We knew something had to be done. We were walking, my husband and I, along the stretch of shore between the Hermosa and Manhattan Beach piers, like we had so many times before. The dolphins were there, a few feet beyond the surf, and so were the early morning surfers and the marine layer that was due to lift any moment. It was late spring, before the surf camps started and eager children claimed the beaches. Everything about our beautiful, beachside life was the same.
Everything but us.
We were arguing, and every statement made the other defensive. What used to be a pleasant weekly tradition of deep conversation and handholding — a nice sand-between-our-toes break from the busy week, was now just two prideful, wounded individuals disturbing the peace of the Pacific Ocean with their polarizing energy, like angry drivers swerving to avoid a collision.
Four years into our blissful marriage we hit some serious hills.
It became clear, like it does to so many couples at one time or another, that we had to either traverse them to save our marriage or retreat to lives without one another.
Just a few years earlier we had visited the South Bay and fell fast in love with its effortless charm. The bustling breakfast joints, the coffee shops full of easy going chit chat, the all-year-long outdoor lifestyle and the close-knit, ocean side community – Manhattan Beach had us at hello and whispered ease and comfort at every corner. We loved the proximity to Los Angeles, but equally loved the fact that this casual-yet-chic community fell just outside of its powerful grip, maintaining an identity all its own. So we lived at a local hotel for a month while I started grad school at USC, my husband launched a new business that took off exponentially.
We found a cozy nook to call home, a charming two bedroom atop a flower shop and a real estate office, just two blocks from the water and steps away from fine dining, the farmers market, surf shops and the cutest ice cream joint in town. Who cares that the apartment didn’t have a dishwasher or storage space and needed a new toilet? It was the perfect newlywed pad for our newfound entrepreneurial life. We had money in the bank and hopes in our heart. We were living large. It was almost too good to be true. Until it was.
When my husband’s thriving business fell victim to the 2009 economic collapse, so did the pleasantries of an easy life.
My writing career was over before it started. It needed more time and energy than I could give it while helping my husband run his business. The tension and stress of our personal endeavors took their toll. We could no longer ignore the arguments, the resentment, and the financial strain. Here in the most picturesque beachside town, where the 5 o’clock air smelled of sunscreen and cocktails year ‘round and the sunset never failed to amaze, we were miserable.
That morning on the beach we hit an impasse and so decided on a wise whim to run away. Away from our cozy beachside life, away from our favorite spots, our failing jobs, and away from our friends and family. Because of the stress of losing some things along the way, we were also running away from the pressure to have more than we did. It was like eloping, but to rescue our marriage instead of start it.
We found someone to take over our lease for the summer and planned a three-month, low budget voyage through Southeast Asia. Without a travel agent, we made a fabulously haphazard, not-particularly-direct-or-sensible journey through Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, India, Nepal and Hong Kong.
We went to where life really was simple and inconvenient, and more than a little bit financially stressed.
When we arrived, we saw cultures drastically different than our own and cultures that made us question all we thought we knew, and all we thought we wanted or deserved. We saw natural beauty so striking it brought us to tears. We saw religious devotion and communities striving for the good of one another. More than the sites, scenes and smells, we saw people. Marriages, relationships and love. It was humanity paired down — the enjoyment of one of life’s purest pleasures, companionship. Of course we also saw struggle and pain and poverty, but there was something unifying about seeing people so unlike us in their daily stresses and life expectations that were so like us in their need for love and community.
We spent a day helping rehabilitate elephants in the Thailand jungle, we argued and cried amidst Indian spice markets and on hot, sweaty Tuk Tuk rides in Cambodia. Then there was that day in a three-man long boat, that day of pivotal conversation, while we paddled along the murky Mekong river in Laos. In Vietnam, we made fast friends with a guide on the beautiful Halong Bay, and were elated to have this remote, objective audience to listen to our story of pain and growth.
We visited villages without electricity nestled in some of this world’s most staggering beauty. We gave time and support to an orphanage in Nepal of loving children who had very uncertain futures but remained full of joy and life. Their contentment and minimal needs humbled us. Like hiking in Nepal, it seemed the further we went on our journey, the clearer the air became.
After a few months, we were just the two of us again, putting our effort, interest and love toward common goals and experiences, just like we did when we were first married.
Alone in the world again, we were able to see each other for why we first fell in love, apart from the pressure and expectation we had allowed ourselves to accumulate over the preceding four years.
On our fifth anniversary, over mystery beers and sliced mango, in a hut on a remote island in the Philippines with no air conditioning or hot water, we exchanged letters of commitment and vowed to remain together. The islanders prepared a table in the sand for us, with a humble but beautiful spread of flowers, seafood, fruits and candles. We sat, sweaty and barefoot in the August heat, truly seeing each other for the first time in months. It was an exotic mix of the luxury we started with and the basics we were learning to stay grounded upon.
Back at LAX Airport, we jumped in a cab after an 18-hour flight from Hong Kong, and asked the driver to take the route along the water to our apartment instead of inland. At the first glimpse of the Pacific, we both teared up. We arrived home completely healed. Without jobs and a with dwindled savings, we returned to so much less than before, but with much, much more. I rolled down the window and breathed the salty air in deep. Now the comfort of the easy beach life was a welcomed respite, a reminder of our blessings, rather than a pressure to have more, and once again, the perfect place for us to land.
Our marriage had a value and a worth and was now priority over personal ambition and financial comfort.
It no longer had to do with mere pleasantries of life or what we had believed was “success.” It was about us, and the commitment to journey together.
When life corners you into a dark place, one of negativity and doubt, one that says you have nothing more to lose, it’s a chance to step back and realize it also means you have everything to gain.
They say that lovers hold hands and look at each other, while friends hold hands and look at the horizon. Now we were both, and how grateful we were for the home we had chosen, where the horizon was so close, and so beautiful, a constant reminder of the journey we were on together.
So run away if you must, but always, always come back.