So Neil and Pegi Young are divorced after 36 years, and he and Daryl Hannah are a couple. I only just heard, being no fan of People and Yahoo schlock. The news knocked down one more of my pedestal erected to Marriages That Last. Since I was 15, when I fantasized of marrying him to be his Cinnamon Girl/Maid and all-around muse, I took songs like “Harvest Moon” deeply to heart. Today I heard someone joke that perhaps we ought to nix that one and look for something like “A Man Needs A (Mer)Maid.”
What makes marriages immune to their unique kind of entropy, decay and demise? I’ve believed it’s not the sex, or the bank account, although those two things can keep two people together who never ought to have joined. Sadly, it’s not even the kids we conceived in hope, faith and passion. I continue to believe it’s about the bonds and simple joy of a history made by two, with all the good that reaches out beyond themselves in their corner of the world. The Youngs had that: with two disabled sons, they founded a school for similar kids. While he toured to make money for the school, she kept the home fires burning. Wasn’t that the simple life he was singing about in his praise to marriage?
Because I’m still in love with you
I want to see you dance again
Because I’m still in love with you
On this harvest moon
If you know the iconic early album “Harvest,” you know the song’s reference to the albums’ theme of a poetic, romantic perspective on life and love, from the idealist faith of a young man. The song is not about dancing under a spring moon: that’s what young lovers do, when things are new and fresh, with unformed stories ahead. Only an older couple, after good and bad times, can dance under a harvest moon: at harvest time, we reap what we’ve sown, prepare the ground for next year, and feast. Sometimes the crop is thin, but you trust the earth and stay with it. Where else would you rather go, and with whom?
The threat to any marriage is The Interloper, whether it’s the new farmhand or the temptations of a trip to see the city lights, or, more often but less dramatic, the sandwiching of demands between our kids and our aging parents, or cancer, or a hundred facts of life. The Interloper can be either the salesman offering anything with the appeal of an imagined better way of love, or a thieving vampire draining the lifeblood of its victims.
Whether we are seduced or stricken by The Interloper, the risk is losing all we’ve created that defines the one life we get to live. We make the love songs obscenely ridiculous. When we succumb to The Interloper, we usually find ourselves asking, as author Tom Robbins did, “What makes love stay?” He wrote:
“We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.”
“The highest function of love is that is makes the loved one a unique and irreplaceable being.”
It takes a village to raise a marriage, to see it through. Even if both people give their best, it is often not enough. So it goes in the new film about Stephen and Jane Hawking’s marriage, “the Theory of Everything.” Stephen, wheelchair bound for most of their long marriage, is leaving her for his caregiver, who is able to give care and a sense of insight into him he had not experienced with Jane. Although Jane loved him through her long and arduous years of bathing, feeding and dressing him while raising their three children, she did not share his sense of humor as his new love does. She gave all she had, her best, mistaking it for what he needed in a wife. They weep together. Years later, it is she he invites, not Beryl, to join him and their children to meet the Queen. He is to be honored for his life long achievements in physics. Gazing on the youngsters he tells her, “look what we made.” I cried from hard experience.
My unconscious, where my soul and best self live, must have seen this disappointing news of the Youngs’ demise coming, because it sent me a terrific dream last night. In the dream, the 48-ish woman with chin-length blond hair under a hairband is chatting with her girlfriends over post-yoga coffees. They’re holding forth on marriage. (Maybe they saw the news too?) She is pragmatic in the way midlife is about things thought of only in romantic terms by youth. “I can’t imagine,” she says, “treating my marriage with any less respect and appreciation than I would treat a well-chosen vocation or career. If I value my work and count on it until I retire, I won’t show up drunk, or do less than my best, or mistreat my boss and coworkers and basically do everything that would lead to my getting fired.”
I woke up before she could tell me what she would do instead. But it isn’t hard to figure out.
A man once shared with me a piece of wisdom: he believed in treating his marriage as at least as important as he did his job. He feels his marriage is naturally due as much devotion as his work: “I have two jobs. One is all day at the office. The other is when I come home. There, I shift into another gear, into parenting and husbanding. You have to keep giving the energy as needed.” In short, you have to love it. You work for what you love.
I think he’s right. Marriage is work, and it earns its sabbath rest and recreation (thank God for grandparents, solitude, romantic dates, and yes, separate as well as shared friends and hobbies). It’s about what we make with each other, what we create. Beyond housework and parenting or caring for older parents, we are fortunate if we aspire to a homesteading and fertility in broader terms than having children. The glue of marriage lies in the creating of a history together, the kind we look back on fondly, even with the hard times honestly held in view. A good marriage does, as the Young’s had done, make a dialectic of you-and-me into energy that fuels a joint response to the needs of a broader world for more warmth, more love, more generosity. We all hope our marriages don’t fall prey to The Interloper. Robbins says we need to work hard at the front end to stay strong against him:
“When two people meet and fall in love, there’s a sudden rush of magic. Magic is just naturally present then. We tend to feed on that gratuitous magic without striving to make any more…What we have to do is work like hell at making additional magic right form the start. It’s hard work, but if we can remember to do it, we greatly improve our chances of making love stay.”
Like good farmers, the best we can do is work hard, pray for rain and aim to keep the pantry stocked. After several decades and by late midlife, it can be a pretty fair harvest.