Thursday, December 18, 2008

"I love you." a brief personal history.

(written earlier in the fall, somewhere at sea)

"It will not be enough to say I love you. I know you have heard it before.

"I love you. Those words were not worn out two thousand six hundred years ago. Are they worn out now? Perhaps, but not by repetition, but by strain." from Art & Lies by Jeanette Winterson

On a whole, I didn't enjoy Art & Lies as much as I had other Jeanette Winterson novels. The story seemed more strained and less fluid, like something created to hang her thoughts on. The overall effect made the book feel more piecemeal. Still, as always, there was plenty to get entangled with and tremendous mental/emotional stimulation. The passage above was amongst the ones which stood out to me, partly because I agree with it, partly because I don't.

Others might object, but since I'm not really writing to analyze the book itself but rather as a leaping off point for my own thoughts, I'll leave this without context from the story. The context isn't the point.

"It will not be enough to say I love you. I know you have heard it before."

Beautiful line. And I suppose I agree for anyone for whom that phrase is over-used. I know there are people who just talk about love for the sake of love and mostly, they make me want to vomit. This isn't just my curmudgeonliness; I get stupidly serious about stuff like this and place way too much importance on love and all that shit. Really. I promise. Perhaps it would be easier to start from my usage of the word and work out from there, rather than blather about how other people (mis)use the term.

My parents have always said I love you. My father not as often, but my mother almost never let one of us walk away without saying 'I love you.' At the end of every phone conversation, every time I left the house, every time we said goodnight (even, during my adolescence when I was so rage filled that I refused to say 'goodnite', abbreviating it purposefully to "'nite" when trying to avoid all interaction failed). And doubly true with my grandmother. None of this is romantic of course, but it is the background of my understanding of the word (and the action): I've heard it, and frequently, all my life and the people who said it meant it.

I don't know if I initiated it, through habit of saying it with my family or if it just arose organically or if someone else initiates it, but the same goes with speaking to my friends. Not all the time, not every conversation, but I've noticed that with most of my close friends we say 'I love you' to each other, usually as part of saying goodbye over the phone, but it gets said. And (at least from this end) meant.

Things, of course, get a little squirrelly when we start talking romantically. Don't they always? For someone who says the words so often and so frequently, you would think they would flow so much easier in a relationship. You would be wrong.

Perhaps I get too serious sometimes. I take things too literally or too heavily; I've worked hard to be lighter and more zephyrus, and have mostly succeeded, but deep down, there is still an uptight virgo literalist in here. And I don't kid about love. Or I didn't; I'm trying to learn how; why should everything, particularly beautiful things be so serious? I'll dive into a little abstract relationship history to hopefully illuminate my point.

I've long have a serious aversion to saying 'I love you' to someone I'm dating. It always seemed to be a big step, somehow in my mind something akin to an engagement ring. That might seem a little bit exaggerated, but at least at one time this was true. I refused to say the words lightly. I could say them to my friends, but as soon as I was dating someone, there was this extra weight. A certainty that if I said 'I love you', I had to mean forever or at least with no end in sight, that it had to be some other level, a way of saying "You are the One," even if I personally didn't believe in 'the One'. This isn't exactly what I meant. I've never gone in for one-true-love bullshit, and certainly don't believe in meant-to-be, but I'm just trying to communicate something of the heaviness that I attribute to saying I love you.

I just don't feel that most of the time, in most relationships, when people say 'I love you' they mean what I want it to communicate, what I mean when I say it. They are saying "I love having a boyfriend" or "I love having someone there to hold" or "I love the way you make me feel" or "I love not being alone" or whatever. And those can be fine and sweet things to say, really. Those are partial reasons why we want relationships and love in the first place. The practical considerations are part of anything in life, and I don't begrudge them being said. I just don't want to hear 'I love you' as a stand in for all these other things. It may mean all of them too, but for me at least it has to mean something special, something more. This is what is meant in Ms. Winterson's text when she says the words are worn out, "not by repetition, but by strain." It isn't how often they are said, but how they are said, used to cover so many emotions, forced to carry so many meanings other than their own.

So I've worked hard to avoid straining these words, and refused to say them in ways I didn't mean them. I had more than a few serious relationships where the words were never said until after it was over, which I regard as a success rather than a failing. I'd rather them seem pointedly absent rather than pointlessly present.

I'm not as harsh as I used to be. This is mostly because I found someone who I could say the words to. They lost their threat: waste us now and you will never get to mean us. I get to mean them and not as stand-ins for other things I don't know how to say, but as exactly what I am saying. Having said them with full resonance, they've become lighter, gentler, more approachable. Having taken up this mantle, I hope I can avoid wearing them out in the way Ms. Winterson warns. If repetition could ear them out, I'd have already failed, but I think I can fairly argue that I at least have never stretched or strained them.

Having learned to say these words, they flow freely from me out into the world (I still mean them). I sometimes wonder if the significance of me being able to say this is lost on him who inspired me, as he never knew them as a protected commodity in my life. The water in a lake doesn't know how dry the lake bed was before; it has been wet since water arrived.

It is hard too for me to remember sometimes as well, but why bother. I like it wet.

"It will not be enough to say I love you. I know you have heard it before."

Oh, but sometimes it is enough...

No comments: