The sight of lovers feedeth those in love. Shakespeare, As You Like It.
You Don’t Know What Love Is, is the name of an oft covered jazz ballad, performed, perhaps most famously, by the incomparable Billie Holiday. A woman who took more than a few beatings, sometimes, purportedly, in the name of love.
“You Don’t Know What Love Is” was written for slapstick comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello films by Gene De Paul and Don Raye. The song was published in 1941 and covered by everyone from Billie Holiday to the White Stripes.
When’s the last time you saw those names in the same paragraph?
Holiday dropped out of school in the fifth grade and found a job running errands in a brothel. When she was twelve, she was eventually arrested-along with her Mother- for prostitution.
“You don’t know what love is,” are also the very same words which were spoken by my then spouse in the midst of the multi-year battle which came to be known as my/our divorce. At the time, I had made some pointless stupid proclamation about love, or our lack thereof. It was so misinformed I can’t recall today what it was I said. My Beloved correctly responded with the words above.
At the end of the day, and for about a million reasons none of which bear examination here, she was right; I had no idea what love was.
Of course, I was, and am, not alone. There are many of us who are ultimately forced to renounce our certainty upon many subjects, including love. “The course of true love never did run smooth” the Bard noted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Happily, after three years of divorce, I pulled my head out of my ass and we were ultimately reunited. We are now on our third year of unmarried domestic bliss and cohabitation. Which means that, all told, we’ve been together for something like thirty years. We spent a couple of years dating, twenty-two years as a married couple, three divorced and separated, and three as cohabiting partners.
As a friend once noted, there’s some funny math in our relationship.
Do any of us know what love is?
It’s clear the idea has been with us for eons. “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies,” said Aristotle. But love’s antiquity may be the only feature of love people agree upon with any unanimity.
Arguably, Shakespeare knew more than just about anyone. Love was his business, his art and, one would suppose, his passion. He knew that love was at the center of the human experience, the prelude and cause of wars, as well as the basis for lover’s insanity.
Shakespeare knew love was all-consuming and was, at other times, a many-headed mercurial beast; a temper shifting like early March winds.
“Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps,” he wrote in Much Ado About Nothing.
In Hamlet, he saw love as steadfast as a marble temple reaching to the clouds. “Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love,” he wrote.
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare saw love as something more splendid, more inchoate, proclaiming that: “When Love speaks, the voice of all the gods , makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.” In Sonnet No. 86, love is all-consuming, the end all and be all, the ultimate prize, “The prize of all too precious you.”
Even in coming clean, the Bard admits that love is a mystery beyond us all, finding love a splendor worthy of blind faith: “What made me love thee? let that persuade thee, there’s something extraordinary in thee. I cannot: but I love thee; none but thee; and thou deservest it,” he declares in The Merry Wives of Windsor,
Even in his darkest moments, the mad man of Avon refuses to give up on love. “Love is merely a madness: and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip, as madmen do:” he proclaims, only to immediately retreat, noting in the same breath that “and the reason why they are not so punished and cured, is, that the lunacy is so ordinary, that the whippers are in love too.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about love recently, ever since I met Kate and Sage.
I met them at a music festival: The Bunbury Festival in Cincinnati, to be exact. They were kind enough to allow me to take their portrait. We chatted, I learned that they were getting married later that evening at the festival. They had a minister, but were shy a photographer.
I volunteered my services as well as the services of friend and fellow photographer, Jacob Drabik.
As so Kate married Sage between the lines for the sausage and beer booths. As the photos demonstrate, they were clearly besotted.
It had been a long time since I’ve witnessed two people so blissfully happy together. Joy was written upon their faces; I was taken a aback. You, I, see true love so rarely that you forget that such a thing exists; and then, one day, you stumble across it.
It’s like running into a yeti picking up his dry cleaning, mid-day, in city center.
Love today is that illusive. Everyone, rather, wants to hate, to belittle, to argue, to condescend. Everyone wants to argue about gay rights and gay marriage and who can live with whom; but who talks about happiness, about unadulterated love?
Gay rights at the time of Sage and Kate’s wedding, June 2015, was up before the Supreme Court. Since I began writing this essay, Gay men and women have been granted full personhood.
Recall that the SCOTUS case in question centered on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, and considered these two questions:
1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same-sex?
2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same-sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?
Pretty sexy stuff huh? It’s a shame they couldn’t find a way to work in the dormant commerce clause and go for a hot three way…
Another writer framed the issue by noting, prior to the decision, that, “In order to successfully make their case to Justice Kennedy, (the swing vote on this issue) opponents of gay marriage will have to appeal to his love of states’ rights. Opponents of same-sex marriage are hoping Justice Kennedy’s love of states’ rights overcomes his inclination towards protecting LGBT people.”
To quote the queen of soul, “What’s love got to do with it?”
The TFP Group which prides themselves on “defending morals on campus,” is an organization which is always happy to set you straight (sorry), on love noting primly that, “Calling something marriage does not make it marriage. Marriage has always been a covenant between a man and a woman who is by its nature ordered toward the procreation and education of children and the unity and well-being of the spouses.”
Why not break out the flasks and beakers and have everyone procreate in the lab, with the fluorescent lights turned all the way up?
The Family Counsel is another organization which is very certain it knows what love is, and what is right and wrong. It notes that: “That… homosexual relationships are not marriage. That is, they simply do not fit the minimum necessary condition for a marriage to exist–namely, the union of a man and a woman. Second, homosexual relationships are harmful. Not only do they not provide the same benefits to society as heterosexual marriages, but their consequences are far more negative than positive.”
So many standards, so many litmus tests, so little time.
Precious few groups or persons, however, ever dare to get to the core of the matter- which is this: At the end of the day, we are here on this earth for a limited time, much of which is guaranteed be cold nasty brutish and short. Under such universally difficult circumstances, why doesn’t everyone deserve love?
Imagine this: A young couple builds a house in the shadow of the mountains where they live, and love, long and madly. The decades come and go.
Today only the shell of that home remains where that unknown couple spent so many years celebrating holidays, birthdays and anniversaries while raising four children and knowing endless love and heartbreak.
One day, a stranger pulls his truck to the side of the road. He photographs the home and ponders all which might have occurred inside that house as the decades passed. He listens to the spring winds sweep across the plains and pass through the home’s broken windows.
Some years it didn’t rain and the cattle and the crops died.
Some years blizzards blew for months.
Love and death and longing were the couple’s sole lean defenses throughout those difficult years.
Who is wise enough to judge, he wonders, to measure, to pass judgment upon their love? Who among us is holy enough to decide which of us are so evil that we deserve to spend our lives in loneliness, in longing?
Black and white, gay, children born out-of-wedlock?
The calculus doesn’t matter. Life is, all too often, stupidly hard, and sometimes more horrible than anyone envisions: buildings burn, cars run over lovers, pianos and safes fall from the sky. It turns out that, no matter what your proclivities and beliefs, all we have is each other.
To paraphrase the great pugilistic philosopher Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just fall in love and be happy?”
After I shot Kate and Sage’s wedding, they were kind enough to give me a short interview.
It turns out that they’re not gay.
They are and have been, since meeting in the seventh grade in Baton Rouge La., the very best of friends.
They wanted to get married, at Bunbury, not as a political statement, not to live as gay partners or lovers, but to solemnize their love for one and other as best friends.
Kate and Sage live together in Baton Rouge- and attend LSU along with Kate’s boyfriend who, by the way, isn’t all together fired up about the ceremony. What does this mean?
Should this type of relationship, ceremony be given any recognition, any credence? Does it matter if anyone recognizes their relationship?
Do heterosexuals objectively love one and other more, on the average, than homosexuals?
Does, should, love even matter in judging the legitimacy of a union, or should love be the only standard and, if so, how does a Court quantify love so that the Court might determine whether or not a given relationship, or set of relationships, is worthy of state recognition?
I mean, if I- and half of the rest of the world, at any given point in time- cannot objectively comprehend, and or evaluate with any true degree of clarity their own relationship, how is any court, let alone a court of nine withered elders who have spent three quarters of their life in law libraries, to measure love?
When does love become real enough to be commemorated in a civil ceremony? Is it simply enough to be hopelessly young and foolish and in love? What would you- now that your youth has passed you by and left you so wise and jaded- pay to be so happy?
Would you care what others thought, if you could live like that (puppy love sick) just one more time? Can you honestly say that those young and foolish days were not the happiest, were not amongst the very best days of your life?
Fortunately we are no longer required to spend time, “speculatin’ about a hypothesis,” as the Supreme Court’s decision has come and gone. Meanwhile, the earth still spins upon its axis.
In the end, it turns out that this issue is so obvious that even most archaic of the black-robed octogenarians at the Court got it right.
Justice Kennedy, the end of the day, knew that the case was not about state’s rights but was about love.
As Kennedy wrote: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Jesus, what if everyone mentally capable of making such a decision (ie mentally competent adults)- Scalia and Thomas aside, of course (because clearly neither of those bastards has a heart) – finds a way to be happy, to be in love?
As the Bard once wrote, perhaps all is well that ends well, or maybe we should just let the man play us out.