The Truth of Marriage

“Most of all it must be built on truth, not dream, the knowledge of what we are rather than what we think it is the fashion to be.”
Laurie Lee

We have asked much of marriage lately. We spread into its vastness and pulled its intimacy around our shoulders. Asked it to carry pain and hope. We asked it to immobilize demons without and quiet the noise within.

Fortunately, marriage is a voracious thing. A physical thing. Like all relationships, marriage demands space. Marriage has attics and cellars, heights and pits, smooth planes and holes. Cushions and manacles, soft landings and things that hold fast.

By the physicality of marriage, I mean just that: Marriage is a being. Marriage has space. Marriage is a thing.

Wedding flowers featured in "The Truth of Marriage."
Wedding flowers. Photograph by Chris Cooke.

If marriage is a thing, of what is it made? Not flowers nor cake nor tulle. Love. But love in what fashion?1

“Love is, and makes all the rules itself…,” writes Laurie Lee, a passionate writer of fields, youth, and time long gone. Lee guides us to give in, give over.

Love should be an act of will. Of passionate patience, flexible, cunning, constant; proof against roasting and freezing, drought and flood, and the shifting climates of mood and age. In order to make it succeed one must lose all preconceptions, including a reliance on milk and honey, and fashion something that can blanket the whole range of experience from ecstasy to decay.

A truth of marriage is that marriage is built on love. Lee cautions, “Most of all it must be built on truth, not dream, the knowledge of what we are rather than what we think it is the fashion to be.”

Wedding rings featured in "The Truth of Marriage."
Wedding rings. Photograph by Chris Cooke.

Love grows as we grow. Before long, we have a thing. A thing that blankets the range of experience. This oozes and flows, explodes. Love is catalyses—cauterized?—through ceremony and vows, one symbol after another parade down an aisle.

Concocter of worlds C.S. Lewis enjoyed only four years of marriage in his long life. He took note of its thing-ness: “The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate, yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant—in a word, real.”

Lewis lost marriage; he lost his love and the vacancy, the void of what had been, and was no longer threatened to be swallowed whole.

A truth of marriage is that marriage is. Poet Denise Levertov speaks to marriage directly. She holds it fast in her gaze and wags her finger:

“The Marriage”

You have my
attention: which is
a tenderness, beyond
what I might say. And I have
your constancy to
something beyond myself.
The force
of your commitment charges us—we live
in the sweep of it, taking courage
one from the other.

The language Levertov uses to talk to marriage is the same I use to talk about marriage. Although, where I hesitate to give it form (is it a world, a blanket, a house?), Levertov calls it a leviathan. We sit in its belly looking for joy.

Wedding dress featured in "The Truth of Marriage."
Wedding dress. Photograph by Chris Cooke.

A truth of marriage is that marriage is a thing we appease. Levertov speaks again to marriage, raising her voice:

“The Marriage (II)”

I want to speak to you.
To whom else should I speak?
It is you who make
a world to speak of.
In your warmth the
fruits ripen—all the
apples and pears that grow
on the south wall of my
head. If you listen
it rains for them, then
they drink. If you
speak in response
the seeds
jump into the ground.
Speak or be silent:
your silence
will speak to me.

A truth of marriage is that marriage becomes a world. A world with which we grapple, within which we must live, and to which we give succor.

Marriage asks for everything, absorbs everything, uses everything, reflects everything. Holds everything. Perhaps it is a leviathan.

Modern poet Marianne Moore, a spiritedly intellectual and individual gal, calls marriage “an enterprise.” “This institution, perhaps one should say enterprise out of respect for which one says one need not change one’s mind about a thing one has believed in…”

Moore nods towards the fact that we can never turn against marriage because there is no outside marriage. Moore questions what Adam and Eve would think of marriage. Is it the garden they left? Or their individual selves? Moore ends the poem: “Liberty and union/now and forever.”

Liberty and union?

A truth of marriage is that it is held fast by tension. It holds it together. Holds it up? Holds us down. We tinker and fix. We work on the marriage, work on the love. Sometimes, we work alone, taking shifts. Passing each other to and from a constantly cooling bed.

Marriage can be lonely because love can be lonely. Poet and protector of the creative spirit Rainer Maria Rilke offers an antidote of experience and cautions those unprepared for love’s loneliness:

Love between one person and another: that is perhaps the hardest thing that is laid on us to do, the utmost, the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, do not yet know how to love: they must learn. With their whole being, with all their strength, concerted on their solitary, fearful, upward beating hearts, they have to learn to love.

We learn alone how to be together. We learn and relearn. Rilke suggests love and marriage are learned. But, they are never learned. Love and marriage are in the learning. In the striving.

It is always healing, never whole.

It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

from Marriage

This is the truth of marriage. From Wendell Berry, a poet, environmentalist, and Midwest farmer. It is healing; it is never whole. Berry has been married for decades.

It is my ten-year anniversary today. For ten years, I have been in marriage alone together. In this post, I included scenes from a wedding. Symbols. They suggest false precision. As if inauguration has to do with a presidency.

And why do we always give things that will break?

Wedding cake featured in "The Truth of Marriage."
Wedding cake. Photograph by Chris Cooke.

The next time I attend a wedding, I’m gifting rivets. Tape and glue. Pillows to punch and lights to fight darkness. (My favorite wedding present was a lamp. From an illuminated soul that once gave me a book of Rilke.) I’d bring magnets and climbing gear. Epoxy. Elastics.

Day after day, for ten years now, I am in marriage. He is in marriage. Alone together in marriage.

The truth of marriage is that it is never whole. But it is.

When all else fails, marriage keeps us married.

Wedding dance featured in "The Truth of Marriage."
Wedding dance. Photograph by Chris Cooke.

A Close Relationship Between Emotions

“I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m struck by emotions’ refusal to sit tight within a neat parcel capable of being understood and processed. Instead, they spread, grow, and connect like floral arrangements, fusing together and dismissing both boundaries and nomenclature.

Both Joan Didion and C.S. Lewis recognized—and were confused by—the deep relationship between fear and extreme sadness. A double-helix of mounting needs that press upon our brains and hearts and render us helpless.1

Anyone who has swum the muck of grief knows fear and sadness only begin to name the range of emotions encountered.

Photograph of "Empathy" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of empathy: a refined, contained, and yet flowing selection of roses, mums, and hydrangea in undulating calm and passionate hues. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

How beautifully complex that fear and sadness would entwine so ferociously.

Or that love—the height of generosity—would summon feelings of jealousy, selfishness. In 1819, poet John Keats wrote to his love, Fanny Brawne, about how, from his love to her, he had slipped into its darker vestibules.

My dearest girl,

This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content, I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else—The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you again[s]t the unpromising morning of my Life—My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you—I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again.

Meanwhile, we also see a brilliant study of anger coupled with humor in the comedy, creativity and general being of John Cleese (owing to a childhood fearing he’d upset his high-strung and foul-tempered mother).

“I find anger…hilarious,” Cleese admits in his autobiography.2

I have at times suspected that what I seem to laugh at most are the things that frighten me. I find anger, like Basil Fawlty’s, hilarious—provided it is ineffectual, as real anger might be too disturbing. I’m terrified of violence, yet I shout with laughter at great slapstick comedy that threatens people’s physical safety (think of Harold Lloyd or Chaplin or Eddie Murphy crossing the freeway in Steve Martin’s Bowfinger).

My sense of humour has been described as cruel… yet I am almost obsessively appalled by torture. And I howl at absurdity and nonsense when my deepest physical fear is a sense of meaninglessness. Am I trying to diminish a fear by laughing at it, and thereby belittling it, reducing its threat?

Photograph of "Pride" from Empathy" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of pride: a vivid, clashing arrangement with a bold outer shell and a soft, warm foundation. Flowers include orchids, roses, allium and celosia. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

This idea that we can harness our more destructive emotions into something energizing, enabling, is echoed in Marianne Moore’s early modern poetry. “A day of wrath shall be as one,” writes Moore in her poem “Fear Is Hope.”

‘No man may him hyde
From Deth holow eyed.’
For us two spirits this shall not suffice,
To whom you are a symbolic of a plan
Concealed within the heart of man.
Splendid with splendor hid you come, from your Arab abode,
An incandescence smothered in the hand of an astrologer who rode.

From Marianne Moore’s ‘Fear Is Hope’

On the other hand, too much of these enabling (one might say “positive” emotions) can turn against us and overwhelm. Emerson writes of a joy so vast, so deep, that it reduces him to a child who can barely contain joy’s potency.

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child.

This feeling of wonderfully pure joy burned by sadness like a piece of paper held to a warm match—it is so familiar, don’t you think?

Photograph of "Joy" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of joy: a dynamic, exploding gathering of celosia, craspedia, gloriosa in bright purple and orange hues. It conveys both fundamentals of joy: energy and delight. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Is this what van Gogh meant when he so frequently mentioned St. Paul’s words “being sorrowful yet always joyful”? In the Letters van Gogh wrote to his beloved brother and in the sermons he delivered in England, he references St. Paul’s concept “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” as a comfort, laid over his shoulders when he is in need of warmth.

Probably because he felt similarly, and it gave voice to his feelings. And yet, it is against this disparity, this division, that van Gogh rails throughout his life.

Seek only light and freedom and do not immerse yourself too deeply in the worldly mire. […] One does not become simple and true overnight. But let us persevere, and above all have patience. He who believes, does not hasten.

He longs to be one or the other, not both. Joy and sorrow overwhelm.

When we are aware of our emotional conflict and complexity, we quickly become aware that we are powerless against it. Something that will not be tamed nor hold still—even when it comes from our own minds—is overwhelming and debilitating.

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Fears in Solitude,” creeping fear overcomes someone happy in nature like a lead mantle. With the relentless death in the French Revolution, many wondered violence befaced England?

Coleridge wrote the feelings into words:

A green and silent spot, amid the hills,
A small and silent dell! O’er stiller place
No singing sky-lark ever poised himself.
The hills are healthy, save that swelling slope,


My God! It is a melancholy thing
For such a man, who would full fain preserve
His soul in calmness, yet perforce must feel
For all his human brethren—Oh my God!
It weighs upon the heart, that he must think
What uproar and what strife may now be stirring
This way or that way o’er these silent hills—
Invasion, and the thunder and the shout.

A soul in calmness but a weight upon the heart. Our body, figuratively, torn into different emotional pieces.

Whether emotions are constructed, intuited, or formed naturally or through our experience is hot science, and I’m sure soon we’ll know more; the gap between neurology, biology, and psychology narrows.

But really, the close relationship between emotions and our inability to wrestle our emotions into one—which means unless we are great poets it can be extremely difficult to express—seems to be less a psychological issue than one of language.

Which is why I’m grappling with it here in joy and fear.

Photograph of "Friendship" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of friendship: hydrangeas, mums, and roses positioned to convey the building blocks of friendship. It is a neat, deliberate and uplifting arrangement of blue flowers to convey tranquility and yellow for happiness. What I love about these arrangements is they are fashioned of the same floral material, sometimes the same textures and colors. Much like the emotions they represent. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Welsh has a word, hiraeth, which means “intense happiness at a love that was, and sadness that it is gone.” Is that what Emerson felt? Certainly, Keats, who, by the time he penned that letter to Fanny, knew he was likely to die from the family illness.

The Portuguese has saudade, which means a sense of wistful melancholy experienced when reflecting on lost love. Is that what we feel when looking at nature, knowing it exists but is being ruined?

English needs more words for these combinations of emotions. Emotions that bind and refuse to separate. Emotions that wrap us in mantels until we lose our way. Sadness with fear and fear to hope. Love and selfishness. Anger and mirth. Joy and fear.

And, one of the most peculiar, from Shakespeare, humor and sadness:

[It] is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many samples extracted from many objects; and indeed, the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.

From As You Like It

Expression, to ourselves and others, is the beginning of understanding. Without better words, how can we express our emotional fragments and combinations? How can we express or understand ourselves?

Things Grown Piece by Piece

“You string words together like beads to tell a story.”
Anne Lamott

Let us contemplate parts and wholes. The progression of many into one. It’s human nature to assemble, but what do we form when we do?

In Illuminations, German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin welcomes us into his library—a pile of books yet unpacked, promises of greatness:

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that.

Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among the volumes that are seeing daylight again.

When does a pile of books become a library? When they are organized? When they are touched and loved?

“The way my walls are made, stone upon stone, is like growth,” sculptor Andy Goldsworthy writes of his art. Goldsworthy repositions rocks and stone in walls, cairns, and arches, shapes that both amplify and slink into their surroundings. “I think the main difference between a design process and a sculptural process is that the latter is close to the way things grow.”

When does a pile of stone become a wall? For Goldsworthy, this transference occurs when the sculptural process begins; the first brick of a wall is a wall.

For Benjamin, similarly, the distinction doesn’t exist. His boxes of books are a library.

We are likely to agree with either or both. It is the power of gestalt, the human tendency to make out of many one.

"Graft" by Roxy Paine, 2009. Featured in "Things Grown Piece by Piece."
“Graft” by Roxy Paine, 2009. More than 35 individual steel pieces have been welded together to form a fabricated tree 45 ft high. Learn more.

This mental assembly of things occurs with both physical and abstract entities.

Anne Lamott’s highly influential writing guide Bird by Bird, published twenty-five years ago and widely read today, suggests the nature of writing—and creating—should be done through placement of one piece after another:

[S]omehow in the face of it all, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story.

We see this piecemeal assembly of work and creativity in the work of John Steinbeck, who—famously, twice—chronicled his writing process in creating The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. Steinbeck stings together words, pages, and himself.1

In his journal kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tracks his daily progress in an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel, omitting not one day, not one state of being. It gives us a rare glimpse of an author producing—his novel and himself—“bird by bird.”

My nerves are very bad, awful in fact. I lust to get back into it. Maybe I was silly to think I could write so long a book without stopping. I can’t. Or rather, couldn’t. I’ll try to go on now. Hope to lose some of the frantic quality in my mind now.

Unlike Goldsworthy and Benjamin, Steinbeck does not recognize that his day-by-day bricklaying has become a novel. He uses phrases like “the work” and “my story.” He calls it a “book” but only in the future tense: something it will become. When he is halfway done, Steinbeck notes “the story which will be so much greater than I am,” and by the end of the next month, he uses the phrase “the hardest, most complete work of my life” but, again, in a subjective future tense.

The last page in the diary, October 26, 1939 Steinbeck closes with “Finished today. I hope to God it’s good.”

Even with a completed stack of pages before him, Steinbeck is reluctant to name the work as a whole.2

"Graft" by Roxy Paine, 2009. Featured in "Things Grown Piece by Piece."
“Graft” is part of Paine’s Dendrite sculpture series, tree-like structures formed piece by piece to evoke man-made and natural environments. One side of the tree is gnarled and weathered, the other (pictured here) is smooth and elongated. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Gestalt means “unified whole” and comes from theories of visual perception developed by German psychologists in the 1920s. These theories “attempt to describe how people tend to organize visual elements into groups or unified wholes when certain principles are applied.”3

Navigating from a brick to a wall or a book to a library, even pages to a novel, is a cognitive, psychological step we make, even if when we make that leap differs.

What if we get even more abstract, however, like Alan Lightman does when he contemplates the stardust that forms all humans. When, Lightman asks, does the summation of atoms become a human?4 When she has a name? When she can say “I”?

Is she human when she is loved?

It is a fundamental tension of humanity: after the edge of material and before the wellspring of being, there is a chasm.5

There’s no mark that equals hair, there’s no mark that equals skin or anything else. It’s a little bit like an architect choosing a brick. The brick doesn’t determine anything about what kind of building will be built from it. You stack up the bricks one way and you make a gas station, or you stack up the bricks another way and you can build a cathedral. Both of them will be very different experiences, but it wasn’t the brick that determined the nature of that experience.

Perhaps there is no artist that allows us to float between a human whole and its pieces better than American portraitist Chuck Close.6

Through his use of grid scaling, Close makes the whole and its pieces simultaneously visible. A complete, detailed human face with every detail intact and yet, not a face at all, just the summation of pieces.

I believe a person’s face is a road map to their life, and embedded in the imagery is a great deal of evidence if you want to decode it. If a person has laughed his or her whole life, they’ll have laugh lines… It’s not necessary for me to have them laughing or crying or anything in order to have people be able to read them.

Like these portraits, we are formed of pieces, and those pieces coalesce into our concepts of being.

We shore up our fragments and say “I.”7

"Graft" by Roxy Paine, 2009. Featured in "Things Grown Piece by Piece."
Paine also replicates natural structures that form and grow using carbon copies of themselves in his Replicate series. The meticulous relationship between parts and whole, the original and offspring and repetitive forms in nature are all explored in Paine’s work. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In art, in politics, in socio-economic systems, in religion, in science, in the basic family unit, and most of all in our concept of self, we are asked to move fluidly between the parts and the whole. To embrace all in value and meaning.

In this enormous complexity, I struggle to care, to prioritize, to discern, to assemble.

With all this change, how can we, the assemblage of atoms, ever feel truly whole. Full. Complete. Done?

There is poetry. A prism of knowledge, poetry strips language, images, and metaphors of meaning and returns them to us able to reassemble as needed.

Poetry allows us to visualize the invisible.

With her characteristic grasp of the finite and the infinite, poet Mary Oliver delivers us a robust, inclusive concept of sea:

I go down to the edge of the sea,
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,


It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

from ‘Breakage’

Goldsworthy’s walls break down, Benjamin’s Library was burned by Nazis, Close’s portraits are dissembled visually by a few steps towards the canvas. Things grow and decay.

While you can, while it lasts, read the whole story, piece by piece, sit in the complexity, sit in the beauty.