Mystery Dance

Love without risk isn't love at all

| March / April 2006

Twenty-five years ago this May, Eric and I went to the justice of the peace and got married, with Brenda Ueland, Eric's 89-year-old stepgrandmother, as our witness. Afterwards, when we stepped out of the elevator into the courthouse atrium, 150 schoolchildren on risers who happened to be there performing over the lunch hour burst into song: Could I have this dance for the rest of my life? They followed that with Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. It felt like a mythic beginning.

Our marriage continues to be a wild dance and the kids are not cowboys, though they do have an affinity for extreme sports.

Only in hindsight do Eric and I realize that Brenda was an unusual choice for the only witness to our wedding. She spent half of her bohemian writer's life in Greenwich Village and the other half within a few blocks of where we live. Her passion, originality, and authenticity live on in books that are still in print, including If You Want to Write, which Carl Sandburg called 'the best book on writing ever written.' She was married briefly to Eric's grandfather (just long enough to find Eric, she used to say) and boasted that she had had three husbands and 100 lovers but never engaged in a love affair with a married man -- unless he brought a note from his wife. These days, that doesn't seem like such an outrageous idea.

There are, of course, good long-term relationships that are dynamic and loving (though none of them is perfect). But many more are stagnant at best, toxic at worst. As a culture, we'd rather countenance train wreck divorces than have honest conversations about how to heal wounds and restore connections, or how to honor and cherish family and community no matter how the forms of family and relationship morph.

I think of a young man I've known since he was in kindergarten telling me how much it meant to have the loving support of an extended community, one that happens to be open enough to integrate divorces and other human drama. I think of one of my kids coming home after getting caught in another family's post-divorce undertow, giving me a very long hug and telling me how grateful he is for our family. Our fragile, tensile, permeable nuclear family includes my stepson, Leif, and therefore also his mother and her husband, whom we affectionately call our outlaws -- plus countless other people (and animals) who have been integral to our lives.

All this is the tapestry of the life that Eric and I have created and that we both love. The romantic soul mate connection that we had at the beginning has long since tarnished, but the fact that we have continued to show up and have remained life partners when splitting up might have been easier reveals qualities of devotion and connection we never could have imagined 25 years ago -- no matter what the future brings.

In the process of thinking about our cover section, I've had a host of honest conversations with all sorts of people, including a tantrika who has studied sacred sexuality all over the world for 21 years, and Steven and Ondrea Levine (see page 52), whose isolated life allows them to use their 26-year marriage as a 24/7 meditation practice.

I've heard about divorces that left everyone mangled and divorces that actually made families closer. I've heard about outwardly happy marriages between healthy people who haven't had sex for seven years; about a single mother business colleague who has had a once-a-week affair for 21 years; and about a man who lives part time, platonically, with a former girlfriend so that he can be the acting father to another man's son. I know of a therapist couple, married for decades, who would never tell the couples they counsel that they have gone to private sex clubs. About a woman who met her partner of 23 years the first time either of them had been to a lesbian bar and how they occasionally bring a third person home.

Regardless of the form relationships take, the consensus is that a good one is based on self-respect, clear intent about priorities and purpose, and commitment to growth. But even with a relationship built on the best foundation, the fact remains that love is essentially risky. Our only safety lies in gratitude for the lives we share and for the miracle that we continue to love, against all odds.

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