“Being in Love is Cool” her t-shirt read. The statement surprised me. It’s not the kind of statement you generally see often. The woman wearing it was probably in her mid forties, and it made me happy to know that there are others who are publically willing to affirm the value of a love relationship. I remember interviewing my father about meeting my mother after they had been married nearly 50 years, asking him what it was like when he first met her and if he remembered the feeling of falling in love. He told me how he would run 16 miles through the woods after work in order to see her on the weekend, but he didn’t use the words “in-love.” Neither did my mother. Life in those days required people to think about relationships in more practical terms, she explained. My parents may not recall feeling like they were in love, but they most certainly loved each other, and were dedicated to each other to their last days. They helped each other make it through the difficult years of the Great Depression, working together to make money by hanging wallpaper. They scrimped every penny they earned. Later, Dad worked away from home running jobs for a painting contractor for a many of years while Mom kept the house going—sewing our clothes, making all our food from scratch, doing extra ironing and babysitting for neighbors. As a child, I knew my mom and dad were partners in all they did, and they held on to each other through whatever came their way. After my parents had grown older, and all the children were out of the house, I recall how they sat on their back porch swing holding hands in the evening after dinner, the picture of contentment. That is no small thing to have arrived at in life.
Loving someone in a relationship of commitment, admittedly, is not necessarily the same as being in love. To love someone in a relationship of commitment, such as marriage, is to say “yes” to life and to open one’s self to knowing the other—to being fully present with that person day after day, decade after decade, through weakness and incompleteness, both theirs and your own. Loving someone with a commitment to a relationship means to listen to and stand by the loved one through times of both joy and difficulty. On the other hand, being in love might not necessarily involve a commitment to relationship, though it could. I believe my parents at the end of their lives after decades of marriage with all the trials and uncertainties life brought during those years, found they had grown together so as to feel they loved each other and were in love as well. When there was a question of opinion, Dad would say Mom “agreed with him 100%,” which she did, though that might also be because she had lost nearly all language at the end of her life, and this was one of her last sentences she could speak. Nevertheless, they happily to sat side by side in their last days, wanted to be in each other’s presence as they ate together or watched the hummingbirds that came to their window to feed. In their final years when dementia and Alzheimer’s had worked their way into their way of being, they still recognized and valued each other’s presence and seemed fulfilled by it.
The ancient Romans celebrated Saturlina, a celebration of the sun at the time of the winter solstice—December 25, on the Julian calendar was the date for the solstice, and early Christians celebrated Jesus’ birth on that day in symbolic awareness of the light given in the darkness. This is the Christmas season, and if we look at what John tells us about why Christ was born, it was because he loved us. Love in any relationship is given in darkness, without the ability to see the future or know if all will work out well. Love is an act of imagination—imagining life together, and how you can live in a way that allows you to come together in wholeness. In the act of loving, daily giving ourselves to each other, we are made whole. Christ encouraged us to “Love one another as I have loved you.” To love one another leads us to ask ourselves what does it take to become whole? How do we relate to ourselves, to each other, and to the world in order to be whole? Love is a way of relating to the world that enables us to care for it and for each other. When we live in this way, doing the daily work of learning how to care for each other, we find ourselves catching glimpses now and then through windows that enable us to see that we are connected to a greater mystery in which the whole of nature is doing its work to sustain us—through the water cycle, the biospheres, the life cycle, so that we can be here and experience relationship.
When we are in love, we feel alive, sensitive to our interconnectedness with someone else. The whole world is imbued with wonder. The sense of being in love, then, can be connected to the awareness that we are walking around part of this great web of being. After decades of being together and working through the rough spots in relationship, it’s possible to see, as my parents did, the preciousness of the small moments, for in them the universe is found. William Blake, in “Jerusalem” wrote,
“Labor well the Minute Particulars, attend to the Little-ones,
And those who are in misery cannot remain so long”
It is in the minute particulars and attending to them that we learn how to live in relationship. When I was first out of college and working as a waitress, a particular older couple would often enter the restaurant. After a short conversation, they would inevitably end up in an argument. One might throw down the menu after a few angry words, or stomp out. I never understood what kept them together through so many years. How did they grow into that way of being together? When I told my mother about them, she explained that how people respond day by day to the little things in life is a link in the bigger chain of who you become. That older couple had become what they had practiced becoming over many years, and I realized I would rather not be married than to be married like that. If I want to be happy and whole in this world, I need to practice what I want to become, and that practice comes with the small choices I am making day by day, moment by moment. Do the work in the small moments, the minute particulars, as Blake suggested, and misery will not linger.
Every so often people mention to my husband and I that they can tell that we care about each other as deep friends and partners. Sometimes they laugh at us for the fact that we hold hands as we walk. We know it’s not in vogue to show you’re in love when you’re old, but let them laugh. We’re happy. Early in our relationship we realized that if we could learn to love each other through the years and the difficulties we were sure to face and continue to say “yes” to each other, then we could be giving something good back to the world because who we are together affects the lives of those around us. It takes practice to make relationship, but it is good work, and satisfying. Being in love is cool, like the t-shirt said, but learning how to love someone in a long-term relationship of commitment is more than cool, it is deeply fulfilling.