The allure of travel is complex. It is an escape from routine. It enlarges our understanding of a greater world. And, we hope, travel provides an opportunity for soul searching and self discovery. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love comes to mind. In her deeply engaging memoir, East Winds: A Global Quest to Reckon with Marriage, Rachel Rueckert explores these themes. The result is a richly satisfying read.
East Winds provides an account of a year-long trip around the world, a trip Rueckert initially plans to take by herself. She works two years in Boston, as part of Teach for America, saving money for the trip. Then a husband comes along. There is courtship, then a traditional Mormon wedding. Two weeks later, they leave for South America. Her trip is now their trip. “I had fallen in love fair and square,” she remarks, suggesting a solid foundation for this relationship. Nevertheless, with marriage come questions.
And so begin two narrative threads she weaves together–part travelogue, with detailed accounts of their experiences in South America, Asia, and Europe; and part memoir, a searching analysis of her personal and family history, along with her faith tradition and its conception of marriage. The goal, as Rueckert states in her title, is to understand marriage, though “reckon” expresses a wider scope and deeper sense of urgency. “I’d never done well with permanent,” she announces early on. “Husband represented a commitment toward the stereotypical package I’d spent most of my millennial life resisting: Mormon, Married, Mother. The End.”
Permanence is the problem. She is the child of a broken home (her parents divorced when she was thirteen). At fifteen, she moves from her mother’s house to her father’s. She works. She studies. She does not prepare for a traditional Mormon marriage. Once she is married, Rueckert tries to reconcile the family story she knows with the Mormon concept of “sealing,” the bonding of two people for all of eternity. Earthly bonds, she knows, will break. “Leave or get left,” she thinks. In her personal history, leave is dominant, and comes with a burden of guilt. “Though I’d stuck it out plenty in my life—school, jobs no matter how difficult, my complicated commitment to religion, my relationship with Austin—I imagined none of these added enough evidence to redeem me from my original sin of leaving my mother, or the haunt of her leaving me.”
About marriage, at virtually every stop and stay there is something to learn. In Peru a new friend Patrick introduces her to the concept of “trial marriage,” which can last 3-5 years, during which a woman’s “capabilities” (cooking, cleaning, sex, compatibility) are tested. Anan, a new friend in Thailand, explains marriage traditions of the Lahu tribe. In some of her most gorgeous writing Rueckert describes the clothing, the colors and ceremonies, and their significance. The Lahu marry young–girls at age eleven or twelve, boys age thirteen or fourteen. There is a sacred space where couples dance at the New Year. “There,” Anan explains, “you can change wives if you end up dancing with someone new.”
In India, their longest stay (two months), she wonders about Hindu marriage and learns from her new friend Chaitra (the name means “beginning”) about the rite of passage. A traditional marriage is arranged. Compatibility is determined by horoscope. At one stage in the two-hour wedding ceremony, the groom pretends to walk away, “resisting the call of marriage in favor of another, more alluring path.”
In these moments Rueckert shifts from travelogue to memoir mode: recalling a year-long relationship in which she thought she had found “the one”; remembering, on a trip during her undergraduate years, what the Buddhist monks and nuns told her about marriage (monks: “avoiding marriage and family was the quickest way to nirvana, a release from suffering,” nuns: “marriage is when all your troubles start, the beginning of all suffering). She recalls the feeling an engagement ring on her finger (“The silver ring with a blue topaz stone felt unnatural on my left hand as I sat near the back of a Boston University classroom”), senses the reactions of her classmates when she announces, after Teaching for America, her plan was to get married (“the frozen smiles of surprise when I named a date”).
Travel presents challenges, reveals character, and tests a relationship. On multiple occasions, in train stations, on trails, in refuges, exhaustion and stress build and detonate. After some very difficult moments at a train station, Rueckert and her husband, consumed by the conflict, participate in a lantern festival. The ritual serves as a moment of reconciliation for them, beautifully rendered in her prose: “Austin and I walked with our krathong through the unfamiliar Chiang Mai streets lined with lush trees and vivid flowers. Plumeria wafted like ripe peaches as eager kids lit off the first sky lanterns, unable to wait until pitch black. Rows of tea lights flickered in front of buildings and temples.” Their new friend Nita tells them, “Candles light the way when we do not see a path but want good to come.”
Not to be missed in this wonderful book is Rueckert’s account of their 500-mile walk to Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrims are many, the writing lush, her reflection and meditations deep. At one point along the trail, she uses the term a “person ago”–
“This is fun,” I’d said to [Austin] a few hours earlier, dizzy from the austere vista. That already felt like another person ago. Was this fun? And if not, what else could it be? (my emphasis)
We are many things, past selves, current and future selves. Identity has many faces. Nothing challenges our sense of self quite like marriage. The shift from I/me/my to we/us/our is bound to be fraught.
In three short sections of this book, there are catalogs, long lists of people, impressions, vignettes, details. In the dedication of the book she lists women with male-centric traditions pressing unbearably down upon them. A sample:
[For] The sixteen-year-old who felt concerned about where to attend college, only to be told by her boyfriend, “It doesn’t matter where you go. You’ll only need your degree if your husband dies.”
[For] The girl who received dishes, pans, and towels for holidays (while her brother received stereos and skis),
[For] The young woman who was encouraged to wear makeup because “the frosted cookies are always the first to go.”
[For] The twenty-something, struggling with eating disorders and depression
[For] The woman who was told that if she wore her Army Class A uniform to church, she would never “attract” a husband because he would feel like he wasn’t the boss in the relationship.
[For] The woman who stayed in an abusive marriage because leaders told her that once you choose your love, you love your choice—no matter what.
At midpoint Rueckert lists tidbits of advice given at her wedding. A sample :
“Remember, SEX IS FOR BABIES.”
“Sometimes it is more important to be married than right.”
“Learn to sacrifice and put your spouse first.”
“Always hold hands even when you don’t want to.”
“Never give up and never surrender.”
“Don’t do it.”
“Enjoy it all!”
“Name the first one Calvin!”
“Swallow your pride and fix things to get past the ugly parts and grow together . . . cuz it’s for eternity baby, no goin’ back!!!”
And near the end the book, she records snapshots from the sometimes ravishing, frequently challenging walk to Compostela:
The noise of plastic bags rustling in the morning before anyone dared to flip on the lights.
The stench of still-warm shoes lining albergue entrances.
The middle-school teacher snoring on his back, mouth agape,
What it felt like to pull on dirty, crusty underwear again after a lukewarm shower.
How locals left bakeries with newspaper parcels cradled under their arms.
How Suzy walked beside me, pacing her steps so her shadow would shade my feet.
The pleasure of stopping for two breakfasts per day.
The elderly village women in long dresses who set aside brooms to lean across their individual balconies, gossiping in quick, hushed Spanish.
What it felt like to pull up a chair next to perfect strangers at dinner without feeling awkward.
The effect of these lists is to bookend the travelogue/memoir’s content, to trace the arc of this important discussion, toward a tentative grasp of what marriage entails: “A daily negotiation, a daily act of faith—a faith different from my tenuous relationship with God, where I’d wrongly internalized that doubt had no place.”
Doubt has a place in this marriage. Freedom has a space. Rachel Rueckert gives the reader a thoughtful reckoning.
Published by BCC Press