Happy Anniversary and the Lessons that Come with it!

I’m hanging on like the last leaves of autumn

But I’m coming through like the first shoots of spring

I’m standing outside of

space and timeAnd I’m healing

Believing

“Last Leaves of Autumn” – Beth Orton

Today is Ryan’s and my 8th anniversary. In August we passed our 5th anniversary of living outside the U.S.A. This anniversary is a little strange because Ryan is on a job training event in Amsterdam, and I am home keeping house with Jaspy. Usually I am the one on a solo adventure and he is home with his video games and Jasper. Naturally, I have been feeling contemplative about anniversaries and solo travels and the meaning of fidelity in a marriage.

I should start with the declaration that I love being married. I am immensely lucky to be married to my best friend, but that is not my point here. I love the concept of marriage. I like the idea that Ryan and I will put effort in when times get hard or confusing. I like that more often than not things feel comfortable and natural. I like that we can speak our minds, that we can get a little bitchy from time to time but it passes without leaving scars, that we can even fight and neither one of us fears “it’s over.” There is such joy and depth to growing together. We are both so different than we were 8 years ago, and yet somehow our relationship has expanded around us, instead of constricting one or both of us. I love how we have so much fun, because we prioritize adventures and life experiences.

One of the reasons we get on so well is that while on the surface we don’t have much in common, such as taste in music, movies, food, etc., on a deeper level we have important things in common. We both have a disdain for Southern California culture, a powerful drive to travel and live overseas, and a commitment to support each other in our dreams, something Ryan has particularly excelled at in regards to me. We share a belief in our love for each other, and that our marriage symbolizes and provides structure for this love. We trust each other thoroughly. So while it is weird that Ryan is in Amsterdam on our anniversary, and I miss him dearly, it is also okay.

I sound more confident in these paragraphs above than I have often felt. These realizations about my relationship with Ryan have only come to me in recent months. For nearly three years I have been going on solo travels that have enriched my inner-life in so many ways. The places I have seen and the people I have spoken to have left indelible impressions in my soul. Ryan has been so generous to send me on these trips simply to satisfy my insatiable desire to travel. He never makes me feel bad for leaving him alone, or for the money these trips cost. He believes that by supporting my dreams we are both fulfilled, and that is the most precious gift he can ever give me. I can only hope that I am helping him fulfill his dreams too, though he is much quieter about his than I am about mine. He is much quieter than me in general!

Well, after months and months and half of Europe, my head was so full of experiences that I couldn’t share with Ryan. I would think of something that touched me deeply, such as autumn in Estonia, and it made me feel lonesome in a way I never felt before because my husband and best friend didn’t know what I was talking about. Conversations that were funny or intense fell flat when I repeated them to Ryan. My heart started churning with the guilt I was inflicting upon myself for missing so much time with Ryan, and the absolute confusion I felt because I longed to be home with Ryan but also to continue traveling solo. This turmoil created quite a crisis for me and I started losing my grip on reality, I even started doubting my marriage. It sounds silly now, but the feeling that I was having an affair, with traveling, took over me and I became very unhappy. When I was home I felt bored and depressed because I wanted to be “out in Europe,” but when I was out there I felt like Ryan was moving on here at home. I became jealous about our friends because I convinced myself that Ryan was the real friend and I was just “Ryan’s wife.” I felt like an outcast, like I was intruding when I was around, instead of naturally being part of the group. I remember one absurd night in Guimarães, when I called to talk and he was at dinner so he said he would talk to me later and I felt so rejected. I cried myself to sleep because I was so sure he was moving on, even as I was having a spectacular time in amazing Portugal.

DSC_3530Everything came crashing down this summer when I ran off to Turkey, weeks before Ryan, our friend and I were to go on an Ireland and England adventure. Turkey was amazing, I will write a post on it later, but it is important here because it is the country that forced me to slow down: I got traveler’s sickness. And it lasted for weeks and weeks. I had to come home early and our summer trip was derailed. I felt awful disappointing our friend by canceling the trip, but what hurt the most was how I felt like a failure as wife. There was no reason I had to go to Turkey right then. And because of my self-centeredness I cost us a trip together, one that he REALLY wanted to do, driving to Ireland was his desire, and I took that away from him. Ryan and our friend handled the situation gracefully and neither made me feel guilty at all. They are rational people and knew that I didn’t get sick on purpose and that I was miserable physically and emotionally.

There were times when I thought I would never get better, and even now I don’t always feel great. But this forced down time, gave my heart room to unwind the knot it had tied itself into. Slowly, I started realizing that the entire shared experience of living abroad and its unique relationship challenges had prepared Ryan and me to have a different style of marriage than what we had when we lived in the States. We not only can handle many short-term separations, but it is even good for us. Our intimacy is not based on being in the same room, but in the values and stories and years together that we share. I realized that I was the problem. Not Ryan. Not my marriage. Not even my solo travels. My fear of losing an illusory marriage was affecting the real marriage that Ryan and I have, and ours is so much richer and authentic than the “typical” one I was trying to emulate. I had forgotten that every marriage is different and we don’t have to compare ours to anyone else’s, or accept anyone’s judgments about ours.

Ryan insisted on me going to Ljubljana when I was starting to feel better. He knew how much I had been wanting to go to Slovenia so he made it happen. I was at the tail end of my illness and my confusion so I didn’t know why I had to go then. But, as always, Ryan knew best. It was while walking on a crisp-cold night through the beautifully lit pastel city on my way back to where I was staying that I had the epiphany about what my marriage is – that Ryan and I have always been okay and that I need to trust implicitly in what we have and in who we are, both as individuals and as a couple. I felt like the marriage Grinch. When all of these thoughts and realizations came together, all of my anxiety and depression lifted and my heart grew two sizes!

I love anniversaries. They mark the passage of time, but also create a space on the calendar and in our lives for reflection. Ryan didn’t feel the anxiety I felt, he didn’t need to have an epiphany. I could have just listened to him all along and then this post wouldn’t be so long! I am lucky I married my best friend, and that he is always here for me, even when I get lost inside myself. Happy 8th anniversary!

UU and Me

Caitlin_blog

 Last weekend was my third European Unitarian Universalist (EUU) retreat, held in Köln (Cologne), Germany. They are held in the spring and in the fall and are just about the best weekends of the year. My first retreat was in the Spring of 2014, in Spa, Belgium. I had no idea what to expect. Everyone in my UU fellowship was talking about how fun they are and that we should go. I was nervous because not only did I not know very many people, but I was also brand new to UUism, and the very idea of a retreat brought images of stuffy meetings with bits of nature walks. But I took the plunge, and oh how wrong I was! I met some really amazing people. Now, I plan my travels around when the retreats are; they take priority.

 Oberwesel-2015 (18 of 58)

My second retreat was held in Oberwesel, Germany, in a hostel next to a medieval castle above the Rhine, it doesn’t get prettier than that. This one was great because I was no longer a new-comer and people were happy to see me back. And, this time Ryan came along (he got stuck working at the last minute for the Spa one), and it was so fun introducing him to the great people I met. He was able to hone his photography skills by photo-documenting the event, which suited him just fine.

 This Köln retreat was the best yet. The overarching theme was music, so most of the workshops were music related, and there were plenty of jam sessions when the activities were over. It was poignant for me because unfortunately I do not play an instrument. It wasn’t part of my childhood, other than a short run with a recorder in the third grade. I was happy when my sister took up the flute, and now my niece is learning piano. I hope she enjoys it because one day she will realize how special it is to have musical ability. I have a beautiful autoharp that Ryan gave me three years ago just sitting in my closet because I have been so intimidated by it. Now, I feel inspired to learn it. The retreat made me think about how music moves and unites us; how we are all touched by pieces, even if we don’t actively seek music out. It is part of our collective humanity, another thing that separates us from animals.

Example Gamelan instruments from Wikimedia
Example Gamelan instruments from Wikimedia Commons

All of these thoughts were flowing through my mind at the special Gamelan workshop. Our group went to the  Museum of Anthropology after normal business hours and we were taught how to play a set of over 100 year old Indonesian Gamelan instruments. The Gamelan holders are cherry red with intricate dragons carved into them, and the bronze instruments sit balanced on top of them. We were shown how the tune and melodies are different than Western style music. It was thrilling to be playing xylophone-like gambangs, while others tapped drums, or played the metallophones, or hit the gongs. The room reverberated with this powerful, discordant, exotic music. I felt strong inside knowing I was producing the sound that was required of me by my fellow players. I finally understand how it would feel to be in a band. The Javanese speak of “rasa,” the feeling that pervades the players and the audience through the music itself, and from the act of playing it. This is what I tapped into and it was magical, especially with the Javanese shadow puppets behind us and the Indonesian costumes and art along the walls.

The other workshop I did was just as fascinating: Hebrew chanting. In this workshop we were taught Jewish Renewal chants. After struggling with the Hebrew pronunciations for a bit, our group got into the rhythm of each chant. We were taught the emotional stages of the chant: first you are frustrated because you are learning the words and melody, and they may not be intuitive, like Hebrew isn’t for me; then once you get that down (well enough anyway) you get to the boredom part where you know the chant but you are just saying it over and over again, not being touched by it; but if you persevere through that then you are awarded with a feeling of deep meditation. I have never been able to clear my mind for mediation, but this chanting seemed to come up from deep within me and I was, for the first time in my life, able to calm and center my mind. I did not expect this and I treasure the effect. I went into this workshop for intellectual stimulation, and came out feeling a level of relaxation that I never knew was possible. I think chanting will be a good way for me to train my mind, and maybe one day I will be able to mediate fully, with or without the chants. I am eager to find a chanting group online if I can’t find one in Wiesbaden. Chanting in a group as we did made me feel a connection to those around me. During one of our chants our guide had us look into each other’s eyes, it was a gentle but forceful reminder of our obligations to each other because of our shared humanity.

As thought provoking and inspirational as the workshops are, the most meaningful part of the retreat is the time spent with friends. Right now there is a solid group of “youngish” people, those in our mid 20s-mid 30s, who have been attending the recent retreats. We come from all over Western Europe, and when we get together again the time is filled with laughter (often drunken) and good times. It really feels like a family reunion, with people I have only met three times! The camaraderie is instant and real; people are really encouraging, and just glad to see you.

I was nervous joining the Unitarian Universalists because they were another religion, and I had spent years evolving beyond the guilt I felt about leaving traditional Christianity.  But UUs have proven to be kind, open-hearted, open-minded, intellectual and fun. There is an optimism that flows organically from the heart of UU and touches its members, touches me. It makes me feel that while so much in the world is broken, there are people who believe that heaven can be made on earth with a concerted effort and a whole lot of love. Sometimes it feels naïve when looking into the face of so much evil in the world, but when I look at the history Of UU I can see how their continued fight for social justice and awareness has helped bring about so much social change in America; then I get a new feeling. The effort is always worth it, even if it brings change slowly or incompletely. To me it is more honest, more human, to strive to create a better life for as many people as we can now, then to sit smugly back and hope that the next life will be paradise.

And we can do all this while drinking, dancing and singing!