Unhappy marriages so resemble one another that we do not need to know too much about the course of this one. — Joan Didion, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”
One of my favorite photographs shows us kneeling at the altar at Christ Church, Xenia, Ohio. My face is turned to hers with a big smile. Sunlight shining down from a high window reflects off her carefully curled hair and the flowered crown that held her veil, like Maid Marian. In the background, you can see the hand and clerical robe of the Rev. Arthur Ransome, the white-bearded, bespectacled Church of England vicar from Cornwall who had retired to Xenia to live near his daughter and grandkids. Lily had decided on the first day we stepped foot inside this little stone church that Arthur would marry us.
In the months leading up to our wedding, I had been reading the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, who imagined human relationships as sacraments — earthly pictures of heavenly realities, especially the divine relationships among the three Persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “God came into the world so as to make human beings, created in the image of God, live with one another and with God in the kind of communion in which divine persons live with one another,” Volf wrote. I had expected to see the image of the Trinity stamped on our marriage.
Our friends Chad and Kim gave us a leatherbound journal as a wedding gift that day. “To Jesse + Lily on your sweet wedding day,” reads a hand-written inscription. “With love from Chad + Kim prior to their sweet wedding day.” (Many of our Christian college friends got married that spring or summer, at 22 or 23 years old.) The journal’s leather is carved with Celtic scrollwork, and three-pointed, Trinitarian knots adorn the pewter clasp for the rawhide closure. The Celtic knotwork of Lily’s wedding band held a triangular garnet. I’d given it to her at Christmas a few months earlier, along with a cross necklace with another garnet, our common birthstone, and molded with triquetra, ancient, three-sided Celtic knots that symbolized the Trinity.
I wrote text for our wedding invitation, a shape poem in the form of a cross, ending with a holy mission: “To enact God’s image on life’s stage, where dialogues portray what soliloquies never will: Holy Trinity, Self-giving Community, Divine love.” We sang “Be Thou My Vision,” and meant it. Our wedding hymn was the Trinitarian “Holy, Holy, Holy,” as though divinity would emerge from our spiritual union like the Holy Spirit emerges from the love between the Father and the Son in Catholic doctrine. “In the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them.” Our wedding programs were printed in an Old English font on mottled beige parchment paper with edges I burnt by hand with a candle. The program began with the words “Marriage is the Greatest Image of the Trinity” followed by a poem I wrote:
Share the Divine love,
Thank the source of our love
That’s what I’d seen for our lives: shape poetry in the flesh, the Truth Incarnate.
On the second page of our leather journal, just after Chad and Kim’s inscription, I wrote this, on Valentine’s Day 2002, about a month before our second wedding anniversary, with our firstborn daughter about ten months old and my parents’ marriage in shambles:
When my tears could have drowned us both,
She wholeheartedly held me, and here we float
Clinging to each other, lovers unclothed
I showed her that poem and asked her to write notes or poetry back and forth with me in the journal, but the next entry is mine, five years later, lyrics for a song written by lamplight on the night she told me our marriage was over:
I want to be the one to make you smile
To wipe away the tears that you cried
When I hurt you, for what? I still wonder why
I find some comfort in Didion’s words. Maybe the question isn’t why lovers stop loving but why they keep loving — or why we don’t all cheat on each other or kill each other like Didion’s characters did. There are as many reasons why marriages fail as there are words in a language, expressions on a face, tones in a voice, and nerves beneath the human skin.
I don’t know what Lily expected out of our marriage. For years, I would tell her I loved her — not nearly often enough, but once or twice a week, maybe. Her response was usually the same: “Where did that come from?” I know she despaired that she would never live in the English village of her dreams, write a novel, shoot a movie, or make friends with globe-trotting actors or artists. None of these fantasies seemed to have very much to do with the life she had, the life with me and our precious daughters, and maybe that was the point. Whatever she wanted, it wasn’t what she had, never had been. She told me she had tried to leave me at the altar and her father had talked her out of it. She told me she had never loved me.
For months I mourned. I screamed at God until my throat hurt when there was no one else to hear. I felt like I had lost my children, living as they were half the week outside my home. I thought I had done things right. I had remained chaste until marriage. I had wed a Christian woman. I had cooked suppers, cleaned bathrooms, offered my body as an armrest to make breastfeeding more comfortable, woken up in the dark of night to warm bottles and feed the babies. And the person who had promised to love me had abandoned me. In an age of throw-away marriages, maybe this sounds like melodrama. But I didn’t believe in divorce. I believed it was wrong. Jesus said that, didn’t he? But it didn’t matter what Jesus said. It was happening, and it was real. Everyone who was supposed to represent God on earth had let me down. Most painfully, I had let my girls and their mother down. And I had let myself down.
It wasn’t a good marriage. From our wedding night onward there was an unbridgeable chasm between us. But I’d accepted that. I knew a lot of people who had it worse. At least I wasn’t calling her ugly names behind her back or cheating on her like so many married men did. In marriage counseling, a therapist told me to stop chasing her and her to stop running. That pretty well summed up seven years of marriage. I didn’t lose my soulmate. I lost hope, the religious kind of hope, the hope that some day, somehow, life would be better, that we would be saved, live happily ever after in a promised land, participate in the life and love of God.
My aspiration had been nothing short of embodying the presence of God on earth, and I had failed beyond anything I had ever imagined. It wasn’t just another mediocre marriage, or even another bad marriage: I couldn’t even hold it together. The image of God was shattered. Light of the world? Please. I couldn’t even see for myself, much less show anyone else the way. What credibility did I have, as a moral example? Hide it under a bushel. Satan blew it out. It wasn’t my marriage that died. Hope died. My god died.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician living in Durham, N.C.. This column is adapted from his memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World, Cascade Books, 2013. He’s releasing a series of excerpts like this one, paired with songs that help to narrate his journey with God.