It was the best of times.
Farfelu- From French: eccentric, original.
She desperately needed help, and I was almost a big enough person to help her, but I was head over heels for her, which made it painful. She had a punitive husband, three young children, exhaustion almost past the point of return, and no understanding of how she contributed to and kept the situation going right up to the point of death. She was an unusually attractive young woman married to a football hero who had a host of psychological problems that no one knew about.
It was a difficult and rocky start but we eventually made it work.
I had to grow into it. I’m not a paterfamilias type, which might have been more to her taste, but I mutated in that direction, forming a real family relation to those kids, who don’t remember when they didn’t know me. At this point, we’ve been together for thirty-five years and we’ve all evolved. I confess that I almost gave up waiting for her to fall in love with me, but now the question is moot. I expect to die one day still in love and still married to her.
Her ex asked her a few years ago what was the secret of our long term marriage. She said very simply, kindness; it’s kindness. Kindness, regardless what righteous demands you think you must satisfy in a fraught moment. Kindness, by foregoing the cutting words and the smart comeback. Restraint is kindness, looking to understand instead of judge is kindness, tone of voice, a look in the eye — it’s kindness, or a lack thereof.
That question was important to him — how do people stay together, he puzzled — but it’s obvious to us, really, because of the couple we have become, a couple that works together through the challenges, a couple whose life together is founded in kindness, recognizing where we differ and where we are similar. What else could it be?
Longevity does have its rewards.
I had no concept when we met how shellshocked, how exhausted and physically depleted she was. I didn’t know any marriages like that. And of course I had no idea how much I needed to grow up, even though I was over forty years old at the time. In my thirties, I was in talk therapy off and on for ten years just trying to become functional in a crazy world, but I’m no therapist. I have a few ideas about how to stay true to yourself but I had never been married with children in a crumbling relationship. That’s too complex for my little mind to manage. It probably took her ten years to recover.
We made mistakes no doubt, but we all lived through it and still love each other, so we consider it a success. How did we do it? We moved to a tiny village in France, lived very simply and worked on our ancient house and garden. We were there for over twenty years, turning the house into a B&B, which we sold a few years ago and moved back to the States to be closer to the kids and grandkids.
A common project, difficult as it was, the beauty of the French countryside, the sense of community, the old customs, the massive learning curve, the slow tempo of life in that old culture, all this and more let our wounds heal enough to go forward in life with optimism and creativity. Any container would probably work like that. That was a life that held us in its embrace when things got rough. You couldn’t bolt and run away no matter how furious you were. You stayed. You worked it out. Or you just waited for the emotions of the moment to calm down, which they always did.
Gradually we learned that patience, kindness and a common purpose are glues that heal and bind you together. And we were gone long enough to forget America and its ways to a certain extent and so will probably always feel like outsiders, but it’s hard not to notice how difficult life has become for so many here. The America we left seemed more possible to live in. Have we changed that much or has America changed? Both maybe, but kindness seems to have abandoned America in recent years. I’m worried for our grandkids.
I’ve been a painter for fifty years, but for some strange reason I’m suddenly writing now. Some impulse in me has a need for words, so that connections can be made, so that ideas can be put forth, so that kindness can be extended explicitly.
It seems to me that American life is unusually hard on artistic types, but I don’t see how anyone manages, frankly. Everyone is pressed into service to an insatiable machine, a machine that has no use for soul, for beauty and meaning. Money is everything. Possessions, getting ahead while falling behind seems to be the game, and everyone must play.
That obviously entails a huge amount of suffering, and there again, no one is exempt. I’m American. I feel implicated in this drama, but I was born in 1940 and I’ve been living in an older world respectful of its traditions. This brave new world looks inhospitable to me, dangerous to all living forms, and Americans seem to have a strange passivity in the face of this emergency. A large block of people don’t even vote, by choice, a choice which is becoming more and more difficult to exercise for certain people.
We can see where this is going and it’s not good. But there’s a micro view and a macro view of things; you can decide to just save yourself and let the world go to hell in a handbasket, or you can join the attempt to steer this Titanic away from the looming iceberg. Or both, it seems to me. Both is what I’ve chosen. Maybe that’s why I’m choosing words over paint at the moment.
I write pretty much like I paint, however. I just start and something comes out. I knew I wanted to discuss kindness here, but I didn’t know the details of what I was going to say until I wrote them down. That’s how it works when you make something from scratch, I think. Sometimes it has substance, depth, and you keep it because it teaches you something you need to know, something that might be useful to others. It helps you reflect and deepen your understanding.
So the question is, given our situation, how can I help? I have two things, words and perspective, and I’m willing to use them.