When I was a kid, I loved to lie in the grass and watch the planes fly overhead.
This activity filled me with curiosity: Who are the passengers? Who is the man in 34C and where is he going? Is it for business or pleasure? A wedding or a funeral? What about the woman in 26A? Is she happy, or did tears stream down her cheeks at take-off; her face pressed against the window as the wheels of the plane curl up and disappear? Who is flying to see a loved one, and who is leaving one behind?
I was just on a plane this week. Phil and I spent a few days in San Francisco – he had some business meetings and I did a reading at Litcrawl from an anthology in which I was published. (That was me plugging myself – how did I do? Smooth, right?)
Then we headed up to the Russian River Valley for two nights in this awesome B&B surrounded by the California Redwoods.
It was raining when we woke up. We were grateful for the excuse to lay like lumps by the fire and read.
But yet in the back of my mind, I was restless. What are the kids doing? Did Emma hand in her report on sea turtles? Did I tell my mom to pack Phoebe an extra snack in her lunchbox? My eyes rested on my airplane carry-on bag, books spilling onto the floor. Should I be reading the book about marriage or the one about parenting? Or writing? Or spirituality? I really need a Kindle.
When the rain let up, we borrowed some bikes and rode a few miles down the road to Armstrong Woods.
At the base of the trail head, Phil -suddenly the size of a figurine amongst the towering Sequoias – straddled his bike and looked around.
“We’ve been here before,” he said.
While the words “I think I’ve been here before” is the calling card of someone lost in the woods, I knew he was right.
Nine years ago, just after our first anniversary, we spent a week exploring California, from Santa Cruz to Mendocino. We had no real plan at the time; just a map and rental car. And here we were were, nine years later, standing under the canopy of these very same trees. Phil was delighted by the serendipity of it all. “What are the odds?” he said, shaking his head in disbelief as he locked the bikes.
But for some reason, this discovery made me overwhelmingly sad.
There are days when I can look back on our decade of marriage and see all that we have accomplished, but other days….I can only see the failures. I become filled with harsh judgement, seeing only what is missing instead of what is there.
This was one of those moments.
Tears burned behind my eyes as I followed Phil up the trail. I thought about him and I, accidentally finding ourselves in the same exact place nine years later…wandering around like wayward vagabonds, no itinerary, no well mapped out route. Are we perpetually lost? Is this a case of the blind leading the blind?
I can be tough on us.
But mostly, I am tough on myself.
That morning, while sampling my library of self-help, I read the following passage from Harville Hendrix’s Making Marriage Simple:
For years, it was believed that to become a strong individual you needed to focus on caring for yourself. […] We disagree. We believe that we discover who we are in relationship, not isolation. We are wounded in relationship. We are healed in relationship. We cannot know or become who we are except in relationships. Essentially, we are our relationships. And the most powerful relationship for self-discovery and transformation is our primary love relationship.
I respectfully disagree.
Is a primary love relationship a powerful thing? Sure. But so is your relationship with your dog. Or the man that gives you the thumbs up every morning as you pass each other on the running trail. Or the waiter who just served you dinner. And I can’t help but think that how you treat anyone – whether it be your spouse or the barista at Starbucks – is a direct reflection of how you treat yourself.
Hendrix says that negativity is toxic to a marriage; all negative communication with your spouse should be eliminated.
Fair enough – but who do you talk to more than anyone else?
Yourself. Well, at least
slightly crazy people I do.
I have always been a bit of a masochist – I chalked it up to genetics or some wonky wiring in my cranium. Since taking on this Marriage Quest, however, I can’t ignore how the negative self-talk filters into my relationships. If I am hard on myself, it is likely that I am hard on everyone. Especially the person closest to me.
I agree with Harville that much healing can take place within the context of a marriage or relationship. But it’s not Phil’s job to teach me to be kinder, softer, and more compassionate with myself. Pumping me full of self worth was not in his job description.
He can’t love me into loving myself. That’s on me, man.
On the plane ride home, we had an empty seat in our row. Phil took the aisle; I retreated to the window seat. I watched the landscape change – mountain ranges morphing into farmland. Other planes zipped by beneath me; I marveled at how we were moving so fast yet seemed to be suspended in time and space.
The tears flowed for reasons I couldn’t name. But instead of judging myself for this, I decided to be curious instead. Not curious about the why, but the what:
What can I do for myself right now? What would make me feel less alone?
I looked over at Phil: head down, headphones in, typing away on his computer with his signature “Phil Braun Look of Intensity.” I hesitated for a moment….but then I tapped him on the arm. He jumped, startled, and then saw my blotchy, boogery face.
He yanked out his ear buds: “Whhhattt? What’s wrong?? What…”
I took a deep breath and said: “I’m just feeling sad, and I don’t know why, and I don’t need you to help me figure it out or fix it or anything. I just wondered if you would sit next me in the middle seat so I could rest my head on your shoulder…while still being sad. Is that ok?”
And without a word, he slid over, into the space between.