“You don’t find love, it finds you. It’s got a little bit to do with destiny, fate, and what’s written in the stars.” — Anaïs Nin
Love. It has shaped me, it has broken me and it has even on occasion made me. In the rare moments when love enters the picture, everything feels illuminated. The hue of life alters to something warmer, sweeter. Petty grievances disappear. Things I’d imagined to be monumentally obstructive suddenly seem quaint and negligible. I go from not having room to breathe for anything besides work to figuring out – come hell or high water – time to be with someone, breathe with someone, be held by someone. I make room for the important things.
Love is just about complete in and of itself. But as Anaïs Nin said how we write to taste life twice – so it is to gather together some reflections on love. Here, then, are some favourites:
Johnny Cash’s definition of paradise
When the singer-songwriter was asked for his definition of paradise, he replied: “This morning, with her, having coffee.” He was then 31 years into his marriage with June Carter. (The early days of their relationship was captured in the film Walk the Line, directed by James Mangold. And here is what Cash wrote two months after his beloved wife died. He died two months later.)
Favourite couples in cinema
(1) Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn were paired together in only four films, despite seeming to have spent the 1930s in a whirl of witty banter. While many love Bringing Up Baby, I continue (despite repeated attempts) to find it slight, and also slightly annoying for showing smart Kate as ditsy. I enjoy Holiday for its clever look at how marriages should or should not start, but I truly adore The Philadelphia Story for looking at flawed humans on the learning curve to a happier life. Plus, it has Kate, Cary and Jimmy. Also, it’s hilarious.
(2) Hitchcock couples (and especially heroines) don’t fare well. Amidst the paranoia of who’s lying to whom, and – let’s face it – who’s trying to kill whom, couples who make their way to a happy ending survive a great deal of angst. My favourite pair is James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window. Watching their chemistry cheers me up when I’m feeling low.
(3) My favourite classic cinema couple, however, are Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. Through six films in the Thin Man series (though admittedly, the last three are forgettable), they drink cocktails, dress in silk and tuxes and – along with Asta the dog, of course – solve murder mysteries. How perfect is that?
From more recent years, I pick Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy playing Jesse and Céline across three films (so far), nine years apart in real time; I especially love Before Sunset (because I’m a sap). There’s Lars and the Real Girl, where Ryan Gosling gets real with a doll. And Secretary where two haunted souls find love and release – and a bit of pain – in each other. There are also, of course, Harry and Sally, who taught us friends make the best lovers.
A personal favourite comes from the imagination of director and co-writer Andrew Stanton at Pixar in WALL-E. Eve is a fierce, no-bullshit type focused on her tasked mission, and it’s WALL-E’s kindness and devotion that eventually softens her. Their journey together is enough to make me melt into a puddle. The only cinematic relationship that can better this is the prologue in Up (also by Pixar) where Carl and Ellie build a life – and dreams – together.
“I have seen the best of you, and the worst of you, and I choose both.” — Sarah Kay
The music of love
Try a Little Tenderness – Otis Redding • Be My Baby – the Ronettes (the song that never fails to make me sway) • You Were Always on My Mind – Elvis Presley • I Want You – Marvin Gaye (when it doubt, there is always Marvin) • I Hear a Symphony – the Supremes • Something – the Beatles • Then He Kissed Me – the Crystals • Perdita – Rubber City (from the Wild at Heart soundtrack) • Cry to Me – Solomon Burke • Maya’s Theme – Mychael Danna (from the Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love soundtrack) • Ne me quitte pas – Nina Simone • Tonight – David Bowie • Canon in D Major – the Pachelbel Orchestra • anything by Sam Cooke
Danielle LaPorte on The Wishlist versus how you want to feel
“You imagine that Mr or Miss Right is good-looking, of course; and they have a great education, like you do, so you can have an intellectual match; and they’re athletic, ’cause you’re a sporto and you want someone to bike with. And ideally (because we are going for ideal), they don’t smoke and they love to travel, because you are ready for some adventure, baby!
“And then you meet someone at a friend’s BBQ, and you’re completely intrigued and attracted to this person. You feel energized, like you light up a few more watts in their presence. But they’re not as hot as you were hoping – a little chubby maybe. And you’re taken aback to learn – after talking fluidly for hours on all of your favourite topics – that despite being a working writer, they never went to college. Hmmm. Well that’s too bad, you think, my brother won’t be very impressed. They’re not matching up to the details of your vision. But … you’re feeling pretty jazzed to be around them.
“On your first date this paramour takes you to a poetry slam in a seedy part of town, and it opens up your world. The passion! The politics! Then they take you out for Ethiopian food, which you’ve never had before. You feel like you’re on an adventure in your own city. You want more of this! You’re feeling love starting to move through you. And by God, you laugh more than you’ve ever laughed.
“And then you learn that this person, who is clearly incredibly cool and is turning you right on, is afraid of flying on planes. In fact, they have such a phobia of flying that they’ve never been off the continent. Errrrt! Grinding halt. What about that honeymoon in Paris you’d always dreamed of? And your friend’s birthday party in Chile? No flights. A little bit chubby. No alma mater. The deal could be off.
“Except … you feel the way you wanted to feel. Adventurous. Love. Energized. The packaging is a bit funky, but the feelings are so right. And you surprise yourself. You give in to your core desired feelings. You’re a yes! Three cheers for truth! Fears silenced, heart engaged. You’re not compromising. In fact, you’re expanding.
“You have a backyard wedding and road trip for your honeymoon. Mazel tov. And then, because this is a real love story, you promptly find a great couples therapist, who helps you conclude that going to Paris with your best friend, and coming home to a devoted partner who totally turns you on, is a pretty sweet deal.
“When you’re clear on how you want to feel, you can be open to what life wants to give you. And life usually has something even better in store for you than what you’ve imagined.”
— from The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte
Love in the afternoon
When I lived in Italy, I learnt to appreciate the siesta – a break in the workday – a ritual in many European and Latin countries. The pace of life slowed down for those few hours. They were set aside to enjoy a leisurely lunch, take a nap, then return to a few more hours of work feeling refreshed. While family time is the preserve of mornings and evenings, this siesta time is anecdotally reserved for the mistress.
“Love is what makes two people sit in the middle of a bench when there is plenty of room at both ends.” — Anonymous
Agony aunt columns are awash with letters of despair, begging for help with matters of the heart. I listen to podcast versions Savage Lovecast (hosted by Dan Savage) and Dear Sugar Radio (hosted by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond).
If I were to distil the core reason people seek help, it’s because they (i.e. us) are afraid to be true to themselves in love. Prioritising others’ ease at the cost of one’s own, denial of recurring issues, and fear of speaking honestly seem to lead to more heartache than anything else.
My own advice would be to drop the armour and speak your truth. It will set you free.
Love among writers
So many books about love end in devastation. It’s as if a happy ending is somehow too lowbrow for high art. Whatevs. I’m over tragedy. So, instead, here are some writers and their real-life relationships:
(1) After Agatha Christie’s first marriage broke down, she had no plans to marry again. She decided to instead spend her days writing her hugely successful murder mysteries, travelling the world, and enjoying the odd excavation with that sweet young archaeologist chap, Max Mallowan, whom she’d met through friends.
She wrote in her autobiography about the time Mallowan returned a book he had borrowed from her, sat on the edge of her bed, and asked her to marry him: “I said immediately that I couldn’t. He asked why couldn’t I? I said for every reason. I was years older than he was [they had a 14-year age gap] … He said he had considered everything. …Quite suddenly, I felt that nothing in the world would be as delightful as being married to him.”
Their marriage lasted 46 years until her death. In her memoir, Come, Tell Me How You Live, she describes the archaeological expeditions she took with Mallowan to the Middle East over several decades, and he comes across as the most adorable gem of a man.
(2) In her memoir My Life in France it’s clear that for chef (and possible spy!) Julia Child, her love of good food was only superseded by the love she shared with her husband Paul. “We had a happy marriage because we were together all the time,” she wrote. If you watch the Nora Ephron-directed film adaptation of the book, Julie & Julia, you too can delight in the loving pair portrayed by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. Adoreballs.
(3) David Sedaris, one of my all-time favourites, writes his memoirs with his signature acerbic wit and unsentimental views on the weaknesses and follies of human interaction. His boyfriend of several decades, Hugh, is always there but in the background, a slightly anonymous figure more like wallpaper than a centrepiece. It is in this essay titled Old Faithful for the New Yorker, where Sedaris turned his gaze, at last, directly onto Hugh and their relationship. It is the best writing I’ve read on long-term love.
“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupèry
Do unto others… as they wish to have it done
For decades, I took the passage from Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality to heart – it’s the one where you imagine you love Schubert and hate Schumann while your friend is the opposite, and so for his birthday you give him a record by Schubert – the composer he hates. Because, Kundera says, when you give a present you want to give your friend a piece of yourself, a piece of your heart. And if you gave him what he wants then it would be “more like a bribe calculated to flatter your friend”. Makes sense, right?
Not so, according to a dude called Gary Chapman, who’s written a book I haven’t read though the title explains it: Five Love Languages. It sounds a bit gaggy, but it’s an intriguing notion. He says we translate the practice of love through either (1) gift giving, (2) spending quality time, (3) words of affirmation, (4) acts of service, or (5) physical touch. And each of us has a primary preference and a secondary one.
Chapman’s thinking goes something like this: a big reason people complain about their partners is because they’re showing love the way they themselves express it, instead of understanding how their partner wants it. Once I thought about it, it made sense.
For example, if someone thought giving me gifts was a fine way of conveying his love, I would kinda freak out. I’m a minimalist! Why are you giving me stuff? It would be agonising. I would have thought physical touch was my thing (I like being held; it’s reassuring) but it turns out – on inspection – to be words that really make me happy. So put your biases aside and find out what really makes your partner beam.
“Love can hope where reason would despair.” — George Lyttleton
“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?”
There’s an urban myth that author Erich Segal wrote his novel Love Story to educate his students at Harvard on the three-act structure: boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl. Any which way, the story worked. It went on to sell a gazillion copies and be adapted into an Oscar-winning film. Though a weepie of the first order, its dialogue remains timeless:
“What the hell makes you smart?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t go for coffee with you.”
“Listen – I wouldn’t ask you.”
“That,” she replied, “is what makes you stupid.”
Look into my eyes then answer 36 questions
The New York Times has a weekly column called Modern Love. Its reader-submitted essays are now read with the devotion of a cult following. There’s a podcast version as well where famous people read out the column. One of the most popular essays is titled To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.
“Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says: ‘I need you because I love you.’” — Erich Fromm