The Couple That Plays Together…

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proofingI’ve heard people say that wallpapering is a test of a marriage. I think they should try critiquing each other’s creative work.

Christian has always been my earliest set of eyes on a piece of music, and unlike most people, he’s never felt inhibited about telling me exactly what’s wrong with it. In the early years of our marriage, I didn’t handle this well. For those who have never had a creative work critiqued, imagine setting your child out on a pedestal for people to say, “He’s got decent teeth, but the fact that he chews with his mouth open is clearly a reflection on your parenting skills.”

In some ways having a book or a song critiqued is even worse, because a child at least is an independent human being, responsible for his or her own choices. Any flaws in a creative baby are no one’s fault but yours.

It took me several years to learn to accept his feedback with enough emotional distance to be capable of objective receptivity. It also took Christian that long to learn to identify the actual element in a measure or melody or text that doesn’t work. For one thing, he’s taught me not to get all airy-fairy-flowery about religious concepts, but to stay grounded in reality.

But his biggest help to me is with piano parts. I’m an ear-and-chords player (a bad one), so although I can write an interesting enough piano part, I can’t play it, so I never know if what I hear in my head actually works in reality. I tend to assume that if my husband can’t sight-read it, it’s too hard. He has no patience with this particular assumption. “Just give me a minute to play it through first, will you?” he’ll say. “I’ve never seen this before!”

But the photo at the top of today’s post shows a very different sort of shared musical moment. For the past two and a half years, I’ve been going through draft after draft after editorial revision of a collection of Easter hymns arranged for flute and piano, a complement to my Christmas collection, “Come To The Manger.” Some of them wrote themselves; others, well, let’s just say I never knew I could suffer so much angst over a song I’ve been singing since I was old enough to carry a tune.

So it was very satisfying to spend an hour last weekend playing through 25 pages stamped with these words:

easter-proof

Proofs, for those who aren’t deep in the publishing world, are “this is what the inside of the finished product will actually look like,” and as an author you have to go through and make sure there aren’t any mistakes.

This Joyful Eastertide will be available sometime this spring, and I’m quite proud of how it came out. I’m grateful to my editor, Keith Kalemba, for pushing me to dig deeper and not go with the obvious. And I’m grateful to my husband for the countless evenings we put the kids to bed and wanted nothing more than to sit down and veg in front of the TV, and yet instead we went down to the piano to play through yet another attempt at VREUCHTEN or O FILII ET FILIAE.

I guess the couple that plays together, stays together.

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Stupid Things We Fight About

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Blog CK2In honor of our anniversary coming up this weekend, I thought I’d take a look at how far we’ve come.

One Saturday morning, when we had been married for about six months (maybe less), I decided I was going to get up and make breakfast. I figured the noise would wake Christian up and he could start his day with this beautiful gift of love I was making in the form of eggs, sausage, pancakes, I don’t know. Some big breakfast.

But he didn’t wake up. So when I got it all ready, I went in, sat down on the edge of the bed, and shook him awake, telling him I had breakfast ready for him. I think he grunted.

I went back into the kitchen and waited. And waited. And waited. And I got madder…and madder…and madder. Until, with my gift of love stone cold on the table, I stormed back into the room and we had a rip-roaring fight on a Saturday morning.

When I said you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to age twenty-five? This is what I’m thinking of.

Some disagreements, however, are much more long-standing. For instance:

Hoover

We have been married for seventeen years, and for the past twelve, I think, this has been our vacuum cleaner. And for the past eight, I think, it has not worked properly.

Specifically, it overheats and shuts down after it runs for about five minutes. You let it rest ten and then it’ll do another four. Rest another ten, and you get three more minutes of vacuuming time. You get the idea.

We had such conflict over this vacuum cleaner for so long. See, I grew up with a Kirby.

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Ours was the Brigadoon-themed one there in the middle. Image by Master of Telxons, via Flickr

It was deep red and very loud, but by golly that thing had sucking power. And it never stopped working. Ever. I might have hated vacuuming, but at least I knew I was going to get the darned job done in one pass.

I tried to convince Christian to buy a Kirby, but he put his foot down: “We are NOT spending a thousand dollars on a vacuum cleaner! This one is just fine! It just needs the filter cleaned.”

So he’s been cleaning and replacing filters and patching the cord and I don’t know what else—for eight years. Until finally, when my grandmother died, I got her 1970s-era Kirby. I asked Christian to replace the plug, because it was an honest-to-God fire hazard, with fibers sticking out and touching the tines. But now I am a happy woman.

Kirby

Note the tape around the bottom and the rope around the top. But gosh darn it, the thing WORKS.

And now, at last, we no longer fight about vacuum cleaners. We keep Grandma’s Kirby on the 2nd floor and use the (insert your own descriptor; you’ll just have to imagine mine) Hoover for the living room and basement. (Although I must say, when I cleaned the van earlier this summer, I had to go get the 1970s-era Kirby, because the Hoover bought in the 2000s wouldn’t run long enough to get the job done.)

So, your turn: what stupid things do you fight about?

Trust Fall

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Photo by bdebaca, via Flickr

Marriage is such a trust fall. An eyes-closed, over-the-cliff leap into the unknown. You’re offering your heart, your body, your whole soul to someone else. You’re placing everything you are in someone else’s hands, with absolutely no guarantee that they will take care of it.

 

And they’re doing the same thing with you. Trusting you to care for the heart, body and soul that they have given as a gift to you.

I have a great marriage. Like everyone else, I get resentful; I nag and nitpick and snip and criticize. And yet whenever I look around my world I realize just how amazingly, unfairly good I have it.

I know saying things like that makes people want to hurl. I mean, if you have to go around talking about how good your fill-in-the-blank is, it’s got to be a sign that you’re insecure about it.

And then, too, I often see my marriage through other people’s eyes. Christian and I are well aware that my family thinks he has me firmly under his thumb, and his family thinks I have him firmly under mine.

We figure that means we must have the balance about right.

Yes, we have conflict. Yes, we struggle to understand and empathize with each other. But the very fact that we keep trying, and that we are willing to accept what we can’t ever fully understand about each other, is what makes us strong.

However much I might complain, the fact is that I can trust my husband to be open to me: my hopes, my longings, my preferences, my enjoyment. I can trust him always to have my best interests at heart.

And I, in turn, do the same for him.

But that openness, that willingness to mold his life around me, is a gift. A gift that he could choose at any time to revoke. And if he did, there would not be one thing I could do about it. If, in the course of years and decades still cloaked in shadows, he changes into a different person—if illness or the ravages of age or crushing disappointment turns him bitter and he closes me out–I can’t do anything to fix it.

With marriage, you can only trust that whatever happens in the unknown future, you go there together.

The Power Of Laughter

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Blog-silly glassesLast night, while I was singing at church, my husband caught my eye from the pew where he was sitting and cracked a silent joke. Without ever saying a word, with nothing more than a look and a simple gesture, he made me laugh.

I really love being married to someone who can make me laugh. Because I am, by nature, a little too serious and a little too artistic-moody for my own good. Sometimes I try not to laugh. Sometimes, just like a little kid, I cling to a bad mood. Other times I am living too much in my head. But I’m always happier when I give in and let myself laugh.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, because the feature story I’m working on at present is about infertility, and more than one of my sources talked about how they’d approached this exceptionally painful subject from a much more pragmatic, accepting standpoint—one that had a lot less angst and was a lot less debilitating to ordinary life. They talked about enjoying their time together, and not letting grief ruin their entire existence.

I’m pretty sure I let infertility ruin my entire existence for those three years.

But if I go farther back, to the days when both Christian and I were “freaking out,” I remember a night when we both started laughing about something. I can’t remember what, but I remember it was a really good, hearty laugh, and it relaxed the hard, hot spot in my chest. For just a moment, it banished the fear and the second (and third, and fourth) guessing. And I remember saying to him, “As long as we can laugh together, we’ll be all right.”

I think we might just have to adopt that as our family motto.

What A Weekend Away Does For A Marriage

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We went to the Adirondacks this weekend—just the two of us.

K and C in Adks

We knew it would be a good thing to take some concentrated time as a couple, but getting the bases covered was quite the logistical production. By the time we left I was not so much excited as I was just hoping and praying everything went smoothly. That, and trying to squash the guilt that told me I was asking an unreasonable thing of other people, to watch my four kids. I felt like I was burdening others so I could have fun.

And yet things were different between Christian and I on that trip. We didn’t recognize how quickly it had happened, and how complete the direction shift was, until the trip was almost over. We only knew we were looking at each other like lovers, that we were combining the depth of almost twenty years together with the sparkle of romance.

And we had no conflict. I mean, we had a couple moments where we weren’t lined up completely, but those moments, which can frequently escalate, passed without drama.

We were acting differently toward each other, and it wasn’t until close to the end of the weekend that we began to realize that it’s the getting away that made it happen. When you’re at home, you’re surrounded by the faulty dishwasher and the revolving laundry pile, the mess on the table and the schedule book lined with doctor appointments and swim lessons, the “I need a drink” and “will you play a game with me?”

Julianna has taken to asking: “What come next?” I hear that mannerism again and again in my head as my days unfold, with a to-do list that can never be fully cleared–and let’s be frank, I wouldn’t know how to structure my life without it.

Even a date night isn’t the same. It’s good to get away for two or three hours, but the to-do list is still in your sights on a date. Being a plane ride away from home for a long weekend changed all that. We were free to focus just on each other, on what we wanted to do, without carrying the weight of all the rest of it on our shoulders. It underscored how much we enjoy being together—not just our level of commitment and partnership, but enjoyment in each other’s presence.

By Monday morning, I had to admit: I didn’t want to go home.

And yet I felt a tremendous pressure to get back, because I felt I had abdicated my responsibility and burdened others for far too long in order to get away.

We arrived home at midnight. By eight-fifteen a.m. I had snapped at Christian for leaving yet another newspaper lying open on the counter, and by noon Christian was lying on top of Julianna, holding her down so I could apply the dilation eye drops in advance of a visit to the eye doctor, while she screamed, “I don’t LIKE eye drops!”

I guess this is what you call “re-entry.”

It was very good for us to get away from reality, although I will probably never shake the guilt of having burdened other people to make it happen. (Notice I don’t feel guilt about being away from the kids for four days. How weird is that?) We recognize some things now about the way we relate as a couple, things we didn’t realize were specifically connected to the stress of family life. And that recognition, I hope, will help us reshape our reality.

Preparing For A Weekend Away

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Blog CK2We’re preparing for a weekend away in this house—a weekend without the kids. I’m really excited about it. And also anxious, apparently: I spent last night having nightmares about all the things that might happen to my children while both of us are gone. The last one involved Nazis, so that at least helped me recognize the irrationality of my worries.

As you might imagine, it took a lot of time and mental energy to figure out the logistics of child care—not just lining up help, but planning meals and trying to lay out things to do, things we wouldn’t think twice about but which require other adults to know where we keep membership cards and so on. So when we at last turned our attention to the trip itself—last Friday night, one week ahead of time–it was a bit amusing (and perhaps also a bit pathetic) to discover how uneven our planning had been:

For one thing, we couldn’t find a hotel reservation for the final night. We both remembered having a detailed conversation about it; we remembered looking at hotels around the airport…but there was no email with a confirmation number anywhere.

Vaguely, we began to construct a memory of how busy we both were when we were booking things. It seemed rational to think we got the plane and the rental car and then said, “All right, I’ve got to do some actual work now, we’ll deal with that last hotel tomorrow…” But we didn’t really know, and the last thing we wanted to do was have to pay for a no-show. So Christian began calling every hotel in Albany, New York and saying, “This is going to sound really weird, but…”

In the meantime, I routed out the trip from the airport to the place we’re staying in the Adirondacks, looking for something to do other than hiking and kayaking, which we are doing on-site.

It turns out there’s a resort town not too far from our destination, and I found a great website listing all the things there are to do there. I started through the list. “Oh, look! Miniature golf! Oh look! A splash park! The kids would love that! Oh, look! An arcade—perfect for the—wait a minute. We’re traveling without kids!”

I had no idea how to plan a trip around what I would want to do. Do you know, arcades and miniature golf and water slides are now what I want to do, too? (Well, and zipline and ropes course…but that’s off limits on a couples’ weekend, too, when you’re married to a man who’s scared of heights.)

I had a good laugh at myself, and then I went back to the categories list and spotted “couples things to do.” It was so weird to click on that tab. I haven’t looked at such a list in years.

It underscored the goodness of a weekend like this. I don’t say need, because let’s face it, a heck of a lot of people make do without weekends away. Besides, we’re already pretty good about taking time to spend together. When the kids ask us why we’re going out, I always say, “Because it’s better for you if your parents like each other.”

And that, really, is what this is about. At home, there are always tasks waiting, someone or something clamoring for attention. Even on date nights, home and work are always close at hand, inserting fingers into the evening.

I’m looking forward to retreating from it all, to turning my focus toward the primary relationship in this family, the one from which all the others sprang, the one that anchors them all.

Ordinary Love

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Blog CK2I am hopeless romantic at heart–a sucker for a great kiss in a movie or a book, hopelessly sentimental about stories where new love is found alongside other adventures.

But I’m also becoming ever more aware of how easy it is to take an oversimplified, overdramatized, and romanticized view of love and trying to measure your reality against it. The end result? A deep dissatisfaction with what you have, and a longing for something that seems more “like the movies,” and thus better.

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There’s a power in ordinary love, and I am determined to find a way to depict, to celebrate, and to develop that theme in my fiction.

Yesterday, after a six-month process, I finished the first, extremely rough draft of my new novel: new heroine, new conflicts to resolve, and a new love story to go with it–a story more mature than others I’ve written before, because it was conceived by a heart and mind that has experienced more. And yet I still have been walking a tight-rope between getting emotionally involved enough to make it work, and recognizing that it is fiction.

Feb. 3 lunch

Because my life doesn’t match the drama I write. The reality is, I have a wonderful life–rich, happy, infused with petty irritations that are no different and no less ephemeral than that of every other person in the world. And because I am already so blessed, my life doesn’t have that urgent tug toward resolution. Everybody loves a happy ending, because it’s neat and tidy.

But Happily Ever After is not a moment, it’s a lifetime, and the truths you discover in the process of getting to HEA have to be unpacked over the course of years–decades, if you’re lucky.

Alex OlafI learned some things about my marriage in the process of writing this rough draft. In the longing of a character for the trust and touch that I take for granted, I realized we sometimes forget to act like lovers at all. We take each other for granted. And it’s beautiful that we can, that our relationship is so fundamentally solid that way–but I realized I wanted more “lover.” I wanted that sense of longing and desire to come forward, to enrich the “best friend” and “partner” aspects of our marriage that tend to take front and center because, yanno, they kind of have to with four kids.

(Practicing natural family planning, incidentally, gives us a built in chance to do that–if we choose to take advantage of it. Which we are better at some times than others.) Love this picture. It illustrates so much. This is at Port Orleans Riverside, waiting for the bus.

But I also had to be careful. There were times when I had to take some space from the manuscript, because the more I got to know my characters, the more writing all that longing and drama into their lives made real life seem flat and dissatisfying. When I write fiction I have to guard against the tendency to get lost in a world that doesn’t really exist, and forget to notice the one that does. Living in the moment is not one of my strong suits, anyway, and it’s something I want to work on.

At the end of the drafting process (and the beginning of what I know will be a far longer editing process), I am so very grateful for my happily-ever-after-in-action–for the ordinary-ness of it, for the luxury of taking it for granted, and especially for the reminder not to do so. Blog-dance