I don’t think there is ever really just one moment when you decide to marry the person you are with, but some moments are such obvious forks in the road that we look back on them as decisive.
I was in the living room at my parents house in Dundrum, Co Down when my brother arrived home for Christmas. He handed me a small, folded and pencil-marked white package. On closer inspection it was a used office envelope, which had been folded over to form an improvised wrapper. “It’s a Christmas present from John”, he said.
John was a friend of his that I had been seeing for about a month or so. It was such a new relationship that I had decided to cleverly avoid any awkward gift-giving uncertainty (and unnecessary expenditure) by suggesting in advance that we give each other a single book. Now this deal obviously had the potential to bring on some uncertainty and stress about the choice of book. Because I happened to be smugly secure in a lifelong identity as ‘the reader’ amongst my family and friends I felt sure I would come out of it looking ok anyway.
It took a beat or two to register that this dirty envelope was a gift, especially as someone else’s name had been written and crossed out on the front of it. I pulled a small, thin, volume out of the envelope and opened it. There was an inscription on the inside, but, alas, it was not to me. It was from one strange man to another, on the event of his birthday. Beside the inscription was the price inscribed in pencil- £2.00. The plot thinned. The inscription wasn’t for me because the book was second hand.
The book was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It tells the story of a rich Prince who turns his back on luxury and privilege to seek spiritual enlightenment after witnessing the suffering of the masses outside the palace. After years of wandering and trying many different paths he finds pursuit of both enlightenment and flesh equally disappointing and settles down by a river. The sound of the river flowing calls to him to stop searching and start living.
I was twenty six at this time, and floundering in a sea of opportunity. I was unbalanced by unexpected acceptance into my dream PhD program the year before. At the same time, I was lost in a vacuum left by the disappearance of my religious faith. The book floored me. It was just what I needed to read. I had a strong gut feeling that John would be part of my life for a long time to come.
A few weeks later we were taking a walk together through a very quiet town centre. He had come to stay over with me as I was living an hour and a half away from him by train, in a peaceful seaside village in Northern Ireland. It was Sunday, so we were hung over. He told me what he thought about the book I had chosen for him. It was Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. The story is about identical twins, one of whom has schizophrenia. It is long, detailed, and emotionally tense. John is an identical twin, and as psychology was one of the interests that had gotten us chatting in the first place, I thought this was a no-brainer. He hated it, and pulled no punches in telling me exactly why. He rubbished the plot, eviscerated the structure, and tore into the style. Ouch. I was incensed. Who was this idiot to think he could tell me what was and wasn’t an enjoyable book? Stupid gut feeling! I never wanted to speak to him again, and I never did, for about an hour.
I hadn’t yet become acquainted with John’s unique style of giving or speaking then. He’s gives it to you straight. Not because it’s Christmas, or a birthday, or there’s a social obligation. Not because it’s expected, or meets the budget, or it’s what you want to hear.
He had picked a book for me that he knew would resonate with my exact circumstances. That meant something to him. A book that at least attempted to stand at the edge of the void of our existence shouting back some ideas about why we are here and what we should do about it. He presented it without artifice, didn’t worry about looking cheap, and I don’t think he would have cared less if I’d left it in a train station, thrown it in a bin, or hated every word of it. I picked something diverting and superficially relevant, wrapped it well and hoped I wouldn’t look stupid in my choice.
We’ve been married for twelve years now. Books pass through our house like a river. They appear from friends and family who have read something they want to share. Once finished, John always knows who to pass it on to. Somewhere else that idea needs to go. Giving without thought of return.