Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Underground of the Other Half

I got an email last week from someone who knows someone who knows me. She cautiously admitted that she's considering a divorce and had heard that I had been through one (Was that right? she hedged respectfully, non-intrusively, covertly). She wondered if it was okay to ask me about it. I recognized the tone. A familiar tentativeness—trying to determine if the audience will understand that you don't want a divorce but that you might still get one. It's a hard thing to admit out loud in the homeschooling world we come from... that you aren't able to sustain the image of healthy family, and that you feel awful about it, and even embarrassed by it.

She and I talked on the phone today. In that "back from the trenches at different fronts" kind of way, we traded stories, even laughing at what isn't laughable. I got around to asking her what support she has in her life right now. She quipped, "Well I have my non-Christian friends who take me downtown for dinner and drinks. Thank God for them."

Oh that made me laugh. I know just what she means. In the churches we come from, it's almost like two-shall-become-one is not just a spiritual, mystical union, but a fact of identity. When you go back from "couple" to "single," it's hard not to feel like half a person, half a soul, half-saved. While outside the church, people just look at you as, well, you!

I remember years ago when a couple who led our home Bible study group filed for divorce. They were a little older than I am now. The home group disbanded because the husband moved out. At the time, it disturbed me. Why couldn't we carry on with the wife heading up the group? She was still in the house. She hadn't asked her husband to leave her for someone else. But the policy of the church was that "couples" led groups with other couples in them. Sure singles were welcome to participate in the group, but they couldn't lead groups (unless they limited themselves to singles). We all accepted this unwritten code, as though the nature of true spirituality is a married heterosexual pair.

Once you declare that you are more interested in a healthy life than in propping up an institution, the others on that underground railroad find you. It's an interesting community down here. A major shared characteristic is how many have moved away from their original church communities. When they most needed support, they felt abandoned or worse, persecuted. I've heard from women who have had to endure pastors defending violent husbands, calling them repentant or provoked. For what? I can't think that pastors are excusing violent behavior because they, too, are violent (though some may be). I don't think they want wives to be smacked, shoved, slugged, or forcibly restrained, either. So why do some pastors go to such lengths to keep marriages together after a wife finally gets up the courage to admit how bad it's gotten?

My guess is that marriage is so critical to the reputation of the evangelical church (at least the white churches I've been in), they feel the need to protect it at all costs. Successful marriages (in America anyway) have become the chief evidence that the Spirit of God is still a vital force in people's lives. Divorce has become the great evidence that the Spirit of God is lacking in our culture, and consequently, in the lives of individuals who choose it.

Seen that way, no wonder those of us in the divorced camp huddle together in cover of email and get drinks with non-Christian friends away from the suburbs! It's not pleasant to be seen as one who is no longer responsive to God's Spirit... or worse, perhaps was never filled with that Spirit to begin with!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Inception (no spoilers)

The description "A cross between The Matrix and James Bond" is pretty accurate, though thankfully we aren't distracted by good-looking women pretending to be spies, offering themselves up to get laid.

What fascinated me most were the assertions in the sub themes:
  1. Holding onto guilt limits our creativity.
  2. Our subconscious is well-defended from alien points of view.
  3. An idea (especially a wrong one) that takes hold will gather evidence to itself and will expand to control a person's experience of (or relationship to) reality.
  4. We seek to alter our memories to relieve guilt.
  5. Memories can't be the basis of dreams (in the film, a literal idea; in life, a principle—don't be limited by the past when imagining the future).
  6. We don't need more time if we've shared a lifetime. What we share can be enough.
  7. What we believe about our relationships impacts our choices and can endanger others.
  8. Knowing love from a parent makes a world of difference.
  9. Manipulation of our beliefs (even if we are led to believe what isn't empirically true) can enhance or diminish our experience of life (even to the point of happiness or suicide).
  10. When you feel like peeing while you sleep, it rains really hard in your dreams.
I loved the cinematography. The opening ocean spray (wow!), the table top reflection in the scene with Saito (gold, black, faces with black hair, perfectly balanced in that zen way), the mirrors in Paris, the folding over of streets, the floating bodies ... so many moments.

Acting terrific. Leo DiCaprio has matured and is a favorite A lister now. Ellen Page was feminine! I loved that they didn't make her Adriadne character some boyish computer nerd. Great to see a soft side, a relationally aware side combined with being smart. Good role model (though still far too few females in these leading roles for my tastes).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is almost too adorably handsome for his role in this film. He does a great job, but I still see him with that smarmy smile, arms swinging to a happy tune after his shower sex with Zoe Daschenel from "500 Days of Summer." Jacob (18 yr old son) loves his wardrobe in every movie. Who doesn't?

So what did you think of the film? Lived up to its hype? (Spoilers may be in comments - permitted but be forewarned.) 

Friday, July 23, 2010

Letting go....

I'm upside down on a high bar in the playground, swinging back and forth, back and forth, arms pumping, the skin on the under side of my knees squishing against the metal. My back arches, I bend my arms at the elbows and thrust my little body backward one last time until my face through stringy hair is looking facedown at footprints in the sand. My knees are still hooked until suddenly, in a slow motion moment high above the bar.... zing.... my taut muscles let go! Feet and legs are free! The whoosh of wind rushes into my ears, I see sky and trees, my gangly limbs sail through the pillowy air toward the earth—flying, not falling. I have to reeeach for the ground with my feet. Thud! I crumple and the delirious world spins around me.
It's nearly 7:00 a.m. The every two minute twinges in my back have subsided happily, but the reprieve is brief. Transition. Muscles clench my round belly, squeezing tears from my eyes and ergwauauaargghhhhhh from my throat. Laura, with a midwife's calm, reminds me to breathe, to imagine opening up, to let go. It's. so. hard. to let go... my body bearing down with a fierce force I can't master. But I gasp for air and call it breathing. I cry out. I can't stop breakers that crash over me and over me and drown me. To give up... to yield... to float and flail on a sea of muscular power. To let go and be taken over. A crescendo of urgings and voices and visions collide. And then, it's over. Forever. Whether or not I wanted to let go.
I see her standing in a too small room, flanked by a preppie co-ed, boxes oozing contents into the cramped space. All that needed to be said had been, yet other words, eighteen years worth of words, wanted their last chance to take the floor... and wouldn't come forth. In a split second, careless red hair danced on her shoulders, liquid blue eyes gleamed. Brave smiles, so many hugs, forced cheerfulness accompanied by "Good bye" and "Have fun" and "I'll miss you." A long walk. A quiet car. The tether between us slackened with each mile. We let go of her childhood together while apart, but we didn't let go of each other.
He promised me I could trust him with my heart. He would take good care of it. I took him at his word. He lied. That's why I wanted to punish him, to expose him. My better angels and self-help books insisted I let go. Some added, "Let God." But locked inside was a righteous indignation. I wasn't hanging upside down, being pulled along by my body, or choosing a goodbye. I hated being required to let go. I hated being counted on to let go. I hated knowing that he knew that I was too good a person to not let go.
That's how I hold on, clenching my knees around that bar, gripping the sides of the table, forcing a goodbye. I choose my resentments. I resent being managed, the robbery of my dignity. How do you let go when you suffer someone else's consequences?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inner voice... like writer's voice

needs freedom to make mistakes. When you want to give your inner wisdom a voice, it helps if you can experiment in an internal freewriting kind of practice. That means you can't judge the content quite yet. The emotional grammar police aren't allowed input. Friends who "know" the right format for your life (as deadly as foisting a five paragraph essay structure onto autobiographical narrative) need to be gently shushed. They mean well, but they are not you... they don't know what your inner self is trying to articulate.

It's taken a long time for my quieted, judged, mocked, misunderstood, ignored, reproved, overlooked, shamed voice to emerge... even a wee bit. Hard to believe, I know, given how naturally I speak in front of a room, how easily I monopolize phone lines with detailed introspective comments to close friends. I ooze verbal confidence which hides my self-doubt.

Listening to inner wisdom is not the same as talking about insights. The process is somewhat similar to how writing must feel for lots of people. One of the hardest things about writing is the anxiety that Mistakes Will Be Made. That need to get it all down correctly on the first go has paralyzed the writing voices of many verbal people. I know that my writing voice isn't hampered by bad punctuation or mistaken content or self-indulgent ranting.

But I have treated my inner wisdom differently. I was told for years that I can't trust myself, that I needed an objective measure to avoid Making Big Mistakes. I worried: What if I'm wrong? What if I stake my life on my beliefs and it doesn't work out? 

But I should have asked: What if in the tiny, every day ways I ignore warning bells (emotional exhaustion, tedium, wrenching pain, loneliness, hopelessness, confusion, contradiction between logic and experience)? 

I applied "formats for living" to my unique life, trying to fill in the blanks according to the Life's Instructions. You know how you write an essay that must have a thesis, supporting paragraphs with points and particulars, proper evidence and proofs from reputable sources, and a resounding conclusion that will lead everyone to your conclusion, conclusively!? That's how I've treated my life, much more than my writing. I've scripted my inner wisdom by supplying it a list of rules, outcomes, supreme authorities and source materials; then I told it to get busy voicing and concluding.

What I've needed, though, is to permit illegal thoughts, hunches, concerns, worries to percolate to the surface where they could sunbathe, get a little light on them so they wouldn't be so pale.

For instance:

I let people bully me. I assumed if someone took the trouble to tell me my motives, they must know something about me I didn't know about myself. Confusion and self-doubt would swoop in. Then I'd fight off the anxiety with defensiveness, but in the end, often capitulated to their vision of me.

Now, if someone tells me who I am or what I think, I stop them. If they don't come from a place of curiosity, humility and kindness, the content is irrelevant to me.

To write my life with my inner voice means risking relationships, it means making mistakes (over-asserting a boundary, not creating a strong enough one, experimenting with my morality, disregarding what matters, making something matter that doesn't).

To freewrite with my inner voice requires quiet. One surprising source of support for this process has been the Episcopal church, which I get to visit occasionally. I cry the best "inner wisdom" tears on a kneeler... the silences move stuff around inside me, all without words.

Today I read that to follow one's "gut" (inner wisdom), you don't need reasons to act. Reasons can be sorted out later (and sometimes delay action). Better to act on your inkling first because sometimes that's what saves you from injury (emotional or otherwise!). Being a "nice girl" is not ever a reason to ignore what you "hunch" inside.

I've bumbled along in this quest to be authentic, self-protecting and nurturing, other-oriented and generous. I've over-extended, I've miscalculated, I've used a machete when a scalpel would have been better. I've slaked my thirst with sugar drinks when I needed water. But that's the nature of free voicing. Wisdom comes in the revising phase... it's not all at once, it's not neat or tidy or even correct at the start. It's most certainly not arrived at in a first draft. Inner voicing is a process that includes reacting instinctively without always understanding why, and then slowly gathering meaning along the way.

I tell my writing students all the time that "writing voice" simply means that their writing sounds like them. When I read what they write, whether they are joking around or crafting sophisticated academic papers, the ring of "who they are" comes through the writing. That's writing voice.

Today it occurred to me that living by your inner wisdom may be similar: You'll know that what you "voice within" is true to you when your life looks like who you are.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It turns out I can't do it all

not even in sequence.

I find it amazing that women are the ones asking that question: Can I do it all? I wonder if a man has ever asked it of himself? I imagine men being stressed, over-worked, missing their families. But do they feel obligated to figure out how to "do it all" (like having orange iced pumpkin muffins for the second grade class and showing up in an impeccable suit for the business lunch, all in the same day... and knowing that weeding and laundry, grocery shopping and homework supervision are waiting for him at home).

I tend to think men get thanked as helping out when they load the dishes. I don't think they feel like failures when they wake to ants crawling on plates of pie crumbs because they collapsed exhausted into bed instead of cleaning up the kitchen at midnight. When men do it all, they are praised as enlightened, good husbands/partners, doing more than their share, helping their wives/girlfriends, setting a good example for the kids. If they don't do it all, but try - they get credit for trying. If they don't even try, we excuse them as male—men aren't required to do it all in truth; they are invited to pitch in once in awhile.

Some women appear to do it all. They manage their weight, get their nails done, pay attention to diet for the whole family, match pillows and wall paint, throw terrific parties, run marathons, earn lots of money, nurture children, self-educate: going to book and garden clubs, volunteer, and are reportedly great in bed, too. (That was exhausting to type—imagine living it!)

I can actually think of a couple women I know who fit the description in that scary intimidating paragraph. (I love them! Wish I could be them! I wonder if they like being themselves...)

I heard on the radio today that kids between 4-15 are getting less allowance than they used to, due to the recession. Current figures say that the average allowance is $9.00/week for boys and $8.00/week for girls. What? Girls get less allowance than boys? Seriously? They also said that boys tend to spend their allowances within days and girls tend to save up for bigger purchases, delaying gratification.

Maybe that's the difference: boys still feel entitled to a life that has more room in it for what they want, when they want it (perhaps they can spend it all and get more from mom and dad, more easily than girls). It appears that girls are trained, even subconsciously, from an early age that they will not get as much, must make it last longer, must make it appear to be enough, and are still required to compete with those boys as though they are equals.

Perhaps the "do it all" mentality ought to come with a price tag. It seems really tough to get it all done on low income or too little free time or not enough partner support. I wonder what would happen if women just stopped and only did what they can afford to do (emotionally, logistically, financially, relationally). I wonder how men would see us. What would our children think? What about our friends? I wonder how we would see ourselves.

I think it's time to stop over-spending on our ideals. I'm going on an "image diet." Wanna join me?

Friday, July 16, 2010

This side of the D word

The matrimonial culture we live in was never so apparent to me until I left it... I've felt ashamed of the times I overlooked another person's unmarried status in my writing, in my thinking, in my self-congratulating pride at being married. But now, I identify with the "single mother" in Toy Story 3. I notice naked, dented ring fingers. I get irritated by announcements of silver anniversaries and the chipper way marrieds toss out "Love you, Babe" on Facebook walls and their friends comment how cute they are together (not ever knowing, even, if that couple is kind, faithful and generous to each other, or secretly enmeshed in verbal terror, infidelity and/or cold, stale, long-term indifference).

The pressure to stay married is tremendous, which is why so many do—long beyond mutual joy, emotional safety and family well-being. The reason so many marrieds think "every" couple has huge fights or deals with cruelty and meanness is that so many of those couples stay married and report that this is what it's like. We tell ourselves that we aren't worse than anyone else... and on we go, putting up with what no one should. We mistake intensity for intimacy.

I've read many of the standard "how to stay married" books and frequently, they aren't in the arena of what is wrong. The deep problems in marriage aren't about money or sex or kids. Often, communication problems aren't really about communication, but a flawed fundamental disposition toward the other person.

Better to ask:

Do the partners revere each other? Do they operate from goodwill and generosity more often than not? Is there the capacity for empathy and mutual understanding? Can both people be themselves—the real person, as he or she is—without being a disappointment or source of ongoing irritation to the other partner? Is the marriage a wellspring of strength and nurturing or is it a relationship of egg-shells and pretending?

In other words, if the advice in marriage books to resolve differences doesn't work, might it be that the issues are more fundamental—not about bedtimes and budgets, but what it takes to provide consistent regard and care, shared power and mutual support? Do the parties esteem each other in both the global ways (who you are in the world is someone I am proud of and admire) and in the tiny, hidden ways (I protect your well-being by my tone of voice, by believing the best of your motives, by hearing your anxiety and fear... and relieving them, by cherishing your friends, habits and interests)?

Anyone who thinks divorce is easy clearly ain't been there, done that. Staying married (even in painful, hurtful marriages) goes with the flow—it's downhill, it's the path of least resistance... at least, until it isn't. No one steps out of the powerful, culturally-approved current of marriage because, "Hey, it's so easy to divorce in our state, and you kind of bug me, so bam! I'm filing." I haven't met that divorced person yet.

And I'm certainly not her.

But I'm also not someone who willingly conforms to the cultural viewpoint of divorce as the Great Epic Tragedy of a Failed Marriage. As a dear friend said to me at one of my low points of self-doubt about my decision, "I'm sorry that you are second-guessing your divorce since it's the healthiest thing you've ever done for yourself and your family."

That was a moment.

But I do get it. No one gets married looking forward to the day you get to get divorced! The best option is not an option anyone wanted.

Still, divorce doesn't have to mean a shipwrecked life. One of my biggest disappointments is that I have to "stop counting the years" as though I'm "out of the race" or am no longer qualified to be a happy, successful family. I decided a few weeks ago that all those years count and if I ever remarry, in my heart I will start at year 26. After all, I have been married 25 years. They were real years of investment. They are simply at an end for now.

One of the lessons of divorce for all involved is that there are some behaviors, some issues that deserve a no tolerance policy even if it means completely overhauling the structure of your family. Divorce makes it possible to extricate oneself from those destructive forces, to build again, to teach one's children that a love relationship must be grounded in deeply committed, honest respect. Anything less is not intimacy; anything less is not what I want to model for my children as a marriage.

Last week on the Bachelorette, we had exhibit A of Jake's emotional abuse of Vienna (that television constructed villian-ness to Jake's good boy image). How odd it was to watch the whole thing flip—suddenly Jake was unmasked as the arrogant, defining, controlling, abusing male to Vienna's inarticulate despair and humiliation. In that flash, I saw something that moved me. This young (widely disliked) woman of 23 had more self-esteem than I had for most of my adult life. She said in effect, "Fame, fortune, my reputation be damned. I won't be with a mean person. I deserve better."

That's what divorce is often about. The culture of marriage sweeps meanness under the rug—we're urged to "deal" with it, to endlessly turn the tiles of the Rubix cube in search of a solved puzzle. There's some idea that if I hear your story and it "doesn't seem that bad to me," then you must be able to deal with it. But there is never any way to convey an atmosphere, a pervading sense, an inner knowing that you are not being respected. The isolated incidents can be untangled and re-imagined, they can be forgiven and left behind. Who hasn't done that ad nauseum in a long term marriage than ends in divorce? What no one can understand without living through it is the way your psyche and spirit are diminished in a slow yellow-wallpaper kind of way that leads to a one-day inner cry of "Enough!"

When that day arrives, divorce is the long lost friend. It's the passage, the ticket to Europe, the remodel of the house, the great chance at a do-over. I know people want to convey sympathy when they say to me that they are sorry. I do get that. What I feel now, though, is that I want people to feel relieved for me, to be optimistic with me, to believe that if this is the choice I made (and they know me), they can't imagine it wouldn't be the right choice for my family despite the enormous pain it creates in the aftermath.

I know that's a tall order. I accept all offers of kindness no matter how packaged. I also know that divorce feels like a contagion. Who wants to get close to it, particularly if your own marriage is one of those challenging ones? I certainly don't "recommend" divorce like a good book or fine wine.

I do, though, stand by one principle over all others:
Your life is your responsibility. Protect (with a mother bear's fierceness) your right (and your children's right) to peace, respect, love and safety. Whatever it takes to achieve these is what it takes. That's all.