July 2010


Wrapped and falling

This weekend a friend and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts, where we viewed the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit which is ending next month, as well as a visiting Van Gogh which is similarly poised to gogh. Both of these exhibits were a bit disappointing, failing to meet my expectations. The Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit was in a hallway, so it was difficult to get and stay into the mood of Parisian cafes and cabarets with other Museum patrons constantly moving to and fro. The mood could have been “Parisian sidewalk cafe,” I suppose, if there had been tables at which we could have sat and contemplated the art over coffee and croissants. Instead, it felt like trying to look at art at a shopping mall, with passersby bumping into browsers at every step.

Do not open 'til renovation is complete

The visiting Van Gogh had lovely accommodations, hung at the head of the museum’s Impressionist gallery, which has remained untouched by the Museum’s ongoing renovations. A low barrier indicated that this particular Van Gogh was Special, different from the other Van Goghs and Monets that typically hang in this room: don’t get too close! But the painting itself was a disappointment: so very small, with its eponymous sower dominating one half of the canvas while an ominously dark tree towered over the other half. The sower, in a word, was too large and the landscape around him too small. I’m biased, of course: my proclivities run toward landscapes, not portraits, and my favorite Van Goghs are his wheat fields, where human figures factor only insignificantly, if at all.

Wrapped in plastic

The highlight of our brief visit was purely accidental: the sight of several works from the permanent collection wrapped in cellophane to protect them from dust and damage during renovation. Last year, one wing of pottery was swaddled against jack-hammer vibrations, with squat works circled with tubular sandbags while taller pieces were carefully laid down on cushions (or removed to storage) lest they topple and break. This weekend, the hanging figures of Jonathan Borofsky’s I Dreamed I Could Fly, which I’ve photographed often, were wrapped in cellophane and tape, still suspended from a sky-lit ceiling, and another sculpture was thickly wrapped in opaque layers of plastic. The Calder mobile by the stairwell was gone rather than wrapped, and the mirrored glass case containing Josiah McElheny’s Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism (another work I’ve often photographed) was boxed in cardboard and securely taped: a “Do Not Open ’til Renovation Is Over” present.

Although I went to the MFA this weekend specifically to see two temporary exhibits, it was this disguised portion of the permanent collection which surprised and tickled my fancy: a jolt to my aesthetic expectations. All it takes, apparently, is a new outfit to remind me of the fact that everything old can be instantly new again.

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Green pokeweed fruit

Today I’m having lunch with my friend B. I see B almost every time I go to the Cambridge Zen Center, which means I don’t see her often enough. Often, B is leaving the Zen Center just as I’m arriving, so we have five minute chats that always end with some version of “We should do lunch sometime soon.” We’re both perpetually busy: B has her work at the Zen Center, and her teaching, and the demands of living in a full house. I have my teaching, and a fiancee, and the demands of living in two states. It’s not that B and I want to procrastinate our friendship: it’s just that “Sometime Soon” is a slippery thing.

Beginning

Last night, I reached the chapter in Karen Maezen Miller’s Hand Wash Cold where her daughter, Georgia, asks “What day is tomorrow?” It’s a brilliant question, even if it initially inspires a “who’s on first” kind of misunderstanding. Young Georgia isn’t looking for the name of the day that comes after Thursday; she wants to know when at long last the Promised Land of “Tomorrow” will bring all the things the grown up world has been putting off. If “Tomorrow” (or “Sometime Soon,” or “Maybe, Eventually”) is when we’ll have ice cream, or feed the ducks at the lake, or get a puppy, or go to Disneyland, when indeed will this promised “Tomorrow” ever arrive?

“We should do lunch sometime soon” is a sad-sounding promise, like something from the song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which always chokes me up whenever I hear it. The father in the song isn’t a bad dad: he doesn’t neglect his son because he’s out drinking, womanizing, or causing trouble. It’s tough to support a family: there’s never enough time. It’s easy enough to talk about keeping one’s priorities straight, but life perpetually gets in the way: jobs are always a hassle, kids always have the flu, and Time is always elusive. It’s easy to be so busy making a living, you forget to live a little.

Flowers to fruit

Today my friend B and I are having lunch: at long last, “Sometime soon” has become today. When I asked B where she’d like to go, she mentioned a restaurant she’s been meaning to try, which offers grilled food served hot on their patio, weather permitting. “Maybe it’s too fancy,” B immediately second-guessed, “or maybe too hot.” How easy it is to talk oneself out of doing that thing you’ve been meaning to try!

“Fancy is perfect,” I responded, and so is Too Hot: if Someday Soon arrives at long last during the summertime, you just have to weather the heat. I’ll wear a sundress just in case the patio is both fancy and hot, and both B and I will enjoy the chance to sit down over a meal, finally at long last.

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Who am I?

This morning on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center for mid-morning practice, I walked down the graffiti-covered alley known as Modica Way, as I usually do whenever I visit the Zen Center. I’ve showed you many individual images of the ever-changing graffiti on this wall, but I’ve been wanting to assemble a panoramic shot of the entire thing to give a truer sense of scale. It’s one thing to view something in pieces; it’s something else entirely to take a long view.

Viewing through

Giving Sunday morning consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center feels a bit like stitching together a wide-angle panorama from the individual pictures of another person’s life. The folks who come into the interview room to ask me questions–or in many cases, just to talk–are often fixated on some individual aspect of their life: mainly, whatever problem is the most pressing right now. It’s human nature to zoom in on whatever is troublesome right now; because you’re so close to the problem, it seems overwhelming and huge. It’s difficult to step back and take a broad view, figuring out how this individual scene fits into the much longer play called Your Life.

As a Senior Dharma Teacher, a large part of my job in giving consulting interviews is to give newer practitioners a sense of perspective. Yes, right now Problem X might seem insurmountable, but having struggled with Problem X (or something similar) myself over the years, I can assure you it’s a passing problem. Just give it five, ten, fifteen years or more to marinate, stew, and simmer. This isn’t about the quick fix; it’s about slow growth. As my grandfather used to say about marriage, “Being married is easy. It’s only the first fifty years that are tough.”

cc

I can’t count the number of times, for instance, that new practitioners have asked whether they are doing something “wrong” in meditation, claiming that the practice isn’t “working.” When I ask them what “working” would look like–how, in other words, they would know they’re doing meditation “correctly”–I usually get a vivid sense of what the person wants from their practice: they want meditation to make them calmer, happier, more blissful, etc. What is interesting about this, of course, is that meditation doesn’t really offer any of these things: if you’re meditating to become “more this” or “less that,” you’re missing the point of meditation, which is to make peace with what is. If you sit down to meditate only to realize how extremely scattered you are, you’re doing your meditation exactly right. Instead of getting rid of your scattered-ness, meditation means waking up and making nonjudgmental peace with it: “Right now in this place, I’m scattered. What’s it like, right now in this place, to Be Scattered?”

In the zoomed-in, closely cropped version, this view of meditation practice seems insane. Why would anyone in their right mind spend time making nonjudgmental peace with the very flaws they want to eliminate? If you want to become calm, why sit with a racing mind? If you want bliss, why sit and stew in your own miserable juices? The reason “why” emerges only in time, in the long, wide-angle view that takes years to develop. Sometimes, meditation feels good in the moment…but most of the time, you won’t realize until later how the seeds of self-acceptance have taken root in your psyche. Years later, after having struggled with and finally forgiven yourself, time and again, for your own scattered, stressed-out nature, you’ll notice yourself not getting so upset about it. Being scattered and stressed won’t be as much of a Big Deal because you’ll have perspective: “Oh, yeah. This is a passing mood. It comes, I fight against it, I eventually get tired and give up fighting, and it eventually leaves of its own volition.”

Checkered

Once you recognize the patterns that repeat themselves through the overlapping pictures that stitch together into the panorama of your personality–once you recognize that you often fall into the same habits, obsessions, and behaviors Buddhists call “karma”–you’re one step closer to being free from it. Once you recognize the pattern (“Whenever I have one glass of wine, I end up drinking the whole bottle”), you’re that much closer to managing it (“I’m making a conscious decision not to drink that first glass”). But even after you’ve grown adept at recognizing and managing your karma, you still aren’t rid of it. The patterns don’t go away; you just see them more clearly. Your karma still wants that glass, that bottle, that brimming barrel of wine, and time and again, in each individual moment, you face that pattern and make peace with it. Yes, my mind wants alcohol; I’m consciously saying no. Yes, my mind wants to wander; I’m consciously bringing it back. This pattern will repeat five, five hundred, five million times, and you’ll train yourself through long practice: “Every time my mind wanders, I bring it back to the moment, to my breath, and I do it gently, with infinite patience and self-forgiveness…even when I’m not feeling patient or forgiving.”

It’s a habit, like my grandfather’s view of marriage, that takes a long time to cultivate…but that’s okay, because it’s the practice of a lifetime. In the short view, we’re all just beginners stumbling our way through a play without knowing our lines; in the long view, that play is a great cosmic dance that will lead, prompt, and nudge us, all in due time.

Panorama

Click here for the complete photo set from this morning’s walk down Modica Way. For a larger view of the final panoramic picture, click here and scroll from left to right.

The panorama’s perspective is distorted toward the right side of the image: because my photo-editing software couldn’t stitch together the dozen-some photos I took, I had to merge these photos in batches, and the merge of the final two pictures reflects a different aspect-ratio than the previous merges of four pictures. Next time, I’ll know to assemble the panorama in even sets: a bit of perspective gained over time, with experience.

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Sunflowers

This summer, I’m making a conscious effort to use Facebook’s Visual Bookshelf, an application which displays on your Facebook wall the books you’re currently reading and which also allows you to share with your friends short reviews of books you’ve finished, to track the books I read.

Dusted with pollen

Typically, I’m terribly sporadic when it comes to reviewing books I’ve read. Although I like writing book reviews as a way to remember what I thought about what I read, book-reviewing is the kind of thing that often gets bumped to the bottom of my to-do list. The fact that I wrote only two reviews during last year’s Audiobook Challenge (even though I did indeed listen to twelve audiobooks in twelve months, as I’d promised) stands as a testament to how infrequently I get around to reviewing the books I read.

So far this summer, however, I’ve posted short reviews of a handful of books I’ve recently read, so for those of you who haven’t friended me on Facebook, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Blooming from bottom to top

A Whale Hunt: How a Native-American Village Did What No One Thought It Could , by Robert Sullivan
(5 out of 5 stars).

Robert Sullivan’s account of the Makah tribe’s successful attempt to hunt a gray whale is much like the movie Whale Rider, but with the addition of harpoons, blood, and whale-guts. In Whale Rider, young Pai’s attempt to become the leader of her New Zealand tribe culminates in an inspiring closing scene where the girl floats off in a traditional canoe with the now-energized and motivated members of her tribe. With a strong leader to guide them, the film suggests, the members of Pai’s community find purpose, cultural identity, and pride.

The canoeists in Whale Rider, however, didn’t kill any whales, and that’s where the narrative tension arises in Sullivan’s A Whale Hunt. The Makah Indians of Washington State don’t just make a traditional whale boat; they gain permission to hunt the once-endangered gray whale, citing their long tradition of whaling and the rights granted them by long-standing treaties. Sullivan spends two years following the Makah in their epic attempt to hunt, kill, and butcher a gray whale. Not only do the Makah have to re-invent a tradition that’s fallen into disuse, the members of the whaling crew face an assortment of challenges: protesters decry them as “whale murderers,” a hungry media hounds their every step, and government bureaucracy demands they follow official policies and protocols. Ultimately, whaling captain Wayne Johnson shows what kind of leadership, determination, and sacrifice it takes to convert a ragtag band of Indians into mythic warriors. Unlike Whale Rider, it takes far more than a picture-perfect canoe trip.

Hosta buds & leaves

The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America, by Grant Wahl
(4 out of 5 stars).

It’s too soon, perhaps, to determine whether David Beckham’s single-handed attempt to win Americans over to soccer has completely failed, but the most telling word in Grant Wahl’s book is in its subtitle: “tried.” Beckham tried to use his superstar celebrity to sell Major League Soccer in America, and to date, his attempt has been far from successful. MLS has its share of long-time, devoted fans, but they follow American soccer regardless of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s most recognizable member. Wahl’s book chronicles the PR circus that surrounded Beckham’s arrival in LA, and by book’s end, it’s painfully apparent that Beckham’s handlers woefully mismanaged his early seasons with the Galaxy.

This past year, Beckham has been sidelined with injuries, and the Galaxy has played better without him than with him. Yes, David Beckham generated a lot of attention for Major League Soccer, and his celebrity sold a lot of jerseys. But ultimately soccer is about the play on the field, not the celebrity circus on the sidelines, and it’s not clear whether droves of David Beckham fans will continue to support Major League Soccer in America after he’s left the league.

Rose of Sharon with ant

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, by Jon Krakauer
(5 out of 5 stars).

Jon Krakauer’s book-length profile of Pat Tillman, the football star who grabbed headlines after he left the NFL to enlist in the Army after 9/11, is a blockbuster. Krakauer is unflinching in his account of how Tillman’s Army enlistment and eventual death in Afghanistan was used for propagandistic purposes by the Bush administration, which was eager to “sell” the patriotism of America’s involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Tillman’s true story (like that of Jessica Lynch before him) doesn’t match the version that was widely publicized. Before his death, Tillman came to disagree with the war in Afghanistan, although he kept the promise of his three-year enlistment even when offered the chance to leave the Army early in order to return to the NFL. Worse yet, Tillman’s death was the result of friendly fire, a fact the government tried to keep from Tillman’s own family in order to spin a more romanticized version of his service and sacrifice.

Reading Krakauer’s re-telling of both Jessica Lynch’s captivity and Pat Tillman’s death, you realize how many vital details were lost in media accounts of these high profile stories. The truth of Tillman’s death doesn’t make America’s involvement in Afghanistan any more heroic; instead, the truth behind Tillman’s death points to how remarkable he was and how botched the American mission in Afghanistan often was.

Pokeweed

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, by Malcolm Gladwell
(5 out of 5 stars).

Whereas Malcolm Gladwell’s previous books feature essays centering around a single unifying theme, What the Dog Saw reflects his breadth and versatility as a writer. Gladwell is one of those writers who seems to be an expert on everything, which is a testament to how diligently he researches even his occasional pieces. What sets Gladwell apart from just another investigative reporter, however, is the novelty of his insights.

Any journalist could research the history of Enron, the life of Cesar Millan, or the hiring practices of public schools, for instance, but only Malcolm Gladwell is creative enough to compare Enron’s business practices to government surveillance of potential terrorists, to view Millan’s muted interactions with dogs and their owners with a dancer, or to compare the hiring of teachers to the recruiting of NFL quarterbacks. Malcolm Gladwell, in other words, writes the best kind of creative nonfiction. You won’t just learn from his informative essays; you’ll also look at a wide variety of topics in a whole new way.

Rose of Sharon with raindrops

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
(5 out of 5 stars).

A combination of biography, science writing, and mystery, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a woman whose cervical cancer cells–collected without her knowledge or permission–have survived in culture for decades and which have contributed to many medical breakthroughs. Author Rebecca Skloot resurrects the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died of cancer in the 1950s, but not before doctors harvested a cell specimen that would be immortalized as “HeLa,” a culture used in polio, cancer, and other medical research.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells Henrietta Lacks’ personal life story, expresses the anger of Lacks’ family when they learn of the experiments performed on Henrietta’s still-living cancer cells, and explores the legal and ethical questions inherent in cell research: if patients don’t “own” their own cells, who stands to profit from them? The story of Henrietta Lacks brings these abstract questions into focus, and Skloot’s telling of Lacks’ story is both fascinating and moving.

Spiky

Marriage and Other Acts of Charity: A Memoir, by Kate Braestrup
(4 out of 5 stars).

Although not as good as Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup’s memoir about her work as Maine forestry chaplain, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity offers a thought-provoking look into the institution of marriage, both from Braestrup’s firsthand experience as a re-married widow and her work marrying and counseling couples. The book is strongest when Braestrup focuses on the couples she counsels; when discussing her own marriages, Braestrup isn’t as objective, exaggerating (it seems) her flaws in her first marriage and idealizing her second husband.

If you read Here If You Need Me, which discusses Braestrup’s decision to become a chaplain after the death of her Maine state trooper husband, Drew, you’ll probably be surprised to learn the details of that first marriage, with its fights, broken furniture, and near-divorce. In Here If You Need Me, Drew is an almost angelic presences; in Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, Braestrup paints herself as a bitchy feminist who behaved badly in her first marriage.

Perhaps it’s human nature to idealize one’s dead spouse, and perhaps it’s human nature to insist that one’s current marriage is infinitely better than one’s first. Or perhaps Braestrup feels hesitant to write honestly about the cracks in her current marriage, given the fact that her present husband, Simon, is alive. Looking beyond the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Braestrup’s own marital history, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity offers an interesting glimpse into an institution that is often romanticized but seldom deeply understood.

Thistle

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, by Elizabeth Gilbert
(3 out of 5 stars)

Elizabeth Gilbert is at her best when she is writing about other people, not when she is obsessing about herself; her book-length profile of modern day mountain man Eustace Conway in The Last American Man, for instance, is insightful, engaging, and often wickedly funny. In saying that Gilbert writes best when she doesn’t focus primarily upon herself, I’m going against the millions of readers who loved Eat, Pray, Love, which I found self-indulgent and self-absorbed. (See Maria’s blog for an excellent review of Eat, Pray, Love that shares many of my reservations.)

Committed is Gilbert’s sequel to Eat, Pray, Love, with the added wrinkle that American immigration laws require her to marry “Felipe,” the man she met (and vowed never to marry) at the end of Eat, Pray, Love. The result is a book-length anxiety attack in which Gilbert tries to convince herself (and her millions of devoted fans) that marriage isn’t as terrible as she previously thought it was. If you’re marriage-phobic (or if you simply want the happily-ever-after ending to the Elizabeth/Felipe saga), Gilbert’s book might ring true for you. But if you’re looking for an intelligent analysis of the institution of marriage, there are better (i.e. less self-absorbed) books to read.

So, what are you reading? Right now I’m multi-tasking Robert Sullivan’s The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, and Karen Maezen Miller’s Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life. Here’s hoping I’ll actually get around to reviewing each of these when I’ve finished them.

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Hosta in bloom

I haven’t been blogging much this month because I’ve been occupied by wedding details. J and I are having a small, simple wedding: about two dozen friends and family members who are willing to fly to San Diego to see us get married. A small wedding is definitely easier to plan than a big one, but still…with just over a month before the ceremony, I still have a healthy to-do list of things to plan, prepare, and oversee.

Variagated hosta leaves

Or perhaps I should say I had a healthy to-do list of preparations, as I’ve spent the past few weeks duly checking things off my list. In the past week or so, I’ve finalized our guest list, sorting through RSVPs and figuring out who is eating what at our reception. I’ve researched, inquired after, and selected a restaurant for our rehearsal dinner (and sent out Evites for same). I’ve assembled party favors, gone to a handful of stationery stores looking for just the right guest-book, printed place-cards for the reception, and shipped all of these to our event planner in San Diego, so we won’t have to carry them on the plane. I’ve researched and ordered wedding rings without J ever having set foot in a jewelry store (here’s hoping those online ring sizers offer a “close enough” fit). And I finally sat down and planned our wedding ceremony, picking and choosing various components from the book our officiant kindly put together: a kind of liturgical menu with enough ceremonial appetizers, entrees, and side-dishes to suit any “appetite.”

Hosta leaves

In a word, almost everything is planned, and I’m starting to get excited. I don’t remember what it felt like to get married the first time around: in retrospect, all I remember about getting married the first time is the stress I felt having to fight various family members over the specific details of a wedding I wanted to keep small and simple. When you marry young, it’s easy to get swept away by other people’s expectations of “your” wedding, especially if those other people are paying for all or part of the festivities. This time around, J and I are paying our own way, so we’re calling our own shots. Instead of fighting my future in-laws about the length of my guest-list, for this wedding J and I get to make intentional decisions about what we do and don’t want from our “special day.”

This time around, I’m looking forward to the “family and friends” aspect of our wedding. Instead of throwing a fancy, highbrow wedding, we’ve decided to throw an fun, family-friendly one: I’m really happy that a bunch of our wedding guests will be going to a ballgame together, and gathering for a bluesy dinner, and wandering around with wild animals. I think the first time I got married, I thought my wedding day was about “me”: that’s certainly the impression you get if you browse any bride’s magazine or watch any of a slew of bridal reality shows. This time around, J and I have made a conscious effort to make our wedding less about “us” and more about our guests: those two dozen friends and family members who are willing to fly to San Diego to see us get married. Knowing I’m putting all our ducks in a row for a select handful of our favorite people makes the preparation that much sweeter.

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Skyline, flag, and pennants

Last Saturday, J and I took advantage of a sunny Saturday to tour the USS Whidbey Island, an amphibious warship that was docked in Boston Harbor’s deep-water port for this year’s Navy Week festivities. Just like our tour of the USS Bataan two years ago, last weekend’s tour of the Whidbey Island gave us a sense of how tough it is to be a sailor or Marine.

Armed and dangerous

For example, after a friendly Marine explained the features on a standard-issue Light Armored Vehicle–the kind of Marine tank the USS Whidbey Island often carries to overseas deployments, and which Marines often live out of during desert deployments–J asked the obvious question: “How hot does it get in one of those things?”

The Marine smiled and nodded with an expression that said “You have no idea.” It turns out Army LAVs are air-conditioned, but Marine LAVs aren’t. After merely peeking inside the Marine version, I could imagine the claustrophobia–much less heatstroke–I’d feel if I had to share one. I guess there’s a reason Marines are both few and proud.

Say hello to my little friend

After we’d finished talking with this same Marine, J thanked him for talking to us and asked one last question: “Will you pose for a picture with my fiancee?” The Marine agreed and asked if J wanted him to pose with or without his gun. “Have her hold the gun,” J urged, and the Marine complied.

Joking that J won’t want to see me armed after we’re married, I took the gun, posed with our Marine friend, and smiled for the camera. Getting to tour a warship, look at tanks, and handle (unloaded) guns is all part of the Summer Fun that is Navy Week…but when the going gets hot, I’m glad these well-trained soldiers and sailors are doing a job that I surely couldn’t handle.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Summer fun. Click here for more photos from aboard the USS Whidbey Island.

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Blah blah blah!

Last Wednesday night, I took the T to the Cambridge Zen Center, where I was a guest-teacher for a meditation class taught by a long-time friend. It was good to my friend again–she, like my friend Jen, is one of those old Zen buddies I see infrequently but who always seems familiar and comfortable, like a favorite pair of shoes. You get the sense with a friend like this that you can pick up exactly where you left off the last time you saw her, and the intervening years and life-changes don’t seem to matter because of the long history you’ve shared.

Palimpsest

This friend of mine is married now–she’s been married for several years now–and she spotted my engagement ring from across the room as I was teaching, fixating on the question of whether I had remarried without her knowing it. After class, we talked briefly about this: yes, I’m engaged; yes, I’m getting married in August; no, I hadn’t shared the happy news the various times we’ve chatted recently. I experienced a strange sort of relief to see how happy she was at the news, as if she was absolving me from the obligations of my first marriage by acknowledging that yes, it’s time for me to let that stage of my life go.

Speak softly and carry a big...pencil

This particular friend knew me when I was married; she was probably closer to my ex-husband than she was to me since she is a musician, and my then-husband had played drums on one of her albums. If anyone were to choose “his” side over “mine,” it would have been this friend…but she didn’t choose sides. She and I have remained friends–albeit friends who go far too long without seeing one another–in the face of these life changes. We don’t see one another often, but when we do see one another, there’s an abiding sense we really “know” one another.

I think I’m more nervous about sharing the news of my engagement with folks who knew me when I was married–especially with folks who knew my ex-husband–than I am with newer friends who know only my now without having known my then. With old friends, I feel a bit shy about the news; there’s a subconscious fear they won’t approve my remarrying, as if this marriage is a betrayal of that one. But this fear has no basis in reality; it’s based upon my own self-judgment and self-doubt. My oldest friends have been the most accepting and joyful in the face of my engagement; having seen me struggle through all that, they more than any of my newer friends can truly appreciate the miraculous wonder of new beginnings. My oldest friends are the ones who are happiest that my life is officially moving on; it’s my own insecurity that occasionally wonders whether moving on is a kind of abandonment.

Ghostly

It’s interesting that my fear and doubt are completely self-created; it’s interesting that I judge myself far more harshly than any friend or even acquaintance ever would. It’s downright cruel to assume that because my first marriage failed, I don’t “deserve” the happiness of a second chance–that’s an judgment I wouldn’t pass on even my worst enemy–and yet that seems to be the unspoken assumption behind my barely conscious fear. Although I can smile upon other people’s second chances, there’s some hidden part of me that seems reluctant to forgive myself for past failures.

My relative reluctance to absolve myself from the obligations of my first marriage is even more interesting when I consider how it follows a curious pattern I’ve seen repeated among the women I know, both family and friends. My ex-husband remarried years ago and has started a family, fully immersing himself into a new life with a woman he met a few months after our divorce, but I’ve waited nearly six years to remarry. Time and again I see this pattern among the women I know, where the man remarries soon after divorce while the woman lingers alone for years, serving as a kind of solitary sentinel commemorating a relationship that once was.

Damian and Violet

There are reasons for this pattern (which of course has its exceptions). If a woman has sole or primary custody of her children, she often devotes herself to their care rather than her own love-life; her ex-husband, on the other hand, is largely alone when his children aren’t visiting, so he has more time (and perhaps more reason) to date. Whereas men, I think, often crave the emotional input of a significant woman–wife, girlfriend, or mother–I find women typically rely upon themselves and their network of female friends to make sense of their emotional life. If you’re a divorced woman raising a child or children, a boyfriend is one more obligation you don’t have time for; if you’re a divorced man who sees his kids every other weekend, you have plenty of time to contemplate (and lament) your loneliness. As one of Mary Austin’s memorable characters once said, “A man…must have a woman, but a woman who has a child will do very well.”

It’s one thing to observe a pattern; it’s an entirely different matter to see that pattern as a prescription. Just because many of my phoenix friends have risen from the ashes of divorce and then waited years before remarrying doesn’t mean women “should” be expected to wait a prescribed amount of time before moving on. During the more than three years I’ve been dating J, I haven’t felt guilty about “moving on” from my first marriage: given that my ex-husband has long since remarried, what exactly am I moving on from? That’s what makes it all the more surprising that I felt so relieved to have an old friend smile and congratulate me, genuinely, on my engagement. Apparently her gentle absolution is exactly the kind I’ve been withholding from myself for all these years.

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