Parnassus Books is one of my most favorite spots on the planet. While I am drawn in by the floor-to-ceiling wooden shelving, the cozy corners, the handwritten recommends, and the wandering four legged shop dogs, it is the possibility of spying the store’s famous co-owner that thrills me. Ann Patchett can often be found talking with customers or simply bustling by with a stack of books. Like a teenager smitten with a rock star, I stare at her in hopes of catching a whiff of her literary wisdom. Once, she breezed by startling me, and I uncharacteristically blurted out, “Why hello Ann Patchett!” She smiled and graciously paused long enough for me to start a conversation, but I was dumbstruck and could only return her smile.
I, of course, have read just about every book Ann Patchett has written, but there is one I have not. It is a collection of essays, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” While I have seen it on the shelves and my fingers have brushed its cover, I have never even picked it up. I wonder if it is the title? It seems to convey to me that she has some secret to divulge to those in a less-than-happy marriage. Yet, Ms. Patchett does not write “self-help” books nor would she write such a pompous piece. In truth, I think I feared my own marriage would not compare to her “happy” one. Choosing not to read the book let me avoid comparing my marriage to hers.
Growing up with three sisters, I perfected the art of comparison. When I moved away from home, I carried the same measuring stick out into the world. Comparing myself to others has always been a fool’s errand. My view is clouded by my perceived superiority or more often my own inadequacies. Such a means of measurement leads only to supposition, falsehood, or outright prejudice.
My faith tradition encourages me to let go of this foolish measuring stick. I am reminded again and again that I am deeply loved. Loved despite my flaws and mistakes. Yet, by accepting this precept there are strings attached. I am asked to see others as equally loved…the cranky child in the market, the curt TSA agent, the teenager who cuts me off, and the condescending sales associate in the Apple store. I am challenged to not only see my own self worth but see others in the same light.
Nevertheless, I find myself now stacking my marriage against another…unable to see the intrinsic value in my own relationship, because I perceive the other marriage as happier. I wonder why I do not assign the value I see in myself to our relationship? Might I look at our marriage in toto…the joys, the struggles, the days of neglect and still see it as happy? Surely, our marriage even with its flaws is just as worthy of happiness as another’s.
So as John and I begin our 45th year together, I, too, want to tell the story of our “happy marriage” and see again the strength and goodness that lies there.
John and I married at the ages of 23 and 22 respectively. I don’t think either one of us realized the work that was ahead…we simply wanted to live together and answer the phone late at night without fearing a call from our parents. However, despite our youth, I believe that deep inside we each held a kernel of commitment. Perhaps the commitment was planted by our parent’s example, an innate stubbornness, or simply divine intervention. This nascent commitment seemed to grow with maturity, parenthood, and strengthened with the help of others…our faith community, family, and a professional when we most feared unraveling. Our commitment held us together when the inevitable storms of life clouded our horizons.
As with any relationship, there were also days of boredom and routine. Days in which we forgot each other and lived apart while living together. Yet, somehow one of us always felt the distance and made the extra push to nudge us back together. Sometimes it took laughter, an argument, or just a clearer view from the space we unwittingly created.
Even after all these years, we are not experts. Our union still needs careful tending. While, we are more open to listening and willing to change. We also accept what will not change. John will always be on the move… sweeping, cleaning, or puttering outside. He will save every scrap of paper that enters our home in his own unique filing system which I have yet to decode. I will always be a passing storm in the kitchen leaving cabinet doors open, stacking pots haphazardly, and creating a crime scene with yogurt each morning. John will never find humor in Frankie and Grace nor will I ever watch Game of Thrones.
Despite our differences, there is much joy. John makes me laugh like no other and can still take my breath away when he saunters into a room. Each morning I leave for work he gently lifts my chin, kisses me, and offers an endearment such as, “You belong in Paris.” I then soar out the door lifted by his charm. We both know that a day begun and ended with a walk together is always a better day. We fervently believe in the innate goodness of the other, and know either one of us could stand alone. Yet, we also know there is a greater good to be found in being together. Knowing and believing in this greater good is what makes our marriage a happy one, too. ~c.hause