Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Beg Your Pardon . . . What I Really Wanted Was A Rose Garden

One woman I know believes that there exists between a couple an implied contract that they will stay the way they looked when they got married. This particular belief was revealed when she told her sister, my friend, about a couple in her neighborhood who divorced. The divorce, according to the Sister, was understandable because "you know, she broke the contract." "What contract? "my Friend replies. "You know . . . . the contract you make when you get married. You marry a certain kind of person. They look a certain way. You owe it to your partner to stay that kind of person. You can't be putting on weight. That's just not fair. The woman broke the contract." After laughing out loud in disbelief, Friend realizes Sister was for real. The promise to remain the same "kind" of person is part of her marriage vows. To her credit, Sister has kept its terms admirably. She can still be mistaken for a My Size Barbie.

This notion of "contract" has set me thinking. I'm thinking there are certain bedrock things that, given our individual nature, should probably be included in our marital contracts with each other. I'm not talking about prayers, scriptures, white shirts or tithing. I'm talking about the things that make this life, the one we're living now, honestly, particularly, individually pleasant.

I'm wondering about my "contract" with Kevin. What is the point at which I will not be able, like Tevye, to find an "other hand"? I'm thinking that, for me, it has something to do with new and beautiful. If we stopped moving into new, I would feel betrayed. Neither do I want to live ugly. Living an ugly, repetitive life would have me crying "Breach" before too long. I realize this has nothing to do with eternal life. Yet, it has everything to do with my earthly life and the way I am built, with what pleases me at my core.

I like beautiful shoes. (They don't have to be new; I've ordered some of my favorites off eBay). I like new clothes, beautiful books whose covers I can rub, new places, good restaurants (without cream of chicken soup in their pantry), different roads, beautiful ideas clothed in original words and a non-repeating summer annuals. The new/different doesn't have to be fancy. I like shoveling snow, digging holes, breaking ice on the driveway, painting walls and chopping trees. They're mini-adventures. I like to have little adventures, every day. This drive is so strong in me that I don't want to go to church some Sundays. It's not that I don't like my congregation. I just don't like doing the same thing week in and week out. It's my personal version of water torture. (Hard to establish traditions this way, I admit. But the Easter Bunny has managed to bring Cheese Whiz every Easter Sunday for the last fifteen years.)

Owning that fact about me, instead of hiding it, frees me to seek what I need to be satisfied. It also allows Kevin to meet a real need. Gives him a target to shoot for. Built into our budget is the Tessa "slush" fund for me to spend on whatever I want. Some puritan streak in me is ashamed of this. I want to be able to say that I like devising recipes from food storage, and that two six-packs of pink geraniums will do for summer planting. I could pretend to be satisfied, or even try really hard to be satisfied with the utilitarian, with the same. But, I'm not. After a while, I get moody, low, like some sort of seasonal disorder in which I'm deprived of light.

Interesting that I married a man who lives in the town in which he was raised, five blocks from his parents, in the same congregation as his childhood. Makes for a nice tug-of-war, my propensity against his. (That we still live here 19 years later makes me realize I'm not winning). Yet owning up to the actual, real bent of my heart (the semi-annual showing of Sweet Home Alabama; drinking condensed milk straight out of the can; the indoor soccer league with the Latin Girls; Sophie Kinsella novels in the bath; onion rings from Stans and a 44-ounce from Crest with no sharing; tiger print bras; distrust of authority in any form) makes this life, the here and now, a pleasant place to be.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beneath the Dust and Love

Often in the past twenty years, I have been surprised by a feeling: as if I've woken to find myself in a place not altogether unknown, but surprising all the same: walking down the hallways of the high school, I expect to see Karen and Patrick hanging out by the book room, as they did in 1983. I know, intellectually, I'm 43 and on my way to pick up a child for the orthodontist, but pushing through those glass doors into the high school smell, I feel the sixteen-year-old thrill of walking down the hallway, hoping against schedule and tardy make-up, that he will be there today. And there he is, walking towards me, his basketball calves stretching Allen Iverson-thin into his khaki Dickies. My heart skips a beat, as I watch him saunter toward me. That he calls me "Mom" stuns me into present. To my surprise, the lanky man-child walking toward me with that half-hitch in his step, braces glinting, is not Derek, but my son, Christian.

A post-midnight with sleeping bodies in beds, lights off everywhere, except maybe over the sink, a cup of rooibos tea in hand, curled up on the leather couch, book on the arm, listening to the noises of the night house. I've spent so many nights in this position at this same time, that, if I am very still, and all I hear is my breath and the same heart beating inside me since before memory, it is hard to tell whether the breathing coming from the other room is my father or my husband; am I seven or forty-three?

Can I be all three? Because, sitting on the couch in my forty-three-year old body, I can still feel the hot flush of shame that fills a seven-year-old body when she realizes she is wholly out of step with the majority, that what she thought was normal was, in fact, quite startling. I can still remember taking my mother's hand to cross Main Road in Claremont, spacing my fingers to fit between hers, feeling the warmth of her palm cup against mine. My son Adam holds my hand as we run through the parking lot after the game (not as often as before but sometimes still) and when his little fingers fill the curves at the base of mine, for a moment I cannot quite tell whose hand is whose. I am simultaneously small Tessa, knobbly-kneed in green school uniform, and someone's mother. The years run through me like it was yesterday, today and tomorrow at the same time.

In my today, I have a husband; four children, one of whom started college last week and needs her tuition paid by the 9th; a mortgage; three cars and a borrowed scooter on which we pay the insurance; a soccer team to coach every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday of the season;; briefs to draft and complaints to prepare; an incontinent bulldog who doesn't like to do her business in the snow so, from November to March, chooses the family room entryway instead; grasshoppers that have invaded my flowerbeds; a weekly tennis group; dirty laundry piled to the window sill. None of these accoutrements make me feel grown up. I supposed they should but they don't.

I thought getting older meant I would suddenly be transformed into the competent, unruffled, self-assured adults who surrounded me as children--at least from my vantage point closer to the ground. I am still awaiting that transformation: I never wanted to clean my room as a child; I still don't. The amount of sheer concentration and energy required for to complete a load of laundry, folded all the way into the drawers, is staggering. I didn't make my bed as a teenager; I rarely do now. Not much has changed inside me on the domestic front as far as I can feel. The yesterdays of me tag along.

Even situations which come with getting older didn't cause me to feel grown up: the bile of terror rising in my throat as I realize I can still feel my toes just as they are about to cut through me for another C-section; the sinking loneliness that fills when when I realize at four this morning I almost shook my screaming three-week old; the numb of having no job, and no steady income; the shame of having left a child racked with seizures on the operating table because I couldn't control my sobbing. I did not feel grown up. I felt scared, alone, numb and ashamed--not feelings I thought belonged to the grown up life.

All I knew in these situations was that I was on the cusp of new and unknown. To add to my discomfort, I believed, for every story, there was a script, a set of easy answers, if I could only find them. I grew up amongst ready-made answers to my unuttered questions about what life I should live, what I should worship, whom I should marry, and not whether to have children but how many. Sometimes those "shoulds" fit like the hand-me-down dresses I used to wear from my older sister Margo. Pretty, but so tight around the chest and arms, I huffed my way through Sunday School to avoid splitting the smocking from armpit to armpit. Past experience with tightfitting, hand-me-downs notwithstanding, I'd pull out my catalog of shoulds and woulds: a new mother should feel consuming joy; a real mother would nurse through mastitis so severe her nipples crack from top to bottom; a supportive wife would have dinner ready and be willing to dip into the 401k; a competent attorney would so obviously know how to select a jury; a real coach would have prepared her striker for the offside trap.

Faced with such daunting standards, my own responses took on a "deer in the headlights then hit by a truck" quality--stunned into silence, then a stagger sideways, blinking rapidly. Always, always, my response contained an aspect of flight. Faced with the gap between what I thought a grown up me should be/feel/do and what I am/feel/have done, I feel to run--away. Me and Bono, we both want to run--to the waiting room, to a book which offers escape, to the mall, to the shopping cart on Zappos--anywhere I can start breathing again, and try wrap my arms around what it means to be where I find myself: not the real mother, not the real coach, not the supportive wife, not the competent attorney in a situation which so obviously calls for one. Then, having got my blinking and breathing under control, the imposter-me, who still remembers the feel of her mother's hand and wishes for it then, sidles back in to play somebody else's mother.

I am learning that, sometimes, it requires tremendous courage and nerve to simply show up, to be present in a particular day. To be completely utterly and present in the days in which you realize your business is failing and you will have to declare bankruptcy; in that particular day when it sinks in he is leaving you and your children and you will be divorced; in that day and the days that follow when you realize you cannot live with this man any longer and that you need to make a new life; in the days that you look at your children and their choices and weep for them and continue to love them; in the days after death; in the day where you take your beloved's face between your hands and ask him about "us"; in the days where there is $11.57 in the drawer and no milk until the end of the week; in the day you lose your job and the months of unemployment that follow. Those days that I never thought would be mine, which I could not have imagined--those are my most important days. How I face them shows me I have finally grown up.

Instead of running and apologizing on my return, I am choosing to stand. I'm letting the ebb of the unknown and uncertain flow over and through me. I'm concentrating on stillness. I'm trusting my solutions are sufficient; that the uncertainty which accompanies life will not overwhelm me; that the difficult conversations and laundry are necessary. I'm seeing that my willingness to show up, in whatever inadequate, diluted form, is the most significant measure of a grown up life. And, in my willingness to stand rooted, to be present, I feel the blossoming of calm.

Title: from Counting Crows, "Perfect Blue Buildings"