“I am not full of virtues and noble qualities. I love. That is all. But I love strongly, exclusively and steadfastly.” ~ Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin (a.k.a. George Sand), quote from the ’91 film Impromptu
On February 12th, I reunited with Steve after his week-long, cross-country drive. We were in Athens to celebrate his birthday and see the Drive-By Truckers. We were three rows from the stage with Steve pressed up behind me, his arms wrapped around me, my hands on top of his, and his cheek resting on my hair. He bent forward and I turned so he could kiss me. It was tender, intimate, public. It reminded me of our early days together, and made me glad for how often these moments still happen 25 years into our relationship. Leaning back against him, I thought I love this man. I love this man. I. Love. This. Man.
Steve and I both agree with Dan Savage’s notion that there’s no such thing as “The One”, or, as Tim Minchin says… if we hadn’t found each other, we each probably would’ve ended up with someone else.
Still, Steve’s as close to being my “One” as is possible. I like the way John Mayer sums it up in Another Kind of Green with the lyric you’re not the perfect hand but I don’t hit on nineteen. Regardless, he is the love of my life, as much so today as it was when the certainty of it first dawned on me.
We’ve grown up together. Steve’s my institutional memory. I’ve loved him for more than half my life. (Here’s photographic evidence. Hello 1990 – when photos involved film, light washed jeans were the style, and Sally Jessy Raphael glasses seemed like a great idea. Yass!)
Anyhow, the night after Steve’s birthday, in the treacly run up to Valentine’s Day, we found ourselves with friends discussing the question “What is love?” Having made it this far into an imperfect but genuinely happy long-term relationship, I have a few thoughts on the topic.
Full disclosure: though it isn’t all roses, our relationship is a very good one. We’ve worked our way through an annus horribilis or two, but we aren’t white-knuckling our way to longevity as a couple.
I think love is a practice – a willingness to show up daily for someone and get down in it with them. I don’t think a deep, abiding love is built on grand gestures, nice as those can be. It is quieter and requires more than that, its unyielding base the result of thousands of tiny acts of respect, consideration, kindness, attention, presence, and demonstrating good judgment and trustworthiness over time.
I’m convinced you can’t show up in these ways without first embracing the things that make it possible, primarily, the unflinching courage to be vulnerable and open-hearted with another. Are you willing to have the hard conversations? The ones that require talking through things that scare you so much the thought of saying them out loud to the person you love makes you weep with apprehension? Can you, will you expose your soft, fleshy underbelly and hand someone the thing they could use to destroy you while trusting that they won’t? It’s stepping off a cliff and hoping a parachute appears. It is so fucking scary. It’s also totally worth doing.
Does that all seem like too much? Well, you could armor up everyday instead and avoid some pain, but you’ll simultaneously cut yourself off from deep connection, which is a life half lived. Ask me how I know.
Another necessary ingredient to showing up is the willingness to sit in discomfort with someone else. When I’m in the kind of emotional pain that has me on my knees, can you be with me in it? Will you sit next to me unwavering, uncomfortable to be sure but refusing to cut and run anyway? That’s what courage and real support look like, and they strengthen intimate bonds like mortar.
Lastly, as the brilliant Esther Perel says, maintaining some mystery is important in helping us continue to see our love with curious eyes. One of my favorite quotes by Rumi is that even between the closest people infinite distances exist. This speaks to the importance of maintaining individuality. (I’ve never understood couples who want to be together 24/7. Steve and I go places alone, keep separate friends and some experiences for ourselves.) It also speaks to the crucial practice of using the filter between your brain and your mouth. Words can’t be unsaid, and no one needs to know every thought in my head. Besides, it’s a bad idea to try and work out my position on something while I’m talking it out with you. Seriously, that’s no bueno.
I keep this dual thought always in mind: Love can’t save me; love is the only thing that can save me. By that, I mean the love of a specific person can’t save me – no one else can fill me up, feed my soul, or sustain me. It’s my job to show up a whole, fulfilled person in good working order. On the other hand, love in general is the one thing that can save us all – giving it, choosing it, living from it as the basis of my thoughts and actions. This is what fills me, and making myself whole in this way is the only thing that can save me.
No matter how epic it may be, all love eventually ends one way or another.
As the Drive-By Truckers say in their song World of Hurt
“To love is to feel pain, there ain’t no way around it.
The very nature of love is to grieve when it’s over.
The secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits.”
So, here’s where the story ends.
Maybe, or maybe not. I suppose it depends on what you think love is and how well you practice its most basic component parts.