about the “balms” in my life, inspired by the book, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
“We should talk more,” she said, her bare foot lightly brushing mine. She’s logical and practical in a way that some men say they wish women could be more like. There’s wisdom and concern in her words, a concern that perhaps we’re becoming too autonomous, rising and setting like the sun and the moon covering the same familiar ground but at different times, our orbits barely overlapping. Nevertheless, sometimes during the day, you can see the moon.
Earlier in the evening we had talked, sitting in big, comfy chairs in front of a too-hot fireplace at a local coffee shop. Then her motions had been gamine-quick, almost coltish as she reached across the small space between our chairs and stroked the arm of mine, or raised up to draw her legs underneath her, or raised her arms to take off her sweater when the fire became too uncomfortable even for her, the one who shivers almost non-stop from Labor Day to Memorial Day. She was telling me about her dreams, literally. Those fast-asleep dreams she had had recently, round and portentous, dripping with symbolism and still crystal-clear upon waking. To some extent they were also Dreams, having to do with what she wanted for the future, to pursue.
As for myself, the one who used to never be able to shut up, I had leaned back in my chair meditatively, parsing the symbols and conjuring context. Leaning back is something I’ve found myself doing more often the last few years; I’m not as concerned about letting silence into the conversation anymore, whereas before I often couldn’t wait to careen in and even high-jack it, not daring to leave a space where someone else could take it away.
Now, later in the evening, when she says “We should talk more,” it’s not so much to say that the talking earlier was fun, but that we don’t have as much fun as we used to have, or could have, and she sees the need to stay in practice. She looks ahead, imagines the inevitable empty nest. I imagine her considering the old buzzard sitting on the other side of that nest. What do the sun and the moon do once what has been your world goes away? “Ummm…” I say.
When we had first gone out I was nervous and had babbled, which I tend to do if I’m nervous. Fortunately, few things make me nervous anymore. Then, however, I had nearly blown it with my chatter, trying one conversational gambit after another looking for a favorable response, some traction. My best stories and jokes, my wittiest observations, littered the top of the table at the restaurant like dirty dishes. So I shut up, and things got better, because she had some things to say, too.
One of the things she said, some time a bit later, was, “Look, I don’t want to lead you on. You’re nice, but I believe God is preparing Mr. Right for me, and when he comes along, you’re out of here.”
Okay, so I have been nervous.
In Gilead the Reverend Ames reflects, with some wonder, over the circumstances that brought his young wife — and ultimately the son to whom he is writing — into his life. A widower who lost his first wife in childbirth and his infant daughter shortly thereafter, he had lived most of his adult life as an outside observer and counselor of the family dynamics taking place around him, covetously (he admits) watching the relationships that appeared to be denied to him, until these, too, overtook him.
I have only half-jokingly said that I was smart and got my trophy wife first. I didn’t have to wait until old age, like Rev. Ames, to know the comfort of a wife and family. And it is a tangible balm.
My wife and I first met in April, 1986. We went on our first date in June. By late September we were engaged (though we didn’t marry for another year). Once, as she and I were clearly getting serious in our relationship, a concerned friend of mine (who had known me for years) drew her aside to urge caution, warning her of the dark moods that were known to come over me from time to time. These moods were not imagined, and during those times, I confess, I was not a good friend. I remember these moods well. Strange, I don’t remember having one since I married.
Once, not too long ago, I was teasing her. “Oh, you’re definitely high-maintenance,” I said, citing how particular she is about the ingredients in the food we bring into the house, her taste in clothes, the way she likes things that concern her to be “just so.” She was not amused, which suggests that there are still times when it is better for me to keep my mouth shut, especially if it gives me time to think. And as I thought about it I quickly realized that almost all the maintenance she requires is handled by her. She rises early for her physical and spiritual exercise, the burdens of selecting and preparing the foods we eat fall upon her, her fastidiousness in her appearance reflects well on both of us with little involvement from me. About all I have to do is avoid shrinking her jeans in the wash (difficult, because I like tight jeans on her) and bring her favorite towel up from the laundry on Saturday night and hang it on the rack above the bathroom radiator (I’ve also ceded this premium towel position to her). Further, since I am almost pathologically detail-averse, she manages the details that keep our household running smoothly, from balancing the checkbook, paying the bills and (usually) putting the things I need out where I can find them or won’t forget them.
She does all of that, and somehow still desires my attention and conversation.
We should talk more.