There’s a poem I really love out of the Spoon River anthology. It is set in a fictional graveyard with each title bearing the name of an occupant of the graveyard and the poem then telling a little first-person story about this character’s experiences or perspectives. The one that got stuck in my head is “George Gray:”
I HAVE studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me–
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire–
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.
Why do I love this one poem so much? Well, I can identify. I was raised to be that ship that stayed in the harbor. I was told that my place was to remain there, that ships like me (i.e. women) are not capable or designed to go out on the open ocean. But I was. I was a sailing ship and I knew it. I was afraid though. I did not want to venture out into the world alone. Nonetheless, all my life I have promised myself that I would venture out, that I would make more out of my life than I was told it was my lot in this world to do. I would not be a ship in that harbor, living with fear, dying with regrets, existing within narrow confines. I would make the hard choices. I would risk losing everything in order to truly live.
Sometimes it’s hard though, to actually go through with making the hard choices. I’ve made many in my short life, but I never wanted to break anyone’s heart. I never wanted anyone to break mine. I did truly hope and believe that the fundamentalists were right about one thing – that marrying your first love while young and then freely sharing your whole self with them would protect you from heartbreak. It didn’t. Maybe it’s because, as the fundamentalists are wont to say, that I didn’t follow “courtship rules” or didn’t know my role or maybe, just maybe, it’s because this is life. These things happen. There is no “hack,” no cheat code that prevents you from experiencing this sort of pain, and anyone who says so is either trying to lie to themselves and you, or trying to sell you something that ultimately won’t do what it says it will and may even make the situation worse.
I heard that Michelle Duggar said that codependency in a relationship is a good thing because that way the couple will not leave one another (I wanted to link the quote but can’t seem to find it, so I’ll just link this). It made me want to throw up. What if the couple wants to leave one another? What if one member of the couple needs to leave? But obviously the first scenario gets ignored and the second one doesn’t exist in that worldview.
I highly value independence but my marriage was in fact pretty codependent. We were each raised to be two halves of a whole, so that’s what we were. It’s been so incredibly hard to break away from that mindset, to even just think in “I” instead of “us” terms. In truth I first said I wanted a divorce after my Grandad died (there’s something about losing a key loved one that makes life eerily stark) and then walked it back to a remediation plan, a list of things that must be changed for us to go on. He didn’t want what I wanted, so I couldn’t, I didn’t. Things dragged on though. It was hard to let go and it shredded me up inside, took so much of my mental energy, left me feeling like I was slogging through a sea of pea soup much of the time.
There were also all these memories. Memories that mean so much to me. I have all the pictures and a rose he gave me for prom. I have all the love notes he wrote me, including one I got on 9/11 (when what happened earlier that day was only referred to as “the terrorist act”) all in a box. I have an album of beautiful wedding pictures and this sparkly ring and this amazing story of how he asked me to marry him. How could I let all that go? How could I? He also (and this is a big one) rescued me from my parents’ house at age 17. We were practically inseparable after that. I told a good friend of mine my rescue story (so many of us QF/CP daughters have one) and she said “no, seems to me you rescued yourself and invited him to accompany you – but you’re giving him all the credit.” Maybe she’s right, but still…the meaning of something like that, with either scenario, well, it’s hard to even put into words.
Sometimes I have days where I still feel like I’m Rapunzel in the “best/worst day ever” scene from “Tangled” (a movie that all the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy daughters I know have an inordinate amount of love for). In that story she also had a guy be the catalyst for her finally leaving, like so many of us seem to have (most of which are along the lines of “how I met him and he opened my eyes and then whisked me off of my feet and out of this awful place and now we have a family” type narratives). Rapunzel also got her knight in shining armor, her guide on an adventure out of the lonely space she occupied and into the teeming wilderness of society. He kept her more or less safe and without him she might have just stayed locked in that tower. Right?
Would she have? How would the story have been different if she had let him go and then ventured out on an adventure by herself? How would it have been different if at the time in the movie when it looked like he’d sell her out that he actually did betray her and she then had to persevere on, alone? Would she be brokenhearted? Would she be ok? Would she be counting her blessings that it fell apart before they ever even attempted the “happily ever after?” Would she lose all trust in humanity and hide herself away again, just in a different manner? How would it have been different if the movie included some time after she was reunited with her family and she had figured out that while she was forever grateful for the romance and the adventure and the times she shared with this guy, that getting to know him better and being around him day in and day out wore her nerves to a frazzle and something just had to give?
I’ve been thinking a good bit about this latter sort of heartbreak lately, considering my impending divorce. I’ve thought about what could have headed this off, what I could have done differently, and also what kinds of judgments from the environment I came from will now be openly heaped upon my head (unfortunately this last one isn’t exactly up to my imagination as it’s already started). None of these are exactly pleasant thoughts, obviously, but I have ideas for what I’d do differently if presented with a similar situation and also a scathing critique of what fundamentalists say about divorcing women. However, I don’t want to get into it that deep, so I’ll just say I know the basic rule they go by somehow always ends up being “it’s the woman’s fault” and I think that both seriously sucks and is incredibly inaccurate and with such a warped viewpoint it’s unsurprising that they wrongheadedly think “no fault divorce” (the kind I’ll be getting) is a major scourge in this world. I also have some strong opinions on the topic of how sheltering and indoctrinating young women is supposed to prevent what I’m going through right now, and those are: Don’t do it. It doesn’t work.
Right about now I’m feeling a little like the woman in that Tracy Chapman song “Fast Car,” if only in the emotions rather than the circumstances, as she had to resign herself to letting go of the dreams she had of building a better life with this guy and tell him “take your fast car and keep on driving.” Thing is, the guy she found and shared an escape with was a deadbeat and the one I found wasn’t. He was simply seeking different things out of life than I am, different enough that we were in the same room but worlds apart in our minds. I don’t know if this reality makes it more or less sad, to be honest. When someone does something terrible or loser-ish its at least cut and dry. When you slowly grow apart and can’t find common ground anymore it isn’t. It’s all shades of gray, messy pencil and eraser marks everywhere. Both are confusing though. Both still frigging hurt.
I am now coming to terms with the idea that love and attraction alone is not enough to make a marriage work, but that’s a hard hard realization to come to, because I am a romantic, a sensitive person who wears my heart on my sleeve and for so long I truly thought romantic love was everything. Turns out there is more to life and if you do want a relationship you need compatibility too and that means that you need to see if future goals, everyday habits, and even your dark sides, the undesirable parts of your personalities, mesh well. I am now moving on, out into uncharted territory, with this knowledge. I’m not exactly sure what I’m gonna do with it though.
Someone told me recently that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” but frankly I don’t agree. First off, I think people need people. We are social creatures. None of us are islands unto ourselves and if we try to exist as one, it is painful, like solitary confinement, a prison of loneliness that easily twists the human spirit into something it is not meant to be. Second, I think if you can find a partner (assuming you want one, and I do) that its a beautiful thing (very unlike a fish and a bicycle) and for people like me, who think hugs and kisses and sex and spilling my guts about inner thoughts and experiences, and texting funny videos, like this colorful spider looking like its twerking, and listening to someone sleepily tell me their plans for tomorrow while cuddling in bed…well, to not have a beloved to share those things with is painful. So to me it feels a lot more like being a serious cyclist without a bicycle. Even then I still don’t like the analogy – because comparing people to utilitarian objects just seems rude to me. Anyway, obviously any person can get along without it, but having someone special sure is nice.
So I guess I am mentally rewriting fairy tales because I feel like I’m in between worlds right now, even more so than usual. I thought I had picked the partner I would spend life with. When I said those wedding vows I meant them. Now I am seeing that that will not be my life, that my destiny must lie elsewhere. After all, it has to, because I tried everything I knew to steer this relationship in a direction I was willing to live with and it did not budge, just got dug into the mud all the worse instead.
Now I’m trying to figure out what I want, just me, myself, no compromising. In a way I feel a little lost. I also feel overdue for an adventure, like I’ve been holding back from one for so long. Fact is I’ve spent too much time in this muddy harbor, and in shaking off years of accumulated seaweed and barnacles, I’m feeling the urge to travel. Still, once barnacles are on boats they’re very hard to get off and even if you scrape and pressure wash them all away, there will always be little circles left where they cemented themselves to the hull and those circles are almost impossible to remove.
What do I need, right now, given the situation? I’m not exactly sure. I know what I don’t need though and that’s blame and fearmongering. I have good friends and that’s been helpful. My family has been less supportive. They are mourning the loss of the relationship too and I realize that my siblings grew up with my husband, same as I did. He’s been in the family longer than my youngest brother. So that’s complicated and tough. They openly wish I’d have stopped pushing for whatever I’ve been pushing for (“Heather is being difficult”), so that he and I could somehow work it out and everybody could stay together. They also know this is uncharted territory for me and I am hurting, so they are concerned I am headed into dangerous currents, maybe will encounter Scylla and Charybdis, or plunge off the edge of a waterfall. I understand the worry they feel and wish I could give them reassurance and comfort that everything will be ok, but fact is I can’t, false reassurance being off the table, so I also can’t hear too much of it – I simply don’t need any pressure or guilt to try and return to the familiar at a time like this. I cannot and will not do it, so any requests for that just cause pain.
I have to say that while I do love “Tangled,” my favorite Disney movie is “Mulan,” and maybe it’s because of this pain. Mulan made a go of it more or less alone and she had the weight of her whole community’s opinions as to what women did, as well as the family name she both put at risk and tried to uphold. She had attempted to be the kind of girl that would bring honor to her family in the traditional ultra-feminine way she was told she must, but she knew deep down that she was different and destiny had other plans for her. It was painful and she felt inadequate to the tasks before her but she went for it and in the end it was worth it. When she found a love interest it was unexpectedly and at the end of the story, after accomplishing a lot, and it was because he had grown to respect her as a colleague, a soldier, and a war hero, as well as a beautiful and desirable woman with strong character. She was so much more than a pretty face or a damsel in distress and while he had become an asset to her life, she had become one to him too. They had improved, rounded out, and broadened each others abilities and worldview.
I’ve always idealized that collegial kind of love – that’s the picture that a “together we can accomplish anything” type relationship brings up for me. To my husband it didn’t. He idealized a much more traditional familial kind of love and that’s what he wanted. I’m good at that stuff, practically a classically trained housewife, but it holds no spark, no passion, for me. I also have so many triggers related to the domestic sphere that there are many aspects of it that I often hate, and plenty of the stuff he thought of fondly sounded outright horrifying if not at least undesirable to me – a lifestyle that would stifle me, keep me in the harbor indefinitely. I was upfront about my feelings but we loved each other, so I thought we could find a way to compromise, make it work. I don’t know if there was a way, but we didn’t find it, and not for lack of trying.
So what I am sure of right now is that as I begin this journey – condemnation, blame, or shouldering others’ “devastation” on top of my own heartbreak isn’t something I want any more of. I wanted happiness, love, and togetherness in my marriage. I also wanted to join our extended families through our union, for a lifetime. For a myriad of reasons I didn’t get those dreams. Now I’m picking up the pieces and moving on, watching which way the wind blows, keeping an eye on the tell-tales, and trying to harness the wind, which has been rather unpredictable lately. There may be storms out there, nightmarish hurricanes and waterspouts, waves as tall as buildings, but in truth I have seen all those before, been through similar hardships already, and when the levees break, baby I’ve got to go.
Thank you for your honesty and openness.I’m slogging through something, and it’s impossible to tell if it’s just a rough patch or the beginning of the end of my marriage. Everyone gets married thinking it’s going to last forever, and the realization that it might not is unsettling. The prospect of starting to untangle our lives gives me chills (the bad kind). You are so brave in all of this. Best wishes.
You are becoming the woman you want the love of your future to find. All your pain and struggle, your attempts to break free of your harbor, to set sail will demonstrate the richness of your interior better than anything else. You want to find your equal, someone to share ideas with, someone with ideas too…so nice you figured this out early on. Sorry you must have heartbreak, but I do believe we find more of what we are inside of brokenness.
Now is the time to remember the people who put you down for your decision really don’t understand. From what you’ve reported, it seems they haven’t listened to themselves in quite the way that you do, and so they simply cannot understand. I think this is the loneliest part of listening to oneself, or honoring what is inside you…it’s sad when you feel separated from others who for a variety of reasons do not do the same. Anymore I do not judge those who judge me. I realize my freedom is on some level terrifying to someone who cannot feel that freedom in themselves. This has been a hard position to reach. For the longest time I just wanted to be angry at them for ostracizing me, for putting me down. I felt so belittled by misunderstanding, so demoralized by the putdowns, I lost sight of the strength and vision that made me walk away from the church in the first place. And in losing that vision I would lose my way. The truth is, I decided to listen to my own voice, I don’t know why…and it was a glorious day when I realized I could feel sorrow for others who hadn’t done the same.
I know this sucks. I know nothing I say will make the pain go away, but I will just say this.
You saved yourself. The love of your life (up to this point) may have helped, but you did the work of creating your new life. Take heart and continue to be brave.
That poem is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.