Somehow I made it through eight years of that life. I remember the strangeness of our Jamaican honeymoon where all the tourists were white and the servants were black. The heartbreaking shanty towns, full of barefoot children playing among huts constructed out of cardboard and discarded metal with tin roofs. There were no playgrounds for them. I remember A woman getting arrested while braiding our hair for not having the proper paperwork. I remember the shops; clean, beautiful and full of white people. The rich white vacationers disgusted me. I hated the flippant way they ordered about the help. I wished they would suddenly switch places with their servants. The thought of it made me smile. I remember men constantly trying to sell Ian weed. I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach knowing I’d married the wrong man. I tried to be happy in Jamaica but the whole thing felt like a lie. I’ll never go back there. You’d have to drag me.
We didn’t stay long in Alaska as a married couple. Ian had a ton of friends in Oregon, a posse really, and it seemed like we could start our lives there. It didn’t really work that way though. I felt so stifled by the bahai faith, by this set of laws I was supposed to follow. It brought me nothing but pain from the outset. Of course they mindfuck you by saying your misery is a result of tests from God and they are gifts. The more tests and difficulties the more God loves you. It’s practically foolproof.
Until you start looking into the life of Baha’u’llah, prophet founder of the Bahai faith. He married his first wife Asiyih Khanum, when she was just fifteen years old in 1835. He then married his second wife Fatimih Khanum, eleven years his junior when she was just twenty-one in 1849. He then married his third wife Gawar Khanum some years later. This is of course in keeping with the custom of muslim men in the middle east and this is what Bahais will tell you in defense of his multiple wives. They’ll claim he was just following the laws of the land and hadn’t yet written his own. Really? So he just wanted to fit in I suppose. I didn’t know prophets cared about “fitting in.’
On behalf of the Universal House of Justice 10-23-1995
Regarding the wives of Baha’u’llah, extracts from the letters written on behalf of the beloved Guardian set this subject in context. They indicate that Baha’u’llah was “acting according to laws of Islam, which had not yet been superseded”, and that He was following “the customs of the people of His own land.”
When Baha’u’llah did write the Kitab-i-Aqdas (His book of laws) following the laws was so ambiguously difficult they had to be translated and explained to be understood and even those doing the explaining were unsure.
A synopsis and codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas:
The text of the Aqdas upholds monogamy, but as it appears to also to permit bigamy The Gaurdian was asked for a clarification, and in reply his secretary wrote on his behalf: “Regarding Bahai marriage; in the light of the Master’s Tablet interpreting the provision in the Aqdas on the subject of the plurality of wives, it becomes evident that monogamy alone is permissible, since bigamy is conditioned upon justice, and as justice is impossible, it follows that bigamy is not permissible, and monogamy alone should be practiced.
Several things bother me about this entire subject. To my mind, if Baha’u’llah truly were a prophet he would not have married three different women, especially not a fifteen year old girl, and then excuse himself from breaking his own laws by claiming his marriages occurred before he revealed the laws. Another issue I have with this thought process is that the only reason for prohibiting polygamy is His Revelation. Not because women were deserving of feeling at ease, loved and protected in their homes and NOT having to share their husbands. Because maybe women didn’t want to feel like property, just one more shiny object of desire their husband has racked up. No, simply because at this time the laws don’t allow for it and should that change we’ll be back where we started.
I tried to fit in with the other Bahai women in Portland, Oregon. I washed my face and kneeled and prayed the memorized Bahai prayers because of course as a Bahai you are not allowed to use your own words to pray, you must pray the prayers written for you. We were all so young I guess we thought we were making a difference. We all abstained from alcohol, smoked (because that healthy habit was allowed) drank a ton of coffee and tea, had as much sex with our husbands as we could stand to keep them happy and did our best not to gossip although we did, with relish. I was the first one to get pregnant. The only words to describe the feeling is sheer joy. I knew my baby would be beautiful, loved and perfect in every way. Like dominoes the rest of them fell. It was like I somehow made it ok for us to move on to the next step. One after another they got pregnant. I related most to a couple of the girls. One in particular I spent most of my time with. I couldn’t stand her husband. He wouldn’t let her use the air conditioner in her car even when it was in the 90s and she was SO pregnant because he got it in his mind that the air was impure and somehow the baby would breath it?!! He also made her drink gallons of milk because he believed she needed to store it up to breastfeed their daughter. It was such an ignorant belief I had to resist laughing in his face. He was insistently, consistently wrong as hell, but I adored her. I couldn’t understand why she married him other than her family was devastated she had broken Bahai law. I remember sitting at the piano with her, her eyes full of fear and guilt. I could see the tears threatening to fall. I put my arm around her and said “Who cares what anyone thinks. It’s your baby, your body. You don’t have to get married. You don’t have to feel like God is disappointed in you. The price has already been paid long before you were the sparkle in your mother’s eye. Just make a life for your little girl and for God’s sake it’s just sex people have it all the time. You just got lucky. Don’t have a cliche shotgun wedding. You’re better than that. Of course that’s exactly what she did. And they fought tooth and nail until they decided to live separately. I wanted more for her. After Ian and I headed back to Alaska to be closer to my mom and have her help with Jaden, I thought about her every day. I even wrote her a song:
Under a Veil
You and I used to get mad, plotting escape like two thieves Walking the baby in circles you cried, He’s no lover! Afternoons spent at your place, doing laundry and watching the kids We’d try not to drink too much coffee…years later I wonder…
Were you happy baby living under a veil? Is it sweeter there where you don’t have to think for yourself? When he holds you close does he shut out the rest of the world and all of its darkness… knocking you senseless…
You and I used to get mad, and then laugh at all their words. Knowing we knew more than they did, it was one of our secrets You’d play piano for me, and I’d sing our babies to sleep That life seems so far away now…since I chose to leave it
But were you happy baby living under a veil? Is it sweeter there where you don’t have to think for yourself? Are you still the same girl who talked about running away, Who longed to be free…Do you ever miss me?
She’s different now though. Too busy to call, too busy to text, too busy to remember we were young girls together once, learning how to be mothers. Life does that to women. It steals the essence of their youth, not by an obvious hardening but by a gradual forgetting we were young. Young enough to walk in the rain at midnight smoking under umbrellas. Young enough to run through the rose gardens drunk on the fragrant air, young enough to giggle like school girls when we talked about sex and husbands and how we thought we knew so much but in reality we knew nothing at all. We’d give each other advice on how to please our husbands in the kitchen and in the bedroom. Sometimes we’d laugh until our sides hurt.
I connected deeply with another girl who wasn’t part of our core group of Ian’s friends and their wives. She was different. There was no callousness when it came to Sarah. Her essence was as gentle as a breeze on an almost still lake in the sun. She was one of the purest hearts I’ve ever known. There was nothing I couldn’t tell her. We’d go to this hipster fancy tea place on Hawthorne Blvd and order flowering Jasmine tea. We’d watch the tea bloom, the cream colored blossoms popping out from the olive green leaves. We’d share our lives, our hopes and dreams. We’d share our struggles and our grief. We’d trade places crying on each other’s shoulder. Sarah had no pretense, no ulterior motive. She often cried about work and how they treated her. She was scientist, she worked in a lab testing foods for the state. I remember I called her once from Hawthorne. I had been walking and it was raining and I just was hit with a feeling of intense grief. She showed up and made me get in her car and she had made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was so Sarah. Of course she did. It was the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich to this day I’ve ever had.
As much as I loved Portland’s lush summers, I was terribly allergic. As much as I loved the culture, the restaurants and the shows we had no money to enjoy them. As I wrote in my post: A day Without Rain the endless rain of the winter months depressed me terribly. By the time we left we had moved across the bridge and were living in Washington for the public assistance and health care. I was lonely for a life I couldn’t name. I felt I was living Ian’s life, all the while drowning for lack of oxygen in my own. This was the beginning of Jaden’s love of music. He had such a hard time falling asleep and so I would drive him around listening to all my favorite cds that I figured weren’t too exciting so he’d be able to drift off. We listened to Joni Mitchell (he used to ask me to sing “Little Green” to him every night.) We listened to Coldplay, Carole King, Billie Holiday, Gillian Welch, Elliott Smith, Rufus Wainwright, Louie Armstrong, Norah Jones, Aimee Mann. He loved getting in his car seat, he knew what it meant.
Jaden doesn’t remember much of Portland in those early days. The walks we would take in his stroller with the other moms in the group. The late night gatherings. I remember saying goodbye to Sarah. It felt like I had a glass heart that shattered. I knew I’d never find another Sarah. And as hard as I tried to stay in touch we haven’t talked in more than fifteen years. After all this time I’m still looking for her.
Landing in Alaska the smell of the evergreens was indescribably beautiful. After living in the city for so long I’d forgotten how clean and pure the air and the water is. I was excited to have help with the baby and to be able to have our own cozy little trailer to call home. I couldn’t have been any more naive if I’d been hit over the head with a cinderblock and thought it fell from the sky. The trailer was on Ian’s parents’ property and it was literally crawling with bugs. It also had mice in all the cupboards. I have a distinct memory of waking up and walking down the hall to the living room and Ian was jovially spraying a line of massive ants with raid. “Mornin’!” He called out to me as if he were making pancakes. I think I turned on my heel and went straight back to bed. I used to have to boil the silverware regularly after cleaning up mouse turds. Yes, it was quite a palace we lived in.
The worst day was when I woke up and flying ants were dropping on me from the ceiling, and crawling down my nightgown. I screamed and threw off the nightgown, pulled on jeans and t-shirt, grabbed a laundry hamper and filled it with some clothes. Then I ran into Jaden’s room put him on top of the clothes in the basket and carried the whole thing out to the car. Jaden went in the carseat, the hamper went in the trunk and I peeled out of the driveway, not stopping until I reached my parents’ house. I think I was already driving by the time Ian figured out what was going on. I called him from their house and told him I wasn’t coming back until he fixed the insect problem and the rodent problem. He said “Ok” in that way of his when he has no idea what else to say and no plan to fix anything. I did eventually come back after finding out I was pregnant with Elliott. The trailer had been fumigated, but unfortunately Ian decided he wanted to build a mini studio at the opposite end of the trailer and he used manure board to do it. So although there were less bugs, and less mice, the kitchen smelled like, well, shit. As summer marched on the smell got worse and worse and worse. I couldn’t figure out why and I couldn’t stand it. I complained to Ian to no avail so I took the issue up with his parents. As usual they told me I was being difficult and oversensitive probably due to the pregnancy. I complained and complained and complained. They did nothing. Until one fine day they were cited. A neighbor called and complained about the smell emanating from their property and an investigator was dispatched. As it turned out they had raw sewage bubbling up all over the grass not more than a few feet from the trailer and surprisingly close to where the kids like to explore. I remember Ian’s mom telling me they’d be working behind the trailer and I might want to keep the window closed without mentioning a damn thing about the fact that I was aware of a problem months ago and she put us all at risk. In my mind I punched her in the face. In reality I just stared at her until she left.
By the time Elliott was two and Jaden was four I had had more than enough of the trailer, Ian’s ridiculous parents, our charade of a marriage. I remember coming home from work and Jaden was dragging his little brother down the stairs in his diaper. “What are you doing?! Where’s your father??”
“He’s sleeping and I’m taking Elliott for a walk.” Jaden said matter of factly.
“Of course he is.” I sighed. Another time I came home from work to find both boys in their rain boots eating cheerios off the floor. There was milk everywhere.
“We’re having breakfast mama!” Jaden was proud of himself.
“Yummy” Elliott smiled cheerios falling out of his mouth. “I love mama.”
“I love you too pumpkin”
“Ian! GET OUT OF BED!” I yelled down the hallway, furious, but half laughing a the spectacle.
“Huh? What happened? I didn’t hear anything…Oh Jeez!!” Ian’s reaction was unreadable. he wasn’t fully awake.
“Have fun cleaning that up” I said, and headed down the hall to the bedroom.
A few days after that I was sweeping the kitchen floor and Jaden was watching me. Suddenly he made the statement that changed everything for me. “Daddy and me and Elliott make all the messes and you clean them up Mommy!” I stopped sweeping and looked at him. I looked at the run down trailer, at the mass of cords and instruments tangled on the floor. I looked at the shabby little window that opened into two panels of greenish glass. I looked at Ian’s speakers and his mix board and his manure board and inside I started screaming.
“You know Jaden, you’re right and I’m sick of it.” I realized in that moment I had to get out. Out of the marriage, Out of the Bahai cult, out of all of it. I looked at my sons and promised myself that whatever happened They would not grow up and become Bahais. I swore I’d show them a different life, a broader and brighter one with more color and life and less rigid rules designed to imprison them.
I’ll never forget when Ian said you know I’m only with you for the kids. I thought I could say the same thing! I had tried over and over to convince him we weren’t right for each other. The last time I told him I was leaving him he told me “I’m not going to be the first one in my family to get divorced!” His face was pinched and his eyes were like daggers. My answer was easy.
“You know Ian, it’s not really up to you is it?!” And I walked out the door. It took me eight years to get physically free of a loveless marriage and a religious cult and many more years to heal from the brainwashing and nearly obliterated self esteem. In the early days I would almost throw up every time I had to drop the boys off with Ian for his custody weeks. I also walked around feeling like I was going to be struck by lightning because the Bahai faith teaches you that there are special punishments for those of us who hear the message and reject it. I also took a dive in a completely different direction and threw myself into a relationship with a woman who had borderline personality disorder, which is tale for another day. But once I did get free, truly free, the air was the purest I’d ever breathed. The water tasted like sunshine. I felt taller, more centered and the master of my own free will for the first time ever. I was only nineteen years old when I signed my life away. And I’m forty-one now. For all the good, the bad and the ugly, I can say I’ve lived. And what is life for, if not to be lived.