How do you know if you love something?
I am lucky: my wife is my one true love. I knew I loved her quite soon after I met her: I knew because she made me feel as though my heart were swelling in my chest when I looked at her, when she smiled at me; when I held her, everything went still, and she was the only thing in the universe. A unique circumstance, considering my normal habit of overcontemplating everything; my mind is never, ever still. Except with her. That kind of physical and mental response seems pretty conclusive: anyone who can have that much power over you is someone you love.
Okay. So that’s what love feels like. But is it all that love feels like?
I just lost my first dog, Charlie, this past summer. He was the greatest dog in the world, and the finest pet, the finest companion, I’ve ever had. Losing him broke me down in a way that has not happened to me before, in my recollection — though again, I’ve been lucky, and have lost no one close to me to death; only my grandparents, and only at an advanced age and after long illness. I cried at my grandfather’s funeral, and I felt sad when my grandmother died, and still do when I think of her — sadness to me feels like a sort of bowing in the path, a dip in my thoughts: things slow down, and I have to pause and then work (wait) my way through it, come back up out of it. Going through the moment, my mind dwells on what made me sad — with my grandmother, I remember her presence, remember her taking care of me for a month the summer I was six or so; I remember her bun, her glasses, her smile, her housedresses, her coat. I think about this, and let the images run through my head; then, at some point, the pause ends, the thoughts run out, and I come out the other side: I usually take a deep breath, maybe run my hand through my hair; something to mark the change, to identify and solidify the moment. That’s sadness, and it passes in time; sometimes the dip, the pause, is long, and sometimes it’s very short. But the grief I felt, and still feel, for Charlie, is harder: a hole appears in my chest when I think of him, right at the base of my ribs where my diaphragm is, and it becomes harder to breathe. I want to do the same thing I do with sadness, and think of specific memories of him, but I don’t dare — I think because I don’t know how long that chasm would last, how many thoughts of him it would take to get to the other side, and just how low I would sink on the way across. When we got home, my wife and I, from having Charlie put to sleep (And that’s part of the grief, of course: it was sudden and unexpected, it happened in the middle of the night at the end of a five-day move across three states — literally the first night we spent in our new home in Tucson, Arizona — and his suffering was acute, and we had to make the decision, and then I held him in my arms, and he died. And thinking of that makes my jaw and lips tighten and my eyes prickle a little bit, even now.), I wept. I wept hard. It wasn’t the only time I wept for him.
That dog, I loved. I felt exactly the same way about Charlie that I feel about my wife (Well, not EXACTLY the same way), with the same physical sensations, the same narrowing of the universe, the same silence in my mind, the same sense of completion, of peace, when I held him in my arms. I loved my boy. I truly did. And still do: perhaps that’s the source of my hollow feeling inside, the longing to hold my dog, and the knowledge that I never will again.
So okay, that’s what love feels like. But that’s not the only way it feels. Is it?
We have a new dog. We adopted him from the shelter almost two months ago. He is very sweet: he wants to cuddle, and he likes to lay close to me when I am on the couch or in bed — actually, all the time, even when I am sitting in my desk chair, which is a little awkward. He is soft, and he is endlessly cute. He likes to play, and he gives kisses, and he drapes himself, cat-like, across my legs when I lay down, or in my lap, if he can fit.
I don’t feel about him the same way I feel, or the same way I felt, about Charlie. It feels close: I love to hold and hug him, and he brings me a moment of peace and quiet; it’s just not as heart-thumping, not as intense, and not as frequent. Sometimes, when I say I love him, I feel like I’m only saying it because I expect to love him, because I’m supposed to love him; not because I really do. I know I don’t dislove him, if you’ll forgive the awkward neologism (Hey, we have dislike, and it’s a common way to describe a certain fine gradation of feeling — I don’t dislike snakes, but I’d never have one as a pet — so why not “dislove?”), but I don’t feel the same thing I felt for the dog that I knew, without a doubt, that I loved.
Is that because I am still grieving for my best friend? Is it because I don’t love this dog as much, this dog doesn’t suit me quite as well as Charlie did? Is it because he’s only lived with us for less than two months? Will I grow to love him as much as I loved Charlie?
Or is love always different?
If that’s the answer — and I suppose it makes sense, though I also can see it the other way — then it answers the question that started me on this road, which was this: do I really love writing? Does writing complete me, give me something, some peace, some experience of entirety, that I cannot get somewhere else? Is that why I write? Or do I write because I don’t know what else to do with myself? Do I say I love writing because I expect that I should, but I don’t actually?
Here’s what writing does for me. It makes me feel focused, in a way that doesn’t often happen to me: I have a very busy and fairly disjointed manner of thinking, and while I may be raveling a particular thread, I am also usually distracted by things around me, and also often humming a song, or repeating a section of lyrics; I often find myself thinking, “Okay, so:” and then trying to recapture the train of my intended thoughts. But writing is the Ritalin for my attention-deficient brain: I focus on this. It slows my thoughts to the specific word that I am writing, and only a few words ahead of it; I go back and look at the words I just wrote whenever I pause, and I am able to flow directly into the next phrase without pausing to finish the chorus of “Take Me To Church” by Hozier, or “Take On Me” by A-Ha, or whatever the hell it is that got most recently stuck in the musical part of my brain. I can pause to drink coffee, and then go right back to it.
I like that. I find it incredibly helpful, since normally my thoughts tend to cycle around and around and around and get nowhere in particular. But I can accomplish the same thing with talking to my wife, or even my students, in the right circumstance; it makes me focus on what I’m saying, and I finish thoughts, and I figure stuff out, and I have many little epiphanies. I feel like I’m learning when I write. I often don’t know where a piece is going to go when I start it, but I almost always like where it ends up. Like this one. And that’s why I wanted to get back to blogging, I suppose, because it lets me follow a single thought, whereas my books force me to get back onto the same path I was on before, generally speaking. I like the short moments of focus that this allows.
But do I love it? I don’t love writing like I love my wife (And I’ve just realized that I was far more effusive with describing my love for my dog than I was my love for my wife, Toni [Also realized I hadn’t named her, only talking about her like a possession, which she is not]; this is because my love for her is for her, and not for public consumption, and because any specific descriptions of how she makes me feel would go places that would make me feel awkward.), and I don’t love writing like I love my dog. But it’s not because I’m grieving for some other lost vocation, and it’s not because some other vocation is my real soul mate.
So are there different kinds of love? Or is love what I feel for Toni, for Charlie; and what I feel for writing needs some other name?
You know what? It doesn’t matter. I was still thinking about why I do this, because that last post didn’t really resolve it for me. But I have an idea now about why I write: it makes my brain work better. It makes the noises in my head shut up. I suppose, then, that it fixes what might be my deepest flaw: I am a thinker who doesn’t usually think very well or very clearly; not in my own head. [Revelation: this is because I need leisure time, as Ray Bradbury said in Fahrenheit 451. I need to float down a river, like Montag, and look at the stars.] Writing makes me think right. And I even know why I prefer it to conversation: because the revelations I come to are permanent, are written down; I can go back and read them again, and remember the feeling of insight and understanding that came with them — my heart vibrates to that iron string, to quote Emerson. And I had some idea already about why I write novels: because I love novels.
But that’s a different love. And thus a different subject.
Oh — and sorry about the pun.