Concluding this spontaneous miniseries on companionship (or maybe not concluding it — who knows? — it’s spontaneous), we arrive at Ryan. You know, my partner, the guy from kale vs. flowers and
Bad Good Romance. The other day, I read a passage from James Agee’s Southern novel A Death In the Family that reminded me of our household dynamic. Specifically, the ways that we negotiate gendered roles, try to both anticipate and discuss each others’ needs, and occasionally discover “dhamma,” or insights about the nature of things, right in the (dis)comfort of our own home.
In this scene from the book, Jay has just jolted awake in the dead of night thanks to a call from his brother Ralph, who drunkenly warns that their father may soon die from long-battled heart problems. Jay has decided to take the train up to his parents’ town, and he and his wife Mary, also awakened by the phone call, are getting him ready to leave.
“It may all be a false alarm. I know Ralph goes off his trolley easy. But we just can’t afford to take that chance.”
“Of course not, Jay.” There was a loud stirring as she got from bed.
“What you up to?”
“Why, your breakfast,” she said, switching on the light. “Sakes alive,” she said, seeing the clock.
“Oh, Mary. Get on back to bed. I can pick up something downtown.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, hurrying into her bathrobe.
“Honest, it would be just as easy,” he said. He liked night lunchrooms, and had not been in one since Rufus was born. He was very faintly disappointed. But still more, he was warmed by the simplicity with which she got up for him, thoroughly awake.
“Why, Jay, that is out of the question!” she said, knotting the bathrobe girdle. She got into her slippers and shuffled quickly to the door. She looked back and said, in a stage whisper, “Bring your shoes — to the kitchen.”
He watched her disappear, wondering what in the hell she meant by that, and was suddenly taken with a snort of silent amusement. She had looked so deadly serious, about the shoes. God, the ten thousand little things every day that a woman kept thinking of, on account of children. Hardly even thinking, he thought to himself as he pulled on his other sock. Practically automatic. Like breathing.
And most of the time, he thought, as he stripped, they’re dead right. Course they’re so much in the habit of it (he stepped into his drawers) that sometimes they overdo it. But most of the time if you think even for a second before you get annoyed (he buttoned his undershirt), there is good common sense behind it.
Ryan tells this funny joke sometimes about one method, half-conscious at most, by which person X tries to evade domestic work and pile it on a partner. “But you’re so good at [cooking, doing laundry, calming a fretful child]. If I do it, I’ll just fuck it up.” A passive-aggressive compliment-trap, which leaves the other person feeling obligated to do the thing they’re so much better at doing.
Obviously, this is one of the big problems with the naturalization of gender roles in heteronormative family requirements. Men are raised to believe that they don’t have to learn how to cook/clean/mend/mind children because women are so naturally good at it. Jay appears to have no clue that his wife was brought up to learn how to be a “good woman,” which means acquiring certain social and reproductive skills, including staying attuned to the needs of her socially-sanctioned husband and children. She might enjoy learning those skills; she might not. The point is, the skills aren’t endemic to her based on her gender. For a whole host of reasons that I won’t get into here, she’s not really free to self-determine her own gender identity and presentation, fertility, or (as a working-class person) the circumstances of her productive and reproductive labor.
So this is the background against which Ryan and I operate. Furthermore, Ryan works. I “work” from home on grad school (viz. this blog, or planning for EastBaySol). I spend more time at home so its levels of (un)tidiness affect me more, which makes me more inclined to change/correct them myself. Also, I like to cook more than he does. So he takes pains to counteract the assumption that just because I know how to cook, and even enjoy it, that this means it’s effortless for me, and that he’s entitled to its products, as though he were plucking a ripe plum from a backyard tree. And those times when I do wind up cooking more than 50%, he makes sure to do the bulk of the cleanup. Last week when I started washing dishes out of turn after lunch, he straight-up chased me out of the kitchen. Another morning as I slept he made breakfast and green tea, then came back to bed to cuddle me awake.
Maintaining mindfulness around housework distribution doesn’t have to be robotic or transactional. It’s actually a pretty emotional and tender process for us, and I think for a lot of people. The other day I was talking to a woman who lives with her girlfriend, and was telling me that even though her partner works longer hours than she does, they cook dinner together every night and split the remaining housework evenly. “I just knew I would be unhappy otherwise,” she said. I love that this negotiation takes the feeling of work into account, and not just some supposedly objective measurement of household labor — in joules, or whatever.
Jay and Mary’s middle-of-the-night crisis management takes a turn for the tender, too. I see many of my relationship dynamics reflected between them.
He sat on the bed and reached for one shoe.
He took his shoes, a tie, a collar and collar buttons, and started from the room. He saw the rumpled bed. Well, he thought, I can do something for her. He put his things on the floor, smoothed the sheets, and punched the pillows. The sheets were still warm on her side. He drew the covers up to keep the warmth, then laid them open a few inches, so it would look inviting to get into. She’ll be glad of that, he thought, very well pleased with the looks of it. He gathered up his shoes, collar, tie and buttons, and made for the [bathroom], taking special care when he passed the children’s door, which was slightly ajar.
. . .
When Mary came to the door he was flinging over and noosing the four-in-hand, his chin stretched and tilted the way it always was during this operation, with the look of an impatient horse.
“Jay,” she said softly, a little quelled by this impatient look, “I don’t mean to hurry you, but things’ll get cold.”
“I’ll be right out.” He set the knot carefully above the button, glaring into his reflected eyes, made an unusually scrupulous part in his hair, and hurried to the kitchen table.
“Aw, darling!” There were the bacon and eggs and the coffee, all ready, and she was making pancakes as well.
“Well you got to eat, Jay. It’ll still be chilly for hours.” She spoke as if in a church or a library, because of the sleeping children, unconsciously, because of the time of night.
“Sweetheart.” He caught her shoulders where she stood at the stove. She turned, her eyes hard with wakefulness, and smiled. He kissed her.
“Eat your eggs,” she said. “They’re getting cold.”
He sat down and started eating. She turned the pancakes. “How many can you eat?” she asked.
“Gee, I don’t know,” he said, getting the egg down (don’t talk with your mouth full) before he answered. He was not yet quite awake enough to be very hungry, but he was touched, and determined to eat a big breakfast. “Better hold it after the first two, three.”
She covered the pancake to keep it hot and poured another.
He noticed that she had peppered the eggs more heavily than usual. “Good eggs,” he said.
She was pleased. Not more than half consciously, she had done this because within a few hours he would doubtless eat again, at home. For the same reason she had made the coffee unusually strong. And for the same reason she felt pleasure in standing at the stove while he ate, as mountain women did.
“Good coffee,” he said. “Now that’s more like it.” She turned the pancake. She supposed she really ought to make two pots always, one that she could stand to drink and one the way he liked it, new water and a few fresh grounds put in, without ever throwing out the old ones until the pot was choked full of old grounds. But she couldn’t stand it; she would as soon watch him drink so much sulfuric acid.
“Don’t you worry,” she smiled at him. “You won’t get any from me that’s all the way like it!”
He frowned at her.
“Come on, sit down sweetheart,” he said.
“In a minute . . .”
“Come on. I imagine two are gonna be enough.”
“You think so?”
“If it won’t I’ll make the third one.” He took her hand and drew her towards her chair. “You’ll sit here.” She sat down. “How about you?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“I know what.” He got up and went to the icebox.
“What are you — oh. No, Jay. Well. Thanks.”
For before she could prevent him he had poured milk into a saucepan, and now that he put it on the stove she knew she would like it.
“Want some toast?”
“No, thank you darling. The milk, just by itself, will be just perfect.”
He finished off the eggs. She got half out of her chair. He pressed down on her shoulder as he got up. He brought back the pancakes.
“They’ll be soggy by now. Let me . . .” She started up again; again he put a hand on her shoulder. “You stay put,” he said in a mockery of sternness. “They’re fine. Couldn’t be better.”
He plastered on butter, poured on molasses, sliced the pancakes in parallels, gave them a twist with knife and fork and sliced them crosswise.
“There’s plenty more butter,” she said.
“Got a plenty,” he said, spearing four fragments of pancake and putting them in his mouth. “Thanks.” He chewed them up, swallowed them, and speared four more. “I bet your milk’s warm,” he said, putting down his fork.
But this time she was up before he could prevent her. “You eat,” she said. She poured the white, softly steaming milk into a thick white cup and sat down with it, warming both hands on the cup, and watching him eat. Because of the strangeness of the hour, and the abrupt destruction of sleep, the necessity for action and its interruptive minutiae, the gravity of his errand, and a kind of weary exhilaration, both of them found it peculiarly hard to talk, though both particularly wanted to. He realized that she was watching him, and watched back, his eyes serious yet smiling, his jaws busy. He was glutted, but he thought to himself, I’ll finish up those pancakes if it’s the last thing I do.
“Don’t stuff, Jay,” she said, after a silence.
“Don’t eat more than you’ve appetite for.”
He had thought that his imitation of appetite was successful. “Don’t worry,” he said, spearing some more.
There wasn’t much to finish. She looked at him tenderly when he glanced down to see, and said nothing more about it.
I love how deftly Agee’s writing moves between thought and speech; the interior and the interpersonal. I love all the posturing and small lies and hopes and pretenses mixed in with genuine, effortful care, all with the festive gravity of a middle-of-the-night semi-emergency. I love the minor misunderstandings, and the loving kindness that lubricates and eases them.
You know, this whole living-with-a-partner intimacy thing is still new to me. Whereas some folks feel stressed or incomplete without a romantic buddy, before Ryan and I got together I enjoyed a long period of singledom. I mean really enjoyed. And progressed significantly in my spiritual practice. Come to think of it, in many Buddhist or Buddhist-flavored autobiographies that I’ve read (I’m thinking of Jan Willis, Faith Adiele, Mayumi Oda, Pema Chödron; even Elizabeth Gilbert), the absence of a romantic partner (or a dramatic breaking-away from one) facilitated spiritual seeking. People walk the path alone: at least for a significant time.
Am I missing out on some sort of prerequisite solitude? Is that why I haven’t been meditating lately?
The other day I woke up in a funk. Prickly as hell. When I came out to the living room, Ryan immediately sensed that something was wrong, got up, and put his arms around me. “Is this okay?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, but started to cry. I backed up a couple paces and he waited, listening.
I told him I missed my former self: the self that was single and living independently and discovering Buddhism. In retrospect, things felt more vibrant then. I opened myself up more. And now I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be in a partnership, to be somebody’s girlfriend and co-habitant. I wanted the old me back.
I also said that I knew it was impossible to go back in time, and besides, many things have changed for me since then, in addition to being with Ryan. Maybe the novelty of dhamma practice was simply and naturally wearing off. As I said, I’m not practicing regularly anymore, which should be a big clue. I’m on hormonal birth control for the first time in six years. My politics and ways of being in the world are transitioning. I have more responsibilities than when I was gallivanting and meditating around Spain. Still . . .
Now, you can imagine that many of us, if put in Ryan’s position, and hearing all this, might feel somewhat afraid or defensive. My girlfriend would rather be single than be with me? She was happier without me? No! I have to (a) remind her of all the amazing experiences we’ve shared, (b) break up with her before she breaks up with me, or (c) suggest that since she’s a Buddhist she should just accept the anicca, change, and realize that vicissitudes are a natural and inescapable part of life.
But instead, he said the following (paraphrased):
Well, it also makes sense that being in a cozy relationship can dull one’s impulses toward truth-seeking. Why seek truths, and potentially inconvenient ones, when we can just snuggle and joke and watch movies and play house with someone we love?
So, if this plateau keeps up, he offered, we could try taking some time apart, or we could experiment with ways of supporting my Buddhist practice and investigations.
There it is. What I love most about our thang isn’t simply the sweet or ‘successful’ times, when each reflects the other’s most adorable self. It’s actually how we practice lovingly letting go of one another. How we truly want the best for one another, even if that means reconfiguring our expectations, and re-imagining how best to be in each other’s lives (or not).
This willingness to see the same person with fresh eyes, allow them to surprise us, be vulnerable with them, and understand that although we love them, we may not be able to fulfill all of their needs — this is one of the greatest dhamma lessons I am learning. And in that very same scene with Jay and Mary, Agee even drops a hint of this dhamma, himself. Before Jay leaves the bedroom, to join Mary for breakfast, he pauses.
And for a moment as he looked at the window he had no mental image of his father nor any thought of him, nor did he hear the clock. He only saw the window, tenderly alight within, and the infinite dark leaning like water against its outer surface, and even the window was not a window, but only something extraordinarily vivid and senseless which for the moment occupied the universe. A sense of enormous distance stole over him, and changed into a moment of insupportable wonder and sadness.
Well, he thought: we’ve all got to go sometime.
Then life came back into focus.
Clean shirt, he thought.
A moment of unfettered perception, maybe even a fleeting glimpse of no-self, within a partnered life. Solitude within connection.
Today marks the third day in a row that I’ve meditated at home.
This morning, Ryan sat with me.
So it continues.
Oh, Katie. My heart feels good reading this, and I’ve been thinking about things like this and I love when I get to hear where you’re thinking, and the spaces you make for it. A blessing!