Love revisited

The toughest part about being in love for a long, long time is the difficulty of explaining what has happened. What you have lived is not necessarily what you can explain.

The really long, long-lasting love between two people has a beginning, I think, which is profoundly simple. And that is the ability - verging on an art form - to laugh together. If it is a difficult beginning, if it is wiry and becomes progressively snarled and sharp, chances are what looks like love is an opportunity to turn around and walk away backward so you can see where you've been. You need a big picture instead of a microscope.

What is simple about a love that is destined to last seems to hinge on the ability to laugh together at anything, including each other, with a sense of timing and concern that has not a shred of cruelty. To be laughed at, to be ridiculed, to be seen as utterly foolish while simply being yourself, requires a depth of love from someone else that cannot be taught.

The truth is that we have few safeguards against being a fool except love and laughter. If that element of laughter isn't there from the beginning, if even the slightest spark of it isn't there to be fanned alive, my guess is that you have the wretched beginnings of a house built on dry sand with winds rolling in.

Perhaps this is the most fundamental, rock bottom truth about the sharing of love (and writing about it): when it becomes a way of living between two people, and it goes on and on in growing strength, it is finally as unique as a fingerprint. There is, to be sure, a common shape to the impression, but the nooks and crannies of love are amazingly individual, all the way down to which one takes out the garbage and who consistently yawns at the wrong time.

Perhaps love has been mismanaged and misshapen by anyone who ever expertly whispered that people stay the same, century after century. Love, I think, is in need of us to foster changes, tiny and magnificent.

A friend of mine once described an ideal country day between him and his wife. ''We'll get up fairly early and make breakfast together,'' he said, ''and then we'll put on some old clothes and spend the morning working side by side in the apple orchard in the sunlight. We'll pick and pick and maybe make some cider , and then we'll sit somewhere outside and have lunch together. And in the afternoon we'll do some gardening and finish up a few projects here and there, or maybe start some new ones. We'll watch the sun go down and then have dinner together. Then we'll read magazines by the fire, and maybe at ten or ten-thirty we'll go to bed. And during the day not a single word will be spoken between us.''

His meaning was that not a single word needed to be spoken. So compatible and balanced had they become in love that the toasty silence of a day working side by side was just fine without words. I asked him if laughter would be welcomed in his ideal day. Without even thinking he said, ''It would be hard to keep it out.'' The two of them, I suspect, are deep in the harboring clutches of a love that can break down doors.

What is so delightful about love, if you can break free of what you think it ought to be, is the surprise of discovering the unpredictable results of having it.

Come back with me to a rainy night nearly a year ago. An older married couple are sound asleep. Outside the rain pounds pastures and sheep and rolls steadily off the roof. The wife suddenly awakens with a dull pain that seems intent on subduing her. She turns uncomfortably for a few minutes. Finally she gently nudges her husband, awakens him and asks for his support in her need.

Groggy and puffy, he reaches out to turn on the bed light and knocks the alarm clock to the floor. He mutters, fighting his way out of the covers and finally clicks it on, almost sending it to the floor. Momentarily blinded by the soft light, he turns in squinty sleepiness to his wife who is sitting up, breathing deeply and trying not to be influenced by his clumsy response and concern.

He pulls himself up next to her in this emergency, the bed and pillows rolling and shaking, because he is a large man and nearly butts her out of bed.

In love and sympathy he places his arm gently around her. She suggests he read some favorite Bible passages that have comforted her at other times. Still half asleep, he reaches back to the bedstand for the Bible. Yawning enormously, he opens it and in thick lipped, husky approbation he tries to read clearly, but so jumbles the words that his wife bursts into laughter, having reached her final straw. The bear beside her has performed in a private circus just for her and broken the pain of her discomfort. Startled, he looks at her with empty comprehension. Then he snorts in realization, followed by laughter that builds toward the wonderful cleansing of shared laughter. They lean against each other, laughing grandly at themselves, the loveliness of it restoring the wife and bringing them even closer in the surprise of it.

From the outside, my story is a warm affirmation, even a testimonial, that love is big and powerful in the dead of night. From the inside, though, from the hearts and minds that create it, it's the unspoken sweetness that won't go away even when you can't stand the way he mashes peas on his plate or she hangs rubber bands on the inside bathroom doorknob.

Love has a code name: laughter.

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