Bestselling author Jo Piazza traveled to 20 countries on five continents during her first year of marriage to try to figure out how to craft a happier marriage with her new husband right from the start. The following is an adapted excerpt from her new book How to Be Married of what she learned from interviewing dozens of women during a month-long trip to India to discover how to maintain gratitude following her own terrifying health diagnosis.
I was finding it really hard to be grateful for just about anything. I’d been married just six months when my doctors gave me a terrifying health diagnosis. They informed me I had the same gene that caused my dad’s muscular dystrophy, a disease that crippled him in his forties and led to his death in his early sixties.
I was told I would show signs of the disease within a few years. I was only thirty five and I had just married a man who loved climbing mountains and skiing and hiking and doing anything at all with a pair of strong legs. We’d fallen in love on an adventurous trip in the Galápagos Islands, hiked a small mountain to get engaged and had plans to spend the rest of our lives chasing after one another through rugged terrain around the globe. As we shuttled in between doctors’ appointments and saw specialists who drew what felt like a pint of blood at a time, I had a hard time looking at the bright side of things and enjoying my year as a newlywed.
Sometimes the universe has a better idea of what you need than you do. Just as I was at my lowest, I received an assignment to travel solo to northeastern India on a reporting trip—a voyage that would last almost three weeks.
Did I need to go all the way to one of the least-traveled areas of India to find out how important gratitude is for my marriage? Did I have to travel thousands of miles from home, in cars, trains, planes, and boats to figure out that despite a shitty medical diagnosis my life was pretty goddamn sweet and that I should appreciate it?
It turns out I did.
The concept of gratitude weaves its ways into almost every facet of Indian culture and relationships. This doesn’t mean that Indians go around thanking everyone for everything all the time. Rather, the concept of gratitude in many Indian traditions is about giving earnest thanks, expressing humility towards someone and letting go of your own ego in order to cultivate more bliss and joy in our own life and in the lives of others. It’s about feeling grateful instead of talking about it.
As soon as I landed, I immediately fell in love with India’s riot of colors and smells and her warm and welcoming people. Everything was brighter and more intense. It was hot and dirty and beautiful and exotic all at once.
I was quickly welcomed into a traditional home of a woman who belonged to the Mishing tribe, an Assamese farming and fishing village where the houses stood on tall stilts to keep them safe from the frequent floods of the Brahmaputra River.
I stumbled, trying to climb the narrow ladder that led into the raised hut, using a long bamboo rod for balance. The simple room was meticulously neat, sarees carefully folded on a shelf over the bed, pots and pans precisely stacked in the corner.
Lae, a forty-five-year-old woman with small eyes and a broad face offered me tea. We began talking about life and the weather, politics and kids, and, husbands and marriage.
“What does it mean to be happily married here?” I asked her.
Lae squinted at me and laughed from her belly. “You westerners make marriage too complicated. Be happy for the things marriage gives you. We have our husbands. I trust my husband. We have our pigs and our goats. We have our children. We are happy. You want too much. Be thankful, because you never know what tomorrow will bring.” Strong words coming from a woman living on the banks of a river that regularly sweeps away entire villages in the blink of an eye.
“How do I show I’m thankful?” I asked Lae.
She looked at me as though she didn’t understand the question and I repeated it for the translator. Lae gave a small shake of her head. “You just feel it.”
Over and over the women I met in Assam kept telling me I had to seek a blessing for my new marriage and offer thanks for my husband at the Kamakhya Devi Temple in Guwahati, a sacred place of pilgrimage for India’s 830 million Hindus, particularly women. It was early in the morning when I began my walk to the temple, perched high on a hill. We passed women in brightly colored sarees walking to work, beggars laying prone and naked in the streets and boys play cricket in the gutter with a stick and a deflated tennis ball. Street dogs with peculiar poise and confidence pushed their way past us as if they had somewhere very important to be. Voices and sounds blended together in a frenetic jumble that echoed through the narrow streets.
I asked one of the temple priests, a bald and spectacled man with a calming demeanor, what most women who came to the temple asked the goddess for. Were they very specific?
“Most ask for a long and prosperous marriage and then give thanks for it,” he said with a wide smile.
He laughed. “What else do you need?”
To make my blessing, I was given two small terra-cotta pots with candles in them and two sticks of incense. It was imperative, the priest told me, that I light two candles, one for my husband and one for myself. It was so dark inside the temple that I needed to use my bare toes to grasp for the edge of the next stair to keep from falling. My hands began to shake. I wanted to get this right. I wanted to truly give thanks for all of the wonderful things in my life. I wanted to mean it. I felt a tugging in my stomach and a stinging behind my eyes as though I’d burst into tears at any moment. When a baby goat nuzzled my foot, I stumbled and dropped one of my candles, watching as the terra-cotta shattered onto the hard stone floor. A woman behind me clapped her hand on my shoulder and stuttered in broken English. “No. You cannot use that. No. Bad.” I squinted through the darkness and the smoke at the priest. “Just light one and think of two,” he whispered. “Feel gratitude. Don’t think about it.”
Closing my eyes, I steadied myself. Light one and think of two. Light one and think of two. Light one and think of two. I thought about all of the times Nick took off work to come with me to my doctor appointments. I thought about the long nights where he held me as I cried, scared about how long I’d stay healthy. Sometimes things don’t turn out as you imagined them and no marriage is without its flaws, but in the grand scheme of things mine was pretty wonderful.
As I moved the single flame closer to the inner sanctum the hairs on my arms stood on end and the single wick broke apart. It became two tiny flames flickering around one another.