Last week I started rowing again after an eight-month hiatus. It has been pure pleasure, despite the inevitable price of blisters on my baby-soft hands. First, the pleasure of seeing my friends at the dock, including the ducks and C.J. the chocolate Lab, who howled and wagged when he saw me; next, the pleasure of reestablishing a relationship with a boat in the water, negotiating the jostling demands of wind, current, oars, river geography, swans, kayakers, and my own stiff body; finally, the pleasure of being on the river itself, of seeing what has changed and what remains the same. The water changes quite literally with each breath; despite the dams, it’s still a living river. Trees and boulders have grown or fallen. Purple martins have replaced cormorants. And yet something persists, apparently unmoved by the passage of time. I’ve missed being on the river.
In the meantime, I was seeing another river, or at least imagining it. Martin has just finished reading Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow aloud to me, also pure pleasure. As have my rowing muscles, my reading-to-myself muscles have atrophied, and Martin reads with accents tailored to the characters and inflections appropriate to the plot. We’ve read like this for about a year now, usually at bedtime. Sometimes we can’t help but sneak-read in the daytime, wanting to be swept downstream by the whorls and eddies of words, characters, and plot like river-rafting thrill seekers.
One of the main characters of Jayber Crow is the river that runs through the valley in which the story is set. Jayber, the narrator of the novel and the barber of Port William, Kentucky, is a river-watcher as well. Late in his life and in the novel he asks:
How many hours have I spent watching the reflections on the water? When the air is still, then so is the surface of the water. Then it holds a perfectly silent image of the world that seems not to exist in this world. Where, I have asked myself, is this reflection? It is not on the top of the water, for if there is a little current the river can slide frictionlessly and freely beneath the reflection and the reflection does not move. Nor can you think of it as resting on the bottom of the air. The reflection itself seems a plane of no substance, neither water nor air. It rests, I think, upon quietness. Things may rise from the water or fall from the air, and, without touching the reflection, break it. It disappears. Without going anywhere, it disappears.
For Jayber, the reflection is an image, so to speak, of the divine, of how divinity is in this world and how it thwarts any logic that would fix that divinity in one place or locate it. It rests upon a condition rather than a location, on a “how” rather than a “where.” How can this condition be in the world? In quietness, says Jayber—a quietness that I think is born when the worlds outside and inside a person are married together. The natural world always carries its own quietness as it moves through time, but we humans need to practice marriage to know this quietness.
Honestly, I’m not sure what I’m trying to say by pulling marriage into this already multi-tentacled discussion, but having just made it to the other side of our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary, and given the national discussion on what makes a marriage, I’ve been thinking. (Those three words always fill Martin with foreboding.) If you take Jewish and Christian scripture seriously, marriage is that process by which two people become one flesh. This process requires rending; each must leave his or her parents and cling to the other in order to become one flesh. After this rending and clinging, they stand before each other naked and are not ashamed.
As a youngster I thought that becoming one flesh was merely a reference to sexual congress, the least generative and generous level of meaning in this most profound of texts. As an older-ster, I know that becoming one flesh can include sexual encounter but that the two are very distinct realities. Becoming one flesh may, in fact, begin with the self, with learning to bridge the slippery banks of individual consciousness and the physical body, so often at odds with each other. I’ve come to see cancer as an icon of this struggle, our stuttering inability to conjugate the distinctive languages of consciousness and its endless mysteries and of body and its appetitive requirements. To live as one flesh in the river of the self seems to require an awareness of the reflection that Jayber noticed, the reflection that rests on quietness—a sort of third party that allows the hands of consciousness and bodiness to hold each other, to mingle and flow into the river between them. Of course, to live as one flesh within a single body—to be married to yourself, and thus whole—is a work that flows as endlessly as a river, but that allows those glancing moments of standing naked and unashamed.
To include someone else in the work to become one flesh… well. It requires an endless series of rendings and cleavings from the past, from what has been, to create something new, the way a river changes every day and yet is still the same river. Sex can be a sign of one-fleshness, but is just as likely to be a hindrance. Only when that third party of quietness, that generous generative flow between the banks of two bodies that reflects something beyond itself—only when the three are present can there be one flesh. When the possibility of being one flesh reveals itself—within the self, within the couple—that body begins to grow, including within itself children, friends, strangers, enemies, the world itself. The capacity for stepping off the banks of the self into the river, beckoning those on the other side to join in, might manifest itself just a few times in a person’s life, or never, or every day. A few people barely towel off before they jump back in, married to the whole world and all that’s in it, no time for messing with clothes or shame.
So practicing marriage is not the same as being married. One training ground I’ve found for the practice of marriage has been reading aloud. It’s something children know immediately, that a story read or told aloud is an opportunity for teller and listener to jump into a river of words and ride them together, making a net of meaning that holds them even when they scramble up their different banks at the end of the story. That’s why the practice of reading scripture aloud is so important; it allows people to jump together off the banks and into its great narrative flow.
It’s been instructive to be a child again as Martin reads aloud and I listen, creating for us a net of meaning through both rough and placid rides. Even if we spend the day ignoring the other across the bank, or throwing rocks, we climb together into that river of words, emerging refreshed (or sometimes asleep) or even naked, when one of us is moved to tears or left helpless by laughter.
That’s why, with so many figurative rivers running, I’m happy to be back on (if not in) a literal river: yet another chance to practice marriage.
What we’re reading
Heather: Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Martin: Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (still)