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.