I’ve never been arrested. Aside from a few minor traffic infractions, I’ve never broken the law. I was a 4.0 student in school and graduated with honors. I never cheated on a test or plagiarized a paper. I loved school. I actually did the work, read the required chapters, studied for tests. When I arrive for work, I try to do everything to the best of my ability. I don’t use my PTO for ‘playing hooky’, though I suppose they’re my days to do with whatever I want. I attempt to contribute good ideas, thoughtful suggestions and produce high-quality outcomes.
This isn’t to say that I’m anywhere near perfection. I haven’t arrived at that and I never, ever will. Sometimes I miss the mark at work and my best effort is pretty far off from the expectations, and I need to humbly take the criticism. Sometimes I shout at my kids as we’re trying to leave in the morning because I’m late. Sometimes I speed when I’m in a hurry. I feed my kids frozen food too often because I’m a horrible cook and rather than learn how, I simply feed them what’s easy. I eat the same food and don’t feel inclined to exercise much, so I’m constantly trying to lose the same pounds with varying degrees of success. I usually screw up craft projects and my attempts at baking fall flat (literally). I don’t change my sheets or clean out the fridge as often as I should. I ought to pray more. So much more.
So this isn’t an expression of my perfection. It’s just that I’m a rule follower. I’m a keeper of the boundaries set for me. I crave routine, I enjoy the stability of it. Sure, I appreciate some adventure peppered here and there. I revel in some of the places I’ve been, like standing on the edge of the vast ocean or the mountain top, and feeling tiny in comparison. I fully understand the dichotomy of craving a night in, while also wanting a dinner out. I’m totally outgoing and have never felt intimated by a crowd, but I’m an introvert at heart. Toeing the line, wanting order, needing calm and rest. Perfectly imperfect.
The riskiest thing I’ve ever done, by far, was marry my husband. After dating the same guy all four years of high school and then heading into a long term, committed cohabitation the first few years of college with another man, you could easily peg me as someone who appreciates being in a relationship. I never dated around. First dates are the worst to me.
So, it was uncharacteristically spontaneous of me to agree to that date with James on that ordinary Tuesday at Commercial Federal Bank back in 2001. He was a customer at the same bank that employed me as a teller. He’d come in, loud and brash, making jokes with the workers, tossing packets of mints across the teller line and making friends with the other customers. I found it completely obnoxious, this posture of look-at-me! He had a beat up, old GMC truck with a missing muffler and broken back window. To enter or exit the truck, he had to slide across the passenger seat. You could hear that truck a mile away and when I did, I’d run to hide in the bathroom until he left. Anything to avoid him. He asked me out a few times and I rejected him. But then my college relationship ended, and after taking a few months off to just breath, he didn’t look so obnoxious anymore. He led people and ran a business. The seven years he had on me oozed wisdom and command….it was so appealing.
One day, that fateful Tuesday, through the drive thru window, he asked me to dinner and I finally accepted. He was surprised. We made plans and when the night arrived, he called to give me the chance to cancel. I laughed and told him I’d be there. When I arrived, he appeared so different than what I was used to seeing. Showered, shaved, in a tidy polo and shorts, he struck me as so handsome. Normally he sported dirty jeans and faded t-shirts when I saw him at the bank….his job required nothing more and it was comfortable for the work he did. But in that restaurant over drinks and Mexican food, I saw him differently. He was still loud and perpetually joking around. But he was also incredibly intelligent, generous, complimentary. He spoke of a loving God that had captured his heart from a young age, a God I had only begun to get to know. He went from being two dimensional to three, a whole person with many facets and a complex personality. He was a complicated creature, full of contrasts: positive/negative, hot/cold, sparkly/soiled. His wit was lightning fast and it drew me in. He kissed me at the end of our date and it felt electric, intoxicating. It felt…..right.
A few months later, we were talking about a future. We looked at engagement rings, and I bought a wedding dress. My parents must have wondered with curiosity and some anxiety about their normally careful daughter being so impulsive, but they loved me and so they tagged along with my hasty plans. A few months after becoming engaged, I became pregnant. It wasn’t planned, but we were excited anyway. And so were our parents and friends.
When our daughter was just three months old, we wed on a cold winter day in February. Baby red roses, a blanket of white snow and candlelight made for beautiful photographs. After all those years of careful living, of being a good girl doing the right things, I had married a decidedly adventurous man who lived life by the seat of his pants, on a whim.
It seems that you often find couples in these odd, opposing pairings. Saver and spender. Tidy and messy. Loud and shy. We are attracted to what we lack. I found the go-with-the-flow attitude of my new husband so unlike the life of coloring in the lines I had lived. I envisioned a life of adventure and travel. My 22 years had been so vanilla, and I anticipated a marriage in bold color with him. It seemed really exciting. Until it wasn’t anymore. We had a baby. And full time jobs and a house to pay for. There were job changes. A problem with gambling. Another baby. Years of depression and post-partum depression and anxiety and melancholy, things that debilitate and suck life from a marriage. The monotony of middle-class family life can certainly wear on the spirit. If you aren’t careful, the vibrancy will dissipate under the weight of daily existence.
But there was also laughter. Around the dinner table and in the car. There were slow dances in the kitchen with dirty dishes piled in the sink, and shared tears over the awe-induced love for our daughters. Nights spent cuddled on the couch, watching shows we could agree on, like How It’s Made or Cops. Sundays seated next to each other in our church’s sanctuary, where we prayed and worshiped side by side. Holidays filled with torn wrapping paper and festive decorations. The first and last days of school and summer and vacations. And weeping together in a lawyer’s office, staring at official documents from the Nebraska Family Court, signed by a judge who deemed us temporarily unallowed to care for our children. A shared history. Hours tucked inside of days filling one year after the other, all those small hours that make up a life. Aging brought maturity and a willingness to see the beauty of the monotony I once loathed. I discovered the dance we were perfecting through shuffles and sways and twirls to the tune of the symphony in our days together.
If you look at our marriage up close, too closely, you’ll see the dings and healed-over scars left by disagreements and unkind words and unmet expectations. When I was a girl, I never fathomed that I would be married to a man capable of spewing forth verbal vomit, or that I’d be capable of the same thing. That one moment could be so embroiled in contempt and the next characterized by wisdom, encouragement, support. Little girls, and little boys for that matter, see the world in black and white. They see kings and queens, heroes and villains. They see castles. But fairy tales are just tales, friends. And real life is filled with shades of gray. And marriages, even the best and healthiest, are sometimes tripped up by the gnawing of paychecks that are too small and bills that are too big and kids that are so needy and pasts that are so broken. Actually, not sometimes. More often than not. More majority than the exception.
So if you look closely, you’ll see it all. And I’m okay with you seeing it, because the only thing worse than a messy marriage is the facade trying to cover the messy marriage and masquerade as perfection. Those facades can never reach other messy marriages in need of hope, or receive the encouragement of couples forty years deep in the trenches of day-in and day-out marriage that is fought for. Vulnerability is freedom, people. If you look at our fifteen years in those same trenches, at the compilation of my relationship with that boy I met through a teller window, you’ll overwhelmingly see love. Love that smooths over grouchy mornings and irritable bedtimes. A love that saw through blemished upbringings and fast, tarnished living and layers of errors. Love that asks the Father for His eyes, believing in the inherent worth living inside the person lying beside you, the same one that just wounded you deeply. The love that produces not one, but two amazing-stunning-witty-talented-beloved daughters, children we cherish and treasure and protect with bear-sized paws. The type of love that wants to quit, but longs for victory more. The love that covers a multitude of sins, sins that worldly, conventional wisdom says should destroy a marriage, rendering it unsalvageable, but restores it instead.
“Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything.”
-1 Peter 4:8 (MSG)
Fifteen years in, I’m still more careful and he’s still more carefree. Despite our best efforts, we’re still trying and picking love instead of the other option. In many ways, my marriage is better than those early years. But there’s no perfection to be found here. In fact, there’s a good chance we’ll end the day having bruised or bumped the other unintentionally. And yet. Fairy tales may just be tales, but love affairs are the real deal. Love affairs have twists and turns and starts and stops. They keep on keepin’ on. There is a love affair to be found in my broken marriage, forged by a broken wife and a broken husband. Look closely. You’ll see it there, right alongside all that wear and tear. Maybe marrying my husband wasn’t the most reckless or risky thing I’ve ever done, after all. Led by the Spirit inside me, and the love I found and extended through the brokenness of life, maybe it was the most right. And the reward has been worth the risk.
Living life on the edge,