my dad, on marriage
With every pretense of mettle and pride stripped away, you email him because he already knows and because it seems he Gets It. A week has passed since the gorgeous Glacier wedding, the one filled with a mountain of love so overwhelmingly epic, that it left you changed. Left you systematically empty and fulfilled, if that’s scientifically possible. We’ll say it is, for argument’s sake, because we sit here at this late night/early morning hour searching the internet for something that makes sense. For something to hold onto.
My plane touched down at BWI late last Sunday night and I welcomed the inky darkness of the east coast sky to cloak the damp mess that arrived. I left the Minneapolis terminal in tears, apologizing to my mother, with whom I’d had the unexpected delight of spending five hours on an extended mid-day MSP layover. Only I wasn’t patient, wasn’t kind and found myself regretting all of it as I waited for my boarding class number to be called. She apologized for saying silly things and I apologized for being unappreciative and we had a kind of moment where our hearts reached across words and miles and we cried together, while pretending to be unaffected and strong. Scandinavian women are fierce in their love. We simply say, I Know, and we do. This embodies so much about why it hurts so much to leave.
While the cabin of commuters retrieve their luggage from overhead compartments and jostle for aisle position, I sit motionless, but for the quiet heaving of my chest. I cough and clear my throat, trying to play off allergies, but it’s transparent to my center seatmate that I’m upset. He touches my arm, with intention and firmness, sensitivity and swiftness, and asks if I’m okay. I proclaim with a waver that I am, thank him for his kindness and immediately wish I could hug him awkwardly at the waist.
At this late hour, I send out a barrage of white flag text messages, inviting the kind of digital embrace to supplement the one I won’t be receiving at baggage claim. Most of my pleas are suspended in the night sky and the glow of runway lights, but I finally connect with a friend and we share my drive home filling the silence with stories of broken hearts and longing for home. He tells me of the ex-girlfriend for whom his heart still aches and I can relate, feeling as acutely upset leaving Minneapolis this time as I did five months ago. Time has not healed any of our heartbroken wounds. I ask if there’s a statute on feeling homesick (heartsick?) and we decide there is not.
I follow the white lines of I-70 as we talk about wishing we could let go, break free, get gone and grow hope in whatever comes next. We cheerlead each other and give some reprieve from the transparent fist pumping and self-talk we’ve grown tired of producing for ourselves. We agree to meet later in the week for a platonic meal of food, hoping it might produce enough meat and heart and sustenance to feed our souls and cure what ails us. It doesn’t and it won’t, but I’m happy to have had it. For a night, the connection made me feel whole and human and alive and a part of a city that still never quite feels like home.
I haven’t yet found the words to tell you about Chris and Erica’s wedding and how it transformed and touched us all, but I can tell you I’ve never witnessed a more emotional exchange of vows. Have never witnessed more raw and unbridled emotion from a couple or the ferocious tribe who supports them. Rooted in everything that came before - transgressions and regret – and everything that lies ahead - the mystery and the doubt – it felt more like a baptism and a rebirth than a matrimonial commitment. Hearts were reborn, vows were offered like alms, like offerings to God, to one another, and to the all spirits who proceeded this moment as opportunity to bear witness to this act of courage. Because as we all know, marriage is hard fucking work and if you’re not afraid it could fail - that half the time it does fail - it probably will.
And the most beautiful sentiment about this wedding wasn’t even the idyllic location or the authentic enthusiasm or even the most ethereal bride I’ve ever laid eyes on. The most memorable feature of this wedding was strung together like the hand-made pompoms that swayed above us in the vast mountain sky. The message was simple: hope and grace and love and happiness can all coexist with the feeling of brokenness. They are lifted higher into the sky because of it. This fire, this light, this glowing demonstration of heat and passion couldn’t be possible without the hurt that gave it breath, that gave it life. This love is not a showy blue flame; it does not flicker and dance. This love is a single ember, smoldering and steady; when stoked and supported, it can burn infinitely. Can outlive us all.
On my drive home, he asks, if I’m afraid at 35, that I’m running out of time and I shrug at the notion of forced timelines and body clocks. Our hearts are equipped to go hungry, to go without, I tell him. They can survive and recover the way other organs cannot. They feel ache and pain, pangs of loneliness and of longing, but unlike the belly, a heart can find nourishment in lyrics and poetry and glacial sunrises and smiles and handwritten notes and in late night phone calls with men who broke your heart even though you will proclaim they did not.
He asked me to explain what it felt like to experience a level of commitment like the kind marriage requires and I confessed I could not. Mostly because I was cocky and overconfident and more committed to a china pattern than I ever was to him. And I wonder, how does anyone possibly know what loyalty looks like if you’ve never forsaken another? How could you really know how to be gentle with another human heart if you have never crushed something good with the weight of your own foot?
I’m convinced more than ever that real love is born in the ashes of the everything messy that came before. Like Mother Nature’s rebirth after an earth-scorching wild fire. Like a seedling fighting its way through the dense wet earth in search of light, to find air, to find sun, to find all the ingredients that will provide nourishment and potential to grow deep and tall and strong. Maybe real and true love isn’t ornate and delicate like an orchid or an iris. Maybe it isn’t meant to be pedestalled and adored. Maybe it’s been in the weeds this whole time. Hardy and resilient. Roots like steel, clawing their way into the earth, determined to make a home. A desert flower is just a name, after all. The real test of endurance comes in the preparation for extremes and in finding the hidden wells of water. In trusting the mystery of it all.
It’s a hard thing to know how much you want to give away. Because it’s almost impossible to write about a wedding or a marriage without sounding like a flaunting 22 year old asshole on Facebook. Because it’s hard to know how far you can crack open the quietest, loudest, deepest day of your life before some gust of overfamiliarity or casualness blows it all away. I want to protect this. And I want to share this.
While I get lost in the grappling silence, Holly figures out how to do it. How to watch someone else transformed and explain it as though you’d crouched in their lungs and been burned right along with them. I told Chris the other day that the world needed empathy more than anything. What I mean maybe is that the world needs more people like Holly.
Holly, who makes me want to write. Makes me want to twist just one leaf off this tree of life and scribble onto it as many tiny stories of this giant day as will fit, before I think better. So I will tell you quickly about how my little brother stood in the middle of the wedding (which went on and on and on from songs to poems to prayers to advice and story sharing; so fat and wonderful and just as languidly verbose as I am). How he called me his second mom and thanked Chris for cutting me free, for giving me back to myself. For giving me back the ease and peace and joy and freedom and shameless ridiculousness I maybe never even had as a child but should have. And now I do.
I want to tell you about my dad ringing our prayer bowl in the wind, and the metal ommmmmmm that lifted our silence and all our unspoken prayers up and off to the dusk and the mountains like gliders, like planes made of hands out speeding car windows, like kites. Like kites.
I want to tell you about Chris and the sound of his vows. The words we wrote and rewrote in a humid messy kitchen weeks and days before, hot glue and yarn and muslin stuck to us like shrapnel. These words that felt solid and right from that distance. And then, we stood in front of this petite audience. This team of witnesses and accomplices. Our tribe. And someone clicked off the safety. Sliced the guy lines. Cued the explosives.
This was the cusp. And then we were over it.
All. These. Words. We thought we knew how to mean and until then we didn’t know Anything, because saying them up there? Somehow they tumbled and spun into oceans and sandbags, ten million times their previous weight. Tumbled into weightlessness and orbit, strung us up to the stars. Because, finally really, I realized this IS the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart.
So yes, Holly gets it exactly. Something in the reverence of this land and this moment, in stepping into this decision under the holiness of mountain ranges risen up like elders or God. Something about it cracked us to our knees and we held these promises up to each other like tithes and penance and thanksgiving and threats to the world. Do not come between me and the ferocity with which I intend to carry this out.
Two days later his uncle emailed us. Said he was too reserved to stand and share but there were some things we needed to know. He talked about each of our responsibilities in this marriage, and how 50 percent won’t come close to covering our shares. He needed us to know this.
And his uncle, the retired naval admiral, ended with this: “Your vows were very challenging. If and when you fail them, raise your hand, admit you messed up and pick yourself up and do it better then next time.”
His wisdom — flat and true as stones — strung on to all the advice our tribe had already proffered, hangs around us now and grounds us. I am humbled by the years it took them to earn this. By the love the people we love have built and rebuilt and rebuilt and how they’re willing to teach us how to do it better.
Because my dear, I want to do it better.
Every once in a while, I watch him twisting his ring with his thumb and I think what I said then: If I believed in karma instead of grace, I might say it took me this long to meet you because I needed time to make and then atone for so many mistakes. I needed this long to become a person who could equal your character.
Cody and I were at the Holy Family Shrine just off the interstate going into Omaha, a church in flagrant and ecstatic imitation of E. Fay Jones’ celebrated Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Basically, it’s a crystal barn. We admired the general Catholic splendor, the iconographic kitsch, the verdant prairie unfolding below the Shrine’s hillock. As a pilgrimage site, the Shrine is adamant about not holding wedding ceremonies, which would serve to distract visitors. Consternation about this practicality is much in evidence in the Shrine’s guestbook. One visitor opined three times in his message that he and his fiancée could not marry on the site. He had proposed to the lucky lady using a quotation from Taylor Swift’s song “Love Story.” Obviously the ridiculousness of our being at a Catholic pilgrimage site—and the crassness of trawling through the guest registry for sentimental kicks—prompted within me a ludicrous desire for hetero-normative religious qualification, once Cody and I were secure in his car.
This brought up the marriage question again, an offhand topic I’ve fondled for the past six months in silent excruciation. “I will not say yes if asked to marry anyone,” Cody said. He added: “And I don’t want kids.” Since seeing Super 8 three times, I want to sire a son as noble and plucky as Joe Lamb. We’re entering the lost years of our twenty-somethings. My biological clock is ticking. I don’t want to talk about it…
…It’s unshakeable: people I deeply respect and boundlessly love will continue to marry (mostly each other) even though I receive the news contiguously with sad birthdays. I don’t have any money for travel or gifts. And my boyfriend doesn’t like weddings. I guess that’s it: He doesn’t want to marry me. The one time we discussed particulars, he generously offered Thanksgiving as the ideal day of ceremony—all his favorite foods accounted for, turkeys (a tom and a hen) for ring bearer and flower girl, acorn squash for table-displays. We were genuinely joking about these plans, I know, and my contribution to our fantasy wedding was brass knuckles for groomsmen as favors.
There are decrepit mansions in Richmond, Indiana—old tuberculosis homes with fantastic wide-windowed cupolas and wraparound porches—the inside of which we agreed we’d marry. The ghosts of dead TB patients were welcome to our wedding feast. We’re at an age where most of the people we graduated from college with are pairing off to be formally united at lavish destination weddings. Even my back-to-nature friends working CSA’s in Washington state seem attuned to the peregrinations of matrimony. Or, they complain about it as much as I do, and feel anxious about access to partner benefits in about the same way. What’s schizophrenic are my own opinions on weddings and marriage….
In addition to not wanting to marry me, Cody doesn’t read movie reviews. And—this is remarkable—he doesn’t read film essays. He doesn’t “believe” in them. Functionally, they should not exist, is the gist of his thoughts on the matter. In a way they do not exist. “Only film can talk about film,” is one of his magnificent formulations. I said something back, like, “Only cat can talk about cat,” or, “Only sandwich can talk about sandwich,” to impress the categorical silliness of his position.
Still it’s disorienting. Something ontologically disparate is at work here that I’m hapless to disprove. It’s menacing. I guess these long range anxieties about ever marrying my boyfriend and his philistinism are more or less safe here, given he doesn’t read film essays and this essay is about a filmic wedding. I unfriended him on Facebook! This is what the medium compels me to do. Play games, eat crow.
Incidentally I have another wedding to go to this coming weekend—ah, tonight, in fact. Another cousin. I feel saturated in summer weddings, in bouquets of tiger-lily and myrtle. “Only wedding can talk about wedding.”
…Oh, god. Why is love so complicated? Why oh why, etc.
It’s been days since I leaned back against a tree and read it on my phone in between round-trips from my second floor apartment and the waiting Uhaul down below, but I still can’t stop thinking about this essay.