The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.W.H. Auden
Sally and I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Vermont, where autumn has appeared in all it’s glory. Cooler temperatures, moody clouds, shorter days, and a cascade of fall colors across mountain slopes, combined to create a powerfully physical sense of change. Those of us living and visiting the more northerly areas of our great country are blessed with seasons that mirror those of our own lives: vibrant, dramatic, and often stark points of time breaking from what was before.
One evening in Burlington, we found ourselves in a small but crowded restaurant, sitting on a small couch across a low coffee table turned into a makeshift dining table, from a young couple from Dallas. We were literally lounging in the wide, sand-colored, leather Chesterfield on one side of the table and had offered the other side after seeing the hostess turn numerous potential diners away for lack of room. In their early 30’s and celebrating their fourth anniversary, Amber and Evan, were exploring their way across New England.
Bright-eyed and exuberant in their adventure, they were curious and engaging, asking us many questions about our life and family, and telling us the story of their meeting, their home, and their hopes for the future. We liked them immediately.
The restaurant closed at 8pm and we sat there for another hour as the staff busied themselves cleaning and closing up. Toward the end of our conversation, they asked, “What’s the secret? We know of many marriages ending at 20ish years, how did you make it to 30 years?” What a loaded question! Loaded with complexity, conclusions, and assumptions.
I once heard a relative say (as she was going through a divorce), that she wanted a relationship like those shared by her parents and her grandparents. The statement always struck me oddly, as I knew something of the struggles of her grandparents and her parents. The fairy tale life she saw in both relationships was no fairy tale at all. Their stories were gritty, full of loss and struggle, and never certain. Never certain, that is, until the stories were over.
As I thought about the question that young couple asked us in Vermont, it occurred to me that they were looking at the product of a very long series of moments, at one particular point in time. Their view of us was the relaxed couple of 30+ years, lounging in a hip restaurant, cocktails-in-hand, seemingly on top of their world. The stories we shared were not of struggle, doubt, loss, or any of the countless moments when our journey could have turned another direction.
Such are fairy tales when you begin reading them after the hero has saved the princess and they have started their “happily ever after.” The truth is, i’m really not what you think. Not completely. Whatever you know of me, your co-worker, your boss, your minister, your neighbor, or that homeless man sitting at the corner, is limited. We may get part of the story. Perhaps it’s a good part. At another glance, it may be one of the bad parts. Regardless of where we encounter each other in our stories, it is only one chapter of an incredibly long and complex narrative.
What does it take to build a 30 year marriage? Many, many, many, things. What does it take to build a company? A career? A friendship? A life? There are no overnight successes. There are no shortcuts. There is no easy way, simple answer, or single “secret.” However, there are some great platitudes, wonderful and terrible examples, good luck, bad luck, and plenty of struggle to mark the moments in anyone’s life. Mostly, there are little choices amid small moments, made large, over time.
Whenever we look at another human being, they are, and they aren’t, what we think. In the moment, we may read them correctly in one or more ways. But we will likely miss the bigger picture in the broad sweep of a long and complex life inhabited by an ever-evolving human being. We’ll never fully understand the struggles, decisions, retreats, victories, hopes, fears, and fantasies of that person. Even the most simple and transparent soul we can think of exists within the deepest pools imaginable – depths unseen and impossible to fully explore.
What we see right now, or what we know of the moment before, might change again with that next choice. When we have the opportunity to know someone over time, we will occasionally see the change unfolding right before our eyes. Far more likely, we will see the patterns only when we look back over the distance traveled. But even then, we may still be surprised in the moment to come as we grow, learn, and evolve right along with that other person.
Thinking back, I remember an encounter early in my career with a woman in our office who was having a tough day with some domestic struggle. Perhaps it was a car problem, or home maintenance, or something with a child. As I listened to her story, she finally said, “You wouldn’t understand.” Surprised, I asked, “Why do you say that?” Hesitating, she stammered a bit before saying, “You probably never struggled with this as you grew up with a silver spoon in your mouth.”
You don’t know me, or my story. At least not completely. We never fully do. Even in this age when all want to share their stories, their truths, their struggles, and so many other intimate details. Of course, we want to share the version of the story we want others to know or believe. But that is a topic for another post.
Thinking back to Amber and Evan, yes, there is a secret to Sally and my 30 years together. However, it is our secret, or better put, our thousand secrets. One step, one struggle, one mistake, one joy, one sorrow, and one hope at a time. Over and over and over again. Guess what? Your secret will be different. And even if I knew it, it wouldn’t really be helpful because you have to create it, and live it, as you go.
That’s just the way it is with fairy tales.