Our Twentieth Wedding Anniversary
Today, the twentieth of January, is the actual day of our 20th wedding anniversary, though we had our celebratory dinner last Friday, after seeing the James Baldwin movie, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
At the restaurant, we had to move as far away as we could from the party at the long table who brought with them from the bar their deafening roars of ersatz gaiety.
What did we talk about? First, we parsed Jimmy Baldwin’s heartbreaking, boy and girl romantic cri de coeur. I’d first learned Baldwin was gay from Richard Wright, his colleague and rival.
“Oh, too bad,” I remarked.
“Why do you say ‘too bad?’” Wright asked me.
“Because,” I said sincerely, “we need every good man.”
After talking about the film, we reviewed the twenty years we’d had together. Actually together! Not longed-for in nostalgia or yearned-after in anticipation. Alive and present. What had they all meant, all our real years?
(Is it only philosophers who’d ask each other that question? Maybe. But I assume everybody’s a philosopher au fond. Only, some of us are out of the closet.)
When we met, I wasn’t looking to fall in love. I was calling persons and organizations outside the college where I taught, hoping to find someone who could help save our nationally-recognized core curriculum. If I’d been able to convince then New York Senator Patrick Moynihan that Brooklyn College was more important than the stuff he was busy with (welfare and the arms race), then I never would have phoned Jerry’s organization for help. But Moynihan was unmoved, so I had to call Jerry, whose organization was next on my list.
Though I flatter myself that, being female, I’ve got to be more emotionally intelligent than any man, in fact I did not notice that my inner barriers and defenses were falling during our months of telephone strategizing about how to save Brooklyn College – as eventually we did. Jerry knew he was in love long before I knew I was.
Here’s how I found out. The philosopher Edmund Husserl had a method he recommended for seekers who want to see through the surface of a thing to its essence. He termed it the “phenomenological reduction.” What you do is bracket ”the natural attitude”: all the practical, real-life worries, hopes and attachments with which ordinarily you surround the thing. Just focus on what remains of the thing, once you have let those encumbrances drop away. Contemplate the thing as it is.
What did I see, once I put out of play my fears and practical misgivings? What was the truth about my relation to Jerry? After all, I’m a philosopher. I simply wanted to know!
The unexpected happened. Instead of any disinterested contemplation of essences, I found myself plummeting down a well of feeling that appeared bottomless.
Hey, wait a minute! What’s going on here? Reflexively, I tried to reverse the process.
What goes down must go up, right?
Try as I did, I could not mentally scramble back up to the rim of the well. I had fallen in love and could not fall out again!
So what’s it been like, our 20-year marriage? Given the near-opposite ends of the planet that our ancestors came from, there’ve been differences of taste and habit to accommodate. That’s obvious. But the main rocks and rapids we’ve navigated together were met in the world that we’ve chosen to share.
For example, we had one last fight at Brooklyn College after I took early retirement. It was important to save the job of a stellar colleague from another department who was being fired for the high crime of refusing to “go along [with the boys in the back room] to get along.” For insisting that personnel decisions should conform to academic criteria, he stood out like a sore thumb. We – Jerry mostly – provided key guidance all the way to a highly improbable happy ending.
A lot of what we’ve encountered has been unpredictable. Quite unexpectedly, Jerry had a life-changing religious experience. It summoned him to terminate some deep-going connections: with the organization he had founded in Washington D.C. and the professional life he had built there. Instead, he turned to dedicate himself to a new calling.
Here I have to say, if Jerry had to confront that kind of a life-somersault, with all its attendant risks, he found the right wife. I may not be a paragon of womanly skills but – for those dimensions of life – I’m okay. To me it seems normal. I’m not claiming that every such report would be credible, no matter from whom it came. But Jerry is, in his own modest words, “boringly normal.” And to my mind, he’s gotten more normal (less encumbered by … uh … “male ego”) since this summons entered his life.
And what about me? Since we married, there’ve been crucial projects I’ve completed that previously I would not have dared to undertake.
What of the world around us? We live as quietly and harmoniously as we can. We don’t look to get in any fight. But, if we find that a fight has my name on it, or has his, and there’s no honest way to dodge it, we will go the distance. The values we shared at the outset became more concrete and alive as we faced the fights to which those values called us.
The past year has been perhaps the most difficult since we married. Vital things, sacred things, defining projects were at risk, one after another. It’s been a helluva ride.
And our marriage?