Happily Ever After

          Marriage is hard.  It is, as the (brilliant) 80’s movie Parenthood demonstrates, like a roller coaster ride.  You change over time, as does your spouse, as does every human being.  And you’re both faulted.  Two faulted, changing people can’t expect a smooth ride, and we shouldn’t want that either.  As the grandma says in Parenthood, “Some went on the merry go round.  But that just goes around.  Nothing.  I like the roller coaster.  You get more out of it.”  I actually hate roller coasters, so maybe I’m not naturally prepped well for the ups and downs of marriage, but I do agree that a merry-go-round would get boring after a while.  I might just choose the coaster in the kiddie section.
          Marc and I had a rough time in our marriage a few years back.  The low point was probably me getting out of the car during a fight, yelling at him to leave me alone.  And him actually, physically leaving me alone by driving away.  This came after months of frequent arguing, over things we seemingly couldn’t get past, about which we weren’t going to change our opinions.  It was a hard, discouraging time.  Neither of us could understand how the other was feeling, so we visited a counselor to help us see things differently.  To get us outside our own heads, above our own situation and give us the bird’s eye view.  Our disagreements, which up close looked huge, seemed small and manageable from far away.  Easily fixed with some work and an attitude change.
          That’s often the case in marriage.  By nature, it is a difficult thing – two people joining their lives, promising to stand by one another through whatever goes down, not having a clue how hard that is to live out.  Even when people say being married is hard, you don’t know how hard until you do it.  Until your spouse has hit the one nerve that seems connected to all the others and it feels like your life is falling apart.  Just as reading the entire collection of parenting books from Amazon can’t prepare you for the reality of a tiny person in your arms.  But that’s the part that makes it exciting.  The roller coaster instead of the merry-go-round.  And that’s what makes it worthwhile.
          In his essay On Marriage, Robert Louis Stevenson writes of the difference between hope and faith.  Hope is the feeling a young person has before he marries, and faith is the long-married person’s view of marriage and his spouse.
               Hope lives on ignorance; open-eyed Faith is built upon the knowledge of our life, of the tyranny of
               circumstance and the frailty of human resolution…In the first, he expects an angel for a wife; in the
               last, he knows that she is like himself – erring, thoughtless, and untrue; but like himself also, filled
               with a struggling radiancy of better things…
          I was full of hope when I married, which is inevitable.  One would normally think of hope as a good thing, but in this case it’s hope in something, someone, bound to fail.  Who won’t measure up to your expectations because he or she can’t.  By nature your spouse will let you down, in big or small ways.  The experience of living through the disappointment, and getting past it, is what produces the faith to carry on, as long as you see that the same faults are true of you.
          This essay sounds like a downer on marriage, as does Louis Stevenson’s for the first couple of pages, but I promise neither is so.  In his new (and excellent) book on marriage, Tim Keller references a study in which it was found that “two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce reported being happily married five years later”.  You can look up the parameters of the study if you like (http://www.americanvalues.org/html/does_divorce_make_people_happy.html), but I think it makes sense even without any empirical data.  Given a little time, you can work through, or as the study points out, outlast, many issues in marriage.  Three years after Marc and I had our rough spell, we are more in love than when we got hitched thirteen years ago.  It’s odd to think that we ever had such raging fights.  We worked hard, changed some of our behaviors, learned to love one another better.  And we forgave a lot of crap.  That’s the key – not hoping for perfection, but expecting to forgive and be forgiven.  A lot.  Then you can get on to the business of enjoying each other, too.
          Louis Stevenson says it beautifully…
                    …for the faults of married people continually spur up each of them, hour by hour, to do better
                    and to meet and love upon a higher ground.  And ever, between the failures, there will come
                    glimpses of kind virtues to encourage and console.
          Marital bliss may be possible for a time, but it can’t be expected forever.  The good news is it gets better, or it can.  I know our roller coaster will dip again, but it’s also bound to go back up.  In the meantime I’m enjoying the heights with the man I married.

Want/Don’t Want

          It’s funny how the things you want can change over time, even to the opposite of that which you wanted before.  When I was seven I wished my name was Misty.  How ethereal, I thought, as I flitted around in a ballet skirt; If only I was Misty rather than Jenea, I would be happy.  When I was in junior high I longed for Pepe jeans, the height of awesomeness.  I bought one pair with my own money and wore them every other day – stone washed to almost white, pegged at the ankles.  Oh yes.  In high school it was a new house I thought I needed.  Not an old one with creaky hardwood floors like we had; I wanted carpeting, and a neighborhood in the new part of town where every house looked the same.
          Getting the things I wanted produced varying degrees of happiness for me, but it didn’t last forever.  The Pepe jeans were horrible just a few years later, and Misty would now be on a list of names I would go to the courthouse to change.  As an adult I live in an old house with creaky hardwood floors in the old part of town.  By choice.
          One of the biggest desires I ever had was to be a mother.  As I tried to get pregnant with my first, my obsession increased with each unsuccessful month.  What I ate, my temperature in the morning, which pants Marc wore – each was an essential element in my quest to have a baby.  It was all that mattered.  The day I knew I was with child, my obsession switched to having a healthy one.  The day I gave birth to my son I fell in love so hard I couldn’t imagine ever leaving his side.  A year later my dream was to go to Target alone.
          Having a second baby was a definite urge, too.  I felt a little less sure of having a third, though if I would have known what a sweet and easy child she’d be, there would have been no hesitation.
          But now, if I got pregnant again I would cry.
          I’m not supposed to say that, because there are people who desperately ache for a baby, as I did eight years ago.  And if it were to happen, I’d move past the crying at some point and welcome the new little person into our family with joy.  It would just take some self-pep talks and a lot of caffeine.  I realize the I-want-what-I-want-when-I-want-it aspect to my changed desires.  Like a spoiled five year old who rejects the ice cream she just ordered because it’s in a cup instead of a cone.  I can almost see my own pouty face and crossed arms.  But it’s the truth.  My body might actually fall to pieces if I grew another person in there, or gave it birth, or woke up every two hours to feed him.  I need a nap just thinking about it.  As sure as I was that I wanted a baby when I was younger, I am sure I don’t want to be pregnant again.
          Much has happened since I was 29, namely having three children and getting older.  I’m in a different stage of life now than I was then, and I’m ready for the change.  I want to focus on rearing the children I have instead of having any more, and I’m excited for new challenges, a re-connection with my brain, a chance to go to the gym more than once a week.  I’m not being fickle, I’m just moving on.  Thankfully I have no misgivings about having my kids the way I would have regretted being named Misty.  And they don’t go out of style as did my jeans.  Over time I may want different shoes or change the way I do my hair, but my children are one part of my life I will always be glad for.  I might need to go to Target alone from time to time, but my heart isn’t going anywhere.

From the Outside In

          My first couple of years living in L.A. I found I had nothing to say.  It was hard for me to write in that city.  Part of it was due to my surroundings – buildings all around don’t start the creative juices flowing in me.  Views have always been a part of writing for me.  Being able to see a long way off, especially if the scenery is green and lush and sweeping, has always prompted words.  Certain trees, or stretches of the sky, or images in a photo have jump-started many stories and essays and poems in my brain.  Finding  the meaningful in the beautiful motivates me.  Mid-century architecture, in pastel, doesn’t.
          It also takes a while – years – for a person to know a place enough to write about it.  “Write what you know” is common writing advice, and I didn’t know L.A. enough my first several years there to say anything worthwhile.  It’s a complicated city; It takes a while to absorb.  I also struggled with liking it at first – that didn’t help.  I moved to Los Angeles a new bride, to a teaching job I wasn’t trained for, to a city my husband had already lived in for two years.  From Kansas.  It was culture shock, marriage shock, career shock and lack-of-friends shock all at once.  In a apartment in Alhambra with decades-old shag carpeting and no phone.  It seems like it should have been fodder for a lot of good writing, but instead it left me speechless – quietly taking in all the new, all the different, trying to understand my changed life.  There was no room left in my brain for processing.  For overflowing.
          Four or five years in to my time in L.A. I enrolled in a writing class through UCLA Extension.  It was the first time since college that I felt a twinge of being able to throw some words down on paper that weren’t inner ramblings.  It felt great.  I wrote some decent sentences in my classes there, but more importantly, I wrote.  Pieces with structure and craft involved.  I remember driving home from class one night, which I went to in the evening after a full day of work, feeling more alive and awake than I had in years.  And more connected to my city and the people in it than ever.  I had something to say for the first time in a long time.  Hallelujah.
          A couple of years later, when I had my first child – my son – my heart broke open with all sorts of new feelings and met yearnings – longings I didn’t know the depth of until they were realized in my baby boy.  I knew I wanted to be a mother, but I didn’t know what a primal need would be met in having a child.  That it would open up another valve and pump new blood into my life.  That it would answer an unanswerable question in my soul.  I spilled over with things to say, things to write, about becoming a mother.  The floodgates opened.  I wrote a love letter of sorts to my son about nursing him – the labor of love that it was.  It is probably horribly written – cheesy beyond forgiveness – but I still can’t see past the utter passion I felt at the time.  It still makes me cry.
          I’m beginning to be able to write in any kind of room these days, with any kind of view.  Even at a desk in the basement, with the computer and dirty laundry looking back at me.  Sitting in my dining room full of windows, looking into my back yard with kids’ toys, a swing set, bushes I’ve neglected trimming and the silly-looking pear tree I planted when we bought our house is my new writing spot of choice.  I could write there for hours.  I’m not sure why I don’t need sweeping views anymore.  Figuring that one out will be another essay some years down the road, I assume.  I wonder, though, if it has something to do with settling into myself.  Having three children made me take a step back and see myself differently, from a different angle.  From a more distant view, I suppose.  I was filled up by giving myself to my kids, and I witnessed that happen.  I still like sitting on top of a hill and seeing what thoughts pop into my head.  It’s magic for me.  But the empty screen and a few things to say are enough these days.  My family is my muse.  For now, watching them from the outside in is as good a view as any.

Obile Ravelin’

           I love a good road trip.  We took one each summer when I was a kid.  My parents made it a priority to create memories with my brother and me, and to expose us to different parts of the country.  Driving wasn’t as exciting as flying as a child, but I’m glad now that I learned the art of the road trip from an early age.
Driving makes you look around to see how the landscape shifts as you go.  You notice that the flatlands of western Kansas turn into the low foothills of Colorado, which turn into the jagged, towering Rockies.  That North Dakota is somehow flatter than Kansas and that the Badlands of South Dakota surprise you with color bursting out of the deep canyons. The Northwest is cool, and lush and full of mystery; the seaweed on the coast of Maine is endless and the water is never warm; the sand dunes of northern Indiana are as exciting as the Sahara to a ten year old, and great to slide down in bare feet.
          I learned how to see things on our road trips.  From a plane you see things from above, which is amazing and beautiful, but it’s from a distance.  It’s the Cliff’s Notes of the real thing.  When you have to wait and wait for those mountains to come into view, you really feel the joy of them.  When you know you’ll be crossing the Mississippi in several hours instead of twenty minutes, the rising tension is greater and the river astounds you with it’s width.  You’re a part of the scenery rather than a distant observer.  You and the river, and the sky, and the mountains are in it together.
          We drove from Kansas to the panhandle of Florida this summer for a family vacation.  Two and a half days on the way there, two longer days back.  Surely that sounds horrendous to many people, but to us it was wonderful.  Besides the fact that I’d always rather drive than fly for packing reasons alone, it’s also nice to stop and stretch, to pee when the need arises instead of when the seatbelt light goes off, to hop in and go instead of waiting in line after line.  There’s freedom in a road trip.  A plane ride is all rules and regulations, and large men snoring in the next row.  But Marc and I also like to make our kids see the world around them.  And we like to make them bored.
          Really.  Boredom has it’s benefits.
          I was bored a lot on our vacations as a kid.  Driving through Wyoming is bound to bore a nine-year-old.  But it made me think about things.  About the landscape, the people who might have lived on it as settlers, the animals and buildings and people I saw.  It forced me to play car games with my parents and Boggle with my brother.  Read books.  Look at maps.  Think about life and what it all means.  Give a kid a chance and she’ll have deep thoughts that would put a philosopher to shame.  Being bored spawned thoughts and ideas that would never have happened if I’d had a DVD player or a DS.  Luckily, they didn’t exist.
          There is actually a DVD player in our new minivan.  We didn’t want one, but the best car for the money, with the least amount of miles, happened to have one and we decided we’d compromise.  It was “broken” until our trip to Florida.  “Oh, look at that!  It works!”  Even I knew that a three day trip could use a show or two to break up the monotony.  But the kids missed Montgomery, Alabama while they watched Tangled, and I felt like I was making them idiots.  Turning around and seeing that “I am a zombie.  Whatever crap you show, tv in the ceiling, I’ll watch” look on their faces made me want to make it “break” again.
          When I was little we traveled by car – a red VW station wagon at first, then a brown Chrysler, to be exact.  By the time I was in junior high we had an R.V. we called the Obile Raveler (the M and T had long-since worn off by the time we bought it from a neighbor).  It was old and a little decrepit, but it got us all over the country, with our food and beds and car all in one handy mobile traveling unit.  In spring we would ready it for summer: air it out, clean the counters and bathroom, spray a bajillion ants with bug killer, and air it out again.  Then we’d load it up with our vacation supplies and take off.  A new destination each time.  My brother and I complained about the long hours in the O.R., and the frequent stops at historical markers which my dad had to read out loud, and the pull-overs so my mom could take photos.  Our trips were more discovery than getting from place to place.  It drove me nuts at times as a child, but now I see the value of our slow-motion adventures.
          Driving through western Kansas is best done at night, when you’re wrapped in stars and a pitch black sky, skimming the crust of the earth with nothing to block your view of the heavens.  That’s another thing I learned from my road trips.  Another thing I wouldn’t know if we had traveled a different way.  The Obile Raveler is gone, but the memories of driving it across the country will likely stay with me for the long-haul.  And Marc and I are going to do our best to create the same boredom, force the same self-reflection and daydreaming, and leave the DVD player off for most of our trips.  When the kids are going crazy from the long hours of looking out the window, and driving us crazy too, we can pop in a show.  But for the most part, I’m going old-school with our road trips and making memories that my kids will appreciate one day.  Even if they don’t now.