Monday, December 22, 2014

The Wife of Bath

The best gifts are the most unexpected ones.

Today I had the joy of receiving a note from an old friend with whom I have been too long out of touch. She is an artist, residing in Bath, Pennsylvania. Upon finding her name in my dad's address book--unearthed in this month's portion of the continued sifting through his estate--I wrote her a few weeks ago.

What should appear with the note today but a gift of several bars of soap, made by the Wife of Bath--with a name whose pun works two ways. Here is the label from a soap called Instant Karma:
I cherish those things both artfully made at home and which bear a pleasing scent--perhaps learned from a few years of my own wife's work with homemade candles. I also enjoy references to medieval poetry which make me dig up again that ancient high school learning so long buried.

If one should desire for one's spouse a gift of handmade soap, composed lovingly with an artists' palette of scents and colors, then let me recommend a purveyor of such fine goods: Linda Kondikoff,

Just remember first to ask your spouse what she most desires.

Thanks, Linda, for the wonderful surprise!

~ emrys

Friday, December 12, 2014

Happily Ever Before?

Disney's newest classic, Frozen, has rocked the world of a whole new generation of Disney Princess fans. For those of us who have lived through several iterations of the "one day my prince will come" plot line, a major epicenter in the film was the moment when (spoiler alert!) Prince Hans of the Southern Isles abandons Princess Anna to the demise of her frozen heart. What? The prince and princess aren't going to ride off into the sunset together? No: As promising as Kristoff and Anna's relationship appears, the act of True Love that saves Elsa is her sister's self-sacrifice, not a chivalrous kiss.

What happened to that universal salve for loneliness and meaninglessness, Marriage?

This very question Stephanie Coontz explores in her book Marriage, a History: from Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (Viking 2005).

In her exhaustive, scholarly tome, Coontz provides a breathtaking panorama of the institution of marriage through history. She begins with the fragmented anthropological tiles of ancient societies and slowly walks us down the aisle to twentieth-century marriage. On either side of the aisle sit the sweeping forces that contribute to our understanding of marriage: sociology, economics, law, and psychology. Coontz takes them all in, reflecting on the shifting effects each element of our Western society has on this bedrock covenant commitment.

As a "history," the book does not have a thesis per se. But one facet of the study seems to me to rise in greater relief, as I view the subject from my perspective in 2015. This aspect is described pithily in the subtitle: "How Love Conquered Marriage." Coontz asserts that in the 19th and 20th centuries the idea of marrying for the love of two individuals--the "love match"--radically and irrevocably altered the nature of marriage in our society. She emphasizes how re-centering marriage on the desires of two individuals has made the institution (if it can now be called that) both more satisfying and more fragile than it's ever been.

I appreciated Coontz's book for the rich detail engendered by her depth of research. But adding value to her work is her humble recognition of our biases and the concomitant surprise when faced with historical facts. We (especially we Disney viewers) assume that the Donna Reed version of marriage represents not only the ideal scenario but also a relationship reflective of the institution throughout Western history. Sure, they didn't always have electric toasters; but it was always the wife's job to stay in the home and wait for her husband to return from work, right?

As someone who officiates at weddings more than the average citizen, I am especially sensitive to the changing mores and family systems that affect--and effect--marriages. I am far from certain that a nostalgic insistence on the way things were (though they probably weren't) is the panacea for the fractured relationships that individualism produces. As in all relationships, nuptial or otherwise, I am convinced that commitment and self-sacrifice, no matter what the precise language or circumstances of the covenant, are the central features of success; who earns more money, who does the grocery shopping, and who spends more time with the kids matter less. As strange as it feels to me to quote a Jack Nicholson character in connection with marriage, his guise in As Good As It Gets says it well: Each spouse must feel of the other that "you make me want to be a better person."

So perhaps Frozen has touched this chord, too, with the zeitgeist-savvy writing by which Disney has made its trillions. It is not the descent of a privileged Prince Charming to the lowly station of a Damsel in Distress which melts the ice on a cursed world. Instead, the willingness of a sister to sacrifice her life exemplifies true love. So if marriage is going to last, even in our self-obsessed culture, it must help spouses commit to the discipline of sacrifice: What will I give up to bless my partner in our life together?

For anyone who wants to rethink the purpose and power of marriage, or to better understand the strange times in which we live, I recommend Marriage, a History.

~ emrys