Artwork by Teresa Grassesch
I lost my father three times over the course of my life. I was eleven for the first loss. As I began secondary school in Barbados he declared I was becoming a man now so the playful nature of our relationship had to change and become more serious, more responsible, more mature. I was in college for the second loss. He suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury during a violent robbery. His personality was forever altered, and not for the better. The third and final loss, his death, happened early May, 2022. As he took his final labored breaths, and in the weeks that followed, I was crushed under the weight of all three losses.
I spent many a morning alone on the beach mourning him, but also facing many questions about my future. Not surprisingly, his death brought me to a stark awareness of my own mortality. I was 47 years old. Were I to live as long as he did, I had 35 years ahead of me. I was 47 years old and had always lived a limited life, my choices mostly determined by the expectations of my roles (husband, father, pastor, just to name a few), any number of fears, and a list of unconscious internalized cultural norms.
I don’t regret the roles I embodied, but who was I beyond them? What other unexamined internalized norms was I living from? What would it feel like to live a life centered around the pursuit of pleasure instead of the avoidance of pain? I felt like, to that point, I’d been living at 85% authenticity. What would 100% feel like? Did I even know who that was?
Perhaps the most pressing question was where would I live? During the weeks between ending my relationship with V and flying back to Barbados, I lived in a friend’s guestroom in DC. My search for a new place to live was just picking up when I got the call about my father. When I told my friend I wasn’t sure how long I would be gone, maybe a few days or weeks, he asked why I was bothering to return? Hadn’t I always talked about moving back someday? And since I was now self-employed online I could work from anywhere, so why not there? Why not now?
I was genuinely intrigued by the possibility, but there was one other person to check in with. My daughter was nearing the end of her junior year in college, and my intention had always been to live in at least the same country until she graduated. She didn’t call on me often, but I felt I needed to be accessible should she need me. When I floated the idea, her supportive yet brutally honest response knocked the air out of me: “I like that for you. Besides, your being here is doing nothing for me.” Ouch.
Here’s the thing about being an immigrant, especially if you’ve spent at least half your life away from your birth country: you still feel like a foreigner in the new land, and home feels more and more like a foreign land. In the weeks leading up to and following my father’s death, I realized I wasn’t ready to return home permanently. Not yet. I loved the place and the people, but they felt like an old favorite suit that didn’t fit quite right. I was self-employed, but the new business wasn’t bringing in enough income. If I returned to the US I would have to get another job, and the thought of yet again being a cog in the capitalist grind machine wasn’t appealing. Plus, after six years in Massechusttes, I was at peak hatred of winter. So I said fuck it, I’ll become a nomad on top of trying on non-monogamy for the first time. Why half-ass it right?
So I began to envision a new pleasure-centered life of bliss: winters in Barbados; the warmer seasons in USA and parts unknown; become non-monogamous and, as my dating app profiles now state, create a network of friends and lovers wherever I traveled; with my work partner, continue to grow project_SANCTUS, our virtual antiracism education platform and community; expand my online spiritual coaching practice; finally write that second book. The more I dreamed, the more excited I became. I ignored the objections of my inner critic committee about being too old, too poor, too irresponsible, too inexperienced, too scary, too out-of-the-box. It was the perfect plan. And you know how to make God laugh, right? Tell her your plans.
I should probably take a moment to share that when I say non-monogamy, I’m referring to what folks traditionally refer to as Ethical/Consensual Non-Monogamy (ENM/CNM), terms designed to distinguish it from what we usually think of when someone is having multiple sexual or romantic encounters: cheating. With CNM, everyone involved knows and consents to multiple simultaneous relationships. However, there’s a growing sentiment, which I happen to agree with, that we should drop the ‘E/C’ because having to use qualifiers like ‘ethical’ and ‘consensual’ imply there is something inherently immoral with non-monogamy and we’re trying to apply a fix to make it acceptable.
To be clear, infidelity can happen in ENM relationships as well. Any time relationship agreements are broken, no matter what those agreements are, it’s infidelity. Leanne Yau, the creator behind Poly Phillia blog, says it best: “No one says ‘ethical-’ or ‘consensual monogamy’. If people can be bad monogamists and still be considered monogamous, why can’t non-monogamous people do the same? Why do we need to justify ourselves in a defensive way?”.
Non-monogamy comes in many flavors, like polyamory (which has its own subsets), swinging (aka “the lifestyle”), polyfidelity, and more. The more research I did (books, blogs, articles, podcasts, respected influencers, friends who had been non-monogamous for years), the more solo polyamory felt like a good fit for me. I knew I didn’t want just casual connections. I also wanted to be in committed, long-term, romantic, emotional, and sexual relationships.
I love being in love. I also fall in love quickly. I used to think it was a character flaw, but it’s not. I am who I am: an open-hearted, trusting, romantic. The not so healthy trait was that when I used to fall in love, I would rapidly upend my life to meet my partner’s needs, and practically sprint up the relationship escalator. I no longer wanted to live like that, losing myself in another. We solo polyamorists often describe ourselves as our own primary relationship. We don’t cohabitate with our partners or merge lives in more traditional ways. I promised myself at least two years on the solo poly path, even if I encountered someone worth upending my life for.
Now the scary part: meeting people. I didn’t like my chances of encounters in the wild, especially since only 5% of the American population admit to being non-monogamous. Fortunately there’s apps for that. Any dating app could potentially work, right? I simply had to make sure to share my relationship orientation and identity in my profile. Not so simple, especially on an app like Tinder where folks are notorious for not reading profiles. I’ll share later about some messy interactions because of that habit in a future post.
The two most recommended for non-monogamy, and where I’ve found the most success, were Feeld and OKCupid. Feeld was specifically designed for non-traditional dating, stating that “We believe nothing is more fluid or less binary than human relationships. This is why we created Feeld, where everyone can be honest with themselves while being responsible towards others.” OKCupid, although around for much longer, was one of the first dating apps to allow users to choose from a wide range of identities and relationship styles, and match them according to their desired partnerships. Before I returned to the states in June, I had already set up my profiles, made connections, engaged in conversations, and scheduled dates.
From the first moments of decision on that beach, to my current work, life, and relationship choices, I have been deeply deconstructing the internalized beliefs about myself and the world that resulted from being born and raised in Christianity and the big three systems of oppression: white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy. Sometimes I intentionally put myself in situations and encounters with others to fuel the deconstruction. Other times, only after I noticed that I was overly emotional or indecisive or confused, did I realize that an internalized, and likely unconscious, belief was being challenged.
One of those beliefs, as noted in the Feeld app description, is the deeply ingrained belief of the gender binary. Gender, like race, is a construct that we created and believe to be innate to our beinness. We are taught that gender is binary, that sexuality is binary, that identity is binary, that we’re either this or that. An early (and still current) connection I made on OKCupid was with H, who identifies as non-binary, genderqueer, and pansexual. They were assigned female at birth (AFAB). Because of their intentional choices in clothing and appearance, at first glance you may question their gender, which is their point. Because of my cultural conditioning around gender, I initially wanted to put them into a category that I could understand, accept, and feel comfortable with as I navigated the confusion that arose because I was undeniably attracted to them. My inner struggles, I would soon realize, were of my own making. Peace came when I let go of needing to explain my attraction through a gender lens. Once, a friend asked if I see them as male or female. I said, “I see H.”
We’ve been trained very well to put every one, ourselves included, into categories in order to make sense of them. If we can’t, the tendency is to first reject their choice, then their agency, then them. Much of our ‘othering’ is a refusal to sit through our discomfort and question our own programming. We have so embraced the binary that we even made God binary, and we speak of the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine. When we look at the words often used to describe the Divine Masculine (protection, discipline, authority, guidance, resilience, maturity, responsibility, leadership, logic, action, stoic, relentless, confident, committed, willful) and the Divine Feminine iIntuitive, heart-centered, compassionate, wise, accepting, forgiving, collaborative, reflective, creative, sensual, kind, gentle), there’s a very patriarchal slant that reflects humanity’s gender biases. None of the qualities listed are inherent to either gender. Inadvertently, I believe, some verses in the Bible question that binary narrative. In Genesis 1:26 and 27 God said, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness” and “God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In two verses God transitioned from singular to plural, and embraced both genders as a single entity. Regardless of the pronoun “his”, it reads very non-binary to me.
Even though I had left the purity culture of evangelical Christianity behind decades ago, I continue to be surprised by how its shame and guilt still resided deep in my subconscious. It was also a revelation how much white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy (wscp) were intertwined with them within me. I give much of the credit to my antiracism work with project_SACNTUS for expanding and deepening my awareness.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the transformative power and freedom I experienced when I began to explore kink.
The deconstruction continues in Poly Notes Pt.5 - Enter The Kink