You can talk as much as you want about soaking in an ice bath, but there’s nothing quite like the dick-shriveling experience of actually doing it. Some things you just have to do in order to understand.
That’s what I wanted to tell the church when they asked us to mentor young engaged couples. Being knee-deep in diapers and tiny children, we politely declined the opportunity. (They’re probably grateful we passed considering my shrunken penile comment. But hey, this is a marriage conversation, right?) Despite our refusal, I wanted to share some thoughts with soon-to-be-married men. Listen to me carefully. Ice baths can be deeply restorative and healing. But that doesn’t mean they don’t completely shock you out of your senses from time to time. The same is true with marriage. And while I am all for good marriage prep, there is absolutely nothing that can fully prepare you for the amazing, painful, holy, beautiful journey before you.
A little over 10 years ago, we were 24, living in Colorado and filled with dreams and energy as big as the state’s 14,000 foot peaks. My wife and I lived in a tiny mountain cottage (shack), with a stream directly out the back door. So close that the living room and back porch were elevated on stilts in case the creek burst its banks (which it did once, after the Waldo Canyon Fire and ensuing floods). We had black bears wandering through our yard, hiking around the corner, and adventure at our doorstep. It was not unreasonable to go fish for trout and climb a 14er in the same day.
Don’t let me deceive you. Our accommodations were primitive. For instance, we didn’t have a thermostat. Oh, we had heat alright, we just didn’t have control of the heat. Ever experienced a Colorado winter? Ever have your thermostat-governing duplex neighbors suddenly decide they’re going to forgo traditional furnace heating and instead opt for wood burning? Ever see your breath while watching Netflix? Did I mention the mice? That, my compadres, is some newlywed living. But here’s the thing, it was really good for us. And here’s why.
Neither of us were from Colorado. A week after our honeymoon, like a couple of gold prospectors, we decided to break camp and try our luck out West. We arrived in the Mile High State with no job, no home, and no friends or family to fall back on. We literally spent two nights sleeping in the back of my wife’s Saturn Vue in a McDonald’s parking lot while we searched for an apartment. We were on our own. Sure, I had recently read a little known book called “Wild at Heart”. Yes, I figured if I moved to Colorado the entire Ransomed Heart Team was going to be waiting for me to arrive, take me elk hunting, and help me find my calling. Friends- it didn’t turn out the way I had planned. In my experience, it rarely does. God was after something else. Moving away from our tribes required us to rely on and grow with each other. We had no other choice but to pay attention to each other, and dive into each other’s hearts and hurts. And boy did we hurt each other. We didn’t have our native surroundings, family gatherings, or old friends to hide behind when we didn’t want to deal with each other’s shit. Instead, we had to rub our noses right in it. It was messy. It was beautiful. We became lovers. We became best friends. We became one.
Jobs were simple then. If we had enough in the bank to pay rent, eat some version of food (we were still learning to cook), and fill up our tiny vehicles with half a tank of gas, we were good to go. Career ladders, retirement plans, and health care were distant concerns. We could work at a coffee shop or at a corporate office- it just didn’t matter. It was all a means to an end. Dave Ramsey Shmamsey, life was about living, and saving was for suckers.
Play was easy then, too. It was not unreasonable for us to go see a late movie on a Thursday night, roll in on a few hours sleep to work on Friday, and make up the deficit on a lazy Saturday morning. Sometimes we’d get the travel bug midweek, and be out the door Friday afternoon for a quick two-night weekend trip. It was not difficult to spend a week traveling along the Oregon coast on a $500 budget. It was not uncommon for me to get off work at five, climb a nearby ridge by 6, and be home by 8 to eat a later dinner with my bride. And then, sometime in the winter of 2013, a mere three years into marriage, everything changed.
“We’re pregnant!”, she said. I didn’t handle it well. She had joy written on her face! I panicked. Panic is actually being generous. I imploded to be more accurate. You know that scene in Independence Day when the sky opens and a mothership of tentacled aliens appears intent on destroying the human race while using our vocal cords to broadcast our demise? Remember how vehicles careen into each other as the poor schmucks realize their imminent doom? That would be more along the lines of my internal world during my wife’s nine-month gestation.
So, I saw a counselor. Well, to be fair, I was already seeing a counselor (remember me saying we had to deal with our shit?). I just saw him a little more regularly. Clearly, I needed some help sorting through the life-altering adjustment of having a baby. At this point I’ll underscore my single greatest piece of advice to newlyweds– go see a counselor. You may think you have it all under control. You don’t. You might listen to NPR, buy wildlife-protecting chocolate, and think you’re perfectly well-adjusted. You’re not. You might think it’s expensive. So is your Patagonia puffy. But your puffy is going to wear out eventually (sorry, Yvon). Do you want your soul to do the same? I’ll say it again, go spend some time with a counselor. You’ll thank yourself later. Your wife will thank you. It’s not a sign of weakness. Remember the ice bath? Just jump in and get it over with.
Despite the alien-invading, ice-bathing impact of having our first baby, my heart was still alive. While our love had grown and our budgets shrank, my heart was still full. We chased a dream and moved to West Virginia to pursue a grad school program that would hopefully chart my course into the National Park Service or Forest Service. We lived in another duplex, but this time had control of the heat. We shared a car, relied on public transportation, and got by on $12,000 and a prayer. Don’t ask me how, it was some serious loaves and fishes wizardry. While most of my schoolmates looked at me like some sort of derelict pariah- I was, afterall, married with children, we didn’t care. We were skating by, living simply, and had a thermostat. Life was good.
I graduated, landed a job, and had more kids. I can’t say I handled the news heroically these times around, but at least I managed to put on pants and go to work (and that’s saying a lot considering my previous go-rounds). My job from the outside probably looked desirable. Turns out in actuality working for the federal government isn’t always very life giving. Sure, I wasn’t cleaning toilets at Guantanamo Bay, but it wasn’t what I had expected either. I felt trapped. I suddenly felt the weight of people relying on me. Mouths to feed and roofs over heads and all that. So I just threw myself at my work even harder, thinking I could overcome despondency with sheer will. Like Amazonian quicksand, though, the harder I worked the more entrapped I became. A funny thing happens to go-getters in the government— they’re tasked with more. And more. And for a guy whose historical wounding requires me to perform, succeed, and not let anything slip- this is a demonic formula for burnout. I remember one moment of lucidity where I looked up from my computer and said, “It’s never going to end. It’ll never be finished.” I began to feel the wrought-iron shackles of responsibility suffocate my heart. Guess what? I burned out.
My heart was longing for simpler times, times when a coffee shop salary would have kept us afloat. Times when adventure could be as spontaneous as our love making. I found myself daydreaming. My wife was too. But with a two year old, you can’t very well get off work at five and road trip 17 hours for a backpacking trip through the Redwoods. Add more children in the mix and suddenly those memories shrink like my aforementioned ice-bathed testicles. I remember in grad school feeling like I had plenty of time but no money, and how disheartening that could be. Apparently the inverse is also true.
So in a gutsy move for my heart and health, I changed jobs. Still with the government, but a new agency, new mission, and a new state. I can’t say this solved everything, but it helped a lot. We took our family of three boys and daughter to our fresh new environs and started again. Then something happened. Our daughter got sick. Leukemia sick. Remember me saying nothing can prepare you for the road before you? New city. New job. New house. Life-threatening illness for your infant daughter. All within three weeks of moving. Sometimes shit can really hit the fan.
I’ve written much about the illness of my daughter and I won’t belabor it here. Suffice it to say she passed away, and entered into the Kingdom of God at four months of age. But what I will say is that I had never before been so grateful for those lonely, challenging newlywed years in Colorado when it was just my bride and I trying to figure out life with each other. That pressure-cooker of marriage infancy – those years separated from our families to create our own – had forged in us a bond stronger than any galvanized metal. We needed that foundation to fall back on while our daughter was sick. Our boys needed it from us. And now, a couple years after experiencing loss, our new baby daughter needs it from us too.
We celebrated our 10 year anniversary in September 2021. Our marriage has experienced isolation, wildfires, pain, joy, floods, pandemics, sorrow and death. And through it all, our marriage has remained unwavering in its commitment, and true in its love. Ten years ago we left our mothers and fathers and moved away to become one flesh in Colorado. In our years together we have feasted on seasons of great joy. We have also experienced devastating hardships. And yet we have learned firsthand that true love never fails. We know that no matter what life throws at us, our marriage can bear all things and endure all things. Even the occasional ice bath.
I love you Joleah.