Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Time Zone Traveler's Wife

Every so often you read a book just at the right time—when the themes of the book are in laminar flow with what's happening in your life. I just had that experience with Audrey Niffenegger's bestselling novel, The Time Traveler's Wife. Though this was written six years ago, I only just got around to picking it up while visiting friends in the Bay Area two weeks ago. I've never read a book that does a better job of exploring the complexities of intimate relationship.

Aside from the clever concept of Henry as a Chrono-Displaced Person—a fictional emerging anomaly in genetic accidents, this is book is about intimacy. In particular, between the two protagonists, Henry and Clare. Henry is eight years older than Clare, and they have 15 years together, interrupted periodically by Henry's uncontrolled habit of responding to stress by transporting himself in time (for periods lasting from minutes to days), either forward or backwards in his life. Most commonly he visits people important in his life, and sometimes himself. In particular, he visits Clare, and this is part of the discontinuous fabric from which their relationship is woven.

Henry and Clare are deeply in love with each, and one of the most powerful aspects of the book is the exploration of anguish and fragmentation that can occur between partners, despite their being deeply in love. It is heart rending when Henry wants to stop trying to have a baby after the fourth miscarriage (for fear of losing Clare) and Clare wants to persist, because she desperately wants to continue what they have created into another generation. Being untied does necessarily mean being of one mind, and this is the real stuff of intimacy.

I resonated with this book so strongly because the last five months I've been actively looking at the meaning of intimacy
and partnership with my wife, Ma'ikwe. Like Henry & Clare, we've been grappling with when and how to talk about touchy subjects, with what it mans to be fully partnered, with how to use awkward moments as a springboard into deeper water (rather than as a signal to get out of the pool), and with how to reconnect after repeated temporal separation (while I don't leave the present in the same spectacular way that Henry does—for one thing, I keep my clothes on; for another, I usually take Amtrak—I nonetheless am on the road half the time and am often in a different time zone than my wife). On top of that, Ma'ikwe lives three miles away from me—so even when we're in the same zip code, we often have occasion to recalibrate our electrons to get them into a synchronous orbit.

I've never been closer to another human being, and I am both grateful and in awe that Ma'ikwe feels the same way I do. This is the miracle of love. Somehow we've stumbled onto this same rare thing that Niffenegger has described for Henry & Clare. And it is all the more precious in that it's not a fairy tale. It is the culmination of daring to be vulnerable, celebrating each other's successes, stubbing our toes, saying the hard thing, holding each other during the scary parts, licking each other's tears, hanging in there, making love to exhaustion, and laughing until we can hardly breathe.

Like Henry & Clare, I am older than my wife, and will likely die sooner. My father died at 72. If my hourglass runs out of sand at the same time his did, Ma'ikwe and I will have had 16 years together—just one more than Henry & Clare had. Ma'ikwe will then be a widow at 52, with much life still ahead of her.

Emily, who lives with me at Sandhill, told me that The Time Traveler's Wife was one of her all-time favorite books and she cried a lot while reading it. While I totally get how Niffenegger touches readers in the heart, I've had a different reaction. Instead of grieving that Henry & Clare only had 15 years together, I am filled with joy that they used those 15 years so fully. What a gift to be reminded that time is always limited, and it's never a good idea to put off what's important until later. One of the secrets to a happy and fulfilled life is to insist on living the life you mean to live right now. Don't wait for the movie, or worse, your obituary to see how it all comes out.

Thank you, Audrey. Thank you, Henry. And thank you, Ma'ikwe.

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