As year three–yes, three–of my separation looms, I sometimes ask myself: Why aren’t R& I back to being friends yet?
Shortly after we split, I confidently told myself, my kids and my mother that my relationship with R started as a friendship (1985-1989), then became romantic/marital (1989-2008) and was now back to being a friendship (2008-eternity). See? Nothing to it! Toss the wedding bands aside, and—boom—just like that we’re back to being friends again. It seemed like a positive way to spin it and a lovely idea, given that R and I never stopped fundamentally liking one another, even if the love part went awry.
But so far, the sweet post-marital friendship I envisioned hasn’t quite panned out; we’re not even Facebook friends. There was an unforeseen circumstance about which I’ll be terribly cryptic–but that notwithstanding, it’s all turned out to be more complicated than I could have imagined.
It’s not that I hate R, nor do I love him anymore. We’ve both moved on. He’s had the same girlfriend for three years; I had a boyfriend for over a year (that ended a couple of months ago, fyi–not a tragedy in itself, but more on that in a future blog post). What I’ve come to realize is that when you have kids and joint custody, the post-marital relationship is the real til-death-do-us-part one. It’s the arranged marriage after the voluntary one–and for me, it sometimes requires a lot more effort.
Almost every day, we email or talk on the phone—about summer plans for the girls, about whether the girls need new sneakers (probably, don’t they always?) or should have less screen time (yes, of course. Their brains are melting.) About this or that adorable/infuriating/worrisome/brilliant thing one of them did or said. (Oh, and did you send a check to afterschool? Because I didn’t.)
We work one block from one another and often meet at a mid-point to exchange something one of the girls left at his place and needs at mine. Then there’s the weekly transfer of stuff from one house to the other, the incessant stopping-by to get something someone forgot, which usually involves a little chat on the threshold of the house that used to contain the four of us.
R & I are pleasant and friendly enough during most of these exchanges–but I, for one, could use some space. I find it wearying and confusing to constantly be interacting with the man who made a big fuss about living separately. It makes for a chronic low-grade tension, a perpetual neither-here-nor-there-ness. Limbo personified. How do you really move on when your ex-spouse is in your face all the time? And yet, what choice is there? Who else is going to help me figure out summer camp? Who else shares the same ridiculous degree of pride in our daughters’ sparkling report cards? Who else is R going to depend on to host the girls’ birthday parties and fill the goody bags? Who else does either of us call when one of the kids is sick or when the help required can only come from the other parent? We still need each other, which is both comforting and claustrophobic.
I’m not sure what form a post-marital friendship should take, or if the very concept is pure oxymoron. Maybe friendLY is the best one can hope for. Can you really go back to holding–rather, shaking–hands once you’ve given birth in front of someone? The notion of remaining “perfect pals” with your ex, as the book The Good Divorce describes, is, frankly, kind of weird. We’ve all known ex-couples like this–who hang out and even vacation with each other and their new partners. What is that and why?
It’s hard to know where the boundaries are. When R&I are too chummy, I wonder why we’re not still together. On the occasions when he comes over–say for Christmas morning, or one of the kids’ birthdays, I sometimes think: “Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t we all live under the same roof and that way I’ll have another adult to help me cook dinner and fix stuff, buy milk on the way home and get the girls to bed?”
Conversely, it feels icky when I’m too angry or chilly towards him. When he’s looked clearly sad or stressed, I’ve even had the crazy impulse to give the guy a hug–but how do you hug that? You can’t.
It’s complicated, for better or for worse.
This morning I was lying in bed, listening to NPR. It was early–around 8 am. (I got up so I could get to Target before anyone else, because I have crowded-Target phobia.)
Anyway, a guy was being interviewed about “mindfulness” (sorry, but that’s one of those jargon-y words I have to put in quotes, though it resonates with me more than the others) and meditation. He read this poem aloud and it spoke to me in a big way, so I want to share it. It’s the takeaway message for me and I think for anyone who ends up single again after a long relationship. You were on one planet, half of a whole, and now you’re on a different one–one that only vaguely resembles the planet you were on as a single person before marriage. Even if you end up in a new post-marital relationship, it’s so different from that first defining one, formed when you were young and naive and forever-oriented. You’re forced to realize that it’s you who must be your greatest source of strength, you who is both halves of the whole; anyone else is pretty much gravy.
I’ll shut up now and turn the spotlight on the beautiful, true words of my guest poster, Derek Walcott:
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
I’ve been hating the desk in my dining room for months now. We moved it down there after R moved out and tenants occupied the third floor of our house, where I previously had a little office. It’s a big, clunky piece of furniture whose main virtue is that it holds a lot of stuff. But I never use it anymore. I’ve spent months plotting to get rid of it and to replace it with something sleeker and more dining room-like and finally, this past weekend, I made it happen. Prior to ditching the desk, though, I had to empty its seven drawers, an experience that turned out to be something of an emotional landmine. A few of the random, meaningful, meaningless things I came upon:
It’s clear what I should do with the hospital bracelet (stick in box with other baby memorabilia) and the invitations (toss into recycling), and the mini-cassette recorder (save because no other way to play mini cassette tapes of girls saying ridiculously cute things at age 2). But what about the R-related (but not necessarily R-rated) stuff? These random desk-drawer findings are just the tip of that iceberg. There’s a box in my closet that contains assorted pieces of my past, from my junior high school diary to another stack of love letters from R. (I threw this particular pile of them at him during the ghastly, wrenching pre-separation months and also offered some suggestions for where he might want to shove them.) And then there’s an entire freestanding wardrobe filled with photo albums chronicling our 18 years together.
It’s been a couple of years since R left now and I have some distance. I have transferred my romantic feelings to another person. I can come across the odd Valentine’s Day card from R without it sending me reeling. But still. Still. I shared almost half of my life with this person and it’s hard to know where to put it all, literally and figuratively. Reading these gushy missives is an out-of-body experience. I know all of that happened and that this was the most significant and lengthiest relationship of my life, but it all seems so, so distant already. It’s still hard to process how those passionate written exchanges, once focused on our mutual adoration, could have devolved in to the quick, terse, business-like email affairs that they are today. Looking at letters and photos from my married days brings up something different than the sweet nostalgia I feel when I read something saved from a college or high school boyfriend. Those relationships were meant to be finite. The scenes from a marriage, on the other hand, still sting and feel like reminders of failure–as if they don’t really count because it didn’t last.
So where do I store this stuff emotionally, how do I make a place for it in the modular add-on system of past experiences growing inside my aging brain? Do I want my kids to come across those letters one day so they can see that in fact their parents loved each other once? (Does one keep naked pictures of one’s ex? What’s the protocol there?) Or should I get rid of all of it, sending it off with the ship that has sailed?
While I was unloading stuff from the desk drawers to the dining table, a little gift card fell open. It was signed ”I love you, R,” and it landed right on top of a folder labeled “Separation Agreement.” Really. You can’t make this stuff up, and I didn’t.
Several of you have complained that I haven’t blogged in a while and you’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry! (How’s this for a lame excuse: I’ve been busy.) But I’m thrilled that any of you actually notice and care. That is hugely gratifying and encouraging, so don’t go anywhere. I actually have a lot of post ideas brewing and very soon I expect to unleash a torrent of fascinating, fully-formed posts.
In the meantime, how about helping me get my writerly juices flowing? Ask me something Living in Splitsville-related and I’ll put together a fun little blogger/reader Q&A.
Go ahead, ask!
Oh, and here’s a cartoon from this week’s New Yorker that seems appropriate. Enjoy.
Tell me you didn’t see this coming: I have a life coach–or, well, I spoke with one once for 90 minutes. I know, I know–such a midlife-makeover-ish thing to do, right? And I’m really too cynical and eye-rolley to participate in something as amorphous as life coachery—but then it’s amazing what a sudden, unexplained bout of poverty and singleness can drive one to (see: self-help books and online dating sites). Honestly, I’ve been a little restless ever since I landed a job. (For which I am grateful, btw. I’m almost starting to believe in god.) And a sweet, cute boyfriend. (No, really, god, I was kidding. Of course I believe in you.) And figured out how to get groceries delivered right to my door (possibly the ultimate accomplishment of the three, thanks to my good pal god).
Now it’s time to sort out my creative self, something I’ve been trying to do since I was 21, with intermittent success. I didn’t make my original deadline of writing something important, critically-acclaimed and noteworthy by age 30. Or 40. And now 50 is uncomfortably near (um, no thank you, god). Fifty. Fif.Tee.
So now what? In a way, I don’t care as much as I used to about achieving something significant in my lifetime. So what if I would rather watch Mad Men and read other people’s books than write one myself? Does the world really need another book? We’re all going to die anyway—agents, editors, writers, critics, even the PR and marketing people. So in the end, perhaps just having fun and blogging is an acceptable way to pass one’s free time. Right? Am I capable of not putting such pressure on myself? Can I once and for all dismiss my gnawing, constant sense of disappointment in me?
Apparently not, because I wrestle with these thoughts, oh, 500 times a day. Recently, I inflicted my inner conflict on my super-creative and much-younger new friend Laura, who instantly fixed me up with her life coach, Marcia. My expectations were high. Prior to speaking with Marcia, I felt an untrustworthy sense of well-being—as if simply contacting her was accomplishment enough and she would take it from there. I didn’t want her to help me be creative as much as I wanted her to be creative for me, maybe even to produce something on my behalf–more like a surrogate than a coach.
Our introductory chat was good, like a combination of therapy and school. She helped me think about what has worked/not worked for me in the past as far as unlocking my creative self. I shared my struggle over how much to reveal and whose feelings to protect or not in this blog or in any future, larger tell-all endeavors. But she kept bringing up this notion of a “goal,” which I found unsettling–because if I had a goal, would I need a coach (or simply a trophy)?
We’re scheduled to speak again in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to that. Until then, I’m supposed to read a few inspiring texts that Marcia recommended, plus I’m going to write down some of the blog thoughts that I’m reluctant to publish and see where that leads me.
I’ll keep you (goal) posted.
… a thousand words or so. God bless America, no?
Since my last post on this topic, I’ve accumulated more proof that getting older and becoming curmudgeonly/peculiar are inextricably linked (but maybe the self-awareness is somewhat mitigating?) The latest evidence:
On Saturday night, I went to a Valentine’s day dance at my 3rd grader’s school. It was 1980′s-themed, so I spent the afternoon helping my girls outfit themselves in leggings and big shirts with belts.
The school was brilliant enough to provide a little pub in an adjoining room, so that the parents could buy cheap wine and beer in support of the PTA. Every now and then, we wandered into the gym to watch our kids dancing under ghastly flourescent lights to songs by such 80′s phenoms as The Violent Femmes, Billy Idol and Blondie. Our songs.
The combo 80’s/Valentine’s day theme had me waxing nostalgic in a big way. That was the decade when I first experienced the joys and miseries of romantic love, real and imagined. (For a while, I was sure I would DIE if Matt Dillon did not step out of the movie Little Darlings and instantly become my boyfriend.)
I also wrote a lot of bad, angst-ridden poetry during that decade, as I recently discovered while sorting through boxes of stuff. Allow me to share some excerpts (and please try to cut me some slack. I have never shown anyone these fine works, not even those for whom they were written):
* * *
Our love is like a dried-out Flair pen
No longer works, it tries.
It dies. It tries.
My optimism brews beneath a haze of lies.
* * *
This is not the first time.
This is nothing but self-slaughter. This is nothing but used crime.
Latent vacancies destroy the pillow
So blatant is the urgency
* * *
Beneath the crisp white smile of your work shirts
It’s your heart I want to taste
Even if it’s just one big bruise
Or beating red and salty
Like a healthy animal
* * * *
I happen to think the last one has some merit, but, um, a dried-out Flair pen? I can LOL at that now–but back then, it was not a laughing matter.
The 80′s ended with me meeting R, who caused me no angst whatsoever until well into the millennium. By the time I felt angsty about him, I had two kids and zero inclination to write poetry (though I did hit send on a few emails from hell itself).
Now, at the beginning of the 2010′s, I’m feeling too old for angSt. Or maybe just too wise to worry about Flair pens, dried-out or otherwise. Or maybe I’m kidding myself.
Hey, whatever happened to Matt Dillon, anyway?