Today's my wedding anniversary, and I'm driving from L.A. back to Oregon with my two kids in the backseat and my wife, the poet Jennifer Richter, sitting beside me with the laptop, typing out today's blog.
We just passed the exit to the town where we were married 13 years ago. It was a sunny July day, just like today, when we faced each other in a public garden and vowed to chronicle our lives through our work, to turn our family into art.
Some people are skeptical about a marriage between two writers, assuming that it would be problematic or competitive. But for Jen and me, it's been just the opposite. Whether it's fiction or poetry, we're often writing in one way or another about our marriage, about our life as parents, and about our children, so that finally the writing enriches and deepens our relationship. Early in my new novel The Oregon Experiment, my character Scanlon is reflecting on his marriage and his wife: "Naomi had taught him to experience the world more fully — which was as good a definition of love as he knew." When I write a line like that, I'm summoning up my own feelings for Jen and the memory of falling in love with her. Moreover, my beliefs about art and literary fiction evolved through falling in love with Jen: She has led me to experience the world more fully. Before I met her, I hadn't set the bar quite as high for what I expect from art, so not only are our marriage and writing lives complementary, they define each other. For me, writing that rises to the level of art makes us bigger and deeper; if I hadn't encountered the art, I'd be less. In this way, it's like our most important and meaningful life experiences — falling in love, the death of a parent, the birth of a child.
Years ago, Keith and I were on another road trip — spending Thanksgiving in a rustic cabin in Yosemite — when we figured out that I was pregnant with our first child. (Keith has actually borrowed from that trip for a scene in The Oregon Experiment, when Naomi discovers she's pregnant while she and Scanlon are celebrating Thanksgiving in a cottage on Cape Cod). On the way home, we stopped at a supermarket to buy a baby name book, and by the time we finally pulled in our driveway, we'd agreed on a short list of girl names and one name for a boy: Luke. Nine months later, our son Luke was born, with — a surprise to both of us — a full head of red hair, enough to part and comb that first night in the hospital when we stayed up for hours, staring at him. The name Luke means "luminous," or "light," and with his fair skin and gleaming head, our son's name fit him from the start. As a way of welcoming them into the world, and of announcing and blessing their arrivals, the first poem I wrote for each of our kids when they were born were poems explaining the meanings of their names. Those are the poems they're most proud of in my book Threshold; those are the poems they ask me to read when I visit their classrooms each year as a guest poet. Their classmates love this annual reminder of our kids' histories, and when I read the poems, our kids sit up straight and grin, like minor celebrities in school. Now that I've read the poem to Luke's class a number of times, his friends remember it — when I walk in the door, they ask for the "luminous Luke poem" and kindly tussle his hair that glows as brightly as that first day. In his classmates' minds, and in ours, the boy has become the art: Luke has become that light.
We're passing Mt. Shasta now, nearing the Oregon border, heading back to the life we've made together in the Northwest. Luke and Chloe, who've been listening to us as we've written this post, are offering suggestions from the backseat. Already, this trip has become part of the art of our lives. And before long, surely it'll turn up in a poem about eucalyptus groves or Disneyland fireworks, or in a novel passage about dear friends and sisters, boogie boards and beaches.