How to Save a Marriage

The following post is the final entry of the The February Project: Love and Marriage, a self-imposed month long writing project on love and marriage.

“After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.” from Taking Notes: A Love Story


It was romantic as hell.

We were finally alone on a beach house front porch.

The sun was rolling away from us and the sky made grand commitments to the pinks and oranges that stroke only finest of summer evenings.

My wife sat across from me. I took her hand.

The kids were somewhere inside, doing God knows what.

It was quiet, just the two of us and the distant break of the Atlantic Ocean along the soft New Jersey sands.

I admitted I don’t say “I love you” enough. I told her she deserves to hear it more. Eight years of marriage, three children later and I promised that I would tell her I love her everyday, for the rest of our lives.

We held a look long enough to vaguely remember what life was like before children until one of them threw open the screen door and complained about something someone was doing  inside.

We both said we would be right there and the child waited, then stomped, turned, and disappeared. This was our vacation. Our moment. The rolling sea, the tender sky. There was no need to rush. It was a scene that unfurled on the silver screen of our imaginations when we 16 years old and first began to conjure up a life together.

Like any new resolution, I was all in– with energy and verve and boyish enthusiasm. I planned out how I would do it, slip it casually into a conversation or let her believe I had forgotten about my promise only to surprise her with an “I love you” as she was falling asleep.

And for a few weeks I was true to my promise.

But, at some point I missed a day. Not that I didn’t love my wife anymore, I just failed to think of someone other than myself.

And as promises go–failing to keep them one day, made it easier to forget about them the next.

Until one day my wife confronted me half joking, half serious, ” Why did I stop saying, I love you? Do you not love me anymore?”

I stuttered and stumbled.

I said I was sorry and promised, from here on out I would say, “I love you” everyday for the rest of our lives.

And so as I did for a more few days. And then, as promises go…

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

My parents are cruising into their 40th year of marriage.

I say cruising because they make marriage look effortless. Like a joyride. A Sunday afternoon cruise with the top down and the radio up.

The key to their marriage is a little ritual they’ve engaged in every evening, when one of them returns home from work.

After a long day, when they’re finally reunited, no matter the condition of the household, now matter the company sitting at the kitchen table– the first thing they do is kiss.

A moment to recognize each other. A moment that is just theirs. A moment to honor their relationship

It’s such an amazing moment, especially considering the anarchy of weekday nights when the kids squeal about the house, when dinner boils on the stove and the phone is ringing and work is emailing and there’s a mouse loose in the pantry and the bills spew across the kitchen table.

Life, and all of its obligations, demands so much attention that sometimes you forget you’re married.

Days pile on to days.

The chores and responsibilities mount.

There’s only enough time to breath and react and the thought of thinking about someone else is simply too much.

So marriage makes strangers out of us.

Our spouse becomes a coworker, one who we occasionally bump into at the copy machine or the coffee pot. Things get awkward. There’s a head nod, then a slight smile before you retreat to your own business.

How do we avoid such fate? Like you’re always commuting from one draining job to the next.

My parents proved it starts with simple, sincere acknowledgement. They did it, and continue to do it, with a kiss.

They proved that marriage only works when you’re willing to connect and invest your attention in the smallest of moments.

I tried saying, “I love you” to my wife everyday and failed. Failed to create a daily moment each was just ours.

Why?

Because it’s hard. Because it takes real endurance, real commitment to honor your marriage everyday. Because sometimes I take marriage for granted.

In the throes of life, when life is not romantic as hell, the health of a marriage hinges on those little, private moments that you create for one another. It’s in those moments where you reconnect, rediscover each other all over again.

40 years of marriage proves so.

Be well.

Jay

The Love Story That Almost Never Happened

The following post is the final entry of the The February Project: Love and Marriage, a self-imposed month long writing project on love and marriage.

“After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.” from Taking Notes: A Love Story


I’m proud of myself.

Proud that last week I finally mustard the courage to write about love. A  subject I have skirted for years.



Like I told you, I always knew I would marry Cindy. Just one look and I knew with bone-certainty it was love. Soul mates. Kindred spirits. Whatever you want to call us, I always knew we were fated to be together, build a life together.

However, there’s been a problem swirling in human DNA since the reign of the ancient Greeks. When Oedipus challenged fate, lost, and naturally, carved his eyes out.

It’s an inherited belief that with a certain mix of age and experience we think we’re strong enough, smart enough, and tough enough to best fate.

During my senior year of college, I read Kerouac’s “On the Road” for the first time. His images of the unfurling freedom waiting for him out on the glinting asphalt of the open road were intoxicating.

At the same time I also realized I wanted to be a writer.

Drinking beer, listening to Pink Floyd, I fancied images of heading west, attending grad school in some big university, rubbing elbows with famous writers, moving to a big city, leasing an overpriced one-bedroom loft and scoring a job as a sports journalist.

I knew I wanted a writing life. But I thought I wanted a writing life on the road. A life to offer me the excitement that my current life lacked.

I felt confined. Trapped by my small private college, my hometown and everyone in it. Including Cindy.

I thought I wanted more.

I’m not proud of myself.

I remember, as I entertained a sports journalism life, how much of an asshole I was to Cindy. How reckless I was with our relationship.

As she sat on her bed in her dorm room, white Christmas lights snaking across the joint of wall and ceiling, I told her she was holding me back.

Young men, like the gods we dress ourselves up to be, often believe we are the sole creators of our success and happiness. So we distance ourselves from others. We forge fantasies. We mask our unhappiness and insecurity with false bravado and empty dreams. We puff out our chest, turn our hat backwards and pretend we’re in control of our life and that fate is just a motif found in ancient Greek theater.

I yelled at Cindy.

I told her after graduation I was heading west. I was going to be a sports journalist. I wanted a life on the road, going to games, sleeping in hotels and writing stories. So I invented a life that a 22 year old man would likely invent for himself. Exciting, mobile, and bursting with possibilities.

When I told her to let me go she sat on the edge of the bed and cried.

When I told her it was over she protested and I grew angry and stormed out of her room and marched down to my dorm and got drunk with Pink Floyd.

When you get a chance, I highly recommend reading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

It’s by far the most soul-cleansing book I have ever read.

Early in the novel the alchemist explains to a young shepard, Santiago, that all people are born with a Personal Legend.

That your Personal Legend is your destiny. It’s the person you were born to be.

According to Coelho, children are very much aware of their Personal Legend. Whether it’s writing, painting, fixing, building, singing or rodeo clowning children know, even if they lack the ability to explain it, that by pursuing their Personal Legend they will reach spiritual enlightenment and earthy happiness.

But we grow up.

And not in a good way.

We question our Personal Legend. Our passions turns bitter.  We start to value opinions over the intrinsic truths that were once as tangible as flesh.

We adopt shiny, plastic notions of happiness because they are easy to assemble and sell at cocktail parties.

We distance ourselves from our Personal Legend, leave it behind like a broken Chevy on the side of the open road and sink into a life we will soon come to despise.

Many years ago I was reckless with my relationship with Cindy. Too scared to accept my Personal Legend.  Too self-adsorbed to recognize that Cindy and I share the same Personal Legend.

Thankfully, she was not.

Sometimes she’ll read my work and laugh. Sometimes she’ll cry. Sometimes she’ll, as Springsteen once wrote, “laugh and cry in a single sound.”

Sometimes she’s quiet. Sometime she hugs me and smiles. A smile that reminds me of what I have and what I almost lost.

It’s evening and I’m writing this at our kitchen table. The table is strewn with the kid’s homework and half-filled cups and credit card bills and it’s marked with a splatter of forgotten spaghetti sauce that is beginning to harden.

There’s nothing exciting about scene. It’s painfully pedestrian. Epically suburban. It’s the complete opposite of where I wanted to be when I was 22.

But I’m happy now. I’m home.

I’m right where I need to be.

Be well,

Jay

Taking Notes: A Love Story

The following post is the first entry of the The February Project: Love and Marriage, a self-imposed month long writing project on love and marriage.

“After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.” from Taking Notes: A Love Story


In a world of Nicholas Sparks it’s hard to write something original about love.

Love is a well-traveled topic. One, I’m sure, you’ve taken plenty of notes on.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is engraved your heart and scrolled among the stars.

Love is in air. Love is an open door. And, if you find the right station, love is a battlefield.

Anytime you write about love you ink a fine line between cliche’ and Nicholas Sparks. So, in my attempt to avoid such fate, the only thing I can offer is a secret love story about love. So secret that when my wife reads this, she will know it for the first time.

I’ve written about my health issues and personal shame and failure but writing about love is something I’ve avoided. For me, writing about love is a little embarrassing. A little too revealing.

And plus, how do I write about love in such an authentic yet impenetrable way that it’s not the subject of dissection, comparison and judgment?

Truth is– you can’t.

It’s simple emotional physics (which should’ve totally been a 90’s emo band name).

To love is to want. And to want is to have weakness. Therefore, you can’t open yourself to love without subjecting yourself to dissection, comparison and judgment.

I fell in love with a girl when I was 16.

The first time I saw her standing in the blue painted threshold of the doorway to her biology class I just knew, with an absolute bone-certainty that I would marry her one day.

And 10 years later I did.

Even though that story is absolutely true, I understand you’re skepticism. And I don’t blame you.  It seems too easy and yet, at the same time, too impossible. Too Nicholas Sparks.

So I’ll tell you another story that’s more believable. Yet, in some ways, just as fantastical.

Cindy and I are sitting at large round table, the kind guests sit around at weddings. We’re in the back of a Las Vegas hotel ballroom, the kind couples rent for weddings.

Except instead of a DJ, there’s a UCLA professor at the far end of the ballroom. He’s standing on a stage, behind a podium. To his right is a movie screen holding an MRI of a human brain. A brain whose cerebellum is damaged. A cerebellum that looks a lot like mine.

The room is filled with people of all ages. Some people in wheelchairs. Some people clutching canes and walking sticks. The same haunted glow in everyone’s eyes.

We’re in Las Vegas attending the National Ataxia Federation’s annual conference for patients with neurological disease because seven months earlier I was diagnosed with cerebellar atrophy.

Cindy and I are surrounded by people of all ages stricken with rare neurological diseases. ALS. MS. Huntington’s Disease. Brain tumors.

Some people sit with their spouse. Some sit their parents. Some sit alone.

The UCLA professor is discussing advancements in stem cell research as a way of improving and repairing brain growth.

Cindy is beside me taking notes.

Her hand moves in small yet amazing ways. She is writing down what the professor is saying as fast as he is saying it.

Her penmanship is catholic school perfect. Her notes are well-spaced and organized and her margins are aligned.

It was a secret moment in my history. One I’ve never told Cindy about.

A moment of enormous fear yet as my eyes trace the ink-curls of her words, a small moment of enormous comfort and safety.  A moment where love was learned. A moment when I finally realized I was lucky enough to find a woman who cared more for me than I could possibly care for myself.

A moment that gifted me the eventual courage to roll my shoulders and write these sentences–

Let my cerebellum soften to oatmeal. Let my brain cells explode. Let my eyes go blind. Because there’s girl with green eyes standing in the blue doorway and she’s not moving. And she never will.

And that is what love becomes. After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.

But even that seems Sparksian.

A chronically sick man whose hands are shaking, whose body aches, whose teetering on the edge of self-destruction is sitting beside his wife in a Las Vegas ballroom. They’re high school sweethearts. They have three children together. But seven months ago things suddenly got harder.

And yet she still takes notes.

As the professor speaks and the damaged brain that holds the screen looms like a thundercloud over the room with her free hand, she reaches across the table to hold his hand, to ease him, to feel his pain.

Be well,

Jay