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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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.