Sunday, October 7, 2007

Eat, Pray, Stay

Watching Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of "Eat, Pray, Love" on Oprah this week got me thinking. Why does every self-help odyssey have to begin or end with someone leaaving a marriage? (I know that odysseys, by definition, require a "leaving" but why do we assume that people, especially women (and middle-aged men) have to leave their spouses in order to change?)

No disrespect to Gilbert, I loved her book, and it was clear that her marriage was over and done with when she left. Still, reading a book like this one--or any of the other woman-finds-herself-and-creates-a-new-life books on the market--can leave one feeling as if divorce is a requirement for personal transformation, and to me, that's a problem. Not only because I have tried so many times to leave my marriage only to be drawn back into it by a combination of economics, family realities and, let's admit it, love. But also because it suggests that the problems we're experiencing--the stuckness, the sameness, the lack of inspiration--is the fault of another person, and in a marriage, the handiest "other person" is the spouse.

But what happens when, though we want to change, we don't want to leave? I mean, I love my husband. What I don't like is the life we've made. We rent our home, I think it's time to buy. I long for a more interesting social life, and for heaven sake, a vacation would be nice. Must I dissolve my marriage to recreate my life--and myself? I just don't think so anymore.

Fifteen years ago, I started working on a novel in which a young mother, Natalie Barnett, runs away from home (with her toddlers) and finds herself sleeping in the car on a resort island where her mother has a big summer house. Thinking she'll just stay there (she knows where the key is hidden) until she sorts herself out, Natalie is surprised to discover that the house has been rented (But it's October!) and is, for two months, unavailable forcing Natalie to live by her wits (and the 10 jars of coins she's taken from the pantry shelf). Everything goes along fine until the money runs out and it gets too cold to sleep on the beach--or in the car.

When I began the book, my children were toddlers and I was writing out a fantasy I'd been having--to recreate our family's life MY WAY. I'd call all the shots about where we'd live, how we'd decorate, what the kids would eat and wear, and whether or not we'd watch TV once in while during dinner.

As the story developed, so did Natalie and I wanted her to find someone funny, inspiring and interesting. What's more, I wanted her new guy to be always taking me, I mean, her, places--new restaurants where they'd meet another couple, sharing animated, intelligent conversation about current events and the arts scene/ On the way home, I envisioned them cuddling in the back of a cab, recapping the highlights of the evening in the darkened cocoon of the car.

When winter wind whistled through the cracks in our tiny house, I pictured Natalie and her man on the beach, holding hands and sipping margaritas. And then, in the middle of the afternoon, I imagined them falling into bed, a warm breeze playing over 600-thread count sheets.

I was fully aware, as I furiously scribbled dialogue and chapter outlines, that I was writing about myself. I was also, increasingly aware that I was writing toward some sort of revelation that would be important to my readers (and to me). But I couldn't figure out what it was.

Slowly, it began to dawn on me that this story was only going to make sense if, in the end, Natalie ended up going back home. Because each time I got to the part where Richard was sitting, bewildered and alone in the darkened kitchen, having just come home to find his wife and children gone, my eyes would fill with tears and I'd find myself understanding him. Really, getting the picture of what it must be like to be the breadwinner, solely responsible for meeting the bills each month, isolated by his work from the three people he loved most in the world.

One day, I skipped ahead to craft a scene of Natalie and Richard's reunion, the things they'd say, the way he'd reach out and tuck that wisp of hair behind her ear. And as the scene formed under my fingers on the keyboard, I started sobbing.

I knew why I was crying; because after all the work I'd done to finally get Natalie out of the house that I... I mean, she, hated so much, she was going to betray me and go back to him. And I was so disappointed.

So I stopped writing, storing the manuscript, which had already been accepted by a good agent and edited (for $50 an hour) by an excellent editor, in a wooden box that I moved over the next 15 years from the dining room to the living room to the trunk of my car to the garage to a spot under the bed and back to my car. And today, half of the marked up pages are in my briefcase, at Panera Bread in Nanuet, NY, on a blue vinyl bench beside me.

I pulled them out because I think I may be ready to find out what's going to happen next, now that I'm more comfortable with the idea of staying in my own imperfect marriage. Because as that manuscript was moving around, I was learning what it really means to be part of a family, to share another person's day-to-day, up and down life. And because, my husband and I have both found a way to become the people we wanted to become (and decorate the house to suit both of our taste) together.

I'm still working toward that life I dreamed of--traveling around the world, enjoying wonderful new restaurants with fascinating friends, doing work that inspires and enlivens me. In fact, I plan to start renovating houses (one of my long-repressed dreams) whether or not my husband, whose name is Matthew, not Richard, wants to help me. I plan to live in Europe at least part of every year with or without him. But I am going to do all of these things, and more, while continuing to love him, and be married to him--for better or worse.

What a blessing to have come to this place in my life--to feel free enough within my marriage that I can shift and change right here, beside the guy who's doing just what he wants--even if it's different from what I want to do.


Anonymous said...

So, Amy...Here is a quick story about my friend, Julia, who is also the therapist who ran the group where, several years ago, I finally got my anger understood and found great ways to deal with all that stuff:
She loves her husband, but after raising a family and working at her chosen profession for all of her adult life, she probably would have described her state of being in quite the same way that you have. She had been having clairvoyent & intuitive experiences for many years, but had been suppressing them, keeping them to herself with the concern that others would be upset by such a thing. She was certainly upset and frightened by them; she had been having such experiences since childhood, and really had not been able to find the value in them.
The short version of the story is that she began allowing the images and feelings she'd been suppressing to rise to the surface, and found meaning and purpose in this information which opened a new path in her life. She made several "quests" to Hawaii, where her family has deep ties, and now, though she is still married to her husband, she spends much of the year in Hawaii, doing her spiritual work and helping others to do the same. She and her husband just found a way to rearrange their lives to accommodate each other, sharing those parts that they could, and living the separate parts separately.
Marriage, as an institution rarely seems to foster emotional health for all parties concerned...think it's time to redefine it? I do.

Amy Oscar said...

I think we are redefining it. And I love this story about Julia - it inspires me, knowing that someone is doing this thing I want to do. I met a woman like Julia at a cafe about a year ago. The mother of two grown children, this woman, whom I will call Deborah, because I can't remember her name, began to get restless about going somewhere. She started traveling, first with a girlfriend for a week or weekend; then, with women's groups, where she met others like her, who were going solo. She formed her own little group and now, they rent villas and condos and time shares, meeting all over the world several times a year to explore new places and cultures. And themselves.. The thing I loved most about Deborah's story was this: She stays. After the group departs, Deborah stays, for a month or longer, to deepen her experience. Her husband, who never liked to travel, uses their time apart to deepen his creative work (he's an artist, like my husband) and do his own version of retreat. This is what I would like to do, in my own way. Perhaps go back to Paris, where I lived for half a year in my early 20s, and really sink into the place--renting an apartment and writing in cafes. I'll keep you posted!