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“Love is a choice. It is the expectation of reciprocity. It is the possibility of a future, with a house, a picket fence, well-spoken kids, and a little dog. Love is the hope that it will be enough to build a life on, in the absence of anything else. Even when we know it can never be enough.” ~Anonymous

LOVE Bulb Sign

A friend and I had a conversation yesterday about love, how it can be the most devastating emotion in the startlingly long list of emotions that human beings can feel. She believes love is a choice, that we decide who we will love, when we will love, and how we will love. She thinks that when love leaves it is also a choice, that someone at some point decided to no longer love, to leave the space open that used to be filled.

I simply can’t get on board with that. For me, we don’t choose love. It chooses us. Think about all the times when a couple seemed perfect on the outside. They checked all the boxes that each other had down on paper. Yes, I also curl up on Friday nights in front of the fire with a good puzzle. Yes, I enjoy talking about long walks on the beach, but I would never in a million years actually do it. You too? Cool. We are meant to be together. This is love.

But we can’t just say “This is love,” and expect it to be so. We can’t think that just because someone fits our paradigm of what we think love should be, that we can make ourselves fall in love with them. It just doesn’t work that way, no more than saying that the best swimmer will win all of her races. It’s because emotion cannot be neatly put into boxes, and for every person who is drawn to someone similar to themselves, there is another one, equally pulled toward someone opposite. That’s the glory of love, but the devastating nature of the beast as well.

Because we don’t choose love. It chooses us. Love is not always neat and clean. It doesn’t always make things nice and tidy for us. It destroys as much as it builds and connects. Love is not something we can convince ourselves of just because everything else seems to work out perfectly. We either feel it or we don’t. Of course many of us have convinced ourselves that, with time, we can grow to love someone. But it doesn’t work that way. Love decides when, and where, and why. Only love. Never us.

That’s why love isn’t always reciprocated, because it isn’t something that can suddenly dawn on us. “Oh yes, I love you now, after you’ve chased me across several states.” Sure, we can convince ourselves it’s love, but real love doesn’t take convincing. Real love just is, and it is never a choice. We choose to give ourselves over to it or to pretend it doesn’t exist, but we don’t choose to either feel it or not. That’s not something even the most emotionally strong people can accomplish. Because love is more powerful than anything we can possibly imagine.

Yet love can’t keep us together. Because there are so many other reasons for people to be together and to stay together. Because there are so many other extenuating factors that determine the longevity of relationships. We are all human, and we make mistakes. We all have other defining factors to us than just loving another person. If it were as simple as “Love conquers all,” we would be living in a perfect world, a delusional world, but still a perfect world. And we all know that’s not possible.

So, no, we don’t choose love, but we do choose whether or not to let it guide us. We do choose whether or not we want to cultivate that love, whether or not we want to give it a seat at the table. And once we agree to its terms we can’t just let it sit there. Because love is fungible, malleable, able to be shaped or crafted to our needs, but also able to change with time, just like everything else. So when love chooses us, we have to first accept it for what it is, then we must commit to it, no matter what. As we all know, time is stronger than love, so we need to ride both like a tandem bike, to give our attention to growing that love over time.

And I understand where my friend is coming from. It’s a wonderful sentiment, that we can choose who we love, that we can choose when we love, and how we love. But it’s just not very realistic, in my opinion. It seems like a fairy tale to me, because I’ve seen so much that dissuades me from that notion. I just know that when love chose me, I let it wrap me up in its warm embrace, and then I went to work making sure that it would last for all time.

Sam

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“I thought I knew what love was. What did I know?” ~Don Henley

01_Robert-Indiana_LoveI first told a girl I loved her in 4th grade, when she stabbed me with a pencil and decided to go out with my enemy. These three things were unrelated. Or at least I think they were. I never really asked her to explain. I was too busy drowning in my tears, in the relative safety of my room, trying to forget her. Trying to forget love.

Love means many different things to many different people, but to me it means being always appreciative. That girl who I said I loved, she didn’t appreciate my love. To her I might as well have told her I was an albino for all she cared, but it was 4th grade, and I gave her a mulligan for it. She never came back to take me up on the idea of a second chance, which was just as well.

To me, when you love someone you show it. Not by flowers and candy, because anyone can get flowers and candy, but by being there, by letting them know you’re there, whether they admit to needing you there. Love means coming through for someone else even if they don’t realize that’s what they needed. It’s doing the little things because there really are no little things when it comes to love.

I’ve learned that love needs to be patient…

I realize now that I didn’t really love that girl in 4th grade. It was never really love because I had no idea what love was back then. What I felt for her was sheer infatuation, that kind of Romeo and Juliet feeling that would have petered out had they not been in a volatile situation that pushed them toward each other… and toward the abyss. That girl was lucky she didn’t reciprocate my infatuation because I’ve always been prone to exaggeration of emotion. Thank god she looked the other way.

But I’ve learned a lot over the years, because of heartache and a plethora of other issues and mistakes, on both sides. I’ve learned that love needs to be patient, that it isn’t about the physical, that the physical comes along for the ride when it is indeed requited, that it’s better to have loved and lost than… well, not quite. It’s better to love and keep loving, because love can shift. It can change, not precisely with the wind but sometimes it is buffeted. I’ve learned that love is complicit, if just because it makes you more vulnerable than anything else ever could.

Love is revolutionary, no matter how often it occurs…

I’ve been sparing with the word itself. Even with my closest of friends it took a while before I felt comfortable enough telling them how I felt. Even with my closest of relationships I haven’t been the first one to say it, not usually, not because I’ve been afraid but because I’ve been resistant. I’ve been resistant to the way saying those words changes things. It doesn’t change things for me. I already know how I feel long before those words escape my lips. But it changes the relationship in subtle ways that only I can tell.

Or maybe they can tell too. Love is revolutionary, no matter how often it occurs, no matter how many people know the feeling. It acts. It doesn’t react. But love is worth it, even when it’s not returned, because without that feeling life is just not as good. And I don’t mean the romantic love. I mean all the many forms of love that can shift and change, that can undulate around you like a snake, but that can keep you safe and warm, secure in its comfort.

But what do I know?

Sam

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478213335The girl at the Bagel Grove looks exactly like Amanda, or at least like Amanda when I knew her, 20 years ago, back when the world was fresh and new. The girl at the Bagel Grove looks fresh and new, as if she has been in a state of stasis for 20 years, as if she has been waiting for this day, and this time, to return. At the Bagel Grove in Utica, New York. I’m sure stranger things have happened.

Her nametag says “Kina,” and I’m wondering if the “i” is long or short, if she is long or short, if her name is her mantra, or if she prefers to be called “Key,” or “Ki” for short. She has a gap between her top two front teeth, just like Amanda, and I want to ask her if it affects her whistling ability. I don’t ask, but I want to. I tell her I want a garlic bagel with garlic and herb cream cheese, and she looks at me like I’ve grown two heads.

“I’m not kissing anyone in the next couple of hours,” I tell her, by way of explanation for the question her eyebrows asked.

“That’s still a pretty strong combination,” she tells me, and there is a lilt to her voice, like it’s normally an outside one but she has forced it to come inside, where she is.

The woman behind her laughs at that one, a joke, just one among many that I think the place hears during the course of an ordinary day. The Bagel Grove seems like one of those places, all cinnamon and ribaldry, baked together and warm to the touch. This other woman makes a joke about the Target shirt I am wearing, and I have a snappy comeback ready. This is not my first time. Kina smiles at the joke and hands me my change. I never realized I paid her.

I can’t help staring at her, even though I know I shouldn’t. I mean, Amanda really was my first love, and the resemblance is uncanny, especially for a girl who has such a mixed ancestry as this girl obviously does. I can see European descent in her eyes and skin, African in her nose and hair, a touch of something else in her bearing that I can’t quite place but that Amanda had as well. But Amanda would be 40 now, and this girl is only 21, at the most. I still can’t help staring.

“Toasted?” she asks, and I have no idea what she’s referencing. She points to the bagel in her hand, and I notice she isn’t wearing gloves, although they are nearby on the low counter. Amazingly enough, I don’t mind.

“Yes, please,” I answer, and I consciously try to stop staring. She will think I’m some kind of lunatic, not that I’m remembering a time long ago, and a girl long gone, lost to the overwhelming ether that has been life.

“Name?” she says, sharpie poised over the folded paper bag she is now holding, the bagel already in the toaster oven, forgotten for the moment as it browns.

“Sam,” I tell her, because it is my name, and because she did ask. She writes it down using stock letters, the “A” starting before the “S” finishes, which is not how Amanda wrote my name.

I blink, and the resemblance fades as quickly as it manifested when I walked in. The ghost of a girl I used to love fades along with it. I slide down the counter to wait for my bagel, humming to myself a tune I know by heart.

Sam

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“Love is mild, except when it isn’t. Except when it’s a raging inferno with the sole intention of destroying every ounce of sanity you have left. But yes, it’s mild. And that other stuff too.” ~Anonymous

0612d8fcf89e1f08abc66fc7fc6b92f6I made the mistake of telling someone that my next book of poetry is going to be full of love poems. It seemed to me a stroke of genius, but I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to create a whole book of 50+ poems exclusively about love. In my mind it was going to be difficult because my brain creates poetry quite organically, so how was I going to shift my thought patterns and make the poetry cooperate? I needn’t have been worried, because she said:

“But most of your stuff is already love poetry.”

Which of course made me laugh, but she was deadly serious. And she would know because she’s listened to a lot of my poems at poetry night, she’s read the vast majority of the ones on my poetry blog, and she’s purchased both of my other collections of poetry. So I took stock of my poetry. I dug as deep as she probably didn’t have to in order to find out that she was absolutely right.

I write mostly love poetry. No, not the treacly sweet love poetry that would make a 1950s poet proud. Nor even the devoted, puppy dog love poetry that dominated the 1980s. No, I write the love poetry that is intense in its own analysis of itself, that drives all night to end up in the same place where it began. I write the love poetry that wishes it were something else, but it can’t help being about love.

So that makes it easy, I guess, compiling a book of my love poetry, even if it’s not the book I thought I was going to make when I started on this journey. Because this is my reality. It’s the love I’ve seen more often than any other in this world. It’s not the mild, “I want to hold your hand” kind of love, not the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse inspired love, but is instead the persistently desperate, sad love that strives for something more, the love that needs acceptance but usually breeds regret.

Which means my job is a lot easier than I thought it would be. Just write poetry and it will probably fit the mold.

Sam

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weddingphoto3Fourteen is a daunting number, not just because it’s over 10, or that it’s beyond lucky number 13, or even that it’s a full twice that of 7, but because so much can happen over the course of 14 years. Fourteen years ago I was 26, no longer a kid but still not entirely secure and steady in my adult persona. If you had asked me if I was ready to take on the world I probably would have given you a blank stare and then begun contemplating just that. If you had told me at 26 that I would be here — now — I would have probably laughed in your face. You see, 26 is the new 18, and who knows anything at all when they’re 18?

But at 26 I did know one very important thing that has served me well over these past 14 years — I couldn’t let this woman slip through my fingers.

Now that I’m 40, looking back on everything that has happened since that day 14 years ago, I want to clap 26 year old me on the back, to give him a huge hug, to hold him close because somehow he was enough for her. Somehow I’m still enough for her, as inadequate as I always feel I am in and of myself. But she saw something in me then, and she sees something in me now, and here we are 14 years later, still enjoying each others’ company. Which is what marriage should be all about, right?

It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been a thrill to know we are still together, to know that we still smile for no reason at all other than that we still love each other.

Oh, and 14 is ivory. One is paper, but 14 is ivory. I recognize the poignancy in that, at least on a couple of levels. It’s like the song goes, “Ebony and ivory, live together in perfect harmony…” Because I am ebony, and she is ivory, but not just in the obvious way, not just because of our skin tones that look so beautiful together.

She is ivory because when she gives, she gives of her whole self. She is pure in her intentions and in her execution. She is that rare gift that doesn’t expect anything in return, so I want to give her the world. I hope I’ve given her some semblance of the world over the course of these 14 years.

Ivory is also treasured. So many people search for so long to get the perfect piece of ivory, and they hold on to it because it’s precious. Shine a light on it and it brightens even more than that light, drawing the light’s essence into itself and magnifying it a hundredfold. It’s brilliant, and so is she.

When I first found out that 14 was ivory I laughed to myself because this world is an interesting place, because it’s the perfect embodiment for her. I love her for who she is, not just when I’m with her, but for when I am without. I love her for her raw honesty that strives to be nothing but what it is, which is perfect for me.

So, 14 is ivory, and we are 14 together. Our marriage is a teenager, with all the caveats that come along with that designation. Because, while she is perfect for me, our life is not a perfect one. Whose is? When we stood there outside City Hall after putting on our rings, as we exhaled, basking in the glory of our newfound marriage, 14 years ago, we weren’t thinking about the next 14 years. We were thinking about what it had taken us to get to that point separately. But we haven’t had to think about that since, focused instead on our own future, 14 years of which are now in the past.

But what a 14 years it has been! A once in a lifetime honeymoon to Ireland, a steely resolve to do everything we could to make sure we expand our family, two wonderfully rambunctious children, a new house almost completed, and all the minor and major occurrences that shape any life. It’s crazy to look back and realize that, from what might have been an inconsequential email, we have created a shared life, and we continue to live that life — together.

So, for my wife, thank you for being ivory. You wear it well. To the next 14 years…

Sam

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Some mornings are simply better than others. The birds chirp mellow, smooth, instead of high pitched and whiny. The coffee smells sweeter, infusing the air with the perfect hint of hazelnut, no more, no less. The bed feels warm, like a cocoon, enveloping me in its warm embrace. The children sleep in, so there are no interruptions, no screams, no yells, nothing at all. Just the sound of silence, and the steady breathing of my wife beside me as I hold her closely.

Some mornings I am in my thoughts, concentrating on what’s to come instead of on what has been, focused on the next thing. I am attuned not to the coming rain but to the storm clouds that are gathering, studying them for signs of early spring, or fading glory, or everything else and nothing else all at once. I stretch out my hand to feel the rain I know is coming, to embrace the coming downpour in ways I never have before. I flinch at its cold presence mingling with my own, and I close the window.

Some mornings there’s Ed Sheeran singing in my ear, reminding me that everything should be all about the rhythm. I sing along to the beat, knowing how close the lyrics are to my own life, to the words that would be in my head even if I wasn’t listening to it. I’m reminded that life, while solitary, is a shared experience, that others are listening to this same song right now, or ruminating on it in their minds, or lost in their dreams of it. Or songs like it. Or thoughts like it. And I smile.

Some mornings I am just so grateful for this life, for this ability to awaken again, to welcome the sun, the sound of the chirping crickets, the cold floor under my feet as I stand. The bed looks forlorn without me in it, with my wife still there steadily breathing, still fast asleep. I tuck the abandoned sheets and covers in around her, a poor facsimile for the warmth of myself, but it’s what I have to give when I have to be up and moving. When the night turns into day and I’m left staring at the thin line.

But some mornings… some mornings I can stay there with her. I can hold her closer than my own skin and our breathing naturally synchronizes. Some mornings I can imagine forever.

Sam

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easyloveLove is easy… when it’s reciprocated. When it’s neither tied down nor coerced. When it’s head and heart entwined together. When it’s not long distance. When it’s two-way street. When… well, when a whole lot comes together in perfect alignment… then it’s easy.

I’ve had two loves, and neither one was easy, not when things counted anyway. Both were easy at the beginning, when everything was shiny and new, because we didn’t know any better. We basked in the warmth of an emergent love, secure in our notion that love was all we needed.

Which is the major issue, isn’t it? Love is never all we need. It’s never the salve for everything that ails us. It can never do the heavy lifting because love wasn’t built for that. It is the emotional component to our relationships. Necessary? Yes. Independent? No. Love can be a foundation, but it can’t be the only support for a relationship.

So yes, love can be easy when everything else is in place. When a relationship also has honesty, cooperation, trust, and a host of other supports firmly in place. Obviously, bracing your relationship with all of those supports takes time and effort, takes trial and error, takes hard work on both sides.

Unfortunately, that’s why so many relationships these days fail, because we live in a world where not many people are willing to work through the struggles, to talk out the issues, to be completely honest with each other, not just about their feelings, but also about what they need from their partner. So it’s not easy, and instead of working harder on it, they let it go. They let it drift away when they should be diagnosing the problems so they can get to the next step.

11743693133_c154198945So yes, real love is easy, because it’s surrounded by a scaffold of everything necessary to keep it alive and to help it flourish successfully. My first love was young love, which thought itself self-sustaining, but all the love in the world wouldn’t have saved it. Because we weren’t on the same page, both of us thinking that love would be enough, that we would be together forever because we wanted to be together forever. When the end came we were still scratching our heads, wondering what went wrong.

The second time around, though, from the start it was difficult because we were both older, and we both knew that love wasn’t enough. We both knew that it would be challenging, but it was a challenge we were ready to take. Because we knew that if we got through the tough times, the challenging decisions, the difficult confessions, we would emerge together at the end.

So yes, love is easy. When you know that it’s not enough.

Sam

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