In a Perfect World

Photo: In a Perfect WorldIf the universe were flawless, life within it ideal, and I supernally fine, I would arrange so that my dear, darling spouse could have the most beautifully untroubled and magically rich existence in history. When he woke up every morning, angels would fan him with their wings while serving him pizza and ice cream to his heart’s content and he’d never get uncomfortably sugar high no matter how many slices or scoops he ate. He would be wafted from rehearsing one unnaturally skilled and committed choir to another, each accompanied by the finest instrumental resources available anywhere, all the while enjoying the acoustic majesty of whatever stupendous space he desired at the moment. He would flit effortlessly to every city, country, and continent next on his wish list to make music or just to wander and rejoice in the culture and landscape, the people and history and endless other gifts of each dreamy locale, until he longed to be whisked to the next. He’d have a glorious day hike on Mt. Rainier any day he wanted, no matter where he was for the rest of the day.

And all of this would find him accompanied by me—but the fabulous, unimaginably sweet and brilliant and supremely good-humored version of me. Probably nicer to everybody than I have ever been, but especially to my husband. I might even be a good enough singer to qualify for one of his incredible choirs. If we wished. In a perfect world.

Especially today, it’d be nice to think he could exist in this perfect world. It’s his birthday, and I wish him every good thing on every day, with a plus-plus-plus-sized wishing on his birthdays. Sadly, no luck on that front. He woke up to the gentle breeze of my snoring, no angel wings. No sugary treats—homemade chili for dinner. Well, okay, a bit of chocolate for dessert. The choirs and ethereal travel…all of the other infinitely sweet wonders I wish were mine to offer him in vast quantities for every day of his long and deliriously happy life…only a dream, in this imperfect world.

But the love we share makes my world a greater joy, and I’m here to say that I hope that I can get better with each passing year at returning the favor. If all the perfection I can offer my beloved is to love him as best I can for as long as I live, then that’s what I’ll wrap up in silken tissue and a bow for now. He’s pretty tolerant of imperfection, I find, and that’s perfect for me. Happy birthday, my love.

Slipstream

Digital illustration from a graphite drawing: SlipstreamPeople often speak of the person ‘behind the power,’ the right-hand associate who always plays a large role in making the boss look good or the spouse who remains relatively unseen in the shadows while his or her partner is the well-known face of the duo, but I rarely hear anyone mention the full benefits of this kind of relationship. There are, of course, plenty who abuse such an arrangement as purely a platform for self-aggrandizement and advancement and treat their faithful supporters as unseen and unacknowledged slaves. An image comes to mind of the great old Jean Cocteau film ‘La Belle et la Bête,’ wherein the prince’s entire household was condemned by the curse he’d earned and continued to serve him, but even more abjectly, as virtually invisible helping hands. Even in the case of spouses and assistants and supporters who are treated with fairness and generosity and given regular recognition, however, there remains the probability that in normal circumstances, one is more visible and probably more publicly compensated than the other.

There can be, though, a handful of fine, if unexpected, benefits to this arrangement for the person behind the scenes. I think I can speak with a certain amount of authority, having been in this position both by default and willingly in various ways all of my life. I have always traveled in the slipstream of the leader, the marquee character in the act; I fly somewhere behind the lead bird in the V formation, hunt behind the chief lioness, swim behind the flashing silver of the strongest swimmer in the school of fish. I live in the slipstream of those wiser, braver, and more skilled than I am. And I like that very much. It allows me to see at close range where I am headed, led by the example of someone better prepared, while maintaining a sense of safety in my innate introversion and fearfulness from having to set the example or blaze the trail myself It offers me opportunities to find ways to help showcase those I admire in what they are and do best. It puts me on the periphery of events I would never, on my own, have had access to and often gives me the awestruck feeling that my privilege extends, through those I love, respect and admire, beyond any level I could hope to achieve or acquire alone.

I started early: as the next sibling born to a first child who was, and is, extremely bright and wide-ranging in her interests and accomplishments and unabashedly her own opinionated, funny, clever and challenging self—and admired by a great many others for it—I could easily have been, or felt, eclipsed by her. Instead, I tended to feel shielded and guided from the start; others (along with me) generally found her a more interesting focus for their attentions, so she bore the brunt of any critical scrutiny before I would ever feel any, and if there was any entertaining to be done, she managed quite effectively to keep the occasion afloat intellectually and/or with her trademark smart-alec witticisms. That she did all of this shielding of me and leading the way without my hearing much complaint or entitlement either one from her remains a marvel.

On top of that fortuitous training of mine in playing a willing and contented behind-the-lead role, I had parents who were the leaders in their community, too, and in a particularly exemplary version of this star + supporting player arrangement. Dad, the natural extrovert, led active congregations in his primary work role as a pastor and later, bishop, but always had parallel roles as chairman of this, board president of that, and consultant or advisor to the other; Mom, as his one-woman entourage, managed the household so that he was both free to do all of this stuff and looked after enough to be healthy, fed, rested and prepared as well as possible to do so to the best of his abilities. She was also his sounding board at home for anything of import that was underway in his life away from home, helping him to find his way to tough choices and decisions and think through all of the permutations of those situations that anyone tends to carry outside of official work hours. She stood as his consort for official functions, his representative when serving on committees and boards and doing community work as well.

Besides that my father’s work and status allowed me, again, to be quietly in the shadows while attending and participating in all sorts of events and occasions I’d never otherwise have had opportunity or reason to do, my mother was equally quietly setting an example for how to take advantage of all of that in a way that was mutually beneficial. During and through all of those years, I saw Mom come into her own as an equally respected leader among their community, a person looked to for influence and inspiration and committed, intelligent work, but all in her modest and unfussy way. When I finished graduate school and started working at my undergraduate alma mater as a teacher, it was near enough my parents’ house that I simply moved back in with them and paid the cheap rent that put me close to work affordably and, it turned out, in a position to train as the next-level behind the scenes person. Living there, I could keep the household running when they were on the road for work, be assistant-to-the-assistant when they were home by helping to set up for a few of the social obligations or special events tied to their work, and even get assistance from them when I was beginning to have such obligations of my own. By the time that I first went out with the man whom I got to marry, I was remarkably well-versed in the ins and outs of this sort of partnership.

I did, of course, have to learn new variations and nuances to the operation when he and I got together. My spouse is a music conductor. He teaches classes, like I did, but beyond this similarity of standing in front of classes and the variety of preparatory work that gets teachers ready for the classroom time, he had, and has, a much more publicly visible leadership role when he is in conductor mode. I am very glad to stay out of the limelight at those times!

The administrative and preparatory work, the selection of literature, score study, negotiations with guest performers, board interactions, service in the community, publicity commitments, writing program notes, collaborations with commissioned composers—these and so many other aspects of backstage life remain hidden from the public yet can’t be accomplished without time and concentration that are harder to afford if I’m not there to keep him in clean clothes and check that he’s had a meal or two, to chauffeur him to and from places where there’s no parking close enough to get him to a rehearsal on time, and yes, to be a sounding board for him when tough choices or decisions loom. I’ve learned a few things about music along the way, but not so much that I fancy myself anything like a musician or music scholar. But it’s the other parts of his life that I consider the arena for my contributions and participation. It’s the stuff that gets him to the podium that I think I can do best.

When my husband is conducting singers and/or instrumentalists in a concert, my role is to happily sit in the audience and bask in the music along with everyone else. My vocation, my modest part in earning our living, is to slide along in his slipstream and do what I can to keep impediments from holding him back or dragging him down, and whether that happens because I stand near him and shake hands with his bosses and supporters after a concert or because I took the car in for service while he was in administrative meetings doesn’t matter. I’m happy to be a small fish in the big pond as best I can.

I Love You Like Crazy

Acrylic mural: Tongue-in-Cheek, after Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun It’s probably inaccurate in more than just the politically correct sense to say that I love my husband like crazy, because it would imply that my affections are only similar to complete madness, and we all know I’m much closer than that in reality. While I flatter myself that I maintain a reasonably plausible façade of normalcy, everybody knows that I’m pretty nutty about my spouse. And those who know him don’t blame me.

He really is a lovable guy.

But aside from the stuff that is evident to the general public, that part about him being a thoughtful colleague, a committed and skilled teacher, a nuanced and inspired conductor of singers and instrumentalists, and all that other excellent and admirable kind of thing, he is smart and curious and kind as a person. I know that when we are together, I matter as much to him as he does to me; that he is a safe retreat from both the minor perturbations of the day and the greater dangers of the wide world when I am in need. And I have in him the great friend with whom I would rather while away the hours either in intensive work or fully at play than with anyone else on earth.

Most of all, I know he not only understands my particular brand of craziness but shares in it as well. Each day, each year, is a surprise package of a kind, and every one of them is somehow richer than all of the foregoing ones as more than the sum of their many parts. Love and admiration and respect and support are all well and good, but if they don’t have the kind of holy hilarity that life with my partner has, they can never be enough.

With that, I wish my beloved the happiest of birthdays, and many more of them yet to come, each in succession with new and astonishing delights.

Tough as Nails

Photo: A Little Rusty, Maybe

I may be getting a little rusty and weathered, but I’m just happy to be aging.

I’m managing to age. I’m glad. Though I’ve never had such a deep fall into my depressive and anxious episodes as to become suicidal, I’ve had times when I feared it might be hard to keep living, instead retreating into agoraphobic hiding in perpetuity. Those times, I am so very thankful, have been rare. They’re long past, too.

A couple of months ago, though, I had the first of some subtle indications that my longtime sense of shining wellness might have some tiny cracks forming in its foundations. A creeping unease entered into my confident good cheer. When I was first diagnosed and treated back then for my anxiety and depression, I had the strange sensation of learning what it felt like for my symptoms to recede, one by one, and as they did, I realized that the way I’d felt and the whole way I’d understood myself for all of my life before then, was in large part a collection of symptoms. Underneath it all was a different, happier and healthier self I have relished getting to know as I was unmasked by this progress.

I won’t lose that self again readily. I made tracks for the doctor’s office to talk about my options, because I don’t ever want to be held prisoner in that not-me state again. We’re checking my general health, the doctor and I, and plotting a course for reinforcement of the new-and-improved me while combating those things that threaten in any small way.

My greatest reassurance comes from living with the life partner who never ceases to love and support me for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. Backing him up in the task are the many relatives and friends upon whom I also depend. But I’ve come to realize that I have another resource on which I’ll be depending in this adventure. Surprisingly, that defender is me.

See, I understand now what I didn’t and couldn’t back in the day: I could never have made it to my first depressive crash and subsequent healing if I weren’t pretty tough inside. I have always thought of myself as shy, timid and easily cowed, but the truth is that if everything that seems ordinary and normal to other people in the everyday scheme of things—meeting a new person, answering the phone, taking a class—seems infinitely harder to a person with anxiety disorder or the chemical imbalance that causes chronic depression, then I must be stronger than I thought.

I’m planning to win. I don’t expect it’ll happen overnight, let alone permanently, but with my personal army at my back and the right attitude and resources of my own, I think I have a good shot at it.

Photo: Tough as Nails

For a marshmallow, I’m actually tough as nails.

Flowers for Two

We are neither dead nor quarantined in a sanatorium. But a shared cold makes for a sad household. One impatient patient is perfectly capable of drawing a thin pall of gloom over home and holdings, but when both (or in this case, all) inhabitants of the place feel lousy, the plot, like the creeping crud in one’s lungs, thickens.

I’m sending a little bouquet of flowers, if only the handmade kind I don’t have to have a car to drive to a good florist’s shop to acquire, to both of us. It’s unpleasant enough to be ill, even a little bit, but when the entire family operation shuts down, there’s no one resilient enough to make all of the necessary chicken soup, commiserate and pat everyone’s head with a sympathetic sigh over his or her immeasurable suffering, and keep everything in the home place properly tended.

So we’ll sit around moping, dragging ourselves to do the required things as best we can and retreating afterward to sit among the dishes that still haven’t been put away three days after washing and that pile of papers mounting ever higher on the desk—not in the files—and try to focus mind and energy enough to write that one necessary report, edit that small sheaf of articles, go through that backlog of digital illustration records to find the missing image…and we’ll nod off to sleep again, interrupting ourselves in that only with dispirited bouts of rib-wracking coughing and wheezing and self-pitying snuffles.

I know perfectly well that this will pass, and though it feels interminable in its midst, rather quickly at that. What are a few days of ‘down time’ in one’s whole span of life? But if I have to sit back moodily on my enervated haunches for the while, at least I’ll send myself and my fellow inmate a batch of hand-drawn flowers and all of the well-wishing I can muster in my current state. Here’s to better days ahead!Digital illustration: Flowers for Us

Talking at Cross Purposes

digital illustrationMy spouse and I have an intriguing way of discussing our disagreements, and I gather from what I see, hear and read that this is not such an unusual complication but probably more like the norm. We don’t fight about stuff that matters, remarkably, very often at all, being on the same page in our essential beliefs and concerns; if we differ there, we’re pretty comfortable having a rational conversation or two and agreeing, if necessary, to disagree. But the more inconsequential things are where we excel in having our weirdly, even hilariously, convoluted bouts of stubbornly wordy disagreement.

And the vast majority of the time, it’s because of the language barrier. We’re both native speakers-of-English, but it seems we are perfectly capable of saying virtually the same thing to each other in such different ways that each of us hears the other saying essentially the polar opposite. It’s quite miraculous, really. Two seemingly cogent adults, people who know each other rather well after being together for eighteen years and who both know inside that we share the deep core values that make eighteen years together possible, not to mention that we share so many experiences and tastes and interests—and we can’t reason our way out of a paper bag when one thinks the other is remembering something incorrectly or a question has been raised about some puzzling matter of fact.

Of course, I don’t think this is specific to being male-female, age-related, or any other such thing, this is a characteristic of our whole species. It’s a perfect example of how humans talk to each other a whole lot of the time. We think we’re having an epic battle over right and wrong, and both sides of the argument are  looking and hoping for exactly the same outcome, but each of us simply thinks we have put the correct names on the problems and resolutions and the other party is clearly an idiot or heretic until he/she/they will acquiesce and let us superior beings fix everything according to our righteous rightness. Happens in politics and religion and academia and relationships just about equally often. Whether weapons are involved has the most influence over how epic these battles really become, but the basis is hardly all that different.

My beloved and I get in the same ridiculous rut of circular conversation often enough, though neither of us takes it particularly personally or even necessarily sees it as a true argument let alone a danger to our relationship, and it’s easy enough to laugh it off when one or the other of us finally realizes that We’re Doing It Again. But it’s strange that we don’t spot the next episode from afar and simply have a straightforward, rational talk. If the goal or solution is nearly always identical or close enough to it, why do we have to wrestle around so determinedly before coming to that natural conclusion? I can’t guess why we mortal mugs are so quick to waste our energy and peace on pointless posturing, but it’s certainly a collective talent of ours.

I guess I’ll just have to take this opportunity to apologize to my partner for my part in the muddle, and hope I learn to listen—and hear—better. And if anyone with any power or aspirations to power (political, religious, academic, or other) happens to be reading this, would you do me a favor and do the same?digital illustration (B&W)

Going Places without Getting Anywhere

Summer holidays allows some of us lucky folk to indulge our inner travel junkie. This summer was pretty much the lottery winner for the Sparks household in that regard, and it helped to scratch my perpetual go-somewhere itch more than a little. We went on a Road Trip. By that I mean a 6000+ mile loop from Texas to the west coast, north to Canada, and back again, over five weeks.

I won extra, since I got to make that trip with my favorite partner-in-crime, my husband. And he likes driving and I don’t much, so he did nearly all of it. I just got to watch the world go by, cities, states, countries, plains, hills, mountains, rivers, forests, and much more. I sat there mesmerized, my camera propped on my lap or–more often–shooting away virtually aimlessly as we buzzed by at 85 mph/137 kph (yes, there are some places where that’s the speed limit in the US) in hopes of catching some of the amazing, beautiful, weird, wonderful stuff we passed along the way. Thank goodness I didn’t have to try this kind of photography on the Autobahn.

Being dyslexic in so many helpful ways, I am the last person who should be navigator on any trip, but I was reminded that maps of any sort have their limitations anyway, and GPS only adds new layers of complexity and adventure, as when our perky GPS announcer lady (affectionately known as Peggy Sue) calmly informs us from time to time that we are in Undiscovered Country, or as she likes to put it, Not in a Recognized Area. The fun part of it is that the map on our GPS just goes blank at that point except for the little red arrow that is us, which thereupon floats through the air with the greatest of ease. That’s when I really call on my fantastic piloting skills, of course.

Mostly what I learn from maps of any sort is how far we are from where we intended to be and how many complications lie in the space between. But that, too, is part of the thrill and amusement of road-tripping or, for that matter, travel of any sort. The planned and well-known aspects are seldom as exciting and interesting as the things found by accident, the experiences had in passing and the ‘scenic route’ that is a fixable mistake. If we never made any U-turns or wrong guesses or took any side roads instead of the Main Drag, life and travel would be ever so much duller. And this trip was anything but dull. I’ll share some of the adventures with you when the dust settles!digital illustration