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What Does Love Really Mean? Four Cultural Figures Reflect

So many love songs. So many movies. So many dating sites. So many dreams. So many broken hearts. We can tell when someone is in love. We know at once when love has ended.
Billions of words have been written about love, yet each person starts again at the beginning. The strange thing is that we can live alone, and we can die alone, but we can’t love alone. Love means a lover, a beloved. Love is a ship landed on the island of ourselves.
In her essay On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf wrote, “We hardly know our own souls, let alone the souls of others.” Love is our best method of knowing. Just as we learn better when we have a passion for our subject, don’t we become forensically obsessed with the other person? Every detail, every joke, every habit, every eccentricity, the way he divides an orange, the way she spears her hair up with a chopstick when she’s cooking, don’t we lie awake at night wondering how to crack the code of this treasure chest made of flesh and blood?
We’re all selfish. We’re all self-involved – too careful in our selfish loves, taking care of Number One. Love overturns all that – makes us look inward, because we want to be better, worthy, worth being with. And love makes us look outward, too, because the person we love seems to magically reveal the world.
It’s understandable that we get addicted to love’s beginnings. The heightened, gravity-free time when nothing is a problem, and nothing is too much trouble.
I don’t think this is a trick of nature. I don’t believe that falling in love is an illusion (or a delusion). Clearly, not everything is meant to last forever – there are relationships that affect us profoundly and they don’t last forever. Some people are so addicted to forever that they stay in relationships that are double-berth coffins.

But if we do want to stay? Then that is the most interesting part of love. How to find deepening commitment that allows us both to go on exploring, go on finding, go on learning, go on knowing. And still to turn round, sometimes, in surprise, because the other person is fully alive, and fully alive is never predictable.
I suppose that is part of the answer. Love’s gift, when it begins, is to show us what it feels like to be fully alive.

How we value that gift is up to us.

My first great love was a New Forest pony named Pippin. I would wrap my arms around her neck in a field in the middle of nowhere and question those who told me “when you discover boys, you’ll forget all about horses” as I twisted her mane into a neat row of bobbles. Oh, how we laughed.

Two summers later Pippin became Pip, and I had physically and emotionally outgrown her. Now all that mattered was whether or not Daniel would notice me on my way to PE in a pleated netball skirt (which had been phased out of the school uniform at least a decade before I insisted on wearing one). Sadly, Daniel was in love with my friend Kate, and Kate had a really great pair of combat trousers which she wore on weekends. Being the younger version of the rational woman that I am today, I swiftly bought myself a pair because it was obvious to me that it was the multiplicity of pockets that were inspiring his affections. Let it be known I was single for the next three years, which in teenage years is 50.

During this time I loved many people. Pop culture became a dartboard for my lust. There was Drazic from the television series Heartbreak High, who had an incredibly appealing eyebrow ring and lived in a warehouse. I started talking out of the side of my mouth because Leonardo DiCaprio did in Romeo and Juliet. I loved Damon Albarn in the music video for “The Universal”, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly and my geography teacher.

When I reached the sixth form I fell in love with a boy named Tom who wore dungarees and a rainbow-coloured jumper to school. He read me poetry under the weeping willows in a corduroy patch-sleeved blazer. Poetry that could make the trees blush. He was known throughout the universe as Beautiful Boy. Tom once took me to the Natural History Museum on a date and told me he loved me by the fibreglass reconstruction whale. He even said, “By the whale, I love you.” I dumped him shortly after this incident.

When I was younger I was in constant danger of falling in love. Like running along the side of a pool, it was only a matter of time before I slipped and fell in. It was all such a lark! But on one occasion the lifeguards were off duty, and ever since then I’ve been more of a slow wader, to varying degrees of success. Currently, at 34, I attend on average five weddings per year. Alone. Beautiful, inspiring, moving weddings. Close friends marrying close friends in far-flung places that take months or years to plan. And as these couples slow-motion down the aisle under confetti showers, I’m there clapping and smiling and crying and planning where to stand to catch the bouquet.

A few years ago in an interview I was asked to describe what love feels like, and for me at the time it was a matter of fact: “Love feels like there is nothing you can do about it.” I was younger then – and smugger – but even on the other side of it, I believe that statement to be true. There’s nothing you can do about love, so while I’m here waiting to slip and fall in again, I’m going to buy myself a pony.


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