I met Ralph when we were seventeen, in a church. At a word from my mother I shifted and looked back to see him at the head of the aisle; his head was turned. He had a long lean body and tousled red hair and thrillingly alternative sideburns and he was easily handsome. He had expressive hands; he was a drummer. It’s rather incredible I can remember this to the day, how I felt.
Every day after coffee with my husband, I take a shower, tie my hair up and put on my little zip-up hoodie and get to work. I would work all day if I didn’t have other responsibilities; children, mostly, and volunteer work. And feeding myself so I don’t collapse. Lately I’ve been out of balance: too much work, too much time on other people. I need more rest; I want to take more care of my home. I scooted past a young man today at a recovery meeting, a young man with a broken face who had just a couple days clean. Mistaking my passing for affection, he gave me this little sideways hug. My heart breaks in these little ways when these moments happen; there is no point trying to express what I’m feeling so I don’t try. But I look at him and ask if he’s staying for the meeting, and I remember his name and I know it means something to me.
Back home and my children come by and pull me in for a hug (if I’m standing); they prostrate themselves across my body (if I’m laying down). The college quarter is over and my oldest child has, as a birthday present, a new computer. Both kids shout and laugh from their little basement gaming room; supremely happy. They need this time, and time with friends and food and sleep and affection and those are most of their needs. The house is only tidied when I can yell at the kids to do some work, and when my husband puts his incredibly efficient housework into effect. His body is strong and so is his mind and both rarely slip.
I am sewing on a buttery-soft jersey ITY; I am hanging up dresses on the dress form. I am hemming a little black dress and shortening sexy spaghetti straps. I am work, work, working to keep food in the refrigerator and try to stay on top of these bills. I am busy with the seam ripper with a little heater at my feet and the sunshine of Martina Topely Bird falling on my ears. And I suddenly realize in all our time together, Ralph never put his job before the family. He did his job but he stood his ground. And I think to myself what that shows our children about their value. I see so many straight couples where mother works her ass off and father has (or thinks he has) the big important job and is away from home or too tired when he gets home because he has Bills to Pay and I think it’s so often unfair, so often shit.
I stand up; stretch. My daily yoga practice is sluggish because I am tired in some way that defies explanation; still, my efforts keep those little kinks out of my neck, my shoulders, my hips. But yes I am exhausted, beyond tired. I have a call into a physician because I can tell something is wrong. Some nights by the time I’m in bed, I’m in a fog. I came out about this fatigue recently and as expected people shout explanations, solutions at me. These things can take time. I only hope I have the persistence to see it through, and that I am assisted by a pair of skilled hands and a good mind.
I’m working on a small pile of mending for a client, and watching “Tennison” on the laptop. Repairs to an overcoat, damage from a cat’s ardent claws. Next re-twisting and looping yarns from a cotton crocheted overblouse, in a deep teal. Then: a thin acetate lining shredding at the underarm, in a heathered winter coat. For tomorrow: two pair of trousers with blind hems, a waist seam coming loose, a zipper top popped, and a sleeve unraveling.
I enjoy mending. I know many seamstresses complain they are expected to mend for their friends, but I am clever. I charge for my efforts and besides, I do enjoy giving clothes longer life. I dislike waste and we are particularly greedy and wasteful about clothes. So: repairs, then. Every project is it’s own challenge and this pleases me. The teal crocheted blouse, for instance: I mend the pull so well that when I move it to the ironing board to steam it one last time I can’t find where I’d fixed it.
I enjoy hand-work, besides. My mother was my first sewing teacher and one strength she had, and has to this day, is strong and consistent – if indelicate and highly-visible – handwork. Her handwork instilled in me the confidence to work at my own. My work is finer and more delicate but not always as confident and sturdy.
Later in the evening, after my volunteer work, I stop by a friend’s to pick up buttons. These she has had for years on a mostly-completed coat project. I will install these three – as a favor, sure, but also because the though of these lonesome buttons, waiting for installation for years, touches me in this small way. Tomorrow they will be united with their intended purpose. I am careful as I walk down the stone steps to my car, the buttons on a card nestled in my purse. It is very cold and very dark and I don’t need a fall.
The studio is still cold but I have music and my hot coffee and I remember to take breaks, to care for my home and my children. My children! Tonight my 13 year old asks to get into bed and he holds me against his chest and for the first time I feel smaller than he; whisper thin he may be but he is growing taller than I now. And we talk and I can hear and feel his heart thump under the clean white cotton of his t-shirt. Soon our children have birthdays; Ralph and I discuss how to pull together what resources we have and to make something very special for each of them. We have poured out ourselves for these children and it was such an intelligent parenting strategy! They are vibrant, and happy, and well-rested, and fierce. And I remain unmoored, now that they are so independent. Things are as they should be and I am semi-wrecked.
Yoga practice; my hips are opening up, and I am comfortable in a deep seated twist, cow-faced legs, my head rests over my shoulder. My yoga teacher, her online presence, has become so valuable to me for the postures she leads me through yes, but also for her humor and her invitations to gentleness, to patience. She gives me permission to let things go, things that hurt or “no longer serve”. After practice I take a hot shower and slip into my pajamas to join my husband in the kitchen. I finish a slip-stitch while we talk and he prepares dinner: a large green salad, spaghetti with a homemade long-simmering red sauce and lemon-roasted garbanzo beans. And garlic bread! A hot, delicious winter meal.
The oldest child sets the table and I put out mixers for mimosas (of sorts): lime seltzer water and a delicious ice cold orange juice. The children tell us stories and tease me while their father smiles at their jokes. I put my hand on his knee to ask him something, I can’t remember what but even now I can feel his warm thigh through the denim of his jeans. And I’m thinking while I sit there that I have got to keep focused on these things, these little bits of work and home and love and my avocation, my volunteer work. And daily keep writing my gratitude list and performing my practice. On my desk rest little notes on scrap of movie posterback and little bits of graph paper, notes that I need to put into the calendar or into my accounting system and then recycle these paper bits and there will be more notes soon. A woman’s work like the Updike novel, always moving matter from one place to another.
A bit of loveliness: knit chiffon painstakingly formed into small pintucks, an impossibly insubstantial garment that can barely be called one at all:
With an absolute force of will, I remove a slice of pizza from the wrapped parcel, and place it on the cutting board. This will be the first meal I’ve had in about thirty six hours. For the last several hours the thought I should eat, was met with a rising nausea as well as awareness of my aching body: my entire abdomen a turgid, throbbing knot of pain.
My mind is being pulled into two different worlds, and the pain of this is excruciating. It hurts my head; it hurts my body.
In one world, I am a success. My life is a success. My partner and I have raised two wonderful children to teenagehood; they are both doing extraordinarily well despite trials and a few extraordinary circumstances. In this world I am creative, and kind. In this world I am learning to be kinder, and (slowly) trying to be stronger. In this world, I am strong enough to rise to a challenge. I am fierce. I would do anything possible to protect my children and protect my marriage – I would rise to any calamity. I have been a faithful and loving wife, giving every ounce of my passion and loyalty to a man who is the best I’ve met. I have withstood enormous pressures: the trail of abuse and dysfunction as a child, of more abuse in my early adulthood. The devastation of addiction. Sexual abuse. For years: denial. Then fear, anger, sadness. Some forgiveness, this tiny teacup-full. In this world, I have committed to a high standard of behavior for myself. I commit to this standard, fail, and try again and I move on. In this world, I am taking care of my lovely home. I am developing my career, while caring for my family and friends.
In this world, I stand in the kitchen and prepare a breakfast for my child before I take them to campus. They are graduating college at 16; I have helped them just the right amount. In this world, I parcel my focus to all these things – my husband, each child. My home, my career. My husband’s career. My recovery. My friends, my faith tradition. I put together the list of things I hope to do, to take care of the people I need to. In this world, on a daily basis, I do not neglect my responsibilities.
In this world I am a strong and loving person, but really: just a human being. I am a beautiful, loved, human being who helps make the world a better place.
This is a wonderful world and I have spent many days there.
But there is another world, too.
In this other world, I have failed utterly. My career is a joke; it can and will take too much of my focus to be a serious thing to commit to. In this world, my husband is deeply dissatisfied with me, and it is only a matter of time before he leaves. Every plan I’ve made and every thing I’ve cared for, is utter trash – not because the goals and the lovely things I care about are not wonderful – they are the most wonderful things on earth! – but because I could not possibly have been expected to succeed. In this world, my shitty childhood, the sexual abuse I endured, the terrorizing I endured, and my drinking: those things won after all. In the end, I was not strong enough to do any good; tread water though I tried.
In this world, no matter the kind words and tender acts of care I give my husband and children, it is too little and too late. There have been too many misbehaviors on my part. There have been too many times I was torn in two and could not focus. I could not check in. There have been too many hours – hours that have swelled into weeks or months or years in the aggregate – where I was attempting to escape. And even though it is understandable a person would do this, and we nod with empathy and say, “Oh that is so sad, but don’t you see why you did it?” in the end after all, I will not be permitted to fail without punishment. We understand why you did this, but it cannot be forgiven. It was not enough that I was there in body and that I was there in deed. In my mind I was trying to escape. And so: I failed. No points. I did my best but I will soon be summarily dismissed, and it was very foolish of me to put so much faith in my actions.
I am being pulled between these worlds.
Today I realized neither world is true, as powerful an illusion as they may be.
Today, I live in today’s world.
So: I begin to eat, and my body reminds itself this is a good thing. I relax; I will be able to finish this meal.
I can now do the next thing.
Today I can do the things I am supposed to do. I can communicate with kindness and directness. I can meet my responsibilities to family, to self-care, to my larger community. I can do the laundry and wash the dishes and drive my mother where she needs to go and meet with a friend who could use my help. I can pray; I can meditate. I can talk to my sponsor. If I have time I can pick up and sew this dress, that rests behind me on the studio table. I can talk to my husband about his day. I can hold him. I can make him a cup of coffee. I can bring my body to nurture: making food, hugging and kissing my husband and my children.
On the drive home from the college the black sky opens up and a torrential rain hits the streets. We who live here know it is the season: many months of darkness and rain. The earth here absolutely loves it; drinks in enough nourishment to stay green all through the year, while wildfires rage and the country burns. Here we hurry from our cars inside the café for a hot cup of coffee; we connect by eye contact with friend and stranger alike. The rain hammers the windows while I slice an apple for my son, who will soon be up and, as is his 13-year old wont, hungry.
My kids’ shoes end up: in my bedroom, on the bathroom floor. As relatively tidy and supremely well-behaved as my children are, they are nevertheless creatures of comfort: discarding clothes before taking a luxurious hot shower, or slipping off shoes before crawling in bed next to me to cuddle. They leave off on their errands to game – I hear shouts! of laughter from downstairs – and leave their clothes here and there. If they were adults I was forced to room with, I would find it all very irritating. As it is, these mundane remembrances are a comfort to me. I know when they leave my home I will miss them so.
“Are you okay?” my son says, at dinner. We are the only two left at the table and he is helping himself to a third serving of pasta. I tell him Yes, I am just tired and he says, “Put your hand here,” indicating the table between us. His long hand rests on mine – preternaturally beautiful fingers, and long nails. Then, shortly: “I need this to eat,” he smiles, removing his hand and crossing his right over so he can still comfort me.
I am okay, sure – but I am mentally very tired. I am meeting once a week with a small business consultant. I am in couples counseling every two weeks; I take one of my children to therapy every other week from that. It isn’t as if I’m particularly worried in all these concerns, but they very much require a special focus on my part. I am still reeling from the kids’ transition into their teenage years – which is absolutely nothing like the dour, cynical predictions would have had me believe, but is nevertheless a sea change – and I am experiencing the sadness of finally, finally no longer having a family bed. My husband’s car is once again tits-up – and mine is on the last legs for its brakes. My mother is selling her home, after five generations of lives passing through the old Victorian. A family friend dies young and this brings up, for me, horrible memories.
There are many glimmers of goodness in this time. My older child is happier, a brief calm sea. They hold and hug and kiss me several times a day. The younger is a bit more volatile – a surprise, given his sweet nature – but I am gentle with him and he is good at coming to his sense and apologizing. And so, for that matter, am I. I put no small amount of concentration onto helping their father connect with them. He is gone for hours each day, after all, and misses the many opportunities I have.
On the turn of the dime it is absolutely fall, no longer summer. Even the warm days have a dampness and chill in the air. It’s incredible to me, as it was so very hot just before the break. Ralph finished painting the house during our driest spell. In a week or so I’ll pull all the summer clothes for storage and bring out my winter coats in preparing for the long, dark winter to come. As it will, whether we are ready or no.
Today marked our fourteenth wedding anniversary. And it was a beautiful, lush day, as September often is here. It’s also a busy time of year – and busier than typical, for us.
I had wondered – as it became obvious our house-buy and move would be right on top of both “the first day of school” (irrelevant, as homeschoolers) and our anniversary – if our day would get swallowed up. Would we be too tired, or angry with one another, or embroiled in detail, to spend a few hours in appreciation? (No.) Would we make time to gift one another (Yes!) Would we have a lovely evening together (Yes!).
Dinner was lovely – but the drive, and the beach view, were sublime. I am fortunate to live in an absolutely beautiful, remote, idyllic corner of the world. I don’t regret it, not for a moment.
And here’s hoping for many, many more years together as a couple.
Today the children and I wrap a few presents for their father, and tidy the house for his return. He’s out meeting with someone he’s mentoring. Once a week, even with his schedule, he makes this time. I’m impressed by him. As always.
He shares the dark chocolate bar in his gift, with the children. They adore him.
Another beautiful sunny day – with that crisp bite of beachy air that I frankly am not willing to live without. I bake honey cornbread, first melting a stick of butter in the cast iron, and whipping the batter into a lightness. Yogurt and coconut flour additions: nutrition, growing children. I simmer beans on the stove while I instruct my daughter in dressing roasted chiles. We’ve an antiquated pressure cooker and can go from dried beans to tender in forty minutes – but I like the old-fashioned way, when I have the foresight.
My body is fatigued, more so that seems reasonable. I am continually amazed at the energy of my children – and it must be said, my husband as well. A few errands in the day, out to a volunteer gig this evening, then home for dinner where I feel wasted. I lie on the couch and, with my son, watch a full video game walkthrough – an impressionist, creepy 2D puzzle-play.
Evening falls outside and the house seems to settle. There comes a point when we know the work of the day is done. My daughter comes in and puts her arms conspiratorially around my waist – she asks if we can host her beau at our house for the day, tomorrow. I am on a one-day-at-a-time program: somehow finding the means, the methods, to care for my family (and others) as we await payday. There is a curious comfort to such methods; life is simpler. I don’t have the burden of making plans, and can set aside these ambitions.
Darkness now, in earnest. The evening rituals of hot showers; time for vitamins, brushing teeth. A last glass of water, perhaps. I’ve been having nightmares, small bouts of terror that wake me minutes after I fall asleep. For many months I’d been spared these episodes – but the last two weeks, I am terrorized more nights than not. My husband has noticed and asks: What’s going on? But I tell him: the whole point, is that my conscious thought can’t figure it out. I endure these unpleasant episodes as best I can. I am nothing – if not patient.
“We should focus on snuggling,” my son whispers, drawing nearer. He has a morning routine: his father wakes him up shortly after seven, whereupon the boy makes his toilet, dresses, gets breakfast – sharply objecting if Ralph dishes up too much breakfast as that means it will take up too much time – before climbing the stairs and into bed with me. His every single move in the morning, is such that he can maximize this time he holds me close. Sometimes I’m half-awake. Sometimes I get up after he leaves – sometimes, I fall back asleep.
For many days I didn’t even notice my boy was doing this, really. Living with children, swimming in the waters, you can miss even something special. And now I think: what gifts his morning demonstrations are. And I think, These days will pass by, just like everything else!
This evening I sat in a group, a spiritual gathering of sorts. I heard a man talking about his life a few years ago. He said some things that troubled me. I reached down and refolded my pant cuff, fiddled with my shoelace. Trying to process my thoughts, my feelings. Trying to touch them, first.
What is wrong?
I discover: I have a sense of unease, when people put themselves down. When they say how horrible they are, and especially when they use harsh words. Piece of shit, whiny little bitch, liar cheat and thief. I hear these things. I feel uncomfortable, that’s how I feel. Just about as uncomfortable as when people use that language to talk about others.
If I easily gravitate to hate-talk about others, or myself, even my past self – well, I’m probably still saying it, thinking those hateful things, about myself. Later, I will look back and ask, why was I so hard on myself? On others?
Life is too short for self-hate. It seems like it’s something we can’t stop. Maybe if we knew how much we did it, we’d feel appalled. We’d want to do something new.
Maybe that would be a beginning.
My husband and I meet in the kitchen, after housework is done and the kids are getting ready for bed; the cats are fed and the dog has been walked. I put my arms around my husband as it seems daily he grows more dear to me, more beautiful.
That’s one of those mysteries I wouldn’t have believed, or understood, maybe even not so many years ago.
Happy anniversary, my love. This below gift is from Ralph; he went with irreverent. I went with sincere – a tailored waxed canvas coat with brass snaps – and thoughtful: a Botch LP.
Thirteen years ago today I woke before dawn and slipped outside for an early-morning walk. I was getting married in a few hours and the import of this was something I wanted to experience in quiet. I don’t remember much about my walk except for the quality of the morning – I could write pages and never express, properly, what our dawn is like in the fall – and the stillness of the unfamiliar Aberdeen streets. Apparently I stayed out a while – enough time for my bridesmaids to wake. When they couldn’t find me they briefly wondered if I’d done a runner!
On my wedding day people asked me if Ralph was nervous. Hell no! I remember getting dressed in the downstairs of the church and while plenty of people were antsy – my mom was out of her mind with stress – I could hear Ralph upstairs happily directing the sound for the service. I don’t remember being nervous, either. I was happy. My dad walked me down the aisle – a wonderful memory of his brief return to health, in between bouts of cancer and treatment. Our service used a unity candle and I spilled hot wax while deploying it – everyone in the small service saw, and gasped. A wedding can feel a lot like a performance but at the same time, I was there for me.
After the ceremony we adjourned to my parents’ house, just a block from the church – a few feet from where I sit now. We drank a toast; we played music. The first song we danced to was Abba’s “Dancing Queen”. My father, my mother, my groom, myself – we were so happy that day.
But newlywed memories are painful for me, and have been for some time. The young woman I remember was vulnerable and lost. The husband was a good choice; carrying the child I was carrying to full term, that was a good choice. I made some good choices even though at the time I wasn’t fully aware of how important those choices would come to be. I took a lot for granted, somehow.
Being married to Ralph is today one of my greatest treasures. Time, and pain, have caused me to value my marriage deeply. The pain was exquisite and unrelenting; a chapter in our marriage that I simply am astonished we carried through; that we didn’t split, that we weren’t unfaithful, that we didn’t cause irreparable damage. We suffered so much but somehow we got through. Maybe that’s why I appreciate him so deeply, and why I find within myself that strength unchanneled on my wedding day, that grit and steel I didn’t know I had. I’ve given up on a lot of things in my life but when it came down to it I wouldn’t give up on this. I wanted him and I don’t know why that became one of the only things left to me, even when the pain seemed insurmountable. I held on even when it didn’t make sense. I am glad I did.
Why did my marriage work out? Why did it survive? Why did my husband become someone I respected, as unfairly exacting as I can be? Why did my husband – who I met, and married, when he was just a boy – develop into the most wonderful father, a quality I value more than anything in a man? Why did we suit each other so well? How did we choose one another so well – when we were so ignorant of what would be required?
Ralph is my companion; we walk alongside the other. He is my fidelity to a higher purpose. He alone can hold my hand, can hold my body. He alone can hear the Me no one here does or will.
This morning I don’t take a walk, as I did the day I was a bride. I write a few words here, then I take myself back to bed, and back to the first of my days without children in the home. I take myself back to myself, and I spend the day in contemplation.
Life gives us great gifts, and we throw them away with both our hands.
Sometimes, we hold on to something.
Ralph is a gift to me, and – sobered, I know this to be true.