In my head, I sometimes envision the relationship Mr. Grouch and I have to be like that of oil and vinegar. While the two are capable of meshing beautifully, each one’s flavors and textures complementing the other’s, they also have the natural ability to fight one another, slowly separating until jolted back together. The two of us are more than capable of arguing about anything and everything, no matter how trivial. In fact, there seems to be an inverse correlation between the importance of a topic and how vigorously the two of us will argue about it. Who should clean the cat’s litter box? Five minute argument. Immediate follow-up argument about whether or not the cat should continue to reside in our house at all (same argument we’ve been having for eight years)? Thirty minute bitchfest. Where to go for dinner (and/or who should decide where to go)? Borderline homicidal rager. Even if we agree, we are most certainly still capable of disagreeing, all it takes is one of us to simply rearrange the grammatical structure of a sentence to do so, and we can continue to argue our points, even if we are both really saying the same thing.
It is very rare that our arguments are about legitimately important differences in opinion, philosophy, or point of view, we tend to be consistent when it comes to our most important values. But in a few rare instances, it has happened. One of such times occurred within the first couple of years of dating. My husband is a very religious man and I am a staunch atheist. We used to squabble about the legitimacy of the church, the credibility of religion, whether or not man evolved through the rugged process of natural selection, or was divinely created, and whether or not a God even existed at all. They were fruitless controversies, with no potential for a winner. No compromise existed.
Until one did.
In what may have been the first true act of conciliation as a couple, my now-husband decided to end the counterproductive religious debates. He bought me a stuffed gorilla and gave me a card in which he wrote something along the lines of, “Maybe we evolved, maybe we were created, only God knows. Or does he?” And that was that. We decided to agree to disagree, and it has worked, for the most part, which is somewhat astounding, really, when you consider we argue about the best method for breading chicken, whether chocolates should be stored in the pantry or in the freezer and whether or not the person we are yelling at from across the house can’t actually hear us or is purposefully ignoring us.
The only bumps in the road have occurred around the holidays, Easter in particular. My husband always wants to attend religious service, at the Greek Orthodox church, with me by his side, robotically performing my stavro (cross), repeating lines such as Christos Anesti (Christ has risen) and Alithos Anesti (truly he has risen), words that I don’t believe to be true. Easter services are so much longer than the typical Sunday service, and so much less conveniently timed. We usually arrive at church around ten p.m., and do not leave until well after two in the morning. Much of the service requires standing, and in my uncomfortable pumps, I can be seen continuously shifting my weight from side to side. The saving grace of these services is the choir, the music eerie and mournful and beautifully calming, and, thankfully, sung in Greek, so I can focus on the melody rather than the meaning of the words.
The main point of contention hasn’t been the timing of the services, or the quality or quantity of the music being played. It has been the issue of respecting identities and beliefs. I worried that by attending the mass, or performing the rituals, that I would be giving in, letting my husband walk all over me, turning into the wife whose ideas and beliefs are not valued, respected or, possibly, even considered. I worried that my husband’s motives for my compliance were oily, spiteful and untrustworthy, and my reaction, in return, was acidic.
Ironically, by worrying about those things, and actively lashing out because of those anxieties, I was not valuing, respecting or considering the belief my husband held so dear. His religious identity is a pure and innocent one. I remember him asking me one time, if I would ask for forgiveness before I died. I didn’t understand why he would ask me this, my defensive self initially thought he was trying to tell me I was living my life the wrong way, or that he was trying to control me, right up to the very bitter end. But, he clarified his intentions when he explained that he simply wanted to be with me for eternity and he was concerned that might would happen if I didn’t ask. Not quite the vicious motive or judgmental request my skeptical and anxious mind had first leapt to. His religion is an important piece of who he is. Being malicious and oppressive is not. It took me awhile to fully grasp this, but once I did, I stopped kicking and screaming every time it was suggested that we go to church. I stopped rolling my eyes when he asked me to perform my cross, and stopped complaining about the sporadic late-night holy services.
I don’t need to prove, time and time again, that I don’t believe. He already knows this, and has accepted it. What I DO need to prove is that I am supportive of HIS belief. I’ve chosen him to be my partner, and being a married pair does not mean we have to be identical in our thinking, it means we need to support and complement one another, no matter what. This is what successful partnerships work on for the entire duration of their union and the couples that make it are the ones who get better at this over time, while the ones that don’t are bound to fail.
Once we became parents, the aspect of religion rose to the forefront once again. He feels strongly that our daughter be raised with exposure to the knowledge and culture the Orthodox Church provides. Thankfully, my views have evolved since our early debates on the subject, so I fully support this as part of her well-rounded upbringing. Not only is it successful partnerships that rely on advocating and augmenting each other, but strong and successful families as well.
In the long run, I want my daughters to find counterparts who enhance them, I want them to be engaged in balanced and harmonious relationships. Marriage is akin to the back and forth readjustments of two individuals in motion on either side of a teeter-totter. One is strong, when the other becomes weak, one is a comfort, when the other is distraught, one steps up when the other falls down. Every now and again the two weights on each end are exactly balanced, hovering equidistant from the ground, but usually that’s not the case, and that is ok, as long as there is an ebb and flow, and one person doesn’t jump off their seat, leaving the other stranded.
If kind of give-and-take relationship is what I want for my daughters, I had better be sure my spouse and I model it.
Awhile back I finally let my guard down and began the process of acting lilke the woman I wanted to be. My husband brought up the fact that we had not yet had our house blessed since moving in. I reminded him that he can have the house blessed if he wants, and to do it anytime. It’s not something I would do, but I certainly am not going to stop him, if it is something he feels he needs to do. Instead of calling, he decided to open up the church incense he keeps, and he set it aflame, causing its scent to permeate through the kitchen and living room. The incense is strong, and I have a sensitive nose. In the past, this combination has sometimes resulted in me leaving the room soon after his religious flare is lit. But, it had been awhile since I had been exposed to this spiritual scent, and this time, the bouquet really wasn’t so bad, in fact, it may have registered within my nares as sweetly pleasing. Maybe it was because our new home is more spacious, or maybe it was because our years of teetering and tottering back and forth, balancing the ups and downs of our relationship, have stirred the two of us to the point where our separateness is not so clearly delineated, and we, like the oil and the vinegar, have created an evenly blended suspension, our relationship a healthy emotional emulsion. Instead of coughing and gagging, I crossed myself three times with my right hand, placed my hand on my heart before wafting the fumes towards my nose, like I knew he wanted me to, for myself and for the child growing inside me at the time.
Instead of fighting the holidays because of their inherent religiousness I have vowed to embrace them, for the good of our family. They are often centered around a religious aspect at their root, but most of the reality of the holidays is centered around family time, togetherness and bonding.
I find this to be true even while at church. My husband and his family sit packed near each other, taking up two or three full pews, so moments of laughter or the hushed exchange of words inevitably occurs throughout the service. At at least one point during the service, husband finds my hand with his and squeezes it, and the two of us share a moment of calm reflection that reminds us we are grateful for one another, and the serene space provides a venue conducive to letting each other know. At the midnight service this Easter, my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter found the choir to be as compelling as I often do. Though this was the first time she heard the music, she attempted to sing along and she looked at me, my mouth not moving, and instructed me to, “Sing, mama. Sing”. She wasn’t asking me to sing to prove my devotion to a higher being, she was asking me to share in the beauty and connect with her by singing together. We sing at home, in the park, in the car, why would I not sing with her at church? Well, okay, the fact that I don’t speak Greek does make it a little harder, since I dont know all of the words, but that didn’t stop me from humming along, singing the few words I could make out, while my face pressed close to hers, enjoying every precious note.
Am I worried my child will be brainwashed into believing something I do not? Not really. If we do our job right as parents, she’ll be brainwashed to love and care for others, to help those in need, to respect differing viewpoints, and to expect nothing less than love, encouragment and support from the person she chooses to spend her life with. None of these are dependent on whether or not she is celebrating the religious aspect of a holiday or if she believes in Heaven or Hell. She can decide for herself what the holidays mean, to her, and in the meantime, my husband and I will model what it means for us, our internal interpretations so very different, yet the outward expression so much the same.
As dissimilar as oil and vinegar may be, if they are passionately stirred, they meld and create a glorious pairing. My spouse and I are on a joint mission to create a personified vinaigarette, one so vibrant and robust that it is easy to forget that the there are separate entities making up the whole. And that’s the ultimate goal, for many of us, to create a household and a family that is harmonious and balanced, full of unconditional love and support. It’s what so many of us incorporate into our view of what it means to be a good parent, on the holidays, and on all of the days in between.