Although I used to blame earlier mistakes in relationships on fairytale narratives, there are also stories that have brought a real form of love into my life. Like the paragraph that gave me a tingle of recognition, or the lines that felt as if they were directly written for a deep, secret part of me, that I wasn’t necessarily even aware of until it was woken up with words.
Reading such a passage is, I think, a form of love. It certainly has been for me. In the absence of learning about the subject at school, I've often turned to books to guide me through the mystery of love. Sometimes, an expert taught me about the topic. Other times, an author’s words made me feel seen and understood, and their book became a source of love for me to reach back on whenever I felt lonely. That’s why I decided to begin writing my own personal quest to better understand love, in the hope that I might explore this complex topic with the reverence it deserves, and, in the process, create a source of love for readers to reach back on the next time they felt lonely too.
I didn’t reach the book’s conclusion with a magic set of answers, just as the books I’ve read about love didn't fix all my problems or flaws. But I hope Conversations on Love can be for others what the books below have been for me: a reminder to not let the people we love slip into the background, and an invitation to pay more attention to the opportunities for love that exist inside each day.
This is what I have learnt from just a few of the books that have become sources of love in my life:
Respect intensifies romance
All About Love by bell hooks (1999)
As a Twilight-obsessed twentysomething, ‘respect’ and ‘romance’ were not two words I associated. But in All About Love — arguably one of the most important books that exists on the subject — bell hooks changed my mind. She tells us, despite what people think, it’s not true that approaching love with intention will kill or dampen romance. In fact, she believes the opposite: “Approaching romantic love from a foundation of care, knowledge, and respect actually intensifies romance.” Of course it makes sense that there can be no romance without intention, no passion without care. But reading the words ‘respect’ and ‘romance’ in one sentence clicked something into place inside me. It made me more determined not to lose the former in pursuit of the latter, and more hopeful that I could find both.
There is no other life than this
Hourglass by Dani Shapiro (2017)
In love, it is easy to lament what you cannot change in the past, as much as what you cannot will into existence in the future. Sometimes, while walking alone in the park, I imagine a life in which I’d met my husband earlier, and we have more years to travel and adventure together before we become parents. Or a life in which the baby I’d miscarried is two years and three months old now, and trying to touch their younger sibling’s cheek. When I begin to get too lost in alternate futures, I turn to these words in Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass: “Change even one moment, the whole thing unravels... There is no other life than this. You would not have stumbled into the vastly imperfect, beautiful, impossible present.” I repeat the line to myself all the time, there is no other life than this. And when I do, I know how lucky I am to be living the life I have been given, and that I would not choose another.
Closeness requires distance
'Caring for a home is caring for oneself'
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem (2015)
As Gloria Steinem watched her mother and father lead different lives, she saw the divisions “between home and the road, betweens a woman's place and a man's world.” And so she begins her memoir determined to travel, and to have adventures that take – and keep – her outside of the home.
But as My Life on the Road ends, Steinem finds it is important to her to create a home. She writes, “Home is a symbol of the self. Caring for a home is caring for oneself.” This realisation does not come with a decision to give up her adventures. It is more an understanding that she does not have to choose between her mother’s life or her father’s, between life on the road or at home. Instead of either/or, she discovers “a whole world of and.” She tells us, “I can go on the road – because I can come home. I come home – because I’m free to leave. Each way of being is more valued in the presence of the other.”
For a long time, a little like Gloria – although less productively! – I rejected domesticity, and rarely felt the places I lived in as an adult were a home. It wasn’t until I read My Life on the Road that I realised that caring for a home is more meaningful than a mundane chore – it is a way of loving and respecting yourself. It’s creating somewhere to belong, somewhere to leave, and somewhere to return to.
'Forgiveness turns the wheel of family life'
Tell me more by Kelly Corrigan (2018)
I’ve said the words ‘I love you’ hundreds of times, but Kelly Corrigan made me think again about precisely why they are extraordinary. Referring to family, the people we know best, she writes, “I find it nearly incomprehensible that, in spite of every offense and oversight, we can still say I love you and mean it.” This “immediate, often unsolicited, sometimes undeserved forgiveness,” Corrigan believes “turns the wheel of family life.” She goes on to talk about all the ways in which we forgive our parents (“for being wrong about us in so many ways”), our siblings, our children, and ourselves. She describes what “I love you” really means – not a declaration of a feeling, but a promise to love someone in spite of their annoying quirks and missteps. And she marvels at this: “Such sprawling indeficiency – ours, theirs, ever more varieties and degrees as each new day passes – to be acknowledged, to be pardoned. And yet we do. We love and are loved anyway.” Her book reminds me that we will keep making mistakes in love. And the fact that we somehow find a way to keep forgiving each other for them, to keep saying ‘I love you’ in spite of them? What a task! And what a gift.
Little bursts are important
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008)
Elizabeth Strout’s protagonist, Olive Kitteridge, believes that life depends on what she calls “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage and children. But Olive knows these intimacies come with complexities, and sometimes “dangerous, unseen currents.” This is why little bursts are important too: “a friendly clerk at Bradlee's, let's say, or the waitress at Dunkin' Donuts who knows how you like your coffee.” I’ve reflected on Olive’s theory often, and now I believe it too. Because it’s surprised me how easily and frequently a stranger’s gesture – a kind smile offered, a tender question asked – can lessen a lonely feeling. Strout showed me that little burts like these are small opportunities for another type of love, and that it’s very important, not only to notice them, but to offer them to other people too.
'What will make alone look good to you?'
How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky (2018)
When I interviewed Alain de Botton about finding love, he told me, “The best frame of mind to be in – for anything you want – is an ability to walk away from it, were it not to come right. Otherwise you put yourself at the mercy of chance and people abusing your desperation. So the capacity to say, 'I could be alone', is strangely one of the most important guarantees of one day being with somebody else in a happy way.”
This answer made me see why I often found the beginnings of love excruciating: I was so afraid that life alone would be terrible, I feared a relationship ending more than I feared being unhappy inside it. What I wish I’d read back then, was Heather Havrikesky’s collection of agony aunt essays, How to Be a Person in the World. In one of them, she asks a reader looking for love, “What will make alone look good to you?” She writes, “You have to work on that… You need to have a vision of life alone, stretching out into the future, and you need to think about how to make that vision rich and full and pretty. You have to put on an artist’s mindset and get creative and paint a portrait of yourself alone that’s breathtaking.” Heather shows her reader that it’s possible to continue searching for a relationship, with hope, without assuming that life would be colourless without one.
Love is finding a way back to each other
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (2013)
I approached my quest to understand love hoping that, if I learnt enough, I might be able to avoid its problems, or at least leapfrog over the more painful stretches. And today? I understand that love is not a pristine story. There will be promotions and debt, orgasms and diarrhea, tricky relatives and attractive strangers and claustrophobic, mundane days. So it’s inevitable that, as Ann Patchett writes, “Over time people break apart, no matter how enormous the love they feel for one another is.”
Now I am less afraid of this truth, not only because I know it’s natural for a relationship to ebb and flow, but because I appreciate the beauty in the effort it takes to find a way back to each other. There is meaning in the self-possession it takes to reconcile after a fight, or in the courage it takes to expose yourself during sex after a period of distance. There is beauty in a hand held in the right moment, in an insecurity shared, in a note left on the kitchen counter, or in an ‘I’m sorry’ tenderly delivered. Ann Patchett was right: “it is through the breaking and the reconciliation, the love and the doubting of love, the judgment and then the coming together again, that we find our own identity and define our relationships.”
Self-love is drawing strength from different versions of yourself
Chase the Rainbow by Poorna Bell (2017)
An important part of love is learning to depend on other people, to ask for help. But there are also painful moments in which I have been surprised by how my sense of self has steered me through. When one version of me didn’t feel strong enough to get out of bed in the morning after a heartbreak, there was another self who said, we can do this, and pulled me up, out into the day.
This is a difficult process to describe, but Poorna Bell does it beautifully in her book Chase the Rainbow, as she reveals how her sense of self supported her after her husband’s death. She hears a voice telling her, “I am so sorry this happened to you... Even when it seems like I'm not there, I am. I'm just tiny. But I can grow. And I can carry both of us. Remember.” This isn’t her husband’s voice, or anyone else’s; it’s hers. It reminds her – and us – that we are made up of many different selves. And that the way in which one version of us will hold another up in a moment of sadness, is a shining example of self-love.
Love is a conversation that continues beyond life
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)
Wave is a memoir about Sonali Deraniyagala’s experience of losing her parents, her husband and her two young sons in a tsunami on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. As I was reading it, I thought about Deraniyagala sitting in front of her computer, day after day after day, confronting all that she had lost. I thought about her finding a way, not only to carry on living, but to share the truth of that effort with us. This book’s very existence feels astonishing; it is evidence of what the human heart is capable of.
On top of that, Wave taught me that the memory of love doesn’t fade with time – it expands. At first, memories are too painful for Deraniyagala. She is nearly sick when she sees her children’s fingerprints on a friend’s wall, and cannot look at her sons’ faces in a photograph. When she thinks about fireworks night, she feels their gloved hands in hers. She writes, “I must stop remembering. I must keep them in a faraway place.” But by the end of her book, Deraniyagala leans into memories of her family, and understands that she needs to keep them near. Her sons’ voices “have doubled in strength,” as she allows them to chatter in her mind, or to hear them laughing on the lawn. She tells us, “I am sustained by this, it gives me spark.”
Her words remind me that, when we love people, we stay in conversation with them long after they are physically gone. And although this can never replace their presence, rather than a painful reminder, it is how we keep them close; a way of continuing to love them.
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Image: Irene Rinaldi for Penguin