8 Principles for a Strong Marriage: What I Learned on the Death Strip

Sometime in my late twenties, in the first years of our now 30-year marriage, and somewhere on a lethal length of highway locals call the Levan Death Strip, I learned everything I need to know about marriage. The learning came in a dream. In it I’ve identified eight principles everyone can use for a better union.

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The Dream

My husband Randall and I are driving through central Utah’s high mountain desert along an endless, arid highway known as the Levan Death Strip. “Death”,  partly because there’s nothing on the landscape but tumbleweed and dust devils, but mostly because it’s one of the deadliest stretches of road in the state. Semi-trailers and careening motorcycles,  rusted out 1973 Chevy Impalas, and cattle trucks meet head on at high speeds here, exploding the desert silence with the hellish sound of detonating metal and glass.

As I was saying, Randall is driving. I’m sitting shotgun, my eyes on the map. Straight ahead is this hypnotizing strip stretched taut as if it were a towing rope attached to the hood ornament on our car and at the other end to the setting sun, which shimmers on a ridge patiently drumming its fingered rays across the horizon.

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Suddenly, the sky goes dark. In the space of one breath, daylight is swallowed up in a black tide that thickens, obscuring everything round us, three-hundred-sixty-degrees of palpable heavy.

Barely ahead I make out the blinking orange of some tail lights. There had been cars far, far ahead of us a few minutes ago and now they appear closer, having slowed to a crawl. Everything inches, struggles, lurches. Then stops.

We stop too, on the left side of the road. No discussion, no way to move ahead, not only because we can’t see, but because this heavy has body. Some sort of gelatinous, clinging, viscous weight that is cold and lifeless touches my skin when I step out of the car and creep, hand-over-hand along the car’s right side, palming the hood, then patting my way to the driver’s door out of which Randall emerges.

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We say nothing even though I open my mouth and try to push noise up from my throat. The sound waves don’t travel through this new quality of air, so no use calling out. No use, even, trying to whisper to Randall, at whose left side I now stand, right arm linked with his left, pushed up against him, drawing warmth and reassurance.

By the cars parked up the road there’s a faint outline of people. They’re shuffling in this serious, deadly quiet.  Now the Heavy coagulates and I can make out neither people nor the tail lights that had just been visible in front of us. Randall and I stand in silence, fused that way, totally, existentially alone.

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With no way to judge distance but by the length of our stride, no way to converse, and no way to get our bearings, we simply hold on to each other. I can feel the swelling and contracting of his breathing. We fall in sync.

At the driver’s side of the car, on the left edge of the highway, we begin moving, inching. Walking is a must; something tells us standing still will mean death. So we cling to one another––I on Randall’s left, toeing the edge of the road so we don’t slide off into the shoulder; Randall to my right, initiating every step forward into the darkness.

It’s here, engulfed in heavy murk, that we lean onto each other, pressing. There is a symbiotic, synergistic friction that generates heat and not only keeps us on track and moving forward, but holds us up.

Many dream-time minutes into creeping forward and I turn, straining to see my husband’s face just inches from mine. But I can only make out that he’s wearing a suit. And there are sparks scattered on that suit. Little fine embers seem to be falling onto (or is it emerging from? I can’t tell which), the fabric. Afraid they’ll make his suit combust, I start swatting and then slapping these sparks.

Strangely, the sparks give just enough light to help us push ahead, which I sense we do long after my actual dream ends.

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1. Road

The journey you’ve envisioned on the outset of your marriage as a tidy, well-lit straight line to infinity? Not. Life is neither tidy nor straight, nor is it necessarily well-lit. See up there, a couple of hundred meters ahead where the mirage makes the road look swimmy? That’s where the beeline disappears, giving way –– again and again –– to the reality of the changeable and unexpected.

Know now that this will happen and you won’t self destruct when life doesn’t go to plan.

2. Vehicle

Start together. Stay in together. Sure, we can also chose to have our individual cars where we’re free to listen to our own playlists, eat our stinky beef jerky, and go at our speed. We can select our solo routes and stop at our preferred points of interest at will. How convenient is that? Saves us from compromising our plans and preferences with another person’s, right?

But the whole point is to travel as a team, which means compromise over convenience, sitting elbow-to-elbow, someone driving , someone reading the map, beef jerky that side, dried sea kelp my side. It’s of little consequence, by the way, who’s driving, who’s navigating; both functions are equally necessary and of course interchangeable, because in my dream, we are both licensed, alert, and invested in the trip, our individual contributions therefore essential for the voyage.

Know now that your marriage is the vehicle that does not just get you to a destination, but will test your capacity to place compromise and commitment over convenience, sharing responsibilities and whatever arises on the route.

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3. Map

You’ve noticed: maps help. (And GPS is better.) But only when you can see a road. What when you can’t? That’s where the strength of your partnership kicks in and you must gingerly feel your way together, into the future.

As a newlywed couple we found marriage mentors––living guidebooks, maps––folks ahead of us in life who modeled how it could all be done well. But roads change, and so travel plans. We, for instance, started out determined to be tandem university professors. Some years into marriage, however, both of us decided not to do our PhDs. Instead, we took a different route, or better, several end-to-end alternate routes.

Know now that maps must be pliable plots, not strict strategies.

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4. Darkness

Midway along our route tragedy hit and the bright desert daylight was instantly choked with the ultimate heavy. In one stroke of fate, and in the middle of major international move when our stability was already compromised, we lost our eldest child, then 18, to a gruesome water accident.

It’s then we learned that darkness had texture, heft. At any moment the Heavy can hit and swallow up our sunny route. Loss of all sorts, not just the dramatic blow we have known, can change virtually everything in an instant. Struggles with illness both physical and mental, addictions, a partner’s or child’s illicit behavior, unemployment, and larger societal events (war, economic downturn, natural disaster, etc.) or a combination of any of the above, might be our dark tide.

Know now that darkness not only might happen, but it will. When it hits, your marriage can remain intact and even grow stronger, becoming the very thing that helps you individually and as a family to survive.

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5. Soft Shoulders

You know those signs that warn motorists of soft shoulders off the sides of the road? In Tanzania I once witnessed what happens when they are ignored. A public bus over-crammed with passengers, their goats and chickens and baskets of market goods dangling out the windows, tried to overtake a stalled vehicle by driving onto the soft shoulder. The moment the bus’s two left wheels were off the asphalt and on the soil, the bus began sinking, then teetered, then toppled over on its side. Screaming, crushed adults and children, yowling and fluttering livestock were the soundtrack I can never erase from my memory.

Know now that soft shoulders are everywhere and anyone can slip more easily than you might imagine. And when darkness sweeps in and disorients you threatening to drive you off your route or from each other, it is especially important to toe that edge, reminding yourself to push inward toward your partner and away from the soft shoulder.

6. Synergistic Support

Although my strong inclination toward rule keeping meant I sensed limits well with my left foot, I was afraid to move forward into the darkness. I kept pulling backward. Behind felt safer than ahead, and I recoiled from whatever was out there in that pitch black mass. In real life, too, part of me wants to retreat from the unknown because I lack confidence in my ability to conquer difficult and intimidating situations. Randall, on the other hand, doesn’t obsess over worst case scenarios and forges forward.

Know now that progression in marriage requires both staying out of dangerous soft shoulders and pressing forward into the unknown. When you and your partner are pressing inward, toward each other, the isometric pressure not only propels you forward but actually gives you energy and helps you to stay standing.

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7. Sparks

When I first interpreted this dream, I saw those sparks on Randall’s suit as trouble coming from the outside. My job was to beat that trouble down. Part of a strong partnership is being alert and sensitive to our mate’s vulnerabilities and doing what we can to keep our partner safe. Of course my message is not to feel excessively guilty when a beloved plays with fire, so to speak, because of course we’re all responsible for our own decisions and behaviors. But I’ve observed the strongest couples try vigilantly to protect one another from trouble.

Loving each other means attending to each other, helping keep one another safe and well. We can do so by staying extremely close and watching for signs that something is smoldering. Does your wife struggle with anxiety? Does your husband have addictive tendencies? Does she fly easily into a rage? Does he slump regularly into a depression? Is she on the professional road a lot where she could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Does he work a lot on the Internet where he could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Then you do everything you can to strengthen them for those situations where they might fall into trouble.

Know now that everyone has weaknesses and everyone is susceptible to temptations or attacks on their virtue and morals. Know now that central to loving our spouse is not only having their specific sparks at heart, but to help beat them back before they take flame.

8. Or … Sparks

And here is the most important portion of the dream. Because at 20+ years into marriage I found that my former interpretation of it, which you just read, and therefore my paradigm for marriage, had changed. Where I’d previously seen myself as the safe-keeper, the border patrol, the ever ready spark-slapper,  now I saw those sparks differently.

What if those sparks I’d been slapping at weren’t signs of danger? What if they were something else? What if those sparks –- what I’d thought were temptations, fiery darts –– weren’t flying at my partner but those sparks are actually emerging from him? What if they weren’t bad fire but good, even flecks of hot gold? Not trouble but promise? Not hints of weakness but signs of power? I thought, “What if those sparks are searing heat and power literally bursting out of Randall, and I, in my hyper-attentiveness and self-righteousness am beating them down, beating him down, extinguishing a light, extinguishing him?”

What then?

There are so many ways we can extinguish the light in others. We think we are being care givers and life coaches, but in over-critiquing, in hyper-patroling, we can become nit-pickers,  fault-finders, nay-sayers. We can also hold each other back in our jealousy and insecurity when we permit our own fears, self doubts, and insecurities (we all have them) to breed that nervous reflex that lashes out –– slap! –– disallowing others to simply be who they are, to shine, even brilliantly.

We assuage things by saying we’re just being honest, when we actually end up beating that person back, or beating her up. We slap out another’s light by refusing to forgive, holding a grudge, keeping score, playing tit-for-tat. We can engage in power plays, we can belittle, we can even discredit our own beloveds in slanderous gossip. We might play politics, demanding equality at every turn, not interdependency as an overarching guide, saying, in essence, “Well, if I can’t have those sparks, then neither can you!”

When this new marriage paradigm came to me, I have to tell you: I wept. How many years had I focused on potential faults in my husband and not on the promising strengths? How many opportunities had I missed to praise him, to celebrate in his light, to see his radiance increase?

Know now that even in purely selfish terms, you are the prime beneficiary when your partner glows. Indeed, we all benefit when anyone glows!  You’ll remember: those sparks on Randall’s suit gave us both just enough illumination to light our way through a world of complete darkness.

When we make it through this heavy passage together––and I trust we all will–– then it will certainly be by virtue of all this unsmothered, heat-generating, God-given mutual incandescence.

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Global Mom (and Dad) Hit Harvard

Pardon this interruption for a quick public service announcement.

What: Melissa (Global Mom, author, public speaker) and Randall (Global Dad, international global executive, best all around guy) address the topic:

GLOBALLY MOBILE CAREERS AND FAMILIES: HOW TO THRIVE

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Where: Harvard Business School, (Aldrich 107), Boston, MA.

When:  Wednesday, April 27th, beginning at 8 pm … and lasting until they drag us away

What else? Question and Answer session

What kinds of questions?

  1. Does going on an international assignment help advance or progress your career faster? Or is “out of sight, out of mind” the rule at corporate headquarters?
  2. How did your four children respond to moving not only frequently, but far and always into foreign languages/cultures?
  3. Melissa, what did it feel like to be solo parenting four children in foreign cultures while your husband traveled internationally or even lived/worked in another country for many months on end?
  4. Randall,what was the hardest part about being separated from your wife and children, and what did you do wen you returned to help both the family and yourself rediscover balance?
  5. What specific things did you do as a family to hold together after the tragic death of  your eldest son in the middle of an international move and while living a foreign  country?
  6. What lessons have you learned from other cultures about balancing careers, marriage, and parenting?
  7. What warnings (or enticements) would you offer young professionals considering globally mobile careers?

And whatever else YOU want to ask. We’ve never met a question we didn’t like.

 

Admission is free. We hope to see you and your friends there!

 

 

 

2015 Review: Featuring an Italian Wedding, a British Mission, a Swiss Ceremony, a German Flood, an American Visa, a Syrian Exodus, and How They Intersect

Since 2007, the year that forever split my life into Before and After, it’s been impossible for me to write a year-end summary. Here we are again, March, and I realize I’ve still not lined up year 2015 and given an accounting.

That’s partially because I fear provincialism. I fear losing sight, even for a moment, of the global context in which my private story plays out. I’ve become aware this year more than any other in my life of how tidy, how survivable, even how irrelevant my personal dramas are in light of the immense complexities rolling out across our global panorama, across huge swaths of humanity. And so  anything I say about my life, I feel, has to be said with the big backdrop in mind.

But here, a quick and dirty recap of 2015. Consider it a preface to my next book.

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Il Matrimonio (The Wedding)

In this post I announced that our Claire got engaged to  be married to her amore, Alessandro. Their courtship had been unconventional; their engagement and wedding followed suit.

After a year of long-distance yearning and reams of letters in Italian while she was finishing her Uni studies in the US and he was finishing his full time service as a missionary for our church in southern Italy, the two were married in a big Italian farm wedding outside of Pavia, Italy. True to the Global Mom story line, it was a multicultural reunion around sumptuous tables (the food!!), with languages flying in as many directions as were friends, who came in from France, the US, all over Italy, and Singapore. I’m still verklempt as I reflect on everyone’s thereness, the way we actually pulled off an otherwise logistically impossible event.

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Swiss Zeremonie

Following the civil wedding, we trundled to Switzerland to join closest friends in a small, intimate ceremony referred to in our religion as  a temple sealing. In contrast to the party in Italy, this rite was simple, quiet, other-worldly. The couple dressed in head-to-toe white for the brief ceremony attended only by closest Italian friends of our faith, and were given profound promises regarding their future together, which we believe extends beyond death.11700901_10153505302157400_7725458925579834161_o

A horse farm reception followed later in Heber Valley, Utah, and we left immediately for a family honeymoon through southern Utah to the southern California coast.

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British Mission

Missing from all these festivities was Parker, of course. That absence doesn’t get easier, but we’re growing in gratitude and perspective and capacity to love life though broken and limping. Our Dalton, too, was far away, because in August of 2015, upon our arrival in Frankfurt, he’d turned right around to fly to England to launch his 2-year full time mission for our church in South London. He’s now been serving for over 19 months.

He’s serving now in an area known as Little Nigeria, working on that accent. He’s never been happier and bemoans that the end is in sight, wishing he could extend his service by a month or two, but is scheduled to enter Uni only shortly after relinquishing his badge.

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German Flood

Underneath (literally) the marriage, the ceremony, the mission,  was The Flood. For nearly nine months, our home was an oceanscape and construction site after an external water distribution system went amok during our absence and…We returned to a bayou that sloshed over our shoes. The entire ground floor of the home had to be decimated, and after jackhammers and turbo ventilators, it became a bombed-out concrete carcass.

Then it flooded again. And again. Workers found leaks inside walls…More than a few times, I hid in my car during the day to escape the deafening noise, and otherwise played hostess to a total of 80+ construction and insurance folks tramping through my door. Month after month. After month.

Yes, we survived it. Just fine. And we were happy that everything was completed the week the newlyweds arrived to live with us for a year. They’re doing this to save money while taking college/grad school entrance exams, working multiple jobs, and applying through the Frankfurt consulate for a US Green Card for Alessandro.

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American Visa

A major part of 2015 and now the prime focus of 2016 has been this US Visa for our Alessandro. For those of you out there who’ve ever navigated the bureaucracy, you have my reverence and respect. I hear you groaning and see you holding your shaking head in your hands right now. Thanks for commiserating.

Now try jumping those same multiple hoops in two foreign languages. Every interview (and form and phone call and interview and returned form and repeated phone call and follow-up interview) has had to be translated from English and Italian to German  and back in reverse. In all of this, Claire and Alessandro have been  good-natured  and unflappable. They’re learning about patience, work, consistency, and faith.

As I type this, they are sitting in Frankfurt’s US consulate in their final, all-determining, face-to-face interview. Claire flies to the US next week for her final face-to-face law school interview, and Alessandro is finishing his college entrance essays for admission to a US Uni in the fall.

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Syrian Exodus

And all this – floods, reconstruction, Visas, marriages, missions, work, everything – is tempered by the bigger context in which we live. Because while we’ve been marrying and missioning, while we’ve been bailing water and applying for universities, while we’ve been fighting for Visas and begging for work, Syria (and surrounding populations) have been under siege.  In desperation, hundreds of thousands of the distressed and traumatized have spilled into Europe, bringing in their wake a humanitarian nightmare unknown in modern history.

Here’s where our quaint family summary connects to the Big Picture. If 2015 began with a house flood, it ended with a world flood. The inconvenience of a  house under jackhammer reconstruction is practically charming compared with the real bombs obliterating Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. Multicultural marriages and missions have their challenges, but are infused with hope and celebration because we have freedom, assets, peace, abundance, and every possible advantage life can offer.

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While helping Ale and Claire with their German residency, I’ve been sitting in government hallways, elbow to elbow with threadbare and disoriented refugees fresh from their harrowing journey, seeking asylum. While editing my daughter’s and son-in-law’s essays for US universities, I’ve also been sitting  in Frankfurt’s University for Applied Sciences, helping my Iranian and Afghani refugee friends apply for courses in mechanical engineering and intensive German language instruction.

These friends figure among the dozens with whom I’ve been working in local refugee camps since the floodgates broke in the early fall of 2015, and Germany welcomed an unprecedented 1 mill+ refugees (mostly Syrian, but also Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghani) across its borders.

The statistics and complexity are beyond staggering. The human stories are heart- rending and breathtaking. Because this is such a proximate and personal reality for me, you should expect to see more of my posts (and all my other social media platforms) weighted with these stories.

As I see it, 2015 and 2016 is where not just my tidy little family tale, but world history splits: Before and After.  The saga will not be the type we can share in a Year End Summary. It is destined to color the future of humanity, everywhere. And it might be where Global Mom and On Loss and Living Onward intersect, inviting both the next book of my career and a focused direction for the remaining chapters of my life.

 

Poem: Sailing to Manti

Manti LDS Temple, SAnpete County, UT. Photo archives David Dalton ©

          Manti LDS Temple, Sanpete County, UT.                              Archives David Dalton ©

 

SAILING TO MANTI

by Melissa Dalton-Bradford

(To my husband, on the anniversary of our
 December marriage in the Manti temple)

 

We sail the vein:

Perforated, gray southbound highway

Down

From dawn’s perch

We approach,

Splaying this languid stage of sagebrush

In two

Vast contours, undulating,

Old rocky chronology seeping left to right,

Largo to sostenuto . . .

Bending beyond peripheral vision

Curling,

wrapping,

enfolding

Heaven,

Her mist-mottled crepe curtain

Whispers,

Torn,

As ragged hem reveals enough:

Mountains, their triple depth in

Slate then ash then dust

Hang an ageless opaque canvas.

Drawn, we aim.

 

Trusting, we offer

Hands stretched through a veil.

 

We sail.

 

==

 

 

A year after I composed the above poem, tragedy struck our family and I wrote a companion piece, Thistle Valley, describing a different drive southward to Manti. You can read that poem in this post.

 

Global Family: The Next Generation

Let’s go to Italy. Sicily, to be specific. It is late summer 2013, our daughter Claire is wearing a name tag that identifies her as a full time missionary or sorella (sister) Bradford, and she’s just been transferred from Rome, the northern south, to Palermo, southern south.

Palermo at night

Palermo at night

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As an earnest sorella, she’s been asked to serve as something known as a Sister Training Leader (she counsels and coaches other sorelle in her mission), and is focused on introducing her brand new sister companion who’s just arrived from the States to Sicily. Lots to learn, loads of responsibility, house to set up, people to get to know, networks to build, a local dialect to decipher, and a muggy, sweltering summer that makes all these layers of emotional weight even stickier and heavier than the sodden shirts that cling to the sorelles’ backs as they tromp Sicilian cobblestones.

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To get her bearings, La Sorella meets the anziani, or male missionaries, at Palermo’s Stazione Centrale. Among these young men is her “district leader.” (Missionaries always serve in companionships. Companionships are grouped geographically into districts. Districts are grouped in zones. And zones are overseen by a volunteer mission president and his wife, who sit in Rome.) This district leader is an Italian –The Italian — and maintains an appropriate professional distance with La Sorella and her companion. His voice, warm and round as a viola, makes him seem much older than his 22 years.  His accent is from the north. He extends his hand to shake hers, which he does just once and without the slightest frill of ceremony:

“Sei Sorella Bradford?”

“Si.”

And the missionaries go to work.

In Monreale, outside Palermo, at at pranzo that was as long and love-filled as this table

In Monreale, outside Palermo, at at pranzo as long and love-filled as this table


Weeks pass.

For 6 months, The Italian remains, as does La Sorella, in Palermo — teaching, leading, (he becomes a zone leader, she continues as a sister training leader),  serving, organizing, befriending, baptizing, watching one another in some unpleasant and soul-revealing circumstances, observing the other making sacrifices, making peace, and making the occasional liter of The Italian’s specialty (and La Sorella’s favorite food), homemade pesto. Mutual respect grows to mutual confidence, which grows over time into a strong friendship.

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Then Rome happens. The Italian is transferred to The Eternal City the same day La Sorella is to have her final interview with her mission president before flying home the next morning to her family in Switzerland. On that same evening before her return to civilian life, The Italian slips her a letter (more like a hand-written novella) which she’s to open only after she reaches home.

As you’ve already figured out, a protracted year of weekly novellas stacks up: Italy –>Geneva, Geneva –> Italy. Italy–>Utah, Utah –> Italy. Italy–>Frankfurt, Frankfurt–>Italy. Italy–>Utah … over and over again, week in and week out. While The Italian and La Sorella keep up the intense correspondence, there are also our road trips to Milan to visit The Italian’s Famiglia south of Milan…

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Several courses at their traditional family table in Lombardy

Trips the Famiglia makes to Geneva to visit La Sorella’s Family…

The Famiglia's first fondue, Gruyères, Switzerland

The Famiglia’s first fondue, Gruyères, Switzerland


And enough Skype calls between Sorella and Famiglia, Family and Famiglia, to assure us we all have a future as friends.

Meeting The Italian for the first time, Piazza del Popolo, Rome, Easter, 2014

Meeting The Italian for the first time, Rome, Easter, 2014

 

The Italian and his missionary companions and a friend of the church on their one free day in the week, pedal carting through Rome's Borghese Gardens

The Italian, his missionary companions, and a friend of the church on their one free day in the week, pedal carting through Rome’s Borghese Gardens

And just in time.

Because this week, 18 months since La Sorella and The Italian first met as missionaries, he has come home. La Sorella has made special arrangements to leave her last (intense) semester of university studies for 10 days to be in Italy awaiting him. Not at the Milan’s Stazione Centrale like Palermo’s Stazione where this story began.  But at his home in a Lombardian village south of Milan. After being officially released from his missionary title, The Italian — now Alessandro — comes through his front door. The Sorella — now Claire –is waiting there, practically hyperventilating. He leaves his suitcases at the door. He falls to a knee. “Claire?…”

She manages to release a single word up through that sweet, warm pooling of anticipation and affection.

“Si. . .!”

Now the love birds go to work.

Alessandro and Claire

Alessandro and Claire, yesterday.