In the starry part of their hearts true love lingered . . . (words on a piece of ceramic art hanging in our home)
It didn’t start out as a springtime romance, not like my high school crush that had blossomed a few years earlier with those first daffodils in April and had felt giddy and flighty and then had quickly faded as spring lost its initial oomph and became something else. This was different. It was in October that we met, late October, mid-semester at the University of Maine, and the leaves rustled under our feet as we walked the paths to class and the trees exposed their spindly branches and a darkness wrapped itself around the campus by the time we made our way to York Hall’s dining room. It was a bare earth, bare bones time of the year, a time to turn inward and light a fire and invite the shadows out to play — it was the Halloween time of the year. And that’s when the romance began to burn, on Halloween night, at a keg party-dance in Kennebec Hall with the music blaring and the beer spilling and all of us students stretching our limits in masks and costumes and bold-inducing props.
He was a good boy dressed up like a bad boy, this nineteen-year-old sophomore from the midwest, who was asking me to slow dance this Halloween night to the longest of songs, in-a-gadda-da-vida. He wore a white undershirt and tight blue jeans and he had tucked an unopened box of cigarettes into his pocket and he stared at me with his intense blue eyes. I was a good girl, a freshman from the coast who had worked that summer at an inn with eight other girls, all good girls learning to be bad, and we had watched the new movie by Woody Allen, Everything You Want To Know About Sex, and that’s where I got my Halloween cue. I dressed up like a sperm that night, with my navy blue sweatshirt’s pointy hood tucked tight around my face and my extra-big chromosome pinned across my front and my flagella of a tail swishing behind. He stared and I giggled and I pushed down my hood and let my hair fly free. He tossed away the unopen box of cigarettes and began to smile, and somehow, through some act of grace, the giggling sperm and the James Dean look-alike became the girl and the boy that they really were. And they danced their way that Halloween night into something real and deep and more filled with the shadows of the unknown than any college campus Halloween party.
And, as the snow began to fly and the semester gained its momentum, on those dark days of late autumn, he was drawn to my light. And I was drawn to his confidence. And together, me absorbing his courage, he basking in my sparkle, we created a space for each other, and this space became a path and this path carried us forward through finals and winter break and visits to meet families and more semesters and a summer on the coast and an engagement and a wedding nearly three years later in August, on the sixth, the hottest day on record in coastal Maine. And that’s what I want to tell you now, that it is our anniversary today, our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary, and I find this hard to believe, that it has been thirty-eight years, and, yet, I also find it hard to believe that those two young kids who danced together on Halloween night were a version of the two of us. I want to tell you that there have been many versions of each of us since that long slow dance, and there have been many versions of us as a couple too. I have stepped into my own confidence. He has discovered and delighted in his own ability to shine brightly. We don’t need each other to fill in those pieces anymore. So what is left in a marriage that has been around for thirty-eight years? I want to tell you that I still like him, this good boy from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he still likes me, too. And that goes a long way in a long-term marriage, the liking each other.
And there’s something more, something deeper that I want to tell you about. Sometimes when we’re not liking each other, we hate each other. Sometimes those Halloween demons come out to play and we can’t stand the sight of our partner’s face. Sometimes it is the big topics that raise our hackles, topics like money — and sometimes it is the petty differences in personality. And that’s what happened on a Friday evening in late June. You don’t need to know the details. They don’t matter. Just know that we were both tired and cranky and our visions for the evening’s unfolding were different and I ended up going out when what I really wanted to do was stay home and watch a movie, and he felt criticized and I felt pushed into something I didn’t want to do, and it culminated at midnight with us walking in the door to our usually hospitable house in a flurry of bickers. It could have been worse. It could have escalated. But that’s not what I wanted that night. He went to bed. I turned on my computer. And that’s when the grace arrived on the scene — the amazing grace that is always present if we relax into it. It arrived in a blatant form. It was the headline that caught my attention, and so I pushed play, and there he was on YouTube, the president of the United States, Obama, in all his vulnerability, standing in front of a congregation in a church in South Carolina; there he was singing his heart out to a grieving community, offering up the healing balm of grace and his very own open heart in a rendition of “Amazing Grace”. And it shifted everything; it softened my heart, too, listening to him sing like that, and, when I brought the computer upstairs and played the video, it softened the heart of my not-quite-asleep husband.
That doesn’t mean that there is no work to do, at least not along the path of our relationship. We do our share of trail maintenance. And our collection of tools, tools accumulated through the thirty-eight years of pruning the path, is impressive. And so, the next morning after the bickering, we hauled out a tried and true method of listening to each other, and it was easy to listen, to see each other’s perspective, to like each other again. And that’s where the grace comes in; it washes over everything. And the love, too. And maybe they are the same thing. And I know they have always been with us — grace and love — with all the versions of ourselves. And I know that our history matters, that it adds poignancy to our relationship. And a richness that is beyond words. And today on our anniversary, I thank those two young kids who chose, all those years ago at a Halloween Party in Kennebec Hall, to unmask themselves and take the plunge into something real.
is a cove in Maine
silty sand, tiny wavelets, a wild sea
it is a full moon
and periwinkles clinging to shore
a stagnant green pool and a tree-bending
it is sumac and beach roses and
it is a fish house painted sage
years ago and a rosy pink door
a mooring a haul-off line
and two turquoise skiffs
it is the sole of an old sneaker
garnet flecks glittering
in the summer sun
(The poem was written at Joy Center a few years ago at Matt Maki’s Write Now! class)