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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