A Letter and a Poem

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As Valentine’s Day came closing in, Jonathan Rogers sent out the following letter on The Habit Weekly.

In August of 1988 I went to a watermelon social on the back porch of Furman University’s dining hall. I was more or less minding my own business when across the way I saw a girl who was so beautiful I could hardly believe she existed in the same world where I lived and moved and had my being. I don’t even know how to talk about this without sounding like the worst sort of Hallmark card, so I’ll spare you.

I didn’t speak to the aforementioned girl at the watermelon social, but I spoke to her eventually, and eventually we got married and raised six children together. That face that was such a marvel to me in August of 1988 is now more familiar to me than my own face.

But every now and then, when we arrive separately at a party or a school event or church, I’ll catch a glimpse of my wife from across the room, and I’m astonished all over again. I’m that nineteen-year-old boy, and she’s that eighteen-year-old girl. The amazement that such a creature exists at all is compounded by the amazement that she’s the most familiar thing in the world to me.

Wendell Berry knows what I’m talking about:

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart,
Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose looming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,
and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

—”The Wild Rose”

Valentine’s Day is just three days away. It’s time to get serious about those love letters and love poems. I offer the same advice I gave this time last year and the year before that: Don’t try too hard to put your feelings into words. All those things you feel about your beloved—those are the least unique thing about your relationship with that person. If you don’t believe it, go read the greeting cards at the grocery store. Your feelings, which seem utterly unique when you’re feeling them, are so common that the nice people at Hallmark and American Greetings make a good living selling them at three dollars a pop.

If you want to write a Valentine that gets results, start with memory, not emotion. If you give an account of a memory that you and your beloved share, some little scene from your story, you can hardly help but be original and intimate. Be specific. Be concrete. The emotion will take care of itself.

If you need a little extra direction, here’s a writing prompt for your Valentine: Wendell Berry writes, “I am blessed and choose again/that which I chose before.” What has caused you to choose your beloved* again? Write about that.

*If you aren’t in a long-term romantic relationship, that’s all right. You love somebody, and that love is a choice. Write that person a Valentine.

———————

I’ll be honest, I usually skip Valentine’s Day posts. But, I mean, it’s Jonathan Rogers, so this one I read. The advice he gives is beautiful, and the story more so (having encountered his amazing wife, I can support that not a bit of it is embellished). As is Jonathan’s way, he ended the message with a call to write. As is my way, I completely ignored what he wanted me to write about (I can be cantankerous like that). Somewhere between the lines, the message struck me with what it had to say about love’s connection to memory, and I took about a week wrestling with that connection to offer a response. 

At the end of every episode of The Habit Podcast, Jonathan asks his guests, “Who are the writers who make you want to write?” Though he might never forgive me for ignoring his actual prompt—and of course it’s unwise to invoke the wrath of one so closely aligned with the alligators—I hope it may assuage him to know that he’s on my list.

Love Is This

He said love resides in memory.

I suppose
it can exist in afterglows,
in glass-pressed pictures tinted rose,
and how the heart holds
the mark of a strike
far longer than our simple skin,
how it can keep a moment sinking in.

I guess the scents and touches
linger after.
The tumbling of your laughter
across the grass, the past—fast-fading
flash of light—
the weight of you inside my arms,
our foreheads pressed together,
how you never
shrank from adoration
or ever met my kiss with indignation.

I suppose it has some merit,
all the dreams
we stuff inside each other, straining seams
and scribble-scripting words into the reams
of all our stories, to make some sense
of things that fail and fall from present tense.

I guess love cares for memories,
if even one
can carry them until the road is done,
can bear them underneath the heat, and run
the race—perhaps alone.
Too often it all falls to one to own.

But I have watched how memory
gathers rust,
how time can grind its finer points to dust,
and leave it brittle under winter’s gust.
And I think more, by now, that love is this:
the thing soft-sighing when the memories twist
and decompose to sorrow,
“Yet, you will find me here again tomorrow.”


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