Tag Archives: marriage

Surprise Me

Of all the married and romantically committed couples I know, not one has had an arranged partnership. Every single one of us, myself included, fell in love and embarked on the whole I’m-with-you-for-good thing as a matter of free will.  I’ll never understand why some relationships work so well, while some falter or fail. How can some relationships work so well in one particular way, while other happy relationships function in a different way completely? Thinking about the couples I know makes me think that commitment is one of the more mystical and inexplicable phenomena, something akin to the moon’s pull on the oceans or the migration patterns of monarch butterflies.

Most of all, I wonder why any of us married or devoted couples have any problems at all when we, after all, chose each other.

People value choice almost to the point of worship. We want to choose our clothes, our friends, our professions, and, without a doubt, our romantic partners. We want choice, it seems, because we are convinced that we know better than anyone else what we want (even better than our mothers, though I’ve met with some resistance to that idea from certain people). When single, we have lists of what our future partners will look and act like, and we rule out possible mates based on their dissimilarity to our criteria.So, if are going to so much trouble to weed out the unfit and unearth the gems, why do so many couples face romantic challenges down the line? You’d think it would be smooth sailing from “I do” onward, right?

We all know that’s not the case. So, what gives? For one, it’s possible that we don’t know what we need as well as we’d like to think. Some of us meet our life partners when we’re very young. For example, I met the dude when I was just 23 – a mere babe. For goodness sake, I’ve changed careers twice since then. At such a young age, do we know enough about life and love to make such a weighty decision? If you follow that logic, we might as well cede all future match-making to our elders. (I think I just heard the sound of millions of mothers rejoicing.)

Speaking of not knowing enough about love, who among those of us who haven’t been married knows anything to speak of about marriage? This is one of the points that journalist Elizabeth Weil makes in her New York Times Magazine article “Married (Happily) with Issues,” published in December of last year. It’s difficult to know how to craft and maintain a satisfying long-term relationship, most obviously because “satisfying” has a different meaning for each person you ask. How do you build something that has no proven method of success and no blue print? And, yet, many people do just that, which brings me back to the idea of marriage as mystery.

I don’t have anywhere near enough information to speak as an authority on marriage. I’ve done it myself, messily and with the frequent feeling of toiling uphill interspersed with joyful, whirring downhills, for almost six years. So, I have that. And, I have a theory, which is this: That we don’t, in fact, know what we want or need in a partner – either because we know too little about ourselves or about marriage, or because what we want at 23 is not the same as what we want at 33 or 43 – but some lucky few end up with it anyway.

If I could approach selecting a mate as an a la carte activity, I’d conjure up a fella with some culinary skill, who woke up bright and early, and who spoke a few languages, none of which are qualities that the dude possesses. But, the dude has other qualities. For instance, he has the confidence to don admirably unusual facial hair with a swagger. He dreams big. He listens, even when he seems like he’s not, which makes him a good gift giver (something that I never would have thought or admitted was important to me, but it is). He is eager to learn about a variety of topics, from nutrition to experimental music. He has also made it his personal mission to find me the perfect notebook that I can carry around for my writing. None of these attributes would have made it to my top ten list, and they’re certainly not the reasons that I married him. And yet, they – and many other qualities – make this particular dude a good compliment to particular me. When we got married, it was our choice. But some days it seems that the choice was practically an illusion, knowing as little as we did about ourselves, each other, and marriage. Over time, the curtain draws up and I see the parts of our relationship that cause a frightening amount of friction and the parts that are undeniably sweet. And, really, they are never the parts I would have expected.

Love and marriage are indeed mystical, and I won’t be – or don’t care to be – convinced otherwise. It’s like a game of roulette. We have our strategies for playing the game. We identify patterns, prefer one color over another, or favor a number. But once the wheel is spinning, we keep our fingers crossed and hope to get lucky.

do you derive joy from diving in and seeing that

loving someone can actually feel like

freedom? are you funny? self-depracating? like

adventure and having many formed

opinions?

these are twenty-one things that I want in a lover…

– Alanis Morissette, “21 Things That I Want in a Lover”

He Wants a Codename, He Does

The Dude, not MY dude.

The Dude, not MY dude.

The other day, a little sheepishly, my hubbie mentioned that some bloggers have little nicknames for their spouses. And, even if they don’t have cutesy little nicknames, they sometimes, you know, mention their significant others when they post. Especially when they post about events at which said significant other was actually present.

And he is. Present, I mean. He was there for the fireflies. He was there to dry tears when we returned home with no balloon. He definitely had to step over those balloons in the bathroom. So, once I got over my initial response (“I’m a blogger?”) I decided that if the guy wanted a codename in this teeny tiny little venue, I would give him one.

The question was, what should it be? I have a suspicion that part of his interest in codenames stems from his passion for super geeky role-play games (not the kinky kind!). But, would he – or I? – really feel ok if I referred to him as the Wizard? Make that a no. I checked this character name generator and came up with the name Lord Milner (aka Cruroar Milner, the Paladin). I mean, obviously this won’t do. I could never, ever in a million years refer to him as Lord anything. (With one exception. Check the bottom of the post.)

I often call him “honey,” so I could just refer to him as “Honey” on the site. I have an auntie who always calls boyfriends honeys (as in, “Do you have a honey?”) and I really think that’s adorable. Maybe too adorable, though. It’s just not me. Likewise, I don’t want to use fella, sweetie, cutie, or the like. I sort of wish I was the kind of person who could use the word lover. But.

When I was in college, my girlfriends and I would say to one another, “How’s the boy?” The sense of this was that boys were a mostly fun but also secondary component of our lives. I think that’s quite funny, but it doesn’t exactly ring true anymore. It was sort of the right spirit, though, so I went down the path and arrived at dude. I don’t want people to think that I’m comparing him to The Dude, who is funny but doesn’t have much in common with my dude.

My husband will, until further notice, be herein referred to as “the dude.” And, if people think I’m married to Lebowski, so much the better.

By the way, if you have not seen this SNL skit with John Malkovich playing Lord Edmund, you should really watch. The dude showed it to me. We both found it hilarious, and we often reprise it as our private joke. In these moments, I realize that I am with someone who has the same sense of humor as I do… and, dude, I’m glad.

Book Notes: A Northern Light

A Northern Light  by Jennifer DonnellyOne reason I  love reading historical fiction books is that, every once in a while, you get the magical feeling of a character stepping out of her time, reaching out across the pages to whisper her truths in your ear, and the amazing thing is that the two of you could be sisters.  It’s like meeting someone at a party who has a completely different background than you but with whom you instantly connect and see eye-to-eye.  Only in this case, it feels even more magical because the person with whom you have so much in common is actually a figment of some author’s imagination and you wonder, "How on Earth did she know??  How did she get what is going on in my head right at this moment?"

In Jennifer Donnelly’s YA novel A Northern Light, Mattie Gokey lives on a farm with her father and three sisters in the Adirondack mountains just after the turn of the century. As eldest daughter, she has been responsible for caring for the family and their home since their mother died. Life is hard for Mattie – there is always work to do on the farm, whether it’s milking or plowing or cooking or cleaning.  In many ways, though, she is blessed. Her father provides for the family’s physical needs, selling their crops and dairy to new, upscale camps where tourists come to enjoy the rustic environment. The local school teacher has provided nourishment of a different kind, opening Mattie’s eyes to the wonder of books, particularly books that some consider to be dangerous and corruptive. She is blessed, too, because she has gifts enough to write her own poems and stories. Mattie’s talent creates many opportunities for her, opportunities like leaving the hard life of a farmer, getting a college education, and making a living with her pen.  Opportunities that frighten her because of what they will cost if she chooses to take them.

Mattie is a thoroughly sympathetic character.  She fiercely loves and protects her family and friends, to the point that she feels ready to sacrifice any amount of her own happiness for theirs.  And you could see how she might, not just out of selfless love, but also out of a kind of cultural habit.  There was, and is even now, an undeniable safety in building one’s life around the familiarity of family and duty.  There are several moments in the story – heart-wrenching, dreadful moments – in which Mattie almost gives in to that longing for safety.  And even as I wanted to grab her and push her in the opposite direction – "No, Mattie, they’ll keep you from your poetry!  You’ll spend your paper money on flour!" – how could I blame her for wanting the safe predictability that she could have in a life spent living on her husband’s farm and raising children?

I grieved for what Mattie was discovering, for what we women all discover. The reality of having options is a cruel one, because the truth is that we must choose one path by turning our back on another.  Mattie is so recognizable to me.  She could be my friend here in Brooklyn, just another over-educated woman slapped in the face with the realization of all she might have to give up if she is to make good on those dreams she stoked in college.

When I finished the book, I felt grateful and sad. Grateful to be a woman in a time and place in which the choices are just a little better than they were for Mattie. Grateful to be able to carve out time – even if it’s a very little – for my own work and dreams while being able to experience motherhood.

Sad because, as fortunate as I am, I knew just what Mattie meant.

I love this scene in which Mattie visits her friend Minnie, who is struggling with newborn twins and the responsibilities of a household, and realizes why the female writers she admires – Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott – eschew husbands and children.

“Emily Dickinson was a damn sneaky genius.

Holing up in her father’s house, never marrying, becoming a recluse – that had sounded like giving up to me, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed she fought by not fighting. And knowing her poems as I do, I would not put such underhanded behavior past her. Oh, maybe she was lonely at times, and cowed by her pa, but I bet at midnight, when the lights were out and her father was asleep, she went sliding down the banister and swinging from the chandelier. I bet she was just dizzy with freedom.

I have read almost a hundred of Emily’s poems and memorized ten. Miss Wilcox says she wrote nearly eighteen hundred. I looked at my friend Minnie, sleeping still. A year ago she was a girl, like me, and we were in my mamma’s kitchen giggling and fooling and throwing apple peels over our shoulders to see if they’d make the initials of our true loves. I couldn’t even see that girl anymore. She was gone. And I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn’t have written even one poem if she’d had two howling babies, a husband bent on jamming another into her, a house to run, a garden to tend, three cows to milk, twenty chickens to feed, and four hired hands to cook for.

I knew then why they didn’t marry. Emily and Jane and Louisa. I knew and it scared me. I also knew what being lonely was and I didn’t want to be lonely my whole life. I didn’t want to give up my words. I didn’t to choose one over the other. Mark Twain didn’t have to. Charles Dickens didn’t. And John Milton didn’t, either, though he might have made life easier for untold generations of schoolkids if he had.”

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly

Mattie is a girl like any of us, going on hope and faith to make the best decisions she can, trying to be true to herself while honoring her responsibilities. This is just the type of book I’d love to read with my daughter WInnie, or my sister, or my friends. I know lots of women figure out how to balance their passion for life with their desire for family, but I also know that lots of women still feel blind-sided when they realize that doing it all means having very little left over. And, if we want not to be spread quite so thinly, most of us have to make choices. This book is a great story while being a lovely portrait of womanhood. Which, it seems, hasn’t changed since Mattie’s time. At least not quite as much as we’d like to think it has.

This post also appears on Girls Leadership Institute’s blog Woosh!

Eat, Pray, Love… Myself

An update on my reading of Eat, Pray, Love. I’m only 2/3 of the way through the book. I’m still interested in Gilbert’s journey, so I won’t put it aside, but I will say that it has become sort of a slow read for me. The first third of the book, in which the author recounts her time in Italy, is very entertaining. Food, adorable characters, food, Italian language, food, soccer, and more food. Loved it!

The book slows way down in the second third, which is about the author’s months at an ashram in India. The pace, I think, reflects the difficult content more than it does the author’s talents. Gilbert tries to describe her inner journey of healing, her struggles with meditation, and her communications with God. However, as her experience becomes more about inward reflection, it also becomes more difficult to articulate.

For all my ambivalence about the book, it has inspired me to do something that I haven’t done in some time: mark up the pages. At first it felt strange to do, but there were some passages that were either too beautiful, too funny, or too thought-provoking to leave unmarked, with no way for me to find them again. I knew I would want and need to return to some of them. So, if you see my copy of the book, you’ll see my trail of breadcrumbs – dog-eared pages, flags hanging of the edge, and, even, stars in the margins. There is one part in particular that keeps rattling around in my brain, and I don’t quite know what to make of it (neither what to make of the passage itself, nor what to make of its apparent significance to me).

Liz is talking to her mother in this scene, and telling her mother how she struggles with her boyfriend David’s tendency to pull away from her. She says that David is like her father in that way, but she herself is “not as tough as you, Mom. There’s a constant level of closeness that I really need from the person I love. I wish I could be more like you, then I could have this love story with David. But it just destroys me to not be able to count on that affection when I need it.” Her mother – who, according to Gilbert, is in a stable, happy marriage – surprises her daughter by saying, “All those things that you want from your relationship, Liz? I have always wanted those things, too… You have to understand how little I was raised to expect that I deserved in life, honey. Remember – I come from a different time and place than you do. … And you have to understand how much I love your father.” (pg. 83)

And each time I read it I trip over the word “deserve.” What do any of us deserve from anyone else? Gilbert’s description of her mother paints an image of a self-reliant, capable person who reaches inward for her feelings of fulfillment and joy, while sharing a rich life with her husband. I have only admiration for that attitude. For myself, I tend to feel incomplete without an ever-present accomplice, or at least a witness. I’m like a kid on the edge of the pool, longing to dive in but, instead, futiley calling “Mom, watch me! Watch me! Watch me, okay?!”

And I am trying, trying so hard, to cultivate an inner strength, an inner witness. Life is good, but not because there is someone there to vouch for the fact that you are living it, to pat you on the back for a job well done. But, doesn’t having a partner for your life enrich the experience? I tend to think it does. Perhaps not for everyone. But for me, yes.

I’m wondering: does the notion of what one deserves even enter into the equation? When we fall in love, and are fortunate enough to have our love returned, are we then obligated to provide a quota of support and affirmation to each other? Keep it coming, and don’t go away, because I deserve this, buster.

What if Gilbert’s mother had decided, at some point in her marriage, that she deserved more? That she deserved the constant stream of affection that she would have preferred? She might have left her marriage, might have found another, perhaps could have found a partner who gave her what she wanted…. but she would have paid a dear price. She would not have known the sweetness of a long, shared history with her dear friend and partner, and the fruits of the life that they had created together – the friends, the home, the children, the grandchildren. Nor would she have been forced to develop her own inner resources, would not have known the satisfaction of digging deep into her heart and spirit to become a woman who could be her own witness in order to find joy in the life she had chosen.

I’m trying to be like that, myself. Trying to be the girl who can plunge right in, and enjoy the dive for itself instead of for the round of applause that I expect afterward.

Eat, Pray, Love, Like Paris to Me

Elizabeth Gilbert - Eat, Pray, LoveAt the moment, I’m reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Writing a blog post about this book now feels about as timely as writing about how much I love Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation.  I’m not exactly on the cutting edge here, literarily speaking.  There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t read this book until now. Frankly, and this isn’t the most flattering thing to admit, it was the book’s popularity that turned me off.  Too many people were reading it, and praising it.  Oh, and when I say people I mean women.  I’m not adverse to popular culture, but I was suspicious of a book that seemed to appeal to every woman on the planet.  I got a little sick of women talking about it in reverent tones, and I thought, well, she won’t get me.  No, sir, that Elizabeth Gilbert will not find ME such an easy target.

I really showed her, eh?

My wonderful mother-in-law gave me her copy of the book, and it happened to have a quote from Anne Lamott on the cover.  An author’s quote on the cover has never, ever figured into my decision to read a book.  But I love Anne Lamott.  I could go on and on about how much I love her but, for now, suffice it to say that I love her enough to read a book that I was previously indisposed to read simply because her name is in small print on the cover.

From the first sentences in the first paragraphs on the first pages, I have enjoyed reading about the author’s struggles to make honest though painful choices, and then to deal with the honestly painful consequences, and then to find joy on the other side of it all.  The thing I like most about the book is that it is funny (and I do want a book that entertains me), even with all that painful stuff. My second favorite thing about it is that her voice seems true. I have not been divorced, or written books, or traveled as extensively as Gilbert has. Still, much of what she is saying – about balancing ambition with contentment, selfishness with loving others, worldly pleasures with spiritual pursuits – resonates with me. Gilbert is pretty vague about the reasons for which she and her husband broke up, and of course there is more to that story than she tells in her memoir. This isn’t a story about marriage, though. It’s mostly a story about journeys, and listening to the voice within.

While I read the first few chapters, I alternated between smiling about the book (really, I was smiling at the book) and shaking my head at myself for not picking it up before now.  Did I think that my taste in books was so superior that it couldn’t possibly overlap with that of millions of other readers?  Well, yes.  Yes, I did.

This misguided conceit (let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?) has bitten me in the butt a couple of times before.

The first time that I can remember was with Paris (the city, not the heiress, of course).  One can hardly think of Paris without thinking of Movie Paris, or Postcard Paris.  “Where are you going on your honeymoon?  Paris?  *Sigh* Oh, Paris! How romantic, how dreamy…” Ack!  How obvious!  I would think, “Paris, you may have fooled all those other poor schlubs, but I know that you are just a city like any other… except maybe more aggravating because you are trying so hard to be PARIS, which no city can be.  Being in Paris is probably like walking around on a movie set.  A movie set with gift shops.”

Then, when I was 21, I went to Paris.  I was studying in Florence, and decided to spend a long weekend in Paris with my friend Kerri. Kerri and I stepped off the train at 7am, and walked right into Paris. I recognized immediately that actually, improbably, Paris really was Paris. The morning was misty, and we went directly to eat the most delicious crepes on the face of the planet. I had been in Paris for about five minutes when I lifted my face to the grey sky and told the crumbling facades and bridges that it would be just fine with me if I were forced to stay there forever. We spent sunny afternoons in the parks and gardens (I swear accordion music followed us wherever we went), and then when it rained we ducked into red booths at corner bistros and ordered wine and french onion soup. I had been avoiding Paris because I’d thought it couldn’t possibly be exactly what it seemed to be. Which, of course, is what it was.

In more recent years, I met this fellow at a company where I got a job soon after graduating from college. This fellow was always making people laugh, was always working hard to make his team and his coworkers look really good. And, yes I’ll say it, he was durn cute – tall and lanky, with curly hair and a sweet smile. His major personality flaw? Everyone liked him. Several women at the company had crushes on him, and his going away party when he gave notice was so widely attended (and cost the company so much money) that it was the last one our department ever threw. I began to look at him askance: “I don’t see what all the FUSS is about! Just a guy. Not all that.” I insisted that everyone else had been taken in and, in fact, laughed with my friends at what a phony this guy… this Chris guy… was.

Oh, once again, the joke was on me.

I can’t say the exact moment when my feelings changed. There was no crumbling bridge, no misty morning. Just lots of emails and phone calls and, finally, plates of papardelle alla nonna at a small Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. Five years of marriage and one beautiful daughter later, I can say that my feelings definitely did, er, shift regarding that fellow.

So, will I learn to be more open-minded? To tell that cynical voice to stuff it and give the person (or book or city) in question a fair chance? Probably not. It’s delicious finding out when I’ve been so wrong.