On Bread and Love

 

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

 

When I first read the above I didn’t give much thought to it. Maybe because, at first glance, it appears to be a blandly general insight: for love to last, you have to put effort in. Not exactly ground-breaking. Then again, maybe I didn’t give much thought to it because I’m not one of those people who properly make bread from scratch, the aroma of a freshly baked loaf just waiting to be slathered in butter or honey or jam, permeating their house, signalling to the visitor that this person really is the bees knees, for they can make bread. You see, I cheat. In general, I buy supermarket bread, or use my trusty secondhand bread maker when I want something fresh and hot. So maybe I immediately considered myself out of the loop. Metaphorically speaking, I was the someone who cuts corners in the effort required to make a relationship work. And no one really wants to be the corner cutter. Humph.

 

 

Over time, I mulled over the insight and considered how much I do make from scratch every single day. How so many people make stuff from scratch every single day. Particularly those with lots of little mouths and growing bodies to feed. Breakfasts, lunches, dinners. (Gawd I make a lot of those! Sometimes it feels as though I’m only ever five minutes away from serving up more food.) Snacks. Desserts. Birthday cakes. But not only is there the food, there are the stories and poems, the little artworks that are seemingly magicked out of thin air, courtesy of that curious thing called imagination.

So okay, I’m not a proper bread maker (oh how I yearn for that particular talent!) but I – like so many others – do know about making stuff from scratch and about being in a long-term relationship. Last year my husband and I reached a milestone: we’d been together (21 years) for the same length of time we hadn’t been together. So from this year onwards we will have spent more of our lives together than apart. Which, if you think about it, is a little bit strange, but also a whole lot of wonderful.

Ursula Le Guin’s words about love (whether or not you want to use bread or something else as the metaphor) are absolutely true. But this insight isn’t often discussed. Probably because it’s not as exciting as the first phase of a relationship. If you’re a limerent like me then the beginning of a romance is all fireworks and shooting stars, a pounding heart and a deep, deep yearning. However, that first stage of limerence passes. It simply has to. And then, what are you left with? You’re left with the reality of two people trying to make a go of staying together, of keeping their love fresh throughout the years. And like anything that’s worth doing, it can sometimes be hard to do.

There are times when you just coast along, almost living parallel lives (this is particularly likely to occur in midlife/when children come along and pull you in different directions) and you think (to return to the bread making metaphor) that hey, you know, that’s okay, because everyone needs to cut corners in a while, and so what if you haven’t made any fresh bread recently? It’ll happen soon. When this task/event/work thing/kid’s thing/family thing is done and sorted, we’ll have more time to connect and be together. But you see, if you keep putting off the reconnecting, it makes it all that harder to reconnect. Also, while you’re busy living parallel lives there’s the possibility that you might get pulled closer to someone else. Or some other life goal that doesn’t involve your partner or family. Then the reconnecting that you always meant to do simply doesn’t happen at all.

So Le Guin’s insight is both banal and wise. After being together for 21 years my husband and I could coast along, but we both know that in the long-term that’s not a wise plan. We have to make time for each other, and for those many small – yet, ultimately, big – gestures of love: a cup of tea in the morning. A favourite packed lunch. A chat over coffee. A hug. A simple show of our belief in each other, ‘You can totally do this!’ Or an expression of genuine interest, ‘How are you? How was your day?’ accompanied by real, proper listening. Sometimes, it’s about saying ‘I’m sorry’ when you know you’ve messed up.

For us, this Valentine’s Day, there won’t be fireworks or shooting stars (or handmade bread!) but there may well be a dinner that someone else cooks for us, and best of all, there’ll be love and laughter and a renewing of our resolution to keep making our love fresh, every day.

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Marriage and the Midlife Crisis

Last week it was my husband’s and my wedding anniversary. We celebrated with hugs and kind words and time spent pottering about with our kids, getting on with the usual chores. In the evening we had a takeaway and dessert. In quiet moments I reflected on our almost 20 years together (13 of them as a married couple).

 

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

 

On the day of our wedding, it would have been good if, along with the marriage certificate, we were given a guide to negotiating the ups and downs of marriage, but as no one presented us with such a guide, like many other couples we bumbled along and came up with our own. Although it took a while to craft, it is, thankfully, short. It goes something like this:

  1. Love and respect each other.
  2. Communicate well.

And voila! That is it!

In the early days of marriage, when we were in our late 20s, it seemed so simple. We had it all figured out. Go us!

But you know what… we got older. We had kids. We were constantly tired. Number 2 sometimes seemed impossible. Simply because there was no time to communicate, let alone communicate well. Time seemed to have sped up and slowed down all at once. There was no time to just be. No time to be alone with each other. But equally, sometimes time stretched on forever… particularly when one of the children was ill or teething or going through a particularly challenging phase of development. You name it… it seemed to go on and on and on…. When we were childless, the importance of time spent together hadn’t even crossed my mind.

So in the glorious muddle of early motherhood I made a note to myself:

  1. Spend time together (with or without the kids, depending on their age & needs).

As the children became more independent and the hazy days of early motherhood began to clear I thought, Aha! We have more time now! We’re back on track. But you know what? We were now middle-aged. And you know what happens at middle age, don’t you? Yep. The midlife crisis.

 

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

 

But this wasn’t something that I’d ever considered in my 20s. The midlife crisis was only for men who had a penchant for motorbikes, wasn’t it? Turns out I was wrong.

Suddenly at the midpoint of our lives, it dawns on us that time is beginning to run out. We still haven’t been to Australia, won the Nobel Prize or travelled in outer space. This is the time of the midlife crisis, which Jung says is frequently marked in men by a period of depression around the age of 40, and at a slightly younger age in women.

Some women seem to hit the midlife crisis when their children have all started school and they suddenly have a bit more freedom. Others, especially those who are working full-time, seem to have a later one when the children leave home.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

Whoa! This was serious stuff! And we both seemed to be going through it.

Not only are us middle-aged folk ‘psychologically vulnerable’ at this time, biology seems to be against us too. Our bodies are changing. Growing older. Hair falls out. Or turns grey. Hormones are in flux. Ovaries are on the downturn… For many women it is a last chance to consider having children. Men don’t experience quite the same fertility anxieties. Yet the possibility of other partners – younger spouses – often adds to the mix of the midlife crisis. As does realising that the ‘career-for-life’ (often chosen in one’s 20s) doesn’t quite turn out to be the right career. Where do you go from there – particularly when the weight of financial responsibility is on your shoulders? Job stuck. Heart stuck. Mind stuck. It all sucks.

I hope (I trust) we are through the worst of it, but you know what, it was sometimes rough. Sometimes more down than up. But what really helped was this:

  1. Communicating well.

Although there was the whole ‘figuring out how to communicate’ thing! In our 20s, talking to each other had always come easily, but real proper communication… well, first we both had to figure out how to do that. Turns out it’s dead simple. But hard. It consists of a) LISTENING to the other person WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (that’s a challenge!) and b) LISTENING to oneself and one’s own needs WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (again, harder said than done). After that, comes honest discussion, with solutions put forward for ways to work through the particular challenge. It’s about remembering that if you do still:

  1. Love and respect each other

in essence you’re on the other person’s side. So make time to talk. To listen. To find a way through a challenging time.

Also, in the midst of the midlife crisis muddles I remember thinking that self-reflection was (again) a real saviour. Figuring out that I was a highly-sensitive person as well as a limerent helped. So I added the following to add to the guide:

  1. Know thyself. (Though I think some Greek philosophers got there before me!)

Finally…

Midlife crisis, then, marks the return of the opposite, an attempt on the part of the psyche to re-balance. Jung says that this stage is actually very important, because otherwise we risk developing the kind of personality that attempts always to recreate the psychic disposition of youth.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

So the last point I’d add to the guide is this:

  1. Be mindful of life’s rhythms, and how these rhythms and shifts in circumstances can affect a relationship. Wild beings (Wild Man and Wild Woman too) instinctively understand the importance of taking note of natural rhythms. There will be ups and downs; as long as number 1. (love and respect) is still there, one of the most worthwhile things to do is to hold on to each other and find a way through.

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