Tuesday, February 07, 2006

National Marriage Week

Home Front: Catholic Herald 17/02/06

“There is no reciprocity. Men love women, women love children, and children love hamsters,” observed Alice Thomas Ellis. There have been fewer funnier words written on the subject of love; even if you don’t particularly agree with the late Catholic novelist’s gloomy viewpoint, there have been fewer judgements on love that so well express how love, contrary to a million second rate poets, is inexorably enmeshed with the world outside.

And bearing that in mind, was it really such a great idea to have National Marriage Week coincide with St Valentine’s Day?

I know exactly how such a decision was reached. It seemed perfectly obvious and fitting, in the quiet decency of a committee room, to fix on 7-14 February. What a good idea, somebody said, to “peg” (as they say in newspapers) the idea of celebrating marriage to a nationally recognised calendar moment connected with love.

Unfortunately, St Valentine’s Day is not so much a saint’s day, more a nasty rash. It is not just that grocery shelves, sweetshops stationer’s and florist’s blister into lurid red and pink for the whole first half of February. Think, too, if you dare, of the millions of excruciating teenage parties and minor humiliations which it engenders celebrate very little: not so much love, as lerve. A manufactured saccharine substitute with little reference to the whole package of life for which love serves as the motor and energy – little reference, in other words, to the children of Alice Thomas Ellis’s maxim. Let alone the hamsters.

There could have been other, equally suitable choices for National Marriage Week: it could have been arranged to coincide with the feast days of St Joseph (mid March), St Barbara (early December – a good way of strengthening us against the marital tensions of Christmas) or St Thomas the Apostle (early July – a great time for a picnic). All of these saints have a special relationship with carpenters, and therefore could claim to be patron saints of DIY.

For is not DIY painfully important in marriage? Not only because it takes up a large amount of free time at the beginning of married life; also because it reveals every tension. One of the happiest half hours of my marriage in the past year was when we managed to dismantle a small settee and manoeuvre it through a narrow doorway, down the stairs and into another room before reassembling it, not only without damaging anything on the way but, more importantly, without bickering once. There are many couples for whom this seems hardly much of an achievement but we do not happen to be one of those couples: on the contrary, any practical activity seems to bring out the worst in both of us.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” says one self-help book. Actually, no. Do. Do sweat the small stuff. Never mind that some self-help guru has made himself a tidy packet from that single mantra. He is wrong, wrong, wrong. The small stuff matters. The small stuff matters with children – children care about daily routines and care desperately if you change things. (Let those who urge a return to more traditional forms of worship remember this: what seems a painful innovation to you is an age-old ritual to my child.) Children notice tiny shifts in your voice and posture, little changes betraying anger or pain which you thought nobody would notice, which would have escaped the eye of your boss at work. And the small stuff matters with marriage, too.

It is the little things – whether small achievements like getting a sofa down the stairs without raised voices, or small irritations such as persistent toothpaste-lid-duty-dereliction or chronic sock-strewing – which make the big picture.

At a very beautiful funeral last weekend, the poem “Adjustments” by R. S. Thomas was read, and it will reverberate in my head all through National Marriage Week:

“…Never known as anything
but an absence, I dare not name him
As God. Yet the adjustments
Are made…
To make a new coat
Of an old, you add to it gradually
Thread by thread, so such change
As occurs is more difficult to detect.”

If you imagine you are the same person you were when you were married umpteen years ago, you imagine wrongly. For if you have been happily married, you have changed, gradually, imperceptibly, weaving and grafting, thread by thread, the fabric of your two personas together to make one seamless piece of cloth, whose complexity cannot be expressed by a pink and red “Happy Valentine’s Day” card.