As we wade into the center of February and prepare for the rites of Lupercalia and the newly rising spring, I thought I might allow Eliza Daley to take a Friday break and speak plainly as myself. Or as plainly as I am able. I do not think she is fitting for what I would like to say. We have the same view of the world, but she is brash and declarative, whereas I am elliptical. She is sunlight, shining merrily and without inhibition. I am mercurial…
I feel that the elusive messenger might have something essential to say this week.
There is a word that sits at the heart of all these words I write. It sits at the heart of who I wish to be and of all I wish for the world. The word is love. I don’t often give it my attention because it is difficult to see and even more difficult to name. It has been occluded by our culture, denatured, because it stands in opposition to independence and can not be allowed to be in this self-centered culture. And yet it remains the center of all cultures, of all relationship. As Wendell Berry observes, “It all turns on affection”.
Love is everywhere and nowhere in our world. Though we hear versions of this claim in all the ages of recorded words, it has never been so true as in this age of mediated image when words are becoming like autumn leaves, dried and desiccated and falling away from any meaningful life, scattered over imagery to lend the faded colors and faint echoes of our most deeply suppressed emotions. To commerce. What does it mean to love a certain brand of shoes? What does attaching love to shoes do to the meaning of love between living beings? When words as vital as love lose meaning, then does meaningful life yet exist?
What does it do to relationship to say that love is no more than the desire one feels for an object? Love and want don’t make easy bedfellows. The first is forever aiming to fill us up with connection. The second is continually draining all that away in a fathomless sink of egocentric need. Love is all you need, but you can never have enough, and love becomes thin and stretched and wasted.
We don’t even know what we want. We don’t learn that a heart that does not give, that takes pleasure in objects, can not be filled. We don’t understand the repulsion we feel when that emptiness in revealed in the light of morning. We become bitter and bruised, hating the very objects we claim to love. We are drawn to what is repugnant and harmful, believing that this pain is passion. We hurt. And we want. But we can’t make that connection in a culture that has lost its vital definitions to self delusion.
The world so wants to be love, to embody community and care, but we don’t seem to have it in us to listen to this ancient song. Oh, we talk about love all the time. Or perhaps, we think we are talking about love, and in that remove of reflection we lose the real thing. (And so we love shoes…) More than talk, we throw up pictures, love’s seeming. We silence the singing voices, as in early films, and watch the mute world turn in clinical isolation. Is it any wonder the center cannot hold? It is pure void in a world that does not bind, that does not hold love.
We approach love only in its shallows, wading like toddlers who have not learned to swim but yet have discovered that the body can not breathe underwater. Or like old sailors who once were those toddlers and never learned to trust the unsounded sea. Or themselves. They are unable to entrust their precious, fragile egos to buoyancy and fear they will be drowned… and lost. Perhaps the cardinal failing in our culture is that we have lost faith in the durability of the self. We do not remember the floating and the swelling of individual personhood in the waters of relation and union. We have forgotten that we can swim and still be us, even in the depths. We have unlearned the magical wisdom of flowing systems in which all are part and yet all are so much more together. And all are held deeply in love.
In her last newsletter, Maria Popova, creator of The Marginalian, described the profoundly intimate writing of James Baldwin’s Nothing Personal. In her characteristically serene style that, like the finest sumi painting, cuts right to the core, she concludes that “All love bridges the immense expanse between lonelinesses, becomes the telescope that brings another life closer and, in consequence, also magnifies the significance of their entire world.” She reminds us that love is work. It is “the work of mirroring and magnifying each other’s light. Gentle work. Steadfast work. Life-saving work in those moments when life and shame and sorrow occlude our own light from our view, but there is still a clear-eyed loving person to beam it back.”
Perhaps it is for this reason that we have denied love. We do not love work. (We love shoes…) We are insatiable little monkeys, devouring what sweetness we chance upon among the branches and, even as our bellies are still bulging, we beam with delight when a bright flash of color beckons from distant boughs. We like seeing. We are not as fond of doing, and love is an active verb, one that takes lifetimes to comprehend through tireless practice. We have such limited capacity for attentiveness and so many varied diversions. Each novel encounter distracts from the work at hand. And so we are not steadfast for each other. Like monkeys, we wander on.
But we have lifted this false love of shoes and other objects onto high pedestals. We bestow dignity on infatuation and name it beauty. We mistake reaction for relationship, gratification for gratitude. We deal out drugs to aging bodies so they might never be without the perfect little death of sex, but we do not bequeath the respectful and attentive care they need to be fully alive. We make contracts of stamped paper and metal rings — happily ever after, till death do us part — and wonder why our promises fracture under the weight of shared time and bathroom spaces. We give cards and fleeting flowers and too-sweet chocolates in lieu of ourselves. And from this worship of lesser love gods is bred indifference to the pain, the happiness, the very being of others. When we equate the desire emanating from the self with the love that fuses selves together, we lose the bond of care — the affection — that holds us all together and supports us all throughout our lives.
I fear for us. We grow deficient in this self-centered isolation, lacking empathy even for our own children. How may we learn to heal what we disregard? How might we come together in steadfast strength when we rebel against any binding? How can we magnify the light of others when our eyes are turned inward? I don’t know. As loving is doing, I think perhaps this unloving will be our undoing. And yet…
There are always children who have not yet learned to shun the waters…
©Elizabeth Anker 2022