Personal Essay

Meditating on the Art of Marriage

Sometimes, it takes returning to a place that always stays the same—in my case, Lake Champlain—to realize that it’s time to change.

Illustration by Benjamen Purvis / Getty Images

This is a love story, both simple and tricky, as all love stories are. I will begin with the tricky part, on Lake Champlain in northern Vermont last July. My wife, Karen, and I have come from New Jersey, just the two of us, for a week.

For almost 60 years, I’ve been going up to the lake. Not every summer, but first for a couple of summers for family vacations when I was a kid, then I hitchhiked up here when I was 20 and camped for a few days; when Karen and I had sons, we went for a couple of weeks for 10 summers in a row, renting a cabin right on the water.

Now, our sons are grown. We’re here alone.

We came up through stark, lowering evening light, driving higher and higher on the New York State Thruway and I-87. Even in July, the dense pine forests of the Adirondacks reminded me of winter, of harshness, even of death. Which is an intentional drilling down into dark feelings, with the hope of discovering the opposite the next morning, which we do: When I step out to the porch of the cabin, 20 miles north of Burlington, that we’ve been renting for two decades, the day is clear and still, and the lake lapping onto our shale beach is a crystalline blue—lazy, slow, and as rich as mercury.

I sit at a picnic table on the porch, writing. Karen reads or, mostly, gazes out through the hemlocks and cedars, decompressing from ordinary life, which for her means packing into any day as much as she possibly can.

After a bit, I close my laptop. She’s nowhere to be seen. Then I hear her coming down the lane that serves this camp, built in the 1930s. When she steps up onto the porch, I ask her where she went.

“For a walk,” she says. “I walked out to the road”—a mile and a half.
I didn’t realize I’d been working that long. “Why not with me?”

Karen gives me a look—we both know the answer to that. Work. Writing. I like to work.

She goes down to sit by the water.

I remain at the picnic table, looking out over the lake. The stillness…there’s a starkness here, too, of beauty. Anger hits—these days, it’s hair-trigger when I feel Karen is annoyed at me for doing the thing I love, which has been cropping up, it seems, more and more. There’s a compression in my head, building. Not good.

I open my laptop, but now I can’t work.

When Karen comes up from the lake, I hit her with it fast: “I think we should see a therapist.” These are dangerous words to say to a therapist, which my wife has been for 30 years.

“Why?” she wonders.

“Because we’re…we’re here, but we’re not together. It’s like we’re….” I want to say, It’s like we’re here alone, even with each other, but I can’t quite because it feels like a half-step too much. Instead, I say, “It’s painful to me. That we’re not more connected.”

“I thought we were doing fine.”

I tell her that I want us to do better. I think I use the word “painful” again, and then I leave it at that. What I want is something that we seem to have lost.

Now we’re quiet. I know that she, the therapist, doesn’t want to talk, to hash it out. And though I can be quite the talker, I don’t really want to, either. Because we know it’s about what we will do, not say. We simply sit together on the porch.

Yet something has happened. I’ve taken a risk, and she responded by staying right there with me. It feels as though whatever was keeping us at a distance—a veil of pent-up anger, or pride—has been wiped away. It’s instantaneous and sets the tone for the rest of our week. We share insights on what we’re reading, bring each other unasked-for refills of coffee on the porch, and even take walks together. It’s a marvelous, welcome change—of course it is—but it also seems a little bizarre. We are suddenly young again.

The weather holds, too. As though this place has worked a sort of magic.

Then, driving home, trouble: I get a speeding ticket on the Thruway at 88 miles an hour. Suddenly, we’re at risk again, given that it drives my wife batty that I seem to think rules like speed limits are for other people, and it drives me equally nuts that she takes something like a speeding ticket so seriously.

About to succumb to the losing game of I’m right, you’re wrong, a subset of the parallel lives we so easily fall into, I suggest that she drive—Karen never drives when we’re together. I always drive.

She says yes, and immediately, it’s our mutual peace offering to keep any
trouble at bay.

Her hair is back; she wears black-frame glasses that I’ve never seen before—driving glasses. I tell her she looks good in them. Karen smiles—not at the compliment so much as at my attempt to roll right past a fight that is silly to begin with.

But it’s a moment that tells us how fragile we are, that we can, so easily, snap right back into peril—it’s not the freaking speeding ticket, but how we often trot along in our own private worlds, alone even when we’re together, and when the lines cross….

She’s a good driver. She just drives a little slow.

The lake, I think, has opened us up. We’ve made a breakthrough.

The novelist Margaret Atwood once nailed how important certain places we go to again and again can be for us, especially places of great natural beauty that seem to resonate with who we believe we are or want to be. As Atwood put it: “The place you go to encounter your deepest self.”

Lake Champlain is an immense stretch of water: nearly 450 square miles, mostly between New York and Vermont, discovered by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1609 and later an important outlet into Canada during the Revolutionary War. For a long time, the lake was a player in moving commerce, but during the last century and a half, it’s become a place for people like me who like to sit and take it in. To escape.

It’s a place that mirrors the arc of my life.

When I was eight, my parents, who were not traveling people, got the idea that we should spend my father’s three-week vacation renting a house on Lake Champlain’s Grand Isle. We would drive up from Pennsylvania. With that, something clicked in my brain. I still remember, more than half a century later, the name of the unshaven owner of the two-story retreat meeting us in his ’57 Buick: Wally Burpo. He showed my father how to work the generator, my mother scrubbed the toilet, and the immense lake, from my purchase above it, seemed to surround me in a horseshoe. I ran down a long flight of wooden steps to a shale beach and started skipping stones, immediately home, in the sense of possessing something for myself. Maybe for the first time.

There was a rowboat with a motor that my father let me run, sunnies to catch, burgers under the moon at the water’s edge; I had such a robust sense of the majesty of where I was that I determined, one afternoon outside Wally Burpo’s place, I would practice alone with the whiffle ball and bat I had brought with me, and whatever it took, I would keep on getting better until I stepped right onto a big-league field (a thought that lasted, oh, 20 minutes, until my ball disappeared into some brush—but there it is, the robust idea, never mind how unlikely, that is still imprinted).

Over the years, there were great, random moments: out in the boat chasing Mr. Big Trout every summer with my sons; or our older boy, Sam, introducing me to Bob Dylan songs I’d never heard on the way up the Thruway; or driving into Burlington alone one day mid-vacation for a new tire, and, after drinking a beer or two at a downtown watering hole, walking back to the mechanic shop late afternoon with the feeling that time had stopped. As though the perfect moment is the absence of time, and lo and behold, I’d stumbled upon it in the sweet, dry light of north country. It was so simple!

Still, if my litany of touchstones through the years is overwhelmingly sweet, it’s not quite that easy. Vacations can be tricky affairs, given that who we really are inevitably bubbles up through the fun and games.

I would often—those summers we took the boys up—get up early, write, drink two fingers of whiskey, and lie down on the floor of the cabin’s porch to sleep for an hour as my sons waited for me to take them fishing. The message I was delivering to them—with the drinking, the waiting, how everyone had to get on board with the importance of what Dad was up to—makes me shiver now.

Karen, too, would be waiting. She has spent a lot of time waiting.

It is, maybe, the worst fallout of being married to a writer. To say that writing is a solitary act underplays the obsession.

Early on, before we were married, Karen and I lived in a small apartment in northern California. Luckily, it had a walk-in closet, which I took over. I built a small table in there to use as a desk, cut a hole in the door the size of a volleyball where I installed a fan, knocked a hole in the wall near the baseboard to draw in air, and spent hour after hour sitting in there, smoking Salems and scribbling on legal pads, the fan sucking smoke in a steady stream out into the living room, where Karen lay on the couch, reading. It was my stake in the ground, in style and substance, of just who I was going to be.

Around then, I declared to her that writing was the most important thing to me, an announcement that I made as if she would react not with silence but a blithe, “Well, of course.” When we met, she had, at 21, traveled all over the world; I was seven years older, pushing words around on my legal pad at the college diner where she worked. To believe that I was going anywhere was a leap of faith, but our differences ignited us; then, over time, they exacted a price. Karen recently hit me with the corollary to my writing being so God-awful important, how she missed out on a partner driven in the same way that she was: “I wanted so much. You needed so little.”

Yet even if young love doesn’t, by definition, last, my sense of my wife has deepened over time. I cannot conceive of Karen doing something wrong—I mean wrong in the fundamental way of causing harm to anyone. Of course, she screws up, but it is never the case that she does not care. I believe in her essential goodness, in other words, which isn’t bad as a working definition of love for the long haul.

Still, though, the fallout over our separate paths has put us at loggerheads. Tension builds. I would like to report that, after our reckoning last summer in Vermont, Karen and I have figured out how to hash out our differences in some high-minded way. For example, after a couple of dead-cold weeks last winter when we both battled the flu and gave in to our own singular busyness:

I spy, early one evening, my belt on a bed in a spare room, curled up like a snake. Also, receipts, a dog-poop bag, some change—the stuff from my jeans, which she had decided needed washing.

Karen is lying in bed watching TV, exhausted after a long day. I go in and say, “Stop deciding when my pants are dirty.”

She looks up at me slowly, with an expression of Did you just say something? Then she says, “Are you really okay wearing dirty pants?”

“Yes.” I consider that for a moment. “There is not a right and wrong here. I don’t want you making those decisions for me.”

“Fine. I won’t. I’m done.” She doesn’t mean with my laundry; she means the conversation, such as it is.

“We’re not done if you’re mad.”

“I’m done with your clothes.”

“And you have to accept it.”

“I don’t care.”

“That’s not acceptance.”

Silence. I catch a hint of a smile at the weightiness here. Laundry?

She turns back to the TV.

But I’m not done. “By the way, a towel needing to be washed simply because it has touched your skin is silly and speaks to how you don’t care about your energy footprint.”

“You leave lights on.”

“Taking much less energy than laundry.”

With that, chasing our mutual annoyance to the point of absurdity, we actually feel a little better. Of course, this isn’t about laundry or power grids. It’s as though we are playing a game of chicken, of who was going to end up being right about…anything.

I remind Karen now of the good place we got to on Lake Champlain, that we had broken through. That it was simple, and we were warm and loving. What happened to that? Neither of us can say.

Yet we do break through now, too, at least for a few days, though it doesn’t seem to hold. We continue, Karen and me, up and back, together and alone.

I’m still missing something. I don’t mean that I’m not receiving something or that I’m owed something. What I mean is there’s something I don’t understand.

I can feel the shouts from anyone reading this: “Get your work in perspective, you fool.” Which is always a nice-sounding idea, though I notice it is generally people who have had big success—success beyond where they thought they’d land—who look around and say, Hey, I gotta get off this track. I don’t feel that way; I’m still pushing. (Note to agent: I’m close with the novel.) And I want something much more hands-on, more loving, with Karen.

Can’t I chase both? My work and my wife?

Just as spring is breaking, I take a drive north, alone. I want to see the lake.

At 20, I hitchhiked up to Lake Champlain after breaking up with a girlfriend. I was in a bad spot, not just over the breakup but in the woe between adolescence and finding some grounding as an adult. I had to see the lake. I found a campground on Grand Isle and rented a little boat from a guy who wondered if I knew what I was doing, going out in deep water. “Well, the worst that happens is you’ll drown,” he decided.

That felt about right.

This moment with Karen is not that draconian, but I do need something. I take the drive up north, having told her it’s for something I’m writing, which is partly true but not the real reason. I need to figure something out. No—I need to feel something. I need to know exactly where I am with my wife.

In late March, those mountains 60 miles south of Montreal really are bleak.

High in the Adirondacks, night coming and close to the ferry that will take me to Vermont, I stop at a convenience store, where I’m greeted with “We’re closing in 10 minutes!” by a woman behind the counter. Okay! As I pay for water and a bag of cashews—she is so small and old and looks so tired—I ask if she’s had a long day. “Since 6 a.m.,” she sighs. Then to my back, as I leave: “But tomorrow, we don’t open until noon. I’ll get to sleep.”

I wave and step into the dusk, into the blunt truth of the mountains and what I imagine about the convenience-store woman’s hard life. An equally blunt question hits me: What am I doing?

I’ve been hiding from what I really want. Out of long habit, out of fear of cracking open the private writing life I’ve so carefully cultivated for so long as if giving myself to my wife risks losing that….

I drive in the dark to the cabin Karen and I know well. I can’t hear the lake—utter calm, and it’s too dark to walk down to the water. Then I drive to a motel in Burlington. Lying in bed, I marvel at how I’ve gotten stuck in this one-step-forward, one-step-back deal with my wife, stuck in the game of who wins.

The next morning, driving back to the cabin, I catch glimpses of the lake. No wonder I heard nothing last night: It’s a vast expanse of white, still frozen.

At the cabin, sitting at the bottom of the steps at the tiny rocky beach, the lake seems larger than I’ve ever seen it—endless white ice with subtle patches of gray. It’s beautiful in a new way.

My phone rings. It’s Karen. “Hey, real quick, what’s up in the attic? Is it a furnace or a heater?”

I know it’s a question that the pool guy has—we’re putting in a heated pool at a cottage we recently bought on the Delaware Bay in New Jersey, a place where we’ll soon move. “A gas heater,” I tell her.

“Okay, bye.”

I look at my phone for a moment and then laugh: All business! No doubt she’s at work and has the pool guy on another line; secretly, even though we can’t afford a pool, I’ve been admiring her go-for-broke spirit. She’ll worry about the niceties of my drive north later.

I turn my phone off.

Over my left shoulder, the sun fires down past Eagle Mountain, touching ice near the shore, though it seems lit from below, from within, a beacon. As though Karen and I should take a little table and chairs right out there and have lunch.

Yet a beautiful place means nothing in and of itself—it’s bringing ourselves to it and corresponding with it that gives us something, the opposite of escape; the stoicism and beauty seem to demand how I really feel now. And my correspondence with this place says change.

I’ve always thought of writing as a journey toward revelation, of the world and myself. That’s the attempt. Yet I can no longer make the great escape into my work and live there, not when it takes me away from other things that I love. But can Karen and I be together in a way that allows for both of us, which is where we started, to be in love with our differences?

There have, in fact, been rumblings—mostly from Karen, but I am getting on board—that we will quit working, buy a camper, and hit the road. I kinda like that idea. As long as we can stop. As long as I can gather myself—once, on legal pads, now, staring at a screen—each morning. Which really is okay by her, as long as she has a zeroing in, a grounding of her own: perhaps camping on some lake. Then she will want to drive on because that’s what Karen does. She moves.

Now geese are roused, way out on the water, somewhere beyond sight—they sound like longing, like a plea, like something might be…lost.

I worry for a moment that I’m about to sacrifice some essential part of myself. No—it’s the opposite. I land on the simplest self-advice there can be: Do what I feel! Act on it! No more escape into the age-old habit of what’s easier and safer and allows me to hole up, alone.

I know I’ve been waiting for her, as if Karen has to make the leap, as if she has to come to me. And I know now where I have to go: to her.

It’s quiet on the lake. Apparently, those geese have flown on.

No doubt that once we’re on the road together, Karen and I, our gears will grind, and she’ll want to move faster than I will. But that won’t be a bad thing—more a held tension of our differences that will make the coming together, this coming together, a sweet new possibility.

I gaze for a few more minutes at the sun striking the ice on the lake. This is a marvelous place. Then I walk past the cabin, get in my car, and start the long drive back home.

First published in the print edition of the July 2023 issue with the headline “The Art of Marriage.”