Love & marriage


A spot of color on a rainy day

Yesterday would have been my 24th wedding anniversary had my ex-husband and I stayed married: an almost inconceivable thought. My first, failed marriage feels like an entire lifetime ago: something that happened to another person–a stranger–not me. Is this how it’s like for everyone as they age–your younger self becoming increasingly foreign–or is this true only for those of us who have radically and irrevocably severed ourselves from our past?

Creeping

Divorce is a kind of amputation: you drastically and definitively cut off who you were and who you had intended to become, and you learn to function with whatever is left of your hopes and goals. You learn to live without the appendage of your former marriage–both the partner you’d grafted onto and the ideal of “us” you’d imagined–but you never forget that you’d had that limb.

My once-anniversary always pricks like the pang of a phantom limb: in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day, I look at the date and startle. I suppose the bereaved respond similarly on their anniversary of loss: every year, there’s the annual recollection of grief, and with it, the awkward realization that life invariably moves on.

Bronzed and gilded

Years ago, in the still-tender aftermath of my divorce, an acquaintance described the odd experience of seeing his ex-wife on the street some twenty years after they’d separated. Like me, he didn’t have children who tethered him to his ex; until that otherwise ordinary day, he hadn’t seen his once-wife since the day their union was dissolved. When this man recognized his former wife, he ducked into a doorway to avoid an awkward encounter, and the woman he was once married to passed right beside him, absentmindedly looking into his eyes as she would any passing stranger.

When I think of the woman I once was when I was married all those years ago–a girl so painfully young and so blithely unaware of the suffering life had in store–I feel the same disconnect, as if she and I could pass on the street without the slightest quiver of recognition.

Japanese garden

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.

Irreconcilable
Thursday, August 27, 2009

Japanese garden

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.

Japanese garden

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.”

Japanese garden

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.

Japanese garden

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?

Japanese garden

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!

House fly on white peony

Sometime in the past week, the suburban landscape quietly stepped behind a leafy curtain to slip into something more comfortable, casting off the garish pinks and reds of spring in favor of the more muted hues of summer. June is the traditional month of weddings, and it’s the month I typically return to pleasure reading after having spent too much energy during the academic year reading piles of student papers. June, in other words, is a happy time when the green earth and its denizens settle down to the business of promise and renewal.

Irises

Right now I’m reading Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing. In 2003, after Ackerman had written a book about the brain, her husband, the novelist Paul West, suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to speak, write, or read. Global aphasia, as West’s official diagnosis was termed, is a devastating condition for anyone…but for a novelist married to an poet, the condition is particularly troubling. In telling the story of West’s sudden loss of both spoken and written language, Ackerman necessarily tells the story of their marriage, especially the ways they previously had used wordplay as a form of personal intimacy, creating (like twins) a language unto themselves.

Kousa dogwood

I’m a longtime fan of Ackerman’s prose; this past year, in fact, I’d re-read her classic Natural History of the Senses with my creative nonfiction students. Despite Ackerman’s occasional verbal excesses–lush metaphors that overspill her sentences and prose that tiptoes dangerously close to purple–I often find myself dumbstruck by individual lines that ring so true and with such melodic clarity, I wish I’d written them myself. “Couples are jigsaw puzzles that hang together by touching in just enough points,” Ackerman writes early in the book, and I’m hooked. “In time,” she continues, “a pair invents its own commonwealth, complete with anthems, rituals, and lingos–a cult of two with fallible gods.” Just as husband and wife create a shared intimacy of pet names, inside jokes, and ongoing allusions, Ackerman uses language to create a bridge with her readers, inviting us into a personal parlor where the story behind the stories is told.

Pink peonies

Almost immediately, One Hundred Names for Love reminds me of Joan Didion’s memoir of her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I’d reviewed on-blog in 2007. Both Ackerman and Didion recount their husband’s medical conditions with clinical specificity, and both Ackerman and Didion seem to use language–specifically, the discipline of writing about loss–as a kind of lifeline, a way of making sense out of the senseless. Ackerman’s husband, unlike Didion’s, doesn’t die; in fact, Ackerman’s book is the story of how West gradually regains language and how the couple forges a renewed bond in the process. Still, even a mild stroke is a kind of miniature death, and Ackerman herself finds solace in the immediate aftermath by reading C.S. Lewis’s classic memoir of loss, A Grief Observed.

Mountain laurel

Ackerman’s reference to Lewis is apt on several points. First, she mentions how West himself had corresponded with Lewis during the days that Lewis’ wife, the poet Joy Davidman, was dying of cancer. How did Lewis have the presence of mind, Ackerman wonders, to maintain anything but the most essential correspondence during a time when his thoughts and energies were necessarily elsewhere? Second, the marriage between Lewis and Davidman, who was 17 years younger than him, roughly mirrors the age gap between West and Ackerman…but while Ackerman finds herself facing the classic challenge of a middle-aged wife tending an elderly husband, Lewis found himself in the opposite situation, left a widower by a younger woman who left him two children from her previous marriage.

Blue columbines

One of the most emotionally powerful moments so far in One Hundred Names for Love is that point when West, initially limited to uttering the syllable “mem, mem, mem” in lieu of actual words, begins to recover a smattering of language with which he tries to articulate the experience of having become an invalid in an instant. Lying in his hospital bed after an exhausting afternoon of physical rehab and speech therapy, West tries to communicate his feelings to Ackerman, who recounts the conversation.

“Sc-sc-scared,” he sputtered.
“You’re scared?” I asked.
He nodded yes.
“What are you scared of?”
“Mem, mem, mem, you’ll, mem, mem, leave. Would. would. wouldn’t blame,” he garbled. It was the longest thing he’d said thus far.

Columbine

It was the longest thing West had said thus fair, and perhaps the most telling. Isn’t this any coupled person’s worst nightmare, that in an instant they might be struck with a debilitating illness and their partner, exhausted with the demands of caretaking, will decide to leave?

It’s telling, I think, that traditional marriage vows insist that the bond be maintained not simply “in good times and in bad” but specifically “in sickness and in health.” It’s as if the authors of those time-tested promises knew (as perhaps only the mature and long-married do) that the true test of any couple doesn’t come when their vows are uttered but in those moments when debilitating illness takes those words away.

Stairway with Valentine's balloons

This morning I did the math and realized it’s been six months to the day since J and I got married in San Diego. When we picked August 14 as our wedding date, we didn’t realize it was Pakistani Independence Day (a fact one of J’s coworkers promptly pointed out to us), and we didn’t consciously calculate that our half-anniversary would fall on Valentine’s Day. August 14, 2010 was simply a Saturday that worked for us, and now that will be our anniversary date for better or worse, ’til death do us part.

Valentine's cakes and cookies

In the past six months, J and I have celebrated one Christmas, two birthdays, and now our first Valentine’s Day as a married couple, and I’m still surprised at the novelty of shopping for a “husband” greeting card for each of these occasions. When J and I were dating, I’d always gravitate toward cute or humorous cards rather than the stereotypically romantic (read: mushy) “hearts and flowers” ones…and I always tripped over the term “boyfriend” and even “fiance,” both of which sounded terribly age-inappropriate. My 20-something students have boyfriends and fiances, so it always felt odd to use the same term for my sweetheart that they’d use for theirs.

Now that J and I are married, I find myself chuckling whenever I peruse the greeting cards specifically geared toward “husbands.” The first time I was married, “wife” wasn’t a term I felt comfortable with. I didn’t feel like I fit the job description of a “wife,” whatever that was, so the term always felt like an ill-fitting coat: big, boxy, and bothersome. Now this second time around, I no longer feel like “wife” is a job I have to “do”: it’s simply one way of describing one aspect of who I am. Either I’ve grown into that previously ill-fitting coat, or I’ve realized that “wife,” like a scarf, is a garment that drapes itself to whatever shape you’d like: you can wear it this way or that, depending on your style or fancy.

Valentine's balloons

As much as I’ve settled into the role of “wife,” I’ve realized over these past six months that J was pretty much born to be a husband. J is one of those quintessential “nice guys” who simply likes being domesticated. Given the choice between going out and staying in, J will always choose the latter: even when we go to hockey games or other “man’s man” events, J’s the guy who’s quiet, sober, and respectful while the rowdies around us are swearing, spilling beer, and otherwise raising hell. J’s the kind of guy who thrives on predictability rather than spontaneity, so we’ve quickly settled into a “boring married routine” that fits like an old shoe: nothing snazzy or stylish, but something comfortably familiar.

And so the day before Valentine’s Day, the closest J and I came to celebrating was to rearrange our usual Sunday schedule so we could watch an afternoon Celtics game on TV, eating takeout sandwiches from the deli where we normally have brunch…and then promptly falling asleep in front of the TV, tired from having gotten up early so J could have a morning conference call with a colleague across the world. Last night, when J and I exchanged Valentine’s Day cards a day early, I had to chuckle at the unintentional appropriateness of the card I’d chosen, which showed a cartoon couple napping on a couch in front of a TV, the caption reading, “A kiss is just a kiss, and a sigh is just a sigh…but a loud snore means you’re happily married.”

Lounging cheetah with distant rhinos

When J and I decided to have our wedding ceremony and reception at the San Diego Wild Animal Park (recently renamed the San Diego Zoo Safari Park), we figured the venue would provide a fun, informal, one-of-a-kind experience for our guests. As it turns out, we were exactly right. The Wild Animal Park’s Lagoon Overlook and Mombasa Island Pavilion were perfect for our wedding ceremony and reception.

We did "I do"

From the moment we got engaged in January, J and I knew we wanted a small, informal wedding, and since it was a second wedding for both of us, we were comfortable with trying something nontraditional. J didn’t want to wear a tuxedo, just a dress shirt and tie; I wanted to wear a dress that was white, but not long. Although we knew we wanted a ceremony that was informal and not “stuffy,” we also wanted our wedding to be dignified: getting married in Las Vegas by an Elvis impersonator, for instance, just isn’t our style. Basically we wanted to plan an event that would be enjoyable for our guests while not attracting a huge amount of attention to ourselves: something low-key, classy, and non-bridezilla.

When we narrowed our choices to some sort of destination wedding in California, we still had a lot of possibilities to choose from. California is a big state, and its liberal marriage requirements for nonresidents makes it popular for destination weddings. After spending a seemingly interminable amount of time Googling various wedding venues in California, I stumbled upon a review that mentioned the San Diego Zoo. The moment I mentioned this to J, he was intrigued: we both love animals, so a zoo sounded like the perfect setting for our nuptials. Better yet, after we investigated the various wedding packages the Zoo and Wild Animal Park offer, we were delighted to learn we could throw the kind of fun, informal, dignified wedding we envisioned without breaking our budget.

Flamingos

Still, as perfect as a zoo wedding seemed when we picked it, neither J nor I had ever actually been to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Instead, we were “flying blind” as we planned our wedding, trusting the pictures on the Zoo website, our event planner, and our imaginations as we envisioned what the event would actually look like. As a result, one of the magical aspects of our wedding last Saturday was our actual arrival at the Park: the first time we actually saw the place we would be married. Planning an out-of-state wedding at a place you’ve never been before is a huge leap of faith: there’s always the possibility that you’ll arrive at your venue only to discover too late that it’s ugly, dirty, or otherwise disappointing. Happily, getting married at the San Diego Wild Animal Park was exactly as we had hoped it would be.

Sunning meerkats

I’m not sure exactly what our guests were expecting when they agreed to fly to San Diego for a wedding at a zoo, but their breathless responses after the wedding suggest their expectations were pleasantly exceeded. So were mine! While we were planning the wedding, I loved the idea of getting married outside in southern California’s fabled sunny weather, and I loved the idea of getting married next to a bird-thronged lagoon. When we arrived at the Wild Animal Park last Saturday morning, I was delighted to discover our ceremony site was even prettier than I’d imagined. The lagoon where we got married was filled with birds, both the exotic ones that belong to the Wild Animal Park’s collection (e.g. shoebills, pelicans, and nesting cormorants) as well as the wild birds that drop in to visit (e.g. night herons, egrets, and ducks). The reception site was an open-air pavilion right along this same lagoon, so we could bird-watch the entire time.

Lone stork

One of my goals for this, my second wedding, was to actually remember the event. The first time I got married, I was so busy doing all the things you’re “supposed to do” as a bride, I didn’t get much of a chance to actually enjoy my own wedding day. In retrospect, my first wedding felt a bit like a puppet-show where someone else was pulling the strings: my body was “there,” but “I” don’t remember much about the event.

This second time around, I wanted to actually be present at my own wedding: I wanted to enjoy the day, our guests, and the actual venue of the event. J and I wanted to plan a fun wedding because we wanted to have fun. It’s telling, then, that as I go through the hundreds of pictures I took on my own wedding day, I don’t have any pictures of the ceremony or reception, when I trusted others would be snapping photos. Instead, I have countless pictures of the animals J and I saw both before and after the wedding, just as I would if we’d gone to the Wild Animal Park on any other day. More than being just “our wedding day,” last Saturday was fun because J and I got to do the kind of sightseeing and picture-taking we enjoy…and we got to do it with our closest friends and family.

Ducks underfoot

In an attempt to remember my favorite moments from this memorable occasion, here are some verbal snapshots from our wedding day:

When we arrived at the Wild Animal Park, a member of the events staff was at the entrance to meet us. After officially checking us in, she escorted J, my sister, my niece, the friend who had chauffeured us, and me into a waiting golf cart which whisked us to our ceremony site. “We get to ride a golf cart,” I gushed, and then I chuckled. Apparently it takes very little to excite me!

When we arrived at our ceremony and reception site more than two hours ahead of time, nearly everything was already set up. Inside the Mombasa Island pavilion, our dining tables were set with mauve and maroon tablecloths, the bar was draped with festive animal-print linens, and a long reception table was arranged with our guest book, meal place-cards, and guest souvenirs: Wild Animal Park travel mugs for adults and large animal sipper-bottles for kids.

Immature coot

After we walked through the reception site, Keely, the event coordinator I’d frequently emailed but hadn’t yet met, was at the nearby ceremony site to greet us in a black-and-white animal-print dress as she commanded a small army of workers on a walkie-talkie. “We’ll dry off the chairs before the ceremony,” Keely explained, gesturing toward some dew that had condensed on the white folding chairs where our guests would sit. As Keely was talking, a zoo worker materialized out of nowhere with a push-broom to sweep away a puddle left on the sidewalk by the morning street-cleaning. Needless to say, the event staff’s attention to detail was amazing!

After we’d checked out the ceremony and reception venues, we were escorted to the official bride’s room in the Park’s administrative building, where we decided we’d prefer to walk around the park rather than sit and primp. The Wild Animal Park worker who had been assigned to escort us to particularly photogenic sites was bemused to discover, however, that J and I weren’t interested in posing for pictures of us; instead, we wanted to take pictures of the animals! Whenever our escort would point our a particularly picturesque scene, J and I would take a quick look, and if there were animals, we’d pull out our cameras and start snapping pictures. If there were no animals, we’d look around and keep walking. That escort is still probably scratching her head at our bizarrely self-effacing, non-bridezilla behavior. What kind of bridal couple doesn’t want to pose for tons of pictures?

Dik-dik

As we walked around the Wild Animal Park enjoying the quiet calm of early morning, when the animals are always most active, we could overhear on our escort’s radio Keely’s disembodied voice as she coordinated last-minute details. We heard, for instance, when the florist arrived with my bouquet and J’s boutonniere, and we heard when our officiant arrived. The best update, though, was when we heard a Park volunteer radio in to report that all our guests had been checked in at the admissions gate. With our flowers, officiant, and guests all arrived, we were ready to roll!

After our private tour of the Wild Animal Park, we returned to the administration building to meet our officiant, Rev. Powers. Just as we’d booked our wedding venue without ever visiting it, we’d hired Rev. Powers without having met him, trusting the gushing recommendations of the Wild Animal Park staff. After having planned our ceremony with Rev. Powers via email, it was a delight to meet him in the flesh just in time to sign the official papers. After my sister took few pictures of a jittery J and me signing our wedding license, J and I were whisked back into a golf cart while Rev. Powers and our entourage made their own way to the ceremony.

Shoebill in profile

On that final golf cart ride, J and I zipped past the gorilla enclosure, where lines of school-children in matching T-shirts were queued after having stayed overnight at the Wild Animal Park (a program delightfully called Roar and Snore). “You’re not really married until you’ve seen the gorillas!” our escort remarked, and at the time, as we zipped by resting primates, this somehow made sense. After we’d been dropped off at a place called the Gorilla Bridge to await our cue from Keely to walk down the aisle, J and I stood in the shade looking a mite conspicuous, with J in his dress shirt and tie and me in my white eyelet dress and bright pink sunhat. As one couple walked by, their little girl looked at us shyly, finally mustering the nerve to ask if we were getting married. When I said yes, the mother urged both the girl and her brother to say congratulations, and as the family walked away, I overheard the father say to the girl, “Maybe someday you’ll get married, too!”

From here, I think both J and I kicked into autopilot, that hazy state where your body does what it’s supposed to do without your brain exactly knowing how that happened. I remember that J and I walked together toward our ceremony site then down the aisle, hand-in-hand; in a cell-phone photo a friend snapped, J and I are smiling and walking in perfect step. I don’t specifically remember walking down the aisle, but I remember seeing our gathered family and friends looking at us, and it seemed everyone was smiling and holding up cameras or cell phones, taking pictures.

Who's looking at whom?

After the excited hours leading up to our wedding, I have a handful of vivid memories from the ceremony itself. The first was the moment when I noticed Rev. Powers’ hands as he held the booklet containing the ceremony we’d assembled, and I saw he was wearing J’s and my wedding rings on his pinkie for safekeeping. The second was the moment as I was reciting my vows that a hot-air balloon floated into view, as if on cue. But perhaps the most memorable moment during our ceremony came near the end, after J and I had said our vows and exchanged rings. Rev. Powers told us to turn toward our guests as we adjusted our rings, and once again everyone raised cameras and cell-phones for the quintessential “just married” snapshot.

Hornbills

In retrospect, I don’t remember any individual faces in the crowd; I just remember being surrounded by a warm blur of love, like the “cloud of witnesses” mentioned in the Bible. That blur of warm, smiling faces was a vivid reminder of how blessed both J and I are to have the love and support of our close friends and family.

It was that spontaneous expression of love and support we celebrated at our open-air reception, where our unofficial animal “guests” included a night heron who perched right next to our dessert station and a shoebill who was hand-fed a mouse which he subsequently swallowed whole. As if to keep everything in perspective, toward the end of the reception one of my new nephews approached me and solemnly admitted, “The part where we had to sit still and listen was kind of boring.” True. Compared to the wild delights of an entire park full of wild animals, the solemnity of wedding vows can seem pretty boring. Luckily, we had plenty of colorful guests, both human and animal alike, to keep things lively.

Click here for the complete photo-set of scenes from our wedding day at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. You won’t find any wedding or reception pictures in my photo-set, just pictures of animals.

The post-ceremony photo of me and J was taken by our friend Fred, who used J’s camera to take pictures during the ceremony; I’ll share a link to those pictures once J has sorted through the thousands of pictures (!!!) he took during our San Diego getaway. Enjoy!

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Rev. Powers' tie

You can read all about the Reverend Dr. Richleigh Hale Powers, the officiant who performed J’s and my wedding ceremony at the San Diego Wild Animal Park last Saturday, on his website. Or, you can learn a lot about Rev. Powers by taking one look at his tie, which is covered with hearts and love letters. We met Rev. Powers about thirty minutes before our ceremony, and immediately he felt like a long-time friend. No wonder Rev. Powers is renowned as San Diego’s favorite wedding minister: a veritable Reverend Doctor of love.

Yes, we’re safely back from San Diego, and I have a half-written blog post about our wedding ceremony and reception that I plan to post sometime soon-ish. In the meantime, I’ve been unpacking, catching up with email, and doing a seemingly endless supply of laundry. Life after the honeymoon is busy, and that’s a good thing.

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Raindrops on nose

Day by day, the wedding grows closer, and I feel ready and even eager, not nervous. I don’t remember what I felt during the weeks before my first wedding; I can’t remember whether I felt anxious or fearful. I probably didn’t know what to think: what did I possibly know then? I had no idea what kind of life–what kind of challenges–faced me.

Just like a sleeping angel

J and I have settled into our own compromises; we’ve figured out, more or less, how not to step on one another’s toes during these summer months when we’re both around the house. It’s a constant dance; you never quite capture the permanent poise you long for. Instead, you have to keep moving, perpetually on your toes, reacting and responding as your partner moves, correcting and compensating for missteps, both your own and your partner’s.

Being married is the most challenging practice I’ve ever done, more difficult than getting a PhD or sitting a long Zen retreat or climbing a mountain. It’s challenging because you agree to do it for the rest of your life whether you want to or not–whether you think your spouse deserves it or not–whether at the moment you even like your spouse or not. Being married isn’t about the happy times you share (as I’m sure I thought when I was looking forward to my first marriage). Being married is about sticking around and giving it another try when you no longer want to.

Extreme closeup

I had no idea how difficult marriage is the first time I got married: how could I have? All we hear when it comes to marriage are the extremes at either end of the spectrum: on the one side, the happily-ever-after of wedded bliss, and other the other, the tragedy and turmoil of failed unions. Given these two options, it’s natural to think those are the only two choices, that your marriage will be either happy or miserable. When you’re young, optimistic, and engaged, no one mentions the plain and simple truth: any marriage will be both happy and miserable, the tenuous balance of intimacy being poised between those two ever-present extremes.

Balance is not a static thing, and neither is intimacy. If you’ve ever watched a circus tightrope performance, you know tightrope walkers are always in motion, leaning slightly one way then the other. Only in a frozen snapshot does a tightrope walker ever stand still; instead, at every moment, a tightrope walker is tottering between extremes, calculating and recalibrating the precise position of every extremity–every living cell and corpuscle, it seems–with an attention that can only be called electric.

Fenway entrance

Marriage is like that, but in slow motion: it takes your entire lifetime, ’til death do you part, to cross from here to there on the thin thread called “I do.” At any given moment, you might lean heavily toward bliss; at the next moment, you might dip dangerously toward despair. Your vow is your lifeline, the central balanced point you return to time and again. But balance is never static. The second you settle on a comfortable balanced point you wish could last forever, you’ve already fallen, your body freezing into a fixed rigidity that stymies its natural flexibility.

It takes a master to walk a tightrope, and it takes a master to weather the woes and wobbles of being in relationship. This is a truth I didn’t know (and nobody told me) the first time I got married. This time around, I’m walking into marriage with eyes wide open.

Click here for more pictures of the giant bronze baby heads–the paired sculptures of Antonio López García’s Day and Night–outside the Fenway entrance of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

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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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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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Wedding invitations

Now that the invitations are in the mail, it really feels official: J and I are getting married in August!

Mock orange, aka Philadelphus

This isn’t exactly “news” to our family and friends: J popped the question in January, and we’ve been planning the wedding since February. But for a variety of reasons, I never got around to announcing our engagement on-blog. At first, I didn’t want to blurt the happy news online until we’d told everyone in our families; after everyone in our inner-circle of family and friends had been informed, I was in the midst of a busier-than-usual semester when finding time to blog was difficult. On Facebook, all I had to do to notify my online friends was change my relationship status from “In a relationship” to “Engaged,” and that spurred the expected flurry of congratulations, like flashing an engagement ring at a social gathering. But here on-blog, I wanted to write something more substantial, and something more substantial kept getting pushed to the bottom of my to-do list as other priorities took precedent.

Over the years, I’ve spent so many blog-entries processing my first marriage, divorce, and its aftermath, I’ve wanted to write something equally thoughtful about the experience of being engaged, again. The first time I got engaged and planned a wedding, I remember how stressful the experience was. Even though my ex-husband and I had a small, simple wedding, we had ongoing disagreements with relatives about the details: one side of the family wanted a large, fancy wedding with a long guest-list, and the other side preferred our idea of keeping things small and simple. At the time, I remember remarking that there was a good reason why marriage was designed to last for life: that way, you’d have to go through the trauma of planning a wedding only once.

Mock orange, aka Philadelphus

They say that second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, but I’d say that second engagements are the triumph of experience over experience. Having already planned and been in one wedding with all the expected accoutrements (church, bridal party, long white dress, etc), this time around, J and I are no longer beholden to time-honored tradition or either set of parents. Since this is a second wedding for both of us, we’re planning and paying for it ourselves, so we get to focus on what we (rather than others) want. Now that we each have had the experience of getting married one way–me in a church with a Catholic priest, J in his living room with a Jewish justice-of-the-peace–J and I see this second time around as our chance to do things differently, as we’d like it.

So, how are we doing things differently this time? Well, we aren’t getting married in a church; we’re getting married at a Wild Animal Park. Instead of flipping a coin to decide whether to get married in my hometown (Columbus, OH) or J’s (Pittsburgh, PA), we’re getting married in San Diego: a fun summer trip for ALL of us, as if we were eloping with small entourage of family and close friends. Will I wear a white dress? Yes, but it’s knee-length and informal, bought off-the-rack and on sale. Will we have a bridal party, and will my dad walk me down the aisle? No, and no: J and I will escort one another down the aisle, and it will be just the two of us standing in front of our officiant.

Half opened

And that officiant? He’s neither a Catholic priest nor a Jewish justice-of-the-peace; he’s a nondenominational Christian minister with lots of experience marrying people in unorthodox settings. How can it be, you might wonder, that a practicing Zen Buddhist manages to get married twice without ever having a Buddhist wedding? Well, as much as I respect the great vows of Buddhist practice, J’s not a Buddhist, and neither are any of our wedding guests. We’ll have a nonsectarian, moderately Christian wedding ceremony because that reflects our shared cultural background.

When I first divorced, I feared I was tainted goods: having one marriage that had failed, I was afraid that all future relationships would be similarly doomed. A second marriage is a leap of faith because it’s based on the belief that we can learn from our mistakes. Second marriages, I think, really are the triumph of experience over experience: as much as you’ve lived through the bad experience of seeing one marriage fail, you’ve gained the valuable experience of having learned things the hard way. The first time I got married, I was fresh out of college and had no idea how to live on my own in the “real world,” much less be married. Now that I’m twenty years older and that much (I hope) wiser, I have a clearer sense of what I want out of life, love, and a partner. I think this current process of planning both a wedding and a life is a great opportunity to claim these for myself.

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