“The bed is the center of the couple’s life together: the place where they lie together, talk, make love, sleep, sleep late, take care of each other during illness …
The importance of the bed as an anchor point in a couple’s life is brought home in this passage from Homer… [Alexander relates the powerful story of the bed of Odysseus and Penelope, of which I have written here.]
…Quite honestly, we are not certain whether or not this pattern makes sense. On the one hand, it does: it is a beautiful idea; idyllic almost. Yet, face to face with cold hard fact and with the dissolution and struggles in the marriages around us, it seems hard to hope that it could ever be quite real. We have decided to leave it in, just because it is a beautiful idea. But we ask you to treat it like Oblomov’s dream, a picture more than reality, an impossible dream of perfect and idyllic circumstances, which may help perhaps, to make a little more sense of our muddled everyday reality—but only if we take it with a pinch of salt.”
Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language
This is the first time in my almost three years of posting Wednesday quotes that I have chosen a quote with which I disagree. I find these words of Alexander so provocative that I felt I had to share them in this series exploring his insights into the architecture of the home.
But while I reject Alexander’s conclusion, I find his suggestions regarding the marriage bed and bedroom to be very fitting (see below), in accord with his insight that the physical disposition of the spaces of our home should reflect and foster good patterns of living.
I do not know Alexander’s personal story in marriage, and I will not try to give an account of why he came to the conclusion he did (A Pattern Language is actually co-authored with several of his colleagues). I also will not share my personal story; such might be appropriate among the closest of friends.
But I will say this: any person married for many years, no matter how much he might disagree with Alexander’s conclusion, must have some appreciation for what he is saying here. Alexander sees the marriage bed as the primal artifact in which married life is instantiated, and thus in writing of the marriage bed he takes the opportunity to express his doubt about the practicality of permanent fidelity in the married relationship.
I do grant: in the marriage bed our hopes and dreams often collide with the reality of our human brokenness. And the injuries can be paralyzing, even fatal, for a marriage.
It can seem impossible at times to sort through the wreckage, the misunderstanding, the hurt. Spouses wonder: how have we come to this place, how can we fit these pieces back together?
But even, and perhaps especially, in this place, we might find some strong ledge to which to cling, some strong foundation, from which to build again. We come to believe that it can be done, that it must be done, that it has been done. And for and with my beloved, it will be done.
Forced to face our inadequacies, perhaps unlike in any other circumstance of life, we are drawn to turn to super-human assistance. Fortified by such assistance we find new strength.
And then slowly, perhaps in imperceptible increments, the bed itself can take on a new role, and a new character. It is not a sign of contradiction. It has grown into a monument–through the very travails it has known–of a reality that we have forged together. One that is permanent, and beyond even our dreams.
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Some specific suggestions from Alexander on the spouses’ bedroom and the marriage bed:
“…there is part of the house, which we call the couple’s realm; that is, a world in which the intimacy of the man and woman, their joys and sorrows, can be shared and lived through. It is a place not only insulated from the children’s world, but also complete in itself, a domain…
The couple’s realm needs to be the kind of place that one might sit in and talk privately, perhaps with its own entrance to the outdoors, a balcony. It is a sitting room, a place for privacy, a place for projects; the bed is part of it…” pp. 649-50
“At the right moment in a couple’s life, it is important that they make for themselves a special bed—an intimate anchor point for their lives; slightly enclosed, with a low ceiling or canopy, with the room shaped to it; perhaps a tiny room built around the bed with many windows. Give the bed some shape of its own, perhaps as a four-poster with head board that can be hand carved or painted over the years.” p. 867
This is the fifth of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.
Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.
Image: When the Kye Come Hame, (When the Cows Come Home), etching by C.O. Murray