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I really hate hearing about how awesome and special other people’s marriages are. I find it really gag-provoking.

I hate when married couples make a point of letting us know that they are spending special time alone together. They refuse an invitation to hang out with the group because they’ve set the night aside as a date night for the two of them. Puh-LEEZE, I always think. Make it another night. Or morning. Or afternoon. You guys live together, for goodness sake; the possibilities are endless. There are only two of you; it can’t be so hard to coordinate a night between the two of your schedules! Make it a breakfast date for tomorrow morning.

Maybe there’s just something wrong with me. I also get annoyed seeing parents look gaga-eyed at their own offspring, particularly if the child isn’t a particularly attractive specimen. Get a room, I think.

I roll my eyes when I hear the lilting words “I gotta get home to my hubby!” at the end of a girls’ night, or reading “I have the most wonderful husband in the world!” on some woman’s Facebook status. For some reason, I find their expressions of affection irritating. The worst is when husbands and wives address each other directly on a public forum like Facebook, writing on each other’s walls, “Have a wonderful day, honey! I love you! You are wonderful!” Excuse me while I shove a finger down my own throat. Couldn’t you guys have said that in, like, a face-to-face encounter? In private? In your home?

I saw a friend do this again recently – gush to her husband over Facebook about how awesome he is – and I immediately went back to my blog to delete any mushy stuff that may have occurred on it between me and Ben. (I am happy to report that I only had to delete one thing). I don’t want to be that couple, that is constantly broadcasting their love for one another.

It’s not that I don’t want people to have happy, romantic marriages – I do. That’s part of the reason I started this blog in the first place. And it’s not that I’m jealous of these couples – I’m not. Ben and I are very happy together. It’s just that  . . . I generally loathe hearing about other people’s matrimonial bliss. Maybe I’m a Love Grinch or something.

It makes me think of Algernon from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, who complains about being seated next to a married woman at dinner who always flirts with her own husband. “It’s not pleasant,” he says. “Indeed, it is not even decent . . . The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public” (Act I).

How true, Algy, how true.

As a consequence of my sudden impulse to delete any and all mushy stuff between me and Ben, I later prohibited Ben against leaving any more comments on here.  It actually hurt his feelings, to tell you the truth, and I feel bad about it. “You don’t want me to engage your writing any more?” he asked. “Are you embarrassed of me?”

Oh maaaaaaan!

I had to explain that I love it when he responds to my writing. It fills me up with warm fuzzies when my hunny-buns leaves insightful comments on my blog.  But I’m afraid of being gross and “washing our clean linen in public.” I told him that maybe he should just respond to me in private, since we live together and all. I said I was afraid that his comments might look like PDA’s to other people – like making out in public. Ewies.

What do you guys think, though? Do you like witnessing other couples’ love, or do you find it gag-inducing, too? Does it make a difference, do you think, if you’re single or if you’re in a relationship?  And does the format influence your reaction to it? (Like, if the couple is self-conscious and funny about it, does that make it OK? Or is it more romantic if the couple is completely unaware that anyone can see them?). If you’re married or in a serious relationship, do you try to avoid public displays of affection, or do you let them fly like clean white linen flapping in the breeze? Why or why not?

Also: am I a complete jerk? Should I not have told Ben to hold off on the comments??

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“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear . . .”

I just finished reading C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It was a very moving experience, as it is composed of Lewis’s diaries during the time after he lost his wife, Joy.  He says some very powerful and heartbreaking things about marriage so I decided to discuss them here, especially considering my earlier posts on death.

Just to give you a little background story on the book, in case you don’t know anything about the author: the story of Lewis’ relationship with Joy is crazy-romantic.  Lewis was a bachelor for the first fifty odd years of his life.  Then he became good friends with Joy, a middle-aged American woman (and divorcee) with whom he had been corresponding through letter for some time.  She moved to Oxford, England, where Lewis lived, with her two sons (I don’t quite remember the reason); and that’s where their friendship really took off.  Eventually she was supposed to return to the States – she was getting deported or something.  In order to keep her in the U.K., Lewis generously married her in a civil ceremony.  They remained living apart.  Later, when Joy was diagnosed with cancer and was given only a short time to live, Lewis realized he truly loved her and got a priest-friend to perform a Christian marriage before her death bed.  (Ladies, I will give you a moment to sigh and brush that tear away from your eye).

Miraculously, Joy went into remission, and the two of them enjoyed four blissful years of marriage.  But Joy’s cancer soon returned and after those all-too-short years she passed away, leaving Lewis grief-stricken.  In his agony he composed A Grief Observed, where he records his suffering, his struggle with God’s alleged goodness, and eventually his way back to faith.

Like everything else that C. S. Lewis has ever written, this book is utterly magnificent. That goes without saying.  But it’s also different from any other book he published because it is a diary, and because it is so personal, so candid, and so sad.  It is painfully honest as he recounts his rage, doubt, and mind-reeling sorrow. I have never heard him be so straightforward.  He wonders aloud whether God might be some perverted cosmic sadist who enjoys seeing his little humans enjoy a little bit of happiness before snatching away their loved ones forever. Lewis describes how a sudden memory of her voice “can turn [him] at any moment to a whimpering child” (17).  He admits that he is worried that he never truly believed in an afterlife for the righteous.  He completely falls apart, and gets the whole excruciating mess down on paper.

This book is profoundly sad. I cried real tears over his loss, and also at the universal tragedy that is love.  But I also felt the depth of this little book’s wisdom.

One of the most powerful sections of the book, for me, was when he talked about the inevitability of grief.  He is talking about how marriage miraculously takes us “beyond our sexes,” when he adds:

And then one or other dies. And we think of this as love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid-career or a flower with its head unluckily snapped off – something truncated and therefore lacking its due shape. I wonder.  If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation . . . then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.  It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer.  It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. (58-59)

What a tragic and painful truth.  Lewis argues here that grief is an essential part of the love cycle: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes death, then comes grief.  Possibly for both partners. It is completely inescapable.  Indeed, it is quite fundamental.

I was forced to grapple with this truth. Is it really so?

If so, how do we deal with this knowledge?

One of the main conclusions I was forced to draw from this unbearable truth is that we need books like A Grief Observed. We need them if we are ever to get through it.  I don’t know of anything else that can help.  If we must all inevitably face bereavement, we need to hear from one another.  We need to share our suffering, to remind one another that we are all on this sinking ship together.  Yes, Ben and I will one day have to face separation, and I can’t even begin to fathom how crushing that experience will be. But there is a sliver of solace in the awareness that so did Jack and Joy.  So must we all. As Lewis so unhappily suggests, “all lovers without exception” must face separation, and we might make it through if we acknowledge that universality.  Death is the next step.

We don’t like to talk about death and grief if we don’t have to. We choose to avoid the subject altogether when we can, often refusing to even think about it. We think that people who dwell on the subject are “morbid” or “dark.”  But sometimes I think we need to read stories like this – real ones, that don’t edit out the excruciating realities of life. We need to remember our mortality, and the mortality of our loved ones.

We love to talk about love. But if grief is one of the necessary phases of love, should we not talk about it as well?

Lewis’ book is not without hope. Near the end, he records an experience where he feels he has been visited by his lost love in the night. He describes the experience a receiving the “impression of her mind momentarily facing my own. Mind, not ‘soul’ as we tend to think of soul” (85). She is more like “sheer intellect,” expressing “no sense of joy or sorrow. No love even, in our ordinary understanding. No un-love. I had never in any mood imagined the dead as being so – well, so business-like. Yet there was an extreme and cheerful intimacy. An intimacy that had not passed through the senses or the emotions at all” (86).

Magnificent.

He concludes his book by saying, “How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back!” Although he is still heart-broken at the end of the book, he seems at peace. I hope to learn from his example.

Lewis’s book broke my heart.  But it also gave me strength.  Only he could pull this off.

Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed. 1961. Toronto: Bantam, 1976.

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Changes: Me and Affection

(Continued from Ch-ch-ch-changes . . . )

Growing up, I was never big into hugs.  As a teenager, I grew to rather dislike them.  And by the time I was a young woman I positively dreaded them.  I just didn’t like touching people.  Human bodies are all so warm and moist and mushy, especially women’s bodies.  To me, human bodies feel like overgrown, sentient, animate mushrooms.  Skin is doughy and disconcertingly balmy, and the fabric that we humans use to cover it gives me the shivers when it touches me, all warmed by another person’s body heat.  All stiff and pulled tight over the round bulks of mushy flesh: yugh.  No thanks.  Every time girl friends would make their rounds with hugs as they said goodbye after a night out would I would stiffen.  Oh crap: hug time.  We were suddenly going from being abstract generators of words to living bodies of flesh that were going to touch each other: YIKES.  I would back away from the group slowly, looking around casually to avoid notice, in the hopes that they’d overlook me.  I wouldn’t have cared if I had never gotten a hug in my life.  In fact, I probably would have been happy to arrange that.  Oh bliss: to be left alone!  I had only ever had one boyfriend before, and we had broken up partly because I couldn’t stand his touch.

I don’t know how I got this way: my parents were always affectionate and hugged me and my siblings quite regularly throughout my lifetime; no one ever did anything to make it weird for me.  I was never abused or anything.  When I was a teenager my mom would cry and ask what she’d done wrong to make us that way – for my sister was the same as me.  We never touched one another even though we were best friends and even shared a bed.  We never, ever hugged.  If we both wore sleeveless shirts and had to sit in the back seat of a car together we would put a sweater between us so our skin wouldn’t touch.  At least we understood each other.  But I don’t know how we got that way.

So with all this inside of me, I knew I faced a dilemma when I started dating Ben.  On our first few dates, we had hardly touched – we just exchanged quick goodbye hugs at my front door when he dropped me off, and we were wearing winter jackets and gloves when we did it.  That hardly counts.  Then, when he asked me to be his girlfriend and I accepted, he soon wanted to know what I was comfortable with physically.  Surprisingly I hadn’t really thought that far yet.  Up until then I had only been concerned with showing him that I liked all the right songs and had read all the right books.

“Um . . . I’m okay with holding hands in public and stuff,” I answered lamely.  I realized even then that this was rather pathetic.  This was my boyfriend.  Holding hands probably wasn’t going to cut it.  But what was I supposed to say?  “I’m not crazy about hugs and I think kissing is gross”?  I don’t think that would have gone over too well.

Fortunately he was bolder and more impatient than I expected and ended up plowing through all my boundaries rather quickly.  In the first few days he took the liberty of holding my hand often, and touching my knee tenderly whenever his gear shifter bumped into my leg when we were driving in his car.  He kissed me after only two weeks of being together – an appallingly short time span for me – and it rather upset me.  Soon he was coaxing me to lean on his chest when we watched a movie together in his room and putting his hand on my waist when we walked together.  Every new advance always made me uncomfortable, but thankfully I found it a little exciting as well.  And I liked his gentle words and his sweet little love notes and his quirky ideas about science and politics so much that I let him do all these things to me.

It didn’t come naturally to me, but with time, I slowly warmed up to these things – kissing, snuggling, hugging.  Eventually I even learned to like them.  He smelled exceptionally nice, and with time his skin and clothes and arms and lips didn’t feel gross anymore.  In fact they felt nice.  His body was warm and comfy.  With time I found it felt less mutant-mushroom-y, and more electric blanket-y, or comforting like bread fresh from the oven.  Cozy, soothing, homey.  I felt protected and cared for when he put his hand on my shoulder.  I felt loved when he played with my hair.

It took conscious effort on my part to show affection back to him: I had to decide to put my hand on his back when he leaned forward beside me during a movie.  It took me a rather long time.  But I got better and better with time.

I was still not super-affectionate by the time we got married, but I was more or less like a normal human being.   I liked to put my cheek against his and smell his fabulous leather-and-fabric-softener smell.  But ever since we’ve been married I’ve developed something new:  I actually crave his affection.  I long for his embrace when I’m not with him.  I’ll watch him while he talks sometimes and stop paying attention to his words, becoming distracted by how nice his lips look for kissing.  I prefer to watch movies right next to him so I can feel his body right next to mine the whole time.  After four years of marriage I hunger for it more than ever.  I’ve come to the point where I ask him half a dozen times a day to hug me, and to let me sit on is lap while we look at something together on the computer.  I need his touch.  I need those kisses and hugs and caresses.  They’ve become like food – I need them every so often in order to survive.

I know that in some ways this sounds like a bad thing – like I’ve gone backwards, from being independent to becoming deeply dependent.  I was fine without affection before, but now I’m addicted to it.  When I say it like that, it seems wrong in every way.  But I think this new weakness is actually a strength.

For one, it has made me more sympathetic to the rest of humanity who needs affection.  I understand a little better now why people do the crazy things they do for love.  And now that I’ve come to appreciate affection, I can more easily offer it to others who need it – like my future children.

And for another thing, I think it has made me more fully human.  As social animals, it is pat of our very humanity to want, share and offer physical affection.  Before, when I hated touching, I was something unnatural, unhuman.  Now, I’m a more complete human being, more fully alive.

Even though it makes me needier, I believe that I am better off needing affection than not knowing what I’m missing.  I needed to become dependent on someone.  I needed to become more fully human.  So change turned out to be a good thing.

As a side note, I still hate hugs from girls – those big mushy breasts all squishing up against my own (. . . yugh!) – but at least I’ve made some progress.  I don’t sneak out of the room when the girls start giving each other hugs — I can endure them without flinching.  I once hugged a friend when she told me she was pregnant.  If I try really hard, I can imagine how someone might find a girl-hug enjoyable.  I’ve even voluntarily hugged a couple of babies in the last year or so, something I never imagined I would do, which would probably make my mother weep for joy if she knew.  I’m getting there.

So I admit – marriage did change me.  But it wasn’t an immediate change.  It was a slow, imperceptible change that eventually made me a wider, deeper, and healthier human being.  I’m glad it happened to me.

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Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

For all the things my youth pastor said that I loved and agreed with, there is one thing he told us which I have never agreed with.  He told us that the moment you have sex for the first time, you are transformed into a new being.  As a result, married people are completely different from single people (Well, I’m paraphrasing).  Consequently, married people were no longer allowed to attend young adults’ Bible study on Wednesday nights at our church.  One week we were allowed and then the next we were not because we got married.  Now, I totally respect and admire my youth pastor in every way, but I still think that that is utterly and completely absurd. (Although it’s very likely that he has changed his opinion on this matter since then).

During the time that I was engaged, though, I was deeply afraid of turning into a new person when I was married.  More specifically, I was afraid of turning into a boring person (but that’s another issue).  A lot of my friends at the time seemed to hold the belief that you become a new person when you get married, and I was afraid they were right.

I guess you could say that I was attached to myself the way I was.  I wonder if most humans tend to be like this.  We love ourselves so much that we think our current selves are the best possible ones out there and therefore we don’t want to change.  I didn’t want marriage to change me because I figured I was already good the way I was.  Which is really arrogant, I have to say.

On the one hand, I am happy to report that I did not wake up a new person the day after my wedding.  I still loved Charles Dickens’ novels, Relient K’s music, ironic t-shirts, studded belts, Converse sneakers and blue Freezies.  (Indeed, you may not think that these things are interesting or cool, but at least they were the things I had liked before I was married).  Sex did not transform me into a new person.  Nor did living with a husband.  Not right away, at least.  I just had a new address and a new last name.  To my great relief, I was still the same me.  I enjoyed talking about mythology, ethics, etymology, and history as much as I ever did.  In other words, everyone else around me continued to think I was overwhelmingly uninteresting to talk to even though I had gotten married.  And I was happy.

But on the other hand, in the years that followed, I did of course begin to change.  And instead of it being a bad thing, I found that it was mostly a good thing.

A lot of it had to do with living apart from my parents: I started growing up when I moved in with Ben.  I had new responsibilities and I had to learn to deal with them.  As a result, I started to get interested in some grown-up things, like cooking and gardening.  Even more of my changing had to do with my increasing education – I finished my Bachelor of Arts degree and then my Master’s degree while married.  I went from being a timid student to something of a scholar.  But admittedly a lot of my changing had to do with marriage itself, too.  Being married had a slow but profound influence on me.

Most noticeably, being married made me a much more affectionate person.  And this is what I want to focus on in my next post.

[Come back tomorrow to read more!]

 

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I’ve learned a little trick for dealing with my negative attitudes towards certain tasks:

If an activity is unattractive, think of it as an art form.

See, here’s the deal: before I was married, I loathed the thought of performing domestic, traditional-wifey tasks. I dreaded the thought of cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, baking, childcare, et cetera: if it was “woman’s work,” I didn’t want to have to do it.  I thought that stuff was lame.  I even thought I wasn’t good at it.  I told Ben, before we were married, that I wouldn’t pack his lunches for him like his mom did. “If anything, I’ll fill one big container full of food for you and you can take that to work.  Don’t expect me to put all kinds of snacks into all kinds of baggies for you,” I said.  I could tell he was disappointed to hear this but I wanted him to be prepared. I was not a wifey kind of girl.

Things started to change when, after I was married, I found I was actually quite good at a lot of these things. I had to cook since Ben was completely useless in the kitchen; and I soon found that cooking came quite naturally to me, even though I hadn’t done much at home.  My meatloaves and casseroles always turned out beautifully.  My cheesecakes were surprisingly delightful.  I also kind of got interested in natural health, which got me thinking a lot about nutrition; that in turn led me take cooking more seriously.  And I found I liked things neat and tidy in the house, so I found myself cleaning quite regularly.  I liked for my home to be pleasantly ornamented and colour-coordinated. I liked my yard to be attractive and well-kept, and I enjoyed planting bulbs and flowers.  Oh frig: I was becoming a traditional wife.

I needed a new way to think about all this domestic stuff. I needed a way out of the unappealing identity that I was becoming entrapped inside. I hated the thought of being a traditional wife but I was doing – and enjoying! – all the stuff that traditional wives did. I was experiencing “cognitive dissonance” and I needed a way to reconcile my inner conflicts.

So I began to think of these tasks as various art forms, and myself as an artist. “Cooking” became “culinary art” or “cuisine.” My concern for interior spaces became a penchant for “interior design.” My interest in plants and shrubs became an interest in “landscaping.” You get the idea: I began to tell myself that I wasn’t a traditional wife performing obligatory duties; I was an artist seeking self-expression.  In things like cooking and decorating and gardening.

I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating here, but I honestly have begun thinking about these tasks in a new light and it has really changed the way I live my life.

My perspective on cooking changed the most radically. Before I was married, I dreaded the thought of cooking because I had always seen it as a duty that women had to perform for their families.  It was a degrading task, unfairly foisted upon women through history because they were physically weaker. Women couldn’t join in on the fun and important stuff that men got to do, like hunting and travelling and getting university degrees, so they had to stay home and cook.  Cooking was a thankless, rather mindless job.  It was primitive.  It was for boring people.  It wasn’t concerned with individuality, which was a really big deal to me at the time (I was soooo self-absorbed. Maybe I still am).  But ever since getting married and taking over the kitchen in our home, cooking has actually become one of my favourite activities.  I love it.

Cooking is an opportunity to be creative: I enjoy trying new recipes from around the world and experimenting with different exotic spices. I love inventing my own recipes based on old ones that I’ve mastered, or trying to imitate foods that I have enjoyed in restaurants.

But I also love cooking for all kinds of other reasons, too. I have decided that it’s an elemental practice that deserves respect because it helps me to get me in touch with my humanity. It connects me with other cultures and people throughout history.  When I knead bread, for example, sinking my fists deep into flour and water and oil and shaping it into loaves, I am participating in an ancient practice that has been performed by human beings since the beginning of time.  The fact that it’s primitive is beautiful to me now – it’s historical and mysterious, and a little bit magical.

I also now believe that cooking is an honourable job because it is so essential.  My cooking provide nourishment for our bodies: I provide sustenance.  I prepare the food that keeps us alive. Cooking is life-giving.

I have found that cooking is even a source of power. I choose the menus in this household. I set the schedule for our meals. I have the last say in what we put in our mouths. I get to make what I want, and Ben has very little input in this.  Furthermore, I am taking control of what we eat.  Instead of letting other people (like restaurants) decide what I consume, I take food into my own hands. Literally.

Cooking is even political.  If I think it’s morally problematic to eat animals or genetically modified foods, or to buy products from ethically-questionable providers, I make the decision to avoid those foods in favour of ethically acceptable foods. As fellow blogger Sarah puts it, I vote with my wallet, and food is a particularly important sphere.  I make choices that have political implications, and these choices are significant.

In short, cooking is artistic. It’s ancient. It’s beautiful. It’s powerful. And it’s political.

Sweet.

I’ve found that this is true for a lot of things I formerly considered lame: there is a lot more to certain activities than meets the (young, closed-minded) eye. Like gardening: I used to think it was just for grannies and other people who didn’t have productive or interesting lives (Sorry, grannies. I haven’t had very positive grandma role models).  Now I feel that gardening is a sexy hobby that helps me to get in tune with the earth and with the rhythms of nature.  It gives me an opportunity to be creative outdoors.  It takes aesthetics into account, and speaks to the human soul.  Stuff like that.  It totally rocks.

I think it’s helpful to think about these tasks in this new light.  It has allowed me to explore all kinds of new realms of life that I wouldn’t have considered before I was married. I’m even starting to think that mothering seems pretty awesome.  I have learned that just because something is “domestic” and has been traditionally practiced by women it is not necessarily tedious or pathetic.  Women have actually engaged with glorious, meaningful crafts, and I should be proud to participate in them.

This is not to say that cooking, cleaning, gardening, et cetera are only for women, or that women must perform them; I’m just saying that a lot of these things that have traditionally been done by women are actually pretty awesome and that jerks like me should reevaluate them from a more open-minded perspective if we find ourselves being prejudiced against them.

What do you think?


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A Wife and a Scholar

I have a confession to make: I love standing out.

I love being “different.” I have always loved being left-handed, just because it makes me different from the majority.  I have always enjoyed wearing striking clothes because I know it gets attention.  When I was in high school I wore bright, mismatched, punk-rocker clothes with all kinds of wrist cuffs and humourous buttons to get people to notice me.  To my prom I wore a homemade, orange-and-lime striped dress with army boots and a purple spiky bracelet.  It made me feel fabulous.  I looked different from all the other cleavage-baring divas.  And I love that I’m tall, because at 5’10” I almost always stand out in a crowd of women.

I love public speaking because I enjoy having hundreds of eyes on me.  I take pleasure in making controversial remarks in group settings to see all the heads turn in my direction.  However, I know that doing any of these things in excess – wearing crazy clothes, clambering for the spotlight, saying provocative things just for attention – make a person a douche bag, and I also like to be liked.  I know a guy who very observably strives to be in the limelight all the time, and almost no one can stand him.  So I try to keep it to a minimum.  Instead, I prefer to have people come to the conclusion that I am different by their own investigations.  That’s when I really glow.

That was one of the perks of being married in university: it made me different, and it got me attention.  All of my Mennonite friends back home were married, and most of them were even younger than me, so I was no big deal to them, but at school people would freak out.  I loved nothing more than when a fellow student would turn to me, slack-jawed and wide-eyed after hearing my marital status from a friend, and say, “You’re married?” My insides would all puff up smugly and I would say in the most nonchalant voice possible, “Oh, yeah . . . I’m married.  Almost three years now, actually.” And I would try to flash them my wedding ring.  It was even better when they asked me details about how old I was or whatever, and they’d respond to every one of my answers with “Oh my god.  I can’t believe it.”  Turns out I don’t look like a person who would be married, with my black nail polish, skinny jeans and scuffed-up Chucks.

My ultimate favourite moment of this sort occurred when I arrived at my blood-donation appointment on campus a few years ago.  I have absolutely no problem being stuck with needles so I would always make an appointment to go in when Canadian Blood Services came onto campus.  It was time for me to go into one of those sound-proof booths where the nurse would ask me all those embarrassing questions like “Have you ever had sex with a man who had sex with a man before 1988?” I was wearing my lime-and-purple suede shoes and my “Talk nerdy to me” t-shirt, toting my heavy backpack and my vintage plastic California Raisins lunchbox.  The lady in her red scrubs took my stack of papers with my ID on top as we both sat down.

“Whoa – I almost did a double-take! For a second there, I thought your ID card said ‘Mrs.’”

“Uh . . . it does,” I said.  “I’m married.”

“Oh!” she replied, looking closer. “Sorry! You look like you could be a student here.”

“I am a student here.”

Oh,” she said again, looking completely flummoxed.  She looked up at me again.  I don’t remember what she said next because I was too busy congratulating myself for being so awesome.

I was so pleased, you’d think I must have won something.  I gloried in being an anomaly – a university student who was also a wife.  And not a wife who’d returned to school after raising children to advance her to career or anything, but a gum-chewing, sneaker-wearing, twenty-one-year-old newlywed.  Like the nurse, I found that many people assumed that the two were mutually exclusive — you could be a “Mrs” or you could be a university student, but you could not both simultaneously.

It felt good to not fit into people’s predetermined categories.  It felt good to be surprising.  Before I was married I was afraid of becoming a wife because of the unattractive category it put me in, alongside old-fashioned, uneducated, domestic housewives and frumpy, mullet-wearing moms.  I somehow thought I would have to become one of them.  I thought it would somehow make me less of a scholar.  But I discovered I didn’t have to become the kind of woman that is expected to be found in that category.  I was able to straddle identities.  I was able to carve out my own unique space.

I learned that none of us has to conform to people’s pre-conceived notions of personal identity.  I felt so free when I discovered this.  I can be married and still love rock shows, John Donne’s sonnets and Latin verbs.  Likewise, I can be a university student and still love sewing, baking and grocery shopping.

You probably already knew all this, at least implicitly, but I didn’t before I got married.  I thought I would have to fit into either one category or the other, and I dreaded that.  I had no idea that being fully a wife and fully a student at the same time would be twice as fun, and that it would actually make me more “different” than either on its own.

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Independence: A Virtue?

(I’ve made a few minor edits to the post below since yesterday so that I’m not making such broad and sweeping statements about “society.”  I know I have trouble with that sometimes.)

“Come on, married ladies – assert some independence!”

This is what my friend Heather wrote in an email to my sister and me in an attempt to convince us to stay the night in her lodgings on Pelee Island where she worked over the summer.   She knew that both of us were hesitating over the decision because of our husbands.  I, for one, always feel terrible when I leave Ben behind for a night of fun with the girls.  I know that he just mopes around at home by himself all evening and then cries himself to sleep.  He’s a friggin’ loner and never thinks to call up some buddies and spend the night playing video games or whatever instead.  And he can’t prepare his own food past toast and pancakes, so he tends to go Gandhi on me whenever I’m gone.  It’s pretty sad.  So I usually opt to only go on day trips with the girls and return for the night to my recluse of a husband.

I have two immediate but contradictory impulses in response to such an urging from my friend.

The first is to affirm my independence.  “I am an independent woman!” I want to say. “I’m a free-thinking, self-motivated, successful individual.  I completed an M.A. while my husband only has a high school diploma. I have my own hobbies and read my own books and form my own ideas.  I instruct him on things like theology and philosophy.  I have a significant voice in this relationship – I make important decisions on how this household runs.  I have my own group of friends and go out with them on my own several times a week. I have school friends.  I attend a book club.  I am not a traditional, submissive wife.”  I confess that this knee-jerk response is mostly influenced by my strong desire to be a hip, contemporary, highly-esteemed North American woman.  I don’t want to be hokey and old-fashioned.  And I truly believe that I am my own person.  I have my own identity apart from my husband.

But a different side of me wants to dispute the very value of independence.  Independence is a distinctly Western value, I want to point out, and one to which I don’t personally subscribe.  It’s a construct of our individualistic, competition-driven, self-centered society, I want to say.  Only in our “me-oriented” society are individual goals and wishes prized above duty and relations with others.  Outside of our culture, folks actually value community and interdependence.  Collectivist cultures, for example, like the Japanese, regard the self as primarily embedded in relationships, and they prize harmony with one’s groups above individual goals and wishes. (If my words here sound eerily familiar to anyone, I am totally pulling some of these definitions from my old psychology textbooks).   I want to argue that I don’t need to subscribe to America’s empty, isolating values; in fact, I feel that collectivist values are often more in tune with Jesus’ teachings.  In light of these alternative values, my friend’s call to “assert my independence” has no real meaning.  Why assert independence?  I believe in interdependence.

Both of these responses are, of course, overly extreme.  And the wise thing would be to try to strike a balance between these two opposing perspectives.  Individuality and interrelationship are both important, I am sure.  I recognize the value of negotiating each person’s individuality within the shared identity of the couple.

But still.  I think our culture as a whole places too much emphasis on independence, and we would do well to think hard about its relative value.  I believe that one of the many reasons folks in our society can’t keep marriages together is because they place too much value on the virtue of independence.  Husbands and wives too often are not willing to make sacrifices to one another in the name of “being true to themselves” and “asserting their individuality.”

The other day I was making some edits to this here blog when I noticed the list of automatically generated “possibly related posts” that WordPress annoyingly tags on the end of some posts. I clicked on one, and it led me to someone’s anonymous blog that dealt with the author’s online love affair with another man.  As I read, it became clear that the author was a married woman with a child.  She was writing to her secret internet lover whom she had never actually met.  In her blog, she talked about how she hoped to someday leave her husband and come away with her lover.  “I still love my husband,” she wrote; but staying with him meant being “untrue to herself.”  They were too different, she complained, and she needed to follow her heart on order to be true to herself.

Ridiculous, I immediately thought to myself.  I cannot believe this woman thinks that she is more “true to herself” if she follows her emotional impulses and abandons her husband and daughter simply because they no longer fit her idea of her “true identity.”  There are legitimate reasons to leave a husband, to be sure, such as abuse or perhaps adultery on his part; but in order to be “true to oneself”?  Absurd.  I feel that this woman epitomizes the kind of thinking I’m talking about: she prizes individual happiness and success over relational harmony and duty.  Her own feelings are more important than the success of her marriage and the justice of keeping one’s promises.

I know that leaving a husband for a weekend with the girls is a far cry from leaving a husband permanently for another more exciting lover.  The two can’t even be compared.  And of course Heather is not advocating the kind of self-centeredness that motivates infidelity.  Furthermore, I don’t think I would necessarily be doing something wrong by going and having fun for a few nights without him.  But I do believe that I ought to seek his permission first, just as he ought to seek mine.  In that way we are mutually dependent on one another: we must seek each other’s approval in all our decisions.  And I insist that we both need to make sacrifices for one another, even if it means occasionally giving up some good times to make the other person happy.

I just want to be cautious when we instinctively extol the virtues of independence, autonomy, individuality, and self-sufficiency.  Are they really things we should seek unequivocally? I know I still struggle to find a balance between pathetic attachment and cold individualism. I just don’t want to unthinkingly absorb all my culture’s widespread values, either.

What do you think? I’m sure you guys can come up with lots of good reasons why independence is more awesome/important than I have suggested here.

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