“The bonds of affection”, and the wreck of the SS Tennessee

By Donald Schell

Like many Anglicans I’ve got the Windsor Report’s phrase, ‘Bonds of Affection’ rolling round in my head like a melody from the radio that won’t be dismissed. I think about affection and whether it makes relationship or just happens sometimes in it. What sense do we make of people who say affection is fleeting? Does good affection bind? That gets more wondering about choices and how we make them, and how bonds and choices live together. And that brings an old personal story to mind.

For eighteen months after she got her R.N. my wife Ellen worked nights caring for sleeping and sleepless patients at teaching hospital near our home. When she was on, I’d walk her over to the hospital, leaving our children sleeping for ten minutes. There had been some late night muggings in our neighborhood and I didn’t want her walking over alone. Ten minutes to eleven I’d steal a good-night kiss from my lovely nurse in uniform and walk home to sleep alone while she worked the shift that hospitals don’t call ‘graveyard.’ Next morning at 7:15 while I was making the kids’ breakfast, we’d listen for her key in the door and her weary “Good morning.” Then it was breakfast together and, if it was a weekday, I’d deliver the children to school and child care while Ellen slept.

Regular weekdays I plunged into the priestly and missionary tasks I’d taken founding a new congregation from the ground up, leaving the house to Ellen as a temple of silence. With earplugs and a sleeping mask, she could sleep, more or less, and be ready to greet us in the late afternoon for tea and dinner together before my evening church meetings. Whenever Ellen had a week night off work, I’d take off the following day (with the children off at school) and we’d do something outdoors in the daylight (rain or shine) and enjoy lunch together.

On the weekends that Ellen worked, my task was to keep an intense three-year old son and our more contemplative seven-year old daughter happily occupied away from home so she could sleep. Wherever I took the children on Saturday, our company was divorced dads, men and their children haunting the hands-on Exploratorium, the zoo, the beach, the park. Ellen would make herself stay up for church if she’d worked Saturday night, so on Sundays, our outings were in the afternoon.

Night shift made Ellen’s weekends off important events to us. The Saturday I’m remembering we’d planned a hike and picnic to Tennessee Beach, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area just north of San Francisco. It’s a beautiful place and the long gentle hike to Tennessee Beach was a favorite for us and the children.

I can’t remember how the morning went wrong except that something Ellen said as we were packing the picnic angered me. I made a tentative statement of what bugged me and why and quickly decided she wasn’t listening. So I decided to sit on my anger and say nothing about it. Of course, I was absolutely certain I was right, that Ellen was wrong, and furthermore that by not listening to me she essentially conceding that I was Right about The Very Important Point I Was Making. Happily casting myself as a righteous victim, I concluded that her evident wrong-headedness gave me no choice but to claim the intellectual and moral high ground and hold it in silence. I didn’t say, “Fine, have it your way,” but I thought it.

However, not wanting to be a jerk, I decided to pity her for a long week of working nights, by doing my duty as a dad and father in every particular, being exquisitely nice and helpful as I did it. I agreed with absolutely everything she said, and I smiled a lot and kept busy. I felt Ellen picking up on my rage as we were walking from the ridge down to the beach where the Gold Rush era S.S. Tennessee was wrecked in 1853. My first indication was a look from her – angry, hurt, reproachful, and questioning all at once. The children seemed to be enjoying dad’s catering to them and had a great time. Since I wasn’t making conversation but only responding to Ellen’s or the children’s questions, I had some quiet time during the picnic to think about the early steamship whose wreck had given the beach its name.

Coming up from Panama finding the Golden Gate enshrouded in heavy fog, the Captain was counting on dead reckoning to establish his position. He knew there was land just to the north of him and thought he was entering into the Golden Gate to make anchor in San Francisco Bay, but the sound of waves breaking directly ahead told him his navigation calculations had been disastrously wrong. Through the mists a high cliff appeared, now directly astern. Turning the ship hard away from the cliff and driving the big steam-driven sidewheels full speed he struggled against waves and current and until he saw the other cliff that defined the little cove directly ahead. No way forward and no way back, each succeeding wave drove the ship closer to the beach until finally the sand caught it broadside. More than five hundred passengers and all the U.S. mail were successfully brought ashore. The Tennessee’s owners came out to find their ship beached, but still sound. Soon they had tugs and cables and workmen on the shore trying to re-float the ship, but a couple of days after the Tennessee was beached, a big storm blew in from the Pacific and fierce waves pounded it to pieces.

Three hours or so into my folly of forced niceness, fake smiles and cold helpfulness, I thought I was as trapped as the S.S. Tennessee had been, a nearly new ship, best technology of its era, now little left but rusty boilers buried beneath this beach. As the kids explored the quiet beach and played at the sea’s edge, Ellen asked what was going on. “Nothing,” I insisted with all the warmth of an airline steward. Did I actually think I could fool her? Probably not. “Everything” was what I really meant, and she heard me.

We packed our picnic and hiked back to the car. I was impeccably helpful, showily available to the children, excruciatingly respectful and solicitous of my wife. And I knew as I did all this that I was trapped in my own folly and doing us serious damage. All the work of parenting had Ellen stranded too – baffled and frustrated with her incommunicative husband.

Finally, after a dinner at which I tried to channel Ward Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver, and then cheerily took dish duty while Ellen put the children to bed, she came back to the kitchen, stood looking at me for a fierce, loving moment and said, “We don’t do it this way. Tell me what’s wrong.”

Words of a response lined up in my head, ‘Well, this is how we do it now!’ but I hated those words and knew I’d regret them for ever, so I left them unspoken. She had me. I was immediately embarrassed to recognize that I’d long since lost track of the fine points from our morning’s conflict, but knowing I was as trapped as the captain of the doomed steamship, I welcomed her direct appeal to unbreakable bonds of affection. I’d never heard us say it before, but she was stating an immediately evident fact – we had tried to shape the course of our life together from a steady intention to grow in love and truth. She was offering us what the S.S. Tennessee could not find, a way forward.

I told her what remained from our conversation that morning, how I’d felt unheard and not taken seriously. She replied describing the scene I’d actually witnessed that morning – her very steady focus on all it took to get the picnic made and us out the door and in the car.

What generated the strain of that day was real bonds of affection we’d forged in the eight years before. I felt the painful bind with which wisdom and the force of my loving her cramped my self-righteousness. Like St. Paul in Acts (26:14) I was straining against the constraints of love. Real bonds of affection are like the muscles and sinews of our bodies, and like those living bonds, practicing relationship makes the bonds more flexible and effective through the strain of use.

Taking ‘bonds of affection’ seriously gives the lie to the old, neat distinction between agape and eros—Christian love and erotic love. Ellen was calling on our established practice of disciplined affection. Letting her touch me with that reminder validated our history together, good memories, and hopes we’d shaped over some years. Her demand rested in the delight in each other’s presence and voice and yes, in the flesh she knew I treasured. She was asking me to use the blessed, powerful bond we’d forged together to break the bind I’d created that morning. We needed to talk. She appealed to what we knew but had never declared before. This new phrase, “How we do it,” refused to accept that there were any disagreements we couldn’t talk about.

I am grateful for every liberal and every conservative in our Anglican Communion who is saying now, “That’s not how we do it.” With cliffs behind ahead of our ship, there’s no way forward in the righteous certainty than “I’m right” or “She’s wrong.” Genuine bonds of affection demand what forged them, the commitment to keep talking, graceful conversation, through whatever conflict we face.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company, working for community development in congregational life focusing on sharing leadership, welcoming creativity, building community through music, and making liturgical architecture a win/win for building and congregation. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.

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