Severe Mercy

Dear Sherah,

I’m writing you from the end of the time warp that has been Idaho. 

Pete and I leave this afternoon for Chicago to be reunited with Anders, who has been happily tossed between grandparents for a few weeks now. We’ve missed him something rotten, but it would have been selfish to keep him with us when our parents, finally on the same side of the world as their only grandchild, were available and willing to watch him. I love that his memories of these weeks will be ice cream cones and bedtime stories, extravagant balloons and pet ducks. Pure and simple love.

My memories of these weeks will be a little different.

What I’ll remember is hour after hour of therapy, chapter after chapter of spiritual development, mile after mile in my gym shoes, journal entry after journal entry, conversation after conversation, argument after argument, request for forgiveness after choice to forgive, and episode after episode ofParks and Recreation, which I consumed like anti-anxiety medication.

I’ll remember walking together nearly every night, sunset in one direction and mountains in the other.

I’ll remember when I had to pull over on the highway because I couldn’t drive while I was crying and hyperventilating at the same time.

I’ll remember walking to a cafe for brunch and holding hands across the table. I’ll remember getting my third refill of passion tea at Starbucks for yet another game of rummy.

I’ll remember the time I went quietly into the bedroom and pulled the blanket over my head, and there was nothing he could do but wait on the other side of the locked door. I’ll remember the time he was so angry he was nearly shaking, and there was nothing I could do but let him go for a run and hope he wouldn’t keep going.

I’ll remember our 9:15 dinner reservation, and the hours we spent that night over good food and drink with bare bulbs strung overhead, followed by a walk downtown with his arm draped over my shoulder.

I’ll remember when my therapist said, “Part of the difficulty is that you both are very independent people,” and I laughed, torn between a defensive, “Yeah, so?” and a sarcastic, “OH YOU THINK?” A couple days later I read this passage in The Mystery of Marriage, and I underlined it in ink before remembering it was a borrowed book.

If people understood exactly how radical is the curtailment of independence in marriage, there could never be any thought of divorce. Divorce would be seen as a form of suicide. But then, if people understood the true depth of self-abnegation that marriage demands, there would perhaps be far fewer weddings. For marriage, too, would be seen as a form of suicide. It would be seen not as a way of augmenting one’s comfort and security in life, but rather as a way of losing one’s life for the sake of Christ.

The Mystery of Marriage is one of those books that I tried but failed to read while I was engaged. It was not a pleasant companion to bridal magazines. I don’t think I was a flighty person even then, but the author’s view of marriage struck me as too dramatic and deep and serious, like writers who compare writing to bleeding. It’s a page, not a battlefield, and no one is forcing you to do it, I’ve always thought. But here I am, nine years into a marriage that no one forced me into, bleeding all over the page about the suicidal, sacramental act that is matrimony.  

Speaking of: Pete and I both just finished reading A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. Have you ever read it? I enjoyed it for the captivating love story between Vanauken and his wife, for their romantic sailing adventures and years spent studying at Oxford (actually, I was a little too jealous to enjoy those chapters), and for the letters back and forth between Vanauken and C.S. Lewis. (I’ll admit I skipped over all of the sonnets. Let’s never write and share sonnets, okay?) Toward the end, Lewis writes a letter about how, in the same way that we as individuals must die to self in order to find true life in Christ, every natural love must die in order to be reborn, for a marriage cannot serve as an entity onto itself any more than an individual can. “One way or another, love must die,” he writes. “But how many miss the rebirth.”

I think these past few weeks have been part crisis and part second honeymoon. It’s been a death and birth, one layered on top of the other. It’s felt like grieving and falling in love, sometimes in the same moment. Maybe if I’d had a more dramatic and serious view of marriage the first time around, I would have seen our first honeymoon in this same light. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t then, you know? Rome is a dramatic and serious city with a rich, deep history. But your letter reminded me how much fun it was skipping around its cobblestone streets as 20 year-olds, taking silly pictures with historic fountains and eating gelato at every turn. I think it would be an interesting experiment to do Rome again in our 30s and 50s and 70s and see how we experience it each time. My guess is that the older we get, the more time we spend in the Vatican and the less time we spend on public transportation after dark. 

And if Lou is still giving tours, I’d totally go with her again. My favorite Lou moment was when she played Candle in the Wind while we drove through the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana died. As soon as we emerged on the other side, she cut off the song and said, “Enough of that sad shit. Look to the right!”

Thanks for letting me write my way through this tunnel, Sherah. I think landing in Chicago will be like a blast of light. 



P.S. Can I invite myself over for coffee while I’m in town?