To qualify, before I begin. I believe that mistakes should be turned into gifts. We should make mistakes every day. If we aren’t, then we aren’t taking chances. We aren’t risking. We aren’t learning. We aren’t living. Take chances.
- Touch the stove. But,
- Don’t learn about crossing the street by walking into traffic
The first teaches. The second kills. The first evolves. The second ends. So make mistakes and learn. When you find yourself repeating mistakes; urgently pay attention and learn better.
Knowing me, people might expect that getting behind the wheel on March 26th, 1982 and the events following it would easily rank number one. Erasing that day would mean I don’t become paralyzed. I don’t die a bunch of times and have more surgeries than I can count, or eventually chronic, horrific pain. Nope.
This post evolved from an exercise Natalie Goldberg gives to her students in her book about writing a memoir called “Old Friend from Far Away.” Marriage was the 3rd of my top three mistakes. We had dated for four years. We were graduating with Bachelor Degrees. I was going on to grad school for my Master’s in Social Welfare. The next logical step was marriage. Right? After 3-4-5 years of dating the question is unavoidable. If you aren’t getting engaged then what does that say about the relationship? We were happy. We were fine.
We had no money but managed to save up enough to take a trip to Myrtle Beach. Both being poor college students we managed to save the $500-600 required and drove down in March. The trip would provide some sunshine to help us get through the rest of the long winter. We pitched a tent and then the rain started. It was above freezing but not by much. We slept in the van for most of the night with the engine running. We were miserable and argued. We had our first real fight… the our 2nd and 3rd. We walked away from each other to cool off. Then we took what we had left of the money we had (setting aside enough for gas to get us home) and checked into a hotel. We spent a long time naked in a tub just thawing out. The next day we drove home. The positive spin that we eventually came to from this miserable experience was that “if we can survive that experience, we can survive anything.” Morons.
My Catholic readers may be familiar with the “pre-marriage interview.” Three quarters of the catholic diocese use this process to help couples determine readiness for marriage and flag problems to be solved before exchanging vows. Other religions utilize the FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication Understanding and Study) questionnaire in numbers now larger than the catholic church. Yeah, we didn’t do that. There’s a book called “The Hard Questions: 100 Questions to Ask Before You Say “I Do” Nope. Nothing like that for us. Today you can get the used hardcover version for a penny. If you asked any of my friends back then if I was the “marrying type” you’d be met with a belly laugh.
Yet at the Albany, NY airport we parked to share a bottle of champagne to celebrate our college graduation. In the back of the van I pretended to slip and fall transferring from my wheelchair to the makeshift bed. I actually did the one knee thing… because that’s what you do. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like paralysis ruin my moment. I wrestled the ring out of my pocket and popped the question. There was a tearful, happy “YES” and a quick sip of champagne. I popped up onto the bed to celebrate all of these events in other ways. Little did I know that what happened next would foreshadow everything about our life together. She had to call her mother and her sister. We left immediately to find a phone (Cell phones weren’t yet a “thing.”) So my expectations of how things will unfold is wrong. VERY wrong.
Honestly I should probably revise my title from “getting married” to “staying married.” About one year in she confronted me. She told me she wanted me to change. I won’t detail the entire exhaustive list, but I was flabbergasted to have the same qualities she had said she fell in love with, to be eliminated or toned down. My spontaneity, gregariousness, humor, time spent with friends; all needed some work. She was asking me to change WHO I AM! I gave the only answer I could – no! I would take seriously the request. I would be sensitive to how those traits affected her, and would consciously do my best to reduce any negativity that she felt. But how do you change who you are?!? How do you be less friendly or helpful to people? How do you change how you fundamentally relate to others?
Well, you stay married for another nine years. Slowly, who you are gets eroded away. You get convinced to move to Arizona so she can get you away from those friends (I quickly made new friends). I stop reading before falling asleep, because that takes away from quality time from her. I stopped video games. I stopped gardening. Eventually I stopped everything in my life except work time and wife time. I didn’t realize any of this at the time, but this was choking me. I will openly admit to spending more and more time at work. I was used to time with family, friends, alone time, work time and wife time.
When I attempted to explain this as a problem for me, she reacted as though I was nuts. Suggesting that she make friends and have “friend time”, and she develop hobbies and have “alone time” was foreign. I pushed. She discovered painting. I supported her. She went back to school to get a second degree in art. I supported her. She made friends and began to spend time with them. I supported and celebrated her. Her teachers soon told her that she didn’t need classes or another degree. She was a natural… she just needed to paint. We traveled to New Mexico and became patrons of a museum that housed the work of a local artist she admired. At my urging she contacted and met with this artist, who told her to forget grad school and just paint. Beside that woman and my wife, there were about 5 artists in the world that could produce abstract spiritual art on the level they were at. People would look at her work and just openly weep without being able to explain why. Back at home, the wife pursued grad school, in spite of all of the advice that she would be just wasting time (and my money). After asking several times, and getting blasted for asking, I determined this was in pursuit of NOT painting. At first she didn’t know the reasons herself. She was afraid of painting. Today people would say that when she painted she entered a “flow state.” As a therapist trained in hypnosis I might say a trance, or focused attention. Because of her past; any state like that was seen as a break from reality. That was equated with mental illness and tapped into deep fears that she could become unbalanced herself. Rationally she knew that she was past the risk point. It didn’t matter. There would be no painting.
So paying for her unnecessary schooling, and pushing her to develop friendships, hobbies, skills and confidence worked. She had developed some independence and didn’t need me as much. She asked for a divorce. I gave the only answer I could – yes! Later she said that she didn’t want a divorce. What she wanted was me to change. Nine years later she just wanted me to change what little was left of me. I had wasted nine years of my life while who I am was being eroded, and it still wasn’t enough. She called my parents and told them I was making a mistake (by agreeing to the divorce she requested). She called old friends and told them she was suicidal (she never was). She slept with her professor (grad school) and then with her boss at the furniture store where she was working. Our marriage was done but the professor’s marriage was just fine until her. The boss was at least single. She filed paperwork and I signed it.
So marriage as the “next step” was a mistake. There was a ton of learning involved. That’s touching the stove. Staying married after being told outright “I want you to change who you are,” was the bigger mistake. There is no additional learning. That is walking out into traffic.