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The Hare Loves the Tortoise
A Marriage in Quarantine
"Just click right there... right there!" I instruct my husband which box to select as we are researching new technology to aid our homeschooling adventures. He bristles at my words as a I lean over his shoulder and reach in to try and commandeer his phone.
"Can you please not do that?," he asks a question meant as a command.
I know he doesn't like my backseat scrolling but he is sooooo slow. This experience, of wanting something to happen faster and having to wait (often in what feels like agony) for Jim to catch up is one of my most familiar life narratives.
Like the Hare in Aesop's fable, I have fancied myself superior to Jim and his Tortoise ways. The Hare is arrogant, self-confident, questioning how the Tortoise can be as it is - slow and steady. The Tortoise claps back, challenging the Hare's nature, and asserting its essential goodness and ability. A competition of ways of being ensues. The Hare takes off, racing far ahead of the Tortoise, and then stops to playfully rest, falls asleep and is overtaken by the Tortoise who ultimately wins the race. I imagine the Hare feels a deep pang of shame having lost the race and confronted with the hard parts of its own nature.
The moral of Aesop's fable is the race is not always to the swift or slow and steady wins the race.
But what if the Tortoise and the Hare are married?
And what if the race, the goal, is the business of life. The finish line is comprised of a million little finish lines you reach together: graduating, moving, getting married, graduating again, moving, planting tomatoes, falling in love with a dog, losing loved ones, moving again, a first home, having a baby, getting new jobs, losing jobs, painting the kitchen, a pregnancy loss, having more babies, a larger home, more career maneuvers, navigating a child's illness, a global pandemic, and who knows what's next. And what if the ultimate goal is to cross the finish line together and care deeply for one another when the race eventually ends?
Certainly that will never work if the race is run by measuring my way of being up against my husband's way of being. And putting the Fox (a.k.a. Society) in charge of calling the whole thing. When someone has to win, then someone has to lose. Where there is a hero, there is a villain. Where there is a victor, there is a big old loser sitting in the corner feeling like shit.
Which is precisely why my marriage has historically felt so uniquely painful.
God damn I can relate to the Hare. My nature is to race out ahead and then rest. Race out ahead and then rest. When I'm racing I am a fucking gloriously productive beast. I take risks, I think fast, I move fast, I start things, I have ideas, I clean the whole entire house in one day, I build a monster bonfire, I turn over all the kids clothes to new sizes, I start a website, I start a business. And I get a little arrogant. I might even call my sister and tell her that Jim is a real wet blanket, raining on all my good ideas and stopping me from living my best life. He's merely cleaning the kitchen while I, recently converted to minimalism, have touched every object in my home assessed its joy factor. My piles marked for donation shrink when I walk away because someone or other has taken back a sacred item they hadn't touched for 2 years but is now essential.
The other thing about my Hare nature is that when I rest, I rest hard. I don't mean for the break to be so intense but my switches are off and on. I need sleep and television and to not be productive. I have this feeling like I want to just check into a hotel for two days and be alone and come back when the resting is over. This restful state was accompanied with shame for so many years. I would go from hot shit to piece of shit in a matter of days. Rest was not productive and I was no good to nobody and so I was bad. And then bad old me would become keenly aware of the Tortoise doing dishes and sweeping the kitchen floor and want to bury a myself in a hole under the house. And I kind of (as in totally) blamed him for my exhausted condition because wasn't I so tired from over-functioning for him?
Let me tell you about my Tortoise. Jim is risk averse. When my wheels start spinning he starts resisting the gravitational pull of my plans and schemes. Our therapist would probably call this a pattern. He tells me I get a "wild look in my eyes" that signals to him to pump the breaks and slow things down. He always brings up the one or two plans I hatched that were unconventional. So I wanted to sell all our stuff and move into a super cool RV and roam the country while writing a novel and finding gig work for him to do at trailer parks? So what?
"So you would write all day and I would work odd, hard-labor jobs in trailer parks across America?," he asked at the time. "And would we have health insurance?"
Rage. I hated him for not wanting what I wanted. For not being like me. For not supporting me, not believing in me, not understanding me. I felt oppressed. I know that sounds dramatic. But I did. Like in these moments he had all the power and I had no power because he said no. But at the time the other option felt like I had to have all of the power and he had to say yes AND he had to be happy and supportive and love me. And it all needed to happen right now. A little wake up call was when he said, "It's hard to disagree with you." I think at the time I told him he was wrong.
That was six years ago, some 11 years into our marriage. I didn't know if I could stay married to this person. I am so ambitious and intense and sober. He is so moderate and measured and micro-brewed.
I never used to do couple's counseling sessions professionally. I didn't think I had the right to tell other couples how to be married. I had no idea how to be in a mature marriage. I met my husband when I was 15 and married him at 23. I was a whole different person then and grown me wasn't sure I liked grown Jim. I told myself our paths would continue to diverge to the point that we couldn't find our way back to what held us together.
I am so grateful to the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and a really phenomenal therapist for guiding me through the hard years (so far) of my marriage. And also for the peace that comes with security and certainty. The big questions of our life are answered for now. Our family is complete, we are settled into a home that we love (minus the wall to wall white carpet it came with), and we have more security in our careers than we did six years ago.
I am so grateful because I deeply love the Tortoise today. I watched him helping our nine-year-old make homemade baguettes in quarantine and my heart was so full I cried a little cry to myself. What if I would have thrown that all away because I didn't know that I could run the race with him in a different way, with a different set of rules, with a different narrative?
Our isolation has next level highlighted our natures. We bear witness daily to our ways of being in our home and with our children. I am undertaking big projects and setting up school and cleaning the house in a day and doing all the laundry. One day of mega-productivity for two days of rest and relaxation. Or some cycle like that. I have dance parties with the kids and take them on nature walks to clean the creek and make extraordinary messes with them. I leave all the cupboards in the kitchen open.
Jim is doing all the shopping, vacuum-sealing a variety of foods, making home-made bread, cleaning the kitchen and shutting all the cupboards. His mood is steady. Not too high, not too low. He feeds us such good food. If I was alone with the kids we would live on popcorn and frozen pizzas. We would have a blast but we might starve to death.
I love Jim's nature today because I've grown to love my own. In AA, they talk about getting right-sized. Like the Hare, I framed myself as better than or worse than. So big or so little. So right or so wrong. The more acceptance I have for the Hare, the more acceptance I have for the Tortoise.
It's just my way of being and his way of being. It's just stating my preferences and him stating his. This is so simple but it has fundamentally changed my marriage and helped me find peace with myself. There is no competition. And it's not like the one-legged race where we are tied together and have to be on the same page or thinking the exact same thing to be in unity. I can state my needs. Sometimes he can meet them, sometimes I find ways to meet them for myself. This feels so much better.
I remain a person who races ahead and rests. I am still a Hare. Today, I feel good about myself when I race ahead and I feel good about myself when I rest. I find myself saying things to him like, "yes, I am going to stand over the sink and eat chocolate ice cream out of the container," and "I'm not going to be productive today," and "I need to get out of the house alone and take a walk." I remain the much more verbal person.
I used to let what I thought he would think about my ice cream habit change the way I would eat the ice cream in front of him. He puts his meals on a plate and eats them at the table. Even if he is eating all by himself. So weird. And then I would feel controlled and oppressed by having to eat smaller amounts of ice cream in a bowl. But all this happened without him ever once commenting on my ice cream habits.
I would say, "I think I'm going to do a cleanse," and his eye roll would send me into an existential crisis. I had no tolerance for perceived judgment or disagreement. I didn't give him the space to have his feelings because they always felt like a direct assault on me if they didn't match mine. In my quest to not be controlled I got mighty controlling.
Today I feel secure when I buy too much almond milk and it goes bad in the fridge. I don't have to hide it from him or feel shame because I'm a human who said I was going to start each day with a smoothie and then remembered that I don't like almond milk. And I don't have to do this other thing of digging in and proving to someone that I can be super perfect all by myself with no help (which always leads to an eventual crash of sorts - a little star burning out on the horizon). Today I am curious about my behavior. Accepting that I can't do life like other people. I do life how I do it and I amuse myself with the roller-coaster nature of me.
I'm starting to think the Fox is the problem. Remember, the Fox is the judge of the race. I didn't like the Fox's rules and the Fox and my husband resembled each other in some superficial ways so I kind of hated them both. My husband felt just as powerful and important as the Fox so he was never too excited when the Fox shot the starting gun. The Tortoise runs his race on a broad highway. The Hare runs her race on a razor. Awareness of safety, security, status, and power cutting the razor's edge. But that's the Fox's game, not the Tortoise's fault. My husband is not a Fox - though he does benefit from the Fox's rules at times.
The Fox aside...
Together we run a phenomenal race. Sometimes we run along side one another, sometimes I speed ahead and then fall behind, sometimes we agree on the path to take and sometimes we don't. We take our own strange routes and meet back in the middle, changed from the journey and more open to welcoming this slightly new person back to the fold. I carry him, he carries me. I point out the dangers that lie ahead and then race toward them. He says "we are strong, we'll be okay," and stays steady.
I love being a Hare. And I love my Tortoise. Being stuck together in our little house with our little family has deepened my appreciation for both of our natures and made me so aware that there is no other person in the Universe I'd rather quarantine with.
The moral of the story - Run your own race and never mind the finish line