Thursday, 19 January 2017

“Farther Up and Farther In”: A Meditation for My Sister’s Wedding

To write about marriage on the day before the U.S. inaugurates its least qualified president in history may seem wantonly apolitical. Even as I write this, many of my friends and acquaintances in the U.S. are organizing protests in their hometowns or are on their way to march in D.C., to stand against the blatant racism, misogyny, and general ineptitude of the new president-elect. Were in North America now, I would join them.

Instead, this week, I’m thinking about counter-narratives, a concept my friend and former colleague Sohinee Roy reminded me of recently. Counter-narratives: stories that stand against the current dominant story. Stories that provide a different angle or voice than the one our mainstream culture presents.

Sandy and Steve, on Lake Hickory
in North Carolina (complete with
motorboat wake!)
So today I share this meditation that I gave at my sister Sandy King’s wedding, to Steve Witmer, almost 12 years ago. It is, I hope, a reminder of some of the qualities and attitudes that help us to be our best selves. While reflecting deeply on who we love, and why, is not political action, it might be a resource that we can draw from—a well of strength and clarity for us—as we determine how to take outward action. Revisiting this meditation this week, for me, has been a way of remembering some of the values I stand for, with I can push back against the current dominant narrative in the U.S.

Here it is, from July 2005:
A Meditation for My Sister’s Wedding:

It is a privilege to speak at the wedding of my youngest sister—a sister I have known and loved all her life, a sister I have come to know in her adulthood as my peer and one of my dearest friends. It’s a particular honor to speak to you like this, Sandy, in light of your own gift for speaking. I want to say that I am very proud of the woman you have become, and I’m as pleased as punch that you are marrying Steve.

In our family, Sandy I share a reputation for speaking our minds, for occasionally being rather surprising. And so perhaps it is fitting that I begin this reflection by saying that there is nothing intrinsically better about being married rather than being single.

If you are not happy with yourself before you get married, there is nothing about marriage that will necessarily make you happier. If you are not satisfied with your partner before you marry him, there is nothing about marriage that will suddenly guarantee your contentment with him. And so I want to say again that there is nothing intrinsically better about being married.

Sandy and Steve's rehearsal dinner--and square dance--at
Sim's Country Barbecue
This is not a common sentiment to express at a wedding. Yet both of you, Sandy and Steve, are strong people; both of you are individuals; and this is something to celebrate, along with your marriage itself. This is part of what will make your marriage happy and healthy. Exciting as a wedding is—beautiful and thoughtful as this wedding is—it will not in itself guarantee your lasting joy. Rather, it’s the selves that each of you bring to this marriage, the selves you have been creating all of your lives.

I want to say very clearly that you will probably find marriage to be one of the best things that ever happens to you. But it is not the act of marriage per se that ensures this. Instead, it is the fact of who you already are, Sandy, as you marry Steve; and the fact of who you already are, Steve, as you marry Sandy. It is the sense of self and individual purpose that each of you brings to your marriage. These are the qualities that will help you to respect and believe in yourselves through thick and thin, and also to respect and believe in each other to the same degree.

Anne Michaels
Your marriage tonight, Sandy and Steve, seems in many ways like an obvious beginning. But it is also what the novelist and poet Anne Michaels calls the “gradual moment”—an event that appears to have happened suddenly and dramatically, but which has actually been long building, with years and sometimes decades of other smaller actions—other smaller decisions—behind it. Michaels likens the “gradual moment” to the eruption of a volcano; but it may also be the outbreak of war, or the conversion to a new faith, or two people falling in love and yes, deciding to marry.[i] Thus, if we are living deliberate lives, we are also constantly training ourselves for moments of great decision-making by the thousands of smaller, sometimes barely noticeable choices that we make every day.

When Steve and Sandy stumbled into each other’s lives during an apparently routine day of helping friends to move, one winter afternoon two and a half years ago, how much of Sandy’s readiness to meet Steve was the result of the life she had led so far? The result of many long walks and talks with sisters and friends, of former relationships or efforts toward them, of much journaling and praying especially during that hard but clarifying year in Mexico. How much of Steve’s readiness to meet Sandy came from a lifetime of learning to develop his own stance, to choose a career path rather different from his family’s, to venture into unknown parts of the world, to embrace his love of language and theatre and communications? I think this marriage today is due in part to Sandy’s lifelong fearlessness about being her own person. It is also due partly to Steve’s having become a man at ease with himself—which we see reflected in his warm and obvious ease with almost everyone he encounters.
At the rehearsal -- practicing
giving my meditation 

Speaking about your marriage today has made me think of my own, and also about some of the preconceptions I formulated about marriage on my own journey towards it. Because I am a lover of literature, many of these preconceptions—a few of which were completely wrongheaded—came from what I read. I want to tell you about one particular poem and the particular misconception about married life that I gleaned from it. This is a poem that I used to read at weddings, whenever anyone asked me to do a wedding reading—which, for a while there, happened quite often.

Then I want to tell you about that poem’s counterpart, a related but quite different text that I overlooked and in truth sort of disdained, throughout those many years of being single and reading love poems at other people’s weddings. I think the contrast between these two poems is telling, and maybe even revelatory.

Both of these poems are from Kahlil Gibran’s odd, mystical little book The Prophet.[ii] In The Prophet, the central character is—guess what—a prophet. One day he stands before a great crowd of people, who ask him to speak on various weighty subjects. The first two subjects that the prophet addresses are, in fact, Love and Marriage. It is Gibran’s poem “On Love” that I, in the years before I married, read again and again at other people’s weddings.

This is a poem that begins seductively:

            When love beckons to you, follow him,
            Though his ways are hard and steep.
            And when his wings enfold you, yield to him . . .

Then the poem builds to a veritable explosion of passion:

            For even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you. . .
            Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
            So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. . .
            To know the pain of too much tenderness!
            To be wounded by your own understanding of love,
            And to bleed willingly and joyfully!

Shazam! This is a poem just bursting with physicality, with fervent commands to give yourself into the fires of love, to let love thresh and grind you lie corn. All that violent, wrenching imagery: you can fairly hear the sex in it. And yes, friends, this is the idea of love that I wanted to project, throughout the many years when I was not married but was attending many marriages. This is Gibran’s poem “On Love.”

But Gibran’s poem “On Marriage,” the other text I’d like to mention, was a poem I stayed well away from. I gave it a wide berth. As with so many other representations of relationships after you’ve fallen I love, I found it disappointing, even a little dreary. Gibran follows up his lusty, thrilling poem, “On Love,” with his seemingly drier, calmer poem, “On Marriage.” Here, Gibran says to couples about to marry: Stand on your own. In fact, stand far apart from each other, as the pillars of a great house must stand. Give each other wine; make sure that the other person has bread to eat; but do not share from the same cup. And each of you, hang on to your own loaf of bread. It always seemed like such a letdown, after all that glorious wrath and merging of the “Love” poem.

We humans tend to glorify the fall into love—the arrival at the altar—but then pretend that that’s the end of the road. The North American publishing industry puts out a dozen magazines every month dealing exclusively with weddings and wedding planning. But try to remember if you’ve seen any that explore the entity of marriage itself—what it’s like to live day to day with one other person to whom you’ve committed yourself “till death do you part.” You’ll come up with a big blank.

Many of our culture’s novels and films also tend to make weddings the end of the story. And unfortunately, those few writers who do try to show what happens after their characters walk off into the sunset often end up depressing the shit out of us. Remember Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie books? They give us pictures of familial love and light right up till the second-to-last book, which ends, of course, with Laura kissing Almanzo in the buggy and finally marrying him. Then there’s this last book in the series, The First Four Years—about, yes, the first four years of Laura and Almanzo’s marriage. They get attacked by locusts; they go through years of drought; their crops fail; they catch scarlet fever; they lose all their money; and their house burns down. I grew up wishing that Laura Ingalls Wilder never had written this book.  

In our culture, it seems that once the lights have gone out at the end of the wedding festivities, we are left with far fewer positive or exciting images of the institution of marriage itself—of all those months and years and decades that come after the cake and the long white dress. (Or the long white wedding suit! [iii]) And so this was my beef, during my 20s and early 30s, with Gibran’s poem “On Marriage.” Where, I used to wonder, was the magic, the glory, the passion and pain in this notion of standing quietly side by side, holding up the roof of your house? Where was the being torn asunder in the name of love and heat and excitement that we heard about in his poem “On Love”?

July 2005, in my parents' back yard
But now when I re-read Gibran’s poem “On Love,” I find myself asking different questions. So, what is the rest of the story? Do you fall down into love only to lie there, spent and exhausted, recovering from your hard plummet, for the rest of eternity? Or do you dust off your knees and saunter on again calmly? No. The answer is actually far more compelling. The initial fall into love—that precipitous tumble that our novelists and filmmakers idolize, that Gibran himself wrote about so wondrously—is only the first step into the deep. It’s the first leg of a journey that leads you to profounder and ever profounder degrees of knowing your beloved, and consequently of knowing yourself, and even the rest of the world, better. Perhaps the initial fall into love is associated with pain—glorious pain, as the poets would have it, and indeed as many of us who have made the fall would agree—because it is simply that: the first leap or plunge. The great launching off into something new.

Both of you, Sandy and Steve, have spent a significant time living in another country, and so you know already what the first stage of life in a new culture is like: pierced with agonizing moments, punctuated by tremendous highs and lows. Those first weeks or months mean saying goodbye to the place we were before and traversing a frontier that we’ve only read or dreamed about, previously. Indeed, it’s those beginning steps through the borderlands that most unhinge us, that we often remember most sharply, because they are also most heavily laden with new and disorienting feelings to match our new and disorienting circumstances. Falling in love is something like this first stage of culture shock.

Once you’ve grown into the patterns of your journey, though—once you’ve inhabited the new country for awhile—that shock wears off. You are no longer falling. Emotions do not run so high, nor do they need to. What happens now is the longer, slower, ultimately more interesting process of becoming a resident of this new country. You will learn the nuances of a language once strange to you, and begin to understand jokes that formerly made no sense. You develop new tastes and grow accustomed to new sights, new behaviors.

But as anyone who has lived overseas for a length of time knows, becoming acclimated to a new country doesn’t mean that you shuck off your old identity, that you lose your old self entirely. It means, rather, that you gain new and complex layers to your old ways of seeing; that your vision of the world and of your place in it becomes richer, filled with colors you never dreamed of before. While there is nothing intrinsically superior about the state of being married, if you know who you are as you go into it, marriage can add a precious new dimension to your life, like a new culture or country that you get to know and love in addition to the one to which you were born.

Aslan and Lucy, from The Lion,
the Witch, and the Wardrobe
When I picture this new country for you—this new country of marriage that you enter today—an old line from a book I loved as a child comes back to me. “Farther up and farther in.” This is the name of a chapter in The Last Battle, the final book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. It is also the rallying cry of the lion Aslan, the hero of the Narnia stories, as he leads the other characters into the beautiful country that gets better and better as you go “farther up and farther in.” For Lewis, this increasingly luminous country is a metaphor for heaven, a place that Peter and Susan and Lucy and Edmund, and Eustace and Jill and all the rest, are able to enter when one world ends and a new one begins—as one door closes and they come in through a new one.

I’m not implying, of course, that marriage is heaven, but I love that call to go “farther up and farther in.” I love the idea of digging deeper into this new country that you’ve entered and finding that it only gets more wonderful, the more deeply you travel, and that you can see it more and more vividly, the longer you live in it. In C.S. Lewis’s stories, Narnia was a hard place to reach; getting there, for Earth’s children, always involved strange and frightening entrances. But it is this “farther up and farther in” that is the real adventure—this coming into a land where the colors are brighter and the light is clearer and you feel even more like your best or fullest self than you have before.

As the two of you venture “farther up and farther in” to this new country, take courage in the knowledge that your marriage is one of life’s great “gradual moments”—the fruit of many past decisions, which have made each of you who you are and, when the time came, helped you to recognize each other. Your marriage is your own creation; the cumulative gifts and learnings of both of your lives are in it.

Steve with his and Sandy's baby,
Tavi, Gray, in December 2016
Take courage also in that Kahlil Gibran pretty much knew what he was talking about in that poem, “On Marriage.” Yes, you are in some ways one now, but you will also go on being two, and the unit of your marriage is only as strong as each one of you as an individual is strong. So I hope you will keep celebrating, too, all that which makes each of you unique—your own person within this marriage.

At the same time, though, despite what Gibran says about maintain your own separate loaves of bread, sometimes it’s sharing the loaf—or taking bites together out of the same big tamale—that’s really the most fun thing to do.

Steve and Sandy, God bless both of you and your lives together.

[i]  The “gradual moment” is a motif throughout Michaels’ gorgeous novel, Fugitive Pieces.
[ii]  A line I crossed out in my original draft:  “(If you’ve been to your share of hippie Mennonite weddings in recent years, you’ve surely heard something from The Prophet before.)”
[iii] I am delighted to say that my brother-in-law Steve wore a white, Asian-style wedding suit to walk down the aisle with my sister.


  1. The Prophet has provided wedding meditation material for a very long time. I like how you frame your movement from lover to partner. This book is easy to satirize but hard to argue against. Gibran gets a lot of things right, it seems to me. "Spaces in your togetherness," "your chidren are not your children."Etc. Lovely to be able to catch glimpses of Tavi in church and to see the strength of your love and support for your family.

    1. Shirley, that's very well put, and I agree: Gibran's book is easy to satirize but hard to argue against! I'm a little jealous that you get to see Tavi regularly in person. But yes, the strength and love among family members does not depend on physical proximity, thank goodness.