Love

Trapped

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As a young man I never wanted to get married. Frankly, it smelled like a trap to me. There were so many examples of broken marriages in my world, ones that had either failed altogether with devastating consequences or (worse) settled into uneasy alliances with a strong undercurrent of burning resentment. It was difficult to name a married couple who seemed really, truly happy together. It seemed like people got married because they weren’t sure what else to do, giving away their freedom and money and young dreams for a promise of a greener pasture that might not be so green. I resolved to live differently. And I would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for her.

We had an amazing relationship. We laughed constantly and our default mood was happy. We were both shocked by how well we fit together, how infrequently we fought. And most importantly: she had stuck with me through the Bad Times. After decades of holding out, finding fault in every potential mate, this one was finally a keeper. We dated for a few blissful years until I wasn’t sure what else to do. The only truth of my life was that I loved her.

And with that truth, the trap was set.

The very moment we got married, an invisible switch clicked and our relationship changed overnight. It was less noticeable at first, and it started small. We seemed to be (and were) excited to be off on this adventure together, starting a new life. Now that we were bound together, the strength of partnership was on our side. We could finally make bold moves that we’d been leery of making on our own — moving to a new city, changing careers, stepping out onto limbs. Together, it had been promised, there was nothing we could not do. So why were we feeling this growing unease?

As married days turned into married weeks, months, and years (three of them, today) it was becoming painfully obvious that something was wrong. Instead of being partners, we were adversaries. We took a perverse pleasure in proving the other wrong. Small disagreements became large fights. A string of fights became a war. We felt disillusioned and hurt, the both of us. My wife wasn’t respecting and honoring me. Her husband wasn’t loving and present to her. We were both wronged, we were both wrong. We were both trapped.

And then it got worse.

We could leave each other. We knew we could. It wasn’t difficult to picture it. One of us would move into an apartment and the other would stay in the house. The pets would be split up, two cats go one way, the dog goes the other. We would probably end up splitting the friends, too, but there honestly weren’t many. We could do it. The pastures in that direction were greener for us both…weren’t they?

It has taken me a while to figure out what happened. There has been a tremendous amount of confusion and pain in the three years since this change crept in. But now I know. When we vowed ourselves to one another, we became marriage itself. Everything wrong with marriage, every resentment we’d witnessed, every childish tactic we’d seen in others’ relationships. They were ours now, as members of this grand club, and we were unwittingly playing out the part.

As we continued our dance we began to hate the fighting more than whatever perceived slight had set us off. The confusion and the pain became unacceptable and unwelcome in our home. We started to realize that none of it was ours, really. The battle we were fighting wasn’t between my wife and I, it was a reenactment of the one battle between all wives and all husbands, as the pressures of life conspire to make us forget what’s important. We were haunted by the ghost of marriage.

As we teetered on the brink of either blowing up our union or settling into a life of repressed anger and unfulfilling compromise, we managed to find a third option. Our union proved to be stronger than we’d thought. We hadn’t only come to embody all of the negative aspects of marriage, but also everything true and right that it stood for. Strength, openness, support, commitment. All of the husbands who sat by their wives’ hospital beds, all of the wives who supported and believed in their husbands day in and day out, we were connected to that power as well. Sure we were in pain, but we were together. We were worth fighting for.

The truth was, we loved each other.

We’ve had to fight and claw our way back to happy. Now that we know what the battle is all about, it is more easily avoided. We started to laugh again, slowly. We learned to catch ourselves before sliding back into the bad habits that had separated us for too long. We gave up fighting and then we gave up bickering. We found our strength, together. As we rewired our thoughts to be in alignment with our truth, the feelings of resentment found that they had nowhere left to reside. And so they packed up and wandered off to find easier targets.

The only truth I know is that I love her and she loves me, forever. It’s our choice and no power on this earth can shake it. We may remain trapped in this thing called life, but we are trapped together.

Companion

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I love my mother. She is there for me.

When the kids came, my mother stopped working so she could stay at home with us. She returned to her career after we were all in school and old enough to survive on our own, but for many years she was my constant companion. I was a bookish boy in the heyday of video games, which is to say I spent a lot of time at home.

When my gang of young friends would hang out, the mothers would swap turns in hosting the two or three or four of us (and it was always the mothers). It probably wasn’t as taxing at it sounds. Back then, parents could just say “Go somewhere and be back for dinner” and kick us out of the house. We would run out the front door to wherever our imagination called us. Usually exploring a creek or biking to the pool. More often, we were sitting quietly in front of a television set with Nintendo controllers in our hands. When we were hungry, sandwiches and macaroni and cheese would appear magically from the kitchen at just the right time.

She’s always loved to watch me play video games. She’d sit there for hours yelling “Get him!” or “Look out!” while folding loads of laundry. She’d listen to my explanations of the storyline and let me know when she thought one of the characters was a prude. I always felt important around her. The things I cared about mattered.

It’s a full-time job, running a household. Especially the tight ship she ran. My mother was never off the clock. If there was a mess, she’d clean it. The laundry never ended. She did all of the grocery shopping, the cooking, the mopping, the dishes, the ironing. Hell, I had a packed lunch waiting for me on the kitchen table every morning, straight through high school — a brown paper bag with stickers on the front. Stickers. Every day. For fifteen years. Sometimes she’d slip a nice note inside: “Hope you have a wonderful day, Love, your mom”.

I remember the first time I had my heart broken by a girl. My mom told me, “Don’t worry. You’re a great guy and there are lots of girls out there. One day you’re going to meet the one who is meant for you and she’s going to be amazing.” We had that same conversation over and over through my teens and my twenties and my thirties.

No one else fed me. No one else watched me. She was the one who yelled if we tried to shirk table clearing duties after dinner. She nursed my first bee sting, which must have been a very traumatic experience for me because I’m completely terrified of the little demons to this day. She taught me about god and politics and what it means to be a great neighbor.

She bought me my first comic book.

I get a call about once a week from my mother asking me how I’m doing. I’m doing great because I’ve never been alone.

A Still Moment

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I was only going to get one shot at this (I hoped). Everything had to be perfect. She certainly was.

The ring box was burning a hole in my carry-on luggage and my mind for the entire trip there. I was so worried that they would open it up during security screening and my surprise would be spoiled. That was silly, I knew. Why would they need to bring attention to it? They’ve seen this kind of thing a million times and know better than to mess up my big moment. This was just jitters.

It was more likely that she knew it was coming already. I’m not great at hiding things, though I had given it my best effort. The meetings with the jeweler were conducted clandestinely during work hours, as we carefully designed a ring that I would be proud to present and that she would be proud to wear. The sizing happened at night while she was in one of her deep slumbers, slipping each of her own rings onto her finger until I found one that fit like a secret glass slipper. I told the jeweler my firm budget and then spent twice that. I went with an asscher-cut solitaire sandwiched between two trapezoidal stones to make sure it mesmerized. They told me the stone was internally flawless and I knew it was hers.

Once finalized, the gorgeous ring was stashed away: in a box, in a bag, in another bag, in the back of the closet. It was unlikely that she would discover it accidentally and almost as unlikely that she’d find it if she went searching. Still, I checked on it almost daily. I didn’t like sitting on such an expensive item. Secrets weighed heavily on my heart.

I thought for sure she would know it was coming when I asked her to go on a trip out of the country. Such a telegraphed move, but what else could I do? Life had been so difficult lately, with the business obviously failing and the stresses of life piling up with the bills. I told her we needed to get away and she agreed.

The ring was a special sort of problem, as I had to carry the bulky box on my person at all times. I certainly wasn’t about to let it out of my sight or leave it in anyone else’s care. It would be a miracle if she didn’t ask me what the heck I had in my pocket. I resigned myself to carry out the plan and hope she at least acted surprised when the time came. She’s nice enough to do that.

We boarded the cruise ship and discovered that they had booked us in a room with bunk beds. This was not part of the plan. Was the mistake mine or theirs? It definitely didn’t sound like a mistake I would have made…I’m a notorious triple-checker and this was important to me. I asked kindly if they could move us, but it was impossible. We would be sleeping in bunk beds for the trip. So be it. The plan still moves forward.

Once we were all settled and the only thing left to do was relax, I started to panic. This was as far as I’d gotten in the planning. Where would I pop the question? What would I say? What would SHE say? I insisted on bringing my backpack with me when we arrived at our first port: Key West. She asked why I needed it and I snapped off some feeble excuse and changed the subject. She had to know. It was time to put an end to all the secrecy. As we wandered around Key West, I searched for the perfect spot. Near the dock, in front of the gift shop, at the bar? Nothing seemed romantic enough so I decided to wait until later.

We took a boat out onto the water for tandem parasailing. Raised up above the world, everything got quiet. The ring was in the bulky box, in the unnecessary backpack, in the boat with the strangers, way down there with the rest of the world. Only she and I existed up here, smiling in the sunlight and wind and enjoying the still moment. I forgot about the ring and the plan and everything. And I remembered- only she mattered.

After we came back down to let another couple have a turn in the sky, I looked around at the beautiful world and realized that this was it. This was the perfect moment. I gave the boat crew a heads up so they would take some pictures and I got down on my knee. I told my beautiful girlfriend that I couldn’t imagine living my life without her and I showed her the ring.

She was surprised. She was speechless. She didn’t know which finger to put the ring on. She would be my wife and I knew that everything would be perfect from that moment forward. And it is.

Ganesha

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I love my wife. She made me a painting.

It’s a framed piece, about 30 inches wide and 40 inches high. Yes, I just measured it. That’s a substantial size, big enough to take up half a wall. Its large wooden frame is cracked and dented from being dropped over the years. It was painted on paper, using watercolor, acrylic, pencils and who knows what else. I wouldn’t be surprised if she used markers, dye, egg yolk and voodoo as well. I couldn’t possibly explain her artistic process but I can attempt to describe this painting. My painting.

The subject of the picture is an ethereal white figure of Lord Ganesha, the Hindu god. The breaker of obstacles. My wife swears he wasn’t part of the original painting, he just popped out of the abstract one day sitting in yogic posture and gazing serenely ahead. What makes the entire thing so arresting is that Ganesha himself is more suggested than outlined, an elephant man in flowing robes who is made of paint. Paint that is escaping his body and dripping toward the sky.

The background of the artwork is primarily a kaleidoscopic blue field of many shades. Mingled across it are shadows of greens, yellows, whites, and the stray rivulets of Lord Ganesha. The entire thing is chaos- dark blue splotches on light blue ponds with bright yellow circles outlined in thin white pencil. No patterns, just a free-flowing explosion of creativity. Every inch holds a surprise of color or fade or figure or beauty. Underneath the god’s crossed legs is a bed of yellow and white circles that make me think of flowers or straw or sequined pillows depending on my mood. Along the right edge the paint gradually thins and the baby blue gives way to speckles of untouched white paper. I could stare at this painting for the rest of my life and never feel I know it. Always Ganesha stares back, tendrils of energy encircling one outstretched hand and a look of calm knowing in his steady eyes.

I don’t think the she originally knew she was making it for me, but that was its fate. The painting sat prominently on the front wall of her little studio from the day we opened it six months ago. We positioned everything else around this piece, ensuring that it was the first thing visitors saw when they walked in and that it was visible from all the way down the hall. We typed what we thought was a bold $475 price on the small placard with her name. I stood proudly next to this painting month after month, watching people’s eyes light up as they came in the studio door. I got to share my admiration for it and hear others express what it made them feel. I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only one who could see the importance of this treasure as more people lingered than walked by.

After we realized it wouldn’t sell, my wife took it down to make room for her newer pieces. The painting ended up on the wall of my meditation room, sometimes known as the guest bedroom. Every morning at five o’clock I sit in front of a breathtaking work of art, breathe slowly, and feel my heart swell with love. I even hung the $475 price card underneath it to complete the visual.

It is the most beautiful thing I have ever owned and it is not for sale.

Year One

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One year ago today I woke up alone for the first time in a long while. They say it’s bad luck to see the bride on your wedding day so she’d stayed with her parents. I would see her soon enough.

I spent most of the day in a mild state of panic- a carryover from the week, still so much to do. The cat was recovering from his recent seizures but needed frequent attention and pills. I hated to leave him alone like this. My suit needed ironing and I hadn’t picked up the party favors yet as I’d planned. Coordinate the groomsmen, check in with the venue host, drop everything off at the hotel room, make sure the cupcakes get picked up. Don’t forget the rings!!

One of the bridesmaids called to inform me that my wife-to-be had woken up even sicker than last night. They were pumping her full of drugs to get her through the day. I could tell it was worse than she let on. I carved out fifteen minutes to write her a cute little card that I’d have one of my groomsmen deliver before the ceremony.

After taking care of everything I reasonably could, I granted myself a long hot shower and reminded myself that this was the best day of my life. I took my time grooming the beard she’d begged me to grow out and thought of her. I ran out the door only slightly behind schedule and laughed when it started to rain.

As we gathered at the front of the room and started the ceremony, I looked out on the crowd. I was almost surprised that I recognized them all, this support group of family and friends that would be there for us through the years. As I was smiling at old friends and waving to my little niece and nephews, the music paused briefly. All eyes went to the back of the room as a Beatles song announced her arrival. And finally there she was: my beautiful, radiant, medicated bride. My face erupted into a grin that still hasn’t fully worn off.

We didn’t make the standard wedding promises that you typically hear. We didn’t take each other for better or worse, richer or poorer. Not a mention of sickness or death. Those boiler plate assurances seemed unnecessary for us and our love. The officiant asked us only one question: Do you both promise that there is nowhere else you’d rather be than right here, right now?

And I said yes.

 

The workshop

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I love my dad. He teaches me things.

When I was very young, my father and I would go fly a kite at the neighborhood park. He taught me how to hold the crossbar and run with the kite held up high and then launch it up into the air with the hopes it would catch a wind gust just right and decide to stay aloft. Then we would let out string from the spool until the kite was unbelievably high in the sky and watch it play in the breeze. After a while we switched from kites to model rockets. He and I would spend an afternoon down in his basement workshop- a room for tools, workbenches, and jars full of mismatched screws- and would assemble the rocket from a kit. It was simple enough, attaching the fuselage fins and packing the tiny parachute under the nose section that would bring the whole thing safely back to earth. Once the glue had dried and the decals were all in place we would head to the park for launch. The rockets had different sized engines that would determine how high they flew; an “A” would shoot the ship 100 feet and a “C” could go 1000 or more. My dad made sure we were always observing the safety practices, like standing far enough back before we counted down and pushed the launch button that ignited the engine and sent the craft skyward. The rockets went way higher than the kite ever did.

Once I had a taste for building things my dad started buying me different model sets: wooden dinosaur skeletons, plastic race cars, cutting-edge military jets. I spent hours with him as we glued and painted all the tiny parts that made up these impressive scale models of things one might encounter in life. I remember making a realistic-looking human skull and learning about all the fixed joints that connect the bones in our heads. As my skills grew, the models got more complex and required greater patience. My dad taught me how to construct a ship in a bottle and helped me assemble a Cessna plane with working propeller, wheels, and cockpit door.

After I joined a Cub Scout pack, my father and I would build a car each year for the annual pinewood derby race. You would basically buy a regulation-sized block of wood, carve it into a car shape and slap wheels on it. We would shut ourselves down in the workshop for days as we came up with aerodynamic designs and tested out prototypes. The rules said that each car can weigh no more than five ounces, so the trick was to make a light vehicle and then dig out a hole under the nose and fill it with molten lead, in order to have most of the weight at the very front of the car. I don’t recall ever winning a race, but we did create a sleek black Georgia Tech themed hot rod with a golden tail fin and exhaust pipes that made both of us very proud.

My dad taught me sports as well, from basketball to football to little league baseball. He didn’t just drop me off at practice or play catch with me in the yard, he volunteered to be the head coach of most of my teams. The hours we had spent building rockets and models and race cars gave way to long days and nights spent together on baseball diamonds and basketball courts through the years. I was terrible at anything sports-related to be sure (I have other gifts), but he patiently showed me to keep my eye on the ball while swinging a bat and to roll the basketball off the tips of my fingers to give it a nice arc.  I can only imagine the patience my foray into athleticism must have required from him. During baseball games I would sit down in the outfield and pick blades of grass. When it became clear that I wasn’t the most aggressive athlete on the basketball court, my parents started paying me to commit fouls as a way to encourage my competitive spirit. I earned $1 per foul and an extra few bucks if I fouled out of the game entirely. And it worked- when my opponent started dribbling toward me in my zone under the basket I would step forward and karate chop his arm. Coach would smile and say “great job” and my mother and sisters would cheer wildly from the stands as everyone else watched in confusion.

This list could get quite long as my dad has always seemed to be interested in what I am doing and willing to teach me what he knows. When I showed an interest in astronomy, a giant glow-in-the-dark poster of the constellations showed up on my bedroom ceiling. When my reading addiction surfaced he would bring me to the library and let me haul a stack of books home every week. He taught me about lawn care, electronics, engineering, jogging, trees, biology. And computers- we talked about computers a lot. Before the internet was available to the public, my father ran a computer bulletin board system out of our basement that connected users from around the world so they could share files and play games. He showed me how the computer modem used the telephone line (you would actually place the phone headset onto the modem cradle so the computers could talk to each other) and a few years later he and I created a website together for my sister’s softball team.

Of all the myriad educational experiences I’ve had with the man, the one that stands out in my mind is the art of watching football. For forty years my dad has held season tickets to Georgia Tech games- his alma mater and mine. I grew up going to the games with him on Saturdays, as far back as I can remember and all the way up to today. I’ve spent decades sitting next to him, wearing white & gold and eating peanuts in the same seats on the 50 yard line. The players change every few years but the game barely does at all. Our team wins some, loses some. Some years are difficult and others exciting.

And, like in all other things, I’ve been listening intently for the lessons my father can teach me. Arrive early to beat the crowds. Let the ref know when he’s screwed up the call. Treat everyone around you with love and respect, no matter what colors they wear.

Crash of reason

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I love my wife. She’s explosive.

Not me- I’m a pensive type, a thinker. Any decision or reaction requires deliberation before (thoughtfully) putting the wheels in motion. There’s a certain built-in lag time with my responses. If you enrage me, you’ll know about it…eventually. The feedback you receive will be fair and carefully considered before it is delivered in a manner I’ve deemed to be appropriate and productive. We joke that there’s a “planning phase” of everything that I do.

I don’t think she does phases. If you cross her; immediate fireworks. It starts hot and just builds in intensity as she whips herself up into a frothy, percussive blast of raw emotional detonation. It really is something magnificent to behold, assuming you’re not on the receiving end of it. There are tears and shouted words (such words) and maybe even a broken plate or two if Mercury is in retrograde. Truly a force of nature.

It took some getting used to, to be sure. My rookie mistake was attempting to still the storm before it reached full strength. If you ever want to see some fireworks, look an irate Greek woman in the face and utter the ill-fated phrase “calm down”. No, you have to ride the wave until it peaks and eventually breaks on the shores of exhaustion. Then, with a little caution, you can proceed to something resembling conversation- if you’re feeling bold enough to open your mouth.

Like I said, I love it. For someone who relies too heavily on detached analysis and dispassionate reason, her complete zest for the moment is so necessary. It’s a reminder that emotions that have been over-processed aren’t real emotions anymore and that problems aren’t always best solved with the brain. When your heart is open, the gates are down and whatever comes out is truly, beautifully you. And you get to buy new plates!

Bare walls

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I love my wife. She fills my life with art.

Back in my dating years (which lasted well into my 30’s, mind you) the various apartments I leased felt more like shelters than homes to me. A place to sleep, somewhere to keep a fridge. As I changed jobs (about once a year, most years) I would move within a five mile radius of the new company’s office to minimize commute time. First-time visitors to my place often jokingly commented on my lack of home decoration while secretly panicking about what sort of person doesn’t have a single item hung on any wall.

I just didn’t care. A painting on the wall didn’t bring me closer to my immediate life goals and making a statement through my home decor wasn’t important to me. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how to showcase my disconnected interests in a way that made sense. Doctor Who and the Cleveland Browns don’t have a lot of overlap in their fan bases and a record collection would be creepy if it only contained Paul Simon albums. So I just left the walls the way they came and left most horizontal surfaces bare. If anyone wanted to know about me, they could spend time with me.

And then I started dating an artist. On an early date we went to a painting class and each painted a mermaid. Hers was of course quite a beautiful painting, and mine was hailed by critics as “recognizable as a mermaid”. I’ll admit I got a little carried away with some of her proportions- it was my first painting. After such a successful outing I found myself the proud owner of two works of art! Mine went in the closet and hers went up in my bathroom. Bam! Bathroom furnished.

The longer I dated an artist, the more of her paintings made their way onto my walls. A large mantelpiece canvas in the living room, some abstract color pops for the bedroom. Before long my apartment was looking like some humans lived in it. I eventually noticed the trap, but too late; I would have to marry this girl or start all the way over on my home decor. It was an easy choice.

The art in my home is vibrant and messy and colorful. It is sometimes dark and then suddenly bright. There are careless splotches and wide deliberate smears. It is complicated and compelling and graceful. It perfectly reflects everything I love in this world.