Saturday, March 24, 2012

A very long post about what marriage really looks like

So apparently all the writing I do about my husband’s awesomeness is sometimes a little much. Apparently it kind of makes people feel like crap because they think all is perfect and delightful at all times and Jim Fortune is the best at everything and I am just swooning and sitting in his lap every hour of every day. And then people think their lives are not good enough or not happy enough or not perfect enough.

I hate to think that I am making people feel that way, even a little.

But OK, here’s the thing. Jim Fortune is amazing. Our life together is really wonderful. If that is making you feel like crap, I can’t help you there. BUT I can maybe help you by telling you a little story about how we tried to beat our marriage to death a couple of years ago. It sucked tremendously.

Well, on second thought, I kind of hate that story. Those details are not the greatest, and if there is an asshole in that story it’s totally me, so let’s not go into it too much.

So instead maybe I will tell you about some of the things that contributed to us nearly beating our marriage to death, and then I will tell you about what happened next and why I am now pretty much swooning every hour of every day. That might be better.

Things to consider:

Jim is 15 years older than I am. He is pretty much in constant pain, and I am pretty much in constant motion. When we began dating back in 1996, he was 39 and I was 24 and we were all the time mountain biking and camping and climbing stuff and kayaking and building things and, really, our whole courtship was based on being filthy and outside and covered in bruises and maybe even having ticks in our hair.

June 1998: Filthy, giddy, newly engaged.
 Because when you are 39 and 24 and both healthy and irreverent and intrepid, you are pretty much the same age. I mean, he had dreadlocks, y’all.

But much later, when you are 53 and 38, and the older one of you has had terrible luck with his health and the younger one of you hasn’t, well, there is some stress that happens there. 

So this morning I ran 10 miles. And Jim, who cannot run at all, can barely walk across the living room tonight because his joints hurt so much. They hurt all the time. He will spend the evening encased in ice packs. He spends most evenings that way. It’s hard on him in a million ways, both physical and mental.

Also. We have a couple of kids and we both used to have these very groovy but low-paying jobs that we liked a lot. But then we really needed to support those kids, but then Jim’s health kind of fell apart and his groovy career kind of collapsed and then I had to leave a groovy career I loved in order to be a grown-up and begin a new career that I merely like just fine.

I make enough to support us and I am home on the holidays and I work with great people and things are right wonderful in that respect. But I am the breadwinner for our family and I spend most of my waking hours in a cubicle, which is all a bit psychologically burdensome for an odd little duck like me. And I didn’t really sign up for all that.

I mean, y’all, who the hell would sign up for all that? Not an odd little duck like me, for sure.

And here’s another thing, since we’re talking about this. I am difficult. I am, um, let’s say I’m high-strung. That seems like a reasonable way to put it. I am a tad volatile and not easy to live with and I am not always the nicest person and I’m maybe a bit of a loner and sometimes I really need to be alone but I usually can’t be. And that makes me a tad more volatile than I even was to start with.

Meanwhile, Jim is sweet and laid back and patient and loving, which leaves me free to be even more of a pain in the ass because I know he’s handling the being-nice part of the work that needs to get done in our lives.

Throw all that into a blender and put it on pulse. Leave the lid off, just for fun.

In 2010, things broke really bad between Jim and me. He was worn out from being in so much pain for so long and from seeing his career pretty much crash and burn. I was frustrated and disappointed with the way it was all turning out, with feeling generally like a beast of burden, with the realization that our super-fun life had unexpectedly evaporated and left me with a bunch of yucky realities I truly never expected back when I was working at my groovy, low-paying job and spending the weekends picking ticks out of my hair.

So things were hard. We were feeling pretty tired and stressed. Then some other stuff happened. Yadda yadda yadda. It all went boom.

Here is a column I wrote right about that time. You would not even believe the shit that was happening in the background of that column. It was miserable. You can absolutely tell how near the edge I am right here.

But. BUT. Here is the thing. Jim and I are fundamentally crazy about each other. We have been best friends since our first date. Instantly. Irrevocably. We were not nervous on our wedding day. We were the opposite of nervous. We were both certain that we were doing the smartest and best thing we had ever done. We were really, really happy that day. And we were really, really happy for quite some time after that day. We are good together. We belong together.

It is easy, I think, to learn to take that for granted – to forget how rare it is to feel that way about anyone ever in your whole life. It’s just there every day, right? Someone who knows EXACTLY what you mean when you barely even said anything. Someone who gets your jokes and shares your history and your worldview and who always puts your to-go coffee in the car for you and who knows what to order for you when you happen to be in the bathroom at the moment the waiter shows up to ask.

Years and years and years go by. Eventually, you just feel completely entitled to this terrific person whose job it is to be crazy about you. And then life gets harder because that’s what it’s designed to do. And then no one is smiling anymore. All the laughing that used to happen just dries up. And you stop being nice to each other. We stopped being nice to each other.

Slowly, slowly, one interaction at a time, we started being rude and dismissive and critical and even cruel and not like us at all. We got tired and stressed and overwhelmed and we started beating the absolute hell out of our marriage.

The poor thing. It was just minding its own business.

At some point, we damn near broke it for good and I stood over the sad, bruised hull of us and realized how close I was to ruining my life. Just ruining everything that meant anything. And I thought, ‘Wait. I didn’t mean to do this. I don’t know what I meant to do, but it definitely wasn’t this.’

I have never been so bone-deep scared. And maybe that’s what it takes to come back from a dark year like the one we had.

I got scared. And I made a conscious, deliberate, determined decision to find my way back to May 2, 1999 – to the day I looked Jim Fortune in his blue, blue eyes and swore to him I’d love him forever and felt like the luckiest woman on the planet to be in that place, saying those words. I remember with total clarity exactly how I felt at that moment. I was not wrong in that moment. I was as right as I have ever been about anything.

So I decided.

I decided that when Jim made me mad, when he disappointed me, when he frustrated me, I would let it go. And when he did something that made me happy, I would make it the thought I returned to every time he crossed my mind. I assumed he was doing his best. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. And I asked him to do the same for me.

My friend and physical trainer says this: What we think about grows. It’s true. I thought about how much I love my quirky, brilliant husband and the oddball little life we’ve built. I thought about how much I love our beautiful boys, how lucky they are that I picked the dad I did for them. I thought about all the reasons I chose him, and all the reasons I feel so lucky he chose me.

And something magic happened. What I thought about grew.

I decided to ignore the things that annoyed and disappointed me, and they just…vanished. I was kind, and he was kind in return. I told him how much I love him, and his face rearranged itself into the face of a happy man. He made me laugh again, and then he was making me laugh all the time, just like he used to. I made him stop in the kitchen to hug me for no reason, and then he didn’t want to let go.

It took a long time, and it wasn’t easy. Some days it’s still hard because, ugh, some days are just like that. We have been together 16 years, and I would bet money that the time will come again when I’ll need to be reminded that what we think about grows.

But I’m a lot more humble now about marriage, and a lot more open to the truth that my husband and I are as vulnerable as anyone – regardless of how smugly certain of ourselves we might feel on our good days.

Because we nearly beat it to death, I’m a lot more grateful for what we have. I’m a lot more careful about what I let into my head, into my heart, into my life. I work every day on thinking about the things I want to see flourish. Because what we think about grows.

And, in my case, what I think about gets written down. So sometimes you end up reading about how much I love Jim Fortune.

Yeah, it can be a little much.

Maybe this will make you feel better: The man never vacuums. He will wash clothes, but then he will not put them away, so they are in piles everywhere and the kids are always announcing that they have no clothes to wear despite the fact that there are stacks of clean clothes…someplace around here.

And he leaves drifts of paper all over the house and he writes checks that get lost in those piles and never get mailed and he won’t let me load the dishwasher because I do it wrong. He watches too much TV and he will not ask for what he wants from me – he just expects me to know and I NEVER know. I am the worst at knowing. So I have to drag it out of him while he shrugs and mumbles. It’s so frustrating. It drives me crazy.

And, y’all, he’s mine in a way that no one else is or ever has been or ever will be, and I can’t do without him.

That’s all that matters. That’s all that’s worth thinking about.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Why my husband never has to buy me another present for the rest of his life

Now and again, a friend or a reader or a colleague will say to me, “Mary, you really ought to write a book.”

I always laugh or shrug or shake my head. “I don’t have a book in me,” I say. “I write columns. That’s all my attention span can bear.”

But a book, of course, is the default daydream of every writer – even if she’s not actually planning on ever writing one. Even if she knows she’s really not up to the task.

For my 40th birthday last month, my family presented me with my book. A collection of every column I’ve written since my days as a 24-year-old newspaper reporter in North Georgia back in 1997. A complete record of my ruminations for the last 15 years, printed and bound and beautiful.

I don’t mind telling you, I wept like an overtired 3-year-old when I realized what they had done. Actually, it kind of scared my kids.

“Mom,” asked my vaguely alarmed 11-year-old, “don’t you like your book?”

What takes me so completely apart about this gift is not even the gift itself. It’s the work and time and thought that went into it.

My husband had to dig around in the attic and in cluttered cabinets to find those columns I wrote back in 1997. He had to type them into the computer -- and he doesn’t type. (Though he eventually enlisted the help of people who do.)

He had to click all around my desktop and find my files from the last decade, and then he had to write to the executive editor of this newspaper and ask for permission to reprint the columns. He even got in touch with the editor of the Life section – a friend and mentor throughout my career -- and asked him to contribute the book’s poetic foreword.

My husband spent months and months on this gift, starting work over the summer, eventually getting my mother and my friends to lend a hand when he got out of his depth in the editing and design stages.

Once I stopped crying enough to ask them how in world they’d pulled this off, my husband and my mother launched into a bantering description of the starts and stops and frustrations of getting it all together and finished in time.

“All of this was going on, and I had no idea,” I marveled, as they breathlessly described one miserable moment when they’d finalized the thing only to have it lose its formatting during a transfer from one computer to another.

In the 16 years we’ve been together, I’ve only talked with my husband about writing a book in that just-kidding way reserved for over-the-top goals I have no real intention of hitting. And I have never even jokingly suggested that I might aspire to collecting my columns into a book.

But he knew how much it would mean to me. He knew because he watches me and he listens to me and he has made a point of knowing my heart like no one else.

And even when I’m driving him very nearly insane -- when it’s all he can do to keep up with my moods and my mumbling and my mental walkabouts (I’m a real piece of work, y’all) -- he wants so much for me to be happy. He would do anything to see it.

As utterly wonderful as my book is, that’s the real gift.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What Freddie left us

I arrived home last night after a long day at work followed by a long run to find my husband and my sons waiting for me at the door, red-eyed and weeping.

“Grandma Freddie died,” my 11-year-old stuttered as I dropped my laptop bag, my gym bag and my purse in a heap at the threshold.

Nothing wrecks me like seeing my husband cry. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen it in 16 years. It just doesn’t sit right on him. He’s deep and kind, but tremendously stoic. He’s in charge of making sure I don’t spin into the atmosphere on the vapors generated by my internally combusting brain. He’s the hub in the wheel of our lives. And he was just so broken in that moment.

I did what I could. I held him. We cried. What else can you do?

I sometimes suspect that I am the worst person in the world. I am impulsive and self-absorbed and irascible. I try really hard to surround myself with good, smart people who are willing to tell me what I need to hear when I need to hear it. People who love me enough to want me to get my shit together – who love me enough to tell me it is time to pull my head out of my ass.

One reason I married Jim Fortune is that I sometimes suspect he is the best person in the world, and that together we somehow makes sense. Without doing anything but being his loving, earnest self, he makes me want to rein in my worst impulses and be a better person. And I have a way of using my energy to drag him out of his own head, of propelling him forward when he’s inclined to grind to a stop. It sort of evens out.

His mother had everything to do with making Jim the man he is. Freddie was one of the gentlest, strongest people I’ve ever known. When Jim brought me home to meet his family over Thanksgiving in 1996, she was warm and welcoming – but not in a phony or syrupy way. She was candid, funny, sharp. She was tough, and thoroughly Southern. She said the word ‘mirror’ like this: Mirrah. She said ‘I declare’ all the time, and she had this sing-song way of ending conversations with ‘Love yooou.’

Freddie raised four boys in a three-bedroom rental house in Augusta, Ga., while her husband worked swing shifts at DuPont. Her own parents were dead by the time she was in grade school – her mother of an asthma attack and her father in an accident. She was raised by an older sister and grew up idolizing Shirley Temple because the little actress so often played orphans in her movies.

Her family, her boys, meant everything to Freddie. Once the youngest started first grade, she went to work at the school he attended, and ultimately spent 20 years working for the school system, moving over to the middle school when her youngest did the same. She created the family she had dreamed about as a little girl who saw herself in those plucky orphans on the screen.

I remember once she and I were talking about the hectic pace of life with little kids, and I said something about being worn out. She laughed and said, “Oh, but that’s the best thing in life, just going and doing and being together all the time. That’s just the best thing there is.”

My younger son, Ben, doesn’t remember the Grandma Freddie I knew. He is only 7, and her decline has been steep and wrenching over the past five years. But as I tucked him in just a few hours after he learned his grandmother had died, he asked me, “Did Grandma Freddie have a good life?”

I blinked back tears and pulled his small, warm body to me. “She had a great life, and she was a great person,” I told him. “She had the best thing anyone can have. She had sweet sons who loved her and she loved them back with her whole heart.”

I didn’t sleep well last night. I know Jim didn’t, either. I kept startling awake, reaching for him, and then I’d hear him moving around, restless, wakeful.

I don’t have much practice with death. I’m lucky, I guess. But I don’t know what people do, what they should or shouldn’t do, when confronted with this kind of loss. So I did what I always do: I got up this morning, took the kids to school and went to work.

My boss, one of the good, smart people who excel at helping me be less horrible, asked me what I was doing in the office. Why wasn’t I at home with Jim?

“Well, there’s really nothing I can do,” I said. “The services won’t be for a while. There’s nothing to do. I have tons of work I need to get finished. What can I really do at home?”

“You can be with Jim,” she said gently, incredulously. “Just be with him.”

Which is, of course, exactly what I needed to be doing. I bet Freddie would have known to do that. I bet she would have told me to do that, too.

I left work and drove home. Jim was gone. “Where are you?” I asked into my cell phone.

“At the mall. I’m buying clothes for the kids to wear to the funeral.”

“Stay put. I’ll find you.”

I found him sitting on a bench outside a department store, looking so defeated and sad, kind of staring into the middle distance with red-rimmed eyes. He was so happy to see me. He was so sad. His mom died, and I left him all by himself. What was I thinking? Why did I do that?

Here’s the thing about Jim, though – this is one way he is so much his mother’s son. He wasn’t mad at me for leaving. Not at all. He was just really glad I came back.

So we spent the day buying clothes for the kids and making funeral arrangements and I called the newspaper in Augusta and wrote Freddie’s obituary while Jim’s phone rang incessantly and we were just together. 

Which, like Freddie always said, is just the best thing there is.


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Look up

I have a sky fetish. If I ever wreck my car in a really stupid, embarrassing way, it won’t be because I was texting; it will be because I was taking a picture of the sky through my sunroof or gaping at the clouds instead of looking at the traffic. Or maybe it will be that I was texting someone, after all – but it will be that I had to tell them OMG – where are you? Can you see the sky? Look at it! LOOK NOW!

Through the sunroof

I especially love the sky in autumn – the vividly blue and limitless ceiling that only appears after the stifling, late-summer humidity has cleared out. But I also love the sky in winter – the bright, scudding clouds and the searing sunsets that seem fueled somehow by the cold and the wind. And I’m a fan of sunrises all year long. And storms. And the moon! Gah, don’t even get me started on the moon.

When I go hiking I trip kind of a lot, mostly because I’m usually staring at the sky when I really ought to be watching my step.

Also, in the summers we take the kids to this place called Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater, which is in the middle of nofreakingwhere. I like the movies, but I really go to see the sky.

Once the sun goes down, that place gets deeply dark as only the wilderness can, and the stars are supernaturally bright and abundant – they seem almost terrifyingly close. We lie on our blankets on the hillside, and the kids watch the illuminated screen below while I stare, transfixed, at the sky.

I don’t study it, really, or have an understanding of it in any kind of sciencey or useful way. I just admire it. A lot. It makes me feel like a tiny part of something vast and wonderful and astonishing, if only as a clueless and clumsy witness.

My friends make fun of me – kindly, I think – for my sky fetish. When we’re together, they never miss a chance to point out a striking cloud formation or a vivid streak of light across the horizon (I have always already noticed, but I truly appreciate their thoughtfulness.)

It’s a bit odd to me, how we’re all wandering around down here under this endless show, and so few people ever really seem to notice. I mean, OK, I guess it’s safer to tend to what you’re doing when you’re hiking or driving or operating a chain saw or whatever.

And granted, a lot of what we all have to do every day requires that we keep our heads down. Stay focused. Watch where we’re going. Pay attention. Check the calendar and finish the edits and get the approvals. Whatever.

But, assuming you don’t risk fiery crashes and grisly injuries in the process, I suspect that part of the secret to enjoying this ride is allowing ourselves be flat astonished by the simplest, most accessible and ordinary stuff. The stuff that’s all around us all the time. Because, y’all, some of it just flat astonishing.

We just have to look up.

The car was not moving when I took this. Don't judge.