August 18, 2021
In Sometimes a Great Notion—a story about a family of loggers in rural Oregon—Ken Kesey describes an early exchange between two of the main characters: Lying naked together in the bed of his truck, Hank asks Viv, his future wife, what she wants out of life. Besides a pet canary and a good sewing machine, she tells him what she wants more than anything is to really mean something to somebody. To really be something to somebody—something more than she has ever been, to her family, or to the people of her town.
“Like what?” Hank asks earnestly. “What do you want to be?”
“Whatever this Somebody wants, I guess,” Viv replies, not sounding at all like she is guessing.
“Boy, if you ain’t a case: waiting someday to be a something to a Somebody you don’t even know, yet,” Hank says, temporarily amused. “And, yeah, how about that? How will you know this Somebody when you come across him?”
“I won’t know,” Viv says, sitting up, then sliding gracefully over the side of the truck, “…he will.”
Located in south central Sweden, Lake Vättern is the sixth largest lake in Europe, and, arguably, the largest body of drinkable water in the world. When the weather is good, it is as flat and clear as glass. Before wading in, though, even in mid July, I know it is going to be cold. My stomach turns from the sudden discomfort. And it always takes me a few seconds to catch my breath.
Provoked by the shock of the cold, is the same feeling I get when I’ve been unintentionally slighted or misunderstood, especially by someone I love. In every case, I feel the sudden urge to either freeze or flee or fight. And my brain, you see, cannot tell the difference; I will feel fear, and often anger (which, in relationships, can look a lot alike).
By ignoring this impulse here, though—waist deep in the lake and about to dive in—I have proven, if only to myself, that it can be ignored.
“Give up a little anger each day and I’ll help you,” the Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba told Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), when Alpert asked him how he might also live so freely and love others so well.
Notice: Baba did not tell Alpert to work out his anger; he didn’t tell him to sort through the issue and figure out who was right. He said give it up.
So today, to the frigid waters of Lake Vättern, I handed over my bit of anger. And tomorrow, be it rain, wind, or waves, I will give up a little more. For now better than ever I see why I have kept this up. The years of cold showers, meditation, and journaling, I’ve known since You happened, have all been for something.
I’m just back from my swim, when Ella returns from her run. Together, we start to prepare breakfast, moving wordlessly around the small kitchen of our one-room cabin. You see, after nearly three weeks here, a system has emerged. I set the water to boil, she turns off the stove; she takes out the milk, I put it back; I pick up the tray, she grabs the bag; and, together, we carry our breakfast, blanket, and books down to the beach.
We are on vacation. But it still takes a lot of work to make making breakfast together so easy. “Love is a skill,” Alain de Botton wrote, “not just enthusiasm.”
Buried in the cadence of these quiet mornings (and so much else) is the shared assumption: all of this is for both of us. When our individual wants and needs are being met, the relationship—“Us”—can be tended to separately. We can spare some of ourselves to a higher cause. We will be satisfied (or starve) together.
“Love means admiration for qualities in the lover that promise to correct our weaknesses and imbalances,” de Botton also wrote in The Course of Love. “Love is a search for completion.”
At the western tip of Varamobaden—three kilometers of golden sand shaped like a crescent moon—we lay out our blanket and sit. Holding my coffee to my nose, I look out across the lake, scrutinizing the same distant shore that taunted me earlier. At nearly ten, having been up since four, the sun is high in the sky. After awhile, Ella reaches over, resting her hand on the back of my neck. “What is it, my thinkingful man?”
When I turn my head, the sun is in her face, and she is smiling at me. “I hope I am a kinder man than the one you woke up next to,“ I could say often, but don’t.
Love starts to make more sense the closer you get to who you truly are. In accepting yourself, perfection stops being part of the criteria. And you simply become the type of person you also want to attract. You invite someone to come along who also appreciates, if not requires, your special mix of virtues and flaws.
When you know who you are, you will know what you need. Yet only by how well you love someone can you show them they are it.
A few days later, waiting for my flight at Stockholm Arlanda, I unfold Ella’s letter. “During the challenging times,” she tells me, “you stand still, grounded beside me, like a stable, beautiful tree.”
So this is what it feels like to be loved for my greatest achievement; to really be something to somebody that, for a very long time, I was certain I was not.
I was nice, before. But I was rarely good. I wasn’t patient or consistent; I wasn’t understanding or forgiving. I was almost never selfless. Nor, though, did I ever try to be.
She is independent, open-minded, and empathetic. But she also wants calm. She wants sturdy, even, and durable. She wants to know what she’s getting when I walk in the door.
She is grateful and optimistic, too. She trusts her feelings (and mine). She believes in love stories with happy endings. She believes, as I do, in light and hope and magic; she knows that people change.
In the past three months, a lot has happened. Neither of us wants me to go. And despair, I know, is the appropriate response. As I shuffle down the jetway, though, I am ten-feet tall and more certain of Us than I have ever been of anything. Knowing You makes the world a far brighter, more interesting place.
It’s as though…
“You have given me a thing I could never have imagined, before I knew you,” Richard Powers wrote in The Overstory. “It’s like I had the word ‘book,’ and you put one in my hands. I had the word ‘game,’ and you taught me how to play. I had the word ‘life,’ and then you came along and said, ‘Oh! You mean this.’”