Love me or leave me
But please don’t deceive me…
– Ezperanza Spalding –
“I Love You”.
Simple words, right?
I’m browsing in a bookstore on Kings Road, Chelsea, searching for, A World of Breads by Dolores Casella, and linger for a minute in the ‘Self Help/Psychology’ section, which should’ve been named ‘Love/Getting it Right’. It seems that anybody who ever earned a Phd (or tried to), has an opinion on this topic.
I’m looking at, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Taoist Secrets of Love, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples and How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving… just to mention a few titles that boo at me from the shelves.
Fear, Phobias and Frozen Feet, amuses me for a moment… but baking bread is much higher on my agenda and I escape quickly to the ‘Cooking/Baking & Recipes’ section. After all, people have baked bread for as long as they’ve tried to understand the meaning of love… Knowing myself, I will have much greater success at preparing Palappam — an ancient Malabar Jewish pancake dish, eaten as a breakfast staple in South India.
So what is this thing called ‘Love’?
Books, essays, songs, plays and poems have been written, ad infinitum, about it. Apart from still trying to grasp the concept of an omnipresent God, we’re also persistently hypothesising love… and the fact that some say ‘God is Love’, doesn’t make matters any easier.
At first, I thought that love is a feeling. No, honestly. As a young boy, I romanticized that if you ‘feel’ love for someone, they’ll ‘feel’ the same and no one will get hurt. All good!
Alas, after about 32 years, I’ve realised that in the real world, things work different.
My grandparents were married for more than half a century. A marriage blessed with a beautiful family and burdened with occasional misunderstandings and very vocal arguments. Yet, there was no doubt that they truly loved each other. For a child, these family dynamics were a bit confusing: All that love and then one day a big fight, so I asked my grandfather: ‘Why do you and grandma shout at each other when you fight?’
He explained: ‘When two people love each other, it means that they are very close. So, when they talk, they speak with normal voices because they hear what the other person has to say and there’s no reason for them to raise their voices. But when they misunderstand or hurt each other, it causes a distance between their hearts. The bigger the hurt, the bigger the distance. So, if they want to communicate across that distance, they have to speak louder. Sometimes they have to shout to be heard.
As they get to know and mold one another, the misunderstandings and the hurt become less. Eventually, they grow to be so close and intimate that they only talk in sweet, soft, whispering voices. Finally, the day comes that they don’t need to talk, but only have to look at each other to know what they want.’
Oh dear. He could simply have said, ‘Because we haven’t learned to disagree in a better way’… but hey, I was supposed to get the whole ‘hearts at a distance’ poetic thing… Understandably, as a six-year-old, I dropped my little wooden truck on the garage floor, made a bee-line and hid in my treehouse till dinner time… Hoping there would be no ‘distance’ between grandma and grandpa that evening.
Over the years, their differences petered out, and they looked happy, calm and very much in love whenever you saw them strolling down the road on their habitual afternoon walks, or sitting on the front porch having tea. They were soul mates and dedicated companions.
My grandfather died a few years before my grandmother. His death broke her heart, and left her in a state of utter despair and denial. Until the day she passed way, she waited for him, every evening, to come home… and the next morning, she would ask if he had already gone to work…
I recently met a psychotherapist and his partner, Nick and Mark, at a dinner party. They’ve been together for 15 years. Compelled to know how they made their relationship last for so long, I asked them to please explain.
Mark: ‘The first few years were rocky but we got over it by giving each other space and time to grow as individuals and we never questioned the other person’s intentions or agenda.’
‘Pardon the cliché, but was it a ‘love at first sight’ thing?’
They look at each other.
Mark: ‘No, there was a lot of uncertainty and baggage in the beginning, but it eventually evaporated. Nick is moody, and I am insecure, but we realised that these things aren’t a threat to our relationship. We just have to work with it.’(Mark, who’s fielding my Q&A, coincidentally, is not the psychotherapist.)
‘Are you still happy together?’
Nick steps in. He laughs: ‘That’s rather candid.
Yes, most of the time, we are. If after so much time you’ve not managed to create a secure environment with your partner, then you must be living in limbo or in ‘hell’. Things go up and down, but both of us create the time to making each other happy.’
‘Does it really feel like ‘work’. Or is it easy?’
Nick laughs again: ‘It’s never ‘just easy’. Every relationship involves some effort… I like coffee in the morning and Mark likes tea. So, why would I wake Mark up with a cup of coffee? Trust me, that will only spoil his day… We still have our incompatibilities, but it’s about knowing what the other one needs and giving it to him… even if it is just flowers or making the bed for a change.
‘Are you still in love?’
Mark: ‘Thank goodness, not. All those feelings and emotions were a roller-coaster. It took a long time for me to realise and KNOW that Nick loves me. But once I got it, it stuck. Now we know we belong together. But saying we love each other is still very important.’
‘Final question, I promise. Do things ever get stale between you?’
Mark: ‘Hell yes! Let’s put it this way: Show me one relationship that doesn’t end up in a cul-de-sac, every now and then? If it happens, you must back-up, rewind, and together find direction again.’
Nick: ‘One of the many times we broke up was because, sexually things died down. Granted, we didn’t have a lot of sex at that time. I was busy and stressed about personal stuff. I neglected Mark. We patched things up because Mark discovered that the sex wasn’t any better out there, either. You get to learn what really matters. Right, Mark?’
Mark reaches for Nick’s hand: ‘Sorry for being such a slut, Nick… Look, there are no rules, only guidelines. For some, convention works. Others make their own rules. After 15 years, Nick and I can’t really surprise each other anymore. I’m the hand, his the glove. It fits. That’s how it is. Things will go stale. It’s normal. If it does, we’ll just fix it again.’
Nick: ‘That’s right, but then I get to be the glove.’
Observing Mark and Nick’s easy and honest conversation with me, I noticed lots of eye contact and sensed no ‘distance’ between them. No ‘gap’… Grandpa had a point.
This is what I’ve got so far:
Love involves listening and being heard, and after some time, it’s not so much about feeling but more about certainty (however feelings still do apply). Love requires effort and must be nurtured in order to grow, it needs physical touch, it asks for affirmation and quality time. Love flourishes with small and thoughtful gifts, and selfless service, and when things break apart, you have to fix it if you want to keep it. When you love someone, the good must outweigh the bad.
Oh yes, AND there are no rules… we make our own.
But wait, there’s more… and this goes way back.
Shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus, the pagans (early Christians) were heavily persecuted by the Romans. Many of them fled to Corinth, a city on the Peloponnese, in Greece. The chief ruler of the synagogue at Corinth, Sosthenes, and the apostle Paul, wrote a letter of encouragement to the pagans. In their epistle, they talked about the qualities of love:
- “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.
- Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance…
- …Three things will last forever — faith, hope, and love — and the greatest of these is love.”
Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
So, the next time someone asks you what love is, share all of the above. If afterwards, he or she doesn’t run for the treehouse but actually understand what love is, lock him or her up in a cage, because you’re onto something good.
However, if like me, you are not a bigwig on matters of the heart, resort to making some Palappam…
The recipe for these ancient delights goes something like this: First fry some rice flour and set it aside. Then, add a small amount of lukewarm water to yeast and sugar and wait till it rises. Once risen, add semolina to a bit of water and boil it till it’s thick. Leave the semolina to cool off. Once cooled, mix the semolina with the rice flour and the yeast into a very soft dough.
Rest the dough overnight.
In the morning, mix the dough with coconut milk and a pinch of salt until it gets a loose consistency. Use a special utensil, called appa kal (mold), to fry your paperthin pancakes… Careful, they break easy.
Some believe, the secrets to someone’s heart, hide in their stomach. So, eat your Palappam, share your Palappam and enjoy your Pallapam, together…
When you’re done, clean up the mess in your kitchen and think of what the Sufi mystic and Muslim poet, Rumi, said: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Image: by Francois Lubbe
Text: FR Lubbe