Two Sundays ago, we drove the last miles home after six days on the road. We’d made a loop from Nashville to Atlanta, Savannah to Charleston, Kinston, North Carolina to Raleigh, and after one uncomfortable sleep in Knoxville, back to Nashville.
I had a road trip in me. I’ve wanted to do one for a long time. We’ve traveled a lot over the years, Chuck especially, but most of it has been connected to work or family visits. This one was just for us, to share an adventure, enjoy each other, and see parts of the country we hadn’t seen before.
Road trips open time in a different way than airline travel. You can engage rather than endure, take back roads that aren’t efficient, watch the scenery up close, and make memories along the way. Though my husband is famous for making up car games when the grandkids are around, since it was just the two of us, that option slipped our minds. Instead, we listened to audiobooks (An American Marriage by Taori Jones, The Prodigal Prophet by Tim Keller), found interesting podcasts, and had important conversations.
We even blew a tire on the interstate our first day out, a rainstorm pouring buckets of water from the sky as we pulled over. Chuck was heroic in changing it as semi-trucks roared by, their wind gusts adding to the storm winds that threatened to topple our little car off the jack and onto him. I stood with him in solidarity, trying to create an umbrella shield so he wouldn’t get drenched, but it was no good. The umbrella broke, and we both got soaked. I held it anyway because it felt like something instead of nothing. It’s scary to be stuck on the side of a busy interstate. I wanted to send our kids a text so they’d know where we were in case one of the semis veered too close, or a bad guy stopped to “help.” But I couldn’t type on my phone and keep that mangled umbrella from blowing away.
When the job was done, we sat in the car collecting ourselves like wet dogs, shaking with relief and thanksgiving. We drove on to Atlanta and found our B&B more beautiful than we’d anticipated. There were blooming gardens and a pathway, the perfect remedy for stress. The next morning, after a quick turnaround with a new tire, we got back on the road; more grateful than we’d been when we started out the day before.
In Savannah, we had dinner at Mashama Bailey’s wonderful restaurant, The Grey, celebrating with raw oysters, smoked collards, foie and grits, and smashed new potatoes with brewer’s yeast, sour cream, and scallions. We fell in love with the old homes and gardens in Charleston and walked the beach on Sullivan’s Island. From Charleston we drove all the way to Kinston, North Carolina, a small blip of a town surrounded by countryside, just to have dinner at Chef and The Farmer. The story of the restaurant and its cast of characters had captured our hearts as we watched A Chef’s Life on PBS.
By the time we reached Knoxville on our way home, we’d been driving all day. We were only 2 ½ hours from Nashville, but one of the drawbacks of a road trip is all that driving! As a member of the chronic-back-pain-that-gets-worse-with-age club, I couldn’t sit still any longer. I needed to walk around, then call it a day and get horizontal. The forecast called for heavy thunderstorms on the path home, and that was a factor, too. I’m just old enough to be uncomfortable driving fast in the dark, and bad weather increases my discomfort to white-knuckled stress.
In the spirit of controlling what I could and asking for what I needed, I voted to get some rest and start again in the morning. Chuck was loving and responsive to my needs, trusting that my decision would be right for us both. In our early sixties, we are finally learning to listen to our bodies and to each other, so we spent the night in a cheap hotel along I40 and drove home in sunshine the next morning.
All of this is a new way of being together. A road trip for the sake of enjoyment only, with no other agenda attached. Me being clear about what I need in a marriage where both our voices are heard.
In the latter half of my fifties, while we were still at the Art House, I began to long for a different way to live. It wasn’t so much a new longing, as an intensifying one. I was becoming an older woman, dealing with older woman issues. The collision of menopause, insomnia, lowering energy levels, family crisis, and the sudden onset of high blood pressure, made a life centered in hospitality increasingly difficult to handle. I needed to take care of myself. I had desires I couldn’t push down anymore. I felt age coming on with a stirring inside for life to reflect the changes, but the need to press on in the same intense manner as always ruled the day.
We’d been trying to work out better practices for years, but nothing seemed to stick. In the midst of all that was good and beautiful about our lives, we ended up in the same place again and again. We pushed past our limits, had very few boundaries, and went for months without privacy. We lived parallel lives on the same property without really doing life together. When plans and commitments were made that affected us both, and I was the last to know, my heart echoed what I’d once heard a friend say to her husband, “Don’t make plans for my life without talking to me!” I grew increasingly resentful, shut down, and cold, my words coming to Chuck with passive-aggression, when what I really wanted was to be clear, to be heard.
Within a context I couldn’t change, I did what I could for self-care and kept an eye out for the greatness of small things. Self-care was helpful, as it always is, but ultimately not the thing itself. We needed a sweeping, internal change.
I didn’t think I could ever leave the Art House. Before it was anything to anyone else, it was our family home, the place we gathered for visits, meals, and celebrations of every kind. Our grandchildren danced under the disco ball and ran freely in the yard. Our two grandsons built a fort behind the house with scrap wood leftovers from all our renovations. But finally, though it was a grief to all of us, after more than two decades, it was time to go. We couldn’t imagine another life, but we needed one. Four years ago, we moved to a more urban neighborhood, right next door to two of our dearest friends.
After six straight weeks of unpacking, it didn’t take long for a new season of life to fall into place. I started new writing projects, making progress without interruption. I planted perennials in our courtyard garden, said “yes” to some speaking engagements, and met with folks over coffee. Family needs ebbed and flowed. Grandkids came and went. Holidays and birthdays were tended. I enjoyed my neighborhood, the proximity to friends, and the sweet companionship of having a neighbor as a walking partner.
And then, a little over a year into our move, Chuck began experiencing a severe, unrelenting headache, a ten on the headache scale. It was one single, intractable headache that turned on one day and never turned off again (see his essay this week). He was sick, really sick. And his illness kicked off a strange season in our long life together.
In the middle of his intense misery and the frustration of waiting for weeks between doctor’s appointments and tests, I had a gallbladder attack out of the blue. And then I had another one. I elected to have surgery quickly rather than take my chances with more emergency room visits. After healing from surgery, I developed a jumpy, irregular heartbeat. I went to cardiologists. There were tests and more tests. My longtime back problems worsened from episodic to chronic.
As the months wore on, with no real help for the headache, our marriage took a confusing nosedive. Every painful thing we’d ever been through, whether separately grieved or talked about a million times with no resolve, came busting out in the crisis of Chuck’s illness.
I’d been keeping regular company with a gifted therapist already, doing work on the effects of childhood and young adult trauma. As our life came apart at the seams, I went to see her more often. One day she asked me to think about what I needed, which felt like an entirely new question to consider, especially when my husband was so sick. But it was the right time for me to hear it, part of a larger conversation we’d been having for months. Rather than taking only small measures towards self-care, it was a deeper question about being created and vulnerable, with God-given needs and desires that were legitimate and good. A few days later, I helped my niece take her twin baby boys to the pediatrician’s office. When the doctor walked into the examining room, the rightness of the question was confirmed. As one of the boys cried from the discomfort of a wet diaper and my niece changed him, the doctor told her, “he’s asking for what he needs, and that’s healthy.”
Her offhand comment hit home for me—the connection of needs met to good physical and mental health. Needs are complex in adulthood, but the equation is the same. Ignoring them is foolish. It doesn’t make us heroic. It turns us into martyrs. It’s not good for anyone, especially the people we love.
During the worst of our relational troubles, I often stood in the morning shower with my palms held open, the tears sliding down my cheeks into the spray. I prayed from a passage in Psalm 92, asking God to make us fresh and green, able to bear fruit in old age.
Chuck and I went to marriage counseling. It was hard, sometimes painfully so, but it helped us get unstuck and make positive movement forward. We asked Jesus to do what we couldn’t do for ourselves, and help us live with kindness and compassion, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God had forgiven us. (Ephesians 4:32)
With my therapist’s help, I thought hard about the desires and hopes I had pushed down. I searched for words to identify and express them. I wanted to be clear, so I wrote everything down in a letter and read it out loud. My words were beautifully received. I wanted and needed good rhythms and boundaries. I wanted us to champion each other in our work while creating a more playful, multi-dimensional life. I wanted to play a game of Scrabble every now and then, for crying out loud! And, among other things more private, I wanted to see places I’d never seen before. A road trip would be very nice.
Ten months after the onset of his headache, Chuck finally had an appointment with a brilliant neurologist. She helped him as no one else had. There were good days and bad days, and that has not changed, but with some pain relief, we rediscovered what it was like to have fun and do interesting things together. We went to concerts and made a spur of the moment trip to New York. We heard Dan Rather speak at the Memorial Auditorium and attended a lecture by New York Times Columnist, David Brooks. We took an overnight road trip to Oxford, Mississippi, home of the late William Faulkner and Square Books, driving through the Natchez Trace during the last of the fall leaves. My dear husband, who has always wanted to get from here to there in the fastest way possible, gave himself permission to slow down and smell the roses. He took in the beauty, the pleasure of the drive, our long conversations, and called it good.
I sought healing for my body, too. I went to physical therapy, tried acupuncture, had regular massages, and took yoga classes specifically designed for people with back pain. Towards the end of my appointments with the physical therapist, she handed me a paper with exercises to do at home. At the top of the page, she wrote in all caps: PACING. Pace yourself, rest your back, do the exercises before you get to the worst place. It was good advice for back pain and good advice for life.
Which brings me back around to the story I started with. A road trip around the southeast for fun and discovery is part of a new way of being. Pacing ourselves and asking for what we need is part of it too. Nothing about us is tied up in a bow of completion. We are in process, with palms open, listening and learning, quicker to ask for forgiveness and quicker to give it, grateful for the grace of God’s powerful, loving Spirit at work in our lives. I continue to pray, Lord, make us fresh and green, able to bear fruit in old age.