Sunday, February 22, 2015

How to Stay Married: A deliciously honest look at travel, marriage and the romantic requirements of a new era

This is a fascinating book, an at times alarmingly candid memoir of courtship and marriage in later life framed around a long and relationship-challenging holiday around the world. It begins with an open letter to all of those who have a desire to find a partner, and the author Mary-Lou Stephens wants you to know that once a man (or woman) is in the house, the really hard work is just beginning. “Relationships that last are not easy,” she counsels. “Getting to the place where you feel safe and happy is a journey.”

And How to Stay Married is an account of one such journey. Many of you will know Mary-Lou’s work from her previous memoir, a truly exceptional account of spiritual awakening called Sex, Drugs and Meditation. That is one of my very favourite books of recent years, and this follow up is a very satisfying work indeed for anyone who enjoys her confessional style and gentle, honest wisdom.

At the outset we are warned that this will be a book that pulls no punches in discussing the fallibility of human relationship, particularly when it is romantic and sexual in nature. Mary-Lou confesses to being a rule follower but secret resenter, and this passive-aggressive capacity (one at which Australians, myself included, excel) is turned on her hapless husband who bungles travel arrangements and is too confident in his own abilities. It begins the round of revealing stories that need to be read occasionally rough one’s fingers – is she really saying that about her husband? Has he read the book? It makes for a compelling and utterly absorbing read. (And, for the record, he has read the book, and gave the author complete carte blanche to say whatever she wanted to about their relationship).

Mary-Lou Stephens

Mary-Lou pulls no punches in depicting the unusual suite of anxieties we bring to our romantic endeavours in the 21st Century. How to refer to one’s relationship, for example. He hated to be “the boyfriend’ and she hated the ambiguity of “my partner,” and so marriage became a way to resolve linguistic worries. And then there’s the question of desire, or at least its direction. On first meeting her future husband she had mistakenly assumed he was gay, and so almost missed the opportunity to connect with her life partner.

At one point in this book the author and her husband go to spend some time at the famous Findhorn spiritual community in Scotland. This place, famous for its nature spirits and giant cabbages, is brilliantly evoked by Stephens as she recounts the blandness of a communal setting, and the unexpected jealousies and annoyances that pop up just when she was hoping to be at her most spiritual. There’s a neurotic American woman flirting with her husband, for example, and neither of them can bear the bland vegetarian fare on offer.

Findhorn community, Scotland

It is Mary-Lou Stephens’ eye for detail and her capacity to call out pretension that make her such a brilliant chronicler of modern living. And her-real-word dilemmas and contradictory calls remind us of ourselves as we read. Despite her general lack of enthusiasm, for example, about the realities of Findhorn, she finds herself fantasising about living there, and becoming a whole different kind of person. Anyone who has done a residential spiritual retreat will recognise these fantasies that spring forth in moments of enthusiasm, usually coupled with matching episodes of anger and contempt.

What makes How to Stay Married so special, and so very engaging, is its author’s ability to capture and really speak out loud the things that plague us about establishing a long-term partnership with another flawed human being. As more and more of us find ourselves single in our later years, we have to confront the awkwardness of learning to make new compromises long after we have settled into our own ways. Mary-Lou occasionally resents her husband’s wildly confident pronouncements on diverse subjects, for example. And occasionally she gets furious at his own spark of independence, along with his rather hopeless approach to personal finances. I defy anyone to read the book and not experience a twinge of recognition and guilt when she describes some unsatisfying example of her flawed but very real partnership.

Mary-Lou is good, too, at describing the simpler, almost primal comforts of being in the company of another person more or less constantly. Her new husband is physically unlike other men she has been with, and this new experience still occasionally surprises and delights her:

“I’m also thankful for being the wife of a big man. Big in stature, in girth and in spirit. I am safe in the company of strangers, in a rough working class pub, with this man beside me.”

Ultimately this exquisite book is a testament to the great folly of romantic engagement with another human being. Yes, such adventures are unequal, wildly frustrating and even, occasionally, soul-wounding. Our partner does become our mirror, in which we can begin to recognise those qualities, good and bad, that make us so unique. How to Stay Married is a book of great humanity, and it is unique in its willingness to speak the complete truth about the pressures of companionship. One to read for anyone who has ever been, or wanted to be, married.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Sheridan Rogers walks in Rilke's footsteps

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’

hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me

suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence.  For beauty is nothing

but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,

and we are so awed because it serenely disdains

                                    to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
 - The First Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke (Stephen Mitchell trs.)

Sydney writer Sheridan Rogers reflects on a recent visit to Duino Castle, near Trieste, the very place that inspired the "Duino Elegies", arguably Rilke's greatest contribution to 20th-century poetry and life. She also reflects on her own relationship to this poet and his work.
"Great art often communicates before it is understood..."

I had long been a fan of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and had purchased a book of his poems a few weeks before I separated from my husband.
 I’m not sure how he came to me for I knew no one who was reading him. Perhaps I had read about a new anthology of his poems in the book review section of a weekend newspaper or I’d heard a poem of his being read on the ABC. 
At the time I was searching deeply for answers, not just because of the break-up of my marriage but because I’d long struggled with the big questions: how to find meaning? what is my purpose? why am I here?
 As an adolescent, I had often felt a sense of despair and had wrestled with what French philosopher and writer, Albert Camus, identified as the elephant in the room: is there any point in doing anything? Is it worth going on with the whole endeavour? 
Yet of all the writers I turned to at this vulnerable time, Rilke was the very one who advised [in his Letters to a Young Poet]:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
“Do not seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing, live alone some distant day into the answer.”

Inside the battered cover of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (Picador 1980, edited & translated by Stephen Mitchell), I’d written my name and the date: “1st of Spring.”
 I’m surprised now to have inscribed it thus, for this was to be no springtime for me but a long period during which I descended, like Persephone, into the underworld.
I remember taking this collection of his poems with me on many long walks around Sydney harbour. Often I would lie on the sand, holding it to my heart, while looking up at the wide blue sky or gazing along the honeycomb sandstone rocks as I paused and reflected on a poem I had just read. Sometimes I’d watch the clouds drift by or become spellbound by glints of sunlight on the water, striving to understand the meaning of a poem and to let the music of his poetry enter me. 
Great art often communicates before it is understood, and this was very true for me with Rilke. Given how elusive he could be, I was frequently overwhelmed by how visceral my response was to his words. It was as though he was speaking to me, and to me alone.

Silent friend of many distances, feel

how your breath enlarges all of space.

Let your presence ring out like a bell

into the night. What feeds upon your face

Grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.

Move through transformation, out and in.

What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?

If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.
 - Sonnets to Orpheus 11, 29

At the time, it was hard for me to stand up and assert myself, even to feel I had the right to a voice of my own. All around me seemed oppositional. I felt I was drowning in a sea of voices and just wanted to dive into the deep blue water and never re-emerge.

 But here was Rilke whispering in my ear:

For this suffering has lasted far too long; 

none of us can bear it; it is too heavy - 

this tangled suffering of spurious love

which, building on convention like a habit,

calls itself  just, and fattens on injustice.

Show me a man with the right to his possession.       
- Requiem        

Oh how I yearned for a soul mate like Rilke, someone with his depth and insight.  And here he was, in Requiem, again speaking directly to me:

Are you still here? Are you standing in some corner? -

You knew so much of all this, you were able 

to do so much; you passed through life so open

to all things, like an early morning.

At times, I would be swept away by his voice into a semi-hypnotic state.  And yet this longing, this yearning to merge with the other is exactly what Rilke counsels against.

For this is wrong, if anything is wrong:

not to enlarge the freedom of a love

with all the inner freedom one can summon.

We need in love, to practice only this:

letting each other go. For holding on

                              comes easily; we do not need to learn it.
- Requiem

In Letters to a Young Poet, he writes: 
“Loving at first does not mean merger, surrender and uniting with another person.  Love is a great, demanding claim on us, something that chooses us and calls us to vast distances.”
 But as I began to read more about Rilke’s life, I came to a glaring sticking point: his many love affairs and cavalier treatment of the women in his life, most particularly of his wife Clara Westhoff and their daughter, Ruth, which seemed so at odds with the respectful, idealistic way he portrays women in his poetry.

Rainer Maria Rilke and Clara Westhoff
It wasn’t until Stephanie Dowrick published her authoritative book In The Company of Rilke in 2009, that I realised I wasn’t alone in pondering these questions. Dowrick writes, 
“It is exhausting to read about these affairs: so many women and such little variation on the theme of Rilke’s compulsive, stylish, enchanting, needy calls; the women’s eager, flattered response; his rapid retreat into whispers, then silence (other than the scratching, sometimes the sublime searching of a pen); their confusion, disappointment and irritation but generally also, and sometimes amazingly, continuing interest and loyalty – as though each is thinking that he must not be judged by the standards of ordinary men. (he is a Poet.)”

Ah, I found myself asking, had he - the "Poet Rilke" - also cast his spell over me?
 Dowrick continues: 
“Rilke’s not-so-private life is certainly not above moral discussion. On the contrary, some critics have spun years of work out of exactly that. Yet anything but a glance in Rilke’s direction shows that the paradoxes around him are extreme.”

Dowrick quotes another poet, Galway Kinnell, from his book The Essential Rilke:
“A number of readers and critics...reverse the conventional wisdom – that an artist’s human deficiencies, as well as any attendant human wreckage the artist might leave behind, are simply the price that must be paid for great art – and find that certain often-dismissed flaws in fact damage the art.  These more sceptical readers see Rilke less as an authority on how to live than as a sufferer telling in brilliant confusion his own strange and gripping interpretation of what it is to be human.”

How we squander our hours of pain.

How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration

to see if they have an end. Though they are really

our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,

one season in our inner year --,not only a season
in time--, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.
 - The Tenth Elegy

Duino Castle - "Who, if I cried out, would hear me...?"
Entering the castle gate where the "Elegies" had begun - far from my Sydney home and on a glorious Sunday morning - I could feel my skin tingling. Could I really be walking in Rilke’s footsteps?  Would being here, putting one foot in front of the other, help answer some of my own confusion about what it is to be human?  Would it help quench my yearning for union, and my longing for transcendence? 

The Castle is set on an imposing rock spur of the Carso high above the Gulf of Trieste, and the vivid contrast between the sheer brilliant white of the  limestone cliffs and the deep cobalt blue of the Adriatic Sea left me gasping – as had the Elegies.
After all these years, here he was calling to me again:

Children, one earthly Thing

truly experienced, even once, is enough for a lifetime.

Don’t  think that fate is more than the density of childhood;

how often you outdistanced the man you loved, breathing, breathing

after the blissful chase, and passed on into freedom.

Truly being here is glorious.                                              
- The Seventh Elegy

Ahead of us lay a slightly inclined roadway bordered by imposing white marble statues which led up to the actual castle. But it was the garden terraces, which spill down from the roadway to the sea, which I wanted to see first. Steep stone steps lead down to a series of winding paths, one of which leads to a terrace at the base of the castle, and others which lead further down towards the sea.  
As I descended, I came to a path which led to a dense shady wood of twisted black pine trees and holm oaks. From here I could see the old castle, built during the 10th-11th centuries, clinging to a white rocky cliff that seemed to have been carved by a sculptor. The path through the woods looked rocky and uneven but I couldn’t walk there as the iron gate was firmly shut.

The old castle is now a ruin and is famous for the legend of the Dama Bianca (the White Lady) because the white rock on which the castle sits is said to have the shape of a veiled woman.

The legend tells of a White Lady thrown from the walls of an ancient castle by her wicked husband, but the sky felt pity for her and gave her a rock body before she fell, smashing onto the rocks. It is said her soul is still there on a cliff near the remains of the old castle and that some nights she comes to life again and wanders restlessly.

This path, I later discovered, is not to be confused with the sentiero Rilke (Rilke Path) where Rilke was inspired to write the first two Elegies.  That path starts on the outskirts of Duino village outside the castle gates and ends in Sistiana, a seaside village about two kilometres away. It runs along a sheer rocky cliff, at 80 metres one of the highest in Italy, but it has also been closed due to insurance problems to do with the a number of suicides, a poignant reminder that Rilke was affirming both life and death in the Elegies.

But if the endlessly dead awakened a symbol in us, 

perhaps they would point to the catkins hanging from the bare

branches of the hazel-trees, or

would evoke the raindrops that fall onto the dark earth in springtime. --

And we, who have always thought of happiness as rising, would feel

the emotion that almost overwhelms us

whenever a happy thing falls.
-   The Tenth Elegy

It was while walking on the paths around the castle one stormy winter morning, as the waves crashed loudly against the cliffs, that Rilke believed  he heard a voice. He turned around but saw no one. Those mysterious words floating in the air became the beginning of the first of his Elegies (Who, if I cried out, would hear me...?)..
There was no tempest the day I visited. As I stood with the clear autumn sunshine on my back and looked through the dark woods to the old castle and out to the wide blue sea, I recalled his words:

Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within us. Our life

passes in transformation.  And the external

shrinks into less and less....

Many no longer perceive it, yet miss the chance

to build it inside themselves now, with pillars and statues: greater.                               
- The Seventh Elegy

As critic Warwick McFadyen pointed out so concisely in The [Melbourne] Age a couple of years ago:
 “Rilke’s entire life was given over to the journey of becoming. He referred to it many times as a ripening — of soul, insight, love. His m├ętier was to translate the unsayable into words, to give form to the invisible. It was a sacred vow to self.
 “To read the Elegies, which is where my inclination has taken me, has the feel of a pilgrimage about it – with no destination. The joy is in the journey, though it is unlike any other travelling in that one must wait – the path comes to you.”

Sheridan Rogers
Sheridan Rogers is a Sydney writer currently living in Italy.  You can contact her via her blog or also via Facebook. You can purchase the books mentioned POSTAGE FREE via the links provided or via the bookstore links above right. We have had several articles on Rilke over the years - not least because of Stephanie Dowrick's and also Mark S Burrows' interest and scholarship on the poet. Please put "Rilke" into our search button and find those treasures! Sheridan's Rilke extracts are from Stephen Mitchell's translations of Rilke's work.