Empathy & Forgiveness: Quarantine Edition

One of the first stories in this week’s New Yorker magazine follows the experiences of married couples faced with quarantine. “Perhaps global pandemic and marital strife go together,” muses the author. This isn’t the first prediction I’ve seen this week that divorce rates are going to spike when quarantines are lifted. But I’m wondering along with this author: “Does every quarantine scenario have to resemble Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’?” He quotes a psychoanalyst who says what you’ll need in this case is empathy.

For what it’s worth, here’s a personal anecdote from the recent history of my rather complicated marriage. (I acknowledge there is no other kind.) Laying aside specifics, here’s the general landscape. You can supply your own specifics if the landscape looks familiar.

We had hit another point in our cycle where we didn’t know how to make each other happy. Attempting any conversation usually meant inviting frustration, and probably also a fight. In a stroke of what I’ll call luck for the moment, we each stumbled simultaneously into our own lines of new thought as we processed, in our own ways, our shared experience of this familiar mess. The result was an apocalyptic and unplanned kitchen counter conversation that lasted (give-or-take) six hours, not factoring in the pauses involved in parenting three kids late on a Saturday. The conversation spawned a dozen more conversations over the next few days, and this is what I’d like to report:

We both made a daring decision to step into empathy, creating a space for our partner to share their own experience. We set aside our usual mode of processing these things because it just wasn’t delivering the results we were looking for. I am a firm believer in statements like “But I did my best” and “I couldn’t have done that differently.” I think it’s essential to the healing of wounded relationships and wounded selves for us to understand and honor the basic needs that drive us and how they cause us to respond to life. But a few years of practicing these rubrics of self-awareness and boundary-setting (“I’m sorry you are upset, but this is as much as I’m willing and able to give.” “I realize you don’t agree with me, but this is what I believe I have to do.”) had helped us grow and brought us to a place of mutual respect…and distance. In so many ways I have my life and he has his. We have “our” life, too, because we’re lucky to share a lot in common: kids, community, general conception of the world, taste in TV shows, appreciation for life’s simple joys, even vocation/career path. But we were each feeling alone most of the time, and not in a good way.

So instead of the familiar “But I did my best” routine, we tried something risky: Forgiveness. Round after round, we listened to each other’s personal accounts of this marriage – all ten chaotic years of it. (Cross-country move, multiple churches, multiple jobs, years of graduate work, self-employment, home renovations, three children and a miscarriage, just to catalog the big things.) We met every story with empathy and compassion. It went something like this:

“I experienced that.”

“I see you. I hear you. I remember. That must’ve been hard. I would’ve hated being in your shoes.”

“You weren’t what I needed in that moment. That happened to me because of you.”

“Oh. I hadn’t looked at it that way yet….”

And then would come the hard part, and it felt positively formulaic:

“…but I’m looking at it that way now. And I’m sorry.”

And then, the even harder part – part of the formula but feeling remarkably less formulaic:

“I forgive you.”

Over and over and over, constantly swapping roles, we took off our armor, laid down our weapons, and talked to each other about the marriage we’ve had. The ground rules: Empathy and forgiveness.

We’re not finished, but we’re getting good at the formula, and we feel safer with each other than we have in years. Our ten-year anniversary celebration was scheduled for last weekend and we had to swap out our travel plans for a cheeseboard on the living room rug. It was absurdly simple but incredibly beautiful to share a bottle of wine with this person who’s stuck with me for ten years of almost-constant drama, and to know that we are actually together: known, understood, accepted, safe, chosen. Loved.

Life is a genuine sh*t-storm, often. If you’re married to someone who loves you, it’s probably safer than you expect to acknowledge that you’re not perfect; to acknowledge that your finitude, your boundaries, your mistakes, your choices, your preferences, do in fact cost the people you love dearly. It’s safe to be curious about their experiences and to be the empathetic listener they need, even if they’re talking about you. It’s safe to agree with someone who is saying “You hurt me” if you’ve already agreed that the protocol in place is: “I’m sorry / I forgive you.”

I have shuddered a few times in the last week to wonder what our experience of this quarantine would’ve been if we hadn’t stumbled into that conversation when we did. So I’m telling our story, placing it among the myriad of “You may as well try this at home” offerings the almighty Internet is presenting us with as we sit alone wondering how to make it through this quarantine.


Chuckling this morning as I reflect on last week and how our whole world erupted.

“Six days shall you labor and do all your work.”

We love the Sabbath, though it’s been a concept we’ve struggled with a lot since our profession and even our calling within the Body of Christ has us anywhere from busy to frenzied on Sundays. But still, we’ve found a rhythm that works at present, that’s true to the spirit both of Sabbath and of Feast Day, that gives us the space to look back on six days to pronounce it good and that heals us and restores us for the next six days.

So then I thought about six again, since it’s been six years since we launched this epic marriage thing. I’m not sure what else to call it right now, because “thing” is about as true a description as I can find right now, and because it has felt epic thus far, not even on the surface (moves, degrees, babies, houses, travels) but simmering underneath, too, slowly developing us toward an ever-elusive finished product. So I use the word “epic” in a more literary sense than usual.

Anyway, it feels these days like perhaps our six years so far have brought us to the brink of a Sabbath, like a bit of punctuation. We’ve intentionally claimed this year as a chance to heal, to explore and learn and practice self-care. We are completely exhausted, and I use that word in its rather scientific sense: there is not much left of us. Of me, of him, or of us. So it’s nice to imagine – hopeful, and maybe not just a dream but an intention we’re already beginning to attain – that this seventh year will be a Sabbath, to say “Very Good” and to rest for what lies ahead.

And most of all to celebrate victory: Resurrection and its unavoidable framework. (“Behold! New Creation!”)

Sunday was yesterday, and it was not what we’ve come to know as a Sunday. After years of chaos and making do we finally have this weird but perfect niche involving two different congregations and a lot of quiet family time. We are happy. It is working. But this week, oh.

Every circle that we exist in called on us this week.

The funny thing was, it wasn’t just Sunday that was bad. This whole week was hilariously full, but only hilarious because it was reminiscent of a lifestyle we have rejected and replaced. I thought this on Saturday night as we were arriving home from the grocery store at 9:30 p.m. on our anniversary: Today we did at least eight things, any of which would have been enough for a day’s events for me in this new healthy finitude we’re trying on for size. But this day with its at least eight things was our daily pace all of last year.

No wonder we both feel traumatized.

I thought about journaling the events that made this weekend hilarious yesterday. But I didn’t because I didn’t want to do a ninth thing yesterday. (Same reason we have still not sent our already-written Christmas 2015 letter.) But today I’m still inclined to journal, still finding it hilarious, still feeling like I could benefit from my catharsis-of-choice (writing). So here is the tale of that week that marked six years of marriage in a fitting frenzy of Everything.

Monday night (after Mike’s weekly 6:00 p.m. class period) friends came to watch a movie on our couch while our kids slept and we attended a dress rehearsal for an upcoming school event. The organ department puts on a choral program every year at this time and I’ve enjoyed jumping into the fray the last few years, not only singing but reading (and in the case of this year, selecting) selections of poetry to punctuate the music and propel the program. We go to bed by 9:00 most nights these days. We weren’t home till well after 10:00 Monday night.

Tuesday night Mike had a church committee meeting that had me flying solo on bedtime. Tuesday I spent most of the day at the library with the kids, coming home to fix a dinner which Meredith barely touched, complaining that she felt like she was going to throw up. Stubbornly resolute, I did not cancel my Wednesday morning coffee date with a precious new friend, and enjoyed leaving the house before sunrise when I woke up to discover that morning had come without puke. But of course when I glanced at my phone as my friend left for her work day I saw the text from Mike: “Merry just threw up.”

Of course she did.

But it wasn’t an ordeal. (Any parent who knows childhood puke knows this is always a lie to some degree.) She was eating and bouncing off the walls almost immediately, and it was clear that whatever had been wrong had sorted itself out, and was probably exacerbated by a very empty stomach. So she watched a movie and ate yogurt and had a bath and then we carried on with a normal day, thankful. I think “stomach flu” just felt it deserved a place in our line-up of events for the week. Ya know, since we were including everything.

Thursday I put away my chores when Mike got home from school and left him to put the kids in front of a movie while I got out for a run on a magnificently warm February 4. During my first mile I tripped on a curb as I was looking over my shoulder at an approaching car and I hurt my foot really badly.

Of course I did.

I stopped and waited to see how it felt, started walking again, and the endorphins (and Jon Foreman) took over from there and I literally forgot about the whole thing. Two miles later I was home, very late to put dinner in the oven. I raced around the kitchen, sweaty, chopping vegetables to roast, and had to speed it up even more when Mike told me that he’d need to leave twenty minutes early for choir practice. Again with the solo bedtimes… As I finally sat to eat I realized my foot was bothering me, and by the time I remembered what had happened it was hurting so bad I almost couldn’t walk on it. I hobbled through bedtime and got a shower just in time to leave for an 8:30 pub conversation hosted by my church, which I was really invested in listening to. Again, 8:30 is my bedtime. I went to bed at midnight after forty-five oblivious minutes of conversation with one of my dearest friends in the parking lot of her apartment and a return home to the discovery that Mike had tried to call me thirteen times to say that Joshua was flipping out. Usually a pretty awesome night sleeper, he thought this would be a good week for feeding three times a night.

Of course he did.

Friday as everything that had been looming began to actually transpire I found myself unable to think more than ten minutes ahead, just methodically triaging one thing after another all day, a day which happened to include last-minute Japanese food with an out-of-town visitor before a 2:00 p.m. massage. (I’m trying to eradicate migraines, and this seems to be working.) By the time I was home from that there was just enough time to abandon my strata menu plans in favor of quick quesadillas and sit at the dining room table putting on make-up for the concert while Jacob & Merry worked on their Valentines. The massage had left my hair a greasy mess, which I only noticed after I’d painted on a full face of make-up, so I had to get creative. We left the kids at 6:15 after a quick bedtime and Mike dropped me off (I still could barely put weight on my foot) for the concert and went to park. The concert was beautiful and a delightful success. I’m not saying the things our week was full of weren’t good things. (Well, except for the foot injury. But again, this week needed to represent all our major life themes.)

There was that funny moment late on Friday as we were snarfing quesadillas and donning concert black when Mike said “I’m guessing this is not the right time to let you know that I have practice time tomorrow morning in the concert hall from 8:00 to 8:45 for that radio broadcast next week…”

Of course you do.

Ironically, I’d managed to think ahead more than ten minutes that afternoon to realize that I could kick off our anniversary with breakfast in bed.

I did it anyway, launching The Craziest Anniversary Ever. At 6:30 Mike jumped in the shower and I pulled on my robe and slippers and mixed up pancakes and broiled grapefruit in our filthy kitchen. We had just enough time to enjoy it by candlelight on our bed before the kids arrived, groggy and curious, and reminded us just how many years it had been since a similar breakfast in a tiny carriage house in Stillwater, Minnesota. And then Mike was off to practice and I went into Beast Mode, cleaning the kitchen thoroughly and getting the household’s day begun before he returned. Because looming at the end of the Tunnel of Crazy was the nagging knowledge that we were hosting a party on Sunday night.

Of course we were.

We spent two beautiful, quiet, slow hours at an art museum while our friend watched the kids and then had a fantastic lunch and a piece of chocolate cake at a foodie cafe in our neighborhood. We spent lunch planning the menu for the party we were throwing.

We returned home around 1:30 and Mike went to prepare for Sunday and I did some more chores and lay down to nurse an inkling of a migraine until my friend arrived with her kids for our bi-weekly meeting. The ladies chatted upstairs and the kids raised hell downstairs, and I ran referee a lot and tried to contribute to the grown-up conversation a little. These Saturday afternoons are good, a lovely instance of mutual love and true community, and they are perhaps the most exhausting thing in my world right now. I always want to sleep for two days when they are finished.

When that was finished we made dinner for the kids and read them a few stories (as a good-faith pledge that we still loved them despite appearances) and then the next babysitter arrived and we left for a little more celebrating, talking long, really knowing each other for a change, and laughing over calzones and cheesecake and red wine, stopping at the mall just long enough to remember how much we hate it and how well James K. A. Smith has ruined it for us, and winding up our crazy day with a trip to buy the groceries we’d planned for at lunch. Who goes grocery shopping at 9:30 the night before the Super Bowl?! Answer: Everybody. (Except everybody who went earlier than that and bought up All The Things.) Oops.

The convergence of school, anniversary, stomach bug, and church #1 wasn’t all: It was also Transfiguration Sunday, which I only realized in dismay after having agreed to spend the morning at a large non-denominational church in town, helping to represent the non-profit I helped to launch in our community last year. Transfiguration Sunday is a big deal to me, personally, spiritually, especially during a year when I am craving Lent as I am. When I realized I would miss that liturgy I was really bummed. So of course when I saw a way to do both by taking the assignment at the west campus instead of the east campus (a shorter time-commitment) I jumped at it like any crazy person would. So I ran the usual lean-mean-Sunday-morning-machine and got us all out the door for church by 8:00. I even made myself a thermos of coffee. Needs no explanation. Of course, Merry picked this morning to have an epic attitude problem which colored the whole thing with stress and frustration and seething under the surface. Still, we made it through church, sneaking out early and breaking speed limits across town to arrive late to set up for my non-profit work. Our surrogate Grandpa arrived with his teenagers to take Merry & Jacob off my hands, and as I unloaded them from one car to another my full thermos of moderately-warm coffee quietly poured in its entirety into my open diaper bag.

Of course it did.

I’ll leave the tale of the church I visited untold, since it is not one I will forget and since it bears no public telling, in the name of charity and unity. I’ll leave it at this: Sometimes, I thought to myself, you have that annoying and embarrassing cousin; the one you wonder how you could possibly be related to. But that cousin is as much a part of the family as you are and you don’t have to be friends but you do have to be nice and you can’t pretend they don’t belong. And that is all I’ll say on this occasion regarding the staggering diversity of the Body of Christ.

I went home and had a quiet moment to walk around the block alone with Joshua and listen to the birds sing and feel the strangely warm spring. (Today it’s snowing as I write, but it’s early February so that’s as it should be.) I left the diaper bag full of coffee in the car (It’s still there.) and went inside to put Joshua down for his nap and prepare the evening party.

Because this wasn’t an ordinary Sunday: It being Transfiguration, it’d been chosen for a Worship Arts Series concert: an Evensong led by Mike. He’d frantically, thoroughly, systematically prepared every facet of it through the weeks leading up to it, and bribed singers into spending their afternoon donating their time and skill with promises of gin and tonics at the end. Hence the absurd throwing of a party the day after our anniversary.

Hannah came to be our lovely Joshua-sitter. (Steve still had Jacob & Merry) and she spent the afternoon with us, talking deep as we always do, and helping me make Spinach Dip and salsa, laughing with me as I squeezed a lime straight down the sink instead of into the mixing bowl, absent-minded and indicative of the state of my brain and psyche.

In the end, the Evensong went off beautifully and the house was tidy and the oven turned itself on at 4:30 to bake the dips while we were singing, and then we came home and laughed and talked and sipped gin & tonic with colleagues and friends for several hours at the end of Everything. And thanks to the simple finger food and disposable plates the house was still clean when we went to bed even though we did forget to set out the trash and recycling for pick-up.

I think I’m going to give up Everything for Lent.

Worship, Together

What I felt one summer night in 2008 was panic and despair. I’d spent two tumultuous years discovering who I was as a worshiper – who I was as a Christian, I might say. It was at least another two years before I realized that’s what I’d been doing all that time, but a few things were starting to feel stable – truthful – to this quintessentially Reformed young lady awash and alone in the land of ecumenically-minded Lutherans. I think all I mean by that is that there were finally moments of worship now and then when I knew I was both fully engaged and maintaining my own personal integrity.

I had just that week stumbled unexpectant into a mountaintop experience, serving alongside a dozen colleagues at a conference hosting Christian worship leaders of every stripe. The happiest moments of my life have been in Boe Memorial Chapel. Of that I am certain. And of all those moments, perhaps only my own wedding rivaled the joy of that week of behind-the-scenes facilitation of five hundred people who it seemed (God have mercy on us all!) were worshiping five hundred different ways.

There was a boy, and he was on the mountaintop, too. What I realized in the moment before the panic and despair was that if there were five hundred of us worshiping that week, it was actually only happening in 499 different ways. Because for all this boy’s faults, he knew me, and I knew him, and together we knew what we were meaning as we gathered with everyone in that sweltering church twice a day.

Then there was panic and despair, washing over me the instant I realized about the worship. We were not meant to be together, and if you had asked me I could’ve given you ten reasons in a moment. I can’t put words to the loneliness I felt over the next three months as I operated under that assumption. And I can’t put words to just why I never moved past the panic to wish or hope or even just daydream. It didn’t occur to me to do so, and it’s not that it was easy to live in the despair. It was the kind of work that you have to set yourself to every couple minutes around the clock.

But what I kept coming back to, besides the panic and the despair, was this plain fact: “He is the only person in the entire world who understands me as a worshiper and I have no idea how I will go on living without him when our roads diverge.” I even said as much to a few friends now and then. There was no doubt about it: the happiest moments of my life had been in Boe, and with very few exceptions they had been standing side by side with him. How I would go on from that cloistered campus two years hence to worship without him by my side I just couldn’t fathom. But I would. I knew I would. I knew I would muddle through on my own.


Two weeks ago, breakfast ended, I sat at my dining room table leaning on the arm of that same boy. (But he’s no boy anymore.) Across from us were our two tiny children. A candle was lit and we were singing the Te Deum, halfway through our weekly practice of Saturday Morning Prayer, a ritual we began at the new year, hearkening back to Friday Morning Prayer together in Boe.


In an instant I realized three things: that we were worshiping side by side again, that I was the Boe Chapel kind of happy again, and that this was the road stretching decades ahead of us. I’d been wrong, beautifully wrong. I had not been set the task of learning to muddle through without him. But I’d been right, too. The panic and despair were right – the gut instinct that to be a worshiper without him was an absurdity, an impossibility.


It took me four years to realize this probably because life has crowded into the space between us. We’re rarely the laymen anymore these days, we’re the leaders. Consequently, we’re rarely in arm’s reach of each other at a moment of worship. Even when we are in arm’s reach of each other, our arms are full with our children. But it wasn’t this absence of shared worship that inspired our new tradition of morning and evening prayer on Saturdays, because it wasn’t an absence I was even aware of. It was just an ongoing exploration of what it looks like for us and for our children to flourish as worshipers.


And then there we were, engaged in our noblest work side by side again, and there was the happiness just where I should have expected it. In the days since that Saturday moment, as our wedding anniversary has approached, I’ve been thinking about this lovely prospect, and the feeling has been the perfect opposite of that summer agony. Of all the people in the world, we understand each other as worshipers – as Christians – and God has placed us side by side to worship and to lead others to worship. Four years in, I can hardly imagine how happy the next forty will be. Happy anniversary, my love. This marriage we have is literally beyond my wildest dreams.


A Road Called Marriage

My parents are celebrating a remarkable milestone this week. Thirty years ago, Tuesday, they were married. He was a young intellectual. She was a successful artist. They met in the unlikeliest of ways. Neither of them was looking for love. Russell Kirk, one of the giants of conservative thought in the second half of the twentieth century, knew both of them. He and his wife prodded this young man who’d come to learn from them to write to this young lady they’d come to love. She’d studied under them, babysat for them, and painted their daughter’s portraits. In their minds, it was a perfect match: they were both tall, both Protestant, both conservative intellectuals, and both near thirty.

And so before the days of email and social media, my father sat down to his typewriter and wrote to my mother. At the outset, they were both disinterested at best, but it took less than two months to spill ink over eighty pages and, before the days of GPS and text messages, they met face-to-face on the street outside her parents’ home, Dad driving into her neighborhood one evening after the 250-mile journey from Mecosta to Oakbrook (I looked it up on Google Maps).

Less than a year later they were married, and I couldn’t guess which one of them was the more surprised to be single no longer. The winding road of life takes you to strange places. Dad’s road took him through Southern California, where he went to community college and Calvary chapel, surfed and drove trucks. It wound through rural Arkansas where his journalist parents had bought a little newspaper. It took him deep into the life of the mind until he found himself publishing his undergraduate thesis on the doctrine of the trinity and pursuing an unusual master’s degree under the private tutelage of Dr. Kirk. Mom’s road took her to Hillsdale College to meet said Dr. Kirk, to New York City to study under a famous portrait artist, and back again to her Chicago roots where she was living the life of a single professional woman, painting portraits and working for a publishing house. And then the loveliest thing happened: their roads merged.

I’m not sure what they saw as they imagined what lay ahead on this new road, but if four years of marriage has taught me anything, it’s that the road – it winds, and it has a life of its own so far beyond your imaginings, and only a sovereign and mysterious God sees beyond the next bend. The loveliness of it, though, is that there are no longer two roads. These two became one, and in the oneness there was happiness and satisfaction all along the winding way. And wind it did. Perhaps when they moved to Colorado Springs they thought it would be forever. They lived in a darling yellow bungalow, Dad worked for Discipleship Journal, Mom painted, and Ernest David Ivan was born. There were cats, too. But with a baby not even a year old the road took them to Arkansas to help with the newspaper and Dad’s ailing father. So they set up shop in the tiniest farm house, rented from the owner of a small cattle ranch, set in the rolling hills just spitting distance from Missouri.

Then came the succession of babies, the sold newspaper, and the hand-to-mouth work of free-lance writing. The oil paints got put away, too, as the babies learned to be curious. Susan Elisabeth Ball, born after the world’s hottest summer, Kilby Marilee Anna, named for the subject of the last complete portrait, Rebekah Jean Louise, born at home while the red tulips bloomed, and Elbridge Peter Melvin, the best birthday present I ever had. By this time I’d guess they’d stopped contemplating the road for the energy it took to walk it each day. The kids were bunked into a shared bedroom, everyone shared the tiny bathroom, and my parents learned to pray for food. Mom took lovely photographs of her living portraits and Dad wrote book after book and in the together moments we walked the fields around our little house or drove across the hot summer prairie to magical adventures at the foot of Pikes Peak.

Then Covenant College asked Dad to come for a visit. But at the very moment they were leaving town to reject the job offer for lack of affordable housing, they stumbled upon a wreck of a house in a wreck of a neighborhood. They bought it for barely $40,000 – 2700 square feet of crumbling Victorian charm on half an acre at the foot of Lookout Mountain. It wasn’t much, this new road and with it all the questions of a new home, but I bet the prospect of a salary (no matter how small) and their own house (no matter how decayed) felt like luxury. A vista, this; the beginning of the rest of their life. We loaded up the Mayflower semi truck, kissed Nonnie goodbye, and made the trip to Chattanooga. We met Berta, indispensable friend in those early days. We tore out the orange shag carpet, rebuilt the fire escape, and, finally, moved in. It felt like a palace. A room for the girls, a room for the boys. French doors and tall ceilings and two bathrooms. The neighborhood became home and the house grew ever more lovely at the hand of contractors-become-friends or friends-become-contractors. Our hearts were knitted to a little church on the mountain and Dad learned the ropes at the college.

I am beginning to understand the fatigue of these days in my parents’ lives as I come into them myself. I know now why we went for neighborhood walks in the evenings: It was something to occupy the kids before bedtime so they could steal a few moments together, hand in hand. They couldn’t have felt glamorous amidst all the dust and debris of the house as they kept the renovation going at a pace that protected us from each new threat of a falling ceiling or sinking floor. Arthur John Calvin came along just as their roots began to dig deep into this new place, and then the next adventure began. To say you spent a year living in Scotland as a child while your father pursued his Ph.D. in a historic university town on the North Sea sounds picturesque. To imagine the finances, the suitcases, the sacrifices, the creative thinking, the loneliness involved in carting six children across the Atlantic to live with no car and no friends is staggering. And in the middle of her preparations, she found herself pregnant again. So there in St. Andrews, Grace Andrea Bronwyn broke the tie between girls and boys and by the mercy of her father’s insomnia she had a passport to gain entry into the United States not a day to soon.

They say when you have young kids the days are long and the years are short. The years accrued, barely noticed. There were little hearts to teach: everything from gospel and obedience to folding laundry and riding bikes. There was an endless mountain of homeschooling. There was a church to love and pray for through good times and bad. There were dozens of birthday cakes, hundreds of music lessons and caving adventures and trips to the swimming pool. There were the Happy Hollisters, the Hobbit and the Chronicles of Narnia, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. There was Rocky & Bullwinkle and anchovies on pizza with Uncle Paul. There was Mong Rong Tong Song and there was a new van and and a bunny named Laurie. There was an endless march of college students around our dinner table and in our hearts. Once in a blue moon Dad and Mom would escape together leaving a babysitter behind, but usually that was to do their duty at a college function. I don’t think they got to enjoy each other nearly enough.

Those years were crazy, and they must have been hard. But they were good, and they were over fast. Tennessee turned into Florida and college students were exchanged for aspiring pastors and their families. For four years they cared for Mom’s dad as his health declined and his mind slipped away. Meanwhile Dad’s mom lived in our house, too. We were eleven each night at dinner, unless we were more. David brought the number to ten when he left for Bryan College, and so it began. Soon we laid Mom’s dad to rest. The next year I went to seek my fortune in Minnesota and Kilby was living in Mississippi as a nanny only months later. Dad’s mom moved to be with her daughter in California, and then like a whirlwind there was a career change for Dad and there was Mike Powell, Paul Austin, and the lovely Leigh. Peter spent a year in Africa and settled in Minnesota upon his return, Rebekah took Kilby’s place in Arizona, and there they were, the average American family: two teenagers and a big house in the suburbs.

But for this average American family there is more than meets the eye, because in Colorado their oldest son and his wife are involved in a retreat center for a Christian organization, and Ethan Nathaniel and Elijah Declin are carrying on the family name. In Indiana their oldest daughter and her husband are knee-deep in church music, graduate study, and the affairs of Jacob Elliot and Meredith Renée. In Chicago, their poet-philosopher daughter and her abundantly-degreed husband are preparing for a life of pastoral ministry in England, and raising Hilary Adele, the loveliest little British child you ever met. Rebekah has made them proud this year, graduating from culinary school that she paid cash for, landing a job at a four-star restaurant, and moving into her own apartment. Peter has become a strong young man, kind and disciplined, tirelessly working, and pursuing Alyssa, a woman beautiful inside and out.

And thus far has their road wound. They worship to the sound of guitars and drums among people who speak more Spanish than English. Ten thousand books line the walls of their home and bunk beds have been replaced with queen-sized guest beds for visiting children. She paints again, looking out the windows of their tiled dining room at palm trees, stucco, her grape vine, and a few lovely roses. Theology has given way to environmental, ethical, scientific, and political concerns and once again he writes, but now he speaks and travels endlessly, too. The two children of that “average American family” have become adults, too. AJ lives at home, plays his guitar, and works hard. His road is just beginning and he is proving himself a man – faithful and diligent, wise, content, kind. Grace flew the nest this summer and landed in Memphis. She, too, is proving herself, emerging from childhood lovely, courageous, wise, and strong.

Thirty years has led them to a pleasant place and now usually when they sit down to a meal it is at a table for two. Their appearance has changed since their first table for two, but they still recognize each other because they were together all along the way. Thirty years ago they wouldn’t have recognized the crumbling Victorian or the suburban stucco, and they wouldn’t have recognized the seven children, the three in-laws, and the five little ones they love now. But in hindsight they recognize it all, and in it, they see each other, and when they look at each other, it is all this they are seeing.

As I have been trying to remember what I saw of my parents’ love as a child, I have been surprised. I don’t remember seeing them within reach of each other very often. When the sun was up, the closest they got on a regular basis was sitting on either end of the long dining room table. I don’t know if there was anything they particularly liked to do for fun in a rare moment unencumbered by kids or other duties. I don’t think this is so much a reflection of a child’s limited perspective as it is a reflection of the way their days and years actually passed. When your lives fill as full as theirs did, there is not much room left for you to be together. But somehow that doesn’t matter, because all the winding of a merged road is winding for both of the travelers. For all the sights and sounds along the way, the two on the one road never diverged and never will.

What I remember of my parents’ love are these: I remember their devotion to each other. My mom was invested in my dad, and my dad was invested in my mom. They were for each other, and all the work they did, they did for the other’s sake; the endless duties that kept them barely within each other’s reach were only proof of their devotion. I remember their confidence in each other. Their love allowed no room for either to doubt the other’s abilities, skills, strength, wisdom, or virtue. They believed in each other completely and they depended on each other entirely. I remember their loyalty to each other. There was never a question of it. He would do anything for her. She would do anything for him. Nothing could change the way they felt about each other and there was never even a hint of betrayal in even the most casual moments. They spoke only well of each other and never had fun at the other’s expense. Nor did anyone else dare speak ill of one of them in the presence of the other. Dad trusted himself to Mom’s safe-keeping, and Mom trusted herself to Dad’s.

This love, with its devotion, its confidence, and its loyalty, more than made up for the endless barrage of life’s petty demands that kept them passing so often like ships in the night. By a long, silent, and un-self-conscious example they showed all their children and all the world what marriage means, and we are the richer, the stronger, and the happier for it.

And now the better part of their life’s work is lining the road behind them like so much beautiful architecture and landscape. And while they are the kind of people for whom retirement seems like an absurdity, their life is a slower, simpler one than it has been in all these thirty years. As I see it, the time has come for reflection and celebration. They have earned it by their long, humble faithfulness to each other, to their children, and to each community they’ve loved and served. Their faithfulness has begun to bear fruit, and the time has come to enjoy it.

Mom and Dad, a toast to you. May your next thirty years see your love stronger than ever, and your lives finally affording you time to pause along the road to notice each other a dozen times a day. And in those moments, may you find that after thirty years there is only more delight in what you see than when you first saw it and set out. May you grow together in new ways—lovely and leisurely ones, enjoying the good things of the creation you are part of. May you sip many a glass of good wine under your grape vine and read many a good book together in the comfort of a quiet home. May your meals be slow and savory with more steak and less stew. May you find many new things to enjoy, and may you enjoy them with abandon. May you acquire four more children to marry the ones you already love, and many more grand-children. And finally, on that good, sad, glorious day when one of you crosses the finish line to be with Christ before the other, may you hold each other, and relinquish each other, satisfied in the road you’ve discovered – the road you’ve made. It has been a beautiful one, already.

On Not Being the Soloist

I had the opportunity to poke my head into a dress rehearsal Mike was singing in yesterday. The professional-level choir of three dozen, accompanied by a chamber orchestra of half as many, is preparing three of J.S. Bach’s motets. The director stopped them in the thick of one intricate moment with a complaint: “It seems like when you don’t have the solo you’re not very interested in the piece.” With his observation in mind the choir’s sound improved, as each part took more pride in the rich backdrop they were creating upon which the solo could shine through. The solo needed that context for its full glory.

In church this morning my pastor made another interesting observation as he preached on what it means to serve the Lord with all of our lives. He was illustrating his point by calling attention to mothers who of all people find everything about what they do to be distinctly not about themselves. “When we focus on what we’re having to give up and the sacrifices we’re making, it can get pretty depressing.”

I felt a strange satisfaction yesterday as I sat watching my husband realizing my life dream – to make that kind of music with that level of expertise. The music was coursing through my veins, too, as I listened. I knew as I sat there what Mike knows, too: I’m just as qualified to be up on those risers and I’d probably get an even bigger kick out of it than he does. (Choral music and Bach are much more my thing than his.) But to have the life we want to have, to love the kids we love to love, to share one set of goals as we are intent on doing through our marriage, only one of us gets to do it. I’m pretty happy with it being Mike because no matter how well qualified musically I am for what he’s doing, he’s got more strength and will power and focus to get it done and he’s less easily deterred from making it happen by setback, disappointment, or drama than I’ve shown myself to be in the past. If one of us is going to be a fantastic professional musician, it’s going to be Mike. Besides, I’m thriving and loving what I’m doing with our sweet little half-formed people (the ones that can’t speak English yet!) day in and day out and we both know that Mike would go crazy if he did this ’round the clock – even crazier than I’d be if I tried to shoulder everything he’s shouldering as a church music director, instructor, and student in a highly competitive atmosphere without getting bitter or burned out.

I could be focusing on what I’m not doing. I’m not singing Bach and I’m not playing hymns and rehearsing a choir each week and I’m not studying with a world class teacher. I would get depressed if that’s all I thought about. But I’m pretty sure I am enjoying Mike’s success as much as I’d enjoy my own if I were the one in his shoes. Someone said that behind every great man is a woman. That came to mind yesterday as I listened to his director urge the ensemble to do their part even when they weren’t the soloist. In the concerto that is our life, I am all that busy, intricate, tireless accompaniment that showcases what people hear on the surface. My days are full of laundry and diapers, bills and groceries. I stay busy with the life we are living together, making it all possible. The reality is that over the decades I will probably be known to most of the people we engage with as “Mike’s wife.” Mike might be the one performing in the spotlight but I am right there with him and no less a part of the music, and I am loving every minute of it and I wouldn’t change a thing.