There seems to be an epidemic of love (or lack of it, alas) among people I know. In his poem “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats wrote: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer,/ Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, . . .”
But in the face of such chaos comes love. When I was still teaching college freshmen English at Ateneo de Manila University, I made my students watch Il Postino (The Postman), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1997. The film is about the exile of Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda on an isolated island in Italy in the early 1950s. There, he meets the postman who asks his help in writing poems for the woman he loves.
Water seems to be a third character in this film. There is the sea that hugs the shore of Neruda’s Chile, like a long shoestring running down Latin America. Images of water shimmer in the poems. Then there is the sea around the island. It is a source of livelihood, a barrier between the island “and the rest of the world,” an amniotic fluid in the womb.
Although one boy in class complained loudly about watching “a movie with subtitles,” my students eventually liked the film. Afterward, I would make the students listen to a CD of Hollywood celebrities reading their favorite poem by Neruda. The voice of Glenn Close could give you the shivers: sensual, cool, grainy. But it was Andy Garcia reading “Tonight I Could Write the Saddest Lines” that blew them. Some of the girls wept. The boy who complained earlier began writing his own love poem, and then later showed it to me for comments.
The poet W.S. Merwin wrote this luminous translation of Neruda’s poem. “Tonight I can write the saddest lines./ Write, for example, ‘The night is shattered/ and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’/ Tonight I can write the saddest lines./ I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too./ Through nights like this one I held her in my arms/ I kissed her again and again under the endless sky./ She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.”
I asked my students for the point of the lines “sometimes she loved me too” and its inversion later, “sometimes I loved her too.” These are 17-year-old kids weaned on MTV and the mall, but they are just like us when we were younger: all wired up to the notions of love.
One girl said that sometimes, you’re not sure if you already love him. She asked, her earnest eyes shining, “What is the difference between infatuation and love?” I was silent for a while, because I wanted to answer her serious question with the precise words. Then I told her: “You will know, over time, if you like this person only because he’s good-looking and articulate, or if you want to spend the rest of your life with him. These things should never be rushed. You should see each other and talk endlessly. Find a space inside yourself for him or her.”
A boy, on the other hand, said that even if he loves the girl, there are moments when he is not sure. Hmmm, I wanted to answer, a typical Pinoy male reaction. But again, this boy looked so serious. A shadow darkened his young eyes. It’s all Neruda’s fault, I wanted to blurt out, because it’s rare for a class in college freshman English to have so involved a discussion about, yes, “a movie with subtitles.”
For me, the most difficult questions are questions of love. I’m usually fast on the draw, sometimes too fast and too glib for my own sake that some of my friends have threatened to tie me up and gag me so I would simply shut up. But when it comes to questions of love, I clam up.
One of the strangest Facebook messages I got was last December 24. It came from the boyfriend of Stephen, who was my first boyfriend when I studied in Scotland in the 1990s. His present boyfriend looked for my name in Facebook and broke to me the sad news that Stephen has just died. Stephen and I were exchanging e-mails until October, when he suddenly stopped writing. This man introduced me to the films of Woody Allen and wrote a play for me and a concerto for clarinet and strings. The last line of his boyfriend’s Facebook message read like this: “He kept all the letters and photographs that you sent.” For weeks on end I walked around with a hole in my chest.
That is why when I talk to my students, I seem to be walking on shards of glass. I tell them that love is good and even great. But it is not a feeling but an action that has to be affirmed again and again. I tell the to read M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled. The book says that if love is only a feeling, then it can easily come and go, like the tides that rise and ebb. That’s why love takes the form of action, to be affirmed the days pass in a blaze of happiness – but also when the days are charcoal-gray.
Moreover, I tell my students that, eventually, you can’t love a person all the time, with the same intensity and depth when you first fell in love with him or her. There are hills and mountains in a relationship – the pop songs, whether Pinoy or K-pop – make sure you know that. But there are also plateaus, when everything is flat, and there are valleys, too, when love takes a dip down the ravine. On a plateau or a valley you can walk around in circles, dazed and lost. But then, maybe there’s also a point in that seemingly aimless wandering?
I tell my students and the other young people I meet to discern first, and listen to these words of caution: you will only know, over time, if the relationship has come close to the cliff’s edge.
Listen to Neruda: “I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her./ My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing./ Another’s. She will be another’s. Like my kisses before./ Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes./ I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her./ Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”
To the bewildered young people who come to me with these questions, I always say: Enjoy the moment. Love brings with it a voltage of energy, but also a certain moist melancholy. You feel as if all the love songs were written for you. The face of the beloved appears in everything you see: cell phone wallpaper, computer screen, why, the backs of spoons even!
But you should feel lucky, and blessed. Not everybody is in love. Just keep everything open. The pores of your skin. The door of your heart. Your eyes, surprised with joy as you walk into the landscapes of love.