Two back-to-back shocking tragedies in my small town have caused me to ponder relationships.
The first involves Mel, an acquaintance I worked with several years ago. He was a quiet, gentle, humble man, the last person anyone would expect to cause harm. A few weeks ago, our community was stunned to learn that Mel, who had recently divorced, got up in the middle of the night, shot his two young sons to death in their sleep, and then ended his own life with the same gun.
Last week we were rocked by another sad story involving one of our most prominent couples. I first met Ken and Julie twenty years ago. They showed up at four AM to help me flip pancakes for a breakfast to raise funds for Espanola’s first public playground. They have been at the center of an endlessly overlapping stream of charity events ever since. Ken chaired the board for our local battered women’s shelter. Julie was president of the Rotary Club. They were friends with almost everyone in town.
Last week Ken crashed into a semi carrying highway barriers. I have heard at least three versions of the event: that he crashed after suffering a massive heart attack; that the tractor trailer came loose and careened into his car; that nobody knows what caused the crash but a medical episode is suspected. He remained on life support for several days and then passed away at 70. While planning arrangements for his funeral, Julie began to complain of a severe headache. It quickly materialized into a stroke. She passed away also and they were remembered and buried together. She was 59.
What defines a relationship?
A week ago today, I rushed to our synagogue with my family for my son’s best friend’s pre-Bar Mitzvah service. To our surprise, the speaker was Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay minister to be ordained an Episcopalian bishop. Bishop Robinson dubbed Exodus “the best coming out story he had ever read” and spoke movingly of his own crossing of the Red Sea. When the Red Sea is crossed, he told us, we place one foot into flowing water and then the water parts. We place another foot into the water before it parts. We never know if we are doing the right thing but must have faith in ourselves and faith in God. He learned, through his struggle to become open about his identity and his love, that he is both loved by God and in God’s presence. And this, he says, is the struggle of every person to overcome oppression and shame. Later, my son’s Hebrew school teacher shared with me her take on the passage in Leviticus (or wherever it is) that says “A man shall not lie with a man as a woman.” Ellen interprets this passage to mean that if a man lies with a man he must not pretend to lie with a woman.” In other words, “You must be genuine in what you do.”
I have been observing my seventeen year old daughter’s first serious relationship with great interest. I am amazed at her excellent choice in a boyfriend. The boy she is dating dotes on her. He obviously adores her and she is obviously devoted to him. I am surprised to see many of my husband’s better qualities reflected in this boy: commitment, intelligence, compassion, thoughtfulness, seriousness of purpose. Fortunately, however, he is not the type to plop his camping equipment in the middle of the living room floor for weeks at a time.
I first met my husband when I was eighteen, a year older than Chloe. My parents and step-parents had been married more times than I cared to count, blessing me with multiple sets of siblings and a deep skepticism regarding the permanence or spirituality of marriage. I regarded passionate love as an illusion and placed no faith at all in “happily ever after.” As far as I was concerned, “regular” was the highest of goals in any relationship. If two individuals could maintain a reasonable degree of trust, communication and ability to compromise, they had accomplished a lot. Richard and I did not have a wedding ceremony. He didn’t believe in God and I didn’t want a bunch of people who couldn’t maintain their own relationships or even speak peaceably to one another to show up, fight over who sits next to whom and give me advice. I also didn’t want God’s interference. As far as I was concerned, my relationship with Richard was nobody’s business but his and my own.
We didn’t put on wedding rings. We had been living together for five years before marrying. We waited for another five years before changing my name. After another five years had passed we decided we were probably able to stay together and we gave birth to Chloe, our first child.
Looking at Chloe and Chris, I realize to my great surprise that Richard and I actually have a very good relationship. It has served as a model for my daughter’s despite my habit of griping to her about Richard’s more annoying pecadillos and my repeated assurances to her that we are divorcing any moment. (Don’t worry…she has never taken my declarations the least bit seriously and they weren’t meant to be taken as such. Who gets a divorce over finding a three day old apple core rotting under the driver’s seat of the car?)
Amanda Udis-Kessler posted an excellent meditation, Same Sex Marriage: It’s a Spiritual Thing on Tikkun Daily, a magazine for spiritual progressives to which I also contribute. Reading her thoughts about the importance of spirituality in relationships, I realized that I have struggled unsuccessfully for many years to keep spirituality out of my marriage.
I was also forced to wonder about the prevailing American definition of a sanctioned relationship. Reading right wing rags, one gets the impression that the only important facet about a relationship is that the act of sex produces children. Reading gossip mags, a relationship is good as long as a couple looks glamorous in public. Hollywood marriages seem about as permanent as the eight or nine marriages and six or seven additional live-in arrangements of the troop of characters involved in my childhood parenting schedule, arrangements that also produced multiple broods of offspring.
For some reason, for me, of all the prejudices, I find it hardest to wrestle with prejudices against same-sex relationships. I wonder if these prejudices aren’t hard-wired as part of our drive to survive as a species.
I can see how it would seem very important in the ancient Biblical world to encourage relationships that produced as many children as possible to tend herds, work the soil, etc. Hence, the Hebrew scriptures allow multiple wives while prohibiting same sex marriage, masturbation, etc. But today’s world is very different. So many of our problems are related to increased population on a finite planet.
Of course, this remark may be perceived as subordinating the spiritual to the material, which I don’t mean to do. But spirituality seems interconnected to our survival as a species. Couples who are helping us to become more sustainable as a species must not be blocked from finding meaning and depth in one another or from fully participating in our collective life We do not need every couple to produce 12 or 15 children. We need people to help raise the children we have already produced, to solve collective problems, to bring more thought and tenderness and commitment and care into our material existence.
And this is what gay couples who are struggling for the right to love one another openly are bringing us.