When he merges into the sofa as she merges into the Light
It was just before lunch on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We were nearing the end of summer so the country heat was less blistering than it had been even just a couple of weeks earlier. We were just over an hour south of Sydney entering the closing session of a weekend retreat. Women only.
This was not my first retreat and not my first time here to this place. The centre was run by a bunch of curious characters; modern day yogis they called themselves. I’d guess they were all over 50 years old but the only thing that gave them away really was their grey hair. I’d found out that they didn’t drink, smoke, eat meat or even have sex – though who would know that for sure, right? Plus they meditated a lot. Bundle that up and you’ve got pretty clear and smooth, wrinkle free skin. The majority of them, no matter their age or gender or ethnicity, were also quite youthful in their attitude, so being certain of ages was not an easy game.
We were about 40 in the retreat. Women from all walks of life and arcing from twenty-something to really old-something, and everything in between. The retreat is held in a huge hall that somehow manages to be cozy. It has a pitched ceiling with soft cream sails hung and mood lighting behind. The walls are soft creamy/lemon and the carpet is – yes you guessed it – soft creamy beige. The chairs however depart from the predictable. They are red! A deep red and yet compliant cozy and comfortable. They are set in a circle this time. There are two types of chairs. Normal height and some with the legs cut off. (Well of course they haven’t been cut off, they come like that; they are for those who want to sit ‘on the floor’ but haven’t got the core or back strength to do so. The ‘lazy yogi’ chair.
While I’ve lost a good 13 kilos in the past year, I’m still about 5 kilos overweight. At least the nurse didn’t note ‘obese’ on behalf of my gynaecologist during this last check-up. The previous time I think I was just a couple of kilos off what they call ‘morbidly obese’. God that’s awful! As if we’re not shamed and ashamed enough, they have to go and label us like that. Bloody hell, here I am again back at the topic of body image/weight/fat. Just when you think you’ve got over it, gone beyond it, buried it for good… slippery bugger slides right back in when you are simply telling someone about a chair without legs.
Anyway I, and my extra rolls, found ourselves in the lazy yogi chair with someone even lazier beside me on either side, that is, they simply squatted onto a standard height chair. Liz to the left – serial divorcee, very short salt and pepper hair; no extra pounds; red singlet with some baggy khaki coloured shorts loosely swinging above her knees. No shaving for Liz. Oh and no shoes. No one wears shoes inside. Sensible really. No dirt.
To the left, the lovely Tamara. I know she is 32 and a lesbian because we were paired off to share in one of those activities on the weekend where we had to tell personal stories of courage. Very courageous young person. She could have also gone the low level chair department easily, even direct on the floor as she did yoga three times a week, but for some reason, she and her alabaster skin, pitch black hair and wild green eyes, chose the upper level.
So there we were, everyone with their chair choice, waiting but as was the way this weekend, and truth be told with women, it was rather rabbley. I can chat with the best of them but I also loved coming to these things for the quiet. For example, the night before was completely in silence, including the meal. That of course was just a tad uncomfortable, but honestly, I loved it and I could see that many of the women did too. Such a relief not to have to fill in space with vapid noise. You should try it sometime. You almost don’t want to talk again. Almost.
Janice was sitting there, waiting. I had the sense that she was doing some oogie-boogie mind stuff trying to make us silent. Some of us picked up on it, but there were a bunch that probably wouldn’t have noticed if there was serious seismic activity. Seasoned Liz did the honours, calling a halt with an ‘oi’ followed by a finger whistle. I never could do those, I just sprayed passers by with dancing saliva beads.
“Well everyone that brings us to the end of our retreat. The next 60 minutes before lunch are by way of closing the weekend in a formal and hopefully meaningful way.” Janice had been fantastic. She was really wise and also had a great sense of humour. She laughed at her own kooky vulnerabilities that made everyone relax and not feel so out of place or inept.
Janice invited us to share something that was insightful, impactful or in-something else that I can’t remember now, but basically ‘don’t rave on, be sensible and get to the point’. A little bell would chime in if we were getting off track too far or going on too long.
I wasn’t bad at maths - 60 minutes and 40 women. Maximum 90 seconds each - a minute and a half. I know, you would think: What the hell could I say to fill 90 seconds. That is a long time when 39 women and a facilitator are watching you. Especially when you have a microphone in one hand, no bourbon in your belly and it’s not karaoke night. But for some that microphone is the first time they get a voice, an audience, a panicky ramble attack or a heretofore, undiscovered stammer. So the indicator chime at the one minute mark by Janice is clearly an inclusion born of experience.
Liz begins. She gives her mini biography in the personal development world just in case there was someone left who hadn’t been on the receiving end of it over the weekend at some point. Praise be the chime! But just before she finished up, she launched a missile attack right into the middle of the circle.
“Of course” said Liz with a barely disguised glint of delight, “once you start on this journey, you end up getting divorce or breaking up with your man. They just can’t keep up.”
While everyone had pretty much got used to Liz’s provocative tone and very ‘special’ personality, taking most of her interjections on the weekend with a grain of salt and a roll of the eyes, this quip didn’t fly away so easily. A number of the new women were obviously a little shaken.
The microphone went in the other direction to a woman called Irina. She was maybe about mid-forties, not at all the homey type, rather the super-executive, super woman type. She concurred. Short, sharp, articulate and finished before Janice could reach for the chime. “Liz is right. They just don’t have it in them. I’ve gone through three or four high potential candidates. Alas, no luck!”
The next and the next joined the choir.
There was a serious amount of civil unrest brewing in the cozy calm room. Up to this point, the retreat had been nothing but positive and more positive. Even the 15 or so women who were new to the game, managed just fine. Janice was adept at making everyone comfortable and at managing the group dynamics so that the ‘Lizs’ of the group don’t get to dominate too much. Right now, I looked at Janice and she did nothing at all to manage this. I couldn’t read her face.
I glanced around the circle, my head lifting and then dropping down as my gaze scanned the floor chairs; women shuffled, wide-eyed, mouths gaping, heads swiveling from side to side as if a row of side-show clowns, gob-smacked at each new version of ‘I kicked him out’ confession. Emotionally speaking, the newer women ranged from genuinely disturbed to seriously freaking out.
I waited, watching as this scene unraveled.
Oh… God…. no! Something was bubbling, gearing up to burst out of MY mouth. I hate it when that happens because you can’t ignore it, you can’t push it away or down, basically this is what these workshops are about; hearing and giving expression to your own truth. After lifetimes of suppression and shoulds, we learn to listen to our inner knowing and respond to it. Bloody hell…now?? Alright already!
Quiet as a mouse until this point, I cleared my throat, spoke a little more loudly than I had intended and ventured into the conversation. It seemed to work because the ruckus slowly began to die down, finally landing somewhere between stifled murmurs and hushed whispers.
“I want to share something too.” I paused – more for effect than anything else. Oh and to make sure that they would all catch the opening line, which in truth is a corker.
“I was really happy once.”
“My husband and I were the idyllic couple. We really were – inside and out. We were THE best of friends. We enjoyed each other tremendously. We had two gorgeous kids – a boy and a girl. He was a fantastic dad and we were a really beautiful family.”
Everyone was glued, hanging on my every word. I’d told this first part of the story what seemed like a million times before so I knew where to pause and where to milk it a little for the drama. Sorry. Bless me Father for I have sinned!
My use of past tense and my dramatic set up created the hook.
“One day, Nick said he needed to talk to me. It didn’t sound particularly ominous from the way that he said it. It was just Nick…Nick wanting to talk to his wife Fran. “ Again. Pause.
Now the silence was screamingly loud.
“ Fran…you know I love you, right?. You know I love our family. You’re my best friend and so I wish there was some other choice here. I can’t avoid it any longer and I promise you I’ve really tried.” Every woman literally holding her breath now.
“Darling… I’m gay.”
Audible gasps. “NO!!” Hands automatically trying to stop the expulsion from flying free, but too late!
Whispers of “oh my god… how did you cope? What did you say? I couldn’t have handled it…So on and so on.” Some women sat silent. Zero reaction. As an extravert I don’t get how people are all ‘I’m reacting on the inside’.
“Hang on…hang on. I’m not to the bit that I want to share yet!”
Watching again, I saw the 39 other women– each with her own unique reason –teetering at the edge.
“Now Nick wasn’t with anyone, he’d not even had a relationship with a man before, but he finally stopped denying that that was what he wanted.”
Some women were truly shocked. They couldn’t imagine a gay man being married. It simply didn’t add up. You could almost see them doing the ‘math’ in their minds. They wanted me to be angry, to be outraged and resentful; but, I wasn’t.
“After a while, Nick did meet someone…Phil. Phil is a really great guy.” I couldn’t help smiling when I thought of Phil. He makes Nick so happy.
“I met someone too, Barry; and together we formed a very modern family. My kids have four parents who love them completely. We holiday together most years and we are great friends. We’re family.”
Incomplete. ‘Cool story’ I could hear the words hanging in their minds, BUT… relevance Your Honour? Move to strike! They had uniformly flung back to the question at hand.
“So Fran are you saying that Nick became gay because you got empowered?”
It was so surprisingly unexpected that I literally guffawed. I love that word. I think it should belong just to people who look like horses when they laugh. Either way, I still I love it.
“Sorry. I said, for the guff. “No not at all. Nothing to do it. So let me tell you about Barry. Husband number two.”
There it was, heavy and expectant, like a grubby, stained mattress that has been left out on the street waiting for the council pick up, meeting with one too many downpours in between. Stinky, stanky and impossible to ignore.
Deep breath Fran, come on girl, you’re on the home stretch now. Make it count.
“Then I started to attend workshops and weekends like this one. I read all kinds of books about owning your story, your power, your passion; basically about owning your own life! My God…a whole world opened up for me. I opened up for me. I was changing, transforming almost faster than I could keep up with. I was – am - becoming someone I really like being, living a life I really love creating.”
Right then, Sue, a woman in her fifties I would guess, couldn’t hold back any longer, blurting out, “And Barry? What about Barry?”
I waited a couple of beats.
“Well, he wasn’t changing at all. I would arrive home from some fantastic seminar, workshop or talk, and there Barry would be, slumped on the couch, empty bag of potato chips beside him, beer bottle on the coffee table and two, sometimes three, remotes precariously balanced on his paunch.”
Between you and me, I had begun to wonder if as he drank more beer, did he play some kind of ‘balance the remote’ game with himself. You know, how us humans have our own private little crazy tendencies like not being able to have the audio volume on an odd number or being frightened by the colour yellow? That kind of private, secret thing.)
I could see by the look on so many faces that many had or had had, their own version of Barry.
“Hi Baz… I’d call as I opened the door. His response? ARRGGGHH. Grunt. Groan. Moan. And it just seemed to get worse and worse. The more I changed, the more he seemed to dig in deeper on the couch.”
Here’s where those original ‘sharers’ were nodding their heads with cruel delight. Just you wait up chicas… the fat woman has not blasted out the last aria yet! And you other lot holding your breath…BREATHE already.
“You know how you talk to your best girlfriend about this kind of thing, well remember, Nick is my bestie so, I went to talk it through with him. When I’d finished Nick just looked at me for the longest time… as did Phil.”
“OMG I thought to myself, they’re going to side with the man... guys really do stick together even if one’s straight and the others are gay and your best friend!”
More nodding around the room now; everyone I think.
“This is not what I signed up for guys!!!” I almost yelled at them. They didn’t say a thing. ”What????” I demanded in my confusion.
“Fran you know I love you and am always on your side” said Nick. I could hear the ‘but’ screeching into the driveway of my argument. He continued. “Lovely, you know what? Baz didn’t sign up for what you’re doing now and for who you’re becoming either!” He raised his hand to silence me as I was clearly about to object. “Before all of this, you guys were doing SO well; you were really happy, enjoying each other, family and life and then, boom, you started changing.”
Looking at the women around the circle, I could see that this was hitting home…even if some of them didn’t want to admit it. I went through exactly the same as they were facing now, when I realized that Nick was right.
Humbled I was. “Ok guys I can see what you’re saying” I said, “ but you know what? I don’t want to stop doing what I’m doing. I love what I’m learning and discovering.”
“Have you talked to Baz? Shared all this with him?” Phil chimed in.
I paused again. This time it was not for effect. My head dropped a little and I felt my cheeks become flush with warmth as the shame of it hit me, maybe for the first time.
“You know, the truth is” I told the women,”it hadn’t even occurred to me to talk to him.”
I could see the lights clicking and neurons firing.
“ So I talked to him. I admit I was a bit nervous; even a lot. Nervous that I would lose my clarity of what was important and then lose my new self.”
“Baz I said. I’m sorry I haven’t had this conversation with you before now; I know I should have.”
“I told him what I was doing, how I was meeting new people, having incredible conversations about how life works and who we are; about purpose and meaning.
“My world has opened up unbelievably Baz” I offered gingerly.
“I almost felt like I was admitting to an affair. Then I said “I love what I’m learning and how I’m feeling. I know that this is impacting everything, but honey, I can’t go back.”
I was nearing the end now and I could feel the value of having shared this story with the women. I looked at Janice the facilitator, the calm, wise and funny woman who had held the space and I now understood why she hadn’t said anything. Somehow she knew that it had to come from one of us.
“Barry had his best poker face on; he was in his man cave even though he was right in front of me.
“Hon” I said. “I want to know if you want to do this with me? I mean we don’t have to do everything the same, we can explore our own things but I miss talking to you about stuff we have in common.”
“And ladies, there it was; clear as day; the cave opened up and a wash of warm relief brought Barry back to me.”
“He told me that he’d felt completely paralysed with fear. He’d seen me moving away and he didn’t understand what was happening. He couldn’t work out who I was becoming. He felt inept and incapable of being the ‘man’ – the protector, the provider, the strong one. He felt afraid and yet was unable to say all of that. He saw me come home all fired up and excited and then he saw my face as I saw him, in his words, ‘boring Barry the couch potato’. kAll he knew was that his beautiful wife, the woman he loved was disappearing and he had no idea what to do about it.“
Looking around the circle of women, I could see that my words were more than words. They were lessons, they were balm; they were inspiration, castigation, clarification and wisdom, all mixed together with with a dash of hope and a little dribble of deep relief.
“Baz and I are still together.” Smiles all around me, even the indubitable Liz couldn’t reject the tinge of happy-ever-after joy in her heart. “We’re happy, we’re moving along in a newly evolved way. We still fight and occasionally I still think I want more. Then I see the look in Baz’s eye and see how hard he’s trying, and not just trying, he’s really going for it and enjoying it; most of the time. We don’t do all the same things; obviously he couldn’t come with me this weekend. But he’ll be waiting for me at lunch as he’s come here to the men’s retreat and we come to some things together. I think he’s even helping out in the kitchen right now. We have things to talk about with each other again, a common language and shared interest.”
I tell you I got a lot more than my designated 90 seconds.
“Maybe you just have to give the men in your life a chance.”
Silence; but this time, no noise.