By Miriam R. Kramer
There is no Hallmark Holiday about Modern Love. A book of essays by multiple authors and edited by Daniel Jones from the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, it does not even feature enough meet-cute stories to reach the standards of the Humans of New York interviews. These are real-life; sometimes improbable, sugar cookies fallen on the sidewalk, often more burned than palatable, with a bite or two taken out of them. You can decide where they fall between the saccharine and the over-salted, or if they even qualify as love stories suitable for celebrating February 14th.
Jones, after reading tens of thousands of essays on love, still has difficulty defining it. He sees it as “more a wheelbarrow than a rose: gritty and messy but also durable.” He also speaks to vulnerability as the animating quality of all love stories: “In every case…vulnerability means exposing ourselves to the possibility of loss, but also—crucially!—to the possibility of connection. You can’t have one without the other.” Then he boils it down á la Spock from Star Trek: “a combination of three emotions or impulses: desire, vulnerability, and bravery.” Yes, you may think, you have gotten enough out of therapy to understand the surface of these words, if not always feeling them viscerally or having the ability to act on them.
In a few stories, I recognized the way younger people in particular distrust themselves in the arena of romance. These are perhaps both self-trusting and self-building stories. Particularly as younger people, we try to be what we think other people want us to be. We do not trust ourselves, maybe in part because we have not yet figured out who we are. The romantic bogs we slog through help get us there, but even reaching the end of one and taking off our hip waders offers no guarantees that the selves we love will be equally appreciated by others. That being said, we are all we have got.
One woman talks about her desperate problems with Bipolar I disease, which did not affect her ability to become valedictorian of her high school, graduate Vassar, and sail through law school to become a successful lawyer, since she could manage her highs and lows around others superficially while looking for psychiatric help. Yet in intimacy, she could never disguise that she had an effervescent, outgoing, sparkling personality at some points and then had to sit day after day, like one at death’s door, because of her chemical imbalances. She could not present someone she might love with her true self, because she questioned: which one was she? Or was she someone else entirely with the proper medicine?
What makes sense to me, though, is the editor’s comment that love is less about definitions than examples. Which are my favorites? One of them you may have heard of before: “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” by author Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Struck with ovarian cancer in 2015 just as she and her husband, Jason, were about to become empty-nesters after 26 years of marriage, she had to put away all plans to face a pressing deadline: that of her existence. While nodding in and out of sleep from painkillers, she authored an article for the “Modern Love” column extolling his virtues, discussing him as a great dad, and urging women to consider him as a mate. She ends saying “I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.” That, dear reader, is love, as exemplary and generous a form as can be found.
Another favorite is by a woman who goes through a process of adopting a baby girl from China with her husband, asking for a little girl with a few to no medical problems. When they find out that they one they have met and loved in China has potential disabilities that will keep her paralyzed for life, they are offered the chance to take another healthy baby. They consider, yes, we could do that, but what would happen to “our” baby? The couple take the dizzying plunge to adopt her regardless. Their joy, and the unexpected ending to their story, glorify unqualified parental love.
So many stories may grab you: the teacher who adopted a foster kid in her English class, the journalist who interviews the founder of a new dating site and persuades him to make another try for engaged woman he once loved, the seniors who have a joint 150th birthday party to celebrate their finding each other, the wife who accepts her husband’s transitioning to a woman because she loves him too much to lose him.
This February, maybe you will want to tell someone: a friend, child, parent, sister, brother, family member, why you love them. Perhaps it is something small, simple, and meaningful rather than extravagant, overwhelming, or over-the-top. When I first fell in love what struck me strongly was how generous I felt: I would have given him whatever I could to see him joyful.
I wish you a messy, improbable, love-filled St. Valentine’s Day, Week, Month, Year. Give what you can and appreciate your courage in any willingness to love and be loved.