Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Swimming to Antarctica...and other other thoughts on this Valentine's Day.

When Lynne Cox was a little girl on her swim team in New Hampshire, she never wanted to get out of the pool. She wasn’t the fastest on the team and she rarely won races but that didn’t matter: she was always the last to get out of the water.

In her book, Swimming to Antarctica, she tells the story of one particularly blustery morning. All the other eight-year-olds on the team were complaining loudly and energetically about the cold water, the cool air, the ominous sky and the discomfort they felt in the pool. Their coach, reluctant to give up on the practice entirely, offered them a trade: they could get out and dry off if they spent extra time on calisthenics in the locker room. They took him up on it and scurried inside. Everyone except Lynn. She asked him if she could keep swimming.

Turns out that her slower strokes, and her naturally buoyant body allowed her to remain at a comfortable temperature in cold water longer than almost anyone else. As each of her teammates would pass her and complete their laps, they’d stop swimming and linger by the side of the pool. Because of their inactivity, and because most didn’t have as much body fat, they would quickly begin to cool down. It wasn’t until one of her coaches recognized Lynne’s ability to withstand the cold and simply endure being in the water longer than most swimmers that she began to understand that her pace and her body type were assets, not liabilities. She drew on her natural gifts to train for the more challenging, longer, colder swims she came to love. Starting at age fifteen, Lynne Cox began a career where she would set and break numerous cold-water swim records. She documents the natural accommodations her body seemed to make to the water temperatures and many of her incredible achievements in her book.

So what does this have to do with love? In a word: nothing. But in another way, I keep thinking about love and marriage and Lynne and her determination to stay the course. My parents were married nearly fifty-two years before my dad died. Many of their friends have also been or will soon be married fifty years as well. I like to think of them as the long distance swimmers of love, if you will. Maybe all those couples decided, consciously or not some five decades ago, that their marriages would withstand even the coldest of times, because that’s what marriages did.

Seems to me that staying together is a choice couples make every day, year in and year out, whether they acknowledge it or not. Sure, you may have repeated the “in good times and in bad” pledge with sincere intentions but who ever imagines what “the bad” could possibly be over the next few decades? Some years, it feels so very easy to remain true to that commitment. Some days, it feels very impossible. No one ever tells you that. And even if they do, you think they can't possibly mean it.

But I’ll bet if someone asked my parents or their friends about "the bad times," they’d say, “Of course it’s hard! You have your good and your bad and that’s your marriage. It’s called being a human being; being imperfect. It's called life. Why would marriage be anything else?”

And yet, many marriages do break apart. Many of them should. They’re toxic; they’re hurtful and debilitating. The thing us, ending a marriage, even a very harmful one, is a sad time. I’ve never met a couple who were thrilled to divorce. Somewhere inside, even the most hostile partners must somehow mourn the end of their one-time hopeful story of what might have been between them, even when they know it will never be. It’s a loss for everyone around them, too.

Couples like my parents and their friends, or couples who simply stay the course, through tide and weather, and count on smoother waters ahead understand so much about marriage and partnership and loyalty and “getting through.” Maybe they know exactly what many of us haven’t figured out yet. Maybe it’s this simple: sometimes people choose to stay together because they promised they would. That’s it. Sometimes that’s enough. A strong partnership outlasts the bad times - even the bad years – because all the good they share, especially when it feels like a dim memory, is so very worth it. These champions of long time love never jump out of the pool because of a cool breeze or a cloudy sky. They don't start looking for more comfortable surroundings or another way to keep warm when they begin shivering.

They just keep swimming.


Michael Treyder said...

so many thoughts I have on this one but let me first begin by saying this is a wonderful, wonderful post.

I was thinking about this issue for a couple of days now because a dear friend of mine was discussing her views with me regarding the proverbial long haul of marriage.

i've come to a conclusion that maybe...perhaps, we're living in an age of "presentism" - where media (and of course, the people behind them) have a notion that we're better than the people 2 or 3 generations before us and thus, have more evolved values, methods, etc.

The paradox that i see with this is that, in their gain to completely "simplify" things from their perspective, they simply make things all the more complex and sadly are destined to repeat the same cycles over and over again.

I would like to think that the traits of loyalty, eternal love, or just simply keeping a promise are strong enough to maintain a commitment now, but it seems like those qualities themselves are completely antithetical to the societal norms that we see today.

i mean, what kind of foundation can we expect to build our marriage on when it seems like all those positive qualities are simply byproducts of a relative optimism and not an absolute value?

i've been struggling with these questions myself as I've just gone through the end of a relationship. even though i'm kiiinda ok now (i actually went out on a dinner date tonight), i still wonder about the long-term prospects for me and whether or not I may have to make some serious adjustments as to my level of expectations.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

again, this is a wonderful post and it expresses the simplicity and more importantly, the power of being diligent towards what you prize the most!

renee said...

Hi Michael -
Thanks for your thoughtful feedback on the post and my apologies for the delay in responding.

I think I'm with you on it, at least in overall concept. The details will vary from person to person and generation to generation but yes: seems to me we all need to be the stars of our own reality shows these days and the notion of a mostly ordinary life - that could include a lifelong partner - are relics of the past.

If we are, as you say, only relatively optimistic based on the moment we're living through at any given time, where is the long haul in that kind of thinking? No where.

I'm not an expert on marriage by any means and I want to live as happy a life as I can - like everyone else. So what makes a long term commitment extraordinary? I'm not sure. But I'm also not sure that everyone in an older generation would call their 50 or 40 year old marriage extraordinary, or - and this is important - feel the need to.

Does it need to be extraordinary? Can it be many things - among them comforting, solid, respectful, trustworthy, supportive and loving? Or did I just describe a golden retriever?

God knows. I just get the feeling that through the ever-present media - and other likely culprits - we all somehow feel like we're entitled to a life that's amazing, and that includes an unbelievable job, a supremely gifted child, an Arch Digest house, a one-of-a-kind vacation, or a spouse who not only answers our every need, they fill them gratefully and without fail.

Really? I don't buy it. Maybe that makes me less than effusive when it comes to life. Maybe it makes me a realist.

Look, I love romance. But when it comes to love, I'm definitely more tortoise than hare.