The Universe has a sneaky way of doing things. Believe it or not, I’d already intended to write a column about marriage – well, mostly – when my friend Amanda called yesterday and told me her boyfriend proposed and she accepted.
Amanda’s one of the loveliest people I know. (I’m not just saying that because she makes this squash and cheese pasta thing that’s brought better women than me to their knees. Honest.) Everyone loves Amanda, and while I don’t believe marriage can work for me, I am thrilled for her and wish her all the happiness in the world.
Nevertheless, at some point in their union, there will come a time when her husband – also a wonderful human being, by the way – will want to strangle her. That is not a reflection on Amanda’s character, or his. It’s more a statement about what happens when two people spend a lot of time together in close quarters.
Of course, he won’t really want to kill her; I’m exaggerating. It also doesn’t mean that they will have stopped loving each other, or that they want out of the marriage. But making relationships work isn’t always pretty.
The best relationships have conflict. So, in fact, do some pretty great cities. That doesn’t bother me – think it’s healthy. No, what I find disturbing are the folks who insist, no matter what, that everything is just ducky. These people think that as long as you focus only on the positive, everything will work out in the end.
These people, too, would have you think that the people who choose not to ignore the bad bits and, in fact, want to see them brought to light and discussed and worked through, are somehow bad people themselves. They might even go so far as to suggest those who complain don’t love their partner or their town and want to undermine the whole thing. They might say those who bring issues to light are just plain wrong or looking for trouble because everything is just fine, dammit.
But here’s the thing: pretty relationships don’t last. We all know (or knew) a couple that never fought or looked at each other sideways. She never packed a bag and spent a week at her mother’s house; he never stormed out in anger and headed to the local bar. Their friends thought they had the perfect marriage – until he moved out one day, or she ran off with a Grateful Dead tour.
It’s the same with a city. We can go along, pretending everything’s fine, throwing some mighty fine parties and patting each other on the back, but underneath it all, what’s wrong will still be wrong. The more we don’t talk about it, just like in a marriage, the more it festers. On the outside, everything is perfect – although usually because people are petrified to admit otherwise.
When one of those “perfect” marriages where no one fights and everyone’s happy all the blessed time finally reaches critical mass, one partner finds out the other one’s actually been unhappy for a long time but was afraid to speak out. By the time they did, things had gotten too big to fix, so they just walked away.
Why would someone be afraid to speak out? Well, sometimes people who have issues just don’t want to deal with confrontation. Other times, people are scared that what they love won’t hold up to the questioning. They may worry that if they start to question, the pretty bits will fall apart and there won’t be anything left underneath to hold it all together. They fear that the relationship isn’t strong enough to stand up to real conflict or trial.
That, my friends, is almost always a mistake, because if the pretty things are all that’s holding something together, it isn’t being held together at all. Even the Mona Lisa, without a canvas, is just paint. There is no doubt that every small town, be it Gulfport or St. Pete Beach or Buffalo Soapstone, has both types of folks – the people who aren’t afraid to belly up to the bar and order a shot of “What the hell were you thinking, buying those flowery towels when we can’t afford groceries this week?” and the “Why, honey, those decorative soaps are lovely. We can eat Ramen for a week; don’t worry about the expense.” I am certain, too, we all know people in either type of marriage.
I will tell you this: Amanda’s relationship will stand up to questioning, of that I have no doubt. I will also tell you this: so will your city. I look across the bay and on either side I see cities with problems, but also with strong foundations. Gulfport, St. Pete Beach, and every little town across America is built on the backs of people who loved their life enough to fight for it, to remedy the tough issues. The best relationships are built on love, yes, but tears and conflict, too.
I know everyone reading this loves their city.
The question is, who among you is strong enough to face the problems?