I sent a photo to the only person in my world who gets excited over a humongous stack of firewood, the woman who taught me how to tell seasoned wood from green, soft from hard. How to clean the wood stove flue, too, and decipher its secrets: the powdery soot left over from clean, hot fires; the warning of a potential chimney fire shining in the hard and glossy creosote residue of incomplete combustion.
I met Chele in 2005, not long after moving to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and was smitten from the moment I saw her: She was a handsome woman, quiet and self-contained. Her professional credentials weren’t fancy — she made a subsistence wage as a course instructor for Outward Bound — but there was a solidity about her, a presence. It was immediately apparent that she could be trusted.
I looked at her once not long after we met and had this strange sensation: I saw in her face the old woman she would eventually become, and also the little girl she had once been.
It was a powerful experience, accompanied by a powerful thought: This is it, finally, after all my failed relationships. The woman I will be with forever.
Cue hysterical laughter. We humans are not oracles; most of us can barely navigate the present — let alone tell the future — without seriously screwing things up. Intimate relationships are fraught with peril, and an intimate relationship that involves me especially so. Still, in the rosy glow of new love, we are inclined toward ultimate statements and epic pronouncements that, sooner rather than later, are usually proven wrong.
Indeed, Chele and I didn’t last — not in that way. But 10 years later, we are something finer and rarer: Friends of the heart. Family.
I say this even though we don’t understand each other. Our minds could not be more differently wired. Chele is concrete to an extreme, practical and capable at every imaginable physical task. I appreciate abstraction; I am a muller of big ideas.
But love, I have learned, does not require understanding. It requires, rather, attention — the quiet, sustained work of truly knowing another — and also acceptance. First Corinthians is trotted out so often at weddings that it has become a cliché, embodying an ideal that lovers often fail to realize. It is more descriptive, I think, of the unconditional love of a true friend:
Love is patient. Love is kind. … It is not self-seeking. It always protects, always perseveres. … Love never fails.
I have a handful of good and dear friends, all of whom understand me better than Chele does. But none of them knows me better, and she is the only one whose love includes a palpable element of protection. She knows that, beneath my apparent strength and independence, is a person who can be — and has been — broken. No one else thinks I need protection, but Chele would place herself between every harmful thing and me.
I wonder at my good fortune to be loved in such a way, to have a person in my life who prizes not only my strength and competence, but the fragile parts, too. Someone who loves not just the attractive swatches of my being, but the whole messy cloth. Someone who would change none of it, and protect all of it.
Today is Chele’s birthday, and 1,400 miles separate us, as they have for two years. But I will speak with her on the phone; we will recount our days, and talk about how the down vest I gave her will keep her warm during the frigid U.P. winter. And I will hear in her voice the particular tenderness I always hear.
And then she will go about the practical matters of her day: continuing the finish work on the sauna she is building, weed-whipping her lawn, raking the first of the autumn leaves.
And I will begin stacking that cord of pine, remembering to build sturdy corners and a level first layer. To make it stable, to ensure it stays upright and true. Remembering what Chele has taught me about these elemental necessities — about firewood, and love.