Modern // Love

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Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?


This isn’t the sort of elegant question you ask just anyone. It’s the sort of question that you ask someone after you know them well. A kindred spirit, or a dear child, or perhaps a lover. But not just anyone. At least, not in this manner.

And yet, on that summer’s day, I found myself asking this question of a seventeen-year-old I had never met, whose name I didn’t even know. I stared into the student’s eyes, noticing the shades of cerulean and sapphire, seeing and being seen.

Let me explain.

A friend of mine was teaching an elective on the Linklater technique of freeing the natural voice. The one-hour session began with a series of exercises designed to relax the body, mind, and vocal muscles. Then, after the students were relaxed, the second part of the class focused on establishing connection and communicating with the voice.

And so, I found myself staring deeply into the eyes of a student I had never met, speaking Mary Oliver poetry into the student’s existence. An unexpected turn of events, I’d say.

It bonds two people, doing this sort of activity. And thus, the objective of the Linklater technique – the establishment of intimate connection between performers so that they can convince an audience. So that theater is less acting, and more truth-telling. It requires the sort of general intimacy that we avoid if we can help it. Because, as we know by experience or simply by observation, it’s dangerous to stare into another’s eyes and tell the truth.

I recently came across Jordana Narin’s winning essay in the Modern Love college essay contest sponsored by the New York Times, entitled “No Labels, No Drama, Right?” I immediately loved the essay for Narin’s candor and transparency. In clear and wistful words, Narin recounts her no-strings-attached yet years-long entanglement with a boy she met at summer camp, and the emptiness and struggle of this sort of entanglement. She writes,

I’m told my generation will be remembered for our callous commitments and rudimentary romances. We hook up. We sext. We swipe right. All the while, we avoid labels and try to bury our emotions. We aren’t supposed to want anything serious; not now, anyway. But a void is created when we refrain from telling it like it is, from allowing ourselves to feel how we feel.

I was surprised to find that the essay does not conclude with a note of regret. At least, Narin doesn’t seem to regret her actions or her choices. Instead, at the end of the essay she writes, “In years past, maybe back when people went steady, he may have been the one who got away. For my generation, though, he’s often the one we never had in the first place. Yet he’s still the one for whom we would happily trade all the booty calls, hookups and swiping right. He’s still the one we hope, against all odds, might be The One.”

It isn’t regret, exactly, but…nostalgia? The hesitation that comes with saying, I wish things were different. Something’s wrong here. Not with me, but with the entire situation. With this entire culture.  

Oh well.

Interested, I read a few more Modern Love entries, wondering how my fellow young adults describe love. And I was intrigued to find that many of the essays contained the same sort of sentiment that Narin’s did. Emma Court, a runner-up in the contest, describes her own entanglement as “just a romantic interlude from our real lives. And if it did mean anything, we were college students; we knew how to pretend it didn’t…I don’t know what else could have happened. But I wonder what we collectively lose as we try so hard not to care. We pretend that it doesn’t matter, that we have time, that because we are young we are invulnerable.”

From the tone of the essays, I gather that we millennials aren’t too keen on the situation at hand, if we’re honest with ourselves. Most of us, I think, yearn for the sort of connection that asks questions and expects to know, to understand, to see and be seen. Not the kind of connection that consists of a passionate kiss followed by a “see you never,” as Emma Court’s did. The way I see it, the kiss itself is a lie.

Through my perusal of essays in which the dominant tones were dissatisfaction and loneliness even amidst a smattering of romantic encounters, I did come across one that surprised me. In her essay, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” Mandy Len Catron recounts a time that she and a university acquaintance decided on a whim to ask and answer thirty-six questions about one another, questions designed to foster vulnerability and intimacy.

The questions were commonplace at the beginning, but by the end, they required what Catron describes as “the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend, exchanging the details of our short lives.” They ranged from “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” to “When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?” The questions were the sort that you might ask someone after you know them very well. Not just anyone. But Catron decided to ask them of an acquaintance.

Who then became a lover. A real one, not the sort of entangled other of Court’s and Narin’s experiences.

In a sea of essays of eloquent disillusionment, the following lines from Catron’s essay shimmered:

I wondered what would come of our interaction. If nothing else, I thought it would make a good story. But I see now that the story isn’t about us; it’s about what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known…Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.

I think this is something my generation sometimes forgets: love is a verb in middle voice – it is both something that happens to us, and it is a choice that we make. It is to bother to know someone. A simple concept, but when the social norm is hookups with no labels, I wonder if many of us begin to believe, whether consciously or not, that the sort of love that bothers to know someone might not exist.

I wonder if many of us experience something similar to Narin’s nostalgia — nostalgia for a love that bothers to know. And, at the end of it, all that we have to go on is the hope that this nostalgia is a nostalgia for the truth, a nagging knowledge that romantic love is something more mysterious and holy than Tinder and hooking up and all that we’ve been conditioned to think.

Love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time.

-Father Zosima, The Brothers Karamazov

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One thought on “Modern // Love

  1. This is absolutely wonderful. I love the distinction you make between “knowing” someone and actually knowing them in a manner that transcends simply being aware of them, but involves placing yourselves in a place where there is an active and pervasive love displayed.

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