Gary and I are celebrating our anniversary today. Actually today AND tomorrow, since we had a two day wedding, oh so many years ago, in a little lodge in the mountains of North Carolina, where, gathered with 25 friends and family members, we shared stories, sang songs, read poems, talked about marriage, climbed to the top of a waterfall together, and finally, at the end of the weekend, with me wearing a dress covered in upside down trees, Gary wearing bell bottom cords and a puffy shirt, we exchanged a simple Quaker vow.
That vow has held for…whew…39 years. I hesitate to state that number only because you will all now know how old I actually am, 59…there, I’ve said it. I was 20 when we married, younger than my daughter Zoe is now, which makes me realize, once again, that I need to stop thinking of my children as children because I wasn’t a child bride…even though I like to tell people I was. At 20, I knew who I was and what I wanted from my life and from my marriage and though I was also a mess, and had a lot of learning and changing to do, I was also a grown up, ready to live my life on my own terms, make mistakes, fall down, get back up, survive, maybe even thrive.
And if you know Gary at all you will not be surprised at the kind of wedding we had — Gary, who loves ideas, and questions everything, who has always wanted to live with intention and thoughtfulness on this earth, who believes in the power of ritual to shape us. It’s been one of the things I’ve loved about him from the word go. So from the moment we decided to get married, we started talking about the kind of wedding we wanted to have, a wedding that expressed our values, a ritual that would hold us, mold us, and sustain us. So we researched weddings, the traditions around them, and created our own ceremony, without a lot of the stuff we usually associate with the American way of weddings…long white wedding gowns, tuxedoed groomsmen, a father “giving away the bride.” There was none of that at our wedding, no rice thrown, no veil lifted. We didn’t exchange rings, because we didn’t like the origin of the ring tradition. (It was originally a sign that the bride had been bought and paid for…a symbol of the fact that she was the man’s property and off limits. Look it up.) We also had no wedding cake — instead, we served bowls of ice cream with Hershey’s syrup on top, and the fact that the cans were left out in plain sight was a great moment of shame for my mother … however, because everything was so odd at our wedding, she didn’t even realize we never exchanged rings until I mentioned it to someone else in her presence a couple months later. “You didn’t exchange rings???” she exclaimed.
In the wedding ritual that we created, we wanted to celebrate what we believed in and what we wanted for our marriage, a coming together of equal partners before God and with the support of our community. Over those two days we made a commitment to love, support, believe in, push and stay with each other, we made a promise to help each other live our lives fully, without regard for traditional gender roles, to be each other’s best friends, biggest fans, to be generous lovers and to help each other become all we could be, emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually, and together to care for the world, to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
Oh my, we were young. And idealistic. And probably fairly insufferable to many who knew us at the time (thank you all who showed up anyway, and for forgiving us all our know-it-all-ness.). Our wedding invitation was two pages long, done on ditto paper, if anyone remembers what that is, in which, not only did we explain to everyone why we were having the non-traditional wedding we were having, but also told people they didn’t need to give us traditional gifts. They could give us songs or poems, they could read one of our favorite books (we listed several), or sponsor someone in a hunger walk in honor of us, or do anything pretty much, that they thought would be an accurate expression of their love and support for us. Which people did. This meant we didn’t end up with any pots or pans to cook with when the wedding was over…a little inconvenience we failed to consider before we sent our manifesto of a wedding invitation out.
Would I do it any differently if I was doing it today? Maybe. Calphalon cookware is very nice. You can’t sleep between sheets of poetry.
On the other hand, what we said and did together over those two days, set us on a path that I don’t regret in the least. We knew nothing of what would come our way in the years that followed. We had no clue how broken we both were, we had no way of knowing how many ways we would hurt or disappoint each other. We had no idea how hard marriage actually is. Once, after Gary and I had been married about 3 or 4 years I heard about another couple that were getting divorced after 10 years of marriage, a couple who I admired, who seemed so together, and I expressed my surprise to another married friend who knew them. And he said something I haven’t been able to forget. “It never surprises me when people get divorced. What surprises me is when people manage to stay married. That’s a miracle.”
The landscape of marriage is a difficult one to travel, Gary and I learned quickly. Almost as soon as we said our vows, I discovered levels of rage within me I never knew existed. Rage I’d never been allowed to express growing up, suddenly arrived on our doorstep, and practically anything Gary did during our first year of marriage could welcome it into our “happy” home. Being late to pick me up, not being able to read my mind, giving me flowers on my birthday (too few) and then more flowers on Valentine’s Day (too many, obviously trying to make up for how he failed on my birthday). We got through that first year, though. Committed to not let the sun go down on our anger…which, believe me, meant I sometimes had to wake Gary up in the middle of the night to “talk” …something he was never happy about.
We got through, that year, and all the others, I would say, by the grace of God. Oh and by hard work and lots of therapy and by the vow we made that day in our hippie clothes surrounded by flowers friends had “liberated” from people’s yards. And by the fact that we loved each other desperately and believed that loving someone for a lifetime was worth the effort. And then by more grace. We took guidance in the Wendell Berry poem called The Country of Marriage, which one of my favorite college professors gave us for a wedding present, particularly this section:
Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun,
a pattern made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.
I think many of us go into marriage, at least I know I did, wildly in love, hormones blazing, and coming out of a lifetime of stories about “happily ever afters” believing it will be that house in the graceful clearing, until we discover…not so much. Until we run smack dab into the forest, the darkness. And discover, little by little, day by day, with red eyes, swollen by tears, with hearts ripped open and bleeding all over the place, with all our assumptions about ourselves laid bare on the floor, with all our fears running naked across the room, that the dark can be “richer than the light and more blessed, provided we stay brave enough to keep on going in.”
Through the years, a few of our friends have occasionally asked us to write wedding songs for them. We ended up writing about deserts and streams, about thorns and roses, about how you couldn’t have one without the other, etc. etc. Pretty insufferable wedding songs, I must say. After a while, people wised up and stopped asking. Not many people want to hear that kind of stuff on their wedding day. I don’t blame them.
But the truth is also that it is so worth it. Being married to Gary all these years, I have been the recipient of so much more than I could have imagined that day 39 years ago. We have been like two stones sitting next to each other in a river, pushing up against each other, rubbing each other the wrong way sometimes, being swept along to places we couldn’t control or predict, and in the process, changing each other, honing each other…polishing each other. Becoming more ourselves than we would ever have been able to be apart, by some strange miracle. When God says in Genesis, “It’s not good for humans to be alone,” I think he meant that quite literally…that in relationship — whether that’s in a marriage or a deep friendship, in an honest family or a therapy group or a recovery group or a small group at church, anyplace where we allow ourselves to be fully known and fully challenged and fully loved, that is how we become ourselves, the selves we are born to be.
I woke up this morning, knowing I wanted to write about this, about our anniversary, our marriage, and also terrified, because I knew I couldn’t get it right, I couldn’t do it justice. I couldn’t tell you about all that I love about Gary, I couldn’t find the right words, or enough words – that would take a book. And I couldn’t possibly explain to you how amazing it feels to still be loved by him, even after he has seen practically everything there is to see of me, inside and out for so many years. I couldn’t possibly communicate how that love has grown through the years, through joy and sorrow, through great sex and sex, which even when it might appear to be average to boring by movie standards, was still wonderful and life-giving in all the ways that really count, through shared laughter and so many shared tears, through broken hearts and busted dishwashers, through messy arguments, and sweet blessed dailyness, through mistakes and successes, through raising children, through silence and through sometimes, amazingly, even knowing the right words to say.
“To take a vow is an awful risk,” to quote Sam Keen, in a book Gary and I had on the “must read” suggestion list on our wacky wedding invite. “As is not taking a vow…” I’m so grateful we took that risk. So grateful I’m still living in the embrace of that vow, in arms of the man I made that vow with, May 3 and 4, 1975.