Easy to Love

When Cole Porter thought up those song lyrics he wasn’t thinking of me.  I am coming to the conclusion that I am very difficult to love, and perhaps that is one of the conditions that lies at the bottom of my failed marriages and other romances for which the coroner quickly adjudged D.O.A.  Maybe they were really D.O.I. — Dead On Instigation.

These thoughts are not new to me, but they resurfaced last night during one of those eleven-sided Facebook messages that make me wonder how I wasted my time in the past.  The message seems to have begun as some sort of ungainly welcome-to-the-new-semester by a well-meaning colleague.  My contribution to the string of groans was the announcement that this is likely to be my last at the campus where I was tenured and from which I retired to begin this blog in 2013, Blue River.  A few people essayed words of regret and tried to express feelings that I was irreplaceable.  Two or three even said that they loved me.  I recognized the words, and even the sentiment of love, since I have spoken those words and felt those sentiments, but I was not convinced that it was anything more than a superficial version of love they were expressing.  I know this sounds harsh and ungrateful, and maybe it really is.  I hope not, since these are people I have valued as colleagues for 15 years and whose faces I have greeted with pleasure on each teaching day.  So why am I appearing to reject their love?

Proclamations of love seem to have the role of patriotic or religious incantations in our world today.  Like the Declaration of Independence, or memorized creeds and catechisms, they seem easy to utter, hard to live up to.  Or they seem to make possible self-righteous posturing of both types.  Love covers your ass.  You’ve said the ultimate when you’ve said that you love someone.  You can’t be one-upped, and the person you claim to love can’t raise the linguistic stakes; he or she can only call.  But this seems counterfeit to me, a verbal sleight-of-hand meant to create the illusion of emotional depth.  As the great aphorist, S.J. Lec, said, mud gives the illusion of depth, and there is no muddier phrase than “I love you.”  He only said the first half of that, by the way.  If I am questioning the love of my colleagues, what necessary conditions do I feel their expressions lack?  Well, their expressions lack nothing, but if love is more than the saying of it, what substantive ingredients can be found in love that the words do not contain.  In this analysis, I will be guided by the thought of three people whose thinking I admire: my father, Harry G. Frankfurt, and myself.

My father, Rev. W. Gordon Lowden (1915-1975), remains my greatest influence and inspiration.  And he was the most loving man I have ever known, and I aspire, imperfectly, each day, to emulate his wonderful example.  For him, love had to contain the conscious attempt to better the life of the one you love in tangible and personal ways.  So that will be the starting point for my understanding of the shape and content of love.  One way in which he loved was truly exceptional; he loved the unlovable, or at least, the ones society refused,for either rational or irrational reasons, to love.  One story the family tells, though I have no way to authenticate it, is that the KKK burned a cross on the lawn of one of his churches early in his ministry, probably before he enlisted as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy for World War II.  It would not surprise me if it did occur.  South Jersey, as it is called, is mainly south of the Mason-Dixon line, and in the early 1940s pro-white racial violence was open and unapologetic.  He preached civil rights sermons even if half the congregation wanted to walk out, and attempted to integrate every church to which he was assigned.  There was never a skin color he saw that he didn’t consider beautiful.  At the same time, because he knew a little high school Spanish, he worked among the migrant laborers of the South Jersey truck farms run for the profit of large corporations like Hunt.  Most of the workers came up from Puerto Rico for the harvest, lived in forlorn dormitories, were paid little, found only distrust or hostility in the wider community during their time off, and were discarded at the end of the harvest.  His ministry to them had no ulterior motive.  He wasn’t try to convert them, but to show them a love absent most if not all their other contacts in the Anglo world.  And in his last years in Broward County, Florida, he spent time in jails and penitentiaries, showing that he believed in redemption and feeling that love was a necessary step toward that happening.    He gave his time, his tears, what little substance he had, and eventually, himself.  He might never have said to any of them that he felt love, but his giving and sacrifice could not be mistaken for anything but that, except by the terminally dim, cold, or cynical.

I recommend Harry Frankfurt’s book “The Reasons of Love,” and I have assigned it in a class I used to teach at Blue River.  In what I write today, I only want to focus on one element Frankfurt identifies as crucial to the experience of showing of love: volition.  It is the will we marshal out of our own inner forces to act in a way that gives meaning both to our own lives and to the larger word within which we act.  In other words, both he and my father would chime in with Tina Turner that love is something more than a “second-hand emotion.”  If love only motivates you to the easy, and easily-forgotten, words of love, you’d better be Shakespeare, or work for Hallmark.  Otherwise, they deserve skepticism.

Perhaps there’s little I can bring of myself to add to what these two men have given me, but love has to be more than generic.  My buzzwords from the life of love I have sometimes tried to live are focus, priority, commitment.  Socrates famously saw teaching as an act of love, and many teachers share that orientation.  I believe myself to be among them.  My way of understanding that was by setting a list of priorities to which I referred when uncertain about an academic decision I needed to make.  The priority was to serve the most vulnerable and perishable first, and then work my way down to clients of greater strength.  My rule was: students first, discipline (in other words, philosophy) second, colleagues third, institution fourth.  I know far too many colleagues who have that order precisely reversed, pimping themselves to the institution first, and letting the students get whatever droppings remain.  These same colleagues may even claim to “love” teaching, but they only love themselves.  Loving the powerless above the powerful takes an act of will for which few have a stomach.  This is not heroic, any more than any act of love is, but it does require a rational analysis of the structure of power and the will to serve those who need serving.

A romantic entanglement of a couple years ago was with a woman who disliked sex with me because she said I was too “crazy” in bed with her.  Even taking off my rubber Richard Nixon mask didn’t help.  For her, sex was a marginally distracting activity to which she would consent when she really wanted to be doing something else.  Usually, that something else was to have my company while she went shopping with her tip money for clothing that she would return to the store the next week.  It was if she said “Sure, I’ll fuck you if you take me to Dillard’s afterward.”  For me, sex is all about focus.  Nothing in the universe exists during that time but the bed and our bodies.  Philosopher Alan Goldman has an excellent essay on this general subject, “Plain Sex.”  The phone doesn’t exist.  The doorbell doesn’t exist.  Children don’t exist.  The house being engulfed in flames doesn’t exist.  Certainly Dillard’s doesn’t exist.  It’s just us, rutting away like crazed weasels (Thank you, Peter Shaffer!).  Anything less is just shaking hands.  But for many people, that attitude toward sex, and toward life, is just plain crazy.

All of these things enter into an act that could fully be described as an act of love.  You do have to be a little crazy to love, and I’m the only crazy person I know at Blue River, so their insipid protestations are hardly credible.  Some posture and feign craziness, but if you’re not crazy enough to love when it gets you stared at, and talked about, and the dean shakes his head in dismay at the very mention of your name, then you’re just a pretender.

You can see why I’m not easy to love.  I set too tough an example, and not many people have the will to keep up.  Most just give up and walk away, sometimes only figuratively.  They don’t vacate the room, but everything else has checked out.  I’ve had marriages like that.  So did my father.  I guess it runs in the family.


Rattles, though faint

August of 2013 was my last post.  Where was I?  I’ll begin to answer that by telling you where I was this morning.  It’s like amnesia therapy; tell us what you did this morning and maybe you can work your way back to cogency.  That may be asking too much of a blog, but I’ll try.

This morning, I decided to drive the one hour to just east of Lawrence, Kansas, to pick asparagus at John and Karen Pendleton’s farm.  This is not a new career venture as a seasonal agricultural laborer.  The Pendletons have a farm where you go out in the fields and pick what is available, paying for what you return to the barn carrying.  Other than ticks.  No charge for them.  I retrieved both green and purple varieties of asparagus, and speckled trout lettuce, much beloved of Jackson Pollack, I would guess.

I went out there alone, and that’s where the real story begins.  I’ve tried to get any number of friends to go with me, and the urgency in my requests always hinged upon how brief the asparagus growing season was, and how heavenly the flavor of freshly-snapped spears would be.  But everyone is busier than I, and now I am beginning to understand that fact is a part of the meaning of retirement.  It’s not that I don’t like or even function well in solitude, but it’s not the way my life is optimized.  It was a nice morning.  Yuja Wang played her sexy little fingers off on the car’s CD player both coming and going, and I even got to flirt with a young mother and her two children picking in the field close to me.  Pleasant enough.  But pleasant enough doesn’t cut it.  I haven’t more or less taken care of myself this long just to be minimally alive.  I want to thrive, and extensive, cold, impersonal solitude is that.  It’s just maintaining vital signs, itself a misnomer.

So that’s where I was this winter; maintaining vital signs and feeling as unvital as it is possible to feel.  One might think that the mere whisper of the topic of suicide would send some of you to report me to the mental health police, and the rest to plan an immediate intervention.  I’ll risk that.  Of course, I’m not thinking of suicide, and I know that because I have thought about suicide.  “Thinking of” suicide I take to mean contemplating the act itself and making it a genuine possibility at some point; “thinking about” suicide I take to mean analyzing and evaluating the act from the widest possible viewpoints.  I have been doing the latter this winter, and writing about it now is partially prompted by the fact that my father would have been 99 this month, and that he hanged himself in June of 1975.

My thoughts on this matter have been greatly influenced by the most recent writings of philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt.  I have taught a course dedicated entirely to those works for several years at my college, but next week I will turn in the final grades for the final iteration of that wonderful experience.  His writings, especially in “Reasons of Love,” describe and work through meaning in life and how it is found and cultivated.  His view, and I think he is right about this, is that love gives meaning to life more than any other component; love turns mere living into thriving.  And a crucial element of love must be self-love, a love of what Kant seemed to disparagingly term “the dear self.”  But love, whether of one’s dear self or of something else in one’s landscape, is not a matter of emotional response, or rational analysis, or even moral commitment.  It is a matter of the will.  In philosophical terms, it is volitional.

So, in thinking about life and its meaning for me, and its inevitable end, whether hastened or natural, I focused more on what it is like to will one’s end before its time, and whether that was a kind of continuity of willing life, or somehow contrary to it and antithetical.  And seen that way, the latter answer seems stunningly correct.  If willing is an integral part of the process of loving, then willing an end to living is also willing an end to loving.  I am far, far from ready to do something like that now.

But the trap, I believe, at least for most successful suicides, is that they think of suicide before they think about suicide.  Perhaps my father was that way.  He ministered so lovingly and tirelessly to others for so much of his life that he never prepared himself to be in the straits that he guided others out of.  And suicide was a taboo subject in that era, especially in religious atmospheres.  Maybe it still is.  If you don’t work your way around the conceptual and volitional issues concerning you own life, and its end, you may succumb to personal or emotional pressures and consider and act on suicide before understanding it more completely.  I was gratified that I could find some of the best advice about death from the author from whom I found some of the best advice about life, and love.

Though my personal life is a shambles of bad choices and mismatches, that’s not all there is to love.  I was reminded of that last night on the deck around 7:00, as the sun slid behind trees in the west, the temperature fell into the 70s, and most sounds were muted and utterly normal.  A basketball dribbled hesitantly around the corner.  Children playing peaceably.  Birds coming in for their last meal before sunset.  An indolent breeze hardly troubling the newly-sprouted leaves on the maples.  As I said recently, I am a wealthy man.  Were a woman I loved softly nestling one of my hands in hers as I sat there, I would be wealthier still.  But her absence does not impoverish me enough to make the rest of it meaningless.

That’s where I was.  It was not a pleasant place, but it was a productive place.  And, in the words of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful song, “I’m Still Here!”