10/04/2011 06:22 pm ET | Updated Dec 04, 2011

Atoning for Marrying Mr. Wrong

I am shivering in the chilly fall night air, sitting on a tiny plastic folding chair that doesn't support my entire rear end, under a huge tent at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation's High Holy Days Services. I look around and notice that everyone is wearing white, which is what you're supposed to wear on Yom Kippur, while I'm wearing a peasant dress with a loud pattern. Why the hell couldn't I have worn something white, or at least beige? I mentally survey my closet and notice some white garments I overlooked. I'm upset about my sartorial faux pas. I notice that instead of focusing on forgiveness, especially of myself, I am yet again indulging in a litany of regret -- giving myself a hard time. How unspiritual can you get?

Over a thousand people are singing swaying and praying, raising a storm of atonement although not much body heat. Rabbi Jonathan, a youthful folk singing incarnation of a charismatic rabbi on the lines of the Bal Shem Tov, leads us in singing rounds, one section of the tent at a time. It's a Jewish tent revival. We sing "Avinu Malkenu," and I start weeping. For some reason this particular prayer makes me weep every year although I'm singing in Hebrew and have no idea what it means. When it's over, I cross the aisle and greet my ex-husband and his new wife who are sitting with my daughter and my ex-mother-in-law. I wish them a Happy New Year and they all look somewhat stunned, as though I'd caught them in an embarrassing indiscretion. His homely, pudgy-faced, though much younger than me, wife turns reluctantly towards me, her mouth twisted slightly in a smile facsimile, my ex-mother-in-law glares at me with blatant hostility, he is polite and returns my greeting. My daughter who lives with them grins at me.

I actually feel good that I managed to do this, to be the one to put animosity aside for this one day, despite the fact that the rest of the year I wrestle with regrets about marrying him in the first place, and about not being a good mother to my daughter, the child we adopted together.

I thought surely by now I would be busy radiating spiritual beneficence, have laid all the ghosts of my past to rest, and be enjoying the wisdom I had attained in my life. It never occurred to me that at this late date I could be struggling instead with the past -- with regrets like: Why did I marry Mr. Wrong, why can't I forgive myself for marrying him, why haven't I morphed into the wise, compassionate, spiritually evolved elder that I aspired to be by this age? Why can't I finally get it right? Is it possible to collect Social Security without simultaneously accumulating a long list of regrets?

I started thinking about this dilemma at age sixty when all of a sudden I found myself a reluctant member of the First Wives Club. I tried to find myself the way I always had, by looking for love, which mostly meant sleeping with a lot of men that I met on the Internet. I discovered quickly that this approach to fulfillment was a lot more successful at thirty-five than at sixty-five.

Then I wrote down all my regrets about the past. Wow! I'd never be singing that Edith Piaf song Je N'Regret Rien. It occurred to me that if I managed to figure out a way to leave those regrets behind I could start over -- maybe I could live my life from today rather than being stuck in the past. Maybe the path to happiness really is to live in the present, as the Buddhists contend. Or, "if you have no choice, choose it," as a crippled monk stuck on a mountaintop told Peter Matheiesson in The Snow Leopard.

Looking for answers, I went back to Jim Walters, the therapist I was seeing when I married my husband. Despite the fact that he's not Jewish, I always think of Jim as a tzaddik, or wise man. I knew there was no way to change the past, but I still wanted some answers. I wanted to find out why I made such a disastrous choice. Although Jim is in his eighties now and his body is frail, his mind is as sharp as ever.

"Why didn't you warn me?" I asked as soon as I sat down. "He was such an angry guy. Why did you let me marry him?"

"I missed it, I just missed it. So much of my work was based on wishful thinking for people," he said ruefully, running his hand through his still-thick white hair. I felt bad for him. It must really suck to be a shrink and realize you made such a bad call that your patient is sitting in front of you twenty-five years later blaming you for it.

Jim and I dissected what dynamic kept my ex and me together for so long. He said it was all about suffering.

"The thing about suffering is that it's a defense mechanism, like denial or repression," he said, putting on his Freudian hat. "It gives us a feeling of being whole, together, capable."

That particular piece of the puzzle had actually never occurred to me -- that the punishment we handed out to each other was also the glue that held us together.

"I was hooked on his sweet, comforting side too," I protested. "After all, he slept in my room when I had surgery; he was there for me when my mother was dying."

"That was real as well, it wasn't an act. It works that way actually. We're hooked on the beauty of the body or the loving words, but what we really want is the beating we're going to get." Jim paused, letting that sink in. After a few long moments of silence I asked him the last question.

"Was my marriage destined to be, was it inevitable?" He already knew about all the twists of fate that threw us together.

"There was no road less traveled for you, no other option. How it went was how it had to go."

"But I blew eighteen years of my life and lost the opportunity to find a man I could be happy with," I protested. "How do I live with that? Of course a miracle could happen, but I don't really believe it's possible anymore."

"It wasn't possible then either. You were jammed up with your neurosis. If you lost him, you might have found someone more nuts."

"Jeez that never occurred to me. I always thought I might have found someone better, I never considered the opposite possibility."

There was another possibility. If I hadn't found my husband when I did, I might have gone on screwing around, which, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when no one knew the dangers of unprotected sex, might have been fatal.

After that visit with Jim, the pain of regret diminished. I finally accepted that I couldn't have made any other choice at the time. I realized that in the end I was glad I'd gotten to be a mother, to be part of a couple, to have a family, even if it meant I cried every year when I heard Avinu Malkeynu.

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