Fifteen years ago today I woke up as Brenda Johnstone for the last time. It was a bright, clear August day in Washington State when I exchanged vows in a tiny white church with my beloved. The whole congregation was there. My family was in force. His family had a long way to travel, but came too. Some intrepid college friends made the transcontinental journey.
I remember that a big beetle got caught in the lace of my mother’s wedding dress. My left knee shook through the whole service. Adam wouldn’t stop mouthing “I love you”. My brother forgot a verse of the Wedding Song (a faux pas he’ll never be allowed to forget). I insisted on Wagner’s version of Lohengrin’s Bridal March for the processional and Medelssohn’s proper recessional. But we did not have live music. We used the same version of the wedding vows my parents had used – and have claimed ever since that “I slipped Elden a $20 to add ____ to the vows.” (Usually “entertain me”) (Elden’s integrity and incorruptibility is what make that so funny.) At the buffet reception there was chocolate cake, Martinelli’s sparkling cider (it was a dry wedding) and an espresso van.
That night I fell asleep in a bug-ridden nearby bed and breakfast as Brenda Flynn, for the first time.
Fifteen years is a long time. If you’re thinking “I didn’t think Brenda was that old!” Well. I was 21 on that bright August day. Fifteen years, three homes, two children. Fifteen years also marks the length of time we’ve been playing once a week with the same gamers, and how long we’ve been members of our church. These are not coincidental numbers. That day fifteen years ago marks not only the beginning of my married life, but my adult life. It’s been a wonderful, joyful fifteen years.
If I had it all to do over again, I would joyfully do so.
I’ve been very happily married – to the same man, no less! – for twelve and a half years now. If you count the time we dated before marriage, I’m perilously close to having been with my beloved husband for as much time as I was alive prior to meeting him. In that dozen plus years, we have developed something of a tradition that I have found extremely useful and – as it is topical – I thought I would share our “State of the Union” dinner with you.
Adam and I communicate well with each other. We both understand the other’s preferred form of communication and know how to adapt our language to reach each other. In addition to talking well when we’re together, we’ve developed a family toolset for managing the logistics of a two kid, two job family: the sacred Google calendar, the text messages and the emailed reminders. Basically – we have no problems with tactical communication. But just as in a company or a career, it’s not enough to be tactical in your relationship. You need to be strategic too. Otherwise, you drift and find five years later that both of you were doing something because you thought it was important to the other person… and neither of you actually wanted to be doing it at all. Drifting is no better in marriages than it is in other endeavors.
So every year, after Christmas is accomplished, we go out to a very fancy dinner at our favorite restaurant. We dress up. We hire a babysitter. And we have our State of the Union dinner. This started around the time our youngest was born, when the opportunities for casual deep conversation became more limited, and we found ourselves practically bullet-pointing conversations to get all the critical information out. We were in crunch, and it was very difficult to step back. There’s nothing like Melissa’s lamb shanks to help you take a long look at life.
Whether you have a fancy dinner together, take a long weekend, or just catch up over breakfast – the things we talk about are worth conversing with your partner with on a regular basis. You might find that even more often than annually is fruitful.
I’m the keeper of the book in our family. I’ve made sure to document things so that if I was unable to advise Adam, he’d know where everything is. But as a family gets more busy and division of labor gets more critical, we can’t duplicate the job of bookkeeping. But it is critical for the health of a family to know how things stand in the moolah department. Some years I’ve actually generated a full report of where we stood: assets, liability, concerns, run rates etc. Other years, I just give him a high level overview. Some questions to discuss on finances are:
– Are we cashflow positive or negative (eg. are we getting into debt, getting out of debt or building on our savings)?
– If we are cashflow negative, why, and what can we do to stop it?
– If we are cashflow positive, how are we allocating our funds? Are they going to the things that are our top priorities?
– Do we anticipate any major changes in the money situation? Eg. do we think we might have a change in job, huge expenditure, inheritance or other looming event that is going to change the way things are?
That leads to the next conversation….
Does your boss know more about your career objectives than your spouse? Are you angling for a particular promotion? Are you becoming increasingly unhappy and daydreaming about a career change? Is your company facing shaky finances, or opening a new headquarters? We often talk to our spouses about day to day events, but it’s even more important to understand the larger context of your employment together. Adam and I talk about our relative happiness with our jobs and careers (two differently things, by the way), what we might need to do to fulfill our next-step ambitions, whether we need training, education or a new opportunity, etc. This has the advantage of causing us to pause for reflection about what it is we want – together – in our careers. It also means that shifts in employment are not the first you hear about a possible issue.
We talk about our kids a lot. All the time, in fact. But this is a good chance to compare notes on how we think the boys are doing, whether they’re getting the things they need or if we need to adjust our parenting strategies. This year, I raised ideas like sending Grey to an overnight summer camp, to see what Adam thought. We probably need a check in less for kids than other topics, but it would be hard to imagine a serious discussion about our lives not including them.
This is also a great time to talk about whether your family has the desired number of children. You might discover that since your last heartfelt discussion, your partner has been taken with baby fever. Or it might be the impetus to schedule that surgery that indicates your family is complete as-is. Or, perhaps, you collectively decide not to make any decisions yet.
By the time you’re cleaning your plate, it’s a good time to figure out whether you’re still living in the right place. Is your house still the right size, with the right number of rooms? Is your commute killing you? And assuming you’re not inclined to move, then what sort of home improvements – if any – would you want to prioritize for the coming year? How will you pay for them? What’s bothering you about your living situation?
Finally, you get to the dessert topic of the dinner…
It was at one of these dinners that we conceived the plan to go to Istanbul for our 10th anniversary. It was – obviously – the sort of thing that required months advanced planning. But it was a memory for a life time. Many of these kind of memories require advanced planning. If you sit around and wait for vacations to happen, well, you end the year with two weeks paid leave and a bad case of burnout. This is the time to figure out what you (collectively) want, and what it would take to make that thing happen. Bonus: I can usually send my boss my entire year’s vacation schedule in February.
As we linger over the last cup of coffee, staring dreamily into each other’s eyes, we went through every single recurring event on our shared weekly calendar to make sure it still deserved its place. Is the weekly gaming just a habit, or is it a meaningful event in our life? Does Aikido still fill the need it was meant to fill? Does our worship life at church reflect our call to serve God? Are guitar lessons still gusting me? We didn’t end up changing any of our recurring events, but it was really liberating to consider our days as completely free – to be filled with the things we most value. This exercise affirmed our choices, and made them choice instead of tradition.
You might think this sounds incredibly unromatic. In fact, it might sound a bit like a running a family as a business. I mean, a meeting agenda for a romantic dinner? Really? Has it come to that?
In the history of marriage, the institution has never been JUST about love. Love plays a tremendous role as initiator, motivator and facilitator within marriage. But marriage has also been the way we organize the work of our days (especially for women), decide where to live, how to spend our time, organize our money, and raise our children. I think it’s much easier to enjoy your shared love when you also have a clear vision of what your spouse hopes for, what’s bothering them, and what they’re thinking about. When the participants in marriage have clear, shared goals for their lives, it cuts down tremendously on uncertainty and conflict and increases joy.
So that’s part of how my family deals with the complexities of being a family in the 21st century. (I must admit, I’m tempted by the Agile/Scrum family meeting concept in the article above!) How does your family make big decisions, and talk about big issues?
This past weekend was full of the celebrations of love and marriage. On Saturday, I had a (likely!) once in a lifetime experience. Two of my dear friends announced their engagement last fall – to my delight. When they asked me if I would be willing to perform the ceremony of their wedding, I was even MORE delighted. I am ordained (as a Ruling Elder and a Deacon – for those of you who are Presbyterian Polity specialists and wanted to know. Of course, most people I know who are keenly interested in Presbyterian Polity are my family and my church – both of whom already know. I digress.) But the kind of ordination I have is to serve in specific ways (in the governance and service of a church) and they don’t count for doing weddings. So before I said yes, I asked my pastor if it was ok for me to perform a wedding. With his blessing (and letter of recommendation), it was full steam ahead!
Massachusetts has a neat program where once a year a person may petition for and recieve a license to perform exactly one wedding on one day for two people. You fill out a form between 6 months and 6 weeks ahead of time, including a letter of reference from someone whose marriage you are NOT performing. I was _very_ impressed by the Commonwealth’s handling of this: they communicated in a timely and useful way. They were clear about the requirements and steps. And they were very fast in getting my approval and letter.
Shiny certificate in hand, speech written, extremely-dfficult-to-shop-for-dress put on, I showed up at the Arabian Horse Inn in Sudbury two hours early, and with two of my three boys. Grey was the “ringleader” for the ceremony, so his presence was required. It was a stifling hot day – 93 degrees on our way in with very high humidity. We did a quick run through of the service, we lounged around, the bride and groom disappeared to get dressed and suddenly “Froggy Went a’Courtin'” was playing and a lovely pair was walking over the bridge to the service. With a deep breath I launched into the service.
It is a wonderful thing to be at the front because you can watch people’s faces as they see their son and daughter, their siblings, their dear friends joined to each other in marriage. All the faces in front of me reflected back joy from the faces of the two marriagees.I got to call my son forward to bring the rings (he actually got to carry the real things, and to keep the box afterwards). I spoke about my favorite metaphor for love in marriage – the garden. I pronounced them husband and wife. I told them to kiss each other. It was over in just the right amount of time, at which point I finally got to tear up myself.
There was joy, my friends. And then there was cheese, dinner and dancing. I even got to sign the marriage license, which is pretty cool. And Grey was PERFECTLY behaved. He made friends of the staff of the Inn, whom he talked into letting him ride on the tractor and mix the punch according to his own recipe. He was excellent.
We went home tired and satisfied that night. It was a great day.
Now all of you who know me well are wondering… where is your other son?
Six weeks ago or so I asked my friend and babysitter if she could take Thane basically all day on Saturday (given that schedule). She said she would and there was much rejoicing. I pointed out that if she wanted him at her house, that was perfectly reasonable and we could accommodate it. But then, two weeks ago while I was in Ashland, she called. “Hey, I was just calling because I’m going to be vacationing in Maine the weekend coming up.” At this point, I was lamenting in my mind and wondering what else I could do. She continued, “So I was wondering if you would mind if I brought Thane with me and kept him overnight at our beach house. You guys could come up on Sunday and go to the beach too.”
My sons took turns, the week before, being jealous of each other. “Why does Thane get to go with her for a sleepover?” “Why does Grey get to go to a wedding?” but in the end each kid went joyfully to their special event. Sunday morning – at a reasonable hour – we got dressed and drove up to Maine. After the application of some sunscreen (subpar*, as it turned out) we all hit the beach. I got to do something that has been a fantasy of mine for six years…. go to the beach with a babysitter so I can swim with my husband. We had a BLAST in the waves at York beach while my kids had a blast with the babysitter-friend, who is one of the very few people in the world capable of convincing me that she’s really enjoying taking care of my kids. We chatted together. We lounged in the beach. Adam and I played this game where he would shoot the intertube I was in into a breaker and I would launch back at him. Superb.
Then we all went out for dinner, where I got an incredibly cheap lobster and Grey got the champion for his age division at Pacman.
That lovely Sunday together as a happy family, right after that lovely Saturday together as a community celebrating love. Well… that Sunday was the 12 anniversary of the day Adam and I stood before friends and family and declared to everyone that we loved each other, and we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Twelve years, my friends. Many people talk about the ups and downs of marriage. I feel like our dozen years has had many, many ups and very few downs. If tomorrow was my wedding day, I would make my vows just as (or more) enthusiastically as I did 144 months ago.
*I think it may not have been waterproof, since those of use who used it turned to a crispy lobster red. I’m juuuust about at the peeling stage now. Yay.
It’s a question we get asked often. “How are you doing?” Most of time time, the asker doesn’t really expect a response, past “Fine, and you?” In many circumstances, it’s a social faux pas to actually answer the question. On those other circumstances, looking into someone’s eyes and clasping their hand for an extra split-second to convey you really mean it, you might hear an abbreviated version. “My sister is in the hospital.” “I’ve been really worn down lately.” Sometimes you still get a stoic “fine” which translates as either I don’t want to talk about it, or I don’t believe you want to hear it.
I’ve been reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Ruben lately, and it got me thinking about how I talk about my own state of being. She talks about how awareness and mindfulness of your own happiness — thinking of your blessings as you might call it — enhances and to some degree even creates your state of happiness. (Otherwise, I fear, happiness is rewarded retroactively. When things go bad you might recall that you were happy then, and didn’t even realize it.)
I’d been under the impression that I do a good job of acknowledging and being present in my joy. That’s how it seems to me, that when I am happy (which is not rare) I know my own happiness and hopefully radiate it back out to those around me. This has been a happy period for me, with unprecedented leisure (between jobs), a healthy fun family, small children in the most fleeting time of their lives, a good balance of things I do for others and things I do for myself, and an ample supply of coffee. I even set out to very intentionally NOT complain about how fast my break flew by or how it was still finite.
Then the other day my husband said to me, “You’ve seemed so unhappy lately.” WHAT? Really? Here I am, knowing that I am happy in my heart and thinking that it shows, and the person who knows me best is worried that I’m UN-happy.
So I pondered where this disconnect arose between what I know I am feeling (joy!) and what I am showing (stress!). There are a few things. I’ve been working on some challenges in my life where the only person who can really listen as I work through them is my husband, so he’s probably heard a disproportionate amount about those things. But perhaps mostly, I realized, it’s how I answer HIS questions about “How are you doing?”
With people I do not love dearly, I’m liable to give a very positive reply. “Fantastic!” or “Great!” But in the partnership of marriage? I get defensive about my happiness. On some subconscious level, I’m afraid if I tell HIM I’m happy or doing well, he’ll decide I don’t need his help and support. Even in the best of marriages there’s a certain jockeying for finite privileges, like getting to sleep in or who’s going to put the kids to bed when we both just want to collapse and/or do something fun. We handle these things pretty well, I think, but in my back-brain I’m convinced that if I tell him I’m feeling happy and well-rested, the logical conclusion will be that I should definitely do the tooth-brushing then. So instead I answer, “Well, I didn’t sleep well last night.” Or “I just got done doing another load of laundry” or instead of the “Fantastic!” a stranger might get, I reply, “Ok, I guess.” That “fantastic” is really the more true answer, but instead we get into a subtle competition about who’s more legitimately tired.
How sad. How wrong. My subconscious doesn’t even really have much to go on in this diminution of joy, either. My husband always does his share. But out of this defensive mechanism of mine, I’m hiding my joy in him and in the life we have built together. I’m not entirely sure how to resolve this, except to be more open and less defensive. To share more equally of my joys. To volunteer a little more brightly when I see or feel something that is good.
I am a happy person. I am living a happy life. I hope that the joy of it does not just lurk unspoken in my heart, but shines forth to my husband, my children and my community.
One of Gretchen’s blog posts that really struck a nerve was about the cost of being joyful in our society. She shared a prayer by St. Augustine:
I spend most of my family-blogging words on my sons. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, they tend to say and do funnier things than, say, the cats. Also, they will not correct me if I apply selective editing to tighten up the tales of their goofballery. Finally, they do not claim that just because I was an English major, I am not permitted to use words in whatever way I deem fit. Like goofballery. So generally they make easier targets for writing about than, say, my husband.
However, my SONS are not turning 33 today, so I will risk grammatical corrections and the fact my that my target will actually read what I write to tell you about my husband.
First if all, he’s 33 today.
Which is divisible by 11, in case you’re curious.
My husband claims that before he met me, he was innocent of sin. He did not know what the “Snooze” button on the alarm clock did. Long before he met me, however, he was deeply immersed in the world of the RPG – Role Playing Games. He spent his childhood reading supplements and devising fantastic adventures with intricate maps and completely consistent world-views. When he grew to adulthood, he put aside such childish things in order to focus on more mature pursuits: rules systems. He wrote several of his own and has an entire bookcase of rules systems, which he’s generally read cover to cover. I remember he once turned to me and said, “Brenda, I think I’ve actually read everything on the internet about these games.” Granted, that was when the internet was a smaller infinity, but still.
I mention role-playing first because when I think about what makes my husband who he is, it’s right up there. But that’s hardly comprehensive.
Adam loves delving deeply into arcane problems. He’s currently being tempted, non-ironically, by a book called “Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided By Tests”. He used to complain that no one would ever play obscure gaming systems with him. Now he complains that he doesn’t get to do test-driven agile programming. Previous deep-drinking has included medieval sociology (where he’s more knowledgeable than I) and aikido texts.
His #1 repetitive complaint is that he doesn’t have a photographic memory and can’t remember everything he’s read.
This might make him sound like a distant academic. He’s nothing like that. I love, love watching him with our sons. He’ll cook with Grey and hold one-sided cooing conversations with Thane. While I was watching baseball, Adam was sending pitches across the back yard to Grey. There is a lot of tickling, chasing and zombie-noises when the boys are all home.
If you’re met Adam, you were probably dazzled by his smile. He has a great smile, which always includes his eyes. I don’t think he knows how to fake-smile.
He makes an amazing chocolate cake.
Adam is an optimizer. He’s always looking for ways to make things better; for the most efficient and most logical way of doing things. Once he arrives at what he thinks is an optimal solution, he’s happy to stick with it until and unless data presents itself that there is a better solution. I love variety. I’ll go out one way and come back another only because they are different. This boggles his mind.
He listens to techno when he programs.
His body is composed of 60% pretzels, 30% iced tea and 10% trace elements.
He mixes three cereals in the morning in order to arrive at the optimum combination of texture and taste.
Adam loves songs. He has a beautiful warm tenor and he’s not afraid to use it. He specializes in Celtic/Irish songs and folk ballads. When we were in Saudi Arabia and Washington State (you do not want to KNOW about our phone bills that summer), he used to sing me “Road Go Ever Ever On”. I thought he was an English major when I met him, because he quoted Kipling and Byron at me until I was bedazzled. I never stopped being bedazzled.
His actual degree was in Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology — but he hated Chemistry.
He has an astonishing ability to fall without hurting himself. Usually he hurts himself doing things that you couldn’t possibly think you could hurt yourself doing, like walking down the hall.
He reminds me to pray.
He is a remarkable husband. He supports me when I choose to do something, advocates for my needs when I subsume them, compliments me even when I feel unlovely, never fails to look me in the eyes and tell me he loves me, and holds my hand as often as he can.
This is the 14th time we’ve celebrated together on his birthday. The first time I got him a wax dragon candle thingy.
I could run through a thousand more bullet points and still fail to capture just who he is. He is my husband and I love him.
PS – Watch this space for the comment from him with corrections or clarifications! 😉
My brother (commonly known as Gospel) is living with us this summer while he does his Field Education for Fourth Presbyterian Church in Boston. The deal is this. We give him room, board, laundry facilities and an unlimited supply of sharp cheddar cheese and Dr. Pepper. In exchange, he does the dishes, mows the lawn and provides free babysitting. So far, so good.
Last night, we availed ourselves of his services.
We’ve gradually been trying out some of the local restaurants in our new home town, but with one (and then two) kids, anything with a cloth tablecloth has been past our reach. A night out is hard enough for us when we have to line up a babysitter. We do that like once a quarter. But with the babysitter problem temporarily solved… we decided to check out one of the local hot spots.
I must say that to date we’ve been underwhelmed by the local fare. The Indian Bistro (Rang) is pretty good and we’ve found a great pizza place, but Stoneham specializes in Roast Beef and Seafood shops, and mediocre Italian. Our expectations were not exceedingly high.
We went to Melissa’s Main Street Bistro. It was AWESOME. We timed it so we’d get seated about 15 minutes after curtain time at the local theater, so when we arrived we had the place nearly to ourselves (it filled back up as our meal went on). Their menu rocked. The entire thing was interesting and appealing – from drinks to dessert. The kitchen was open so you could watch them work, if you weren’t too busy staring into the eyes of your beloved. The food was really excellent — some of the best I’ve had recently. And I’d even had the foresight to bring along some conversation starter topics so we wouldn’t waste a romantic dinner talking about scheduling swimming lessons for Grey. It was a wonderful, romantic, delightful dinner. We will definitely be going back.
It was incredibly restful and relaxing to spend an enjoyable evening with the man I love. We’ve been married nearly nine years, together for almost thirteen, and he keeps getting handsomer.
So I have a secret for you. I actually really love my husband. Shhh… I know it’s not kosher to be madly in love with the father of my sons, but there you have it. The truth is out.
This morning I woke up without complaint at 7. (This is how you know it’s really love.) I got myself and my boys ready to go. We drove to the airport, where I spent half an hour saying goodbye to my husband. From the drama, you’d think he was being deployed to Iraq and I wouldn’t see him for another year and he stood a good chance of being killed. In reality, his company runs a big conference every year and every salaried employee is expected to be present and help out. My highly trained, brilliant engineer of a husband is spending 7 days in Nashville doing coat-check. I haven’t decided whether this is a brilliant team building technique, a misguided attempt at cost savings (sorry, engineer salary + travel expenses = much cheaper to hire a local), or some combination thereof.
Regardless, he is gone until Friday and I am missing him sorely already. Let me say first that I really, really don’t know how single parents do it. I don’t have to show up to work. (Actually I had this giddy moment of freedom when I realized that I could be gone as long and as far as the contents of my diaper bag could get me. For a split second I tried to figure out how far I could get and come back. Then I remembered I didn’t have my cell charger….) I don’t have huge monetary constraints. (Hello takeout!) Heck, Grey’s daycare will take him as a drop in which is very likely what I’ll do once the week returns. But man, it’s hard to wrangle two kids by myself. Walking somewhere and not carrying anything or anyone is a huge luxury. You should’ve seen me wrestling it all at IKEA. I couldn’t buy the tasty carbonated beverages due to a tragic lack of hands. The meatballs were purchased with a VISA and at the cost of future feeling in my right thumb. And Grey and Thane were actually being really, really good!
When I was doing my anticipatory dreading of this, I worried about how I would handle the boys when they’re doing their tandem weeping/screaming routine. Granted, entertaining and tending to my sons is definitely a challenge. But I think the hard part will be the loneliness. I was already feeling pretty lonely, spending my days in the company of two people younger than most of my jeans and Spongebob Squarepants. But at least my husband would come home at night and I would deluge him with all the thoughts that had piled up in my head during the day. But I don’t actually have to talk to another adult in person until my brother arrives sometime on the Thursday/Friday border. Of course I will. Tomorrow is church. Monday a friend is going with me to the Museum of Science with the boys. I’m quite sure other things will appear on my schedule.
But mostly, I miss my husband. I really like him. I like doing things with him. My sons are also his sons, and I can lean on him as much as is needed to do those things which need doing.