The Making of One Angel

1 Corinthians 13

            The Austro-German poet Rainier Maria Rilke once wrote to a young poet about love. Rilke said that to love someone was the most difficult and important undertaking of one’s life. It was not easy to love. To love someone properly you had to be a whole person, at ease with your own aloneness and solitude. Only than could you be the world to the other person.

            But how many of us come to love and marriage as whole persons. Not many of us do. Certainly, there would be few marriages if we first undertook the long and difficult spiritual task of becoming comfortable with our own aloneness and solitude before we married. There would be, I would venture to guess, fewer marriages and even fewer divorces. 

                     I know my wife Joan and I certainly didn’t come to marriage with the capacity to love perfectly and to be the world to each other. We were married February 2, 1963. In a few days, on February 2, 2013, we will celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary. I want to tell you how our fifty years together began. Then I want to share with you some images of marriage that have been on my mind along the way.

            In the fall of 1962, I went to Iowa City to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I didn’t have much to my name:  a few manuscripts, a portable typewriter. I met Joan right away. She was a Workshop student and the Workshop secretary. She typed up the stencils for workshop stories. You made an appointment with her in order to get in to see the director when you needed financial assistance.

            I had come to Iowa City to await the draft: As I got to know Joan, I’d say to her, “You know, I’m about to get drafted.” A history of asthma got me classified as 4F in Hawaii.  But a letter from my family doctor declaring that I had a history of asthma didn’t mean anything to the draft board in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I did my undergraduate work. So in going to Iowa, I didn’t bother with securing a letter from my doctor. I was resigned to the draft. 

          But this is what happened when the notice finally came for me to register in Iowa.  I had to take my physical in Des Moines. There I was, standing in line with everybody else, no clothes on. “Anyone with a history of asthma?” the examining doctor called up the line. I leaned out of the line and raised my hand. The doctor said, “What are you doing here? Get out of here.” I got out of there. I ran down the hall and into the locker room. I put on my clothes and headed for the bus station. I called Joan, and said, “I guess we can get married.” Not very romantic, as she reminds me.

          So what do you do when you’ve decided to get married? You call home to Mom and Dad. I said, “Hello, Dad. I’m getting married. Her name is Joan. Joan McAllister.” On the other end of the line, dead silence. That’s what I got from Dad, dead silence. No response.

          I decided to talk to Mom, but when I told her that Joan was divorced and had two little children, all she said was, “Oh, no…oh, no….”  It was as if I had mortally wounded her:  Oh, no, oh, no.

            We made a trip to Cedar Rapids to see Joan’s parents: During the Second  World War, Joan’s Dad had landed with the Marines on Okinawa. He was an Army Captain in charge of part of the civilian population on the island. I had a crew cut, so I looked very Japanese. I must have made him remember some of his war experiences. He brought out a samurai sword that he had captured from one of the Japanese officers. He gave it to me just before he died. It’s very old. You can tell by the feathered blade edge. He had to get people out of the caves in Okinawa. The Japanese officer had said to my father-in-law, some day I’m coming to get this sword from you. 

          I’m not absolutely sure what was going through Dad McAllister’s mind, but I think he wanted to know whether I was going to be on time. The Okinawa people he helped govern didn’t rush to do anything, he told me. Their tea-drinking ritual before getting down to business drove him crazy.

          He warned me about Joan. He said, “You know, I didn’t raise her to walk three paces behind you.” I said something like, “We’re going to walk side by side, sir…side by side.”

          It seemed that everybody was trying to dissuade us from marrying. People–strangers–were betting on how long our marriage would last. That’s because Writers’ Workshop marriages were notorious for their brevity. The one that had occurred the month before was now over. A friend of ours overheard strangers in a restaurant talking about–betting on–our marriage.

          The reaction to our getting married was not all negative. We got $100 from Paul Engle, the director of the Writers’ Workshop. Engle went around the world looking for foreign writers, some refugees from communism, for his new International Writing Workshop.  We often wondered where he got his money.  We later learned he was partly funded by the CIA.  Was it CIA money?  We think we got married on CIA money.

          We had the blessings of our workshop advisors. Frank, a Chinese American writer, playwright, all around talent, agreed to be my best man, though he counseled me not to get married. (Joan says, “The Fink.”) Frank played flamenco guitar. He was a movie buff. He walked around, I thought, pretending he was Fu Manchu. Guneli, a Turkish woman and writer, was maid of honor. She wore these wonderful colored dresses which made her look like a bird of paradise.

          We were a colorful crew driving in a single car in a blinding snowstorm to Chicago where Joan and I were married. I felt that it was very apt that we were driving in a snowstorm. We could see only a few feet ahead. The days before we left I felt as if I were wearing blinders. With all the negative comments about our getting married, I thought I needed blinders to keeping going straight ahead.

            Danny, an EUB minister, married us somewhere in Chicago. Danny was born in China to missionary parents. His wife Barbara, a musician, poet, and friend of Joan’s, played some music at the wedding.

            Before the wedding ceremony, Danny counseled us. He said that marriage was “like  two stones grinding together till there’s a perfect fit.” I couldn’t believe Danny’s imagery.  Two stones grinding together. It horrified me. I objected. I said, “No, marriage is like a dance…waltz…I’m sure it’s like a dance.” We learned a little later that Danny and Barbara were getting a divorce. They were together that day just for our wedding.

          Fifty years of marriage. Has it been a smooth ride? No. Not with four children, parents from opposite ends of the country and culture, two careers, and changing times, from the Viet Nam War, the Assassinations, Watergate, the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the breaking up of the Soviet Union, to a grinding impeachment trial and 9/11 and the War on Terrorism, not to mention the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and to the Great Recession and the gridlock in Washington. It has been anything but a smooth ride.

          So was Danny right?  Through it all, was marriage like two stones grinding together till there’s a perfect fit?

          Fifty years of marriage–of childbearing and childrearing, at the same time seeking one degree or another, one job or another, one cause or another, always writing, writing one story or poem or novel or another–of struggling to become a whole person in God in the rough and tumble of marriage and family life, where things change and seem to remain the same.


            In 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul writes about what love is. This is the interesting thing about Paul’s writing. When he says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” you know that there are those in his community, the Corinthian church, who say they love one another, but who are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.  When he says, “love is patient; love is kind,” you know that there are those in the Corinthian community who say they love one another, but who are impatient with each other, who are not averse to a bit of unkindness.  When he says that love is not irritable or resentful, you know that there are those in the community who say they love one another, but who are irritable and resentful.

          I could go on about arrogance, rudeness, rejoicing at wrongdoing. I could go on about love never ending. There were certainly those who used the wrongdoing of others as a reason for terminating their relationship with them. When love is not love, all you need is one reason for ending something. Read behind what Paul says, and you’ll know how church members are behaving in Corinth.

            This is how we behave with each other when we are not complete and continually gnaw at each other. But we must  strive, as Paul says, for the better way. And this is way I believe Joan and I by the grace of God have gone, continually returning to striving for the better way, the way of love.

          Emanuel Swedenborg once said that in marriage, husband and wife make one angel.  Joan and I liked this image.  How do you make one angel? I not sure exactly when it happened but we began to understand that our marriage has an angel or spirit. Our marriage angel was sometimes healthy and sometimes not—sometimes sickly. It was more than either of us as individuals, and we learned through difficult times that we had to work together and to work hard to keep our marriage angel healthy and alive.

          Another image we cherish comes from the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell.  It’s Groundhog Day, and cynical TV weatherman Murray has been sent to Punxsutawney, Pa., to cover the festivities for his Pittsburgh station.  Will the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, see his shadow? But there is one small problem. Murray seems to be reliving the same day over and over again.  But Murray gets smart.  He begins to look forward to each relived day because he can use what he learns about the day and its inhabitants to alter what happens tomorrow, which is really the same day all over again.  It doesn’t have to be same-old, same-old. He can shed his selfish attitudes—his arrogance, his need to put others down so he can feel up, and his resentment. He can learn from his mistakes in courting Andie McDowell. And he does. As Groundhog Day repeats itself, Murray learns patience and begins to treat Andie and others in Punxsutawney with greater kindness and respect. In the end, Murray realizes that he actually loves Andie, she him. And together they begin to create a new day.

          Another image was provided to me by Al and Janet, who worshiped with us almost a year in Colorado and whose marriage Joan and I performed in San Francisco in December of 1996.  I was telling them about Rev. Danny’s description of marriage—of two stones grinding together until there’s a perfect fit– and about how horrified I was.

          Janet and Al didn’t mind the stone imagery, with a twist.  They told me about an old Chinese proverb about marriage that they knew.  Marriage, according to this proverb, was like two stones rubbing against each other until all the rough edges were nicked off.  You ended up with two smooth stones with their hidden patterns showing.  I liked the image myself, thinking of how rock hounds make smooth, beautiful pebbles.  Marriage brings out who we are in all our uniqueness and fullness.  Was this proverb the source of Rev. Danny’s two stones grinding? After all, Danny was born in China to missionary parents. Had he remembered the old Chinese proverb incorrectly?

          To be fully known by one person–marriage allows me to do that. To be totally vulnerable to another person, to have someone totally vulnerable to you, to love steadfastly the child of God in the other, till that child shows forth, as in the two tumbling stones in the Chinese story about what marriage is.  To love forever, no matter what, till our full person shows through.  I observe this caution, of course: we don’t want to continue in an abusive situation till someone gets hurt.  But sometimes we give up too soon…too soon.

          Joan and I have been married 50 years.  Not too long ago Joan had to undergo major operations that have made it difficult for her to live in our house in Helena valley. I’ve had my own health scare. Only God knows what changes lie ahead of us.  But we know that “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” 

          Love is a process and a path leading us to that greatest of solitudes, that world creator God, with whom we dance all our lives and with whom we must be comfortable and at ease, to whom we must submit and return.  May we all persevere in the Eternal Dance.