One of my favorite memories of Valentine's Day happened when I was in first grade. I was madly in love with my teacher, Miss Cummings, who had very long, dark hair and what must have been a great sense of fun because we were always having some kind of celebration. That year on Valentine's Day, one of the boys in my class, who was very quiet and didn't speak English very well, somehow got the concept mixed up and, instead of giving a Valentine to each person in the class, gave all of his to me.
I wish I could track that guy down now and thank him, as I sit here screwing up my courage to write about love. I am the least qualified person I know to write on this vexing subject. It's not that I haven't loved, it's that I'm pretty certain that in three decades of being somewhat of a grown-up, I have yet to really live my understanding of love. I feel like I've been a student of this marvelous concept, but always a bit of a reluctant, skeptical participant.
These days I see love in concentrated form. In the hospital, when a patient is suffering or, most often, dying, the people in the room are usually drowning in love, choking on it, because they love the person who is dying so deeply that they cannot bear to release them. And the dying person has so loved people here in Earth, that they don't want to go. Often I wonder...did these people show each other this kind of love when they were walking around through their days, outside of the hospital? I wonder why it usually takes a crisis for us to feel and express the depths of love.
The first job I had after college was as a teaching intern in a Kindergarten class at a sweet little school called Rippowam Cisqua in Bedford, New York. I had in my class a little girl named Lily Rabe. Her mom was Jill Clayburgh and it was very cool to know Jill there, as the mom of a 5-year-old and not as the famous actress that she was. She was very tall and elegant and quiet and almost always smiling; she did not put on airs. Their family dynamic was beautiful -- she had a son, too, and she seemed to be happily married to her husband, the playwright David Rabe. Years later I read an interview she did with some magazine in which the writer asked her the secret to a long marriage. "Knowing when to forgive and move on," was her response. I liked that her answer wasn't "leave each other sweet notes," or "go on lots of dates." She cut right the the chase of what's hard in a relationship -- we're human...we fuck up all the time....let it go.
The messages I seem to be receiving from the benevolent and abundantly-wise Universe lately in regards to love are about stillness and silence. Our words often do tend to make a mess of things, as nice as it can be to hear the sound of the voice of someone we love. "You will discover that the more love you can take in and hold on to, the less fearful you will become...you will also use fewer words, trusting that you communicate your true self even when you do not speak much," wrote the Dutch-born priest and writer Henri Nouwen. "I know that words are not love, behavior is," is what my friend, Walter Brown, wrote in his beautiful book, Chasing Life, "which makes it important to look past the words to see what the behavior says."
"Be quiet," the angels whisper to me in my moments of unsettled anguish.
It came to me again last night. Someone I have loved deeply and for a long time closed a senseless conversation I had provoked with Milan Kundera's words: "You can't measure the mutual affection of two human beings by the number of words they exchange."
He was right.
The original Saint Valentine was beheaded (on February 14, for refusing to renounce his faith). It never made sense to me, that such a sad and gruesome ending could come to be associated with love and devotion, but it's starting to come into focus. It's not easy for a word junkie like me to accept the truth, but I am beginning to understand that silence is the most elegant and powerful speech of love.
"Silence is the language of God," wrote the poet, Rumi, "and all else is poor translation."