A couple of days ago, my 87-year-old co-housing neighbor -- I'll call her Claire -- told me she had been meaning to ask me about my "alternative lifestyle." We were hanging out together while I made her some dinner, because her regular caretaker was sick and her back-up caretaker was out of town. Claire is a 4-foot-10-inch dynamo, sharp as a tack, but she had a stroke a couple of years ago and does better with some daily assistance. She and I proceeded to have a completely comfortable conversation, with her at the sink washing strawberries she had just picked from her garden plot and me chopping vegetables for soup. It went something like this:
Claire: I'm just so curious. How does it work for people like you, who have more than one partner? Are you able to be honest about it with the children? What do they know?
Me: At this point, it just works, you know? Everyone gets along, everyone's fine, it's all good. As for the kids, they know the whole story, basically. We told Denali [age 18] about our open marriage when he was about nine. And I just explained it to Sienna [age 7] a couple of weeks ago, actually: she said to me one morning, totally out of the blue, "Mama, you have two boyfriends." I said, "Oh? Who are they?", and she said, "Cam and Daddy, of course!"
Claire: She figured it out! What a smart girl!
Me: She totally did. So then I said, "A lot of people have just one boyfriend or girlfriend at a time, but some people have more than one." And that was really all she needed to hear.
Claire: I suppose it's just normal for her. She's used to it by now.
Me: Exactly. It's not a big deal. I wasn't sure, when we first moved here, what people were going to think. But everyone has been really accepting, not judgemental at all. And it's also great that everyone seems to like both Parker and Cam. I mean, of course they would: they're both great -- each in his own way. They're very different from each other.
Claire: I'll say! Very different!
Me: Well, Claire, here's a tip from me, just in case you ever want to join the polyamorous club: if you're going to have more than one man around, you don't want them to be exactly the same as each other. What would be the point of that?
Claire [laughing]: Of course not -- they need to be different! I think it's simply marvelous, the way you have it all arranged.
This exchange stood out to me, not because it was in any way uncommon, but because it reminded me how uncommonly lucky I am. These days, most of the non-poly people I meet are like Claire: curious about how my life "works," but completely open to the idea that it does work. However, not everyone who chooses to be open about being open is going to get such a friendly reception from the neighbors. Some people in alternative relationships would be risking social censure, or worse, if they were "out" about their lifestyle.
There are places in the world where adultery is still considered a punishable offense. There are people -- women, mostly -- who have been stoned to death for far less than I have done.
Which means there are people out there who believe that someone like me deserves to die.
It's easy to forget that. I mean, I live in an ecovillage in the Pacific Northwest, among urban gardeners, political activists, nomads, and hipsters. It's a very poly-friendly bubble. You can't throw a set of hand-carved tribal ear plugs or a gluten-free, saffron-scented macaron into the Portland crowd without hitting one of us. On the second Sunday of every month, I get together with a group of a dozen other poly mamas. It's just normal for us. We're used to it. We're lucky.