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Marriage: A Travel Guide
Michael Kramer

I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth…
            — Wendell Berry,
“The Country of Marriage,” ll. 1 - 2

I find myself contemplating the impending marriage of an acquaintance. This prospective groom matters to me; due to his vocation, he and his new wife will become an intimate part of my world. That seems inevitable. And so I offer the only thing I really can: my own well-earned wisdom regarding married life.

Becky and I have been married forty-six years. Although we know folk married sixty-two years and others brushing seventy, I suspect the experience of our forty-six is worth a few words to the prospective groom regarding his life with his bride. I do not presume to prescribe, only to advise—and the grand thing about advice is that one can always choose to ignore it, whatever good intentions might elicit it.

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A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth’s empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream…
            —“The Country of Marriage,” ll. 8 -12

 The first precept I offer is the most difficult. As a retired English teacher, I turn to poetry to help explain because, as William Wordsworth wrote, “all good poetry comes from the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion…recollected in tranquility.” The poem I turn to, Wendell Berry’s “The Country of Marriage,” is one I treasured since before I married.

As the poem opens, Berry (my generation’s Frost or even Wordsworth), finds himself lost in the dark. There are a multitude of paths the lost man might follow. Yet he finds himself, influenced by the heady brew of nature, following a dream.

Two points here: First, a human will never cease to be alone. We each wallow in our own life blood, our own dreams and fears and visions, even in the midst of the greatest crowd.

When I was young, I believed that marriage—perhaps the simple reality of cohabitation, but more likely the act of sexual intercourse—would somehow grant me knowledge of the thoughts of my spouse. More importantly, I believed she would receive that same knowledge into my feelings and needs. I since have come to despise passive-aggressive behavior that fails to ask, fails to articulate needs, that may on occasion hint at things unspoken, that presumes my other, if she really cares for me, will anticipate my feelings, perhaps even before I understand them myself.

That, of course, is rot.

I use the word “rot” intentionally here. We’ve all found that the one bad potato or apple or berry, left in the bag or basket, spreads its condition to all about it. “Rubbish” merely accumulates. Rot spreads and contaminates, and a rotten marriage contaminates both partners, any children. It also affects friends and neighbors. A rotten marriage is bad for humanity in its precedent and its influence.

Like Berry, I am lost in the woods. (I can’t say that the poet intentionally evokes the opening of Dante’s epic of the soul in the second part of his poem, but his sentiment, while perhaps less cosmic, amounts to the same.) My solitary world is dark, filled with scary shadows. My sense of direction is unreliable. I seek a beaten path but also feel that the ground I stand on is untraveled. I cannot expect my lover, once I’ve found her, to find my way. She struggles enough to find her own.

Dialectic becomes the model. She and I discuss. Sometimes we debate. Once in a great while, we argue. But the inevitable feedback from frequent agreements and compromises provides assurance as I discern the right path, as does my faith in the will of God and the study of God’s Word.

As in the poem, the words of a dream interrupt my silence. And that allows the other point.

Unable to capture truth exactly, I can only dream. But my dream of my partner may be more real than the woman who stands before me. I yearn to see the woman God intended. In her love for me, I gain a glimpse of the man God intended in me. The light of that closer-to-the-truth-in-the-mind-of-God we mutually uncover becomes our lantern. His light does shine in the darkness. And, together, we can seek the path more- or less-traveled by, whichever we find closer to the will of God.

This doesn’t take long hours of corporate prayer, mutual meditation, or dual devotion. But we walk in the woods holding hands. And we talk.

One year, the chair of theology at the high school where I taught asked me to talk with his seniors about marriage. I scared the be-jeebers out of him with my proposed title: “The Importance of Pre-marital Intercourse.” I never got to give the talk. I never got to explain that intercourse in that inflammatory title refers to conversation.

I meant to explain that a couple contemplating marriage needs to talk a lot. Exhaustively. Humorously. Seriously. Hopes and dreams. Brutal facts. Financial reality. Priorities. Child rearing (even if only grand-children through a grown and blended family are assumed). Politics. What kind of lettuce goes best with the avocado in the salad. Conversation before marriage needs to range widely and consider carefully.

Such conversation needs to continue throughout our walk in the woods of our lives. We humans only stop growing emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually with death. And marriage remains “until death us do part.” As well as I know my partner at this point, seldom much time passes without her surprising me with an opinion, some knowledge, some desire. I find myself unaware that she holds an idea because she didn’t hold that idea yesterday, last week, or last year. My love remains relevant only as I listen to her.

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…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 Country of Marriage,” ll. 19-24

 A contractor built the house in which we live in 1957. The original owner added an apartment behind the garage. When we purchased the property in 1999, we added a room. Over the ensuing years, we painted, landscaped, and removed carpeting to show off the hardwood floors. We have blueprints for all the structures. Becky and I have built a home. The home we built, however, lies deeper than any of that construction or renovation.

Memories fill our home. Our daughter, Megan, married in this backyard; our lower deck served as a dance floor for their reception. The side yard near our rose garden saw our son Nicholas  explain his desire to marry a dear girl when they were nineteen. “You guys aren’t exactly an advertisement for postponing marriage,” he said. (We married when I was barely twenty.) “We’ve prayed, and we think this is what God wants us to do.” His wife, Rachel, died of an unexpected and aggressive cancer just two years into their marriage.

Some of our home memories did not take place at this address. Years earlier, a different address saw that same son accidentally hit that same daughter with a baseball bat in the front yard. Becky drove to the hospital while I sat in the back holding a towel on Megan’s bleeding forehead. Still another address saw me drop and break a new jar of pancake syrup on the carpet near the pantry. Our oldest son holds memories of four addresses, his youngest brother only two. But each address had a share of Christmases, birthdays, and serious conversation about family issues.

The distinction between house and home lies in the distinction between flesh and spirit, between body and soul. House is built with land and stone, concrete and lumber. Home is built with memories and aspirations, intentions and actions.

We live amidst our respective and mutual passions. In our sitting room, Becky hangs one quilt on the rack. Another graces the coffee table. Soon she will enter two, “Happy Homes” and “Red Poppies,” in a show. Our books are everywhere, including in the garage, in boxes that need to go to the thrift shop. Photos of our children and grandchildren fill the walls throughout our house and are displayed in frames on dressers, bookshelves, and the entertainment chest.

As I write this, the elm in the front yard shades the Adirondack chairs that catch the afternoon breeze. In the back, the Chinese Tallow tree begins to set its honey-sweet blossoms and soon will buzz with a thousand bees. My roses, returned from winter pruning, are begining to demonstrate their colors, the beautiful symmetry of the blossoms just formed and those falling past their prime. Amaryllis flowers fill the length of the side yard. Honeysuckle threatens to explode in fragrance and white flower. Flowers on the trumpet vine start to sound their violet fanfare. Meanwhile, the white and yellow Lady Banks climb the back wall. I love my garden. Becky laughed yesterday afternoon as I regaled her with my luncheon spots—the rose garden brick patio, the redwood bar, the small round table behind the back door, the table beneath the canvas gazebo.

Our home becomes the place where we live married. Still, we can take that sense of home with us wherever we go. Home simply shelters us, adding comfort as we spend time in our own dark woods.

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…I rest in peace
in you, when I arrive at last.
            —“The Country of Marriage,” ll. 37-38

 No doctor ever diagnosed my psychology, but I spent times during high school and college in what I now recognize as depression. Whether caused by some chemical imbalance or just the surges of adolescent hormones, I sometimes spent hours, even days, doing little besides staring off into space. Something akin to mania offset those moments, and I would undertake heroic bouts of cleaning or exercise or writing or study.

Marriage left that all more steady. Instead of a valley of depression or a manic mountaintop, now I reside more in the foothills of emotion, generally upbeat, enjoying the calm and quiet as well as intellectual and physical activity. (Studies have shown that a healthy sex life, in my mind part of a good marriage, produces oxytocin. This adds to the endorphins that stimulate good feelings.)

The grand thing I think we have both found in our relationship shows up when either of us is stressed or has reason to be down. Even if all Becky does is pick up the slack for me, I realized long ago I’m not in this alone. Someone beautiful, vibrant, intelligent, and compassionate cares for me and my well-being. She tells me in words and actions that the same holds true for her.

Just as importantly, she shares my elation when I have something to celebrate, even if my accomplishment is not something in which she shares strong interest. When I received word recently that I had sold an essay to a magazine, I barely waited until she came through the door to tell her. Life goes better when one shares joy or sorrow. Burdens become lighter and joy becomes deeper when shared.

These past months, a number of issues brought about my retirement a bit earlier than planned. Teaching has been so ingrained in me that I recognize even planned retirement would have left an empty plain, a sort of Great American Desert for my soul. Three things kept me from that wilderness. First, God provided opportunities for me to share my expertise, my ability to teach, and my writing with new friends and colleagues. Second, my love for my wife and the busyness of her continued career moved me to take on the bulk of household work. (She complimented my labor recently, citing things kept neatly but not neurotically.) And third, her unconditional love for me, her willingness to make the best with me, left me feeling I needed to honor her trust and love by refusing to give in to despair.

Our new routines provide more time for what we would pursue either together or separately on weekends. Our financial adjustments have not been too severe. Her assurance that “we deal with these things together” provides me inspiration and support.

Even with marriage, life continues its ups and downs. God’s candid response to Adam and Eve after their disobedience set the tone for that. Yet marriage provides the knowledge that we work in partnership, “our mutual burdens bear,” as the old hymn proclaims.

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 Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen time and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.
            —“The Country of Marriage,” ll. 51-58

I don’t deserve the devotion of this woman I love. She might say she doesn’t deserve me. As far as “earning” her, however, I’ve courted, given jewelry and flowers and candy (a gumball in a colorful, well-padded tin was one of my first gifts to her), written poems, driven miles out of my way, and put aside important work. None of that could have been enough.

I continue those efforts (no gumballs for some time, however). A better word than efforts might be services. I gave up doing what it might take to deserve her years ago. Rather, I find I do what I do because I choose to.

I am a better man because of her love. I work harder and more meaningfully. I am more careful in my behaviors and attitudes. My strength flows from the grace of God and also from the grace of Becky. God is often intangible. My wife never is. In our more than forty-five years of marriage, we’ve rarely spent more than twenty-four hours apart. Frankly, I like things this way. Shared experience, good and bad, pleasant and awful, grant unity and confidence.

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 What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light.
            —“The Country of Marriage,” ll. 59-61

 These lines make me miss my classroom. There was always one student, who, unafraid of appearing dumb, would raise a hand and give voice to the confusion many would feel with this stanza.“If he loves her, if he loves his wife, why would he want to die?” But Berry’s death here is not that cessation of life. Rather, death signifies an end to self, a start to selflessness.

Long ago Becky and I came to realize that we were a couple to more than the IRS. Economically, of course, we form an entity. Our bank accounts are jointly held. Retirement funds and Social Security remain separate, but we list each other as beneficiaries. We are fiscal partners.

More than that, though, we consider decisions, even ones that seem only to involve one of us, together. Becky’s taking a quilting class next Wednesday. I know that, and we plan accordingly. One weekend in June, I’m participating in an online writing seminar. She knows. Not much that happens in our life remains separate for long.

In the language of Berry’s poem, we “thirst” for the rich beverage of our joint identity. Our “commonwealth” holds more strength, more value, more security, than our respective individual states.

When Christ promises that “the two shall become one flesh,” He means just that. I am complete with and in her. Alone, I am lacking. I believe that offends the modern value of independence. But here we mistake mutuality for dependency. While I am indeed dependent on my wife, on our marriage, that does not hurt me the way dependency on alcohol or some drug might. Rather, together we are stronger, complementary, complete.

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 I give you…
            — “The Country of Marriage,” l. 72

 I can well imagine a Christmas full of family: wife, children with their spouses, grandchildren, even close friends gathered in our sitting room around the tree covered with ornaments collected on our travels over the years. The room is rife with expectations of gifts to be given and received.

I can imagine further this grandfather lost in the shuffle, enjoying the toys opened by grandchildren, the books and brocaded scarves unwrapped by children, perhaps a diamond pendant long overdue to my wife. Somehow, if I were forgotten, I’d like to think I might not even notice for the joy I’d find in watching those others find pleasure in the gifts I selected, wrapped, and set under the tree for them.

I do love presents. Truly though, my joy that morning would come in seeing the delight on the faces of others.

I finally found the bicycle I wanted for my wife: a beach cruiser, three-speed, two-toned blue and pretty. I had a basket mounted and bought it for her birthday. Days of beautiful weather in early spring left me eager to give it to her. I tried to assuage my anticipation by showing it to my daughter, inviting friends to come and see. I finally gave in and presented it to her early—not even April, and her birthday falls in May.

She loved it. A few days later, after we’d bought her a lock and a helmet, we rode out to picnic in the park, just far enough for her to get used to pedaling and the feeling of the seat. We will never ride bikes across country, but this summer’s farmers markets remain a real possibility.

Marriage offers so many gift-giving occasions. And while the wrapped ones are wonderful, no gift is better than time for listening, for sharing joy or sorrow or concern. No gift is better than my other knowing I am hers, me knowing she is mine.

This gift-giving comes with grace. Her grace and my grace fall short of the limit, the need, even the expectation. Instead, I know my life, my joy, my partner, my friend, my lover, my critic, my champion arrive all through the grace of God. I deserve nothing. I want little. I receive a bounty.

The return comes in the urgency I give, and not just to her. God’s grace and Becky’s grace create grace in me. Kindness begets kindness. Joy uncovers itself in this.

 I sit back now. I’ve digested again Wendell Berry’s poem as I have many times. I’ve discovered an Englishman, Jon Cleary, wrote a novel by the same title, in which nationalism unravels the marriage of an Australian wife and English husband. The lesson that author surely intended through his title is that marriage is a country unto itself, transcending all loyalties save that to God alone. And a blessed marriage must be pleasing to Our Lord.

I discover I cannot say enough. Perhaps my journey’s nowhere near complete. Is there marriage in Heaven? I can only say the closest I find to God’s Heaven in this life comes in the arms and in the eyes of that woman I love and who loves me.

 

  

This essay honors the Rev. Robb Ring and Mrs. Bethany Ring upon their marriage. Michael Kramer enjoys retirement with Rebecca, his wife of 47 years this August.

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