Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘love’

18 MAY, 2015

Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

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A touching celebration of the “intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” visionary neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning maps the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

The book is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches if City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks's official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Nowhere does Dr. Sacks’s grace shine most luminously than in the disarming vulnerability — sometimes pensive, often poignant, always profound — with which this great seer discusses the heartbreak of not being seen himself, especially when it comes to the most intimate frontier of the human psyche. He recounts a pivotal conversation with his father as he was about to depart for his university studies at Oxford at the age of eighteen:

“You don’t seem to have many girlfriends,” he said. “Don’t you like girls?”

“They’re all right,” I answered, wishing the conversation would stop.

“Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted.

“Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma — she won’t be able to take it.” But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.” Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

This experience, which left an indelible imprint of shame on young Oliver’s mind, is doubly perplexing and heartbreaking in the context of his parents’ credentials — both were prominent physicians, which would ordinarily imply the unsuperstitious critical thinking that science espouses. In fact, his mother, a female surgeon and anatomist at the dawn of the twentieth century, was a trailblazer for women in science — so much so that his father would jokingly refer to himself as “the husband of the eminent gynecologist Elsie Landau.” And yet even here, Dr. Sacks is able to transcend the personal devastation and perform the great act of empathic inquiry that became the raw material of his work — a dedication to considering the complex reality of another, very different mind:

We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.

And herein blooms a vibrant example of the very thing that makes the book so extraordinary — the elegance with which Dr. Sacks bridges the observations of the mind with the tribulations of the heart:

My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind. But her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.

That paralyzing inhibition followed him into university, but because guilt is a judgment of reason and the heart has its own emotive will, he eventually found himself falling in love for the first time — in spite of himself, in spite of his mother’s anguishing admonition, in spite of his brother’s well-meaning but woefully misguided effort to alleviate his sexual shyness by introducing him to a kindly French prostitute, who sensed young Oliver’s predicament and instead had “a nice cup of tea” with him.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)

At Oxford, he met a young fellow named Richard Selig — a Rhodes scholar of enormous “vitality and love of life,” who “bore himself like a lion.” Dr. Sacks recounts those first flutterings of love:

We got talking; I suspect that it was he who started a conversation, for I was always too shy to initiate any contact and his great beauty made me even shyer… His knowledge of the world was far greater than mine, even given the disparity of age (he was twenty-four; I was twenty), far greater than that of most undergraduates who had gone straight from school to university with no experience of real life in between. He found something interesting in me, and we soon became friends — and more, for I fell in love with him. It was the first time in my life I had fallen in love. I fell in love with his face, his body, his mind, his poetry, everything about him. He would often bring me just-written poems, and I would give him some of my physiology essays in return.

[…]

We would go on long walks together, talking about poetry and science. Richard loved to hear me wax enthusiastic about chemistry and biology, and I lost my shyness when I did so. While I knew that I was in love with Richard, I was very apprehensive of admitting this; my mother’s words about “abomination” had made me feel that I must not say what I was. But, mysteriously, wonderfully, being in love, and in love with a being like Richard, was a source of joy and pride to me, and one day, with my heart in my mouth, I told Richard that I was in love with him, not knowing how he would react. He hugged me, gripped my shoulders, and said, “I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way.” I did not feel rebuffed or brokenhearted. He had said what he had to say in the most sensitive way, and our friendship continued, made easier now by my relinquishing certain painful and hopeless longings.

But just as young Oliver was making peace with the fact that he and Richard will only ever be friends — lifelong friends, perhaps — life took one of its cruel turns. One day, Richard showed up in Oliver’s room, concerned about a lump in his groin and asked his friend — since he was a medical student — to take a look. Oliver’s fears were confirmed — it was a malignant tumor. Richard was told he had no more than two years to live, and he never spoke to Oliver again. “I was the first to recognize the deadly import of his tumor,” Dr. Sacks writes with wistfulness so palpably and heartbreakingly unmitigated by the lapse of six decades, “and perhaps he saw me now as a sort of messenger or symbol of death.”

He was so devastated that his studies began to suffer and his parents decided it was best for him to take a leave from Oxford and spend some time in “a friendly and supportive community with hard physical work from dawn till dusk” — so, in 1955, he joined a kibbutz. The experience was transformative in not just the intended ways:

I had gone to the kibbutz as a pallid, unfit 250 pounds, but when I left it three months later, I had lost nearly 60 pounds and, in some deep sense, felt more at home in my own body.

Oliver Sacks in Greenwich Village in 1961, on his new BMW R60 (Photograph: Douglas White)

This was the start of Dr. Sacks’s love affair with the world of physique and strength training — a deeply personal proto-demonstration of something he’d later come to demonstrate as a pioneering neurologist: that the mind is indivisible from the body. In the years that followed, as he returned to clinical work, he also began weight training with a clinician’s systematic rigor. Eventually, he sliced through the country on the back of his beloved motorbike, armed with a camera and a newfound love for landscape photography — this, it bears repeating, is a man of ample talents — and made his way to Venice’s famous Muscle Beach. There, he came to be known as Dr. Squat for squatting with a gobsmacking 600 pounds — a feat by which he set the California state record in 1961. (Having done bodybuilding myself in a past life, my admiration for Dr. Sacks doubled.)

Dr. Squat setting the California state record in 1961

Eventually, Dr. Squat traded in his bike leathers and weightlifting belt for the white coat of Dr. Sacks. He fell in love again with a young man named Mel, only to have his heart broken by Mel’s conflicted rejection:

We enjoyed each other’s company for a year — the year of my internship at Mount Zion. We would go on weekend motorbike rides together, camping out, swimming in ponds and lakes, and sometimes wrestling together. There was an erotic frisson here for me, and perhaps for Mel too. Erotic with the urgent opposition of our bodies, though there was no explicit sexual element, nor would an observer have thought we were anything more than a couple of young men wrestling together. Both of us were proud of our washboard abdominals and would do sets of sit-ups, a hundred or more at a time. Mel would sit astride me, punching me playfully in the stomach with each sit-up, and I would do the same with him.

This I found sexually exciting, and I think he did too; Mel was always saying, “Let’s wrestle,” “Let’s do abs,” though it was not a purposively sexual act. We could work our abdominals or wrestle and get pleasure from it, at one and the same time. So long as things went no further.

I felt Mel’s fragility, his not fully conscious, lurking fear of sexual contact with another man, but also the special feeling he had for me, which, I dared to think, might transcend these fears. I realized I would have to go very gently.

But like those of us who have experienced the devastating disappointment of failing to dissolve another’s private conflictedness by the sheer force of love, Dr. Sacks discovered that all the gentleness in the world was hapless against the hard edges of Mel’s inner inhibitions. When the erotic and romantic tension between them became too much to bear, Mel left, leaving behind the cold ashes of a could-have-been. Its unlived potentiality — like all great unrealized longings — reveals itself as scar tissue of the soul as Dr. Sacks looks back a lifetime later:

I had had dreams, in our “honeymoon” period, that we would spend our lives together, even into a happy old age; I was all of twenty-eight at the time. Now I am eighty, trying to reconstruct an autobiography of sorts. I find myself thinking of Mel, of us together, in those early, lyrical, innocent days, wondering what happened to him, whether he is still alive… I wonder if he will read what I have just written and think more kindly of our ardent, young, very confused selves.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

The heartbreak of this almost-romance catapulted Dr. Sacks into a harrowing bout of amphetamine addiction, which he barely survived. After a couple of other short-lived infatuations, he entered a somewhat undeliberate period of celibacy that would last nearly four decades. What he didn’t find in romantic love he found in his work with patients — a profound sense of purpose and a deep love for how his work touched human lives. He writes:

It was crucial for me to find something with meaning, and this, for me, was seeing patients… I found my patients fascinating, and I cared for them. I started to taste my own clinical and therapeutic powers and, above all, the sense of autonomy and responsibility which I had been denied when I was still a resident in training.

Over the decades that followed, that fusion of fascination and love propelled Dr. Sacks into becoming the most influential neurologist of our time, irrevocably changing our understanding of the human mind and how it shapes the spirit. And because life has a way of dancing with its own strangeness, it was through the love of his work that Dr. Sacks finally found the love of his life. (As some wise friends have memorably advised, “If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.”) Dr. Sacks writes:

Shortly after my seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, I met someone I liked. Billy, a writer, had just moved from San Francisco to New York, and we began having dinners together. Timid and inhibited all my life, I let a friendship and intimacy grow between us, perhaps without fully realizing its depth. Only in December of 2009, still recuperating from knee and back surgeries and racked with pain, did I realize how deep it was. Billy was going to Seattle to spend Christmas with his family, and just before he went, he came to see me and (in the serious, careful way he has) said, “I have conceived a deep love for you.” I realized, when he said this, what I had not realized, or had concealed from myself before — that I had conceived a deep love for him too — and my eyes filled with tears. He kissed me, and then he was gone.

[…]

There was an intense emotionality at this time: music I loved, or the long golden sunlight of late afternoon, would set me weeping. I was not sure what I was weeping for, but I would feel an intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

On the Move, the dedication page of which reads simply “for Billy,” is unsynthesizably transcendent in its totality — so immensely rewarding, so rich in private human truth and shared human wisdom, that compressing it into anything less than the full 416 pages is an injustice. As Dr. Sacks bids the world adieu, he leaves us with this miracle of a book — the ultimate gift of “love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

Photographs courtesy of Oliver Sacks; special thanks to Kate Edgar

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08 MAY, 2015

The Encounter: How Young Vladimir Nabokov Met the Love of His Life and Won Her Over with a Poem

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“Longing, and mystery, and delight…”

On May 8, 1923, a young woman appeared before a young man — an emerging poet — at an émigré charity ball in Berlin. Wearing a black Harlequin demi-mask she refused to lower, she proceeded to produce a verse from one of his poems, which she had clipped from the Russian liberal daily Rul’ some months earlier and committed to memory.

He was instantly besotted.

The woman was 21-year-old Véra Slonim and the man 24-year-old Vladimir Nabokov, and with this Shakespearean encounter began one of history’s greatest romances.

Nabokov had just emerged from the heartbreak of his first great love and was still raw with grief over his father’s death. The encounter with Véra sliced through the thick of this darkness with a luminous beam of possibility — for love, for happiness, for vibrant aliveness. So taken was the young writer with the glimpse of this possibility that he immortalized that fateful moment in a beautiful poem titled “The Encounter,” included in the altogether enchanting Letters to Véra (public library) — one of the best biographies of 2014, which gave us Nabokov’s affectionate bestiary of nicknames for Véra, his clever puzzles and word games for her, and literature’s most entertaining account of food poisoning.

Nabokov mailed the poem to Rul,’ where it was published on June 24. Catalyzing their lifetime of passionate love letters was this most exquisite private serenade performed behind the demi-mask of a public text, translated here by Olga Voronina.

THE ENCOUNTER
enchanted by this strange proximity

Longing, and mystery, and delight…
as if from the swaying blackness
of some slow-motion masquerade
onto the dim bridge you came.

And night flowed, and silent there floated
into its satin streams
that black mask’s wolf-like profile
and those tender lips of yours.

And under the chestnuts, along the canal
you passed, luring me askance.
What did my heart discern in you,
how did you move me so?

In your momentary tenderness,
or in the changing contour of your shoulders,
did I experience a dim sketch
of other — irrevocable — encounters?

Perhaps romantic pity
led you to understand
what had set trembling that arrow
now piercing through my verse?

I know nothing. Strangely
the verse vibrates, and in it, an arrow…
Perhaps you, still nameless, were
the genuine, the awaited one?

But sorrow not yet quite cried out
perturbed our starry hour.
Into the night returned the double fissure
of your eyes, eyes not yet illumed.

For long? For ever? Far off
I wander, and strain to hear
the movement of the stars above our encounter
and what if you are to be my fate…

Longing, and mystery, and delight,
and like a distant supplication….
My heart must travel on.
But if you are to be my fate…

His fate she did become — they were married twenty months later and remained together for half a century, until death did them part. So complete was their union that Véra became Vladimir’s de facto editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

Letters to Véra is a breathtakingly beautiful in its totality. Complement it with other exhilarating first encounters that sparked some of creative culture’s greatest loves: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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04 MAY, 2015

Love Is Love: Maria Bello on Resisting the Labels We Are Given and Redefining Those We Give Ourselves

By:

A courageous quest for nuance that liberates the different experiences of partnerships we have in the modern world.

“Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other,” Leo Buscaglia wrote in his seminal 1972 book based on the world’s first university course on love. Susan Sontag echoed this a few years later in lamenting the detrimental divisiveness of labels. It might be tempting to think that, four decades later, we live in a post-label society: that is, a society that has transcended all the categories into which we put people — race, gender, nationality, sexuality, political affiliation, basketball team preference — in order to avoid the intimate and demanding work of getting to know each other on a level beyond the superficial. And yet nearly half a century after James Baldwin admonished that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [or else] you are in trouble,” we still find ourselves in a world that constantly tries to tell us how we deserve to be treated through the arbitrary labels it bestows upon us based on fragments of our wholeness.

How we can begin to move past that is what actor and activist Maria Bello addresses with great courage and candor in Whatever… Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves (public library) — an exploration of “the beauty of the fluidity of love and partnership,” sprouted from her spectacular 2013 New York Times coming-out essay and titled after her twelve-year-old son Jackson’s response when she finally told him that she was in love with a woman.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride' by Sébastien Lifshitz. Click image for more.

Looking back on the flood of moving responses to her New York Times essay and on her own lifetime spent as “a woman who was both ashamed and proud of her own truth,” Bello considers what a post-label conception of love and partnership might look like for a culture increasingly needful of such liberation from limiting labels:

At the time, I had no idea how many modern families and unconventional partnerships were out there. And I didn’t realize how many people did not have labels to describe themselves or the structure of their lives. So the phrase “being a whatever” came to describe them. According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, whatever is a pronoun “used to emphasize a lack of restriction in referring to anything.” And because I am not interested in restricting myself or anyone else with a particular label, I decided that I am a “whatever,” too.

[…]

Many people in our world today are having different experiences of partnership and aren’t sure how to label these different kinds of love.

[…]

[There is] a new conversation to be had about the labels society gives us and the labels we give ourselves.

Traditional labels just don’t seem to fit anymore. These labels are limiting the possibility for people to question more and become who they are meant to be. By asking questions and challenging our own beliefs, I feel we can update all of our outdated labels and realize that labels need to evolve just like people do.

Most of us have directly experienced, in one shape or another, the way in which labels demand that we settle for smaller versions of ourselves. The more specific they get, the more our expansive wholeness is asked to acquiesce to fragmented smallness — and that slippery slope of specificity, while meant to better capture our identity, ends up suffocating it. I, for instance, could be labeled a woman, then a queer woman, then an immigrant queer woman, then a Bulgarian immigrant queer woman, and so forth. And yet, while none of these labels are incorrect, the accretion of them tips over into being wrong — wrong for concretizing a handful of psychographic variables to the exclusion of the vast variability of all the more abstract traits and tastes and talents that make a complete person. At the heart of how labels impoverish our interpersonal imagination is a dearth of nuance — something Bello captures with elegant precision as she considers the questions that thinking about being a “whatever” opens up:

My romantic partner is fourth-generation African, so why can’t she call herself an African American? My cousin Marty has dark skin but is Italian, so does she call herself African Italian? Can a gay couple consider themselves Catholic even though they are excluded from the church? Is a man who is married to a woman but kissed a boy when he was 12 considered bisexual? Are all those historical heroes of mine who also had extramarital affairs bad guys?

Illustration from 'Grandma, What’s a Lesbian?,' one of the greatest LGBT children's books. Click image for more.

Remarking with warm wryness that “the person who claims to have all the answers is usually a cult leader, a dictator, or just a really pushy salesperson,” Bello argues that what is needed for this new conversation is a commitment to reframing those questions in order to discover what it takes to celebrate our singular experience and “embrace love, family, and partnership in all possible forms.” She recounts how one such pivotal question shifted her own experience as she began to fall in love with her best friend, Clare:

As I continued to look through my writing and photos, I came across a black-and-white print of a photo of my best friend and me, taken on the previous New Year’s Eve. We looked so happy and I couldn’t help but smile. I remembered how we had met two years before; she was sitting in a bar wearing a fedora and speaking in her Zimbabwean accent.

We had an immediate connection but neither of us thought of it as romantic or sexual. She was one of the most beautiful, charming, brilliant, and funny people I had ever met, but it didn’t occur to me, until that soul-searching moment in my garden, that we could choose to love each other romantically.

What had I been waiting for all of these years? My friend is the person I like being with the most, the one with whom I am most myself. The next time I saw her, in New York, I shared my confusing feelings.

We began the long, painful, wonderful process of trying to figure out what our relationship was supposed to be.

Even so, the tyranny of “supposed to be” warps the very asking of those questions, including that of what a “partner” really means in the modern world — something that circles back to the challenge of being labeled by the outside observations of others rather than by the inner truth of our experience. Bello writes:

It’s hard for me even to define the term partner in my life, but others would try.

For five years I considered the closest thing I had to a partner to be a dear friend who just happened to be in his seventies. He was a former producer and studio head named John Calley, and I spoke to him daily until he died. We both loved books and, being seekers in life, always worked to understand ourselves and the world more.

What seems imperative is that we decouple the notion of a “partner” from evolutionary biology’s implication of “reproductive partner” — a primitive definition that doesn’t even begin to capture the kaleidoscope of nuance that partnership has in contemporary life. Bello addresses this by examining the further narrowing of that definition:

I have never understood the distinction of a “primary” partner. Does that imply we have secondary and tertiary partners, too? To me, a partner is someone you rely on in your life — for help, companionship, mutual respect, and support. Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with? I have two friends who are sisters, have lived together for 15 years, and raised a daughter together. Are they not partners? And many married couples I know haven’t had sex for years. And yet, everyone thinks of them as partners.

[…]

My feelings about attachment and partnership have always been unconventional. Jack’s father, Dan, will always be my partner because we share Jack. Just because our relationship is nonsexual doesn’t make him any less of a partner to me. We share the same core values, including putting our son first.

Our partners are often revealed at times of crisis — when life throws its curveballs, only true partners show up to catch them. Bello, who was nearly killed by an undiagnosed parasite she had contracted while doing humanitarian work in Haiti, reflects on how that episode clarified the question of partnership:

At one point during my illness that summer, I thought I might not survive. But the people who were at my bedside every day at the hospital were all my life partners: my mother, Jackson, Dan, my brother Chris, and Clare.

Clare rarely left my side and called every doctor she knew to help figure out what was wrong with me.

Illustration from 'Heather Has Two Mommies,' one of the greatest LGBT children's books. Click image for more.

Shortly thereafter, Bello came out to twelve-year-old Jackson, who issued the heartening proclamation after which Bello’s memoir is titled: “Whatever, Mom… love is love.” Indeed, embedded in this exchange is the very thing that makes Bello’s book significant — a vibrant testament to the idea that in every realm of human rights and equality, what is needed isn’t merely tolerance but acceptance, wholehearted and unconditional. And this begins with the values we bequeath to the young, be it through parenting in the literal sense or through a kind of societal parenting by the heroes and role models of the culture we live in — the indirect parenting of personhood that happens through what legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead called our “spiritual and mental ancestors.”

And here is the beauty of it: We can choose who our spiritual parents are by choosing whom we admire and whose advice we heed — in fact, we are being parented all the time in the larger nest of culture, which incubates our values through direct and indirect guidance from those in the public eye. This is why it is both so courageous and so crucial for people like Bello to speak out and reaffirm the values of social justice and equality — and what more intimate a frontier of justice than the evolving definition of what a modern family is?

Bello writes:

The label of “partner” as only your sexual partner is outdated. An updated label of partner might be anyone who is significant to you in some fundamental way. The definition of the family is changing, too, and I hope it’s working to bring people together with a new respect for different kinds of relationships. So I would like to consider myself a whatever, as Jackson said. Whomever I love, however I love them, whether they sleep in my bed or not, or whether I do homework with them or share a child with them, “love is love.” … Maybe, in the end, a modern family is just a more honest family.

In the end, it comes down to not letting others define us — a commitment demanding, above all, that we do as young André Gide aspired in his diary: prioritize being over appearing. Bello reflects on this gargantuan task and the urgency at its heart:

The old ideas of love, marriage, children, and happily ever after just don’t apply to most of us. I have come to see that the labels that other people might give me about my partnerships, family, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and spirituality do not define me. I am only concerned with the only labels that matter—the ones I give myself.

[…]

All I hope is that we all keep questioning our labels, get rid of the ones that hold us back, and hang on to the ones that shine light on the beauty of who we really are.

Whatever… Love Is Love does precisely what it promises to do — question the labels we give ourselves, not for the sake of simplistic and static answers but in a noble quest for nuance in the dynamic act of answering. Complement it with Susan Sontag on how labels limit us, Diane Ackerman’s superb natural history of love, and modern love patron saint Edie Windsor on love and the truth about equality, then revisit history’s most beautiful love letters by “whatevers,” including Virginia Woolf, Margaret Mead, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

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29 APRIL, 2015

David Whyte on the True Meaning of Friendship, Love, and Heartbreak

By:

“Heartbreak is how we mature… There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.”

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf asserted in the only surviving recording of her voice. But words also belong to us, as much as we belong to them — and out of that mutual belonging arises our most fundamental understanding of the world, as well as the inescapable misunderstandings that bedevil the grand sensemaking experiment we call life.

This constant dialogue between reality and illusion, moderated by our use of language, is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a most remarkable book “dedicated to WORDS and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty.” Whyte — who has previously enveloped in his wisdom such intricacies of existence as what happens when love leaves and how to break the tyranny of work-life balance — constructs an alternative dictionary inviting us to befriend words in their most dimensional sense by reawakening to the deeper and often counterintuitive meanings beneath semantic superficialities and grab-bag terms like pain, beauty, and solace. And he does it all with a sensibility of style and spirit partway between Aristotle and Anne Lamott, Montaigne and Mary Oliver.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Whyte chooses 52 such ordinary words, the same number as the playing cards in a standard deck — perhaps a subtle suggestion that words, like cards, are as capable of illusion as they are of magic: two sides of the same coin, chosen by what we ourselves bring to the duality. Indeed, dualities and counterpoints dominate the book — Whyte’s short essays examine ambition and disappointment, vulnerability and courage, anger and forgiveness.

Among the words Whyte ennobles with more luminous understanding are those connoting the most complex conversations between human hearts: friendship, love — both unconditional and unrequited — and heartbreak. Of friendship — which Emerson considered the supreme fruit of “truth and tenderness,” Aristotle the generous act of holding up a mirror to each other, Thoreau a grand stake for which the game of life may be played, and C.S. Lewis “one of those things which give value to survival” — Whyte writes:

FRIENDSHIP is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

Echoing Anne Lamott’s beautifully articulated conviction that friendship is above all the art of allowing the soft light of love to fall upon even our darkest sides, Whyte adds:

In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.

And yet friendship is a merited grace, one that requires of us the unrelenting commitment of showing up for and bearing witness to one another, over and over:

The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.

[…]

But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.

Whyte argues that friendship helps us “make sense of heartbreak and unrequited love” — two concepts to which he dedicates entire separate word-meditations. He writes of the former:

HEARTBREAK is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.

And yet while heartbreak has this immense spiritual value, and even an evolutionarily adaptive one, we still treat it like a problem to be solved rather than like the psychoemotional growth-spurt that it is. Whyte writes:

Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream… But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.

[…]

There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.

Illustration by Roger Duvoisin from 'Petunia, I Love You.' Click image for more.

Stripped of the unnecessary negative judgments we impose upon it, heartbreak is simply a fathometer for the depth of our desire — for a person, for an accomplishment, for belonging to the world and its various strata of satisfaction. Whyte captures this elegantly:

Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope but as the close embrace of the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose.

[…]

Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is an introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable and often beautiful question, something and someone that has been with us all along, asking us to be ready for the ultimate letting go.

One of the most common sources of heartbreak, of course, is unrequited love. But, once again, Whyte shines a sidewise gleam on the obscured essence of another experience we mistake for a failure rather than a triumph of our humanity — for unrequited love is the only kind of love there is, in any real sense:

UNREQUITED love is the love human beings experience most of the time. The very need to be fully requited may be to turn from the possibilities of love itself. Men and women have always had difficulty with the way a love returned hardly ever resembles a love given, but unrequited love may be the form that love mostly takes; for what affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? … And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?

[…]

The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox and Me,' a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre. Click image for more.

Indeed, most of our dissatisfaction with life stems from wishing for the present moment to be somehow different, somehow better-conforming to the rigid expectation we set for it at some point in the past. And yet nowhere is this rigidity of requirement more stifling than in love — that glorious “dynamic interaction” of souls responsive to one another, which requires a constant learning and relearning of a common language. Whyte considers what it is we really fear when we hide behind the merciless moniker of “unrequited” love:

We seem to have been born into a world where love, except for brilliant, exceptional moments, seems to exist from one side only, ours — and that may be the difficulty and the revelation and the gift — to see love as the ultimate letting go and through the doorway of that affection, make the most difficult sacrifice of all, giving away the very thing we want to hold forever.

Norwegian for 'the inescapable euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love,' from 'Lost in Translation' by Ella Frances Sanders. Click image for more.

Paradoxically, our notion of “unconditional love” is beset by the same self-defeating absolutism of expectation. Arguing that the very concept of it is a “beautiful hoped for impossibility,” Whyte writes:

Love may be sanctified and ennobled by its commitment to the unconditional horizon of perfection, but what makes love real in the human world seems to be our moving, struggling conversation with that wanted horizon rather than any possibility of arrival. The hope for, or the declaration of a purely spiritual, unconditional love is more often a coded desire for immunity and safety, an attempt to forgo the trials of vulnerability, powerlessness and the exquisite pain to which we apprentice ourselves in a relationship, a marriage, in raising children, in a work we love and desire.

[…]

The hope for unconditional love is the hope for a different life than the one we have been given. Love is the conversation between possible, searing disappointment and a profoundly imagined sense of arrival and fulfillment; how we shape that conversation is the touchstone of our ability to love in the real inhabited world. The true signature and perhaps even the miracle of human love is helplessness, and all the more miraculous because it is a helplessness which we wittingly or unwittingly choose; in our love of a child, a partner, a work, or a road we have to take against the odds.

In the remainder of Consolations, which is immeasurably enlivening in its entirety, Whyte goes on to unpeel such concepts as shyness, vulnerability, honesty, and genius. Complement it with his equally ennobling writings on the three commitments of a fulfilling life, then treat yourself to these beautifully untranslatable words from around the world — a testament to those complexities we are yet to learn naming.

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