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Some friends of mine are getting married Friday. I'm giving the bride away, but I don't have a wedding gift, so I thought I'd go cheap and tell them a few things I know about marriage, about which plenty of people have had plenty of things to say in the last few weeks.
I'm no expert, but as long as someone asked, the one piece of advice I'd give is: Do Whatever It Takes to Stay in Love. That might sound obvious and easily done, but if you're like most humans, especially most married humans with kids, there will be times after the Friday night lights fade when you want to be alone, and there will be times when you want to be alone with someone else. There will be times when something or someone will get under your skin and whisper in your ear something about yourself that felt previously unknowable, something that reminds you of you in a previous life, something about who you could be if only...
If only what? If only you were "free," or with someone else? Whenever I've followed that thought, what I've invariably found--beyond the fact that when tested, I haven't found anyone more interesting than her--is that, as Liz Phair sang, "the problem is you." It happened the other night when I snapped at my wife about something I can't even remember. I left the house and went for a drive. I was pissed; I did the whole Steve Earle "Week of Living Dangerously" thing; drove around for an hour, thought about going to the bar or a movie or California, and ended up coming home after thinking not about what was wrong with us but what was wrong with me.
I was feeling the sort of loneliness that I've come to know can't be sated by anyone or anything but myself. I've known as much from the music I've listened to all my life, and I've learned more about it in the past two years. It's what the Buddha was talking about when he said "In the search for pleasure, [people who are slaves to their desires] jump from tree to tree, like monkeys searching for fruit." Most of the time I know that everything I need is inside, waiting to be tapped and explored, but other times I'm like Lucinda Williams--I wanna be swallowed up by an ocean of love. Sometimes the twain meet, and I go for a drive.
Last summer, just as OutKast hit the airwaves with "Hey Ya," that gorgeous garage-y guitar-churner that goes, "Thank God for Mom and Dad for sticking through together, 'cos we don't know how to," my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. To generate ideas in advance of the bash, I set up an e-mail thread with my sisters and brothers and their husbands and wives. One of the questions: What have you learned most from Mom and Dad's marriage? There were many smart-ass comments about sex and Catholicism and childhood, but the one that stuck with me most came from my sister-in-law Kim, a no-nonsense free spirit who's in the process of raising two teenage boys and living with/loving my brother Jay. All she wrote was, "How to hang in there."
To anyone who doesn't know them, that might sound desperate or unromantic, because, as the fairy tale goes, marriage isn't something you should have to "hang in there" with or work at. But it's good advice, because if you hang in there through the strife or the restlessness of the here and now, you've got a good shot at seeing what's on the other side.
So that's what I'll say to my friends Friday: Hang in there. Hang in there through the dark nights of the soul, through the new lovers and louses who you're sure will somehow redefine you, make your senses explode. Hang in there through the times when the appellation married couple feels too comfortable, too typical, too ball-and-chain.
Hang in there through the fights and the flights, and say as much as you can out loud. Tell each other that you feel too domesticated, that you sometimes have feelings for other people, places, or things--and watch what kind of bond happens then. Hang in there through the times like the time my wife and I had the other night.
We'd just put the kids down, and we were both exhausted and fighting colds, to the point where the most we could do is collapse in front of the TV. I passed out watching the CNN crawl ("Britney Spears has the flu") and woke up 20 minutes later to the sight of Larry King's Surprise 70th Birthday Party. It was horrifying. Larry was smiling; Jerry Lewis was doing the donkey hee-haw he patented in the '50s. Liza Minelli was singing "You Musta Been a Beautiful Baby," and I couldn't believe all the romance and passion had led us to this thoroughly unmagic moment.
We joked about it, but the bathos of it stuck with me for a couple of days. It never really got me down and did any damage, though, because I think I knew it was the little picture, and that it had little to do with the love you make, and that is what I would like to remind the lovers of today:
Don't take nights like that too seriously, but take them seriously enough to reclaim what they take away from you. Remember what it felt like to look into each other's eyes the way you will Friday, and from the seeds of that look, nurture a glance that you share with absolutely no one else, one that can swiftly cut across a crowded room and say, in a twinkling, that you have not forgotten who she or he is, who you are together, and that you have not forgotten your first date or kiss or the bars or back seats or the stupid things you've done and tried to make right or all the things you inspired each other to do, all the things you never would have done without each other, all the things you're going to do with each other.
Don't be too hard on yourself when you make mistakes or act like human beings. And when things feel mundane or worse, remember the big picture, like the one you might see when you and the kids are out walking the neighbor's dog, and the three of them suddenly bolt out ahead of you, their little silhouettes caught by the streetlight, and you stop worrying and disciplining long enough to stop for a moment and watch them run and run and run.
If you're lucky, you'll take a second to stand there, alone under the stars, thinking not about Larry King or lameness or wanderlust, but about the things you take for granted, like how you found each other in the first place. And in that moment the little picture will be obliterated and the big picture will crack open in front of you. In fact, a gilded velvet curtain will part, and you will find yourself gazing stupidly at those little bobbing moonlit heads and you will hear yourself say, almost involuntarily, just loud enough for the squirrels to hear, "Jesus Christ, look at that. "
Jim Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612.372.3775.