Out of the Ruts

IMG_0906Michigan weather and a county with little remaining plowing budget have found me driving in ruts. My street, a narrow slip that, with a car parked at the edge, allows only single-file traffic, is covered with several inches of ice. Two tire-sized ruts provide the only path, and transferring a vehicle from those ruts to a driveway or the other way ’round takes intention and precision if one doesn’t want to skate into another car or simply spin one’s wheels. Those ruts hold the car tight, however, albeit with a fair amount of jostling within them. There’s safety in the ruts, even with the daily morning glaze of ice. The nausea-inducing ride in them is far from pleasant, but while in these ruts, you’re not apt to end up sideswiping a car or ending up in a snow bank.

Driving in these physical ruts led me to think about the metaphorical type, the kind that we say we want out of yet not badly enough to risk the leap; the one that may leave us skidding into the unknown or simply spinning our wheels in frustration. There can be an odd comfort in even our most painful ruts, perhaps because we know the jostling they bring, which can sometimes seem more comforting than whatever road might lay beyond those well-worn grooves.

Six years ago tonight, my rather messy disaster of a marriage turned far more chaotic. Years of worsening arguments and other insanity came to a head, and by the end of March 2, 2008, I lived alone with two children. I’d like to say that I never looked back after that day. The episodes that led to the shrinking of our household should likely never open one’s mind to reconciliation, and I’m still uncertain why, that for almost another year, I fought for that chance to return to healthy married life. It was, as they say, likely desired for the children, although children are always better off away from violence and deception. It took me almost a year for me to realize that the loss on March 2nd was best accepted and better for all.

Every February since, starting somewhere in the middle of the month, I feel the downward pull. It’s a tug towards some wintery mix of sadness and anger, tinged with a bit of guilt and touched with disbelief that the whole nightmare — years of it — was mine. I don’t blink at our anniversary and can’t even recall the date of our divorce, but that Sunday night in March, along with the weeks preceding it, are still hard to bear. While my grief takes different forms different years, at some point, I find myself in the ruts of revisiting that past — the day itself, then the weeks around it, then the years that came before. It’s a nausea-inducing ride of pain and sadness, yet I fall into those grooves each winter.

Last year, happily enjoying the first year of love with the peaceful, honest, and faithful man whom I’ll soon call my husband, I almost missed it. Mid-February found me thinking about the date, but little emotion came. For the first time, I felt some detachment, some ability to not let those memories play over and over, with all the emotions returning during the reruns. The actual date caught me off guard. I’d actually forgotten, until, at some point near the end of the day, I remembered. Into the ruts I fell.  I cried with company, and the sorrow left more quickly. I started to think those ruts had passed for good or at least that their hold on me had loosened.

This year, the heaviness started over a week before the date. I felt the familiar grooves after landing with a thud, and drove along their familiar path. It’s been a long season, and, like many of us who are suffering cabin fever in what is truly the worst winter many of us have ever seen, I’ve had some dip of mood. Perhaps my upcoming nuptials contributed to my mind’s unexpected plunge into the darkness of six years earlier. While I’ve largely concluded I’m capable of being part of a healthy marriage, of loving someone deeply without losing myself (a self only really found in the past dozen years), of being loved deeply and without reservation, I’m prone to worry that at points borders on panic.

I don’t question whether I had a role in my marriage’s slide into disaster. I know myself when I’m anxious — grasping, afraid, demanding of answers to all that confuses and scares me, angry, wordy — and those last years found me anxious beyond what I’d known previously. I also know what most of us know about making relationships better: I could have listened more and talked less. I could have sat with my anxieties before throwing them at another. I could have let go just when I most want to grasp tightly. In a million ways, I  know I could have loved better. Couldn’t we all?  I don’t, however, take all the blame for the nightmare that was the years before that particular March 2nd, nor any for what happened that night. I did many things over many years that didn’t help, but ultimately, we are responsible only for what we choose to do with our hands and hearts. We are sovereign that way.

Somewhere in the past few days, the dread and deafening doubts tiptoed away enough to let me get through some days without crying. The relief, similar to when the ice finally starts to melt, was barely perceptible until I looked back and saw I hadn’t cried that particular day. I scheduled a massage for Saturday, washing myself in tender and healing touch. I mentioned my blues to my massage therapist, telling her the date that had been bothering me. Her response made little impact at the time: Do something special that day, something that rewrites that day in my memory. Fat chance, I silently figured. What could happen that could push away that darkness of that single and dreadful day? How could I escape those ruts?

The answer came hours later, after the mail had failed (again!) to bring my copy of UUWorld, the quarterly print and online publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association. By no effort of my own, I had a piece in both editions, a piece I’d written last fall — Questions of Comfort, a musing about the need for meaning in tragedy. An editor at UU World contacted me, a writer who rarely submits anything to anyone anywhere since that keeps the rejection monster from visiting too often. He asked if they could use the piece, and I, eager to be in print, elatedly agreed. While I’d seen the piece online, my copy had yet to arrive. Over the previous days, friends send messages saying theirs had arrived, one kindly sending a picture of the first page, providing the proof I needed that this was real. But I wanted my own.

Stalked mail carriers rarely deliver, however, and Saturday’s delivery was notably without my copy of the magazine. As I headed to bed after a marvelous day with my intended, it came to me that perhaps I’d found a way out of the ruts March 2nd had held for me these past six years. March 2nd fell on Sunday again this year, and friends, knowing I’d not yet held the magazine that contained proof that I was indeed a published writer, promised to bring that proof to church. Sunday, I’d see my words published in a small yet not invisible magazine that often contains pieces on the hardest parts of life as well as the seemingly small wonders it brings every day.

And so I find myself on a new road, one where March 2nd isn’t a day of recalling pain and reliving disaster and returning to thoughts of failure. March 2nd can be the day I first saw my work in print in a made-of-paper, read-by-people-who-aren’t-obligated-to-do-so magazine. It’s small, this success, but it’s a start down a road I’ve yearned to travel: The road of the published writer.

I don’t know what will happen come the end of February 2015. Habits are hard to break, and some memories are more challenging to manage than others. It’s not in the remembering that the ruts wreak their havoc, however. It’s in the emotions and thought patterns that we dig deeply, either by intention or accident, and it’s what we miss by assuming that once we fall in that we can’t find our way out. There’s nothing wrong with remembering and learning from our most painful memories, but when they steal so much of our present, they need some adjusting. They are ruts to ride over and out of, in search of more open road. Who knows where that might lead?

Grief Without a Timetable

DSCN0669“Every childhood has its trauma. This will just be theirs,” said my therapist who helped me through the separation that led to my divorce some five years back. I nodded, holding back the tears. What had transpired in the previous two to three years seemed too traumatic for me to bear in my last thirties. How were my boys, only 10 and 6 at the time — babies, for goodness sake–supposed to weather this trauma? Shouldn’t their greatest traumas at these ages be skinned knees and dropped ice cream cones?

My greatest trauma prior to the slow, agonizing end of my own marriage was my parents’ separation when I was 15. The divorce, a year later, and subsequent remarriages were brief showers of grief compared to the devastating hurricane of my 15th year that followed the (to me) shocking announcement of their separation.

Around that time, I took a religion class in my Catholic high school about death and dying, and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief were a focal point of the class. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. Presented as a linear progression of grieving for the dying and bereaved, I don’t recall relating those stages to the depressive fury that filled that next year of my life. Acceptance actually came quickly after a brief period of denial I kept to myself. I was to live with my dad for the rest of high school, visiting my mom a few times a week. That wasn’t going to change, and I had not one fantasy about parents reunited and family restored. But mine wasn’t a peaceful acceptance, but rather a resigned one punctuated with an anger so deep I couldn’t speak it or even acknowledge its existence, and depression that, while not incapacitating me, sucked a light out that had burned brightly before. At once I was accepting, angry, sad, and, come each holiday and all its dilemmas, incredulous that I was in balancing act forever. Over the years, after I could touch more of the anger without retreating in pain, all of those feelings softened, but they’ve never remained entirely away. It’s grief without a timetable.

Our human condition and resulting emotions are messy and chaotic, but our human brains prefer organization. We like logical progression, moving from A to B to C over days or weeks or years. We like to categorize people and feelings and ways of being in the world. Consider Erikson’s stages of development, the DSM’s divisions of mental illness, the Enneagram and Myers Briggs personality categories, and even astrology’s assignments of traits and fates. We sort and order our belongings and ourselves, desperate for the comfort of order. So ordering grief? Why not?

Because it doesn’t work. Mark Epstein, psychiatrist and author of “The Trauma of Being Alive” (New York Times, August 3, 2013) says it well:

Mourning, however, has no timetable. Grief is not the same for everyone. And it does not always go away. The closest one can find to a consensus about it among today’s therapists is the conviction that the healthiest way to deal with trauma is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay.

Dr. Epstein goes on to describe his mother’s grieving of her first husband’s death, a long process never entirely resolving. His mother goes on to marry again and live a full life, albeit with the occasional nagging doubt, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” His answer? Trauma never goes away completely.

While my trauma from my parents’ divorce nearly three decades ago has largely receded from my thoughts, the unwinding of my own marriage, a long and messy process, brought fresh grief that has yet to mellow to an occasional wistful sigh. Far wiser at 38 than at 15, I knew from the start I had to acknowledge those feelings that churned up without bidding and with little respect to time or place rather than deny them, as I had done as a teen.  As the separation morphed into divorce, I could usually tuck the tears of fear and anger and resentment away at least until I made it up to my room and shut the door. There, alone or with a friend on the other end of the phone line, I could let the feelings rise then ebb, like some unpredictable and cruel tide.

But grief wasn’t always that neat and manageable. Grief resists containment, corroding the container if bottled up and exploding out when the lid is just slightly loosened. But sometimes I shoved a particularly painful emotion inside, finding it ugly or just inconvenient. Sometimes it spilled out at church or in the car or while cleaning the garage or when talking to my then husband turning ex-husband or parenting my children. I know at points I have deepened their trauma by poorly managing my own grief.

After a few years, the grief surfaced less often and with far less intensity. Too many times I’ve asked myself what Dr. Epstein’s mother asked: Shouldn’t this be over by now? Recent events and revelations have again brought me back too often to a place of deep sadness and hot anger. They come so fast and hit so hard they threaten to knock me out of the tenuous equilibrium I thought I’d reached. I’m floored by their ability to render me incapable of right speech, right action, right view, or any other peaceful way of being in the world. It is, in one sense, a new trauma to add onto the pain of five years back. It is also far more manageable, since it is really just another chapter of the old trauma. I know this pain, and I know that my best response is to do as Epstein says: Lean in. It works. And the pain passes, whatever expression of emotion it has taken, at least for the time being.

The first Buddhist truth says it well: Life is suffering. That’s not too far from my therapist’s wise words about every childhood having its trauma. We will experience trauma. We will suffer. It’s inevitable. And grieving? That’s what inevitably follows trauma, or at least the traumas that aren’t our own deaths. Everything ends. That’s the promise of life, after all.

So is it depressing that grief with no timetable will follow inevitable trauma? A bit, but it’s a truth worth accepting. Perhaps that’s the acceptance we should really strive to find: Not an acceptance that ends to our disbelief, anger, sadness, and pain but rather an acceptance that these feelings may just not ever evaporate entirely and that it’s okay that our minds and hearts work that way. It’s still unsettling, and grief brought to one’s own children is a trauma all its own. It’s life, though, so I’ll lean in, wait out each round, and watch their tides and ride my own.


Institutional Thoughts: Musings on Marriage

I’ve been contemplating marriage. Not actually getting married, mind you, since that’s just not on the radar. But since my divorce, I’ve thought about marriage: what it means, whether I’d enter one again, and why I feel so conflicted about it.

So why write about it now?  A good friend recently remarried. She’s utterly, completely in love. Both that love and the service were lovely to witness. Her wedding was the first I’ve attended since my separation (4.5 years ago) and divorce (3 years ago), and the months before it and the actual event brought me to wonder a bit more about marriage and whether I’d ever enter one again. I was surprised at how much my friend’s wedding caused my mind to tumble.

I was married fifteen years, spanning from the too-young twenty-five to a far-more-mature forty.  Some of those years were happy. Some were not.  I entered that marriage with the hope and confidence that typifies youth. When it finally ended, I walked away from the courtroom with sadness at what could not be and relief that what was had finally ended, I was also older and wiser and somewhat jaded. I left wondering about trust, lasting love, the fallibility of humans, the messes that result when our loving selves get lost to fear, and whether I could ever risk my heart again.

Sure, I’ve pondered the what ifs. What if I’d waited until I was older? What if I’d not seen marriage as bridge to be crossed to the world of adulthood? What if I’d entered it more certain of myself and with some years living alone (and not college-dorm-room alone)? But during that wondering, I’ve never desired to turn back the clock. That marriage brought me my children, after all. Beyond that, it was during the worst parts of that marriage and the time that came after that I learned about me and how my head works. I learned how much strength I had and what I truly valued. I learned I could go through what was unthinkable (divorce) and come out, well, better.

So with those positive outcomes from my first marriage’s end, why the sour expression when thinking about ever entering it again? The trite answer would be along the lines of “once burned, twice shy,” but that really doesn’t touch the tender heart of the issue. It’s not because I don’t trust men or because I wonder about my ability to judge character and suitability. It’s not because I’m waiting for marriage equity — when all are free to marry then I would partake. And it’s not because I’m a commitment phobe or prefer to live alone. (Or at least as the only adult in the house, although that does have some advantages. The empty side of the bed holds plenty of books and my iPad.)

Some of it is a bit of cynicism. Marriage, Catholic marriage as sacrament with plenty of forethought and a bit of counseling, didn’t safe-guard my relationship with my then-husband. The words said that day, the paper signed, turned out to be just words and paper. Human frailty set us asunder, and an expensive legal system undid the paper end. Now, as the child of divorced parents, I wasn’t naive enough to think that words, a priest, and a signature would guarantee happily ever after, but I did think that the intention that went into those words and those signatures would persist through the hard times. But for a myriad of reasons, sometimes that isn’t so. And sometimes, it’s better that way.

But as my father says, all marriages end. Whether by divorce or death, this human construct consummates in separation. And, generally, a fair amount of sadness, at least. I’ve led a fairly easy life, void of death of those close to me and blissfully full of an abundance of friends, food, and good fortune. Those years before and during the end of my marriage were miserable, frightening, painfully sad ones. The sense of loss was only buffered by the presence of my children and the intervention of friends, and the hurt the former suffered created a pain in me I’d never known before and hope to never know again.

But back to marriage. Our culture holds high expectations for a spouse: lover, best friend, housemate, nurse, cook, cleaning crew, parenting partner, confidant, and more. It’s a tall order. Marriage is no longer simply a pairing based on logical arrangements and tangible benefits to a family. I’m not advocating the return to the purely utilitarian marriage, although there are days that my first criteria for a partner would be a willingness to clean the insect carcasses out of the porch light and a dedication to shower cleaning. I’m just wondering what the right balance of expectations looks like.

Truth be told, I’d like to partner again, even if that person didn’t clean bugs out of lights or scrub showers more often than I. My father often reminds me that we’re social animals, and the desire to pair extends beyond the biological end of procreation. (And there will be no more of that, mind you!)

Our culture seems to carry conflicting messages about partnering. On the one hand, it tells us that pairing is essential. Consider the number of articles on and off-line about how to find and keep a partner. Look at movies and TV, many which focus on partner acquisition even while hunting down the bad guy. Find someone who “completes” you, who is your soulmate, and all will be well. Being alone? That’s a situation to be fixed, preferably as soon as possible.

Countering that is what I’ll call the “whole people are happy alone” maxim. As a society, we also value independence and the individual over the group (politics and sports aside), whether that be the group at work or the group that is a committed couple. Saying one is lonely is viewed as weakness, with admonitions to know one’s self and be comfortable in being alone. I’d wholly agree that being comfortable in time alone is part of being a healthy human. Being able to sit with the self without restlessly searching to fill the void of other indicates a level of acceptance of one’s nature and being. But one can be quite comfortable being alone and yet feel still lonely. Heck, one can be inches from one’s spouse and still feel lonely. I’ve been to both those places.

So where does that leave me with the institution that is marriage. It’s not a magic-maker nor a guarantee. It’s not the answer to loneliness or lights filled with bugs.  It isn’t a protection against pain and hardship. It is in part a piece of paper that comes with legal protections and social acceptance (and it should be open to all, regardless of the gender pairing, but that’s another essay). At its best, it should be a commitment of love, friendship, and deep compassion.

Perhaps its the pain of ending part that has me stuck.  Perhaps it’s doubt that I could do a better job at my part, despite knowing myself better and seriously working on the parts of me that did nothing to help as my marriage unwound. Perhaps a bit of it is about trust, as much as I like to think it’s not. I just don’t know. That’s not much of a conclusion, but today it’s all I have. I’m open to thoughts about marriage, good or bad. Share away.

The Divorce Shuffle

If you’re tired of reading my post-divorce slump posts, skip this one.  I’m tired of having them, but somehow they just pop up occasionally.

I keep wondering when the sadness will leave for good.  I wonder when I will no longer wake at night from a dream about reconciliation with my ex.  Even in my dreams, that long-gone desire is dashed by the presence of his new wife’s son.  I don’t pine for my ex, can’t imagine returning to the shambles of a marriage we had those last several years, and spend most of my time feeling whole and grounded.

It’s just that divorce never ends.  The shuffling of children back and forth, the calls/emails/texts to discuss the children, all the extra work it takes to raise children in two different homes.  It never seems to end.  What was once a discussion after dinner or when the kids went to bed now requires a call between us, never at the right time for either one of us unless previously scheduled.  Decisions that take a good amount of back-and-forth either are truncated or tabled until there is more time to discuss the issue.

Don’t get me wrong.  We do quite well co-parenting in different houses.  Better than we did on the same turf.  It took us awhile to come to this point, and we still slip into unpleasantness at times, but we do pretty well.

Doing  “pretty well” does nothing to change the rather unfortunate yet real fact that we are no longer two adults parenting our children together, backing each other up and stepping in for each other when one can’t continue without coming unglued.  We’re probably doing better than we were during our last few years together, years filled with arguing, angst, and more.

So what undid me this time?  An article in the Spring, 2011, issue of Brain, Child, “Before This,” was the culprit.  Sarah Ivy elegantly wrote the crux of my struggle with divorce:  loss of family and the ever-present burdens of divorce.  The essay pivots around the birth of Ivy’s fourth child, the product of her second marriage, with the other three coming along during her previous marriage.  Although she never states it as such, it seems she was the catalyst for the divorce.  While I’m loathe to ever identify with the “leaver” in divorce, I know some situations are untenable and best left for the safety and sanity of all, and I respect the privacy she gives the circumstances of her divorce and ex-husband.  In short, she gives birth, fully expecting this child to be a full sibling to her other three, despite sharing only half their DNA.  It is her reaction to the child that’s jarring to her:  this child is clearly NOT just like her others at birth, appearing quite different.

While this different appearance may seem shallow of Ivy, her essay shows nothing of the sort.  She’d continued with life after the divorce,  determined to sally forth as previously planned, family intact (or what remained).  The birth of her fourth child broke that illusion.  The reality of the disturbance that is forever in divorced families weighs down heavily as she looks at this child who is clearly of different origins than her first three.  Life has changed forever, and the rest of the article recounts her understanding of that.  I could be crass and ask her what took so long, but that would only betray the touch bitterness that still surfaces at time as I sally forth in my completely changed world of divorced living.  Sure, the boys and I have settled in, but not to something any of us would have chosen, given the ability to actually choose.  (Okay, I wouldn’t have chosen to live the last years of my marriage as I did either.)

Not once did I hold the illusion that separation and divorce would be a blip in our lives, an event we’d experience then move on, like a speed bump taken a bit too fast on the road of life.  Never did the magnitude of dividing parents and shuffling children escape me.  I’m a child of divorce, after all.  While my being-shuffled years were minimized by my age at their divorce (16 years), my shuffling of myself has never stopped.  Holidays are parceled out, visits to different homes are scheduled, and the word “family” elicits a collage that doesn’t seem to quite all line up.  I never wanted that for my kids.  And sometimes, not often, but sometimes, I feel pretty angry and mighty sad when I think about the relative simplicity we’ve lost from our previous life as an intact family.

Despite division, despite adding family on their father’s end, despite mom dating, we all sally forth.  We’re still learning all the steps to the divorce shuffle, knowing these steps will change as time goes on.  I’ve gained some flexibility and increased my tolerance to the unknown, reaching somewhat better terms with change.  Sometime, however, I tire of the dance and its ever-changing steps, and I miss the relative simplicity of two parents, two kids, one house.  Sarah Ivy said it best: “…none of this was simple or clean, and ever would be again.”  Thanks, Ivy.

It’s Life and Death

Woodstock, the early years

By all accounts, today has been unusual.  It’s also been a bit hard on the heart, too.  This morning, the boys and I were surprised to find Woodstock, our six-year-old guinea pig, dead. Now, six years is a respectable lifetime for a guinea pig, who have a life expectancy of six to eight years, but his death was a bit of a shock.  Somehow, I assumed Alfie, his older cagemate, who is about seven-and-a-half, would go before Woodstock.  And, given the slow demise of a gerbil a few years back, requiring a trip to the vet for euthanasia when his suffering became obvious, I guess I expected death after at least a brief illness.  Coming to the cage and finding him dead never crossed my mind.

Woodstock was my first furry pet.  As a kid, I’d had two goldfish, each named Goldie, and a cricket, named Arthur.  I can’t recall my reaction to the death of each Goldie, but I do know I wept bitterly at the loss of Arthur, which occurred three weeks after his capture from the wild and imprisonment in my room.  Allergies (mine and my dad’s) and an aversion to pets to care for (mom’s) made all non-aquatic or insect pets out of the question.  So aside from the occasional weekend caring for a class gerbil or hamster, furry pets (or any pet interested in a relationship with humans) was out of the question.  The first mammals in my care were my children.  When I’d kept them alive until the sturdy ages of seven and three, they hit me up for a pet.

“How about a fish?” I countered.

My older firmly informed me that fish were not real pets.  You couldn’t hold them, at least not more than once.  No, he asserted, he wanted a pet with fur.  A real pet.

So we reviewed our options.  Dogs and cats were out.  I was allergic to both, and that was far more care and committment than I was up for.  Rabbits?  Allergic to them as well.  Dreadfully.  Mice?  Too micey.  Gerbils?  Too much like mice.  And don’t they bite?  Hamsters?  Stinky.  My younger discarded howler monkeys on his own — way too loud and howly.  Guinea pigs?  Hmmm.  I was stumped on that one, not having been around one since elementary school classrooms.  Research was needed.

So we delved into guinea pig books and websites.  From our reading, they seemed fairly sturdy (good when you have an inquisitive 3-year-old around), generally unlikely to bite, and generally unlikely to escape.  Off to the pet store we went, where we found Woodstock, an eight-week old American Smooth, brown and black, bouncy guinea pig.  We were smitten, and we set on making his life as good as possible, with the best food and hay, a large cage we made from Coroplast and squares of metal shelving, and comfy fleece bedding.

But soon, our reading led us to belive Woodstock was lonely.  Guinea pigs need a buddy, it seemed, and while ours seemed content with our ministrations alone, we set out to find him a friend.  How we stumbled onto the Guinea Pig Lady (our name for her), I don’t recall, but we drove a half hour south to see this woman who gave much of her home to be a guinea pig shelter.  In addition to some 30 sheltered pigs, she had 20-odd pigs of her own, living in the most elaborate three-or-four story (pig stories) structure.  At some point, my younger mentioned that the pigs might want a snack, and the cacophony of squeaks that followed his words was nearly deafening.  Somehow in all that, we found Alfie, a white and brown Abyssinian who was between one and two years.   He was the friend for Woodstock.

And the handsome guy on the right is Alfie

Cautiously, we introduced them, first putting them in adjacent cages, then supervising time with them out of the cages, and finally caging them together.  And they didn’t care.  Sure, they chuttered at each other a bit over which shelter to use, and for the first few years of their cohabitation, they would mount each other, with no clear dominance emerging,  but really, they just didn’t seem to care about each other.  Ah, well.  We decided they were friends.  And we’d become bona-fide pet owners.  My parents were surprised.  Honestly, I was surprised.  I hardly needed more bodies to care for, but I really did bond with the stinky, messy guys (the guinea pigs, well, and the boys).

Gerbils followed, then aquatic frogs.  Mealworms, ants, guppies, fighting fish, slugs, and snails all found shelter in our home for prolonged periods over the years.  And while the gerbils and most of the rest have passed on or been released, only the guinea pigs and those immortal aquatic frogs remain.   The pigs were our gateway drug of sorts, opening our doors to an ark-load of creatures over the years.

And, over the years, we’ve lost fish and gerbils, ants and slugs.  But this was different.  Woodstock was my first furry pet, and, for a rodent, he had a remarkable amount of personality.  He was the one who squeaked every time the fridge opened, hoping for lettuce, carrots, curtains, fleece, plastic… he was hardly a discriminating eater.  He was the one who greeted each foster cat that batted a paw between the bars of the cavy cage with a hopeful sniff, looking for food.  Yeah, he was a bit slow.  We didn’t dub him least likely to survive in the wild for nothing.  But he had personality.

My older was initially sad, although not as bereft when, several years back, we had his first gerbil put down.  My younger was a bit scornful of his brother’s and mother’s long faces and sad tones.  “It was just a guinea pig,” he scolded.  “It’s not like it was a cat.”  Ah, priorities.

But life goes on.  Alfie seems unphased by the loss of his cagemate of six years, and I imagine he’s glad to have the food to himself.  And the three of us are rather distracted.  Today, February 22, the boys’ half-brother was born.  They’ve been excited about his coming, which is a contrast to their reactions when first hearing about him seven months earlier.  In contrast, I’ve been sad and pensive over the past few weeks, as birth became imminent.  I’ve ridden waves of anger and sorrow, tempered by the hope that my children and this child can bond and grow to love each other.  I’m watching what I feel become colored by my thoughts and vice versa, and simply watching that process reminds me how easily I can confuse those thoughts and feelings with the reality of the situation.  Reality is that one life has left the world and another has entered.  Reality is a universe taking care of itself, ever maintaining balance.  So I keep breathing, sometimes crying, sometimes simply being, and, occasionally  — just occasionally — smiling.

Ready or Not

Disclaimer:  This promises to be a whiny, selfish post.  Hopefully, I’ll come to a better spot by the end. 

She’s dilated four centimeters.  No contractions yet, other than a few Braxton Hicks, but the baby is clearly on the way soon.  She’s ready, at least as ready as a first-time mom can be.  Those of us who have had babies know you are really never ready, not for labor, not for birth, and certainly not for parenthood. 

But I’m not ready.  Fortunately, it’s not my baby.  My son’s stepmother, my ex-husband’s second wife, is due anytime with her first child, my sons’ half-brother.  It takes a half-dozen words at least to describe how this baby relates to my children, and there are no words to relate the child to me.  It’s not my nephew (yes, it’s a boy), certainly not my son, not a friend’s child nor my own godchild.  It’s my sons’ stepmother’s first child, their half-brother, and that’s the shortest description I can give.

And I’m not ready to be the mother of sons with a half brother who is the son of their father’s second wife.  Not that it matters.  No one asked me what I thought about the whole thing. Remember the disclaimer.  And it really doesn’t matter what I think. 

Mostly I’m worried.  I’m worried my sons will get lost in the shuffle of the new baby excitement.  I’m worried my younger will exhibit a greater range of not-so-pleasant of I’m-unhappy behaviors than he already does.  I’m worried about another change in my children’s lives, lives that have had far too many changes already. 

I’m also sad.  This impending birth is yet another reminder of the losses in my life through the past few years.  I’m not much better with change than my sons are (hey, apples don’t fall far from the tree), and my older put it best a few months back when he announced he’d had enough of change for a while.  Me too, buddy.  While I’ve settled into divorced life with a remarried ex-husband a half mile away, I’m feeling the need for the status quo, at least as far as family arrangements go.  True, my house count stays the same, but I know the rumbles a half mile away will work their way to my home.  It’s inevitable.

So tonight, rather than wishing contractions come my sons’ stepmother’s way and that new life rush into being in all its wonder and glory, tonight I sulk, whine, worry, and, just a bit, weep.  It’s selfish and childish, I know, but it’s where I am, at least right now.  And I know I won’t stay in this place for long.  It’s just a stop on the way to a new part of my children’s lives, a new part of all of their lives.  I think it’s my mind’s last (okay, perhaps that’s optimistic) resistance to this new presence in their lives.  They’re actually fairly excited about the baby’s impending arrival.  My older has a moderate amount of baby and young child experience, thanks to neighbors with six children, and he’s quite good with the younger set.  My younger son, well, he’s more of a cat person, but he’s still intrigued.  Let’s just say I’m hoping he acknowledges this baby as a person before the child is three.   (He has a habit of calling small children “it” and seeing them more as furnishings than humans.)

She’s four centimeters.  Ready or not, this baby will be here soon.  My sons are gaining a brother, an intimate, lifelong connection.  I’m still somewhat teary and worried, yet somewhat less whiny.  May the journey be safe, little boy, and may your life be filled with love and peace.  Ready or not.

Mislabeling Photos (or What the iMac and I Have in Common)

Full disclosure:  I am a new iMac owner.  The iPad was my gateway Apple device, purchased a few months back.  I can find a dozen ways to justify this new ooh shiny on my desk (old computer on life support, less stuff on the desk and floor, simpler interface, great options for my video editing son, reliability, etc), although I’ll admit learning a new system is taking some time.  But I’m having a blast., and I’m not ashamed to say I’m a bit obsessed.

This week a friend helped me transfer (okay, he did the whole thing) my documents, music, and photos from my nearly dead PC to my new computer.  Since I had an evening without the kids, I decided to play around a bit.  It’s been hard to get a turn at this new machine, what with one child on garage band (software for creating music) and the other on photo booth (good for funny pictures and video, as far as I can figure).  I spent several hours “teaching” the computer the faces present in my photos.  For those of you who haven’t discovered Picasa, iPhoto, or the like, this program presents the faces in your photos for you to name.  Ideally, after naming some folks a few times, it “learns” to recognize them and tags them correctly.  I was fascinated with its learning process, noting what seemed to throw it off and whose faces it learned quickly.  The red-headed boy from a First LEGO League team some years back?  No problem.  After two photos of him, the computer got him every time.  Ditto with his dark-haired mother, my ex-husband,  and a friend’s daughter.  It learned my face a bit more slowly, although my hair ranges from well below my shoulders to above my ears, depending on the year, and glasses are present about half the time.  My sons gave the software fits.

Now, I have some trouble identifying my sons correctly during certain ages of their lives, like in their first year of life.  The computer, however, was far more confused.  I’m sure I identified each child at least a hundred times each for the computer, yet it kept requesting a name for each son.  Most of these requests came from pictures taken four or five years back, at which point they both had the rounder faces of the prepubescent child.  It never named them both the same name in a photo (wouldn’t that be a software faux pas), but if both were present, only one would be named, and about half the time, incorrectly.  It was a long evening.

Decay curve essential: Notice the graph never get to zero.

It was made longer by my ever-growing feeling of sadness as I passed through the seemingly endless parade of pictures of the two most precious beings in my life, smiling away as if they had not a care in the world.  Most of the shots were pre-separation.  Most were after my marriage had become a minefield.  Few contained me.  Fewer contained my ex-husband.  They all took me down a path I rarely travel these days:  a path of sorrow and regret. Regret that we could not maintain a relatively happy, intact family for these lovely children.  Sorrow at the pain they’ve been through over too many years.

As I’ve mentioned before, I wasn’t the one who wanted divorce.  Despite some rather terrible emotional living conditions, I spend the last years of my marriage fighting for my family to remain, well, a family.  Even when it was clear that wasn’t what my then-husband wanted.  Even when it defied reason and logic.  But once the paper was signed, I was flooded with relief.  That was 14 months ago, and while most of the time I don’t look back, there are times I fall back onto that path of sorrow and regret. And looking at pictures from that painful time, despite the smiles on the boys’ faces, almost always brings it back.

So I let the tears fall for a bit.  Deep sobs wracked my chest for a few minutes, how many I don’t know.  I cried out a bit more grief, but my peace returned quickly.  That’s the trend.  I feel the pain well up, and I hold it back, either avoiding the stimulus bringing the pain to the surface or simply by brute emotional force.  Since avoidance doesn’t work forever, and since the grief is fighting hard to be acknowledged, eventually my defenses drop, and I allow myself to feel deeply.  Simply allowing that process to occur restores my balance and empties out a bit more of the residual pain.  I’m not sure if the pain is in a bucket that eventually empties or rather is more like the half-life of a radioactive compound, decreasing in an exponential function (teaching Precalc to my older probably makes for less palatable metaphors, but if the math fits…).  I image it more like the latter, dropping in potency by halves each year, let’s say.  I like the idea of a grief decay curve.  It appeals to my scientific mind and emotional experience.  While the bucket may never empty, the level of grief (and frequency it kicks up) keeps decreasing.

The photos are often my undoing.  I see those smiling faces and feel an incongruous pain.  I’m not certain how to remember those events.  Christmas photos from the last third of the 2000s remind me of arguments and emptiness even when looking at shots of smiling kids trying out new toys and grinning over Hanukkah candles.  The holiday itself this year was fine, but the photos from the past make me weepy.

I know I’m mislabeling.  Those smiles were the real deal.  At least the ones from the kids were.  And we had some decent times in those last years, despite my tendency to largely remember the bad.  After my tears, I returned to the photos (now properly labeled) and took another look.  The sadness threatened to break through again, but with far less strength.  The kids WERE happy in those pictures.  Unburdened by the drama unfolding (which was, at times, very present to them, I’m sorry to say), the times these shots were taken were happy times for them.

So I’m working on my labeling.  Much as iPhoto “learns” a face over my labeling it properly time after time, I can realize that the happiness of those events was real.  The divorce that would come to pass in the years following wouldn’t have the power to change that past.  I have another load of photos to move, this batch, from 2008 and 2009, far trickier times to navigate (and far fewer photos to label, since my strategy those years was to just not take pictures).  I’m sure the iMac, brilliant though it is, will continue to confuse my boys in picture after picture, but I’m counting on the process gradually becoming smoother.  And I’m counting on my labeling to improve as well.  Hey, if a computer can learn, so can I.

It’s Still Sad Sometimes

It’s still sad sometimes. Usually not, especially when I’m caught up in the current of life. Rarely in a tear-producing way. Generally when I don’t expect it, although it almost always passes quickly. It’s still sad sometimes.

Yesterday, the sadness hit as I returned to my car after a delightful Friday night intergenerational church service.  Most attendees were parents of children under age 8 or so, although I know I wasn’t the only single adult in the room.  I sat with a friend and her son while we participated in chant, meditation, song, and storytelling.  It was a captivating hour and a half that left my spirit light and my soul at peace.

And then it was time for refreshments.  I considered bugging out as soon as the service ended, avoiding mingling with all these people I didn’t know well.  All those families, looking intact and full.  But I took a deep breath and wandered down to the refreshment area.  After several minutes of relative silence except for reminders to children to wait a turn for snack, we started to converse.  The five children quickly inserted their laughter, which seemed to loosen the tongues of the adults.  We talked of what parents do when first meeting.  We talked about our kids.

Except that I didn’t have mine.  They’re generally with their dad on Friday nights.  Not always.  We’re flexible with the schedule, but since he works weekdays, I often work Saturday, and Sunday is church for the boys and I, Friday night is almost always a dad night.  I really hate explaining all that, so when the question of my children’s whereabouts arose, I simply said they were with their father.   When asked later if I’d bring them next time, I let the rest out.  I’m divorced.  I don’t have my kids on most Friday nights.  My eyes fill just typing that.

To be fair, no one ran screaming.  Admission of recent divorce is quite the kill-joy, as people mutter apologies while hoping the divorce cooties don’t rub off.  Instead, the conversation turned to jobs, kids, and then the late hour.  We went our separate ways, and I quietly headed to my car.  Alone.  And then the sadness came.

Sadness at being alone at a service filled with parents and children. Sadness at the loss of being one of two parents with kids at any event.  Sadness at the shuffling back and forth my boys do, twice each week, and will continue to do until they leave both nests.  Sadness that the promises of marriage and family don’t always get kept.  No anger.  No wishes to turn back the clock.  No remorse, blame, self-recrimination, or frustration.  Just sadness.

So I sat with it.  I wept a bit.  Not much, just what came naturally with the late hour, fatigue, and the sorrow that washed over me.  Not the racking sobs I’d wept before and during my separation and divorce, wept alone and with friends, tears full of fear, anger, and confusion.  No.  These were simply tear of sadness that welled up, flowed down a bit, and passed.

And they always pass, as does the sadness.   And they’ll return, most likely, at least on occasion.  Because loss hurts.  Even when it was the only path left.  Even when it brings better times and greater peace.   Even when love, life, and joy fill life so fully it seems impossible for that sadness to find a way in.  It’s just that it’s still sad sometimes.  And that’s okay.

Marriage: Staying the Course

Disclaimer:   I’m  a divorced woman who worked hard to save her marriage.  If you’re reading this and are divorced, please know I’m not judging you.  I’m simply sharing my stance:  I believe there is no perfect match for each person and that most marriages can be saved if both parties work hard at loving, learning, and listening.  Most. 

A few days ago, I ran across this  blog post by Lori Lowe, We All Married the Wrong Person, while perusing the Freshly Pressed page from WordPress, a list of 10 recent posts.  It’s an eclectic list, but I generally follow a few of the links.  Sometimes they’re actually good reads.  This post from Marriage Gems:  Research-based Marriage Tips and Insights hooked me.

In her post, she reviews some work of psychiatrist and author Scott Haltzman, MD, specifically his writings about choosing of a life partner and staying with that partner.  In short, he holds most people emphasize finding the right person, often dating numerous potential mates in the hopes of finding Mr. or Ms. Right, or (and I really detest this term) one’s soul mate.  He goes on to explain that if a successful marriage depended on doing that careful search that more people would stay married, given the dating habits they have.  After all, they’ve tried out plenty of candidates in search of the best fit.  But that system doesn’t work.  Working one’s way through more choices doesn’t increase marital success, and the divorce rate reflects that. 

Simply put, more available choices don’t make for a better product.  Now, I could have told you that.  That’s why I shop at Trader Joe’s.  Fewer choices in a smaller place makes for easier decision-making.  I live without what they don’t have (okay, I make a separate run for the ice cream I like).  Plus, they’re just so darn friendly there, and, at least at my particular store, the lines are really short.  But I digress.

I’ve heard many a woman (and I’ve talked to many more women than men about relationships – go figure) dreamily talk about meeting her soul mate.  Really?  On a planet of almost 7 billion people, you’re going to meet the one person who will fulfill your every desire in a mate?  Even with internet dating (and I admit I haven’t done that), the chances of finding that perfect mate seem, well, worse than being struck by lightning in a given year (1 in 750,000 per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association). 

People and marriages aren’t perfect.  Neither are kids, and no one tries out a bunch of those, choosing the one we deem to be the best fit or, worse, tossing the one we have at age 2 or 13 because they really aren’t what we want anymore (there could be quite a few 13-year-old orphans if that was an acceptable option). We keep the ones we get.   Life isn’t perfect.  It’s wholly unpredictable, as are the people in it.  Add in a few of those not-so-handpicked kids and you’re awash in imperfection.   And that’s just fine. 

Now I’m all for caution when considering partnering for life.  Certainly one looks for red flags:  bodies in the trunk, a string of past marriages/relationships that “just didn’t work”, and, depending on your bent, an aversion to chocolate.  That’s not including the biggies:  substance abusers, people abusers, already married folks, etc.  Sure, some screening is good.  But the perfect mate isn’t out there.  Really.  Because no one is perfect, and no one is perfect for anyone else.  And this is Haltzman’s point.  I’d add that the longer the list of what a potential mate must have/do/be, the more likely we are to be disappointed (and perhaps leave the marriage) down the line.  Because even when we think we’ve chosen carefully, Haltzman maintains, we’re still unable to choose the “right” person because we’re a bit blinded by love.  Those endorphins, pheromones, and hormones don’t lead to the clearest of thinking, it seems.  Shocking, huh? 

Haltzman sums it up this way:

I strongly agree.  It’s impossible to choose a “perfect partner” (as Lowe’s blog post title affirms), but it is possible to stay in the marriage and, I believe, find happiness.  As a culture, we’re focused on finding perfection in all:  the perfect car, house, job, shoes, cell phone, and, of course, partner.  It’s a consumer mentality:  find the perfect item and toss it when it ceases to be perfect.  Or when you realize that it never was perfect.  That’s flighty enough when it comes to vehicle choice, but it’s downright wrong when it comes to dealing with your life partner (and I’d agree with Haltzman regarding extreme scenarios such as those he posed being exceptions).
Divorce will happen — I’d maintain that it should happen in some circumstances.   But perhaps less expectation of perfection in one’s partner and the relationship and more focus on acceptance and love would help more couples avoid divorce and improve their relationships.  Simplistic sounding, perhaps, but certainly not easy.  Coming from the other side of a 15 year marriage, I’d say it’s worth a good try.

One Match, One Good Friend

This weekend, I tossed at least 11 documented toxins into the atmosphere.  Two, toluene and benzene, are known carcinogens.  I sent a few pounds of petroleum product into flames, and  not for heat, light, transportation, or toward any other material end.  My reasons were purely selfish and wholly healing.  Well, at least it was another step on the healing path.

Nearly sixteen years ago, I lit that thick pillar of white paraffin in a church from the flame of a candle my mother lit just minutes earlier.  My soon-to-be husband lit the same pillar with me, from the light his mother set into being.  We made our vows to each other, kissed, signed on the designated lines, and started the journey of our marriage.  We intended to light the wedding candle on our anniversary each year, but I don’t recall if that ever happened.  By default of being the only white candle in the house, it served as our Christmas candle for many years, our light in the middle of our advent wreath, lit at Christmas dinner to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We must have burned it a few other times, given the inch or so depth to the wick from the candle rim, but it remained largely intact. 

Since our divorce last winter, I felt somewhat taunted by that candle, that symbol of unity and covenant.  I’d long removed my ring, tucking it away somewhere hidden from my daily routine.  Wedding pictures came down when an addition went up some five years ago, and they never found their way back to the walls.   And while the house is filled with reminders from the intervening years, it was that candle that bothered me.  It just stood for too much to throw away or send to the local Salvation Army Thrift Shop.  I could have turned it over to my ex-husband, but I was fairly certain it would find its way to a landfill, and that’s as close to immortality that an object can get.

So I took a thoroughly modern and rather practical path to a solution.  I posted my quandary on Facebook.  The replies flew in.  I was advised to continue to use it as any other candle, melt it down and make new candles, chop it into a million pieces, turn it into a fire starter, keep it for my kids, and (one of my favorites) burn it upside down.  I offered it to a friend who replied that she’d never had a wedding candle, but her husband vetoed that idea, either not caring for the karma from a possibly defective religious symbol of unity and love or just understanding my need to rid myself of the thing in a more ritualistic manner.  One friend’s suggestion won out:  one bottle of wine, one match, and one close friend. 

So this weekend, on my first trip away from my children in 10 years, I did just that.  In the hills of southeastern Michigan,  after a fine dinner including a glass of wine, a dear friend silently took one match and lit an old copy of the New York Times and a bit of kindling in our fire ring.  Propping the eight inch pillar on a log that topped the kindling, he set the paper to flame.  As paper then kindling caught, flames reached the candle, which soon slipped from its perch, tumbling into the fire.  As it blackened, deformed, and shrunk, I squatted just outside the fire ring and wept. 

Once most of the burning was done, I moved up to a bench, dried my eyes, and thanked my match-bearing companion.  To be with someone cleansing their heart of pain is an act of bravery and compassion.  The remaining evening and following day held more silence than usually occurs in my presence.  A melancholy fell upon me, and while the candle burning wasn’t in the front of my thoughts, the dissolution of my marriage was.  I wonder if some point, I’ll be able to look back without a lump in my throat, not at missing my ex-husband and the rather awful marriage we had our last few years and not yearning for the better although quite human marriage we had for years earlier.  Those feelings are long past.   Now, my tears arise at concern over the wounds to my children’s hearts,  my sorrow about the frailty of human relationships, and my resistance to change.   And the tears pass.   I know  my children are better off living without boiling anger in their midst.  I’ve learned much about honoring that frailty, and I better understand that strength in a relationship takes two committed to bending, listening, and opening to change.  And I’ve learned to welcome change, although it’s  sometimes painful, since it opens doors to love, new life, and growth.

One match, one good friend, one candle burned, energy and matter returned to the universe.  And life moves on.

A special thanks to D., my one good match-lighting friend.