Friday, September 2, 2011
Why Every Wife Could Use Her Own Hmong Tribe (and a Thundershirt)
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 the Navy SEAL 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 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.