Note: As explained in this post, in honor of me and my wife’s first year of marriage, I’m going to spend the second year posting monthly reflections of the same month a year earlier. This is the third installment. The last few months have been very busy — regular posts will be resuming shortly!
If August, the first month after the wedding, was a series of intimate studies in portrait form — you, framed by rocks and pines in Oregon’s high country, the wind and the waves of the Pacific coast, or the striking lines of the northern redwoods in California — then September more closely resembled a grand impressionist landscape. This, to me, is the general condition of all good relationships, marriage included; moments of sharp clarity, so powerful and vivid that the recollection of them is enough to cause one’s heart to swell anew, juxtaposed against a broad background of softer shapes and shades of life.
In another era, I know, you and I would have spent our first year getting adjusted to each other’s presence. I’d spent years hearing family and friends offer the perspective, to other newlywed couples, that “the first year is the hardest,” meaning that the first year presents a series of encounters between individual wills and the realization that two minds must now work together towards common goals and common well-being. Since we had already spent half of a decade together in a relationship in one form or another at the time of the wedding, there was less of this to adjust to. After the adventures of August, September marked a return to old routines.
September always signals the end of summer, and students / educators feel this more sharply than others. Shortly after returning from our “faux-ny moon,” the realities of the oncoming academic year began to settle in. The first academic job openings were publicized, and I gathered every ounce of strength I had to gear up for another run on that market. With the promise of at least 10 weeks of solid employment, September offered a little more hope than had been visible in August; this was not long-lived, but I’ll leave that for coming months (and other posts more focused on the topic).
What emerges most strongly in my memory, as I look back on September and the fall in general, is the subtle power of language and the power that words hold. Suddenly, as I reviewed my teaching schedule for the month — late evenings and early mornings, creating stretches of days when we would only be able to see each other over breakfast and for a few moments before bed — I was struck by how much differently it felt to think of how I would not be able to see “my wife” very much. This seemed a drastic thing, somehow more drastic than saying that I would not “see my girlfriend” or see my fiance” very much over the course of a week’s time. The various resonances of that statement unfolded in my mind, over and over. A marriage or a partnership is a long-term commitment, to be protected at all costs; it feeds on time and intimacy, and when those are not available, it feeds on frustration.
The differences in schedule were made all the more palpable by the shift from summertime hours, marked by the lull between school terms, the gap between summer festivals and regular symphony schedules — to the regimen of planning new lessons and attending preparatory conference meetings. On the first day of my department’s annual pedagogy and preparation conference, I looked around the lecture hall, and saw a sea of unfamiliar faces, most of them aged 23 to 24 — fresh out of their bachelor’s degree and a year of graduate school behind them, both eager and nervous to start their first terms of teaching introductory composition courses — and briefly saw myself through their eyes, my hair having grayed rapidly during the dissertation process, dressed in jeans and a sport coat, with a bright silver-hued ring on my left hand. I remembered those men when I first attended that conference as a rookie instructor (though I was a few years older than most of this group of “new kids” at the time), those men who had walked into the room projecting an attitude of confidence and familiarity tinged with a sense of exasperation and a touch of resignation, and tried to remember my thoughts at the time, knowing that I would probably be in their shoes someday — older, ostensibly wiser, without the butterflies in their stomachs, wearing their doctorates like a barely visible halo. I tried to guess what gave them the most confidence – the clothes, the degree, or the experience.
I reflected on that experience again as people continued to trickle in, and realized, with the clarity of experience, that many of those men were not likely feeling confident, while others drew their confidence from any variety of sources. For myself, degree firmly in hand and a slightly better wardrobe on my back, the answer was also complex. I thought of how much of my confidence in that moment, as in so many other moments, came from my relationship with you, and from the power I coming from those moments when I thought about my wife, and all the times you listened to me as I struggled with a difficult student, or one of the many thorny patches of the dissertation process. And I realized that even if many of the trappings of that confidence were to be stripped away — the degree, the clothes, the laptop filled with nearly a decade’s worth of notes on pedagogy and lesson plans — the confidence given to me by the relationship signified by the ring on my finger would still be available.
And as the early fall nights gave way to autumn evenings, and I began arriving back home well after dark, I was constantly reminded of the immense privilege I have — even on those days when it seemed that I had nothing left in the tank, when I walked through the door with only a couple of hours to eat and look over work before going back to bed, and yes, even when you were not there to greet me — of coming back to a home that I share with you. Even on the nights when the house was dark but for one light, and I headed back out into the rain to walk the dog alone before sitting down to a meal of left-overs on the sofa, I knew you would return soon, and the house would be a home once more. We would both be tired, perhaps both a little grouchy over the various irritations and indignities of the everyday routine, but we would be there together — not because we had to be, or even simply because we had chosen to, but because we wanted to be there, even on the days that had been painted from a palette of gloomy grays and somber blues.