Sunday, April 18, 2010

Where is love?

It seems there's a song title in there.

I've spent the past few days pondering love and great love for an anthology. I've had two great loves in my life and walked away from both of them for different reasons, timing mostly. The subject isn't quite as simple as it seems on the surface even though it's something I've written a great deal about, both fictionally and non-fictionally. It all comes down to a definitive definition of love, at least for me. Is a love great because the participants shout their vows to the skies or publicly display and celebrate their relationship or is it something more intimate that provides a less ostentatious show? How do you tell when people are in love? Is proof of love, as Elizabeth Bennett claims, general incivility or is it subtler and the bright thread of it through life stronger and less easily grasped?

Point out any number of couples and I can tell you very quickly whether or not they truly love each other. There's no real trick to it and they don't even have to speak. Sometimes open declarations of love are misleading, as are couples who shower each other with gifts. Love, as I have experienced and seen in others is clearer in small ways. Let's take two couples.

The female of one couple constantly calls her spouse her beloved, or uses some other form of adoration, and she constantly talks abut how good and kind and nice he is and how many other women missed the boat. He is a nice guy and he's creative and gentle and nice. He gave up his bachelorhood and a lot more to marry her. He is much quieter about his feelings as he's not a verbally or physically demonstrative guy, but he agrees that is a lucky man and loves his wife. He brings her flowers and chocolate, takes care of her when she's ill or feeling out of sorts. He supports her financially and emotionally in all her endeavors and she praises his work ethic and creativity. They never argue in public or loudly at home and say they never fight.

The other couple has been together for a very long time. You'll occasionally catch them holding hands or hear them heatedly arguing about some subject or other. He forgets their anniversary once in a while and doesn't spend a lot of money on gifts. She teases him when he is about to make a serious fashion mistake but she goes out with him no matter what he wears. Neither of them can be heard to say "I love you" out loud and they don't make a fuss over each other. They are private people and some would say they fight too much to be happy.

Now let's take a closer look.

The first couple, even though they've been married about two years, aren't happy. He spends more and more time at work and gets a look in his eye when he is informed the couple have commitments when he gets home. Despite their overt signs of affection, there is distance between then even when they kiss or hug each other. Tension crackles in the air and she frequently bites her lip when he talks, often cracking jokes about his little habits and social faux pas in front of friends and strangers. When she puts her hand on his so lovingly in public, her fingers are tight around his and her movements studied as though she is acting a part. She doesn't even seem to be aware of her actions or the wincing grimace that shadows his face from time to time when she interrupts or corrects him. After all, she says she does it out of love and from a sense of humor. Even though they smile and laugh, their smiles seem strained and their laughter a bit forced.

Even in the midst of a heated debate or outright argument, the second couple inhabit each others' space, not aggressively but naturally. When they pass each other he will lightly touch her lower back or brush shoulders and she often absently has her hand on his hand or his knee and the touch is light and familiar. They often finish each others' sentences or pick up the thread of conversation seamlessly where it was left off. Stories are told together as though well rehearsed, although the give and take is natural. When they sit together they lean slightly toward each other and when they look into each others' eyes it seems like time stops and some essential private message passes between them. They seem to be in silent communication. They argue, but the arguments seldom last long, like the last time he forgot their anniversary. He's always forgetting dates, but each day brings something new from him: a packet of seeds he saw at the hardware store he knew she'd been looking for, changing the oil in her car because she forgot it was due or tickets to a ballet for her and her best friend because he hates to go; he'll cook dinner that night so she can enjoy a hot bath he drew for her. She cooks his favorite meal because he's had a hard week or mend his favorite shirt, the one she can't get him to throw away because it's been mended so many times, and she'll pick up his socks for the millionth time when he leaves them on the floor, grumbling as she does and shaking her head with a small secret smile. She knows she can't change him, but she doesn't really want to because he picked up a packet of flower seeds she had been unable to find anywhere.

It's not the ostentatious shows of affection or loud declarations that prove a great love, but the little things: the way two people touch each other, the way they inhabit the same space, the subtle signals of body language even when their voices are raised in anger. Passion doesn't have to be loud; it is often silent and runs deep beneath the surface. A great love is most often characterized by a sense of oneness that does not diminish either and strengthens both without overwhelming either. In other words, great love is in the little details, the silent and not so silent signals and signs inherent in body language and the way people feel around them.

People who spend time with the first couple can't put a finger on what makes them feel so unsettled when it's obvious how much in love with each other they are. People walking in on a very vocal argument between the second couple may initially feel embarrassed but don't feel unwelcome or tense any more than they fear a summer storm that clears the air.

Great passion, like great love, often includes discord; the discord is momentary. People who are passionately in love are often also passionate in debate and disagreement. Like a violent spring thunderstorm, after it's over, a few leaves will be torn from the trees and dead branches will litter the lawn, but the sun breaks through the remaining clouds and shines brightly.

I've seen both kinds of relationship and it took me a while to put my finger on what was actually beneath the surface. One husband's jokes and humor masked a deep seated unhappiness and depression. A wife's closets bulging with the latest fashions and drawers full of jewelry couldn't fill the aching void of an empty marriage. Another wife who throws herself on her husband's cooling body and keens her despair and loss makes her cries of her pain and what she has lost seem fake when the people around her remember how she railed about how much she knew about pain when the morphine and radiation failed ameliorate the deep, gnawing, ache of bone cancer.

A young husband spends most of his time in his workshop or hiking in the forests and mountains to escape the silence that yawns from week to week when there are no domestic issues to discuss or items on his honey-do lists. They live in a world of silence punctuated by spurts of impersonal updates and family or local gossip, never touching, ever apart even in smiling family photographs, sealed in a bubble of separateness beneath masks that barely conceal their contempt and lack of respect. They celebrate romantic holidays and never miss giving each other cards for anniversaries and birthdays that are prominently displayed before being sealed away in boxes and scrap books, but they are strangers going through the motions.

I looked at my relationships and saw some of the same things, bits and pieces of barely contained contempt and calm familiarity. It was easy to see the great loves and the soul-sucking black hole relationships. The latter dominated. After going over them all, I know which relationship to write about. It's the one, despite the painful ending, where we were both emotionally naked and vulnerable and completely at ease with each other, the one that, when we were together, made people assume we were married even though we never got that far. It's the one with the sad ending and the rich, full and memorable days that still make me feel warm and incredibly blessed. It was the one great love of my life, the one I still miss.

No comments: