Honey, I'm Tearing Down the Garage . . .
Remember Joyce Maynard? Right now she's most notorious for her recent memoir in which she details her long-ago brief love affair with the eminently private J.D. Salinger. She's also published a few novels, some children's books, and numerous magazine articles. But I know her best for her long-running stint as a syndicated columnist writing about family life.
The interesting thing about Joyce's column, called "Domestic Affairs," was that when her marriage came to an end after many years of struggle, most of the papers that once printed "Domestic Affairs" dropped it. Many readers blamed the divorce on Joyce, pointing out all of the glowing things she had said about her husband in her column over the years. How could she leave such a great guy? Ironically, her husband's lawyer--in an ill-fated attempt to prove what a wonderful father his client was--also used Joyce's words against her in the custody battle that erupted during the divorce (but it didn't work; Maynard was awarded custody).
Enormous and many are the potential pitfalls of the columnist. Maynard--out of respect and love and hope--made her husband look a little better and herself a little worse in print, and as a result she incurred the wrath of readers and editors when her personal life finally came crashing down.
That's gotta be an extreme example of a column gone awry (for the rest of the Maynard story and lots more interviews, check out A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood by Judith Pierce Rosenberg), but I still think of Joyce Maynard sometimes when I sit down--inevitably the night before Minnesota Parent goes to press--and chew the skin off my lips trying to figure out what to write about. Most often the things I really care about the night before press day just aren't ripe for the telling yet, because I don't know the ending. With all the people I know who are going through divorces right now, I can see how writing about marriage could be a risky proposition for anybody. Nobody's going to tell the whole truth. For example, I'm not going to tell you exactly what undeserved things I said to John the other night when I reached the end of my rope with this freelance grant-writing project that has kept me working unusually long hours (translation: too much stress and not enough sleep--a gnarly combination). I admit I unfairly attacked the only person in the house who is not smaller than I am.
Luckily--or not--John's an Aries, too, and plenty temperamental himself, which at least makes him understanding of my weaknesses. Thank God we've essentially gotten over trying to change each other and just try to stick to a few cardinal ground rules instead. It finally dawned on us at some point along the way that the passionate, impulsive, rebellious qualities we hate about each other are the same qualities we love about each other: it's the context that varies. We're both pretty accepting of each other's failings, John maybe the more so.
That's probably because of his previous life as a bachelor schoolteacher. Remember a few months ago when we ran the article about psychics in Minnesota Parent? Well, one of the psychics I saw told me all about John's past life teaching at a boys' school in England. He was well-loved by his students, but ultimately found his isolation as a bachelor to be quite painful. As a result, he's especially grateful for his family in this life. Great luck for me and the kids. (I, by the way, was a temperamental Russian ballerina--beloved but at the same time obstinate and unreasonable).
But love and acceptance are such broad terms that they're meaningless on their own. In family life, it all boils down to the details. All these little opportunities flying around every day--and we're never going to do right by them all. Sophie has a field trip tomorrow that she would love for me to accompany her on, and I can't, because I'll be in production with this magazine. There's one that flew by. And yesterday I promised Max--I actually used the words "I promise"--that we'd take a walk when we got home from running some errands in the car. But when we got home, it was later than we'd planned, and time to start dinner. Zoom. There went another one. Oh, and here's the clincher: last weekend was John's birthday, and the kids and I had written out an elaborate menu for the home-cooked meal we planned to serve up for him on Sunday afternoon. Well . . . as it happened we stayed Saturday night at his parents and came back a lot later--about seven hours later--on Sunday than we had expected to. So much for that birthday dinner, honey. Another one bites the dust.
But on the other hand, there was the night last week when we were low on groceries and had this sort of pathetic little dinner of savory rice and lettuce salad. The kids picked more than they ate, and when bedtime rolled around, Max zonked out quickly but Sophie and Lillie were still hungry. Suddenly, I was filled with the energy to get out Laurel's Kitchen and flip it open to quick breads. I whipped up a batch of orange-cinnamon muffins and warm vanilla moos. The house smelled delicious and the girls delighted in greasing muffin tins and stirring batter and devouring a warm, comforting snack before bed. They both fell asleep blissfully. Aha. Got one.
Then there's that babysitter I've lined up for this weekend so that John and I can have a night out together to celebrate his birthday and the end of a demanding month. Score: opportunity seized.
If life is what happens while you're making other plans, then family life is what happens while you're wondering when you'll have time to make other plans. How we respond to the stimulation minute by minute is what eventually defines us in our marriages and our relationships with our children. It's such messy business. But I think it's meant to be messy. It's part of the reward. I recall a radio interview I once listened to as I blasted from here to there in the car. The interviewee was an accomplished writer who suffered with multiple sclerosis. She was quite debilitated by the disease, but was able to continue writing through the use of voice-activated computer technology. She was talking a bit about her spirituality, and recounted a pivotal moment that came when she was praying the words, "Heal me, Lord," and a response from God formed in her mind: "But I am." From then on, she saw her illness as having a significant role, however painful, in the healing of her entire life.
It's like the conversation I was having earlier today with a colleague about the novel The Alchemist. If you've read it you know it's an age-old parable about following your dreams. The point is that every single thing has significance, every detail is important. If you know what you wish for, and go after it with all your heart, every force in the universe will conspire to help you. Your job is to pay attention and read the omens so you don't miss the signposts of opportunity. In family life, you've got to indulge everybody else's pursuit of dreams.
For example, John has a passion for sailing, and I'm proud to say I've always recognized how real that is for him. When he had the chance to buy his dad's sailboat, there was no question, no discussion between us. I don't think I even asked the price. Sailing is his dream! And when the day finally comes when he's able and ready to sail the globe, I'll be ready and willing. It's a Saturday-afternoon conversation so often repeated that our kids can probably recite the various possible routes.
Conversely, when I told John many, many years ago that I planned to be a writer, he didn't roll his eyes and say, "Sure, but how are you going to earn a living?" He said, "Really? What do you write? I'd love to see some of it." And when I recently announced--with obvious passion--my brilliant plan to turn our unpaved driveway into a garden and the garage into a three-season garden house, he said he thought it was "a neat idea." It doesn't matter right now whether we actually go through with it; what's important is that he didn't kick my dream in the teeth.
So listen, if there's anything to be learned from Maynard's experience, maybe it's that we can never really hide the wounds and scars of our personal lives. We all suffer and hurt the ones we love and the question of whom to blame is often useless. Most importantly, none of us knows the ending. The best we can do is read the omens, have no fear, and leap.
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