Today would have been my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary, so this morning I went looking for
Wendell Berry’s poem “The Country of Marriage” to set the tone for my day, landing on these words in particular:
Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are—
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
My parents had a good marriage. No. A great marriage. They loved being together, and that increased as they aged. I paid more attention to how they related to each other as I grew older, yet, as I think back on what they were like when I was a child, I can say they always enjoyed being together. That’s the way they looked at life: together.
Though my father was and is remembered as a confident and self-assured person, my mother was the healing force in their relationship. My mother was the one who knew what she wanted out of life. She was going to Africa as a missionary. She had no interest in anyone who was not going with her. Dad didn’t grow up with much sense of family and belonging, and struggled to feel worthy as a person. Thanks to the love and compassion of Dr. W. R. White at Baylor, Dad found his vocation; thanks to the tenacious and enduring love of my mother, he found healing. They went through huge changes together, and they were committed to the promises they had made: to the form, to the structure.
My search for the poem also offered the serendipitous discovery of an essay by Berry called “On Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” in which he looks at a poem and a marriage as art that flourishes within a form, a structure.
Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties do not ask for immediate remedy; we fail them by making emergencies of them. They ask, rather, for patience, forbearance, inspiration—the gifts and graces of time, circumstance, and faith. They are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect. They are points of growth, like the axils of leaves.
One of the favorite chapters, or perhaps I should say verses, of my life is the decade or so when I wrote songs with Billy Crockett. What started out as writing stuff for youth camp turned into a challenging and wonderful journey. I had written poetry before, and I had paid attention to other people’s lyrics for a long time, but learning how to find words to fit the form and marry the melody in just the right way was hard work. I loved it.
We didn’t have a set process, in that the words always came first or vice versa. We would find an idea that appealed to both of us and then chase it down. The joke was, when I found the words first, he would say, “I love the line. The rhyme is good. Now say the same thing in six syllables instead of nine.” Committing to write songs meant committing to the form, to the structure.
Ginger and I had been married four or five years when I came up with an idea for a love song: “Well Worn Love.” Even a few years in I had begun to realize that, the fire and excitement of new love notwithstanding, the real stuff of marriage—of love—was to be found in staying together and learning of levels that could not be seen at first sight. The idea came from seeing the steps of the Boston Public Library, worn little by little each day, adding up to a profound change of shape. Over time, the stairs reflected how they had been touched by those who came and went. Billy and I were traveling together and staying in a hotel that had a grand piano in the lobby. As he responded the lyrics I gave him, the song took on the form of a waltz, which is an evocative rhythm for me; it feels like a form, a structure for love. The song never made it to a record, but it’s still one of my favorites. The chorus says,
this is the story of two common hearts
that started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime
the waltz of a well-worn love
I have never been much of a dancer, so I hear a waltz, rather than grasp what it feels like to spin together across the floor in three-quarter time. I hear the rhythm in the words, and the way the words fall on a line. When I read the words to the song now I can see I was writing about something that was not unknown to me, and yet still to be discovered. We had moved to Boston on our Great Adventure. My depression had not yet fully shown itself. We have written the waltz of our life together by showing up and keeping our promises—and we are still three decades short of the dance my parents knew. Listening to my mother tell the stories of her life, I could see, even though she had done many things, the form—the structure—of her life was being married to Dad.
Back to Berry:
Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you—and marriage, time, life, history, and the world—will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.
Here in Guilford, I am learning new roads, once again, and staying true to a form I chose a long time ago. As I have said many times, if I ever have to give an account for the value of my life, the best answer I know to give will be to point at Ginger and say, “I was with her.” And then I’ll start singing, “This is the story of two common hearts . . . .”