Reassessment

When I was younger, not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, I ached very deeply for something that would make me “complete.”

I threw my heart around to at least a dozen not-so-deserving young men who quite honestly didn’t know what to do with it, and looking back on it now I can somewhat understand their predicament.  I might have found whichever young man absolutely perfect for me, I might have devised ways to rearrange my life to make a life with him work out, but he simply was not into the plan.  I was his friend, nothing more, and never would be anything more.

I will hasten to add that I think a number of these men truly did me wrong in a few different ways.  First, every last one of these might-have-beens had led me into thinking I was something extra special to him.  The attention and what I interpreted as advances (some could truly be interpreted no other way by a reasonable woman) instantly caught me and I didn’t want to let go of what I saw as something pretty good.  The problem always was that these young men didn’t see anything “special” in me aside from a friend that he could talk to about music, literature, theology, or life in general.  I was easy to talk to and available, so we became friends.  Nothing more.

This broke my heart over and over again.  Why wasn’t I “good enough” to be loved by this young man?  Each loss compounded, and I felt like a failure.  I recognised very readily that I was young, but I also realised that plenty of young people have made some pretty dumb decisions that have upset the course of their lives–and I had already tried to make some pretty serious blunders.

The thing that bothered me most was knowing that I was on the verge of menopause at 22, and that multiple doctors said that I would not have children easily, if at all.  If I was going to have a family, I needed to get on it.  This rationale probably seems silly to most, but it was and still is important to me.  I feel a little vindicated that the Orthodox marriage ceremony mentions children so often, because I feel like the two, in a normal world, go hand-in-hand.  That was what I wanted for my life.  If children weren’t in my future, then marriage was probably not either.  Monasticism was a good choice for me, but it wasn’t the best choice.  My heart wasn’t there, and I couldn’t make it work.  Not then.  I have to admit, I look back and wonder what would have happened if I had chosen monasticism.  I would have still considered the might-have-beens, I’m sure.  I think I could have had a good, productive life as a monastic.  But it didn’t quite fit and I couldn’t force it to.

It was about a month after I returned from the monastery with the direction from the abbess to “get back out there and see about finding a husband,” that I met my husband.  He was the first truly good, wholesome young man who had ever pursued me–and without much push from me.  I actually rejected his advances initially, like had happened to me so many other times in my life, over things that were big both superficial and not.  The point was that at first, I was not willing to give him a chance.  I wrote him off like others had written me off.  Under the direction of a good priest, I decided to give this young man a cautious piece of my heart and we started very seriously getting to know each other.  Two years later we married.

Looking back on these events, especially now, is almost overwhelming.  I was certain so many times that these young men I carefully selected were perfect for me, and if they disliked certain aspects about me (usually my weight), then I was determined to change to make me like them.  I knew at the time that changing in order to garner someone’s love (unless it is a flaw–then change away!) was completely wrong, but I couldn’t let go of the dream that I created for myself.

Do you know what didn’t help me get past the heart aches, though?  Being told, “You’re young,” or “Someone will come along,” or other such statements that would either discredit my desires or wrongly give hope.  I knew (and know) plenty of women who wanted to marry but frankly never did.  The “right guy” never showed up.  Then suddenly they weren’t young anymore.  Yet I wasn’t willing to just marry anyone either.  I would rather not marry the right man than marry the wrong one.

Reflecting on all of these things makes me so thankful for the man I married.  I think about each of the might-have-beens that I “missed out on” and thank God I didn’t ever gain any of their attentions despite my efforts.  Had I married a man who didn’t like “fat” women, or who thought I needed to be cheerful and positive at all times, I would likely be alone or perfectly miserable right now.  Losing a child is a huge, life-changing experience.  If the love between a couple isn’t well-founded and selfless, it’s likely to just dry up.  My husband and I have had to cling to each other more and more since Seraphim’s death.  We have fought a lot (especially August through November), but we’ve gotten a lot of experience at forgiving each other.  Sometimes I feel a tinge of “crazy,” and my husband loves me just as much and tries to help me through the pain, thoughts, and struggles.  He isn’t perfect; sometimes the best he can do is listen to me and tell me, “I don’t know what we can do.”  But do you know?  The listening is what I need the very most right now.  I need to be heard.  I need what I say to matter, even if it is a little unreasonable, or if there is no solution.  Sometimes I need to give voice to what I feel so that it has value and can be handled better.

I have the absolutely best husband I could have ever hoped for in the decade of my hopes and heartbreaks.  He is so good, sometimes I fear I will drive him over the edge and lose him, but he is so selfless and forgiving that I think if this is the worst it gets, I shouldn’t worry about that at all.

The only thing I ever needed to hear all of those years was: “You need a man who, when things get harder than you can possibly imagine, will support you and love you more than ever before, who won’t expect unrealistic or superficial things of you.  If that man doesn’t come along, you’re better off without one at all.”  This seems practical, but that isn’t what we usually tell young women who are heartbroken.  And sometimes they don’t need to be told anything–they just need to be heard.  I sure do, even (or especially) now.

If I could meet up with younger me, I would tell her what I said above, but not much else.  I think the young men I fell in love with and who broke my heart made me better, and were good experiences–even the worst of them.  On one level, I read books and listened to music I never would have known had it not been for my idolisation of those young men.  I learned many important things from our conversations and see the world differently because of them.  I regret very little of any of it.  It was part of my life; it made me, me.

I hope we can cling to the lessons about life we’ve learned from our children who have come into our lives for such a short time and then out again.  I will always see the world differently because of them, too.

And I’m glad I married the man I did every single day.

“Better this than parting.  Better to be miserable with her than happy without her.  Let our hearts break provided they break together.”  The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis

(I have been thinking about writing this for a while, but this song popped up on my Pandora station an hour ago and I realised how fitting it was.

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A Year

A little over a year ago, my husband (who was then my boyfriend) asked me to marry him.

It wasn’t a surprise, and that for some reason is very disappointing to a great many girls.  I personally would’ve found it jarring to be completely surprised that the man I was dating actually wanted to marry me.  When we were courting initially, we spent a lot of time getting to know each other through letters and weekly Skype chats (which sometimes lasted 6 hours…).  We agreed that we would continue getting to know each other in a this-could-be-romantic sort of way until it appeared obvious marriage was not part of the plan.  It was a very cautious acquaintance-with-romantic-intentions period of our lives.

It never seemed like there was some great “sign” that, yes, this was the man I was supposed to marry.  But there were no great signs that he wasn’t, either.  The more we got to know each other, the more we loved each other and realised that life wouldn’t be the same without the other.  He was set on marrying me long before I was convinced I felt the same for him, but eventually, carefully, I saw that it could happen.

About a year and a half ago, he took a job that was mostly overseas since he was working on a cruise ship for 7 months.  It was miserable for both of us.  We could talk on the phone once every four-five days (I got up at 6AM my time so that I would be awake whenever he approached land and could call me.  We would talk until 8:15 when I had to leave for work, and then again around 2 until he would no longer be within range of cell phone service.  (The afternoon calls were curtailed when I picked up my second job, but luckily that was with just a month and half more of that monotony to go.)  It was a deeply frustrating time for both of us, hardly talking except through occasional phone calls, letters that he could send/receive only the days we spoke on the phone (when he was on land in the US), and rare e-mails/Skype calls when he was in a foreign country and we could sync our schedules.  We got into a lot of fights.

Through the misery of distance, though, we both experienced that can’t-live-without-the-other feeling, and we both felt like the relationship would be running in place if it didn’t move forward once we had the opportunity.  If we didn’t get married, he would’ve taken another contract to make money, and that would’ve put our relationship on hold, at the very least.  Long-distance relationships are exhausting and we couldn’t handle doing it anymore.

So to pass the time for both of us, we started planning our wedding before he even came home.  We had originally thought about getting married in autumn, but we changed our minds and decided the Paschal season would be much better.  The wedding–which happened just a few months later, as is fairly typical with Orthodox Christian engagements–was at least half planned by the time he proposed (just a couple of days after returning from overseas), and it all seemed just perfect to me. 

I completely expected his proposal on the very day he did it and that didn’t bother me one bit.  It was wonderful, it was sweet, and it was memorable.  It was exactly what I wanted.

So here we are, a little more than a year later.  Using that milestone as a marker, there has been so much that has happened in the past year.  There has been a lot of disappointment, heartbreak, and sorrow–but there has also been a great deal of joy.  I am convinced more and more every day that I married the right man.  Especially through the journey of joy and tears with our little one on the way, I have seen just how well suited we are for one another.

I am definitely thankful for that every day.

Marriage Is Martyrdom… and everything that comes with it

Even before we got married, I’d been contemplating this idea of “martyrdom” that comes with the Christian life.  I didn’t have to be married to be aware that, especially to those of us who are Orthodox Christians, “martyrdom” is a daily goal.

I’m not talking about getting stabbed or beaten or ridiculed for my faith like the great martyrs we revere were.  That is, of course, a possibility, but the martyrdoms we are supposed to take on are usually a lot smaller, and there are a lot of them.  They also, it seems to me at least, are easier to rationalise bowing out of.  If someone told me, “I’m going to kill you because you’re a Christian!” I would probably say or do something that would sound something along the lines of St. Paul’s “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  It’s just so clearly the Christian thing to do.  (Note: I have never been in this situation, so I can only hope that that is actually what I would do and that it would actually be as easy as I’ve envisioned it.)  However, when I’m faced with things like doing something I don’t want to do that is also the right thing to do, it’s so easy to say, “Oh it won’t matter if I just don’t do this…” and embrace selfishness.

The Christian life demands that we “take up our cross” like Christ and deny ourselves.  Easier said than done, right?  Most frequently, the only denial I actively take part in is denying myself meat and cheese on Wednesday and Friday.  It’s a good first step to teach us control over our bodies and minds, but it isn’t the only denial we’re called to.  We have to deny our temptations, our impure thoughts, our wants.  “I would rather do this” is supposed to become “I will do this for the best of the other person (or my soul, or both).”

It’s easy to forget self-denial when you are already living for yourself.  That is why Orthodox Christians generally are supposed to choose between monasticism and marriage (there are a few unmarried lay people floating around out there, but that is because Orthodoxy is handled on a person-by-person basis with the individual and his spiritual father).  Both monasticism and marriage are similar in what they require of us spiritually and how they shape us even though they look completely different.  Both can be used inappropriately and be of no spiritual value whatsoever, though.  (Thus it’s outright wrong to say that monastics live “better” spiritual lives by default because the temptations still exist to not be holy, though I will certainly allow that they tend to be in an environment that sharply highlights the holy and unholy in the human being and eliminates, or minimises, worldly distractions.  Marriage and monasticism are very different things, after all, but one is not better than the other–only better for the individuals involved.)

I personally contemplated monasticism for quite some time.  My last semester of college, I saw the path as inevitable and made arrangements to pursue it.  An abbess I loved like a mother was fully supportive and wanted me to spend an extended stay at her monastery.  I didn’t stay as long as either of us would have preferred, but it didn’t take long for her tune to shift from, “You might be a good candidate for this life!  Try it out!” to “Why don’t you go back out in the world and see about getting married?”  It was rather crushing since at the time, I had absolutely no potential suitors.  I knew every eligible bachelor in every church near me (both in the area of California I lived, and on the rural side of my home state where I grew up and moved back to after college) and all had quickly friend-zoned me for whatever reason (which is why I roll my eyes at young men who complain that young women are always doing the “friend-zoning.”  They just don’t realise they’re also doing it.).  I left the monastery dejected, heart-broken, and a little hopeless.  I needed some kind of pilgrimage to help me at that point, I figured.

But guess what?  Just about a month after my spiritually difficult trip to the monastery, I ran into the man who would become my husband.  He didn’t “look” the way I thought he would so I tried to ignore him (I don’t actually mean physical looks–I mean he wasn’t what I had envisioned and I didn’t want to think that my personal blueprints could be deviated from).  I couldn’t, so I finally called a priest I was close to, knowing that if he could just reason with me and tell me to stop seeing this young man, I would have the resolve to actually do it!

He didn’t.  He told me to give him a chance, with some very specific and careful guidelines.

So I did.

Before long, this topic of “marriage as martyrdom” became very important because marriage was the next step for us.  (Neither of us would have continued pursuing one another after our summer of letter-writing as he was across the country from me if we hadn’t seen a potential future together, which was appropriate.  We took the courtship seriously.)  The thing is, though, that it seems I’ve heard this phrase so often, it starts to lose its meaning.  So marriage is hard work?  Of course it is.  I’m surrounded by others’ marriages every day and I see that.  But what purpose does something that is difficult have?  It shapes and strengthens us if accepted appropriately.  It can weaken and destroy us if we let it.  The latter is definitely easier because it seems to be the natural way things happen.  A situation is difficult, so I will give up, or pout about it.

In the marriage ceremony in the Orthodox Church, we are given crowns.  Now the crowns represent plenty of things, but the most apparent thing they represent is “crowns of martyrdom” like we see in the icons.  On taking on those crowns (at which point in the ceremony, the couple is actually considered married–not at the end, not at any special announcement, but in the middle of the ceremony when the crowns are on the couple’s heads, uniting them and challenging them), the couple is voluntarily taking on special tasks of self-denial.  They recognise that this life is no longer about them as individuals and that everything from this point forward will be a joint effort and have joint effects.  This is wonderful sometimes (a shoulder to lean on, for instance), and horrible other times (a companion who constantly brings to light what is wrong with you and challenges you to fix your attitudes).  Our first steps as newlyweds were taken around the table that represents the altar (the Kingdom of God) on which is the Scripture, the chalice (which represents the Eucharist and Christ Himself), and the Cross (the ultimate representation of self-denial).

Everyone calls this ceremony beautiful.  If you really think about the symbolism, though, it is one of the hardest things a person could really choose to take on.  Why voluntarily say, “Bring on the hardship and the struggles!”?  So, yes, it is beautiful–it is beautiful in the same way that blessings don’t always take the form of pleasant things.

In light of all this, with marriage comes children, in most instances.  In modern society, this is the part of the ceremony that is most uncomfortable to so many people: just how many times God is beseeched to bless the couple with children!

Ah children.  Now if that isn’t an opportunity for martyrdom, I don’t know what is!  You can either gain heaven or lose your soul raising children, which must be the reason many people want to avoid it.  There is no middle ground.

I read a fantastic blog article on this topic this morning, when I was, fittingly, contemplating writing something about marriage as martyrdom.  He entitles it: Your Life is Over When You Have Kids (http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/01/10/your-life-is-over-when-you-have-kids/).  A couple of quotes sum up marriage and parenthood particularly:

My life is over now that I have kids.

My life is over.

That thing that I called MY life. That portion of existence — that long, lonely chapter — when I lived for me, and me alone. That delusion known as my life, where I exerted, or thought I exerted, ownership over my whole self. Where I separated my life from all other lives, and lived to satisfy my whims and desires… I’m not living for me anymore. I never should have lived just for me, but now I can’t. Either I become less selfish, or I fail in my duty as a parent. There is no middle ground.

Taking care of another human being–especially one that is as absolutely helpless as a child–is a huge act of self-denial.  It is, quite honestly, martyrdom to our wants and preferences, and can very easily bring out the worst in us.  When the passions that corrupt us are brought to light, we then get two options: 1) Act on them! (Hint, this is the easy one), 2) Swallow, deny them, and do the opposite of what we necessarily want to do and how we want to react.

The phrase in the marriage ceremony that has most stuck with me over the months of marriage my husband and I have enjoyed (and struggled through!) already is the deacon’s petition that God: “That there may be given unto them soberness of life, and fruit of the womb as is expedient for them.”

As is expedient for them.

We got pregnant right away.  That was a shock to me, even though I knew I was fertile at the time (which happens about twice a year for me).  I figured we would struggle with fertility for at least a year or three, especially given what I’d been told by multiple doctors.  When I realised I was pregnant, my immediate response was anger.  I cried about it.  We wanted children, but this was a little ridiculous, right?  Then just as quickly as I figured out I was pregnant, we lost it.  I was devastated and felt like it was my fault for railing against God about getting pregnant.  Truth be told, if my cycles weren’t   I prayed long and hard that if He gave me another opportunity to have a baby, I would take it gladly and without complaint.  11 days later, I ovulated again (much to my surprise–I’d never had two fertile months in a row), and I got pregnant.  Again.

So I can only guess that this is an answer to the prayer that we be blessed with children as is necessary (expedient: practical, useful) for our salvation.  Which is why this baby, our baby that might not live more than a few minutes or a few hours or a few days or a few years, is so obviously a great blessing to us.  Every baby is a blessing, but a blessing that brings so many struggles, difficult decisions, selflessness, uncertainty (and with it the surrendering of our wills and preferences), along with the joy is the best blessing we could possibly receive.  We have to learn to see life in God’s control instead of in our own.  We have to give up so many things for the welfare of our baby and with it, our own souls.

Fittingly, our marriage crowns are displayed on our icon table in our bedroom where we pray most often.  We can’t forget that we took on this particular task when we took on marriage–even though at the time we certainly didn’t know that this would be in the future!  But we also know we don’t do this alone.  We took the crowns of “martyrdom” along with the Scriptures, the Cross, the chalice, and the Kingdom of Heaven (they are all part of that end goal) so we know that God is with us every step, and that the saints who have gone before us and completed their martyrdoms are cheering for us, supporting us, and loving us through each challenge.

It definitely makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger.

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