Still don’t know what Love means,
Still don’t know what Love means.

It’s the refrain from a a song called "Jolene" by Ray Lamontagne, one of my all-time favorite artists.

Does any one of us know what Love is?

Is it in the softness of another’s touch? Or in the music of a child’s most perfect, innocent laughter? Is it blowing in the wind; in the kiss of a passing breeze that tickles your eyelashes before it departs, as quickly as it came? Maybe it’s in a stranger’s helping hand, or even, in that sad little man who’s always curled up and confused inside Francis Bacon’s paintings.

All I know is, someone I cared about deeply is leaving. For the second time. The first time it was “let’s just be friends,” and now, after months of a relatively successful friendship, he’s leaving Ireland. Going on a worldwide expedition of self-exploration.

I’m not sure if I was following that old saying, “if you love something, let it go,” or if instinct was telling me to just move on, but I haven’t asked him to stay.

I used to think that love between two people had something to do with trusting someone enough to be fully honest with one another. And that is part of it, I am sure. But it’s only part of it.

I Skyped with my sister, who is happily married to a Longford man, and asked her to define love. Her two energetic little boys, ages 2 and 3, ran around her in circles, doing karate kicks and ballet spins while she talked. “What is love? It’s waking up on a Saturday morning at 6am, on 3 hours of sleep, and your husband turns to you and says, I’ll get up, you stay in bed. Now that’s love.”

Is love giving of yourself even when you’re tired? Making life that little bit easier for your partner, no matter how crummy you might feel?

Later that week, I had a chance meeting with a married couple; they had been going strong for over 40 years. They sat down at my table to have coffee along the Liffey, because there were no other seats, and we ended up chatting for hours.

She and he met through a pen-pal courtship that started while he was serving abroad in the British Army; after 6 months of letters, and a handful of face-to-face meetups, they got married. It was a different time, of course, but they managed to remain faithful partners for decades, even through hardships like having a severely handicapped grandson who has been in and out of hospice care during every one of his 10 short years of life.

I asked them what was keeping them together for so long, and they both responded, “I really don’t know,” with hearty laughs.

They didn’t have to explain it; I could see at least one reason for their success. They had an enormous amount of respect for each other, and tread lightly on one another’s feelings. When each one spoke openly about his or her feelings, and teared up separately, there were no harsh words or judgmental glances; no one chiding the other for sharing private struggles with a total stranger. Just respect. Deep, infinite respect.

The National Library of Ireland has been hosting a free exhibit of the life and works of W.B. Yeats, indisputably Ireland’s – and one of the world’s – greatest poets, for many months now[Aside: to anyone planning to visit Dublin, it’s absolutely a must-see].

Yeats spent his entire life writing about love in one form or another; he yearned for the touch of one woman’s “snow white hands,” and when she teased him with friendship but not reciprocation of his love, he, heartbroken, mused, “Why should I blame her that she filled my days/ With misery... Why, what could she have done, being what she is?/ Was there another Troy for her to burn?”

So, when he offered up his greatest wishes for his daughter’s future, in his poem, “Prayer for My Daughter,” what did Yeats ultimately desire? Not that she would possess some otherworldly beauty, intelligence or love; he wished that she would be a whole person, and essentially not need anyone else to feel fulfilled.

Words doubtless inspired by the countless years he spent nursing a broken heart.

Well, I don’t know much about love, but I do know a little bit about life. Life is always full of surprises – welcome and unwelcome – so I imagine that in some ways, love is knowing that your partner will stick around no matter how rough the waters get around your boat. And the waters always get rough.

The day I found out he would be leaving the country, we were walking with a group of people to a museum on Kildare Street. As he made the announcement in the midst of all of us, his Irish eyes were smiling brightly; I found mine restlessly counting the cobblestones beneath my feet.

I’ll certainly miss his friendship. And the smell of his hair, which is like the beach on a sunny day, mixed with sandalwood, sweat, and, I used to think, everything that’s good in the world.

It’s a funny habit, but whenever I’m upset about things, I cope by cleaning. My generous cousin who lets me stay with her when I’m in Limerick can vouch for the fact that the toilets in her house are never more glistening and white than on the days when I’m working through feelings of disappointment.

Maybe it’s something about a mess that you can actually clean up; it brings a certain sort of closure when there is none to be had.

Who knows? I may be over-complicating this whole love thing. People have often told me I “take things too seriously” and that I “think too much.” And maybe they’re right.

Maybe love is a little more like the way Nikki Giovanni described it:
“'s my house
and i'll make fudge and call
it love and touch my lips
to the chocolate warmth
and smile at old men and call
it revolution cause what's real
is really real...”

Someday I may just find a love that’s really real – whether it’s in art or chocolate, or in another person.

In the meantime, I’ll be bleaching toilets.

[Photo by: alykat]