Thursday, July 20, 2017

Nine - Could it be divine?

“We’re just spinning leaves in the flight of a dawn, little girl
Falling through an eternal horizon of time
But I’d like to think as we lie here
that all we’ve got will be ours forever.
Don’t you think we’re forever?” - Roy Harper

“Love is a stranger
And hearts are in danger
On smooth streets paved with gold.
Oh, true love travels on a gravel road.” - Elvis

I was in the throes of fresh matrimony, the stars still sparkling in my eyes while they gazed up to the pedestal upon which I’d placed Steven, his every quirk endlessly endearing, his every utterance rife with coruscating wit and his flatulence odorless. My three co-workers, all late middle-aged and married for twenty years or more, were markedly not trembling in love’s dulcet thrall like I was. Somehow we’d begun a conversation about love and marriage that had deteriorated into me passionately defending love, marriage and love in marriage while they rolled their eyes and muttered things like “just you wait”. My rose-colored glasses were being snatched off, dashed to the ground and soundly stomped upon, and I was not taking it well.

Then one of my co-workers, Alberta, turned to me and stared plainly. “Love doesn’t last,” she said. “It doesn’t last.” My eyes filled with tears and I pushed back from the table and hurried to the bathroom, where I let my tender hypersensitive tears fall and in my head pledged undying love to Steven forever and ever, no matter what these crusty old cranks said. I daubed my eyes and marched back into the meeting.

Later, Alberta gently expounded on her statement: “The infatuation, that doesn’t last,” she said. But her original statement rang in my mind and heart and deeply troubled me. Being newly married is sort of like being newly pregnant in that so many people - including strangers - love to offer opinions, advice, horror stories and admonishments on your condition. But why, I asked. Why were these people so cynical?

At another temp job I’d held before marriage, a middle-aged single co-worker had waxed one afternoon on her ideal romance. “Why can’t I just have a torrid six-month affair with a pilot whose plane tragically goes down in flames?” Beate asked moonily, her eyes glittering with the prospect of a love frozen in time and enshrined by tragedy. Meanwhile, the closest thing to romance in her real life was a longtime close friendship with a man named Patrick, a biker with a ponytail whose image contrasted sharply with Beate’s Iowa farm girl pedigree. She talked about him constantly and I wondered why their obvious attraction hadn’t breached the platonic walls of their friendship yet. It seemed to me that while she dreamt of tempestuous liaisons truncated by aviation disasters - love that never lasts long enough to become real - her best chance at real love languished beside her, relegated to neuter companionship because of fear or timidity or… something.

What is that something? Marriage is a very particular choosing, a narrowing, a decision to go deep and risk everything. There is no guarantee of success or protection from rejection or promise of a plane crash to get us out of the whole thing. While tales of new lovers who meet tragic ends might make for highly sellable 2- hour cinema, our absolute exaltation of the dopamine-riddled phase of fresh love only makes us shallow, and yes, it does end. Sort of.    

I learned eventually that Alberta was telling the truth. But the thing is, she wasn’t telling the whole truth. Maybe she knew it, deep down, but her preference for stark statements and unadorned speech got the best of her. Maybe her long, depleting walk with a husband stricken with Alzheimer’s had obscured it. Maybe she just couldn’t resist knocking me off my high horse (really more a majestic Lisa Frank unicorn). The truth is that the whole story of marriage gives the infatuation its meaning. The acute infatuation doesn’t last, true - but it is subsumed and contained within the story of a marriage.

As a kid, I remember once being dazzled by a rainbow array of shirts on display in a store. But after my mom bought me one and I got home and the lustre of cleverly designed visual marketing wore off, the single color alone seemed - well - kind of boring. And lonely. Once isolated from the full spectrum of color, it wore out. After the first year or so of our marriage, I frantically strove to hold on to the love-high even as it faded. I thought it was everything - love itself - and I didn’t know it was just one season. And it wasn’t gone forever. I wish I had known then that I could trust the story to unfold as it should.

I believe God intended marriage to be a prism, a bedazzlement of colors and phases and seasons, each made beautiful in its time and each intoned in the others, sparkling through in mysterious darting glints and glimmers. That early stage of oceanic infatuation is lovely in its own right, but it only achieves its fullest beauty when it’s framed by the full story of a marriage.

After almost 9 years, I have discovered that when you stay in the story and love when it’s hard and abide when it’s boring and keep your vows even when it hurts (Ps. 15:4), the sweetness of that first infatuation - when no romantic overture is too saccharine and every cliche about love rings so true and L-O-V-E all caps in vivid neon blooms profusely and spills over and saturates the whole spinning world - springs up when and where you least expect it to delight you anew. The person next to you is again a delicious mystery to discover, a revelation made even more resplendent by your shared history: the peaks and valleys, the sickness and health, the pleasure and pain. Because it is really His story, and the dying and rising again that reverberates through this cosmos which lives and moves and has its being in Jesus Christ also echoes throughout and sustains our marriage, if we only let it. Marriage can be a lilting melody in the resurrection song He is always singing.

In many ways, the old romantic in me did die. Marriage did her in. Good riddance, though, for she believed that true love lived only on the mountaintop. She believed love required no sacrifice and asked very little of her while giving continuously. She believed love made ultimatums and kept record of wrongs and bore nothing. She didn’t know that true love could hurt, could fail in major ways and still endure, still be true love. She didn’t see how full of selfishness and arrogance she was. And she believed that a mere mortal (albeit a wonderful, magical, devastatingly handsome and stunningly virile one such as Steven Lande) could bear the burden of being a savior.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out that Jesus is the mediator of all relationships, whether we acknowledge that reality or not. (God said it first, of course - John 1:3, Colossians 1:16-17) Our failure to acknowledge it is disastrous, while with our acknowledgment of it comes a kind of death - death of pride, of wrong and covetous ownership. But then the relationship is gently handed back to us, fresh and new and illumined from within with a sparkle it didn’t have before when we believed it a closed circuit between us and the other. Our human relationships flag, wilt and ultimately die when the reality of Jesus Christ - and the Christian saturation of God’s cosmos, created through Jesus - is resisted and rejected.  
So here I am, after nearly nine years, still a romantic, but of a new breed: one that, by the grace of God, is stepping into an understanding of love’s high cost but also its invaluable worth. I’ve read marriage “experts” smirkingly deride the Beatles’ line “all you need is love”, saying a marriage takes far more than that to survive and thrive. But it’s actually true - all you need is love. Authentic, vulnerable, co-suffering, collaborative, magical, wonderful love. It doesn’t come from you, but from the source of all love, the Trinity. Yes, you also need extraordinary patience, endurance, astute money management, all that practical stuff, the mention of which sends an artist like me into a sweaty-palmed glazed stupor. But what does all that flow from but love? Seek the kingdom first, and all these things will be added to you (including a spouse who actually seems to take pleasure in practical matters such as packing for vacations and budgeting).

I am still a romantic, yes - but I am a chastened, humbled, disillusioned and restored romantic. Could this be something of what it means to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves? I remember yet another incident from my temp days. I was working at an engineering firm when Steven and I were very new newlyweds, shortly before the gig I mentioned at the beginning. Making my rounds about the office delivering mail and invoices and various documents, I encountered an older woman who worked there as a structural engineer. She had to be in her fifties but there was something buoyant and young and girlish about her. She was beautiful. I didn’t really know her but I was giddy over my new status and when I mentioned to her that I’d just gotten married, her eyes came alive. “Oh!” she exclaimed, sighing dreamily. She clasped her hands at her heart and looked at me with wide earnest eyes and said “I’ve been married for 35 years. Isn’t marriage wonderful?”

Oh, it is. It really is.   

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