I was officiating a wedding on my 31st birthday. My then boyfriend and I weren’t in a great spot. He didn’t come with me to the wedding and so the sweet couple sat me at a table with other singleton non-marrieds. It ended up being a table of awesome “crazy aunties.” Everyone loves a crazy aunt, but as I looked around the table I couldn’t help but be concerned that I was actually meeting my future self. I fear that I am well on my way to becoming my niece’s and nephew’s crazy aunt. I pictured myself in these ladies spots wearing sensible shoes, having a few too many glasses of champagne, and I wondered could I be the crazy aunt? I am not one for a sensible shoe, or a sensible haircut, but I think I am one martini and a boa away from the title “crazy aunt Sarah.”. These women were very kind, and I was probably a little more sensitive than I usually am this particular evening, but some of the things they said still ring in my ears.
Why was I so sensitive this particular evening? It wasn’t just my absentee boyfriend. It was also the intense “cat calling” I had endured walking up to the reception. I had just officiated the wedding on the golf course below and walking up to my table wearing my pastor robe I had been hit on by a group of drunken golfers. I maybe the only person who has heard “I’d like to see what is under that robe” and “If my priest looked like you I would go to Catechism” while walking into a wedding reception. Needless to say I was a little thrown off my game.
The “cat calling” I don’t understand. I often look at myself in my robe and think that there really couldn’t be anything less sexy. I think having such a non-descript form of clothing is a good thing. I wear the robe when I am participating in the sacraments of the church, moments when I am not representing myself, but representing the mantle of pastor. It is a chance for me to be a physical representation of God in community, and that requires some of the things about me that may be unique to take a back seat. The sacrament is never about me- its about who I work for. So this evening I was feeling a little bit like a fish out of water having just been yelled at and propositioned wearing the robe. I changed and made my way to the singleton table.
The Aunties started off by mentioning how I don’t look like a pastor. “Oh great”, I thought, “here we go again I am going to have to defend myself as clergy”, but they followed by telling me they loved the service. After chatting with me about the service itself, they turned their attention to getting to know me personally. They did the usual question and answer time that comes with being me. I think I cause such cognitive dissonance for people that they immediately need to know the story of how I became a pastor. After many inquiries the question finally came, are you married? When I expressed ‘no’, they responded, “why? you are so cute!” Umm… so not being married means you are not cute? Or were they expecting me to say “ya, although I am cute, I have lots of emotional baggage and dating me is a real chore.” They were trying to be kind and were well intentioned. They wanted me to receive a compliment. It isn’t the question that can be hurtful, but what the question implies. It can imply that because I am not married there is something wrong with me. People don’t know what to say to you when you answer a question in a way they don’t expect, or when the constructs they have created don’t fit who you are. We have a tough time figuring out what to say next and so we jump to a cliché or a compliment.
When I say no to inquires about my marital status I sometimes get the unexpected “Good for you.” That leads to a conversation stalemate- I mean what does one say to that? “um thanks I was trying to buck the system?” or “ya, its been tough avoiding marriage, but I think I am immune.” Or perhaps the best response is “tell me about your divorce or the unhappy marriage you are currently experiencing?” Let’s be honest pastoral Sarah would probably want to dive into why this person felt the need to congratulate me and try to give them space to express their disappointment. That’s a fun wedding conversation isn’t it? Don’t you want to sit next to me at a wedding or party?
The “why aren’t you married question” doesn’t just come up at weddings it also comes up at dinner parties, conferences, art shows and oddly enough as a question when I am a speaker at events. I usually come up with some sort of joke to respond. Joking for me has always been a good way of moving people away from the question without having to go into too much detail. The why part of the “aren’t you married” question is one I can only dive into with close friends (and apparently some readers). With my best friends I can tackle all why questions of my life without feeling defensive or misunderstood. They know me, and they can speak into my life in ways that most can’t.
So how do we engage others in conversation when we don’t know them? The place I think we need to start is by assuming that we don’t know the other’s story. You may not know why I am single, just like I may not know if you are happily married just because you seem that way. You don’t know if I have chosen a life of singleness, just like I don’t know if your marriage is one that has taken lots of work, or been the thing that has kept you afloat. When we engage in conversation with unknown people we have to start just there… the start… with all assumptions aside. Begin by asking people questions about themselves. It requires a listening ear and a removal of assumption. This is how I try and approach every conversation. I won’t always get it right, but I think when we approach a conversation with openness to really learning about the other, it creates room to avoid possible harmful clichés.