I have a bad habit of reading a book then, forgetting I've read it, re-reading it years later.
I just re-read The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. Considering the subject matter and my current circumstances - the slow process of separation and divorce from Earl the Philanderer - it was an appropriate re-read. This isn't a book review; I wouldn't presume to make reading recommendations considering the fact that I can't even remember what it is I have read. Instead, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts on what people need and desire, and how these things manifest in life, fiction, and dreams.
We promise in a marriage ceremony to love, honor and cherish, remain faithful in good times and in bad. Why do we do that? We promise each other to do something that in all likelihood neither has the capacity to do. My husband, a typical sex addict, couldn't possibly have remained faithful to me. But, to me, the unattainable matrimonial promise mattered. My needy and insecure little girl dwelling deep in the bowels of Lee (remember the "Daddy issues?") thought that if this man - this person who is flawed in so many of the same ways my own father was flawed - can promise me fidelity and love me faithfully, then all the other daddy-alikes and my own father were wrong. I would prove to be loveable. All it took was for this one person to do the impossible. All it took was for a sex addict to remain faithful to me and actively love me.
Oops. Bad idea.
I know that it takes two to tango. Earl didn't remain faithful, but I was at fault, too. I expected him to do all this active loving me, meet me at this base level of love where I envisioned myself sitting, waiting for him. I did not strive to be my best self. Instead, I pictured myself the sainted and wronged party. Yes, all the things he did were wrong, but it was wrong of me to both expect him to be something he is not, and to wait around, not growing - backsliding into a worse version of myself - becoming resentful and expecting him to "catch up" to me.
I am thankful in some ways that Earl saw the futility of our marriage. He copped out in a lot of ways, but he also saw that what we were doing was only bringing harm to one another. It was selfish motivation on his part to exit the marriage, but it opened a world of possibility to me; his exit has forced me to explore my self.
I finished The Accidental Tourist yesterday and sat with it for the evening. The two rival women vie for the protagonist's love. Sarah the wife, and Muriel the mistress, are both like me: Sarah wants to move forward but finds it easier to slip into old habits and relationships, and Muriel is an awkward, needy woman who has the potential to find herself and blossom, lives passionately and yet somehow doesn't quite click with the world in a traditional way. These women are both so similar to me, it's painful to watch the protagonist, Macon, struggle to choose his partner. Leaving one means going to the other, and both of those women deserve love. Realizing this was doubly hurtful because the needy woman is also so much like Ashley, the other woman who plays a role in the demise of my own marriage.
It has not gone unnoticed by me that Ashley bears a great similarity to the parts of me that I don't like. I've known her for a few years. She is codependent and insecure, two of the characteristics that my husband drew out of me, and played like a royal flush in Texas holdem. (yeah, yeah, I let him. You're preachin' to the choir!) She is married to a man who was by most accounts a more successful version of my own husband. I always felt sorry for Ashley because she was saddled with a man just like my own, and now poor Ashley has left this man to be with Earl. CLICHE ALERT: Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
The combination of reading this book and the realization that Ashley's characteristics resemble my weaknesses lead to a vivid dream last night. Don't worry, I'm not the type to detail my dreams, seeking meaning and expecting you to be thoroughly entertained (don't you just hate that?) It started with me verbally shredding her. I left the room and she shrieked the cry of a lost child. Something inside of me shifted; I asked her if she was okay. She was weeping, sad, confused and hurting. All I could do was empathize. I woke up in a new emotional space. I knew that even though Earl has chosen Ashley and Ashley has chosen Earl, it is pitiable. They have chosen to repeat a pattern instead of grow. I am left to grow- forced to grow - but growing nonetheless.
SPOILER ALERT (but is it a spoiler if the novel was written almost 30 years ago?) I hated Macon for choosing the needy one, the mistress, but I didn't hate him for the obvious reasons. Macon went to Muriel because he feels good with her, alive. And she needs him. I've heard the same thing from Earl's lips. Ashley makes him feel good. I don't. The reason I hated Macon for choosing Muriel had to do with Muriel. She has so much potential as a human being. She could be something all on her own. She IS something all on her own. She doesn't need him, except in some proscribed societal role of lover, husband, man. I hated Macon for choosing Muriel because it would make him feel good, and it would leave her in a role that is secondary to the person she could truly be.
I picture the unwritten sequel to this novel, The Accidental Divorcee, in which Muriel, after 10 years of marriage to Macon wakes up and realizes that she is limited by his need for her, that her potential is bridled by him leaching her joie de vivre. Macon's second divorce ensues and Muriel's life begins anew. And Sarah, the original woman scorned can only look at the situation from her new perspective, one that is mature and self-assured, a point of view that only comes from the painful inspection of one's own navel.
I feel that there is hope for a woman like me, and even a woman like Ashley who is the sum of many of my own worst attributes. It's too bad that we women take these vows of matrimony, that we place so much hope on them, let our womanly lives hang on the impossible task of maintaining the promises. It makes it possible for us to forget to be who we truly are. We easily let this vow define us as women instead of forging our own selves. I don't really want to care what happens to Ashley; she behaved in a hurtful manner towards me and my family, but in the long run she's done me a huge favor. She's taken the yoke from my neck and placed it around her own. Speed the plough, Ashley. Maybe you'll get beyond Earl, too.