Friday, September 2, 2011

Why Every Wife Could Use Her Own Hmong Tribe (and a Thundershirt)

I have watched women all over the world weave over examined myths and cautionary tales about their marriages, in all sorts of mixed company, and at the slightest provocation. But the Hmong ladies did not seem remotely interested in doing that. Nor did I see these Hmong women crafting the character of “the husband” into either the hero or the villain in some vast, complex, and epic Story of the Emotional Self (p. 37)—Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

I’m sitting between two strangers, tears streaming down my cheeks, on a Southwest airlines flight. Fifteen rows back, my husband’s likely mildly irritated he lost his A seat status, maybe rummaging around for his free drink coupon. I’m surreptitiously wiping the tears away, aware that my sunglasses offer ridiculously thin cover for the way I’m melting down in public.

I’ll be deplaning in Albuquerque alone, my husband will fly home to California to kiss our three children and proceed with his two-city, two-job frenzy while caring for the kids, which accounts for why he forgot to book me home from the wedding we flew to the night before. Which means I’ll head to the high desert with wedding attire sans materials for teaching and presentations I’ll need for the eight day AROHO women's writing retreat I’m scheduled to attend at Ghost Ranch. My first week away from the kids in 10 years—my first passionate attempt at re-entering the writing world with others of like mind: A Big Deal.

As I work to stuff the upset threatening to burgeon into full body sobbing, an image keeps appearing in my head of the Thundershirt I saw an ad for on our flight the day prior—dogs wear them, and autistic children. Without an ounce of disrespect or humor, I’m considering ordering one (for the comfort of straight jacket minus confines of institution) to help me withstand the maelstrom that’s become the norm in our household.

I figure if I’m worried that this Thundershirt idea is a sign I’m losing it, I’m still ok enough to not lose it. Barely--a familiar vertigo coursing through my adrenals…the usual over-exertion, over-giving, over-analyzing. I’m in my 40s, I’m not a victim, and I don’t care to put a label on my husband or myself...but I do desperately want to move forward together, simple and productive like yoked oxen.

For now, the oxen are rear to rear and kicking, no yoke in sight. I feel like Ferdinand the Bull on the page where he sits on a bee (a family favorite, Ferdinand, with its droll illustrations that convey so much with such simple strokes, and for the subtle humor: corks hanging from the cork tree, the mother cow’s tender worry levitating still towards her massive bull-child).

By the time the stewardess brings my ginger ale, I’m thinking, so what, the husband forgot to book me on his flight, so what we can’t use the companion pass, our itinerary for the weekend risky from the get-go: a wedding in Chicago Saturday night, a return trip to California to repack, a return flight for me to Albuquerque at 3 am between Sunday and Monday.

And to make matters worse, two minutes before heading into the wedding venue, my husband received a text informing him that one of his San Diego roommates went down in a helicopter that crashed (taking with it 22 lives). Our delayed anniversary date fell apart as we tried, unsuccessfully, to deal with the sorrow of those lives lost while toasting the marriage of my beautiful cousin and her groom.

In Albuquerque, my husband buys me a tiny Yin-Yang necklace to help assuage my feelings of invisibility, 3ds our need to balance our male and female ways of meeting our days. In my room at Ghost Ranch, I find comfort in the image seconding itself already in the form of the tiny round mirror over my dresser. By crouching down low, I’m able to capture the half black, half white image.

In the small blogging group I signed up to facilitate, when we sit and write to the images we photographed for the day, I write, “Half black, half white, still arriving, a pale echo of the yin yang, surreal, my husband gave me to help me cross out of anger about being forgotten. There remains more light than dark, two fan blades extending into the dark. The border’s dimples, pearl deep perforations, decorate but do not fully cut open or apart the holder, frame, of mirror. I am not in the picture yet, nor desire to be. I am still arriving.”

It took four more days to fully arrive. Surrounded by a phenomenal web of women writers, my own emotional Hmong Tribe, how could I not come out of the marriage’s dilemmas? I shelved forgiving my husband for engaging in the present, integrating a new definition of “husband” Elizabeth Gilbert posits in her book Committed after observing the way the Hmong women of Northern Vietnam spend their days supporting one another, without the least expectation that their husband be everything to them. Their days, rooms, and routines are full of sisters, aunts, grandmothers.

Gilbert sums up one grandmother’s response to the question, “is your husband a good husband?” : Her husband was neither a good husband nor a bad husband. He was just a husband…As she spoke about him, it was as though the word “husband” connoted a job description, or even a species, far more than it represented any particularly cherished or frustrating individual. The role of husband was simple enough, involving as it did a set of tasks that he man had obviously fulfilled to a satisfactory degree throughout their life together,---as did most other women’s husbands, she suggested, unless you were unlucky and got yourself a real dud (p. 41).

(For the record, I wouldn't trade my husband. And what would my job description look like as wife, were he to write it? You have to read the rest of Committed to appreciate the humor and context here. But I loved that Gilbert goaded me to recalibrate, reconsider, how much unecessary pressure I might bring to bear on every nuance of my interactions with my husband. Certainly being a writer means everything gets scrutinized metaphorically, metaphysically, long into the wee hours of the night in the chambers of my little mind when I'd be better off dreaming my way to solutions.)

Gilbert rightly hints in the quote above that you can feel the vast psychological chasm between this kind of an answer (to the question, "is your husband a good husband?") and the one you’d get from an American wife at a cocktail party, or say, in my case, a writer’s retreat. But we weren’t talking about our husbands, we were busy writing our own answers to Bhanu Kapil’s list of questions that inspired her book of poems, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Or listening, by moonlight, from the sunwarmed stone ampitheatre benches, to twenty-five women writers reading from their work, cactuses at our backs.

Or following Elizabeth Kenneday after breakfast down the trail on her Photo Stroll titled Illuminations, learning how to see. Rim lighting--morning sun wicking along the outlines of the tree’s leaves. Underlighting: otherwordly, unnatural, she said, for sunlight to radiate from the ground. Specular: blinding, off the mirror’s rim.


Jeannette said...

There is wisdom in "without the least expectation that their husband be everything to them.."
but cringe at the idea that "husband" be reduced to job description. I see it more as being sure that one's husband does not take the place of or overshadow the relationship of G-d in one's life....

Lovely photo...inspired poetic beginning ..

I hope you arrive not only safe and sound but full of the joy needed in the complex sacred realms you inhabit...
I should go see what a thundershirt is or what they look like, I am wondering if it would good with your necklace? ; > )

Tania Pryputniewicz said...

Jeannette, thanks for the reflections. I added a paragraph (in parentheses) because of your comment. I wondered, when I posted, if I were even far enough away from this event to write about it at all.

But I realize too, the vision, revision, thinking, digesting goes on, posted or not, and I love that you were part of my seeing my way to the post's heart.

Michael Ann said...

I loved this! Love the photo of the mirror. That was so profound. No coincidences. Marriages have been redefined in the last few decades, that is for sure. My mom always tells me don't count on my husband to be like my best friend. That is what my girlfriends are for. I don't buy that. Maybe she is ok with that, but I'm not. I think we want more from our relationships now. I don't want to live with a stranger. I don't expect my husband to MAKE me happy or be everything to me, but I do expect him to be my friend and to confidant. He should be more to me than my girlfriends are. This is what I was feeling while reading your post. Thank you for sharing this.

Lisa R said...

Thank you for your honest reflections on what was a difficult personal experience. Even though you say you aren't far enough from the event to write about, having been there in New Mexico, I'd say you've come quite a long way in understanding since then. It's all about the journey anyway.

Tania Pryputniewicz said...

Michael Ann, I second the motion: we want more from our relationships than our mothers' generation. I'd like to think it has to do with psychological evolution or maturing (of humanity at large)...but I'm not sure, I just think what is possible changes as our consciousness changes; if we expect more from one another (men and women) I still (perhaps naively) believe we can surprise ourselves, achieve new levels of intimacy (and of course, risk its opposite, new levels of grief!).

Thanks for the support.

Tania Pryputniewicz said...


I'm glad to hear that! Grateful to have had your company trailside and over meals to laugh, reassemble self in the moment, reorient in that beautiful setting at Ghost Ranch. Looking forward to reading your work over at Poet Teacher Seeks World.

Brynne said...

I love that you challenge the status quo to be better, to grow with you as your consciousness expands. Its painful but its always rewarded, if but for the simple joy of knowing yourSelf better. What a lovely post. Thank you.

Tania Pryputniewicz said...

Brynne, thank you--I guess then we could say this is marriage as spiritual practice. I've learned more about detachment from the circumstances my husband and I have created than from any other situation or relationship in my life (with the exception of childrearing--maybe on par).