Marriage Material

One of the last things I remember my grandmother saying to me before she died was, “are you ever going to get married?” It was the kind of question that outside a context of deep, abiding love might have felt cruel. Instead, I looked into my grandmother’s eyes sensing that she was likely not long for this world and summoned up some hope: “I would like to … I’m planning on it.” I had no more definitive answer to offer.

The eyes staring back into mine were not filled with disappointment or judgment; they were filled with fear and sadness. I imagined my grandmother thinking back on her own marriage at age 19 and that when she was my age she had already had three boys. I imagined her realizing that she would not live to see any of her many grown grandchildren marry. I felt how old I seemed to her; that I was her best hope of fulfilling that promise. I felt how much she wanted to know I would be okay and to imagine my life completed with marriage and family after she was gone.

I joked, as I often do when I get emotional: “Kind regards from my gray hairs, grandma.” And we laughed easily as I sat in her hospital bed.

We did not know then that in three short months both my long-term relationship and her life would end within days of each other. I miss her and the answer I gave to that incisive, yet everyday question now claws at me.

Would I like to … Am I planning on it … Am I ever going to get married?

~*~

To me, marriage and, really, the wedding ceremony has always been more a romantic plot climax than financial merger or community recognition ritual. I can’t help thinking like a writer and so I find myself bringing these characters (i.e. partners) together – after a period of extremely compelling dramatic conflict – under some beautiful floral display and demanding, “now kiss!” To me, it is fate. It is magic. It is written in the stars. And at this embarrassingly adult age I’ve come to learn that my understanding is a complete and utter fantasy.

A confluence of factors has led me to spend the last three months reconsidering my relationship to the truly strange (and, yet, lovely) social contracts, religious ceremonies, and civic transactions we organize under the sign “marriage.”

Death has a way of making us consider life profoundly. As does the death of a relationship. So, too, does the intense period of family gathering around funerals and holidays. I have spent the last three months drifting between Washington, D.C. and Salt Lake City and Houston and Baltimore and Houston again and back to attend to all of these vital formalities.

Funnily enough, two of these formalities were weddings across the country from each other, but scheduled for the same weekend. I attended both. In my delirium – unsure of my time zone, experiencing emotional motion sickness – I delighted in the festivities and celebrating my loved ones all while allowing my scholarly brain to take stock. I asked a lot of questions. I noted the most important rituals. I observed the transformation of these couples into a social unit, concrete and clear. I loved the sense of romantic abandon in surrendering together to lifetime partnership.

From these observations, I began composing a New Year’s resolution for myself in the form of an essay. A resolution to address the emotional gaps that made and continue to make me unable to satisfactorily answer my grandmother’s question.

Because as I attended these weddings drunk on champagne and happiness, I began to realize something I had never confronted. In my rush to achieve marriage as just another thing I would obviously do, I had never stopped to wonder why I might do it. And, worse, never stopped to really consider whether it is something I actually want.

~*~

I’ve gotten in the habit of reminding my mom that by the time she was my age she was married and very pregnant with me. It is a milestone I had always anticipated without knowing it. Some to-do list deep in my subconscious had decided that I would be roughly the age my mom was when I, too, got married and had a child. Now that I have officially failed to meet that goal my subconscious is scrambling for a contingency plan.

I never really had a plan and, yet, this is not how things were supposed to happen.

At the dawn of this new decade, it strikes me that I spent the vast majority of the 2010s in serious relationships or otherwise passionate entanglements. I began that decade believing I would likely marry my high school sweetheart and life would proceed as it was meant to (whatever that means). I ended it utterly unsure of what the future holds.

Lately, it has bothered me how much this mentality of socially constructed timelines dictates how I feel about relationships and myself. It makes every aspect of life a race against the clock. It makes marriage into yet another benchmark I must reach to keep up with the pack, to prove myself to myself. To prove to myself that I am ok and worthy and socially successful. In the process this beautiful philosophy of lifetime partnership has been evacuated of its most essential quality – it is not about me alone; it is something I would do with someone else.

It is difficult to complain about aging when I’m still holding on to the last gasps of my 20s, but nonetheless the turning calendar has brought me to incessantly crunch numbers in my mind. When will I do thisWill I be too old whenWhy is this taking so long … I am an intellectual who can metacognate on these topics, but I am also a femme heterosexual woman who suddenly feels the immense pressure that comes with an abrupt snap from ingenue to tragic spinster. A societal narrative that whispers in your ear and sounds an awful lot like your own voice: no one will want you nowno one will want you now …  

I know this is ridiculous. I know countless people older than me who live fabulous lives (within and without long-term partnerships) that are beyond what I could hope for myself in every regard. And I am keenly aware that my lack of personal experience with marriage and relatively lacking experience with life make my laments here seem at best quaint. And, yet. I have this sneaking arrogant belief that I am somehow utterly and totally unique. I, the mean voice says, will turn 30 and cease to be relevant. I only have a few years left before I die in tragic obscurity. And despite what my logical brain might say, if I could only marry and procreate, my tragic obscurity can be averted. That’s it. That’s the answer to your existential angst. It’s simple really, very clear, like music drifting in the air, invisible, but everywhere

I have thought deeply about what this mean narrative voice does to serve our society and, thereby, why it has such a hold on me. I’ve been met with middling success.

I spent most of my recent travels slowly reading Jia Tolentino’s excellent collection of essays Trick Mirror, which she closes with a well-reasoned and researched treatise on why she is not interested in having a wedding with her long-term partner despite feeling much the same pressure I feel. In the essay, Tolentino argues persuasively against the wedding-industrial complex and its lacking relevance to the lifetime commitment she has already established. I agree with her – as I always unfailingly do – but her focus on the material oddity of American wedding culture ducks my greatest concerns about the pull towards marriage beyond the ceremony. In a sense, Tolentino’s long-term partnership, committed for life achieves what the mean narrative voice desires: she is publicly wanted; she has been chosen; she has been affirmed as a desirable social object.

It is this status as desirable social object that has pulled at my heartstrings lately. I am a feminist intellectual – what do I care about my value on the social market? And, yet … I very much do. I even hesitated to write this essay because I fretted that it would make me seem undesirable, desperate, a departure from the façade of cool I wish to project. But, indeed, I have realized that my dreams of marriage in the past amount to a kind of marketing campaign. Jonelle Walker is #MarriageMaterial! I have never seriously pursued marriage in any of my relationships or been engaged despite my persistent draw to the idea because, as it turns out, my interest in marriage has not been about relationships at all. It is about placating what the mean narrative voice needs me to believe: you are only important if you are desired; you are only valuable if you can be consumed as a product; your only relevant contribution is reproducing what has been and will continue to be.

Unique to my strange profession is additional anxiety. At the end of my relationship I felt an overwhelming sense of failure. It took reflection to understand that this sense of failure was a grotesque, but convincing misogynistic fantasy that those around me must surely believe, I thought … Well, that’s the trade a woman makes in careers of passion. You can’t want too much. You can’t have both. You will always be just a little less than desirable. For some time I even privately accepted this as truth to justify my painful circumstances. 

The most vexing part of all this is that I know how these narratives are constructed. I catalogue and dissect them for a living. I can identify the socio-political, historical, and cultural conditions that create precisely the melancholy I am experiencing, but that does not mean I can suddenly find an escape route out. I still want to be wanted. I want to be the cow purchased at the highest price because her cream is just that delicious.

I resolve to accept this feeling of “cow” I cannot change, to have the courage to forge my own path through these conditions, and the wisdom to know there’s no difference between these commitments.

~*~

Just before my grandmother’s funeral, my aunt, my mother, and I went together to Zion’s Bank in Salt Lake City – with scenic views of the Mormon temple – to settle her affairs and clean out her safety deposit box. It was a bit of a running joke that she had one at all. She had been living in Texas for the last 15 years. What could she possibly be keeping in there that was worth paying a fee to protect in a state she didn’t live in anymore?

We journeyed together into the bowels of the bank, into a giant vault with generations of safety deposit boxes. Like a mausoleum for precious things. We pulled out her box and inside were many of the items we expected. Paperwork, certificates of deposit, a small number of shares for a phone company that doesn’t exist anymore. But, of most interest to me was the jewelry. Hidden away in this box was jewelry that at one time was intended to be worn, but now served as evidence of a very real past.

Among the jewelry, notably, were three wedding rings. One, my grandmother’s engagement ring. A second, my great-grandmother’s engagement ring. The third, my great-grandmother’s wedding band. This helped me understand why, among other reasons, my grandmother kept these things in Utah. Under the watchful gaze of one of her faith’s holiest sites, she left not tokens of marriage exactly, but tokens of love, legacy, and, she believed, a family bonded for eternal life.

As there were three of us and three rings, we distributed them amongst us. My mother and aunt took the engagement rings for their own purposes, each having wedding rings on their left ring fingers. Left for me and my naked finger was the wedding band.

There is something powerful about slipping a wedding band onto your left ring finger. It has a power that affects you or a power you are indifferent to, but it nonetheless announces itself with a significant cultural weight for such a relatively insignificant object. I felt that power affect me as I slipped on the ring. I briefly fantasized about what it would mean for a man I loved to give this ring to me as an offer of nothing less than forever. I fell for it immediately. A simple gold band with a single diamond set in an eye-like, almond shape. The tiny diamond stared back at me, perfect in its cozy opulent solitude.

Before I even had a coherent thought about it, I found myself moving the ring to my meaningless right ring finger. There, a kinder voice in my mind echoed, now you are married to yourself. For all your eternal life.

~*~

Though I am thoroughly Single in a bureaucratic sense, it would be ludicrous to say that I am alone or unwanted or directionless. Lately I’ve just been struggling with this snagging refrain: Are you ever going to get married?

It is too easy for me to assume that I’ve already done the work to liberate myself from everyday norms that keep us in this spin cycle of social triumph and self-loathing. I can show and tell exactly how self-possessed I am, how much I invest in my Girl Gang, how much I prioritize my career. But, when I am alone, I look in the mirror and still see hunger. I have not  really done the hard work required to believe that the only person who can convince me that I am enough is … me.

But, am I ever going to get married?

After starting that work, I near the end of this resolution-in-essay-form with a maddening, but freeing answer: I don’t know.

I came around to accepting marriage as an unknown quantity in my life through the providence of a certain Eartha Kitt quote. You might know it. It was her response to being asked in a documentary, “How do you compromise in a relationship?” Her answer amounts to the old RuPaul adage, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” (Amen) But, I think Ms. Kitt, as she often did, has a nuance that’s missing from Ms. RuPaul’s philosophy.

What is compromising? Compromise for what? Compromising for what reason? A man comes into my life and I have to compromise? For what? For what? A relationship is a relationship that has to be earned! Not to compromise for. And I love relationships, I think they are fantastic, I think they are great, I think there is nothing more beautiful in the world than falling in love. But falling in love for the right reasons, falling in love for the right purpose, falling in love… falling in love… When you fall in love what is there to compromise about? If you want to think about it in terms of analyzing, yes, I fall in love with myself, and I want someone to share it with me. I want someone to share me with me.

One could be skeptical about this philosophy’s apparent self-centering. It is, after all, an approach to relationships that dictates a transaction of self-love from one person to another, rather than a love between people. But, I see something powerful in this transaction of self-love. Imagine if I could fall in love with myself, an uncompromising kind of love that turns constant analysis of why I am not #MarriageMaterial into celebration of how I am completely incapable of being anything but my fabulously flawed self. Imagine if I could use this honeymoon period of romance with myself to learn an uninhibited love that feeds and supports and endures. Imagine being able to share that uninhibited love with partners, friends, family, acquaintances on the street. Imagine.

I’ve taken to this idea already, at least with friends and family. Lately, I am so free with declaring my love that it often surprises me, especially when it makes its way to acquaintances and passersby. In these moments I feel myself moving more easily into the future. If I were to make a marriage, this is the material with which I would start to build it.

It is painful to admit, but I really am realizing this for the first time: a marriage is not something written in the stars, but something forged through fire. That fire is the brutal, beautiful becoming that is committed lifetime partnership despite the magical absurdity of such an idea. And it is that romantic dance into the unknowable void, to the tune of uninhibited love that I want – whether or not that takes the form of a marriage. With someone who is willing to share me with me. With someone who is willing to share themselves.

I resolve to fall in love with myself. And share that love whenever possible.

~*~

This weekend, my mother and I drove into Houston to continue cleaning out my grandmother’s house.

If you know me, you know that this was both a sad and thrilling occasion. I am sentimental to a fault and love making old things new. I took small things here and there that would otherwise go to the estate sale: an anthropology book on witchcraft and curing with a handwritten note inside, a quote from the Book of Mormon on death; a framed photograph of my great-grandparents wedding cake; a set of gothic Victorian salt and pepper shakers that I have now polished with great care.

All around us were photos and tokens of my grandmother’s family. Her children, her grandchildren, her siblings, her parents and grandparents. Her wedding portrait. A rare photograph of my grandparents together in their youth. I thought as I looked on how my grandmother came to be married so young. Her faith played a role, but she was also very much in love. My grandparents divorced two decades before I was born, but I have fond memories of their friendship. Long after their marriage ended I remember them holding hands with so much love.

I was surprised by the raw watercolor paintings and sketches we found in her house. There were meticulous landscapes and still lifes; abstract color studies. My mother said, “She never thought that she was very good, but that’s being an artist, I guess. I think that she was better than her teacher.” I had no idea she painted. It made me both happy and regretful in that moment to realize that there was so much about my grandmother I would never know. The boyfriends, the flirtations, the friends, the adventures abroad, and, most of all, how she felt when she made art. I want to know if it felt the same for her as it does for me.

And then I was reminded of how she would greet me at every holiday and dinner together. “Jon-elle,” she lovingly mispronounced, “How is your schooling? I think it’s just wonderful you are continuing your education. I always kept up with classes at the University of Utah, just for fun. Learning is fun.” She always smiled so perfectly then.

One thing I know for certain is that the last thing I said to my grandmother before she died was “I love you.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s