As I remember him, he was a loving man.
I knew it well, because
Where he was,
-- Portia Nelson*
One more thing about Porgy.** He's a cripple who stands up. When a cripple stands up, he throws everything out of whack. He spreads ripples in the pond, and everyone, everything will sooner or later move.
Love isn't just a private matter. Love is political, imposing its duty, taking a toll from the loved one. The duty to rise into freedom and be someone. Love disturbs everything.
There's a lot of talk about unconditional love, which we hold to be noblest, but not because it is easiest to take. Unconditional love is the most intrusive, aggressive kind. Accepting it, you must rise to its level. A conditional love leaves you alone in degradation, bribed and bribing -- you do for me, I for you, tit for tat, we're even, see you later, maybe, sucker. But when love is unconditional, it requires a free gift in return. When you lift yourself from the exchange of favors that defines our ordinary life and instead give your self to me, you're pulling out of me what I don't know I have to give you. You're demanding of me my self, and I didn't know I had one. If I give it to you in return, I rediscover what it is.
The Israelites came to think of themselves as chosen, that is to say, loved by God. But they found that living up to God's love was not an unmixed pleasure. God demanded through the first prophet that they leave their slavery behind, but when they found themselves in the wilderness without a food supply, they decided that the master's stewpots had been better. Manna from the sky and water from a rock are not comfort foods.
Being as we say "in love" is not a quiet business. We're between two lives, an old one that we'll never go back to, and a new one that may or may not come to be, and if it does it won't be what we expect. There were birds in the sky, goes the song, but I never heard them singing, and if she doesn't love me what will I do with those damn birds? Either way, you'll never be the same. Once you've heard the bells ring, you can't block the sound again.
There are messengers of life and of death. We all know people in whose presence nothing is possible. There's at least one in your family. Some of us have worked for such people. Many nations are ruled by them. They're invested in stillness. We must all be quiet so they can keep hearing their own echoes. They usually don't have to threaten us, because their presence alone leaves us gasping. Not all bullying is physical. They've taken all the air for themselves. The stare alone is enough to make us forget our thoughts, forget that we had ever been thinking. Our vision would disturb the regime.
But we also know people in whose presence beautiful things are possible. When they enter, the colors of your vision come out again, and your thoughts stop stammering. Such people recall you to life, to your self. They recreate you in their attention, their presence. Their love. If we grow into enough wisdom, we choose to love those whose love will recreate us. We should love those in whose presence we must be someone we want to be. Need to be. If you're not flourishing in it, it's not love.
Love is patient, love is kind, enduring all things; but above all, love makes us whole, demanding the whole thing we are. It's no wonder that love is so often rejected. Sometimes we're just not up to it. To be created again. The essence of creation isn't in all that showy stuff, the separation of heaven and earth, the confining of waters, the definitions of days and nights. It's in what follows: six times the creator saw that it was tovah -- good, beautiful. And then he had to go and make a big deal of it -- a holiday, a sabbath, a day of rest to celebrate the miracle. And after that of course nothing was ever the same again. The world was made by love. That's the outrage, the aggression of it. Nobody asked the world if it wanted to be loved. Maybe it was content to be "without form, and void." But no, somebody with big ideas, demands, requirements, plans, joy burst in and disturbed everything, moved all our stuff around and pronounced it good. Sang a song, danced a hornpipe and had a good laugh. "Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on thee," said the poet Frost, "and I'll forgive thy great big one on me."
I hope that some will remember me as one of those in whose presence life could begin again.
*"As I Remember Him," from This Life (DRG Records, 1996)
**"Marriage vow" (June 30, 2012)