I grew up in an era when Joni Mitchell's declaration that "we don't need no piece of paper from the city hall" seemed just about right and the very idea of eschewing the shackles of conventional marriage thrilled us wild children of the times. Who needed contracts and rules and vows and all that other restrictive, limiting nonsense when we were so freeeeeee? And after all, if you managed to stay together without the bounds of marriage, wasn't that even greater testament to how truly committed you were?
But we did, didn't we? We ultimately got married. Some of us older than younger, but we got married despite lyrics to the contrary. Which compels the question, why? It's a fair question. In the last many decades since that heady time of sexual freedom, we've become a society of multiple divorces and cyclical re-marriages. We keep getting married despite our apparent cluelessness on the topic but, frankly, marriage doesn't seem much the arbiter of whether or not people stay together (maybe Joni was on to something!).
Marriage is oft-times just the fantasy idea, the romance dream of white gowns and handsome princes, frothy hoopla, large tiered cakes and even larger bills. Weddings can run the gamut from authentic celebrations of love and commitment right up to the overpriced free-for-alls that set Pops back a second mortgage and conclude with the bride vomiting on the honeymoon duvet while the groom counts earnings from the obligatory (and hour long) "money dance" set to that hackneyed Al Green chestnut "Let's Stay Together." Cynical, perhaps, but let's face it, weddings have become an industry and sometimes the whole "why we get married" gets lost in all the hullabaloo.
Me...I eloped. My old man and I went out and got ourselves a piece of paper from the city hall, 21 years of keeping' away those lonesome blues. Well...there have been some blues, some kick-ass blues, actually, but still...we're here. Amazingly, still here. Happy Anniversary to us.
And what have I learned in these last 21 years? What great kernels of wit and wisdom can I pass along as one of the wise old-marrieds?
Truth is, whatever wisdom I've got, there are plenty who've had completely different experiences and are likely far wiser than me. My marriage has been less a long and winding road than a roller coaster ride so odds are my remedy for motion sickness might not apply to those who've managed to avoid the bump and teeth-grind along the way. Or maybe it will; maybe every long marriage has its own wild rhythms that require deep breaths and even deeper soul searching regardless of the particulars. So at this juncture of my 21st anniversary, allow me to put my very uncultured pearls into list form as a nod to enduring love and why I chose who I chose in the grand institution of marriage:
1. Make sure you fall in love with someone who can ultimately be your friend. By your 21st year that friend will likely mean more to you than any lover ever could. And if you're lucky enough to still have a buzz with each other at that point, you'll be fully aware that six-pack abs, a full head of hair and the chiseled jaw of youth are all quite fabulous and chemistry-inducing as a starting point but ultimately can't shake a stick at that friend who knows all your physical and emotional sweet spots and loves you despite the outward lessening of your previously-held vixen status.
2. Make sure you marry someone who can be a good mate. Very different criteria than a good boyfriend/girlfriend/lover. It requires things like stellar work ethic (good job and the wherewithal to keep it), admirable responsibility (solid sense of the point and purpose of saving money), age-appropriate skills (can pack own bag and knows how to run the dishwasher), initiative powers (able to plan a trip and wrangle a loan officer). The list goes on. You get the idea.
3. Don't marry a Boy-Man or Girl-Woman. While you may want to raise a child at some point, you don't ever want to raise a mate.
4. And if there is a plan for children, discuss ad nauseum prior to sending out "save the dates." Make sure you're not only on the same page, but the same paragraph, sentence and word. Ascertain potential partner's aptitude for managing all aspects of small, irascible human beings. Decide early on exactly how many (open for later discussion, but still decide), and be very receptive to stupid, trendy names brought to the table for argument and hiding from the family.
5. Be an metaphoric animal tamer and get every freakin' elephant out into the middle of the living room for thorough examination. Discuss and clarify politics, sex, religion, race, family of origin, morality, mortality, gender politics, parenting philosophies; who expects what from whom on any given matter. Get the old boyfriend/girlfriend confessions out of the way (ALL of them), make sure you agree on how much to share on Facebook, and if there is a YouTube video floating around that bears some explaining, do it now (didn't apply to us but, oh, I've heard some stories...!).
6. Be very clear that the most important and essential emotions on the table are and will always be love, empathy, joy and compassion. Although fear of heights and strange aversions to disposable razors do bear some consideration.
7. Honor and integrity are non-negotiable, self-health habits a must, addictive behaviors are deal-breakers (unless the habit is Pinkberry or those amazing coconut shrimp at Pho Tien Long).
8. Have an unassailable sense of humor about pretty much everything. If you had a silly character who won your mate's heart during the early days of hot sex and easy laughter, make sure that character sticks around for the less whimsical years when a good laugh can save the day. These characters, like you, only get better with age.
9. Speaking of age, LOVE the aging process your mate is/will be going through presuming you get to 21 years. It can be brutal and self-negating and there is nothing quite like looking at them on a day when he or she is feeling particularly heinous and saying "you still look amazing to me." Because if you followed Items 1-8, I guarantee, they will still look amazing to you.
[Note: If you do have the misfortune of falling in love with someone to whom Items 1-9 don't apply, have loads of fun but DON'T marry them.]
Beyond the list, I think we marry and stay married to the person we do mostly because we cannot imagine life without them. Because no matter what accidents happen, what brain injuries occur, careers sputter, asses widen, money eludes or disappointments pile up, that person is the one you want to endure with. Fight the good fight with. Wake up to in the morning even after a night of sorrow and confusion. They give you a sense of place, of foundation, of home. The "institution" that marriage speaks of is real and tangible to you because being married to this person feels like something concrete and physical, a place you want to live in. Because however love may change after 21 years, the way it reinvents itself in each new moment feels as urgent and powerful as the first heady incarnation. That's why.
And since I started with Joni, let me end with her...."He's the warmest chord I ever heard."
That's why I'm still married to my particular old man. Items 1 - 9 and he is, and has always been, the warmest chord I ever heard.
Wishing you all one as warm.
Lyrics from Joni Mitchell's "My Old Man."
Wedding photographs by Lorraine Devon Wilke.
Other photographs by permission of Lorraine Devon Wilke