Thursday, July 24, 2003

It's not easy, this relationship. But what relationship is?

"Why aren't we there yet?" Rowan asked from the jump seat behind me. He'd obviously been a quick study in the 4 1/2-year-old training program. These days they're teaching much more advanced road trip annoyance techniques than when I was a kid; we used to ask simply, "Are we there yet?" or perhaps, "When are we gonna be there?" -- both of which have simple one word answers requiring no thought. But to be asked why we aren't somewhere takes the mind directly to the metaphysical. Why, indeed, are we here, on the highway to there, instead of there, where we want to be? The answer, it turns out after some pondering, is that we aren't there because we're here. I never did get around to answering his question, which required greater knowledge of physics than I had at my disposal in order to fully explain why one object can't be in two places at once, because I was busy avoiding an eighteen-wheeler who could also have used a refresher in physics -- two objects can't occupy the same space.

We piled out of the driver side door of the pickup like clowns from a Volkswagen; first me, then Rowan, then Karen. Finally Sage, the tiniest, was extracted from her carseat. I did some boy things (fidding with the glove compartment whose light had gotten stuck on) while Karen did some girl things (getting the kids ready for the beach). I'm not a proponent of gender role specialization, but nonetheless it sometimes works out that way, especially regarding the kids; by default I'm co-pilot, though my solo flight log is growing steadily.

I was starving as we walked across the sand, but Rowan didn't share my interest in lunch -- he made a beeline for the water as we spread out our blanket. Karen and I began eating -- she'd prepared some veggie sushi rolls earlier -- while Sage happily smeared her face with avocado and handfuls of sand.

"I have to use the bathroom," Rowan reported anxiously, returning from the water with his pail and shovel. We looked around.

"Where do they expect you to go here?" Karen wondered. "Do you just have to pee?" she asked him.

"Yeah," he answered, dancing from foot to foot.

"You'll have to go in the ocean," she directed. "Just sit down and let it go."

"Come with me," he requested.

I kept an eye on Sage while they played in the water. This tiny eating machine was in a good mood, cheerfully gorging herself on mineral-rich sand. Meanwhile, Rowan sat in the shallow of a receding wave to do his duty -- but before he could relax, he had to jump up to retreat from the next one. I don't know how he managed to time it properly, but eventually he did look relieved.

We'd seen the brochure, so we weren't too surprised at what we found. How to get to our campsite: go past the swimming pools and the video arcade, turn right at the horseshoes, left at the playground, and there we are, across the road from an armada of RV's, each with full hookups, screened-off extended living rooms, and satellite televisions. Even within the "Tent Camping" quarter we were minimalists; all the other campsites had a family-sized behemoth tent plus a separate screened shade tent. My backpacking tent hardly looked big enough for one person, by comparison, much less all four of us, but we knew that this was just a trial run for real camping in the wilderness. So we went straight to the swimming pool.

They made us get out of the pool on account of the thunderstorm coming in. We thought it wise to stay in our swimming clothes for now, and perhaps set up a rain cover.

"Would you like some help?" said the man very slowly with an accent. He'd just come over from the site next door, and asked me something that I hadn't understood.

"Sure," I said. We were tying the tarp between some trees, but it was slow going with two little ones to keep track of. "Where are you from?" I asked him.

"Quebec," he answered.

"Ah," I said. "Je ne parle pas Francais," I informed him, as if he didn't already know that I couldn't speak French.

"Of course, no problem," he laughed, as he and his two boys helped us with the tarp.

After he left, Karen and I had our first minor breakdown of the trip. We'd been having a lot of those lately; so many that we weren't sure it'd be a good idea to go on this camping trip together.

The problem, certainly, was not that we didn't like each other, or that we disagreed a lot or didn't respect each other or anything so simple. It was more that we set off a lot of alarms in each other, or emotional land mines. When we allowed someone past our defense systems, we discovered, they sometimes went into areas we didn't even know about which had some pretty heavy explosives planted there -- unhealed wounds from being hurt, perhaps from previous relationships. When two people want to be close but haven't disarmed all the mines, and don't even know where they all are, the results can be extremely volatile.

This volatility, in retrospect, seems to have been what made my relationship with Juliette so weak toward the end, until during our last days together we could hardly do anything but hurt each other -- even knowing that we both wanted to forgive, we just kept stepping on each others' land mines, hurting ourselves and each other even more.

Not even a year later, I'm repeating the same painful course, but perhaps with slightly more understanding through experience.

Karen and I had been discovering each others' land mines for the past several weeks, throughout visits from each of her parents, taking care of the kids, working on business projects together, and even taking time to be alone. It had been quite an ordeal, but as with coal under great pressure, we had come out of it with a tiny diamond, a teardrop of understanding.

The diamond, unfortunately, does not serve as a barrier to pain; it is no magic amulet to make life easy. It's more like a prism, which splits the light of experience into its constituent frequencies.

We made it through dinner, but around the kids' bedtime I stepped on a mine. As with most arguments, the specifics weren't important; it was the tone of voice, the emotional stance, and finally the communication breakdown that made it upsetting.

It took me about half an hour of fuming about my feelings being hurt before I even remembered that I had learned something about this already. Looking through the prism of experience, I was able to see more clearly that although I had stepped on one of these emotional land mines, it didn't mean I was a bad person, or that I'd done something wrong -- though I might take more care next time. And although I'd been hurt in response, it wasn't because she'd intended to hurt me, it was because she didn't feel safe. Seeing the simplicity of these truths allowed me to let go of my hurt feelings and to feel more compassionate towards her, as well as to myself.

That night my little backpacking tent was home to two adults, two children, and seventeen very satisfied mosquitos.

In the morning it was raining. No one came out of their recreational vehicles. No one came out of their family-sized tents. No one else was around to play with us in the playground. To slide down the slide, standing proudly with a soaked rear. To dance in the puddles -- or indeed to lie down in them, as one boy I know did with so much zeal.

It took a moment for the screaming to enter my consciousness. I must have been putting something away from breakfast, I suppose, when it occured to me that it sounded more serious than the squeals and yells that I'd been tuning out until now. Rowan had been playing with his friends, chasing each other around the campsite, making a lot of noise. But this new noise wasn't running, and it wasn't yelling; it was definitely screaming.

I turned around to see Rowan lying face down on the ground, one loud monosyllable coming from his throat. I ran over to see what had happened, and only found a dirty smudge at first. As Karen showed up, we both saw his right arm -- a strip of white flesh, where it must have been seared by the campfire ring. I ran for a water bottle, and we found another burn on his other arm, worse than the first, with shreds of white skin hanging from the top edge.

Karen ran to the bathroom, carrying him in her arms. She's not one to panic, even when it's her little boy. We doused his arm in cold water, then discovered the back of his right leg, the worst of the three. I went to get a tub so we could immerse his body in cold water.

None of the burns seemed critical -- they were all shallow and with little blistering -- so an emergency room trip didn't seem necessary. While we swapped cold water wraps on each of his burns, we tried to focus him on other things -- Star Wars was the most obvious and successful, being his current obsession. Though it was applied nowhere near any of his wounds, the Yoda band-aid gave him great solace, focusing his attention on a symbol of wisdom and inner strength.

After an hour or so he was resting on his own, with ice packs to cool the burns, and blueberries to satisfy his senses. I played a rhythm on his drum to try to give his mind a peaceful home, and was rewarded when he began humming it later.

"Boom, boom, chuckchuckchuckchuck, Boom, boom, chuck," he sang from his makeshift convalescent bed on the ground near the picnic table. His little sister climbed over him, both heedless that she might cause him additional pain.

We broke camp and headed home. It was a day earlier than planned, but none of us were upset about leaving the RV city too soon.

"I think we should stop by Aaron's work on the way home," Karen said from the back. She was sitting with Rowan, already fast asleep. There was no other way to contact Rowan's Dad before he got home later in the evening.

A few heads turned as we pulled into the construction site. Karen hopped out and went to talk with him. He climbed down from the roof and came over to the truck.

"Hey Aaron," I said.

"Hey." He went straight to Rowan. That was the second word he'd spoken to me since I'd arrived two months ago.

I stayed home with Sage while the three of them went to the emergency room. I guess I understand why they did it. He was scared, he wanted to trust someone who knew more than he did.

Rowan slept for a long time that night, but when he woke up he was happy as could be, walking around proudly in his bandages, demonstrating how he could go down stairs by bending one knee. Sage and I stayed home that day too when they went to see the specialist. Rowan had asked whether I was going, but I didn't want to tell him that his Dad was uncomfortable around me, so I evaded the question. It made me wonder which will happen first -- Aaron becoming relaxed around me, or Rowan noticing that he's not.

So yeah, it's not easy. But easy wasn't really one of the prerequisites for the relationship. In fact, if I look back on the events in my life that have influenced me, from which I've learned and grown, I can't find an easy one among them.

This relationship is certainly no exception, with its ten year prelude, my struggles with attachment and hers with freedom, and then upon finally arriving at a common ground of friendship, making some choices which brought deep suffering to others in the process.

With undeniable emotions, I contemplated entering into this new phase of our relationship. I didn't want to end up merely repeating the patterns of my past relationships -- I'd caused and felt too much pain already. "If this doesn't work," I vowed, not sure whether I was joking, "I'll go join a monastery."

"I'll buy you the bus ticket," she agreed. She's very supportive.

I wanted a relationship that would allow us to make our dreams into reality. I had a lot of ideas about how I'd like to live, and why, and what it is that I'm supposed to be doing with my time on this planet. I also recognized that I had a lot of obstacles to really living my ideals, and it would be important to have support in overcoming those -- someone who might be able to provide an example of a different approach, or remind me during difficult moments of what's really important.

In her I saw a vision of a sacred life, a life dedicated to deep knowledge of the self, and I saw the potential for the strength and support I would need in order to grow through the limitations I had accumulated in my life. I guess she saw something similar in me.

That's when the work began.