The Workshop of the Soul
LONDON, ONTARIO – If you should happen to hear a short but profoundly satisfying clicking sound around two o’clock this afternoon, do not be puzzled or alarmed because you cannot immediately trace its derivation. That will only be the sound which the digits on me and my wife’s marital odometer make every December 28th as they flip over to display our updated tally. This year’s magical number will be forty-three. You might be wondering, what sort of goofballs decide to get married in the already celebration-packed week between Christmas and New Year’s? Young ones – I, twenty-five, and she, twenty-four – that’s what kind. Goofballs who loved the season of Christmas and wanted to make it even better.
Perhaps you recall the mad abundance of energy characteristic of one’s twenties; the only time when it could possibly seem like a good idea to inject just one more grand occasion into a week that is already reeling with festivity. There certainly were years during the frenzy of raising three children and working full time and ferrying everybody around to dinners and gift exchanges with two different sets of grandparents, when we barely noticed another anniversary go whizzing by. But as things have slowed down and emptied out a little, it’s probably been a couple decades since we’ve allowed our marital milestone to slip by without marking the occasion with some sort of suitable observation. Lately we’ve taken to holding back what we deem the most personally significant Christmas gift for three more days.
By just about anyone’s reckoning forty-three years constitutes a substantial quantity of water under the bridge. But even that doesn’t tell the full story. Before marriage, our history goes back another seven years (and that, plus forty-three, equals fifty!) to a late afternoon film class at South Secondary School in the fall of 1970 when I saucily asked my unsuspecting wife-to-be if she wanted to invite me to the turnabout which was then being promoted on posters plastered all over the halls. Not for the last time, she stared at me askance and asked, “Are you out of your mind?”
“We wouldn’t be obliged to go to any stupid dance if that’s what you’re worried about,” I explained. “Your invitation would just be the premise establishing our mutual desire to get together and do whatever we liked. Presumably we both like movies, so why don’t we go to one of those? And even though you’re the one doing the asking, I wouldn’t expect you to foot the bill. We could go Dutch.”
To this day I’m impressed/appalled at the Olympian scale of my gall and the multiple levels of flim-flammery operating in that one labyrinthine, double-reversed invitation. I’m also eternally grateful - not to mention amazed - that she was even tempted to take such convoluted bait. Incredibly, there are still times when we’re not seeing eye to eye when I’ll catch myself thinking she’s the one being needlessly difficult and complex whereas I’m just being straightforward and transparent old me; as easy to read at all times as a grade school primer. Uh huh.
Not too surprisingly, our first seven years in all of their apocalyptic fullness did not run entirely smoothly. We’d get together for a stretch, fall apart, pick up where we left off, then fall apart again. And round and round we went. I rattle it off with an insouciant tone today but every breakup pitched at least one of us into devastating, end-of-the-world grief. What were the primary obstacles which time and again prevented us from taking hold of one another's hand and jumping off that cliff?
I think we’d both inhaled a pretty lethal dose of the poisonous Aquarian vapours that riddled the air we breathed in our teenaged years – and also contaminated the songs and the movies and the books we imbibed - colouring the very idea of lifelong commitment to one person as a threat to one’s integrity and the full flowering of one’s endlessly fascinating self. And I also have reason to believe that my own personality could sometimes be just a tad overbearing. If you were feeling charitable you could say I was ‘exuberant’. When I was in the grip of some new and consuming enthusiasm, I had this thoughtless and irritating tendency to mistake it for a more universal imperative and would run roughshod over the perhaps differing inclinations and preferences of whoever had the misfortune to be standing next to me.
Ultimately we both wanted us to work but with each successive reunion it became a little harder to believe that this time we’d found the magic formula that would keep us together long enough for the cement to really set. So we decided to up the ante and get married, hoping that various legal and social pressures might do the trick. Falling apart again? How would we explain that little manoeuvre to the parents? Would we have to call our friends and give back all that dinnerware and the boxed set of Vladimir Ashkenazy performing Mozart piano concertos that we’d received as wedding presents? Would my mom have to reconvene her Tuesday night club so we could hand over that Oxford Dictionary they’d given us along with their blessing?
I have already read one of this week’s Christmas presents, the memoirs of the Catholic scholar Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) the long-time professor of medieval studies at Notre Dame University who is perhaps best known for writing dozens of mystery novels. McInerny mischievously takes his book’s title from the reiterated refrain of the comforters of Job who successively run up to him with fresh bulletins of the disasters which have overtaken his kith and kin, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You. A semi-retired widower with a passel of grown children when he wrote this autobiography four years before his death, a very mellow McInerny here looks back over three quarters of a century and passes along what he has learned about writing and scholarship and teaching and marriage and raising a family.
This being the week of our anniversary, I was particularly struck by this observation: “Marriage is the school in which most of us learn our own defects as well as the joys and griefs of life. I have a vivid memory of the moment in Quebec when I realized that Connie was an autonomous person, not just a footnote to my life. That realization presented the chance, at least, to emerge from egoism.”
I know if I’d read that passage at the age of eighteen or twenty-five, I would have found it a little dour and discouraging; a bit of a buzz-kill. Today I wholeheartedly salute it as a sober exposition of the sublime good that marriage can achieve. When two starry-eyed kids summon the courage to take the matrimonial plunge (a courage which a number of recent news reports tell us is in alarmingly short supply today) they are setting themselves up for a very intense period of adaptation and change. This is particularly so for the first couple of years but any spouse who’s in it for the long haul should expect that to continue in a more measured way forever. They need to be ready to give way wherever they can but also to fight to retain their autonomy in those key areas where they sense that they cannot or must not.
In becoming a husband or wife, you are not becoming one half of a salt & pepper set. You’re allowed to disagree about really important stuff like religion and popular music as well as unimportant stuff like politics and whether Brussels sprouts are actually a suitable foodstuff for human beings. These differences don’t just give you a lot to talk about. In coming to understand how someone you love and respect could honourably hold views so contrary to your own, you will inevitably start to relinquish any lingering adolescent propensities to cast dictatorial judgements on people who don't think just like you do, and you’ll become a more generous and fair-minded person for it.
Nothing in life will have prepared you for the challenges you now face as a spouse. All previous experiential models are useless. Parents love you without conditions. Teachers only encourage you. Friends don’t make sustained demands. There is no relationship more physical, more immediate, more incessant, more volatile, more manipulative, more transforming, more rewarding and fruitful than marriage. In this workshop of the soul, couples engage in a lifelong campaign of rearranging one another's minds and hearts. Habits and traits can be put down or built up. Egos can get stomped on and occasionally inflated; ideally they’ll be brought under control.
Sometimes the energies interconnect so fiercely that babies can erupt out of pure thin air, spouses can succumb to the screaming heebie-jeebies, or a change of heart can be suddenly effected that moves your understanding of life and the world and your place in it onto a whole new plateau. It’s a trip and a half. And when you’re not being wrenched out of your complacencies, there is also the supreme consolation that a well-tended marriage can provide whenever you pause to marvel that you actually get to pass each day and night in the intimate company of somebody who’s known you at such a depth for so long and yet, for some mysterious reason, can still stand being with you.
28/12/2020 08:43:58 am
What a moving (and accurate!) account of the well named “institution” of marriage. It is sad to see how many people are discouraged from entering into this unique relationship. Jordan Peterson’s recipe for success was to chain yourself to another person with no exit plan in place. It is hard to communicate the rewards of a long marriage, but you have been successful, here. In this alienated world, to miss the chance of knowing and being known by another, still capable of surprising each other after half a century, and still wanting to be together despite, or perhaps because of, all too familiar flaws, is a treasure absolutely worth the struggle. Happy Anniversary!
28/12/2020 08:45:51 am
We celebrated our anniversary last night. Our rowdy kids were in the next room, and we watched The Shop Around the Corner (guess why) and had a nice long chat over drinks about exactly this stuff. How amazing to wake up and read this, great advice from a trusted friend.
28/12/2020 05:41:31 pm
Congrats Herman and Kirtley! Randy and I are a few months ahead of you - May 1977
1/1/2021 12:52:33 pm
Congratulations Herman. We are a few years behind you (just 35 years, but who is counting) and your description of the cherished institution of matrimony is spot on. May you have many more wonderful years together.
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