Love Lessons from Lilacs

IMG_1064In eleven days, I’ll vow to my partner to seek love with him wherever life takes us. We’ve spent the last several weeks looking through boxes at his past, a past that includes the chasm of a loved one lost, his first wife.  I’ve peered over his shoulder trying to see through his eyes, trying to see her but mostly seeing his love for her, raw and fierce and yet fully aware of her human nature. He’s loved intensely before, and, somehow, he can do it again. We sort through boxes of poems, bills, photos, knickknacks, and a thousand items that make a life, but still I can’t really see her, this woman whom he lost and will always love, because why wouldn’t he? I can just see him and the abundant love he has for both of us.

IMG_1148Last night, I sorted through the details of my children’s lives with my first husband, their father. Sometimes we navigate these with ease, and sometimes not. Somewhere between the ordinary (the driver’s license not yet had, the courses for next term, the funds available for college payments that hover closer than ever) we derailed the way people who once loved each other but now clearly do not tend to derail. I’ve spent the twenty-four hours since then ruminating, crying, cursing, crying more, and writing emails desperately trying to assert my view of what is best for the two beings I love more than anyone or anything else — my sons. Closer to hate or at least intense dislike than to love, I’ve spent a day and night without sleep filled with a venom that appalls me, a ferocity had by a mother protecting her young. It’s all mixed with the sense of the failure of the love that created these imperfect yet perfect beings, my sons. I don’t ever seem to fully adjust to loving the two while struggling so mightily with the one who also contributed to their DNA.

So, tired of crying in the house, fatigued from lack of sleep and a plenitude of arguments that get nowhere except to a lower level of Dante’s hell, one occupied by ex-partners inflamed by their love for their young and ignited by their vitriol that can’t seem to permanently be doused by any substance or reason, I went for a walk. That’s on my mental calm-down checklist: a walk, often accompanied by a playlist that reminds me of love and truth. Shoes on and soundtrack playing, I set out to find at least a moment’s reprieve from my distress.

So much for exercise and fresh air soothing the soul. I cried the whole way, almost aborting the walk after a block for fear of drawing the attention of neighbors. I arrived home without answers or comfort and with a rather drippy nose and blotchy face. I wandered to the backyard, where my older and I have been planting a newly expanded garden that’s part wedding gift from my mom and part therapy for me. The peonies, buds clenched and covered with the persistent ants enjoying the nectar of the fetal flower stopped my tears. Watching ants is a pleasure I learned from my father, who made them his study towards the end of his tenure as a Biology professor. “Watch one ant,” he says. “Watch how it moves and where it goes. It’s hard, but watch.”

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So I watched. There were two, but given the size of a peony bud, it wasn’t too challenging to keep track of their separate treks across the ball of petals-to-be. Contrary to gardeners’ tales, ants don’t help open the peonies. They are hedonistic and hungry, drawn to the intoxicating sweetness of the plant’s carbohydrate-laden sap that coats the petals. It’s a feast, and watching them walk their drunken circles tugged me from my ruminating about the pains of loving and then losing. I pull out my phone-cum-camera and lose myself in the bud-planet and it’s two armored inhabitants.

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And somehow my mind is quieter than it has been in days. After I get my fill of the ants getting theirs, I look at my garden from the ant’s perspective. I search out the small and find instead the singularity. Infinity exists in the ant and its peony, the golden ratio in the spiral begonia, life and death in the decapitated I-don’t-know-what that our bunny friend/foe rejected for lunch and discarded in the dirt. I’m lost in a peace I’ve not known for weeks, a silence of the mind and heart that soothes me in a way my macroscopic way of seeing the world has not. Heart rate slowed, I amble across the yard, bending over and under to see what is small and forgotten.

IMG_1124Then I find the lilac. It’s buds are tight, but the intoxicating scent somehow escapes the clamped bundles of pink. Attuned to the small as one becomes when one wakes up to what is within plain sight but hard to find for roar of the bigger picture, I finally see it: a single open flower. Coins in a purse, poems in a box, and this, a single flower open on a lilac bush. This woman whom my soon-to-be husband loved is remembered in so many ways, but one is via a lilac bush on the other side of the state, at the home of her parents who can grieve her while loving me. While I’m not one for signs, I am partial to reminders and metaphor.

In eleven days, my partner and I make vows of tightly wrapped petals. The love we know now, as strong as it may be, is but a small start of what’s to come. It’s that peony bud, that first lilac bloom. Universe willing, we’ll have a long season to bloom together, lasting past the spring bleeding hearts and fickle tulips and enduring until some bunny or just a sudden and late frost returns us to that same universe. And as we travel this journey together, we carry those we’ve loved. His first love and wife. My sons. Even my ex-husband. From what was very good and what was very bad, along with the vast experiences that are somewhere in between, we have learned some small bit of what love is. We’re filled with snapshots of moments of what it means to love and what it means to let loved ones go, with all the in-between blurring in the motion of the years past. With all of that experience, we start again. Together. A bud. Perhaps with ants, drinking what sweetness we produce, learning that love can happen even after loss. And so we begin to open.

My love to you always, my partner, my friend, my fellow traveler. 

 

 

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Counting on my Fingers

IMG_0352I count the months off on my fingers, like a small child waiting for a birthday. It’s not that I can’t mentally figure the time from early February to sometime in May. I can. There is something in feeling the months, each with a finger to itself, and as each month goes by, needing one less finger to make the count. It’s closer, I tell myself, as I click off only three.

In three months, spring will have fully arrived. In three months, seeds in the garden will be thinking of sprouting, the ones bringing hardy greens at least. In three months, the crocuses, the tulips, and the daffodils will have come and gone, or at least mostly gone. In three months, there will be dirt to turn over, weeds to pull, and grass to mow. In three months, I’ll be the parent of a seventeen year old, a high school senior. And in three months, plus a few weeks, I’ll be sharing this home with my partner.

It will be here before I blink. That’s how time goes now, in blinks and changes. Children grow up when you look away for a moment. Trees you planted just last spring, or so it seems, have leaves above the second-story bedroom window. But even at this age, when waiting for something so anticipated, so desired, the blink-and-change trick doesn’t seem to work so well. I’m reduced to counting on my fingers, waiting for the morning when I wake up with my beloved beside me, knowing that we have not just the day, or, more often, just a hours to drink up every detail each other’s faces, exchange a week’s worth of minutiae, and express a love so large it brings me to tears.

I’m irritated at my impatience and embarrassed by my inability to wait with equanimity. I’m anxious, even, that I’m missing part of the present, these last three months with just my children. They’re certainly not counting with the same impatience as I, or possibly counting with some concern about change or maybe (most likely) not counting at all. As much as they like him, watching a parent remarry results in mixed emotions, something I know from experience. I’ve no doubt their count and associated emotions are far different from mine.

And then it comes to me. I feel guilt at my impatience. These boys are settled with this change that comes in three fingers, but I know we have hard work and likely some challenging times ahead of us. It’s inevitable, the struggles that happen when families change size and shape. My memories of my father’s remarriage when I was seventeen are ones of profoundly extreme emotions. I was delighted to see him happy and partnered, a condition that suits him, and yet his dating and newfound love were awkward for me to watch, the way it is for all teens seeing their parents fall in love when they themselves are dabbling in the same strong emotion. It was also disorienting, the changes in the years before and after his second marriage. It was exhausting, moving from mom, dad, and me; to dad and me; to dad, stepmom, step-sister and me in just a span of two years, all while trying to figure out myself my world of teen relationships. It produced a slew of emotions that left me wrung out and desperate for stability. And, at the same time, his remarriage offered some of that stability, that sense of family, the happy kind.

It wasn’t that easy, of course, and we all blundered at points. I’d been, to some extent, impatient back then, wanting to be part of that new family because it seemed so normal and whole, wanting to belong to something before I left for college, needing to find my place in new family before I was only a summer and Christmas visitor in a house that wasn’t mine. It wasn’t, I found, that easy. Family doesn’t occur instantly, even when all involved want to be a family. Love doesn’t conquer all, it seems, and that year, the last one I spent at home, was hard in ways different from the ways the preceding two had been hard. When I look back, I recall very few bad moments but far more loneliness and loss than I’d known at any point earlier. Forming family isn’t easy.

And yet I’m so impatient now. It’s selfish, that impatience to share, in the same day, a morning coffee and an evening meal with my partner, with the time between dinner and the next coffee beginning with good night and not goodbye. I’m uncomfortable with that selfishness, especially knowing that no matter our intentions and efforts, this will be hard for my children, this change that they both say is fine and desirable, and, if they are like I was at seventeen, this change they also don’t entirely want and find somewhat disturbing. Wanting it, at least in my experience, feels like betrayal of the family you had before the new family. It betrays the vows made the first time, the ones that brought you into being, the ones that crumbled not because of you but while you watched. It betrays what you find after that, the profound intimacy between a solo parent and his or her children, an intimacy borne out of enduring pain of loss and some shift in relationships that shouldn’t likely occur but do. No matter how tightly boundaries are held, children become confidants and companions and take somewhat different roles when the parent number drops from two to one.

So remarriage shifts the roles again. A good deal of this shift is a relief, as part of being a child of a parent who’s experienced loss is seeing parental pain and having no power to fix it. Enter the new spouse, someone who, you learn later, can’t fix hurt either but can relieve some of your burden of noticing parental pain and feeling helpless. It’s no one’s fault, this pain borne to kids after divorce or death. It’s just part of the package, the helpless responsibility tinged with points of worry. I’ve parented this way, solo with short breaks each week, for nearly six years, and we have some sort of rhythm, the three of us. We have countless inside phrases and jokes along with ways of being, three to the house, one adult and two boys. And my children, especially my older, likely know this helplessness and sense of responsibility. They are, I imagine, of mixed minds about what happens in May.

Yes, it’s some guilt I feel as this deeply desired change approaches. I’ve this sense of betraying them and somehow negating what we’ve built these past six years while knowing neither are true. It’s more than countered by the joy of entering partnership with the man I love, a man who loves me fully and deeply while appreciating my children for who they are and respecting that our enthusiasm may not be mirrored by them. But it’s there, paired with my remembering of my own experience with my dad’s remarriage and the emotional challenges that surprised me in the year that followed.

Perhaps that’s where the tears come from, the tears that sometimes fall after our goodbyes as a weekend visit ends. (Distance compounded by snow prohibit more than weekend visits this winter.) They’re not perhaps as much about the missing (although, oh, I do so miss him through the week) as from the guilt over my impatience that the missing end sooner than it will.

But still I count on my fingers. Three months plus a bit. There are walls to paint, furniture to move, a kitchen to rearrange, and a new being to welcome. And there is so much more. I’m confident my partner and I are approaching this new road with sufficient love, friendship, and compassion to weather what will come our way. I’m certain we’ll blunder as we adjust to shared space and shifting roles. I’m hoping we find a sense of family, the four of us together, and a feeling that change can be good even when it is hard.

So I count on my fingers again.

One. Two. Three. Go.

Vows

DSCN0349When I married who’d become my children’s father, I read my vows from an index card held by the priest. They weren’t my words or my first husband’s words. They were standard vows: love, honor, and cherish as long as we both may live, all the usual minus the “obey” lines. I’d written them out for both of us to avoid the stutter-step repetition of vows given line by line, which seemed awkward. It turns out reading them from an index card held by someone else when you’re a bit keyed up and a 100 people are watching is awkward. A few lines in, and I understood why people either just repeated vows, simply said “I do,” or held the darn card themselves.

As I look forward to marrying my partner this June, I’ve thought a good deal about vows. I briefly entertained the idea that we’d write our own, an idea suggested by our celebrant but already on my mind. Conversation about variable feelings about saying that much in public (even a tiny public) has brought us to the more traditional “I do” path (nothing to memorize, forget, or read off of tiny index cards with older eyes). That’s fine. The wedding is a moment in time, something to ponder a bit and plan, but not the main dish — the rest of our lives. How we maneuver through that event has little bearing on what happens after the last “I do.”

When I read those vows nearly twenty years ago, I meant what I said. I don’t promise lightly, and I figured that commitment was binding. Fast forward thirteen years, and I found that they held nothing unless we both held to them. Holding to vows alone, which I did for the last painful years of that marriage, yielded nothing but disappointment, frustration, and tears. However, it was for the best, that divorce, the one I didn’t want and that felt like a personal failure (I’d committed, after all), the one that I needed to remember that I had worth and dignity, whether divorced or married.

Six years later, and I’ve long regained that worth and dignity as well as a far stronger sense of self. I like to think I have a better idea about how love works after receiving love in a way that preserves that worth and dignity. I like to believe I’ve found more of myself, uncovered more confidence that I’m whole on my own and yet more so when paired with one who loves and respects me in that wholeness. I’m ready to commit. I have committed. This wedding is a formality for an assortment of reasons, as we’ve made our vows aloud and in the silence between the spoken promises.

So given the partnership was sealed some time ago, what’s the fuss about vows? It’s likely the writer in me, or maybe just my predilection for finding words for all occasions, even when they’re not needed. Or maybe I just want to express a bit of what, when I think of loving this man for the rest of our days, brings joy tinged with tears. What follows won’t likely appear in our tiny, short ceremony in June. But they are, in part what will be bound up in the words that precede whatever “I do’s” I profess.

I promise to continue to love you even though I have only a sliver of an idea of how to do that well. It’s a lifetime’s work, learning how to love, and I commit to faithful study, learning from my errors and successes and asking for assistance when I’m not sure how to proceed. This will be my life’s work, loving you more completely. 

I promise to let you be you, and I’ll encourage you as you seek for what makes you whole and happy. I’ll grow, too, next to you, near you, wholly my own person and yet ever with you as well. 

I promise to be your companion and safe hold when life finds you sad, lonely, ill, or discouraged, knowing that I don’t fully comprehend the depth sorrow, loneliness, illness, or discouragement can reach and possess no balm of comfort other than love and presence. May that offering be sufficient. 

I promise you laughter, the low chuckles of a private joke in the dark and the rolling belly laughs of shared delight. Love is fun, and life is sometimes hilariously absurd, and I will be with you to laugh even when it’s only to bring us back from tears. 

I promise you tears, tears of joy and sadness, disappointment and hope. I promise to hold you through yours, offering my presence. I promise to trust you with mine, for sharing tears is an intimacy like little else. 

I promise to trust you, for without trust, we have nothing else. I will trust you to love me dearly, like me even more, and care for me without reservation. I’ll trust you to share your worries and fears as well as your joys and delights. I trust you to tell me what’s working and what’s not — what hurts or chafes — and I’ll trust you to hear my concerns, because that’s how we learn to love each other better. 

Today and for all our tomorrows, these are my promises. You and our love is sacred to me, something within and between and beyond us. With you, I belong and will ever reside. 

What I’m Thinking

IMG_0600“What are you thinking?” you asked, breaking our silence.

My mind had wandered during the previous minutes of mental solitude. Close enough to feel each other’s breath, eye to eye, my mind had time traveled forward and backward through time.

We are not children nor even young adults. We’re in the middle of life, or, more likely, a bit past the middle.  Still, we let out only occasional groans and grimaces when sitting too oddly for too long. Our hair still has more color than grey, although the ratio is moving in only one direction. Our faces are gently lined,  more from smiling than from tears, although we’ve both been washed in sorrow and concerns enough to know deep sadness.

“I was thinking about growing old with you,” I replied.

My right eye caught your right eye, holding contact briefly before I returned my gaze to a picture of my sons from either ten years or a lifetime ago. Given the changes from then to now, it could be either. Ten years back I was married to my children’s father, sure I’d grow old with him. My older son went to school each day, and I was certain his brother would do the same, so I’d return to work part-time like people do. I was Catholic, or at least still Christian, praying for peace, for my children, for my world, and somewhat certain that someone was listening.

Aside from those two boys and this house, very little seems the same. The boys’ father is a million miles away, or six block, depending on your math.  I’m at home, working two tiny part-time jobs, educating my children, and trying to build a writer’s life. My supplications are cries to a universe that isn’t going hear or answer, but I can’t stop making them when the going gets tough.

And then there is you.

I’m thinking about growing old with you. I am hoping to know you when our hair turns white and our faces are etched with decades more love and laughter and, because this is life, sorrow. My father says all marriages end. Whether by divorce or death, they end. He’s not generally the gloomy type, but the Eeyore-esque comment reminds me of the impermanence of our day-to-day lives as well as our very existence as well. Marriage ends. Life ends. And still, I think about growing old with you.

The boys. My eye shifts to their picture. Young boys don’t grow grey and wrinkly in ten years. Instead they grow adult teeth, larger and smellier bodies, fears and anxieties, and more ingrained ways of being in the world. These boys endured the pains of parents arguing, a mother crying, a father leaving, and a new family quickly reforming. I’ve been their rock through these changes, albeit a rock that sometimes yells and weeps and makes countless mistakes in the most important job she could ever hold. Growing old with you, even a year older, is not a journey we’ll make without passengers. They’re willing passengers, but this is not the journey they’d have chosen. But that’s the lot of children, to be passengers on their parent’s journeys.

My boys. The loves of my life. At my lowest times, the reasons I get out of bed in the morning. Most days, the source of my smiles and laughter. They are also often the nidus of my worry, these boys who’ve suffered through the mistakes of their parents. I want to grow old with you, and I want my boys to be okay along the way. Supplication to the universe brings the usual deafening silence followed by a whisper from my depths that they are stronger than I know, that loving you does not betray them.

And you. You’ve had your own seasons of darkness and pain, and you’ve had your own loss. It’s etched into you (as  greatest loves and losses are for all of us), evident only sometimes, but indelibly stamped on your being. My loss is etched on me, too, but it’s less pure, my fading scar of sadness mixed with anger and tinged with resentment. Yours seems all sadness, all love. And that’s sometimes my undoing. It is never far from my mind that I’d not know your love but for those losses, yours and mine. I ascribe no purpose to either of our losses nor divine plan for our uniting. It’s how life moves, I suppose. We live, we love, we suffer, we lose, and when we can bear the thought of repeating the cycle, we start again, accumulating what wisdom we can from what we’ve loved and lost.

You. Me. My boys.  I dare to think about growing old with you. I let my heart wander decades down the road, wondering at the gift of your presence over time while sitting with the truth that all unions end because our lives are finite, and that endings can be messy. I don’t know the path from here to there. I don’t know how our two passengers will fare as we walk together. What I don’t know astounds me.

So I meet your eye again. I don’t find answers, but I do find courage, compassion, and love. I find commitment and honesty. I find pain and sorrow, joy and hope. I find the willingness to forgive and humility to admit mistakes. I find wisdom and trust. I find room for my two fellow passengers. I find a partner with whom to share this journey.

That’s what I’m thinking.

Love, Laws, and Sex

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For more information about marriage equality, visit The Human Rights Campaign.

While the Supreme Court of the United States ponders questions about marriage equality, human rights, and states’ rights, I’ve been thinking about love. For those who support the right of two consenting adults to choose to marry, the question is fundamentally, after all, about love. It’s about the freedom to love whom we were wired to love and to covenant with that person. Yes, it’s also about the receiving all the privileges and accepting all the responsibilities that accompany that covenant. It’s about that covenant being seen as equal in the eyes of the government, regardless of the make-up of the 23rd set of chromosomes each person brings. But when it comes down to it, marriage is about love.

And that’s why I’m flummoxed. While my first thoughts about love revolve around family and those whom are dearest to me, my next ones, thanks to my upbringing and positive church experiences, turn to religion. God, it is said, is love. Jesus spoke of love throughout the Gospels. While I’ve lost in faith in God and in the divinity of Jesus, I’ve retained a respect for love — a reverence for the power of love, in fact — and a soft spot for the teachings attributed to the historical Jesus.

News flash. There’s no place in those Gospels where Jesus says anything negative about gays or lesbians. Nothing. Nada. Jesus does say plenty about love: Love your neighbor as yourself, love one another, and so on. He stands by the outcasts of the turn-of-that ancient-millenium society — lepers, prostitutes, the poor, and plenty of other regular folks. He encourages compassion, love’s active sidekick, to just about everyone, regardless of social position, life choices, or circumstance. We simply never hear about the homosexuals, possibly suggesting either they just weren’t the top of the outcast hit parade or at least that they didn’t make the cut when the Gospels were written. In short, it doesn’t seem that’s what was terribly important to Jesus or at least to those who wrote about Jesus decades and centuries later.

So why, tell me why, do some Christians –not all — not nearly — froth at the mouth at the thought of marriage between same-sex partners? As I’ve wandered the web today, I’m distressed by the vitriol by the Religious Right, both Protestant and Catholic. Reading through articles calling the equality sign above “The Sign of the Beast” and extolling teens that God “loves the person but hates the sin (of homosexual sex).” It turns out, at least in the eyes of those social conservatives, marriage isn’t really about two people committing to each other, either in a religious community or a secular ceremony, with the rights and protections that affords. It’s not even about love.

It’s about sex.

Isn’t it always? The funny thing is, most of heterosexual marriage isn’t about sex, so I’m not sure how it manages to be for homosexuals. Sure, both parties able and willing, sex is present in marriages. It can be an exceptionally good part of marriage, although it can get a short shrift when life gets busy.  And, if children are desired, the procreative end of sex is one way to bring them into the family.   But most of marriage, most of the time, isn’t about sex. Now, I’m divorced, so maybe I was doing something wrong during those 14 years of marriage, completely missing something, but I doubt it.

Much of marriage is about partnership. We generally marry to partner, to share our lives with someone we love and with whom we share values, desires, and maybe a few dreams. If we’re pragmatic about it, we may consider our future partner’s goals and approach to hard times as well as the legal benefits such union afford. Heck, we may look at credit ratings. But primarily, we marry because we love someone. We love so deeply and completely that we covenant with one another in the presence of others and share that commitment publicly.

Can that all be done outside of marriage? Sure, but in the eyes of the law, it’s not nearly the same. Those legal benefits of union — over 1,000 on the federal level — aren’t small details. Those benefits may include partner access to employer-provided medical insurance, tax benefits (or liabilities), exemptions from estate and gift taxes upon the death of a spouse, social security benefits for a surviving spouse, the ability of a partner to take family leave when the other is ill, visiting rights at hospitals, decreased costs on auto and housing insurance, and even child support should divorce occur. Yes, there are legal means to set up some of those outside of marriage, but many of those benefits only are realized for those in a federal government sanctioned marriage.

So let me get this right. As a nation, we’re denying same-sex partners a host of legal protections, many which better a family’s ability to care for those within it, even if a marriage is dissolved, because some of us are focused on sex? I’m not naive. I know religion is behind this as well. Not the religion I grew up with, one focused on love and social justice. This one is based on judgement and rules. Many people marry within a church because their belief system supports or even demands that way of partnering (and that’s often about sex and when to have it, too). Over eighteen years ago, I married in the Catholic Church, with marriage as sacrament as well as a legal contract. I married because I loved my then-fiance and wanted to partner with him. I then realized, in material terms, the benefits that people with the right to marry take for granted, building an appreciation for the legal end of marriage as soon as our first joint tax return occurred and when we discovered my company offered far better health insurance than his.

But love and legal arguments don’t work if you’re wrapped up in what happens in the bedroom some nights a week (more or less – no judgement here). In discussions with the religious right, it comes down to sex rather than love and stability.  And I don’t understand this. Jesus doesn’t have too much to say about sex, aside from some lines about adultery and lust. He never mentions the details, nor does he say that partners must be male and female. Jesus leaves out a host of details about other issues of life, such as dietary restrictions, fabric content of clothing, and menstrual regulations. I’m still stymied.

Love. Laws. Sex. Let’s embrace the first, allowing two people, DNA aside, enter the covenant of marriage. Let’s make the second equal across all consenting couples, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or shoe size. And as for the third? It’s not really my business, is it? Let’s keep it that way.

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.

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.