Friday, November 5, 2010

#137 - Marriage (A Primer)

Marriage (a primer)

11/5/10 (#137)

Talking about marriage is like talking about religion — it means different things to different people. Even to people in the same marriage. You've got your Orthodox Married who believe that everything after "I do" is a compromise of one's personal self for the good of the institution; you've got your Reformed Married who are willing to compromise but have recognized that two televisions in separate rooms is a matrimonial blessing; there's your Born-Again Married, who keep a Deepak Chopra book in the drawer of the night stand because marriage is too complicated to get through without an owner's manual; you've got your IRS Married who tie the knot for financial reasons, though with the US tax system, getting married to save money is like swimming in the Willamette river to save laundry money. None of these are necessarily better than the other, because there is no right or wrong marriage — you get from it what you invest in it, and it's yours. For all the discussion of the "meaning" of marriage on a public and political level, the people who define each marriage on a personal level are the two people who say, "I do."

But marriage is more tangible than religion. Marriage is like family, except you volunteer for it, which means that when you get to challenges, you have to accept some of the responsibility for the circumstances. With the family you grew up with, you can blame them for everything — all those weird little foibles and flaws ingrained in our personalities? Most of us trace them back to the family dinner table. Of course, all the weird little strengths and specialties we proudly claim as our own can be tracked to the same roots. We marry a person because we love them, and their family is included in the dowry, the bonus and baggage DNA entwined in their psyche. But your spouse understands that. Even embraces that. Otherwise, why would they agree to attend big family gatherings, the type preceded by a roster of warnings about this one's politics and that one's biases and so many other one's peccadilloes. Few things prepare a person for life with another as well as watching the family dynamic when it comes to seemingly simple events — for example, taking group photos. You can learn a tremendous amount about a person and their family in the brief (or often excruciatingly long) duration between "Okay, let's get a picture" and the actual click of the shutter.

But the family gathering isn't the most reliable crash-course in life another person. A more stringent test is the long drive. And I'm not talking about a couple of hours across the state line, I'm talking about a driiiiiiiive — a map-unfolding- cross-border-multi-day mobile living excursion. The depth of one's affection cannot be accurately measured in living rooms or restaurants or even at family reunions because these places allow too much breathing room, too many escape routes, too many buffers, either intentional or accidental. The confines of a car, endless hours of humming tires, enduring a CD you wish you never lied about liking, bare and unwashed feet on the dashboard, splitting a bag of pretzels and a Mountain Dew and calling it dinner…again. A long drive is a concentrated imitation of life: adventure, anticipation, anxiety, excitement, fatigue, monotony, redundancy - but best of all, intimacy. Not honeymoon-style intimacy, but the deep backstory that gets shared between mile markers 71 and 134, tales that simply don't come to the surface amid the bustle and distraction of life. Memories jarred loose by radio songs or roadside diners, dusty tales that lack the practiced fluidity of our standard storytelling repertoires. The irregular flashes of oncoming headlights are like camera flashes, snapshots of tired eyes and relaxed smiles or the quiet repose of an exhausted head pillowed by a folded sweatshirt against the car window. These snapshots endure in our memory, reminding you of the reason you were excited about this journey. Even as the journey takes you past creepy roadside rest areas and countless mediocre chain restaurants, as weary eyes try to focus on the task at hand, these snapshots remind us that life is good, and even better with a copilot you can count on.

Most importantly, marriage isn't the same thing as love. Love is like an idea for a movie, unlimited in scope and ambition; marriage is that same movie when it's exposed to budget constraints, impromptu script changes, bad lighting and confusing, unexpected jump cuts. As you make your movie, don't focus on how the dailies aren't matching your imagination; instead, look closely at the reels and try to make it the best film you can. That movie you have in your head is just one version of the story, limited by your imagination. The one you make every day is a collaboration, and it has every potential to exceed anything you could have imagined by yourself. Share the writing, share the editing, and most of all, make sure both of your names get equally billing in the credits.

©2010 wpreagan

This piece was originally written to be read by several readers at a friend's wedding. I have modified it to commemorate my 11th anniversary with my wife. I am grateful every day to have her in my life, and look forward to every moment of the proverbial car ride ahead. (Though I'm probably going to ask to skip a few tracks on that one CD.)