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Before you become interested in seeing the light, to you mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after you get an insight into reality, mountains to you are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; but after this when you really attain the place of peace, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters.
Old Zen saying
Same old slippers,
Same old rice,
Same old glimpse of
William James Lampton
My husband is my best friend. When I wake up and look at him next to me, I smile. He is a good man and a gift of God to me.
Monticello, New York
By Phyllis A. Tickle
One pleasantly cool morning a few weeks ago, I was lying in bed not quite awake and not quite asleep, but just drifting in that state which is halfway between the two. I was thinking of nothing more significant and meaningful than how good the blanket felt up around my shoulders and that the tip of my nose was just cold enough to feel good too. In the half-light seeping around the edges of the bedroom shades, I could tell from the faint smile on his face that Sam was floating in the same delicious suspension as I was. At the time, he was on his back, which meant that I was lying in my favorite position as well. On my left side with my knees drawn up half under his buttocks and my torso shoved solidly up against his, I had my left arm tucked under me and my neck cradled on top of his outstretched right arm. My right hand lay flat on top of his chest, secured by the tight, warm grip of his left one.
It was, as I have said, a perfectly lovely moment. I would even say a perfectly ordinary one, were it not that something in me rebels at the notion of the words lovely and ordinary being in the same sentence together without any explanation. Be that as it may, however, we were lying there in customary positions and totally familiar circumstances when it happened. I was watching Sam's face, trying to gauge just how awake he really was and how much longer we were going to be able to fend off reality by lying there like truant children. He still had his eyes closeda good and hopeful sign, I thoughtand his breathing was still reassuringly even and deep . . . or it was, until abruptly he did this thing. He squinched.
Yes, he squinched. The side of his nose from its beginning at the inside edge of his cheek to the peak of its bridge wrinkled up like corduroy. Not another facial muscle moved, not another piece of skin twitched, just that thin, tightly drawn bit from cheek base to bridge.
"That's not possible," I thought and realized that I was abruptly awake. Then just as I had almost persuaded myself that no one could even do what I thought he had done, Sam Tickle up and did it again . . . which pretty much says it all for me. That is, I had been lying beside that same man in that same position for almost fifty years and he had never once squinched before. I mean, just as I was beginning to think I had it all figured out at last, the man goes and takes up squinching. I was appalled and, for several days thereafter, I continued to be offended . . . not so much at Sam, you understand, as at a system that lets a person change his personal habits after fifty years and not even have to apologize for it. I got up grumpy and stayed that way for a good five minutes before the whole thing struck me as being as funny as it was annoying.
When I was a maturing teenager, my mother used to say, "Marriage is" when considering such moments and she'd stop the sentence right there. For all my pestering, she would never add either predicate nominative or predicate adjective to her statement. She would just shake her head and simply repeat "Marriage is" as if that were the whole sum of the thing. Since the squinching episode, I have begun to accept the authenticity of her statement and, almost, to appreciate its sufficiency.
My mother's other great pronouncement on the subject of marriage was that married people, men and women alike, could all be divided into two groups. There were those, she said, who were constantly conscious of their marriages at some varying level of awareness, and then there were those who were totally unaware of their married state, much less of its being a free-standing part of themselves. By this she meant something entirely different from what you and I would infer were she to say the words in our hearing today. That is, my mother was not speaking of flirtatious conduct or even of some casual naughtiness in the sheets, but of a kind of anesthetized indifference that sometimes characterized marriage in her times. With the exception of spinster aunts and older widows, almost everyone in my mother's day was married simply because, as she said, marriage was, just like eating was or sleeping was or earning a living and believing in something were. Marriage was as matter-of-fact a part of human existence as any other of these things, just as it was closely related to each of them by social expectation and outright necessity.
Times have changed, of course, and blessedly marriage is only one of several attractive and sustaining options open to us. Even fifty years ago when Sam and I took our vows, either or both of us could probably have bucked expectation and remained both single and still respected at one and the same time, had we chosen to do so. Certainly there's no doubt that any one of our children, boys and girls alike, could have opted out of marriage with never a word or a query from their peers, their employers, or their fellow citizens. In point of fact, three of them did take their own sweet time and almost thirty years of life before succumbing, though their grandmother, were she still around, would never, never be able to put them in her category of the unaware. Rather, delaying marriage has bred in them that kind of honed intentionality and focus that seem to me to be becoming hallmarks of marriage in these days of many options.
In point of fact, if I were to assume my mother's penchant for separating married people by types, I would have to confess that I can think right now of no more than two (maybe three) acquaintances who might possibly fit into her indifference column; and both of them are over fifty. Everybody else I can think of falls more or less into her category of the constantly aware. The difference between my effort at groupings and my mother's, then, is that I effectively have only one group . . . that, and the fact that my one big group has four parts. Of course, nobody I know ever stays in any one of my four boxes for more than a few days at a time, but it consoles me to have a sense of order about such things. All of which is to say that, unless my powers of observation fail me, the range of emotion among the married and aware today seems to swing on a rather frequent basis from "I hate being married to XYZ," to "I hate being married," to "I like being married," to those ebullient, euphoric moments of "I love being married to XYZ."
The interesting thing, now that I am old and can observe with more perspective if not objectivity, is that bouncing back and forth amongst these states of self-perception is not only normal, but even helpful. It is only the business of staying in any one of them for too long that seems to invite disease if not in one's self, then in one's mate, and certainly in one's marriage.
I rarely hate being married to Sam Tickle on Sunday, for instance. On Sunday, we get up late, we go to church, we go by his mill working plant to feed R.J., the guard dog with the perpetually happy disposition (Don't ask!), and we go out for a late, long lunch. What's not to like about that? As a schedule, it's predictable, low-key, and almost impeccably stressless. Because of that fact, most Sundays never come close to punching even one of my hot buttons. (Much as I may deplore those buttons, I still have to have them, and always at the ready, too.) But the point here is that on Sunday we're not at home, so Sam does not whine that somebodymeaning mehas misplaced his hammer or his hedge clippers or his checkbook, because on Sunday he's neither building nor gardening nor banking. On Sunday, I'm not reminded, as a consequence, that never in his life has the man ever lost anything or made a mistake that couldn't, and won't, be laid to my doing. Just ask him, but please don't do it on a Sunday.
The times I positively love being married to Sam Tickle are cut from a different run of cloth, however. They're the moments or hours or days when he's tending to a hurt animal or an errant and ailing plant; and I can feel the gentleness of his hands just by watching him. I can know, as well, that whatever he touches will be the better for his having laid his hands and his wisdom upon it. Retired now from the active practice of medicine, the man is and ever was a healer of all living things. There is about him, when he is practicing his art, a kind of magic that is as visible as a nimbus and that at times fills my eyes with tears with its beauty and economy.
I love being married to Sam Tickle and nobody else in the whole world ever when he is in conversation with other people and casually inserts flashes of insight or esoteric fact or introspective experience that neither I nor anyone else present had either suspected in him or thought of for ourselves. The fact that he never knows he's executing this bit of legerdemain only adds spice to the surprise of it. I love being married to Sam Tickle when he's in his planning mode. What to do about Christmas decorations? About the flower beds along the front walk this spring? About marketing the end bits and pieces of prize lumber left over from the mill works? Always there is the studied consideration of the possibilities followed by the imperturbable concentration and focus in exploring and effecting the decisions followed always and without fail by a result which, while unusual and sometimes even quirky, inevitably solves the problem with style and panache. This latter result is blatantly remarkable, in fact. I know, because other people besides me remark upon it rather frequently.
I love being married to Sam as Sam at other times too, of course. Most of those times, however, belong not here in public conversation, but rather in private ones between the two of us. Besides, like Sundays or the benedictions of healing or the creative flashes of genius, such times are not the warp and woof of marriage so much as they are the color and highlights in its pattern. The steady weaving of a life together is caught and anchored elsewhere. It is caught and anchored in the tension of the fast-moving shuttle as it flashes back and forth between "I hate being married in general" and "I love being married in general."
For most of us there is nothing personal involved in the "I hate being married" frame of mind that afflicts us from time to time. Rather, there is a totally dispassionate, totally impersonal recognition on the part of many a woman that it's a damned nuisance to have to do up whole baskets full of laundry which she didn't dirty in the first place and most of which didn't need to be dirtied quite so viciously and carelessly in the second place. It's also a pain on most days for many a man to have to leave what he is doing in order to eat, hungry or not, just because somebody else wants him to and is more insistent than she has a right to be. It's a real unpleasantness for everybody to be able to track a mate's progress through a house every single day by the trail of open drawers, slightly ajar doors, and pieces of abandoned clothing he or she has left in his or her wake and intends always to leave there. The result of these low-grade aberrations of conduct is that even on Sundays, most of us can have fleeting, and sometimes less than fleeting, moments of not liking to be married in general, if not in particular.
The times of our discontent are only adult versions, of course, of the contretemps between petulant two-year-old twins sharing the same sandbox or aggrieved adolescent siblings still sharing the same bathroom. We choose not to see our grown-up discomforts of inconvenience and limited autonomy in such terms, naturally, but that ego-protecting decision does not change the progress of what is happening to us. Like rocks in a lapidary's tumbler, husbands and wives are daily sanded and smoothed and polished, each by the other; and abrasion by any name hurts. It also produces a fine patina, one that most of us can achieve in no way other than in the tumbler.
So, do I like being married? Yes, but unlike my mother's aphorism, I think marriage does as well as is, and I like being married for both those things.
Marriage makes me more than me (for we are two and formidably balanced in our skills) and less than me (for married I am only half a whole and no longer my own free agent).
It makes me strong to venture (for there is another waiting to catch and repair me) and weak to dare (for there is another whose good rises and falls with my own).
It makes me more sure (for there is another who has told me of the rightness of my thoughts) and less sure (for there is another who has demanded I see the error and selfishness of my ways).
It makes me Phyllis to his Sam, yet teases us both with the sure knowledge that his Sam has become my Phyllis and that, like the rocks in the tumbler, our surfaces now more reflect each other than their own singularities.
Having said that, however, I must add one last and purely personal note, namely that I have had to change my initial opinion of squinching. It is increasingly my opinion, in fact, that in an era where marriage both is and does, squinching and all its near-kin of random acts and brand-new gestures are really quite reassuring and valuable. Squinching, at least in my brief experience with it, seems to mean that even after half a century there's still some otherness in this marriage that wants courting and that wants to court. It would seem, in fact, that there's still some life in the old boy that I haven't yet discovered, much less worked on. As I say, I like being married both in general and in particular.