I discovered Terry Tempest Williams recently, in a book my mother gave to me. It’s a wisdom book without a name, full of wonderful words and pictures. I asked her (my mother) to dedicate it to me, and she did, so now it is mine, and I will carry it with me from now on, until I too pass it on to a young and eager woman.
One of the passages in the book is the one below, taken from Terry’s journal entry about dissolving her marriage, and striking out on a path to discover the meaning of love. I hope I can find and read the rest of the story. She is still with her husband, and they have pioneered a path that might help to guide others.
October 13, 1990
I have been in the Adirondacks. I am tired and relieved to be home. As I walk off the plane, Brooke meets me. His stare is disarming. I kiss him and hand him my two bags.
“It’s not working,” he says.
“What?” I ask, startled by his focused intensity.
“What’s not working?”
“Marriage. I hate what it does to people. I hate what it’s doing to us.”
We begin a brisk walk down the terminal, side by side, my mind trying to accommodate what my husband has just said.We enter the current of individuals madly coming and going, brushing against one another as they run to catch or miss their planes.
“You want a divorce?” I ask as we step on to the moving sidewalk (a mechanical voice chants obvious instructions above us and I realize how much I detest the sterile world of airports). I lean against the black banister. Brooke passes me and continues walking. No breaks. I follow him.
“No, not a divorce,” he says. “I want new agreements.” He stops and looks straight into my eyes as people pass us on our left. “I’m tired of only getting bones.”
La Parisien is a small French cafe in Salt Lake City. Good food. Good wooden booths perfect for private conversations. It is a reliable establishment that does not impose itself on its clientele. We are among its loyal. I order chicken crepes. Brooke orders salmon. We sit across from one another in silence until our salads come.
I am not prepared for this. All I want to do is tell him about my walks in the Adirondacks, how glorious the autumn foliage was, how rich the light was, what birds I saw. I want to discuss ideas. I am too exhausted to talk about us.
The waitress brings a basket of garlic bread and places it on the table. My favorite.
“I want to dissolve our marriage,” Brooke says.
I look up at the waitress to see if she is listening to our conversation. She disappears.
“What do you mean?” I ask, breaking off a piece of bread.
“I mean I want to dissolve the marriage vows we made as kids, nineteen and twenty-three years old. They no longer work for me, and I don’t think they are working for you.”
I cannot eat the salad before me. The waitress returns to fill the water glasses.
I listen as my husband of fifteen years speaks eloquently of his yearning for a true partnership–where nothing is taken for granted.
“This is not about love,” he says. “This is about wanting more.”
I look at the blond, blue-eyed man seated across the table from me and feel tears welling. I suddenly realize how long it has been since I have really seen him, heard him, been present with him. Bones. Leftovers.
He is right.
“We need a ritual,” I say, half smiling. I know I can always make Brooke laugh.
He shakes his head with predictable cynicism, realizing somethings will never change.
“What could that be?” I wonder aloud.
Our entrees are served. I straighten my plate. The waitress asks if there is anything else we need. Brooke casually replies yes, but not that she can provide. She fills our water glasses once again.
I dream of various acts of dissolution but nothing seems appropriate.
“I think we should burn our marriage certificate,” Brooke says.
I say nothing–say nothing, for a long time. Images from our wedding on June 2, 1975, wash over me in waves: the Mormon Temple ceremony, my father, my mother, my grandparents, Brooke’s family, our innocence, a garland of wildflowers in my hair, the faith of our friends.
“But what about our history, our families who sat with us in that holy room as we took sacred vows and made covenants before God as we said yes–yes, to a shared and devoted life?”
“And we are saying yes again–” Brooke answers, “only this time, we are saying yes to something new within a context of experience.”
“I’m not sure,” he says. “But I think it has to do with evolution and not being invisible. It’s about improvising each day.”
Dawn, October 14, 1990.
Brooke and I are sitting on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. The morning is ethereal with a faint mist slowly rising from the water. All the pastels of an abalone shell are shimmering above us as the sun has not yet peaked over the Wasatch Mountains.
We lay our marriage certificate on the salt flats of the receding lake. Brooke strikes a match and ignites one corner. I light the other. I watch it curl with a single flame, a black burn racing, erasing, my father’s name, John Henry Tempest, III. Brooke’s father’s signature, Rex Winder Williams, Jr. disappears simultaneously. We have no witnesses before God as the small fire sweeps across the white parchment.
“. . . were by me joined together in the holy bonds of matrimony for time and all eternity, according to the ordinance of God and the laws of the state of Utah . . . signed, S. Dilworth Young, an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints . . . “
The words vanish. The ornate border disappears, the engraved Gothic spires of the Salt Lake Temple with our names, Brooke Spencer Williams and Terry Lynn Tempest, go up in smoke as black ashes cartwheel across the sand.
Emotion swells in me. This piece of paper mattered. I look to Brooke for a similar response. His face shows sheer elation. It frightens me. I turn to the lake. Something catches my eye. Pink on blue, I squint with the morning glare. I squint again to be certain of what I see and then gently take Brooke’s hand and point to the flock of gulls feeding fifty yards ahead.
Brooke looks–crouches low and looks again. “A flamingo?”
I nod. “I can’t believe it either.” Pheonicopterus ruber, the Latin genus translates to ‘the Phoenix.’ “The firebird rising from the ashes.”
We stand. I take off my platinum wedding bands and hurl them into the Great Salt Lake. Brooke has brought an antique dinner plate, a souvenir from our wedding, and throws it like a skipping rock across the water. It shatters on contact.
We turn. We choose to follow the pink flamingo along the shore as it feeds on brine–a rose petal on the water.
Seldom or never does a marriage develop into an individual relationship smoothly without crisis. There is no birth of consciousness without pain. C. G. Jung
July 20, 1991
We have demolished our house. Total renovation. I stand in the middle of the living room with barefeet on concrete–remembering the contractor’s warning to never enter this workspace without shoes. Yet observing the wreckage around me (a gutted kitchen, broken and unpainted sheetrock, a border of carpet nails), I feel safe. I start to reimagine our home.
Where the sliding glass doors have been–I see a fireplace, a hearth, to warm the exposed winter days. A place to focus. Where a slit of glass has served as a window above the kitchen counter–I want to double its size and raise the sky, placing the sink down canyon with a view of he setting sun while I do dishes. I want a door that opens east for morning light. Wood floors. White walls. And floor to ceiling bookshelves in the study. I want things simple, spare, and clean. I want a house to protect my solitude like the marriage Rilke envisions, “. . . that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation . . “
Brooke enters the chaos with a roll of architechtural plans under his arm. My daydreaming ends. He is real, tangilbe, in body. No fantasies here. What I love about his man is his reliability and his insistence in shattering established forms, constructions of any kind.
As he unrolls the drawings on the floor, I realize the courage it takes to love, especially to love in a way that defies tradition–tearing down the walls, opening up the rooms, letting the wind blow through windows and doors to keep things fresh, and what a little fire in the center of a home can do to regenerate heat, the heat of a passionate and comfortable life.
Brooke and I go over the blueprints carefully. He is watching cost, mindful of our budget. I am watching aesthetics, aware that beauty is not optional. After rigorous discussions, we are not so far apart in our vision of what we want our home to be.
The painter walks in. We look up. Brooke lets the plans roll back on themselves.
“Mrs. Williams, you want white walls, Dover white, I believe? And I need to know if you have decided what color you want to paint the outside doors?”
“Why not white like the rest of the house?” Brooke interjects.
The painter looks at me. I look at my husband.
“I would like them red,” I say. “Red doors to protect and celebrate a love that is wild.”