No one ever thinks of it when they’re twenty. But by the time they’re thirty, if they don’t already have a family, and no prospects for one, they begin to wonder. “Will I marry? Will I have children? Will it happen for me?”
They, especially like me, wonder if they had always had coinciding thoughts of these rites of passage and the passage of time in the same breath.
Getting out of a marriage is rough, though, and not just for the legal/financial complications or the massive lifestyle upheaval. It’s the emotional recoil that kills you, the shock of stepping off the track of a conventional lifestyle and losing all the embracing comforts that keep so many on that track forever. To create a family with a spouse is one of the fundamental ways a person can find continuity and meaning… 1
— Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book for the first time. I feel like I’ve never seen the movie, because there is so much that is fundamentally different from the book. Someone, off the cuff, a stranger, said, “Read the book,” that it was better. You know, the way people often say that the book is so much better than the film version. This time, I have to agree. There is a depth to the book that simply isn’t there in the movie. Nothing wrong with Julia’s performance. The film’s story simply isn’t structured to handle the depth of what Liz Gilbert shares of herself. It could’ve been, but it wasn’t. A Hollywood choice, I believe.
I feel like I want to go back and do another version of the film. A version that would represent, apparently and with great appreciation, the depth of her depression and her life transformation as she travels over that year. Oh, I digress. But that is a real desire of mine. If anyone is interested in producing that version, please look me up. I’m your woman.
Back to my life… the longest relationship I’ve ever been in lasted four and a half years. I think. I’ve never been the type to know when my anniversary date was. Not for the first date. Not for the second date. Not for the moment we considered ourselves serious. Not for the moment we moved in together. Not at all. I tried to fake being interested in that anniversary stuff, but I wasn’t good at it. I’d get the dates mixed up, and not really care. That’s when I realized I prized truth over all else. But in relationships, you still find yourself faking something. And often under the premise that you’re doing it for the other person. For their happiness. To preserve their self-esteem. To preserve the peace, theirs and, well mostly, yours. To preserve the relationship.
However, in the end, that particular relationship ended. And because of how deeply entrenched we were in each other’s lives, it felt like a divorce. I was happy it wasn’t, as I hate long-drawn out confrontations. I was glad to be able to get out in one piece, especially because my “spouse” was a gracious man who worked with me to split everything up in a fair manner. But I was done and I was willing to preserve my peace of mind first and foremost. After all, that’s why I had ended it. So I didn’t bicker about what could be trivial, or make the loss of “things” more important than me.
And now almost twenty years later, I am still not married. I’ve had two other proposals of marriage, but neither of them worked out. Gratefully, actually, but I used to blame myself for that fact. Not in a maudlin, depressive kind of way. But still when it all shook out, I was mad at myself for not having taken the track Liz mentioned above, the road most traveled. She, however, put it into words with amazing clarity, whereas I’ve been living in a guilty silent haze hoping my bad feeling will go away someday.
How many people have I heard claim their children as the greatest accomplishment and comfort of their lives? It’s the thing they can always lean on during a metaphysical crisis, or a moment of doubt about their relevancy — If I have done nothing else in this life, then at least I have raised my children well. 2
I have a niece. I adore her. She is the light of my life. She was born and I felt immediately when I met her that this was my shot at parenting, vicariously or otherwise. How did I know that? The way I’ve known all else in my life, intuition. Now, she’s eleven and I’m entering pre-menopause. My grandmother had my uncle, her youngest child, at my age. But I’ve already come to my peace with that I may or may not have kids of my own. What’s this melancholy I’m feeling?
But what if, either by choice or by reluctant necessity, you end up not participating in this comforting cycle of family and continuity? What if you step out? … How do you mark time’s passage without the fear that you’ve frittered away your time on Earth without being relevant? You’ll need to find another purpose, another measure by which to judge whether or not you have been a successful human being. 3
Don’t worry about me. I’ll find a way through my melancholy. I always do. First, I’ll allow it to be, without my own foreboding resistance (or maybe with, at first, then without once I’ve allowed that to be too). Remember, I’m the “emotion” gal. I’ve got this. But first, I’ll be a mess. A mess who is contemplating her place in this world. Because I know that my allowing myself to be a mess will allow for someone else to give themselves permission to be a mess too. Then with all that space to be as I am, I’ll find my way with the greatest of ease.
Until then, I’ll say this… I believe this is where we are as a human race. Redefining ourselves from this place that we’ve hard-defined with such solidity that most of us are not even aware of the reasons we follow these rites of passage and find ourselves with families and children and at PTA meetings, when we may have never envisioned that for ourselves at all. We are in the midst of redefining what marriage is for us, as the ancient definitions of dowry and status no longer apply. We are redefining what it is to be a woman in the world, what it is to be a man in the world, and we’re bumping up against these very solidly defined ideas we’ve crafted over the centuries and millennia, and… Well, we’re coming up with new ways of seeing life and they are rocking our worlds, literally.
There are so many more of us defining ourselves by, well, ourselves and not a partner. And it’s something to be in the discovery without guidelines, rules, a guidebar to show us where to go. But then I’m the girl who didn’t care to map out her pilgrimage across Spain alone. I figured there had been many there before me, so I’d just follow the yellow arrows painted and repainted over the years since. But wait… right there is a guidebar and the path carved by many before me. I may not be the maverick I think I am.
And yet that realization doesn’t change my sometimes fear, sometimes anxiety, sometimes disappointment, sometimes complete elation, sometimes utter despair, sometimes hopefulness, while I live “off the track,” remaining open – maybe even hopeful – to returning to the track at any time. I’ve spent a lot of time finding my balance and my appreciation for the life I’m living right now in every moment. Who knows what my life will look like in 5 years? Not I. That’s the awesomeness of surrender. And that’s just what I’ll do, again and again and again and again.
1, 2, 3 Quotes from Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert