Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Difficult Part

Let the fragments of love be reassembled in you.
Only then will you have true courage.
–Hayden Carruth.

WE HAVE A PAINTING in the hallway to our bedroom. It’s called “Lovers Running” and shows a man and a woman dressed in white on a green hillside, holding hands, and running in their bare feet. Sometimes I get the title mixed up and call it “Running Lovers.” (I imagine they’re running away from their house filled with dripping toilets, incontinent bulldogs, and children with science fair projects that need to be done.) The same artist, Brian Kershisnik, has another painting called “The Difficult Part.” It shows a man and a woman in black leotards trying to perform a gymnastics move. One figure is standing on his hands while the other holds the feet. The woman holding the man’s feet is trying to balance one of her feet on his upended head. While the bodies look smooth and pliant, the move itself looks difficult and the stance is clumsy. Brian has said this piece is his metaphor for marriage. I know what he means.

I am, even after all the feminist seminars and graduate degrees, a die-hard romantic. I read them all: Jane Austen, Anne of Green Gables, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, even Anne; Little Town on the Prairie; Love Story; Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Wuthering Heights, not to mention the forbidden-by-my-mother Mills and Boon romances I would buy for five cents at the used bookstore or the Saturday fete and hide in the upstairs bathroom towel box. So my image of marriage involved both of us eating breakfast on the outdoor patio of a restaurant with yellow-and-white striped awnings and wrought iron chairs, laughing at something as we ate raspberries and cream, followed by bacon and brie on crusty rolls.

I had not envisioned fights. I had not envisioned aloneness. I had not thought of separation, of doing on my own, and of difference. I certainly had not contemplated dishes. Dishes had not been a regular occurrence in my childhood, growing up as I did in South Africa in the apartheid era. I think Kevin entered marriage realizing it would entail dishes but not thinking it would be his responsibility, growing up as he did in Provo, Utah, a place that fought vigorously against the ERA. As a result, it was sometimes days before dishes got done in our new house. I probably walked by and looked at the sink and thought, “Wow, look at those dishes.” He walked by thinking, “For the love . . . look at those dishes. When is she going to do them?” It didn’t really cross my conscious threshold that those dishes were, in any way, my responsibility—at least not more than once a week. And they certainly weren’t more my responsibility than his. Such is the assumption built into a woman raised with domestic help. I knew how to work hard. It just had never involved dishes before. (I still wake up every morning and hope for housekeeping.) I believe it took about a decade for the idea that dishes must be done daily to sink in.

While dishes might be a simple thing, they are an emblem of the unexamined assumptions and expectations we enter marriage with. Some, myself included, thought marriage was an endless love affair, and we’re continually disappointed the first, fifteenth and hundredth time we find ourselves doing the laundry or the fourth grade Indian report alone. I don’t know how often I have stood in my son Christian’s room, or the laundry room, or surrounded by 300 unmatched socks and thought, “Who signed me up for this?”

It would have been good, at the beginning, to decide the following: Who does what and why? Who folds our socks? And, are those socks pinned or tucked? Who cleans our toilets and cooks our food? Who pays our bills? Who spends our money, and on what? Who makes our money? And why do they do it? Because they’re good at it, they enjoy it, hate it less than the other person hates it, don’t mind doing it, have more time, or (please . . . no) they are a man and a woman.

Do we hold hands in public, and rub feet under the table? What about Santa and the kinds of gifts he brings (are they wrapped or unwrapped)? What constitutes devotion and modesty? What about nudity in front of the children, about sex, about talking about sex and euphemisms for sex, about football on Sundays, about sex on Sundays, and dessert after dinner. About spanking children, raised voices, what exactly constitutes swearing, and which words on which continent? Whether it’s better to read a book in the middle of the day or clean out the back of the car. How to fight, which includes reading minds, reaching out, who apologizes first, and how long any particular marital Cold War will be allowed to last. Because, as much as it alarms me, we fight—not well, very quietly, but still cold fighting.

Still, after twenty years of living together, Kevin and I still don’t read the situation accurately because of the assumptions we brought. Just last week, Christian and I were doing an experiment for his junior biology class. It involved Jell-O and laundry detergent and enzymes. I wanted to go all out, with photos and a visual timeline of the changes in the Jell-O’s surface structure. He wanted the Ford Pinto version of the experiment. So, while we set up, we debated whether we needed the camera and the ruler and the spotlight. I was talking over Christian; he was talking over me. He might have called me “Tessa,” and I might have accused him of taking the lowest common denominator approach to life. We bumped into each other and grabbed things from each other. I probably uttered a guttural “Ugh!” or my standard, teeth-clenched, “Child of mine” in frustration.

Kevin stood at the stove watching us. Then he said sharply to Christian, “Don’t talk to your mother like that.” I looked up in surprise. “Like what?” I asked, genuinely perplexed. “Raising his voice.” I looked at Christian; he looked at me. We squinted at each other and cocked our heads, as if to say, “What’s his deal?” We both said, “We weren’t arguing. We’re just figuring out how to do this.” “Oh, well, it sounded like arguing to me.” I’m thinking, “And so what if we were arguing . . .”

After some thought, the penny finally dropped (hanging, as it had been, over my obtuse slot for twenty years) that this soft-spoken man had been raised by soft-spoken parents, who probably didn’t raise their voices when they said, with regularity, “Damn it to hell, Kevin, what did you do that for?” On the other hand, “cackle” and “raucous” and perhaps “irreverent” are the words that spring most easily to mind when encountering two Meyers in one room. Not right or wrong, just different. But this difference strikes at the heart of Kevin’s assumption about a happy home, and I become troubling to him. It is only the last few weeks that I realized my way of expressing myself loudly, viscerally, is, at some level, still disconcerting to Kevin. He doesn’t know yet that my noise, like a blue jay, is just to mark my presence and means no harm.

Comes a time when the answers you thought you knew don’t work for you, or you don’t work in them. When the conclusions you reach or are being drawn to (and are a little reluctant to own) are different than the dreams you dreamed together watching sunsets while eating burnt almond fudge. Experience brings want into sharp focus. After all, it is easy to shoot for the stars before the story’s even started. But when you’re in the middle marriage chapters, it may become clear that, even though you dreamed about a four-volume historical biography with him, the marriage you are capable of and interested in delivering is more like a quick summer read or maybe a slim volume of poetry published posthumously. The question is, how to tell, especially if in the telling, you trample his dreams.

After four children, I’d had enough. Not that the Lord had told me I shouldn’t have any more children. I was just done. Kevin wasn’t. I was. I suppose I could have decided to have just one more, to really prove my devotion. I probably would have loved it anyway. But I didn’t want to. Four was my limit, the place beyond which I just couldn’t go. Is that the line at which my faithlessness manifests itself? Perhaps. There are moments when I wonder, as I look at my four, what another would have been like; sometimes, I apologize to Kevin for not having another. I traded in our dream of driving the gleaming black Cadillac Escalade of families and provided Kevin, instead, with a serviceable, tan Ford Taurus.

In replying to my questions (which were really missives seeking his blessing to stop), Kevin’s response to my unwanting was always, “You know what I want, but you’re the one who has to have them.” Just last weekend, we were catching up lives with one of Kevin’s high school friends. Jay, who played forward to Kevin’s two-guard, has six children. Our first four are within days of each other. Where we stopped, Jay and Jill carried on (all the way down the hill without spilling a drop). I heard Kevin say, “I would have liked more but Tess had to have them all C-section.” Jay, an oncologist, said sympathetically, “Oh . . . that’s rough.” I sat there in the hot tub of La Quinta Inn Red Rock/Summerlin and thought as I looked at my husband, “Ah, you sweet man. That’s the story you tell others so I look brave.” In his telling and his soft voice, I sense again the goodness at the center of this man. I see, for the very first time, that in living with me, he has jettisoned his larger dream of many children. And has done so quietly, without so much as a ripple in my particular pond, dropping his stone quietly at my edge.

On the other hand, my dreams have not been so gently set aside. I have clutched them tightly to my chest, tickets to some longed-for Broadway play I’ve only read about and haven’t seen. Did I know that when I married Kevin he would be a hardwired entrepreneur? I should have probably guessed, but I came to our marriage with the assumption that if one went to law school, one became a lawyer. All the discussions about what businesses he could start, and how to develop his cookie dough idea, or his sports camps idea, or his reading program idea, didn’t ring as loudly to me as his action of starting law school. Now, twenty years later, I know differently. It was a hard thing to know. I kept looking back, comparing what I thought I was getting with what we actually were. Lot’s wife and I could have been sisters, frozen as we seem to be in the motion of backward-looking.

I don’t know what was so attractive about the notion of Sodom or an attorney husband. Maybe Ildeth and I know those particular ideas. We’ve turned them over in our heads, and built futures in them. They feel like home to us. Both Lot and Kevin have paid dearly for our wanting to nest in a dream.

In one of my sacred ceremonies, the words “give” and “receive” feature prominently. The woman is supposed to “give” herself to her husband. The man is to “receive” his wife. I have struggled with that difference and others in this ceremony for years. There’s a chagrined corner in my soul that the religion to which I devote myself appears to treat men and women with such a different, uneven hand. In fact, I didn’t attend these ceremonies for a few years because the explanations for the discrepancies sounded contrived, even patronizing, and I had not yet found my own.

I know now why I am directed to give myself to Kevin. It is my nature to give all of me to those children (granted only four) whom I mother; to be present with my husband with one ear listening for a knock on the door, and a slice of brain composing grocery lists. It is in my particular female nature to look back, to hold onto, to make sure everything is perfect, and to compare the real to the ideal. It is my idealist’s inclination to give only my best parts. I don’t want the others to see light of day. Some part of me, the part that mourns the lost new-clothes feeling after the item is washed for the first time, wants only new, only good.

Marriage reveals me to be the kind of person I suspected I might be but never thought would be dragged to light. What’s more, the revelation is a public one. Being Kevin’s wife and the mother of Julia, Christian, Seth, and Adam means they see me flail about trying to figure out how to live with them. You know, it’s not like I’m going at it sideways. This is the bedrock center of a meaningful life: wife, mother, daughter, sister. I’m really trying. And still I fail, often and routinely, with those I care about most.

Kevin doesn’t like it when I am helpless or make demands on him that he doesn’t want or know how to fulfill. He doesn’t like it when I retreat into silence. He doesn’t like it when I swear at our children. He’s perplexed, even slightly troubled, by my fascination with old, female nudes (as in geriatric, not antique). He would go to bed every night at ten if he weren’t married to me. He would also have more money. He would be able to drive the route he wants and pick his own parking space, without my constant correction. He wouldn’t live in the old house we do now, with cracking walls and two acres to tame.

I never before supposed I would be the cause of Kevin’s disillusionment. That merely being me, with my blue jay noises, my average capacity for child-bearing, my need to hyper-control, would cause him to drop his dreams silently by the way. But, he receives me. Every single part of me, including the part that spends too much money and doesn’t match socks and only wants four children. He makes room for me in his life, under his breastbone, next to his rib. Despite my noise, my mess, my irreverence, and my utter obsession with the material and not being found lacking (just a few of the many), I am, I am starting to believe, his favorite person and his favorite place to be.

There, for me, is the rub of marriage, the most difficult work, the hardest part, and the most grace-filled: that on some days, even my present best is not good enough for the marriage and family I want. I hate those days. Those days when I realize that this requires so much more of a better me than I had ever before supposed. And that this—this me, with the grease stain on last season’s crew-neck which is missing a button—is all I have to give. And still, still, Kevin looks for me. He looks for me when I walk into church. He looks for me when he enters the gym. He comes to find me wherever I am in the house when he comes home. He reaches for me across the bed and pulls me in.

That painting in our office, with the woman and the man in that awkward stance. It looks, in a certain light, like she’s trying to stand on his neck. And, while he’s doing his vain best to balance on his hands with his feet in the air, he’s letting her.

Originally published in Segullah, Vol. 6 (2010): Inside and Outside of Marriage.