A Very Potter Birthday

What is the best way to turn 40? With a surprise Harry Potter party thrown by your best friends and family, of course! And yes, I really was surprised.

Some backstory: several years ago, after it became apparent that there was a likelihood my singleness may be a permanent state rather than a “season of life,” I developed a plan. If I didn’t get married and do the whole wedding/reception with all the friends and family thing, I’d throw a huge 40th birthday party. But not just any party, I planned to rent out the Great Hall of the world’s best Harry Potter store, Whimsic Alley on the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, and have an adults only Potterfest worthy of J.K. Rowling herself. A Pinterest board was created. Research into costs and options was done. Friends and family were told.

And then, shortly after my 39th birthday, Whimsic Alley closed its doors for good. My sister and I pondered other venues, but nothing remotely affordable was even close. I decided that I’d rather just have a small family thing at home, and go out for coffee or lunch with friends throughout my birth month.

Fast-forward to July, 2018, and I was happily getting together with old friends for lunches here and there, and going to Las Vegas for a weekend with two of my best friends. Very content with my 40th birth month so far, I was supposed to go out the Saturday before my birthday for a sister night; she had something planned but wouldn’t tell me.

The day before, she called and told me the time to be ready, and that I should wear my Harry Potter swag and bring one of my wands. Now, for a lot of people this might seem like an odd request, but in our family it’s actually not that weird at all. We are one geeky brood. Check out my sister’s blog, my oldest brother’s blog, and my youngest brother’s art for further evidence. I figured she was taking me to a rooftop movie screening of HP, an HP themed puzzle room, or maybe even Wizarding World for the night.

So that afternoon, I put on my Hot Topic Harry Potter Great Hall Dress, “Books Turn Muggles into Wizards” necklace, golden snitch bracelet, and Hedwig earrings, chose one of my three wands, and hopped in my sister’s car. We headed to one of our favorite spots to eat, Little Osaka (Sawtelle Japantown). She then said we were going to meet two of my friends at my LA home church parking lot because they were coming with us. This seemed logical to me, as meeting in that parking lot was something we’d done many times when I still lived in West LA. Once at the church, the sis said she needed to use the bathroom, so we headed through the only door that appeared to be unlocked and up the stairs to encounter a “brick wall” over the door way.

I was stunned. It finally clicked that we weren’t here to pick up friends or use the bathroom, but that behind this curtain would be some sort of surprise party for me. But I honestly hadn’t seen it coming! I’d come to terms with the fact that my dream party wouldn’t happen, had accepted it, and moved on. Then I walked through the brick wall reminiscent of the entrance to Diagon Alley, and there was the entire Great Hall of Hogwarts laid out before me, and almost 40 of my friends screaming “Surprise!”

It was overwhelming, still is actually. The amount of work and creativity they put into transforming a room in a church to a banquet hall, the months of planning without me catching even a hint, the love and care put into this one night still blows my mind.

The Platform 9 ¾ photo booth. The butterbeer, firewhiskey, and smoking punch. The house themed tables, banners, and house gemstones (with Ravenclaw in the lead, of course!). The portraits of witches and wizards on the walls. The props and decorations and food. It was all perfect.

On a table to the side sat the most beautiful birthday cake I’ve ever gotten, made by one of my best friends, a brilliant pastry chef. It was also freakin’ delicious.

Moaning Myrtle even made an appearance in the ladies’ bathroom.

And, just like I’d dreamt, friends from many different aspects of my life joined together to hang out for one night – from my current town, from my old West LA life, family, roommates, dear friends from ministries past, my writer’s group, grad school, and childhood. Some who had never read the HP books or seen the movies still came and posed in the photo booth with beards and wands and a fabulous Hedwig balloon. Many came in full costume (my mom was seriously the cutest Molly Weasley ever) or Potterbounded.

It was my dream party even after I thought that dream was put aside. It was the best way to enter my forties – with love, joy, and whimsy.

Independence Day: a Treatise on Being Happily Single

I am happily single. I wasn’t always quite so happy about my unchanging relationship status, but I’ve grown into it and it fits me comfortably like my favorite pair of old jeans. And, oddly, the more my contentment has grown recently, the more I struggle to write about it.

This weekend at my writer’s group (who never let me get away with any excuses) I realized that my current joy in my single status makes me feel almost unqualified to write about singleness. Many of the men and women I talk to who are my age or younger and still single are struggling with it immensely; for some, this is the battle of their lives. And I’ve been there. I lived there for quite some time. But, by the grace of God, I’m not there anymore.

Yes, I still get pangs every once in awhile while watching a romcom or at a friend’s wedding, that lingering desire to be desired, to have a partner, to be loved like that. But, more frequently of late, I find myself having thoughts of gratefulness to God that I’m not married. And, in counseling, I’ve noticed that this isn’t something many single people who’d rather not be single like to hear.

I am their worst nightmare. They don’t want God to grow them into contentment in their singleness, they want God to bring them a spouse. They don’t want me to tell them that there is a possibility they’ll never marry, but it’s okay because God still has plans in that for their good and his glory. They want to hear tales of people who met the man or woman of their dreams the minute they “stopped looking,” about the friend of a friend who married at 40, or of the newest dating app that’s somehow better than the last 5 they tried. They yearn for promises that God will bring them the desire of their heart instead of the truth that they may need to ask God for new desires.

Many a pastor, singles group leader, or self-help guru sees me as their worst nightmare as well. You see, I do not believe the pinnacle of Christian life is to be a wife or husband, a mother or a father. I believe these are incredibly good things to be, gifts and examples of Christ in our world. But I also believe, like the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 7), that singleness is a gift as well, and that single people are a blessing to the world and the church in unique valuable ways.

Parents of still-single adult children can join in the chorus against contentment in singleness too. The cry of “when am I going to have grandchildren?” or “if you just lost some weight, I’m sure you’d find a man!” has been heard by singles the world over. They do not always want their children to find deep joy and contentment in this state, because they see it as a lesser existence. They sometimes purposefully add to the discontentment of their children in the hopes it will spur them on to marriage. The idea that marriage may actually not be best for them isn’t an option.

Yet here I am, happily deleting e-mails from dating apps trying to woo me back after a couple years’ hiatus. I’ve embraced the idea that singleness is the life God has planned for me, and have even told him in prayer that if he does want me to marry someday, he’s going to have to bring the man to my doorstep and make it pretty darn obvious, because at this time it’s not even on my radar.

I’ve grieved not having a husband, not having children. I’ve gone through years of intense yearning for things I could not have. I’ve wept with friends, counselors, and God over this. I’ve torn myself down for not being good enough for a spouse, and fed other lies like this. I’ve averted my eyes at friends’ weddings as their fathers walked them down the aisle or danced with them, knowing I would never have that moment. I’ve silently and internally grieved the loss of potential motherhood.

So for my friends and counselees who are in the midst of this grief and pain, I understand. I’ve been there. For a couple decades even. The pain and loss are real, and it is good to recognize it. But, for those of you who don’t end up with the romcom ending, there is such joy to be found in embracing the permanently single life. There is confidence in loving your independence and letting the parents, pastors, and friends who are not content with you being single know that this is what God has for you and it is good.

When Moses went up to Mount Sinai for God to rewrite the 10 Commandments and renew his covenant with Israel, the Lord spoke to Moses about himself. “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’” (Exodus 34:6). This is the reality of who our God is. Our Lord is merciful and gracious, so the gift of singleness in our lives, whether temporary or permanent, is part of his mercy and grace toward us. He is slow to anger – there is no punishment in our singleness. He is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness meaning he is the love of our lives and we are the love of his.

Married readers, ask yourself if you are helping your single friends find contentment or are you adding to their pain? Single readers, I pray you will find contentment in your independence no matter how long it lasts. I know the heartbreak that can come with it, but I also know that deep joy and peace are possible. 

A Spinster Forgets How To Small Talk

I’ve forgotten how to small talk. The realization of this hit me on Saturday night, as I sat on the deck of a sailboat smooshed together with LA friends, people I had met a couple times years ago, and people I never met and was not introduced to. While social situations in which I don’t know people have always stressed me out, I used to be quite good at them. At least I think I was. But there I was, sitting there wracking my brain for things to say to the guy next to me and coming up with nothing. No statements. No questions. Nothing.

In that moment, I realized that I don’t really hang out with people other than my family any more. I have lost the ability to do the small talking and the meeting and the socializing. And most people around me seem to do the same. Is it my age? Is it the more suburban desert life instead of a city one? Is it because I was working 4 jobs for a couple months so was just wiped out when I got home? Have I become antisocial? Like most things, it’s probably a combination of all the above.

Age is definitely a factor. I lived my late 20s-30s in Los Angeles, and in the city those are peak single years so it’s not difficult to eventually end up surrounded by other singles close to that age. And we lived life together. Our families were all in other cities, so we relied upon each other. My church was young and fostered this connection as if its life depended upon it, which I suppose it did. So, awkwardly and with a lot of effort, we created a little community of weird singles which grew as some of us dated, married, and/or had babies.

But the step after that is a hard one, as many of us moved away at that point. Even this weekend’s event was a going away party for one such couple. I stayed at another dear friend’s apartment, like always, only this time there were boxes and boxes against the walls as they too are starting to pack for their upcoming move. The city life is often a transient one. That age has passed.

Starting over again at almost 40 has been a bit more difficult socially. I’m still single. But I’m not 28. And in this suburbanish desert town, most Christians marry young, or at least younger than in LA. And the couples my age or older have teenage kids, and are incredibly busy. Everyone is so busy with activities – but not “hang out” activities. No one invites me over for dinner, or to grocery shop together, or to watch Netflix, or grab lunch after church. It’s a rather insulated city – people with houses and yards instead of tiny apartments where shared space is required for sanity.

Photo by Don Lee

In LA, very few of us had yards, so we’d all congregate in that one friend’s backyard for every birthday, holiday, or event. We’d squish 20 people into tiny apartments without a thought. We’d share space, air conditioning, Netflix, parking, storage, everything. Here, everyone is with their families, in their own homes, with their own garages and air conditioning and built in friends of husbands and kids. I am almost always with my family here as well, which is beautiful and special. So yes, age and the suburban lifestyle have definitely affected my ability to make new friends.

The general busy pace of life has also been isolating. Which is odd, because I’m actually working much less than I ever did in the higher pressure jobs I held before. We were incredibly busy, but somehow we figured out how to be busy together. Every Wednesday, I’d meet the girls for happy hour after work. We’d go to each other’s apartments to grade together. We walked to lunch after church together. We had Bible study in the same apartment for years, and ended up there so often it became a second home. Sometimes we even went grocery shopping together. Somehow the fact that we were all ridiculously busy never stopped us from hanging out – we just rolled each other into our day to day activities so much that it became our natural way of living.

Here, I go to work, come home and have dinner and watch TV with my mom, which has been quite lovely to be honest. But that’s pretty much every single week day. To be fair, I’ve been pretty exhausted at the end of the day lately because of the multiple jobs and also I was ill, but in my previous life that wouldn’t have stopped community. Friends would have just come over anyway. If I was sick, they’d stop by to bring me soup. If I was busy, they’d come be busy with me. If I was tired, they’d set me up on their couch in front of Gilmore Girls reruns, and put food and drink in my hand.

But here, I can be autonomous – I can let my family take care of me and not need anyone else. And since not one single person from my new church has ever invited me to go to lunch after service, or over for dinner, I haven’t bothered to reach out either. I don’t need them as much with my family right here. And I guess they don’t need me. So that makes it harder to bother.

That leaves the question, have I become antisocial? And I guess I have, at least a little bit. Starting the making friends thing all over again when I’m turning 40 in a month is unpleasant. Apparently I’m too young for the 50 year old couples in my Sunday School class to bother with me outside of Sunday morning. And I’m too old for the singles groups (thank God! I never did like singles groups). Because I know I either need to keep trying group after group after group to see if one may fit better or I just have to throw myself into the one I’m in now and do all the work of brazenly inviting myself into their lives, I’ve opted for just not having many friends here. Just sticking with my family and my one old friend.

Because of this, I haven’t gone to an actual party in ages. I haven’t showed up at a friend’s place to see a ton of faces I don’t recognize. There have been no happy hours or kick-backs or store runs or World Cup watching get togethers. And I think I’ve become happily comfortable in my anti-social life. It’s less tiring. Less work. And involves very little small talk.

But on the boat Saturday night, looking around at everyone else chatting away as I sat there silent for the moment, the thought struck me that maybe I’ve grown too self-focused through this isolation. I’ve got a lot to think about. But I think it might be time for me to try out the 30-somethings group at church even though I’ll be the oldest person there. It might be time for me to put in a bit more effort to becoming part of the community outside of my family. It might be time for me to brush up on my small talk.