This morning I found the following entry in an almost-empty notebook: an essay I’d written on a day I’d gone fishin’ at the Museum of Fine Arts back in August, 2009. This is one of the things I like about keeping a journal. At any given moment, you can turn the page to rediscover something sensational you wrote then subsequently forgot.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
The judge was nearly an hour late. I don’t remember much from the divorce hearing that ended a nearly 13-year marriage, just as I don’t remember much from the modest wedding–just immediate family and a handful of friends–that began it. But I remember the judge being late.
It was October: too early for weather delays, but old cars break down year-round. Presumably my judge–funny how spending five minutes with a man will make you feel possessive of him–drove an old, unreliable car, as the bailiff seemed nonplussed when he announced the delay.
On that October morning, my judge was late–nearly an hour late–to my divorce hearing, and I fretted in the plain, paneled courtroom with its lawyers and tense-looking couples, none sitting next to the other, that the judge wouldn’t show up, my court date would be postponed, and after almost 13 years of marriage, I might have to wait a few extra days or even several weeks to end it all officially.
Marriage and divorces are both peculiar things. We place such value on the inexplicable power of brief, spoken sentences, as if words had the power to effect instantaneous and miraculous change. “I do” is the incantation that starts it all: so much tumult and transformation curled into two short syllables, an entire life–two entire lives–changing irrevocably in the space of a single breath.
My practiced line at my divorce hearing–my divorce hearing, not ours, the simple choice of pronouns saying everything–was much longer, but just as life-changing. When asked by the belated judge–my judge–what was the cause of this uncontested divorce–a dissolution so banal, my soon-to-be ex-husband didn’t even drive from out-of-state to be divorced in person–I was instructed by my lawyer not to tell the most dangerous of things: the truth. Instead, the magic incantation that would move my belated judge to sign the magical paper dissolving nearly 13 years of marriage was “irreconcilable differences have caused the irremediable breakdown of this marriage.”
It’s a mellifluous-sounding statement, sufficiently grounded in legal terminology to sound official, “I quit” or “It’s over” sounding too impetuous. A line like the one I rehearsed was complicated enough that you did have to practice it to sound convincing. You didn’t just utter it in the heat of passion or on a whim; if you could say it with a straight face, presumably you meant it.
Reality, of course, is never as simple as even the complex lines we practice in advance.
The real answer to my judge’s simple question of why would have been much messier had I allowed myself the dangerous luxury of truth. Why did my ex and I divorce? At the time, I’m not sure I could have explained something as simple as why. Who was to blame, he or I? Had we married too young? Had he starved me with emotional neglect, or had I choked him with unrealistic expectations? Did our marriage die under the inestimable weight of lingering resentments and reality-crushed dreams? Was either, both, or neither of us to blame?
“Irreconcilable differences” is a convenient shorthand for the most terrifying utterance of all: “I don’t know.” When I told my mother about my impending divorce, she told me, repeatedly, not to blame myself. “You can’t see yourself as being a failure,” she insisted again and again. “These things happen; you haven’t failed.” These weren’t the words I expected from my long-married, devoutly Catholic mother: surely someone had to have caused even a presumably no-fault divorce, and who better to blame than the only partner present in that blandly paneled courtroom?
I’ve tried hard these past five years not to blame myself–not to blame my ex–not, in a word, to blame. It’s incredibly difficult, though. That question of why still lingers, and pointing to “irreconcilable differences” feels like a cop-out. What have I learned from the end of an almost-13-year marriage? What mistakes did I make then that I might avoid in the future? On the one hand, I mustn’t see either myself or my ex as having failed–I mustn’t stoop to the vindictive level of blame. And yet on the other hand, if I don’t study my mistakes, how can I avoid repeating them?
You can’t simultaneously excuse yourself from blame and learn from your mistakes, although I’ve spent nearly five years trying to do both. These two ideas and the impulses they inspire, I’ve found, are simply irreconcilable.
Click here for more images of the Japanese garden, or here for images of the giant baby heads, or here for images from inside the Museum of Fine Arts, all of them taken the same day I wrote this subsequently-forgotten notebook entry in August, 2009. Enjoy!