There are so many ways to tell a story. I could begin in medias res and describe the moment, mid-July, when I stepped out of the shower and announced to God and to my hound-dog, “I want to marry Steven.” Or I could render our tale as an allegory. I would call it, “The Romance of Farsight and Tender-heart,” and there would be a ringing bell, a garden and an ivory tower and a dark but lovely path between the two. Narrating by mere arithmetic might cause a scandal, but the numbers are true, too: he proposed the second time we met face-to-face; I said yes after knowing him for only seven weeks.
I’m over-thinking this task; as usual. Then again, how could I change my entire life, my name, for something that could be easily summarized? This love, this coming covenant, is too much for any single telling.
I’ve always had trouble saying what I want: not because I don’t know, but because I have an instinctual, irrational conviction that being a bother is somehow the worst of all sins. When I was a little girl, six or seven years old, a lady at church came up and asked me if I wanted one of the cookies she had baked for the children in the nursery. “No,” I replied. In fact, I wanted a cookie quite badly, but it seemed greedy to say yes. As I pondered marriage through my twenties, it felt greedy to ask God for any further blessings. The lines had already fallen in such pleasant places for me. Even more, some part of me felt that desiring marriage would somehow betray all the people who had helped me build such a beautiful single life.
I mention this to emphasize how remarkable it was that I knew so quickly, and so surely, that I want to marry Steven. We met on eHarmony (I had only had an account for a week, and that simply to prove to my aunt that it wouldn’t work), and the messages we exchanged in the first two days delighted and fascinated me: he mentioned both Bonhoeffer and Anne of Green Gables among his favorite books, one picture showed him with a chicken on his head, and his first words to me were engaging and good-humored. That first weekend, I was checking my email every ten minutes, hoping he had responded to the next set of questions so I could read more about the friends he loved, or his dreams of living in intentional community. By the time we first spoke on the phone–only forty-eight hours after our initial contact–I already knew he was handsome, interesting, hardworking, and funny. By the end of our first conversation, I knew he was smart, visionary, easy to talk to, and far from shy. I said to my mother, “Even if I were a nun, I would still want to meet this guy. I’m just so glad people like this exist!”
When, at the end of our first phone call, he asked if I would meet him in New Orleans two weeks later, and I said yes, I knew that something strange was happening to me. The girl who hates to change her plans, the girl who hates to drive–here I was spontaneously agreeing to drive to a city I do not know to meet a stranger. New Orleans was a weekend of serendipity and conversation, and the day after I returned he asked if I would like to come to Austin later in the summer. I did, traveling down the last weekend of July. By the end of that weekend, I knew that Steven is a man who loves Jesus and wants to live his life in a way that only makes sense because of the Gospel. I knew that he loves his friends and wants to serve others not only in marriage, but in community with others, and always among the poor that Christ loves. I knew that he can take charge of a situation but that he is not vainglorious. I knew that he can ask questions that provoke and clarify, but also that he longs to be challenged and drawn out, too. I knew that his boss, his friends, and even strangers on street respect him. I knew that he reads wise books and ponders Scripture. I knew that he prays well. I knew that he dreams but also put his dreams in to practice. I knew that he had begun to care for me, and that he wanted my trust, perhaps without entirely understanding why. I knew that each time we were in the car together, I would hope that the ride would be a long one, simply to prolong the pleasure of being near him and talking with him. I knew that I liked his friends, and loved the trusting, sincere way they would laugh or debate together. I knew that I felt safe with him, and that sometimes, when our eyes met, there was a tenderness in his that overwhelmed me.
And so on the last day of that visit, after a long walk in the Texas sun, lunch in a soup kitchen, and a swim in the river, we sat on a bench and he asked me about my fears and hopes for our relationship. He asked if I could see myself in Austin. I said that I felt a strange kind of homesickness — strange because it is longing for a place that is not, and has not been my home. I thought the conversation would continue much longer, perhaps months longer, but I already knew that a season would come when he would ask me to marry him. My heart was abiding in that kairos time, waiting. And yet, in chronos, I was still shocked when I saw him before me, on his knees, asking me to marry him.
“Are you really asking this? Are you really asking this now?” And he was. Then we were standing, I saying, “I want to say yes, I want to say yes, but I need more time.” And clinging to him, as though we were still in the river, battling a strong current. “Bethany,” he said, “I cannot always trust my heart. What I feel right now I may not feel tomorrow, or next month, much as I want to. Feelings come and go, especially when what the heart desires is far away. I cannot trust my heart, but I can trust my will. And my will is this. I want to marry you, to love you, to build a life with you.”
For me it was just the opposite: my heart was there, had been there for weeks, but it was my will I doubted: did I have the strength to say yes, to make such a choice? I do not mean I doubted the strength of my will simply in that moment. I realized that all this time, for so many years, I have doubted whether I have the strength to say yes to something as deep and lasting as marriage at all.
We moved from the bench to the tree, and laid ourselves down side by side. I was silent, wondering, “What more do I need?” Information? Proof of character? Proof of his willingness to commit, to love?” I had these things, and more. I had said weeks before, that I wanted to marry him, had asked God for this. And now it was before me. And so I said yes.
I’ve told this portion of the story (from first meeting to proposal) so many times in the last few months that it has started to feel patterned, even normal. But it is far from normal, and we are now living in a strange time of transition and change, learning to dream together and to bring our stories into concord. We talk, every night, for two or three hours, and every conversation raises more challenges & hopes. We have so many questions and so much still to learn about one another. As we discuss the work I will do in Austin, our differences in temperament, our hopes for children and community, indeed, as we puzzle through the point of marriage itself, we realize that we have made a choice that is simultaneously wise & reckless.
In his essay “People, Land, and Community,” Wendell Berry writes that “as a condition marriage reveals the insufficiency of knowledge, [and…] I take it as an axiom that one cannot know enough to get married, any more than one can predict a surprise. […] We can commit ourselves fully to anything–a place, a discipline, a life’s work, a child, a family, a community, a faith, a friend–only in the same poverty of knowledge, the same ignorance of result, the same self-subordination, the same final forsaking of other possibilities. If we must make these so final commitments without sufficient information, then what can inform our decisions? In spite of the obvious dangers of the word, we must say first that love can inform them…”
When it comes to knowledge, I’m something of a professional: PhD, assistant professor, author of such-and-such articles, etc. When I completed my doctoral work, the presiding official at the commencement ceremony said, “By the power vested in me, I confer upon you these doctoral degrees […] and admit you to all their rights and responsibilities.” With those words, I became a Doctor of Philosophy, with the full rights of my craft. The next time someone uses that phrase–by the power vested in me— it will be my wedding day, and the title I receive will be that of a wife. But whereas my degree required that I prove myself more than an apprentice, my marriage will make me an amateur again. Amateur. The word comes to us, via French, from the Latin amare, to love. While a professional works for pay or praise, an amateur works, learns, fumbles, fails, and persists out of love. The greatest masters and professionals, I think, never really lose their love, but at the beginning, just now, it is love, not skill, that I feel in my small and trembling hands.
I began my first blog because I wanted to start conversations about the beauty of single life, and so it seems fitting that I begin this new venture as I learn to practice the new crafts of marriage. I have called this blog “Lady Wisdom’s Workshop” not because I think of myself as Lady Wisdom, but because if I am going to be an amateur again, I want to be an apprentice in her workshop. In my marriage, in my teaching, in my writing, and in all the work ahead, I want to echo the cry of Wisdom’s maidservants, who call the simple and the hungry to come and feast at her house (Proverbs 9:1-12).
What, you might ask, have been my first lessons as an apprentice lover? What wisdom have I gained amid the whirlwind of saying yes to Steven? It goes something like this: In the Iliad, a text I teach each fall, Homer describes Aphrodite, goddess of love, as “strong with eternal laughter.” Before this year, I never had much patience for Aphrodite (or Venus, as the Romans called her). I thought her frivolous, far less interesting than the stern virgin Athena. This year, however, I’ve heard that strong laughter echoing in the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31, who “laughs at the days to come,” and–what strange grace!–I have heard it, again and again, on my own lips.