A few weeks ago we packed our bags and flew down to Charleston for a weekend in the Holy City. It had been a while, between work and friends and other commitments, since we enjoyed time together, you and me. What struck me and probably every other visitor that weekend was the way we are drawn to the old.
You are an old soul and maybe that is why people are drawn to you. You love your slippers, the Saturday paper, your shirts folded a certain way and smoking a pipe on a porch when the sun goes down. In an age where the most important thing is having an opinion and spilling it everywhere, you are a listener, and that is why I find you always at a party nodding and smiling and taking in the stories of another person rather than sharing your own. Maybe that’s where you learned about model trains and how to put together highways and the importance of rotating crops.
You fit right in there, on those streets, because today, when most of the world looks for new and fresh, Charleston unapologetically preserves the old: old buildings, old streets where the brick cracks and bend to accommodate shifting of time, old churches that have survived earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, two wars and the weight of a thousand footsteps parading through their halls every day. We saw buildings with washers in them, holding them up after the earth shook them, wood siding peeling and cracking, begging for a paint job. We were among hundreds taking in the tall windows, the detail on the moldings, the grandeur of a place where surely God must live. It’s no wonder they call this place the Holy City.
Marriage, too, one of the oldest institutions, comes with its cracks and challenges. You are the easiest and hardest, most comfortable and new, wonderful and difficult aspect of my life. You make me laugh hard enough to lose my breath and madder than a wet hen without dinner, and you are the most exquisite, lovely, and tedious thing that has ever happened to me. We are molding ourselves together while reeling against each other, and when this is all finished we’ll be a building with detailed crown molding and bricks that have bent to accommodate the storms we’ve weathered together, both the ones we’ve brought in and the ones that found us.
Four years, we kept saying as we walked up and down the streets, along the harbor, through Battery Park, our stomachs full with low country food: fried chicken, biscuits, sweet tea and corn. Four married years, a house, a little girl on the way. Beneath the angel oaks planted before the Revolutionary War, we were reminded that four years is nothing, the blink of an eye, just two people in a sea of thousands of people who have fallen in love. But to us, these four years are everything. These are the years we have learned to stand by each other, up for each other, next to each other, behind each other, in ways so different than we once thought.
It’s a good thing, when you’re young, to be surrounded by so much old. Weathered and time tested gives a perspective that fresh faced never can. You know this better than I do, because you’ve grown up among the old. You’ve learned and pocketed treasures that most people in our generation miss.
In the sunny spots between rainfalls of the tropical storm swirling around us, we made our way to the pier and watched groups of birds fly together around the harbor. Even in a flock, they fly as one in perfect harmony, as though what they spoke with was more than voices and answered with the complete conforming of the whole body.
You asked me once, years ago, what I was afraid of. We were in college and I was trying, again, to break up with you for some reason or another. I looked at you then and saw you, twenty years down the road, on a swing on a porch overlooking a farm, coffee in one hand, the other arm wrapped around a smiling, happy wife. Was that what I wanted?
I am afraid of you, I wanted to say. I am afraid that you are who I am made for. Deeper still, I wanted to say that I was too young for this, that you can’t commit to someone forever when you are twenty-one. I wanted to live abroad and be broke and stay in hostels, teaching English and then come home with some fresh, new, different perspective of the world. I didn’t understand yet that there is a kind of wisdom in being loyal to a place, in knowing where you came from, in planning your life according to the schedule of the vegetable crop.
So you waited. You let me do all those things, and then we got married and we did them together. We traveled, we were broke, we started businesses, we lived in the city, and then we moved back to the place you are from and I am learning the steadiness of a routine and a schedule. And those things I was most afraid of committing to have brought me more joy and freedom than I ever could have known.
Aren’t we always afraid of doing the thing we most love, the thing we are meant to do? This is how I feel every day I sit down in front of my computer to write. I am afraid my brain is not sharp enough, my words not eloquent enough, my plots not complex nor layered nor surprising enough. I am afraid, at the heart of it, that I am profoundly wrong.
We stood on the pier as the birds responded and changed direction as a whole in an instant. They are left, they are right, they are together the whole sky.
How do you become old? What do you have to go through to gain perspective, understanding? Is it two wars, and the crumbling of an economy built by slaves? Is it an earthquake? Is it having your paint weathered and worn by tropical storms and hurricanes? How well do you have to listen to move the way the bird does, to live with a body so attentive to another that you mimic their movement as one?
I thought the Lord had grander, more exotic plans for me than a steady husband who makes me laugh, a little brick house by the river, a garden and a baby on the way, weekend trips to beautiful cities. I look at that younger self now and wince. What could be grander, I wonder, than living the mundane, extradornairy every day with the person who makes you feel most alive, what more precious than learning to care for the earth so that it continues to produce?
We don’t move yet the way the birds do, nor are we so strong and sure rooted as the angel oaks. But maybe, if we continue to take in and learn from what has happened before us, if we can learn from the ways and patterns of the skies and the trees, if we can accommodate earth quakes and hurricanes by bending and leaning the way these streets have, maybe will have a fighting chance.
Maybe somehow we can drink in these lessons of the old, of the ways of humanity and nature, the course of love, until we move, unthinking, as one: until we are left, we are right, we are together, the whole sky.