House fly on white peony

Sometime in the past week, the suburban landscape quietly stepped behind a leafy curtain to slip into something more comfortable, casting off the garish pinks and reds of spring in favor of the more muted hues of summer. June is the traditional month of weddings, and it’s the month I typically return to pleasure reading after having spent too much energy during the academic year reading piles of student papers. June, in other words, is a happy time when the green earth and its denizens settle down to the business of promise and renewal.


Right now I’m reading Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing. In 2003, after Ackerman had written a book about the brain, her husband, the novelist Paul West, suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to speak, write, or read. Global aphasia, as West’s official diagnosis was termed, is a devastating condition for anyone…but for a novelist married to an poet, the condition is particularly troubling. In telling the story of West’s sudden loss of both spoken and written language, Ackerman necessarily tells the story of their marriage, especially the ways they previously had used wordplay as a form of personal intimacy, creating (like twins) a language unto themselves.

Kousa dogwood

I’m a longtime fan of Ackerman’s prose; this past year, in fact, I’d re-read her classic Natural History of the Senses with my creative nonfiction students. Despite Ackerman’s occasional verbal excesses–lush metaphors that overspill her sentences and prose that tiptoes dangerously close to purple–I often find myself dumbstruck by individual lines that ring so true and with such melodic clarity, I wish I’d written them myself. “Couples are jigsaw puzzles that hang together by touching in just enough points,” Ackerman writes early in the book, and I’m hooked. “In time,” she continues, “a pair invents its own commonwealth, complete with anthems, rituals, and lingos–a cult of two with fallible gods.” Just as husband and wife create a shared intimacy of pet names, inside jokes, and ongoing allusions, Ackerman uses language to create a bridge with her readers, inviting us into a personal parlor where the story behind the stories is told.

Pink peonies

Almost immediately, One Hundred Names for Love reminds me of Joan Didion’s memoir of her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I’d reviewed on-blog in 2007. Both Ackerman and Didion recount their husband’s medical conditions with clinical specificity, and both Ackerman and Didion seem to use language–specifically, the discipline of writing about loss–as a kind of lifeline, a way of making sense out of the senseless. Ackerman’s husband, unlike Didion’s, doesn’t die; in fact, Ackerman’s book is the story of how West gradually regains language and how the couple forges a renewed bond in the process. Still, even a mild stroke is a kind of miniature death, and Ackerman herself finds solace in the immediate aftermath by reading C.S. Lewis’s classic memoir of loss, A Grief Observed.

Mountain laurel

Ackerman’s reference to Lewis is apt on several points. First, she mentions how West himself had corresponded with Lewis during the days that Lewis’ wife, the poet Joy Davidman, was dying of cancer. How did Lewis have the presence of mind, Ackerman wonders, to maintain anything but the most essential correspondence during a time when his thoughts and energies were necessarily elsewhere? Second, the marriage between Lewis and Davidman, who was 17 years younger than him, roughly mirrors the age gap between West and Ackerman…but while Ackerman finds herself facing the classic challenge of a middle-aged wife tending an elderly husband, Lewis found himself in the opposite situation, left a widower by a younger woman who left him two children from her previous marriage.

Blue columbines

One of the most emotionally powerful moments so far in One Hundred Names for Love is that point when West, initially limited to uttering the syllable “mem, mem, mem” in lieu of actual words, begins to recover a smattering of language with which he tries to articulate the experience of having become an invalid in an instant. Lying in his hospital bed after an exhausting afternoon of physical rehab and speech therapy, West tries to communicate his feelings to Ackerman, who recounts the conversation.

“Sc-sc-scared,” he sputtered.
“You’re scared?” I asked.
He nodded yes.
“What are you scared of?”
“Mem, mem, mem, you’ll, mem, mem, leave. Would. would. wouldn’t blame,” he garbled. It was the longest thing he’d said thus far.


It was the longest thing West had said thus fair, and perhaps the most telling. Isn’t this any coupled person’s worst nightmare, that in an instant they might be struck with a debilitating illness and their partner, exhausted with the demands of caretaking, will decide to leave?

It’s telling, I think, that traditional marriage vows insist that the bond be maintained not simply “in good times and in bad” but specifically “in sickness and in health.” It’s as if the authors of those time-tested promises knew (as perhaps only the mature and long-married do) that the true test of any couple doesn’t come when their vows are uttered but in those moments when debilitating illness takes those words away.

Raindrops on nose

Day by day, the wedding grows closer, and I feel ready and even eager, not nervous. I don’t remember what I felt during the weeks before my first wedding; I can’t remember whether I felt anxious or fearful. I probably didn’t know what to think: what did I possibly know then? I had no idea what kind of life–what kind of challenges–faced me.

Just like a sleeping angel

J and I have settled into our own compromises; we’ve figured out, more or less, how not to step on one another’s toes during these summer months when we’re both around the house. It’s a constant dance; you never quite capture the permanent poise you long for. Instead, you have to keep moving, perpetually on your toes, reacting and responding as your partner moves, correcting and compensating for missteps, both your own and your partner’s.

Being married is the most challenging practice I’ve ever done, more difficult than getting a PhD or sitting a long Zen retreat or climbing a mountain. It’s challenging because you agree to do it for the rest of your life whether you want to or not–whether you think your spouse deserves it or not–whether at the moment you even like your spouse or not. Being married isn’t about the happy times you share (as I’m sure I thought when I was looking forward to my first marriage). Being married is about sticking around and giving it another try when you no longer want to.

Extreme closeup

I had no idea how difficult marriage is the first time I got married: how could I have? All we hear when it comes to marriage are the extremes at either end of the spectrum: on the one side, the happily-ever-after of wedded bliss, and other the other, the tragedy and turmoil of failed unions. Given these two options, it’s natural to think those are the only two choices, that your marriage will be either happy or miserable. When you’re young, optimistic, and engaged, no one mentions the plain and simple truth: any marriage will be both happy and miserable, the tenuous balance of intimacy being poised between those two ever-present extremes.

Balance is not a static thing, and neither is intimacy. If you’ve ever watched a circus tightrope performance, you know tightrope walkers are always in motion, leaning slightly one way then the other. Only in a frozen snapshot does a tightrope walker ever stand still; instead, at every moment, a tightrope walker is tottering between extremes, calculating and recalibrating the precise position of every extremity–every living cell and corpuscle, it seems–with an attention that can only be called electric.

Fenway entrance

Marriage is like that, but in slow motion: it takes your entire lifetime, ’til death do you part, to cross from here to there on the thin thread called “I do.” At any given moment, you might lean heavily toward bliss; at the next moment, you might dip dangerously toward despair. Your vow is your lifeline, the central balanced point you return to time and again. But balance is never static. The second you settle on a comfortable balanced point you wish could last forever, you’ve already fallen, your body freezing into a fixed rigidity that stymies its natural flexibility.

It takes a master to walk a tightrope, and it takes a master to weather the woes and wobbles of being in relationship. This is a truth I didn’t know (and nobody told me) the first time I got married. This time around, I’m walking into marriage with eyes wide open.

Click here for more pictures of the giant bronze baby heads–the paired sculptures of Antonio López García’s Day and Night–outside the Fenway entrance of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

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Wedding invitations

Now that the invitations are in the mail, it really feels official: J and I are getting married in August!

Mock orange, aka Philadelphus

This isn’t exactly “news” to our family and friends: J popped the question in January, and we’ve been planning the wedding since February. But for a variety of reasons, I never got around to announcing our engagement on-blog. At first, I didn’t want to blurt the happy news online until we’d told everyone in our families; after everyone in our inner-circle of family and friends had been informed, I was in the midst of a busier-than-usual semester when finding time to blog was difficult. On Facebook, all I had to do to notify my online friends was change my relationship status from “In a relationship” to “Engaged,” and that spurred the expected flurry of congratulations, like flashing an engagement ring at a social gathering. But here on-blog, I wanted to write something more substantial, and something more substantial kept getting pushed to the bottom of my to-do list as other priorities took precedent.

Over the years, I’ve spent so many blog-entries processing my first marriage, divorce, and its aftermath, I’ve wanted to write something equally thoughtful about the experience of being engaged, again. The first time I got engaged and planned a wedding, I remember how stressful the experience was. Even though my ex-husband and I had a small, simple wedding, we had ongoing disagreements with relatives about the details: one side of the family wanted a large, fancy wedding with a long guest-list, and the other side preferred our idea of keeping things small and simple. At the time, I remember remarking that there was a good reason why marriage was designed to last for life: that way, you’d have to go through the trauma of planning a wedding only once.

Mock orange, aka Philadelphus

They say that second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, but I’d say that second engagements are the triumph of experience over experience. Having already planned and been in one wedding with all the expected accoutrements (church, bridal party, long white dress, etc), this time around, J and I are no longer beholden to time-honored tradition or either set of parents. Since this is a second wedding for both of us, we’re planning and paying for it ourselves, so we get to focus on what we (rather than others) want. Now that we each have had the experience of getting married one way–me in a church with a Catholic priest, J in his living room with a Jewish justice-of-the-peace–J and I see this second time around as our chance to do things differently, as we’d like it.

So, how are we doing things differently this time? Well, we aren’t getting married in a church; we’re getting married at a Wild Animal Park. Instead of flipping a coin to decide whether to get married in my hometown (Columbus, OH) or J’s (Pittsburgh, PA), we’re getting married in San Diego: a fun summer trip for ALL of us, as if we were eloping with small entourage of family and close friends. Will I wear a white dress? Yes, but it’s knee-length and informal, bought off-the-rack and on sale. Will we have a bridal party, and will my dad walk me down the aisle? No, and no: J and I will escort one another down the aisle, and it will be just the two of us standing in front of our officiant.

Half opened

And that officiant? He’s neither a Catholic priest nor a Jewish justice-of-the-peace; he’s a nondenominational Christian minister with lots of experience marrying people in unorthodox settings. How can it be, you might wonder, that a practicing Zen Buddhist manages to get married twice without ever having a Buddhist wedding? Well, as much as I respect the great vows of Buddhist practice, J’s not a Buddhist, and neither are any of our wedding guests. We’ll have a nonsectarian, moderately Christian wedding ceremony because that reflects our shared cultural background.

When I first divorced, I feared I was tainted goods: having one marriage that had failed, I was afraid that all future relationships would be similarly doomed. A second marriage is a leap of faith because it’s based on the belief that we can learn from our mistakes. Second marriages, I think, really are the triumph of experience over experience: as much as you’ve lived through the bad experience of seeing one marriage fail, you’ve gained the valuable experience of having learned things the hard way. The first time I got married, I was fresh out of college and had no idea how to live on my own in the “real world,” much less be married. Now that I’m twenty years older and that much (I hope) wiser, I have a clearer sense of what I want out of life, love, and a partner. I think this current process of planning both a wedding and a life is a great opportunity to claim these for myself.

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Boat watching

You might call this the many-years-after version of this “before.” Long after the excitement of posing for wedding pictures fades, the realities of marriage endure. I wonder how many times this couple has taken Sunday strolls along the harbor, watching cruise boats come and go. How many miles, nautical or otherwise, has this particular couple logged, and through what weathers?

Boat watching

There’s nothing more wholesome than a long-married couple taking a harbor-side walk, unless it’s a grandmother taking her young grandson boat-watching. The shiny novelty of a young couple posing in their wedding finery is one thing, but show me the weathered face of a grandmother or middle-aged couple, and I’ll show you a picture worth more than a thousand words. There’s nothing finer than young love…unless, of course, it’s older love. Marriage is no pleasure cruise; it’s a journey marked by trial and more than a bit of tedium. When I consider the marital math lesson I’ve offered the Almost-Married, it occurs to me that couples who have lasted longer than the almost-thirteen years I was married have that much more wisdom. If the couple in the picture above could give a word of advice to the newlyweds who posed not far from them, what lessons would they share?

These days, I’m more interested in old married couples who have been together forever than I am in new couples just starting out. The excitement of a wedding is fine and good, but what happens when monogamy becomes monotony? The true test of any life, coupled or not, comes on Monday morning with its mundane drudgery. Who is going to do last night’s dishes, and who will take out this week’s trash? It strikes me as downright counter-cultural that one of my favorite things to do with J is grocery shopping on Saturday afternoons: why don’t I “get” the nearly universal message drummed into single folks that dating is about excitement, not mundane chores? And yet, it strikes me that a truly long-term relationship is more about grocery-shopping, laundry-doing, and other household chores than it is about wine, candlelight, and roses. Romance is fine, but unless someone buys the groceries, cooks the meals, and cleans the dishes afterward, how can man or woman live on romance alone?

Cyclists with skyline

Years ago when I saw the blockbuster film Titanic on the big-screen, I remember being struck by one scene near the end of the movie. While everyone else was ooh- and aah-ing over the sexy on-screen chemistry of the movie’s attractive young protagonists, the scene I found the most memorable showed an elderly couple huddled in bed as their cabin filled with water. Too old to race for the lifeboats, the couple had presumably made a pact to go down with the ship together. It’s fine and good for Celine Dion to croon that the female protagonist’s “Heart Will Go On” after her heart-throb suitor ends up dead in the water: it’s easy to love a man you don’t ever have to live with, the novelty of infatuation never having the chance to wear off. But isn’t the truer, truest love the kind that has looked “’til death do us part” in the face and remained faithful?

There’s an oft-quoted Zen saying that says “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” Presumably after the thrill of enlightenment has faded, all that remains are dirty T-shirts and undies. And yet, I’d beg to differ with this oft-quoted saying, or at least the preposition therein. It isn’t that laundry comes after ecstasy; it’s that laundry is ecstasy. If you fully embrace your life with all its tedium and drudgery–if you fully embrace the monotonous routine of the same old spouse as you head off to meditate, again, on the same old cushion–you discover your laundry and your ecstasy are one in the same. What is marital bliss, after all, but the repetition, ’til death do us part, of the same old chores, the same old laundry, and the same old ecstasies?

This is my belated submission for last week’s Photo Friday theme, Wholesome.