Open to me, so that I may open.
One could not love me because she’d been a debutante and I had not.
One I could not love because her Mars was in a water sign.
Another could not love me because I wouldn’t smoke hash before we made love.
Another I could not love because she downed five cocktails on our first date.
Another could not love me because I cheated on her.
Another I could not love because she lived in a trailer with her ex.
…because her heart had packed its bags and moved, with
her former lover, to the other edge of the continent.
…because she dreamed of being carried everywhere.
…because my body would no longer open to hers.
…because she read my book and didn’t say one word about it.
…because I worship the sun and she’s happiest in cooler climes.
…because she had no sense of humor.
…because she hated her mother.
…because she reminded me of my mother.
…because I didn’t cook for her.
…because she criticized me all the time.
…because I wouldn’t watch the Super Bowl with her.
…because there are parts of her she will never let me know.
…because I don’t eat meat.
…because she never danced with me.
…because I said rude things about the Vice President.
…because her kisses were too wet.
…because I threw her telephone at her.
…because I was her teacher.
…because I wore shoes in the house.
…because she was too femme.
…because I never washed my car.
…because the sound of her voice made me cringe.
…because I brought her herbs when she was sick.
…because she broke up with me on my birthday.
…because she was taking anti-depressants.
…because she was anti-Semitic.
…because I lived in the wrong part of town.
…because she was nineteen years older than me.
…because I was “high maintenance.”
…because she was into men.
One could not love me because she feared she would always disappoint me.
Another I could not love because she refused to tell me her dreams.
One. Another. Another. Another.
There are innumerable reasons why we do not open to one another. Fear of what’s happened in the past begets fear of what will happen in the future. We do not want to be permeable. Or known. Or we hunger to be known. We fear not getting what we want, what we’re convinced we deserve. We fear judgment by association, as if the flaws of another are contagious and will become ours.
So many of us have forgotten that love is an act of devotion. We’ve been trained to see ourselves as customers instead. Smart shoppers, hunting down the best bargain, trading up, returning what does not quite fit. We stare into our lovers’ faces like gazing into mirrors; we wonder, “Do I look good in this?” “Does this make me look fat?” We change our minds, our feelings, like we change styles. What once suited us no longer does. We’ve outgrown what once we wrapped around us.
We say, “The chemistry is gone.”
We are chemists of mystery; we don’t know why such reactions occur or why they don’t recur. We fail to understand the basic elements that come together, let alone how to mix and combine them. We are reckless experimenters, giddy with that first combustion, confounded when it all blows up in our faces. Or we are overly cautious, fearing irreparable alchemy, unwilling to risk the addition of molecules that might bond to our own.
My mother tells me, “You’re a bad picker, like me,” referring to our seeming inability to choose a partner and be happy. Perhaps there is too much choice. I know a man in an arranged marriage; he met his bride-to-be exactly one time before the marriage, over lunch surrounded by others. They were brought together by Yogi Bhajan, their spiritual teacher, who told them their practice was to learn to love one another. They have stayed together, happily they swear, for thirty-five years.
Is the problem with our picking, or with our willingness to live with our choice?
My friend and colleague, the art historian Arlene Raven, once asked me, “Do you see yourself as more unloved or unloving?” She was upset with me at the time. I could tell she believed the answer was the latter, whereas my personal myth at that point in my life was all about the former.
It took some years for me to deeply understand her question: was I measuring love by what I received or by what I gave?
For most of my life, I’d been focused on what I had not received—from my family, from my friends, from the ones I’d claimed to love. I could recite by heart every detail of this deprivation.
But had I ever considered love in terms of what I’d been withholding?
Where does it go, that chemical combustion of phenylethylamine and dopamine that brings about that giddy feeling of attraction? That heightened state we call “in love?” How is it that the hormonal storm subsides?
Where do the vows go, the promises and plans, once they cease to sing in memory? Are they not inscribed in the akashic records, wherein the entire history of the cosmos is documented, for all time?
If energy is neither created nor destroyed then where does all that shine go?
Her voice that once made your pulse race now makes your heart ache. Then more time passes till that sound evokes only the dull thud of absence.
Does a chemical reaction have a life cycle? Does it blaze for a time like a star, and then burn out? And doesn’t that light still beckon, eons after the star has turned to ash?
Or have we mistaken that chemical response, confused it with the transcendence we are really seeking? Do we ride those hormones like a roller coaster, believing we are really traveling, only to find ourselves going round and round?
“None of my husbands ever loved me,” my mother tells me over lunch on Mother’s Day. She’s had three marriages and none of them has been satisfying.
I can’t know if this was true about my biological father. They divorced when I was just a year old. All I know of that relationship is what she’s told me.
My stepfather is another story. They were married from the time I was five until I was twenty-three. It was a tempestuous marriage, filled with booze, betrayal, and brutal, bitter fighting. It was also filled with laughter and sexual play. “I know Mac loved you,” I counter.
She looks askance. “He divorced me,” she protests.
“Nevertheless, he loved you.”
“No one ever hurt me like he hurt me,” she insists.
My stepfather was a deeply damaged man. He’d been abused; he’d been in foster care; he’d seen his mother carted off to the insane asylum. His capacity to love was limited and warped. But if I know anything at all, I know he loved my mother. I could see it in the way he looked at her, like she was the best thing he’d ever known and he was sure he didn’t deserve her. I could feel it in the way he touched her, as if at any moment she would be snatched away from him. Don’t you know, I want to tell her, that people who love can still do terrible things? Sometimes even because they love so much, and it scares them so badly.
Her current husband is another lost soul, conflicted and at war inside his own skin. Yet he’s stayed with her for thirty years and tended to her during a series of illnesses. Both retired, they get on each other’s nerves, but still they go to lunch and to the movies. They are companionable. Is it enough?
I’d like to ask her about the love she feels, and by what actions she expresses it. Whether she’s been able to maintain her devotion in the face of disappointment. In the face of not getting what she wanted. Or whether she has spent her time counting the deficits, building the case against love.
When my nine-year relationship with Susan ended, by her choice, I was devastated. Who would I be now that she no longer loved me?
Somewhere amidst the suffering, I had this realization: I’d not been defined or given essence by her love for me. What gave me shape and substance was my love for her, and this had not changed. I had lost nothing because I had not lost my capacity to love.
And irrespective of her choice, I was not bound to relinquish that. I could continue to honor my love for her. And this love made me strong enough to weather a difficult transition. We have remained the best of friends.
My spiritual teacher, Harijiwan, says that one’s goal in a relationship should be to help the other person feel as good about themselves as possible, instead of judging, assessing, improving, trying to shape them into something more like the entity that will feed us what we think we want. Perhaps too often we decide that this maxim should be our partner’s goal, and we turn from her when she fails at this task.
When my friend Mary reads this, she asks, “What is the place of expectation?” She means, “Can we not expect to receive certain things from the ones who claim to love us?”
And all I can give for an answer are the words I used to hear in twelve-step meetings, that “expectations are planned disappointments.” When we expect nothing, relinquish our sense of entitlement, everything that comes feels like a blessing.
Another of my teachers, Tej, says, “What your soul desires will never come from outside you. Not from your parents, from your lovers, not from the fame you seek. What your soul requires will only come from developing a connection with the infinite. This must be your primary relationship.”
When the poet Rumi says, “Open to me so that I may open,” he is not asking an earthly lover to transform his mundane existence or comfort his insecurities. It is instead a prayer to the infinite with which his soul is longing to merge.
Except for our connection to the divine, every relationship is a limited relationship. So Jael Greenleaf told me in her workshop for adult children of alcoholics in 1985. She suggested we grow to understand that love comes from many sources and in varying measures.
But I forget.
Instead I look for the one who will be the source of everything (look for parents, look for God as Santa Claus) and in doing so find myself endlessly disappointed.
I discount the quiet pleasantness of the neighbor who says hello each morning when I step outside to retrieve the newspaper.
Instead I fixate on the one who says, “I want to be devoted to you.”
I take scant notice of the boy at the gas station who never fails to ask, “How’s your day going?” when I hand him my credit card.
Instead I expect deliverance from the one who rubs her skin against mine.
I fail to feel sufficiently grateful for the friend who cooks me dinner on my birthday.
I take for granted the white cat with black spots like a Holstein cow. Who comes to greet me each time I drive in the gate. Who curls against my hip all night long. Who rests her head on my laptop when I type.
Instead I feel the world has ended when the one changes her mind, takes back her devotion, her skin, re-devotes it to someone else.
I forget that the neighbor, the boy, my friend and the white cat with black spots each gives me a piece of what I’m seeking. That these, like the sudden presence of the yellow grosbeak bathing in my fountain, are the infinite made manifest. And that every relationship save that one is a limited relationship.
The attachment, the clinging, the craving of romantic love; the effort to grasp and make finite, make permanent; the expectations, the drama and suffering—these are not love nor the proof of love.
These are chemistry experiments.
Let us say then that love is the enactment of spirit. Love is something we give and give freely, without expectation of return. Love is not a feeling but the actions we take. Love is gratitude and not complaint.
Let us say that love is not limited. Love is boundless and uncontainable. Love is not scarce, and does not depend on a particular one. Love comes from an infinite source and is therefore infinite. A ceaseless opening.
Love, Rose tells me, even as our relationship grows more and more limited, is an ever-flowing stream into which we can dip our hands at any moment. Always available, if we only choose to plunge in.
And, still suffering the loss of her, I ask myself: how would I see the world anew if I could reach out my hand, enter the flow, fully take it into me, open myself to that benediction?