(This is a story I read for the 10×9 Nashville Story Telling event at Douglas Corner in Nashville in April 2019. Find the Soundcloud recording here or the iTunes/Podcast edition here. The topic for this particular evening was “Travel.” The text here has been updated some and links added.)
“Are you done yet? Can we go now?”
We had just arrived, a few minutes before sunset at Beauly Priory, a small medieval church ruin near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. I felt suddenly called to explore the site as the light that cinematographers call “golden time” began to dance across the medieval stonework.
I was just getting started, when my wife said, “Are you done yet? Can we go now?”
That was more than 6 years ago, in October 2012. But looking back on that moment now, I realize that was the moment my second wife became my second future ex-wife.
This is the story of our divorce. So brace yourselves, the next 10 minutes could get awkward..
It was Carl Jung who said:
Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself.
Looking back, I realize that what I experienced that afternoon in Scotland was precisely what Jung speaks of – because I remember thinking to myself as we drove away, “I have to come back here – by myself…”
It’s hard to explain, but I have felt a powerful affinity for these medieval ruins ever since the first time I set foot in one. That was way back in the spring of 1976, when I visited England for the first time with my first future ex-wife and we stopped at Glastonbury Abbey, in Somerset in southwest England.
Once one of the grandest ecclessiastical structures in all of Europe, all that remains of Glastonbury today are a pair of gothic arches marking one end of the nave. I am captivated by the paradox between the indestructible stone and the vanished institutions that once flourished within.
It was decades before I returned to the British Isles and again I felt the pull of the ruins.
And then, in the fall of 2012 in the midst of golden time on the silent gothic columns: “Are you done yet? Can we go now?”
I am standing here tonight because when I learned that tonight’s topic was “travel,” for some reason my mind twisted down one of its darker corridors to that moment at Beauly Priory, recalling the pivotal moment it turned out to be.
In my submission, I said only that I could trace an arc from “Are you done yet, can we go now?” to my divorce 6 years later. And Michael and his co-conspirators said “sure, go ahead. Get up on stage in front of a hundred strangers and tell that story.”
Now, here’s the thing about divorce stories. They always include at least one asshole. Ideally, they involve two assholes – hence the benevolent legal construct of a “no fault” divorce.”
I have not come to this forum to speak disparagingly of my former wife.
I’ll just tell you about the asshole things that she thinks I did.
The die may have been cast the day after we returned from our honeymoon in the fall of 2000. Literally, within a day after returning from two weeks touring England and Germany, I was fired from the job I’d had for about a year before the wedding.
Back up a minute: In the fall of 1999, I’d cashed out of the Internet music business – songs.com – that I’d started with two partners in 1995. At the peak of the late-90s Internet bubble, I sold the business to Gaylord Entertainment – the company that owns the Grand Ole Opry, among other things – and taken employment with the new owners – earning the most salary I’ve ever earned. But the young turks that Gaylord put in charge its digital operations burned through $50-million in less than a year, and blew up my little company in the process. By the end of 2000, the adults stepped in and started shutting everything down – starting by firing me and most of the people I worked with.
At the end of September, Ann married and flew off for two weeks in Europe with a highly paid executive for Nashville’s marquee entertainment company. Within a day of our return, her new husband was unemployed – and managed to stay that way for the next 20 years.
While my wife continued working as a nurse at a dialysis clinic, I squandered my fortune on slow horses, fast women, crooked casinos and buckets of booze.
Oh wait, none of that is true.
Contrary to what you are all now thinking, I was not a freeloader. When Gaylord acquired songs.com, they had handsomely for the privilege of destroying my company. And they paid me in cash.
The first thing I did with that cash was pay off the mortgage the house we’d bought and moved into the year before we were married. So we were flush; there was no rent or mortgage, and we lived well and traveled frequently over the course of the next two decades.
After Gaylord, I embarked on what I thought would be a creative new career path.
When a publisher offered me a modest advance I compiled some material I’d been sitting on since the 1970s into a biography about Philo T. Farnsworth – The Boy Who Invented Television. The book was a surefire best seller – “a must read for anybody who watches television.” The book itself turned out nicdely, but suffice it to say we fell somewhat short of tapping that vast potential market.
Nevertheless, figuring I had found my new calling as a “biographer of obscure 20th Century scientists,” I went off to write a second book. But after six years of arduous research and writing, I was forced to admit that I’d fallen down a bottomless rabbit hole in which there was apparently no rabbit. I had written the 500-page biography of a man whose story could not be told. I abandoned the unfinished project early in 2009.
After that fiasco, I never quite found my footing. Despite securing the roof over our heads and holding up my end of the routine expenses with investment income, my ongoing non-employment became a source of increasing tension in our marriage.
And then we went to Scotland. And Ann said “Are you done yet, can we go now?” And as we drove away, I thought, “I need to come back her by myself.”
Six months later I did just that. There is another story about how all that came to pass: I was invited to shadowed a small troupe of Celtic musicians around parts of Scotland and England and photograph their tour. And I got to spend all the time I wanted wandering among the ruins – which is to say, I could stand among the ruins and feel the passage of time and space. The photo at the top of this post – of me on a bench in front of Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders region – was taken on that trip, in May of 2013.
Fast forward now to another travel-related story.
It’s the spring of 2016, and we are in Portland Oregon. My wife climbs into our rented SUV and says,
“They want me to start August 1 .”
That moment is arguably the midpoint between “Are You Done Yet?” and the divorce.
Because at that moment, my wife is announcing her intention to move to Portland. She had secured a job there, and they wanted her to start the new position on August 1.
I understood her motives. Her two grown sons and only grandchild live in Portland. We have been there plenty of times over the past two decades.
I have visited lots of places in my life that have prompted me to wonder “what would it be like to live here?” but Portland Oregon was never one of them. You now that TV show, Portlandia? It is not a satire.
More importantly: I have roots now in Nashville. I have lived here longer than anywhere I’ve ever lived. And, yes, a paid for house with a year-long view of the sunset. I was dubious that I could recreate that in Oregon.
On July 20, 2016, my wife packed all she could into her SUV, mounted her kayak on top, and with a neighbor friend, drove out of our driveway, heading west to Oregon. It was understood at the time that it was a one-way trip.
Shortly after she drove away, I put a few things in a “go bag” and spent the next three nights with friends. I returned to the house briefly on the third day, just to collect a few things before staying away one more night.
Going through the house that third day, the energy shift was palpaple. Standing alone in our bedroom, I thought “this is what it must feel like for the surviving spouse to come home after the funeral…”
That summer was tough. Just walking past the fish counter at Publix made me sad, because I would no longer be grilling salmon for two. Over the next 6 months I went to Portland 3 times, to visit and see if I could fathom moving there. For reasons too numerous to recount, each visit was less pleasant than the one before.
Once I’d made it through the holidays of 2016 – going to Thanskgiving and Christmas gatherings alone – I was starting to settle into what appeared to be my new, solitary life.
But… we weren’t done yet.
Things in Portland didn’t work like Ann thought they would. She didn’t get along with any of her co-workers, she hated the little apartment she was living in, and discovered she really didn’t care for the climate: it’s cloudy and rains a lot, except in the winter, when it’s cloudy and cold – and snows a lot. And I will probably never be privy to what transpired between her and her kids, but I have reason to suspect that there was some tension with Gramma hovering around all the time.
So after 8 months – just as I was starting to recover from the shock, clearing out a lot of clutter and getting used to the idea of living alone – Ann announced that she was coming back.
When she came back, we went to a counselor, a guy known throughout the region as “the marriage whisperer.” When he asked her why she’d returned, she told him that she didn’t like paying rent in Portland “when there’s a paid for house” in Tennessee – without so much as a nod toward the guy who actually paid for the house. Suffice it to say the subsequent whispering fell on deaf ears.
I filed for divorce in March of 2018. Believe it or not, we remained together in that paid for house for nearly a year. Instead of coming home after the funeral, the last year was like climbing into the coffin with the corpse.
It is absurd to think that I can distill ten years of marital decline into a mere ten minutes. Hopefully you get the gist.
In the legal proceedings, I described Ann as “cold, cruel, and unforgiving.” She described me as “controlling, narcissistic, arrogant, self-centered and demanding.” I guess we’ll call that a wash.
I hope I have been fair and balanced in this accounting, which is really just an attempt to record the points on our paths where we did, indeed, begin to travel separately.
Six years after that moment at Beauly Priory, the divorce was recorded and Ann moved out of the house we’d lived in together for more than 20 years. (And as this is posted to my website in May, 2020, Ann I have not spoken in almost a year.)
I am still processing all this, still doing the post-mortem. But I already know what the coroner will report, what I will tell people when they ask what happened: After 20 years together, we simply lost the capacity to be kind to one another.
I’m done now. We can go.