Saturday, July 24, 2010

This is Not the Story You Think it is, By Laura Munson

At the beginning of the summer, when I pictured myself with my kids, I saw myself in standard mode, barking, reminding them to get their chores done. I decided to change that. It's not that my kids never had fun, but I wanted to put into practice something new, to put down the frantic lens through which I saw life, so that I wasn't focused solely on getting the next goal completed. I didn't want to be the person who, because she can only see the destination, missed savoring the journey. I wanted to be more present with my kids. Have more fun.

You might think my decision to have more fun with my kids would be no big deal, but that wasn't the case. As with anything, making this change was easier -- so much easier -- said than done. Putting this into practice was, and is, an exhausting proposition, because my mind always wants to go back to the same place, the place it has always gone, to the rush of completing tasks. To pry myself out the hamster wheel of "doing" and just "be" with my kids turned out to be no small task. It seemed like I was constantly pulling my mind out of the weeds of its old stomping grounds, where it nudged me to get something done. Getting my mind out of that place, took (takes) effort. It helped me to recall the chant they taught me in kindergarten, the one used to make sure kids crossed streets safely: Stop, Look and Listen.
I first read of Laura Munson's story in an essay featured in the Style section of the NY Times, adapted from her memoir, "This is Not the Story You Think it is." In her essay Munson wrote of how her husband, after many years of happy marriage and raising two children, told Munson he didn't love her anymore. He was distant, angry and cold, and treated her disrespectfully, coming and going when he pleased, speaking to her in a belittling and sharp manner. In Munson's eyes he acted like a two-year-old having a tantrum.

After much suffering and soul-searching, Munson decided that, despite her husband's crappy attitude, she was still in love with him and wanted to try to save her marriage. Even though at that moment, her husband thought his love for her had ended, Munson held steadfast to her belief that, under all his angst, he still loved her. As Munson saw it, she had two choices: She could take the obvious road, and react to her husband's unfairly treatment, or she could practice non attachment, and let his anger play itself out, and see what happened. In the latter scenario she didn't have to play the role of the wronged woman. She would set limits on what sort of behavior she would accept from her husband, and for how long, and then, without reacting to his provocative comments, try and ride out his tantrum. TINTSYTII is the story of Munson's decision to change her life and how she struggled to stay on that path.

Any story that focuses on an inner journey has to walk a fine line, and TINTSYTII falls into some of the classic pitfalls of stories of this type. Munson's story is compelling, but a fundamental part of her story is anchored in the endless, exhausting, work of changing your life from the inside out, and this work is rooted in inner dialogue -- a conscious changing of the way you think. In storytelling, though, inner dialogue only takes you so far. At times, plowing through the back and forth of the author's process as she worked her way through this tough marital time was tedious. I sometimes get weary of listening to my own chatty inner voice, so even though it's fascinating to be able to be in someone else's head, in this case it was also tiresome. The most riveting parts of TINTSYTII were not the passages that "told" the author's thoughts, but the parts that "showed" -- the scenes. When Munson described scenes in which her husband's angry, bristly anxiety led him to lash out at her, I became uncomfortable, yet I wanted to read on. In these scenes the tension was so thick, and the emotions so dramatic, that I wondered how Munson could possibly accomplish this task of continuing to let her husband's trauma run its course.
The other morning, it was my eldest daughter's 16th birthday, and I was faced with a choice. My husband and all three kids were getting ready to leave for the park to shoot off rockets. Rocket launching is a special activity, something my husband does with the kids two, maybe three times a year. I have never joined in with the rest of the family to shoot off rockets. In the division of labor that organically develops in a marriage, rocket launching fit nicely in my husband's realm, and that was fine with me. My realm? Well my plate was filled with the hustle and bustle of the everyday -- the schlepping to and from music lessons, orthodontist appointments, etc. I told myself it was good for my hubby to have an activity he enjoyed with the kids separate from me. But underneath this rationalization was my reluctance upset the applecart of the part I play in my kids' lives.

It didn't even occur to me that I was excluding myself from family fun until the moment they were all about to leave. "Wait for me," I called out, "I'm coming, too." It hasn't been easy staying on track, keeping the commitment I made at the beginning of summer. But amidst the inevitable backtracking, there have been mornings like the day of the rocket launch -- breezy and blue. Standing in a grassy field peppered with Queen Ann's Lace, the pop of the rocket alerted me to look up. A tail of white smoke faded into the Popsicle-blue sky as the three of the best people I know ran across the field to catch it, grinning.

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