Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On the Other Hand

Laura Brown, a character in The Hours lives in an affluent 1950’s Los Angeles with her husband, and young son, Richie. She is pregnant with her second child and has thoughts of suicide. She will, soon after the baby is born, leave her husband and young children, all of whom adore her. Her son grows to adulthood, moves to New York, becomes a poet, and become terminally ill (didn't see the beginning of the movie so don't know if it’s AIDS or cancer). To his friend, Clarissa, he characterizes his mother as monstrous. After all, what kind of woman could leave her children like that? Especially when she threw it all over for a job as a librarian in Canada.

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."

Clarissa offers, “You left Richard when he was a child.”

Laura is matter-of-fact in her acknowledgment: “I left both my children. I abandoned them.” Then she explains: “There are times you don’t belong and you think you are going to kill yourself. Once, I went to a hotel [where I thought about suicide]. Later that night I made a plan. The plan was I would leave my family when my second child was born. "

“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.” "

Then Laura said these words which caused me to pause: “It was death. I chose life.” By “it,” I think she meant her life as she knew it and as she envisioned it stretching out in front of her."

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

A Window in the Skies

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

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now

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.