On Learning Through Stories and Reading “Us” by David Nicholls

V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Thinking about the distance to Canada, V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Seriously Planning has always been a reflection of my life and experiences. Over the past few years the blog has helped me think through questions of identity, faith, urbanism and personal growth as I’ve lived in both Toronto and Vancouver for graduate school, work opportunities, and to be closer to my family. Recently I’ve been thinking about/have been curious about how the blog will change over the next year, because in late April 2015 I got married (and moved) to Joburg, the city of my best friend. We’re both Canadian, but my husband is South African as well, and our beautiful, multi-day wedding with family, friends, prayer, laughter, food and gratitude are days and moments of memories that I will hold in my heart for a long time to come.

As we’ve joined our lives together in the weeks and days since the wedding, I’ve been reading a book that I picked up in London on my way to Joburg called “Us” by David Nicholls. It’s a wonderful, touching, tender, moving book, with complex characters, humour, suspense and just so much heart, and it’s been the perfect backdrop to the beginning of our shared path. We’ve both been thinking a lot about what it means to partner, to move across the world to another country, city, culture and community, to transition and to blend our individual histories, backgrounds and experiences together to God willing, make a culture of our own, and reading this book has been a wonderful way for me to process my own thoughts.

“Us” by David Nicholls

The book starts out with the main character, Douglas, being woken by his wife Connie of nearly twenty-five years announcing that she wants to leave their marriage. She has tried to make things work, but she isn’t happy with her life, and although she hasn’t quite made up her mind, she thinks she doesn’t want to be married any longer. When she makes this announcement, Douglas and Connie are leaving soon for a trip with their only son Albie to see Europe before he leaves home to study photography, but they decide to take the trip anyway, and leave decisions for the autumn when they return. Connie is an artist, passionate, and full of light, Douglas is a scientist, rational, disciplined, sensible, organized. He loves his wife and son deeply, and is torn and startled by the news, and is intent to make their holiday the best holiday ever, a vacation that repairs the rift between him and his wife and the (since childhood) rift between him and his son. Despite his best efforts, the holiday goes from bad to worse, and it seems Douglas can do nothing right. Eventually Albie takes off without telling his parents, Connie decides to go back home, and Douglas stays on in Europe, searching for his son, hoping to reconcile, and wishing ever so much that the process of finding his son will convince his wife to change his mind.

The book cuts between their experiences on holiday, to Douglas remembering their journey of life together, how he met his wife, the early days of their relationship together, his proposal, her hesitation, her acceptance, their wedding, the beginning of married life, the distance between them, their first pregnancy, the joy of a growing family, the birth of a daughter, the death of a daughter, the devastation and changes in love that death brings, their reconciliation and recovery, the long-term scars of loss, the birth of another child, the strains of work and commuting, the challenges of parenting, the frustration of parenting, the changes in love and relationships that parenthood brings, and all the stages along the way of their twenty five year path together. Throughout Douglas’s memories and his holiday organizing/searching, the characters cross Europe, and the book shares his observations and moments of different European cities during his short stays.

Place matters in this novel. Home matters in this novel, and where each character is and with whom they are with impacts how happy and settled they feel. Even more than place though, “Us” is a caution and lesson that no one person can replace the things that make your heart sing, and that individual and shared meaning is vital for the success of a shared life together. Connie is urban, artistic, spontaneous and passionate, and though she loves her husband, and though he desperately wants to make her happy, she gradually becomes less happy over the years. When they move to a more rural environment to help make Douglas’s commute easier and to ease the tension at home, the move does not fill her heart. She misses galleries and exhibitions and the energy of London. Despite her love for her husband, it seems she cannot be herself while still being in the marriage she is in, and the differences between them grow through the years. The years that are happiest for them are those when they are the most content with themselves, when work is invigorating and there is individual meaning and shared meaning in their lives. At those times, their marriage is at its best.

At the same time, the book is an education that happiness is complicated. Love, and the feelings you feel for your spouse at the outset of your marriage is important, but love is not the sole factor that determines the success and patterns of your relationship. Circumstances change, personalities change, unexpected challenges arise, and you grow and develop into different people throughout your lives. It takes active effort to continue to turn to another person, to love them throughout everything and through every new role that you take on. This book teaches the reader that rather than happy endings, marriage requires effort and striving and continually opening your heart with each day, and sometimes that still isn’t enough.

These are common lessons, and you could find similar insights with perhaps any article on marriage advice, but this book is powerful because of the sincerity and complexity of the characters. As a reader you cheer along for Douglas through his journey, and you learn from his honesty and vulnerability as he shares his mistakes, heartbreaks, triumphs, and hopes of the past quarter century, and hopes keenly that it is not too late for them to be an Us. This book complicates and interrogates one’s ideas of happiness, of hope, of possibility, of marriage, of love and though it is a quiet book, it is one that is very difficult to forget. “Us” gives us a rare, honest, zoomed up, microscopic image of a marriage, and appreciating its detail meant I had to read the book a bit at a time over six weeks. Last year I read Americanah and it became perhaps one of my favourite books of all time, Us is definitely a book that is part of that list as well.

These are lessons I want to hold in my heart. At our wedding we had beautiful jars for people to share wedding advice, and before the wedding and certainly after, we’ve been asking for advice and prayers from couples young and old. This advice has been wonderful, and we’ve stored it away, but also, more than lists and articles/books about marriage advice, I understand best through stories. Ours is not an arranged marriage, but partnership is a new experience, and so I hope to learn from the lessons and learnings of others and share our own learnings and stories in this new stage of our lives.  There is so much to learn about faith and urbanism in South Africa, so much I’ve absorbed from the conversations I’ve had with people I’ve met already, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Seriously Planning develops and grows in this new city. Please do keep us in your prayers!

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