Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Ten years ago today, Gary and I moved into our house. We're very happy here and plan never, ever, ever to move. Not ever. Because that would mean packing up about eighty thousand books, not to mention all the CDs and DVDs, and oh yeah, clothing. We just aren't up to it, even if we didn't love both our house and its location, which we do. We bought and refinanced at good times, so the house will be paid off -- on a fixed-rate mortgage, thank God -- in fewer than fifteen years. We were very lucky, and we're very grateful.

Today's an even more important anniversary for me. Nineteen years ago today, on July 1, 1989, I married myself. (Does that make me a polygamist? Hmmmm . . . .)

Yeah, I know, it sounds silly. I thought so too, even at the time. But it's a good story.

Nineteen years ago, I was unhappily single and living in a decaying tenement apartment (where a friend still lives) in Manhattan's East Village. I had a soul-numbing corporate-writing job that I hated, partly because almost everyone there seemed to be from another planet. They all enjoyed wearing three-piece gray suits. Most of them spoke, and expected me to produce, content-free prose. And none of them liked animals. When I was upset because a friend's cat had died, I got a lecture from one of my coworkers. "I like people, Susan, not pets."

"I like both," I told him.

You can guess how well I fit in there.

The job was loathsome, but it paid well enough for me to afford my own decaying tenement apartment, and I couldn't figure out what else to do. (The one non-loathsome thing about the job was that it was only four days a week, which gave me welcome time to write.)

Meanwhile, I was reeling from a string of brief relationships ranging from the pleasant-but-unworkable to the infuriating. I was starting to doubt that I'd ever find Mr. Right, or even Mr. Half-A-Chance.

Like every other self-respecting twenty-something living in Manhattan, I was in therapy. (The otherwise-loathsome job also provided health insurance, something I was very wary of giving up.) My therapist kept pushing me to go to some wacko New Age weekend therapy workshop for women, and she was being unusually persistent, so I said, fine, I'd go. I didn't have anything else to do that weekend. It wasn't like I was dating anybody.

The workshop was unexpectedly powerful, and more or less threw me for a loop. I'll spare you most of the details; the important thing for this story is that the workshop leader urged us, after we'd gone home on Sunday, to find or make some symbol that we were creating a new life for ourselves.

I like jewelry, and I lived near St. Mark's Place, which sold a lot of inexpensive silver. So I decided to buy myself a ring.

That was Sunday night, when I was too tired to go out and shop. But over the next few days, the idea morphed. Eventually, I decided that the ring was going to be my promise that I'd take care of myself as well as I'd care for a spouse or anyone else I loved. It would be my promise to honor myself and my own best interests.

In other words, I was going to marry myself, even if I never found anyone else to marry.

I wrote a self-marriage certificate, which I still have. I went out and bought the $15 ring, one of those silver ones with the three interlocking bands. I planned flowers and music. I didn't have the courage to invite any actual humans to this bizarre event, so I decided that my stuffed animals would be my witnesses.

I told my therapist about my plan, expecting her to roll her eyes or look embarrassed. Instead, she squealed. "Ooooh! What are you wearing?"

"Clothing," I said.

The big morning of July 1 arrived. I went out to buy flowers from one of the Korean corner delis. But it was about a hundred and ten out, and all the corner-deli flowers looked like they'd been shriveled by an atomic blast. So I went into an actual air-conditioned florist's shop, where an old man with a German accent helped me pick out flowers.

I was very specific. I wanted white roses and blue irises. He had lovely irises, but the roses were a bit past their prime, so he brought some new ones out for me. When I'd chosen all the blossoms, he said, "What's the occasion?"

I winced. Oh, I'm marrying myself today. Reception at Bellevue immediately following the ceremony. "Oh, uh, well, I just decided to do something nice for myself."

I thought it sounded lame, but the merchant's face split into a grin. "Ah! You're just like my wife! When she wants something nice, she doesn't wait for me to give it to her! She buys it for herself!" Whereupon he grabbed a pink carnation and stuck it in with the irises and roses. "This is from me!"

"Thank you!" I said. Someone had given me a wedding present after all.

I went home with the flowers. The ceremony went off without a hitch. None of the stuffed animals behaved badly, and I didn't panic and leave myself at the altar.

And that was that. No lie, though: that ceremony was a huge turning point in my life. The day after the ceremony, I started a regime of regular exercise. My eating habits improved. A month after the ceremony, after years of avoiding grad school, I decided to apply to PhD programs in English, with the goal of becoming an English professor. A few months after that, I met Gary. Somewhere in there, I resumed work on the writing project that would eventually become Flying in Place, my first novel.

I still wear the ring, on my right ring finger with several others. Every July 1, I remind myself what it means. My life now couldn't possibly be more different than it was nineteen years ago, and the promises I made to myself, in front of the flowers and the stuffed animals, were the first step in that transformation.


  1. Congratulations! Thanks for sharing your story. It's very inspirings. Taking care of yourself is so important, and I am just figuring that out.

  2. Ahhh! Susan, you're wonderful! I am totally going to do this. I just a month or two ago lost a very important and meaningful $12 ring and I've been trying to figure out what to do to replace it. Now I know!

    Also, I meant to tell you, I thought of you when the chaplain came to visit my Dad during his chemo when I was visiting. She was just fantastic. I wound up telling my Dad about all the amazing things you do, teaching and the church and suddenly learning to knit and writing fantastic heartbreaking books.

    You're an inspiration! Thank you!

  3. Anonymous3:24 AM

    Happy anniversary!


  4. Happy anniversary, Susan! Your story sounds inspiring. Maybe it's something I should think about doing. Do you happen to remember the type or name of the workshop you attended? Was there anything else contributing to your reaching the point of making that decision to take care of yourself?

    Nice to know you like stuffed animals. I've currently got Teddy Bear, that a friend gave me when I was sick, and Puff the Magic Dragon, spotted in B&N recently, sitting on mine. There are others but they'd fill the bed so they reside in other places. Do you have any special stuffed friends?


  5. Anonymous10:43 AM

    What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it.

    It's reassuring to me, a single man still at 49.I struggle occasionally through days where I'm convinced I'll spend the rest of my life alone.

    Jeff P.

  6. This is a fantastic post. Came about it via Maggie. It reminded me of a personal version of that Daniel Burnham quote that went something like: Make no small plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.

    You've gotta be bold. Draw a line in the sand.

    And books to track down! Fantastic.

  7. G'day from Australia,

    A good friend of mine - US-based Lee - sent me here.

    What a wonderful post and what a great way to meet someone whose writing is so life-affirming.

    Will you be writing a second novel soon?

  8. Thank you so much, everybody! (And I'm sorry it's taken me a few days to respond to the comments.)

    Maggie: Glad I could help! And I'm very sorry about your dad. Chemo majorly sucks. Of course, cancer sucks more. My prayers are with you.

    Lee: It was a long time ago, and I don't remember details. As for other factors, well, I think I was just fed up with my life and needed a push, which the workshop gave me.

    No particuarly special stuffed animals, though -- although they all have stories! Most come, in one way or another, from my mother or sister. I'm still the baby of the family!

    David: I'm currently working on my fourth novel! You can find links to the first three, and to my story collection, on my sidebar. Thanks for asking!

  9. What a great turning-point story... Thanks for sharing this!

  10. I came here via Lee's rave at her own site. This is beautiful: deep, soulful: it, too, will transform lives. Thank you.

  11. This is wonderful! good for you for going through with it, and look at the wonderful rewards it brought you, to be on your own side in life. Great stuff to read.

    Thank you!

  12. That IS a lovely post...thank you for sharing it.

    (tempted to crack a joke about how me and myself are just living together right now.)

  13. Thank you, Boud and Heather! (And Heather: funny!)

  14. Ari at Beyond My Slab sent me over; I'll have to thank her. Very good post.

    My first reaction: Marry myself? But then I'd be stuck living with myself for the rest of my life! Oh wait...

  15. Just excellent. A whole person can be in our out of relationship with another person and that makes the relationship a relationship and not an adhesion. The worst line in all pop music when it is about a partnership was "once I was half; now I'm whole." Other people cannot make us whole. I love your ritual.

  16. I loved you post about "marrying yourself"! I really think the Holy Spirit was especially working with you. :-)
    Kristen Durbin

  17. Anonymous11:21 AM

    This is a wonderful essay, Susan! Keep on celebrating yourself and your marriage, and all of your experiences. I will see you at Literature and Medicine!


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