Aspen Times Weekly: This is the story of a possible miracle
Something I’ve noticed about myself: For a person who doesn’t necessarily believe in miracles — someone who isn’t even sure where he falls on the existence-of-God question — I use the word “miracle” a lot. Part of this might be that I’ve become accustomed to having the word on my tongue, since my best friend is named Miracle. It’s not a nickname; it’s the last name he was born with, but he is deserving of it.
Beyond referring to the Miracle Man, though, I tend to use the “M”-word to describe a lot of things, most of which, even I can recognize, don’t quite fall under the hand-of-God category. (Or as Jules in “Pulp Fiction” would put it, an “according to Hoyle … divine intervention”): The Denver Nuggets beating the Philadelphia 76ers last season, after being down eight with less than two minutes to go. (For the record, the website Denver Stiffs called it a “miracle comeback.”) My knowing, with absolute certainty, the exact line Uncle Jack would speak to Todd in the “Granite State” episode of “Breaking Bad” regarding Todd’s crush on Lydia. (You might have to give me this one: A neo-Nazi New Mexican meth dealer quoting Woody Allen — “The heart wants what the heart wants” — is not something you can chalk up to logic.) Making that connecting flight at DIA when we had been told repeatedly that the plane had left. The onion rings at Hickory House — not just how good they already were, but the fact that about two years ago, they got even better. Significantly.
My latest brush with the inexplicable, though, easily surpasses these.
For a couple of weeks I had been wanting to find a book about divorce — the perfect book by the just-right author that would speak to me about this life-altering event I was going through. (Another of the things I have attached to the word miracle is the fact that my wife and I remained married for 17 years.) After a while I began asking friends if they had such a book to recommend. On the drive for a weekend trip to Marble, I put the question to my buddy Dan, a sensitive, divorced sort who I figured would have read such a book. He hadn’t. In Marble, I sought guidance from Larry, with whom I was staying. Larry’s marriage is intact, but he is among the most well-read people I know, his house filled with books of all kinds everywhere you look. But not one that he knew of on the subject of divorce.
Scanning the shelves for reading material, I happened on a tattered copy of “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” At one point in my life, I had settled on John Irving’s book as my favorite novel ever. And it still might be: I haven’t read it in a while, and picking it up again, I became viscerally fascinated with the story of small-town New Hampshire in the mid-20th century, baseball and boarding schools, reading, and possibly the most endearing character in American literature, tiny, high-pitched Owen. Above all, “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is about faith and maybe more specifically about miracles — the nature of miracles, our belief in them, how that belief shapes us. Reading just the first 50 pages now seems like a foundation that had been precisely laid for what was to come.
Driving back from Marble, passing Basalt, Dan asked if I minded making a stop at Holland Hills. His girlfriend was away and Dan wanted to empty out the mousetraps that were sure to be occupied. Not a problem. We drove up to a tiny rustic cabin, and while Dan checked the traps — against all reason, empty — my eye settled on a small stack of books on the coffee table. On top was Charles Baxter’s “Feast of Love,” a book I was familiar with. I dug deeper.
Four books down was something I had no idea existed, a book that, in a way, didn’t really exist. It was an advance copy of a book that wasn’t due to be published for another month. It was titled “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” — a title that I knew instantly (and correctly, it turns out) would include contemplations on unhappy marriages and their dissolution. The author was Ann Patchett, and as anyone who has spent 10 minutes with me on the subject of books, Ann Patchett is my favorite author, unequivocally.
If I had happened upon a book whose existence I knew of, a book whose subject I had been inquiring about, four volumes down in an out-of-the-way cabin that by chance I was poking around in, I’d have been in a state of wonder. The fact that it was a book that wasn’t even published yet, that there were maybe a handful of copies of it in all of Colorado, heightened the amazement considerably. But the fact that it was a book I had no inkling of, that it just seemed to appear in that pile on that coffee table in that cabin in Holland Hills — oh, and it’s by my favorite writer — that takes it to, in “Pulp Fiction” terms, “God came down from heaven and stopped the bullets” territory. Or damn close.
The miracle sort of ends there. Reading “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” didn’t cause a parting of my personal seas. While the book has certainly nudged me forward, as any good book will, Ann Patchett is a better novelist than essayist (and still my favorite nonfiction work of hers is “Truth & Beauty,” a memoir without compare). “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” addresses a range of topics; it wasn’t the full-on immersion in marriage and divorce I was hoping for — even miracles, I suppose, can have their shades of disappointment — though I highly recommend the essay “The Sacrament of Divorce” for anyone contemplating either the beginning or end of a marriage.
The essays are collected from as far back as 1996, and were written for different publications, various purposes. Taken together, though, they create a distinct, intimate and even instructive portrait of a person who knows her own heart, who comes to understand, after some fumbling, what is going to make her happy. Patchett writes about her affection for her dog Rose, for opera, for her friendship with the nun Sister Nena, for the bookstore she opened a few years ago in her hometown of Nashville. The title essay is a tender and insightful account of her second marriage, the happy one.
Patchett writes of knowing, at the age of 6, that she would be a writer, and she returns often to this knowledge as the enduring anchor in her life. Nothing was going to dissuade her from writing, and writing would always be an abundant source of happiness. Of this she was certain, and right.