I found it, I lost it, I found it again.
While living by myself in a little cottage on Mount Bonnell outside Austin in the early nineties, I was without a significant other for the first extended period in my life. Fortunately (though I didn’t think so at the time) I had the solitude needed to turn my attention toward my own wants and needs rather than those of a mate. And I had the opportunity to become very clear about the attributes I wanted in my next relationship. The list I created during those five years was long and very specific, and around ten of the desired characteristics were non-negotiable—physically attractive, athletic, willing to be authentic and vulnerable, dedicated to spiritual/psychological growth, belief in equality for all, intelligent with sense of humor, among a few others. About the only quality I didn’t specify was age, which as you’ll discover, was probably fortunate.
Near the end of my five-year retreat at the age of fifty-two, I joined Austin Fit, a marathon training group, with three goals in mind: (1) complete a marathon; (2) find some running buddies; and (3) meet attractive, athletic women.
Between twenty to thirty runners in the intermediate-level Green Group met early each Saturday morning at Town Lake. It was summer, and as usual, hot as Hades in the capitol city of Texas—highs in the upper 90s to lower 100s. Of course, Austin runners (approximately ten percent of the city’s population at that time) were accustomed to being thoroughly sweat-soaked by the time they hit the quarter-mile mark during the summer. With the encouragement of our coaches, we ran increasingly long distances on the trails around the lake (ultimately up to twenty-plus miles) in preparation for the Austin Motorola Marathon that would take place on February 18, 1996.
After running together week after week for longer and longer distances, the size of our group dwindled to seven runners. My initial impression of the single remaining female member of our group was of a very attractive, assertive woman of indeterminate age who looked pretty damned good in running tights. Her name was Shonnie Lavender.
Our group’s theory was if we were running too fast to chat, we were running too fast. So Shonnie, Jesus, Tim, Tall Bald Larry, Medium Bald Larry, Jack and I all got to know a bit about one another and became fast friends over the months of training together. Most of us completed the marathon, though a couple of our members each ran half the race due to injuries that had limited their conditioning.
In August 1996, after picking up a few new runners we regrouped and again began training in earnest for the 1997 marathon. We also began to hang out socially, almost always heading to nearby Magnolia Cafe for pancakes after our Saturday morning runs around Town Lake.
One Saturday in early September, everyone in the Green Group had planned to go out that night for a few beers and to listen to some music. But that morning over pancakes after our long run, everyone backed out—everyone but me and Shonnie. Whether the universe conspired that day, you’ll have to decide. But despite the fact there were only two of us, we decided to go forward with our plans. We chose a small venue that offered music, poetry and cold Shiner Bock. I’d pick her up at 7:00 P.M.
As we were paying the cover, I lightheartedly requested the senior discount. The woman taking our money said, “Yeah, I see a little gray on you, but I’m not so sure about your daughter there.” A bit embarrassed, I chuckled self-consciously, not then aware that my relationship with Shonnie was already shifting.
We enjoyed the music and most of the poetry, and as the evening progressed, the excursion seemed more and more like a date than just two running buddies out on the town. And it seemed even more so when my hand on Shonnie’s knee was favorably received. I think there was merely a simple “good night” hand squeeze when I dropped Shonnie off at her condo. I don’t really remember. But I do know that my interest had been piqued.
At Shonnie’s suggestion, we went to a play the next week—a dramatized version of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” After the play, Shonnie said she wanted to slow things down, that she was concerned we might be moving too fast. Somewhat puzzled and certain that I’d never fully understand women, I told her OK and figured that was that.
A few days later Shonnie called. “What are you doing?” she asked amiably.
“Getting ready to have dinner and watch a movie with my friend, Pamela,” I replied.
“Can I come over?” Shonnie asked.
Pamela was OK with it, so we invited Shonnie to join us. The three of had an enjoyable evening dining on Pamela’s famous sesame noodles and watching Apollo 13. After Shonnie left, I found myself a bit perplexed. I asked Pamela, “What do you think she wants?” “It’s pretty damned clear, big boy,” Pamela drolly responded. “She wants you.”
Love walks in
Over the next few weeks, it became apparent to me that Shonnie possessed all of the attributes I was seeking and more. After attending a breath workshop on the University of Texas campus, I looked into Shonnie’s eyes and said, “I’m falling love with you.” Later we’d sometimes lightly respond with Hans Solo’s “I know.” But today “I love you too,” was the tender reply. We kissed and held each other on that balmy summer afternoon, totally oblivious to anything going on around us. Yes, we were in love!
After a deep conversation, Shonnie and I decided to fully commit to one another and take up residence together in Shonnie’s condo beginning January 1, 1997. In the process of doing so, however, we dealt with some chatter in our minds, especially about our age difference (approximately twenty-eight years)—Me: “Yikes, this will never work; she’s younger than my daughter!” Shonnie: “My parents will never go for this—when I’m fifty, he’s going to be seventy-eight!” And so on. The vast majority of the babble proved to be based on the spurious beliefs of the dominant cultural paradigm, which we chose to ignore, not for the last time.
Because we wanted to be purposeful about our relationship and our life together, we wrote our intention for our relationship and made commitments about how we would be with one another, including:
- I will love you with all my being.
- I will afford you your humanity and not expect you to always be the best you can be.
- I will keep the space between us clean and deal with divisive issues or actions as they arise.
- I will support you to live up to your potential and go for what you want.
- I will work in full partnership with you.
- I will be true to you.
And so on January 1, 1997, we read our intentions and commitments aloud to one another, replaced Shonnie’s coffee table with mine; expanded a bit on Shonnie’s usual diet of cereal, salad and baked potatoes; and eagerly settled in to our life together.
The call of the southern Appalachians
Since an epiphany on the banks of the Chattooga River in north Georgia in 1988, I had known the southern Appalachian Mountains were to be my home. When we undertook an exploratory visit there in August 1997, Shonnie almost immediately discovered a job in the marketing department at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina that was perfect for her. After a couple of interviews, she was hired, and in early October the movers were loading our furniture and other material goods into the moving van, while we hustled our three cats into our Honda Accords and began the thousand-mile drive to our new home.
Leaving Austin was not easy. We were saying good-bye to dear friends with whom we had deep connections, our running group, the trails around Town Lake, my writing assignments at Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Shonnie’s work at Columbia St. David’s Healthcare, Book People, Whole Foods, Waterloo Records and more. But life in Asheville suited us well. In this eclectic little city of 70,000, local businesses were beginning to flourish in what was once a desolate downtown. We enjoyed vegetarian dishes at Salsa’s and Laughing Seed, and we explored the shops, coffee houses and cafés. We found the organic groceries we preferred at French Broad Food Co-op. Art and independent films were a staple at Fine Arts Theatre, and books of the genres we preferred were plentiful at Malaprops Book Store. Navigating the city was easy, and there were miles and miles of trails to run and hike in the surrounding mountains. Plus, there were four distinct seasons.
When we married on June 30, 1999, approximately twenty friends from Austin joined the fifty-or-so other guests, and through our marriage vows, Shonnie and I expanded on our previous commitments to one another:
- I will laugh and dance and sing and have fun with you.
- I will tell you the truth even when I think you might not want to hear it, and I will hear you when you tell me your truth.
- I will be your companion, honoring these sacred vows as we walk together, hand in hand, heart to heart, soul to soul, for all our days, giving all that we have and being all that we are, to create a world full of peace, love, and understanding.
In the years that followed, together we wrote a book, we went on long trail runs, we attended intensive personal growth workshops, we followed our callings, we went on vacations to exotic climes—taking care of ourselves, of course, while supporting each other to live as we were intended—fully, passionately, joyfully. Not that we didn’t hit some snags and get to deal with some curve balls that life threw us. But all in all we had an idyllic life with our feline family members in our little townhouse just north of downtown Asheville.
Becoming a dad again . . . at 67
“I didn’t think old people could have babies,” was my granddaughter Molly’s initial response when her mom Lilla told her that Shonnie was pregnant. When Lilla explained that it was only older women who couldn’t have babies, Molly reflected a moment, then replied, “I thought they were just going to have cats.” And during our approximately twelve years together, Shonnie and I figured we’d only have cats, too. However, in early 2009, after considerable soul searching, we decided Shonnie would discontinue birth control, and we’d let nature takes its course. And as the clock ran down on 2009, it appeared that additional furless family members were not in our future.
On January 1, 2010, however, Shonnie walked out of the master bathroom holding something that looked vaguely like a thermometer and gleefully exclaimed, “I’m pregnant!” Shock, amazement, excitement, and trepidation washed over me all at once. But it was impossible not to be caught up in Shonnie’s profound joy. And after a deep breath, I took her in my arms and joined her there.
And baby makes three
When our darling baby girl arrived on September 7, 2010, our life dramatically changed. Rather than a unwavering focus on our relationship—the powerful bond that united us—our primary focus immediately turned toward tiny Gracelyn Lavender Mulkey. For Shonnie and I both understood that loving our little girl with all our hearts and providing her the most nurturing environment possible—a safe, secure, loving, fun, enlivening space—was undoubtedly our top priority. And doing so required a great deal of time, focus, energy, love, curiosity, patience, light-heartedness, intuition and consciousness—a twenty-four-hour a day, hands-on commitment that Shonnie and I were very willing to make.
Shonnie brought forward many new paradigm parenting practices (some of which were actually ancient), including maintaining physical contact with Gracelyn (especially skin-to-skin) until baby desired some separation, co-sleeping (the three of us sleeping in the same bed together), baby sign language so Gracelyn could let her wants and needs be known before she could voice them, nursing when Gracelyn wanted it, elimination communication (eliminating diapers by becoming attuned to Gracelyn’s cues and giving her the opportunity to use the potty on her own when needed), learning what Gracelyn’s cries meant and attending to her needs in the moment, and finally, endeavoring to see things from Gracelyn’s perspective and consistently loving and respecting her as a full-fledged family member with her own unique wants and needs. In the process, however, we were so single-minded about our relationship with our daughter that we neglected the one that had bound us so strongly together.
Indications of our growing detachment were minor at first. A cross word here and there with no apology. Resentfully cleaning up after dinner rather than merely doing what needed to be done. But as the years went by, the gulf between us grew. The flame our union had ignited seemed to barely flicker at times. Not that we didn’t have our moments of deep connection, frequently precipitated by something particularly evocative that Gracelyn did or said. Nonetheless, the contrast between the gentleness, compassion and respect with which we treated Gracelyn and the callousness and insensitivity with which we often treated one another was sometimes heartbreaking. And though Gracelyn was a happy, healthy, funny, spunky, bright, inquisitive, self-possessed, resilient, loving little girl, I knew in my heart of hearts that the fragile connection between Shonnie and me must be affecting her at some level too.
One night after I’d spoken especially harshly to Shonnie, she tearfully pleaded, “I’d just like you to treat me with the love and caring you treat Gracelyn with.” I was shaken and ashamed. Shonnie was right. I found it in my heart to be loving, gentle and respectful with my little girl almost all the time. With Shonnie, I’d lost that loving feeling. Even so, I still knew how much my partnership with Shonnie meant to me. And to realize that it had, in large part, slipped away was deeply troubling and painful. Something had to change. And that something was me.
First of all, I dealt with the resentments toward Shonnie that had built up over the past few years, ranging from her need to rearrange the dishes in the dishwasher after I’d loaded it to the fact that the shape of her belly hadn’t yet recovered from the pregnancy. After that I went to Shonnie and said: “I know I’ve been unloving and disrespectful toward you, and I commit to changing my behavior. I pledge to be with you in a manner that upholds our commitments to one another.” We discussed the positive impact of speaking only if what’s about to be said is true, kind and necessary. Again, we vowed step over nothing, to deal with disagreements in the moment. Most importantly, I believe, is that Shonnie and I both made a conscious choice in that moment about how we will be with one another, a manner of being closely aligned with how we are with our Gracelyn. If we can come from love with our daughter, we can most certainly do it with one another. And we did . . . and we do, modeling for Gracelyn what love and respect in a relationship looks like and how it feels to be in that warm embrace.
My deep gratitude to Carrie Contey
I would be remiss if I did not give credit where credit is due. My work with Carrie Contey’s Evolve parenting program helped me awaken to how far off track I’d gotten in my partnership with Shonnie. From one of Carrie’s daily emails:
There’s really no big secret to being in a great partnership other than just deciding you are going to do it and making time to make it great. Choose to blow by the stupid stuff that comes up and just love each other.
Evolve gave me opportunities and tools for getting back on track and creating the life that Shonnie, Gracelyn and I all want together, including remembering to nourish one another and our partnership and quick connects for couples—leave a flower, slow dance to a love song, text a love note, and more. Thank you, Carrie from the bottom of my heart. And thank you, Shonnie, for encouraging me to enroll in Evolve with you. Heart expanding and life altering!
Being human, from time to time I still drop the ball and fail to live up to my commitments to Shonnie and to Gracelyn as well as those to myself. But I do my best to deal with my lapses in the moment—forgiving myself for my slip-ups, letting go of the expectation that I always do it just right, making amends to Shonnie and/or Gracelyn as necessary, and recommitting to speaking and acting from my heart . . . to those dearest to me, to all humankind, to all living things.