May 26, 2014 § 22 Comments


If I were out at sea, I’d want to know someone was waiting for me, wouldn’t you? – from “Seating Arrangements” by Maggie Shipstead

When I first read The Odyssey, in ninth grade, I thought that Penelope was a bit of a drag with her weeping and begging to be put out of her misery. I smugly thought I knew what she was doing, spending her nights unraveling the shroud she had been weaving all day in order to keep her suitors at bay. There didn’t seem to be anything more to it. The only reason I even remember the class at all is because it was where I first learned about symbolism, which felt a bit like opening a secret door.

Now, I see Penelope’s sabotaged weaving as something much different. I see the unraveling as something that happens when a person physically leaves a marriage, no matter how much love or faith remains. Until Scott left for Bahrain, I hadn’t realized how much a marriage depends on both threads, woven together in words and shared experiences and in presence. I had taken for granted the way Scott and I can look at each other and smile (or grimace) at something Oliver or Gus says, however innocuous, because it conjures up a shared, but private history. Frankly, I am surprised by this, by how I have allowed myself to become so entwined in another person’s life. For 32 years I was single, and mostly unattached. Naively, I had thought I could be in a marriage but keep my solitude and independence, that I could create a life with someone but not miss them too much if they went away.

Scott works long hours normally, and during April and May, he was gone before sunrise and often came home after dark. While I knew the weekends would be difficult, I didn’t think this deployment would make much of a change to my weeks. I had thought I was stronger than I am and I am completely caught off guard by how much I miss Scott, how much I depend on his steadiness, his sense of humor, and the ways he allows me to completely fall apart.

Now, he is living in a hotel room in Manama (it might be months before an apartment can be obtained because of security clearances) and he can Facetime with us in a computer lounge on base. He calls in the mornings or in the afternoons here, which in Bahrain, is after 10 pm. He sends beautiful emails detailing the delicious shawarma dishes he eats, the fresh fruit juices on the menu instead of cocktails, the rug shops that are open until late at night. “When you visit,” he says, “We can pick one out.” I think of those thick and colorful tapestries, and I feel myself coming undone.

Scott told me that the international school where we would have sent the boys is on the edge of a Shia village, or a black zone, forbidden to Americans because of sectarian violence. He told me about the big fence around the school and the graffiti on the walls, the armed guards who ride on the school buses. On one of his first nights there, the street with American restaurants was closed because protesters were burning tires. Scott also sent beautiful photos of the Manama skyline sparkling at night, of the tan and empty desert, and the twin spires of the Grand Mosque, which my mother accurately pointed out, “look so much more interesting and exotic when they are in your own email box instead of in a magazine.” When I talk to him, I can almost feel the heat he describes or smell the bahji puri, but mostly, I just feel so far away.

My neighbor’s husband is in Guantanamo Bay for nine months, and the other day, while she was walking her dog, she warned me the weekends are the worst, and this holiday weekend proved her right. Oliver has been extremely difficult lately, both needy and angry, and I am trying to be understanding while also holding the line that must be held for him. Of course, I am flooded with doubt over every decision. Oliver loves boundaries even as he rails against them, making faces at me, talking back, telling me he doesn’t care that he has lost his screen time. In a single day, I am both the meanest mom on the planet and the best mom in the world.

Today, we drove 90 minutes to Wilmington, mostly because I couldn’t stand the sight of one more father firing up a grill and because I was feeling angry and needy myself. We went to a historical, working plantation and then to a children’s museum. “I know you’re having a hard time,” I told Oliver, after I made him sit down because he wouldn’t leave his brother alone. He looked at me with his father’s eyes and said, “It feels like a piece of my heart fell down into my stomach.”

Jason Crandell, the yoga teacher, recently posted this on Facebook: “Your edge is the threshold in a pose—or moment in seated meditation—where physical, mental, and emotional resistance comes rushing to the foreground. Reaching your edge is like applying an enzyme that ignites a reaction and magnifies your physical, mental and emotional patterns.”

This leaving has revealed a jagged edge I didn’t even know was there. I didn’t realize my husband’s journey across an ocean would dredge up all the other times I had been left, and even worse, the magnification of all the ways I abandon myself. I hadn’t known this fact about myself, which is that my constant doing might become my own undoing, that I don’t really know how to stop, how to be still, how to let go. I know how to fill a space with yoga or reading or meditation or watching TV, but this is wildly different from doing nothing or becoming empty.

For the first few nights Scott was gone, I didn’t really sleep. As another dawn began to leak through the night, I felt as though vines were wrapping themselves tighter and tighter around my chest. Already, I was thinking of cleaning the house, going on another cleanse, doing a 40-day meditation sadhana. I know how to tighten and how to restrict. I know how to take away and how to cleave at the messiness until I am clean and sharp. But as I lay there, listening to the buzzing satin of the dawn, it became clear that while I know how to fall apart, I have no idea how to unravel.

Images have been in my mind and heart lately: kelp fronds waving in cold oceans, wind chimes untwisting in the wind, the line from the Tao te Ching that reminds me to have faith in the way things are. I don’t yet have enough faith to believe that everything happens for a reason. There is too much darkness in the world for me to believe in both this and a benevolent god. But I have a sense that in my own good life, I am getting lessons I need to learn. Today, in the plantation, we peered into a weaving studio with a spinning wheel and a loom. Outside, sheep grazed and inside the wool was carded. Fabric was woven together and dyed and sewn into something that can be worn. And yet, I was focused on the undoing of it all, the unweaving, and the unraveling, and what  it might feel like, when I too learn how to twist and untwist in the wind.




§ 22 Responses to Unraveling

  • Pamela, I’m going to read this again for the lovely language. I don’t need to read it again, though, to understand what you are saying. Having a sense that we are learning what we need to learn is perhaps the very best thing we can have at these times. Unsettling, unraveling, twisting free yet somehow still caught up — not such an easy process. Thinking of you and the boys.

  • Alana says:

    This is deeply moving Pamela. Your honesty and the way you see – really SEE – your life blows me away. The way you put words together is stunning. Surrounding you in love as you live this unraveling.

  • I’ve been having the image of kelp as well lately, things moving below the level of consciousness… just wanting to say that I hear you and hope that the unraveling will weave itself into blessings for you and yours across the time-zones and the waters.

  • You are such an amazing writer, woman and mom. Reading this was such a gift to me this morning. I slowed down and really felt where you are on this journey that is so different from my own. Thank you for bringing us in to your world for just a moment. And keep writing. That of course, I believe, is such complete unraveling…

  • Oh, Pam…. I am so sorry about the jagged edge, but also so entirely sure that you are strong and will make it through this particular darkness. I wish I lived nearer by. xoxoxo

  • Katrina Kenison says:

    Pamela, I marvel that in the very midst of all these feelings — AND single parenting — you were able to sit still, and summon these words, and craft this essay, both an exquisitely moving tribute to your marriage and an honest exploration of how it feels to be so alone. Unraveling is a beautiful image for this time. I believe that there will be some re-weaving, too, and the results will be strong and durable and useful. And beautiful, like you.

  • Dani says:

    Pamela, once again you have me returning to past life and feeling it again. The journey we take as families moving about for our loved ones in the Military, is an unraveling experience, only understood by those who have walked the same path. I remember the transitions, both leaving and returning, as a shift that felt overwhelming at times. Today, after 24 years in the Service, my husband and I still feel the connection. I’m sharing this with my sons, now in their late 20’s, to remind them of the strength, loss, courage and most importantly growth and inner confidence we all acquired during hard times. They would tell you, they feel they had an exceptional childhood and that it made us closer as a family and each of them stronger as an individual. Down the road, looking back, you will realize that although the unraveling felt unnecessary at the time, but you are grateful for the experience that taught you not to take anything for granted. Keep walking on your hands.

  • What a beautiful and poignant post. I am kind of in awe at your ability to have such a keen and intuitive sense of your self during such a trying time. To know how to fall apart but not know how to unravel is quite a deep well to explore.

    • Pamela says:

      Thank you Dana. I love that this comes across as being “intuitive.” Ha! I don’t feel that way at all. But, I am always amazed at how much we learn when we are challenged.

  • Laura Plumb says:

    You are amazing, Pamela – saying in such a personal way things we all feel and experience and consider. With the unraveling emerges a clear voice. I look forward to hearing this ringing of truth from you again and again.

  • Pamela, what a beautiful writer you are — and, even though I’ve never met you, I know you are an equally beautiful person. I’ve been thinking about you lately, wondering how you’re faring. In fact, I almost wrote you an email just hours before this post went up. This line, particularly, strikes me: “While I know how to fall apart, I have no idea how to unravel.” BOY do I relate. And I, too, share your impulse to “do” when what I really need is to “be.” Much love to you.

    • Pamela says:

      Elizabeth, thank you so much. I know you can relate. I thought of you all the time when we had visitors … call me or email me ANYTIME you need to unravel:)

  • i suppose there is unlimited potential in the unraveling, yes? i can’t ‘not’ think of yarn…thread, connecting knots. . . it seems so tied to its initial purpose, and yet utterly unknown as it piles… i’m sorry that you are having heart hurt, in missing.

  • Sweet Pamela, what a beautiful essay you’ve crafted – or, I suppose, woven, to borrow your perfect metaphor. What you’re experiencing is completely foreign to me, but you give me a glimpse inside it with your words here and I am left both sad and blown away by your ability to make sense of what is happening and how you will unravel and then weave again. Sending you much love and every supportive wish I can find. xoxo

    • Pamela says:

      Thank you Kristen for always being so supportive! I can feel it like a hug!

      Don’t be too sad:) We are having fun too. It’s amazing what changes day to day …

  • Beautiful writing… and as always, thank you for sharing.

  • Kathy says:

    Joseph Campbell tells us that the big question in our lives is whether or not we are going to be able to say a hearty yes to our adventures. The hero’s journey is an archetype I come back to again and again because it is the framework of our lives. Our “call to adventure” is always difficult; our privilege is to say yes. There will be helpers…look for them and embrace what they have to offer. My heart goes out to you as you begin this new journey; though it will have obstacles, I pray it will also have exciting outer and inner adventures.

  • Lisa Ahn says:

    A beautiful post, filled with so many truths. I am especially tuned into this one these days:”In a single day, I am both the meanest mom on the planet and the best mom in the world.” Yup!

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