You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
and let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oaktreeand the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
– Kahlil Gibran “On Marriage”
I came of age in the 1970’s, a point in time when the pithy wisdoms contained in Gibran’s little book The Prophet tripped off every hippy-gypsy’s lips. I am sure I attended more than one wedding which highlighted this verse prominently within the invitation or featured it somewhere in the vows. Blue Mountain Cards appropriated and soon exhausted its sentiment (along with those on friendship, love, children, pain, and death, ad nausea.) Everyone I knew I had a self-annotated, coffee-stained, broken-spined copy lying about somewhere in the house. And I think most of us consigned them to the used book bin at the library sometime during the late 80s or early 90s, fearing that it branded one a literati imposter to even the most casual observer of one’s bookshelves (and we all know we make those judgments, don’t we?)
It’s a shame, as I doubt that many of us who were so enamored then by Gibran’s aphoristic prose truly had lived long enough to understand its rutted truths, ground out from endless repetition and the weight of heavy loads. Very few of us had married, borne children, experienced pain, grieved death. We thought we loved. We didn’t know the half of it. I don’t believe that many of us had been threshed naked, sifted free of husks, ground to whiteness, or kneaded into pliancy, as Gibran describes it, by age 17 or 23.
Coming across this verse by accident today, I read it over again with a deep and resonating pleasure. And I it made me realize that I have wanted for some time to address all the unspoken questions, speculations, and (sometimes) judgments I feel vibrating in my wake when people learn that I am married yet serving in Peace Corps without my spouse. I watch their eyes widen, their brows twitch, their mouths open and close as they quickly formulate an innocuous response to a non-traditional notion of marriage that appears to include living 6,000 miles apart. For twenty-seven months. And now add another twelve on top of that…let’s just admit that the winds of heaven have been enjoying quite the prolonged waltz between M and me.
For a long, long time, over 20 years in fact, M and I devoted concerted effort to cocooning ourselves within a comfort zone. We went to our jobs every day, which for a number of years were close enough to allow us to drive to work and/or have lunch together once or twice a week. We cleaned our house in tandem on the weekends. We ate dinner out often, went to movies, shopped at Costco, and walked the dogs. Together. We lived in a nice condo in a beautiful city with thousands of acres of hiking and biking trails surrounding us. The Pacific Ocean was a fifteen minute drive away. We made decent salaries and were able to save towards retirement. Like bunnies in a self-imposed hutch, we were warm, fed, plump, and circumscribed. And over time the cramp set in.
I can’t put my finger on it, even now, but I surmise – for me – it was the absolute predictability of it, day after day, year after year. I caught myself entertaining thoughts of a calamity, a catastrophic earthquake or tsunami that might come along and wipe our slate clean, forcing us to feel the wind again, to stretch our muscles and reach for something we couldn’t just buy. We had been huddled down and comfortable for so long, eating the same bread, drinking from the same cup, there was very little space in our togetherness. Now, rabbits can live this way, and rats and hamsters and, I imagine, some people, too. But it seemed, to me at least, that we were standing on each other’s shadows, breathing a stale and listless air, jammed too close to sing and dance or even quiver with the music. Year by year we grew more peevish with each other, prone to magnifying perceived slights and reading our books in different rooms.
Recently, I read an interview with Esther Perel, therapist and author of the book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence; her 2013 TED talk on the subject has received over 4.5 million hits. She brings what I consider a novel approach to questions of marital discontent, strife, and infidelity: why do we imagine that our spouse can (or even should) be the only person to fulfill our every need for challenge, surprise, delight, wonder, curiosity, and amazement in our lives? While simultaneously serving as a grounding anchor, a reliable lighthouse beacon, a calm berth from storm-tossed seas, and a fire extinguisher if called upon. We expect so much from marriage these days, demanding nothing less than a ‘soul mate’ who will be the yin to our yang and soothe that ache we construe to be the severed chord that joined us before birth. We tell ourselves that there is someone out there who will finally “get” me, solve me, make me feel complete.
Only it doesn’t happen that way. And sometimes, many times in fact, when we’re feeling incomplete, misunderstood, kicked about by life, or maybe just plain bored to tears and that same ache – the one that was supposedly relieved by your soul mate – is back yawning and throbbing with an ever-increasing intensity, you find a most rational argument for turning round and blaming said soul mate for being such an awful hutch mate. Because if they weren’t so inconsiderate/ornery/stubborn/selfish/stupid/ insensitive/lazy/driven/blind/boring/batshit crazy (circle one or, better yet, several) then my life wouldn’t be so miserable right now, would it? Perhaps he or she is not ‘the one’, after all? Maybe there’s someone else out there waiting for me?
And it is exactly this type of rationale, Perel says, that can prove fatal to a marriage. Because maybe it isn’t him or her at all that’s the problem. Maybe you were expecting the unrealizable from marriage. Maybe there is no one out there who can fill the hole. Maybe it’s your own damn hole to fill.
Within a space of two months both M and I lost our jobs. I had been with mine for twenty years. He was let go four days before Christmas. This was 2010, when the economy was still flat on its back, barely twitching, giving no signs of recovery. Here was our tsunami, in some ways subtler but with a longer, more penetrating thrust. For many months we were like fossils pushing through a life that was gradually stiffening into amber. In the beginning it was novel, fun even, as if we were vacationing on Groundhog Day; work existed out there somewhere, tomorrow, but tomorrow never showed up. As if by rote, we still shopped at Costco, ate dinner out, and walked the dogs, only now twice or three times a day because we could. Eventually, we did stop cleaning the house, as weekends were no different than any other day and really we just stopped caring. After a number of months, it dawned on us that eating out was expensive; we began eating alone, behind closed doors, in front of screens. Our diurnal clocks gradually diverged; we would pass in the hallway at 5:00am, me, headed to the kitchen for coffee, M back to the bedroom for sleep. Our computers were in separate rooms and one day I realized we were sending each other emails rather than walking 20 feet to talk. It was as if we had both suffered the same paralyzing accident and each of us was waiting desultorily for the other, in some unacknowledged manner, to salvage things. In marriage, sometimes the lines between love and dependency can become indistinguishable.
Until one day, scrolling through online jobsites, my pointer strayed onto an advertisement for Peace Corps. Well that’s a blast from the past. I stared. Peace Corps is still around? Impulsively, I clicked. And suddenly the murky film that had been occluding my head for months was gone. Here it was, my life preserver, the raft that would carry me across the threshold I’d been stuck on for a decade. As I explored country options, volunteer living conditions, and program assignments, I felt an excitement that had been absent from my life for years and years come thundering back, returning to center stage. Here was what I wanted – nay, needed to do for me. I finally admitted to myself something I had been deliberately avoiding. I didn’t want to salvage my old life. I did not want to do any of it, anymore, at all. I hadn’t for a number of years. And it had nothing to do with M, the person who he was, the way we interacted or his treatment of me. He just happened to be the current participant in a life I no longer wished to lead. Now, a distant horizon beckoned me. Accompanied or alone, I was joining Peace Corps.
As it turned out, it was alone. Was it fair of me – to announce my plan and expect that it would be his solution, too? No, just as it was not fair to expect his solution to satisfy me. We had both come to a crossroad in our respective lives, lives that had been moving in parallel fashion for so long that we sort of forgot we were distinct people with separate feet that could tread different paths. It wasn’t easy on either of us to take the necessary steps to seal the deal – sell the condo, shed two decades of stuff, say goodbye to a lifestyle that so many others were striving to attain. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, dead certain that this was the road I was supposed to be taking. And on June 3, 2012, we hugged goodbye. He drove away and I trundled the two suitcases that represented all my material belongings into LAX.
Recently, M and I spent a number of months together. And I reveled in both the familiarity and the novelty of his presence. He is my husband, my partner of 20-odd years. He looked the same and talked the same and exhibited the same quick wit and formidable intelligence. Yet there are things about him that were different. He has taken up cooking and is trying different foods (gone, the cheese-on-a-disk that was his go-to meal for decades.) He has backed away from political websites and rants and embraced the idiosyncratic philosophy of Hondo. Then moved across the country and found a new job in a completely different environment. Now he sends me self-composed haikus and calls me several times a weeks He is lighter, more joyful and positive, less prone to taking umbrage at the stupid things I say. (In fact, we recently discovered that his elf name is Happy Sparkle-pants.)
As for me, I count myself doubly blessed. I’ve seen a person – myself – emerge from a stifling cocoon of business suits and office politics and monthly bills and cookie-cutter days to re-inhabit the long skirts and funky jewelry and idealistic dreams and life without money that I thought were gone with my 20s. I’m fulfilling a long-cherished fantasy to live and work in a foreign country. I am seeing myself reflected in new people’s eyes, people whom I admire, and whose friendship I am grateful to have gained. I have accomplished things of which I’m proud. I no longer dream of earthquakes. Life’s horizons stretch out before me. The cage door has been flung open and I am definitely dancing and quivering to the music.
And when all is said and done I know I’ve still got that oak tree growing right alongside me, and together, standing separately, we’re holding up the temple of our beautiful, sustainable marriage. Now, I know that I have loved.