streets: “Silver and gold have I none. But what I have, I give you.” I can’t save the world. I don’t even know how to rescue a stray dog on the street.  But I’ve got some water and some dog food in my car. And a prayer that God keeps them both safe and gets them to where they need to be.

photo credit: “Homeless Youth,” Elvert Barnes on Flickr, cc
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STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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