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Forum: The Big Questions — What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

The workshop counselors from the 2001 sessions spent two nights together in a retreat in the Virginia “mountains” after everything had wound down. On our last night together, after the dishes had been cleared, our director spurred us into a discussion along the theme of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which many of us had read during the course of the workshop. It got really interesting, so I took notes, which follow. They’re really, really sketchy notes. I’ve oversimplified drastically: for instance, I wrote down at one point that one counselor said “Arranged marriages work,” when he’d actually gone on for a few minutes about how he watched a number of relatives in India work through successful arranged marriages while he watched his own parents’ marriage fall apart. I do wish I’d had a tape recorder. Despite the perfunctory and re-creative nature of my notes (imagine a little subtitle blinking “DRAMATIZATION” at the bottom of the screen) I hope I managed to capture some of the beautiful metaphors and turns of phrase this roomful of writers was generating on this topic. I think this’ll be semi-not-for-attribution — I’ll use initials.

Nobody else rose to the director’s bait right away, so I struck out with my usual position — half devil’s-advocate and half jadedness — that love is just our civilized excuse for hormones. That drew the usual fire. I said it was a social construct. The head counselor, JJ, disagreed.

JJ: Gus is making it political by saying it’s a construct. I think it can be seen through the lens of queer theory: there’s a lot of societal expectations.

Me: Yeah, I think it’s fluid, like gender, too.

JJ: We expand on and complicate this idea of love as we grow older.

Director: Unless we describe love well, it’s this huge abstraction. I think we need to be specific.

JM: Everyone has their patterns. Like, I keep falling for girls who I think are flirting with me, but then I find out they don’t really mean it.

LT: Yeah, I have my patterns too. Sometimes it’s like, Next victim! I think it’s OK to love if it’s not good for you. I don’t think love is always a good thing.

JJ: I have a high-drama pattern, but I’ve been experimenting lately with pacifism in a relationship. Equality. It’s a cultural thing, wanting love to be violent.

JM: It’s like what we were saying about art earlier. Can you do it when you’re happy? I think people are drawn to negative portrayals of love.

LL: I know this poem about a woman who’s married, but she stays up in her room dancing with herself while her husband is downstairs watching sports. He comes up and sees her, and he says, Poor baby. Then it flashes forward to them in bed that night. He rolls over and hugs her, and says Poor baby again. And she says that’s not what she expected, but it’s enough. I think it’s important to love yourself.

At this point there’s a general awareness that our youngest counselor, CR, hasn’t said anything, so we prompt him to speak.

CR: I have no place to talk, I have no experience.

JJ: Didn’t you say that you feel like a student of love, that it’s something you learn from?

JM: I don’t think I’ve ever been in love.

LT: Who has? (Everyone but the boys raise their hands.)

JJ: Who’s been haunted by past loves? (Most of us raise our hands, even the boys.)

Dir: The Greeks made distinctions between three kinds of love — Eros (erotic), Philia (brotherly), and Agape (divine or transcendent). Useful distinctions.

The term “soulmate” is brought up.

LT: My aunt thinks she divorced her soulmate. She’s remarried and raising a family with someone else. She still talks to her soulmate, she has his art up in her home but it wasn’t something she could build on or do anything with.

Me: I think the term soulmate is dangerous. I have this sociologist friend who says we expect all these ridiculous things of our partners — that they will financially provide for us, agree to raise children in the same ways, be our perfect lovers, the people we’re most comfortable living with.

SS: We get all these messages from the media.

JJ: Love is romanticized so much in our society: something you’d die for.

LL: A lot of it has to do with timing — when you get taken out of the oven.

JJ: (smiling) Burnt.

RB: (also smiling) Crispy. A ripeness for certain things is necessary.

CR: Do you think people deny love that might be good for them?

(This comment makes me really uncomfortable, and so I go out to the back porch where the smokers are for a few minutes. When I return:)

RB: My motto is never live economically. I don’t want to draw lines around things, prioritize, set aside time.

Dir: Why is it presenting itself now if it’s untimely?

LT: Maybe I don’t want to learn any more about myself. I need to process.

LL: Can’t you process and learn at the same time?

Me: No.

LL: People don’t normally stop what they’re doing to process.

On unrequited love:

LT: I think it only ever happens that one person loves more than the other.

Me: One spooks, upsets the balance.

LL: I’d rather be the one loving more.

JJ: That can be a powerful position, loving more. You can fsck someone up by loving them hard.

RB: I’ve done that. Thought about him only in relation to me.

DL: As writers we have this terrible problem of scripting how we want things to play out in our heads.

RB: It has to be different in a long distance relationship. In this relationship I have, I don’t wake up in the morning and wonder if I still want to be with this person. It would freak him out.

JJ: I like thinking about love as a correspondence, a literacy, the ways we have to read one another.

DL: That’s always a crazy one, how you desperately want them to read you.

RB: We haven’t talked much about loving yourself.

JJ: That’s most important of all.

LT: I can’t stand having someone else influence my daily routine.

JJ: Rilke says a true lover is one who guards their lover’s solitude.

Me: Absolutely. Love is greedy, we have a hard time with that solitude.

DL: To not always demand.

JJ: Love isn’t separate halves, but planets orbiting each other.

LT: Hey, that exists in astronomy.

Me: Binary stars.

JJ: No halves.

DL: By the age of fifty, you become resentful of your spouse’s intrusion on your life.

Now we notice that VN hasn’t spoken, and encourage her to contribute.

VN: Love is something you do, not something you feel. Monks aren’t in relationships, but they still think and conduct themselves as if they have this incredible capacity to love.

LT: It’s important to listen to V when she talks. (Laughter)

VN: Some people are easier to love than others… I stole that thing about love being a verb from bell hooks.

DL: Some people constantly fsck up.

JM: If you think you’re in that group, raise your hand. (Many hands are raised.)

LL: But verbs can affect their direct objects.

JM: I don’t think we’re always in love when we’re in relationships.

LT: Relationships are when you’re trying to figure out if you’re in love… Sex is underrated.

LL: I don’t think it’s underrated.

LT: It’s a way to get to know someone.

JJ: People communicate differently — sight, hugs, touch, words. I don’t mean to make a stereotype, but I think queers use eye contact because they can’t speak up in public. They’ll look back knowingly. And it’s a rush — like, Oh, sh!t.

DL: I think eye contact happens more when I like someone.

LT: Or less.

LL: Our pupils dilate so we can take in more of them. We say less because we’re worried they’ll turn us down.

DL: I think I’ve been told or said I love you in the most desperate of times. It’s a tactic.

* * *

LT: What are you attracted to?

JM: Everything.

LL: When is it love, then?

JJ: When there’s a tension.

JM: I don’t believe it’s love unless it’s mutual: otherwise it’s painful.

LT: Who said it wasn’t painful?!

VN: Like [the director] says, there’s so many different kinds.

Dir: Maybe one makes another one effective. Makes another level of love possible. You’re able to take that risk.

Me: Makes polygamy a good idea!

Dir: (hedging) Polygamy’s on… a certain plane. I don’t think of it necessarily as romantic.

Can you be in love with more than one person?

DL: You’ll hurt the others.

JM: I think it’s possible, and love can hurt.

Me: I think we need to keep in mind this is culturally defined. There’s lots of cultures where people have multiple spouses. I’ve heard a critique which says Mormon polygamy is pro-feminist.

DL: We need to listen to these women.

JM: If love doesn’t need to be mutual, what’s the line between love and obsession? Constantly thinking of a person…

DL: is in itself controlling. You’re objectifying the person.

JJ: If love’s a correspondence, it has to be mutual.

Me: Is all unrequited love obsession?

JJ: It’s not real — you’re fabricating the person.

DL: If it becomes requited it requires some kind of alignment.

LL: I hesitate to say it’s not real.

JJ: Your perceptions of that person alter over time. Not truly talking to someone — you can’t live alone in your room.

VN: Can you love someone who’s no longer alive?

DL: My gramma does.

LL: Jack Gilbert has this poem How To Love The Dead — if you can love her without politeness and delicacy, love her like a wolf’s hunger…

DL: Love becomes such a part of you.

Me: I don’t want someone to be that much a part of me. I watched how my grandma got after my grandpa died.

LT: Didn’t you say you wanted to get married?

Me: Well, yeah.

LT: I just don’t want to be legally bound to somebody. That seems like the worst possible way to deal with my love.

LL: Love’s like a mirror.

VN: When someone’s no longer physically present you can still sort of feel yourself being loved by them, their love reflected off other surfaces. The people who are still alive… reflect the person who’s no longer there.

DN: You love how they affected you.

JJ: Shrapnel.

DL: Some people say ghosts are in smells, and I think I agree. Thick memories that aren’t really resolved: that’s what [a former counselor] sees ghosts as. Unresolved energy.

LL: Not negative, though.

JJ: For me, it’s like things I was left to resolve on my own. Things that lurk up out of the shadows.

Dir: I think ghosts present themselves at important moments. They come to me almost like carrier pigeons. They don’t necessarily make sense right away. Before I make a decision, they appear.

Me: I have a friend who calls that God. She says she hears him in things her friends say, quotes she reads at opportune moments.

DL: Is loving the dead unrequited or inappropriate?

Dir: Literally or figureatively dead?

(long pause)

JJ: We were saying there’s something superficial about unrequited love.

LL: How to keep it healthy.


Dir: Well, you keep on living, for one thing.

DL: If you become sad, I think you have to let yourself dance with that ghost.

Dir: Every loss is a reversal for the next one. That’s how we know how to grieve. Elizabeth Bishop says there’s an art to losing. I think that’s all there is to it. It’s inevitable, isn’t it? You’re going to lose what you love one way or another. If that’s the end point, isn’t this all about preparing ourselves? I don’t mean that in a pessimistic or negative way. I think there’s something to the adage that the way you live is the way you die. Dying from it will not be so foreign or unexpected. That may be a romantic idea. One person may die from testicular cancer in a very different way from someone else.


Me: I had a professor, Michael Lesy, who always used to say everything’s either about sex or death. I think he’s full of sh!t. What about birth? I think food is way up there, too; it’s also a natural drive.

JJ: Food is about love and loss: it’s there, and then it’s not.


Dir: The loss is harder when I don’t want to let go. Letting go was the next door opening. the act of dying is an act of love itself. So the next act of love can enter your life somehow. I have never been present at a death myself, but I have friends who say they’ve been humbled and privileged to be at another’s death.

Me: Does being present at an act of state-sponsored murder count? (everyone looks aghast) I mean, I used to work for the Humane Society, and I watched this guy put down a litter of kittens one day. It was terrible, like the needle sucked the life right our of them. One moment it’s a kitten, the next it’s a scrap of carpeting.

RB: My grandfather died in the middle of a dance. His heart stopped. I think the woman who had asked him to dance must have felt terrible, but it was fitting. He’d had a steak and a couple of beers. Everyone agreed it was fitting. We found out afterwards that all these women he hung out with were in love with him. It made it really OK for me.

(This all follows a long day of haircuts all around. I decide I want my hair cut.)

VN: Haircuts are an act of loss.

JJ: Haircuts are an act of transition.

JG: Anyone want a chocolate tortilla?


  1. leanne wrote:

    i love 2 dance

    Monday, January 19, 2004 at 9:02 am | Permalink
  2. Are you sure 28836 about this?!?

    Wednesday, October 4, 2006 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

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