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A Story of Transformation Throughout a 15-Year Marriage


“The greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble.  They can never be solved but only outgrown.” – Carl Jung

There are a number of books and articles about identifying the myth or story that you’re currently living through. I like the concept, but often find that the only way I can identify my current story is by the fact that it’s the one I can’t finish writing or telling.

In recent years, I’ve lived through a personal myth that took its own sweet time. It involved my marriage and a certain transformation. Finally, a shift occurred so that I’m able to share it in this article. I suppose that means I’m onto living through something else now, something just as elusive.

A storybook romance

Barbara and Max in 1998 and again in 2016 - The stories we're living

Barbara and Max in 1998 (left) and 2016 (right)

Barbara, my wife of 14 years, and I got together in a most unexpected way. One day, when I was feeling quite low, I received an email with the heading, “Maxie, You Are a Treasure.” I opened it to find a letter from someone I didn’t know, who’d been quietly reading the many stories, poems, reviews, jokes and anecdotes from my delivery-guy job that I’d posted over a six-month period on “Baba-Talk,” an email listserv forum for devotees of Meher Baba.

She’d even gone into the listserv archives and read my writings that she’d missed. Her letter expressed appreciation for my presence in the group, as well as her observation that we had similar family backgrounds and kindred senses of humour.

She was very articulate in expressing her sense of my value in the group, at a time when I often felt alone in life. Her letter said what I hoped God saw and felt about my life. It was a boost I sorely needed! Our friendship began with my reply, and continued to grow over the next month or so of our correspondence.

The unconditional love and support Barbara had been spoon-feeding me day by day had reached a critical mass. She’d been watering me all this time, and I’d blossomed!

Then something dramatic happened. I woke up happy one morning—really glad to be alive! I didn’t need to put on my “fake it ’til you make it” attitude of the previous couple of years. Clearly, the unconditional love and support Barbara had been spoon-feeding me day by day had reached a critical mass. She’d been watering me all this time, and I’d blossomed!

The next month was my Honeymoon—even though we were 2,000 miles apart, geographically, and I still didn’t even know what she looked like! Her love had brought me back to myself and God. Wherever I went, from the grey warehouse district of suburban St. Louis where I often picked up or delivered packages, to the genuinely beautiful woodland areas I passed through on some routes, I felt overflowing joy and could see Divine Beauty. I’d experienced—and lost—such happiness several times during my spiritual career. Now it was back! Barbara had been the Angel of my resurrection.

The poet in me felt us internally realigning our worlds to be together, like planets breaking free from one orbit and moving into a new one, closer to the Beloved’s. Love seemed to be reconfiguring the entire Cosmos.

There’s always a next phase, it seems

Los Angeles International Airport sign at night - The stories we're livingIt was obvious to me that the next phase of our relationship would involve my flying out to visit Barbara on the West Coast, where she lived. This happened during the holiday season of 1998. From her home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Barbara was driving down to Long Beach, California for her stepdad’s 80th birthday party. While there, she planned to meet another listserv member, a woman in the Los Angeles area whom I’d also befriended. I shyly asked whether I might join the party!

We spent several evenings in online chats, going over the fine points of this momentous step we were taking. Then I went ahead and booked a plane ticket, using a frequent-flyer stash my dad’s business office had accumulated. Interestingly, that fund ran out just as we completed our visiting phase a year later.

I flew in to the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Christmas Day. On the shuttle to Long Beach, I had to pinch myself: Could this really be happening? Was I going to be this happy for the rest of my life?

I checked into the motel Barbara’s Mom had booked for us. Barbara was in San Diego visiting yet another friend, and was supposed to arrive around 9 p.m. Venturing out to look for a restaurant open for dinner on Christmas, I walked several blocks before discovering signs of life at Tony Roma’s. After my meal, I begged one of the establishment’s many potted poinsettias to take to the motel to decorate the room. I added a few more festive touches, using things I’d picked up at Walgreens, and then went outside to await Barbara’s arrival. In my hand, I held the photo I’d finally asked her to send.

It was probably 9:30 when a blue-green compact car turned in at the driveway, going a little too fast. It bumped way up after hitting the dip, rolled back to level ground and stopped. An attractive woman got out, looked in my direction, and shyly said,“Maxie?”

“Barbie?” I replied. Looking at her, I immediately thought, “She’s a good person, too!”

We fell into one another’s arms. I’d decided that, yes, a little kiss would be appropriate as a greeting. However, that quickly became a moot point, as I felt myself getting buried in kisses, until my whole face was wet! After some time, we ended our embrace and I carried Barbara’s small travel case up to the room. After another hug, we lay down for a cuddle. In a few minutes, I heard a voice say, “Can you move your arm, please? It’s cutting off my circulation.” I complied, of course, but thought, “Gee, I never had to do this with any other partner.”

A fateful moment

The dissonance continued over the next two days. There seemed to be differences between the person I was getting to know in Long Beach and the one who’d been my perfect, loving Angel online.

We went to dinner at Sizzler one night. Going through the buffet line, I added some peas to my salad, thinking Barbara would be impressed by my general love of salad bars—only to hear, “You know, peas have a lot of carbs.”

It came to me, “She’s a California woman—assertive!” What was I going to do? I felt overwhelmed, unable to deal with such an outspoken person.

I was, with difficulty, coming to realize that my belief that Barbie and I’d penetrated into one another’s essence before even meeting face to face—that we’d connected on the soul level, and didn’t need to bother with what we saw as superficialities—had been at least partly naïve. There were aspects of a relationship, clearly, that didn’t show up online. This was so even in a relationship in which the unconditional love of one partner had undeniably transformed the emotional state of the other!

My new partner had an exceptionally sensitive nose, and sometimes asked me to change a garment because of some bothersome fragrance that I couldn’t perceive at all!

I wrestled with the matter, trying to process it internally while going about our days together, as event after event amplified my inner conflict. My new partner had an exceptionally sensitive nose, and sometimes asked me to change a garment because of some bothersome fragrance that I couldn’t perceive at all! She also turned out to be more concerned about cleanliness than I, who frequently quipped, “I don’t believe in the germ theory.” The “small” incompatibilities turning up in our relationship were becoming a problem!

On the morning of the actual birthday party we’d come to southern California to attend, I was singing and playing guitar for Barbie as we had coffee and got ready for the day.

“I need to shower and wash my hair,” she said, and then rose and went into the bathroom.

I was feeling so fed up that as soon as she was gone, a quick thought swam into my head: This is my chance! I could make a clean getaway by the time she returned! It wouldn’t take long to shove a few things into my duffel bag, put the guitar in its case, write a note and get out the door. The note would read, “I thought it would work out between us. I’m really sorry it didn’t. We both did our best. Love, Maxie.”Light brown guitar in grey case - The stories we're livingI sat in my chair, feet poised to get up and do what I’d imagined. Then I began visualizing what it would be like to return to the life I’d been living before Barbie. The picture I saw was of someone returning to a dark house on a black night. There was nothing there for me at all.

I was 50 years old. I knew a few things from having seen myself in action for several decades as an adult. I knew that I had a deep-felt need for a female companion. During a few brief, inspired periods, I’d felt relatively unpressured by this, but it remained generally true.

I also knew that I was a person who, because of sexual anxieties stemming from childhood trauma, had great difficulty with taking the appropriate risks that were necessary in “pursuing” a woman. More than once, I’d simply frozen in relation to a woman I’d felt drawn to. My incapacity in this area had led to some of the biggest messes of my life.

I had, therefore, at a therapist’s suggestion around six months before Barbara’s letter, joined the contemporary throng of online daters. This had resulted in many dates but no relationship. The problem, in fact, still existed: If I felt strongly attracted to someone, my anxieties would accompany me, whether I’d found the person on a computer or in a bar.

There was something, at least, to be said for “a bird in the hand.” Furthermore, I reasoned, the kind and unconditionally loving Barbie had to still be “in there”! “She” was just temporarily obscured by some dynamic that the kaleidoscope of our interconnectedness had brought to the surface.

I took a few breaths. Then I stayed in my chair and played another song. Later that day, we went to Barbie’s stepdad’s party and danced our fool heads off! I felt, afterwards, that I’d gained admission to the family that day.

Cutting to the chase

After a five-year courtship, Barbie and I married in 2003, but that didn’t resolve things. My internal conflict that had set in after my Honeymoon ended in late 1998 persisted for the next 15 years!

We were like two people in a lifeboat. We didn’t always get along, but every time I considered diving into the ocean, I’d see that it was filled with circling dorsal fins.

I felt crucified for much of this long period. From time to time, when I was on the verge of feeling like a hypocrite for staying in our relationship, I’d communicate my dilemma to my wife, and we’d discuss it at length. Our openness in these discussions always relieved the pressure, and also enabled me to think of myself as “a person trying to deal with a difficult situation,” rather than simply a hypocrite.

The best analogy I could come up with was that we were like two people in a lifeboat. We didn’t always get along, but every time I considered diving into the ocean, I’d see that it was filled with circling dorsal fins.

I should say that this wasn’t a completely one-sided dilemma. Barbara’d had intimations, before letting me into her life, that I didn’t have everything completely together. After my first visit, she asked for a temporary easing-up of our contact, and has since confirmed that I kind of blew into her life like a hurricane.

Coping strategies

Handwritten letters in cursive - The stories we're livingDuring my prolonged period of feeling oppressed in our relationship, I frequently wrote in a diary I kept of “inner letters” to my Higher Power, pleading and begging for help in resolving the situation. Often, in these letters, I’d find myself going back in time, visualizing that morning in the motel room in Long Beach. I’d vividly feel the energy in my feet on the floor, survey the room and reconsider the situation, as though I could still make a different decision.

However, I never came to feel that leaving our marriage would be wise. I held onto what had become, despite our problems, the anchor of my worldly life. Somehow Barbara stayed, too, and continued to grant me the power and the time to do my best to work things out.

I was amazed to realize, one day, that more than a decade and a half had passed in this way! I also could see, in this rearview mirror, that my life—even as I endured this protracted internal conflict—was more stable than it had ever been, and often more productive.

I was releasing a steady stream of creative accomplishments into the world, in spite of my difficulties. I was writing and being published frequently. In my job as a preschool teacher, which by then I’d held longer than any previous one, I was serving small children in ways deeply appreciated by my employer and other teachers, as well as by the children and their families.

It appeared that somehow, although I was struggling emotionally, stability was present—almost like the steadying hand of that “Angel Barbie” who’d seemed to disappear somewhere inside the complex interconnectedness of a married couple.

Background on my life’s three phases

My adult life had unfolded in three phases. First, there was a period of dealing with the effects of childhood trauma, complicated by a disastrous brief period of experimentation with psychedelics. The encounter of the two led to a total breakdown. This was also the period, however, of my initial spiritual experience, which led to a lifelong healing process and connections that have anchored me ever since.

That stage of my life was followed by a period I think of as a tumbleweed phase. I lived “mini-lives,” so to speak, in several cities. I enjoyed the wonders of New York City, and those of the Bay Area of northern California, for several years each. I lived in Chicago; St.Louis, Missouri; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for years-long periods, with sojourns in Miami Beach and Sarasota, Florida, and Denver, Colorado. I found myself witnessing America’s beauty during fairly frequent cross-country drives. This period was one of enormous creative fecundity.

However, by the third period, when Barbara and I got together, I welcomed the domesticity of the situation that evolved. I very much appreciated finally having a stable home, conflict or not, with a caring companion. I see, as I now re-examine those years, that it makes sense that I stayed and continued to do what I could to resolve things.

And then…

After those many years, I began to notice longer periods between the times when I needed to “bring up my problem.” It had been months, I realized one day, since I’d compulsively gone back in my mind to that “day of choice” in our Long Beach motel room. That meant that I was now living in the present—accepting it as it is. I honestly don’t know how the change came about. All I can do is refer readers to the Carl Jung quote at the top of this piece.

“Marriage is fighting the spiritual battle from behind a fortress,” Meher Baba once said. Barbara and I had that fortress, even in the midst of my long travail, but my mind wouldn’t yet let me rest in it. And my mind was the one thing I couldn’t divorce! All I could do was wait and see if it would ever be able to recognize that, all along, it’d had what it sought. I had no guarantee that this would ever happen, and felt enormous relief when it finally did.

Artwork made by Max Reif for wife Barbara during courtship - The stories we're living

A piece of art made by Max, for Barbara

Plus, Barbara and I did keep making efforts to adapt to each other’s needs, without sacrificing integrity. Though I’ve mentioned above that I was never a stickler about physical hygiene, I recognize that each person has to respect the beliefs and values of the person they live with. At Barbara’s request, I’ve gotten into the habit of washing my hands every time I come in from a day out in the world.

On her side, Barbara “got” my pleas that when she complained about several things at a time, I’d get overwhelmed. She scarcely ever does that anymore.

On the whole, I think all the time we’ve spent together has given us a deeper appreciation of and identification with each other as partners. We seem to be a bit more patient and understanding with one another. We’re also able to laugh at ourselves and our petty squabbles a lot more. And we try, at least, to do what Joseph Campbell recommended: to see the other person with compassion, instead of judgment.

Living authentically

Around the time I was beginning to realize that my perspective was finally changing, I read an article in this magazine called “LIVING AUTHENTICALLY: Ambivalence as creative energy that rouses us to awaken and integrate.” The article affirmed the value of living with the tension of ambivalence, instead of needing to make snap decisions. It maintained that sometimes the right course will reveal itself.

And that, it seems, is what happened.

(Thanks to Barbara Reif for helping to edit this article. ?)

«RELATED READ» WHAT MY GRANDMOTHER TAUGHT ME: Love is learning how to be with others»

image 1: KatieThebeau image 2: Max Reif; image 3: Wikimedia Commons; image 4: Got a Ukelele; image 5: Pexels; image 6: Max Reif

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