Friday, July 29, 2016

Marriage is not for babies

Here are some swans whose cygnets are
with a sitter right now so they
discuss feelings without examples.
A while back, I met my daughter for dinner in Boston. On the street outside, a late-twenties couple met and after a nice embrace and a kiss, entered the restaurant. They'd been apart. They never stopped talking. They never took their eyes off each other. They never stopped touching.

Anyone would know from the look of them that they were probably never not like this.

A couple of weeks later, in line at a cafe, I spotted a couple that we used to see socially back when we all had teenagers and socialized with anyone who didn't answer questions with "What are you talking about."

That's not really true.

Yes it is. 

They sat in a corner these two, oblivious to the surroundings. She talked seriously about something, and he listened actively. Anyone would know from the look of them that they have never not been like this.

Recently, an article written by Matthew Johnson, professor of psychology at Binghamton University appeared in the Washington Post called, "Why having children is bad for your marriage." 

I can only imagine how many people clicked on that link.

The assertions were as gloomy as you'd expect.

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes relationship malaise and a "fixer" baby to help pull things together, in the baby carriage. Couples become less happy with each other and less happy in general.

Things further devolve, wrote Johnson, as communication gets patchy and fatigue makes us less interested in everything, including each other.  Our parent selves strangle the free and youthful spirit that drew us to each other and intimacy waits for later which doesn't come. The one who stays home feels isolated. The one who comes home feels insignificant, and so on.

The good news? When the kids leave, you're free to go. Reported Johnson, "...the successful launch of the children leads spouses to discover they have few shared interests and there’s nothing keeping them together."

And there you have it. Go ahead, have a baby. When you're done, just bite the head off your mate because you're finished.

For sure, I  have known couples whose over-parenting has changed them into people with only parenting in common. I've known others who viewed the empty nest with dread. And, of course, there are couples who never really had anything going in that was worth getting back. 

But there are swans, too. 

Our babies began arriving less than ten months after we married and didn't stop arriving until eight years later. I could have been the woman I spotted recently with a license plate that didn't read "3GIRLZ," or, "4BOYZ" but "4YNOTS."

We relocated six times in those first six years, with each of my consultant-husband's new assignments. We missed everyone, but we also liked that no one knew us as well as we knew each other while we were figuring stuff out. We didn't argue about who worked harder, we both did. 

At the core of things, we'd become, together, the most important people we'd ever been and shared the most important experience ever to grace our lives. It changed us forever. 

But challenges come and ours came later with a permanent move back home. Now my husband traveled while I managed the little ones and made new go-to mother-friends. Now, it was in late calls at night that we connected, too tired to comb through the details of a day, but not wanting to hang up. Now, it was only hours each week that we had to shore up that core of things where intuition lives and tells you what to blow off, what to say instead, how to gauge the climate, and how to tell tired from tired of .  

I needed to articulate this disorientation, this stone-in-my-shoe over the million, tiny things we now experienced apart, and the worry that we might next become people who knew each other less than others did. 

And here, in my opinion, is a point in any relationship that should be circled like an important date on the calendar. 

Here is where it's easy to mistake critical symptoms of transition for a bad mood, or phase, or "something hormonal" and blow it off, because you don't want to be needy even though you are for good reason.

Here is when many swans stop making those hearts with their necks  and start spending more time with their cygnets because the cygnets are easier to figure out.

Articulate I did, but because I am about feelings, and he is about observations, it probably went something like this:

Me:   I don't know, it's just a feeling. Something's different.
Him: Well, can you give me an example?
Me:   No, and why don't you have the same feeling?
Him: What feeling?

Me:   See?  

We gave our marriage its own room in the family house.

One didn't attempt a serious conversation while the other was helping a child find his shoes.  We hired sitters and made time for those feelings-without-examples conversations. In those early years, we ate dinner together after the kids were fed, a thing that wouldn't work for many in today's parenting culture, but which saved us later, when the babies became teenagers and we faced a whole other blog post of challenges to our core.

I don't think a troubled marriage is the certain result of having a baby, many marriages are troubled with or without children. 

But with a relationship at the core worth defending, and an understanding that marriage is not the most resilient of the relationships that form when babies come, but the most vulnerable one, I think the swan potential is higher. 

Maybe Dr. Johnson will visit a bigger pond next time, and ask to see them, the swans. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The giant man at life school

I don't know who this is,
but I don't think
she's  an optimist. 
The advice columnist Carolyn Hax recently explained to a writer why it is easier to be unhappy than optimistic.

"Optimism," said Ms. Hax, "demands that you greet new people and situations with an open mind, instead of just lumping them into some lazy category of Things You Already Know." 

There is no better place to witness people and situations you don't already know than the supermarket, or as I like to refer to it, life school.

Sooner or later, we all show up in this place of aisles that reflect our myriad needs, and stand in lines with our choices of how to meet them.  

There is this man I see there at least twice a month. He's a giant guy, several inches over six feet and not fat but, well, "stocky."  He looks like David Crosby does now. 

I notice him because I won't forget the first time I saw him.

It was during the summer last year and we were in Produce. The woman he was with was tiny, just over five feet tall. She wore enormous dark glasses that covered half her face, had a blond beehive hairstyle and was dressed in an expensive looking sheath dress and high-heeled strappy sandals. She looked like she'd just come from a cocktail party in 1965.

She trailed the big man in sullen silence, as if they'd left an unfinished argument in the car.   

As happens when you start with others in Produce, the giant man, his unhappy companion and I began to journey through the aisles together, from Deli, into Beverages and onto Spices and Salad Dressings. Very thoughtfully, he placed things in his cart while the woman said nothing.
She erupted in Nuts and Canned Vegetables.

"What the hell did you just say to me?" she hissed.

The man didn't say or do anything, and so, loudly, she repeated the question.

With his silence, she only became more agitated.

They reached the end of the aisle and were out in the open now, in the stretch that separates the registers from the ends of the aisles. 

"You don't talk to me like that!" she said. "You know what? You're the biggest asshole I know."

"And you are drunk," the giant man finally said.

The crowd stepped to the side as they approached, but then clustered in their wake, saying to each other, "Did you see that?" Cashiers gaped. Small children stopped slapping each other in line to watch.

"Oh, man," whispered an employee next to me, pen poised over his clipboard.

"I DON'T HAVE TO BE HERE!" the woman yelled, and wobbled toward the exit.

The giant man rolled up to a line next to mine. Something in the way his gaze traveled, settling on nothing, seemed practiced.  I tried not to look over; nobody wants to see their misery reflected in someone else's expression, but then he looked right at me.

It wasn't a look that said you don't know the half of it, or, I know, right? It was a look that said no big deal.

And then he looked away.

I saw them again about a month later as they left a local restaurant. He walked ahead, she stumbled after him, nipping at his heels.

If you were in your underthings, and the house caught fire, and you had to run outside as you were, because you had no time to grab a robe, you wouldn't care that neighbors saw you in your next to nothing, you'd be worried about what could be perishing inside, in the flames. 

To witness, and withhold judgment, ignore your assumptions – why would anyone put up with that? – like happiness, is harder to achieve sometimes, but worth it. It's something I've begun to do reflexively. Maybe because I've learned that I usually don't know the half of it, or just don't like being judged myself. 

Or maybe it's because we're hearing from so many from different walks who have felt so misunderstood for so long by those people who don't greet new people and situations with an open mind, and do  lump them into some lazy category of Things They Already Know.

Several times since that afternoon in Produce, I've seen that giant man on his own in the supermarket, strolling with his cart, looking at labels, calmly adding things, moving on.

Yesterday, I pulled into the parking lot and had to wait to park behind a big truck that had stopped in front of the door. From the rear view mirror hung a handicapped placard. The plate said "Veteran." I heard yelling.

"Don't you tell me to shut up!"

The giant man was in the front seat, and the 1965 woman was struggling to get into the passenger seat. 

He looked at me as I passed. I looked at him. Again, I glimpsed that veteran plate.

In my category of things I already know, this is an intolerable situation, a house on fire. But in the category of things the giant man already knows, this could be underthings, while more important things have not yet perished, or harder things have already happened.  

I don't know the half of it.

But at life school, is where I have learned how to keep the door to my mind from swinging shut, because those doors lock from the outside. Then, there you are, stuck with the other half.  

Note:  Other campuses of life school are conveniently located at the DMV or the ER, but they don't offer upbeat, overhead music from the seventies that will stay in your head for the rest of the day.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

We are all horrified

---From a shared Facebook post by Jim Hightower
Once, in my early high school career, I joined a group of kids who decided to skip school and hang around someone's house listening to John Lennon's White Album, which had swears in it. Two of the members of this group had terrible reputations.
But I wanted to see what it was like to be a badass. 
I squirmed with guilt the minute I knew my first class was underway and nothing felt better until 2:15 when I could go home and stop feeling stupid and disappointing. 
My mother found out of course, and asked me why I'd done it. I told her I didn't know why. Then, in veiled teen speak, I asked if she thought I was stupid and disappointing. 
I might as well have asked her if I was not actually a human, but a mountain lion. 
"No," she said, mystified by this. "Of course not. Why would you think that?" 
She didn't patch a few facts together and pretend to know what was going on with me. She just loved me and wanted to understand. And, so, she asked me to tell her what she didn't know.

Some time later, I told her how much I liked talking to her because she always "understood." Actually, she told me, she didn't always, because her life and experiences were nothing like mine. But she always listened. 
The honesty of that distinction has been on my mind lately, with respect to the "Black Lives Matter"movement and the "All Lives Matter" response that appears to frustrate everyone. If I get this even a little, both sides have a different take on the meaning. The "All Lives" people see the slogan as divisive, while it is meant by "Black Lives" to suggest greater inclusion, a desire to have one's fair share too. Not more. Just as much.
But what I hear above the din, over and over again is a response I understand better than any: don't explain what you haven't experienced.

Jim Hightower's post on misunderstanding which appeared several times in my newsfeed recently appeals to me for its elegant truth:  We can differ in history or culture and other characteristics of identity - race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin - and still  honor each other on common ground: we are human beings who love other human beings. 

Our children, and parents, and spouses, our family and friends.  

And we don't want to lose them. 

It isn't the inability to relate to the lives and loves of others that widens the divide. It is the inability to admit that you don't know more about a thing than you do, and failing to ask for enlightenment. It is failing to locate and honor that common ground where we share more than we don't.

Especially now. 
Because, now we share Dallas.
We are all horrified.
We were all horrified by Sandy Hook, and Oklahoma City and Orlando. 

And 9/11, the first time in my memory when the country, united by massive trauma, turned to itself for comfort, then fell to either side of our common ground in the month or so after, when, just as we were hoisting flags and listening to Lee Greenwood, some politician blamed another for "letting this happen," and there we were, united and polarized in crisis.
Here we are again, united and polarized by crisis, this time with a black, blue and white conflict at its core.  
However we dissect cause and effect, we are all horrified by the taking of lives not lived, people not at fault. We have all been left under a cloud of apprehension, a feeling of dread – where will the next one be? How bad? Who will die when an officer interprets a civilian's show of fear for his life as a threat to his own? What video will go viral?
I'm losing heart. Like others, I fear growing less horrified, and I dread the next crisis that will crowd this common ground with broken-hearted people. All different in ways that matter less than those in which we are exactly the same.  
I'm going to start with that.
I'm going to ask, I'm going to listen, I'm going to read, and I'm going to keep showing up at the humanity party as a life that does not matter more than any other.

Even if I wish I could do more.