There is a photo I love that my daughter took on a southern beach several years ago. Brown curls float around my freckled face in the sea breeze. Sitting in the sand and gazing toward the horizon, I watch salmon and burgundy-colored clouds float to position for the sunset. Golden hour lights fine lines and age spots. Brown sandals frame pink-pedicured toes half-buried by sand.
Belying the previous months of loss, the contented expression on my face reflects gratitude for an adventure, peace in the moment, and expectant hope for what will come.
Just days before, my college-aged daughter and I had left winter behind. It was already mid March even if thermometer on the Jeep read -3 degrees Fahrenheit. We planned our pitstops by tens of degrees. “We will not get out of this car again until the temperature rises above freezing, then 45, then 60 degrees.” The cold snap held such a grip that we would be in Southern Indiana before we managed 25 degrees.
Our destination was a small campground located on a barrier island in Southwest Florida. Partly because her dad and I were going through a divorce, and partly because she needed to get out from under a brutally cold Michigan winter, she agreed to get away with me. Likely, she was also happy for the prospect of sunshine, warmth, and a free ride out of town.
We had just set up camp—a small dome tent over-stuffed with a queen-sized air mattress. For $52 per night, we had a beach view, a marina restaurant that served fresh fish and cold drinks, and hot water in the bath house.
As we surveyed our site, a couple stepped out of the camper parked next to our little tent. The woman kissed the man with the seeming ease of longtime love. She then walked over to introduce herself to us. She was from Massachusetts, and no, that was not her husband. In truth, she had just met him. She explained that she had divorced five years before and had sworn off relationships. On a whim following her retirement from teaching, she had bought the camper to travel, deciding to be “available to the universe and all it would bring to her.”
“It has been amazing,” she said. “The universe brings gold once you open yourself up to receiving it. I arrived two nights ago and met him within a couple of hours. We have had a blast together.”
After a few more pleasantries, she went back inside as we busied ourselves with dinner. She emerged moments later; 65-year-old body clad in a bright orange bikini. With an air of wild confidence, she strolled her beautiful post-prime, bikini-clad body toward the beach.
I silently noted my own body covering. Still tender from divorce proceedings, I felt neither beautiful nor confident, let alone capable of receiving gold from the universe. The tired beach chair, faded one-piece, well-worn towel, and semi-cold beer that I pulled from the back of my Jeep would have to do. Yet, watching her stroll lit an ember of hope that allowed brief imagination of my own camper-van experience one day. That is what I was thinking about in that favorite photo.
For several years after that, I waited for the universe’s permission to accept her gold as it related to a new love. While waiting, I did some hard work. I deconstructed emotional road barriers that could lead to detours. I cared for deep wounds and spread salve on thick scars. I emerged from the darkness of grief and shame to accomplish good and brave things. Still, unlike my campground friend, a new love interest didn’t emerge in the waiting.
Or did it? While waiting, I have come to see that my life is wildly relationship-rich. There is one in particular that I enjoy—a revitalized relationship with myself that has me beautifully strolling toward boldness. During these years, I have watched family grow with in-laws and grandchildren. New friendships have emerged following a move to a new city. Old friendships have been sustained. New sidewalks with their new vistas have been traveled. New faith institutions, restaurants, and neighborhoods have been explored. Each experience has offered perspective and growth in this new relationship with Jill.
The ember that was lit that day has grown into wild contentment and a happy encounter with singleness.
A coupled culture tries to convince us that the long sufferance of singleness must culminate in the love of a partner for a fulfilled life. This may be true for some. For me, the adventure of discovery is leading toward the one thing I have always craved—a loving relationship with self that boldly accepts the woman God has created and calls by name. It is a work in process. Shame still taunts and haunts during the most surprising of moments, yet this love and acceptance continues to grow with each new stroll.
I reflect again on that photo. As I gaze with her into her future, I want to tell her about her experience with contentment and the deep joy she will realize as she gets to know and love herself. And while she may never be comfortable with the idea of an orange bikini on her post-prime body, I’d like to let her know that living single – grateful, contented and expectant – may be her greatest adventure yet. It’s a viable option and offers the gift of gold.
Jill English is an avid encourager of humans and lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, and in particular, while walking any beach. Her most magical moments involve being Grammy to two remarkable grandchildren, and Mom to their lucky parents. As a discerner of call in higher theological education, her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of everyday life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.