Love takes many forms.
There is puppy love – the shy, confused kind you feel at age 5 when a tall, sun-kissed-blonde, 13-year old named Wilber from across the street stoops over to pat your curls and tie your shoe. “Aren’t you a sweet potato pie?” he asks, dimples in full relief as he grins at you, half boy, half man. Those long-ago five minutes when you first discovered - up close - how alluring shirtless summer skin can be as it brushes against your pudgy cheek. Oh, the flutter that brief attention causes in your skinny chest. Like a thin, warm cinder, the moment glows softly over the following months and years. You watch for Wilber’s entrances and exits from across the forbidden barrier of the street, hoping he will remember that you are his sweet potato pie. Unknowingly, Wilber earns your secret baby affections from afar, cluelessly enchanting you with his bent-legged cartwheels, his tree-climbing skills and the freewheeling laughter that rings out from high-up branches. Puppy love’s innocent affection, its wide-eyed awe and inevitable impossibility introduce us to the world of romantic attraction.
Then there is the other kind of puppy love – love for actual puppies. This puppy love, very different from the other kind, pangs sweetly with a sappy tenderheartedness. It suffuses your body when you spy that one, dark-eyed ball of fur that seems to love only you. His heart-rending neediness and his unwavering, wagging yearning to be close to you strikes a chord on your heartstrings. He gleefully submits to you, laying himself out vulnerably as if he knows you alone are innately unable to harm him. To him, you are all-powerful, all-loving. You are so stricken with him that you sign up to feed, walk and care for this living creature for the next 20 years. He seems perfectly suited to please you, from his delightful little kisses to the squirming of his malleable little puppy body. You take him home, driving with him wrapped inside your jacket because you can’t bear to hear him cry to be apart from you. He is your new best-friend-for-life.
Months later, when that fuzzy, warm ball of fur plops down for a nap on your foot, round belly still protruding pinkly like a baby, you melt anew with puppy love. There is something about the wet nose nuzzling your hand, begging for the hundredth scratch behind the ears, that draws out the sweetheart in you. When you return from a short trip to the store, he senses your approach from a block away. His exuberant ecstasy causes his whole body to quake and he wets himself with glee at the joy of simply being in your presence again. This undying joy cements his place in your heart. Just by being yourself, you earn his worship. This kind of puppy love is instantly rewarding. It converts you from an underpaid foot soldier on the treadmill of adulthood to an all-powerful goddess, bestowing happiness with a gentle gesture and a smile.
Both kinds of puppy love, however, grow older. Wilber grows spotty facial hair and starts hanging out on his front porch drinking beer with scruffy-looking n’ere-do-wells. His crunched up beer cans litter the sidewalk. He burps loudly and plays guitar badly. His beat-up rust-bucket squeals annoyingly as he skids down the street at 2 in the morning.
Your fuzzy, four-legged friend also ages. He starts chewing shoes…and furniture and records and $90 work slacks. He grows fat in a way that isn’t so cute anymore. Pooch develops allergies. He sheds. The glossy fur you loved to pet comes out in handfuls and forms tumbleweeds that tickle your nose and accumulate in the corners of your living room. He licks his balls then turns to lick your face or steal a bite of your toast. That cute little puppy voice becomes an incessant barking that annoys the neighbors and causes disharmony on the once-friendly block.
Eventually, puppy love dissipates and disappears. But at least for Fido, you stick with it (Wilber can take care of himself). Year after year, you continue to feed and walk and clean up after your aging sidekick. You still play tug-o-war when he feels chipper. He still lies on your foot and nudges your hand, asking for affection. And you still give it. The many years of happy companionship he has brought you with his undying devotion deserve as much. Puppy love has turned into old-dog care and maintenance.
There are many stages of love.
There is first love, when you have passed through puberty successfully and are surprised to discover that a male can be interesting and funny, and interested in you. You share a chance conversation after softball practice with the coach’s son. He laughs at your jokes. He looks you in the eyes and doesn’t look away, eager to know more about you. He asks you questions and listens to the answers. You mention a song you like; he asks if you would copy it for him. Mutual interest emboldens both of you to seek each other out at gatherings and think up excuses to call each other on the phone. You spend time together, away from your friends. You lay side by side on the grass talking for hours. He turns to hear you better. You turn to see him as he talks. Your faces are very close. So close, in fact that you feel like you should stop talking, but talking allows your lips to move, distracting you from the fact that your knees are touching his knees and your belly is growing warmer from his surprising body heat, co-mingling with yours like his earthy scent and the fresh grass smell beneath your cheek. Your words grow laconic and pointless, their only purpose remains to prove that you two are still just talking. Somehow your lips are forming words and simultaneously drawing closer to his. Sentences come out as a jumble of unrelated words: “Pineapples……hang-glide……predator”. Your brain is unable to keep up the charade convincingly as the ‘P’ sound brings skin to skin, a gentle push, and you give up the farce, reaching the rest of your mouth out towards his in an innocent first kiss.
First love is ill-fated, like Romeo and Juliet. Soon jealousy overtakes you. You see him, bolstered by the new confidence your affections have given him, flirting with other girls, trying out his appeal on a larger audience. The recent feeling of walking on clouds becomes one of being mired in the sticky complexities of pride and selfishness. What once was uplifting is oppressive, sucking greedily at your time and emotions; combative, boxing your heart with heavy, clumsy punches; obfuscated, all but forgotten beneath the thorny brambles of teenagers struggling for self-esteem and identity. Of course, you are young and fickle, so it ends quickly, and badly, bringing new sensations of humiliation, failure and a guilty longing for the dizzying perfection shared only weeks earlier. You yearn for that first pure and innocent moment in the grass as you fume over the new girl – outward proof of his newly bolstered sense of self-worth and your worthlessness.
You get over it, and move on eventually. After first love, comes second love. Second love turns out to be an unsupportable infatuation, and third love was really only about his body in the end. By the time fourth love tries to sneak into your life, you have graduated from soft, sweet kisses to all that there is to know about men and women together in the dark. You are an adult, you think you are savvy about love. You know how to distinguish the butterfly feelings in your chest from a solid sense of connection. You are able to put aside the fancy dinners out, the cunnilingus and the impromptu skinny dipping in the park to evaluate whether this person can help you achieve your life goals. Love takes on more responsibility. You are starting to realize that even a solid connection isn’t enough. Is this the person you can build your dream with? Will you become a better person with him at your side? Can you trust him with decisions that would change your life? Can you, indeed, trust him with your life?
When the answers to these questions are all affirmative, you realize that this is a new kind of love - a somewhat calculated love, functional and anchored by shared values. Ideas about politics, money, children and lifestyle weigh more heavily on the scale than you ever thought they would. This love has a checklist attached: Does he have a job? Does he do what he says he is going to do? Does he treat his mother with respect? This fourth love is the marrying kind. As dry as it sounds, it has to pass the practicality test. But yet it is founded on mutual affection and admiration. In fact, shared practicalities open up a new way to realize affection and respect, which in turn translates into a new and different way of looking at love, one that is there for the long haul.
Love feels good.
The love a mother feels for her child might be the sweetest love. As your wee lass nurses, suckling on your warm flesh, she gazes up into your face as if you are the sun and the moon to her. She studies and learns every curve of your face. Her wide open eyes adore you and absorb you as if you were the milk flowing into her mouth. In fact, as far as she can tell, you are the milk and the milk is you. You are the satisfied feeling in her stomach and that feeling is you. Little warm hands clutch at your breast, her eager, heart-shaped mouth searches for the source of those good feelings. And you are so proud and pleased to be able to give it to her, to supply her with what she needs, from food, to warmth to that gentle rocking motion new parents adopt whenever they are standing still. Her desire for you, unembarrassed, unprotected, simple and needy, ignites a love more intimate and breathtaking than carnal love. The sight of her or the sound of her plaintive whimper feeds your craving to be of service, opening the milk gates without warning. Being so important and so rewarded, as she smiles up at you, nipple still clutched in her toothless gums, stirs a biological love, both physical and emotional.
Love changes over time.
Husbands lose their hair and stop rubbing your feet when you get home from work. Babies mature into independent, sassy, teenage daughters, refusing your hugs and kisses and walking five paces behind you to avoid embarrassment. You slack off in your efforts to please your family, settling into a maintenance state of simply not-displeasing. Formerly intense feelings of closeness and mutual adoration morph into lazy routine. The ruts you have formed deepen as you travel along the tired old passageways in your emotional life. Occasionally, you jump the tracks for a refreshing moment of candid mother-daughter talk or a spontaneous romantic detour with the old man. What used to be that tickly feeling upon seeing your beloved has been replaced with the solid reassurance of new cabinets in the kitchen and the calming murmur of the faithful, still-functioning washing machine in the basement. Your physical expressions of love are now mainly intellectual expressions of satisfaction for what you have built together. The pride you used to feel holding your lover’s arm as you strolled down University Avenue is now a solid certainty that you are marching together toward major life milestones. Your vision of what kind of life you wanted is unfolding as planned.
That butterfly flutter from rubbing your lips against the sweet cherub cheek of your baby daughter is unavailable to you now. Instead, you rely on surrogate excitement, like the endorphin rev you get in spinning class or the perfect peach cobbler found at book club. Passion and adoration for your partner turn to mature appreciation and, if you are lucky, familiar enjoyment. Years of memories fill in that part of your brain that needs emotional stimulation. You fondly reminisce about those lusty nights spent pursuing your future husband when he had a six-pack, or you joke about the ergone cycles of joy, fatigue and relief that came with herding little people from diapers, to first wobbly bike rides down the driveway, to high school proms.
We move through many kinds of love in our lives and share it with many different people, sometimes watching it change from one kind of love to another. By its very definition, love is good, in all of its forms. There is subtle love, deep love, explosive love, submitting love, motherly love, doting love, devoted love, compassionate love, responsible love, body-based love, brain-based love, sisterly love, friendly love, respecting love, love for one’s parents and love for dependent creatures of all types.
There is one more type of love that may top them or encompass them all. I like to call it pure love. Pure love is a kind of love that surpasses all worldly definitions of what love can or should be. There are no roles and no rules to this kind of love. It sees no boundaries and no limits. It doesn’t run out or grow stale. It doesn’t start or stop with the vacillations of people’s life stages or their actions and behaviors. Pure love is a feeling of affinity so deeply felt that to demonstrate it depends not on the relationship between the one who loves and her beloved, but upon whatever those two people need at that particular moment in their lives. Whatever social circumstances exist are inconsequential. Pure love answers whatever need is there, regardless of the age, gender, relationship or history of the participants. In a pure love relationship, we would be willing to suckle the beloved if he were a baby, kiss this same person passionately if he were a grown man, or comfort him in his sickbed if he were old and infirm. Pure love gives what is necessary. It molds itself into whatever form best serves its recipient.
When we love purely, we don’t care about how it looks or why we feel the way we do. We don’t keep a tally of the pros and cons. We don’t decide whether the recipient is deserving. We can feel pure love for an individual - a kindred soul who connects with us on a profound level. We can feel this deep love for groups of people, like our family, immediate or extended. Entire communities and even nations can be the focus of pure love. Whatever is needed from us, we give, happy to be of service to those whom we love. Pure love can be directed toward the entire world, with all of its human and non-human inhabitants, spiritual and otherwise. And as members of this community, we ourselves are recipients. Indeed, the most important form of pure love is the love we feel for ourselves. Loving ourselves without conditions or boundaries, regardless of our critical evaluation of our strengths and weaknesses, through every stage and every turn our life takes, this is a love in its highest form, a cornerstone to all other forms of love from motherly love to the love we feel for strangers in Nairobi. It cannot be bad. With not much more than a blind faith in this alone, we can love ourselves with such tenacity and depth that nothing can break it.