I used to scoff at those who simply made it work, couples who lived long and tedious years together even if the fire had died. Life is too short I thought, to spend it with someone who doesn’t kindle your passion.
That was before I knew that passion isn’t something that floats around and lands on you like a lucky butterfly (at least not all the time). It needs to be tended, like a fire in your heart, by breathing life into a spark over and over. You choose where you build your fire, and your heart listens to your choice.
When our turn came to meet and marry, I wondered how we might avoid the boring fate of the uninspired; the settlers who had aimed high and fallen short.
What made us special, more right for each other than the others? We fooled ourselves and listed off the reasons.
Years came and went in a blur of working hard and spinning our wheels. We filled our days with what we thought we had to do, passing each other on our way to office jobs, college classes, cafes where we did our homework.
No one did the dishes, I scarcely remember what we ate, and our tiny apartments never really felt like home.
We were careless with our love, sending out sharp words and criticisms and then rushing out the door to our next obligation. We thought we were building a life for our future. We didn’t see the cracks in what we were building.
A few months before my graduation, we got the best news of our lives. Our little boy was already growing inside of me.
We looked around at the pieces of our life together so far, the noisy apartment by the railroad tracks, the stacks of books and papers, the eighty hour work weeks, the anxiety and stress headaches. We knew it wasn’t what we wanted for our precious child and we dreamed bigger.
Envisioning a garden, a sandbox, a home, we bought a beautiful old yellow house and settled in. We brought home a beautiful, perfect child and hoped to give him the peaceful start he deserved. We didn’t realize how much work we had to do.
Pipes broke, the baby screamed, work piled up, and I grew into a sad and lonely version of myself. My heart sank lower and deeper, knowing this wasn’t what we had hoped for.
We looked to each other for the answers, and only saw more confusion reflected back. “Can you save me?” we asked each other. “I would if I could, but I think I have to save myself.”
We both cried about where we had ended up. We were hoping for a soul mate and found that we barely even knew our own souls, let alone another person’s. Taking a long hard look at the age old question, we dared to ask it and listened for the answer, “could it be that you weren’t the one?”
That question echoed high in the ceilings of our one hundred year old house. It bounced off fir floors where our own babies crawled. We noticed the bare places where the wood had worn and splintered. How many years did the forest grow before it could be cut to make floors that would last beyond a century?
We knew we were sinking fast and that more years spent in battle would only pile up and add more weight until we reached the bottom.
So we put a solid foothold down, somewhere to stand still and look around. The foothold was our commitment to each other, our desire to love the person across the breakfast table.
The question of “one” seemed foolish now and we quickly brushed it aside. We placed that question firmly in a box labeled “myths and lies.” What makes you “the one” is the extent to which your heart belongs with the other person. The one, the two, the three, the four of us. It’s all the same now really: family.
We gained new skills, started owning our feelings, and dared to believe in each other again. Most of all, we started listening and each moment of listening piled up until we could start climbing right up and out of our hole. We added laughter when we could muster it and that made the climbing feel lighter.
We let things go, saw with new eyes, and stood in the other person’s shoes. Most importantly, we stood in our own shoes and examined where we had lost ourselves along the way.
One day I opened my eyes and really saw him again, or maybe for the first time. I saw him pull out his entire tool box to fix a five dollar broken toy train because it meant something to our child. I saw him water fragile seeds in tiny plastic cups, set them by the sunniest window, and then finally plant them in our dirt where he grew them into food. These hands knew how to build things that would last.
This week I sat with our three year old while he worked long and hard on building block towers. He had to come to grips with the laws of physics, that you can’t put a huge block on a tiny foundation and expect it to stand. Each tower crashed and the blocks rattled on the same ancient floors. I held him while he cried and then watched as he bravely tried again.
This is the sum of what I hope he learns about loving another person. Before you can make high towers, it’s best to build a good strong base. It comes from laughter, empathy, forgiveness, accepting the other person’s struggle, and knowing yourself.
But sometimes without knowing it, you build too high and too fast. Things get shaky and start to wobble.
There is alway a way to rebuild if you’re willing. Always new and different blocks to try, always time to take a few steps back and build the bottom stronger.
So these days, I honor the builders. Those who have made high and lofty towers or those still limping along at the base. Those who have built once and decided to start again, and those who have been building for decades, creating a shelter for the rest of us.
To those whose love I dismissed so easily because it didn’t look fulfilling to the untrained eye, I see you now. I see how you walk through days and years of knowing another person, of letting go of who you thought they were and holding on at the same time to who they are and who they will become.
If you’re going through the motions, I see the art in that. I now know how foolish I was to think the motions were boring and uninspired.
Motion brings movement and life when things have gone dry.
You water the dry ground and something grows that surprises you. You sweep the floors and life flows through a room. You bend over hot skillets, and your children eat the food and become strong. You build your life the way you want it, and spirit comes to breath life into what you’ve made with your labor.
I honor you and follow in your solid, shaky footsteps.
Once, on a long evening walk with my friend, I asked her about her own marriage. “Why are you together? What makes your love stick through all the years of change and growth?”
She took a few careful steps over a cracked sidewalk and then laughed her answer. “I’m with him because he’s my home.” Those words echoed in my heart and rang true for my own life. Yes, I’m finally home as well.