True love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer
For the pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender
~ Jackson Browne, “The Pretender”
I guess it was inevitable. Today and tomorrow, people from all over the country are converging on New York’s Metropolitan Pavilion for the first-ever divorce expo. Designed to resemble bridal expos–the open-parentheses to which it’s the close-parentheses–Start Over Smart: A Modern Divorce Expo features informational sessions on everything from the legal and economic implications of divorce to how to reenter the dating market. Exhibitors include not only domestic relations law firms and money managers, but cosmetic surgeons, hair and makeup designers, life coaches, matchmakers, resorts (for that anti-honeymoon, the post-divorce getaway), and firms that specialize in divorce event-planning (including “spiritual” closure ceremonies and singles showers). Start Over Smart is sponsored by Macy’s By Appointment, the retailer’s personal shopping service, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Sally Hershberger Professional Hair Care, and media sponsors Hay House (publisher of self-help books) and HuffPo‘s Divorce section.
The expo, brainchild of a mother and daughter who imported a European model, is clearly aimed primarily at women, though there are a few crumbs tossed to men (sessions entitled “Getting to the Other Side of Divorce: For Men” and “Into the Fog: Becoming a Single Dad and a Single Dude Again”) and even a seminar on “LGBTQ Divorce and Relationship Dissolution.” For all the talk this week on the morning shows of this being a positive, healing, supportive necessity, though, there’s something of an air of desperation under all the cheerleading. That, and the whiff of money, of course. As the expo founders put it on the TODAY show, people who have trouble with what may seem to be a promotion of divorce should just consider what a terrific entrepreneurial opportunity this presents.
I’m of a divided mind (as usual) when it comes to Start Over Smart. The amateur anthropologist in me is fascinated: tribal customs and material culture aplenty, in a whole new context. The Catholic revert part of me shudders, already anticipating the combox screeds on the abomination stuff like this represents. (Any time I can put references to divorce, the alphabet soup of non-straight relationships, and HuffPo in a post, it’s like kicking over a hornets’ nest. If only the expo founders had cajoled President Obama to give the keynote and Planned Parenthood to sponsor, I’d get hate-hits that would blow my all time pageview numbers out of the water.) But mostly, reading about this makes me sad, because it reminds me that I am divorced.
I don’t usually think about that part of my bio, and when I do, it’s hardly ever sadly. My divorce happened a very long time ago–six times as long, in fact, as the very brief marriage lasted. And even at the time, I felt very little sadness. Anger, briefly, at being betrayed. Fear, for a good long time, about whether I could survive economically and be the custodial parent my young son needed. Regret, always, that what began as a romantic dream of shared life and ministry did not come to be as we had imagined. Guilt, deep down, for not being good enough, smart enough, committed enough to be the right kind of wife. And relief, secretly, because I could finally stop stifling the voice that had been saying, rightly, all along that marriage is not my vocation
But this week, as never before, comes sadness. It started last Sunday, when I was preparing to write about the Annunciation, and remembered suddenly that it was on that feast, 32 years ago, that the petition for my divorce was filed. I was in New York at the time on business, not at home in Los Angeles. It was my first time in Manhattan alone. On previous visits, the city’s height and closeness and speed had triggered panic attacks, but on my own, with tasks to accomplish, I found myself falling under the New York’s spell. That Tuesday morning, with some free time on my hands, I took a bus up to The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park and indulged my love of the medieval for a couple of hours, practically alone. It was in the cloistered Cuxa Garden–so reminiscent of the walled gardens in which Mary receives the Archangel Gabriel in Renaissance paintings–that I recalled, first, that it was the Feast of the Annunciation, and then remembered the significance of the filing date. While I thought of Gabriel in his Byzantine court official’s dalmatic bringing the news of the world’s best beginning, some court official 3,000 miles away was rubber stamping the end of my marriage. I didn’t cry then. I prayed, on my own with no angelic company in that walled garden on that spring morning, for some of Mary’s courage and her Son’s mercy.
This week, though, remembering, I cried–harder than I had in the 32 years in between, I think. Not out of self-pity, because God granted my prayer for courage and helped me survive and grow and love and be loved again (though not in marriage), and even, amusingly, to be sought out for counsel by those who are having their own relationship troubles. (I think they think of me as their version of the Mother Abbess from The Sound of Music, old and clearly out of the marriage market myself but full of practical wisdom, cheerily setting them straight and sending them on their way with a quavery “Climb Every Mountain.”) Not out of a sense of failure, because if a divorce can ever be said to have worked, ours did: We stayed friends, my ex-husband married and has stayed married to the woman God had most likely picked out for him in the first place, and between the three of us, with God’s help, we raised to manhood a heck of a good son who is a terrific husband to the best daughter-in-love in the world and father to our delight of a grandson.
No, this week’s tears were different. They were, spiritually speaking, “the gift of tears”–the sadness of contrition. Earlier in my life, before the profound breaking apart and refashioning of perspective that my reversion to faith has wrought in me, I wouldn’t have been able to cry those tears or understand them if I had. Even now, there are those who would say they’re nonsense, some kind of Catholic guilt trip, and would recommend the kind of bracing self-help platitudes on display at the divorce expo: It wasn’t your fault, you can remake yourself, your real soulmate is still out there, you just need a good haircut and a week in the Caribbean. All those things may be true–the last two, especially–and yet the tears are truer.
They are tears that wonder what might have been had I swallowed my pride and tried harder, been kinder, been braver, been more willing to bend and forgive. They are tears that acknowledge that even the “best” divorce is a wound in the Body of Christ, an end to one unique partnership in life and ministry. They are tears that ask forgiveness of my ex-husband, of our son, of our families and friends and community. They are tears that signal a new kind of spring, the softening of a heart hardened against hurt for far too long. They are tears, in the end, of gratitude.
There’s nothing about any of that on offer at this weekend’s divorce expo, and I can see why. Contrition is kind of a downer, and there’s no money in it. But I hope the folks in New York this weekend don’t escape the gift of tears entirely, don’t go as long as I did without acknowledging that something very important is lost when a marriage is ended. Starting over smart after a marriage ends is fine. But barring abuse and other criminally intolerable situations, smarter still might be seeking the grace to start over with the one you’re in.