Saturday, October 27, 2012
Saturday, March 31, 2012
Thursday morning: I’m walking past the Marriott Center, trying to fit in 35 minutes of exercise, on the morning of the first day of the rest of my life. You know those days when you decide that something has to change, and that you will be as committed to exercise, and fresh food, and wholewheat bread (if bread is necessary), as you have been to Cheetos Puffs, slightly stale so they’re chewy, and working late into the night, with 2 liters of Diet Mountain Dew for company.
I’m walking by the place where I used to take Julia and Christian when they were preschoolers to swim everyday of a summer, as Nanci Griffiths says. Deseret Towers Pool, built for student recreation in the sixties, but available to community residents for $2 a swim. It was about my experiences around that pool that I wrote an essay about a woman’s body. I waxed lyrical about how we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, that the lessons we learn from having a woman’s body have nothing to do with size, or with lift or the ability to defy gravity. That we, the ones who have actually been pregnant, and labored, and breastfed (or at least given it a shot), should be the ones strutting in our skirted one-pieces.
That was fifteen years ago. Back when, if I looked up at the Bell Tower south of the hill, I could actually see the hands of the clock on the top in HD. Not the Degas-like vision I’m seeing now. Back when I could get pregnant, and labor, and give breastfeeding a try. Back when it was actually a pool, not just the parking lot of the new dorm towers.
I’ve changed my mind.
I live on a battlefield
Having a woman’s body is great—when you’re in your early thirties and if you put in the effort, you could actually lose thirty pounds, and run a marathon, or skate the frozen canals of Holland from north to south in an afternoon. But what about when you’ve just turned 46, and realize that your warranty’s about to expire. I have less time to live than I’ve lived; I’m closer to fifty than to forty; I’ve slipped from my mid-forties to late-forties; and my little sister is going to turn 36, and Margo, the oldest, is going to turn 56 and be able to order the chopped steak off the senior citizen’s menu at Sizzler.
Sweet memories of a bygone situation are scattered all around
Alexandra ( she who will turn 36 in October) texted me on my birthday, “Happy Birthday. I can’t believe you’re 46.” I replied, “I’m a bit afraid myself.” Bewildered might be a better word for it. My brain’s never felt better. Getting to where I feel like I might know some of the answers. But my body, well . . . . There was a moment there, between about 42 and 45 and nine months, where it could be said about me that “she’s fantastic.” But now, as the family joke/warning goes, “I’m heading for ‘handsome’.” As in, “My, she’s a handsome woman.” Normally said about a lady, a little past her prime and a little larger than her best, who, with the help of a girdle and stockings held up by a suspender belt, sails forth in the world in her Margaret Thatcher haircut, leading with her bosom and bestowing gracious, no-teeth showing half-smiles on its constituents.
I’m truly mystified
All around there is desolation, and scenes of devastation . . .
I wake up drenched at last once a week. If not drenched, on the verge of a full-on sweat that is triggered if Kevin so much as puts a hand on me. I sleep with only the sheet, as Kevin shivers on the other side of the bed. On the nights when I don’t sweat, I still don’t sleep. I have to get up to empty my bladder. It’s not holding as much as it used to for as long as it used to. Which I can’t say for my teeth.
And everything that can has gone wrong
I carry a paring knife in my purse so that I can cut apples and prevent most of the apple ending up wedged between my gums and the crown on my lower right. Makes going through security at the airport interesting if I forget to take it out. I carry dental floss in my pockets, my purse, the center compartment of my car, because with my receding gums, I get a two for one every time I eat, hiding a snack for later with the meat that gets stuck in my teeth.
It’s going to take spine to carry on
And my eyes. I don’t know whether it’s the screen failing on our bedroom flatscreen or my eyes. All the players on Manchester United are fuzzy around their edges on a Sunday morning. I can’t stand face to face with Kevin anymore; he’s out of focus. Have to push him away to arm’s length so I can see him clearly. I won’t have to wait too long until I can’t see at all. The fold on my upper eyelid is threatening to lose its tenuous grip on gravity and cover my eyeballs completely.
My new home is a shellhole
What else? I color my hair every two weeks, because the re-growth is so outrageous, I’m skunk-like within the month. I suppose I could just go white. But, even in my very limited primer on personal beauty tips, I do believe there is a cardinal rule about not going grey when you can still get pregnant. So, I have about two years to go. Then, Heloise white might be an option, if not for the other cardinal beauty logarithm: one can be a) grey and skinny; b) brown and fat, but c) not grey and fat, until you can also order the chopped steak at Sizzler at 4.30 of a Monday afternoon.
If I look at the skin of my neck in the rearview mirror of my car, it looks like old dinnerware—covered in crazing, like a spider’s web. The skin on the back of my hands has been fired by the same kiln. (Madonna wears gloves.)
There is no consolation
A few weeks ago, Amy, the mother of one of Adam’s teammates calls me to remind me to open up the church for practice that will start in ten minutes. I tell her, “I’ll run down there in just a minute.” Forty-five minutes later, I see Kimberly, the mother of another teammate walking by my office window. I can’t for the life of me figure out why she is there. Maybe something to do with volunteering with the storytelling festival? Then the apparition of a promise to open the gym raises itself up in the cottage cheese my memory has become. I spring out of my chair in search of the key, slipping in a stomach grab on the way out the door.
I’m thinking all these things, and onto the ipod comes Nanci Griffith, “Battlefield.” I listen to the lyrics with that morning’s ruminations in mind. . . . Yes, I was the middle-aged lady laughing out loud as she strode (favoring her right hip slightly) through campus on Thursday morning. Listen to this song.
I would wish on all my lady travelers just what Nancy had as she sang about living on a battlefield: a chorus of very peppy male Fates, strumming their steel guitars, rollicking behind us as we slide into the second half of our bodies. They sound like they would be good company along the inevitable descent.
Nanci Griffith, "Battlefield."
Friday, March 9, 2012
The Mystery of Faith:
Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life
--Mass Card, St. Louis Cathedral, Feb. 22, 2012.
Walked to the French Quarter this morning, all the way from down at the Convention Center, up through streets called Royal and Dauphin, Chatres and Bourbon, passed convents with orange trees in fruit, and railings festooned with purple plastic beads. Mardi Gras finished last night. I’m not here for that, but I saw the aftermath. A city waking up with a massive hangover. I’ve never been hungover, but there were mornings decades ago when I woke up after going to bed two hours before, having spent the night dancing hard in my older sister’s high heels. Morning-after feet, aching on the balls, mascara smudged under my eyes, furry teeth, and grainy eyeballs. Coming to with a delicious ache all over, remembering the night before, and how glad I was to dance “Hotel California” with Theo. That’s the feeling I saw this morning in New Orleans.
It’s my first time in this city, just past eight o’clock on a mild grey morning, and I’m walking as long and as hard as I can before I go back to my hotel room to finish a brief that has to be filed today. I know that if I draft first, I’ll feel trapped by work. This way, I can roll the morning into the side of my cheek and suck on it, like a Christmas sour ball, when I’m stuck trying to find a nice way to tell the court that opposing counsel doesn’t know jack.
I feel like I’m on sensory overload. I’m walking through narrow streets, lined by houses that have stood there for over two hundred years. They’re painted happy colors, like orange and maroon (on the same house), butter yellow and purple, an entire block of lavender. Pots of flowers and hanging ferns drape themselves over third floor balconies. I’m seeing the original shot-gun house, and Creole cottage I’ve only read about. Every so often, through a slowly closing door and down a narrow walkway, I see glimpses of bricked courtyards in the center of the square, with more ferns and corner fountains. I can smell new paint, spilled beer, horse poop, bacon, varnish, a passing lady’s body lotion—she’s fresh out of the shower.
There are streamers on the street signs; necklaces in the upper branches of thirty-foot trees. Bottles and cups are propped in whatever convenient place their drinker could find: The top of the blue Apartments for Rent box; lined up like bowling pins on the steps of the church; tucked almost apologetically into a mailbox and the nook of a window sill. White -aproned workers sweep, then spray down the sidewalks outside their restaurants and pubs. They turn the hose politely aside with a smile as I walk by. Another takes off the rolls of protective orange netting placed around the fledgling euonymus hedge planted against the yoghurt shop in the middle of St. Charles, the parade route. He nods good morning. A city truck beeps slowly by, its arrival presaged by the wafting smell of the soapsuds it sprays across the entire width of the street. The streets are so narrow it takes the truck eight reverses to turn the corner. Every now and then, I get a smell of urine. It’s familiar and strangely comforting; smells like the streets of my childhood and reminds me of walking through the subway under the railway on my way to school.
Walking toward me on Canal Street is a couple of black Southern royalty. I can’t think of any other way to describe them. It’s nine in the morning and she has on a silk skirt and long-sleeved blouse, stockings and heeled leather shoes, a jacket of tailored design with brooch, strands of pearls, and a hat with either netting or a feather. Her purse hangs from the crook of her elbow. She might even have gloves on. Everything matches. Her companion’s suit is pinstriped, beautifully draped, the jacket buttoned up; his shoes polished and pointy; his hat perched on his head. They’re tall, slender, and probably in their eighties. I feel the need to curtsey as I walk by, tug at my forelock and apologize for the middle portion of their lives.
An unremarkable couple on the grass in Jackson Square is doing their very own version of Cirque du Soleil, as she does the splits with her ankles propped on his feet, which he holds in the air with his obviously strong, obviously hairy legs while he lies on his obviously broad back. I grin in delight, along with the three gentlemen who are walking by on the other side. I slip into St. Louis Cathedral on the banks of the Mississippi to see whether I can feel God amidst the paintings of King Charles, and the flags of various nations and dioceses. Then off to find the convent, and any other secrets the city can offer up.
Front doors sport Mardi Gras ribbons like Utah doors grow wreaths. Storefronts are narrow, the width of two long, hanging shutters; their lintels are crooked and doorsteps worn; their window frames textured they’ve been painted so many times. I see a grapefruit tree, bearing pale yellow orbs, wedged into the back of an alley. There’s a great Dane strutting his stuff in the dog park. I peer through a wrought iron gate, complete with fleur de lis, and see an oval pool tucked into a courtyard the size of a double garage. It’s a real pool, for a city that is three hundred years old—leaves scattered on the bottom, blue water, brick pavers that have settled slightly unevenly around the white granite surround. The corner deli sells $3.89 take-out breakfasts of an egg, a rasher and a hash brown. The fifties-something hair stylist in Malta Stylists, dapper in his black barber shirt, is combing his eyebrows as I peer into his shop. “Primping” flashes through my brain.
I’m covered in a layer of humidity as I walk—not quite sweat, but not dry; the credit cards and driver’s license in my bra are dewy. Nicholas Cave is singing “the weeping song” as I walk up and down streets that have seen so much, probably nothing surprises them anymore. A wall I walk by is peeling. The layers of paint show that at certain times it’s been mustard, forties aqua, maroon, fiestaware green, white, yellow. The air is thick. The word “fecund” comes to mind. Some of the street corners have gutters where there’s an accumulation of dirt, and debris inches deep, and so compacted, it’s spongy. I think you could grow vegetables in it.
I feel at home here. Like I can breathe, even though I know if I actually stayed here in this humidity and mould, my asthma would flare up and I’d be back on the inhaler in no time. I’m trying to figure out the difference between here and Utah.
The word “earnest” comes to mind. We’re earnest in Utah; well, in my part of it anyway. We’re just earnest. The story of my particular Utah place is one of good intentions, building a dream, making a vision come true. The buildings are young; and if they get too decrepit, they get torn down, and replaced by strip malls and “up scale mixed-use living/retail” developments—in a charming combination of stucco, manufactured stone, with a few Craftsman period details, and the requisite wooden “lodge” columns, paying homage to our mountain environment. There’s so much space there in Utah and so few people, literally, that any mistake you make is public, or feels that way. The Utah air is thin and crisp. I can’t taste it or feel it against me. Definitely, no faint smell of urine.
Everywhere I walk in my Utah neighborhoods, I see evidence of striving: straight lawns, perky flowers, multiple children, minivans, mission countdowns and welcome back signs, flags on every lawn for Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Veterans Day. Even everyday actions and reactions are somehow reconfigured and re-construed as holding up my end of a pioneer’s bargain. It’s inspirational . . . and downright exhausting.
I suppose what I’m saying is that this morning in New Orleans I yearned to live life with just a little more subtlety, less scrutiny, more laissez-faire. I’d like to mark my way through in a small detail, rather than a grand undertaking. Sometimes, a bronze doorknocker in the shape of a lion’s paw is enough; I don’t have to go out and hunt the lion. I’d like to live in a house that’s seen two hundred children raised in it; twenty-seven marriages wrought, wrecked and recovered; more than a few miscarriages—of children and businesses; death; divorce; daily life that’s sorted itself out, died and revived, made its way through, and continues still. (Not so sure about the bathrooms of those houses, but you get the general idea).
I’d like to live in a place where I’m reminded daily by a river flowing resolutely by, half-a-mile wide, filled with rain from as far as Montana and Pennsylvania, dragging silt and remnants of last season’s vegetable garden, that I am just one small part in a very large, long, colorful parade. And if I stumble, chances are that while I’m down on my knees, I’ll find that somebody’s left me a half-filled glass of mint julep and a string of beads to console myself with. Downright neighborly, old-style.
Title: Shed a Little Light, by James Taylor.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Laura’s son, now known as Richard, commits suicide by throwing himself out of his apartment window. It falls (no pun intended) to Clarissa to organize his funeral. The door bell to her apartment rings. There on the doorstep stands Laura Brown, now probably seventy years old, hair in a bun, wrinkled face, with a congenial expression. She is nothing like Clarissa has imagined. She finds her warm, genuine, and still very much Richard’s mother. In fact, when Clarissa says, as she stares at the woman on her doorstep, “You are Laura Brown,” Ms. Brown replies, “Yes. I am Richard’s mother.”
The two women have a conversation in which Clarissa asks Laura about her choices. She starts by asking whether Laura has read Richard’s poems and his novel. Laura replies: “He has me die in the novel. It hurt, of course; I can’t pretend it didn’t hurt. But I know why he did it."
“That’s what I did. I got up one morning, made breakfast . . . went to the bus stop, got on the bus. I’d left a note. I got a job in a library in Canada. It would be wonderful to say you regret it. It would be easy. . . But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice. It’s what you can bear.” "
Which brings me to the other hand of the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go question.
For so many reason, marriage is good for us. We live longer, our children are better adjusted, our earning capacities increase; we can even become better people married than we do alone. In theory, Laura’s marriage to Dan Brown, a good man, should be a source of happiness, especially when the idea of Laura, just the very thought of her, is what carried him through the war. He tells his son, as they eat the birthday cake Laura has baked for him: “I used to think about bringing her to a house, to a life . . . pretty much like this. And it was the thought of the happiness, the thought of this woman . . . the thought of this life . . . that’s what kept me going. I had an idea of our happiness.”
Laura doesn’t have that same idea. This marriage and this motherhood is not “life” for Laura Brown. The hours of her life fill her with a sense of sadness and hopelessness so pervasive the only solution she can think of is her own extinction. (Hold comments about post-partum depression, latent lesbianism in a repressive 1950s sexual climate, and “buck up, things are always a bit rough in the first few years.”) For me, when your own death (or somebody else’s) seems a release from your present life, where you are is not a good place to be. Sometimes the only way to change that place is to go somewhere else. Move your X marks the spot to a different part of the map. Take those around you with you—if they will. Or go on your own.
That evening, Laura sits on the toilet, silently weeping. Her happy, oblivious by choice or by nature, husband is seen in the background through the open bathroom door, entreating her to “Come to bed, honey.” It is there, on the toilet, that she draws the line and makes her plan. From her demeanor, this is not a choice made without pain. She is mourning her choice, and the consequences she knows will follow. But, there, in the bathroom, she chooses life, which, for her, means leaving her husband, her children and becoming a librarian in Canada. The other was more than she knew or thought she could bear.
Sometimes the bravest thing is, as Virginia Woolf says, “to look life in the face and to know it [and yourself] for what it is.” And to choose to live—whatever form it takes. This could mean leaving your childhood church where, for some reason, you are unable to reach God, and making your own tracks until you are able to recognize and hear a divine voice. It could mean cutting off ties with a family member. It may mean leaving a marriage which has been the site of tremendous unhappiness, in which the injuries and dysfunctional patterns go so deep that all is left is exhaustion, and in which thinking of the years stretching ahead creates such internal bleakness that stamping books in the middle of a Saskatchewan winter sounds like mojitos on the Mexican Riviera. It should not mean a metaphorical burial in the suicide’s corner of the community graveyard. But it might—because the some of us don’t know how to process ambiguity very well.
As the fifty-something widower lady looking for an apartment in Paris said on House Hunters International, when she saw exactly what one million U.S. dollars could buy in the seventh arrondissement, “This is not what I expected; not what I expected at all.” Sometimes, the first steps on the path that leads back to life are just that: not what we expect at all.
Monday, January 16, 2012
The Book of Common Prayer contains all different kinds of prayers. There are prayers for the world, prayers for the Church, and prayers for the national life, including prayers for the Supreme Court. There’s a prayer for the celebration and the blessing of a marriage that goes like this: “Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.” That’s just beautiful.
Another one of my favorite prayers is found in the Prayers and Thanksgivings section: “O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen. “
Here’s another prayer, uncanonized and unarticulated, but which tends to work if I can utter the words: “Help me to see.”
In Charles Frazier’s newest novel, Nightwoods, set in North Carolina in the fifties, we meet Luce, a twenty-something single woman who, having experienced perhaps the worst of what her small North Carolina hill town has to offer, takes a job as a caretaker of a now unused but formerly grand summer lodge. She sleeps in the great lobby in front of the fire place on a cot, while the three floors of guest rooms and servants quarters go unused. She dresses from the trunks that have spent decades in storage, and spends most of her time in a solitary wandering of the hills. Then the county welfare worker drops off her nephew and niece, whose mother, her sister, has been killed in their presence. Consequently, they like to start fires. Luce is their only living relative with the capacity to care for them. So they move into the lodge with Luce. A few months later, Stubblefield, the nephew, having inherited the lodge from his uncle, intrudes upon their life in the hills.
He recognizes Luce as the beautiful teenage girl who sucked on a Popsicle the entire time she paraded up and down the side of the town swimming pool during an impromptu beauty pageant almost a decade ago. He noticed her then, and thought about her after. She is changed but still intriguing. He asks her about her life, why the lodge, and whether she is lonely:
She pointed out that weather was plenty interesting to watch as it passed over you, and it had entertained people for many thousands of years. And not just immediate weather but also the larger movements of the seasons. You had to learn how to feel the long flow and not get hung up on the day-to-day. Big swellings and recedings, upturned and downturned sweeps linked in slow rhythms built from millions of tiny parts—animal, vegetable, mineral—not just temperature and length of daylight. For example, the way a rhododendron changed throughout the year, month by month. She claimed she observed and learned nearly a hundred such parts of the local world. She said, Imagine holding every bit of it in your head at one time, this whole place, down to what salamanders are doing every month of the four seasons. She put the bunched tips of her fingers to each temple and said, Boom. Then spread her fingers and lifted her hands in a gesture of explosion.
Charles Frazier, Nightwoods, Chapter 6.
I lay on my bed reading that passage on a Sunday afternoon about two weeks ago. The idea trickled down on me that God is able to forgive with such apparent ease because he holds the entire picture of us in his head all at the same time. The beginning and the end of me are present tense for him. I jotted down on a piece of paper, “Forgiveness is largely about vision. The capacity to forgive is linked to the ability to see. God forgives because he can see.” I thought how useful it would be to be able to see like that.
Sometimes, I run into people I cannot see. By that I mean, that I’m not been able to understand them or their actions. They remain foreign creatures to me. This doesn’t normally happen. As Kevin can tell you, I can empathize with just about every situation—which empathy alarms him at times. I read about women sentenced to six years for shaking their babies or forcing them to drink wheat storage buckets full of water, and I can understand how you get there. I think Brady Udall’s resolution of The Lonely Polygamist is just about the truest description of the braid of love and duty ever. Now, I don’t want to be loved by that lonely polygamist; he’s too lumpy. But I could feel him and his heart. And, there are days when a polygamous set-up makes great practical sense. I could never home-school my children in a million years, unless we were wealthy enough to make school one long field trip coinciding with the locations of medieval castles, WW2 battlefields, and Bushmen creation narratives. But I can see how you would want to do that, for a number of reasons—none of which work for me.
Yet still, sometimes, there are people I just don’t get. When that happens, and I have to live with them or work with them, there’s normally an expletive that bursts in a frustrated bubble in my brain, accompanied by a mental motion that looks sort of like the garbage can sucking in an email message just discarded on an iPhone. Gone. Goodbye. From then on, I look slightly sideways at them, like they’re a specimen.
If I’m in a really good frame of mind, or the situation requires that I can’t remain so detached, sometimes other words sidle into the bubble, “Help me to see them.” By that I mean, “Let me see what you see when you look at this person . . . because right now, I can’t see anything redeeming about them.” I understand now, after reading the passage from Nightwoods, why these words would be an inclination. Because in them is the way through. It’s why Moses is taken up into the mountain and allowed to see the children of Israel from a vantage point he has never had before. It’s why Jehovah tells Abraham to “lift up thine eyes” so that he can see the promises.
If I lift up my eyes, just as Abraham did, my eyes are opened. The gift to me is the person’s days, weeks, and entire seasons in my head at the same time. I see not only the color of this particular tea rose/person (which to my uninitiated eyes is a really vile bright pink) but also its life cycle, its attack by aphids the summer before I bought the house, the premature dying off this season but the vigorous growth next spring. If I am allowed to see as He sees, with a creator’s invested eyes, I can see the whole person, not only as they are, but as they have been, as they can be and as they will be. If I can resist coloring the temperature of that particular day and the action of that particular moment with a significance it doesn't have; if I can manage to “hold every bit of [the person]” in my head “at one time,” I think I might just explode with the vision of them. Patience may actually become genuine; forgiveness unfeigned and readily at hand; the individual days enjoyable.
Not only for them but also for me.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
If I go there will be trouble
An' if I stay it will be double
A woman I know claims to have had three marriages—all with the same man. There is the marriage when they were young, combative, volatile, restless, when her husband was climbing, building, stretching, his energy threatening to consume her. That was the marriage into which their children were born. Then there’s the second marriage in which their children were raised. It was the time in which she learned to draw boundaries, to claim the mother ground within her and to stand fast. To let him be what he is and learn to live with his very nature, and to find her own life. Now, there’s a third marriage—they’re older, the children raised and lovely; her husband’s inexhaustible supply of energy seems to have settled to a steady flow; he’s divesting himself of his companies, talking retirement, and she’s talking about it in some beautiful, foreign shore, like Majorca, or Monterey Bay, or Rio de Janeiro—if only her dogs didn’t have to go into quarantine for six months. We’ve always believed they’ve loved each other; now, they seem to actually like each other.
In the novel Divining Women, Kaye Gibbons presents the dilemma of two people who enter marriage with assumptions they thought were so perfectly clear, they never needed discussing. But, when the husband takes his young wife to India for an extended honeymoon because the husband “wanted to see what they thought mattered in Calcutta,” the marriage is doomed. In Calcutta, the husband discovers that what matters in Calcutta is “not whether the fricassee was prepared right.” He remembers, “so many things made an impress on me. Manners meant dignity and not causing another person pain. But I was certainly causing my new wife pain. Poor thing, she hated it, and hated me for taking her. I was leaving her asleep in the mornings and walking out to the river and weeping. I wished I’d found out everything I did before I married her, but we all learn what we need at the right time, when we can bear the news. If she and I had been able to let one another be, things would have worked out differently.
The wife, however, cannot forgive him for being who he is. She “was determined to make him pay for, as she described it, one day marrying her in high Episcopal style, with the promise of including her in the exquisite Washington society he had always known, and then announcing right after ‘that strange honeymoon trip to India, of all places,’ that he was now ready to explore some nontraditional interests he had been hoarding. . . . She was angry that he could not simply be satisfied with the vision of the two of them floating forever on a river of inherited family money. By her lights, he could work in the mornings, managing investments, have lunch at a club, and then come home and tell her how handsome she looked in her new clothes. She had everything sorted out.”
The young husband tried to tell her, “he had not duped her or misled her.” But “she would not let herself understand that he was only searching for an identity beyond his family’s wealth and position. He could not make her see that he would be a happier man if he could satisfy his vivid curiosity and that they were both blessed that he had the means to do it while keeping her beautifully clothes and shod.” He tried to explain “a hundred times in a hundred ways that they could each do everything they wanted to do, individually and together, that he had realized how unfair it was for one of them to wither while the other thrived.”
I’m of the mind that when we marry, we marry a creation, fired mostly by the hopes and dreams which started long before we ever stopped at that library table on the fifth floor of the Harold B. Lee. Then, as the husband in Diving Women said, we learn things about them and they learn things about us, “when we can bear the news.”
My question is, “What does it mean to ‘bear the news?’”
I’ve often thought that I agreed to be married to Kevin more than once. The first time, I did it publicly, kneeling across an altar, and promising to give myself to him and create a union with him. The other times were just between me and myself. Those moments when, looking at the situation, you agree again, in your heart and mind, to be married this new particular way. You know, when you see that, no matter what you thought and hoped and dreamed, he will never sing you to while he plays the guitar and the two of you stare into the flames of a campfire he has started himself. I remember one night when we had been married about eight months (which means I was about seven months and three weeks and five days pregnant), we were awakened to footsteps on our roof. I nudged Kevin, and said, “Go out there. See who it is.” He replied, without hesitation, “You go out there. I don’t want to go out there.” Moments like that, when the heart of a lion you always imagined shows itself to be, in this particular situation, the heart of a lion cub. That’s when you think to yourself, “Hhmmm . . . That’s how it’s going to be.” The corollary is one of two possible responses. Either, “I suppose I will agree to live with that.” Or, “That I cannot do.”
The incident on the roof is small compared to finding out your wife is cheating on you, or your husband has a longstanding addiction to pornography that he cannot, and seemingly does not, want to break. But I think the question one faces is the same: “What do I do now?” I know there are some people who have said, only half in jest, “If you cheat on me, I’m cutting it off.” But, I’m not so sure the next action in a marriage when you run up against the line you’ve drawn is a given. You don’t have to stay—as you might feel pressured into by your faith. You don’t have to leave—as you might feel advocated by your parents and close friends. You can choose to leave or you can choose to stay. Either choice is a valid choice. Perhaps not the choice that would be made by your husband, or was made by your mother who encountered something similar, or that is advocated by your local minister who, in a spirit of full disclosure, is mandated to advocate for the preservation of the marriage and the family. But either choice is a valid choice. Neither one is an easy choice or the end to all your troubles. Both choices have work attached to them.
Here’s what I would think about if I were at what I thought was a marital crossroads:
1) I take me with me.
I do know that if I left Kevin today, I would take with me my insecurities; my almost pathological need to eliminate all financial risk; my weird wiring when it comes to intimacy and sexual fulfillment and its direct correlation to the size of my stomach; my shoe fetish; my seeming inability to pack away laundry and throw away old issues of Sunset magazine because I might need to know the location of the west’s most beautiful secret campsites which have now been revealed to 235,000 readers and which, if I’m married to Kevin, I’ll never need anyway; my longing to be somewhere else other than where I am that rears its ugly head every few months; and my inarticulate love for him in the face of his actually requesting to be told by me that I love him. I’ll take all of me with me. And, when or if I start again with somebody else, it will be with me still. That’s the news of me. So, even if Kevin did go out and hire the entire Laker Girls team, I’d still be taking me with me if I left. (Just to put the record straight, in our marriage, it is far more likely that it would be me hiring Michael Flatley and his flock of Riverdancers.) And this man, flawed as we both are, loves me and the junk in my trunk.
2) The news is not altogether unexpected, and cuts right into the heart of our own frailties.
As much as we try to pretend we are shocked at what our spouse has done, the news is, more often than not, not altogether surprising. Their acts seem to be attached by a nylon cord right to the very center of our own frailty. Their act/tendency is what we have seen and refused to name because by naming it, we have to acknowledge that there is this thing about our spouse that really makes us feel nervous, unloved, unwanted, threatened, or even fearful. I have found that there are certain qualities in Kevin that I am attracted to, which, in their unadulterated, pure state also happen to unnerve me. I’ve come to understand that, in some strange cosmic algorithm, we choose partners whose strengths cut into our weaknesses, and who will force us, just by being who they are, to move out of our comfort into new and better ways of being—if we so choose.
3) Most acts don’t have automatic consequences, especially not the ones we want to be affixed.
There’s a legal concept called strict liability. It means that once the act is done, the punishment is affixed. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to do the act or you didn’t know the act was a crime. If you do it, you’re guilty. For example, speeding is a strict liability crime. It doesn’t matter if you thought the speed limit was 85, and so kept it at 84. All the police officer needs to do to prove you guilty of speeding in a 65 mile per hour zone is clock you going over 65.
Adultery doesn’t work that way. Being the wife of an adulterer does not mean you get out of the marriage free. Nor does being the husband of a shoplifter or a manic depressive. There aren’t many strict liability crimes in the gospel law reporters. Nor have I found a gospel sentencing guideline that mandates that some acts are just so much worse than others. What makes a seeming inability to turn away from pornography more abhorrent than a woman who refuses to give herself willingly and joyfully to her husband, choosing instead to lie in the bed made for her by some abusive male in her past. Tell me why an inability to stop spending on credit cards to fill the emptiness inside is less troubling than the man who is still playing Modern Warfare 3 at the age of 37. The impact on the other spouse is equally as painful in each circumstance. However, when it comes to sexual improprieties, our community seems to think that the particular piece of news of infidelity is an instant get out of jail free card.
If, in the face of our spouse’s infidelity or unceasing bad moods and inability to love and appreciate us or our long-standing unhappiness, we choose to leave a marriage, the choice is actually ours. That’s an important distinction to make. Their act might have driven you to ask the question, “What do I do now?” The answer to the question is not an automatic “This marriage is over.”
4) The invitation to become “even as I am” is never more meaningfully issued than in a marriage between two equally flawed partners.
At times, it would appear that the choice before you is completely clear. It’s those times when your stomach’s heaving, and your mind recoils at what has been done. At this moment (and in those other moments where the rage will rear its head and infect your present), you want to rip his head from his shoulders, kick it down the stairs, and then stop to bandage the wound. At this particular moment, the need to inflict equal pain to the pain you feel is probably the overwhelming urge, followed by waves of an almost self-pitying, “How could I let this happen to me? How could I have been so blind? I’ll never be able to trust him again. ” Even in this moment, when face to face with your partner’s frailty, that has, it seems, ripped through the heart of you, one very real option is to stay and to learn, with this person, what it means to be married “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for time and eternity”.
In reality, ninety-nine percent of what the human mind can conceive of doing is forgiveable, and the doer redeemable. Even by us. Christ forgave the adulterer a.k.a the cheating spouse—real or virtual. He embraced the unbeliever, a.k.a. the non-church attending spouse or the one who left the fold even when she promised she wouldn’t. He welcomed the thief a.k.a the spouse who takes what is not his; and forgave the betrayer and his accusers, a.k.a. the spouse who puts other interests before his/her family and the spouse who believes every false rumor and innuendo. Christ forgives them all. He does not refuse them membership in his church, or entrance into his temple. He allows their lives to go on, and continues to bless them in accordance with their efforts and best intentions. The quality of His mercy, like Portia describes, “is not strain'd/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath.”
This concept of Christ’s mercy is what I would think long and hard about the most. Because, long after Christ and my spouse have worked their issues out, I might be standing, with my arm raised, waiting to be called on to offer my opinion as to the injustice of it all and the appropriate punishment. I would be waiting for the pound of flesh that is never taken. And I would have missed completely the invitation to become even as He is.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, tired of being persecuted for being a Jew by the Christian merchant Antonio, writes a contract the breach of which allows him to take a pound of flesh from Antonio. Salerio, his friend, asks Shylock why he would write such a contract. What would he do with a pound of flesh? Shylock replies: “To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” I suspect there’s many a good woman who stands with her broken marriage contract in hand waiting for God to take his pound (two would be better) of flesh out of the man who broke her heart and broke up their family. And she keeps on waiting. God, it seems, allows the man to go forward with little or no apparent consequence for his actions. It’s rather a conundrum to find oneself in: watching as a man who promised to love you and honor you and be faithful to you breaks his promise, then gets only what appears to be a disciplinary slap on the wrist, while you are left with the kids, and he remarries—in the temple! Hardly seems fair; his probation doesn’t seem equal to the pain he caused you. Yet, on he goes, while you stand helpless to stop his progress and unable to gain fitting revenge.
The conclusion to Portia’s speech on mercy is particularly poignant here: Mercy “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
I suppose what I am trying to say is that at the moment where we see clearly the particular news of our marriage, there is a very real opportunity to step forward into a new space, to stay and work through this with the one person to whom we have bound ourselves in a union larger than our present, individual feelings and needs. I don’t believe that extending mercy means we have stay. It’s not mandatory. But there is always contained within the act of one who hurts us, an invitation to forgive. When it’s our spouse, the invitation to forgive includes an invitation to stay. And, if we do, I sense that there could result from that decision a kind of union that many of us perhaps never reach. Imagine the relationship that is forged between those who chose to remain married, and honestly work through each other. Imagine the intimacy, the depth of feeling. It could be, I think, a sweet, deep and powerful life together.
Title: “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” by The Clash.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
It’s always been a portent moment for me when the nurse places one of my newborn children on my chest. It’s been a moment of meeting—but not for the first time. Any woman who’s been pregnant will know that you know what the particular child is like before they’re born. After nine months, you know them well. Julia pushed back against my poking her, almost as if she wanted to play. Adam rolled over, in one huge roll, about every three hours, like a tidal wave in my belly. The moment when that little body was placed on my chest, and I felt the weight on my breastbone, my words were always something to the effect of “Well, hi. There you are. Welcome.” Finally, a face to put with the person I had come to know under my ribs. A helpless, wrinkled, red face, and squirly, squirrely body, just beginning, just the promise of a life.
Mother’s pride aside, objectively speaking, there’s not much to recommend a newborn baby, especially if it’s not yours and it hasn’t been born by C-section. The head’s a little crushed, maybe even pointed. The fingers and toes, while perfect, can look alien. The legs are so skinny and slightly bowed from being curled up around the head. The belly’s distended. The eyes are swollen shut. And the hair can be outrageous. Then, for the first month, the baby doesn’t really do anything except cry, eat, sleep, need to be changed. Repeat every two hours; three if you’re lucky.
You don’t know when they place those seven-pounds in your arms what that little body will turn into. I didn’t have any idea that Christian, who once thought he was a dog for almost a year, when presented with the choice, would choose not to participate in team practice on the Sabbath. I had no way of knowing that Seth’s skinny, and I mean, baby bird skinny little body would hold a heart that will play on his hands and knees, even now at 14, quite happily, with a three-year old for hours. Could we have foreseen that Adam would notice? He notices need, hurt, unkindness, loneliness, and is troubled by it and wants to solve it. When they place that little body in your arms, you can’t possibly see the grandeur of the spirit that you and your husband created a body for. At least, I didn’t see it. When they were born, I couldn’t see the fullness of any of these four. I couldn’t see their glory, their power, their strength, their brilliance and beauty. I couldn’t see what being their mother would make of me. They were just babies.
Yesterday morning, I was driving down the diagonal after enjoying a very peaceful seven in the morning Christmas shopping expedition to University Mall. As I rounded the corner and came down into Provo, I was thinking about what to say this morning. The thought came to me, “How fitting that He, Christ the King, comes to us as a baby.” A wrinkled, turkey-legged, alien-fingered baby—if he was like just about every other baby ever born, with not much to recommend him, and more work than apparent reward in the beginning. Was it possible to know that in this baby, “the hopes and fears of all the years were met in him tonight?”
Some of those who saw the baby Jesus knew him for what he was—the glory of the people Israel. In Luke Chapter 2, Simeon, a man “just and devout” had confirmed to him through the Spirit that he would not see death before he “had seen the Lord’s Christ.” About 5 weeks after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the temple to be presented to the Lord. Simeon took the baby in his arms and blessed God, saying: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace . . . for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people. Simeon was not the only person to know the baby. Anna, a prophetess, who spent her days in the temple fasting and praying, saw the five-week old baby, and “in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord.” But most of us don’t have those eyes to see. We see only a baby, or the promise of the good news.
We don’t know, until we have lived with Christ and his gospel of peace, of repentance and forgiveness, of good will and compassion, the full force of his power and glory. We cannot possibly know the blessings of repentance, the joy of human love, the power of obedience and priesthood. We cannot see what the Father, through Christ, can make of us, if we will. I believe it will not be revealed, unless we are willing to let the Christ child enter our hearts; not Christ the King, but Christ the baby. There’s something about a baby, its important little weight, its trusting grip that moves us, that creates a wanting in us to keep it with us always.
I once wrote to Seth, while his body was just a zygote in my womb, that I was so grateful to find out he was there. I explained to him that his father and I had prayed for another child, prayed so hard that every day turned into a prayer. That months, then years had passed without the answer we wanted. That our wanting had turned into waiting. Then, quietly, softly, without trumpets or brass bands, Seth had taken up lodging. I told him I hoped he would stay, that he would grow strong and healthy. I promised him that I would do all I could to keep him with me.
Philip Brooks writes, “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given, so God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of his heaven . . . no ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” I see that moment of the Christ entering our hearts like the moment we see our children for the first time, when our hearts open and they become part of us forever.
The message for me this Christmas is that if we will allow the Christ child to enter our hearts, we begin a journey that will reveal to us Christ the King in his power and majesty. By the Christ child, I mean the simple truths of the gospel. It’s not a fancy, impressive theology. It’s quite simple: love your Father in Heaven; love your neighbor; do good to those around you; repent; repeat. Just like taking care of a baby. If we will allow his simple truths, that because he was born, we shall be saved from our sins; that he is the light of the world, to lodge in our hearts, we can be new creatures in him. It might not be right away. Just like raising children, the process takes time. But the first step is opening our hearts to the Christ child to see that the “peace and goodwill” promised by the angels does, in fact, come first through the baby who lay in the manger, and then through the man who hung on the cross.
Phillips Brooks wrote a fourth verse to O Little Town of Bethlehem that captures for me the prayer of my heart this morning: “O holy child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in; Be born to us this day; We hear the Christmas angels the great, glad tidings tell; Oh come to us, abide with us; Our Lord Emmanuel.” May we open our hearts and give room for the precious weight of the Savior in our lives, take that holy child and his promises to our breastbone just as we cradled our own children in their first hours, and live with him, grow up with him into peace and goodwill.
Title: from, O Little Town of Bethlehem, by Phillips Brooks