My six-year-old son, Asher, and I walk along the creek bed half a mile from our small yellow house in our suburban neighborhood. He loves it when we fish for leaves and debris with carefully chosen sticks. Sometimes, Ash will find just the right stick for me, and other times he lets me pick my own. The ones he chooses are big enough to turn over large rocks, for us to see their underbellies and watch the ripple-effect of small leaves and dirt that get churned up in the process. I love these moments as they bring back the tomboy of my youth, enamored with mud and filth.
This is likely why I fell in love with writing during my college years. It brought a similar satisfaction. The intrigue of digging below the surface of my life, of dissecting my world and putting it back together in whatever way made sense.
Now that I am in my forties, I still write to seek truth, but my so-called need to find what lurks below is becoming less of one, if for no other reason than to break from social conditioning and leave things well enough alone. In our society, we are expected to talk dirty about our lives, particularly about marriage, as if the central truth lies in the rot and decay hiding beneath the facade of a happy life. And if we don’t see it, we are encouraged to find a bigger stick. So we rifle through old love letters boxed up in bedroom closets, looking for remnants of our past. We become plagued by doubt and regret because this is the narrative we were promised, what we have come to expect. Life is ultimately disappointing. Love inevitably fades.
How much of a self-fulfilling prophecy is it then when a spouse cheats, or when a woman spends her retirement savings on Botox and a tummy tuck? We are bred like show horses, as the media sculpts and shapes our very minds to stay thin, to not wrinkle or sag or grow tired. And thus, we are led to wander out to pasture in search of greener grass. There must be a life out there better than the one we’re stuck with. A husband who hasn’t lost his hair or his temper. One who can afford us bigger toys and more exotic vacations.
In her piece “The Valentine’s Day we got it all wrong—and right” writer and associate publisher of The Sun magazine, Krista Bremer, tells us we are conditioned to want the Hallmark version of love, including “packages in big, red bows”. She continues to describe being mesmerized by the wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles when she was a girl, watching as the two “disappeared into [their] happily ever after.”
Bremer, a California native married to a Muslim man, explains how every marriage is bicultural because we each bring our own expectations and beliefs to the union. She readily confesses that Valentine’s Day, in particular, has often been a day of contention in her marriage—she, wanting romance; her husband, feeling the holiday is “cooked up by the marketing teams of chocolate and flower conglomerates”.
But as Bremer shows us, our expectations are in our own hands. After so many years spent angry and bitter, she acknowledges the pile of shirts in Ismail’s closet, gifts from Valentine’s Days past, and decides to give him what he truly wants…nothing. That same day, Ismail comes home “cradling a dozen red roses…[and] a box of dense chocolate squares topped with sea salt like cut glass”.
As the two stroll down the sidewalk after dark that special evening, Bremer reflects:
The Quran says that God is nearer to us than our own jugular vein, and there were moments when Ismail felt that close: nearer than my own skin, so much a part of me that I lost sight of him altogether. If I tried to describe that intimacy, each word was a wedge between us, cleaving us in two, creating concepts from a seamless whole. So I said nothing, focusing instead on the slender, faceless shadows before us. Merged together, they lumbered like one animal through the night.
The closeness of a jugular vein, the two merged shadows, the one lumbering animal, all feel so true to my own experience of marriage, to my own understanding of love. And I can see why I have been reluctant to turn over the stone of love, for fear of destroying the very ecosystem in which it dwells. I am not sure a little dirt and debris are worth it.
At our wedding, Eric and I chose readings from The Prophet, like this one from the chapter “On Marriage,”
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 oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
At 36, before I knew marriage, this seemed like such the right sentiment, the idea of staying separate, like two pillars, like two trees whose roots do not touch. And yet, my actual experience has been far different. Instead of maintaining distance for fear of losing our independence, my love and I organically merged into a single unit. It wasn’t a conscious decision, more like a quiet mingling of roots beneath the soil, a constant weaving being carried out in the background of our daily lives. While we have our own dreams and aspirations, those are the moving parts, the limbs of “one lumbering animal,” a thing whole, complete, something best left unturned.
Elizabeth Newdom teaches composition and literature courses at a college in Frederick, MD. Her work has appeared on Mothers Always Write, Mutha Magazine, Blunt Moms, and 50 Shades of Aging. Elizabeth recounts both the gritty and the hopeful stuff of life as a middle-aged, working mama on her personal blog, The Astronaut Wife:https://elizabethnewdom.wordpress.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/elizabethnewdom/