The Space Between

The Marriage Quest Week #2: The Space Between

The Space Between. Yes, it’s a song by the Dave Matthews Band.

DaveMatthewsBut in Making Marriage Simple: 10 Relationship Saving Truths, Harville Hendrix and co-author (and spouse) Helen LaKelly Hunt describe the space between as “the energy field between you and your partner.”

I know what you are thinking…energy field? Oh, just let me go grab my bong crystals and essential oils. At least that’s what I thought until I read these lines:

We believe that if a relationship is in trouble, the couple needs to focus on healing the relationship. Not on themselves. The best way to heal a relationship is not to repair the two people, but the space between them.

Ok….but what exactly is this magical space we should be protecting?

By Sacred Space, we mean air that is absolutely holy. The Between may look like ordinary air, but don’t ever treat it in an ordinary way. Never violate the Space Between with anything that will hurt your relationship. 

In order to protect The Space, you must follow three rules:

  1. No Blame
  2. No Shame
  3. No Criticism

When I read the three rules, I got a little cocky:  I’m not a Blamer, Shame-er or Criticizer! Those are harsh words…words that make me think of scruffy men in wife beaters on various episodes of Law & Order: SVU.

But I thought about it for a while.  I busted out my thesaurus and word mapped blame, shame, and criticize because who doesn’t love a good word-mapping session.

According to…well, me, there are subtle ways you can blame, shame and criticize your partner that may not get you arrested for domestic violence, but still leave a mark over time.

I look at it as a kind of Marital Air Quality Index. The Space Between is the air between you and your partner. Your words and actions fill the space. A spontaneous hug or “thank for taking out the trash” text message is like infusing the space with oxygen; it brings your MAQI up to a “Good” rating.

Eye rolling, passive aggressive nagging, or not sharing your Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey is like spraying the air with Aqua Net.  And inhaling large amounts of Aqua Net is not good for you. Trust me, I know. I am from New Jersey. Years of Aqua Net-fueled bang-teasing may be the reason I still can’t do long division.

Scan 20I spent the week really paying attention to how I pollute The Space Between, and I came face to face with my villainous marriage alter-ego:

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Meet Mumbles.

I noticed that in my daily interactions with Phil, I mumble. I mutter, grumble, and murmur under my breath; loud enough that you can hear me saying words but not enough to know what the hell I am talking about:

OMG this house is a mess. Why do our spatulas keep disappearing? Didn’t I just vacuum in here? Where the hell did I put that thing…that thing I was just holding? Did someone take that thing? I just had it, did someone move it? OMG this house is a mess.

It’s constant.

On my Sunday morning run, I vowed to create some sacred space that afternoon and watch the Eagles game with Phil and the girls. But somewhere in the first half Mumbles made an appearance:

We should really hang something on that wall. And Phil did you call the electrician? It’s so dark in here. We should get rid of those wall sconces, they are kind of Addams Family-esque. Does Lowe’s have wall sconces? I need to vacuum in here. OMG why are there candy wrappers in the fireplace?

Emma, The Cataloguer Of My Flaws, snapped me out of it: “MOM! Please! We are watching football, here!”

The next day, Phil’s inner villain showed up:

LipsMeet Lips Manlis.

The problem with Phil’s lips is that they NEVER. STOP. MOVING.  Even when he knows they should.  Even when he knows he should duct tape them shut.  It’s as if they have a mind of their own.

I will use our Monday night dinner conversation to illustrate my point.

After a busy day that included a less than pleasant visit with my GI doctor, I ran home to make pasta and turkey Bolognese.  I’m not a great cook nor am I organized with meal planning, so I was pretty surprised that I actually pulled this off.  And apparently, so was Lips Manlis Phil.  He said:

“This was really good.  You know, it’s nice to have someone cook for me for a change.”

“Uhhh, excuse me?”

“You know, get a home-cooked meal.”

“I cook every night Phil.  You know, at home.  So those would also be home-cooked meals.”

“I just mean….I was doing a lot of the cooking for a while and….”

“Actually, that was called grilling.”

“I just mean, for a while you really weren’t organized with meal-planning….and….and..”

Yeah. It went on for a while.  Finally Phil and Lips Manlis walked to Acme to get some Cascade.  This gave me a little space to think about The Space.

When I feel like Phil is calling me a lazy-Bon-Bon-eating-soap-opera-watching-diva  questioning my domestic skills, or when he feels that I am passive-aggressively nagging him, it is tough to feel compassion for each other.  In those moments, it is really challenging to move beyond your own hurt for the person who did the hurting.

But you can do it for The Space.  (It also helps when the person who did the hurting comes back with Cascade AND flowers).

You can choose to not spray Aqua Net into The Space.  Because that is the air that you breathe, your spouse breathes…it is the air that your kids breathe.

So don’t pollute The Space.

To keep ourselves on track with this, Phil and I compiled a Protect The Space list, which breaks down blame, shame and criticism into more concrete examples:

No Blame: Aka. No muttering, mumbling, finger-pointing, passing the buck, projecting, reigniting old arguments, or starting a sentence with “you should have….”

No Shame: Aka. No discrediting, shooting down, baiting, embarrassing, or back-handed compliments.

No Criticism: No fault-finding, censuring, kicking under the table, putting down, nit-picking, eye-rolling, fixing, or correcting.

In the words of Dave Matthews,

The space between what’s wrong and right, is where you’ll find me hiding waiting for you.

What is the Aqua Net in your Space Between?

 

 

 

 

The Marriage Quest

I’ve been thinking a lot about adventure.

Last week, after learning that running a marathon was not in the cards for me, I decided to sit with that disappointment for a while and try to get underneath it.  Why was it so important to me?  Why would anyone want to run 26.2 miles in the first place?

I used to think I was “goal oriented.”  But that’s not it – the word “goal” actually makes me grind my teeth a bit.  I ran a marathon in 2010, and it’s not the finish line I remember.  In fact,  three days later when I could put my own underwear on again, I remember feeling a little bit sad that it was over.

Why?

Because I loved the training.  Well, except for that one 18 mile run when I bonked, cried, and sat down on the trail; praying to be magically transported to WaWa . I didn’t love that.

But I loved the process of transformation; the metamorphosis of a 5K’er into a marathoner. I loved that I had to dig deep to make it happen – push through any artificial barriers I had erected regarding my abilities or capacity for the hard stuff. I loved the juice of feeling alive. I loved becoming a better version of myself.

I loved the adventure of pushing the envelope.

I loved the quest.

Last week, I stumbled upon this book…

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…and it was just the kick in the ass pants I needed.

This book is about bringing meaning to your life by undertaking a quest.  The author, Chris Guillebeau, recently completed his quest of visiting every country in the world before the age of thirty-five.  In The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life, he draws on interviews with hundreds of other questers: A man who ran 250 marathons in a year, another who bicycled around the world, a 14 year-old girl who circumnavigated the world’s oceans on a 38 foot sailboat…alone.

Of course, these tales of adventure are fun to read, but what about the rest of us…with kids…and jobs…and mortgages?  Living in a tree in Tasmania in protest of illegal logging is not really an option when you have to be in carline by 2:45, or coach Little League on Saturday.

Ah, but Guillebeau is sympathetic to this perceived roadblock, and speaks to the plight of the tethered quester in the chapter entitled “Everyday Adventure:”

Relax.  Or don’t relax, because a quest is rarely about taking it easy.  It’s about challenging yourself however you can, learning new things and expanding your horizons…even if you never leave home.

So how do you create your own quest?  

You could take a passion or hobby to the next level, like becoming a black belt in karate. An external event -like the loss of a job, divorce, or the death of a loved one – might trigger the desire for travel.  Some questers choose to expand their horizons by learning a new skill or language.

But according to Guillebeau, for many a quest rises out of the ashes of discontent. Dissatisfaction.  Restlessness.  The need for something more:

Properly examined, feelings of unease can lead to a new sense of purpose.

Hmmm.

I spent a few days marinating on this.  I could feel my quest taking shape as I pondered these questions:

What fascinates me?

What frustrates me?

What area of my life needs to grow and evolve?

Where in my life am I being a chicken shit holding back?

What is crying out for more of ME: my time, my commitment, my passion and creativity?

There are many answers to these questions, each one leading me down a different road. But regardless of the direction I take, all potential quests share one common denominator.

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My traveling partner.

Yes, Phil and I have been experiencing some marital turbulence.  There have been times when it feels like wings are falling off the plane.  But underneath my discontent runs a strong current of belief that Phil and I are better together than we are apart.  Anything I attempt in this life – from parenting to writing to circumventing the globe – will be better because of him.  And this is not to say that I am incapable of doing these things on my own.

I don’t need him to be involved. I want him to be involved.

But before we start chartering sailboats or enrolling in trapeze camp, Phil and I have decided to fully commit to what we see as the foundation for all future quests: The Marriage Quest.

When you are training for marathon, you need to be vigilant about your training:  nutrition, hydration, and long runs are just the tip of the iceberg. To be successful, you need to go deeper than that.  You have to be patient and resilient.  You need to block out all other distractions. You must prepare and anticipate. You need to pay attention.  In a marathon, cockiness + complacency = failure.

I see marriage as an Ultimate Marathon.

In the past year, the marriages of some very close friends ended. Couples we thought would be together forever. And it scared us.  Rattled us to our core.  But we tried mask that fear by acting cocky: Oh that could never happen to us.  And then we bonked.  Hard. We were lying on the trail, screaming for a Wawa.

Actually…after a “date night” this summer, we were screaming at each other IN the Wawa.

Not our proudest moment.

It’s time to take this bitch sacred union to a new and improved level.  And we will do so by adhering to the Quest Guidelines outlined in The Happiness of Pursuit:

  1. Goal: To strengthen and deepen our marriage. To go from 5K’ers to Marital Marathoners.
  2. Measurable Progress: One weekly blog post chronicling challenges/successes/marital topics.
  3. Duration:  37 weeks, ending on our 11th wedding anniversary
  4. Mission:  To eradicate judgment, criticism, shame and blame from our relationship.  To take responsibility for ourselves, to listen honestly, and to grow and heal together.

But shouldn’t a quest be a solo activity?  Not according to Guillebeau:

Must a dream have only one owner?  Not if two minds see the world from the same perspective.

Besides, life in a Tasmanian tree house could get pretty boring without Phil.  How could I not be fascinated by a guy who shows up for your first date with a stuffed moon strapped in the back seat…

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…and dances with a chair at Every. Single. Wedding.

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How could I be anything but intrigued by a man girly secure enough to sport sunshine face paint…

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…and dress like Bob Cratchit?

santa

We will go after our Marriage Quest wholeheartedly, with the commitment of a man willing to strip himself down to ill fitting shorts and green body paint.

hulk

Because we are Brauns.  Our family motto is: You Gotta Want It.

Our quest may be a bit ambiguous – 37 weeks from now, what will “victory” look like? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Like I said, I am a lover of the process. For me, the important thing is commitment to moving forward – together – even when we can only see a few feet in front of us…

…and see where the road leads.

I hope you come along for the ride.

mac_roadtrip

 

 

 

Gratitude for Pessimists, Masochists and Chronic Over-Thinkers

half-marathon

One day this summer, I was having a particularly good run. My legs felt strong, my endorphins were kicking, and inspiration struck:

I am going to sign up for the marathon.

And so I did.  26.2 miles on November 23. Let’s do this.

When I dropped this bomb on Phil, he was cautiously supportive: “Maybe we should talk to Dr. K. first.”

“Why? I’ve run a marathon before.”

“Uhh, yeah but you had all your organs then.”

Dr. K. is my hematologist. One unfortunate side effect of having my colon removed is that now my body refuses to absorb iron.  So, I need to have iron infused into my arm intravenously.  I figure this is the cost of doing business in the field of major organ removal, and for the most part, it seems to work. So well, in fact, that when I am feeling good and all juiced up on ferric carboxymaltose, I kind of forget about it.

But Phil had not forgotten, so off to Dr K’s we went.  Phil was pretty confident we would get the answer he was after (NO. WAY. IN HELL), but I knew something he didn’t: Dr. K runs marathons.  Two a year, in fact.  She would have my back on this.  She gets that the decision to run 26.2 is not rooted in common sense.

But soon my bravado would shrivel like a deflated balloon.

As Dr K flipped through my chart, I asked, “So what do you think about me running the marathon in November?”

And she started to laugh.

Then she saw my face.

“Ohhh,” she said, sitting down.  “Oh, you are serious.”

I nodded.  My eyes felt hot.

We discussed all the ways you lose iron through distance running: foot strike hemolysis, sweat, microscopic GI bleeds, etc.  I knew all these things already.  I had just chosen to stick my fingers in my ears and sing “LALALALALALALALA!!!”

On the car ride home, I stared out the window.  The rational side of my brain was doing its best to talk me off the ledge: It’s not a big deal, Dr. K is right, just move on.  

But my inner crackpot control freak was not giving up without a fight: Maybe I should get a hysterectomy, because then I wouldn’t get my period and that would save iron!  As if removing your reproductive organs was equivalent to say, getting your eyebrows waxed.  I turned to Phil to share this potential plan, but he was in a quiet space, deep in thought, his eyes glued to the road.  I thought better of it.  Even the most tolerant man reaches his capacity for crazy.

This battle in my head raged on throughout the weekend – a mental boxing match between “Sad” vs. “Stop Being Sad.”  I played the game “Stop Bitching and Be Grateful Because How Can You Cry Over a Marathon When People are Starving and Homeless or Don’t Even Have Legs.”

But bullying myself into gratitude did not prove to be an effective strategy.

I remembered a book I had read half-heartedly early in the summer called Make Miracles in Forty Days: Turning What You Have into What You Want.  I dug it out of my secret drawer of shame self-help and gave it another try.

The book is basically a backwards approach to gratitude.  Author Melody Beattie explains:

A monkey can count his blessings. We’re going to practice being grateful for everything we don’t like about ourselves and our lives.  That includes people, places, and things that happen now or happened before.  It also includes our feelings, especially those we judge as being bad or wrong.

I admit, this exercise felt ridiculous to me at first.  But I figured I had nothing to lose, so I just rolled with it.  My first list looked something like this:

I am grateful:

1. That I can’t run the marathon and I am filled with all this  sadness and disappointment that I can’t explain

2. Being out of the good chocolate because then I can’t eat my feelings. Although I wish I had some.

3. Wine.  So I can drink my feelings instead

So right now you are saying, “What the….?”  But just hear me out, because this nonsensical bitch list had unexpected results.  I plowed through my resistance each morning and made my list, and after a few days something began to shift. I felt lighter.  The mental boxing matches subsided.  Why?

Because I stopped fighting the thoughts and feelings we label as “bad.”  Beattie writes:

When we surrender to and accept that which we judge as negative, we move into the light.  The reality is that negative and positive are different sides of the same coin.

I found myself trying to over-complicate the exercise (shocking) by searching for the silver lining of each item on my list.  But Beattie encourages the reader to resist that temptation:

It’s crucial that you’re honest about who you are and how you really feel, not who you think you should be and should feel.

There are times when it is appropriate and effortless to turn lemons into lemonade.  But other times, someone steals your sugar and all you have is a shit pile of lemons.

And it’s ok to say: “I’m just going to write it down and leave it alone until I figure out what to do with all these fucking lemons.”

And yesterday, while sitting in carline, it dawned on me that my sadness is not about the marathon.  It’s about wanting to feel in control of my life.  It’s about wanting to feel like I have direction, I have a plan, I know where I am going.  Running is a blessing in my life; it gives me structure and discipline.

But there is a difference between running and running away.

Beattie says that “feelings tend to come in trios….they come in layers.”  Underneath the marathon disappointment is fear and insecurity.   And knowing this gives me permission to be a bit kinder to myself – a bit more patient and compassionate.  I am learning to love myself through it.  You know, instead of mentally screaming: “AT LEAST YOU HAVE LEGS!”

And for that, I am grateful.

 

 

 

 

What Running Can Teach Us About Marriage

When Phil and I entered our marital abyss this summer, my first reaction was to go running.

Running helps me penetrate the mental muck and exorcise the emotional gunk – all those feelings I would rather avoid. When I can’t get out of my own way, I know it’s time to go for a run.

One morning in July, I went out for my typical 3-5 mile run. 3 miles…4 miles…5 miles. But at 5 miles I wasn’t ready to stop. I still had lots of gunk that had yet to be exorcised. By 9 miles I still wasn’t cleansed of my demons, but I thought I better quit while I was ahead.

I got to thinking…if I could do 9 miles, I could probably do 13. So I signed up for a half-marathon.

Then, Phil signed up for it, too.

I didn’t know what to make of this.

Early in our relationship, we ran together.  But then kids came into the picture, and running became more of a relay than a shared activity, passing the baby baton as one person walks through the door and the other runs out. I became more interested in running distance while Phil preferred a 5K. His philosophy is: “Why run 13 miles slow when you can run 3 fast?” Strong bursts of hyper-focused energy are his forte.

I knew Phil signed up for the half-marathon as an attempt to fix what was broken in our marriage. Perhaps he wanted to re-capture the youthful optimism of our early running days…the twilight runs where we would talk about how many kids we would have, or describe our “dream house” with the big wrap-a-round porch and a white porch swing.

But that was many years – and many houses – ago.

Still, he was making an effort.  I vowed to give “couples running” another try.  We kicked things off with The Runnifer, a 5K run to benefit the Jennifer Stagnaro Memorial Fund.

Jen was a friend and neighbor who passed away unexpectedly last year. Normally at an event like this, I would run at a leisurely pace and enjoy the experience. I am not a competitive person. No, seriously.  I’m really not.

But something happened to me at the starting line. Something primal.

I could feel Phil beside me, doing his weird pre-race ritual of deep lunges and very loud yoga breathing. Adrenaline was coursing through my arms and legs. I turned my head slightly and caught a glimpse of Phil doing some kind of ballet-kick agility drill.

Will ferrell old school

I was consumed by one singular thought.

I am going to kick your ass.

The gun went off, and a charity 5K turned into the Hunger Games. I was a woman who ran with wolves. I bobbed and weaved through the crowd, off-roaded onto people’s lawns, jumped off curbs and over jogging strollers. At the first mile marker, I peed my pants a little. I ran like my life depended on it.

But Phil is tenacious SOB competitor. I could feel him behind me every step of the way, snickering as a I hurdled over sprinklers and snaked through crowds of runners. But when we reached the last leg of the run – a lap around the high school track – I heard him groan.

A-ha! He wasn’t expecting this! He thought we were done!

I ran that lap like I was in the Olympics. When I crossed the finish line, my legs were screaming and my lungs were bursting. But it was worth it. Or so I thought.

Later that day, our times were posted:

Jessie Braun, F, Time: 24:20 Pace: 7:37 

Phil Braun, M, Time: 24:20 Pace: 7:37

“WHAT?? How is that possible?? You were BEHIND ME.” I wanted a recount.

Phil found my indignation hysterical. “Well, it would have been rude to pass you.”

As I brushed my teeth that night, I studied my reflection.  I felt guilty for my behavior – for going all GI Jane at an event honoring my friend. Then I thought about Jen: strong and independent, a woman’s woman, an athlete, a huge supporter of girls’ sports. I think she probably got a laugh out of watching me give Phil a run for his money. The thought made me both smile and tear up.

It also gave me a different perspective. Maybe my Warrior Woman 5K was a kind of breakthrough – a letting go of the passivity that had somehow taken over my personality in recent years.

I chose to stay home with my kids while Phil worked.  And I don’t regret it.  But somewhere along the way, my role as a “homemaker” or “SAHM” became too…cemented. Too 1950’s. Because Phil’s job dictates so much of our lives, my automatic focus became him: Phil’s career, Phil’s future, Phil’s happiness. I started ending conversations with “let me ask my husband.” I read his horoscope before I read my own.

Phil is a smart guy. There are so many areas of life where I could never compete with him, so I never really tried. Running is the one area where I actually stand a chance to be on an even playing field. The testosterone surge I experienced at the 5K came from some empowered place inside me that needed to be expressed. And once I got it out, I felt lighter.

Last weekend was the half-marathon.

RnRhalfmarathon

We decided to run together for the first 5 miles, and then run our own race until the finish. Around mile 6, as I ran solo along the Schuylkill River, I watched hundreds of runners cross Falls Bridge. It gave me chills.

I felt connected to the strangers on the bridge. There was comfort in being alone together. In performing a solitary act in tandem. Each runner is whole and complete; an individual on a personal journey.  But you are bonded to each other by the race. By the shared goal.  There is a sense of solidarity as you move together in the same direction.

Maybe marriage is kind of the same thing.

When Phil told me to peel off at mile 5, I imagined teasing him later; a “how does it feel to lose to a girl” kind of thing. But when I crossed the finish line, I realized it felt empty without him there.

I moved through a fog, collecting my Gatorade and banana, but could not process the joy of finishing until I shared it with him. My eyes scanned the crowd frantically, until finally, there he was. I started crying.  As if he were coming back from war, not a Rock ‘n Roll run where they play Lynyrd Skynyrd every two miles.

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I could blame my weepiness on dehydration, but I think it was the realization that we are entering into a new phase of life, Phil and I. With the kids growing older and more independent, it’s time for us to start running our own race….together.

Bruce Springsteen says it better:

We swore we’d travel darlin’ side by side

We’d help each other stay in stride

But each lover’s steps fall so differently

But I’ll wait for you

And if I should fall behind Wait for me

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Unless it’s a 5K. Then you better run like a mother f***er, because it’s Game On.

 

This One Goes to Eleven

It was a weird summer.

In my last blog called “The Empty Your Bucket List,” I set the intention to slow down; to step away from the grinding pace and endless To-Do lists that ruled my life. I stayed true to my word.

We lazed about in the hammock,

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Collected shells on the beach,

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and watched a movie under the stars.

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I expected to feel peaceful and content. But I didn’t.  Because this summer I learned that when you empty your bucket, your are forced to see what is inside. Your life spills out onto the pavement and you examine the contents with a magnifying glass.

Nothing bad really happened. Ok, a little something happened. But it was far from catastrophic. It wasn’t even a big deal. But somehow this non-event caused the tectonic plates of my marriage to shift, and the walls of our new and shakily built life in PA to fall down around us.

July 4th was our 10th wedding anniversary.

Phil and I said no gifts. “Let’s save it for the money pit house,” we agreed. The dining room ceiling was buckling from water damage caused by an unidentified leak, and a dark, amoeba shaped water stain was spreading across the wall of the mud room.

I felt good about the decision to conserve; proud, even. This is what people married a decade do, I thought. They make responsible choices. Couples married for ten years forgo gifts and fancy dinners to save for a downstairs bathroom.

It was raining on July 4th.  I went for a run and then after my shower – wearing a robe and detox-face mask – curled back in bed with a book while the girls watched Lady and the Tramp. I couldn’t remember the last time I allowed myself this simple pleasure. I was relieved we had opted to keep the day low-key.

But Phil doesn’t follow the rules.

Typically, I love this about him – his refusal to conform, his resistance to being told what to do. But this summer was different. I needed us to be a united front, to show the girls that we can build a life anywhere as long as we work together. I needed us to say what we mean and mean what we say.

I was two pages into my book when he came into the bedroom and unceremoniously handed me a small box.

Inside was a ring. An expensive, sparkly ring that was much flashier than anything I would choose myself. I looked up and gave him what I intended to be a quizzical look, but my face was paralyzed by my blue detox mask.

“But,” I mumbled, the clay cracking on my face, “how can we afford this?”

“I know we said no gifts,” he said, his voice fast and nervous. “But then I felt bad and….anyway, try it on.”

I did. It was two sizes too big. “It’s just a loaner,” he assured me.

“They loaned you a ring? So I can wear it to the Oscars?” I was joking…but not really.

“I figured you could go back on your own and pick something you want.”

What I want?

What I want is a downstairs powder room so Phoebe will stop peeing on the steps. What I want is to understand how we don’t have the money for the soft toilet paper but we have money for diamonds. What I want is for my husband to know that I hate surprises, and that all I want is feel safe and settled. I want him to say, “Hey, this is all going to work out. The house, you, me, the girls….we are going to be ok.” What I want is to read my damn book.

But I couldn’t say these things. The words were caught somewhere deep inside, tangled up with a million other conflicting emotions. I wanted to love the ring, because I love the man that gave it to me.  Shouldn’t that be enough?

But all that ran through my mind was how can we afford this but not a powder room? Does he think I’m dumb? AM I dumb?

But I didn’t say this, because I don’t make money and he does. I didn’t say anything because my lack of involvement in our finances is embarrassing. I didn’t say anything, because I was stunned and am not quick on my feet when it comes to emotional processing. My typical strategy is push things down until they inevitably come back up. I call it Soul Puke.

I told him to take it back, that we couldn’t afford it. So, he did. Then we tried to let it go. Move on.

But we couldn’t move on. The ring went back to the jeweler, but it’s memory remained – a pink elephant that followed us around and slept in the center of our bed each night.

You, my dear reader, may be thinking: “What’s the big deal?”

An expensive -albeit poorly chosen – anniversary gift is a First World Problem at its finest, and that makes this hard to write, because I feel ridiculous giving it such weighty significance.

But the ring triggered something in me; it opened up some trap door in my soul and out came this flood of hurt and doubt: Does he see me as some Real Housewife? Was this some kind of consolation prize for moving? I said I wanted to save money for a writing retreat – was he not listening? Or is the money not mine because I don’t earn the paycheck? Does he not take me seriously? Does he see me as someone who can be appeased or distracted with something big and flashy? What will he give me for Christmas – new boobs?

All this – over a ring?? Ahhh…but it’s never about the ring, is it?

Maybe this is just how marriage works. Since our swift but bittersweet move from Scituate last February, Phil and I had been standing on the hairy edge of this marital canyon, and all it took was one misstep to send us plummeting into an abyss of fear.

Fear of what?

Fear of not knowing each other anymore. Fear of moving in different directions. Fear of having made a mistake, or a series of mistakes. Fear that we shouldn’t have gotten married when we did – that we weren’t ready. Fear that we wasted a lot of time and money on couples counseling.

But I think the deepest fear was that maybe the person we married was not the person we thought. Or that maybe we married the possibility of who the other person might become, rather than who they are actually are. And to cover this up we created roles to hide behind, roles that no longer fit.

And when we outgrow these roles, do we outgrow each other?

A few days after the Ring Incident, I was cleaning out the linen closet and found a package of old blue surgical pads, and I cried. In that moment I realized that – in addition to the ‘normal’ craziness of life – the first decade of our marriage was built around crisis: hospitalizations, surgeries, endless medical tests and appointments. After one of my surgeries about six years ago, Phil (who could have been a male nurse) had to straight catheterize me for TWO WEEKS. Not the kind of vag-action he was hoping for when we said our “I do’s.”

What if the constant crisis was the only thing keeping us together? Did we build a marriage based on changing houses and catheters? If you take those things away, is there nothing left?

This thought rocked me to the core. I went from emptying my bucket to wanting to drown myself in a bucket. Or drink wine from a bucket. I was not in a good place. I watched Katherine Heigel movies.

Last year, on our 9th anniversary, I had daydreamed about our 10th. I envisioned a magical summer, with us renewing our vows on the beach in Scituate. But instead I was hiding in my room under the guise of folding laundry, zoning out to reality TV, and over-identifying with the problems of Derek, the gay boyfriend character on Million Dollar Listing NYC. The well of sadness felt bottomless, like my feet would never find the ground.

But eventually, they did.

I read an essay called “For Better and Worse” by Lynn Darling. Her words shot through my heart like a cupid’s arrow, piercing the exact spot I had been trying so desperately to access. In the essay she describes the meltdown she has when her husband gave her towels for Valentine’s Day, and the perspective she has gained years later. She writes:

I smile now when I remember this story, set back in the phase of life when marriage is still a mirror, reflecting back only one’s carefully constructed, easily shattered conceit. Now my husband gives me bath towels every Valentine’s Day, and every Valentine’s Day I laugh. It has become part of our mythology. But the laughter is its own edgy commentary on how things have changed, how we have changed each other, how the two people who smile at this joke are indelibly stained with each other’s expectations and disappointments.

I love the concept of couples having their own “mythology.” Perhaps our marriage is like the movie Benjamin Button – the one when Brad Pitt ages in reverse. Phil and I have the geriatric stuff down cold. We are DOWN with bodily functions and post-op care.

Now we just have to figure out the stuff that typically comes first for couples – like romance and equality and making a budget. And if there is any truth to my Benjamin Button theory, the honeymoon is yet to come. Maybe 40 years from now, when other couples our age are changing each other’s diapers, Phil and I will be doing body shots at the Atlantis pool bar.

With this guy, anything is possible.

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So maybe our 10th year as a married couple was not what I had envisioned. I have the choice to look at that as a failure or as an opportunity. We can lament the decade spent in crisis, or celebrate all that we were able to survive together. But more importantly, we can choose to start the next decade with a sense of newness and possibility.

Phil and I went back to our couple’s counselor and set the intention to do just that.

“What’s the big deal about the number “10,” anyway?” I said to Phil as we left the counselor’s office.

“This one goes to eleven,” Phil said in a British accent, quoting a line from one of our favorite movies This is Spinal Tap.

these go to 11

I laughed the kind of laugh I reserve strictly for Phil: half silent, half snort.

We are going to be ok.

Because This One Goes to Eleven.

Little Miss Sunshine

Dear Phoebe,

Today, you turned 5 years old.

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For most kids, birthdays are a pretty big deal.  But for you…not so much.  Emma spent weeks obsessing about your decorations, your cake, what gift to give you.  Then, last night at dinner she asked you: “Phoebe, aren’t you SO EXCITED?”

To which you replied with a mouthful of hot dog: “For what?”

It’s not that you are anti-birthday.  You are just 100% in the moment.  And at that moment, you were eating a hot dog -a hot dog on a fresh potato roll with yellow mustard.  What else in life could you possibly need?

Every night at dinner, we say a little prayer and name the best part of our day.  Your answer is always the same: “Right now.”

When Emma turned 5, she announced that when she grew up, she was going to be an animal advocate/environmental activist.  When you were asked the same question at school this year, your answer was “Ribbon Dancer.”

IMG_4682Emma wants to save the world; you want to be in it.  I think this is why you balance each other out.  You help Emma to loosen up and be silly.  When Emma is upset, you sneak into her room wearing a mustache and fedora.  You sing inappropriate Lady Gaga songs and tickle her feet until she smiles.

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Emma stops you from getting run over in parking lots and leaping off the diving board in your swimmies.  When you said you wanted Ribbon Dancing Barbie for your birthday, I honestly thought you made it up, considering you tell most people we are from Switzerland and speak fluent Mandarin at home.  But Emma believed you.  She searched online and with her own money, procured a Ribbon Dancing Barbie for your birthday.

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When I look back at this year, and all that you have been through -breaking your leg, losing your dog, moving, starting a new school mid-year – the only word that comes to mind is resilience.  You are the most resilient person I know.  You respond to these potentially traumatic events with one of the following statements, said with a shrug of the shoulders, in your hybrid Boston-Bronx-Long Island accent:

“Whaddya gonna do?”

“This is kinda craaaazy”

or

“I just need to dump my brain for a while.”

I don’t know where you learned to dump your brain, but it sure as heck wasn’t from me.  In fact, you are actually teaching me: to feel free, to feel alive, to be in the moment.  We used to say, Oh that’s just Phoebe, nothing phases her, she is free as a bird.

But that’s not giving you enough credit.  You choose to be free.  You choose to move on. You have some intuitive sense of what you need.  You seek it out and go after it.

Sometimes that means going off on your own.

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Other times you need to perform, to entertain, to make us laugh.

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When we do yoga together, it is not rare for you to say, “Let’s go straight to Savasana.”

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One Saturday morning early in the summer, we went for a family walk.  It was a rough morning for Emma; she was having a meltdown about something, a hangnail or global warming.  You turned to me and said, “Let’s run ahead.”  When we reached the corner you turned to me and said:

“Don’t listen to the noise, Mom.  You just gotta follow your path.”

You are something else, kiddo.

Phoebe, you are my ray of sunshine.  When I am with you, I feel like nothing can get me down. When I look in those big blue eyes, I melt.  I can’t wait to see where your path leads.

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Happy Birthday, Sweet Girl.

The Empty Your Bucket List

Bucket List: (n) – A number of experiences or achievements that a person hopes to have or accomplish during their lifetime.

I love lists.  They can be found anywhere (my car, the kitchen counter, the pool bag) and written on anything (a Post-it, a WaWa receipt, my hand).  I also love goals: Run a half-marathon, submit an essay for publication, do the Facebook 30 Day Ab Challenge.

So, when I started a Summer Bucket List a few weeks ago, I went after it like a true pathological goal-setting list-maker. The longer I spent writing it, the more charged up I became.  Each “task” added to the list was bigger and loftier than the last.  Essentially what I ended up with was a list of goals.

Lofty goals = Heavy Bucket.

Reading the list made me feel tired.  And I hadn’t even done anything yet.  Which of course made me feel like a loser.  Maybe I just needed to buckle down and get this shit done.

Then I had an a-ha moment.

Phil and I joined a pool this summer, and headed over there one late afternoon with the kids.  It’s a nice pool, nothing fancy – which is a good thing because we are also not fancy. Especially Phil, who believes “shorts” is synonymous with “bathing suit,” and needs to be reminded that in fact they are two separate clothing items made of different material.

But I digress.

So we are sitting by the semi-deserted pool, drinking wine on ice out of plastic solo cups, watching Emma go off the diving board while Phoebe back-floats like an old man in pink water wings.  A random guy with a guitar set up a little stage at the corner of the pool, singing the great hits of the 70’s.

And then, with Styx playing in the background, there was this moment that felt suspended in time.  Phil felt it too.  We looked at each other with tears in our eyes, and I said: “This is so…”

“….easy.” he finished.

Moving three times in 18 months with two kids under the age of eight requires a tremendous amount of frenetic energy.  You are constantly focused on where you are going or where you have been or where you might end up, rather than where you actually are.  It’s hard.  But without even noticing, you get kind of addicted to the hard.  You expect everything to be hard.  If you are not working hard, it means you are not doing it right, or not doing the right thing.

The summer is not the time for hard.  This realization has been hitting me slowly over the past few weeks – that I create difficulty where there isn’t any, because “hard” has become my weird, masochistic comfort zone.  I am programmed to rush: rush to make dinner, rush to wash the sheets, rush to give the girls showers.  When really….what’s the rush?  It’s not like the dirty sheets are going to run away.

Since that evening at the pool, I have started to notice how much I potentially miss by always having an agenda – by feeling the need to accomplish or achieve or be productive. I have tried to slow down and notice little things, like the woodpecker outside my window every morning as I drink coffee, or the ladybug trying to find her way out of the bathtub. Instead of rushing, I try to do more watching.  And man, there is some great stuff to watch:

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I went back to the Bucket List and started over, renaming it “Empty Your Bucket.” Instead of “what do I want to achieve or accomplish,” I asked, “What will make me feel more alive, more relaxed, more joyful?”

So for the rest of the summer, I will be working on “experiencing” my list.  Maybe I will blog about it, maybe I won’t. Maybe I will post next week, maybe I won’t post until August. It feels weird to be so noncommittal.  But in the spirit of Emptying My Bucket, I am just going to let things be…light.

The intention of the new list is to feel more like this:

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This is my favorite photo of me.  I look so free, so unencumbered.  So alive.  I know that little girl is still in there.

Maybe this list will help me find her again.

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Jessie’s Empty Your Bucket List

  1. Buy basil plant + tomato plant = Make Sauce
  2. Go Paddleboarding
  3. Read a book in a hammock
  4. See a movie under the stars
  5. Dive off a diving board
  6. Tie Dye Party
  7. Nightswimming
  8. Swim in a waterfall
  9. Outdoor music
  10. Get muddy
  11. Collect something
  12. Watch the clouds
  13. Screen-less Sunday(s)
  14. Play tennis
  15. Learn the Running Man (and get it on video)

What’s on your Empty Your Bucket List?