When love walks in the door, we’re putty in its hands, even after the procreative imperative for perpetuating the species has disappeared. It’s a mystery, and remains so as others fall to the rationalists in lab coats. Not the muscled breadwinner or ripely curvaceous mama figure makes us stumble into an infatuation, but perhaps somebody with a slightly scoliotic back, an asymmetric smile, and bobbed hair, not luscious tresses. We can thrill to the touch of another’s hand. It doesn’t have to be “copping a feel” or “getting in (a lady’s) pants”; we’re searching for an answering rapport. We tremble, synapses in a brain scan would light up, and yet love takes powerful other forms, such as the proverbial best friend or imperfect parent. Love flowers not in ratio to gratitude or pity or opportunistic need. The one best friend might not be the pal who saved your life in the infantry, and lust didn’t dictate that a man only impregnated a woman he would stick by forever. Kinship is utilitarian—helping your cousin or old girlfriend to find a job—and sufficient on the face of it, yet when loveless we do seek more.
Pets, for example, beyond a packhorse or watchdog. A pet to feed and hug, perhaps to sleep beside. An aged neighbor to assist without recompense in the manner of the Golden Rule. Or we’ll obsess over a hobby to the point of love, like cooking, collecting, or a given sport, boosted by it competitively, whereas the open-hearted duffer may have a longer line of testifiers at his funeral service. The duffer with a bimbo, though, becomes a figure of fun, diamonds being a girl’s best friend. That’s love, but so is how I feel about the feathery foliage of a cedar tree, the smell of basswood blooms and joe-pye weed, a spider’s webbing on my windowpane. The fact that they don’t return my empathy is immaterial; they’re good for me, like smelling a baby’s hair. I would lay down my life for him or her without a vice versa.
Pity is a parallel yet separate emotion, however. We see the shivering homeless people on the street without inviting them home. The broken-legged deer, the cancer patient who is someone else’s problem, gaunt villagers glimpsed from a tourist bus, or the fellow tourist suffering an asthma attack. Sympathy for friends wins rewards, but extending our “better nature,” as it’s called, to other members of the animal kingdom and to strangers, is not selfishly beneficial except in the sense that a general love of life—the nuanced blues and grays enriching the sky, the salamander pocketed underneath a boulder, where a mink can’t eat it—lengthens your life via tranquility. Love is less healthy when impetuously headlong, as for the “leg man” stage-door Johnny or “breast man” at a Playboy Club. I’ve never figured out what makes the one or the other but doubt there’s a major mystery there. Not like the roots of pity where self-interest has no purchase. “You must adore me,” I remember a friend saying when we were showering together and I was lathering just the most obvious portions of her body. “All of me. Every part.” If I wanted to propose.
The love which passeth understanding was Mother Teresa’s. We go more for tithing a certain percentage, or brotherly love, or keeping each other’s feet warm under the covers as the years toil by. I’ve seen nuns in a famine zone in Africa who exhibited that broad-band, non-Darwinian love for humanity, that fellow-feeling too. Early abolitionists must have had it and perhaps the first people who began to feel sorry for carthorses beaten and foundering in the street, if they loved people as well. Another science project could be brain scans of the folks who love animals more than people, or for that matter humanitarians who can watch children torturing a kitten without much reaction. Does looking at the sky give them a bounce in the morning? The mystery of attraction, though, tops my list. The variety of temperaments and torsos individuals tumble into love with ensures that society boasts artists as well as athletes, hardheaded entrepreneurs and contemplative carpenters; that’s how it happens. Shyness can trump confidence and a tomboy a beauty queen. What makes a new acquaintance suddenly omnipresent in one’s mind, supplanting sexpots, rich guys, or whomever? We contain a kaleidoscope of input, reacting pro or against our parents’ antipathies and yearnings, comfort levels, been-there-done-that banalities, or carnival impulses.
Every few months, we’ll meet a new person of an appropriate gender and age we can pour our hearts out to, but what makes one toothsome and another not? I don’t mean seductive; I mean that click, where you can’t get them out of your mind. When single, it happened to me only every two or three years. Families and children can be damaged, of course, if it continues as a periodic cyclone after marriage, unless polygamy or polyandry is the rule. Our current practice of “serial polygamy” via commonplace divorce is a rule-breaker and therefore not the same, but I’ve seen it rather workable in isolation in Central Africa—the women a sisterhood, the spearmen prepared to sacrifice their own lives in front of a leopard or an elephant. Bare-breasted, the Acholi women did not market themselves by bra and dressmaker, and the men did not turn into pathetic basset hounds if a nipple arced near.
But love, again, is not merely carnal. The Acholi loved Mount Kinyeti, highest in Sudan, as I did my Turtleback Hill in Connecticut as a boy and Wheeler Mountain in Vermont later on. They become part of your bloodstream, as I’m sure a blood-pressure cuff would confirm the effect of gazing at them after a stressful interlude. Even a city person, on a rare night outing in the country, will feel a surge of love for the firmament, gazing unhurriedly at our sibling stars. Unlike the ocean—that other great permanent reminder of Creation—the galaxies can be ignored without peril, and usually are. But they’re tonic, like the curling greeny ocean available daily in much of the world. Love is bracing when germinated by the upthrust trees, the scudding birds. This is not just joy, at least for me. It’s love and why I’ve remained alive: the personalities. People and birds have personality, and I believe science will discover sufficient identity in individual trees to constitute a sort of personhood. We can imagine clouds have personalities, but our intuition tells us so, as mine does with certain trees. It’s not a playful conceit, like personalizing the spindrift on surf or animalizing a skyscape. The waves, the clouds are a gift, except in a hurricane, but to me not godly, as is life itself.
Animate, inanimate, though, love it all—the firmament and the sea’s thumping surf, like an earthly heartbeat. When Darwin shipped on the Beagle, he knew that, like primates, we love our children and our parents, kindreds both, but not the same way as a crush (an old word even then). Do we know more about pitter-pat, catch-your-breath now? Affection can be love lite, or simply friendly, but more than politic. For health and security we must have friends, or tell ourselves we do, and most of us need some narrative of romance as well. Not just notches on a belt or progeny tallied, but love. Consummation is not quite as vital. The sex recalled can be one-night stands, or whatever, perhaps following earlier dysfunction, but was there enough experience along the way of loving and being loved? A friend of mine who earned her living partly as a dominatrix finally ordered one of her slaves, whose livelihood was in finance, to marry her in middle age, and it’s lasted. Love is elastic. We improvise, mutualize: Is this what you want? Bodily yet bodiless, it doesn’t fit in a pocket and can carom if not reined in. But we enjoy that novelty of lawlessness, staying up at all hours, driving too fast, spending off budget, and thinking of somebody’s welfare other than our own.
If sex is sonic, love is supersonic. “Crazy about her,” we’ll accept a smile as more memorable than somebody else’s “going all the way.” Our attention, breaking out of its self-encasement, homes in on another’s thoughts and mood, twining fingers, joining forces. Love sparks an electric rapport advantageous for raising children, and who really wants to operate alone? But infatuation can also mask self-love, as in the duffer daffy about the bimbo, or some of our own love for celebrities. It’s us strutting out of the Green Room to plug our new movie. The froufrou dog or perhaps a pit bull may be an accessory. It’s a limber emotion, trip-wired to a calendar of complications, a lubricant for family and loyalty—our very bellybuttons are a kind of hickey, a love-mark left when our lives were launched—but can overlap with cocky arrogance.
I lost heartthrobs to a bartender, a magazine editor, a district attorney, and the black-bearded Beat writer Seymour Krim, who snatched a girlfriend from me at a Thelonius Monk gig—brands of glamour, all—but relished two marriages gifted with love and grandsons. Love engenders peace and trust, and memories topping all but the direst kind in retrospect, especially if they include a broad-beamed embrace of place—the whirl of Delancey Street in New York, where one feasted 50 years ago, or fountaining ferns and cushioning moss on a creek, amber-pooled, twitchy with shiners, where you skinny-dipped, out of town. The troutlings and pickerel frogs, the mini-falls that froze golden in January in a circlet of spruce, were part and parcel of the affair.
Owls hooted from the ridgeline. Was he or she, though, a keeper? Romance is mostly pursued under cover of darkness, like many of nature’s obligations. Birds migrate; mammals hunt or relocate; unfamiliar with the stars, we can get our bearings better indoors, where the din of industrial traffic lessens for us. Love “walked in,” we say of love “at first sight,” a magnetic rapport. We test it; is it reliable and tensile? If so, it will let us smile on our deathbeds even when decades have passed. (Working in a morgue once, I saw numerous smiles.) But so many memories of childhood meadows, trees climbed, the profile of a mountain that stopped us in our tracks halfway up, or a teacher who made merciful allowances. So much love and not an abundance of time. The contours of character, like a far-off, favorite tree line, may summarize an era we miss. The static of illness or quarrels doesn’t negate the wavelength of love we were born with, when we toddled into the grass stippled with violet vetch and began to pull off blossoms, taking possession immediately, as when crawling around a rumpus room indoors, playmates or other species included. With hands and knees in the dirt, happiness was normalcy, or protest followed.
We love the creamy spindrift thrown up by the sea, and a headwaters spring topmost along a river, bubbling upward through penny-sized, beige-colored pockets of sand while bees and butterflies hover around. We love a zebra’s or a tiger’s graphic stripes, a clown’s or an elephant’s schnozzola, but modern visual delights are filtered through virtualizing technology or designer aesthetics, and nature takes a breather till nighttime for activities that can be postponed. People walk more softly then and use less electricity to illuminate their lives. The chainsaws and earth-movers cease until sunrise, while the rest of life catches a break—the birds, the animals, if space for them remains. Love the night if you love the world as created. We pause to taste the rain or bless the cradle moon. If you have chosen your habitat and love it, you’re like the man I bought my place from, who wept as his gurney was loaded into the ambulance for his last ride—wept because he’d asked the attendants to pause while he gazed at our mountain a final time. It was molded monumentally by glaciers, but the granite is as old as lizards are, and we’d shared it for the blink of an eye.
I’ve loved the arctic taiga and Louisiana swampland, the Hudson River and the Skeena, the Brahmaputra and the Nile, California and Indian Ocean beachcombing, all jubilations that we borrow, like a pewter sky, then silver and copper. I was a cyclist, a hiker and paddler, a railroad and bush plane enthusiast, assuming you can’t love a person or place without setting foot, showing up. The intricacies of a city your heartstrings are tied to yield to the thousandth hour of rambling about, as a marriage’s thousandth day may burgeon with intimacies. Your senses come alert when you first meet Mr. or Ms. Right, listening to timbre, tasting for chemistry, but intuition has layers, measuring a smile, a wince, for crevices or quirks, what’s heartfelt, what they esteem or fear. Life is teeter enough that we need props and chums, or possibly the pride of nonconformity, like the God-is-deaders after World War II. But the demands of the day, from slushy snow to a crabby job, call for the lubricant of love at home.
Lying spoon-style in bed with somebody we care for, we’ll finger their bellybutton as an introductory aperture and a playtime ritual remembered from childhood. A mystery to babies and even big men on campus, the navel is left over from mother-love, and way before lint. Umbilical also to when we forked off from reptilehood, it is testimony to our long mammalian survival, ingenious, breast-focused, and, when a teen, touching one may mean you are “getting past first base.” Senior citizens rediscover it on themselves bathing, wistfully, reminiscently, or as amused as by a coccyx, vestigial as can be, or a jutting Adam’s apple that had been embarrassing in one’s teens. Love transits impromptu to newborns and back, a wavelength as supple as any, both compass and glue. Normalcy is happiness, and if you stroke your bare feet musingly you can wing back to prehistoric satisfactions, or fall asleep in the sunshine, your eyelids suffused with an ancient, radiant palette of light.