THE PASTOR'S WIFE
When I was at Virginia Theological Seminary, my wife wasn't too thrilled. I had, after all, promised her in solemn oaths that I would never be ordained. She married me in September after my first year at Harvard Divinity School and moved to Cambridge with me. But I was simply getting a two year degree...I had no intention of ever getting an M.Div. (the three year degree required for ordination). I promised her faithfully that after that second year I'd be applying for graduate studies in American Literature. I promised her with all the oaths I could muster.
There were lots of married seminarians in my class at Virginia Seminary and all of them were married to women. The three female seminarians in my class were all single. This was before the ordination of women was legal in the Episcopal Church and the women were just going to be ready when it came, as we all knew it would. Since all the spouses were wives, some of the faculty wives (only one woman taught at VTS and she too was single) sponsored a support group called “Coterie”. Miriam-Webster defines coterie as “an intimate and often exclusive group of persons with an unifying interest or purpose.” VTS's “Coterie” was rather 'exclusive' in that the only people welcome were women who would, sooner or later, be married to Episcopal priests. And that reality, I suppose, was the 'unifying interest or purpose.”
Bern went exactly once and left early. She was still fuming when she got home to our apartment. “Those women are crazy. I think half of them want to be priests and are living vicariously through their husbands. The other half are too busy imagining all the bad things that might happen that they're paralyzed.”
“What kind of bad things?” I asked, suddenly assaulted by anonymous fears of bad things myself.
“Oh, here's an example,” she told me, barely keeping her disgust under control, “one woman asked, 'what do you do on your son's fourth birthday when you husband tells you he has to go visit someone who is sick after he promised to be at the party?'”
I stayed quiet since I knew all about breaking promises.
“It gets better, then she says, 'and when you ask him not to go he tells you he's doing the Lord's work.'”
“Do they have children?” I asked.
“No!” she said, “She's imagining that too....”
“So what did the group tell her?”
“Lots of crap about 'the sacrifices of a clergy wife' and stuff like that.” She paused, suddenly smiling, “but I told her what to do.”
I waited, knowing I didn't have to prompt her.
“I told her to tell the asshole that when he gets back he can sleep with the Lord from now on.” Then she chuckled.
Bern and I met in Latin class when I was 17 and she was 14. I had this wild idea that I wanted to go to Shimer College in Chicago, a “Great Books” school, and I needed at least a year of a foreign language to apply. So, I was a Senior in a class made up mostly of Freshmen and Bern was one of them.
There couldn't have been a more unlikely pairing. I was from Anawalt, a little town with a Junior High School, that was almost totally populated by people from the British Isles with one or two syllable names. Bern was from Filbert, a coal camp made up of first, second and third generations of European immigrants—Italian, Hungarian, Polish, even Spanish. Bern's mother was a first generation Hungarian-American and her father had come from Italy as an adolescent with his father. My parents were as white bread as they come. She, of course, was Roman Catholic while my family was a whole group of rather evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants.
Add this to that: not one non-Italian had ever married into Bern's paternal family and not one non-Hungarian had ever married into her maternal family. Needless to say, no Roman Catholic or even slightly ethnic person had married into either side of my family save one. And that was the exception that proved the Rule: Never Marry Outside Your Ken. My cousin, Marlin Pugh, married an Italian, Roman Catholic girl. The family lore was that the marriage didn't last until the reception, they broke it off in the car leaving the wedding! That may be apocryphal, but it was deeply believed in my family. “No Italians and no Roman Catholics” could have been my family's motto. In addition, imagine the consternation of Bern's family that I was not only an Anglo-Saxon protestant, I was enrolled in a Divinity School!
“What chance do they have?” must have been a question asked a lot within both our families.
So, Bern and I have known each other for some 49 years and have been married
43 of those years. I'd like to attribute that to the power and endurance of our love and commitment, but in large measure it is a reflection of our stubbornness and our flexibility and our intention to prove our families wrong! I've often told people “I've been married four or five times, just always to the same woman....”
Looking back neither of us can recognize those two near-children (20 and 23) we were in our wedding album. (Our first wedding bands were inscribed Amo, Amas, Amat. The whole romantic thing of meeting in Latin class and all. Mercifully, in one of our marriages iterations, we picked out our own rings and gave them to ourselves.) There are times we don't quite understand how we survived the ups and downs, good times and bad times of all these years. And how we survived the advent of two children, their growing up, their turning out even better than we could have hoped for is, for the most part, a mystery to us. Finally, how Bern endured being married to a priest is (excuse the phrase) a holy mystery to us both.
Bern was not cut out to be “a clergy wife”. Luckily, I was not cut out to have one!
During my final year of seminary, the two Bishops of West Virginia came to have dinner with the seminarians from their diocese. They did this every year, but always at a restaurant so it was easy to leave right after dessert due to some commitment or another, true or imaginary. But that year, George P., one of my classmates, decided we should have dinner at his apartment, bishops and all. He even called to ask me if Bern could bring 'chips and dips' and to tell me his wife was already 'soaking the meat' (I kid you not....) Bern knew enough to know that in most Western societies, bishops were on a social level with minor royalty and oil barons. So she scoffed at 'chips and dip' and made some exotic Italian-Hungarian hors'devours which impressed both the bishops, all the wives from Coterie who thought Bern was a crazy woman and most of all, the other husbands who were used to 'chips and dip' for a dinner party.
Just as dinner was over and Bishop Campbell had had a Scotch or four, he announced that he wanted to talk “with the wives”.
My chest restricted and my bowels loosened when he said that. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “what will she say?”
Two or three wives went before Bern, chattering about how 'since WE'VE been in seminary...” and how excited they were about “OUR future ministry...” my anxiety grew exponentially. Finally, it was Bern's turn.
“Well, Bernadine,” Bishop Campbell said, slurring just a bit—bishops back then could hold their liquor, our vanilla bishops of today scarcely drink at all--”how has it been since you and Jim were in seminary?”
I needed my heart shocked back into beating even before she spoke. Nothing good could come of her answer.
“Well, Bishop Campbell,” she began. I noted she had gone into her 'stage presence'--Bern was a drama major and a professional actress. In fact, she supported us during our two years in Alexandria doing summer stock and dinner theater. Some of the most 'holy' moments of my life were watching Bern on stage, seeing the wonder of her talent and the depth of her gift, knowing that remarkable talent was the person I loved. “The truth is,” she continued, like a character from Lovers and Other Strangers, a show she was in twice and once directed, “we aren't in seminary. I'm not in seminary at all. Jim is in seminary and I'm terribly unhappy....”
The oxygen in the room was sucked out by the other wives and the bishops. I, myself, couldn't breathe so I didn't contribute to the vacuum. Bishop Campbell, buzzed as he was, immediately went into 'pastoral mode'.
“Oh, Bern,” he said, softly, “what can I do?”
“You can't do anything, bishop,” she said, forcing a tear out of her eye, something I'd seen her do on stage, “it's up to me to leave my marriage....Maybe we could talk after everyone has gone home....”
I glanced around at the faces of the people in the room. It was like being at Mount Rushmore times five. Twenty faces frozen in stone.
The bishop put down his drink and started to reach toward Bern. Luckily he wasn't able to touch her because I swear to God she would have ripped off his arm and beaten him silly with it.
She suddenly laughed. The walls shook with the sound.
“Just kidding,” she said, “just a joke on you all....Jim and I are fine, really....”
Bishop Campbell needed another drink and the party broke up shortly thereafter with strained 'good-byes' all around.
In the car, half-way back to our apartment, I said, “some performance....”
She smiled at me. “Think he'll remember me?” she asked coyly.
The next day, I ate lunch with the two bishops—Campbell and Atkinson—in the refectory at Virginia Seminary. As I was getting up to take my tray to the window, Bishop Campbell asked me this: “Jim, who will have the honor of receiving Bern into the Episcopal Church, Bishop Atkinson or me?”
I decided that Bern's notion of not catering to bishops was the best course. “You know,” I said, “I wouldn't hold my breath on that one,” and scurried away.
While I was at Virginia Seminary, I had a field work job at Christ Church, Capitol Hill in DC. It was a great church, made up mostly of people who were on the staffs of some House Member or Senator and weren't really from DC. Very laid back and liberal, so Bern had no trouble attending from time to time. But her harsh, ethnic Roman Catholic upbringing wouldn't let her come to communion. She and another recovering RC would go outside during communion and have a cigarette.
By the time we arrived at St. James in Charleston, she could bring herself to the rail, but didn't receive the wine since she never had be able to. But then, when I was Rector of St. Paul's in New Haven, she gave me a surprise gift like none I've ever had. There was a New Haven wide Confirmation and Reception Service (New Haven, like most cities, has too many Episcopal Churches but nobody can agree on which ones are the 'too many' ones). Totally unbeknownst to me, Bern had gone to Bishop John Burgess—a retired Bishop who was a member of St. Paul's and the first Black Diocesan Bishop the church had known—and asked him to prepare her for 'reception'. The Episcopal Church, being bigger-hearted than most denominations, recognizes that if someone has been 'confirmed' in another church, we don't make them do it again, we 'receive them', as the words go, 'into this branch of the holy, catholic church.'
I was sitting up in the chancel at the Episcopal Church at Yale with the other priests, watching with little interest in who was coming forward to Bishop Walmsley to be confirmed or received besides the 6 people I presented. Then suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bishop Burgess and Bern walking toward the front and was dragged to my feet to go stand beside her as she was received. I think I kissed her on the mouth in front of all those Episcopalians when it was over.
She pulled her head around to my ear and whispered, “I only did this for YOU, don't ever forget that.”
And I never have. But 'doing it FOR me' made it the most precious of acts. So dear to me, so supportive of me. Over and over during all the years, she did things 'for me' that made my life and ministry wondrous and rich.
That's how, for me, Bern was the perfect Pastor's wife by being the anti-Pastor's wife.
She simply had no interest in 'the church' in any way that didn't affect me or, later, our son and daughter. If anything 'the church' did threatened me or would be threatening to our children, Bern was the Mama Bear ravaging the offending beast. In other words, she was concerned when she thought the politics or culture of the church was draining me of my energy and commitment or putting our son and daughter into roles and situations they did not need to fulfill.
Being a PK--”preacher's kid”--shines a bright spotlight on a child. Luckily, I served three remarkable parishes that, most of the time, didn't put either Bern or our children into untenable positions. Those three congregations were, by Episcopal...or any other...standards, remarkably laid back about the role of the priest's wife or children. At St. James in Charleston, West Virginia, Bern and Josh and Mimi were not only related to me but ¾ of the white people, besides me, in the community. Hard not to stand out at those odds. But the folks at St. James gave all three of them more than enough room to be in the background. God bless those good and holy folks for that.
St. Paul's in New Haven was sold to me as “an activist parish”. Actually, it wasn't. Instead, it was a parish of 'activists'--people deeply involved in the social issues of the city and the world. The parish itself did rather traditional things—a clothing closet, a food pantry, high powered Church School, broad church worship, adult education, support groups—that gave a congregation weighed down and wearied by battling the forces of darkness in their lives, a chance to simply serve and be comforted and healed to go back into the world. No one at St. Paul's had the energy to expect much of Bern besides being part of the Tribe and sharing the road.
Even St. John's in Waterbury, the most 'traditional' of the three churches I served in my career (though they would be horrified to know anyone thought of them as 'traditional'!) put no pressure on the Rector's wife to be anyone other than who she was, which was a mother of two children who grew from adolescents to full adults in the almost 22 years I was there and the best reader of all the good readers who read the lessons on Sunday. (The girl was an actress, after all....) Bern would help out with pageants and train readers and organize the nursery because, at that time she was the coordinator of the Cooperative Child Day Center in New Haven—the only paid employee who trained parents to care for their children on a rota. Other than that, she and the kids (singing the hymns in harmony!) and then she alone would sit in the fourth row under the balcony on the pulpit side of the church most every Sunday I was serving there. Oh, and she and I would host a New Year's Day open house for the parish each year at which we served food she prepared that dazzled the people who came and she charmed them as well—merely to make things easier for me, I assure you.
When I retired from St. John's, Bern breathed a long and deserved sigh of relief and 'retired from church'.
I have a part-time job working with three small churches in Connecticut these days. Bern asked me a few weeks ago, “Do you wish I'd go to church with you?”
I looked at her like the crazy woman she was sounding like. “Would you come if I wished you did?”
She frowned. “No,” she told me.
“Then why on earth would I wish it?” I asked. And we both had a good laugh.
Here's what made Bern the perfect 'pastor's wife' for me: she simply didn't care about church. Let me clear that up. She cared profoundly about me and my role and what I was going through in all these years as a priest. She simply wasn't invested in the whole melodrama and wasn't concerned about her place in it.
Most of the 'wives' at Virginia Seminary would say stuff like 'since WE came to seminary'. There was never any doubt in Bern's mind or mine that “I came to seminary”, she came along for the ride and had a life that had nothing at all to do with the seminary experience. That was the way she was during my years as a priest. I was the priest, she just happened to be married to me and would participate in the life on the parish I was serving to the extent she wanted to and enjoyed. Beyond that, she just wasn't 'attached' to what I was up to in my ministry.
(This brings up an interesting distinction between 'involvement' and 'attachment'. I am a Buddhist in my belief in the holy necessity of 'detachment'. We are, Jesus told us, 'to be IN the world, but not OF the world'. Christians need to practice 'detachment' more and more. The way I illustrate this to folks is to take a soft cover book that folds easily and insert a separate piece of paper. Then I fold the book, with the paper in it and notice that “involved” means, literally, “in the volutions”--”in the folds”. So it is obvious that the free piece of paper can be “involved” without being attached. That's the way I seek to live in the church—involved but not attached. The church is a big part of my life, but it is NOT 'my life'. I am an aging white man who is a husband, a father, a grandfather and a friend who just happens to be an Episcopal priest. My greatest guide and mentor for that has, for over four decades, been Bern, my wife.)
Once I was preaching and the Assistant Rector, Mary Ann Logue, came up behind me and pulled on my alb. I was totally confused by that. I wasn't sure if it were a joke or a prank, but when I looked in her eyes I knew it was something serious. The Senior Warden was there as well and he led me toward the vesting room telling me Bern was on the way to the hospital and I should go and meet her there. My son, Josh, happened to be an acolyte that day and when I heard about Bern, I forgot all about him. I've been told he vaulted the altar rail and caught up with me!
Josh and I had come to church but Bern wasn't feeling well so she and Mimi stayed home. As Josh and I were about to leave for the hospital, I suddenly remembered Mimi must be home alone. She was 10 or 11, not nearly old enough to be at home worrying about her mother all by herself. I went back into the church to ask a woman Mimi knew well to go to our house in Cheshire to be with her. Then Josh and I drove like crazy people to St. Mary's hospital and beat Bern's ambulance to the emergency room by 10 minutes or so. It had been Mimi, bless her, who called the church repeatedly until someone went to pick up.
It was kidney stones, which must be one of those things you never ever want to experience. Bern was in such pain that she could hardly see that Josh and I were there. When she realized who we were, she said only one word...”Mimi....” And I told her, hoping she could hear through the agony, that someone was already with her and would bring her to us.
I relate all this to make a couple of points about my wife of all these years. First of all, she is better with pain than anyone I know—so seeing her suffer like that convinced me that kidney stones must be off the pain scale. And, in the midst of all that pain, nothing mattered to her like our children. I think that's a 'mom thing'. Studies have shown that when asked who they would save from the train tracks, men normally would save their wives before their children. Women—No Way! The kids get saved, the old man is mashed to bits by the locomotive! It's just a reality men have to accept. Bern was a mom for the Guinness Book of records. She really was. And still is.
It's one of the many things I love about her.
So she made it clear to me that she would be a mama lion to keep our kids from being eaten alive by the church.
Interesting, Mimi, who was a dutiful 'Priest's kid' and got confirmed and all that, doesn't go to church at all and is engaged to the son of Latin Rite Roman Catholics. Tim doesn't go to church at all except when he's here and he goes with me. Josh, on the other hand, married a Taiwanese-American who has no religious background at all and he goes to the Episcopal Cathedral in Baltimore with my twin granddaughters (and sometimes their 4 year old sister) almost ever Sunday—because Cathy makes him....Go figure 'church DNA”.
There is an acting theory that Bern told me about that describes the process that goes into a play. The actor's job, according to this theory, is “to make the strange familiar and then, make the familiar strange.”
Here's how it works: an actor is handed a script she's never seen before. The first job is to make those strange words and stage movements so 'familiar' that she deliver her lines and move about the stage almost as second nature. Then comes the really hard part—those oh, so 'familiar' words and movements must be done and said in such a way that the audience truly believes it is the first time those words have been spoken or that stage traversed. The 'familiar' must be made 'strange' and new to the audience. When the knock comes at the door, the audience must be convinced that the actor 'doesn't know' who it is though the scene has been rehearsed a hundred times. That is the difference between 'being in a play' and acting.
I've adapted that theory to liturgy and preaching. The oh, so familiar words of the liturgy must be made new and fresh and strange by the priest presiding over the sacraments. It's even more important in preaching—the words of scripture must first be made 'familiar' and understood by the preacher. Then, through the story telling and imagination, the 'familiarity' of the passage must be made to be new and engaging and provocatively 'strange' in the sermon. I've always believed every seminary should have an actor on the faculty to teach courses like 'the Drama of Ritual' and 'the Interpretation of Preaching'. Imagine how Richard Burton would have celebrated the Eucharist and then imagine Meryl Streep doing a baptism. Everyone would have their own style, but church would be more interesting if some acting skills were learned by priests!
One of the problems I have always had in terms of 'evangelism' (whatever that means) is that I really don't believe the church has a 'franchise' on God. Instead of the “revealed” religion of the Jews and the Christians, I am convinced God is everywhere, seeking us out, nudging us to 'unconceal' the Holy in the mundane. When someone tells me that they commune with God in nature or in music or dance, I quite honestly believe them. Bern is like that. She may have 'retired' from church, but she is close to the Holy. You see, she is a gardener.
For over 20 years she has been transforming and creating our back and front yards. She is constantly tinkering with the plants and the rocks and shells we bring back each September from North Carolina and the layout of things. I am of no help in all that. I'm not allowed to mess with “the gardens”. She does all the mowing with her push mower. She is the one who gets dirty every day. I sit up on the back deck and marvel at her creation. She is in touch with the earth, with the soil, the humus that is the root word for “human”. If we come from earth and return to it, as the burial office tells us, it might be a vitally profound and holy thing to be intimate with the soil.
Me, I sit up on the deck. The God of Israel is a sky god, one met on mountain tops. The Goddess that was so much a part of most primal religion, is an earth god, Gaius, the Earth herself. Much of the struggle the church has had to fully include women is caused by the fact that sky gods are male and the earth is female. The church did all it could to obliterate the Goddess, but she will not go away. Yahweh worship, Father worship, is elevated, wrapped in the clouds, reaching always upward, always tamed. Goddess worship goes down, communes with our Mother, stays close to the earth, is organic and wild. I would wish we could bring the Father-god and Mother-god into harmony and celebrate them together, worship them both. But the church (even though we speak of the Church as “she”) is afraid of the mystery and power of the Mother—just as most hierarchies are masculine and fear the feminine. Carl Jung would suggest we must bring our feminine and masculine sides into harmony to be Whole. But the church has not yet accepted that as a need. Time is running out for the church. Instead of Gender roles, the church needs to be a community where all gifts, all natures are welcomed and nurtured.
Here's something Bern taught me and taught me fair well. “You always get what you get!”
She was the Co-ordinator of the “Children's Co-op Child Care Center” in New Haven for 14 years. What she did, as the only paid person, was teach parents how to care for their children. Each parent had to put in 4 hour turns each week and prepare snacks and lunch on a rota. Bern showed them what it meant to really 'care' for their children. Most of them were white-collar professionals—lawyers and professors and graduate students and such—people who could schedule themselves so that they could be at the Co-op in the middle of the day. So, a privileged group, but a concept that I think deserves adopting. Child Care Centers at major corporations where professionals like Bern could oversee the child care the parents of the children gave. What a wondrous concept—parents who work actually being able to give child care to their children too! I've asked her to write it all down and send it around to select folks, but she never has.
Being with children brings out the odd notion of 'fairness'. My granddaughters' are already experts in what is 'fair'. One's cookie is a quarter ounce bigger than another and they'll be screaming about 'fair' at the top of their lungs. But the awful and sobering truth is—Life Isn't Fair. It just isn't and never will be unless the Kingdom of Heaven has a way to let everyone get what they want. Because, obviously, 'fair' has to do with 'what I want', not with some objective moral equation.
So, whenever Bern would distribute musical instruments or crayons or whatever else she passed to the kids at the Co-op, one kid would say (probably more than one, most likely all of them) “I wanted the kazoo...” or “I wanted yellow...” or “How come Anna got the good one...?”
So Bern developed a mantra, a chant, an incantation to make what was 'unfair' right or just or, at least conceivable to those kids between 2 and 5. This is what she would sing to them:
“Sometimes you get what you want, and sometimes you get what you don't want, but you always GET what you GET....”
And the kid who 'wanted' the kazoo said, “I GOT a tambourine!” And the kid who 'wanted' yellow would say, “I GOT green!” And all would be well, all would be well and all manner of things would be well.
I can't think of a better way of facing life as it is—unfair and random—than celebrating that we always 'get what we GET'. That's just the way things are. That is simply the way to live into and lean against Life as it comes towards us. I don't always get what I want. I often get what I don't want. But, always, always, forever and a day, I get what I get. Like that. Period. Full stop.
For over a quarter of century, Bern has been a member of Group. Group meets every Thursday, no matter what. It is never more than six women who gather to talk. They celebrate birthdays together and sometimes do Feminist rituals. The group began long before Bern joined it. Originally, it was a group of women who figured out how to work on their cars and give each other vaginal exams. They moved beyond that to become a support group extraordinaire. Every Thursday for 30 years or more. Imagine that. Some of the group have moved away—Diane to Nevis, of all places. And one of them died, sending them into a year or so of dealing with death, especially since she had been kicked out before she died....
Three of the current five members have been in for 25 years or more. Two are founding members. Bern is the other. They have been there for each other for all these years, through family crises, personal meltdowns, inconsequential upsets, the ordinariness of life. Just like that. There for each other through thick and thin, good times and bad times, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, like that. Like a group marriage. It has been remarkable to me--”Group”, which is all we call it—something I envy and wish for in my own life, something I seek and search for, something precious and invaluable.
And Bern was, for a while, considering leaving Group. It wasn't satisfying her the way it has for over two decades. It wasn't what she needs or wanted or longed for in terms of support and listening and simply 'being there' with her. And I was horrified. It was difficult for me to imagine life—my life and Bern's—without Group. Thursday nights would never be the same. (Let me be selfish—I enjoy a night alone. Often, since they go out to eat from time to time, I get to eat things I love that Bern won't take part in: lamb chops, for one, and Angel Hair with peas and salty, Italian ham in a cream sauce. But, deep down, the worry I had was that Bern's leaving group will cut her off from her last social group.)
We've always been different that way. I have many friends and a gazillion acquaintances. I am an extravert with lots of contacts. The truth is, I have only a handful of truly deep friends, some of whom I only see a couple of times a year. But I have so many folks to interact with, to be with. Bern is an extreme introvert who, since she no longer goes to a church, has only our immediate family and Group in her life. I'm sure she would be alright if she only had me and our family and our three (count 'em) friends, because our dog hates everyone but John and Sherry and Jack and our kids and consorts and our grandchildren. But it scares me.
It might send us into a new marriage—and we've already leaned into and embraces five or six marriages. I like this iteration of 'who we be' as a couple and don't want to recreate our relationship again. Though I would, God knows, just to be with her.
There is a question I ask folks coming to me to be married that is the most important question I could possibly ask such folks. “Tell me,” I say, “why you want to be married. There is only one wrong answer.”
The wrong answer that many of them give is this: “we're in love”.
If they say they are in love and want to get married, I tell them we have some work to do. I tell them, as painful and awful as it may be, 'that Love will come and go. It simply will. And a marriage has to be built on something larger, more expansive, more enduring than love.' It's a terrible thing to tell people in love, but it needs to be said. “Love” is an emotion. It comes and goes and is not in our control. Not at all.
Many times, in marriage homilies, I tell them about me and Bern. I tell them that there are times when I can't wait to be home just to look at her, just to bask in her presence, just to love her. And then I tell them about waking up before she does and seeing the pillow creases on her face and the drool coming out of her mouth and hearing her cat-like snores. And then I ask myself, “where am I and who is this? What am I doing here?”
Marriage isn't about 'love', not really. Love is an emotion. You can't stay angry for ever. And you can't sustain love all the time. What is needed is something firmer, more solid, something like commitment, something like 'saying so', something like your word, something that endures and transcends the 'feeling', the 'emotion' we call love. Emotions are ephemeral and passing. They come and go and we neither make them come or make them go. In a real sense, we don't have emotions. Emotions have us. Unbidden, uncontrollable, beyond our beck and call, 'love', and all emotions are distinct, have an integrity that is separate from our volition, have a life of there own.
“Don't be angry,” is a nonsensical thing to say. “Don't be sad” or “don't be anxious” are equally insane things to say. You would never do it—never say to a person full of joy—but even saying “don't be happy” would be astonishingly crazy to say to someone who was full of happiness. If we could decide and control emotions, being a human being would be something remarkably different than what it is.
What we can control and be responsible for is something like commitment. We can choose each day, each moment, each nano-second, to 'be committed' and be present and responsible for being our word, our promise, our vow to stand by this particular relationship, this marriage, no matter what, whatever the circumstances are. We can choose a reality that truly endures 'for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health'.
Why ever we chose to do that, Bern and I have been married for almost 44 years. Jesus Christ, four decades and four years with the same woman when there are so many other women around! And men for her. But it's not always been the same marriage. There have been a few, it just happens that they've always included Bern and me.
She was 20 and I was 23 the first time--children. That lasted as long as we could ignor the reality that we didn't really know each other. We were stubborn and committed, so it was when we moved from Cambridge to Morgantown and lived in a trailer and I didn't have a job that we were married in a mutual sharing of disappointment and doubt. Then, with her in college and me actually making money as a social worker, we forged a new marriage, living in a house, not a mobile home, wondering what came next. Then she went to New York to act and I stayed in Morgantown, waiting to go back to seminary. I'm not sure we were “married” in any real way then, but when she came back to me and our Puli dog in Alexandria, we forged a new commitment, riskier and less clear than even the risky and unclear ones before. She left me for a while then and came back and Bern got pregnant and that began the longest marriage of our many marriages. Josh and then Mimi came into our lives and though we moved from Charleston, WV to New Haven, CT to Cheshire, CT, we had the 'marriage of children' for a long time.
Even that's not true. I had an affair when the kids were rather young—10 and 7—and Bern and I separated for 6 months or so and I was disgraced and shunned by the church and our friends. But somehow, out of commitment to our children and out of a deep and abiding commitment to each other, we not only survived, we thrived, in yet another marriage—the post betrayal marriage.
Some people were horrified that we had 'reconciled' and some were deleriously happy. The truth was, and we told everyone who would listen, we weren't 'reconciled', we had 'transformed' our marriage. While we were apart, Bern had (outside all her natural inclinations) had gone to an EST weekend and then convinced me to go to one as well. She thought it would give us a shared 'language' to end our marriage in a respectful and responsible way. Instead, it gave us a vocabulary and language to not only save our marriage, but transform it and re-create it in a wondrous way.
That lasted until both the children left home. Then we looked at each other and wondered, 'what next?'
Since then—for over a decade or more, we've been in the latest marriage—and hopefully the last. We are aging white people with a reasonable income and a wondrous house and a dog and cat and bird and who knows how many years to live together. And, so far as I can tell, we both accept and adore all that.
At night, in our bed, both of us reading books, I'll turn to her and say, “good-night, Woman”. And she'll kiss my hand and I'll kiss hers and she'll say, “good night, Man.” We are “Man” and “Woman” because we are not mother and father or husband and wife anymore. We are Man and Woman to our dog and our cat. And we are, I believe, Man and Woman to each other. We have reached the point, over all these years, over all the pain and all the joy, over all the boredom and all the excitement, over all the dullness and all the wonder of being together this long—43 years is over 500 months, over 2000 weeks, more days and hours and minutes you can imagine. And still we're here—Bern and me.
The Pastor's wife and the Priest.
Just roles we've played, like many other roles. Newlyweds, parents, grandparents, seniors, people growing older. Together.
In the end, though I'm still a priest, Bern isn't the Pastor's wife. And our kids aren't PK's. And in this, hopefully last marriage, alone with our dog and cat and bird, we are the Man and the Woman.
To each other, most of all.
That is probably what we were meant to be all along.
It feels right.
I am 'the Man”. Bern (love of all my life) is 'the Woman”.
And so it goes.
The last marriage we will have. And, believe me, though all the other marriages to the Pastor's wife have had their ups and down and their wonders and their pains, this one—the last one—the one where we are not stock caricatures it is the best, I'm not kidding, simply and truly and without a doubt, the best marriage we've ever had.....
The MAN and the WOMAN, and those animals we love. That simple, that basic, that vital, that near the bone.
That's where we are and where we will be. 'Til death do us part.
I'm not only OK with that, I couldn't imagine anything better. Nothing.
No thing at all.
Being with her, being with Bern....That's more than all I could hope for. Really.