Photo: Thayer Allyson Gowdy
My wife is radiant. It comes naturally to her. Yes, she's very beautiful, and that beauty is the first thing people notice and discuss about her. But hers isn't the radiance of a model or a starlet; it's a radiance that emits warmth—love—as well as light. What Justice Stewart said of obscenity can be said of Dana's radiance: Words fail, but you know it when you see it. Yup, there it is.
Dana's in the radiance business. Literally—she's an Episcopal priest. And while she's been radiating throughout the three years of our courtship and the 11 of our marriage, something's changed in the last nine months. Thanks to this ever-crescendoing glowiness, I am typing these words while looking out at San Francisco Bay from the top floor of a big and beautiful house I could never afford were I actually required to pay for it. It ought to go without saying that I type with glee. Yes, it ought to. And yet, despite the Jiminy Cricket perched on my shoulder yelling stop the whining! until he's red in the face, there is a degree to which the bounty of my wife's radiance has left me feeling, well, a little irradiated.
As well as robbed of one of my favorite punch lines. "And what do you do, Andrew?" I've been asked at countless cocktail parties over the years, and if I'd not yet reached that evening's joke quotient by introducing Dana as "my first wife," I'd said, "Oh, I'm a preacher's wife." I was quick with that joke because I could afford to be; because as everybody around us presumably understood, I was the dynamic force in the life we were building together, the sun around which all else revolved. I suppose this arose in part from our relative incomes; my annual earnings always doubled and sometimes tripled hers. But mostly it arose from my being a magazine writer—from years of training and straining to be a voice, the voice, in the stories I wrote, and in my own domain.
Perhaps I should mention that I have a big fat ego. Huge. Hungry. Hairy in all the wrong places. Want to see it? Be glad to show it to you. That's who I am. It's how I do. Yet in terms of the algebra of our marriage, the ego has always...worked. Since I can do what I do for a living from anywhere, it's Dana's job prospects that determine our geography. And the ego has always blinded me to the fact that my wife has dragged me all over the continental U.S. The ego is what's allowed me to look in the mirror each morning and think, "There he is, the Big Enchilada," even as I've trailed my woman like a lapdog.
But then suddenly, last summer, everything changed. After a rigorous, nearly yearlong winnowing process, St. Luke's Episcopal Church in San Francisco named Dana as its first female rector. In August we moved from Richmond, where for eight years she had been the associate rector of a large urban parish. Christian vow of poverty? Please. The job comes with a rectory, which is another way of saying that we live—for free; we don't even pay our own freaking utility bills—in a giant house adjacent to Pacific Heights. The wonders my wife's radiance has wrought! Extraordinary private schools (Episcopal, of course) that we would otherwise have had little chance of getting our sons into. The list goes on.
You know where this is going, right? Yup: I did nothing to procure this wonderful life, I couldn't have done it if I tried—and I DON'T LIKE IT. Something within me, something disoriented and not a little bit petty, keeps protesting that this is not the deal I signed up for, that this is not my beautiful house; yes, even that this is not my beautiful wife!
And I know where you're going: just an unreconstructed chauvinist pig who can't handle his wife wearing the pants. But I think something else, more fundamental, less about power and more about self-understanding, is going on.
Dana now runs one of the signature churches in one of America's signature cities. She's a persona, a position, the face of that church. And the face of our marriage, our family, our life. In San Francisco, it's crazy but I swear to God it's true, I am no longer the magazine writer Andrew Corsello. I am no longer even Andrew Corsello, period. I am the spouse of the rector of St. Luke's Church. She took my name when we married, and now she's taken it; in this town, "Corsello" means her, and it's only by her beneficence that I'm allowed to partake of it.
I expected people to perceive my wife differently in San Francisco than they did in Virginia. She's running the show now, and that commands a qualitatively different kind of regard. I also expected that, as in Virginia, our social life would be largely, even entirely, a function of our church life, especially with us living in the church rectory and all. The part of our deal I didn't see coming was the qualitatively different regard I now "command" in our life. I am no longer seen directly by others; I am refracted through my wife. And the unspoken question I feel pressed upon me everywhere I go in my new city is the same one politicians' wives must contend with: Does she stand by her man? In other words, do I attend church every Sunday? Do I choose an up-front eager-beaver pew or one toward the back? Do I kneel or stand during the creeds and prayers? Do I believe as she believes? Back in Virginia, Dana wasn't the boss of our church, much less of me, and I was regarded as an outlier, a dude—which lined up nicely with my own notion of myself. Now I am reflective of her and responsible to her—rather than for her—in a way that unmans me. And surprises me: When I vowed "for better or for worse," I considered the various ways, however theoretical, that "worse" might rear its head. But who ever considers, much less braces himself for, the possibility of his betrothed becoming radically "better"? And bigger?
We Hear You!