how does one establish a relationship that is built to last, what with all the ephemerality of the world? the passing of days into memory or forgetting, the hurts and slights that have the potential to erode at what originally connected two people, the quirks and morning breath and neglected leg stubble that could garner disproportionate attention when days seem mediocre or less than magical.
impermanence could be something to fear when it comes to relationships, if we start to think about divorce statistics, the real faces of broken families who have crossed our paths, our own experiences in such families, either as children, helpless to keep their parents together, or as parents who tried everything they could think to try and still fell short of finding a way to “make it work”.
i take heart in those second marriages i’ve observed that seem to have a higher happiness quotient than the overall married demographic. of course, this will only be my first marriage, but it will be rich’s second, and having had a child with my coparent functionally bumps that into the “might as well have been married” category. rich and i talk about how we’re aiming for the kind of longevity and dedication of johnny and june, while we’re speaking of second marriages that went well… this is of course in addition to all those fabulous first marriages that are going strong!
one saturday while i was working at farmer’s market, rich pruned some trees to allow more light to reach the apple orchard. some of what he cut back was wood i could use for the terraces i am building, so i spent time the following afternoon moving some of the branches into place. this pattern has played itself out numerous times now, but i realized on that particular afternoon that stabilizing the slope and minimizing erosion is a metaphor one could apply to relationships.
the metaphor has layers…. literal and figurative. i am building my terrace garden into six levels that span the backyard slope. first, i laid cardboard as a hindrance to the ivy and morning glory that will want to make a swift return if i don’t impede them. along with this weed barrier, each level has a set of stakes pounded into the ground along a contour, and a series of limbs and brush tucked in behind the stakes, horizontally layered to hold the soil inside and provide a wall of sorts. behind the branches, more branches, twigs, brush, and mulchy bits are piled to provide bulky organic matter and generally fill out the space. next, a layer of raked leaves helps the soil not trickle down into the twiggy abyss, but stay on the surface until roots can establish and help hold it more firmly; as the leaves break down, they will provide nutrients for the roots, while the branchy twigs should hold extra moisture as they break down more slowly. finally, some top soil, in which the rainbow flower bulbs and seeds will be tucked; the icing on the cake.
before the layers could even begin to be laid down, some stuff had to be pulled out by the roots. there are things in our pasts, for example, that we have no use for. these ivy invaders and morning glory stranglers must be hauled to the dump, with no other option to keep them from getting carried away and making a nuisance of themselves. there are thought patterns and habits we all have that simply must be eradicated before forward progress can be made. while ivy can keep a slope in one place after a fashion, and toxic relationship patterns can keep people cyclically involved, there are much healthier replacements for slope stabilization.
on the other hand, the layering of cardboard and brush brings to mind the way that some waste can be gleaned and turned into useful, strengthening stuff. the pounding of discarded limb stakes into the hillside allows the hillside to remain in place, slows erosion, and provides a substrate on which a garden can flourish. while some maladaptive habits and thought patterns have to go, there are also old hurts and pieces of scar tissue from the past that can actually be turned into something useful, something that feeds the beauty of the garden, that strengthens and stitches together new connections, rather than continuing to poison. the shining example for us is oregon country fair, an event that i believed was poisoned for me beyond redemption. instead, it has become a place of trust, love and some of my happiest memories. with the right person, letting a vulnerable hurt place be loved on can result in some amazing healing.
the idea of pounding in stakes, actually piercing the ground, in the interest of stabilizing the slope, is one i’ve been mulling over in the scope of my metaphor. i think it applies in the sense that relationships involve some hard work. it shouldn’t feel like hard work all the time, nor should the work ever feel impossible, in my opinion, but there is effort in showing up for another person daily, saying yes to them with your being, pulling your weight and doing your part in the household duties whether you feel like it or not, showing gratitude that your partner is doing the same. picking up their slack when they are sick, and acknowledging when they do the same for you. it’s a conscious, enthusiastic turning towards one another in words and actions. sometimes there are conversations that don’t go well the first time. coming back and doing the hard work to get through the process and come out on the other side with a better understanding of one another’s points of view, while it can be a piercing experience, undoubtedly leads to a strengthening of the relationship, an act that prevents erosion. while the ground is frozen, it may not be time to pound in stakes; being able to discern what matters, how much it matters, what needs to be dealt with right now, and what needs to be tabled until after a thaw, all come into play in various seasons. gentleness in handling these topics, sticking to the subject, and attributing the best intentions to one another consistent with the facts helps minimize erosion as well.
layering the branches, twigs and leaf litter into the terraces reminds me of what we do for each other to feed the relationship. consciously, we both ask ourselves what we can do to support each other, and to support our friendship. i make a point to know what flavors my sweetie will savor when i cook our meals, while he makes a point to stoke up the woodstove in the middle of these chilly nights for my cold bones. i might be content to eat rice and beans, and he might be content to let the house cool off at night, but we prioritize each other’s comfort. aside from the creature comforts are the less tangible emotional needs, to be heard, seen, recognized, accepted, supported. we had an especially nice conversation after family had all departed from christmas festivities, and covered a lot of topics, talking at length about each of our kids and other family members, sharing our observations and insights that we had been having throughout the festivities but hadn’t gotten a chance to share. both of us felt a sense of what a great friendship we have, to be able to range widely in conversation and complement each other’s insights. we also make a concerted effort to make each other laugh with great frequency, and as we all know laughter is like water for the soul’s garden.
all of what we are feeding each other, these layers of friendship and comfort, must be held in place in the right kind of container for the relationship to work. building these terraces creates a wall structure behind which the layers of organic matter are safe to settle in and nurture the soil and the plant life. the sides breathe, there is no lid to stifle growth, moisture is retained but does not stagnate, instead the walls provide a richly nourishing, secure foundation in which the growth can proceed. this container finds a balanced porosity that both prevents erosion and encourages individuality. the magical blend of components woven together to form this container, such as trust, trustworthiness, unconditional positive regard, attentiveness, hugs, and refusal to indulge negative self-image on the other’s part, provides such security that the growth flourishes and positive fruit can spill over to bless the surrounding family, friends and community.
embedded in the creation of these layers is the way we share the labor. our partnership has always pleasantly surprised me with how smoothly labor divides itself to the great good fortune of all involved. i stood around the other day watching him split and stack firewood, vaguely wondering if i should help, but content to watch the show, knowing he expected nothing of me in that department, and knowing i’d be serving him a hot dinner later that i wouldn’t expect him to lift a finger for. i would never in a zillion years have thought that serving another person would bring me such joy, but when he asks me if i want to fill his water glass, i find that yes i do genuinely want to. i think an attitude of gratitude is something we both intentionally promote in ourselves. i endeavor to notice the way he wields power tools and cuts the brush and branches without complaint, and he makes a point to comment on the progress i’ve made weaving the branches into the walls of the terraces. we don’t lavish praise with the intent to procure more work or results from each other; this appreciation is simply acknowledgement of what’s done, not a subliminal manipulation to extract more.
the seed for this post was planted a few months ago, and i’ve been tending this seedling ever since. this past weekend while we worked as a team to fell trees and clear brush, then add more layers of stability to our terraces, i was reminded once again of the metaphor, and feeling gratitude for the many years ahead of growing together on this stable foundation.