ramblings on love and marriage

As I’m looking at the last few weeks of summer, I’m seeing that I’ve focused most of my reading efforts on non-fiction this summer. That’s a change from what I used to read, but I’ve gained a better appreciation for it in the past few years as I’ve been teaching composition classes.  In addition to that, it helps me to write better as well, I think.  And of course it encourages me beyond measure to read about someone’s life challenges and how he/she overcomes it and evolves to be better and stronger.

This week, I’ve read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed — which is part love story and part history of the institution of marriage.  I found myself underlining so many passages and nodding in agreement. I feel some guilt for saying this, and I am fully aware that it casts a shadow on my former marriage, but I was just telling some friends days ago that I know with all certainty that my life is easier now than it was a year ago. Easier.  Think about that.  I am a single mother, the only adult in the house with two children under six years old. It’s the dreaded outcome for so many, and there are things that are undoubtedly heavier – finances, the lack of security in reference to my future as I have no idea what lies ahead – but speaking strictly in terms of my day-to-day life, it is easier without a husband.

I can’t believe I just wrote that aloud here, but that’s the truth as I’m experiencing it right now.

I’ve been rolling this realization over and over in my head trying to make sense of it. I mean all relationships (and especially marriage) are work, right? So is it a bad thing that it was more work when I was with him? Do all wives feel this way and if I remarry, I just have to get used to that?  But as I’m reading this book and talking with friends about their own experiences, I’m seeing that the answer to those questions is an undoubted NO.  A relationship is work, certainly. But it should not be a constant demand for more work and effort on your part with little payoff for emotional connection and happiness. That’s the hard truth of it as I reflect on the past few years of my life.

I know many people think it doesn’t really matter if the child-rearing and domestic chores are unbalanced in a relationship, and to be honest, I didn’t used to think that mattered either. It makes it even more complicated for me because I love so many aspects of domesticity – I love to cook, I love making a home, I love tending to sick kids (well better than the alternative of having someone else tend to my sick kid).  But in hindsight, I established this pattern in my former life when I did every single one of those tasks every single day along with other things that became my” duty.”  It began with the insistence that these things were my “job” because I was choosing to quit work and stay at home with my son, but of course as a whole new person was added in the mix with a second child and then a full-time job was added as well, no responsibilities changed at all. They just grew and grew. Combine this with some very heavy work travel for the other adult in the house, and I can’t believe I made it as long as I did, frankly, and with my mental fortitude somewhat in tact.  If I am being honest here about some things I have never written about before, my mental fortitude was hanging by a thread.

My anxiety had slowly increased in the last two years of my marriage, and it would flare and subside with no easily identifiable pattern. I thought it was because I was a mom of two small children and every mother must feel that way.  I countered it with healthy approaches like meditation tracks on my podcast queue and natural supplements and unhealthy approaches like trying to control my food to an almost extreme obsession which I can even see here in my archived posts as I look back. It came to a head last fall when I ended up with a mild (as ulcers go) stomach ulcer and an almost constant quivering in my belly that made food hard to keep in for long. I was up at night unable to sleep, crying in the bathroom at 2am.   Or crying to my spouse on the phone at 7:30 am as he was states away in a hotel with the woman he’s now set to marry, and I was driving to work and looking at another string of days caring for kids alone and trying to do all the things I was expected to do.  It felt like living in a vacuum.

It ramped up so severely and so quickly that I sometimes feel like perhaps my body and intuition were warning me early last fall of what was set to explode in November, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s not that mystical, and I was just a nervous wreck.

But here’s the weird thing: I am not a nervous wreck now. Our bodies talk to us and the brain manifests itself in a physical manner often, and if you don’t respond to a whisper, the universe sends you a scream. I had whispers for years I never responded to. That’s the honest truth.

So friends and family are sometimes commenting recently –and especially back in the spring –that  they can’t believe I am doing so well in my current situation and seeming to adjust quickly, and the missing piece that answers that puzzle is that I cannot think of a single daily activity that I do now that I didn’t do before. Not one. [Emotionally I am a different story; I’ve had to paddle my way through some deep waters to start the process of figuring it all out and healing.] But in regards to the simple daily routines? It’s exactly the same. And maybe even easier because I get the occasional weekend to reboot and catch-up when my kids are gone, and I don’t have to satisfy someone else’s demands for what he wants me to be on top of the motherhood tasks and domestic lists.

I don’t want to come across as pointing fingers or blaming all of this on my former spouse either. I take full responsibility for establishing that pattern and allowing it to leave a trail of stress and emptiness behind it without seeing it as the issue it was. Writing something down always grants it power, and I’m giving that weight by saying it here. I hold myself accountable for not seeing and addressing that the little things were crushing me, and in all honesty and in hindsight, they were making me feel less valued and appreciated and increasingly disrespected in my own home. It was my job to show up for my own life and address it, and I didn’t.

But back to my original direction with this post, Gilbert’s book left me feeling validated on my feelings about the role of the little things in a household and the effect it can have on marriage and happiness. As Gilbert sadly concedes, “To get anywhere close to unraveling this subject – women and marriage – we have to start with the cold, ugly fact that marriage does not benefit women as much as it benefits men. I didn’t invent this fact, and I don’t like saying it, but it is a sad truth, backed up by study after study” (166). She then goes on to explain that married men accumulate more wealth, report themselves as happier, suffer less from depression, and even live longer than single men. Married women? The reverse is true…. They accumulate less wealth and do not thrive in their careers as much as their single counterparts, are more likely to suffer depression than single women are, and are less healthy and do not live longer than single women. All of this is supported by research and sociologists even have a name for it: The Marriage Benefit Imbalance. And if you think this research shows grim results in other god-forsaken places, but not in modern America, you are wrong.

Ladies!  Can we think about that for a minute?  Am I saying marriage is terrible and I never want to do it again? Absolutely not. But as a societal institution, even in the modern world in these modern times, it is not beneficial for us in the traditional model. And maybe you are okay with poorer health and less happiness and a greater propensity for anxiety and depression because you are blinded by love for that incredible husband and will do anything to make him happy. I am not in that position at all.

It seems as though when you are young, or when I was young anyhow, I was blinded more by youth and idealism than anything else. The thought that if you love one another, the marriage will never falter and that someone will never betray you and you will never betray yourself by getting lost in all of it. Truthfully, I think there are couples who go on like this for eternity. They are either the lucky ones or the blissfully ignorant ones – I’m not certain which way I see it yet. Or maybe they don’t exist, and these women lie in bed at night counting the ways they threw away their own fulfillment on that particular day and turned themselves inside out to make others happy. I am not talking so much about career vs children here (the debate that gets all the attention), but about true partnership and true equal ground that allows another adult to see you as you really are and value your contributions to the world and to your own household. It felt like infidelity issued some unforeseen blow on my marriage like a sledgehammer with no warning, but now as the dust settles and I look back, I see I had no partnership. Nobody to talk to everyday who saw me for what I really was and weathered the little moments with me. Much of this was circumstantial as I was the lone adult much of the time and had no one to talk to everyday about anything at all for that matter.  But circumstantial or not, it is what it is.

So where does this leave me on the prospect of marriage again? I don’t know. I know I won’t take it lightly or impulsively, and I won’t enter into a partnership with someone who does not contribute daily to all the million tiny things it takes to run a family. I guess you can never say never, but it would shock me beyond all belief if I ever embarked on a marriage again with someone who traveled regularly for work. Marriage is not the highs and the holidays; it’s the Tuesday night dinners and the Thursday morning coffee, and the million tiny moments that happen in daily life. And to be frank and hold myself accountable for the past few years, let me say without question that by that definition, I had no marriage at all.

It’s a fine line taking responsibility for your role in something yet refusing to beat yourself up about it. Should I have been clearer in my cries for help and been honest that I was drowning under the weight of someone’s expectations and feeling unseen and disrespected? Absolutely. Does that justify all the injustices done to me? Probably not. But both sides of the committed sins have illuminated lessons for me.

In Committed, Gilbert states, “To ask a twenty-year-old girl to automatically know things about life that most forty-year-old women needed decades to understand is expecting an awful lot of wisdom from very young person” (105).  Or as Maya Angelou said so famously, “When you know better, you do better.” And next time I will. Next time I will show up for my own life from the very beginning and expect someone who sees and respects me for who I am and what I do and helps me pull the weight of life because he wants to, not just because I ask it.

Some lessons take time, I think. And Gilbert alludes to this as well when she explains falling in love with her second husband and how that was different from her marriage at 25 years old. …. “It was not an infatuation and here’s how I can tell: because I did not demand that he become my Great Emancipator or my Source of All Life, nor did I immediately vanish into that man’s chest cavity like a twisted, unrecognizable, parasitical homunculus. During our long period of courtship, I remained intact with my own personality and allowed myself to meet Fellipe for who he was….To this day, I refuse to burden Fellipe with the tremendous responsibility of somehow completing me.  By this point in my life, I have figured out that he cannot complete me, even if he wanted to. I’ve faced enough of my own incompletions to recognize that they belong solely to me. Having learned this essential truth, I can now tell where I end and where someone else begins” (106).

There are so many things I am learning for sure in my current season. First is that you cannot learn and grow in the truest sense without time alone to reflect. And secondly, you cannot love someone else or even be loved in return in a way that truly fulfills you when you don’t recognize where you end and where that person begins. It’s my responsibility to see myself for what I truly am, call it what it is (even if those words are ugly like anxiety and unhappiness), and show up for myself in the truest sense.

transitions

The kids have been away at the beach with their dad and his family, and I have been on my own for fewer than four days, yet I’ve managed to paint two rooms in my house, freeze five quarts of homemade marinara and four family portions of baked ziti, and finish my first read of the summer.  I also began putting my office and bookshelves back together after painting, and I’ve got my books organized once again as they were in pre-child days: by genre and then alphabetically. It’s so crazy how much time expands before you when you’re used to having kids underfoot.  I miss them like crazy, but at least my productivity is making up for the weirdness in our summer schedule.

Today I intended to squeeze in a Pure Barre class with a good friend, but traffic held her up, and we decided to go for a quick hike nearby instead.  I usually do this walk with Jude and go a little slower, so I couldn’t believe it when we reached the top pretty quickly, even in the sweaty, burning sun.  We talked the whole way up, enjoyed a perfect view with the tiniest breeze, and then talked again as we walked back down.  It was good for my soul in every way.  I was gross and sweaty and spent when I got home, but it was worth it for sure.

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I finished Cheryl Strayed’s Wild early this morning with my coffee, and I think I’ll be turning this one over and over in my head for quite some time. I feel like the last person on earth to read it, but I’m so glad I read it right now at this time of transition for me.

Most likely anyone who is reading this post already knows the premise of the memoir, but in case you don’t…. Strayed is grief-stricken from the sudden loss of her mother and the collapse of her marriage and sets out on a journey of walking over eleven hundred miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It’s a metaphorical journey as she wants to mark this passage in her life and put so many things behind her, but it is a literal one too – of scary and grueling physical challenges on the trail.  The thought of a woman hiking for 100 days alone from southern California to Oregon is incredible to me.  I couldn’t put the book down, and the details of long distance hiking were fascinating.

But more than that, it is Strayed’s perspective on her life and the transitions that occur for her that had me riveted and underlining so many special passages I want to etch in my memory.  I’m not doing anything at all like walking 1100 miles on foot, but some days it can feel that way.  The thing that was so perfect about the timing of this book for me is her focus on the value of solitude and the importance of transitions in our lives.  The significance of recognizing those moments of change and passage should not be underestimated.  As one of her friends on the trail explains to her about moments of feeling low or confused as your life changes in ways out of your control, “It’s a good thing… It’s the place where things are born, where they begin. Think about how a black hole absorbs energy and then releases it as something new and alive” (127).  But as Strayed demonstrates so well, we cannot use the black hole to create anything new at all if we don’t take time alone to reflect on the experience and examine our own behaviors and motivation and where we intend to go next.

This was timely for me as I’m experiencing being alone for the first time in pretty much fifteen years – the entirety of my adult life.  And solitude felt so strange at first, but I am sinking into it and realizing I need it so badly and need to honor this time and space before I move forward.  Sometimes I wish I could fast forward a year or two or three down the road, but then again, I don’t know. This is such a sweet time of change for me. An itchy and painful one, yes. But also a moment when I am feeling all of it, so to speak. I’m in it deeply and boiling everything down to essentials with my kids and me alone.  And in a weird way, I feel like I am seeing things more crisp and clear than I have in the last decade.  I’m seeing and feeling everything for what it really is because I have no one else to lean on or consult as a co-pilot or partner, no one else to diffuse or cloud my perceptions.

As Strayed says when she camps a night or two next to friends she met on the trail, “Being near [them] at night kept me from having to say to myself I am not afraid whenever I heard a branch snap in the dark… But I wasn’t out here to keep myself from having to say I am not afraid.  I’d come, I realized, to stare that fear down, to stare everything down, really – all that I’d done to myself and all that had been done to me. I couldn’t do that while tagging along with someone else” (122).  I mean really, friends. Could there be a truer statement given to me at my current moment?

I felt like Strayed was talking straight to me through so much of her memoir – which is my very favorite thing about literature. It’s why I teach and write. Those shared moments of real reflection on the human experience fuel my fire so much.  At one point, she refers to what Pacific Crest Trail hikers call “trail magic” which is simply “the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail” (232). And I’m certain you don’t have to be hiking the PCT for 1100 miles to experience “trail magic.”  It’s happening to me all the time – when I read something that pierces me all the way through, when I discover new music that moves me, when I catch my kids in just the right light to be overwhelmed with their sweet little features and the idea that they came from my body and call me mama, when I have shared moments or laughter with friends that fill me up in the best way.  There are so many little joys in life, even on a tough trail and among the tangled mess.

Table for One, Please

One of the things on my long list of summer self-improvement is to eat better when my husband is gone on business.  In efforts to do this, I ordered The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones who, if you don’t know, worked with Julia Child for many years and has now written a cookbook full of recipes she has learned as a result of her new life as a widow.  While that, of course, is not my situation, I do eat alone about 4-7 times a month, and Trader Joe’s stir-fry is good but gets old.  This book has so many promising ideas from a single, stuffed Portobello mushroom to beef bourguingnon for one. I find myself looking at solitary dinnertime with excitement rather than lonely maybe-I-should-just-have-cereal-tonight desperation.

A couple of weeks ago, I ventured to make a steak for myself and use the leftovers 2 nights later in a gratin which was yummy.  My latest try from Jones’s book, however, blew that away.  This was so incredibly good that I think I’ll want to double it and make it when Scott is around as well.  A bonus that makes the dish even better is that it is nourishing, fun to make, and composed of real, wholesome ingredients.  I’ve never thought to eat eggs for dinner before, but she has a whole chapter on the usefulness of eggs for the single cook, and I think I just opened a whole new door that I never knew existed.  The final result of this particular recipe is so decadent and so French.  I seriously felt like I was back in Paris, sitting in a street-side table along the Seine.  Sigh.

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Baked Egg with Vegetables

First grate a single, small zucchini.  Place the shreds in a colander and salt them.  Wait about 30 minutes for the zucchini to drain.  (You’ll be surprised at how much water comes out, and you don’t want your final result soupy.)  Next melt a tablespoon of butter in a saute pan, add diced onions (she specifies shallots) and sliced mushrooms.  Cook for about 3 minutes.  Now squeeze the grated zucchini so that most of the excess water comes out.  Throw the zucchini in the pan and saute with the onions and mushrooms for about 3 minutes.  Next add 2 tablespoons of heavy cream. (DIVINE.  Makes everything better.)  Stir and cook for one minute.  Judith Jones also says you can throw in any other leafy green vegetables you have.  I threw in Swiss Chard from earlier this week, and it was delicious.

Now spoon the vegetables in to a small gratin dish and make a small well in the middle.  Crack one egg on top.  Add a dash of salt and pepper.  Pour 2 more tablespoons of heavy cream on top and sprinkle some parmesan cheese if you have it and want it.  Cook in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until the egg is set.  It comes out looking like this and smelling incredible.

There’s something about sitting down to eat a perfectly proportioned one-person meal in a little individual dish.  Heaven.