Joseph Campbell describes the second stage of marriage as a place of alchemy, “of the two experiencing that they are one.” Taking the time to dance together can make that alchemy happen.
“Next summer we should head Minneapolis for dance lessons,” I say to my husband on a cold winter evening in Mason City, two hours south of the Twin Cities. “A tango studio offers lessons on Tuesdays at 7 pm. We could knock off work mid-afternoon, maybe have an early dinner at a sidewalk café, go to the lesson, and be home by 10.”
My agreeable mate nods, but absent-mindedly. I amp up the pitch. “Remember how I used to joke that if it comes time to die and I have gone to church more than we have danced, I would really be miffed? Well, I may skip church more than I used to, but I’m still in the pew way more often than we are dancing.”
We’ve had this dance vs. church conversation many times over the previous 28 years, ever since his surprise decision, 14 years into our marriage, to become a minister.
He smiles grimly.
“I know you prefer the salsa,” I say, “but I’d really like to try the tango.”
“Okay. Let’s do it,” he says.
Later that spring I read in the church e-newsletter that Chuck has committed to spearheading a summer-long weekly fundraiser that involves cooking—his passion—and that will happen on Tuesday evenings. He and a team of parishioners will use a donated food truck to serve meals in conjunction with the farmers’ market across the street.
“Need more details?” queries the newsletter. “Just contact Pastor Chuck.”
Tango trumped by food truck? Inconceivable. But there it is, carved in e-stone, right in front of God and everyone: food truck every Tuesday evening, June through September.
That night I quiz Pastor Chuck about the details.
“With so many things going on, I forgot to tell you,” he says. “And I’m sorry, but I had forgotten about the tango.”
In June it doesn’t take long for the fundraiser to develop a minor following. Farmers’ market patrons buy produce and then head to the church parking lot, lured by the delicious smells of pizza, tacos, and paella from the reverend and his gang. People talk and laugh at the tables in the shade, the church makes a little money. It’s a weekly community-building event. Who can argue with that?
Surely not the pastor’s wife.
Living With Disappointment
I’m an introvert who leans toward Buddhist practices and believes in a divine something-or-other but not organized religion. Even so, over the years I’ve tried to help out with Chuck’s congregations where I can. Now I add a few food truck Tuesdays to my schedule. But as the summer progresses, my energy wanes, and I stop.
Feeling low at home one Tuesday evening, I ponder the question of why I am taking Chuck’s additional Tuesday evening commitment so hard. How can I begrudge any of the ways he serves this community that appreciates a progressive pastor who reaches out beyond church walls? Anyway, it’s not like I’m twiddling my thumbs. Besides work, I’m involved in numerous community groups. We’re both busy.
I read from Buddhist teacher Tara Brach’s book True Refuge. In the chapter “Losing What We Love: The Pain of Separation,” she writes that “we may carry a hidden grief for years.” When we suffer a loss, Brach says, we should resist self-blame and hold ourselves kindly. “Meet our edge and soften,” she advises.
I take deep breaths, allowing myself to feel my own hidden grief of losses that many clergy partners experience—losses that are invisible to most.
The frequent moves for partners’ jobs means continually leaving new friends behind and never fully rooting into a community. The feeling of being like a single parent because of the claims the church calendar places on our partners. The get-to-know-you meals at which we sit silent and invisible as new parishioners question our partners: “How long have you been in ministry?” “How did you know you wanted to be a pastor?” “What did you do before you became one?” The many services we attend to be supportive—yet without our partners at our sides. The times we feel cast aside by our mates in favor of those whose needs seem greater or more pressing—or even just more interesting—than our own.
Yes, I feel it tonight—years of accumulated losses. I put my hand over my heart, as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh advises to do when we are suffering.
It takes a strong partner to live with the realities of being married to a clergy person, I say to myself.
But I am not always strong.
Marriage entails sacrifice, the late mythologist Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth, a book based on a series of interviews. “Marriage is not a simple love affair, it’s an ordeal,” he said, “and the ordeal is the sacrifice of ego to a relationship in which two have become one.”
I’ve held onto a copy of Campbell’s words all these years, to remind myself that I didn’t want my ego to constrain our marriage or Chuck’s need to answer his calling. Becoming a pastor was a natural evolution of who he was. If he couldn’t be who he was because of me, then I knew I would be hurting both him and me.
Hold yourself kindly, Suzanne.
Meet your edge and soften.
Brach offers wisdom from Sri Nigargadatta, an Indian teacher, on handling loss: “The mind creates the abyss. The heart crosses over it.”
But how to cross over this abyss, this wound of old losses?
“Sense who you most want to feel love from,” Brach advises, “and when someone comes to mind, visualize that person right here and ask … say the words, ‘Please love me.’ You might then imagine what it would be like to receive love, just the way you want it.” In this way, she suggests, we tap into the deeper love that unites us all, even when we’re feeling apart from that love.
Chuck arrives home, high on food truck love.
I say nothing about my dismal evening, my mind still in the abyss.
Prioritizing the Relationship
The next morning I ask, gently as possible, to consider giving up one food truck night in mid-August to head with me to Minneapolis for one tango lesson. “You’ve got the fundraiser underway now,” I say. “Maybe it would be good for your team to take over once in a while?”
Please love me, my heart says silently.
“Let me see what I can do,” he says.
After a few more food-truck Tuesdays, Minneapolis Tuesday finally arrives. The day is comfortably warm and sunny. We sit outside a Latin fusion café and order wine, veggie empanadas, and braised scallops. We’ve been married 42 years, but tonight we are two shy people just getting to know each other.
We head to the Four Seasons Dance Studio, in a historic building. Inside, the instructor, Bruce, strides over from worn, overstuffed furniture and greets everyone. Soon he has several couples walking two-by-two in a circle with smooth strides, feet not far apart, moving forward gracefully, trying not to bob, holding onto each other with strong arms.
We begin practicing ochos—followers making figure eights with leaders standing in place. Chuck wears jeans and a t-shirt. With my rubber-soled sandals, I am not ochoing very smoothly, but I am beginning to feel alive after the trying summer. Learning the tango form—its constraints and possibilities—is like practicing the clarinet in my youth: trying something new, repeating and drilling the lesson into muscle memory so eventually it can be done without thinking. I feel old neuronal paths beginning to light up. My partner doesn’t seem to mind the lesson.
(Read about the benefits of tango in “A Dance for Life.”)
Chuck may have missed his food truck high tonight, but I am tango-high all the way home.
Two Stages of Marriage
“There are two completely different stages of marriage,” Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers. “First is the youthful marriage, during which we follow the wonderful impulses that nature has given us in the interplay of the sexes biologically in order to produce children.”
“Sometimes,” he continued, “there becomes beautifully realized in the second stage of marriage what I call the alchemical stage, of the two experiencing that they are one."
As he drives, Chuck gazes out at the horizon. “So maybe I’ll line up a team again for next Tuesday,” he says. “We can drive up for another tango lesson or do whatever you would like to do.”
He looks at me, smiles, and touches my hand.
I feel it, now—the alchemy.
Our hearts still quickening at the sight of each other.
Our corks, always bobbing again—slow, slow, ocho—even in the rough waters.
Keep reading: “Spirituality and Relationships.”