Back in June, when Joe and I celebrated our ten-year wedding anniversary, I unearthed a leather-bound journal in which we had written out a list of marital goals back when we were engaged. I remember the day we wrote the list, sitting at a little cafe table on Irving Place sipping lattes and eating muffins, the Sunday New York Times arrayed among our plates and mugs. We were very earnest about our to-do list of a shared lifetime; we believed so much in each other and our shared vision that even the most impossible dreams seemed attainable.
We didn't aim low or even high-but-within-reason: among the list items are travel plans involving Mongolian yurts and Antarctic expeditions, and not only did we expect ourselves to produce published written work, but we could not check off every item until one or both of us had won a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, and/or an Oscar. Granted, at the time I had taken a leave of absence from my law firm job to pursue acting, writing, and dancing full-time, so I wasn't expecting myself to write my magnum opus while holding down a day job (Joe, on the other hand...); nonetheless, some interim steps might have been advisable rather than leaping right to "land a leading role in a Broadway play and/or major film." (Maybe get a SAG card first?)
While we've managed to cross off a few of the less extravagant goals (an Italy trip, a child (who, according to stipulation, must be raised in the city and taken to Europe, both of which we can probably manage), a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment of our very own), our goals after ten years show significant deterioration.
The current version of the list reads something more like this:
1. Stay alive as long as possible; and
2. Be the best parents to Felicity we can be.
Granted, we still want to take great trips and accomplish satisfying things. It's just that we understand that our marriage will not be a dud if all we do is pretty much what everyone else does -- work and child-raising and uninspired daily dinners and running errands.
Staying married is implicit in our list; neither of us is getting out of this deal alive -- in the sense of not parting til death, I mean. This, even though at ten years post-wedding we have a much clearer understanding that marriage isn't all wine and roses, that the delirious romance and the starry-eyed optimism and the lofty goals diminish over time, as everyone knows but somehow believes won't be quite the same for them.
Ten years on, the small quirks that once seemed innocuous, or perhaps even endearing, have become mildly to moderately (ok, sometimes severely) aggravating; the generosity of spirit we once held for one another at all times, which helped smooth over petty grievances and give soft focus to our perceptions of each other, ebbs and flows and sometimes takes its leave altogether. It's so easy to grant strangers on the subway pardon for jostling us or breathing too loudly, but your spouse bumps into you in your too-narrow kitchen for the one millionth time and you think the world has never been so unjust, no person so grossly inconsiderate.
For our wedding, we hand-selected readings by Pablo Neruda (original!) and from Colossians and chose an ee cummings poem for our programs and wrote our own vows (my one regret about our wedding other than the pitiful boutonnieres is that we didn't just stick with the traditional vows, because honestly they cannot be improved upon, and I think there's so much power in saying the words that so many people have said, too). No one used the words "fairy tale" thank heavens, but the whole thing was an open, unsubtle, youthful exclamation of LOVE!
For our tenth anniversary, I looked around for quotes about marriage, and here are some of the ones that resonated:
“My husband and I have never considered divorce... murder sometimes, but never divorce.”
-- Joyce Brothers
“I love being married. It's so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.”
-- Rita Rudner
So the tone has become a bit more...well, I wouldn't say cynical; I'd go with realistic. And in a way, it's a relief. Compared to many people, we've had it very, very easy, though we have certainly had our share of disappointments. It's quite likely that the coming decades will bring a lot more valleys and perhaps fewer peaks, that we'll face all kinds of frailties and failures that will make our old marriage to-do list look all the more ridiculous. But that's what we signed up for, and what it feels like is that we're not planning our life together and dreaming up the impossible things we dare to want; now, we're living our life together.
There are almost certainly going to be no grand literary prizes for either of us, and probably not one of us will so much as publish a short story (we'd have to actually WRITE something for that to happen, after all). Instead, in the now things can be tedious and repetitive and they're almost always exhausting, but here we are. We've made it ten years (without maiming each other), and while I love the memory of our wedding and our youthful glow in all its forms, the bread-and-butter days of now are somehow so much better. Perhaps that's primarily the doing of a certain small fairy-haired girl who more or less eclipsed everything in our universe the moment she came into being, but we had lots of solid years even before that (difficult though it is to recall what we did with all that time), during which we were steadily gaining appreciation for the mundanities of our life together.
And here it is again: the goal is no longer to dazzle the world with our collective and individual brilliance. It's to be here for each other, to steady one another through these rocky shoals of life, to lift each other up after the inevitable setbacks and devastations, to raise our glasses to one another to celebrate the many small triumphs that make up for all the slogging. I don't see any of this as a betrayal of the hopes and dreams we once held. I see it as a fulfillment of the goals we didn't know we should have.
"No long-term marriage is made easily... In the midst of near despair, something has happened beneath the surface. A bright little flashing fish of hope has flicked silver fins and the water is bright and suddenly I am returned to a state of love again — till next time. I've learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won't stay submerged. And each time something has been learned under the waters; something has been gained; and a new kind of love has grown. The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed.”
-- Madeleine L'Engle