Driftwood: Reflections on My 7th Wedding Anniversary and What I Should Know By Now

Seven years ago today I was looking out the window of a hotel room onto an habitually grey, Seattle sky trying not to bite my acrylic nails. I was thinking that the worst thing that could ever happen to me would be rain on my outdoor wedding.

On the list of things I could never know in that moment was that it wouldn’t rain that day. The clouds would dissipate, taking my worries with them, and I would be married under a perfect, bright, blue sky. Of course I would proclaim it providence—surely a sign! that my marriage was destined to be similarly divine.

Today, and no longer on the list of things I could never know, is that rain on my outdoor wedding isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me, or my marriage.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know if I’m doing this whole married thing well. I spend half the time thinking we’re on a collision course for disaster, and the other half reveling in my smuggness that we are the best married couple in the history of married people. This vacillation usually leaves me exhausted and more than one definition of the word confused.

Honestly, there are days that I want to run away, take a vow of silence and solitude and live out my days on a remote, uninhabited island just so I don’t ever have to make one more god damn compromise. That’s the child in me, which (all too often) voices her opinions louder than she should.

Speaking of my inner child… when I was 12 my best friend moved to a new house and thus, to a new middle school. She and I would be in the same high school in two more years, but back then, it felt like an eternity. I was so upset by her “leaving me” that months before she moved I picked a silly, frivolous fight which I blew up into epic proportions. I became indignant and righteous over essentially nothing. On the list of things I didn’t know then, was that this was my preferred self-preservation tactic. I could abuse her, but I could not lose her. I could alienate her, but I could not face my own aloneness. Instead of missing her, I could hate her and my anger could take up all the space available in my heart so that pain could not take root.

I know this tendency of mine runs deep because it is the cycle I find myself in now. Anger is a feeling I sit well inside. I’m accustomed to shoring myself up with barbed wire and a pile of sticks and stones by my side. To me, that feels safer, physically stronger and more in control than sitting alone in a room made of glass and reflections.

And yet, on the list of things I should know by now, is that this never works. My highest self knows that beyond that glass room is a view worth beholding and my reflection in it, is worth beholding, too. It is only through the strictest of vigilance and mindful practice that I can calm myself amidst all that transparency and admire the view for what it is, and accept it for what it is not.

It’s not easy, but I’m trying; same story goes for mothering.

Marriage and motherhood, they are like water to me. Like the rain that I feared on my wedding day they are necessary for my growth. They imperceptibly shape me; nourish me, make me easier to hold and behold by smoothing out my rough edges and taking away my splinters. It’s like the driftwood that bobs endlessly in the Pacific Northwest tides; it goes in rough, covered in a thick layer of bark, but over time and water, it comes out something else entirely, something beautiful, worthy of being called “art.”

On this day, seven years ago, on the shore of these Pacific Northwest waters, my husband and I agreed to intertwine our lives. With the best of intentions we committed to building a life together, and with all the arrogance and naivety required of young newlyweds we believed we knew what that meant. On the list of things I now know, is that no young, newlywed couple ever knows what that means because time and water will change everything you think you know.

As I write this I’m sitting on a ferry, in these same waters, on my way home from several hours spent alone on an island that sits just across the Puget Sound from downtown Seattle. I have had a rare day by myself to quietly reflect on all of these things for reasons not unrelated to the purpose of this post, our relationship. I am brimming with unnamed emotions and thoughts deeper than this ocean itself and these are the conclusions I have come to know today.

The trick to this marriage thing, is to love the wood in all it’s many forms, for what it is, and is not. To know that it will change, over time and waters, but that change is a part of life. To hold in reverence the water, the ocean and the rain for the power they wield and the life they give, but know at the same time that it is not punishment or providence. That we must find a way to take the waves however they come, and yet remain entwined by a force greater than the ocean. A big part of this is letting the expectations that cling to us like bark be washed away with the tides.

What I know now is that I need to lay down my sticks and stones for good. I need to realize them not as comfort, but as combat which only leads to greater discomfort.  I need to learn to behold and accept the view that is in front of me for everything it is, and is not. To let life be life, and let it wash over me, smooth my rough edges and reveal something greater underneath. To love whatever is underneath and inside me, first, before I can love it inside him, too.

While I was thinking all these things over the course of this afternoon I solemnly roamed through quaint shops and art galleries. In one of them, I found this sculpture. It whispered to me all that I have written here. In that moment, I knew what I was getting my husband for our anniversary the next day–this post, sitting next to this:

Because we are all just driftwood bobbing in the tide. A few of us tangled together, most of us mangled by time and water, all of us connected through the experience.

Happy 7th Anniversary, Babe.

What do you know, or not know about marriage?


Wild Impulses

Right now I am on vacation with my two children, husband, my parents and in-laws. The eight of us rented a house for seven days near Mt. Rainier National Park which is roughly two hours from my house, door-to-door. Mt. Rainier is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States rising 14,409 feet above sea level. On clear days, it stands like a sentinel ghost in the distant Seattle skyline. It is massive and magnificent.

When we got here we quickly found that our sleeping quarters weren’t as advertised. The room my children, husband and I are staying in looked more substantial in the pictures. As an added benefit to our cramped cozy bedroom, the baby isn’t sleeping well. He is crying in the night waking up our toddler who then also cries. Last night we had a rousing, hour-long, cry-fest, party of two! in our sardine can of a  small-ish bedroom. So far, we are all tired, but still trying to enjoy ourselves.

I’m not going to lie, it feels more like work than vacation.  I’d much rather sit on the deck and take in the view while enjoying a quiet, reflective glass of wine, but instead I am feeding, bathing, playing with, or soothing someone to sleep just like every other day accept I’m even more tired. I am the mommy; this is my choice, my life, and I love it, but there is never a shortage of sacrifices being made.

My consolation prize is waking up to see something breathtaking out my window. The natural beauty here is stunning, ethereal, ENERGIZING! (Thank goodness). Every detail from the worn, rock-laden trails to the violet Lupine in bloom is reminding me of the book I just finished, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

If you’ve read my blog, you know I have a bit of a crush on Ms. Strayed. You will also know that I have a bit of a life-long love for Oprah Winfrey. Several weeks ago Oprah picked Cheryl Strayed’s book to revive her book club and it felt like a natural, cosmic, menage et trois that I willed into existence. Naturally, I was on board.

Wild is about a 26 year-old Ms. Strayed and her three-month, 1100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail starting in the Mohave Desert in California, to the top of Oregon State. Strayed’s decision to embark on this journey came because her life was heading in a dark direction. Three years prior, her mother died suddenly from cancer. This shattered her small family sending the people of her life spinning in different directions, away from, and without her. She ended her marriage to a man she still loved partly because she became a prolific, impulsive philanderer, and partly because she no longer knew what she wanted. She also became a heroin user and got pregnant by a heroin addict. She had no money, no plan, no prospects so walking for miles, alone, in the wilderness, seemed like a grande idea.

The book follows her journey switching back and forth between the struggles of the trail and the struggles in her life. It is filled with deep insights and profound realizations about the correlations between wilderness and life; their harsh realities, relentlessness, and inherent beauties. While there are a myriad of lessons to glean from these pages, there is one that resonates with me deeply. It is a truth we all must face in the name of maturity; the value of learning impulse control.

Every day (my life, really) is a teeter totter of choices. At its fulcrum lies the question at the heart of every choice; is this what I want? Or is this what I need? Each side of the teeter totter holds the consequences of that choice. According to many philosophers and schools of psychology it is the ultimate division of the brain’s functionality, left vs. right, feeling vs. reason, want vs. need.

When I was younger, my wanting won the teeter totter battle most of the time. I wanted that boyfriend. I wanted to eat that bad thing. I wanted to smoke, get drunk, stay up all night and do whatever the hell I pleased. Over the years I became a master at masquerading my wants around as needs. Even now I say, “I need to write! I need time to myself! I need a new outfit for this occasion!”

But there comes a point in everyone’s life when you are given no choices. The only option, is the one that needs to be done. The decision is made for you and it stands like a boulder on the need side of the teeter totter; unmoved and unmovable. Everything is tipped, sometimes irreparably, in a direction you would never choose if you had a choice. These are the moments that offer our greatest lessons.  They teach us how to hold on, persevere, have courage and strength of character. They make us grow up.

This is what Strayed discovered while out in the wilderness, alone, hungry, in pain; her only option, to move forward.

“…the thing that was so profound to me that summer–yet also, like most things, so very simple–was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.”

The most profound, harsh and enduring moments of being forced to do things I have no desire to do, have come into my life as a result of being a wife and a mother. When both of these things happened, my teeter totter tipped wildly, unexpectedly, radically into a position that I chose and simultaneously didn’t want. I was 27 when I married and 30 when I became a mother and admittedly, holding on to many selfish, impulsive, childish ways before entering both arrangements.

I want sleep. I want to dedicate a good portion of my time to physical maintenance. I want it my way, always, and I want my children and husband to just leave me alone for a little while. I want to travel unencumbered. Like right now.

And yet none of these things are part of my reality. They sit like the mountain out my window in patient defiance, irreverent of my wants. As much as I may want, there is no escape, no denial, no numbing down my children and spouse and their needs with bad food or wine or any number of unhealthy options that call from the other side of the teeter totter.

And yet…

In the reality that has become my life, in spite of, because of, in both fear and love of this mountain, I developed a determination, a perseverance, an internal knowing, a solid bedrock of confidence born of realizing that I am capable of doing what I need to do, when it needs to get done. They call me mommy with love and devotion because I have done this. I do this everyday–the things I least want to do.

This is the message that resonated with me most in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir. That life isn’t always about what you want or feel. It’s about building an internal strength, proving to yourself that you can do what you need to do, when it needs to be done.

When you keep putting one foot in front of the other, like Cheryl did–in spite of your impulse to numb yourself, to bend to your emotions, no matter how sad and miserable and tired and self-pitying you may feel–when you summit that mountain, which you will, you will find a greater, deeper, more grounded part of yourself that you didn’t know existed; a part that you truly need, a part born of needs, in spite of wants. And it is that part that will carry you the rest of way, over every mountain, through your entire life.

So instead of enjoying my reflective glass of wine, I will be playing Lincoln Logs with my toddler and trying to get my son to sleep until the wee hours of this night when I, too, will I fall into bed. Because there are more mountains to climb tomorrow and I need my strength.

I participated in a Twitter chat with Cheryl Strayed on July 17th and I asked if impulse control was a major lesson she learned while hiking the PCT. I told her that becoming a mother has taught me that. She said:

Isn’t it though?