Editor’s Note: Maria is taking a few weeks off to finish a book project. In the interim, we will be rerunning some of her columns, because we really do think they are that good. I’ve chosen her first Planet Waves article, from May of 2011, for this weekend; something about its concluding paragraph feels right as we approach this solstice. The “current unpleasantness” she references early on was the Fukushima quake and tsunami, with its nuclear repercussions. If you have a favorite article of Maria’s you’d like to suggest, comment below or email amanda [at] planetwaves [dot] net. — Amanda
By Maria Padhila
I grew up on a missile testing range in the California desert. Family trips often included tours of nuclear power plants. My father, brilliant, raging, drinking, was himself a device one had to avoid detonating — and sometime one of us would set him off, unintentionally.
Current unpleasantness has me flashing back to those times, and forward as well — wondering if I’ve done what I need to do to stop the deception that’s led us to this. It’s what everyone asks: But what can I do? Once in a while, as a journalist, I could get a few digs in. In writing and art, a few more. But — and this may be as self-serving as it is self-deluded — I think I’m doing the best thing by following my desire.
My mother filled the house with feminist novels during that great flowering in the ’70s, and I read them, some openly, some snuck into in glimpses. Now these ladies are out of fashion and out of print, but I still love them — Marge Piercy, Judith Rossner, Fay Weldon, Erica Jong. They shaped my dreams — you could live in a group house full of artists and workers scrabbling to survive, rural or urban, and it maybe, maybe, could work. You could sleep with women and the world wouldn’t crack open. You could sleep with more than one man and you wouldn’t be stoned or shunned.
The writers were less naive than I was, of course; dry and chiding and even a little cynical. The commune falls apart; the center cannot hold against women always having to bake the bread, make the bread, carry the children. But at the beginning of the books, it all looked possible — and that’s the vision that formed my ideal. Time and drugs and punk rock and the career ladder all eroded that ideal, but it remained within me, folded on itself, until after I had a child and made it through her toddlerhood.
I was living a straight working married life and trying desperately to live up to another ideal, the soccer mom who keeps it all together through work and weekends, living for everyone else. My daughter watched princess DVDs, and I watched with her, and I told her look, Belle reads, look, Pocahantas can paddle her own canoe, it doesn’t always have to be like that, baby. I snuck glimpses of another reality when I could get to Pagan and Burning Man events. There were people in these groups who didn’t live the way I did. They’d thought of a name, a plan, a set of standards and conditions for that life: They called it polyamory. A polyamorist man who gives kissing lessons at Burning Man kissed me, and I liked it. And I brought that knowledge home to my lawful wedded husband.
Telling a spouse they don’t fulfill your every need is tough. All our life narratives (in our country, in our society, in our dominant religions and philosophies — please understand and assume these assumptions, as grating as they can be, for now) tell us that our Other must be our Everything or there is Something Wrong (usually with us). Here’s Erica Jong in Fear of Flying:
What all the ads and all the whoroscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, you hair, your boobs, you eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars — you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever. …
Underneath it all, you longed to be annihilated by love, to be swept off your feet, to be filed up by a giant prick spouting sperm, soapsuds, silks and satins, and of course money. … You expected not to desire any other men after marriage. And you expected your husband not to desire any other women. Then the desires came and you were thrown into a panic of self-hatred. What an evil woman you were!
And now, more than 40 years after she wrote that, the men get to feel the self-hatred, too. I’m not enough, they assume, and nowadays many of them don’t even take the automatic ‘out’ that used to be afforded to male privilege, assuming well, honey, if you’re not satisfied, there must be something wrong with YOU. Today, many of them ask, humbly, how can I be a better lover? What’s wrong with me?
Some of the things I say in return: This is a long life we’re living. We’re lucky. Some of us get enough time to figure out who we were. Some of us were born this way, born needing more than one, and are just now figuring that out. Can you live with it? Can you love me not only in spite of it, but because of it? Because I love you, even though you are not everything. I love you because you are you. Can that be enough? Can you live and be loved, not being everything?
At first, my husband offered a don’t-ask-don’t-tell solution. I could do as I pleased in certain times and places. That wouldn’t work for me. I wanted honesty, as much as we could carve out in our lying lives, where we have to hide desire, hide disgust, smile at the lying propagandist or person who owns the coal mines or the factories cited for dozens of safety violations when you meet him at a party, not cause a scene.
So on my 49th birthday, Issac, my husband, said OK. We’ll try.
That was six months ago. I was already in love with my boyfriend, Chris. It all seemed entirely natural, although, as anyone who follows the ways of nature knows, that doesn’t mean it was smooth or easy.
Isaac and I talk, endlessly, nearly every night now. We talk and fuck in ways we haven’t since before we married, 15 years ago — since the times I’d lie on his futon in his tiny apartment, the shelf full of Henry Miller at eye level, our kisses tasting of good coffee. That’s what trying to be honest about what you want will do for you. We swing (not in that sense!) back and forth from tears to jokes to our practical, day-to-day chatting and bickering and scheduling.
Issac says: “It hurts me that you’re with him, and that you don’t stop, even though it hurts me.” He says: “You should be happy. I see how happy you are and I think, how could this be wrong? It’s not wrong.” He says: “I know monogamy is pretty ridiculous. Anyone who thinks about it for a minute sees that.” He says, when I accuse myself of being evil and selfish: “You’re projecting that on me — it’s not what I’m thinking. Don’t tell me what I’m thinking.” This is someone for whom the concept of projection was something crammed and forgotten for a college test long ago. Not anymore. His awareness sharpens every day. He could have lived a lifetime without it–his career and family would have been quite happy to have us stay asleep forever.
Chris combs used bookstores and presents me with volumes of poetry — including Erica Jong, long out of print, erotic, wide open, natural and artful. He sends home bags of fresh fruit and vegetables and baked goods from his work, for my family. We do ritual and trance journeying together, bang around in the woods, read each other’s writing, talk in shorthand because we have known each other for lifetimes, heal each other out of our occasional PTSD attacks.
We’ve all gone out together, to concerts, to events with the area poly support group. We’d all three of us really, really like to meet and love a nice woman — or three.
Neither of them are rich or omnipotent. (Neither am I.) None of us satisfies each other’s every need. None of us are all of what we each want. We love. And there is always more. That’s what I’m discovering. The capacity of these men to love — when so often the world tells us men are heartless and cavalier — is astounding to me. They love, they desire, they dream, they hurt, they create, they open their lives to me and to others, they keep trying. They grow, and they get cooler, more interesting, more exciting, more willing to fight the power, less willing to simply take what they’re handed.
I am not annihilated by love. I’m awash in it, buoyed by it, blessed by it. I don’t want to be annihilated by love. There are plenty of other things in this world that would like to annihilate us. Let’s not let them.