In his memoir about marriage to Jane Kenyon, poet Donald Hall writes: “If anyone had asked Jane and me ‘Which was the best year of your lives together?’ we could have agreed on an answer: ‘The one we remember least.’” Because, Hall continues, although there were years of triumph, sorrow, sickness, and excitement, the years they counted as best were those filled with “repeated days of quiet and work."
It is a theme he returns to in this book, The Best Day the Worst Day, a theme that extols the beauty of routine and quiet and simplicity, something we most often do not appreciate until things are Otherwise as Jane Kenyon, expresses so perfectly in her poem of that name, one written as she contemplated Hall’s mortality after he was diagnosed with cancer. Ironically, it is Kenyon who will die first, at age 47 after a harrowing year of treatment for leukemia. And it is the 72-year old Hall who is left to grieve for the many “best days” they lived together.
For Jim and I, this year of our marriage has been at once momentous and blessedly forgettable. At the end of January our daily lives shifted dramatically when Jim retired from work. I admit, I was anxious about it. Friends teased me about having him “underfoot,” and I worried about how I would find the time and solitude I’ve grown accustomed to.
But then an odd thing happened. We fell in love with each other’s company. After years of spending the majority of our waking hours apart, since January we’ve been together almost 24/7. And instead of feeling oppressed by it as I feared I might, I feel comforted by his steady and gentle presence. I like having him grocery shop with me. I’m happy to go along to Planet Fitness and share his workout routine. I’m eager to join him in mid afternoon for a cup of coffee, or sit on the couch beside him and read while he watches TV. I miss him on Sunday evenings when he goes to rehearse with his choral group.
It sounds silly, but I feel almost like the young bride I was 42 years ago on this very day, my heart aflutter with the prospect of spending all day (and night!) with this young man I loved so much.
We spent the winter immersed in this lovely interlude of quiet days, sheltered from the outside world, making new patterns and routines. For Jim, after so many years of getting up early and fighting traffic it was a gift just to turn off the alarm clock for good. We wake up whenever we want, loll around in bed drinking coffee and reading as long as we want. We go our for lunch if we feel like it. Go to movies in the afternoon. Take day trips to nearby towns and visit coffee shops and bookstores. To others it probably sounds insular, stultifying, boring. But for us, it is like a deep exhale after years of suffocating under the demands of the outside world.
Anyone who has been married for a long, long time knows that married life spins itself through a myriad of stages. There have been times in these past four decades when our bond felt strained, when we were separated by space but also by feeling, when our attentions were distracted from each other by work, the needs of children, pets, aging parents. Too often we let those things come between us rather than bring us together in joint purpose, something Hall also writes about and calls the Third Thing. “Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate: the two come together in double attention.”
That coming together in double attention is vital. Right now it feels like our marriage itself is a Third Thing. We’re pretty sharply focused on shaping it to fit this new arrangement of days, coming together in double attention with gratitude for the simple pleasure of the other’s company and how to make that last from day to day.
When I walked down the aisle of the Martha Mary Chapel on May 8, 1976, I thought it was the best day of my life. But at 20, what did I know? There were so many more “best days” to come. Yesterday we celebrated our anniversary as we often do: by making what I call pilgrimage to the historic village where the Martha Mary Chapel is located. We wander up the green hill that leads to the colonial chapel with it’s tall white steeple. We recall the faces of family and friends who gathered with us, so many of them long gone from this earth. We stand in the doorway and recall our first embrace as a married couple. We remember running down the brick steps under a shower of rice.
Later we stop for lunch in a local restaurant where we sit outdoors and savor every second of this long awaited spring day. We come home and put our feet up for a while, Jim scrolling various internet sites, me reading a book beside him. We take a walk to the pond at the front of our community and sit underneath a bower of blossoming pear trees, watching the ducks glide back and forth. We ate supper, watched a program on television, and went to sleep.
It was the Best Day.