As I read Kristine Haglund’s wonderful discussion of Lowell Bennion’s aphorism that we should learn to like people different than we are, I was struck by the comparison she made between our relationships with other people and with the creation itself. As a literary critic, I am well aware of a similar problem we create whenever we read. Peter calls it “wresting the scriptures,” but we might also simply call it narcissism. Instead of a window into another world, a book becomes a mirror, reflecting back what we project into it. Of course, on some level, this is inevitable, just as it is inevitable that we wrest other people, as it were, seeing in their faces and in their hearts what we want them to be, either consciously or subconsciously, always valuing or disliking in them what we already see in ourselves. And Kristine’s point too was that we do this to nature.
In Home Waters, I intended to draw a similar comparison between the loyalty, humility, and forbearance that are required in a successful marriage with the similar qualities that are required to sustain a commitment to a place. I drew comparisons between the ways in which the history of a place, its scars and degradation, and sometimes even its indifference will mean that facile and superficial affections will not suffice for a sustainable, long-term, and healthy relationship to the places in which we live. I had never intended to write much of a personal book at all, but the more I investigated where I lived, the more I realized that I had to come to terms with my own narcissism, the ways in which I was wresting nature, wresting history, and wresting others as I sought to form an identity and a home in the valley where I live.
I wrote frankly about my marriage and exposed some of its weaknesses. I did this not out of self-indulgence, nor out of some sort of therapeutic need to air my dirty laundry before an unsuspecting and uninterested audience. And least of all out of some sense that I had it rough or different than anyone else. I merely meant to describe the paradox that everyone is different than we are and the differences of those closest to us and those we love most fiercely are often the most challenging to accept. Ever since I published the book, I have worried that my affections and admiration for the woman I married were inadequately expressed. In case there are any misunderstandings about what I intended in writing about Amy in Home Waters, I want to set the record straight.
Amy is, indeed, a different person than I am. She has formidable energy for mundane tasks. She never rests, almost never naps, is almost always on her feet, and only very, very rarely wastes time. And I mean rarely. She knows no vanity and never, ever gossips. She has simple needs, simple desires, and does not complicate relationships or her self-image out of foolish pride. She thinks of others constantly and works quietly on behalf of her family and those for whom she has special stewardship, without expectation of reward or recognition for what she has done. She is not one to spend her time idly imagining, debating, or otherwise engaging in intellectual curiosities. That is not to say she isn’t bright. She loves to read, has completed more schooling than I have, and remembers everything she learns. She is uncannily right about almost everything. She handles the pressures of life with herculean strength. I have certainly observed moments when life has threatened to crush her will and her energy, but I am always astounded by her capacity to pull herself, almost by the power of sheer will, through the longest stretches of seemingly endless responsibilities. She does not flag; she is of what the scriptures call a “firm mind.” She has never yelled at the children nor at me. She never expects that words can be an adequate substitute for right deeds. Her emotional self-control and steadiness are the rock of my somewhat rollercoaster life. She read three drafts of my book, each time offering careful and thoughtful criticism but never once asking me to change a word about her, even though I left it up to her.
Yes, these are stark differences compared to me. I won’t make a long laundry list of my weaknesses but suffice it to say that they are not far from the opposite of what I have just described. I learn everyday from her about how to improve myself, and in working hard at our marriage, I like to think we have both become more than the sum of the parts. It’s a cliché but it’s true (she knows it; I know it): I wouldn’t be half the man I am today without her. And yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s also true that as of today, exactly 23 years of marriage have passed and I love her more than ever.
She will be embarrassed that I have posted this, but for the record, nothing I write here is anything she hasn’t heard me say to her privately many, many times.
Thanks for letting me into your life, Amy, and for keeping me around ever since.