Jun 12, 2023, 05:57AM

I Married an Artist

We're not alone, really.

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I got married two weeks ago today (as I write on June 11). We applied for a license at the Adams County Courthouse in Gettysburg, and made our simple promise without an officiant during silent Quaker worship at Menallen Meeting House in Biglerville, PA. "Friends, I take this my friend Jane Irish to be my wife, promising through divine assistance to be unto her a loving and faithful husband, so long as we both on earth shall live." Jane Irish is a painter. This is important to the Irish/Sartwell merger in a way I’ll try to say as we go along.

There didn't seem to be any pressing reason to do it; despite your suspicions, Jane Irish was not knocked up. We're in our 60s; no one is telling us that we can't live together or hang out all the time and love it up if we are thus inclined; we've been doing that for nine years already. It’s the third marriage for me, second for her. We decided suddenly to get hitched and then did it quick. We don't really know how being married will affect our financial or tax situation, so that wasn't a factor.

I didn't think that the legal status of marriage could change the emotional valence of our pairing very much, or that it should. I didn't want it to be relevant to how we think about each other that in certain situations we might have legal claims and the like. We'd had bad experiences in marriage, and we hadn't married each other before because we didn't see why we should.

But we'd reached the point this spring at which we thought we needed some sort of official status in one another's families. Jane's sister Sue died late last year; even though I'd been Sue's sister's man for years, I wasn't exactly her brother-in-law. What was my status with regard to Sue's grown children, Jane's nieces and nephew? It will still take some getting used to, but now I'm Uncle Crispy, I suppose. Meanwhile, my 98-year-old-mother needs more and more care, and family decisions need to be made. Sometimes we have family meetings with my kids and their partners to try to figure out what to do. Even at this late stage, "step-mother" is a different status than "Dad's gf," which did seem kind of marginal no matter what anyone said.

And since we got married, we do seem to feel a little differently about these matters, and perhaps other people feel a little differently about us. In each others' families, we’re no longer affiliates or satellites; we've gotten “vested.” Also, more dramatically, or more directly detectible for us, is that we seem to feel a little bit different about our relationship. The idea that sixtysomethings are "dating," for example, just seems ridiculous, or "cute" maybe. It makes you say "aw," rather than "really? that's hot." I thought we'd just continue in that "for-all-you-know-we're just friends" older-affiliates style. And we love each other, but not perhaps with the same semi-sane passion we might’ve brought to bear on romantic relationships 40 years ago.

But these last couple of weeks have started to show us what our relationship can be if it feels more secure to both of us. Somehow this security is what’s conveyed for each of us in the other's vow. Believe it or not, we’re a little less polite with one another. That could be dangerous; it could also amount to intimacy. We’re less provisional about long-term speculative planning. We're a bit less uptight about each other's exes. Our lovemaking has been particularly sweet and hot and decent, even though people at our age shouldn't say things like that. The public promise, and being publicly "held in the light," being known to others as married, has changed us more than we thought it would.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in my life feeling alone. Being married doesn't necessarily cure or even alter that, but it represents for me a pledge not to feel so isolated, or rather, to experience the fact that I’m already not fully distinct from Jane Irish.

One thing about long-term committed love is that it shows that telepathy is real. People very typically or inevitably engage in mind-to-mind communication, and when they spend a lot of time together they begin to merge. So, for example, it’s sometimes said that you can never know what another person is thinking, or even that you can never know who they are deep inside. You’re transparent to yourself, it’s said, but can never know someone else in the same way. I might be able to see what you're doing, but I can't know what it's like to be you. But the promise and threat of real marriage, I think, is the promise and threat of real merger.

If I'm puzzled about what it's like to be you, perhaps in some particular situation, I could ask you, after all. I might struggle to tell you what it's like over here, but I’ve been known to take a pretty good crack at it. And I can see a lot about who you are deep inside by what you do every day. I'm not sure this "internal/external" distinction makes perfect sense. But I do know that it's always breaking down.

But making breakfast is one thing, art another. As we've lived together, I've watched dozens of paintings emerge from Jane Irish's consciousness and her studio, which again I say are not distinct. One thing she and I agree on; we’re very identified with the work we do; I think I am my writing, honestly, and I know that she is her paintings. We call art "self-expression" for a reason; it makes the interior visible. Jane Irish's art shares her consciousness in a way that flows into the consciousnesses of which we are each bits. Every way that we're communicating, from sex to essay to ceiling painting to marriage ceremony, is a way we're ceasing to be distinct, even if a full merger would be a problem or an impossibility.

It's not exactly a matter of bringing forward what’s deeply buried, or of groping to express an elusive subjectivity: it's that the acts of thinking and feeling and making and becoming oneself are the very same act: the artifacts we're creating are constituting and transforming our consciousnesses together.

If I thought marriage had a goal, it would be this sort of expressive merger: a shared world of art and making that shows that we can genuinely be part of one another, that each of us can be known to the other. This entails knowing that we’re different. I couldn't have painted that painting, but I also watched it take shape in and emerge from Jane's mind and her studio. After I did, I couldn’t have failed to know more about and be closer to the person who painted it than before.

I think this sort of intermittent and halting but intense and profound merger of persons is the purpose of art. It can have all sorts of transformative aesthetic and even political effects. And I want this sort of intermittent and halting but intense and profound merger of persons to be the purpose of marriage too. So I married an artist!

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell



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