In it for the long haul: Reflections on art and marriage

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November 26th is my 46th wedding anniversary. At least it is the anniversary of one of two weddings Maury and I had, a Protestant wedding performed by a friend who was a chaplain at George Washington University and who hosted the civil rights group to which we belonged.  That first one was in the Branford Chapel at Yale, with bridesmaids’ bouquets that dropped real grapes on the maroon carpet. When I walked down the aisle it smelled like wine, each satin toed shoe crushing the rolling fruit. The second was a Jewish wedding in Maury’s parents’ apartment complete with rabbi, stern uncles in yarmulkes holding up each corner of the chupa and with an intended crushing underfoot, this time the glass. For a few years we got two sets of anniversary cards, one set from Jewish relatives three weeks after the first set from my New England clan. Then Aaron was born, and these separate families combined to welcome all three of us into their lives.

Neither family was happy about our decision, and while Maury’s family came to the Protestant service and reception, my parents declined the invitation to come to the Jewish one. Yet despite this somewhat complicated beginning, I don’t think the strength we had to stick to our plans to marry has much to do with the longevity of our marriage. I think, rather, our staying together has had to do with persistence, patience, politics and play.

We began our relationship on a picket line. We were objecting to sorority quotas for Jewish women at George Washington. From there it was civil rights marches, my trip to Alabama, Maury’s presence in Cambridge, Maryland, and a succession of anti Viet Nam activities that drove my father crazy. I think this basis for a relationship is a solid one. The play came all through the years, laughter at ourselves, dancing at the various bar mitzvahs, weddings and anniversary celebrations in Florida where Maury’s family lived these past 30 years. Play entered into it for me in my writing, poetry, teaching, and our times with friends and my brothers and sisters when puns circled the room and we groaned and begged for it to stop. Play was watching our son as a baby passed around a circle of Maury’s relatives, each stop along the way providing ice cream and lipsticked kisses on his pudgy neck and face so that he came to us, hours later, as a tattooed sleepy infant.

It is persistence and patience that strike me of all these qualities, as the ones that ultimately hold us together. Persistence in trying to understand each other as we change, grow older, step into new lives. Persistence in the face of failure, when days go by and something seems amiss, something we cannot necessarily name, yet sense. Patterns become clear, the way I will hold in what is bothering me, the way he will retreat to the computer or iPad rather than talk about what it is that is troubling him. Yet knowing these patterns means we also know that we will come together, talk, figure it out.

I have been struck these last months, as I struggle with a large painting that requires slow, steady meticulous brush strokes, with how creating art takes a similar perseverance and play. I make mistakes, rush for the white paint to cover them and redo that section, that color, that perspective. Some days I have no idea what is not working. Instead of frantically trying to figure out what is wrong, I leave the painting. I come back two days later and see immediately what needs altering on the canvas. I have not been doing visual art for long and so I am learning my own process, how to enter into the work with my arm and shoulder and sometimes the tight clutch on the tiny brush for the intricate parts. When a work fails, I am ready to declare that I am not an artist. I am ready to give up the whole, time-consuming task of painting. Yet there is that call. There is the part of me that believes it is necessary to come back and back and back to make anything worthwhile.

And that part of me has been honed in a long, deep, and sometimes tumultuous marriage. In thinking about these twin endeavors, each requiring belief and persistence, in the continuing joy of it and the loss too, I might have concluded that it is  painting that feeds and renews my relationship with Maury. Yet I am convinced that it is the other way around: our longevity as a couple feeds my art, the delight in it and the frustration in it. It keeps me returning to the canvas, the solitude.

Perhaps we can view lives around us as works of art in themselves. They have their beginning colors, their stumbling and mismatches, and yet, through all of the imperfections and the disasters and even the hurtful mistakes, something is built. There is no product that comes from lives lived well. The beauty of a life is an ephemeral quality we rarely acknowledge or celebrate. We don’t have openings, or book signings or CD celebrations for those whose lives we admire or love. Except for recognition of wedding anniversaries, we rarely call attention to the every day persistence of those near us: those who building art galleries, work on campaigns, tend to children after a day of teaching in a crowded classroom, plant flowers in the medians of neighborhood blocks. And I don’t think artificial recognition of these lives would work either. Yet, to take another P word, maybe we can stand back, gain perspective, see those around us whole, see the solid, steady pattern of their lives.

I do plan to celebrate my forty-sixth for sure. I plan to paint in the studio and come home to one of Maury’s home cooked meals. Did I mention that our marriage has survived even though I cannot cook? See. Patterns. I bake bread, though.