Monday, September 14, 2009

Contentment :: Contain, as Discontentment is to . . .

She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss”

For the past several months - okay, really for years - but lately more regularly and verbally - Fritz and I have carried on an ongoing debate about Contentment. For example, a month or so back he says, "You know, I was thinking about that story the teacher told in Sunday School - "

. . . it's the story of Corrie ten Boom - the story where one of the former concentration camp guards approaches her after one of her talks preaching Christ's unending forgiveness and asks if she too can forgive him. She feels no forgiveness in her, only loathing and fear and resentment. But she can raise her hand to meet his. She can do that much and pray for the rest . . . and discovers that "Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”
"Have you thought maybe contentment," asks Fritz, "is willed, too?"

And I know he's right. Partly. Mostly.

I know he's right because at the start of that very same class, when I was still sitting alone, notebook and scriptures propped open on my lap, I saw the door open and over the teacher's left shoulder there was Fritz scanning the class, somber-faced and almost stern - until his eyes light on me and then his face transforms - eyebrows lifting up and up and a lopsided, comical grin. He makes his way toward the chair waiting at my side (which he knows will be there) happy as a grig - whatever a grig is, but I always picture a small sailboat tacking cheerily back and forth in a brisk breeze beneath scuds of tiny white clouds in a bright blue sky. As he sits down beside me I scribble in my notes (which are only rarely notes about the lesson):

It is something in this world to be the one another's eyes light up to see.
And it is enough, isn't it?

And yes, I do know I am precipitate to total up the value of my existence while the play's still in progress and the fat lady still waiting in the wings. But it frustrates me that I haven't done the things I thought I would, that others earlier assumed I might.

And even though I know how much I would like to slip back into my past to lay a hand on the furrowed forehead of that younger sleeping self, just as she, as I, come to the edge of waking beside her/my (also) young and bewildered husband, brushing her hair back and whispering into that young ear, "It is enough, really, to be the one another's eyes light up to see," - Even though I know this is one of the Truths in This Life, that knowing this sooner would have saved us both (her/me and him) too much heartache, I still answer my dear Fritz, a month or so back, standing in our present kitchen, both of us leaning against the counter - he has a glass of milk in his hand, I'm sorting mail - "Well, of course, contentment is an act of will. But I've made myself content before. Over and over. And where does it get me? It gets me stuck still with the same . . . same . . . stuff! I don't want to be content and stuck."

So he nods (which he does now instead of trying to change my mind) (he also has learned some things over the years) and we talk of other things.

Isn't this life we have hammered out between us enough accomplishment for anyone?  Though I haven't always known this. Or known how to value the weight of this - the ongoing regard of this one man, complicated and quirky but - oh, can we just say of worth? - when deciding if my life was a failure or a success.

She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings"

We've seen discontent tear apart people we care for - leaving family members and favorite memories drowned like water rats among the wreckage. And I know Fritz doesn't like it, my penchant for being dissatisfied. I think he feels it like a judgement on him. If he were doing it right, I would never be discontented. I think it frightens and unsettles him. At any rate, it doesn't make me comfortably companionable - even to myself.

Yet we've made it to this good place anyway, Fritz and me. Despite whatever prompted my sister-in-law once to confide, some six or seven years ago, "I didn't think you guys would make it."

When I, bemused, assured her that Fritz wasn't that difficult and was besides such a good being, her flabbergasted silence made it clear that it wasn't his shortcomings she'd imagined insurmountable.

"I just want smooth sailing," Fritz had said when we were first together.

"I want something real," I'd said.

Guess which one of us got our wish?

And so I wrote a poem for him once -
You are the anchor, I am the sail,
Our children sleep in the hold . . .
"Besides," I tell him, "I think the shadows make the colours more intense."


He only taps his lower lip with his little finger, thinking, and looking over my shoulder.

More recently we sit at the window looking down the hill. "Ah, I love it here," says Fritz.

"I wish I could see it that way," I say. "All I can see is what hasn't been done. And the things we were going to do when we moved here."

Fritz begins to quote at me: "Two men stood behind bars - one saw the mud, the other saw stars . . . "

"Okay, but the one who saw mud," I tell him, "he says, Whoa, look at that! That ground's soft enough out there, I bet if I just dig this out a little further I can escape," I'm miming it, gesturing widely. "And meanwhile, the other one is still just gazing up through prison bars, Ah, the stars, the stars, how lovely the stars are."

"I have to admit," says Fritz. "That's a good story."

"It is," says I.

Though he is getting so crafty these days, maybe he knows that by agreeing with me, contrary as I am, I begin to think - so what if I never do more with my life than I am right now? What if I never get any better - what if I just live here where I'm standing?
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations . . .


And then would I be content?


quotes from "Sunday Morning" by Wallace Stevens

4 comments:

Neighbor Jane Payne said...

You have a real ability to catch the complexities of marriage and life.

Fritz has always been a contented man hasn't he? It's one of the things I love about him. It's so steady, so sure. I could picture perfectly they way his face lit up upon seeing you. You described it so well.

The anchor, the sails...what lovely imagery. Both necessary, both useful.

Lisa B. said...

you could be writing a story about me and my husband. and I have written more than one poem on the theme, "what if I never get any better?" it's a good theme. it makes me think about what is so good about every single day, without ambition or whatever making me miserable by reminding me of what I haven't done and maybe never will.

This is a good story. Thank you for telling it.

Mrs. Organic said...

"It is enough, really, to be the one another's eyes light up to see"

I hope always to keep that even if it is from my children. And you have a point about seeing what needs to be done - it's wonderful how well the two viewpoints compliment each other.

One to be content with what is and one to dream about what may be.

Wonder Phlan said...

Funny how the shape of our lives determines the lessons we learn. Because I can't tell you how long I have searched for just one single pair of eyes that would light up when they see me. I'd give up ANYTHING that I have done or seen, anything I will see or do, just for that one moment of recognition. Funny, huh? Because I have never cared about what I actually do in this world or meeting mine or others expectaitons of me. And yet every day I am forced to focus on that because its the only thing in my life. I am always fully content just being with family, spending tme together, being loved and adored on occasion. Then everything is okay. God gives us all the lessons we need to learn I guess! I sure do love you Emma J!

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