So I’m reading Lily Brett’s “Too Many Men”. It’s a whopper of a book, and requires propped pillows to lean it against – or extremely strong wrists. I picked it up in a second hand furniture store (yes furniture store), and I’m reading it because I spent a week of the summer immersed in Ms. Brett’s essays, “In Full View”. It’s a lovely book and we don’t read (nor write) essays enough. Why don’t we embrace essays in this country? I mean apart from Helen Garner.
There is one essay that’s stayed with me since I read it; the essay on Love, which follows Death and comes before The Writing Life, which I find deeply symbolic. The essay starts with a friend refusing to be match-made with a man, because his waist is smaller than hers. Brett then recounts the story of her Jewish father falling in love with her Jewish mother in Poland in the 1930s. The first five years of their married life was spent in the Lodz Ghetto. Then the unthinkable happens.
“Two minutes before they were separated, on their arrival at Auschwitz, my father gripped my mother’s hand and said he would always love her.”
Both her mother and father survived Auschwitz, but having been separated 18 months, both thought the other had died. Despite this, Brett’s mother spent six months looking for Brett’s father. She travelled on the back of a wagon, slept by the roadside and in fields, looking for her husband. She found him in a hospital in Czechoslovakia, recovering from fluid on the brain.
“Why do we call it madly in love? Is it because the reason we love one person over another, or over all others, is irrational? I often think my husband’s love for me is irrational. He could have chosen someone more placid, more evenly-keeled, someone less anxious, less tense. He overlooks so much that is difficult about me. It has to be irrational. I think there were more of these irrational feelings decades ago. I think people loved each other deeply and saw their lives as soldered together.”
Years ago I went to a series of lectures about the differences between Men & Women. There was maybe 30 of us, and I bought the average age of the group down by about 40 years. I became (by default I assure you) the voice of Gen X. These men and women, who had grown up and fallen in love without the freedoms my generation had, wanted to know everything. Many of the women in the room felt they had missed out on something. I can’t remember what I said, but I do remember talking with one of the women in the bathroom in the break. She told me she could still remember the first time her husband held her hand. She vividly recalled the tension, the excitement and the joy. My generation and the generations that follow, for all our freedoms, have lost something quite profound. How many of us remember holding hands for the first time? I don’t remember the first time I kissed the Love of My Life. There are other moments I remember, but the first kiss, that’s something that gets stuck in the mental scrapbook. And I don’t have it.
But it’s not just the hand-holding we’ve lost, and I think this is what haunts me about Brett’s essay, weeks after putting it down. We go about finding love with the energy and precision we put into buying a home, or planning our careers. We leave nothing to chance. We have a mile-long checklist of the perfect partner, and we do not deviate from it. (Yesterday I heard a Gen Y woman say she didn’t date guys who drank energy drinks!) We’ve actually closed our hearts to love and the randomness of life. We are unwilling to accept people for all that they are, and all that they are not.
But for all our environmental credentials, we are a disposable generation. There are, after all, plenty of fish in the sea. We are no longer, as Brett puts it “soldered together”. You just have to look at divorce statistics to see how “un-soldered” we really are. I have a friend who was having trouble settling into marriage and fatherhood. He loved his wife, he had no desire to be with anyone else, and the thought of her being with someone else made him crazy. In the same breath he said he didn’t think love was enough. And I just don’t get that. How can love not be enough? How many of us would love someone for the rest of our lives? How many of us would die of broken hearts were we not the first to pass away? How many of us would spend six months sleeping by the side of the road to find someone we thought may be dead?
I think my generation, spooked perhaps by our parent’s divorces and mistakes, expect too much from love. We expect the guy (and gal) to turn up with the glass slipper that fits perfectly.We expect that person to then tick every box. We expect to fall into a relationship, and for everything to work out without us having to work for it. We consume a diet of chic-flicks and happy ever afters, and get pissed off when our lives don’t unfold as we expect them to. We have McDonaldised Love – if it’s not ready in 5 mins, we go somewhere else and get it. But how many people are still hungry after a Big Mac?
About a month ago I went and saw John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road. It is a stunning work, and if you haven’t already seen it, get to the nearest Dendy and see it. I realised something in the film that hadn’t hit me in the book. While reading the book I found myself identifying with The Wife; why would you stick around to merely survive, to lay yourself out to possible torture, rape and ultimately death. Why not just end it now, and save yourself the grief. I struggled to identify with The Man; I wanted him to get to the Coast, but I couldn’t help thinking “and then what?” I just couldn’t see why he was doing what he was doing. I got it in the darkness of the cinema. It’s a love story. Being connected to another human being, experiencing an absolute love – well it’s all we have. It is what makes the world go around. It’s the reason I scratch my head in bewilderment when someone says to me “maybe love just isn’t enough”. Love is enough, it’s more than enough. It’s everything, and when push comes to shove, it’s all we really have.
So if you are fortunate enough have the Love of Your Life in your Life, go home tonight, hold their hand and make sure they know you would sleep by the side of the road for six months to find them.