#31: Margery of Kempe and Starting Over

A year later, and being between vaccines

Approximately one year ago I sent out my to-date-most-read newsletter on Julian of Norwich and staying inside your four walls. It’s not hard to see why Julian’s biography hit a nerve with me, hit a nerve with a lot of people who were just getting used to keening mosquito-whine of anxiety and the dull ache of separation that’s been with us for a full year now.

In that letter, I also briefly talk about Margery Kempe, another (absolute favorite) 14th-century British mystic and the author of the first English-language autobiography. She visited Julian of Norwich, and writes about it in her Book. Margery was 40 and just setting out on her spiritual journey, Julian only about three years from death.

Let me tell you more about Margery. She was a middle class medieval woman, born and raised in Norfolk, and for the most part, led an absolutely normal life. She was married, to the long-suffering John Kempe, had 14-ish children, had a failed business as a brewer and with a grain mill, was illiterate and, if her biography is anything to go by, plain-spoken and rather funny. However, after the birth of her first child, something happened: the 8 months following his birth, she was plagued by visions of demons, a disappointed Christ, and suicidal ideation. From there, her life pulled her along in the tidal flow of childbearing, keeping a growing family alive, a loving relationship with her husband—it’s plain between the lines of her autobiography that she’s plagued by lust for her husband—able to put off her desire for increasing closeness and devotion to God, or at least subsume it into everyday life, until once again, Something Happens. In 1413, shortly after the death of her father, Margery decides to do two things 1) Negotiate a chaste marriage with her husband John and 2) Go on pilgrimage. It is on the first leg of this first pilgrimage that she encounters Julian, who affirms her visions, her desire for a more pious life, while cautioning her that all her work had to be in the service of all of Christendom, not just her own faith.

Margery of Kempe did not literally write her own memoir, she hired someone to take dictation, but I do really like this image, so sorry to historical accuracy.

This is the point where Margery’s life explodes into possibility—she travels to the edges of the known world, spending time in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Assisi, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Gdansk, Aachen, Calais, and various holy sites in and around England itself. She hires a scribe to help her set her wild and blooming life down on the page, to give herself the power to explain her visions and her devotion. Her life is not without peril or difficulty. Throughout her travels she often gets in trouble for her preaching, for her sobbing and emotional reactions to Christ, for being a woman, for being plain-spoken, for interpreting scripture, for heresy, for impersonating a nun, for believing she could make an intercessory prayer. When John Kempe gets sick in the 1430s, she returns to him and nurses him until his death, a period she describes as tender, if difficult. After his death, she hits the road once again on pilgrimage. Her life was greater, and wilder, and stranger than the life we might imagine for any medieval woman, especially one that was not wealthy.

But let me go back to 1413, this year that feels like the hinge in Margery’s life, the moment of meeting between these two incredible mystics whose words have somehow survived centuries. Julian’s world was constricted to the walls of her cell, even as war and plague raged outside. Margery’s world was as wide as she was brave enough to make it. It feels like this month is that point of meeting between these two women: we are just emerging from a tremendously difficult winter, full of isolation and challenge and loneliness, and we are emerging into a spring full of promise and hope but also a lot of strangeness and wildness and untrod paths.

I got my first shot a week or so ago in an empty K Mart, I’ll get my second shot in two weeks in a hospital in the suburbs. The woman who gave me my first dose of the vaccine was named Queen, the vaccination center was packed at 10:30 on a Saturday morning, everyone calm and kind and patient, masks over their noses and anxious eyes, whatever our last year had looked like. I cried a little bit before I got my shot, a little bit after, in the observation period.

Just as the shape of my life today was unimaginable to me a year ago, the shape of my life in a year is unimaginable to me now. This year has been exhausting and traumatic and strange for all of us, lined by grief and loneliness, and now our doors are ever so cautiously swinging open, revealing the entirety of a changed world to us. It’s been pointed out over and over again that “normal” is not what we are, or what we should be aiming for, but I do know that these open doors, a tenderly reopening world, represent an opportunity to build for ourselves, for each other, a better world, space for each of us to have beautiful and blooming lives in the aftermath of our loss.

I’m not going to lie—this is an opportunity that feels far away in a way the end of the pandemic doesn’t. We, collectively, every single one of us, failed so many people so profoundly, we let our government fail so, so many people, we have been failing people, collectively, since the beginning of this country and none of the news out of Washington is making me feel like that’s going to stop. But I also look at my local mutual aid, I look at all the ways our communities have stepped up, all the ways person to person we have figured out how to take care of each other, all the weird wonderful art that happened, the different ways we learned to be with ourselves.

It’s kind of a div school cliche that apocalypse comes from the Greek for “unveiling.” The price of this new knowledge, like so much new knowledge, came at a high price, but it will be a higher price still if we try to forget this hard-won lesson. As we stand here, on the hinge of the world, it’s time to visit our mystics and elders, time to reach for wisdom to ensure that as we rebuild the world, find new shapes for our lives, that we build it in ways that serve all of us and not just ourselves. We need to allow ourselves to have been changed by this strange, terrible year as we venture out, pilgrims into a new world.

Share Ojos de Santa Lucia

Reading List:

As a reminder, I make a small commission off these sales:

  1. The Book of Margery Kempe I honestly would just recommend reading this, cover to cover. It’s so strange and funny and has such a voice, coming from hundreds of years away.

  2. Margery Kempe by Robert Gluck. Extremely different vibes, and yet this book showed me what I’ve been trying to do with the saints all along.

  3. Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. I don’t know, I’ve been thinking about this book a lot lately, it’s very short and strange and maybe what it looks like to be a mystic today.

  4. Joyful Militancy: Building Active Resistance in Toxic Times. A good book on how to do the people parts of building a better world, which, let’s face it, are very fucking difficult.

I’m also going to throw in the entire list for the Julien of Norwich letter, just for kicks.

Leave a comment

A small housekeeping note—this will likely be the last edition of Ojos de Santa Lucia that occurs on Substack. It’s increasingly apparent that this platform, like so many others, has chosen to make vague handwaving notions about the idea of freedom of speech rather than protecting trans women from absolutely despicable attacks. Unlike other platforms however, they’ve given transphobes ENORMOUS advances on their newsletters, legal protection, etc. and that’s really not ok. I need a moment to gather my wits and figure out how and where to migrate, but I’ve done it before and will do it again! It’s important to note, again, that I don’t make money from this newsletter other than the occasional commission from Bookshop purchases so this is largely a symbolic flouncing off, and yet, off I flounce.

I’ll be sending another note thru Substack when the change goes through to let you know and let anyone who falls thru the cracks have the opportunity to jump back on the bandwagon.

No new writing from me this month, turns out it is very difficult to write things.

As always, feel free to forward, share, tweet about, email me, literally whatever—I cannot tell you how much I enjoy hearing from people who read this newsletter!


#30: Annie Dillard and Making Do

On the arctic and feelings in February

I’ve been reading a lot of books about arctic exploration this month, in part because nothing makes me feel better about living in the snowiest Chicago in 40 years than reading Barry Lopez wax rhapsodic and tender about an even more unforgiving, spartan landscape.

Lopez, who passed away last year, was a writer known for his careful eye and deep reverence for the natural world. I had heard of him, but hadn’t read him before, and the outpouring of love and memorials from other writers I deeply admire made me put his books on hold at the library and work my way through them over the course of this month. I spent about half of Horizon being vaguely disappointed that Lopez was not, as I had thought, Latino—I hadn’t realized how important the idea of an older Latino man, puttering around the margins and extreme climes of the world was to me. This was kind of compounded by Lopez’s sympathies throughout for colonizers like Capt. James Cook (he insists throughout that he didn’t really mean it, it being I guess the exploration that would lead to colonization attempts across the Pacific), but by the time I got to Arctic Dreams, one of his earlier and most famous books, I was ready for reading Lopez. It’s a lot of careful analysis of biology (narwhal’s tusks only spin counter-clockwise, this is what a polar bear’s year looks like) and history (here is the camp of one arctic explorer or another, here is how he met his hubristic doom not far from this spot) punctuated by moments like this one:

There is a word from the time of the cathedrals: agape, an expression of intense spiritual affinity with the mystery that is “to be sharing life with other life.” Agape is love, and it can mean “the love of another for the sake of God.” More broadly and essentially, it is a humble, impassioned embrace of something outside the self, in the name of that which we refer to as God, but which also includes the self and is God.


Yes! All this, of course, put me in mind of one of my favorite essays on both God and Arctic exploration, Annie Dillard’s “An Expedition to the Pole.” I can’t find a version of it online, but you can find it in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk. In it, she compares early British expeditions to find the North Pole to a church service in which we are seeking to find “the Absolute.” Both are encumbered by these silly little oddities we are fully convinced we need: a priest’s creaky knees and an out-of-tune worship service leader or sensible, thin wool coats and silver with the family crest on it. In either case, we are absolutely unprepared for the sheer terrifying scale of what we are setting out to find. Of the explorers (and of us, in church) she writes “they man-hauled their frail flesh…their sweet human absurdity to the Pole.” In a landscape so often described as austere and sublime and eternal, here they were, the Brits, putting on plays and getting sick and writing spare, dignified letters where there was barely room for survival, much less dignity.

As I mentioned, we are in the snowiest Chicago in some 40 years, and after we got some 2 feet of snow the weather did not rise above freezing for a week so, of course, we stayed inside. It’s a moral imperative, you might know, and we’d been doing pretty well at it, but you don’t realize how much you come to rely on your little trips to Walgreens for the snacks or on letting the dog haul you halfway around the neighborhood on his morning walk (which he somehow doesn’t feel like doing when the snow comes up to his little puppy chin). There’s been a lot of talk of hitting the pandemic wall lately—my own bout with COVID was a year minus two weeks ago, ditto the last day I went into an office—but for me those facts tumbled over and alongside the weather into an annual crisis that was worse than most years.

Every year, I swear to myself I’m prepared for it, I know what’s coming, I dutifully eat my little salmon toasts and take my vitamin D supplements and park myself in front of a SAD lamp like a recalcitrant houseplant, and somehow, every February, I feel like I’m simply going to explode if I don’t escape from my whole entire life and go into the desert until every part of me that is cold or sun-starved just evaporates into mist. This year, I literally planned trips to the desert—applying for funding for research trips to take me to the Arizona desert around Tucson, looking at artist residencies in Ajo for the fall, when I am hopefully vaccinated—and when that failed, just played Candy Crush without blinking for about a week straight.

Share Ojos de Santa Lucia

I can’t believe I haven’t written about Annie Dillard here before—she’s one of the authors that someone once described as one of my two cathedrals of Ann- (Anne Carson is the other)—but I’m glad I’m doing it today. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard’s debut prose book and a Pulitzer prize winner, was written when she was my age, 28, and living in a Virginia suburb with her husband—none of which make it into the book itself.

In her accounts of her walks around her neighborhood, she is a lonely roving eyeball, looking for God in the emptiness and fullness that is nature. She was worried that no one would be interested in the memoirs of “a housewife from Virginia named Annie,” so she became a pilgrim, an anchoress, a monk in the woods, leaving out all her domestic trappings, giving in literature her life a shape of loneliness and quiet and . The book is structured through the seasons, but also has a theological structure: first, a cataphatic spring into summer, in which life multiplies and evolves into millions of wriggling creatures, the ooze and the skittering legs enough to make your shoulders creep up around your ears, and then into the apophatic fall and winter in which life is pared away into silence—a silence like the Absolute, a silence that is God, a God she finds, once again, in “sharing life with another”—the natural world, that is.

Here’s the lessons I take from Dillard in this apophatic season as things get pared away, when the stuff that makes up my life feels uninteresting and tired and constricting, like the only way I will ever make anything of myself is to jet off into the wilderness: there is enough here to build a life, enough creeping skittering things in the empty lot behind my apartment to remind me that spring is coming, enough wildness in my own four walls to contain me.

Reading List

FYI—I get a small commission if you order these books from one of these links!

  1. Horizon Barry Lopez

  2. Arctic Dreams Barry Lopez

  3. My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor,” Andrea Pitzer, Outside Magazine

  4. Teaching a Stone to Talk Annie Dillard

  5. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard

  6. For the Time Being Annie Dillard

  7. Holy the Firm Annie Dillard

No new writing from me this month—trying to learn lessons from British polar explorers and focusing on survival, not sending dignified, spare letters back home (also, my book).

As always, feel free to drop me a line, tweet, text or forward this email to your 10 best friends, hit me up if you want me to write for you (or if you want to write for me!) If you want to more directly send me a few dollars, feel free to drop a tip here.

Share Ojos de Santa Lucia

#29: Penelope and the Textile Arts

On idle hands, anxiety, and making things

I chose Penelope as the subject of this month’s letter not because there are no patron saints for embroidery (looking at you, St. Clare of Assissi and St. Rose of Lima), but because I think the kind of textile art that Penelope did is very much akin to what I’ve been up to…for the entirety of quarantine.

Penelope is Odysseus’ wife, and the entire time he is at Troy and then traveling slowly home again, she puts off the houseful of suitors, telling them that she would marry one of them when she had finished weaving a funeral shroud for her father-in-law.

So these men urge on my marriage, and I wind a skein of wiles. First some god breathed the thought in my heart to set up a great web in my halls and fall to weaving a robe—fine of thread was the web and very wide…Then day by day I would weave at the great web, but by night would unravel it, when I had let place torches by me.

There’s so much here to love on the language level alone—Penelope’s “skein of wiles,” like a skein of yarn, the weaving described as a web, and Penelope in the center of it, weaving and unweaving.

She held her suitors off for four years in this manner. I don’t know much about weaving, but if it’s anything like knitting, like embroidery, the unmaking is just as much work, if not more, than the making of it, requires just as much of your mind to stay focused, just as much attention.

I’ve been endlessly preoccupied with textile arts this quarantine. I’ve picked up and put down weaving, started a blanket, finished a sweater am about eight inches of sleeve away from finishing another sweater, started embroidery projects, made a dress and re-lined a coat. I do my fair share of un-making, not to will away suitors but to fix mistakes, reeling back row after row of embroidery, using my needle to pick at diminutive stitches. I’ve switched my reading habits to be almost entirely Kindle-based so I can knit furiously while balancing the gadget on my knee, deploying a pinky to jab the page over every minute or so.

While in normal times I made a few things a year, I would also put them down for long stretches of time, let my hands be idle, stretch my fingers, let myself recuperate from tendinitis with rest. These days, I cannot let my hands be idle. I churned out my first pair of socks the tense week of waiting for election results, if my wrists or forearms begin to complain I’ll simply switch crafts—knitting to embroidery until my thumb pads are callused, embroidery to knitting until my hands tense up, paint-by-numbers when I can’t take either, hand-stitching if I have a day I don’t know how to fill.

What isn’t visible in that little clip from the Odyssey is what Penelope’s house looked like, as she wove and unwove. The men that occupied it were boorish and loud, demanded her hospitality, used up her resources, had an aura of menace and death about them. And to keep this looming menace at bay she used women’s work—weaving and unweaving, the creation and de-creation of an object to keep herself and her son safe, to mourn a great man. There’s something about her needing to be seen as busy at her loom to keep the suitors away, something about the performance of progress that needed to be carefully unraveled every night. I set up these comparisons and I almost don’t want to finish them because of how embarrassingly self evident they seem. You know what the suitors are and stand for, you know what it is to be stuck behind your loom making and unmaking your work, you know what it is to wrap up grief in the threads of your weaving. But here: let me finish this for you.

I keep my hands busy because it keeps anxiety at bay. I finish projects, plenty of them, because there’s a mind-emptying performance of busyness that my work allows. There’s a deep pleasure in finishing a beautiful, useful object I barely had to think about save to count and measure, which has something to do with the blankness your mind takes on as you’re counting the stitches for your lace. I’ve been knitting and sewing and embroidering because what else is there to do but push yourself through fabric, to anchor yourself to existence with a thousand tiny stitches, to send little gifts to friends in the mail.

In some ways, this letter pairs well with November’s letter on cooking and care and love, but it feels really important to say that unlike cooking, the process here is infinitely more important than the product. It’s a practice, like so many people have taken up lately of contemplation. The body in repetition so the mind can empty, the hands busy so the feet can be grounded in the moment.

Winter ends, eventually, but for now we can wander out into the snow, wrapped up in handmade scarves.

Share Ojos de Santa Lucia

Reading List:

  1. The Odyssey, Homer, trans Emily Wilson

  2. Visible Mending, Arounna Khounnoraj

  3. The Geometry of Hand-Sewing, Natalie Chanin

  4. Vogue Knitting: The Learn-To-Knit Book

As a reminder, I get a little cut of whatever you buy through these links on Bookshop! If you want to look at previous recommendations, or browse books I’ve got writing in, you can see the entire shop here.

If you liked this newsletter, please share with a friend, forward along, or post about it on social media!


St. Martha and Making Food

On Marthas, Marys, Contemplation and Cooking in Quarantine

If you grew up at all as a girl in the church, you probably know about Martha and Mary. Lazarus’ sisters, Jesus’ friends. When Jesus came to visit them, Mary was enraptured, and sat at Jesus’ feet as he spoke. Martha, however, is rushing around, pulling things together in the kitchen, making sure everyone has someplace to sit and something to drink. At one point, noticing that she is the only one who is taking this care, she reproaches her sister through Jesus: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Biblical smash cut, new chapter, new verse, new scene.

On its face, the message here is clear: if you choose material things, you will be anxious, if you choose Christ, you have chosen the better portion for yourself. This starts getting complicated and gnarly and uncomfortable when you add in things like: gender roles and expectations, this idea that we should help and love others, wives submit to your husbands, the fact that someone needed to fill the wine glasses and deal with all 12 (!!!) of the disciple’s bodily needs like sitting and eating and where they would sleep, and all the rest of it. It’s one of the passages that deflects my desire to understand it, not letting me do anything but glance off the top.

If you like me, were raised in a church-y setting (nondenominational evangelical, here), you know about Marthas and Marys—these two women’s choices on one day abstracted out into personality types: Marthas are active, busybodies, load-up-the mini-van-ers, Marys are dreamy and passionate and focused on God and the contemplative life. Even now, if you google “Martha and Mary,” you’ll see articles like “We need Marys and Marthas: An Evangelical Egalitarian Take” and “Maybe Mary’s Right but Martha’s Me” and “Martha and Mary: When Life Gets Too Busy.” All these horrific headlines get at this: the ideal woman is both a Martha and a Mary, and only women are expected to be these needed Martha’s at all.

But there’s something else that bothers me about this story, which is that the work Martha has done, and is doing, isn’t recognized as a form of love or devotion, isn’t valued at all. In the book of Luke, Jesus has his feet washed by a “sinful woman” who uses a perfume of great cost, and Jesus praises her for giving up her expensive oil for him, while chastising his host, a man, for not greeting him adequately. There’s a complicated calculus between the material and the divine presence and what we ought to give up or not depending on how sinful we are or aren’t that Biblical scholars have likely teased out or argued over the years, but today, I want to argue for the material being the best care we know how to give right now.

I’ve been cooking dinner nearly every night for the last 8 months. We have a weekly(ish, sometimes more, very rarely less) takeout escape hatch, and a few cheats (a freezer full of Trader Joes’ perfect chicken gyoza, $2.99 for a bag that is good for at least one meal for two, some frozen ravioli jammed in there between the bags of dumplings), but other than that, I’m making a full dinner for two just about every night. To avoid getting bored, I rotate in new recipes every week: citrusy grilled pork in lettuce cups, vegan turkish kebabs, vegetable paella with chorizo, toasted to a crisp in a cast-iron pan. I cooked dinner a lot in the before-times too, but this kind of dinner-making, planned the week ahead, executed to avoid wasting ingredients or trips to the store, careful, lavish, is something that’s come about because of the pandemic.

I love doing this. This is not to say that there aren’t times that I would rather…not, that I don’t get crabby or despairing or weird when a sauce won’t gel or the chicken dries out, or the bread I was planning to do goes moldy. This is to say that I love setting down food in front of my little family every night, that when my partner compliments me on a meal or better yet trusts me enough to try something new (really pushing mushrooms this season) that it feels good down to the bottom of my feet, that I feel like I contribute to this house and the way it runs by cooking regularly.

If anything, this year has shown us that the food we eat comes from deeply entrenched networks of care, and labor, and calculations that ought to make us at least as uncomfortable as the Martha and Mary story: from managers at a Tyson plant betting on how many line workers would end up with COVID-19 to the ways that farm workers have been placed at the intersection of horrific COVID-19 policies and horrific immigration policies. My placing meals on the table is just the last link in a chain that is otherwise full of exploitation and harm, and the extent to which my cooking is done with care and love for people I already care for and love does not mitigate the harm it does. And yet: we need to eat, and not just occasionally, but daily (our daily bread), and it can be incredibly difficult to do this ethically because of access—financial, logistical, knowledge.

I don’t know how to resolve any of this. I’ve been gently poking at issues of food justice in correlation with parts of my book, and this month’s newsletter is just basically me dredging up that whole mess and trying to look at it through a slightly different lens.

I think what it comes down to is also the way we handle things in my house: what if everyone had helped, and Martha was not the only one running from place to place, filling wine glasses and seating dusty disciples? Washing up the dishes after the meal? Would everyone have been able to sit and listen then? Would everyone have had enough to eat and drink? My point is that there is plenty available if you take what you need, if you help your neighbor, if you make sure that you can trace the provenance of one or two things on your plate, if you plant a garden, if you share the load—not just of the cooking and the washing up, but of the planting and the keeping and the knowing about things, if you step outside the way things have always been.

Reading List:

As a reminder, all links here lead to my Bookshop.org affiliate profile, and I’ll earn a small percentage of anything you buy! You can also browse the full booklist here, I’ve thrown in a few of my favorite cookbooks in addition.

  1. I read this Deb Perlman interview about halfway through the writing of this newsletter and it made me strangely emotional for reasons I can’t articulate. I’m a regular reader/cooker from of her incredible blog, Smitten Kitchen, and own both her cookbooks, and her voice is a kind of comforting presence in my own kitchen. To see that voice full of anger or despair or uncertainty is just one more reminder that this thing we’re living through is extraordinary and scary and in short, it is ok not to be ok.

  2. Having Samin Nosrat’s ray of sunshine voice cut through my mornings has been lovely, if you don’t listen to Home Cooking yet you ought to.

  3. M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf is a kind of guide to wartime rationing cooking, but a kind of cooking that begins with finding abundances even within restrictions

  4. James Salter Life is Meals. A year in foods, both simple and grand, mostly just about pleasure.

  5. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies by Seth Holmes. An ethnographic look at the real conditions under which your produce comes to your table.

  6. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter is a fantastic and more regular deep dive on many of these themes.

Share Ojos de Santa Lucia

Not a whole lot from me this month. October was nuts and went by in a blur. Earlier this month, (on election day, natch) Best American Travel Writing came out with my essay in it! You can buy it here.

As usual, if you loved this newsletter, please forward, tweet, email me, whatever! I love hearing from you.

On a more logistical note, I’m contemplating some changes to the structure/frequency/type of newsletter you get from me: something more regular, perhaps these essays interspersed with recommendations, or shorter snippets. What would you like to see or read from me? Is there a figure you’d want me to cover? Feel free to drop it in the comments, or to reply to this email. I get those in my inbox!

Leave a comment

I’m also still (always) taking pitches for your friends of a newsletter, and taking donations for both the work I put into this newsletter and for payments to folks like Laura, who wrote a gorgeous letter about weeding and contemplation for us in September.

#26: Jane Austen and the Marriage Plot

On empire waists and bodice rippers

Like so many of us, my brain is swiss cheese these days, with the stress of living in hellworld tunneling the holes instead of delightful and helpful bacteria. As a result, I watched all 6 hours of the Pride and Prejudice 1995 BBC miniseries while annotating endless ICE detention center inspection reports, and I listen to a 500 year old British lady read me Persuasion as I’m cooking dinner most evenings. When I read books, a lot of them are romance novels following similar beats—Talia Hibbert, Courtney Milan, Cat Sebastian, Tessa Dare—but with a lot more smut.

I like them because they’re familiar, predictable and sweet even through the hijinks— (the imaginary Scotsman our shy heroine has been writing letters to for years in order to keep her family off her back about marriage is not only real but knocking at her door. Will they find love? Yes, duh.) (A real life African prince shows up in a PhD students’ inbox, claiming she’s his royal betrothed. Will they find love? Yes, duh.)—something that feels rare and brilliant and incredibly soothing in these unknown times.

I was not an English major, don’t know enough about fiction to talk about The Marriage Plot as like, a social or emotional or whatever device, but I am someone about to be married, in a pretty socially conventional way, and as a result maybe have something—not particularly interesting or new—to say about how my own life and marriage non-plot fits into the Big White Cultural Narrative.

Austen’s books famously end at marriage. Or not even at marriage, but at accepted proposal, the pinnacle of romantic experience because a man has to ask a woman, with his whole chest, to spend the rest of his life with her, because in some way—either because the state of marriage is pleasing to his patroness Lady Catherine DeBourgh, or because he’s half-agony, half-hope, as in love with her at 27 as at 19. After the proposal, we get a gentle sketch of life thereafter: usually pleasant and lovely but nondescript. A lot of the more contemporary novels are similar—we end with the proposal, or with long-married people saying “I love you” or renewing promises after years of lovelessness, or with a wedding previously cancelled: some big declaration, some big speech, a man finally saying, with all his words, that a woman matters. Matters in general, sure, but also matters to him.

Often the engine of the plot comes from a previous inability to do just that—Anne Eliot is unable to say, decisively, that she picks Frederick Wentworth and so she loses him for eight years, Mr. Knightley remains kind of a dick (even at the end of the book!) for only criticizing Emma instead of saying he loves her, Mr. Darcy is only accepted when he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that what matters to him is Elizabeth alongside her unfortunate relations rather than despite them. This works best when it’s both partners being intractable rather than just one of them, but we always end in the same place: a big declaration of love, words previously withheld coming down like confetti.

And this both is and isn’t how it goes in real life, isn’t it? It’s the same cycle, of rubbing along together, very often just two people living in the same space, negotiating grocery and laundry and like, keeping each other and the dog alive, and it’s all fine and regular. And then there’s some little thing—making dinner or doing the dishes, a little touch as they brush by, a split Reese’s after a trip to the drug store for more toilet paper, whatever—that works as this reminder. There’s no big declaration because you’re not saving it for a special occasion, just this one of being on opposite ends of the same couch, or having woken up in the morning. There’s the occasional nights where you forget to turn on the TV and talk instead and it feels like a third date in the best way possible, the text you send in the middle of a crappy work day knowing it’ll have somewhere to land. You also have the big moments: a proposal, a couple interstate moves for each other’s goals, writing vows and reading them, eventually. None of this is particularly enthralling fiction, though, and so we have Austen, and the hundreds of others who have followed in her footsteps, writing stories about love or sex that are actually stories about being seen and understood, about being valued and accepted and loved that all come shining through in one big moment when misunderstanding is cleared away and Love carries the day.

Anyways, I’m due for one of these big white verbal affirmations in just a few weeks, although it’ll be happening in a courthouse, fully masked, following a simple script set ahead of time by some judge. This isn’t how I pictured it happening (nothing about this year is, hence: romance novels), but there’s a reason that the marriage vow is usually used as an example of effective speech: the act of saying it makes something real in the world that wasn’t there before. So we’ll go into the courthouse, and by the time we come out, regardless of how weird and COVID-y it is, by the time we come out, we will be married, and have told each other, with our whole chests, what we mean to one another, and maybe there will be confetti.

Reading List:

As a reminder, anything you buy from here not only doesn’t go to Amazon, but I do get a cut of the proceeds! I’ve thrown in some Austen, and some of the romances mentioned above, plus a few bonuses if you click through to the list itself, but also, if you want a private recommendation, we can make that happen. You can also find previous newsletter’s reading lists here.

  1. Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.

  2. When a Scot Ties the Knot, Tessa Dare.

  3. A Princess in Theory, Alyssa Cole.

No new writing out in the world this month from me, busy drafting, but as always, if you loved this newsletter, share it with a friend, tweet about it, or whatever! I also love getting notes from folks, which you can do by replying to emails!

Share Ojos de Santa Lucia

Loading more posts…