How You Know

March 26, 2009

To really love a woman,
You’ve got to breathe her, really taste her,
And when you can see your unborn children in her eyes
You know you really love her.
                                — Bryan Adams, b. 1959
                                    Canadian singer-songwriter

I’ve been reading The Heiress of Water, a novel by Sandra Rodriguez Barron, a Latina novelist who gave a wonderful class at Bread Loaf last summer on writing about intimacy. There was some confusion about the room assignments for the classes that day, with the result that people would climb the stairs and stand uncertainly at the door, expecting Robert Boswell but finding instead a slight, olive-skinned woman who would say, in a soft voice with the slightest Spanish accent, “Are you looking for sex?” The answer was usually some variation of “No, I want conflict.” That kind of exchange is hilarious to fiction writers. That’s why I wrote it down.

In Barron’s novel, the main character, Monica, is pondering her stagnant relationship with a man she has been seeing for several years. She recalls the advice of her mother, a strong, visionary woman who was passionately devoted to the cause of justice for the poor. Monica asked her once how you could know if a man is worth your time and your life commitment. “Can he change the world?” the mother responded. “Deliver justice? Can he save what’s precious? Can he bring exceptional beauty to the world, or at the very least, relief of pain? If the answer is no, then move on.”

Wow, I thought. That’s a pretty high standard. I have a daughter only a little younger than Barron’s character, and I’ve had discussions with her and with other young people of my close acquaintance about these very things. Lynn apparently views the marriage that produced her as some sort of ideal, a great compliment, I think, to both me and her father. Not long ago we talked briefly about my first marriage. I got into it for very flimsy reasons, I told her, and I am lucky that the worst I could say about it was that it was boring. She couldn’t understand why I accepted “boring” for seven years. Because I made promises, I said, and I did what I could to keep them even after it was clear that the effort was futile.

I went to Walhalla, South Carolina, again last night, for St. John’s midweek service and Wonderful Wednesday supper. It was a very simple service — just prayer and a meditation delivered by a member of the congregation, no Eucharist. Usually I avoid services that do not include communion, finding them incomplete. It is a measure of the spiritual energy abundant at St. John’s that I left the place fed both in body and in spirit. Maybe it’s just the intentionality of Lent. It wakes you up and makes you take a close look at yourself and how you are moving and being in this world. And I think being in a new place, hearing the same exhortations (“go in peace, serve the Lord, remember the poor”) with a new accent makes you pay attention a little more.

It’s forty miles between Hambidge and Walhalla, about a fifty-minute drive. I’ve been listening to Sky 104.1, WRBN out of Clayton, Georgia. They play “today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites.” Most of the selections are love ballads, and everything sounds like audio clips from American Idol. In fact, many of the artists performing “today’s hits” are American Idol winners. All the arrangements are lush, romantic settings of paeans to love gone right, laments about love gone wrong, and a few Christian tunes (Carrie Underwood praying “Jesus take the wheel,” about a young mother sliding into a lost life and a bad car accident with her baby in the backseat). It all tends to sound alike, but the beat is easy to drive to, and I give it about a 73. (E-mail me if you get that allusion.)

One of “yesterday’s favorites” that I heard last night, for the first time, actually, was Bryan Adams’s “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” I was thinking about the passage in The Heiress of Water about how you know a man is worth your commitment. Before I left in the afternoon I read an e-mail from a young man who is navigating the sometimes choppy waters of relationships, and I was wondering what advice I could give to him or any young person that would be helpful without setting the bar as impossibly high as Barron’s character does.

Bryan Adams, it seems, has the answer. It is an answer I already had from a different source. In November of 2007 I wrote about Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and her devotion to her husband who has Alzheimer’s. I quoted Michael Smith’s song “The Dutchman,” about a woman who sees her unborn children in the eyes of the husband she is devoted to even as he fades farther and farther away from her. The first time I heard that song I knew I couldn’t see that kind of a future with the man I was married to. And as I drove, first into the Chattahoochee National Forest and then out, I realized, probably for the first time, that of all the relationships I have ever been involved in, some of them casual, some of them serious, I have seen those unborn children in the eyes of only two of the men I have claimed to love. With the first, we went our separate ways, and I have seen the children that he did have with someone else, and I have blessed them. With the second, well, put “Lynn” into the search box at the top of this page, or try this piece, or this one.

That’s what I’ll tell my young friends from now on. When you can see your unborn children in the eyes of someone you think you want a life with, then you’ll know. If not, move on.

(And when in some future time you read the novel I have been working on here in the mountains of northern Georgia, you’ll find that one of my characters makes this same discovery.)

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