"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Husbands And Wives–Lives Of Line, Form, Silhouette, And Pattern

Brent Harris and his wife Janet had been married for forty years.  Their marriage had survived infidelities, family disputes, and the usual gamut of slights, willfulness, and indifference. They loved each other or at least knew that they would be adrift if one of them died. They had settled into a comfortable routine like most older married couples, but their relationship was a very active one within it.  They never tired of each other, and when one of them had gone out to a class or a meeting, the other felt an emptiness in the house.

They did not do many things together.  Each had his or her own domain – the kitchen, the garden, the taxes, the car, and the investments – but the division was not along traditional gender lines.  She was remarkably adept at male prerogatives and he, among other things, could wash, iron, and fold. Their bookshelves, although not arranged by His and Her, had enough distinctively unique volumes on them that there was no doubt that two very different personalities were reading them.

Brent and Janet had not deliberately kept out of each other’s way, nor simply cohabited or shared space; but found a satisfying intersection of their lives.  Although their interests varied greatly, they shared the same sense of the intellectual hunt. Tracking the extension of agriculture from the first settlers in Jamestown to the Midwest or following the journeys of St. Paul in Asia Minor both required sources and rational speculation; and they listened to each other’s discoveries less for an understanding of the subject than an appreciation of the logical inquiry that led to conclusions.

ST. Paul

They came by this logical exposition and analytical conclusions honestly.  They both had been schooled well, studied history and economics, and had gone on to even more rigorous graduate courses.  Their careers had been somewhat desultory.  Neither one had the ambition of most of their colleagues.  Both tried a number of career paths before finally settling in to ones that were both challenging and left plenty of time for the incidental and unplanned.
They had children who, thanks to Cato the Elder (honesty, courage, discipline, respect, and compassion) and a family environment which, if occasionally fractious, was never hostile or angry, left home with confidence and good manners.

Image result for cato the elder

As Brent grew older, more and more he began to notice patterns and outlines where before he saw substance.  He noticed how perfectly he and his wife could anticipate their movements so that they never got in each other’s way.  Not in the small kitchen, nor in the narrow hallway, nor in and out the doors.  He could trace their flows and if he had drawn them, there would have been no straight lines; and if he could have animated them, they would have more resembled a choreographed pas de deux than polite leeway.  He knew from his wife’s first footfall that she was descending the stairs so he waited until she came down before he went up to his office. He understood her morning routine of coffee, yoghurt, New York Times so well, that never once did it ever interfere with his tea, texts, or chopping the  celery for soup.  They moved through the kitchen with practiced movements, but not not without grace.

Image result for images ballet pas de deux

He could visualize their neighborhood walks, not as two people exercising and chatting along the way, but the movements side to side as they adjusted each other to traffic, potholes, and bike-riders. At the beginning of the walk she was always three steps ahead of him, but by the time they reached the first hill, she was equal to him and then one step behind.  Dinner was less food and conversation than further choreography.  Her deliberate, precise way of eating.  His more brusque and quick habits.  How he pushed his chair back, or got up to refill his glass.

The substance of things seemed to matter less than their outlines and their forms.  He noticed how pictures were framed, how the rooms of the house were arranged and built.  He noticed angles and shadows, the lines of phone and light cords, the silhouettes of trees and the shape of phones and sinks.

He wondered what this all meant. Why was he disassembling and deconstructing familiar things? Was it a sign of the approaching end of his life when, he imagined, all would be silhouette, dark and light, lines and patterns? Was it simply a different form of intellectual curiosity and energy? 

One day many years ago his son had taken him to the National Arboretum and there they looked at trees – the Bonsai trees in the Japanese garden; the live oaks, cypress, sycamore, and maple trees on the grounds; and bushes, like Mountain Laurel that were distinct enough to have shape and form. After that visit Brent never looked at trees the same way.  More importantly he began to look at trees especially in winter. Without leaves, the trees were nothing but lines and patterns.

Image result for images winter bonsai trees

His son taught him about fractals, and after that he never looked at collections of leaves, maps of the Chesapeake Bay, or rivulets after a rain in the same way.

 Image result for images fractals chesapeake bay

Perhaps now for some unexplained reason he was returning to the purity of his son’s lesson and could see only through his eyes.

Brent found that once he started to be aware of his new obsession with shape, form, and outline, he could not stop himself from seeing only the thumb hole in the scissors, the composition of the Giotto fresco, the repeating circles of clock, trivet, and ashtray; the disappearing lines of phone cords; the delineation of dried berry stems.  His office was no longer one of color, memories, and texture; but only outlines.

Image result for images giotto frescoes

After a while he began to worry whether or not this obsession was an early symptom of Alzheimer’s or a neural disfiguration which would lead to a two-dimensional, colorless blindness.  Or perhaps his increasing focus on his last years, the frightening eventuality of death, and the nothingness beyond was beginning to distort the way he looked at everything – an inevitable descent into a kind of personal madness. Why was his insistent attention to form and line any different than any other obsession?

When he finally accepted his new outlook as simply different – the way it was, and obviously the way it had to be – he relaxed; and with it returned his ‘normal’ life.  Objects would suddenly lose shape and solidity or color; but would quickly snap back from outline and silhouette.

He came to appreciate his life with his wife more than he ever had. This focus on intersecting patterns or balletic approach gave it new meaning.  If he could emotionally prosper in a routine without substance but only outline, then the relationship was indeed an important one without which he could not survive.

Husbands and wives.  Marriage is the crucible for maturity, said Edward Albee who knew that George and Martha who eviscerated each other to the marrow to see each other’s souls could never have done so if they had been untethered by marriage.  Only its proximity and unavoidable intensity could force awareness, responsibility, and redemption.

George and Martha

Brent and Janet lived many more years quite happily.  Brent’s vision regained its complementarity; but occasionally he saw his wife in outline and silhouette. Rather than becoming concerned about the reappearance of his former obsession, he knew that it was only a reminder of how he had once framed her.  A reassembly of the transversals and ellipses that described their life together.

Marriage was indeed a crucible; but also a sketchbook, one whose outlines, shapes, and forms were as accurate a description of their life together as any image with more form and color.  They were part of her composite self; and only through the intimacy and inescapability of marriage could it be such a complete and nuanced one.

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