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heart sneakers trail

I’ve been reading a lot of great books about marriage lately, and decided to highlight a couple of them for a recent column in Shelf Awareness, which appears below.

They may go together like a horse and carriage, as the song has it. But love, when it’s meant to last a lifetime, can be messy, painful, even deadly dull. Two new books offer a complicated take on marriage that’s much more genuine – and more interesting – than the traditional fairy-tale narrative.

Essayist Ada Calhoun admits the truth: marriage is foundational and nourishing, but it’s also frustrating and just plain hard. Calhoun’s collection Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give delves into the facets of marriage that starry-eyed couples don’t always want to acknowledge. These include paying (literally) for a spouse’s mistakes, daydreaming about other partners (and other lives) and slogging through what she bluntly calls “the boring parts” of wedded bliss.

“Dating is poetry,” Calhoun writes. “Marriage is a novel. There are times, maybe years, that are all exposition.” Her mock “toasts” brim with wit, wisdom and gut-level honesty about the trials of staying married and the quiet rewards of remaining faithful, however imperfectly.

Renowned couples therapist Esther Perel explores a more dramatic but no less sticky aspect of long-term commitment–infidelity and its fallout–in The State of Affairs. Drawing on her years of work with couples (of various ethnicities and sexual orientations) who have dealt with infidelity, Perel explores the reasons people seek extramarital relationships and analyzes their effects.

Despite the pain they cause, she insists that affairs provide “a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.” Her clients’ stories have many different endings, but most, encouragingly, are still in progress: an affair can expose the fault lines in a marriage, but doesn’t have to mean total destruction.

Both Calhoun and Perel present clear-eyed yet ultimately hopeful perspectives on marriage as a tough, flexible and ultimately life-giving endeavor.

Have you read either of these authors? What are your favorite books about marriage?

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katie bethany coffee shop

Here is one thing I love about deep friendships: you develop a kind of shorthand after a while.

Some of this shorthand is topical: my friend Abi and I love so many of the same books and TV shows, and we can discuss/quote them for hours. Some of it’s geographical: my friend Kristin, a fellow West Texas transplant to Boston, knows exactly what I mean when I talk about missing home and loving the life I have here. (Even better: she knows the particulars of certain Texas cities, and how tough it is to find great Tex-Mex food in Boston.)

I’ve been thinking about another kind of shorthand, though: the kind that comes from knowing each other’s casts of characters.

Pretty much everyone I meet knows I’m married: if my wedding ring doesn’t give it away, a comment about my husband is bound to come up before long.

katie jer beach san diego

I also talk frequently about my parents, sister and two adorable nephews – and I’ll show pictures of those sweet boys to anyone who’s willing to look at them. (Here are Harrison and my sister. Adorable, no?)

betsy harrison

But my good friends (and family) also know about the other important people in my life – even if they don’t know one another personally. I tell stories about Sunday nights spent at Ryan and Amy’s, long talks with Abi (and snuggles with her baby girl), college and post-college adventures with my roommate Bethany. (That’s her at the top of this post.)

I talk about my writer pal Hannah (who runs our occasional book club), my snail-mail pen pal Jaclyn, my work buddies Adam and Anissa, my long-distance lifesaver Laura. And in turn, I get to hear about the supporting casts of my friends’ lives: their parents, spouses, siblings, best friends, the people who help anchor them.

It’s a gift to reach the place in a friendship where you don’t have to explain all of that, where the person who’s listening to you has heard, and remembered, the stories about the people who matter. I love hearing stories about my friends’ loved ones – and it’s even more fun if I get to meet them in person. I feel like I know my friends better after getting to know the people they love, because our people are so much a part of who we are.

Do you have this kind of shorthand with your friends? Who’s in your supporting cast of characters?

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katie jer maine view

Earlier this summer, I started reading Laura Dave’s Eight Hundred Grapes, a novel about a woman who runs away from her wedding after learning that her fiance has a daughter he didn’t tell her about. (That’s not a spoiler; I just told you what Georgia – the narrator – finds out in the first chapter.)

Full disclosure: I didn’t finish the book (though my friend Hallie loved it and recommended it on Great New Books, where we’re both part of the review team).

But there’s one line I’m still thinking about, weeks later:

 

Wasn’t the ultimate form of fidelity whom you told your stories to?

In the book, this line refers to Georgia’s faltering relationship with her fiance: she’s (rightly) furious that Ben hasn’t told her about his daughter, or that he’s still in touch with his ex (the little girl’s mother). But I’ve been thinking about it in a broader sense.

As Joan Didion has noted, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That’s especially true for those of us who view the world through words: readers, writers and bloggers who make and share meaning through stories.

Some of us are born storytellers, like my dad, whose sense of comedic timing and infectious laugh make it fun to listen to his stories over and over again. (I can retell many of them word for word – even if I wasn’t there when they happened.)

But all of us tell our stories to the people we love, whether it’s a funny incident at work or a life-changing moment in the middle of an ordinary Tuesday. And when we don’t – when we start to hide things or simply stop making the effort – it stands to reason that those relationships would start to fray.

Last year, my friend Laura wrote a terrifying and powerful blog post: And then I stopped talking to my husband. She didn’t literally stop talking to her husband, but she gradually quit sharing a lot of daily incidents and insights (which, in her case, happened mostly online) with him. They talked about their kids and their household routine, but they stopped discussing the important stuff – until one day, when he was driving her to the airport and didn’t know where she was heading. This caused a few understandable tears on Laura’s part, but they talked it out, and started making the effort again.

That post terrified me because I saw how easy it could be. How simple and effortless to stop telling your stories – until you don’t really know each other any more. I sent the link to my husband, and I’ve been thinking about it again since Eight Hundred Grapes brought it to mind.

It’s so important to keep telling my stories, not just to my husband, but to my family and friends (many of whom live far away). I want to be faithful in telling my stories and hearing theirs, even when it takes work. (And sometimes it takes a lot of work.)

Lindsey noted last fall that friendship is made of attention, and I believe this is a part of that. We share our lives through stories, and they are foundational to our relationships. To paraphrase Didion, we tell ourselves – and each other – stories in order to live.

What do you think? Who are the people you tell your stories to?

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I am married to a marriage and family therapist.

And up until about a month ago, we rarely talked about money.

I know. My sweet husband spends his days helping couples, teenagers and families talk through their biggest issues, and we usually don’t have a problem talking about ours. But since our financial situation has fluctuated rather wildly during our three years of marriage (due to graduate school, a cross-country move and shifting employment situations for both of us), and since we’re both frugal, make-it-work people, we’d adopted a make-it-work policy of budgeting, paying bills and treating ourselves once in a while. This policy was working pretty well – but we didn’t have an overall plan. We’d never actually sat down to have any sort of financial “meeting.”

Enter Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class, which we’re taking this fall (along with about a dozen others at our church). I admit, Dave Ramsey’s style kinda drives me nuts (either the man drinks too much coffee or he’s just naturally caffeinated) – but his principles so far seem mostly practical and sound to me. And the course is forcing us to do what we’d never done: take a good hard look at our finances, and talk at length about our attitudes toward money, our spending/saving/giving habits, and our plans for the future. (And give us a big push toward knocking out some of our substantial student loan debt.)

I’ve picked up some useful tidbits from Dave’s video lessons, and from our post-lesson discussions with the group. (It doesn’t hurt that our course leader is a financial planner and CPA.) But by far the most formative, challenging part of the course has happened when I’ve sat down at the kitchen table with J, pencil and bank statements at hand, to discuss where our money’s going, and how we can save more, give more and manage it better. (Side note: I love Mint.com’s handy budgeting tools and pie charts, where you can see all your accounts in one place.)

We are not rich, nor are we accountants (and talking about money for too long stresses J out, so we’ve learned to take breaks and focus on the most important things during each session, rather than hashing out every single detail). But it feels good to be formulating a purposeful plan for our money, rather than flying by a slapdash strategy. It’s helping me think more deliberately about purchases large and small – and coming to terms with my own attitude, and fears, about money. Most importantly, it’s drawing me closer to the man with whom I share my life and bank accounts – and that, to quote our friends at MasterCard, is priceless.

Have you taken a financial management course? If so, what have you learned? (I’m always eager for more tips.)

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For our third anniversary last Tuesday, J and I decided to eat at home instead of going out. Since I work downtown and he works way south of the city, going out on weeknights can be a scheduling challenge – plus we’d just spent a weekend on the Cape with lots of eating out. So we planned a special meal of manicotti with tomato sauce and homemade blackberry cobbler (a summertime favorite).

We did have our special dinner (and it was delicious), and we did exchange cards and gifts and spend some time laughing and talking and just being together. But we also had a long, rich, deep Skype conversation with a friend who is spending a life-changing summer interning in New York, and later I talked to my parents and told them all about our Cape weekend.

This connectedness has been a hallmark of our marriage – time alone together interspersed with deep friendships, for both of us individually and as a couple. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Our evening reminded me of a favorite passage from Madeleine L’Engle, in A Circle of Quiet, the first of her four memoir volumes:

It’s all right in the very beginning for you to be the only two people in the world, but after that your ability to love should become greater and greater. If you find that you love lots more people than you ever did before, then I think that you can trust this love. If you find that you need to be exclusive, that you don’t like being around other people, then I think that something may be wrong.

This doesn’t mean that two people who love each other don’t need time alone. Two people in the first glory of new love must have great waves of time in which to discover each other. But there is a kind of exclusiveness in some loves, a kind of inturning, which augurs trouble to come.

Hugh was the wiser of the two of us when we were first married. I would have been perfectly content to go off to a desert isle with him. But he saw to it that our circle was kept wide until it became natural for me, too. There is nothing that makes me happier than sitting around the dinner table and talking until the candles have burned down.

I cherish this idea of keeping the circle wide – because it means we’re keeping our lives big, letting plenty of space and light into our relationship, allowing ourselves room to stretch and grow. There’s a balance to be struck, certainly, and we both cherish our solitude and just-the-two-of-us time. But I love the image of a wide circle, glowing with candlelight, making room for all the people we love and who love us.

How do you keep the circle wide in your life?

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Now my heart’s desire is to know You more
To be found in You and known as Yours
To possess by faith what I could not earn
All-surpassing gift of righteousness…

Does anyone else ever get stuck on that last line? I have a hard time conceiving of righteousness as an “all-surpassing gift.” I know that Jesus made it possible for us to become righteous when He died on the cross, and I’m grateful, because we would otherwise never have been able to live with God. I know that righteousness is a great gift. But it seems to me to be just one of the many gifts God has given us. And frankly, it doesn’t seem like the best one.

I’ve spent a lot of time this semester reading about people and situations that are severely lacking in righteousness – I’ve read about incest, abuse, rape, war, disease, unkindness, torture and all kinds of other horrors. In most of these stories, the authorities have abandoned righteousness altogether, and sometimes the characters act against their own moral standards in life-altering ways. I’ve read some terribly tragic narratives this semester. So many of these books have broken my heart with their bleakness – and yet, in many (though not all) of them, seeds of hope, love and community somehow take root and grow, hanging on fiercely, against literally all odds. I am becoming a person who values brokenness, both in literature and life, for the humble growth it can bring. I tend to shy away from people who seem too “righteous,” for fear that they aren’t authentic. People who’ve never been broken can’t understand the struggles I face. They can’t understand the brokenness that pervades this world. For this reason I wonder if some magic helping of “righteousness” won’t hurt the mission of Christianity more than it helps.

My life for the past two years has been about fighting to hang on despite a lack of righteousness, in events and attitudes and relationships. It seems to me that God’s mercy toward us is an infinitely greater gift than His righteousness, and that His love tops even that. I know that His love grants us mercy and righteousness, among so many other things; it makes possible a righteousness that we truly cannot earn. But I value His love far more than the things it grants to me – just as I value relationships with the important people in my life far more than the material things they give me. Does that make me a person who places too small a value on righteousness? Or does it mean that I’ve been living too long in a very broken world? In a context (or contexts) where righteousness is so often absent (even in the church-saturated culture I live in), does it naturally follow that righteousness comes to be devalued because of its absence? Do we come to see other things as more important because they are what make up for the lack of righteousness? Or is it just that I struggle with the concept of “righteousness” as holier-than-thou piety? Perhaps true righteousness is something so much more than legalistic purity, and I’m just tripping over my own limited perception of what it can be. Or perhaps humility is the key – purity of heart must be tempered by a healthy dose of humility, or it does no good to anyone.

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My friend Dani wondered in her blog post yesterday, “Why does everyone everywhere think that being with somebody is the way to be fulfilled? Even I think so sometimes. Is it because it’s true, or because we have been trained to think that it’s true?”

We at ACU are especially trained to think that you must be part of a couple to be happy. Everywhere we look, we see subtle and overt encouragements to get a date, find a significant other or find a spouse before we leave college. (From Sadies Week to club events requiring a date, to numerous “ring by spring” references in Freshman Follies – they’re ubiquitous. For heaven’s sake, the cover story of the current issue of ACU Today is called “Where We Fell in Love!”) And yet – we are a Christian institution that preaches ultimate fulfillment in Christ! Where’s the consistency here?

I’m all for Christian marriage, believe me. I hope to have a Christian marriage some day, and I’m thrilled for my friends (like the Carters, the Bishops and the soon-to-be pairs of Wilsons and Shavers and Lollars) who have found their lifelong loves at ACU. Lots of my professors and adult friends met and got married here. But when and why did the message of marriage become so pervasive that those of us who aren’t on that road (at least not yet) feel suffocated by it?

I’m the alumni news person for the next issue of ACU Today, our alumni magazine, which goes to the printer in early December. I get to type up news items regarding moves, marriages, births, job changes, deaths and other life-altering events. Believe me, I smile at the marriage and birth announcements – because I know these are good things, and I believe absolutely in strong and happy Christian families. But there’s a tiny part of me that cheers whenever we get a news item from someone who is still single, living out his or her dreams in the newspaper or the education or the business world. No, fulfillment is NOT found in another person. And they are living proof.

Even those of us who are in strong relationships soon discover that no other person can fill us up. The caverns and valleys in my heart and soul are too deep to be filled by any other mere human. That is, and always has been, the job of the One who calls us to Himself. He, and He alone, is big enough.

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