I'm sitting in a car in Camps Bay, South Africa talking to my high school friend Tracy last summer. I have spent the past twenty years in America, living life on the family fast track. Marriage, children (within about twenty seconds of each other, if the timing of Julia's birth is anything to go by), degrees, homes, business, career, pets, soccer teams etc., etc., etc. I have returned, alone, to my homeland, which I left in 1984 as a college freshman. The teenage ties I had before I left Cape Town and which had suffered the inevitable severance have been resurrected through cheap long distance phone calls, Internet, email and Facebook.
In the early 80s, Tracy and I played netball and waterpolo together. We wore the school uniforms and, even at seventeen, kept our hair up high in pigtails. In 2009, she is a physical therapist with her own practice; I am an attorney. We are both wives to American husbands, and mothers to children. We're in our early forties, but her face is the same, her staccato speech delivery the same, her hunger for a good life still the same. I recognize her--her laugh, her grin, her accentuated hand movements--from decades ago and she is as familiar to me as the Westerford maroon plaid dress with notched collar.
We're sitting in her car after an evening at the beach, I think, talking about choices, about her experiences in Texas, and mine in Utah; about raising kids, about what guidelines she lives by; about how she deals with a cross-cultural marriage and the assumptions that each culture brings to the marriage. The conversation veers to children, about how to raise them, about the kind of discipline, about what standards are appropriate. I am eager to talk to somebody from the outside. Somebody who knew me before, when I was still young and eager and naive and cocksure about life. She's talking about disciplining her son, who is, from my meetings with him, a delightful, well-mannered, talented high school senior. "You know, Tess," she says, "sometimes, I see him do things, and I'll say: 'Uh-huh, no . . . we are not those kinds of people. We do not do those kinds of things.' It's important for me to a good person, to do good things, to help, to be kind. I want my children to be those kinds of people as well."
The words seem quite mundane now that I write them out in full conversation. But, when I heard Tracy say, "We are not those kinds of people," the light bulb flickered on in my brain. There was no language about what kind of "people" she should or shouldn't be. I felt no sense that she was aligning herself with an imposed notion of goodness or of appropriate behavior. Neither was she waiting for the memo from the Vatican City to tell her what kind of person she should be. Rather, Tracy was speaking about what she was choosing to be, about the life she was choosing to create for herself and for her family. I sat there in the front seat of her car and thought to myself, "I will choose for myself the kind of people I will be."
In the past eighteen months, I have asked myself this question quite often: What kind of person do I want to be? I have come to some realizations.
- I choose to pray, not because I should, but because I want to be the kind of person who knows how to speak to deity and to hear its voice. I also want to be the kind of person who teachers her children how to listen to and recognize God's voice.
- I pay tithing not because I want open heavenly windows but because I want to be the kind of person who contributes to the organization to which she belongs. I want to pay my dues.
- I attend church every week and teach in its organizations because I want to be part of a faith community, and I want to be a person willing and able to work beside and love those I would not have chosen for my own company.
- I take my children to church, not because I should, but because I want to be the kind of parent who shows their children that personal comfort is not always as significant as service for the greater community. I also take my children to church because I want them to know that there, in this place, there is time set aside to know their God and a redeemer.
- I am married, not because being married is the only way to salvation, but because I love this man, and together we make great children and find great places to eat, and he makes me laugh and think. I stay married to him because, even though there are times I have consciously chosen to walk back through the door, I want to be the kind of person who, after forty years, smiles across the table at the same man I promised to love four decades before.
- I tell the truth not because my soul will burn in hell if I don't but because a truthful way is a peaceful way. I would like to be known as an honest person.
(Written with permission of my husband, who's flinching a little at the kitchen counter).
I've long maintained that it would do our community a whole lot of good if we had a version of the village pub. You know, a place where you can go at the end of a day, or in the middle when it's five o'clock somewhere, to find your mates and have a chat. After a beer or two, or a shandy if you're an Englishwoman from the novels I've read, conversation starts to flow. I imagine it's the kind of conversation where you tell stories about yourself that make others laugh, and they reciprocate in turn. You share your troubles, your everydays, your regulars, your normals, your ups, whatever comes to mind. (Perhaps the scrapbooking allnighters that go on out there approximate the village pub, but I've never attended and don't know a curling iron from a die cut). So, I long for a village pub. You see, I want to know about married sex.
I know one couple that schedule Tuesday and Thursday, and alternate Saturdays for sex. That way he gets taken care of and she doesn't have to be bothered by him on the other days. They say no feelings get hurt that way. But what about, if on Friday, they go out, and she's looking striking and she makes funny conversation, and her hair's just been colored with low lights around her face, and their hands brush under the table, and they share the Great Chocolate Wall of China at P.F. Changs. What if, after all that, they go home and because it's Friday night, there's nothing going on. I'm telling you, he's not going to feel taken care of. And she'll feel just fine with Roast Almond Fudge out of the carton and the Secret Lives of Women on WE.
You see, it's hard, when you've only had one real sex partner i.e., all the way, to know what exactly is normal, average, regular, married sex. What's normal? Factor in a little history of sexual abuse, and there's a whole lot of "normals" for me and Kevin to get to. How often and how long? And where do you go to find out? The scrapbooking allnighter doesn't work because that's from a woman's perspective. From all accounts and personal experience, the male perspective is different. How exactly does that conversation start, in Utah, in the most LDS town in the known universe? Do you ask the church elders who visit once a month, "So, Brother Bullock, I know you're 93 and your wife died seven years ago, but what do you think is normal for married sex?" Might hasten his longed-for demise.
So, about eighteen months ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine. The kind of friend that knew me when my knees were the widest part of my legs, and I wore pigtails, brown lace-ups, and longed for a Walkman. He's married, with six kids. But, more importantly, lives a continent and a complete culture away.
"So, how do you get your team to attack through the wings without making the center redundant?" He replies.
"So, can I ask you something else?"
"If you had your way, how often would you make love?"
"Aah, go on . . . ."
"No really . . . how often?"
You mean wanting everyday is normal. Everyday isn't perverted, oversexed, or insatiable. Everyday is just male, just different from me. Oh!
Now that was a thing I never before had supposed. And just knowing that changed everything for us.
About three weeks ago, I sat again in a car talking to a friend--a twenty-something version of me (except I was never a concert pianist). Just graduated from law school, mother of two small girls, wife of a student, dealing with all those issues that go with being female, intelligent, in your early twenties, and LDS. We'd been walking through the foothills talking about polygamy and guilt, and veiling your face, and polygamy and guilt, and in-law issues, and polygamy and guilt, and eating issues, and polygamy and guilt.
Her: I don't want to live in polygamy in order to receive the highest degree of exaltation.
Me: You don't have to. Do you really think the God you worship and know will make you live in a situation that turns your stomach? Has he ever forced you to do anything? Why would he start then?
Her: I don't know whether I believe it all.
Me: You don't have to. Just believe what you feel to believe. Let the rest lie until you need it or want to know. There's nothing that says you have to believe it all, lock, stock and barrel, right now.
Her: I don't want to live in polygamy.
Me: You're not now . . . and now is all there is.
Her: I just don't know. There are so many holes in things. So many ideas I wish we had . . . like a heavenly mother.
Me: Where is it written that the theology contained in the four books available for public consumption is all there is? Borrow ideas. Start with the Virgin Mary. Feel to connect with Mother Earth. You want a heavenly mother . . . go find her. If she's all the mother she is supposed to be, she'll make herself known to you. Why, I wonder (and this is where time slowed for me, like I was Cameron Diaz in Charlies Angels doing her roundhouse kick.), do we wait to be fed what it is we individually need to know? If the general theology doesn't yet have it, it doesn't mean it's unavailable, or out of print. Perhaps this is where we get to know, just for ourselves, our personal mysteries of heaven.
As I drove away, I felt as if I had swallowed a pearl.
Those are some of my crucial conversations. What are yours?
Title: David Gray, from "Flesh"