On Grace and Houston

1.

I write about gay marriage here a lot, but when I do, I’m really writing about marriage itself: I’m defending the goodness of marriage as know it, as I’ve learned it from my marriage, from my parents’ marriage, from the marriages in my family and among my friends. I defend gay marriage, among other reasons, because gay marriage fits into what I know to be the best definition of marriage, which I think of as a transformative, life-sustaining institution.

The point is, I love marriage. Consequently, I love weddings. It’s normal for me to spend the week after a wedding in a blissed-out daze, dreamily meditating on the wonders of love, love, love. Two weekends ago, my wife, daughter and I drove down to Houston for the wedding of two of our friends. It was the kind of wedding that would drive a lot of religious conservatives nuts—the ceremony took place in a park in the Heights neighborhood; it was officiated by one of the couple’s friends, and I don’t remember a single reference to God.

At the same time, the wedding might have reassured those folks who worry that modern couples see marriage as a private affair, that weddings nowadays represent a couple selfishly turning inward. Instead, it was a wedding that felt like it was all about us. I don’t mean us specifically, even though our daughter did a bang-up job as the flower girl. I mean it was a wedding all about the couple’s friends and family; it was all about community. That was apparent in the way the couple got so many of us involved in the ceremony and in the celebration, in the way they visited with every guest during the reception, and in the way this couple in their late twenties made sure to provide music that would get their 12-year-old nephews and 60-year-old parents on the dance floor at the same time. The bride and groom understood—better than H and I did when we got married twelve years ago—the public nature of a wedding and, behind that, the public nature of marriage.

And there was this: watching the bride and groom say their (secular) vows, I was struck by a thought: They don’t have to do this. Conservative critics of contemporary life are right about one thing: there’s little stigma left in not getting married. A couple can live together forever and no one in the Heights or Montrose, or back here in Austin, will raise an eyebrow. In my social set, marriage is mostly optional. And I’m glad about that.

But I also delight in the fact that couples, my friends, keep doing it. They keep getting married. They keep standing up and announcing their love for one another, and promising it forever, and they keep inviting us into their lives, asking for our help, making us their official witnesses. They keep telling us that we matter to them, as a couple, and, in turn, they keep promising to matter to us, their community. They don’t have to. They just do it.

2.

Which is another way of saying this: Houston is a great place to learn something about grace.

So it’s a great place for Mockingbird to be holding its annual fall conference, entitled “The Risk of Grace.” It will be at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church on October 17th and 18th, and it will feature—get this!—Slaid Cleaves, one of my favorite Austin-based singer-songwriters.

Grace is free, but the conference will cost you $60. Looks worth it to me. You can register here.

3.

If you need another reason to go to Houston, here’s something written by Casey Fleming, one of my favorite Houston writers. Casey learned something I didn’t know about a soul music classic:

American Soul is one of those rich forms of music that allows its listeners to groove and grieve at the same time. “Midnight Train to Georgia” exemplifies the beautiful contradiction inherent in soul music—that a listener will feel joy in her body compelled by a horn, piano, or hook, only to simultaneously feel ache in her heart compelled by the singer’s voice and sad story. The great masters of soul understand that bodily celebration is one way to express, contain, and survive spiritual hurt.

This reason trumps all the others.  I recently discovered that Jim Weatherly’s original lyrics to the song were “Midnight Plane to Houston,” supposedly inspired by a conversation he had with Texas-native Farah Fawcett about her relationship to Lee Majors. Be still my Lone Star heart.  And how typical of Houston, to be almost-cool.  In Gladys Knight’s epic version of the song, the love interest buys a “one way ticket back to the life he once knew.”  I left Houston when I was 18 and never planned to return, but after more than a decade away, here I am again.  When a chorus voices those things a character cannot say aloud, her deepest secrets and fears, it paints a landscape for the audience of her internal life.  How many times have I boarded a late plane to Houston, leaving a lover behind on some lonely tarmac in some faraway place with too many words left unsung?  How many times have the touchstones of a native city—in my case, the miscellaneous string of strip malls, the metallic downtown skyline luminous at dusk, the slow slur of kind hellos and how-are-yous, the heavy blanket of hot air, the generous waft of chorizo from a local taco shack, the colossal highways that dead end into an endless sky—acted as chorus, as the pitch-perfect Pips for our private dramas?

BTW, although the blog is defunct now, If you haven’t read Casey’s writing at nonseculargirl.com, you’re missing out.

Bonus tracks:

On my way out, two gorgeous pieces of writing on marriage, and one more song about Houston and midnight.

First, Elizabeth Bruenig (née Stoker) on her wedding.

Second, a link embedded in Bruenig’s post but worthy of its own link: Wesley Hill on “scruffy hospitality,” or what it means for a marriage to serve a community.

And, finally (why not?), Leadbelly doing “Midnight Special”:

 

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