What I’ve learned in marriage: to wait

Confession: The other day I was texting with two friends at once. This is quite a feat for me, a slow texter. Fortunately, we were group messaging. Unfortunately, they were talking circles around me.

We were contemplating whether the rewards of attending a ladies’ seminar together would be worth the gigantic hurdles of a) the spouse permission process, signed in triplicate, b) babysitters, c) meals, d) adequate clothing for appearing in public at a fancy event, and e) how many of us will be pregnant by that time.

Hence the utter poverty of my texting approach, which comes out to roughly two words every fifteen minutes. I pretended I was driving and couldn’t endanger the lives of my children.

(Okay, I was driving. But not the whole time.)

One friend said, So how do you go about broaching this subject with your husband? Sometimes I really wish I could see into how these conversations go for other couples.*

I dodged, because it felt like too much to say:

In our house, it aalllll depends. He likes task lists by email, so he has a visual. He likes big conversations after the kids are in bed, but not just as we’re about to drop off to sleep. He likes to save the little things for when he’s *not working in his office, and the touchy things for when I’m *not simultaneously making supper, balancing a baby on one hip, directing several children in cleaning up the living room, listening to music, and opening the door so the cat can get outside. (This happens at our house.) There is an awful knack to picking the right time and medium.

You know how long that would have taken me to text!

But she persisted. I really want to know.

Okay, I said. Well.

What I do is I mention it sort of casually, like ‘Hey, today I was texting with x and x about whether we should try for Oasis this year or just hit the beach instead. Hahaha.’

(Which, regrettably, is true – but don’t forget the context of hahaha.)

And then I drop it entirely. I used to always follow up by pressing for an answer right away – ‘Well, what do you think about me going?’ – but after a while I realized it’s simply not how his brain works. So I drop the seed and let it go, and by the time I return to the topic a couple of days later, he’s had time to get used to the idea. Sometimes he even has a plan made.

That took just as long to text. But it is also smarter than it appears at first blush.

You know I’m trying to be more direct than in previous years. In saying this now, I’m not undermining being direct; I’m highlighting the fact that being direct does not mean being urgent, pushy, and non-strategic. I don’t know about your man, but mine likes time to think on things. He doesn’t think on things by talking about things. When I keep asking it’s like poking the same spot over and over: he develops a bruise, and winces away. He needs to answer in his own time.

So I lay it out casually (one time), and when it feels ripe I ask (one time) for real.

And then whether he says yes or no, whether he acts on the matter as lightning or as molasses, I try hard to keep my mouth shut.

Sometimes it even works.


P.S. I hope he is not reading this post. That would kind of give everything away, wouldn’t it?

* Unfortunately my phone ate our conversation, so this is not verbatim, but I will not be held responsible for accidents.

What I’ve learned in marriage: to be direct

Confession: Not many years ago, when I was young, I was under the impression that the best way to ask a favor or broach a difficult subject was to sidle up to it gently. I always preferred to drop enough hints about where I was heading that the other person could a) offer the adjustment or favor of their own initiative if they were so inclined, or b) steer the conversation away if they were not. This inclination reflects both how I was raised as a Minnesotan child* and who I am as a person.

It almost made my husband crazy.

Mr. Direct Speech, whom I married by accident while marrying Mr. Handsome, Mr. Intelligent, Mr. Merciful, Mr. Good with Words, and Mr. Great Volleyball Player insisted that I say what I wanted to say, a cruel and unusual punishment, as anyone who shares my dislike of unpleasant conversations will easily see.

“Honey. Um. Honey, I feel like you’re – What is the speed limit through here? Isn’t it forty-five miles an hour? I mean, I don’t want to tell you how to drive, but the baby – !” He prefers that I drop all that and substitute this, which feel impossibly rude and impolitic: “Ryan, you’re driving like Jehu. Please slow down.”

He put a stop to “Do you know what time it is??” and “Are you hoping to get to that project today??” and “Oh shoot, I forgot the salt and pepper…??” (Double question marks in any situation are his abhorrence, and “Do you want to…?” is even worse. Um, no. He doesn’t.) He is teaching me to say, “It’s time to go” and “Would you add this to your task list?” and “Will you please bring salt and pepper to the table?”

Seriously??

It took years to learn. Perhaps I should say it has taken years, and it is still taking years, and it is about to have taken more years, until death do us part. But he will not give up on me.

It’s almost making me crazy.


* I had never factored geography into my makeup until I read this line: “He had been through many of these conversations. He has a calm, reassuring air and a native Minnesotan’s tendency to avoid confrontation or over-intimacy.” It cracked me right up. – Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Metropolitan Books, 2014, p. 166.

Which brings to mind another quote: “I like that about myself, and I like myself, and I have a lot of other great qualities as well.” – Marcel the Shell

What I’ve learned in marriage: to give sometimes

Once upon a time, in our early years of sharing a name and a home, Ryan and I concocted the Ultimate Telling Question about marriage.

Let’s say that the mister and missus are going outside to dig in the yard. Maybe she needs a new flowerbed, or maybe the septic system is acting up again. One of their two shovels is a little unwieldy; the other is the perfect size, strong and reliable, with a comfortable handle grip.

WHO GETS THE BETTER SHOVEL?

We came at this point to an impasse, because in our families of origin the answer was obvious. And opposite.

In Ryan’s family, his mother would have offered the better shovel to her husband (of course!), because he is the king of their castle. She is a helper well suited to her husband, coming alongside him in his work. In my family, my dad would have offered the better shovel to his wife (of course!), because he is a gentleman. He treats his lady with deference, showing honor to her as the weaker vessel. Both families have a strong Scriptural precedent on their side.

Did you know that men and women can come to marriage with very different expectations? And that the longer they are held, the touchier they become? It got to the place that Ryan couldn’t stick his head in the door to ask for a drink of water without me feeling put upon and treated like a doormat.

Sometimes we wonder what would have happened if the Coblentz half of our marriage had been masculine and the Zook half had been feminine. We might have had the most mutually sacrificial, boring marriage in the history of ever; except we’re human too, and we’d have managed to mess it up somehow.

But listen now – The most important phrase in that whole scenario is the one most easily overlooked. I said one of the spouses “would have offered.” With joy. Would have come into the situation with the expectation of giving. The longer we looked at that posture, the more beautiful it became, and we both wanted a share in it. Happiness came to this Zook-and-Coblentz-match-of-differing-expectations when we decided that in our marriage, it would go either way. Many couples have found harmony on one side of the question or the other, including our beautiful parents – but for us, there would be no “of course.” In the most extreme sense: I don’t have to kowtow to a heap big man; he doesn’t have to indulge a queen. We are heirs together of the grace of life.

These days, sometimes he offers me the better shovel and sometimes I offer it to him (though I often suspect I’m getting the better end of the deal). It’s sort of funny now.


Ryan and I have a deep respect and gratitude for all four of our parents. Each set has grown in love together for 45 years – a miraculous and incredible legacy.

The Grandpa plant: remembering someone I loved

If you thought that story was odd, here’s another even less explicable.


Confession: Once upon a time, I noticed a beautiful plant in a loosely monitored location. It may or may not have been the windowsill of my grandpa’s nursing home. Okay, it was. I made sure the plant was hearty enough to withstand a little pinch. I felt around in the dirt at the edge of the pot until I could extract a single root. I wrapped it in a damp napkin. Then I brought it home and planted it. (I told you before I have occasional problems with plant snitching.)

I named it the Grandpa plant until I could find out what it was really called. I love having plants that remind me of special people. I have Yvonne’s lily and Marlene’s philodendron and my mom-in-law’s Bethlehem sage and Cynthia’s spider plant and April’s creeping jenny and Aunt Rose’s oregano and the kids’ columbine and Sherry’s cilantro… and so many more. Even after I knew this one was technically “purple shamrock,” I called it “the Grandpa plant” for short. Kind of like how Robert goes by Bob.

I enjoyed it for several years, and watched it grow.

That was the story of the Grandpa plant until this spring, when I brought all my houseplants into the laundry room for their great annual shake-up – pruning, transplanting, and regrouping. I had noticed the Grandpa plant was not doing as well as I would have liked in its deep crock; it had grown better when it was cramped. I dug out all the roots (there were a surprising number of them, like mini bulbs), and placed them carefully into a smaller, shallower pot. Then I put the collection by a window – a different window, which was my big mistake.

They all died.

Every stem keeled over and bit the dust, and only one of the bulbs produced a new shoot, a baby thing of hopeful promise until it, too, collapsed.

I was horrified. I’d killed the Grandpa plant, and now it was gone.

Several weeks later, as I filled a jug of water at my laundry room sink, I saw something odd coming up in my African violet pot. You won’t believe this, but it was purple shamrock – the Grandpa plant – just two little curls of leaf, sturdy and determined.

I had not planted it there. I’d never grown purple shamrock in that pot. In the great annual shake-up strange things can happen, but this one felt like a resurrection. How did it get there? How did it survive when my careful tending did nothing for its brothers? (Don’t even think that snarky thought – you are suggesting I babied the others into an early grave?)

I watched it grow, delightedly.


Soon it had five stems or more, and one day as I looked at how the leaves of the shamrock intertwined with the leaves of the African violet, my eyes opened wide.

That violet came from my grandma.

I’d not thought of it before,
but of all my two dozen houseplants (and countless outdoor varieties)
it’s the only plant I have from
Grandpa’s
wife.

I like to think of him in heaven, and her in Ohio, and their plant starts twining together beside my sink.

The Mandela Effect and me

Confession: When I used the word chartreuse in a blog post and some of you said you had to look it up, I decided I ought to as well, to see if Google Images showed the color I had in mind.

It did.

(For something breathtaking, try googling chartreuse and gray.)

It also led me down a pleasantly unrelated path into the intricacies of the human brain, which remembers things that are not, and mistakes things that are.

I found that many, many people are confused about the word chartreuse, and “distinctly remember” it being previously a dark reddish-purple instead of a light yellow-green. How does that happen? they said. My mother was an artist, and I knew! It was on a Crayola crayon, and I knew!

This led me into briefly researching the Mandela Effect, of which I’d never heard (meanwhile my dishes were not getting washed). The Mandela Effect describes collective false memory, when a large group of people remembers something that apparently never happened – such as many people feeling sure that the Berenstain Bears were once spelled Berenstein. The “Mandela” piece comes from a large number of people “remembering” that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 80’s, whereas he actually died in bed in 2013.

It tickles my brain. How can we remember what is not?

This leads some folks down the path toward conspiracy theory, paranormal explanations, and alternate realities. I don’t follow. I attribute it instead to confusion – substituting this for that. For example, someone pointed out that chartreuse is not a very different word from cerise, which IS a pinkish-reddish-purple Crayola color. And probably there was a famous black man who died in prison in the 80’s, and people saw his funeral on TV and got him confused with Mr. Mandela. Or they believed he was going to die until, in their minds, he did. Then too, many cited Mandela Effect cases involve discrepancies in spelling, such as for KitKat (not Kit-Kat with a hyphen) and Chick-fil-A (not Chik-fil-A or any variant). Easy to get goofed up about a thing like that – I found it rather amusing than not.

Then I went to a party and created a false memory of my own, which was not as funny.

I attended a Lilla Rose event at a friend’s house, and was pleased with the FlexiClip. I wondered how it kept from slipping apart, and so when I saw one up close, I distinctly noted the grooves for the catch, lined up in a row of three for three different size adjustments. They were deep and sharp, angled like a backslash to avoid the wire slipping out. I thought the consultant even called attention to this clever design. One of the women had trouble releasing the clasp once it was in her hair, and had to be told to push the clip farther together, to get the catch past its groove so it could release.

It was a lovely design, I thought.

Several weeks later, when my FlexiClip arrived, my first thought upon pulling it out of the package was “Oh no! The grooves are all wrong!” They were smooth, flat little half-moons, utterly unable to keep anything from sliding out unless the hair itself added strong outward pressure to hold it in place. I complained to my consultant (who compared with her stock and said it looked the same to her, but kindly offered to exchange for a smaller size if it was having trouble staying in my hair), and I looked online (where every image I found of the FlexiClip showed it identical in design to the one that I held in my hand).

Unbelievable!

I realize it’s not really the Mandela Effect, because I am the only one mistaken, although one friend initially agreed with me: “Your grooves should not be like that!” Later we concluded we must have the same kind of brain.

But – How could I have distinctly remembered something imaginary? How could I have come up with three separate memories to verify my impression? I had 1) a visual {clear mental image of what the clip looked like}, 2) a verbal {comment by the consultant on the nice design to avoid slipping}, and 3) a case in point {when another guest struggled to release the clasp}.

How could I have invented at first glance a better design than what was?

You tell me and Mr. Mandela – and maybe I can sleep again at night.