To write about love is ambitious. The topic has been explored through art and writing for arguably as long as humans have existed. Love is universally felt, standing the test of time and culture. From what is said to be the world’s oldest recorded love poem, The Love Song for Shu-Sin, composed in ancient Mesopotamia, to Fifty Shades of Grey (eye roll), it’s been done. What could I possibly add?
Except this: Love is (not) all we need. Sorry, John Lennon.
Speaking of Lennon, my first real crush was on a boy who played The Beatles songs on his guitar in the hallway outside of our high school’s theater. Carlos’ style epitomized the theater crowd: artsy bohemian meets nineties grunge. We wore alt-rock band t-shirts with baggy jeans and flannel shirts tied around our waists, socks with Birkenstocks, hemp necklaces, and corduroy bags filled with compact discs of The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Part of finding love is finding your people.
I was at home among the marginalized misfits, the freaks, geeks, thespians, weirdos, hippies, painters, poets, musicians, queers, radicals, intellectuals, and otherwise wounded.
My first real love was another boy who played The Beatles on his guitar in the hallway outside the theater (I guess I have a type). Ethan was more than an infatuation. Though I dated a handful of people, Ethan was my true high school sweetheart.
When we were seventeen, we took our first road trip, alone, sans adults. There is something about road trips that elicits a dreamy, soaring, romantic feeling; I did the thing where you stick your hand out the window and ride the wind like surfing a wave. My bare feet on the dashboard of Ethan’s baby blue Toyota Corolla, I sucked on clove cigarettes while blasting Indigo Girls’ Get Out the Map. Since this was the nineties, we still used an atlas to navigate, so I literally had a map on my lap, and can still feel the soft worn page from where my fingertip trailed the lines on which we drove. My finger followed the blue veins of America’s highways like how I turned over Ethan’s hand, tracing the soft underside of his wrists.
We were free for the first time in our lives, running on fumes and young love.
And then there is the heartbreak.
A girlfriend once gifted me a book of love poems by the exiled Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. In the film, Il Postino, Andy Garcia (Cuban-American actor) narrates Neruda’s poem, Tonight I Can Write (The Saddest Lines): What does it matter that my love could not keep her / The night is starry and she is not with me.
I used to listen to the soundtrack over and over, following one particularly hard breakup. Garcia’s voice—cool and quiet, was a balm for the burning ache I suffered. When you’re a teenager, every breakup feels like a thousand forevers, certain you will never find love again.
Who am I kidding? Even at forty-one years old, a breakup sometimes feels like the flu. It’s a truer meaning of lovesick, I suppose.
Dating apps be damned. Pablo Neruda would have scoffed at the way we have reduced longing to a shallow pool of desperation, for which you must pay a fee. Like everything in this capitalist country, love—or at least its search, has been commodified. Sure, some people have gotten lucky and found their one and only, but most, like me, are discouraged by modern courtship. The internet only adds to the isolation in which we exist; virtual dating perpetuates a special kind of loneliness.
Let’s bring love letters back. Let’s ditch profile pics and replace them with deeper narratives. Instead of, “Bisexual single mom who likes long walks on the beach,” how about this:
During long walks on the beach, I like to sift sand in search of sea glass. I bring my young daughter to one beach in particular, a small shore of lake where five generations of my family have now stood. I place pieces of smooth glass: amber, green, frosted blue, opaque white, in her palm. We hold them up to the light; we rub their edges. I wonder if some of those pieces we hold were remnants of bottles my great-grandparents once tossed.
The lake returns things to us: things we lost, things we discarded, trash and treasures, even our bodies.
A classmate in high school died by falling (or jumping, as there were rumors of suicide) off a cliff not far from this beach. The current pushed his body up on shore, along with driftwood and chunks of ice. What was he thinking in his final moments, and did he ever have a chance to know love?
I am lucky enough to answer ‘yes.’ I’ve felt love’s soft edges, along with its sharpness. I’ve been cut deeply and thrown what I thought was love hard back into the dating pool. Each time, I think, I will never find it again. And then, it appears on my shore once more (not often, but eventually it resurfaces).
The tides of romance go in and out, but the one constant is my love for my daughter. That love is incomparable and uncompromising, and therefore drives everything that I do. I need a partner who will not only acknowledge this, but also be willing to hold reverence and space for the place she has in our lives.
I’ve explored the poetics of love, but what about the practical?
I’m the last one to be offering dating advice, as I’m a single mom, edging ever closer to midlife. I still cry when it doesn’t work out, but the difference now from when I was a teen is that I temper those tears for the sake of my child. That is not to say I don’t cry in front of her; I just don’t have a total meltdown.
I think it is important to model sadness for our kids, to show them that breakups do not need to break us; we will, eventually, heal and move on. If my failed love life bears any lesson, it is to help my child understand that to love is to be both vulnerable and bold, tender and fierce. I’m still trying to find that balance, but at least she sees the effort it takes.
One thing I’ve studied (casually) is adult attachments. An article by Faith Hill, in The Atlantic, states:
“There are three main attachment styles: securely attached people are trusting, and believe that others are generally worthy of trust; anxiously attached people long for closeness but are paranoid that others will hurt them, and are thus preoccupied with validation; avoidantly attached people, driven by the same fear of abandonment, keep others at arm’s length. (More recently, some researchers have argued there is a fourth style: ‘disorganized,’ a combination of anxious and avoidant.)”
A good starting place to learn about this theory is the book, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find–and Keep–Love. National Public Radio has a short piece on attachment styles, including a fun little quiz.
My personality is categorized as “anxious attached,” which–you know, shocker. I recently came to understand the powerful impact our respective attachment styles have on a relationship. In some cases, it can make or break them. (In my case, we broke up… though I wish we tried harder). However, according to the article in The Atlantic, our attachment styles are not necessarily fixed; we can change, grow, learn.
What I’ve learned is this: searching is the easy part; romance alone is not enough. Like sea glass, we need time to refine, to smooth out our edges. We need to hold one another up to see where the light gets in; to show each other where we’re stunning, and where it hurts. Most of all, we need to be willing to do the work of sand and tide, to polish our broken shards until we are ready to be held.
I cannot pretend I know what I am doing, or purport to have done any justice to the topic of love. I’m still a sucker for an artist, swooning for the singers, actors, and poets. There is no map for dating. I still stick my hand out the car window from time to time and ride the current.
I do know that we need to become experts on our own shortcomings, to try to be better, do better by one another.
Love is not all we need to sustain a relationship, but the longing for love will always be the stuff of songs and stars.
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