Love, light, and Wallace Stevens

Heather and Martin at Williams College

Yesterday was the solstice, the shortest day of the year; Heather’s father died last Sunday; and we’ve received various other pieces of bad news over the last few weeks. It would be easy, under the circumstances, to give way to fear and sorrow and the belief that we are surrounded by darkness. But I want instead, on the eve of Christmas Eve, and in the wake of Heather’s last post, to talk about light, in particular the light and joy and comfort of love, in particular our love.

Heather and I were classmates and fellow English majors at Williams College. We started dating during the spring of our senior year, which means, for those of you keeping score at home, that we’ve been together for thirty years now, though we didn’t bother to get married until 1985. But I first noticed her during our sophomore year, when we were both taking a course called “Religion and Literature,” taught by a formidable scholar named Barbara Nadel.

Now, neither of us had any business being in this course; we knew very little about literature, despite having declared ourselves English majors, and even less about religion. The course was one of those three-hour seminars that met one afternoon a week, while the syllabus included inscrutable writers like Paul Tillich, Bernard Meland, and Wallace Stevens, which meant that at the end of each class I knew even less than I had at the beginning. The upside was that, since I never had the slightest idea what was going on, I had lots of time to stare at girls, and Heather—glamorous, sophisticated, obviously way out of my league—immediately caught my eye.

She clinched the deal, unwittingly, on the last day of the semester. Babs Nadel, as we irreverently referred to her, had assigned us a final paper, and Heather, as she admitted later, had put it off until she was forced to stay up all the previous night writing it. Moreover, she had come down with a severe cold, which left her severely congested. The combination of lack of sleep and a head full of cotton wool meant that when she came to class that afternoon she sought out the largest individual in class and sat behind him, hoping to avoid catching Babs’s eye. (Babs, terrifyingly, would call on people at random to answer the incomprehensible questions she posed.)

Somehow, Heather had gone that entire semester without once being called on, but of course her number came up on the last day of class. Babs asked some particularly knotty question—I don’t remember what it was; probably something about Stevens—and called on Heather, who had by now slipped into something approaching a comatose state.

Heather later described the awful sensation of gradually coming to consciousness to realize that everyone in the room was staring at her expectantly, apparently awaiting her response to a question she hadn’t even heard. She completely whiffed, of course, and it was at that moment that I said to myself, “THAT’s the girl for me—she’ll never know what hit her!” It took me another two years to wear down her resistance—today I’d probably be arrested as a stalker—but when she finally crumbled, just a few months before we graduated, she quite literally made me the happiest young man in the world.

(Warning to our kids: you probably shouldn’t read this paragraph.) When we first started dating, of course, we were completely in lust with each other, in that embarrassingly hormonal way of young lovers. (When recalling our younger selves, I always think of the Austin Lounge Lizards song “The Golden Triangle,” which contains the lyric “two bodies were thinking with only one gland.”)

Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, that intense youthful passion settled into a steadier, more consistent condition, something like, well, love. We’ve certainly had our ups and downs since then, but the former have vastly outnumbered the latter. We’re still happily married (to each other, I mean); we have three beautiful, thoughtful, and compassionate children; in Madroño Ranch we’ve found a fulfilling, challenging, and just-plain-fun project on which to collaborate now that our nest has emptied. Life, in short, is pretty damn good.

Except, of course, when it isn’t. This is traditionally the season of giving, but this year it has been even more disjointed and chaotic than usual, and we haven’t been feeling terribly festive. I finally decided, just yesterday morning, that the best and most meaningful gift I could give Heather was an attempt to tell her how much I love her, and how much she’s meant to me.

Heather has given me gifts all year round, for thirty years now. The greatest gift of all, however, is one that I have not yet fully unwrapped. I’ve always been of a somewhat gloomy disposition, inclined to see the downside of most situations. (“Expect the worst and you’re seldom disappointed” has been my motto.) Heather, on the other hand, always projects optimism, always expects things to turn out better rather than worse. When I was younger, and for an embarrassingly long time, I tended to think that such a stance was an indication of shallowness and/or naïveté, but slowly, over our years together, I’ve come to realize that it is exactly the opposite. It is, in fact, a conscious and deliberate choice, a rigorous and gallant determination not to give in to darkness and inactivity, but to bestow grace and hope by stubbornly shining light on everyone and everything around you.

I know that my pessimism has often frustrated and disappointed her, and I’m not sure I’ve ever told her how much I admire her patience, her forgiveness, her determination, her spirit, her steadfastness, her depth. I have learned so much from her; I still have so much to learn. Sometimes it can seem that darkness is all there is, but now I know better. Now I know that where there is love, there is always light.

What we’re reading
Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night
Martin: Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life

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35 Responses to Love, light, and Wallace Stevens

  1. Nancy says:

    Beautiful and so true. Heather always makes me feel that my problems are so interesting to her and she is genuinely concerned.

  2. jan jarboe russell says:

    Well Martin,
    Thanks so much for writing a love letter in this season of love. What you and Heather have managed to give birth to — a marriage, children, common cause, and so much fun – well, it’s a gift to behold. May the light hold you in this season, and if you need more of it, just call out. We, your friends, will come running with well-lit torches, held high.

    Love, Jan

  3. Sharon Hill says:

    Thank you for this. It is lovely. A beautiful way to enter into this season more fully than before.

  4. Paul says:

    What an amazing post on this day. I remember few things about Williams, but I do remember your wit, wisdom, poor bball playing (just kidding) and I also thought that you were a good friend. I never got to know Heather well, as I was a reclusive guy back then, but I did think you guys were a perfect fit. Your love of family shines through in everything that you write and its uplifting. Have a great holiday and enjoy your time with your family.

  5. Joybells says:

    Like Buddy Miller says at the end of the video: “It’s beautiful.” All of it. Both of you are beautiful. What you have created and continue to carefully craft is stunning.

    And I’m with Jan Jarboe Russell, ready to come running with my torch, whenever and wherever.

  6. Dinnis says:

    Well, shit.
    You made me cry in the produce aisle.

  7. Janis says:

    I love this light-filled, love-filled post … and the photo! A perfect gift in any season. Love to all.

  8. Carol Ann Sayle says:

    Martin, You just sent beautiful LIGHT to all of us. Thank you for that. I’m not in the produce aisle, but, out in the field of greens, still, there will be tears. Bless you both and your family in this the season of love and light, and optimism.

  9. Martha says:

    A beautiful gift to Heather and all of us. Thanks, Martin.

  10. Sarah Ann Bird says:

    This is so lovely that it hurts. Sarah

  11. Cynthia Beeman says:

    What Dinnis said. I’m not in the produce aisle, but damn, you made me cry. A beautiful tribute to an amazing woman, plus tinged with your unique sense of humor. (Your kids are probably still blushing.) This is why I love reading your blog every week. Sign me up for the torch brigade, as well.

  12. Ann says:

    This is so lovely. As luck would have it, I was at the Cattos hanging out with Isa when Heather brought you home to meet the folks. I think we all went to see Breaking Away in McLean, in an old station wagon? After you and Heather left, they mused on the fact that you might be in this for the long haul.. I’m so sorry about Heather’s father. I remember him well. Great man. Great family. Beautiful post.

  13. Jo Anne Christian says:

    I love both of you, as I did Henry and Jessica. It has been a great pleasure to me a these years to have you as friends. I wish you another 30 or more years, and we will continue to hope for more ups than downs.

  14. Patty Speier says:

    Martin, your words make Love palpable–it is what we live and move and have our being in but so often take for granted to the point of forgetfulness. Thank you for reminding us with your beautiful Christmas story of light and love and the eternal.

  15. Beloved Martin. I am crying again, which I think is a line in a two dozen country/western songs. But it’s true. I was very moved by this post, and rest assured Tony will sit weeping over it when he reads it. We love you, miss you and you have been a wonderful brother all these years. Here, here Jan Jarboe. xo

  16. Pam Werntz says:

    can I just read your beautiful love letter on Christmas Eve instead of trying to write a sermon?

  17. Meredith says:

    Oh Martin. You and Heather continue to blow my mind (in the very best ways), and are a true inspiration for what a couple can be/have. I am so very glad to have you both in my life… Thanks for choking me up this morning. xo

  18. Béa Weicker says:

    Oh Martin, what a gift this posting is!

    Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in around 1924 that she’d sat down that morning to write about death, but “life came breaking in as usual.”

    It does that. Irrepressible. When we let it.

    I suppose that’s what Christmas is all about, love not being extinguished, but breaking in, as it’s wont to do. When we let it.

    Thank you for your posting…in your writing and in my reading, life breaking in, which is love, after all.

    Love to you, Heather, Lizzie, Tito and Thea

  19. Jim says:

    Martin, you’re right, she’s too good for you.

  20. Pic Swartz says:

    So well said… always the best to you two, and for you two. Pic

  21. Adrienne says:

    Martin, that is the best description of a successful marriage I’ve ever encountered. Your love has warmed many hearts. I hope that our love in return can warm and lighten this dark winter for you.

  22. Kathryn says:

    Dear Martin, Your wonderful words about darkness and LIGHT bring warmth and light to so many of us. Thank you. I hope you and Heather will enjoy this beautiful quote I recently read. When I read it, there was a beautiful tree drawn above the quote. I share it with love and admiration for both you and Heather.

    “Sadness gives depth. Happiness gives height. Sadness gives roots. Happiness gives branches. Happiness is like a tree going into the sky, and sadness is like the roots going down into the womb of the earth. Both are needed, and the higher a tree goes, the deeper it goes, simultaneously. The bigger the tree, the bigger will be its roots. In fact, it is always in proportion. That’s its balance.”

  23. Ellen Jockusch says:

    The translucence of your love for Heather lets light stream in for all of us who love her. And you. I’m pretty sure this is what the Incarnation is all about–enfleshing love. How I love you all.

  24. mimi swartz says:

    Martin, this is indeed beautiful, and nice to know that Heather has remained the same beautiful person I’ve known for more than 50 years. Did you see the review of War Horse in the Times today? The reviewer talks about the courage it takes to be hopeful, which is indeed a great gift to have and to bestow. Much love to you both, M.
    And so happy you are reading the Bryson book. I loved it!

  25. Ginny Burnett says:

    Feeling a little too misty to write. But we all there, are carrying lights in the darkness!

  26. Elizabeth St. Clair says:

    What a beautiful holiday gift to all of us, Martin – letting us share in the light and love that envelops you two as a couple, and always seems to leave behind a trail of fun, sparkly glitter everywhere you go, and around everyone whose lives you touch. My favorite line: “The greatest gift of all, however, is one that I have not yet fully unwrapped.” Aww. Love to all of you…. and as they say, “We’ll leave the light on for ya.” xoxoxo

  27. Tink Pinkard says:

    Beautiful! Lovely! Thanks Martin.

  28. Jolynn says:

    Well, Martin, you wrote a love letter to Heather that manages to cast enough warmth and light for all of us. And you are not merely besotted, still; she is all that, and so are you. Thank you for this very timely gift.

  29. Louisa says:

    Your beautiful post has been on my mind since reading it last week. The thing is, love is action – which you and Heather have always modeled in so many ways. Even when I’ve just been with one or the other of you, the way you speak of each other is pure focused and intentional love. It’s a blessing to everyone around you, and lovely to see.

  30. Susan Farrimond says:

    Martin set the bar very high for other couples. This testimony of his love for Heather is clearly heartfelt and moved me to tears. I realized how wise he was to admit having “dark” periods in their married life which eventually led them to periods of “light.” Life is not like one of the old TV sitcoms, and June Cleaver was not a role model. Today we acknowledge that real people have real problems. If they are lucky, they receive love and reassurance from their spouses, and this love helps them to travel through the dark back into the light.

  31. Nancy says:

    Your big beautiful generous buffy life together keeps on giving. Let your friends be warriors with you. Me too.

  32. Pam says:

    This beautiful message is so inspiring, suddenly this song popped into my head, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine….” Love lightens the world, thank you for turning up the lumens…let it shine let it shine let it shine..

  33. Michelle says:

    How very touching…what a pleasure to see a couple who still enjoy their salad days after 30 years. Very endearing – thanks for sharing.

  34. Jeanne Guy says:

    This post is a keeper. Your finer-than-usual words make me appreciate my world which, of course, includes you and Heather. And which, of course, means there will always be light…she wouldn’t have it any other way.

  35. Ginny Burnett says:

    I was so waylaid by this post when I first read it that I didn’t notice the photo that accompanies it. Now it makes me laugh out loud–the real thing, not LOL.

    Heather looks the same, but who’s the guy in the Kliban Cats shirt?

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