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The Power Of Me-Dates

Singleness and solitude can help us learn a lot about ourselves…

By Jaime Woo

The idea of a me-date came to me last year, ahead of the second winter of the pandemic. I live alone, and each winter the blues dutifully arrive once the holidays finish. Last year, I bought my first pairs of snow pants and Sorels since becoming an adult. I was ready for the climate, but still had to confront my worries of feeling lonely and isolated.

In How Emotions Are Made, Canadian neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett discusses how we each have “body budgets,” which the brain is responsible for keeping in balance. From morning to night, the brain works to ensure the resources we need to survive, and while we can borrow from our budgets occasionally – like enjoying a few late nights out – if we don’t repay those withdrawals, eventually things will malfunction. One suggestion of hers was practising yoga, which appeared, if practised long term, to particularly restore people’s body budgets over other exercises.

I thought of my yoga practice, and how I love not only the exercise component but also the mindset it fosters. I reflect on the importance of showing up for myself with each session, and tend to my limits with kindness. Yoga gives me space to be curious about where my body is at, which deepens the relationship with myself. So I thought: if yoga could restore my body budget, maybe a me-date rooted in a similar mindset could, too. At the very least, there seemed no harm in trying.

Part of the fun of dating is in the planning. How could I make the night special? I began by choosing cocktails from Grey Tiger, a bar in Toronto’s Bloordale neighbourhood run by an artist couple where I’ve spent many memorable nights. The Silent Practice caught my eye, a take on the old-fashioned with Gaelic whisky, cacao-infused sherry, and black tea bitters. I’m perhaps telling on myself that the planning order went: drinks first, then food.

For dinner, takeaway from Lake Inez, a charming restaurant in the Gerrard India Bazaar neighbourhood. Inez changes up the theme for its weekly dinner, and I was a sucker for the country French-inspired meal. The five-course meal was designed for two, although it’s my belief that any meal can be personal-sized if you try hard enough.

On the night of my “big date,” the first dish was a pâté de campagne terrine. As I toasted the accompanying baguette slices, I remembered trying pâté en croute for the first time at Sanagan’s, a butcher shop around the corner from Inez, and how I’d promised myself to one day eat it in France. That got me thinking about travel. I wished I spoke better French, one of a handful of languages I partially speak. I also have the remnants of Chinese from my childhood, and the muy poco Spanish I’d learned while living in Los Angeles. I felt self-conscious about not knowing these languages better, because I believe the connection that comes with speaking another language is worth the frustration and exhaustion that comes with learning it; there’s a relief that washes over people’s faces when they discover you can communicate in a language they’re more experienced in. In my self-talk, I was surfacing the core of my love for languages.

Dolly Parton famously said, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” A me-date is an opportunity to do that, just as dating others helps us answer the question, “Who are they?” It’s easy to feel like we know all about ourselves because of how close we feel to our thoughts and feelings. But this belief is challenged whenever we try something new or get put into a situation and are surprised by our response. I’ve had it happen in small moments, such as when I discovered how much I love bouldering, and I’ve had it happen in big moments, like after a long-term partner and I separated.

Culturally, we don’t have many rituals to reflect on positive and meaningful ideas about ourselves. “Know thyself” is a thousands-year-old saying, and yet many of us still underestimate how frequently we need to introspect to get a clearer picture. A lot more has been written about our romantic relationships. To further the relationship with ourselves, what could we draw from that work?

American therapist Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection about people who thrive because they are living wholeheartedly, which she defines as “engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness.” To practise wholehearted living requires courage, compassion and connection. She clarifies that her definition of courage comes from the etymology of the word, from the heart, and she means the willingness to say what’s true from within. In other words, expressing the deep knowledge within. What if a me-date was one way to build a friendlier relationship with ourselves, so that we could weather more and rougher storms?

After dinner, the plan was to watch one of my favourite films, Lilo and Stitch. This animated Disney classic is an odd-couple story of a young Hawaiian girl who befriends a furry, blue alien on the run from intergalactic law enforcement. It’s perfect for me, as it features two places I would love to visit one day: space, and the island of Kaua’i.

Something about the me-date made this experience refreshing. I wasn’t just passing time, or watching something comforting on TV: I was watching because I genuinely wanted to enjoy it with myself. The themes of chosen family, loneliness, and how social structures can fail us had always resonated with me, but now felt more poignant. When I had first watched it nearly two decades ago, I wouldn’t have foreseen how deeply I would connect with the film’s message that to discover ourselves as we are now means perpetually letting go of who we were or thought we had to be.

I’ve had many more me-dates since that first one, and over that time I have noticed an increased willingness to ask myself “why not?” about things that previously I have been afraid to do or leery about attempting. I’ve moved away from being as self-judgmental towards a stance of curiosity, which researchers have shown improves well-being. Something about the cultivation of loving-playfulness towards myself gave me the freedom to experiment more, and to feel all right if those experiments weren’t successful.

Fostering playfulness is tough even without a pandemic raging on, and during one, it can feel downright gluttonous and inappropriate. But play might be exactly what we need in this moment – precisely because when this uncertainty makes us want to close up, we need to regularly practise reopening ourselves. Brian Sutton-Smith, a psychologist who was one of the first to seriously study play, said: “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”

What started as a way for me to get through a cold, lonely winter has become something more rewarding. Me-dates are something we could all use, whether we’re single or not. The reality is that post-pandemic, we will all have to examine who we have become. Many of us will try to rush back to our old idea of normal – and those familiar comforts might be there – but we’ll quickly discover that it won’t feel the same. Because we’re not the same.

I’m holding Dolly Parton’s advice close to my heart. The process of finding who you are never ends – it is a continual, unfolding process. Waiting to check in with ourselves until major changes have happened leaves far too much time in between. We deserve to pay more attention within. After all, we are our own lifelong companion – and we’re all we’ve got.

JAIME WOO is a writer based in Toronto, focusing on the intersection of technology and culture. He’s best-known for his Lambda Literary-nominated book, Meet Grindr, dissecting how the design of the infamous app influences user behaviour.

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