This essay first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on February 7, 2016.
I stayed up way too late last night following social media about the Iowa Democratic caucus. My house has a pink and blue homemade sign in front proclaiming “The Green Street Girls [Heart] Bernie Sanders.” The last time I had this much love in the game was during Obama’s first primary run. I remember talking to a good friend in Chicago about the race. He and his son were traveling to campaign for Obama across the Midwest. “Do you really think Obama is going to change things?” I asked him, hopeful but also trying to be realistic. “He is going to break our hearts,” he said, “but I am campaigning for him anyway.”
It is not easy to put your heart back into a game after your heart has been broken. After I went through divorce five years ago, I was talking to a new friend about trusting in love again. He and his wife train horses, and they likened the task to getting back onto a horse after you have been thrown off of one. You cannot let your fear rule you. You have to trust again that the world is more safe than not – that people are more worth loving than not. I have found this to be true not only for trusting in romantic love, but also for trusting a new church after a congregation has thrown you off the horse, so to speak, or for trusting a new classroom after you have gone through a really rough ride with a group of particularly rude students. Investing your heart, truly risking a part of your soul by loving a person or a group of people, can be harrowing. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” may be true, but it is not easy. To venture a sufficient part of yourself truly to be open to love is scary.
Another friend compared dating after divorce to being in freefall. He is older than I am, and I had confessed that I felt like I was twelve again, and that it was unsettling. He reassured me that he often feels twelve also, and added that he often feels like a twelve-year-old in freefall. Members of funk band The Ohio Players were definitely grown-ups when they wrote their 1976 hit-song “Love Rollercoaster.” They are singing about loving a sweetheart, and the sense of both exhilaration and barely-controlled panic that go along with such love. The writers of the 1989 movie “Parenthood” use the same exact image for what it means truly to be part of a family. The grandmother in the film puts it this way:
You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.
Richard Thompson has a song that says something similar about love. He wrote it around the same time that his marriage to singer and songwriter Linda Peters was coming apart at the seams. It is called “The Wall of Death,” referencing a circular track where people ride a motor-cycle or other vehicle sideways, basically. You will have to look up images yourself, because words fail me. I cannot begin to imagine riding a motorcycle sideways. But Richard Thompson sings “you’re going nowhere when you ride on a carousel,” which is true. Grandma is right. As one saying about family goes, having children means consenting to allow your heart to walk around outside your body. I have seen this be true also for love between sweethearts, and love of children for parents.
Investing your heart with fidelity is not always exhilarating. Putting your heart into a game – venturing, risking, trusting – is also about the tiny little steps that make love possible. Bernie Sanders tied Hillary Clinton in Iowa not due to something giant, but through one little phone call after another, one conversation after another, made with patience, not so much with valor. Love between two sweethearts is similar, like kindling, as one of my favorite television shows put the matter recently. Life together is made little stick by stick. That same series has a very astute argument against couples writing their own wedding vows. In one episode, a young couple writes absolutely ridiculous vows to one another, describing love as an up-front, 100% sure sort of thing, thereby confounding other young couples in the congregation. I am grateful the marriage vows in my tradition are set in stone by old people, who, even though they sometimes feel like twelve-year-olds in freefall, know that love is also about getting back on that horse, trusting daily that the world is more safe than scary.