At the end of the day, when my four-year-old son is finally sleeping, I slide out of his bed, tiptoe to turn off the three flashlights he’s propped on his bedside table to stave off the inevitable darkness, and propel myself into the last few precious hours of my day. I am suddenly free.
I tromp down the stairs, a toppling list of chores and thoughts thudding through my brain. When I emerge into the lights of the kitchen, I find my husband, Dan, now home from work, scrubbing a pot while multi-tasking at answering emails and texts, and I hear that line from the Book of Job: “I alone have escaped to tell you.”
I start talking before Dan has even really registered I’m there: Worries about ice caps melting, Syrian children dying, the economy, and gun violence tumble into concerns about my work and just regular motherly fretting about our child’s allergies or a bedtime meltdown and all the things we need to do and, by the way, I forgot to buy eggs and I’m mad at my mother and when will we ever get a break? If you asked Dan, he’d say it’s hard to keep up with me in those moments; I’m like a stick of dynamite that has just been thrown into the kitchen. Not to mention his own thoughts and worries, which he’s also bottled up all day long.
More often than not, this nightly moment of reentry into our marriage is rough for both of us. So, a few months ago, Dan and I made a plan: Once he hears me stirring from bedtime duty upstairs, he puts the kettle on, clears the dining table, and sweeps the room. When I arrive, he sets two cups of hot water down on the clean table (we like to drink hot water rather than tea in the evenings — odd, perhaps, but somehow very soothing). We sit down. And then talk. About whatever — our lives, our marriage, our child, parenting, stress, money. We let it all hang out; we unburden. Our only rule is that we must not get up from the table until we’re both done saying whatever we need to say.
Although there are still dishes to do, floors to sweep, toys to pick up, laundry to switch over, a dog to let out, snacks and lunches to think about for the next day, emails that beg responses, and phone calls to make, we have added this new commitment to our list.
Sometimes these sessions take five minutes and are good-humored. Sometimes they take longer and are not so good-humored. At times, they evoke tears of frustration about how hard we’re working, how tight money is, and how overwhelmed we can feel by striving to be the most present, responsible parents possible in a world that feels increasingly stressful. Sometimes they devolve into long lists of all the things that annoy us about each other. Every once in a while, one of us needs to take a breather and walk Hopper, our dog, up to the Congregational Church in the center of town.
But each night, no matter how rough the conversation, just taking this pause to pop a valve at our dining room table achieves something basic: In adding this structured time together, we’ve actually relieved some pressure. It’s easy to forget, as I weigh that tower of tasks I need to accomplish each evening against my own exhaustion level, that the work of marriage can become a resource rather than a chore.
I don’t think I’m the only married person who’s had this thought. I recently told my friend, Sarah, about our table talks, and she laughed and said, “You know, it’s funny. For my husband and me it’s that walk to the subway every morning — just a few moments of open dialogue, a little morning optimism. Some days that’s the only chance we get to be our best together.”
I can’t claim that Dan and I are necessarily at our best every evening. (And there is a part of me that wishes we had a morning subway walk, like Sarah, when the day feels full of possibility rather than darkened by all the things that did not get done or need yet to be done between 7:30 and 11:00 p.m., when we both collapse, knowing that 5:30 a.m. will come all too soon.) But I can say our table talks have made our daily lives run more smoothly and strengthened our connection as a result. And that, though a small adjustment, makes a big difference.
To borrow from Terry Tempest Williams, it occurs to me these days that the job of being alive may ultimately be to find small moments of beauty and connection in a broken world.