My wife and don’t often fight. We’ve been married over 30 years and I know few marriages better balanced. But she is no pushover. I’ve always maintained that a good marriage must be based on having a “worthy opponent.” It’s no fair if you can overwhelm your spouse, or be overwhelmed. My wife can walk through walls.
But she does see many things differently. The basic difference is that I made my living writing prose, and she is a poet (her book, “Rust Sings,” was published last year.)
Anyway, this one fight we had was memorable. We never fought over the normal stupid things that bring friction to a marriage. No, we never came to words over money or brothers-in-law or politics. Our biggest fight went on for three days — three days in which we got no sleep. We argued all day and all night, with a fervor and focus usually used to keep an armed kidnapper talking instead of shooting.
And what did we argue about? The color blue.
I took the bait. “What do you mean, ‘fall into’?”
“It’s a blue you can dive into and drown in,” she said.
“Oh, you mean metaphorically.”
“No, I mean you can fall into it.”
And we were off. I was pigheaded and literal, she was insistent that she didn’t mean what she said figuratively, but literally. Her “literal” was different from mine. I said you can’t actually drown in a color. It’s a hard surface. I poked it, whatever it was. My finger couldn’t break the surface tension.
“That’s not what I mean,” she said. She looked disgustedly at me for my failure to understand what seemed so simple to her.
That’s when I lit the fuse. “Well, then,” I said, “you have to define your terms.”
“No I don’t.”
“If you don’t, I can’t argue with you, I can’t understand what you mean. You use words so loosely.”
“It’s simple,” she said, getting more impatient. “Let yourself down into that blue and swim in it.”
“How can I? It isn’t liquid.”
“Yes it is,” she said.
“No, it’s not.”
It should be obvious by now, we were not talking about the same thing at all. But deep in the discussion, it wasn’t apparent to either of us. We were both stuck to our umwelt, and her’s was liquid. Mine was lumpen.
“You know how at night, the dark blue sky can slip in under the window sash? The night is a blue liquid that wants to drown you.”
“No, I don’t know that. Night is merely the absence of daylight. It’s dark because there’s no sun up in the sky.”
“But you have to know the dark is a thing itself.”
She described how when she was a year or two old, she was out playing in front of the house and when night fell, she thought it was a dark fluid that would drown her. It scared her and she ran inside.
But inside, the dark could seep in under the window and fill her room.
“The night is a man, paper thin, like a cutout, that can just fit under the window frame.”
I shook my head. This made no sense to me, logical positivist that I was.
“All well and good,” I said, “as poetry. But scientifically, the dark is just the earth turning away from the sun for 12 hours. So, I still don’t get what you mean when you say you can fall into blue.”
“Not any blue, but that blue,” she said.
I can in no wise reproduce what transpired for the next 36 or 40 hours, but it only got more intense. I stupidly dug in my heels about the need for clear language and vocabulary, and she dug in her heels just as stubbornly.
“Why are you yelling at me?”
“I’m not yelling.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not. This is my normal voice; I’m just from New Jersey.”
I was yelling. But she only made me angrier, because her response was not to raise her voice, but to lower it to a level almost inaudible. She played the “calm” card. She wasn’t calm: It was a ploy. But it wound me up.
We tried going to bed the first night, but we couldn’t stop talking and the next thing we knew, it was dawn and we were still arguing. It continued all the next day. We didn’t even stop to eat. And into the second night. In the end, it came to a conclusion the way all such things do: The husband gives up.
Well, not so simple. The husband — in this case, me — comes to recognize that the way of understanding the world I was born into is not the only way of understanding the world. I had to enlarge my psyche to take in her way of expressing herself, and not think so literally. Maybe defining one’s terms is really only a way of cutting off conversation.
My “literal” was based on the assumption that the outside world was the essential reality, and that my perception is merely the intake of that reality into my brain. Her “literal” was the experience of her mind as it takes in the things of the world. If you posit reality outside the brain, you think one way; if you place it inside the skull, you get a whole nother ballgame. “All things exist as they are perceived,” wrote Percy Shelley, “at least in relation to the percipient.”
I had an unexamined faith that the world is a thing in itself; she had no such faith, but never doubted her experience of the world. It is the only thing, she says, that she knows is true. If it can be tagged onto something measurable by a thermometer or geiger counter, fine, but that is not what is real: The only “real” is its experience. And blue, QED, is something she can fall into.
This three-day argument happened more than 25 years ago, and it has in some ways come to define our marriage, and my appreciation of my wife’s different way of understanding the world. It is why she can write poetry with no calculation — it just flows out of her. Or, rather, comes to her. “You just make your chest wet,” she says, “and it will stick.”
And it is why I can write prose. Clarity, exactitude, structure, rewriting and testing. No ambiguous pronouns, no duplicitous definitions.
But as one gets older, one either grows or fossilizes. I have tried to learn as much as I can from my wife. There is much there to learn from. She continues to astonish me.