The moment Steve claimed he could smell Sycamore trees, I was swinging–ever so slightly so as not to spill my coffee–on a wooden bench swing on the porch of a cabin we had rented during a recent vacation for just the two of us.
Before he spoke, I was sitting alone on the porch, gazing through the woods, past the Virginia Creeper bicycle trail, to Laurel Creek where sunbeams glittered on moving ripples of rushing water. I’d put the book I was reading, still open, in my lap and was half-listening to the ambient sounds around me. Birds chirped. The creek water gurgled. The gravel crunched when the occasional biker pedaled by.
From the cabin, Steve came out to the porch and sat down in a chair beside the swing. “Look at that walnut tree.”
Immediately, I was victim and judge. He was guilty. His crime: interrupting my reverie. I didn’t want to look at a walnut tree. I wanted to look at the sun glistening on the river and wonder about where the river started and where it was going and how time is like a river—always moving.
I didn’t mention his crime. I continued my daydreaming and hoped he’d stop talking and start browsing through his magazine.
“There it is. The sycamore. I knew there was a sycamore out there. I could smell it. See the sycamore?”
I didn’t really care that a specific odor wafted from a sycamore tree that grew in the woods between the porch and the creek.
I thought about not responding to Steve’s claim. Sipping my coffee. Slipping back into the lazy daydream maze that I’d been enjoying.
But a while ago, I read about research conducted by Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute and his claim about the secret to a healthy marriage—a marriage that lasts. I even shared the secret with my daughter when she got married last November. The secret sounds simple.
Here it is: in marriages that last, when one person bids for the other’s attention, the couple engages. They turn towards each other more often than they don’t. (You can read more about that here.)
Like I said the secret sounds simple. Some days, living like the secret matters is not so simple. I don’t always feel like acknowledging my husband’s bids. They come at inconvenient times. They’re not interesting.
However, I want my marriage to last, so most often, I try to respond to Steve’s bids. That day on the porch, I decided the sycamore comment might be a bid. I marked my page in my book, put the book down by my side, took a sip of my coffee, turned to Steve and said, “You can’t smell a sycamore tree.”
He’s not a good listener. He didn’t hear the scoff in my statement. He took my words as an invitation to explain.
He inhaled. “Smell that musty smell? There’s the sycamore right beyond the walnut.” He pointed.
“I’m not going to try to smell something that can’t be smelled…or smelt.” I, of course, based my statement on my experience in which I can smell the woods, but I don’t differentiate between the odors of specific trees. “And I don’t know which tree is the walnut tree.”
“You don’t know which one is the walnut? Of course, you do. It’s not that hard to pick out. It’s the one with the green walnuts on it.”
I detected scorn for my tree identification abilities in his tone.
“I see the green bulbs. But for all I know they could be unripe peaches.” Well, actually, I did not think they were peaches. I know a peach tree when I see one. But the bulbs didn’t look like walnuts, either.
Our conversation wasn’t hostile. But it was moving in the direction of divisive. It highlighted our differences. Our judgement about each other’s knowledge or lack of it. Our apathy about each other’s interests and specific knowledge.
And we, actually, love each other.
I remembered that and listened for a while. Steve rambled on about tree bark and leaf shapes.
“You really know a lot about trees.” I conceded. And I tried to learn, but the specifics don’t stick. Although, I think from now on, I’ll recognize a walnut tree when I see it.
I’m more interested in relationships between people. When I turn on the news and hear about the incivility and hostility and division between people these days, I wonder.
I don’t wonder about the cause. That comes from judgement, scorn and apathy about each other’s uniqueness.
I wonder: could we make things better–not just in our marriages, but in society–if we just turned to each other more often with respect.
I make up my mind to do just that today: I’ll acknowledge the sales associate who scans the items I purchase. I’ll let someone go in front of me in line somewhere. I’ll smile at a parking attendant.
I don’t know if my actions will make any difference.
And then outside of Starbucks, I run into a woman from church. Once a month, I watch her kids in the nursery while she and other parents attend church. But other than that, I don’t know her. We didn’t even know each other’s names.
We exchange names and pleasantries and then motioning to Starbucks, she asks, “Could I buy you a coffee?”
I raise my grande shaken green iced tea.
I didn’t need another drink. Even so, her offer infused me with a little delight. Her appreciation inspired me to look for ways to pass her kindness on.
Her actions made a difference for me.
Let’s pass her kindness on. Think of someone you are tempted to judge or scorn or treat with apathy, and just for today, turn to them with gratitude, respect and a specific kindness. I think we can make a difference.