In the late afternoon shadows of our eleventh wedding anniversary Emily shoves our canoe into the Congaree River. While drifting into the no-mind of steady paddling, I try to make out a place we call Willow Island in the hazy tree line downstream. The rolling river surface reflects the sky, and each pull of the paddle sends clouds swirling into a vortex. We spot Willow island up ahead, a grove of amber leaves in the current between two grey river banks. It’s really no more than a lone sand bank with willows growing every which way. A wild drake and his harem shoot into the air as we approach. After dragging the canoe ashore and marveling at coon tracks, almost like the prints children cartwheeling in the mud would make, we spread a blanket and set up our picnic. I make note of wild violets, wood sorrel and cress to add to my cheese and bread.
Sitting here with Emily, watching the far river bank ignite with waning golden light, I think of our long winding road together. We met in the late nineties on my roof in Olympia (the Columbia neighborhood rather than the west coast town), listening to crackly old blues recordings and sipping Blue Moon beer with another friend. I never forgot her, though I didn’t see her for another four years after that summer. Then one snowy day I was at a surprise birthday party for Emily’s mother. Emily came down the stairs and our eyes stalled. We flirted electrically. I knew here our stories would collide. We were in each other’s arms within days, cutting the strings of our lives as we’d known them. But there was so much going on…our relationship bloomed in a firestorm.
We knew we would marry for months before the December morning when we woke up and decided it was the day. We’d not been able to make real plans for a wedding while Emily’s mom was dying of cancer. That day, tinged with as much sadness as joy, we bought silver rings, Emily’s sister bought a simple cake, and we were married by her father at the foot of the bed where her mother lay dying. We wanted her mother to die knowing our intentions. Our honeymoon suite was the dining room of her parent’s house with bed sheets tacked up over doorways for a little privacy. Most of the family and several friends were staying there, and it was clear Emily’s mother’s time was running out. Two days later she died in her bed surrounded by her family. We hit the ground running with our first child. Life for most of a decade was diaper changing, diaper washing, putting little ones to sleep, walking with crying babies in the middle of the night and everything else that came with bringing our children into the world. We had rocky times, struggling to work together raising very intense kids with few resources. We hit a crisis a few years ago and nearly called the whole thing off. But we held on, learning and relearning the delicate dance of opening and the see-saw of interdependence.
There’s a scary leap in dropping your mask and being yourself, at the risk that you aren’t lovable, or good enough. Love is that bare truth of your being received by another with an unconditional “Yes!” And love between lovers, two people who choose each other as family, is an organism in continuous transformation. A caterpillar in its chrysalis doesn’t just change gracefully into a butterfly. It’s melted down catastrophically by enzymes and devoured by emerging butterfly cells until none of the old caterpillar remains. That’s how growing together with someone can feel, dying to yourself and being reborn over and over. Fusing with another and forcefully asserting your own identity again. In an era where marriage is almost disappearing, it’s potential for expanding people is the best reason to celebrate committed union. It makes it hard to wiggle out of the chrysalis and avoid the metamorphosis waiting for you. You have so much to lose by ending it, by making yourself alone again and severing yourself from the one you love, that you take her hand and walk willingly into the crucible to burn down to ashes and sprout back up again.
The situationists, who instigated the Paris riots of 1968, wrote this graffiti on a city wall: “Love is always subversive.” Sex sells, or at least its Hollywood facsimile. But real love, messy-ruin-your-life-while-filling-you-to-the-brim love, turns it all upside down. When you’re in love, you don’t want or need anything, you feel full in each moment. Life makes sense suddenly, your worries seem silly and meaningless. Because, as Byron Katie has said,”Love is already complete. It is personality that wants something…” Most of us lose that feeling, lacking the tools to keep it alive, and Emily and I are no exception. Holding onto that feeling, feeding it and remembering how to get to it, is our great challenge, and I’m proud to have gotten this far. Our marriage has been hard, mind melting, heart breaking, nourishing, ecstatic and rich beyond measure. As we talk tonight on our little island I watch fading red light play in Emily’s hair, tickle willow leaves beyond, and dance in the clouds hovering above. Somewhere along the river, mixing with the cadence of Emily’s voice, an owl speaks softly. In this moment sitting on the side of a spinning world with this woman, I feel full. If it were the last day of my life, I wouldn’t be able to remember my regrets or whatever I was supposed to worry about. I would smile calmly to the end.