Team. The word, concept, and experience are close to my heart. Team is work. Team is play. Team makes me think of sledding with my dog, me on my belly on the sled, her running. We are side by side, stealing eye level glances, running in the pack. Joy.
Team is projects I’ve worked on where the personal dynamics among the people played like each, while individual, was part of a larger organism, or machine, with focus, steering towards a goal through the jungle of ups, downs, incoming bombs, outside treachery, wins, and losses. Different skill sets. Different perspectives. But all on-board, throwing down together.
Rare, but it happens.
In my novel, Shaking Out the Dead, Geneva, 62, is asked to describe her vision of an enlightened relationship. She says, “The enlightened relationship would run along the lines of a Wyatt Erp/Doc Holliday kind of bond. But with steamy sex. Friends. Comrades. Hot sex.”
But that’s not the marriage she had.
As the novel looks at different expressions of unrequited love, for Geneva that is expressed through her marriage to a husband who has been struck by Alzheimer’s. He’s there, but he’s not there. Her heartbreak is in the recognition that it had been that way since long before the Alzheimer’s. That Geneva’s needs weren’t met in the marriage would be an understatement.
But here’s how she saw it:
She had chosen marriage and she had chosen Ralph. Loving him well, as she had promised, was not among her life’s accomplishments. But it was an open-ended intention. A promise without an expiration date. To trust herself, Geneva needed to know that her word meant something. Loving Ralph wasn’t about Ralph. It was about her.
It’s the self-responsibility narrative not uncommon among the self-improvement crowd and those who think in terms like “personal growth.” It’s an approach to
life that’s admirable for its merits, but short of enough for those who want communion, too.
A less central character in the novel, less concerned with self-responsibility, had a very different idea about how to handle a marriage that wasn’t working. His name is Lee.
[I]f you want to save your marriage, you must first save yourself. Had it not been for Corrina, he knew, it might’ve been him instead of Margaret. Dead. In order to save himself, he had lied to Margaret. True. But Lee found that most women didn’t want to deal with the truth. They wanted to deal with their feelings. They wanted you to deal with their feelings, too. It didn’t matter what messed-up, imaginary nonsense their feelings were based on, they wanted you to acknowledge them.
Acknowledge them. Hell, Lee felt he was drowning in them.
I wouldn’t consider Lee the most evolved of men. Yet, I enjoyed writing him.
Here’s what his wife, who is dead at the onset of the novel, had to say about their marriage:
Margaret had tried to fix it with Lee. Tried hard. She had tried to fix it by speaking in “I” statements and following the guidance of relationship how-to books. She did what the gurus instructed. She communicated. But if you feel unheard, invisible, and not of consequence, your communicating of those facts only meets the same fate: Unheard. Invisible. Not of consequence. . . Clear and concise articulation of what she needed only insulted Lee. He called it complaining.
The book isn’t about marriage being a big bummer. It’s about figuring out what it means to love and accept love in return.
Yet, it is true that while writing the novel, I was examining my own marriage.
[Geneva] knew well that she had not been born with the stuff that greases the skids for married life. Acceptance. Amnesia. Marriage required a duck’s back. Geneva was born with a porcupine’s topography, a back like a pine-covered hillside. Nothing rolled down it, nothing shrugged off. Experience tangled. Words jammed. She’d find the emotional debris, pick it up, dissect it, and smear it on a slide, view it under the power of magnification, all grotesquely large. Making studies of feelings is big business–therapy, talk shows–but Geneva learned the hard way that the scientific mind applied to love instead of test tubes, leads not to high fives and by-George-I-think-we’ve-got-its. Picking through their love in a petri dish, to Ralph, had seemed a lot like looking for problems. And problems are, well, problematic, negative indicators, cause for alarm. And Ralph’s alarm led to his anxiety, which led, for Geneva, to frustration. A stray musing or theory on their relationship, she found, inevitably morphed into conflict. There were two speeds, agreement and argument. What she had been seeking was exploration.
Was Geneva me? Part of me, I suppose. An exaggerated sliver of me at a specific point in time now in the rearview mirror. I identified with her for much of the writing of the book but in the end identified more with the perspective of a different character.
Was Lee me? Well, I can certainly see where he’s coming from. Compassion for the chronically dissatisfied is hard to come by, particularly when one is the target of the dissatisfaction. How about Margaret, his wife? Was I her? I took a feeling I had on one hard day and I imagined what it would be like for someone to feel that way every day. That imagined life became Margaret; that’s when she became more than a dead body for another character to react to.
Lee and Margaret are minor characters. Of the three main characters, Geneva is the only one with marriage on her mind and the marriage on her mind is the one she’s in and what it means and what it means now that her husband is all but checked out and she’s still alive and wants to be alive, wants communion. But she wants, too, to find out what it means to take the whole road and not leave a thing until it is done.
Is there a holy secret revealed in undergoing the entire journey, ‘til death does two part? Is there something only the initiated could ever know?
We have this one life. Such choices are sacred, and important. We must be brave and make them, and in the process discover what it is we are truly committed to.
K.M. Cholewa is the author of Shaking Out the Dead, published by The Story Plant.