A failed attempt at rejecting true love

When I teach memoir writing we spend a lot of time talking about truth and Truth. Memoir, unlike some other forms of nonfiction, allows for a bit of negotiation between verifiable facts (truth) and larger, more abstract notions of How the World Works and What it Can Mean to Be Human (Truth).

Because memoir is based almost entirely on memory, things can sometimes be True without being verifiable. If I’m writing, for example, about a conversation I had with my mom when I was ten, I’m aiming to accurately capture the spirit of that conversation even if the dialogue can’t possibly be exact. But even when the class gets to a pretty good working definition of these two concepts, truth still feels a little slippery. Even in a genre nominally and practically dedicated to the investigation of truth, creative nonfiction, it still isn’t always obvious what qualifies as true. And maybe this is why I find myself increasingly resistant to notions of Truth in Love.

We throw around references to “true love” pretty casually, but what exactly is it? Seriously. I do not pose this as a rhetorical question. I’d love to know how people define true love and how(/if) they separate it from other forms of romantic love.

In my own efforts to process the idea, here’s what I’ve come up with in terms of our collective notion of true love: it happens once and with one person; it’s mutual; it lasts “forever”; it’s selfless. But when I investigate these ideas they all break down pretty quickly.

  • True love happens once: Often the phrase “true love” is preceded by the word “one.” We are, at best, a serially monogamous species. Most of us will love (in ways that are deep and devoted and serious) more than one person in our lives. Which of those experiences is the one true love? The person you were with the longest? The one you had the most intense feelings about? The one you’re with now?
  • True love is mutual: If you have never been in love with someone who did not love you back, you’re missing out on a profound (and profoundly miserable) human experience. Most of us would agree that unrequited love feels far from trivial. Many people have made major life decisions based on feelings that weren’t wholly reciprocated. It seems short-sighted to dismiss those feelings as less legitimate than feelings that were returned. And even in mutually-loving relationships, individual investment in the relationship is not always perfectly equal.
  • True love lasts forever: I put “forever” in quotes earlier because I find this concept as shaky as “Truth.” Not to be a total literalist but nothing lasts forever, not the earth or the sun or the universe or your feelings. I don’t mean to imply that love isn’t valuable or even sometimes profound. I just want to point out that the ways that we fetishize love in our culture don’t always make sense. Endowing love with mysticism requires putting ourselves in positions of willful ignorance and passivity. In general I am annoyed by willful ignorance, in love I am particularly annoyed.
  • True love is selfless: Can anything requiring reciprocity to be legitimate still be selfless? (again, not a rhetorical question.)

I’ve been thinking about this idea of true love as I’ve been catching up on all the Valentine’s-related stuff I ignored while on vacation last week. A lot of the criticism of Valentine’s Day (at least on my various social media streams) is that it’s too commercial. And, yeah, advertisers definitely use the holiday as a way to equate expressions of love with giving material gifts, but it’s pretty easy to reject the consumerism of the holiday while still acknowledging the sentiment. I really like the idea of having a built-in reason to tell the people you love that you love them—and of extending the celebration of love beyond romantic love. This year I spent the holiday eating mahi-mahi and drinking beer with twelve of my closest friends and I had this abundant, totally joyful feeling of love (though I acknowledge this is an easy feeling to summon while slightly sunburnt and totally tipsy and very far from rainy Vancouver.)

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See what I mean?

So I don’t want to reject Valentine’s Day but I do want to rethink the concept of true love. Still, I get that it’s difficult to separate the practice of loving someone from the mythos of love. I just spent an hour listening to love songs on YouTube as I’ve been writing this and I’ll be the first to admit the mythos of love—that insistence on mystery and ineffable Truth—is seductive. I love the way I feel Continue reading

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Authenticity. Or the problem of the far away faraway.

When I told my sister I wanted to cut my nails because my manicure made me feel like Barbie, she looked me square on and said, “Mandy. That’s a good thing.”

While staying at her place over Christmas, I came home one night to find her on the couch with the dogs. She was wearing pink leopard flannel pajamas and drinking a mango margarita from a Butterbeer mug and watching The Voice. This is what I like about her: nobody else inhabits their preferences that joyfully.

She has kind things to say about every performer on The Voice, even as she critiques their wardrobe. And I think this is what other people like about her, too. She has specific tastes, but feels no obligation to defend them. She is like the anti-hipster, wholly sincere, consistent to the core. She can wax happily about the luminance of someone’s skin in a Manet painting and the cake-to-icing ratio of a Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake. She is intelligent, hyper-feminine, quick to laugh, and quick to point out her flaws.

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I have always wanted to say what I intend to say with no thought for others’ judgment, to feel not an ounce of self-consciousness when someone scrolls through my iTunes library. I don’t want to be the person who works SAT vocabulary into the conversation when she meets someone smart, as if desperate to say, “See! Me too!” But I am.

I’ve been thinking about authenticity in this new year. Going from Vancouver to Appalachia and back seems to do that, to call up the space between what’s meaningful and what seems constructed to incite a sensation akin to meaning. Take, for example, the Contemporary Christmas Eve service at the Methodist church. There was bread and grape juice (Methodists don’t do wine), the Lord’s Prayer, a reading from Luke, an acoustic guitar, candles and Silent Night. But no altar, no hymnals. Instead two large projectors aired a slickly-produced video about the many distractions of the holiday season. It’s fairly standard Christmas sermon stuff, but it felt especially hollow up on the screens. I wanted to hear the pastor talk, to dwell in the sanctuary of a sanctuary. As a devout teenager, I could always summon gratitude at church, especially when the lights went down for the candlelight service. Maybe I was hoping for some echo of that. But I only felt the fullness of the evening’s chicken casserole and that last glass of pinot grigio.

Sometimes I worry that the longer I live in Vancouver, the more alienated I become from the place I grew up. It begins to feel too far away. I notice Food City sells Duck Dynasty beer koozies and home no longer feels like home but instead like a satire of rural America. But two weeks later I’m at Vancouver’s Whole Foods grasping a $5 organic chocolate bar while examining a slab of soap that looks like Jell-O and I wonder how this life feels any more authentic. Continue reading

The truth be known, the truth be told, my heart was always fairly cold…

(No photo today, so for your listening pleasure a song–and inspiration for the title)

The phone rang on a Saturday afternoon. I was still sweaty from mowing the lawn. My best friend Kim was calling from her car, someone must’ve had a cell phone. It was the nineties and we were in high school and cell phones were still novel in that Zack Morris kind of way. “Someone wants to talk to you,” she said. I heard shuffling and then a guy’s voice on the line. It was Zane and he wanted to know if I would be into seeing a movie, maybe next weekend.

I remember thinking several things at once: Zane was asking me on a date; Zane was asking me on a date in a car full of kids who had better things to do than mow the lawn; my parents were not going to like me going on a date with Zane.

At sixteen, I did not go on dates. I had dates—to homecoming or prom, usually a friend’s boyfriend’s friend, someone to have photos made with. But going on dates required asking. And I was equally terrified of showing someone I liked him, and of being liked by someone I wasn’t into. Needless to say, no one asked.

Zane and I had nothing in common. He smoked cigarettes and rode BMX and had recently run away from home for a month. (Where had he gone, I remember wondering. Where could anyone run to in rural Virginia?) But I liked his silhouette in low-slung jeans and a tank top—the outfit he wore pretty much daily. I liked how his hair hung in his eyes. It seemed like effortlessness was a lifestyle choice he made when he woke up each morning. He wouldn’t try. Trying was not for him.

I had always tried at everything. Not trying seemed exotic, like the idea of running away, like Zane himself.

I said that, yeah, I had next Saturday afternoon free and sure, I’d be into going to movie. He asked if I could drive—this would become a pattern in our brief relationship—and I said it’d be no big deal to come pick him up. I played it very cool. Then he handed the phone back to Kim. “Hey,” she said, also playing it cool but I could hear the grin in her voice. In response, I squealed. It just emerged from my mouth like pent up bird. High-pitched and squawky. She laughed. “Um…everyone just heard that.” I was mortified.

Someone I liked liked me enough to ask me to the movies. It was okay to be happy about that. But I had just squealed in front of a group of kids who spent their weekend smoking weed in an old Ford Bronco while I was at home helping my parents with the yard work.

Recalling this moment, writing it all out, still makes me cringe. Like I can feel my organs drawing inward, my lungs shrinking into my ribcage. The word “shame” is etymologically related to an ancient Greek verb meaning “to cover.” I can feel that impulse for self-protection now as I imagine you, reader, imagining me in my grass-stained tennis shoes and damp, oversized t-shirt squealing in an upstairs bedroom decorated with Foo Fighters posters and pompoms. Gross. I feel gross.

Continue reading

memoir and the space-time continuum

A warning: I’m going to talk about science, physics in particular. I’ve been doing a little reading about time. And when I say little, I mean very little, because I am not a physicist. I’ve only ever taken one physics class, in fact, and that was with Mr. Sheffield, who was also our high school’s resident computer expert. Whenever anyone had a computer problem, they’d come interrupt his class. And since this was 1998 and computers were still rare and somewhat mysterious in my high school (I learned to type on a typewriter in the 10th grade), this meant he was always gone. We spent most of our physics class goofing off and copying each others’ answers to questions about how fast a ball rolls down a ramp. I learned almost nothing.

In other words, this one is a bit messy and convoluted, a messay if ever there was one.

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So I’ve been reading about time, and in particular about different theories of time, inspired by this very simple post on NPR. And reading about time has got me thinking about memoir. Specifically, why we write memoir. And how memoir functions in the world, for both the writer and reader.

Maybe you’re familiar with the idea of world lines. This one is new to me. Basically, from what I can tell, a world line is the four-dimensional path of an object through space and time. So for example, the computer I’m typing on is three-dimensional. It’s about an inch high, fourteen inches wide, and ten inches deep. The fourth dimension is its existence in a given moment of time. So the moment I bought this computer, it was one distinct four-dimensional object. It had height, width, depth and time (the single moment I opened the box, for example). At the present moment, despite having the same three-dimensional qualities, it is not the same computer. For one, between then and now, Roscoe’s wagging tail has caused a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to spill its contents across the keyboard and down onto the logic board. Miraculously, the computer still functions, but as the genius at the Apple shop told me, the computer will never be the same. The computer itself changes, as we humans do, over time. So you can think of the computer as having a unique fourth dimension in each subsequent moment.

The world line idea suggests that time is not linear, but it is in fact just a series of distinct four-dimensional objects that all exist simultaneously. It is only our perception of time that is linear. This is just a theory of course, and there are others out there, but it’s interesting one: that the universe could be made up of an infinite number of four-dimensional objects. You could take each moment of the computer’s existence (and, if you want to get complicated, of the existence of each of its components as raw materials) and pile them up like sand. Continue reading

the messay: a question of genre

Reading Brevity’s blog this afternoon has gotten me thinking about genre. Often when I tell people I’m writing a book on love stories they look at me with interest and say, “You’re writing a novel that’s a love story?”

I usually respond by explaining that, no, I’m writing a nonfiction book about love stories. But this description does not make a particularly snappy elevator pitch. Sometimes I say, “I’m writing a book-length essay on love stories,” or “My book is part memoir, part research, part family mythology.” Sometimes I wish I was writing a novel just so I would have the language to describe what I’m doing. But what I’m doing doesn’t seem to have a sufficient genre descriptor. Calling it a book-length essay allows for the wandering approach that Scott Russel Sanders famously called “chasing mental rabbits.” But it’s ultimately unproductive because, frankly, most people don’t know enough about the essay as literary form for a book-length essay to sound remotely interesting. On day one of teaching the personal essay to my undergraduates, I spend a lot of time distinguishing it from the academic essay–a genre they seem to either tolerate or loathe.

But memoir isn’t quite the right word either. My experiences happen to be a convenient starting point for talking about love stories. But in the book I also want to re-imagine the stories I’ve spent my life hearing: my parents’ and grandparents’ love stories, things I could not possibly remember. Annie Dillard says, “A memoir is any account, usually in the first person, of incidents that happened a while ago.” But what if those incidents happened before I was born?

And where does research fit into all of this? Some of the tools I’ve been using to explore the topic include the things scholars, philosophers, and friends have to say about love and love stories. And when I actually publish this thing, in what part of the bookstore or library might it reside? I find myself in a weird, nameless gray area.

But luckily, if that’s the right word, lots of other books fall into a similarly ambiguous space. A few that come to mind right away are: Lauren Slater’s Lying, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Richard McCann’s Mother of Sorrows, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, even Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. We don’t have adequate generic words for books like these much less a designated bookstore shelf. All are narrative. All are intensely personal. All are imaginative. But all are distinctly unwieldy creatures when it comes to genre.

So should we coin the messay? The novoir? When we discuss this in class, many of my students are comfortable with blending truth and fiction or research and narrative. To them, a good story is often just that. But I worry about orphan books that so easily find themselves in genre limbo, mostly because I’m aware that that’s exactly what I’m writing.