I am the sort of person who struggles to decide whether to have strawberry ice cream or caramel. I remember sitting cross-legged in the 399 Park Avenue office in Manhattan, bringing to life what I had always watched (and envied) in Hollywood movies. I was waiting for my final interview, which I hoped would transform my fate by sealing my job transfer from Karachi to New York. Two months later, the offer came through and after brief negotiations, I accepted.
My family had apprehensions with this bold decision - single girl, leaving for New York to pursue professional fortune. I felt guilty about abandoning my mother, especially in the absence of my father. But I was making this choice with my eyes wide open, a new beginning, or more truthfully, an escape. Pakistan can be a forcefully perplexing place for single, remotely ambitious women.
After thirteen months of visa challenges and apartment selection, I was two weeks from embarking on my dreamlike quest. I secured a visa for my mother too. Except, my then co-worker, now husband, chose that precise moment to propose, with no preparatory courtship. The ice cream decision seemed so much simpler. Finally, 48 hours before my flight to New York, I was in my office at 10pm, scripting an email to my soon-to-be-boss, apologizing for not coming.
I was spending the holidays with my sister in Oxford recently when I saw a poster made by my six-year-old niece, which read, 'There can be no love without friendship.' Not all marriages have passion-laden initiations. Some are continuations of longstanding relationships. Others, a more congenial arrangement. Either way, over the years, love transforms in shape and form, but not always in substance. It is normal to fall in love with the same person several times, during the course of a single marriage.
I think about this 'spark' that people talk about and wonder if it is a figment of our imaginations? Does any marriage sustain the 'spark' years later? If so, how does that literally translate? How does one, on a daily basis, stimulate, inspire and catalyze a marriage? This intangible effervescence is not guaranteed by flowers on the table or by expensive presents (although those help!). It is characterized by the ability to effortlessly and unconditionally communicate, about love, disappointment, frustration, indignation! From meaningless diaper ridden exchanges, to co-existing with diametrically opposed movie selections, to feigning a 'things couldn't be better' smile in public right after an argument, communication lies at the heart of every marriage, including listening.
A friend of mine told me about a website titled 'I do now I don't', where divorced individuals sell wedding jewelry. We found the name ingenious, underlined with the pathos of separation. People who struggle to sustain their marriage label marriage as the culprit. There aren't three of us in any marriage - there is no third entity called marriage. All that transpires is co-created. Since we create it, to some degree we also control it. Externalities exist, but we sometimes discount how empowered we are to make our marriages happy.
I would be inaccurate to say that I never look back at New York. My husband and I were part of a management team meeting with our regional CEO once. He was emphasizing the opportunities that the organization offered abroad and how we must aspire to reach, in fact, grab them. He pointed at me and said, 'this young lady was offered a job in New York, which she declined, whether for worthwhile reasons or not!' and the room bellowed with laughter. Yes, there are moments of wondering, 'what if'. But not even fleetingly has there been regret. I am acutely aware that my so-called sacrifice was not for my husband, but for unity in our relationship. It's not that I loved New York or my job any less; it's that I loved this relationship more!
There is no playbook to the ideal marriage, nor are marriages perfect. Those who claim so are often farthest. Ours too is 'work in progress' and we allow the pendulum to swing back and forth between us. It is 'learning on the job', except I'd hope I don't see it as a job! 'I do now I don't' is the quickest option when things go south. My boss once said, 'Fail, but not for lack of trying.' I think the same applies to marriage. In some cases, separation becomes inevitable but even then, much can be learnt from an Indian advertisement I saw, which translates as, 'Divorce happens between a husband and wife, not between parents.'
No one can guarantee a successful marriage even after celebrating a Silver Jubilee. What matters is to be invested - emotionally, physically, soulfully. The moment one stops playing the judge and jury game, communication becomes effortless. A friend of mine shared a Rumi inscribed painting she made and it hit home with unprecedented poignancy - 'Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.' Instead of hackneyed birthday wishes, I had that written on my husband's birthday cake this year.
Marriage will inevitably have its share of conflict, anguish, 'more of the same' dullness and slammed doors with one person sleeping on the couch. When I think of such times, I also remember that marriage means playing on the same team and recollect my favorite quote from Rebecca, 'If only there could be an invention that bottled up memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.' Then why forget the good times?
I think back to my niece's poster and it reminds me of words my father would repeatedly say when we were kids, 'It is better to lose an argument than to lose a friend.' Isn't that where it all began? As long as you can see more sky than birds, not all is lost. After all, it is these very spaces that we build in our togetherness that enable us to not only survive, but feel happy, just as the 'strings of a lute are alone, though they quiver with the same music.'