What is love?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about love.

My husband and I went to a wedding. ‘One of the last of the original,’ I said at the reception after a little too much champagne. ‘Next it will be second marriages.’ But the April sun shone down on us with its spring promise.

We settled in our pew, and I noticed the couples around us, our friends, whose weddings we’d attended some ten years previously, standing apart. The bride’s young friends cried when she floated down the aisle; she was beautiful. I remembered my own feelings, energies primed towards this goal: husband, house, children – I thought everything would be sorted, like a jigsaw puzzle with all its pieces. I didn’t realise that in some ways, my real life had yet to begin. Our married friends who stand in the next pew don’t touch. They don’t hold hands when the vows are read out.

The vicar talks of how you give over your body, how touch and intimacy becomes sacred, and shared only with your spouse. She reminds us that people change throughout the course of their lives. That love means endurance, commitment, acceptance of all colours, all shades. Before I married, I never really thought about what it meant to be with one person for the rest of my life; more years than you’ve spent living with your siblings; more than you will live with your children, even. Isn’t this one of life’s biggest challenges?

The vicar speaks of ‘the darkness’ and how it is in all of us, our shadow, our demon, our temptation, and how a marriage that allows for this can grow. A relative read out a Pablo Neruda poem, which also spoke of this shadow:

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul. I love you as the plant that never blooms but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers; thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance, risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.’

I like the idea of quiet love, this subtlety. Of accepting the darkness, in order to let the light in.

At first I was in a bubble in the chapel, overcome by the vicar’s words; the divide I felt between the has-beens and the to-haves, full of youth and beauty; entranced by the peonies, which were so waxy and pale, so sculptural, they looked almost unearthly. But then the sun streaked in.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride; so I love you because I know no other way than this: where I does not exist, nor you, so close that your hand on my chest is my hand, so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.’

I held my husband’s hand and cried.

Later, after quite a lot to drink, I passed a woman on the flagstones. She was dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt, a pair of flip-flops, and her hair was in her eyes. She welcomed me familiarly. Later we found each other in the library. She told me her story – single mother twice from different men, in love with a famous actor, intelligent but had never found her vocation. She blamed it on her beauty. But as she talked on about the love she felt for this man who was out of reach, how she’s watched over, protected by her guardian angel, about her loneliness, her terrible loneliness, I saw how she had short-changed herself in her search for something beyond the everyday, call it transcendence. It’s elusive and some of us are vulnerable to it; some of us will be lost to it.

The vicar talked of marriage as a base for a family, a kind of scaffolding. Not just to protect the children and launch them into the world, but also for the couple to help them realise their true selves. I walked away feeling that for me a good marriage, one where love and respect flows freely, helps me look out into the world to build something bigger than the solitary dreaming self I was as a girl.

When I returned home, I had an idea for a book on intimacy, a collaboration with a photographer friend, Tara Darby,

. Not your usual romantic love, but love in its many guises: a father and his daughter; two single mothers living together to support each other; two elderly neighbours feeding each others’ cats. I started the project with the idea that we would show love in a glowing light, a thing that saves us, but, as we started the interviews, I realised love is as much about simple happiness as it is about difficultly and endurance. Sometimes it’s dull; it’s about putting out the rubbish and saying thank you to one another; sometimes it’s angry and resentful and rude. This happens in all relationships, not just marriages. Sometimes we stick with it, and other times we have to walk away. Love is about letting go of resentments, old wounds; it’s also about letting the one you love leave you.

The marriage vows meant one thing to me when I took them, a kind of completion of my desires, and now something completely different: facing both the light and the dark, the unhappiness and the joy of living with another individual and building a life and family together. One day we stop chasing after the dream, we accept life, and we live it, finding happiness in simpler things, drawing in the precious memories, the dreams, the dust, for our imaginative selves.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you for this – it’s lovely, particularly your final paragraph.

  2. Sadie Hanson says:

    This is beautiful and brimming with intelligence. I love the sound of your new project.

  3. lilydunn says:

    Very kind words, Sadie. Thank you. I’ll be blogging about my intimacy project as we progress with it, so watch this space. Hope the Womentoring is going well. x

  4. Daisy says:

    I really loved reading this. Many echoes of my own experience. I am a divorcee and am amazed to find that I am with Francois still – we met summer 2004. Finding love a bit later for both of us was a good and lucky thing. The whole thing is uncanny, I mean sometimes I feel I want to spend the rest of my life with him – as a real hope, but as for spending the evening peaceably at home together, that is altogether more complicated stuff. Also explain a bit more about someone being able to short-change themselves in search for transcendent love. I doubt it was a choice, and don’t we really have to follow our higher desires and any short-changing might come from not daring to do that?
    I love the sound of the intimacy project. It sounds, and not just in name, a bit like Fi Glover’s listening project on Radio 4.

  5. lilydunn says:

    Hi Daisy, thanks so much for your comments. I agree, that short-changed is perhaps not the right way to describe this. I recognised myself in the woman I met, and my own propensity to dream and imagine a better life and I was struck by how that dream can take you out of your life and stop you from doing the things that really make you happy – for me it’s writing, for this woman it might be something else. Perhaps it comes over as a judgement, and I don’t mean it to. I think this propensity to dream is in all of us, but, as I said in the article, some of us get lost to it, in a kind of unreality that may never be realised. We sometimes then need to recognise when to reel it in, and put it to better use (meditation? writing? creating art?) xx

  6. Daisy says:

    I agree, I suppose we are touching on a paradox: it is so important to dream and fantasize even, to nurture a rich imagination, but also not let life pass you by while you are busy making other plans, as someone very famous sang. I have issues with focus and need to reel in and knuckle down, but try not to outclude (is that a word?) a romantic vision of reality. Now matching them up, that would be good.

    I might go to film Finding Vivian Maier at the Rio in July, she is an icon of Julia’s. Perhaps we could all go. Not entirely off this topic, methinks. Also love to chew the fat over school-stuff, but maybe at a different time !? xx

  7. lilydunn says:

    Yes, the film sounds good. There’s also a series of events on Love being held at the South Bank Centre from this weekend. Check it out. You might like some of it. x

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