What's Love (Got to Do With it, Got to Do With it)?

Jameelah Lang

Jan 23, 2012

Once a week, someone lets me into a room full of children. I am supposed to teach them creative writing. Here's the thing: I am sometimes scared of children. It is because they know the truth, and they will tell you every time, like it or not. Once they said to me, "You wore that outfit last week." Another time, "You are too hard on your husband, and you look really tired." But this last week, we talked about love. We read Margaret Atwood's "Variations on the Word Love" and talked about how love is nothing like Love. My kids were very serious and nodded like old-and-wise people. We talked about how love is more about fear than love, more like almost falling off a cliff. Last year, I wrote to you about how Valentine's Day sucks. I'm not backing down (I never do; it's a problem my therapist and I work on). But this year, I bring you a slightly--note, slightly--more optimistic message. I don't believe in love. What I mean is, I don't believe in Love. I believe that my husband is the only person in the world who encourages my terrible whistling. I believe that he lets me buy the expensive crackers and sleep on the good side of the bed, always. This time around, let's get real. This is the part where people stop being polite, because isn't that what marriage is all about anyway? Let's talk about what love really looks like. It isn't gushy. It doesn't always or often have a happy-ending. And sometimes it really sucks. Last year, I dedicated to you a list of non-lovers, love-haters, heart-breakers. This year, I give you a list of people who know that love ain't pretty, but will still saddle that bucking bronco. Yes, I live in Texas now. "Two Wars" from This American Life Real couples fight over all sorts of things: money, sex, work. In this episode of the This American Life's TV series, a young couple argues over another important marital issue: grass. The green kind on your lawn. This episode features an epic stand-off between two people about who will mow the yard: he refuses because of capitalism. She is allergic to grass. The show asks the most important relationship question: who will give in first? When it seems like no one will, we get to an infinitely more important question: can we love those things in one another that we don't even like, the things that we can hardly stand? Or maybe, what do you have to give up or lose in order to love? "Jolene" by Dolly Parton (or by The White Stripes) Love is all about competition. Between you and your lover, between you and the universe, between you and the other people who want to take your man (or woman). My husband and I once fought for days over a game of Scrabble. Dolly Parton once fought a woman named Jolene for her man. Now that's true love: going to bat for your lover, admitting that the other woman has better hair, and still waxing poetic about how bad you want him. What I like best about this song is the desperation. I don't know enough about music to say how D.P. does it, but trust me, she does: every element of this song communicates the poignant feeling of wanting something badly and knowing that it probably isn't good for you. I'm not sure if Jolene won out or not, but I doubt it, seeing as Dolly Parton always wins in the end. "Do You Know Where I Am" by Sherman Alexie In this unflinching story by Alexie, a couple meets, falls in love, gets married, lives together, and later dies. Pretty standard fare. Except that the real story lies in the small (and large) ways that they fail each other first, break each other apart, attempt to put the pieces back together. Like all the best fiction (and life-moments) this story is funny and sad at once, using humor as a device to ask us, "What is really at stake here?" and "How much can you bear?" Alexie uses laughter to guide the audience toward a conversation--about love, failure, marriage--while leaving the possibilities for full, complete realization(s) to the readers' (or lovers) themselves. The Lover by Marguerite Duras Speaking of lovers, The Lover is a short novel based on the Duras's affair with an older man when she was fifteen. The novel positions the question "What is Love supposed to be?" against "What does a love really look like?" or "What kinds of loves are right?" Duras is a master craftswoman, and she uses distance, language, and structural patterns to join external and internal perspectives on love in general and her affair in particular. Duras uses love as an inlet to talk about the ways that the past and present operate cyclically, the ways that people pick up and leave behind pieces according to who they are trying to become. She trades sentimentalism for honesty, vulnerability for brutal confession. And this Valentine's Day, I will leave you with someone who definitely knows what love is: Whitney Houston, singing about how she loves you, even though it hurts her real, real bad.