Category Archives: Relationships

Advice and experience for those who are in, out of, or considering relationships.

The Art of Community

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It was a running joke in the old Reclaiming Collective that “The Future of the Collective” would always be an item on our meeting agenda, and we would always run out of time before addressing it. The joke lasted for years, and provided a refreshing bit of honesty about our ambivalence toward maturing as an organization and community. 

We were an action-oriented group, always organizing the next ritual or set of classes, and many of us worked together in other direct action groups as well. So there was some measure of pride in saying that we were too busy doing things to sit back and wonder why we were doing them, or where it all might lead. That was fine for slower-moving, less radical organizations, but not for us. It just wasn’t in our DNA.

Living in the moment, moving by the tides and dealing with only what is immediate and unavoidable is a great way to test yourself, learn new things, and form bonds of kinship. But while some of those bonds may stand the test of time, most dissolve as quickly as the moments that produced them. Reclaiming proved to be far better at creating moments than building anything meaningful or lasting, but it did teach me a whole lot about what community really means.

Community is who shows up. If you are going through a tough time and have been brought to your knees, who calls to check in? Who comes over to help? Who can you count on through thick and thin? That’s your community, like it or not.

When I went through my own hell realm a few years ago, what made it all the more painful was noticing who responded to my calls for help. Many people I assumed were my close-in community were nowhere to be found, while others I hadn’t considered inner circle ended up there because they wanted me to count on them, no matter what.

I took the lesson, and completely re-arranged my notion of who my community really was. The process has also made me acutely aware of where I put my energy. Where does my heart lie? Who is family to me? That is who I show up for.

My friend (and former neighbor) Peter Laufer wrote of our town:

A town’s character is influenced by its physical location and its architecture. But its mythology and sense of self develops as events occur.

The art of community is building that mythology through the repetition of physical actions that improve the group’s overall health and goodwill. It turns out that community has very little to do with a shared worldview, the number of meetings attended, or the intention with which it formed in the first place.

Moments are fun, and can be meaningful, but showing up is the sinew that makes a community somewhere you want to stay for the long term, maybe a lifetime. There is an art to that, yes, but it is also a practice. And for that, you don’t need an agenda item.

On Relationships: The Importance of Juvenile Fiction

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My favorite books growing up, the ones I happily read over and over, were Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, a five-part mythological mystery adventure series set in post-war Britain and Wales, where a small troupe of plucky kids overcomes an ancient evil with the help of their Merlin-like great uncle. These books no doubt spurred my early interest in genealogy, as I kept secretly wishing I had such a man of mystery in my own family tree.

I would read all five books in order, savoring each one, then after spending a bit of time reading other books (to see if they were anywhere near as great), I would go back and read them again. I also loved Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, among many others, but they did not stand the test of time for me like Susan Cooper’s novels did.

Having favorite books as children is important as we develop adult relationships, too. In college, one of the standard questions I asked new acquaintances was what their favorite books were growing up. If their eyes lit up and they started jabbering wildly about their most beloved books, I knew that we could possibly be friends—though maybe not best friends if they thought My Friend Flicka was the best book they’d ever read. Yet friendship was still possible between us because we shared an essential type of imagination, whereas with those who didn’t love fiction as a child it was not.

Which is why I was mystified by the answer my first love, let’s call him Chester, gave to my all-important reading question. Chester was an imaginative, adventurous fellow, but he said that he didn’t have a favorite book or author growing up.

“Well, I mean, what were some of the titles that you read the most?” I asked on more than one occasion.

“I read the Horatio Hornblower books several times, those were good. I read the Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island—I read lots of books,” Chester replied almost defensively, “but I wouldn’t say I had a favorite.” He was certainly well-read, no doubt about it, but where was the gleam in his eyes, the sharp intake of breath as he described a book that had truly inspired him as a boy? I thought it odd, but took him at his word and chalked it up to It Takes All Kinds.

Eventually Chester and I got married and had children, and I thrilled to watch each of them fall in love with their own favorite books once they started reading. I figured that as long as they were arguing passionately about which was the better series, the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, they would probably turn out just fine.

As our children became teenagers, though, things between Chester and me grew more difficult. What had started for me as a vive la différence kind of marriage was degenerating into a “this strange guy and his intolerable habits” scenario. I started reading fiction again, which I’d had no time for while raising young children. Not just any fiction, either—I took up the lengthy, ambitious James Clavell novels set in the Far East. I began with Shōgun and worked my way forward chronologically from the 17th century to the present.

Then a funny thing happened. I was reading King Rat, Clavell’s novel about prisoners in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, when Chester’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I loved that book as a kid. I must have read it over a dozen times, and never got tired of it. King Rat, what a brilliant book!”

I was stunned. “Really?” I asked cautiously. “What did you like about it?”

“Well, the main character is just so smart! He outwits all the officers, has a hand in every black market deal on the island, keeps his men alive by being daring and clever, and basically thrives in an intolerable situation.” Chester face was glowing, his hands effortlessly animating his speech. My heart sank.

“But Chester, this book is about a sociopath! It’s like Hogan’s Heroes on steroids, true, but the guy is only out for himself and doesn’t care about anyone or anything. He cruelly manipulates his fellow prisoners, is uniformly hated by everyone, and ends up a lonely, ostracized pariah. Really, that’s the book you loved as a kid?”

I tried not to let my disappointment show, but I’m afraid it was evident. Here, finally, was the answer to a question I had been asking Chester all the years I’d known him. I had never given up searching for that clue to his early psyche, and now that he had revealed it, I was more troubled than ever.

Chester must have realized that he’d said too much, because he shrugged and walked away with a look that said that I would never understand. Later on he tried to backtrack, saying that King Rat was just another of the many books he had read and been influenced by as a kid. I pretended to believe him and let it go, but I never forgot the gleam in his eye I had glimpsed that day.

Inevitably, I guess, our marriage unravelled a few years later. Its demise is a long story—but entertaining!—that I will write about some other time. One of the things it taught me, though, is how right I’d been about what we read as kids. At first I believed Chester when he said he still cared about me even though we were breaking up, but I was deluding myself. I still imagined us as part of the same plucky group of kids who were working together to combat evil, whereas he was involved in a complex psychological thriller where only he would emerge the winner. Too bad he never stopped to consider how his story ends.

At the end of The Dark Is Rising books, the kids prevail in their quest—that is the good news at the end of this particular story. I never would have guessed that children’s fiction would be a lifeline during a long, drawn-out divorce, but it absolutely has been. So here are two essential pieces of relationship advice: first, read a lot of great fiction while you’re growing up. Second, look for partners who shared those early delights and inspirations, but only get involved if you’ve been on the same team from the start.

How Nora Ephron Ruined My Life

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My ruination at the hands of Nora Ephron began in 1978, when as a high school senior in Oakland I was able to take classes at UC Berkeley. This was a tremendous boon not just educationally but recreationally, as there were security guards constantly patrolling our high school parking lot, looking out for rebellious teens such as myself who might try to cut class and leave school early. Now, thanks to my special UCB privilege, I could leave anytime I wanted and they just waved me on. That was a huge improvement in my life thus far, and not anything Ms. Ephron should be faulted for.

I decided to take English 1A first, to get a required class out of the way, and strode into Wheeler Hall one afternoon to look at the print-out of all the TA’s who would be teaching different sections. I chose a cheerful-sounding woman who didn’t list any Shakespeare in her required reading list, because how bad could that be?

Beth, my TA, turned out to be 24 and cute as a button. She was like a 5’2″ Barbie doll, with gorgeous flouncy hair, a great smile, and sparkling blue eyes beneath very long lashes. She held her piece of chalk like it was a cigarette, which I thought tremendously sophisticated, and kept the class jocks in line by sassing them back. Beth was a bonafide liberated woman, as well as being a talented teacher, and she wasn’t going to teach from a standard-issue English text—she assigned us Nora Ephron’s recent book of essays, Crazy Salad.

Suddenly I entered a world in which women could not only sass back in person, but also in print. Ephron wrote about everything from Watergate to breasts, and even dared to title a chapter “Vaginal Politics.” Each week I sat in class, amazed that we were talking about Linda Lovelace and Martha Mitchell in the same breath. Each paper I wrote was a little gutsier, a little more humorous, than the last. Beth was very encouraging.

Of course it was not meant to last—anyone at the registrar’s office could have told me that—but the damage had been done. I had caught a glimpse of a world that didn’t actually exist, except for Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30–4:30 pm. In this world Nora Ephron’s writing was something to admire and emulate, which left me completely unprepared for what came next: Robin, the bitter TA who taught English 1B.

Robin’s pathway to a PhD was littered with the trampled dreams of every young woman in her classes who dared imagine that they could write. She threw us into the viper pit of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and stomped on our fingers, laughing, as we tried to climb our way out. I learned two things in that class: one, that I would never be a serious writer, and two, that I couldn’t read worth a darn, either. It took me ten years after that to finally give creative writing another try.

I blame it all on Nora and the way she breezed across the cultural battlefields of the day, tossing jokes out of her bag like some irreverent, feminist, female, neurotic Johnny Appleseed. She made it seem easy, even fun, to be a successful woman writer, at a time when such a thing barely existed outside of small enclaves like New York City.

But that is not the only wrong I have suffered at the hands of Ms. Ephron. Just last week I was reading I Feel Bad About My Neck, and this line jumped right out at me: “Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.” Damn you, Nora Ephron! Why didn’t you tell me that years ago? Couldn’t you have said that back when it might have done me some good, like before I married the guy who was a difficult boyfriend, an even more difficult spouse, and now that we are divorced is completely insufferable?

In Nora’s defense, I was probably too young at the time to have believed her even if she’d said it to my face. That’s just how it is sometimes with young love. Still, even though I was probably not going to take that bit of advice, it wouldn’t have hurt to hear it a few times before marrying someone I now have to be divorced from for the rest of my life.

Ironically, though, reading the divorce comment was also what convinced me to finally let go of my hurt and resentment towards Nora Ephron. She didn’t mean it personally, for one. Second, I figure that if Nora can still manage to be a funny, irreverent, feminist and neurotic writer all these many years later, she must be doing something right. Which means that Beth had it right after all, and Robin merely deserves our pity for ending up as a technical writer instead of poet laureate. She had so much potential, I am sure.

And third, maybe I should write my own relationship advice sooner rather than later, since I now have so very much of it to share. It might help the next woman unable to see clearly due to all the love-bugs squashed on her windshield. It could also prevent me from being attacked for not sharing soon enough. So you will notice a brand new “Relationships” category assigned to this blog post, along with the new “Leaving Hotel California” free-for-all memoir category. I will leave you with my first piece of advice: “Never marry anyone (updated!) you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.” I hope you find it just as useful as I did, and even more timely.

How Time Flies

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What a banner weekend—a heady mix of the new moon, Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah, and Autumn Equinox. The air has that piercing clarity of autumn too, with the touch of morning chill that makes the apples and pears so crisp and flavorful. My little apple tree is still too much of a fledgling to bring forth a harvest, but a next door neighbor has two neglected pear trees that are overhanging our backyard with the most succulent-looking fruit that is just about ready. Even not being a huge pear fan, I am practically salivating watching those plump, golden pears ripen slowly in the autumn sun.

This weekend was also an anniversary of sorts—the anniversary of the end of a relationship. I told my dream group the other day that it had been four years since I’d left my marriage and moved to the coast, and they were all aghast. Had it really been four years? To them it seemed like a year or two at the most. Yet having lived through every day of that transition myself, I could assure them that yes, it really had been that long.

But things do have a miraculous way of starting over. Once we declare something dead, and give it time to pass away, something new really does rise up to take its place. When my ex and I bought this property several years ago, one of the first things we did was plant some fruit trees in the back corner of the lot. We hooked these young pioneers up to the drip system, didn’t bother protecting them, and left them to fend for themselves. After about a week the deer found them and quickly made a nice meal out of every single thing we planted. Our trees were decimated, and we abandoned the project in favor of more practical things.

Then the lot filled up with construction debris from our various remodeling projects, and soon the whole place was all choked over with weeds and berry vines as well. When I moved in to stay four years ago, cleaning up the back lot was the least of my worries. I managed to haul away the household toxics and have the tallest weeds cut down to suit the fire department, but that was the extent of it.

LoqMcB

Now my sweet new boyfriend wants to plant a garden back there, and has taken the unprecedented step of actually cleaning out all the construction and yard debris. It took a while, but once the crap was hauled away and the entire place mowed to within an inch of its life, we got a big surprise.

There, newly uncovered and looking quite sturdy, was a lovely McBeth Loquat tree that had survived the massacre, with its nursery tags still attached. It had simply bided its time after being so badly treated by us and the deer, and grew back slowly under the cover of the tall weeds. Now that its drip connection is fixed and the deer have been ousted, I take great pleasure in greeting it every time I go back there to watch the garden progress.

fruit

And that in a nutshell is how to survive a divorce. Hunker down, do what you need to do to survive, but never forget to unfurl your leaves at the least little bit of sunshine or rain. Life is too sweet, and too precious, to deprive yourself of a minute of it. And in time, you may surprise yourself by blossoming more than you ever thought possible.