Dear Lily June,
The story of “Rip Van Winkle” is an American classic. In it, the titular character Rip would do anything to escape his nagging wife, the Dame Van Winkle, and thus wanders off into the woods with his trusty dog, Wolf, by his side. There, he meets a spectacular cast of faerie characters who entice him with a game they’re playing while drinking flagons of enchanted ale. He becomes so intoxicated, he falls asleep for twenty years, only to wake to find the American Revolution has occurred, the people are no longer under the thumb of a despot king, and he is freed from his despot queen: The Dame Van Winkle has died.
The story is a metaphor for freedom from oppressive rule of any kind.
This past Saturday was everything the previous one couldn’t be. Your dad and I were instantly on the same page with house-hunting. We went to have coffee at our (new) favorite location, found last week from the Bucket List task of trying a new place in Muncie, and our conversation, after a bit of a rocky start, rolled along like a bowling ball smoothly gliding toward the pins.
And all the problems we’d stacked up–your father’s depression, my anxiety, the stress of house-hunting, our financial difficulties, my health problems, his mother’s impending surgery, the adjustment to the parenting dynamic, our miscommunications, our missing time together, our faltering friendship–came crashing down around us, only to be momentarily swept away from sight.
We know the game, and that the pins must eventually be reset for another frame. But for now, we can spin on our heels, pump our fists into the air, and revel in the victory of working as a team, rather than tossing a lot of gutter balls individually.
It’s probably pretty obvious from this opening what our task was this week.
One vestigial remnant of my childhood that I carry with me is the need to control and to compete. I was reminded by a friend this week (hi, Patricia!) where that tendency came from, namely Survival Instinct from the Alcoholic Family. So quick am I to indulge in my debating proclivities that I almost blew it over coffee when we began to discuss an article I think every newlywed couple should read, “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink.”
I’d asked your dad to read it not only because he does, in fact, leave dishes by the sink (and socks by the laundry basket and tissues by the garbage can), but because the piece is a larger metaphor about how we listen to and show our respect for one another’s values (i.e. dishes are the symptom and not the disease). I think the article misses the larger sociohistorical issues of how women got thrust into the roles of homemakers/caretakers not necessarily by choice (and thus, our “emotional” connection to domestic activities might be culturally ingrained and not personally adopted), but I digress…
When your dad began our conversation by asking me to refresh him on the piece’s finer points, I automatically jumped to the incorrect assumption that he hadn’t read it at all. And we were suddenly cast into the roles of Dame and Rip Van Winkle, a dynamic described by Washington Irving:
“If left to himself, [Rip] would have whistled life away in perfect contentment; but his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family. Morning, noon, and night, her tongue was incessantly going, and everything he said or did was sure to produce a torrent of household eloquence.” (955-956)
I’m afraid, sometimes, Lily, my “eloquence” (<– insert sarcasm there) runs away with me.
But luckily, the conversation’s path hooked right from there. We found we shared similar opinions on the article, amongst other things. We assigned ourselves little homework tasks in our marriage: He promised to help with keeping our place more organized; I promised to say “Yes” more to his spontaneity. I promised to try to be more generous with giving gifts to your dad; he promised to be a little more frugal when it comes to spending money on his own generosity.
It’s called meeting in the middle, Lily, because both parties agree to take a step away from their natural tendencies and a step towards their partner’s needs. If you ever find yourself with someone unwilling to take that step towards you, I hope you’ll take all the steps you need to take off into the unknown, like Rip, not to fall asleep but to reawaken to your own life independently, in which you should only be with someone because you want to, not because you need to be.
Yesterday’s task, for instance, was one I put in the jar entirely for your father, being all the more inclined to watch The Big Lebowski or that Michael Moore documentary on guns than actually pull my arm back with a ball and swing it over the alley.
When I was a kid, I used to get pulled aside for lectures on my form, my stance, my swing. It didn’t matter if it were on the putt-putt course or in the alley, my father was sure to have something to say about how I was doing it wrong. And it doesn’t matter the sport, or the task, or the relationship. It hurts to feel like you’re hurting the one you love, like you can do no right. It can make you feel like you’re not entitled to your anger, or even entitled to speak, just as Irving writes of those who receive these lectures in a marriage:
“Their tempers, doubtless, are rendered pliant and malleable in the fiery furnace of domestic tribulation, and a curtain lecture is worth all the sermons in the world for teaching the virtues of patience and long suffering.” (954-955)
Suffice it to say, Lily, your dad has been very patient with me while I continue to work through the habits ingrained in me, just as I would wait a lifetime for him to believe this: He is perfect to me, because he is perfect for me, even though neither of us are perfect people, and won’t, and can’t, ever be.
I’ve avoided the alleys for too long in my life expecting perfection, not from your father, but from me. I thought there was no task worth doing if you couldn’t do it right, if you couldn’t beat anyone else who would even try.
This past Saturday, Lily, your dad and I went bowling, one of your dad’s favorite pasttimes. And at Clancy’s Village Bowl in Muncie, a historical event occurred that was not twenty years, like Rip’s revelation, but thirty years in the making. I lost twice, and didn’t break 100 once, although I did get, across two frames, one spare and one strike. Your dad slaughtered me, but I wasn’t there, for once, to compete. I was there to watch him and you smile and to smile back and mean it.
I was there to toss my own crap into the gutter (like so many of the balls I threw) and to wake up to an entirely new world of possibility. I was there not to beat, but to enjoy, my family, which means I am one step farther from being my father and one step closer to being the me I want to be.
And your father was one step farther from beating himself up inside (which is his tendency) and one step closer to embracing the loving husband and father he can be. He was one closer to accepting–in his patient listening or his skillful ball-tossing–how talented he can be.
Neither of wants to fall back into our comfort zones of unhealthy habits and self-deprecating traps. He doesn’t want to be the husband who won’t pay attention and hurts my feelings; I don’t want to be the wife who nags her husband to the breaking point of isolation or self-loathing. Neither of us wants to fall back asleep.
And in that respect, we are neither Rip nor Dame Van Winkle, but the strange and magical nine-pins players who open up Rip’s world in an entirely new way. We are the merry-makers and lovers of life, and of our Saturday, the same words applied to the game of the faerie creatures could have been applied to our family:
“Nothing interrupted the stillness of the scene, but the noise of the balls, which, whenever they were rolled, echoed along the mountains like rumbling peals of thunder.” (958)
- By N.C. Wyeth – http://www.illusionsgallery.com/Rip-van-Winkle.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11961726
- By Nan Palmero from San Antonio, TX, USA – Bowling Pins Being Hit by a Bowling Ball, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39932963
- Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. B. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. New York: Norton & Company, 2007. 953-965. Print.