For at least a dozen years, I loved a boy who always put me second. I pretty much defined myself by my role as lover-of-this-particular-boy. It led to a great deal of heartache on my part. As far as I can tell, he loves me. He always has, and perhaps always will. That love, though, meant different things to each of us at different points in our lives. I would have uprooted my life to be with him once, but when he was ready for me to come to him, I wasn’t ready to go.
“I always feel like we’re meant to be together in the end,” he said recently.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so. Not anymore.”
A few months ago I woke up from a sound sleep and sat straight up in bed. I looked at my dog.
“I love you,” I told the dog. “What have I done?“
This tiny soul, occasionally sullen at a rude awakening or leash correction but otherwise generous of heart to a fault, has trapped me. I love him, and it makes me impossibly vulnerable. In all likelihood, I will watch him die. How did I let myself become this attached?
Last weekend I visited an old friend. It’s safe to say we love each other. It’s not always easy. We’ve been friends a long time, and our friendship has evolved as we have. His mother stopped by while I was visiting and accused me of a relatively minor offense. I was certain I was not guilty of said offense, but my friend would not come to my rescue. Mom comes first. It was unfair of me to expect otherwise, and yet in my heart I did. My feelings were hurt.
There is man for whom I have a deep fondness. A deep, patient, abiding kind of affection. He is brilliant and serious and wry. I think if we were put to the test, we might survive the ocean of sacrifices and personal changes necessary to make a life with one another, but we both bring a lot of baggage to the table. Least of all, we live in opposite parts of the world. The outcome is uncertain, as the eight ball would profess.
My mother was once my closest friend. She probably still knows the most about me. By some miracle, our relationship survived my tumultuous adolescence and flight to California from her nest. I love her impossibly. I love her much more than she loves herself. (The reverse, in defense of motherhood, is probably true.) She can still ask questions, though, that flatten me. “What are your plans? she asks. “What are your plans?” Plans are self-delusion, I want to say. The future is unknowable, I want to say, but I don’t want to fight with her. “I don’t know yet, Mom.”
I spent some time in lands controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management this year. Specifically, I was in the Sonoran desert. I had spent some time in the high desert before I arrived to camp for a few days in the arid environs of US Route 8 in Arizona, so I was partially adjusted to the dryness and sun. There is no place in the world so beautiful to me as that land. Blue, maroon, and grey mountains frame the horizon at the edges of the broad world. Saguaro cacti and creosote bushes grow here and there between stretches of dirt and sand, and the land is crossed with dried stream beds that cut new paths every rainy season. I did yoga for hours at a time. I took the dog on daytime excursions that left us scuttling back to shade. My lips cracked, my skin peeled, and my car died. I love the desert. It cannot love me back.
Yesterday, I was privileged to be at the memorial service for Jing Lyman. She was the grandmother of one of my oldest and dearest friends. She and her husband took me along when they treated their granddaughter to a tour of Europe just before starting high school. I knew her as the accomplished and disciplined grandmother. She was much more than that: a fighter for equality of almost every kind. She gave her seemingly limitless energy to a laundry list of organizations and causes over the course of her lifetime.
Listening to her colleagues, children, and grandchildren speak at the memorial, I was left with a sense of the way her love echoed in her people. Her mentees spoke of the warm shine of her conviction and faith, which gave them the self-confidence to accomplish great things. Her children are all incredible, deeply thoughtful people in their own right. In one short lifetime, she built a network of greatness through her love of fairness and equal opportunity.
Yet she is gone. We cannot love her back. Is that is the great hazard of love: to know that in the end, all we have is to shine it outward, to pour it forth on whatever catches our hearts and minds, and let the outpouring be enough? No, I think not. I think the hazard of love is to walk through this desert life and not let our love catch us up on whatever happens to cross our path. We must choose, as carefully as we are able, where to shine our love.