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Balanced between different worlds: A review of Love in Condition Yellow: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage

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By Sophia Raday (Beacon Press, 2009; $23.95)

A change occurs when I tell people outside the military community that I am an Army spouse. It's a small one, certainly. In fact, the shift may be imperceptible to the uninitiated. But it is there all the same. Once my admission is out there, floating in the ether, I know there will now be misconceptions about who I am, assumptions about my values and beliefs, and conversation topics that my associates will no longer feel comfortable broaching. That's just the way it is.

And within the military community? To many, I am an enigma. A Democrat-voting, maiden-name-keeping, multiple-degree-bearing, working mother, I hardly fit the mold of a traditional military spouse. Although I, too, am married to a soldier, I seem to inspire discomfort in my fellow military spouses. In an environment where so many women's stories are only told within the context of their husbands, it would seem I just don't fit in.

Over time, I have learned to accept that I will forever be between these two disparate worlds, doing my best to balance between them and still maintain my sense of self. This is why I so strongly identified with Sophia Raday when I first read her Mommy Athens, Daddy Sparta column here on Literary Mama. I had moved to Germany after my husband's first deployment. I was struggling with my first full immersion in a military community as well as my first pregnancy. Raday's words, which chronicled her unlikely relationship with her husband, a police officer and Army Reserve Officer, were a balm to me, making me feel as though I was not alone in my strange situation -- married to a man who seemed, at times, to be the very opposite of myself. And after I read her Modern Love column, Diary of a Soldier's Wife: Tie-Dye and Camo Don't Mix , I was thrilled to hear that she would be writing a memoir about her marriage -- and providing more insight into how such relationships can thrive, especially during a time of war.

In Love in Condition Yellow: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage, Raday, a peace-seeking idealist, superbly chronicles her courtship and marriage to Barrett McAllister. Their story is unique -- the usual misunderstandings between spouses are exaggerated by their polarized views on life and the world. She believes in respect for all humanity and peaceful resolution to conflict. He carries a gun at all times and refers to the perpetrators he takes off the streets as "turds."
Their differences become more palpable after Raday and McAllister start their family, and then again after the events of September 11, 2001.

And it ignites a war inside me. Maybe 9/11 is an extremely scary but also extremely unlikely occurrence, and my ideas about giving people the benefit of the doubt still make sense. But maybe, just maybe, 9/11 means something else. Maybe it proves Barrett's philosophy right. Attacks can come anytime, anyplace, often from unexpected quarters, from people who don't give a damn that I am kind, smile at homeless people, rescue stray animals and work to give low-income people more opportunities.

McAllister promises Raday he'll set his military career aside to spend more time with his family, but 9/11 changes all that; he renews his commitment to the military, and just like that, Raday reluctantly finds herself an Army spouse. She resolves not to let the experience change who she is and what she believes. But when her family moves to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, so that her husband can attend the esteemed War College, Raday begins to question those very things.

After the Abu Ghraib scandal breaks, Raday feels conflicted. With a background in public policy, she longs to discuss her feelings about the scandal and what may have led to it. But it would seem, in the context of the Army War College, she is no longer Sophia the thinker, the intellectual. She is merely scaffolding, her husband's support system. She is expected to send emails about social events and organize the monthly spouse meetings. She is expected to care for her child and volunteer for the community. But she is never called upon to offer her opinion about the Global War on Terror. And as she gets her family settled in Carlisle, she feels this acutely.

Nobody wants to hear my thoughts or confusions about Abu Ghraib. Recently a neighbor stopped by, another War College student, to say hello to Barrett. He nodded briefly to me after surveying the emerging living room, boxes piled in every corner. "It's really starting to come together in here, Sophia," he said.

Nobody wants to hear my theory that American foreign policy is characterized by co-dependence, that we focus on the external enemy to avoid looking at our own social ills. I am the toilet-cleaning colonel's wife, mother of just the one.

Motherhood only compounds these feelings. Raday writes that she thought that, by forty, she'd find a place where being a mother would not eclipse everything else about her. I think this is a feeling that any mother can relate to -- I certainly can. But Carlisle does not offer her the kind of safe space she needs in order to be both a mother and a thinker, and this begins to wear on Raday more and more.

I want to be accepted as I am. I am not such a horrible person. I am kind. I care about people. I am tired of being on guard, of watching what I say. I am tired of listening to the War College speeches: about how we are all so proud to be supporting freedom and democracy abroad. We spouses are so proud to make family sacrifices because we believe so much in the mission. I'm tired of the smug certainty that I agree with the rhetoric and the war and the lockstep role of quiet housewife.

Still, even after it becomes clear that McAllister will deploy to Iraq and that their dream of having a second biological child may be impossible, ultimately these experiences, and the open communication that Raday and McAllister share, draw this unlikely couple closer together. Despite his commitment to the military, despite all the ways their beliefs diverge, it is in Carlisle that Raday is able to openly acknowledge the losses that come with the life and the partner she has chosen. And acknowledging them not only makes them more bearable for Raday, but also allows her to celebrate what she does have, instead of wallowing in what she does not.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that if you look deeply into a flower, you will see garbage. Within the purity of a rose, there exists the rottenness of garbage. And, most remarkably, he says, "The rose and the garbage are equal." They need each other. Things inter-are. Perhaps we need to confront our fears in order to find our strength. Perhaps we need the darkness to help us see the stars.

This incredible and uplifting message led me to hope Raday would relate more of her experience during McAllister's eventual deployment. In her Modern Love column, Raday noted that although she was proud of her husband's commitment, she worried that "while he is away we will spin off into our original universes, each demonizing the other." Every spouse who sends a soldier off to war faces this worry. It is staring me in the face at this very moment as I prepare for my husband to return from a 15-month tour in Iraq. Although Raday dedicates only a few pages to her experience of McAllister's deployment, and how the couple managed to keep their bond strong during the 15-month separation, she still manages to impart some incredible wisdom.

You smile at the irony in the fact that it took your being alone, took your husband "abandoning" you, for you to learn that completeness is not bestowed upon you by a perfect partner. It does not come from your lover figuring you out and taking perfect care of you. It comes, instead, from deep inside you, from seeing your own limits and gently challenging yourself to move past them. It comes from facing adversity, and through it, discovering your own inner strength and wisdom.

I can't imagine a more accurate truth, and it made me want more. In a lovely book filled with stunning, substantial prose, I was left yearning for a deeper account of the deployment experience. This is something that I, and many other military spouses, could certainly benefit from, and I very much hope to see it in Raday's next book.

Kayt Sukel is a freelance consultant living in Hammersbach, Germany, with her husband, Nick, and son, Chet. Her writing has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, American Baby, and National Geographic Traveler, as well as other magazines. Whenever she receives a reprieve from chasing her son all over creation, she can be found holed up in the bathroom furtively reading books not written by Dr. Seuss or featuring Elmo.

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