There is always the smug assumption among us old married folks, that those who have made it this far will somehow get to the winning post, egg & spoon bravely shoved out in front of us, other hand behind the back, big smile on face. We don't imagine tripping flat on our faces.
My husband, whose birthday is today, is a wise man. It's not just for the beard I call him the Maharishi, although it does amuse me, stupidly, every time I say the word. He is circumspect, understands the peccadilloes of human existence, truly sees others in shades of well-analyzed grey, not just black and white. I listen to him. I like his humanity. He sends money each year to the Southern Poverty Law Center, dislikes hate of any kind, and somehow, for me, this establishes his place as a moral arbiter. He's all for the underdog, the downtrodden. He taught me at a very young age that there is no place for racism, even in dumb jokes. There was never a distinction, for him, between men and women, in terms of what we can do.
He was brought up by his mother mostly. He was of the generation that rode the wave of divorce that was so popular in Southern California in the 70s, saw his father at the weekends, and never questioned female empowerment. His mother worked and went to college to get her Master's degree in Fine Art. She studied in the bath, her damp papers spread out all over the tiled walls, her blonde hair piled loosely on the top of her head. In college he studied Mary Daly. I'd hardly heard of feminism when I met him.
If you were brought up as I was at a certain time, in a certain place and of a certain class in England, and especially if you lived in the country, you were led to believe, quite gently in fact, that the views of men are just slightly more important than your own. Anne Lamott, who is not English talks about this in her lecture "Word by Word," how her father, who she considered quite well-adjusted, left-leaning, a Democrat, still managed to leave the impression that if you're a girl who is brought up in Los Angeles, the views of a man from San Francisco are more important than your own and if you're an East Coast man your views are even more important than the man from San Francisco.
My uncle, a radical thinker, gave my mother a copy of The Women's Room by Marilyn French in 1977 when it first came out. It was the Norwegian version, called Kvinner, I think, that sat by her bed and she rested her morning tea cups on it. I don't think my father knew what it was. She could have read it but I'm not sure that she did. My father thought the feminist movement was "a lot of rubbish." In our house, it seemed to be about people burning their bras. I could never quite understand it. What my father said went and my mother, for the sake of peace, stuck with the plan.
So, to hear a man that I loved say "You can be anything you want to be" was quite revelatory. It may have been the luckiest moment of my life when I met him on that sunny November morning in 1983.
Other friends didn't fare so well. If you've grown up with oppression, even in the mildest form, you don't really have to be a psychoanalyst to know that you will, subconsciously seek it out. Many of the women of our generation married men who were like their fathers, who treated them like like small girls. Some still do.
As you age, I suppose, your beliefs become more crinkly around the edges, more stretchy, are less rigid and fundamental. The stick is removed from one's backside. There is a softening. And yet what kind of behavior should be forgiven or glossed over and what can be acceptable? How far do you have to go to hurt the person that you love before they put up a boundary? What, in essence, can you live with?
I don't believe in settling. Our marriage, for all its weirdness (oh we yell, we scream, we behave far more like Italians than Northern Europeans), is one that is based on mutual respect. We've had huge hurdles to leap (country/city, believer/non-believer, UK/USA)and fosbury-flopped over the cultural divide but we still find common ground, you know, little bits of golden Jerusalem.
And then friends are mistreated. It's funny how the most giving people are the ones who are most taken advantage of. Funny's the wrong word. It's deeply tragic. My advice is always too strong. The Maharishi is dispassionate, lays it out carefully, isn't so strident, while I am almost immediately righteously indignant. It's a place I like to go. "Move in with us," I want to say. My office is cozy, the duvet is warm, the bed comfortable even though it's from IKEA. "I can make you eggs and bacon and bring you tea in the morning."
My daughter, quite plainly the Einstein of the family, and her friend K have decided that they are going to live together as adults. They may still marry, but want a kind of lesbian commune, without the sexual component, where they can be safe and happy and with their best friends. The men in their lives will be allowed to visit, but their house and garden will be a kibbutz of sorts, a sanctuary of wildflowers and vegetables and animals. And women. The idea appeals to me. It feels a little Bloomsbury. Old-fashioned and sensible. And safe.
An aside: There's a Jodi Piccoult piece in the Telegraph today. I've never read a Jodi Piccoult book, but this made me want to:
But there's a common criticism. Her stories can seem formulaic: moral dilemma, several viewpoints, death, court case, twist.
"I can't stand that accusation," she says. "I defy you to find another writer who has written about as many subjects and taken you on as many journeys as I have. John Grisham doesn't get complaints because his books are about the legal system. Maybe it's because I'm a girl."
Everyone deserves a safe place, a place to be oneself. Ideally the place has room for a dog or two, some flowers (pink peonies are awfully nice), a little table, a notebook and pen. And there should be a place for your mate, too. Somewhere that you can sit together, quietly, and read or write or watch the hummingbirds outside.
Or, in my case, a monster tv showing the Lakers play-offs, broadcast loudly, with maximum audience participation.