I first met my first husband, Robert, without actually meeting him. I both admired and avoided him from afar.
To backtrack, I had started doing yoga in the early 90s. I kept getting a message in my head: Do yoga. (Karma.)
Before I got this message, I had dismissed yoga as idiotic. I didn’t get the point of it. I was all about exercise for some result: a) goodness, as in moral superiority; b) appearance, as in I was interested in appearing morally superior to anyone who knew that I was running or going to aerobics class or whatever; and c) most importantly, skinniness, which is, of course, a key visual signifier of moral superiority, and also the only way to look to get a man.
So I got into yoga, not in any way through my intellect or my understanding of how things worked, but somehow somewhere in my being something was telling me: do yoga. I was the poster child for yoga. I became an excellent yoga teacher (I think of myself as exactly the yoga teacher I would like to have) mostly because of my complete initial retardedness. I learned everything from scratch; I had almost no connection between my head and my body so everything the teacher would say had to be translated and questioned.
“Do you put your feet right beside each other or can there be space between them?”
“Should I be feeling a stretch in my hips even though we’re stretching our legs?”
“Is this how I should be breathing?”
As a former top student in school, I was very interested in getting it “right.” I drove my first yoga teacher a little nuts.
The more I did yoga the more I knew I needed to do yoga. Again this realization was not intellectual. Something in my being was continually drawn to yoga. I tried new classes; I tried different yoga videotapes. I traveled a lot to do my art and did yoga in Venice, on Greek islands, in my brother’s 200-sq-ft New York “apartment.”
One day in the spring of 1996 I was in yoga class in Toronto and I saw a notice for a weekend yoga retreat. I was broke (I was always broke) but I knew I had to go. I got someone to cover my waitressing shifts and off I went to somewhere in non-urban Ontarioland.
The instructors had come from a place called Kripalu Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. As soon as they walked into the room, these words came into my head: I’m going to that place.
In November of that year I did. I signed up for a month-long yoga and service intensive at Kripalu. I walked into Kripalu, put my suitcases in my room, and went to my first evening yoga session at the place where I would end up living and working for more than two years. Robert was the teacher that night.
He had a long, lean body, a sad face, beautiful brown eyes, a soft New York-accented voice, and a shy, sweet manner. I loved the way he led yoga. Like me, Robert leads yoga by sharing his own practice. Like me, he is very at home teaching yoga. His yoga felt very nurturing. Besides me, he is still me favourite yoga teacher. My roommate, Holly, said: “That Robert is pretty attractive.”
Even though I hadn’t met him, I said: “He is a very damaged guy. You should stay away from him.” I just knew. That whole month, I made a point of going to all of his classes but I didn’t try to get to know him. The main chapel of Kripalu where yoga is held is pretty big and the yoga teacher is at the front like a performer on a stage or a professor or a preacher. He was kind of a star to me.
After my month, I went back to Toronto to organize moving to Kripalu for a longer period. I came back the following February to do a program where you get room, board, and spiritual development opportunities in exchange for working. I walked in the door and ran into a friend. We went to dinner together in the cavernous, austere dining hall (Kripalu was once a Catholic seminary; the building, built in the 50s, looks like any university or institutional building of that era). She said, “I want you to meet my friend Robert.”
This is how I felt: I am about to meet Robert! Robert is joining us! After my month of going to his classes and making him into a kind of star, I was really excited that I was going to be sitting with this handsome guy with the New York accent who seemed so sensitive, whose yoga felt so good. I remember I was charmed by what he had on, a green and purple striped turtleneck.
It was a really fun dinner. Robert is very witty and irreverent and he made me laugh a lot. It was the time of the OJ Simpson trial and we were both interested in the allegory of it. I hadn’t exactly forgotten my words to Holly or changed my mind about my assessment, I just enjoyed myself. It began a friendship that still exists to this day with a lot of extremely painful, hellish shit in between when we tried to be lovers and spouses.
My relationship with Robert—how it came about, the stuff that happened, the complete non-rationality of it—taught me and helped me understand the concept of karma. Robert is actually a deeply damaged guy who prefers to live like a hermit and is not very able to function in the world. Kripalu was a great place for him to be. He paid a minimal rent to live in one of the private rooms. He worked very part time hours as a yoga teacher and he was, along with any other man who entered the place, in demand. Women outnumbered men about eight to one.
I was a deeply damaged woman in her mid-30s, really lonely, desperate for a relationship, but utterly ill-equipped for a healthy one. The sensible part of me knew not to get involved with guys who seemed as damaged as Robert. Here’s a piece of karmic evidence, though: every day I would run into this hermit who barely exited his room.
“Can you fuckin believe that Johnny Cochran?! Getting OJ to try on the glove, that was inspired!”
We started having lunches and dinners together. In a fit of what I thought of as bravery and directness, I asked if he had a girlfriend. He allowed that he was “seeing” some woman from the town. “She thinks she’s my girlfriend,” he said with hilarity and contempt. Red flags all over the place.
One day in Robert’s yoga class I was near the front. I was in child pose and Robert came over and placed his hands on the small of my back, an assist, in the parlance of yoga teachers. Such a simply kind and simple act. But what amazing consequences! I had an experience of what I can only describe as God in that moment. (The yogis call it shakti.) I felt myself and my body as a pillar of white light extending from earth to “heaven.” While I have had other shakti experiences, I have never had that God feeling before or since.
I knew I loved Robert and had to tell him. I went from being in one of those lame, pretend flirtations that go nowhere to the real thing. I sat him down in the office that I worked in, closed my eyes, and explained my feelings, “I just love you.” I said I didn’t need him to respond or expect anything from him. But he was moved by my feelings and we soon began a relationship that was so extra-doomed from the start it wasn’t funny.
Maybe some hermits don’t mind being dragged out of their caves, but Robert did. For him, the stress of considering the needs of someone else was simply too much. For me, the idea of letting go was simply too much—inexplicably (karmically), he felt like home to me. Always instigated by me, we did a dark and destructive dance of on again-off again for more than six years. I spent many of those years sobbing and curled up in the fetal position and begging and crying to friends and trying everything I possibly could to get him to show up.
“I’m damaged goods,” he would sometimes admit. Or, “I’m not boyfriend material.” In his own way, he was honest.
When Robert took up with another woman for a while and ignored me, as in, he would literally pretend not to see me, I inappropriately told everyone I could think of about his transgressions, including the person who hired the yoga teachers and Robert's sister, in a 12-page letter. In my brain, I knew I was crazy. In my heart, I loved him and couldn’t release myself. It was a razor’s edge of awareness, living in and knowing I was living in pure fucked up shit—totally NOT a place of this makes any kind of sense. The most painful thing about it was how much I hated myself for not getting out.
By late 1999 or 2000, I was determined not to contact him anymore. I had moved into my parents’ basement in Calgary, tail between my legs, no money, no ideas, depressed, 38 years old (my friends called me Costanza), saved only by my beloved dog Swampy and the tolerance of my parents. Robert was in Lenox. We didn’t speak for a year.
Then one day, without admitting what I was going to do to anybody, not even my cherished therapist, I watched my hand press the buttons on the phone. I said: “I still want to be with you.”
In short order, he moved to Calgary, we got married, our families tried to be happy for us, we conceived Claire on our wedding night, and we had a few good months. I realized, in a deeper sense than I was allowing myself to believe hitherto, that I would be the one to support our family and in May 2001 we moved to Lethbridge where I got a job.
During my pregnancy I found out that Robert was using Internet porn at the same time that he was clearly uninterested in having sex with me. Do it baby, one more time! I was constantly getting my heart broken. It was textbook victim asking for it material or an opportunity to work on loving myself or both. 9-11 happened around the same time. Poor Claire. I was deeply distraught during my last trimester.
Then she was born! What a miracle! What a beauty! I understood love in a way that I had never felt before. Loving my child, this was love. Nothing was more important than caring for her. Robert and I both loved her so much. For a while, I got so much energy out of loving her and being with her and caring for her.
But looking after a 54-year-old baby didn’t work as well as it had. Well, of course, it had never, ever “worked,” but the demands of a real baby trumped the demands of living with my damaged husband. Our relationship exhausted me and made me ill. I actually felt like I was dying. And we fought in front of Claire. When Claire was a year and a half, I left and skipped down the hallway of my new little house. I was finally done! I was finally done!
I admit that I still got caught up in our shit for a while after we split but eventually I was able to not engage. Once I really realized that I couldn’t depend on him, I was grateful for what he could do and does do. He is a loving father and like a brother to me. It took me so long to accept on a full, embodied level, what was in my face for so long: he is a beautiful, damaged person, not able to be a real partner to me. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t something I did wrong that I had to fix.
I believe that Robert and I came into each other’s lives to work out some deep karma. I was able to work out a lot of rejection issues, to go from experiencing Robert’s actions as rejection, to accepting that what I needed from him was beyond his capabilities.
And we both got Claire out of the deal. I believe it was Claire who called up my pillar of light and Claire who called Robert back after a year and over thousands of miles. Claire wanted to be born. Her birth took my life in a brand new and miraculous direction. I am grateful for following my tormented heart. (Karma.)