The former editor-in-chief of Redbook, Stacy Morrison, is the author of Falling Apart in One Piece, a memoir about divorce. The following is an excerpt.
I suppose I should start where it all started. Or, more specifically, started ending. The night Chris told me he was done with our marriage.
I can recall with crystalline clarity exactly what I was doing on the June evening that this one-way conversation started: I was standing at the sink in the kitchen area of our one-room first floor, washing a bunch of arugula, my favorite salad green, pushing my hands through the cold water in the salad spinner to shake the dirt loose. I was looking out the window over the sink, marveling at our beautiful backyard, a real prize to have in Brooklyn: an actual lawn, its bright-green grass thick like a carpet; a wood deck and pergola, with grape vines climbing over it in wild, curlicue abandon. The yard was my favorite thing about our house, a house that we’d bought and moved into just five months before on a freezing-cold January day, when our son, Zack, was just five months old. He’d sat on the floor in the empty living room, stationed in his bouncy seat, watching with wide eyes as everything we owned was marched through the front door in big cardboard boxes carried by huge men.
I felt lucky to live in this house every single day, especially now that the back yard had thawed out and come to verdant life. Every evening after I took the subway home to Brooklyn from my job in Manhattan, I’d pick up Zack as I walked in the door and nuzzle his soft, sweet skin, say my goodbyes to his nanny, and head out the back door and lay down in the grass while Zack crawled around. I’d stare up at the soft, blue sky, and drink in the smell of the green all around me and think, “I can’t believe how lucky we are.” I cherished that skyward view: a simple pleasure that made me feel small in the best way, like I was being cupped in the hands of the universe. Simple and small were an antidotes to the way I had been living my life for so long, with my complicated, jam-packed schedule created by years of launching magazines and forging a career in the larger-than-life world of magazine publishing. For me, small was new, and small was good. I finally felt ready to stop the dead run I’d been operating in for years, to slow down and settle into being happy. Having given birth to Zack had realigned my priorities.
Making dinner every night was a new pleasure for me after years of too much takeout or too many meals at my desk. I looked forward to the half-hour of calming busywork that getting dinner on the table entails, once Chris had come home and was able to take Zack off my hands. I’d stand in the kitchen and feel my brain slowly empty of the zillions of details and to-dos that make up a day in the office as my hands took over, chopping peppers and onions into just the right-size dice, whisking a vinaigrette, washing arugula, that fancy-pants salad green you can find in every corner grocery in New York City.
As I poured the water from the salad spinner down the drain, I was feeling grateful for everything in my life that night, but I couldn’t ignore Chris’s silence pressing against my back. Sometimes people are quiet in a room in a way that feels like company, but today, like a lot of days in the last few years, and especially since Zack was born, Chris was absent in a way that felt heavy. I started to turn around from the sink, wanting to find a way to pull Chris back into the room. I was sure when I faced the sofa that my eyes would find Chris staring blankly into middle distance, ignoring our tiny son as he played at his feet, shaking plastic keys and giggling. And that was exactly the domestic tableau I was met with. He didn’t turn to meet my gaze, but instead, as he felt my eyes come to rest on him, let out a slow, pointed exhale that sucked all the air out of the room.
I bristled, disappointed and annoyed. And so I said, “Want to tell me what you hate so much about your life today?”, wincing to myself as the words came out, their harshness sharpening as the half-felt thought hit the air. (It’s taken me years and some good counseling to realize that even if I’d said something different that night, if I had been less of a bitch, that Chris and I would still be divorced today.)
And so he says, simple as pie, easy as a breeze, still not turning his face, with its long, aquiline nose, and huge blue-green eyes, and those full, pink lips I was delirious to call mine when we married years before, to look at me: “I’m done.” Then he sighed again, as my stomach turned to lead, turned slowly to look at me with a flat, empty gaze, and says, “I’m done with this,” gesturing his hand to encompass our living room, our kitchen, our home, our son, our future, our dreams, and every single memory we ever made together in our 13 years as a couple, and me, suddenly meaningless me.
I felt my face go slack in shock as the room snapped into narrow focus, a tunnel centered on Chris’s blank face, and everything else around him went dark.
Done. Just like that.
From the day Chris made this first startling pronouncement, I felt my whole life register into slow motion, as the seconds started counting down the last moments of my marriage. His declaration came out of the blue, and, suddenly, there was a time bomb ticking loudly in the middle of my living room, threatening to smash my life—my family, my security, and my entire identity, to boot—into a jillion unrecognizable little bits.
I snapped into a kind of split-screen crisis mode, starting a complicated mental dance that allowed me to shuttle between the panicked rush of searching for answers and solutions and the velvety comfort of hiding in denial as I tried to figure out how to defuse the bomb. My mind became a Japanese tea house: orderly, quiet, with delicate rice-paper walls to separate these conflicting needs, to make it possible for me to keep on keeping on when it seemed like he had just brought everything in our life to a dead stop. As I started to ponder the impossible whys of how he and I had found ourselves here, and the impossible questions of how I would begin again, I slid open and shut the shoji screens in mind to hide or reveal what I was feeling a little at a time—the anger, the fear, the bottomless grief, all brewing together like a bitter cup of tea steeped too long—so I could keep myself from drowning in the overwhelming swirl of emotions that pulled against each other like a rip tide. I tiptoed around Chris and I tiptoed around myself in a hush, afraid to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and see the fear in my eyes.
This talk of divorce was breaking at a spectacularly bad time. I was the primary breadwinner in our family, and I had recently been fired from a job I loved. Chris and I were still learning how to be parents, our cherubic son not even yet a year old. And we owned this lovely, but needy, house, and the big mortgage that went along with it. And I was interviewing for a big, new job, the job of my dreams: taking the helm of Redbook magazine, a huge, national magazine that was all about women living their grown-up lives…. And also, in no small part, about their married lives.
The irony was as rich as a buttercream frosting on a wedding cake.
In the end, I got the job. But I lost the guy. And so the life we’d built together over the last 13 years began disassembling itself without my permission as Chris and I started the slow, hard work of breaking up. Then my house began falling apart, too, revealing breaches in the foundations and the roof that my husband, house inspector and I had all missed before we bought it—and, we would find out later, that the couple who had sold us the house had intended to hide. On my very first day as editor in chief of Redbook, torrents of water poured into the basement of the house. And then the floods continued, as September hurricane rains worked their way up the coast and pounded the Northeast, forcing me to undertake a months-long renovation that led to the entire foundation of my house’s being jack-hammered up into bits. Then the roof and walls of the house started to leak a few weeks later, in three or four or five different places, depending on how the winds were blowing.
The allegory of it all was undeniable: water flooded my house for months, as pain was flooding my life. The very foundations of my existence were being rocked, as the foundations in my house were being excavated. Water followed me everywhere and so did the tears. I was running a magazine about love and marriage just when everything I thought I knew about either was being put to the test. And I was reinventing that magazine at the same time that I was going through the incredibly painful process of reinventing myself.
And it got worse. I had not one, but two, childcare crises within three months, when I had to fire two fulltime babysitters in a row and go weeks without someone to watch my son during the days when I was at work. And then there was the beach house fire my son and I went through, and the two emergency room visits and the many, heartbreaking ways in which my family and friends let me down despite their best intentions, because they had to live their own lives, too. I kept my best game face on at work, desperate not to show weakness to either my staff or my corporation as I spearheaded the magazine’s transformation. My boss, a famously tough and fearless leader, had reminded me when I interviewed with her that this job was “a big step up for me.” And I intended to do nothing to make a misstep. Friends of mine marveled at how I was able to handle the pressure of the big job while I had such a young son. But the job, in many ways, was the easy part, even though it absorbed almost all my concentration: I knew that I knew how to run a magazine, and I trusted my skills and instincts at work. But I was just learning how to trust myself as a mother. And I had absolutely no idea how to handle the crisis that was unfolding in my marriage.
Had someone sent me a short story with a heroine living the events unfolding in my life, I would have rejected it for being too facile and unbelievable. But unfortunately, this wasn’t a story; it was my life. And there was no way to get to the other side—of the divorce, of the house’s flaws, of my own weaknesses, which I’d spent a lifetime trying to ignore or exorcise—except to live through it all.
I know that on many days I watched my divorce unfurl from a safe distance, as if I were perched somewhere over my shoulder, or standing just behind one of my shoji screens, my eyes peeled wide for the scraps of wisdom that would help me to begin to make sense of this blankness, this end of everything I thought I knew about myself. Friends and family commented on my calm, wondering why I wasn’t angrier. But I didn’t want the heated blur that comes from anger—I wanted clarity. I wanted answers. And eventually I realized that anger—at my ex, at life, at g-d, at the house that leaks, the dishes that are dirty, the fate that would seemingly send me plague after plague until even I started wondering if maybe I had been cursed—would keep me from feeling everything I needed to know to be able to let go of anger and be free.
That is just one of the lessons I learned on my journey through divorce. I stumbled across these lessons like so many river stones tossed on the shore, quieting thoughts coughed up out of the endless roil and thunder that filled my head in those two dark years. I picked them up and played with them in my head, the way a hand will worry stones in a pocket, their soothing shape and gentle weight keeping me earthbound when I felt my entire identity was exploding into the air. These lessons and mantras gave me comfort, even though they weren’t the answers I thought I wanted. And even though they gave me comfort, their lessons weren’t always easy. Like the time I found myself lying on my kitchen floor for the fourth or fifth time, crying away another night, and I realized that even though I had so many people in my life who wanted to help me, no army of friends was going to be able to meet me in my alone.
But as the weeks and then months unfolded, it slowly dawned on me that I didn’t need an army—even though I often felt my friends and strangers and our whole entire culture urging me to make divorce the ultimate battle, as if that would set the balance straight. What I wanted on the other side of all this pain wasn’t to win, to be “right,” or even just to be able to claim the cruddy consolation prize of being the one who was “wronged.”
What I wanted was peace.
I decided the only way to rebuild was to use all this terrible learning that was coming my way to start to understand who I really was, to love and forgive myself my failures, to move beyond the crushing heartbreak of dashed dreams to trust myself again. To dare to imagine who I might be on the other side of all this. To hold my best idea of myself in my mind’s eye and walk toward her, instead of being distracted by all the anger and hurt that threatened to take root in my very soul, and leave its damage and scar tissue there forever.
And that has been the journey of a lifetime—to decide who I am and who I’ve been and who I want to be, and to do all of that with compassion, for myself and for my ex. And that is why today I say that my divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me. Because I am at peace. And not just with my divorce. With myself.
And that is why I can honestly say that my divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me.
Who but an optimist would propose that this is what divorce has to offer?
Photo: Aya Brackett