Uncharted Waters

I cried when my husband left me at the airport. I knew I would, knew how fiercely I would miss him as this trip approached, our first separation since moving in together seven months ago. I haven’t had to say goodbye like that in so long, and the shadowy form of that familiar ache breached weeks ahead of time as I dreaded his temporary departure from my daily life.

What takes me away from him is voluntary; it isn’t a deployment to an impoverished or dangerous corner of the world, or an indefinite duty that pulls harder than my desire to stay in the comfort of his arms. It is instead an opportunity, one I have sought for years, to travel and study Spanish and step away from the daily grind of my regular job. I should be excited, ecstatic even, for this chance to do so many of the things I love. And I am. But for the first time in my life, it is not so simple as that.

They told me marriage would change me.  They told me marriage changes everybody. They told me marriage plucks two people from their comfortable routines and hurls them into a situation that they have never before experienced. They find themselves navigating these uncharted waters together, and that is the beauty and the mystery of it all, but it is at the same time the great challenge of intermingling these two separate lives.

uncharted waters

My husband married a staunchly independent woman, one who would stand defiant of her fear to assert herself as a whole and complete person. She was adventurous and curious, intellectually and physically driven, goal-oriented to a fault, as her father once said. She was tough and determined, and accepted hardship as refinement of her character, to be welcomed, even sought, not avoided. He loved these things about me as I loved these things about myself, and I remember thinking as our relationship developed how much his confidence in me increased my own, and how grateful I was for such an influence in my life.

I also became grateful for his love for all of me, my flaws included, and for the ability to be myself, unfiltered and unmasked, without fear of rejection. Everyone should experience such freedom.

Three weeks ago my husband and I embarked on a two-day backpacking trip, the first night spent at the trailhead in bivy sacks to facilitate an early morning start. It was my inaugural night in a bivy, and I passed the day in eager anticipation of an unadulterated night under the stars. Beautiful scenery, clear air, and the best company a girl could ask for. We threw out our bivys, blew up our pads, and snuggled into the protective cocoon of our sleeping bags, ready for a magnificent night.

And then it started to rain.

I lay there for the first hour, frustrated by the tap tap tap of the drops against the Gortex covering my head, uncomfortable and wet and unable to sleep but trapped by my irrational and stubborn determination to spend the night in the bivy rather than retrieve the tent from our nearby car. This wasn’t the first time I had found myself soaking wet in the mountains; only two years ago rain poured on me for three straight days during a trip through the San Juans and saturated everything I owned. Then, I had made decisions to preserve my own comfort and enjoyment of the experience, dried my gear as best I could, and never complained or regretted the trip despite the unanticipated weather. I remember feeling self-sufficient, content, fulfilled by my own ability to adapt to nature. And I remember coming away from the experience feeling like I had grown a little bit.

Wet tent

The night in the bivy took a completely different shape. I refused to cope with my problem, either by settling down into my bivy and thinking of the rain as a bedtime song, or by surrendering and erecting the tent in favor of a guaranteed good night’s rest. Instead, I grew bitter and resentful inside my sleeping bag, huffing at first, and then openly complaining to my husband as he lay trying to sleep beside me. I refused his repeated suggestions to set up the tent, longing to overcome this minor hardship, but losing that fight to childish whines. Eventually his drive to take care of me (and probable annoyance at my behavior) drove him to set up the tent, and we passed the rest of the night in relatively dry contentment.

I awoke in the morning appalled at my reaction to the previous night’s discomfort. The inability to sleep in a bivy on a rainy night wasn’t nearly as disappointing as my failure to remedy my own situation before my husband forcefully stepped in. I didn’t used to be this way. What happened to me over these last few years? Why am I not tough, adventurous, independent? Why has my default coping mechanism become dependence on my husband to take care of me? This isn’t the girl I was, and more than that, this isn’t the girl my husband fell in love with.

I passed the rhythmic day of hiking turned deep inside my own head, lost in thought in the midst of the wilderness. Had I changed? Had I, as I grew older, become soft, scared, high-maintenance and passive? Was adventure over? Would I ever face steep mountain summits or windswept alpine tundra, where the snow stinging my face and the sharp cold slicing my lungs were welcome elements of a beautiful experience? Or would I shy away from such trials in favor of being coddled like a small child? What had caused this deep shift in so many of the traits that had previously defined the best parts of me?

path in the woods

In the quiet clarity of the forest, as disappointed in myself as I had ever been, I found my answers that day, following the man whom I loved better than anything else in this life. As much as I might have thought those voices were wrong, that marriage might change other people but it would never change me, in the end, it had. A wonderful man loved me and spent his energies caring for me. When I expressed discomfort or displeasure, he did everything he could to remedy the situation. And when my worst qualities surfaced, when I became whiny or indecisive or exacting or mean, he loved me anyway. How lucky I was to have that, for the first time in my life.

And there it was, staring me in the face, that scenario I had never before experienced but which now enveloped me in my new marriage. I had no knowledge of my inevitable reaction because I had never faced such a set of circumstances, and over time their insidious creep into my life had changed me, morphed me into someone I didn’t want to be. I am blessed with a husband who treats me like a queen, but my reaction cannot be that of a spoiled princess.

So when he hugged me goodbye today, I stared into the depths of his eyes, freezing their steely blue in the farthest recesses of my brain. I allowed tears to come to mine, because I knew I would miss him, as I should miss that which is everything to me. But only for a few minutes, because the girl he loves, the girl he fell in love with years ago, would move confidently towards this opportunity, acknowledging the uncertainty and discomfort that it will inevitably entail, and embracing these things as character-fortifying byproducts of a great adventure. I had forgotten and subsequently relearned these truths, and I owe such a lesson to the man who encouraged me to walk away this afternoon.

I wiped my eyes, straightened my shoulders, and boarded the plane.

Joseph on the mountain

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