I have mentioned my beloved wife Michelle a lot on my blog. But I've never really written anything directly about her. I feel inspired to do so, although this is to be understood as being by no means a definitive essay.
She is an American. This is far from unimportant to me. I have always found American women attractive. There is a kind of gusto and vivacity, a tanginess, in the very way they speak which appeals to me tremendously. I love American women, and Americans in general, and America itself.
Michelle grew up in New Jersey. I love listening to her put on her New Jersey accent-- an accent I've always found appealing. I tease her about being a 'Jersey girl", and I also tell her I like the idea of her being a 'Jersey girl'-- a cultural stereotype that European readers might not know about, but one that is essentially seen as being sassy and spunky (amongst other things). Once, when she was annoyed at me, she said: "You want the Jersey girl? You get the Jersey girl!". At that moment I didn't want the Jersey girl, needless to say! (That moment has become a running joke between us.)
There is a term that people use to describe their spouses and lovers that I've never really liked:: "My other half". I see its romance, but I still don't like it. I value otherness too much. I would never presume to call Michelle my other half. Nor would I want to. She is too much her own person.
Reader, I don't know if you've been reading my blog long, but you probably know I have a lot of opinions. A lot. I have a lot to say about everything. And I am very passionate about all my opinions and ideas. I suppose, if the theory of opposites were true, my ideal wife would be a rather quiet woman who agreed with me about everything and who was practical and efficient where I am theoretical and high-flown.
That is not Michelle. She is practical and efficient, but she is....well, almost everything else, as well. She has as many opinions and views as I do and they are by no means always in lockstep with mine, though our deepest beliefs are the same, and though our views on many more minor and incidental matters are also similar. She is passionately Catholic, and passionately pro-life in particular. (But even here, her approach to faith and her spirituality are sometimes different from mine-- but complementary, I think.) She grew up in a Catholic family, like me, but only really embraced her faith as an adult, like me-- though she came to it earlier. She actually helped to build up a young Catholic adult community in Richmond, Virginia. She has sung for church choirs.
My problem in writing about Michelle is that you will presume that I am doting on her, or exaggerating, but I'm really not. And when I say that she is remarkable, it's not a platitude. People remark on her. A lot. She makes a big impression wherever she goes. She makes friends. She makes things happen. She finds jobs for people. She's even made some matches. She makes things, full stop-- cakes (professionally), paintings, jewellery, budgets, repairs, pretty much everything. Somebody recently described her as 'superhumanly competent' to me. It's a good description.
But, as soon as I write that, I realise that I am making her sound awful. One can't hear a description like that without picturing someone who is a perpetual whirl and makes you want to lie down in a dark room just by looking at her-- a kind of Girl Scout leader. But she's not like that at all. (I would run a mile from such a person myself.) She doesn't dominate gatherings. She's not always 'on'. She is as much an introvert as an extrovert-- indeed, she might be rather more of an introvert than an extrovert, though she's certainly a lot better at talking to strangers than I am. And, in the literal sense of somebody who takes their energy from inside and needs to 'recharge' after too much interaction with others, she is indeed an introvert.
Another thing that draws people to Michelle-- me included-- is her eagerness to help. In terms of good works, she is a thousand times a better Christian than I am. I always remember the time when we were in London, utterly lost, and footsore from pounding the pavements for hours, and another tourist-- a young lady-- came to us with an open map and a confused expression. My automatic response was to say: "We're lost too". But Michelle did her best to help her-- and probably did, too. (I forget the outcome.) That is the least of her charities. Very often they involve things that are much more consquential.
Most of all, she is interesting. I couldn't fall in love with someone who was not interesting. When we attended a pre-marriage course together, one of the men there called us "the quirky couple". Michelle wasn't all that thrilled by the name, but I treasured it-- I still do.
Actually, we have a running debate about which of us is the funny one. Readers of this blog, of course, will know that I am the funny one. I frequently explain to Michelle that she's funny, but just not the funny one. She doesn't get it. She actually thinks she's the funny one. It's cute.
All my life I have been a romantic, and have craved romantic love. From the time I was a little boy, looking at the pretty housewives on packets of washing up powder in the supermarket, I knew that I craved romantic love with all my heart. I have an almost mystical-- no, an entirely mystical belief in the complementarity of man and woman, in the eternal otherness of man and woman. Before I embraced my Catholic faith, I had a deep interest in Judaism. I admired it, and still admire it, for lots of reasons. But one was the emphasis it placed upon marriage, and its lack of any real tradition of celibacy. I hated the idea of celibacy. I believed man was made for woman, and woman was made for man; that every Jack should have his Jill, and that celibacy was a kind of self-mutilation, a tragedy. I hated hearing about anybody being single and I liked hearing about anybody (past or present) getting married, or at least mated. My own shyness with girls and women only deepened this conviction.
The fact that I have come to have a very high esteem for consecrated celibacy-- to the extent that I'm against any relaxation of the celibacy requirement for priests-- does not mean that my mystical view of man and woman has changed, or diminished, or cooled. It hasn't.
The first time I saw Michelle we had already been corresponding for a long time. I knew when I saw her that we belonged together. Given my inherently conservative nature, it was still a long time before I told her I loved her. I was going to tell her one day when we were at a baseball game, but every time I went to kiss her she sucked in her lips and burst out laughing at my reaction, even after assuring me she woudn't do it again. (I told you, she thinks she is the funny one.) This frustrated me and I felt in no mood to make my revelation that evening.
I often find myself thinking of a thousand little moments spent with Michelle-- from shopping for shoes together, to watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade on TV, to writing Christmas cards with Christmas music playing in the background, or even (especially!) watching DVDs together--and I'm surprised at the underlying sense of something like euphoria or bliss that pervades them. Even when a moment like that feels very happy at the time, this other thing-- this euphoria-- only seems to manifest gradually, in retrospect. Readers who have read my purple notebook series might note that these are all 'purple notebook' type moments. The distinguishing feature of such moments being, that no amount of remembering them and pondering them seems to lessen their magic.
The same applies to things that I associate with Michelle, or to which she introduced me. They can be things I love in themselves-- like the movie The American President-- or things whose entire appeal lies in their assocation with Michelle-- like the song Wrecking Ball as sung by Miley Cryus. (Not one of Michelle's favourites, I hasten to add. She just happened to play the video for me once, to show me how much the gal had changed from her Hannah Montana phase, and my imagination pounced on the moment.) Or then there is the Christmas-tree shaped Advent calendar that stands in my office-- the very colours and shape seem to glow because they speak to me of the one I love. Or the mere mention of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, which she told me about when we were first corresponding. Or all of the Saturday Night Live sketches to which she introduced me. I could list examples forever, and these are almost random. An atmosphere-- a glamour, a magic, I don't know how to describe it-- seems to hang over all such things. It is akin to the way somebody who falls in love with a particular country will feel about the language, the place names, the mannerisms, the noise and scent of its streets. Every one of these lets loose a cataract of deep emotions.
Is all this compatible with my being sometimes irritated, inattentive, indignant, peeved off, and so forth? Well, of course, it is. Just as I lose attention at Mass, even though I know it is quite literally Heaven on Earth. Or just as my mind wanders during my rosary.
Actually, the analogy is a very apt one. I like the EWTN programme 'The Journey Home', because I like all stories of journeys home, and because that is what my Catholic faith feels like to me-- home. Every tabernacle is home. The rhythms of the rosary are home. All the governing assumptions that are there when Catholics talk to each other are the language and accent of home. Indeed, it was the home I longed for all through the many years I only ever went into a church out of social obligation. But 'home' has to be understood, not only as a place of respose, but even more-- though it seems like a paradox-- as a place of adventure and exploration.
The poem that I wrote for Michelle and read out at my wedding reception is my own favourite of the (hundreds of) poems that I've written-- for its poetry as much as for its personal meaning. It came to me so easily. My father saw my manuscript of it, the morning of my wedding, and said: "Are you converted to free verse now?" I wasn't converted to free verse, but free verse seemed like the right style for that particular poem.
The last line is: "When I see your face, what I am looking at is home". And that is one of the rare, rare occasions when I feel I managed to express perfectly what I wanted to say. To me, the most powerful word in the language is not love, or yes (as James Joyce believed), or even God. It's home.