Episode 11: Ritual
Get your FREE Pillow Talking zine from Sticky Institute, or send away for one from anywhere in the world at Small Zine Volcano.
Esther Perel is an author, therapist, and speaker, and probably has the highest-regarded podcast about couples: Where should we begin? It’s also totally addicting.
The Making of Love by Steve and Shaaron Biddulph is a bit tricky to get these days as a hard copy, but easily available in e-book format.
Charlie Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator
Archie Bunker is the prejudiced main character of All In The Family, a groundbreaking sitcom. This scene with Sammy Davis, Jr., is famous for good reason.
If you or someone you care about would like help with a gambling problem, contact:
In Australia – Gambling help online
In the US – National problem gambling helpline
In the UK – GamCare
This episode’s stories
The Last Time We Had a Conversation in The Bedroom by Anonymous
Touching Toes by Scott Player
Question 32 by Aera
Vespers by Forgiven
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 11 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, Ritual.
So… this is the question that keeps cropping up even a year after coming up with the idea for Pillow Talking: is this a storytelling podcast? Or a podcast about relationships? It’s clear in my mind that I’m telling stories, but it’s not so clear out there. Out there when you’re trying to tell people what you’re doing, there isn’t a storytelling category for podcasts. But there is a relationships category. And when you put your podcast in that category, suddenly you’re in the same playing field as every relationship expert and would-be relationship expert. And there’s a lot of them.
Now: I love Esther Perel as much as the next person and if she were ever to hear an episode of Pillow Talking I’d probably wet my Modibodis right through but I am NOT a relationship expert. I’ll go one step further and say that I’m not even an expert on my own relationship and I’ll probably go to my grave not knowing exactly how to drive this thing. But until then I’ll give it a red-hot go, you know? This is what I’ve sussed out so far: working out what each other likes and trying to do those things as much as you can, and working out what each other doesn’t like and trying not to do those things… that works OK most of the time. It isn’t sophisticated and it doesn’t cover every contingency, which is how we ended up having an argument over two hard-boiled eggs.
This preamble is necessary because what I’m about to tell you might sound very much like relationship advice. But it isn’t. You can take it on board if you like, and I’ll applaud it if you do, but this is not me putting on the relationship expert mantle. It’s me once again telling a story about me and my relationships; this time about a ritual that’s been absolutely crucial, and often lifesaving. It’s been of an almost daily pillow talk and it’s unexpected because it happens not when we wake up, and not when we go to bed, but when the home is at its most volatile and chaotic.
Both Shane and I openly admit that our first six months of married life were a Jekyll-and-Hyde ride that we barely escaped alive, but here’s something that we got right from the get-go. In their book, The Making of Love, the wonderful Steve and Shaaron Biddulph give a suggestion about what to do when you first see each other at the end of the day. I have no idea where my copy of the book went so I’m going from memory, but the advice was this: even if you have young children that you need to bribe or emotionally blackmail (disclaimer: this might be my take rather than what the Biddulphs said), when you and your partner clap eyes on each other at the end of the day, make a beeline for the bedroom. You’re bound to be hungry, so take a little plate of salami or olives or whatever, and a drink. Wine if you like, or a cuppa or soft drink. And catch up about your day for 10 min, with the door closed, kids outside (and yes, of course you have to educate the kids to leave you alone – here’s where the bribery comes in). You’re only doing this for 10 minutes, but you are touching base, connecting, catching up on the day – good, crappy or indifferent – and then emerging hopefully a little refreshed, ready to tackle homework, dinner, bath time, opening bills, and whatever else is going on.
We often went past the 10-minute mark, and despite our love of salami and olives we didn’t take a snack or drink after the first couple of times, but here’s what we did do. We lay on the bed, on top of the blankets, clothes on, holding each other, and talked. Good and bad things that happened that day. The award that one of his daughters got at school, the umpteenth outrageous, ignorant thing his manager had said, the great sandwich he’d had for lunch. We’d troubleshoot little problems, or table bigger ones for later. Sometimes it got really serious. The teenagers I told you about last week? A couple of them made me cry regularly, because of their home situations; the grief and worry were intense and I couldn’t imagine how they would survive to be adults. Thanks to these little pillow talks, I was able to get up in the morning and go teach them again.
Such a little thing. Such a massive thing. From school award to drivers license, from outrageous, ignorant manager to outrageous, ignorant president of the free world, from troubled teenage students to fully functional adults with great lives of their own, it’s a ritual that’s seen us through those first hellish six months to over 10 years of this lark.
And that’s what rituals do: they see you through. Their very predictability allows us to put some sort of order to what can sometimes be an unpredictable existence. There can be comfort and centering in writing in a journal, or putting out the cat, or watching a YouTube clip, or like in these stories, a skin care routine, reading a chapter or two, in-bed dates on Sunday, or night-time prayers. But like these four bedroom conversations show, rituals aren’t necessarily mindless habits: they’re either mindful, or they facilitate mindfulness. Sometimes the mindfulness brings realisations – for better or worse.
These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Ssh. Let’s listen.
We used to pillow talk, at the beginning. Sometimes before or after lovemaking, sometimes not. But time replaced it with routine. Night in, night out, the little actions that punctuate our methodical journey to the end of the day became absorbing enough to blot out the more unpredictable night-time talk.
This is how it goes.
One of us turns off the telly.
I do a walk around the house with a basket we keep for the purpose, picking up toys that have been left underfoot or in unlikely places like the laundry or the dog bed. Quietly I slip into the children’s room and soundlessly empty the basket there. I check that the children are all right, that they’re properly covered and neither freezing from being uncovered, nor roasting from being completely buried under the duvet. I do this even though I know she’ll be in later to do the same.
She takes the detritus from the lounge room to the kitchen. These are the post-dinner, post-children’s bedtime things that didn’t make it into the dishwasher. Sometimes wine glasses, but usually two tea mugs and a small plate that always holds a precise number of biscuits. Four if it’s Hob Nobs or Digestives (my favourite), or two if it’s caramel wafers (hers). She washes these by hand and sets them on the rack to drain.
I let the dog out into the back garden for a final wee and a sniff. From the back door, I survey it all, make sure nothing is amiss, then check the gate and make sure it’s locked, although I know I locked it earlier. I don’t know why I do these things. I have done them since I was 12, and now as then, they make me feel calm.
I can hear her upstairs, padding from one of the children’s beds to the other. Every now and then I’ll hear a murmur from one of them as her kiss rouses them from their sleep.
I brush my teeth, get into my pyjamas, and get into bed.
In our bathroom she “performs” her night-time skin routine. Back at the beginning this used to just involve removing her makeup with a baby wipe, but these days it involves eight steps. Expensive steps, she often complains, but won’t hear of it when I tell her that it doesn’t matter: we’re all getting older and you can’t keep wrinkles at bay forever.
Then in bed, I read. Sometimes I re-read: I do like to revisit an old, favourite book now and then.
Next to me on her phone, she checks her work Outlook for emails and meetings the next day. Then she checks her social media, sometimes chuckling at something she scrolls past. Then usually she’ll say goodnight and go to sleep. I’ll finish my chapter and turn out the light.
Not this night. This night she doesn’t say goodnight. I finish my chapter and she’s still sitting up. She says she wants to talk. For the first time in years, she wants to have a conversation in the bedroom.
So we talk.
And that’s the last time we have a conversation in the bedroom.
When I jump into bed every night I giggle. Sometimes the sheets are icy cold and since I always sleep naked I feel the thrill of anticipation as the icy layers slowly settle upon me.
Emma saunters into the bedroom, winces at the lights I have set to super nova brightness level, matter-of-factly tells Siri to lower the lights, does her perfect yoga on the floor, and slides easily into bed. Our feet press together like holding hands; it’s always comforting and intimate. It’s hard to hold hands in bed anymore since they are more often occupied with smart phones… guilty! I like to read to her before we go to sleep. This week we are reading Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. As we work our way through the first few chapters we discover that Leonardo was… well… fabulous. He was a repressed homosexual man living in the 16th century when such a label didn’t yet exist.
“Wow Emma, I didn’t know he was gay.”
“Me either,” said Emma. We puzzled.
I was impressed. Leonardo was that much more interesting to me now. His life had flavor beyond the paint and procrastination.
“Well, that explains his painting of St John the Baptist,” I said. “I mean, take a look at that face, the eye contact, that smile, those curly flowing locks.”
“Hmm… Michelangelo’s David…” Emma pondered out loud.
We talked about some of Leonardo’s other paintings and how they added evidence to the way God had made him. Capital H I M as Lady Gaga would sing.
Emma and I find meaning between the sheets, between the lines in all our books. We stop and discuss certain sections sometimes trying to predetermine the outcome before the plot is revealed. We find our own subtext within, rewrite sections in our heads and share, thrill at the unexpected, and bemoan the plagiarists we catch red handed within the pages of their books (Dan…cough…Brown.) We commiserate when the last page of the last chapter in a series is turned, knowing that with the closing of the book we send all those beloved characters quietly into that good night.
“I wrote to Anne Rice, you know,” I said to Emma.
“Yeah, when her Husband Stan passed away the comfort she could find was with some religious group. They told her that writing about Vampires and witches was evil and sinful. They told her that she had to write about Jesus (and give them the proceeds), so she did. She denounced all of her brilliant writings. She drove a veritable stake into the hearts of all of her characters…again.
I was indignant. So I wrote her a ten-page letter describing how her so-called evil vampires characters like LeStat defined a healthier view of the world to those whose pathos had thus far confined them to the shadows; they could relate. They had a friend that understood them. Through her characters and stories she set so many free. I went on to say that her writing was a gift from God, so how could it ever be a sin.”
“Did she respond?”
“She didn’t, but several months later she broke free and was back and writing about her characters again. I met her at a book signing and described the letter. She smiled and said she remembered it.”
“So you think your letter helped her?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “If I was in her shoes I would have said the same thing to me. I have the book here and she signed it to Scott. Funny, but with all the people waiting in line I don’t remember introducing myself.”
When the Pandemic that shall not be named hit and we were effectively confined to our home for a year, most of our outdoor adventures and travels came to an abrupt end. But there under the covers every night below the lights too dim we found adventure, mystery, romance, travel and experiences that we could share page by page, playing toesies, intimate, snuggled, fulfilled. The writers each our bed partners.
So, as we fall asleep tonight touching toes, feeling the dull ache we both have on our upper arms underneath tiny little band-aids, we wonder what strange new place far away in a comfy bed that was made by someone else, we will soon discover in our next book.
I close the book and turn out the light. Good night, my Love.
Boredom setting in while there were few places to go to during the pandemic, I wanted to do something a little different. It’s not that we find each other boring, but the whole situation was boring and it was easy to fall into a rut. When we weren’t working, our conversations were either about what we were going to eat next (roughly every two hours) or what we were watching on Netflix (Ozark, Blacklist, and The Office FTW). There’s nothing wrong with those things, and we do love quoting The Office, all the time, but they’re not exactly intimate, important, or “couply” conversations.
I’d read about the 36 questions to fall in love. These questions are from a study conducted at a New York university: the idea is that these questions – which get more and more revealing as you go – followed by four minutes of eye contact, can fast-track intimacy and make people fall in love. But they can help existing couples too. I thought this would be a nice thing to do on a Sunday morning: get Jack to bring us breakfast in bed, and do one of the questions.
And it was nice. Jack makes a mean stack of pancakes and with that between us each Sunday we’d tackle one of these questions. We laughed, learned new things about each other, found out things we had in common, and things where we were different. Nice Sunday after nice Sunday, for 31 weeks.
The day it stopped being nice was when we got to Question 32: What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
To clarify, when I say it stopped being nice I don’t mean it got bad. It just stopped being something you can describe with the word “nice”. What it was, was HUGE. It was heartbreaking, it was hilarious, it was complex, it was serious, it was important.
My parents were born in a country well known for its very long history of gross human rights violations. We have family who suffered; many of my parents’ friends and colleagues were killed, jailed, or disappeared without a trace. My parents escaped, but they never stopped being activists. So although I’ve never lived it, it’s something I carry with me.
Jack, on the other hand, came out of left field. Rather than saying that nothing is too sacred to be made fun of, he talked about how humor and ridicule has always been a great tool for social protest and a weapon against human rights violations. He talked of humorists and satirists in all kinds of media as allies of the people for revealing truths about governments, often becoming targets themselves as a result.
I told him stories of my family. He showed me examples, like Charlie Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator. I showed him satellite pictures of internment camps. He introduced me to Archie Bunker. Back and forth. We weren’t lying back on the pillows anymore! There was a lot of gesticulating and our voices got pretty loud. We weren’t shouting or angry, but it got heated.
And then it got… hot.
I guess there’s nothing like revealing how strongly you feel about something to remind you how strongly you feel about each other.
We’ve all seen The Crown. We’ve seen the contrast between Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret.
There’s Princess Margaret, dancing a sexily to I Only Have Eyes for You, smoking and pouring herself a brandy or two and eventually stripping down to her underwear. It’s pretty hot. And spliced between these vignettes is Queen Elizabeth in her long nightie, going to bed without her husband, kneeling down by the side of her bed to say her prayers. The total opposite of her sister.
Ask any man which bedroom he’d rather be in and you know what he’s going to say. When it comes to intimacy, you can get around a long nightie. But you can’t get around a woman having a conversation with God. Seeing a woman like that, it’s buckets of ice water. And you bet there’s shrinkage.
But ask this man, and he’ll tell you different. Not because this is something I want her to do, or because I have some sort of fetish, but because this is something I need her to do.
I’m lapsed in our faith, but Patricia isn’t. She isn’t holier-than-thou – she’s more practical than magical but I’m still used to seeing her kneeling by the bed, usually at night. (Mornings can be a real rush.) She doesn’t look upwards in rapt devotion, and she doesn’t recite anything under her breath – she doesn’t believe in prewritten prayers. She is bowed and quiet and in the moment, and there’s something about it that’s impenetrable. This is her time. Sometimes her prayer time is short, sometimes it goes for what seems to me like a long time.
I used to make fun of her. Not to be mean, and I didn’t mean anything by it. It was just one of the ways I joked with her, and she of course made fun of me in other ways.
The night I stopped making fun was when I realised what these prayers meant, not just to Patricia, but to me.
It was the worst day of my life. I’m still ashamed of it, and every time I think about it I feel sick to the guts, even now while writing about it. I actually got to this part of the story and had to take a long break. But I can’t escape the fact that I did something horrible. Something unforgivable. I can’t even say that I had a moment of courage and integrity because I never even confessed to her – she just found out all on her own.
Patricia and I were saving up for a house deposit. Or we had been. Then she was saving up, working her full-time job and taking on a weekend waitressing job because owning our first home together was our dream. What was I doing, you might ask? I was developing a gambling habit.
It started like all habits start and I told myself all the usual lies. The biggest lie of them all was when I decided to hoe into our savings – tens of thousands of dollars – and told myself I was doing it for us. Patricia’s weekend pay went straight into that bank account, and so did a percentage of our fulltime pay – it was an automatic deposit. She hardly ever checked it because she said it seemed like it was moving too slowly if she checked it often; she liked the surprise of seeing the balance every few months and how much closer we were to our goal. So even if I lost a little money to start with by the time she checked the balance again the money would be back. And even more! I’d put my windfall into the bank account and when she saw it she’d get the surprise of her life and I’d be a hero. Fucking idiot.
For some reason though, it wasn’t months before she checked the balance. I know precisely how long it was: 5 weeks and 4 days, and I’d been going through $2,000 to $3,000 dollars of our savings a week, plus the percentage of my pay that I’d stopped putting into the account and never told Patricia.
Whatever I imagined the worst-case scenario to be, it wasn’t how it played out. She met me on the driveway when I came home – couldn’t even wait for me to come inside. She was beyond pale – she was grey, that greyish tinge people have to their skin when they’re very, very sick. And her voice was hoarse from crying. She wanted me to explain it all to her, right there and then. It was daylight savings and neighbours were outside mowing their lawns and walking their dogs and I wanted to go inside, but she wanted answers now. The more I tried to talk her into going inside the louder she got, and that loud, hoarse voice was nothing like hers. It gave everything this unreal feeling and the world was spinning. It was all crashing down.
I told her I was sorry, but she wouldn’t hear it. It wasn’t just gambling the money. It was the betrayal. It was the lying. It was me not putting in any of my own earnings. It was letting her work seven days a week just to feed my habit. All this work, all this sacrifice, for nothing. I didn’t give a shit about her, she said. I told her I loved her and in that strange voice she screamed at me to shut up.
She got into the car. I tried to stop her because I was afraid of her driving in that state, but I couldn’t do it.
People were looking at us, and trying not to – it’s a really polite neighbourhood. But as tough as it was she did me a favour. With my shame out in the open, I couldn’t tell myself stories any more.
I walked into the house and just sat. Darkness fell and I eventually got up and turned the lights on. Then I got on the computer and looked up where I could go for help. I made a phone call. At least ten phone calls, actually, because I must have hung up ten times before I let them answer the phone, but eventually I held on and spoke to someone.
I knew better than to ring Patricia, so I went to bed. I sat there, waiting, hoping she’d be back, not knowing if she would be. Eventually I heard the car in the driveway, and I felt sick again, but I knew I had to see it through. She came into the bedroom and didn’t even look at me. Just went straight to the ensuite and had a shower. Eventually she came out, though, and she did what she always did, and knelt down by the bed to pray. It was one of the long ones.
When she got up, I saw she was crying. But she was calm. She sat on the edge of the bed looking down. Then she finally looked at me and said,
“What you did was a very, very bad thing, and you’re going to have to make it right. You’ve hurt me, and you’ve hurt us. But I forgive you. Tell me what you need from me to fix this problem you have.”
It was one of those split seconds where you instantly download volumes of information about your life partner. You see who and what they really are and barely feel worthy. Something like whether a prayer is a sexy enough act before getting into bed seems like the pissiest thing you could ever worry about.
Patricia doesn’t pray out loud, but now I understand that the prayers aren’t just her habit. I think they’re how she builds and rebuilds herself every day. After what I put her through and what she came back with, I imagine that she lives entire lifetimes in those prayers. Wrestles with the person she is and wants to be. Remembers the good to be thankful, and forgets the bad so that she can face the world and try to make a difference in it. Forgives so she can be forgiven, and reaches out for grace so that she can show compassion to others, even when they don’t deserve it.
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. This episode’s stories were:
The last time we had a conversation in the bedroom BY Anonymous
Touching toes BY Scott Player
Question 32 BY Aera
Vespers BY Forgiven
Thank you so much for listening. I really loved putting this episode together because rituals are a big part of every story I receive, and picking the right ones was a big kick.
If you’re enjoying Pillow Talking, please remember to subscribe, review, rate, and share. And send your stories in! All of these things help me continue to keep telling stories.
This week, a special announcement. When I came up with the idea of Pillow Talking, I wasn’t quite sure what form it would take. That’s why the domain name I registered was for pillowtalkingproject.com. It was to be my project, and it could be one medium, or more. A little while ago I came up with the idea of a Pillow Talking zine, where I share one of the stories in printed form, and a week or so ago, I delivered. Each story comes in its own pillow envelope, and includes a bit of fabric that has its own story. If you’re in Melbourne, you can pick up a copy for FREE from Sticky Institute, which, if you’ve never been, is in the Flinders St subway. You can also get one sent one to you, wherever in the world you are, from Free Zine Volcano: you pay the postage, they send you the zine. You can find Free Zine Volcano on Facebook, or go to https://smallzinevolcano.bigcartel.com.
Finally, I’m still collecting ideas for bonus episodes to have during the break! Please send yours through to firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a direct message through the usual social media suspects.
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, A bag of mixed lollies. These are the stories I have left at the end of the season, without a unifying theme, each one a surprise.
Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.