Sunday, June 9, 2013

Committed - or - perhaps I should be

Can you attend a BBQ on Sunday? Her email read. I’d like to introduce you to my cousin, a retired orthopedic surgeon.
I attended. You know, I’m socially adept. I can enjoy adroit maneuvering around their familial intimations as the odd-man-out. Even at fifty his sister is a dark-eyed beauty from the Azores. Her brother the surgeon, recently relocated from Newport Beach to care for their ailing father, was witty and unpretentious. Nice enough. No sparks over here but then... hey, it’s me, sparks border on the brink of mass extinction. My friends say I’m too picky. Methinks they are wrong. I’m not too picky - I’m not interested.

“What about you Lorin?” Mark asked. “When are you getting into relationship?” The hairs of my nape bristled and I spewed what has become an auto-response to such queries. “When I meet someone who inspires me to it,” I say. That seems to sufficiently stay the line of questioning and overrule objections. The gavel thumps - sustained! Whew.

I am often astounded at the rapidity with which people couple and uncouple, marry and remarry. The in-between is seemingly marked by a fervent state of DEFCON readiness: “Up-periscope, prepare to launch heat seeking missiles, one away.” 
I am equally astounded at the undercurrent of bitterness and anger that runs unceasingly and sometimes unchecked through many marriages. In the aftermath of my own marriage, I looked across the landscape of my life seeking enviable marriages of greater than fifteen years. I found three.
Three you cry? What unattainable criteria was employed to thread that needle? Nay, nay, neither fantastical nor preposterous. First criteria - that love be present. This can be exemplified innumerably but my standard here was simply that people communicate in ways that were kind, perhaps using social lubricants like please and thank you. Tone of voice was/is critical. 
Two: that people communicate more than the perfunctory who’s picking up Joey and what’s for dinner. From the outside, perfunctory looks like indifference. “I’m often amazed at how couples can be up on the minute details of each other’s lives, but haven’t had a meaningful conversation in years,” wrote E. Perel, family therapist and author of Mating in Captivity. Exaaaactly. 
Three: that there seems to be a sense of equality, that no one partner dominates the other, giving each a voice. 
Open warfare and nuclear winter ixnayed couples from the get-go. Yelling is unkind by my measure so the yellers were categorically eliminated. One can argue that these behaviors are indeed communicative - but if one considers where people are left - love is not present. No-pass on criteria #1. This is not rocket science - sit, listen, watch. You know the adage: God gave you two eyes and ears...

Let me say here that no one deserves my judgement nor requires my approval. This is my own simple criteria, a kindness quotient, if you will. Coupled with the question - can we apply it to that whom we call Beloved?

I just finished reading Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). Known as a chiclet (the literary equivalent of a chick flick), I found it a thoughtful and provoking examination of that most rare of birds  - lifelong, monogamous marriage. Gilbert examines the history, customs, traditions, myths, assumptions, and expectations of marriage - for those vary as widely and wildly as culture. 
In her peace-making research, she dredged up practices that all but “disappear” the woman (or girl) turned wife. For instance, did you know that only since the 1970’s can an American woman open a checking account without her husband’s signature? As a pre-Title 9, athletic girl dealing with the inequality of men's sports programs, I vaguely remember this vestige of coverture - a traditionally English then American law whereby a woman was subsumed out of existence by her husband. Her property became his, her voice was silenced, he could do nearly anything (including beatings and forcible rape) because she belonged to him. 
And while I have owned a checking account since age fifteen, seeded with monies from Dole Pineapple Company, remnants of that history of ownership casts a long, cultural shadow. Culture after all, exists and persists in language.  I struggled with equality and overriding my husband’s voice - even as the primary breadwinner.

Did you know the Jewish tradition has long embraced marriage while early Christians were exhorted to abstinence and celibacy. 
I’ve heard tale that one can rightfully claim to be Jewish only when one has faithfully practicing grandchildren. Early Christians had no such designs on birthing and fledging the faithful; rather, doctrine focused on recruitment and converts - still does. Hence the sexual ambivalence, nay, sexual revulsion of the early church.
Even within marriage, (Saint) Paul considered sex immoral, exemplifying a lack of self-control. He conceded however, that Christians were likely to have sex and that sex within marriage was better than burning. Alrighty then! So a marital, sexual concession was made. When did the church embrace and co-opt the marital tradition, lacing it with moral judgement and strict covenants to make it their own? Later - much later.
Buddha also espoused celibacy and chastity, pointing to desire as the source of all suffering. He abandoned a wife and child in pursuit of enlightenment - unattainable he proffered, to those with such attachments.
So unfortunately, it seems that celibate and single, I am in good standing with the doctrines of both St. Paul and Lord Buddha. Good grief.

Interracial marriage was not legalized nationally until 1967, when the Supreme Court voted unanimously in its favor. The marriage of my own parents was unrecognized in countless states until it had endured nearly two decades. Shocking; donchya think?

I realize this is the second such book I’ve reported on in a relatively short interval. (See Mating in Captivity - Unlocking Erotic Intelligence - posted August 2012.) Like Gilbert, I am sorting it out. She, driven by a devastating divorce, me - by a devastating marriage.
We are genetically driven to pair and procreate; the want and need for bonding is innate. My innate software has been corrupted methinks, my reset button dispossessed.

Gilbert sat with the Hmong women of a single household in North Viet Nam to ask of their marital traditions. Hmong are considered an indigenous peoples who occupy the mountainsides of Northern Viet Nam, Laos, Thailand, Burma and South China. For millennia we existed as they, in clans and tribes, large familial groupings maintained for protection and survival. Only the Western world has strayed from that model and only Western marriages feel the overwhelming strain of discontent and divorce.

Expectation. Hmong women don’t expect marriage to fulfill their every want and need. A man is a man. A husband is a husband. He works, he provides. Women are basically the same, men too. He’ll do and that’s that. He is not charged with being her knight in shining armor or inspiring her daily. He is not her everything.
I used to rock-climb at a gym with a guy who was his wife’s best and only friend.
“That’s a big burden,” I said one day, dangling overhead. 
“It is,” he confirmed. 
“Best friend, I get but I don’t ever want to be someone’s only friend, not even my husband’s. There are things he gets from the guys at basketball that I could never provide.” 
I’m good at including wives into our friendships. I am intentional and know that if she feels threatened, my friendship with him will be discarded. I tried to reach out, to include her, to make her feel safe but she would have no part of it. Needless to say, as climbing partner, I was duly and dutifully fired.
“I’m sorry,” his head hung, “My wife was rude; wasn’t she?” I felt sorry for him. Living small to accommodate others serves no one. And while my relationship was of little consequence, I’m sure that from her place of insecurity she exerted pressure elsewhere, usurious in its cost.

Marriage has endured over the centuries because it has changed with the will of we the people. It will change yet again because we want it to. Gay marriage is here; at this point its a moot point and only a matter of time. If you think about it, while many marry in churches, marriage is a secular affair adjudicated by the state. I now pronounce you husband and wife by the powers invested in me by the state of X. Nor is the union official until signing of State documents.
Divorce too is a secular affair adjudicated by the state. The Court has little interest in your mortal/moral soul. It is interested in your home and who will keep it, your kids and how they will be shared, your credit cards and who will pay them, your cars, your boat, your toys, your 401K, in essence - your worldly goods. Even divorce prompted by infidelity has little bearing, ultimately, on the division of property. Marriage confers secular benefits - and those benefits will soon be available to all regardless of race, creed, color, or sexual persuasion. Thank God for separation of church and state.

All of it leaves me stranded somewhere between no thank you and hell no!  I bounced it off my cousin Noël, over a cold beer. Noël is a slight man, barely bigger than me and he loves the dialogue of relationship as much as I. He’s as good a girlfriend as one could ever hope for.
“Landmark believes that life is created in language,” I said. “If that is so, and I believe it is, then one must develop the capacity and stomach for difficult conversations that can make a difference.” 
Noël reminded me that while this works for us, it is but one way, not the only way, and doesn’t necessarily work for others. But... but if life and the quality of our relationships is created in language - or lack thereof - is it really optional? Yes, apparently it is, he asserted. There are those who prefer stuckness (see When Things Fall Apart - posted May 2013) to a conversation for workability, happiness, reestablishing practices of love, creating the space for acceptance and forgiveness.

“Communication breakdown, its always the same. Communication breakdown drives me insaaaaaane,” he sang to my peals of laughter. “Who sang that and on which album?”
“NO, not Rush. Lead Zeppelin on the album of the same name.” Back at its original release in 1994 Led Zeppelin had it right. What don’t we get about this?

Lest you begin to feel that I am sorrowful and filled with remorse, nay, nay - let me acquaint you with the marriage benefit imbalance. That is to say, marriage benefits men to a far greater degree than women, a fact that has been shown in study after study. Married men live longer than single men, accumulate more wealth, excel at their careers over single men, are less likely to die of violent death, report themselves to be happier, and suffer less from alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression.
The reverse is not true for women however. Single women live longer than married women, make more money and accumulate more wealth, thrive in their careers, are significantly more healthy, suffer far less with depression, and are less likely to die of violent death - usually perpetrated at the hand of their... husband.
“So you’re sad three days a year,” Karen spoke of the Holidays, eyeing my new Mercedes 350 SLK. “Deal with it. The rest of us are sad we’re not you for the other 362 days.” I have to admit - she made me giggle.

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be thrown from the nest.” ~ Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

I notice I have no answers, only questions. I am in the inquiry and exploration... and isn’t that life? Alive is in the unknown. We try to flatten out all the rough spots into a smooth ride instead of being thrown to ... to take flight. I may have to be thrown coz I notice... I ain’t jumpin’.

Gilbert makes her peace then embraces her marriage. She closes Committed with a 14th century chant by Christian mystic Julian of Norwich. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
I know this to be true and all IS well. Amen.