The Heart of the Matter

We’re just home from a short trip to Florida - to the Disney World Resort, where we have a membership in their Vacation Club, which gives us the ability to stay in any of the properties scattered across the mecca that is Walt Disney’s magical “World.” We bought our membership back in the early 1990’s, and have used it to good advantage over the years.  Now that we have a child in the family again, I expect we will continue to make good use of it as we introduce Connor to the wonderful world of Disney.

The resort we like best is Old Key West - it’s style and architecture is modeled after the Florida Keys, and our one bedroom apartment offers a view of a quiet lagoon, with blue herons standing knee deep in the rushes, and willow branches sweeping gracefully over the balcony.

On this occasion, the trip was just for Jim and I, a few days getaway from the pressure of the nine-to-five. Or in his case, the nine-to-seven-or-eight, as it’s been many nights for the past few months. His work life has been extremely harried of late, something he’s not had to contend with for a number of years. So he was definitely in need of a respite. 

As was I. You’ve read my posts about the difficulties of this past winter, the chronic illness, the constant cold weather, the feeling of sadness and want and need that seemed to pervade my spirit. All of those feelings were evident in my writing, and certainly in the way I conducted my life in general here at home. I could put on a pretty good front in public, but at home the guard came down and the frustration and irritability took their toll.

These past few days as we meandered around the resort, wandering hand in hand along familiar sidewalks and avenues, lingering over a glass of wine at outdoor cafe’s, we began to feel all the tensions of everyday life disappear, and with it the tensions that had grown between us. We realized it had been almost two years since we had been away together as a couple. We’ve not been able to travel much recently, and when we have it’s been with friends, musical groups, or family. As enjoyable as those trips can be, it’s not the same as having unscheduled time for just the two of us, where we have only ourselves to amuse, only our own timetable to meet, only our own pleasure to consider. 

It was wonderful and much needed. 

When you’ve been married for nearly four decades, it’s natural to let many things go unspoken. You develop a short hand language - a glance here, a sigh there. Sometimes a raised eyebrow or an irritated shake of the head. There is a collective intelligence you have as a couple based on years of experience and daily life: each individual knows their role, and it’s easy and expedient to remain in the groove of it, to silently follow the familiar path you’ve created. 

But sometimes in marriage, as in life, it’s important to stand back and take stock of where that path has led you. Perhaps it’s to a place as lovely and tranquil as our resort in Florida; but perhaps it’s a prickly thicket of weeds. 

Perhaps it’s a little of both.

Part of the appeal of our trips to Disney World are all the memories we have there. For nearly every place we go throughout the 17 miles of “world” we found ourselves recalling a moment from the past. “Remember when we took Brian and his friend James on the speedboat ride at night to watch the fireworks?” "Remember when we came with the Birkby’s, and Cara was dressed up as Snow White for the Princess Breakfast?” “Remember when we would come here and spend the weekend while Brian was in college?” “Remember how Brian loved to swim in the pool after dark?”

We remember it all. Fondly.

But we aren’t the same people we were in those days. We’ve suffered losses, our health isn’t always good, we get tired much easier than we once did. We worry a little about keeping up with Connor on all those trips we hope to have with him here in the future. We worry a little bit about what life will be like for us in the years ahead, knowing how easy it can be to drift apart, to huddle silently in separate corners of misery.

Katrina Kenison writes about this very thing in her book, Magical Journey. “To grow without growing apart,” she says, "to allow the one you love to be different today than he or she was yesterday and to love him or her anyway, even as you struggle to figure out what has changed: Perhaps this is the challenge that must ultimately be surmounted in every long-term relationship if it’s to remain fresh and resilient, rather than growing stale and stiff with age, too brittle to bend and stretch with time. 

As we age and mature into marriage, we define and redefine “love” so many times. What was considered love in the early days - the intimate pleasure taken in all those “firsts” as a couple; the excitement of building a home and a shared future - all that changes as the “first time experiences become few and far between, as the future begins to look a little grim with worries about health and finances and long-term care. 

“I know my husband and I love each other,” Kenison goes on to say. “But it seems we’re both coming to see that love alone isn’t enough to keep a commitment alive; we need imagination, too. And enough courage and creativity to create a new form for our marriage, a marriage that’s growing old and being forced to adapt, just as we are.”

And there’s the heart of the matter. “Love” - however you define it - isn’t always enough. Yes, it takes imagination to find new ways of relating to one another. Yes, it takes courage to veer off those tried and true pathways, even if they are flat and devoid of scenery. It also takes time and energy, and all too often I spend so many of my resources in those areas on other things that aren’t nearly as important.

Already this morning I awoke feeling threatened by the overwhelming “to-do” list that runs like ticker tape through my brain. Make doctor’s appointments; straighten out a mixup with my mom’s medications; cut the dog’s hair; water the plants; steam clean the wood floor in the kitchen; have the windows washed; return all those shorts I bought that didn’t fit; go grocery shopping; take shirts to the cleaners; write reviews for those books I read; clean the stove in the kitchen...You all know the kinds of lists I’m talking about. They’re all things it seems necessary to get clear of before I can focus on the things that are my true heart’s desire.

The past few days reminded me of how much my husband and my marriage really are my heart’s desire, and how (despite a long daily list of chores, tasks, and modern-day dilemmas) finding ways to make that relationship a priority is what will make my heart sing with true happiness.


Committing to the Way

If my parents had stayed married, today would have been their 67th wedding anniversary.

Back in 1990, when my father decided to call it quits on his marriage of 42 years, he also put a hard stop to any further celebration of anniversaries. For a number of years after he left, I would bring my mother a single red rose on May 22, just to let her know that I remembered, that I cared, that I grieved with her for the milestones they would not celebrate together.

On May 22, 1998, on what would have been their 50th anniversary, she accepted the rose, gave me a hug, and said, “Let’s stop remembering this day."

Obviously, that’s easier said than done, because here I am, still remembering it. 

Today, she and I went out shopping as we do a couple of times every week. She likes to go out to one of the “big box” stores like Target or Meijers, stores where she can walk around in a safe environment and pick up some items she needs or wants. It is de rigueur that she have a shopping cart to use for balance and support while walking, so our shopping expeditions are limited to stores that have these carts. I know -  she needs to use a walker, but she is adamantly against them.

“Why don’t they have something like a shopping basket for old people to use when they walk?” she asked me not long ago.

“But MOM,” I said, trying not sound like an exasperated 13-year old, “they do! It’s called a WALKER.” 

“Oh, those things,” she replied dismissively. “I’m not going to use one of THOSE!"

So. Target and Meijer’s it is. And Kohl’s! Thank you Kohl’s for having shopping carts.

Anyway, today neither one of us mentioned The Anniversary. We haven’t mentioned it in years, and although I’m quite sure she’s as aware of the date as I am, she never brings it up. We’ve simply decided “not to remember it” any longer. And so we don’t.

On my mantel I have three wedding pictures: One of my husband and myself, another of my son and daughter-in-law, and the third a sepia toned photo of my parents on their wedding day. My mother has dark, wavy hair that lies gracefully across her shoulder. She wears a brightly printed dress (no big wedding for these two - my dad had only $90 to his name on their wedding day, so they were married in the minister’s living room.) My dad is dark and exotic looking, with his olive skin tone, deep set eyes, and black hair. My mother looks directly into the camera lens in that photo, and she looks deeply sure of herself, relaxed, and happy.

But my dad is looking slightly off to the right, as if he’s not quite committed to the whole thing. I look at that photo a lot, and I wonder - was he a little bit unsure, even then, this handsome, dark eyed 20 year old, fresh off the boat from the Pacific Theater in WWII. Was he even then thinking about what might otherwise have been?

The poet Wendell Berry says this about Marriage: “Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you  - and marriage, time, life, history, and the world - will take it. You do not know the road; you have only committed your life to a Way."

My parents committed themselves to a Way, back on May 22, 1948. The “Way” in that time was so much different from the “Way” it is now. People got married and it was expected they would STAY married. There was no trial period, no “shacking up” ahead of time to see how things went. Couples often married young (my parents were 20 and 21) because marriage was the only acceptable way for a young man and woman to co-habitate in those days. 

For my parents, the Way seemed clear cut and straightforward. They were, for the most part, happy couple. They each had their prescribed roles, they fulfilled them to the best of their abilities. They were the quintessential “Baby Boomers”: my Dad owned a small successful small business, my Mother kept a nice home, they had a smart, well-behaved, pretty daughter, a nice home in suburbs, and a new car every couple of years. 

The proverbial ALL - at least as far as the requirements of the 1960’s and 1970’s went.

Still, something was missing - the “something” that pushed my 60 year old Father into the arms of another woman almost 20 years his junior. I can speculate: He married too young in the first place; he didn’t get to sow enough wild oats; my mother was too “tame” for him; he wanted a more glamorous lifestyle. His life must have been a disappointment to him - and of course I have included myself in the list of things that must have fallen short on his list of accomplishments. I have often felt myself to be lacking in some important something that would impel my father to keep the family intact. 

Then I come back to those words of Wendell Berry’s: What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you  - and marriage, time, life, history, and the world - will take it. You do not know the road; you have only committed your life to a Way."

I’m not an athlete, but these words make me think of marriage as something like a Marathon race. Once you’ve committed yourself, once you’ve signed up for it, laced up your shoes, slapped your number on your chest, and bellied up to the starting line, you’re committed  to The Way: to the course, the track, the lane - whatever stretches out in front of you. You put one foot in front of the other, you huff and puff, get red in the face, you spurt and sputter. You keep pounding the pavement.

And when you break the ribbon at the finish line, whether you are first or one hundred and first, you rejoice because you made it. You may be exhausted and breathless, but you’re there all the same. 

When I was growing up, my parents seemed to have the perfect marriage. My Dad was always warm, loving, kind, and thoughtful toward my mother and me. Nevertheless, something inside him was deeply enough hurt that he was able to forsake his commitment to the way of marriage and family. 

Even after all this time, I still wish he could have stayed the course and finished the race he started 67 years ago today.


Coming Up the Stairs

There is a narrow and twisty cement stairway leading to the basement of the Martha Mary Chapel, the small historic church where my husband and I were married thirty nine years ago today. When the wedding consultant directed me down the dark passageway to the Bride’s Room on that bright spring morning, my stomach did a back flip. I was scared of stairs, scared of the dark, and mostly scared that I would trip over the filmy train on my wedding dress.  I carefully wended my way downward, my father ahead of me and my Maid of Honor trailing behind holding the train out of harm’s way, only to realize about half-way down that I’d have to make this torturous journey back UP in about 30 minutes.  I could feel my heart beating faster and faster, my knees getting weak. “Hey, you can’t give up now,” my friend said to me. “You can do this."

Yes, I told myself. It’s my wedding day, I’ve been waiting for this day, I CAN do this. And so I did, navigating slowly and gingerly, but successfully down the stairs, and then, back up again for the ceremony that set me on a new course for my life.

Today, almost four decades later, I realize how much of married life resembles that stairway. We enter into a relationship filled with excitement and hope, ready to commit ourselves heart and soul to this other person. We set ourselves on a path hoping for sunshine and flowers, seeking a yellow brick road, never knowing how many times we’ll be forced to detour down a dark, narrow passageway.

In her book, Magical Journey, author Katrina Kenison writes, “What I didn’t know...on the day I donned an ivory wedding dress and became a wife, was that every marriage is a gamble and the stakes are always high. Love, after all, is not synonymous with permanence; we offer our hearts into each other’s safekeeping on faith alone. Our relationship has survived, adapted, deepened, but it is hardly immaculate. In fact, the landscape of our lives together is a muddy criss-cross of mishaps and memories, exultation and grief, hallowed landmarks and forgotten detours made along the way as each learned, one day at a time, what it means to love another person for the long haul.” 

Getting down that dark twisted stairway was only the first of many challenges married life would present me.  In our many years together we’ve experienced long separations imposed by work, job losses and changes, my parents divorce, illness and death, moving house, giving up on dearly held dreams. So often it is these “muddy criss-cross of mishaps,” the “hallowed landmarks and forgotten detours” along the way that give us opportunities to strengthen our resolve, to look back and say, “we survived that and became stronger, more loving people because of it.”

I was really proud of myself for navigating to the bottom of that staircase, but I was even more proud to make my way back up again, to stand in the tiny vestibule of the church on that bright May morning in 1976, fix my gaze on the young man standing at the altar waiting for me, and take my first steps down the aisle into our future. Today, on yet another glorious spring day, I do the same thing, knowing so much more about what it entails.

“I stepped into my marriage convinced that passion would sustain us,” Kenison  writes. “Now, I know better. We will endure by the grace of acquiescence, cooperation, patience, and the small daily rituals that keep us close even as change transforms the landscape of our lives.”  Kenison is so right: If I’ve learned anything in all these years gone by, it is that those are surely the keys to getting back up from every dark stairway life puts in your way. 

So here’s to anniversaries, because they compel us to look back as well as forward, to see the long history of stairways successfully navigated, bridges painstakingly crossed, hurdles courageously cleared. And to know that with “the grace of acquiescence, cooperation and patience” we can continue on the journey together.