It's truly difficult for me to write an introduction for Tanya Marlow. Not only is she a lovely, insightful writer, she is a treasured friend. We have cried together as we've walked dark paths in tandem. She has listened to me at my most honest without judgement. We keep each other's secrets. She is truly the very best sort, and I'm thrilled beyond measure to share the words of her lovely de(tale) with you today.
A pair of sunglasses changed my life.
I was perhaps fourteen or fifteen when I got my first pair of sunglasses, because it was then I got my first pair of contact lenses. I have a photo of me aged fourteen, all bushy hair and awkward squinting, and then a picture of me at fifteen, with short bobbed hair and free eyes. (Only someone who has worn spectacles so heavy with glass they make your eyes look like tadpoles in a petri dish can know the peculiar joy of this event.)
I would go into Superdrug on a Saturday morning and spend hours browsing the plastic display of sunglasses before my piano lessons in town, trying on one pair after another.
I picked up a pair of John Lennon-style sunglasses and stared at myself in the smudged plastic pseudo-mirror: I was no longer a geek. I was cool.
The summers between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one were blurred and happy. One pair of sunglasses got lost somewhere in transit back from a youth trip to Folkestone beach; another pair got crushed at the bottom of my army rucksack underneath the weight of my A Level files, another pair was dropped somewhere in Durham University library (but the lenses kept popping out, so I wasn’t too sad about that.) Each year, every summer, I bought new sunglasses for the season ahead, sometimes two pairs, just in case. They only cost about £2, and I still looked cool.
One sunny day when I was twenty, I was strolling on the college green in Durham on the way back from lectures, chatting to Andy, my boyfriend’s best friend.
I wondered what Jon was doing in Oxford at that very moment, and my heart leapt a little. He had bought a new phone plan that enabled us to talk up to 100 minutes each day for free, but even with all those minutes we kept going over the limit, because there was always so much to talk about, and he was so far away. Although it was just talking on a phone while lying in my college bedroom, they were the happiest almost-two-hours of my day. I continued walking back up the path, but found myself staring at the sky.
I turned my attention back to the present, and tried to think of a topic of conversation with Andy. We were both wearing sunglasses, and I noticed he had the same brand as Jon.
“How much were your sunglasses?” I asked him.
“Around £100,” he said. I stopped in my tracks, and stared at him, appalled.
“How can you spend that much on sunglasses?”
“They’re not just sunglasses - they’re Oakley’s.” He replied like a boy, like an engineer - he may have mentioned UV or Titanium or moulding.
“But - £100? That’s crazy money. They don’t even have diamonds in them. You spend that amount each summer?”
“No - I just keep them from year to year.”
“But aren’t you worried they’ll break? Surely you can’t just keep one pair forever?”
“You just don’t break them,” he said drily. “You look after them.”
We were walking uphill, and the sun was shining right in my eyes.
“I don’t see how you can justify spending that kind of money on sunglasses. I would never spend that amount on a pair of sunglasses.” I was getting more passionate as I spoke. “I would never, ever buy a pair of Oakley’s. I would never even wear them.”
“You wouldn’t wear them?”
“No. Never.” (It had become a principle, though I wasn’t completely sure why.)
“So what would you do if someone gave you a pair, then?”
“I’d smash them up,” I said.
It was the first thing that came to mind. It wasn’t rational, and it came somewhere from the knowledge that every pair of sunglasses I’d owned had ended up smashed or lost anyway, and it came from a startling fear of owning something of such value.
“If someone gave you a pair of Oakley’s as a gift, you’d smash them up?”
He looked at me like I was a complete lunatic, and you could see why.
“Yes,” I said. “I’d smash them up.”
By my twenty-first birthday I was engaged. We had decided that it just made good economic sense to get married: we were spending far too much on phone bills.
So much was changing: I would be graduating in a couple of months, and moving to Oxford, and I still didn’t have a job, but it was all okay, because I had a sparkly diamond on my finger, and I knew that I had found a man who knew me and loved me.
For my twentieth birthday, when we had only been dating a couple of months, Jon had bought me a classic picture of Durham, and a set of tinted-glass wine glasses, which were in vogue that year. It was the perfect gift: romantic, and grown-up, and just what I wanted, and it was such a confirmation that he really knew me. I knew that I loved him, even after two months.
Now I was unwrapping the present for my twenty-first birthday. The present was about the length of a watch, and I smiled at him in anticipation, and pulled the wrapping off. Before I had even opened the box, I had seen the characteristic ‘O’ of the Oakley’s, and my stomach dropped. I pulled out the soft black cloth, and sure enough, there was a pair of dark blue Oakley’s sunglasses inside.
“I got them especially sized for your face,” he said. "See - they’re much smaller than mine. And they’re blue, to match your eyes.”
I smiled my best happy smile.
“Try them on,” he said, and I put them on my face. I was used to light, wiry frames, and these were heavier; solid, confident and unmoving. He kissed me, and then he left for work.
In the silence of the room, alone with my Oakley’s, I cried. I hated Oakley’s, and now he had got me a pair, and I would have to pretend I liked them. (I really, really hoped Andy wouldn't repeat the conversation I’d had with him about smashing up Oakley’s).
But actually, it wasn’t that I hated Oakley's. The thought that kept going round my mind was, ‘These cost £70.’ (I’d looked up the price). '£70. And I will lose them. I will break them. He spent so much money on me, and he doesn’t realise that I am a girl who loses and breaks things. He doesn’t know me.’ (What if he finds out what I’m really like?). 'Maybe we shouldn’t get married.’
We think we know the momentous and portentous events of our lives, because we have them mapped out with the big things - proposals, births, funerals - but love and grief have their own rules, and they funnel their potency into the little details, the ordinary objects of life, so that we are caught unawares by our emotion even whilst we are going about our daily business. I had thrown my head back and delightedly nodded my ‘yes' to Jon’s proposal without hesitating for a second, because it had seemed like the most natural thing in the world, and yet here I was, holding a pair of sunglasses, undone by the heft of the sunglasses and the weight of marriage.
On my twenty-first birthday, with a diamond on my finger and a pair of Oakleys sunglasses in my hands, I spent most of the day crying.
Five months later we emerged from a church on a hot summer’s day, radiant and joyful.
Reader, I married him.
I married a man who saw that I was worthy of spending £70 when I would have been happy with £2, and who saw that I could look after things well when I had never done so before. I married a man who saw me, not only for who I was, but who I could be.
I still have the sunglasses today: we had to replace the lenses two years ago, and the writing of the ‘Oakley’ brand on the bridge is all but worn off, but I still have them. Fourteen years later, they are still dark blue and strong, and I have kept them in good times and bad, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. I love them.
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, and then she got sick, and became a writer. She likes answering the tricky questions of faith that most avoid, and writing honestly about suffering and searching for God. She blogs at Thorns and Gold. Find her on Twitter @Tanya_Marlow or Facebook.