Back in February and March when I was re-reading and reading* Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quintet, I recalled the author’s bittersweet Two-Part Invention. The subtitle helps show my interest in the book: “The Story of a Marriage.”
At the time, I thought it was the best book on marriage I had ever read. Later, when I re-read the Odyssey, I realized Homer’s epic still holds that title. (And perhaps always will.)
Given that I underline in my books and often write notes in the margins and fly-leaves, I thought that by reviewing this book, I might quickly locate a few insights, a few conclusions she has made about that ancient and honorable institution to help me craft a post on gay marriage similar to that Megan McArdle, as Jane Galt, wrote eight years ago, A really, really, really long post about gay marriage that does not, in the end, support one side or the other.
But, L’Engle’s book was about marriage primarily in the sense that she reflects on her life, her relationship with her husband Hugh, farmed in part around his death from cancer in 1986 . To write movingly about marriage, she deals not in abstractions, but in anecdotes, sharing certain experiences with us as she recalls her feelings and her reflects on her and her beloved’s interactions. And as I reviewed my notes, I wondered if what has been bothering me so much about the debate on gay marriage is that most people do the opposite of what L’Engle did in this book, that is, they talk mostly in abstractions.
Marriage is about love, say the advocates. Gay marriage will destroy the institution, say the opponents. The former hardly discuss how love can sustain a life-long partnership. The opponents don’t tell us how exactly same-sex unions will undermine the institution.
And their tired cliches sound increasingly empty each time another individual repeats them anew. What L’Engle teaches us is that to really get at the meaning of marriage, you need do more than recite rehearsed bromides, you need to tell stories.
No wonder that when Homer reunites Odysseus and Penelope after twenty years of separation, he has Athene delay the dawn so that the married couple can both delight in the pleasure of love-making and share each other’s stories.
Now, to be sure, L’Engle does offer more than just anecdotes particular to her marriage. And offers this one insight which, I believe, gets at the essence of marriage:
A love which depends solely on romance, on the combustion of two-attracting chemistries, tends to fizzle out. The famous lovers usually end up dead. A long-term marriage has to move beyond chemistry to compatibility to friendship, to companionship. It is certainly not that passion disappears, but that it is conjoined with other ways of love.
L’Engle isn’t the only one to get it. Amidst the flurry of bromides and nasty barbs on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court decision on state recognition of gay marriage, a married lesbian friend shared this touching reflection on the meaning of the institution:
Those of you that are married will understand. When Susie and I were able to get legally married, it changed me in a way that was different from any other relationship I had been in. Being fully seen in the eyes of our family, our friends and the law and having no “easy” way out (I mean that in the best of ways), has made me a more patient, humble, loving, communicative, and gentle person. Marriage has made me a better woman. Congratulations to everyone that gets to experience this now.
Reprinted with permission, but with the name of her wife changed — and with emphasis added.
Marriage changed her. Please do note how in this short reflection (fewer than one hundred words), she mentions that she has “no ‘easy’ way out”** — and how that aspect of the institution helped draw out — and strengthen — her good qualities.
Perhaps, it is due to their interactions with gay and lesbian married couples like my friend that Americans have, in recent years, come to embrace the idea of gay marriage.
Let this be the opening of that long post I have long wanted to write on gay marriage.
*The reason for this unusual construction is that I had, as a boy, read the first three books of the Quintet, but had not read the last two. So I re-read A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet and read, for the first time, Many Waters and An Acceptable Time.
**This is one reason why those truly concerned about strengthening marriage should focus on abolishing “no-fault” divorce laws rather than blocking state recognition of same-sex unions.