February came quietly this year; it came with a breath of warmth, a reminder of Spring. I’ve been thinking about what I want to share this month, this month that celebrates Valentine’s Day.
The other day, my older daughter came home with an announcement. A boy she had met through one of her close friends asked her out. He asked her to be his girlfriend, he said “Would you like to go out on a date with me?” I received this information in a flush of excitement. My daughter was blushing, smiling; her eyes were dancing. She told me that he said “I like you because you aren’t like anyone else, you’re just yourself.”
More smiling. Being yourself is no small feat for an eighth grader in Middle School. She was really happy. She asked if it was okay (I had originally told her that she wasn’t allowed to date until she was 16). “No, it’s not okay!” I said. I told her that I would need to meet him, observe him, preferably in interrogation form with a light glaring directly into his eyes, before I gave my permission. Of course I was joking, sort of… No interrogation, but I do feel its important for me to know this person at least as well as her other friends, because boyfriend – girlfriend – these are just labels, a way of defining the underlying friendship.
I think about my first boyfriend, and how important that relationship was to me. We were so close, so intimate, yet neither of us knew what we were doing. We spent hours listening to records, kissing for whole album sides. We spent a lot of time walking, talking, talking about our lives, mapping out about the future. I was 12 years old when we met, sitting on the front stoop doing my homework in my school uniform when he dropped into my life – he lived three blocks away, was a year older, and went to public school. He was the new paperboy; he was my first love. He was also my first lover.
And even though we broke up when I was 16, over 20 years ago, he still holds a place in my heart. He will forever be to me the person who held my hand during those formative years, who wrote me love notes even though he hated writing because of his dyslexia, who loved me even though he didn’t know how, he just did. We were sexual, but it was a natural exploration. We didn’t have names for what we did, we simply explored each other. We discovered each other, we delighted in each other. We were growing, learning together. And for that, I am so thankful.
But there was a boundary between us; it would be a sin to have sexual intercourse without being married. He came from an extremely religious family, and I was very familiar with the laws and rules of the catholic faith. I did not think it would really be a sin, because I felt that we loved each other, so how could it be a sin? But in retrospect, I am glad that we had such a boundary; we were very young and needed to learn other things, we needed to learn our own bodies and minds, we needed a language for sex that we simply did not have yet.
For the most part, we learn about sex in a vague, somewhat confusing way. Schools give sex education the most perfunctory of attention. If we leave the task to parents, most children have no open dialogue about sex. They learn mostly from friends, shared gossip. They learn through music and books. They learn through movies, television, and media, often receiving mixed messages. They learn from experience. We have a community of people who are eager to love, eager to share physical pleasure. Yet most people are insecure and confused, not even sure how to handle a relationship with another person.
I believe that sex belongs in the realm of adulthood, however I know that we are born sexual beings. Who we are – emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually – combines with our experiences throughout our lives, to speak to our own particular sexual longings, cravings, and desires. There are shadow areas that affect our sexuality, including genetics, family, and environmental influences. There are dark areas as well – our personal boundaries that have been pushed, those boundaries that have been trespassed. When we have sex, or engage in sexual behaviors, all of these things come into play. Our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual selves are revealed.
I’m aware that this is a mature way to think of sex. Perhaps it is also a very serious way. I know that there are many people who think that sex is great fun, that it is all play, easily detached from love, and there’s no need to have a relationship. And some of that is true, I think. I think it depends on where you are. I think that is part of young love, that time of figuring out who you are as a sexual person. Sex is not a simple biological need. It is an art; it takes time, practice, passion. It is a shared energy that can be very powerful.
I think we sense this power when we are young, which is why so many of us are eager to have sex, to unveil the mystery. We are attracted to people, we want to kiss them, we want to have sex. In some sense, being in a relationship begins here. But I think it begins deeper, with our own sense of self.
Without a strong sense of self, people look to others to “complete” them, to “save” them, or to “define” them. They look to others to fulfill certain roles, to fill missing places, to represent more than who they are. Relationships demand communication and self-reflection. Without a strong sense of self, people cannot handle the mirror being in a relationship will show them. Sexually, they are incapable of revealing themselves to another; they can’t see who they are.
This idea is fundamental to how we love, how we carry relationships, and how we approach sex. Know yourself, love yourself, then share who you are. This is what I’ve tried to teach my daughter, and will continue to reinforce as she enters the realm of dating, and begins exploring and discovering her own sexuality and herself in relation to others. I haven’t always been at this place, which is why I recognize how important this is and how it affects every relationship in our lives.
After the absolute failure of my relationship with my children’s father, I did not date for a long time. Years later, I met someone who was interested me and wanted to take me out to dinner. I agreed and we had a really great time. He wanted to see me again. Okay … then again. Long story short, a relationship began to evolve and I was terrified. During this time, I found myself browsing the “relationships and dating” section of a bookstore and I found a book that was extraordinarily helpful. The book outlined all the things I had always hoped for in the potential of a relationship, things I had felt in my heart, but never experienced or observed in the relationships of my parents or others around me.
The book was If the Buddha dated … by Charlotte Kasl. Some of the advice or suggestions on how to go about dating really didn’t apply to me – but – it was the overall concept and ideas within the book that struck me. Later on, when I was in a more serious relationship, I also read If the Buddha Married … Even though I was not looking to marry, I wanted to know what Charlotte Kasl had to say about being in a long term relationship. Again, I found the book tremendously helpful. I am mentioning both of these books for anyone interested in reading and learning more about the dynamic of relationships. Charlotte Kasl is a wonderful writer with a sensitive gift to help others self-reflect, grow, and change.