19 June 2009

The Meaning of Wife

Recently, The Times, and especially The Sunday Times, has been positively obsessed with “wifedom.” Over the past several months there has been article upon article in the TimesStyle magazine wherein writers have actively pondered on the page the concept of “the wife.”

Even the chatty and ever-entertaining Shane Watson has joined the fray, declaring her opinion that what men really want in a wife is: “a woman [they] can believe in.”  Very heady stuff, indeed, particularly from a writer known primarily for celebrity-jabbing.

Another writer in the same publication set about outlining what she believed were the current wifely archetypes in contemporary society, along with some real life examples for readers to emulate or to be admonished by.

My personal favorites (no surprises, here) were: “The Goddess Wife” - personified by Nigella Lawson, and “The Inspiring Wife” – personified by Michelle Obama.

Let’s face it, Nigella Lawson is a modern-day, brunette, Marilyn Monroe - who can cook. But, despite her sometimes over-obvious sex appeal, her hyper-confidence, and sexy smarts (she has an M.A. in medieval and modern languages), ever so often viewers can catch a glimpse of the other side of Nigella, the besotted schoolgirl underneath it all, who still gets weak in the knees at the very thought of “that sweet man of mine.”

“The Goddess Wife” is all about hearth and home, care and comfort. Everything she does, and everything she is, is about sensuousness, deliciousness, warmth, scrumptious indulgence, and ample luxury. She’s can’t help it, she’s just built that way.

“The Inspiring Wife” comes at caring from a different, though no less valuable, perspective. Michelle Obama is the perfect example of the “Inspiring Wife.” She is her husband’s equal (intellectually, socially, professionally, &etc.) and his champion.

But, she is no mere cheerleader encouraging him from the sidelines, nor is she his coach. What she is, as the article writer put so beautifully, “[Michelle Obama] is the reason Barack Obama gets up in the morning.”  She is his sunshine.

As “The Inspiring Wife,” she enkindles his greatness. The concept of “Ihe Inspiring Wife” is not a new one. My chief bridesmaid, Sarah, gave me a lovely gift the day before our wedding: a copy of A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom. In it, one of the countless relationships Yalom details is the remarkable marriage of John and Abigail Adams.

After Abigail had accepted John’s proposal, he wrote to her, thanking her and expressing his belief that by knowing and loving her, he would “Gain some of your sweet grace, My Dearest Friend, that will perfect my many Imperfections.”

Shane Watson’s comment touches upon this very idea: the wife as source of grace, a figure to be ‘believed in’. There is no doubt, upon reading the love letters of John and Abigail Adams, that John viewed his wife as clearly the very best part of himself.

I devoured Yalom’s book while lounging and sleeping by the pool in Tunisia. And contemplated what kind of a wife I would like to be. From the title, it may sound uber-academic and dry as toast, but is really a super, super read. So fascinating to consider the twists, turns and changes that have happened in relation to wifedom over the centuries.

In the past, being a Wife was considered a vocation, a privilege, an honour, an occupation and a gift. I think it is still all of these things today, though I think we are uncomfortable using such florid language.

There was a time when being a wife was considered a great calling, and women proudly defined themselves by the distinction: “I am a wife.” I believe we have lost that, and with it perhaps a great possibility for feminine pride and expression.

When I was growing up, and especially when I was in university, the notion of “just being a wife” was completely alien and abhorrent. We were encouraged/taught/urged to look disdainfully upon young women who “lacked ambition and brains,” who had come to university only to find a husband, and obtain their “Mrs. degree,” and little else.

In this same vein, India Knight did a piece recently where she, too, was thinking through some of these post-feminist issues. She interviewed several high-powered professional women who were attempting, as so many women do, to “have it all” (career, family, kids, life).

The general consensus amongst the women interviewed was that they would not wish their life choices on their daughters. They hoped that their daughters’ lives would be better, different and freer than their own. That their daughters would choose to have lives that were more centred on creating a family, building a home and serving their community, than their lives had been.

A dear friend of mine, wrote me recently from Dubai to congratulate me on getting married. Along with her good wishes and advice, she expressed her own sense of being at a crossroads:

Being married teaches you how to be a wife.                                                                      ...In my neck of the woods…all I have been doing for the past month, going on two months is move, organize, decorate, shop, mother, mother sick children and eat like crap. I read an email today about a novel about Hemingway's wife selling for half a million and wept. It wasn't the money, really. I just got my first check for my book by the way. It was about the fact that I miss writing, I need it as much as I need my kids. Anyway, when are you getting back to work?

This is how I began my reply to her:

I am happier now than I have ever been in my life, and I am more lost than I have ever been. I feel and am more centred, grounded, and anchored as I have never been, nor ever imagined. Anchored, and yet I also feel frighteningly adrift.

In the past, I have always defined myself by what I do, and not by who I love or, who I am in relation to someone else. All of that has changed. And I feel/know that it has changed for the better. And what of work? Ugh. I just wasted a colossal amount of time applying for two jobs I don’t even want, one of them in London, how would that even work? Why did I bother? The problem is that is muscle-memory and the force of habit. I have spent my life applying for jobs, that’s what I know how to do. Facing myself and a blank computer screen? Yikes!

As I embark on this new journey into wifedom, I am searching for examples, and trying to embrace my own uncertainties. For years my life has been guided by the mantra: “Career first, career first.” Now, I feel the sand shifting beneath me, and the turning of a tide. Could the new mantra be: “Family first?”

While she was still here, my friend, Sarah and I shared our mutual admiration for that wonderful HBO series, John Adams. I remember telling her that one of the things I loved most about that series (apart from Laura Linney’s fabulous portrayal of Abigail Adams) was very real sense that one had while watching it, that the Founding Fathers, those great men of history, had no idea what they were doing at the time. The founding of America was not some grand design enacted with stealth and precision, they were making it all up as they went along!

And perhaps, that is the answer, the best notion toward a vision of marriage and wifedom, we are all making this stuff up as we go along. We can only do our best and try.

Unless, of course, your goal is to be “The Slacker Wife” (sadly exampled in The Times by Madonna Ritchie). “The Slacker Wife,” as the name suggestions, does “bugger all,” and causes those around her no end of grief.

15 June 2009

The darling buds of May

I have been too shy for far too long, and so, dear reader, here at last a wee photograph of me and my D.E.B...

The Empress's New Clothes

Here I am, back at long last. The past few weeks have been the most glorious, heartfelt, and overwhelming of my life. I have thought long and hard about the best way to share what has transpired, and what it has meant to me. I search for words, but can find only tears. Happy ones.

To say that our wedding day was joyous is true, but does not go far enough to capture the utter joy it was. To say that the day was magic/magical, is true, but still not enough to convey the sheer magical fantastic-ness of it.

To say that it was everything I had ever wished for, dreamt of, prayed for, and imagined would all be true, but still would not go far enough to express what I feel right now.

To be sure—confirmed perfectionist that I am—there are moments I wish I could rewind and re-do somewhat differently, (who doesn’t feel that way?) but overall our wedding day was as “perfect” as it needed to be.

And I am learning, slowly, that there is something in the imperfectness and unexpectedness of life/things/people/events that is utterly human and should be valued and regarded as precious in its own, and often mysterious, way.

(I can guarantee that the concept of “perfectness” will be a recurring theme from this point on, as I have already begun to ponder the idea of what it might mean to be a “perfect wife.”)

But, for now, back to “the day”…

More than anything I was aware in a remarkable and profound way of being utterly surrounded that day by love. There was one moment, amongst so, so many, that really stands out for me.

At the end of the service, the choir sang a choral blessing (John Rutter’s very lovely ‘The Lord Bless You and Keep You”), and I swear, it felt to me as if, in that moment, the D.E.B. and I were being washed over by a sea of love and blessing, surrounded and embraced by not only all of our beloved family and friends who were present, but also by the love and good spirits those have gone on ahead of us in eternity. Bliss.

Once my head is out of the clouds I will share all the wacky and wonderful practical details such as how, yes, I did go for an early morning swim at the gym the morning of the wedding(!); and which shoes I finally settled on in the end (!!!).

For now, I am savouring my favourite moments, and replaying the scenes that felt and were indeed like a fairy tale.

Our wonderful, talented, gifted, incredible wedding photographer, Elizabeth Harper, did an amazing job of capturing our special day. She sent me some sample shots to whet my appetite, along with a note saying that our wedding seemed to her to be like a scene from a Jane Austen novel/movie, and I have to say that is exactly how it felt for me too, as it all happened…

….The absolutely perfect, crystal clear and warm (!?!) weather. (Truly, there is no day like a perfect English, summer day.)

All the smiling faces that greeted me as I entered the church…

….My handsome, gorgeous D.E.B. smiling at me as I walked down the aisle.

The choir singing “our song” – Howard Goodall’s “Vicar of Dibley” theme tune (Psalm 23), that moment could have lasted forever and it wouldn’t have been long enough! Everyone was crying. Me, the D.E.B., the vicar, the choir, the world! The lead soprano got so choked up, her voice cracked a little at one point, which just made us all cry even more!...

…Saying our vows…my turn to have my voice crack…

Standing on the altar and singing “Jerusalem”, with the Barford W.I. standing and singing in the back rows...

Speaking of W.I.!!! As the D.E.B. and I exited the church the Barford W.I. formed a guard of honor for us to walk beneath. They saluted us with long wooden spoons adorned with garlands of flowers.   

...The Church bells ringing out joyously...


The whole day was sheer magic. Such an incredible expression of love, family and community. (And that something you can’t plan, organize or manage on theknot.com!)

Our reception at the Granville was absolutely splendid! The D.E.B.’s brother, a.k.a. The Guru, was the best Best Man, ever. His speech was all in rhyme like a Shakespeare sonnet, and he even created a Quiz.

Yes, there was a written trivia quiz during the reception! How awesome is that?! No, I didn’t win, but that’s okay. J

And the evening dance party with fabulous, (I finally fulfilled my DJ-ing fantasies!) and we danced till the wee hours.

Everyone made sure that the D.E.B. and I felt feasted, feted, hallowed, honoured and celebrated. And I do feel that something tremendous has transpired, an incredible shift in my soul and psyche. I do feel that I have changed.

The title of this posting obviously refers to that old children’s story about the Emperor who doesn’t realize he was nude. He actively ignored reality, what was staring him straight in the face, and he lacks clarity and self-awareness.

By contrast, my fairy tale is all about embracing new life, starting again, and seeing things afresh. Shedding the “old clothes” of the past, and putting on the snazzy, new garments of the future!

It has been a remarkable journey, and the D.E.B. and I have come a long way both individually and collectively. The past was not very kind to either of us, and for all our blood, sweat and tears, neither of our paths were particularly smooth.

I think of the character, Paulina’s words at the end of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, after all the trials and hardships the lovers have all endured, finally to win their crowns of love and wedded bliss at the end of the play, she says: “You are precious winners all!”

Funnily enough, the D.E.B and I are very like the characters in The Winter’s Tale, who take 16 long years to get their relationships/lives together, in that it has taken me and the D.E.B. 13 years from the time we first met, to get from there to here.

What a journey it has been. We both had to kiss a few frogs before we found our Prince/Princess Charming, but the good news is that dreams do come true. We finally reached the happy ending.