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?


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.

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!

Used to be tree

This morning I took some pictures of the stumps that remain after the tree removal I’d mentioned yesterday, when a local side-street was closed while crews cut down every single pine tree in a yard I walk past nearly every morning. It completely changes the look of this particular house and street corner to have bare sky where there used to be pine bough: a drastic change to the local landscape.

Clear cut

I have a picture of what once was: a shot I blogged back in November, when I looked back in retrospect on my first marriage. It’s a picture I particularly like, and one I’m now glad to have taken, given the fact that I’ll never be able to take it again.

How strange it feels to refer to “my first marriage,” but that’s what I’ll have to say now that I’m two months away from embarking on my second. One of the things that’s troubling about divorce, I’m finding, is the way it makes your life two rather than one. Instead of having one husband, one marriage, and one solemn vow of “forever,” you suddenly have two. You have those memories of then, and you have these soon-to-be memories of now. Most of the time, these two worlds keep cleanly separate–then vs. now–but sometimes the memories blur.

J insists, for instance, that we’ve gone together to a particular grocery store, but it’s a store I’ve never been to. J’s memories of shopping with his first wife–a completely mundane activity with no traumatic overtones–have blurred with his similarly sanguine memories of shopping with me. At times, my ability to separate this soon-to-be-husband from my first one is equally shaky. Is a particular inside joke something I shared with J or with C? Is a given memory from a years-ago hockey or basketball game something I did with Husband #1 or Soon-To-Be Husband #2?

Nothing but stump

“You can have this, or you can have that.” There is a car commercial right now featuring hip-hop hamsters dancing to that rap, a musical version of the classic choice of either/or. You can have this, or you can have that, but you can’t have both: you must decide. In the commercial, the hamsters point to the car being advertised–this–and then to some absurd alternative–a toaster, washing machine, or cardboard carton–as the obviously inferior that. Why would you want that when you can have this?

I’ve had that song in my head all day, ever since seeing these stumps this morning. Why would you choose stumps when you can trees? And yet, there must be some valid reason for clear-cutting your own yard: perhaps there is a tree disease or parasite spreading among local pine trees, and these homeowners decided to amputate just as their neighbors had previously?

You can have this, or you can have that. To have a second marriage, you have to lay waste to your first, leaving nothing but the emotional wreckage of a half dozen stumps. When I first announced my decision to divorce almost six years ago, the most difficult question people asked was the simplest: “Why?” Why clear-cut your own heart? Why leave a swath of devastation in your and your partner’s soul, dividing the emotional landscape into the either/or of Before and After?

Now, I have a clearer answer to that long-ago question of Why, but I needed six years of soul-searching and the unimaginable possibilities of new beginnings to come to that conclusion. In six years, who knows what sort of “that” will have sprouted from all of “this.”

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I sometimes wonder (for no apparent reason) whether C, my ex-husband, ever thinks of me–ever wonders how I am doing–now that it’s been more than five years since our divorce. I think of him, his wife, and his daughter often; I wonder how they are and genuinely hope they are well. I think, too, of C’s mom, grandparents, and brother; I wonder how my former sister-in-law is doing, or my former niece and her sister, whom I’ve never met, and C’s uncles, aunts, and cousins.


It has always troubled me that divorce cut me off irrevocably from these people: one minute they were family, and the next they became strangers I’ll never see again. This finality and the absolute abruptness of the break both stun and sadden me. It’s something I still haven’t made peace with, even all these years after having moved on.

Winter is a contemplative time: the landscape is sleeping, people have retreated indoors, and like meditating cats we all have hunkered down to generate and savor our own inner warmth. Winter, especially in New England, is a time for waiting: when will we see long-lasting days again, or when will we dare to bare our ankles and necks? The barefoot and sandal-clad days of summer seem impossibly distant, and we’ve almost forgotten the object of faith–spring green and all the hope it holds–that we’ll spend these next interminable months waiting for.


It is in these winter months when it is natural to wonder about time and its passing, or about the nature of love and loss. How long have we humans been treading this old, tired earth, tracking mud on our soles and brushing snow from our boots? All these generations–all these endless eras–and what at all have we learned about heartbreak and how to weather it? We’ll all older but no wiser now; we’ve just become more practiced over time at the same old mistakes, rehearsing the same stories even though we know how they all will end.

Winter is a time when such questions arise unbidden, and they linger like frozen snow that won’t melt until spring. Some questions are unanswerable, and others simply unanswered, the Universe remaining tight-lipped when it comes to our most pertinent questions.


I can never write today’s date without remembering its significance: my wedding anniversary, one I celebrated twelve times before divorcing exactly one week before what would have been my thirteenth.

Kousa fruit & foliage

My divorce remains, five years later, the single biggest transformative event in my life so far. I guess that’s the true meaning behind anniversaries: they mark those memorable dates when your entire life changes overnight, a temporal Rubicon delineating the inescapable shift from Before to After.

I’m learning, five years later, that you don’t get over divorce; you just move on. Even after your heart has healed from the initial shock of loss, the divorce itself–the end of almost thirteen years of marriage with someone you assumed you’d spend your entire life with, and the complex emotional aftermath as you disassemble that assumption and build something different with your life and dreams–continues on. You don’t get “over” it in the sense of forgetting it happened or returning to who or what you were “before.” The Biblical definition of “marriage” is “two people become one flesh,” and there’s a more-than-metaphoric sense in which divorce is an amputation. You can resume a normal life after losing a limb: you can learn to walk on one leg, for instance, and you can return to living a full and rich life. But you never really forget that you once had two legs.

Kousa fruit & foliage

My ex has literally moved on since our separation and divorce, remarrying three years ago and moving from place to place in search of a happy life: I wish him and his wife well. The path to divorce is an incremental abandonment of hopes and promises: first you give up hope that you’ll ever be happy in your marriage, then you give up hope that you’ll ever make your partner happy. That latter hope was the last to die, and its passing was, for me, the one I couldn’t ultimately handle. In twelve years of marriage, I had long practice letting my own dreams die, but the thought that I’d ultimately failed my spouse–the realization that I’d never tame his wildly changing moods, never succeed in settling him down into an existence that was, to my eye, stable and content–was the one sacrifice I ultimately couldn’t swallow.

Red above, red below

In retrospect, my ex and I defined happiness differently…and to be perfectly honest, I never did learn much less understand his personal definition of the term. For me, happiness is defined (or at least it is indicated) by stability and constancy: if you’re happy with something, you’ll stay with it rather than perpetually looking for something better or simply different. It’s telling, for instance, that I still have the same job, the same apartment, the same hobbies, the same spiritual practice, and the same creative pursuits now as I did when I was married: because I’m happy with those things, I haven’t changed or replaced them.

My ex, on the other hand, was eternally beholden to change, seeing constancy as boredom and boredom as creative death. My ex always wanted to travel, to move, to change jobs, and to embark on new enterprises, and when the novelty of any one of those wore off, he’d seek a new diet, a new hairstyle, or a new piece of musical or recording equipment to console himself with “something different.”


For almost thirteen years, I blamed myself for my then-husband’s volatility, assuming that if he wasn’t happy enough to settle into the mundane boredom I find sustaining, it was because I wasn’t making him happy. Only in retrospect have I come to fully realize that mutability was an essential part of who my ex was (and possibly still is). “Taming” my ex’s addiction to novelty and change wasn’t the kind of thing I or probably anyone could accomplish: perpetual change was an essential part of his character, something I simply didn’t and probably couldn’t understand.

Even without the impetus of an anniversary, I think of my ex-husband every autumn, his favorite time of year: it’s no accident, I think, that he married both me and his second wife in this season of change. My ex was prone to seasonal depression, and autumn offered a spell of brief, bittersweet beauty before another long, emotionally turbulent winter. My ex’s dark moods were like an old girlfriend who arrived in November and made herself at home through March: there really were three of us, at least, in that marriage. In retrospect, I blamed myself, again, for my ex’s light-starved upheavals, somehow thinking that this year, if we did something (anything!) differently, he wouldn’t feel the onset of winter quite as heavily as he had in the past.


A year or so after my divorce, in talking with an old friend who had lived with my ex and I when we were still married, I mentioned my ex’s Seasonal Affective Disorder, the only name he would allow for year-round mood swings that became more marked in winter. “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” our friend, herself a mental health professional, repeated with a hint of incredulity. “I always assumed he was bipolar.” She paused a moment, the crackle of the phone connection between us masking, I’d hoped, my sudden intake of breath. “You always seemed to keep him stable,” she continued, “although I can’t imagine that would have been easy on you.”

Her words, even a year or so after my divorce, rang like a gunshot. Bipolar? So others had noticed? I’d always assumed that my then-husband’s moods were our little secret, it being my responsibility to maintain our careful facade of a “normal” relationship even though much of the time I felt I was married to at least two (if not more) different men. My ex always refused even the suggestion of psychotherapy, even when he was the most unhappy, insisting that he didn’t want to change even his darkest moods since they were, he assumed, the source of his creativity. But had he agreed even to a diagnosis, if not treatment, how might that have changed the trajectory of our time together?


Whether or not my then-husband was bipolar then makes little difference now: we both have moved on in the five years since our separation and divorce. But even the mere suggestion that his moods had a Name–that there was, in short, something other than me to blame for his volatility–feels like a crucial piece in a puzzle I’ve spent the past five years poring over. One of the reasons you don’t get “over” a divorce, I’m learning, is because it stays with you like an unsolved mystery: no matter how many times you go over, again, the facts of the case, you’re still stymied by the simple question of “why.” Divorce marks an end, and it also marks the possibility of new beginnings…but it also leaves you with unanswered questions, a maddening lack of closure that no court-date or notarized document can ever sufficiently seal.

If there was a simple medical reason for the disconnect between my ex-husband and me–if any of a number of pharmaceuticals could have calmed a character quirk I spent nearly thirteen years thinking was My Fault–I can finally, five years later, let myself off the hook. I didn’t “fail” my then-husband because I couldn’t keep him happy; I finally left that relationship because I ultimately came to believe my vow to remain constant “in sickness and in health” didn’t apply to a sickness my partner refused to investigate, refused to name, and ultimately refused to treat.

Oak & pine

Are we beholden to help someone get well if ultimately they don’t want to be well, or if they define “wellness” differently than we do? Are we beholden to make ourselves sick, too, while tending another’s unadmitted illness? I understand my ex and his wife have moved to the Midwest and now have a child, and I find myself fervently hoping they all are happy. Perhaps my ex-husband’s second wife is better equipped than I was to withstand his emotional upheavals, being more flexible in the face of ever-constant change? Or perhaps a child who grows up walking on the water of her father’s moods will easily adapt and acquire the sea-legs I never found? These are the questions–slightly different now, but still unanswered–I find myself asking five years later, no closer to closure, as I consider my divorce in retrospect.

Under the bridge

Saturday afternoon was bright, sunny, and perfect for walking, so J and I took a brief break from our household chores to walk to Hemlock Gorge in Newton Upper Falls, where we crossed (and photographed) Echo Bridge before turning around to head for home. It’s been over a year since I blogged photos of Echo Bridge after having visited with Leslee and a mutual friend: how quickly water flows under this or any other bridge.

Under the bridge

It’s been more than five years since I finished my dissertation and became “Doctor” in the spring of 2004; it’s been almost five years since I separated from and then divorced my then-husband in the summer and fall of that same year. Looking back on the past five years, I’m amazed at how smooth the flow of time seems. Finishing my PhD was a major milestone, and divorcing was a major upheaval…but as soon as the shock of those two life-changing events quieted, things quickly returned to a state of “normal” that has remained, for the most part, uninterrupted. Whenever I talk to people who are currently pursuing a PhD, I have a hard time believing I used to chase that same goal; whenever I for some reason remember that I used to be married, it feels like I’m remembering some other person, not “me.” How can the skin of time knit so flexibly over what once felt like an open wound?

Boston Water Works seal

Karen Maezen Miller recently blogged about the differences between her first and second marriages: “I’ve stopped thinking that one husband is different than the next, or even that my husband is different than yours.” It’s an interesting and relevant observation. When I first divorced, I worried that all future relationships would follow the same doomed pattern…and here, almost five years later, I find myself almost-married once again. I could count the ways that J is different from C, or I could count the ways that J and C are remarkably alike…but what would either accounting add up to in the end? Almost five years later, I still face the same old “me” in the mirror every morning: the title “Dr.” doesn’t change the same old mind-habits, nor does a status switch from “married” to “divorced.”

Echo Bridge

One of the things I’ve learned from years of Zen practice is that everything changes…except, of course, the things that don’t. The images of Echo Bridge I snapped on Saturday don’t look substantially different from the ones I shot in 2008, or from the ones featured on 19th century postcards. Seasons change, and so might the names of one’s spouse, friends, or very self, but some things remain the same. Rivers still flow and grass still grows; regardless of whom I’m in relationship with, I still face my same old insecurities, irritations, and shortcomings. Am I doomed to repeat in this relationship the faults, flaws, and foibles of a failed marriage? Of course I am: that’s exactly what Buddhists mean when they talk of karma. Until I figure out how to divorce myself–an act still outlawed and impossible in every state–my same old behaviors, impulses, and inner tantrums will repeat, repeat, repeat, as incessant as echoes.

Atop Echo Bridge

But where exactly is the problem with that: why is it a bad thing simply to repeat? When I teach writing, I encourage my students to revisit and revise the same old page, same old paragraph, same old sentence. If at first you don’t succeed, they say, try, try again: one way that writing is better than baseball, I tell my students, is that you can take as many swings as you like without striking out. As Zen Master Seung Sahn was fond of saying over and over and over: “Only go straight – don’t know! Try, try, try for ten thousand years, non-stop, get enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.” It’s not the having nor the getting: it’s the trying that counts, time and again.

Stairs to the bridge, with weathered sign

We want liberation from our Groundhog Day lives, presumably, because we can’t stand the monotony of yet another Saturday spent on household chores, but perhaps the repetition (and presumed stupidity) of our same old selves making the same old mistakes over and over is the Universe’s way of inundating us with second changes: an act of both generosity and grace. Do we extend to ourselves the same courtesy? Can we forgive ourselves, not just our fellows, the Biblical seven times seventy? Our karma leads us to make the same old mistakes over and over, but our precious Dharma–the fruit of our life-practice–allows us to forgive ourselves–our spouses, our friends–an infinite number of times, if necessary. Only then, it seems, have we made progress, taking a step up while the rest of our lives, like sound waves, echo back again and again across time.