Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Learn-as-You-Go-Along Marriage

detail, Le Bateau Atelier
Claude Monet, 1876, France
Like the water
of a deep stream,
love is always too much.
We did not make it.
Though we drink till we burst,
we cannot have it all,
or want it all.
In its abundance
it survives our thirst.

In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill,
and sleep,
while it flows
through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us,
except we keep returning to its rich waters

We enter,
willing to die,
into the commonwealth of its joy.
   (Like The Water, Wendell Berry)

It’s wedding season. Yesterday we attended the lovely wedding of a young friend we’ve known since she was in middle school. Tomorrow will be our own anniversary. 

We married thirty-five years ago, on a bright June afternoon in an old Baptist church in Carmel, New York. Our friend Harry officiated, reading the service from a small black Book of Common Prayer. He had just recently been ordained, and was so nervous he accidentally turned two pages at once. If he hadn’t listened when I whispered to him that he’d skipped a page, we would have missed the marriage vows completely. 

I was twenty-one. I’d graduated from college just three weeks before and spent those weeks sewing my wedding gown and a bridesmaid’s dress for my friend’s wedding on Long Island the Saturday before. Whitney, the groom, handsome in grey cutaways, had just turned twenty-three, and had just that week found us a second floor apartment in a creaky old row house in West Philly. 

Looking back, I’d have to say I was clueless about marriage, love, adulthood, and a whole host of other things. The marriages in my own family had all ended sadly, as far back in the family tree as anyone could remember. I had thought maybe I’d put off marriage completely, yet there I was, promising to “love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live.”

We weren’t given much advice. Our premarital counseling consisted of an awkward dinner and an hour of stilted conversation at Harry’s dining room table, with his wife and small son down the hall. I’d read Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant to Be, so I had some vague idea of equality in marriage, but we’d also been hearing reverberations from Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts, which seemed to me to treat wives as permanent teenagers. A Gothard enthusiast told me, not long after the wedding: “You were under your grandmother’s umbrella. Now you’re under your husband’s. Remember that.” Living under an umbrella seemed a bit constraining. I still shudder when I think of the patronizing tone, and the limiting, constricted image. 

Whitney had grown up in a well-ordered home where the governing principle seemed to be “learn as you go along what pleases the Lord,” the Living Bible rephrasing of Ephesians 5:10. His parents were steeped in scripture, interested in following the lead of the Holy Spirit, and not very concerned about defined gender roles. In points of conflict or disagreement, their default mode seemed to be prayer, then acquiescence, with a shared resolve to learn along the way what God had to teach them. I watched, intrigued, as they navigated conflicts, changes, crises, with surprising harmony and good grace. They’re still learning as they go along, sixty years into marriage, still good friends and partners.

Is theirs a complementarian marriage? Egalitarian? I’m not sure they ever gave it much thought. In fact, refreshingly, the idea of “who is in charge” doesn’t seem to be much of an issue: God is in charge, and together they look at the example of Jesus, ask for wisdom and discernment from the Holy Spirit, consult others, including my husband and me, and wait for a sense of unity and peace. 

We’ve followed that same model through grad school, job changes, financial constraints, selling and buying of houses, moves from Philly to Virginia and back to the Philadelphia suburbs. We’ve parented three children, hosted one wedding, given shelter, over the years, to a mix of extended family, friends in transition, cats, hamsters, fish, birds, a legendary lizard and one very stubborn beagle. 

We’re never talked much about “men’s jobs” or “a woman’s place.” Whoever is nearest the baby changes the diaper. Whoever has the skill or interest does the job that needs to be done. I helped our kids edit their school papers: I was a writing teacher, so that made sense. He taught them golf and basketball: he played both in college, so that made sense. I remodeled our bathrooms, removing and installing toilets and sinks, something I learned helping rehab a house the fall I was sixteen.  He makes great omelets, something he learned as a short-order chef in high school. 

He tells better bedtime stories than I do: his imagination is wonderfully random, and endlessly amusing. But I do a better job reading at bedtime: he’s more apt to fall asleep mid-sentence. For the most part, I taught our kids to swim; I taught swimming at camps for years, and had more time with them in the neighborhood pool. For the most part, he taught them how to drive; he thought it would be a fun Sunday afternoon activity, and he’s far better at parallel parking than I am.

Yes, he mows the lawn, operates the power tools, and is more likely to be the one lugging heavy furniture up and down stairs. But he cried as much as I did when we left each child at college for the first time. Which proves not a whole lot – except that we both love our kids, and would love to keep them nearby forever.

But we also want them to learn, and grow, and find their way to the lives God has for each of them. There’s no umbrella here for them to stay under. We told each one, when we said goodbye at college, and at other transition points along the way: “We trust what God is doing in you.” In each that’s different. In each it’s a joy to watch.

They aren’t here to please us, make us look good, make us happy. And we’re not here to do that for them, or each other. We’re here to please God, to learn how to use the gifts he’s given us, to share his love with each other and those he brings across our paths. 

Marriage is a mystery, a means of grace, and a daily challenge. We are very different people, with very different personalities. I’d love to have a backyard full of chickens and a house full of neighborhood kids and noise. He’d like a townhouse with no lawn to mow, no clutter of any kind. I like meandering down back roads, floating lazily in my kayak in the nearby lake, wandering through the woods listening for bird song. He prefers focus: if he’s going somewhere, he wants to get there sometime soon, whether by foot, boat, car, or golf cart. For him, the idea of going is to get there. For me, the idea of going is to see what's happening along the way.

Marriage offers a place to learn all those lofty words the Bible invites us to grow into: patience, forgiveness, humility, forbearance. 

And love: the kind of love that invites us to die to our own plans, our own preferences, our own love of comfort, our own visions of what might be best. 

Submission is like one of those lovely Celtic knots: there’s no telling were it starts, no telling where it ends. Together we submit to each other, the needs of the family, the callings God leads us to, the cry of the broken world around us. The pattern emerges as we go, beautiful, complicated, so interwoven it’s hard to tell: is it one strand, or two? Maybe three.

Here’s the passage we live under, live into, rest in, taped for years inside a kitchen cupboard door:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
We aren’t there yet, but we’re learning as we go along. 

And for that, I’m very very thankful.

detail from Book of Kells, c. 800 AD, Ireland