15 Marriage Lessons: A Year by Year List (Part 2)

In honor of this, my 15th year of marriage to Amber, I’ve been working on a series of “15 reflections.” Yesterday I published Part 1 of 15 Marriage Lessons: A Year by Year List. Today, I continue that list. For more in this series, follow the “15 Things” tag.


Lesson #8 (2007): A worthwhile marriage culminates in a bedside goodbye.

My father’s father passed in 2007. My grandmother and the hospice worker sat by his side as he had lucid flashbacks to an Oklahoma childhood, and told us of a large, purple and gold clad angel that kept coming and going from the room. My sweet grandmother stayed by his side through the passing, said things like “it will be okay,” and “go on, Leroy.”

Not everyone has this sort of abiding marriage. If you’re lucky, and you happen upon a little grace, you can live into a similar one.

Lesson #9 (2008): Buying a house at the market peak is something akin to the Manhattan Project; after the elation of success subsides, you realize you’re stuck with a long-term remediation project.

We bought a large house at the peak of the market in 2007. In the summer of 2008, after a trip to Mozambique, we decided to downsize. There was one tiny problem. In the year between our purchase of the house and our placing a “For Sale By Owner” sign in the yard, the housing market took a bit of a dip that resembled the following clip.


A word of caution to the youngsters looking to buy your large “forever home.” Don’t do it if the market is at peak performance. A home is never as “forever” as you might think, and once the new wears off, you’ll realize you are stuck with the residence until the market recovers (which might take years).

Lesson #10 (2009): Forgiveness is the measure of love.

I don’t suppose there is much more that should be said about this one, and the circumstances surrounding the lesson are immaterial. Perhaps it can stand on its own?

Lesson #11 (2010): Downsizing is all fine and good until the laundry house burns down.

In 2009 we decided to put our money where our mouths were, decided it was time to downsize and get free of the debt from our earlier years. We leased our house, and moved into an apartment across town that was owned by a local para-church ministry and housed college students and returning missionaries.

At first, it was a romantic little notion, we living with the students and the missionaries. In the dead of winter, with snow falling, the apartment laundry house caught fire. Already inconvenienced by the 1 block daily trek to the laundry house to stay atop Mount Laundry, we were now faced with the specter of having to drive to a local Laundromat.

Yes, downsizing is all fine and good, but make sure you have a backup laundry plan.

Lesson #12 (2011): “In sickness and in health” isn’t just a trite platitude.

Amber and I used traditional vows, and pledged to stick it out “in sickness and in health.” At the time, I reckoned that this pledge related to our own sickness and health. Priests, preachers, and justices of the peace are not always the best at teasing out nuance.

In 2011, Titus was born. From the beginning, he took to floundering. For a while, his heart was a bit too holey, then his esophagus was a bit to tiny, then his immune system was flat-out wonky. In the whirlwind 2 years that would follow, we walked the nuance of loving each other “in sickness and health.”

Sticking together through the sickness of a frail child is not easy work. Remembering your vows and teasing out the nuance makes it easier.

Lesson #13 (2012): A spouse is not a best friend; a spouse is something more.

I’ve had a few “best friends” over my life, and with each, I assume that said best friend will be the last best friend I ever need. Friendships come and go, though. Best friends become good friends, good friends become every-now-and-then friends, every-now-and-then friends become acquaintances. Deep down, I think we all know this to be true.

A spouse is something more than a best friend. She’ll bend, endure, perhaps wax (metaphorically and literally) and wane. She’ll laugh, cry, play, and work with you. You’ll rear children together, cultivate more than one harvest of memories. And, on those darker days when the odds are stacked against you, a spouse won’t run from trouble; instead, she’ll do her best to give the old wuxi finger (hold) to any enemy (metaphorical or literal) that dares to round the block.

Lesson #14 (2013): De’Nial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt.

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.

Amber looked at me once, asked, “haven’t you been drinking a bit too much lately?”

My face flushed and the heat rose. “I can quit whenever I want!” I said.

Note to reader: if these words ever slip from your lips in regards to any old habit, consider whether you’re your floating down a slow river called De’Nial.

Lesson #15 (2014): Tuscany is for lovers.

Stash your change for the next fifteen years. Plink your pennies into a jar. Throw a few spare greenbacks under your mattress. Melt down your high school graduation ring and sell it for scrap. Be creative and save, save, save. Then, take a big trip with your spouse, leaving the kids behind. You won’t regret it.

Tuscany 4 Tuscany 1   Tuscany Amber Seth Tusany 5 Tuscany 3

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15 Marriage Lessons: A Year by Year List (Part 1)

In honor of nearly 15 years of marriage, I’m sharing a series of “15 reflections” taking different forms. You can read the first list here (15 Things You Might Not Care to Know About Our Dating Years). Today (and tomorrow), I’m sharing 15 Marriage Lessons from our 15 years of marriage. Enjoy.


Lesson 1 (2000)Individual, pre-marriage histories create a common, post-marriage narrative.

In August of 2000, we packed our worldly possessions in a tiny car and said goodbye to Tulsa. The road was fire-hot, and by Fayetteville, the thin-treaded tire on the passenger side melted and peeled. The spare tire sat under a mound of boxes and books, and as we unloaded on the side of the road, Amber ran across a treasured High School companion–an old book of poetry with a worn binding. She opened it as I removed the spare tire from the wheel well, and said with near delight, “oh look! Some seeds!”

“Seeds?” I asked.

She squinted her eyes, pinched her thumb and forefinger together, put them to her lips and took a false drag.

“Oh,” I said, and then felt the rising tide of panic. “Throw that junk out before a Cop pulls over to help us change a flat! I don’t want to go to jail for possession!”

Amber just laughed and brushed the inside of the spine clean.

It is true: the fruit of single-living always leaves behind a seed or two.

Lesson 2 (2001): Survival of the fittest doesn’t just apply to spawning salmon.

Fed up with ministry, Amber and I ran kicking and screaming from the church. I’m not sure how we made it. All I can figure is that old Mr. Darwin was on to something. Survival of the fittest doesn’t just apply to spawning salmon and Galapagos lizards.

(Just a note to those struggling in the early throws of marriage: you are tougher than you think.)  

Lesson 3 (2002)A jitterbug marriage is a thing worth shooting for.

The Mouk family (the folks on my mother’s side) are a good lot, a lot that knows how to celebrate in style. My grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer that year, and she’d determined to make the most of her remaining time. At our Christmas gathering, Carol Mouk declared that she would like to dance he jitterbug with my grandfather. He turned on some old-timey jazz, and the two took center-stage in the middle of the large family room. He was a decent jitterbugger; she was better. They danced and laughed like they were twenty, and the family watched in both amazement and envy.

I don’t know a thing about dancing the jitterbug, but I aim to dance the “running man” with Amber in our seventies (which means I have to learn it).

Lesson 4 (2003): Your spouse shouldn’t have to say, “I’m an affair waiting to happen,” to get your attention.

Chances are, if your spouse comes to you and says, “I’m an affair waiting to happen,” you missed some previous non-verbal cues of your growing disconnection. I heard that once, and once was enough. These days, Amber and I take to examining the depth of our connection on a regular basis; if something is off, we try to remedy it before it festers and turns into a regretful prophecy.

Lesson 5 (2004): On vacation, it’s a good idea to know the lay of the land; it’s a better idea to know the local beach rules.

During our fifth year of marriage, we took our first family vacation to sunny Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As the fates would have it, Amber was five months pregnant, and feeling a bit beached herself (if you know what I mean). We made our way to two ocean-side chairs, and as we sat, Amber lamented her growing belly, commented that she didn’t feel very sexy. I did my best to reassure her, and right as I was in the middle of my best “come on baby, you’re beautiful just the way you are” spiel, a buxom woman exploded up from the ocean surf, and began running to the lawn chair beside us. As it turns out, bikini tops are optional on certain Fort Lauderdalian beaches, and this woman was taking full advantage of her American freedoms. Amber turned to me, chin quivering and said in some amalgam of desperate plea and angry growl, “you’d better not look, or you’ll wish you didn’t have eyes.”

Lesson 6 (2005): Neither church nor baby will fix a marriage, but both can bring fresh centering.

We’d endured a nasty spell with ministry, moved into a tiny Love Shack with inadequate heating and cooling, been through the searching-through-the-couch-cussions-for-pizza-money spell, and endured the disconnection of too many grad-school nights in the library. Looking back on it, our marriage was held together by little more than secondhand Scotch tape.

About the time we wondered whether or not we’d make it to our sixth anniversary, we found the joys of growing in a small and simple church and rearing a small and simple child. Rebuilding always starts in the smallest and simplest ways.

Lesson 7 (2006)If laughter is good medicine, then stealing bikes from the neighborhood boys is the prescription.

While entertaining friends, a group of neighborhood children decided to play the old game of “ding dong ditch.” We had two sleeping babies, and when the doorbell rang Amber’s face turned beet-red and steam screamed from her ears. She bolted out the door as one tiny eight-year old tried his best to mount his bike. Nervous, he floundered, and Amber was on him before he could get any momentum. In an effort to evade the wrath of the neighborhood mother, he ditched his bike and ran. Amber scooped up his two wheeler and yelled, “you can have your bike back when you bring your parents to my house!”

The bike sat in our foyer until the boys came back to apologize. We had a good roll over that one.


(To be continued! Join the mailing list to receive Part 2 in your inbox.)

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For Titus

For Titus:

I was da,
when the milk teeth first
broke ivory white
through new pink
and grew fast
from the floor up.

I was da,
a single syllable
like mild,
like love,
like peace.

I was da-da,
when the uppers
came screaming
through mouth’s roof,
when you learned
of night terrors
and sickness.

I was da-da
the complex,
the healer,
the big-armed

Today I am dad,
a one syllable wonder
yet again,
the difference,
the beginning,
always the difference.

I am dad,
and in that
there is sorrow
and hope.
Sorrow that
by language
I have evolved beyond
single syllables,
and hope that
I might always
be the difference,
yes–the beginning of
all difference.

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America #1 (Thoughts from a Rocking Chair)


It is pleasant to talk of
work, rest, personal spirituality,
of the tragedy of old Smith’s farmland
untouched by tractors for
near a generation,
or of morning prayers
and the flight of the gold finches.


Here, in this pipe dream
of the American free,

I saw the children running
through water spouting sidewalks,
dancing the hokey-pokey
to radio-Disney,
learning the joys
of play-pretend wars,
of vigilant violence between
marines and jihadi militants,
or cowboys and Indians,

I saw We The People
dancing to death
yet again, and buying news
like movies, like politics,
like bubblegum and Coca-Cola.

I saw this all from the
porch rocker at old Smith’s place,
from the farmland
untouched by tractors for
near a generation.


I could sit here, in this rocker
overlooking fallow fields,
prayer beads in hand,
and dream pretty poems
of a people’s judgment.

I could watch the gold finches
come, and leave, and come again,
and call this contemplation.

I could name it Walden,
or Eden, or the Buffalo River Valley.

These, too, are
luxurious pastimes.


Other-world children
marshal language like missiles
and speak of loosing fathers
and goats with the same
dry eyes;

I wonder whether they hope
to work their father’s fallow fields,
to consider again the morning prayer
of peace, to hear again
the gold-finch’s Spring song.

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Just a few Questions


A church matron, a Baptist-born, by-God saint once told me that every time a woman has sex before marriage, she gives away a tiny piece of herself. I note that she made no mention of men, but that aside, she expounded, said that if a girl gives away too many tiny pieces, she’ll find herself incomplete.  I was sixteen when she said this. I am thirty-six now. I do not believe her. Is the complete self of a woman (or man) reduced to sexuality? Are we summed up by the sins of our past?


A shopping-mall Santa once said that every time a child says “I don’t believe,” an elf or fairy dies. Platitudes and leg-pulling aside, this is cruel. Can doubt be beaten back by fear and shame?


Yesterday, I logged onto Facebook and saw the news of the Palestinian children who were murdered while playing on the beach. In the comment thread of one avatar’s status update, a war of words ensued. As good Americans (not to say anything of Christians) we must side with Israel to the death! As humanitarian activists (not to say anything of Christians) we must call the Israelies to account! Opinions flew with the rocket’s red glare. I wondered; is anyone listening anymore? Are we listening to the children, or are we just engaging in our own ideological wars?


I’ve been watching social media girations, and the questions that these girations beg are age-old. Are we reduced to the sum of our sexuality, or the sins of our past? Can doubt (in God, politics, the market) be beaten back by fear and shame? Is anyone listening to the children anymore, or are we too wrapped up in our own ideologies?


I once read that St. Francis prayed, “Most High, Glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and grant me… a perfect charity.” Ah charity. Whatever happened to charity?

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