Friday, July 22, 2011

Grace in the Heat of the Moment

I just finished reading Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic. (I had read Bridge of Sighs earlier this year and loved it.) While not a major work, it's a sensitive and humorous exploration of one man's journey to understand and distance himself from the influence of his quirky, dysfunctional parents. In the end—at his daughter's wedding, no less—he comes to accept that influence, and to recognize the love that was buried deep within the snobbery and sarcasm, as a necessary step in his metamorphosis to becoming a lovable person himself. It's a story of middle age discovery.

As the protagonist was forever stopping to analyze the deeper meanings of conversations (whether they were any or not), this past week I was getting into the habit myself. In the book, Russo describes how an otherwise pleasant and connected moment between the main character and his wife disintegrates into a cascading sequence of brittle missteps that by the end of a single day has blossomed into the start of a separation that leads to months of misery and second guessing.

How do such rivulets of misunderstanding and meanness so quickly erode relationship until there exists an unbridgeable chasm between people? Today I want to write about a moment of such caliber that had great potential for spiraling out of control but didn't.

It happened this morning as Ma'ikwe and I were gearing up for a day of surface bonding the walls of her cistern. This was an important accomplishment in that it makes the cistern watertight and strong enough to be safely backfilled. We had been working hard to reach this step as quickly as possible, lest a rain cause a cave-in that necessitated a third excavation of the hole.

It was the fourth day in a row we'd been working on this project and the seventh day in the last nine. Temperatures haves consistently been in the 90s, reaching triple digits the day before. The crew had been working with heavy materials in the hot sun every day and we were all looking forward to wrapping up this phase of the construction. On top of the accumulated exhaustion of the labor itself, no one had been sleeping all that well in the blistering July heat, further diminishing our reserves of grace.

In addition to these general stressers, Ma'ikwe had just broken a week-long fast the day before and had to be careful about what energetic claims she accepted in her weakened condition. All of which is to say that there were a number of reasons to suspect that "simple" informational exchanges this morning might not be that simple.

I was over at Ma'ikwe's around 7:30 am, after having walked the three miles from Sandhill, and our first order of business was figuring out how to consistently measure the right proportions of ingredients for 50-lb batches of the surface bonding mix. There are eight ingredients:
portland cement
fine sand
hydrated lime
3/4-inch glass fibers
calcium chloride
calcium stearate
latex admix

Three of the ingredients are relatively light and exotic (calcium stearate, calcium chloride, and the glass fibers). It was important that they be added in the proper amounts and I had neglected to review how we were going to do this before yesterday morning. So we needed to sort this out in short order.

Unfortunately, Ma'ikwe doesn't have a reliable scale. Fortunately, I had anticipated this necessity when I had purchased the ingredients 15 months ago, and had taken the time to measure (on a scale back at Sandhill) what we needed per batch of the three exotics mentioned above. I had even located a dedicated container for each of the three and sealed it inside the bag with each ingredient. So things were looking up.

However, here's where it got tricky. On the measuring containers for the glass fibers and for the calcium chloride, I had indicated with a black marker how high to fill the container for a batch load. But when Ma'ikwe looked at the container for measuring the calcium stearate, she didn't see a fill line indicated. Because this ingredient cakes easily, the measuring container was completely dusted in calcium stearate and it was hard to see the sides. Thinking there may be a black line that wasn't visible, Ma'ikwe asked, "Is the black line on the other containers on the inside or the outside?" She wanted to know where to look for that elusive fill line.

Not having tuned into the caking problem on the sides of the stearate container, I wasn't able to make any sense out of this question at all. I figured that there was no fill line because we were supposed to load it to the top. I thought we were all set with the three exotics and could switch our focus on how to measure the hydrated lime, which was our one remaining question mark. Not understanding why it mattered whether the black lines were on the outside or inside, I gave Ma'ikwe a blank look.

Actually, it was worse than that. The look conveyed a unstable concoction of confusion and irritation. (We needed to be moving along and here we were being held up by a question that seemed totally irrelevant.) While I'm not sure what I'm doing with my face in such moments, nor am I always conscious that I'm doing it, there's no doubt that this message was sent and Ma'ikwe was not happy receiving it. Responding to my judgment, she repeated her question with attitude and I knew immediately I was on thin ice. While I still didn't know what was under the ice, I knew I could fall through at any moment.

This was exactly like some of the key dialog moments in That Old Cape Magic, where there's as much internal analysis about what's happening in real time as there are actual words being said. The best I could manage in the moment was recognition of the fog and the danger: "I don't understand why you're asking that question, and I feel that any response I give in this moment is likely to be wrong."

From here we got enough information exposed to make sense of the other's position and could back away from the brink without falling into the abyss. Things got better and both the cistern walls and our relationship got surface bonded by the end of the day.

On the one hand, it's frightening how easily conversations between intimate partners can go off the rails (often because one person is making assumptions that seem obvious to them yet remain clouded to the other, and we are unguarded in our reactivity) and flare ups can occur. On the other,
I consider such moments as proof of the everyday miracle of love. There was ample excuse for that early bad exchange to escalate into ongoing nasty treatment throughout the day. Yet it didn't happen. Instead, we recalibrated, forgave, and starting work together again.

While I'd rather not being testing our relationship so much, my partner's resilience is damn impressive.

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