I have received requests for further discussion of the Hermetic Marriage, not as the symbol of the reunion that is the goal of soul evolution, but rather as a path toward achieving enlightenment through love of another. Many a famous alchemist had a female assistant, a soror, or sister, considered essential to accomplishment of the Great Work. Some have suggested that for certain alchemists the art was much like Tantric sexuality, the practice of orgasm as spiritual union. Every culture and age has produced such experiments. Sometimes outlawed and viciously punished as under the scrutiny of the Catholic Inquisition, other times celebrated as an ideal of terrestrial beauty and a panacea of healing as in the Temples of Aphrodite in ancient Greece.
But the power of the orgasm is a common subject these days. Conservative Brits are up in arms as I write this because the public schools in England have been instructed to teach students that an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away. Nell Gwyn would have been proud; although the instruction is based on science it is certainly in line with the Merrie side of Olde England.
These days the art of self induced, romantic, and communal orgasm is no secret topic. Orgasm Day is celebrated worldwide every year. On Craigslist kinks advertise for their complements. Internet porn provides visualization for just about any variety of human sexuality. But orgasm, however powerful and potentially sacred, is not the totality of gender relations. To be skilled at giving and receiving orgasms is far from a guarantee of domestic bliss. Although it doesn’t hurt!
So no sex lessons. Instead a story about an older couple I counseled once. They had read many books. They were culturally cool and plugged in to a degree surprising for people of their age in our culture. They were almost always together, and almost always at home, enjoying retirement in a very self contained yet enviable way. They pretty much agreed on what was good about art, what was the funniest kind of humor, they liked the same movies, they had the same politics. Their grown children loved them deeply. It was cute. Their friends made fun of them but admitted jealousy. Here, I thought upon meeting them, is romantic love that has defied the challenges of decades. Their eyes sparkled when they talked about each other.
But the truth was that they were inwardly bitter. They wondered if a young man could teach them anything but I had much experience by then with the troubles of old people. And my own relationship, with the help of the riot grrrl underground punk movement, had taught me a great deal about gender politics and stereotypes in relationships. Before speaking with them I threw the I Ching. The moving line described two people whom circumstances had turned against each other. Their long struggle would be rewarded because they truly belonged together. The circumstances, I realized were not only the unique difficulties of their life together, but also the prevailing cultural norms they had attempted to live by.
He worked very hard on what to her seemed like hobbies because though he always promised to bring home the pot of gold all he ever seemed to do was waste time communicating with people whose efforts never amounted to anything. If one of his dreams would come true, just one, then all his efforts would be justified; all his failures would be learning experiences in an epic journey to success. Or else he had wasted all that precious time on get rich quick schemes he never fully understood.
She complained that she needed more help around the house as she got older but he was still trying to do what he had always done. He would be the bread winner. He had to be busy having serious potentially lucrative conversations for hours daily. He had to be a man. When she injured her elbow he was disappointed. He almost suspected it was deliberate or would have if he had not known that was ridiculous. He offered to take her to the doctor but she refused. It would get better on its own. The elbow was in bad shape for a long time, so her left arm atrophied. They had always been so proud of their youthful vigor but here was a stark momenti mori.
He told me that he should have insisted. That he should have stood up and been the man. He should have made the appointment and taken her in to get her elbow fixed no matter what she said. But she had been complaining about him being overbearing. Not allowing her to decide even small matters for herself. Ignoring her intuition to their mutual detriment. Anyway, she could pick up the phone. Drive out there to the doctor and get it looked at herself. She did that when they were raising their children and he was out working long hours. Wasn’t he doing enough already, trying to make deals happen that would secure their comfortable old age?
She didn’t want to disturb him. He was so adamant that his lifetime of experience was leading to a jackpot. She didn’t want to take away his dignity. He was still working or trying to work though jobless. She thought that was sweet, such a good man. She would try her best to keep the place spotless, make the meals, take care of the pets, keep up with the kids and other family, though it hurt her well worn joints, and she did not have the energy she used to, and with so little time for herself she felt her creative powers ebbing, and was queasy to find herself happy enough with a bowl of ice cream and a sentimental movie.
From this simple dynamic emerged a tortured tangle of bad habits and automatic reactions that in their downward spirals would find her raging at him for the lifetime of injustice she had suffered. I recognized the pattern. My own mother had done the same to my father. Every bad decision he had ever made was held up to the glaring light of the heavy consequences she bore as a result. He wasn’t an evil man, far from it, just a regular guy, charitable and honest. Most of his peers had made the same mistakes thinking them virtues. Generations of traditional men have grown frail under the unforgiving and justified glares of their future widows.
Of course this is a common problem. Sadly several generations of wives who married men raised by mothers who taught their sons to be taken care of, discovered to their chagrin that the second wife inherited a husband bachelorhood had taught to respect and even enjoy the household tasks once thought anathema.
I tried a simple exercise and a simple suggestion. The suggestion was that the next time irritation and resentment were aroused in him in regard to his wife he imagine that she had prepared for him his favorite meal then suddenly took ill. Back from the hospital, alone, he finds in his refrigerator her carefully prepared meal for him. Merely hearing it brought tears to his eyes. He was not to linger on this imagery or return to it. Instead he should focus on the feeling of appreciation and presence it inspired.
The exercise was that she was to take the next Monday off. She would plant herself on the couch in front of the TV and get up only to use the bathroom. He would take over her chores and provide her with food and other care. I explained that while it was good they were doing everything possible to stay healthy it would be a comfort to both of them to know that should she become ill he would be able to keep their life together going long enough for her to get better.
Sitting on that couch she found a terrible loneliness of unlived life and a desperate neediness for him that surprised her after so many years of irritated pseudo independence. He found a surprising comfort in the simple day to day chores of the household: the zen raking of the sand everywhere from the kitchen to the cat box. He also realized how hard she worked. The physical difficulty and dexterity of her many tasks surprised him even though he thought himself appreciative of her skills and efforts. Instead of a long line of years filled with human errors that had become the frozen points of argument they found themselves standing in that curious combination of power and frailty that is the present moment.
They still had to meet the various natural challenges of the effort to balance gender. She was surprised at how imperious and curt she could be when he fumbled like a beginner at some household task. She was shocked to find herself resentful of his several innovations for improving the daily grind. No less resentful than he felt when invited into his world of business she proved an acute judge of character and showed off a flair for identifying trends ahead of the curve. But they also found joy in each other’s accomplishments. For example, instead of demeaning her for making a mistake, he viewed her mistakes as an opportunity to help her, to prove his love in her moment of need.
No couple is ever completely free of disagreements and argument, but romantic love need not be only for the young. There is no more rapturous an experience than to live one’s life in pursuit of some creative passion with a deeply loved partner.