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Merely Human Love: Valentine's Day Revisited

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

“I love you” may not be new information, but the words, spoken in real time with complete attention, affection, and eye contact, are nourishment as necessary as food and drink.

Professor of Medical Humanities UC-Berkeley-UCSF / Author
February 11, 2016

Of all the “Hallmark holidays” we mark with a flurry of commercial sentimentalities, red roses, and more sugar than anyone needs, Valentine’s Day may be the smarmiest.

I’m aware that there’s some risk in opening an essay on such a curmudgeonly note; it comes from a certain longing I feel each year to meet the challenge of Valentine’s Day with something that contributes authentically to deepening real love relationships that seem so inadequately celebrated by chocolates and dinner reservations. These include relationships not only with my husband, who gladdens my heart daily and steeps me in gratitude, but also with children who now have their own spouses and complex stories, with grandchildren who have opened amazing new avenues of love, and with friends who have awakened shoots of love that have left me again and again surprised by joy.

Rich in Love

Our lives are rich in love. And love needs to be expressed, not only on designated annual occasions, of course, but every morning. As John Ciardi wrote in his lovely, realistic poem, “Men Marry What They Need, I Marry You,”

            . . . I marry you,

morning by morning, day by day, night by night,

and every marriage makes this marriage new.

Even in its dailiness sustained love involves repeated reaffirmation, choosing again what we have already chosen, saying yes not to a past fixed and sanitized in photographs but to a present riddled with complexity and challenge as well as familiarity and pleasure. “I love you” may not be new information, but the words, spoken in real time with complete attention, affection, and eye contact, are nourishment as necessary as food and drink.

Ciardi’s lines also remind us that love takes place within community. At many weddings all those present are invited not only to affirm their intention to support the new couple but also to renew their own vows.

“The Larger, Looser, Darker Order of Merely Human Love”

Ours is not a culture that makes marriage or family life easy; the centrifugal forces are powerful. Long working hours, frequent relocation, professionalization of kids’ sports, over-commitment, and unrealistic expectations of individual fulfillment make it easy to lose sight of what Wendell Berry called “the larger, looser, darker order of merely human love.” That merely human love flows in cross-currents, finds its way among obstacles, submits to tidal pressures, carves its own channels, gathering sunlight and feeding life as it goes. It cannot, without harm, be harnessed or controlled or contained.

Love’s Fine Complexity

Acknowledging love’s complexity, another poet, Mark van Doren, wrote a love sonnet that ends with the line, “There is no single way it can be told.” That is the challenge of occasions like Valentine’s Day when we’re invited (not to say required) to find a way to speak of love. I take that challenge on by writing a poem most years. Some of those efforts fare better than others. I try to include a little humor, a little shadow, a little acknowledgement of the pull and tug of the ties that bind us, as in these lines from a poem for my husband about life together that considers particular delights he imparts to daily life which bring me to a place where

                                    . . . even

the four half-finished bottles of shampoo

by the shower, even the pile of CDs

without covers and the way you laugh

at my stash of extra matches

seem utterly excusable.

Love depends on forgiveness. Maybe we could fashion a special prayer of confession for the week of Valentine’s Day to invite each other to relinquish small annoyances and oil the rusty hinges of the heart with an infusion of divine grace. It also includes humor—an undersung virtue in Christian discourse, but a right response to the good news that we can afford to laugh even in the midst of global and domestic distress and, because we are securely held in the embrace of a Love that will not let us go, to look upon our hardest moments with hope.


And of my dad’s recurrent question to my mother, who indeed had things to put up with, “Do you love me because of it all or in spite of it all?”

I think of a dear man who—well into his eighties—addressed his wife, when in family circles, as “Grandma Baby,” with an appreciative, slightly suggestive lift of the eyebrow. And of my dad’s recurrent question to my mother, who indeed had things to put up with, “Do you love me because of it all or in spite of it all?” Wise as she was, her only response was to laugh and let the question hover unanswered as both a confession of imperfections in their partnership and an act of trust that all would, nevertheless, be well.

Finding True Words in a Thicket of Clichés

When I consider how, once again, to declare my love for those I love—how to find true words in a thicket of clichés—I turn to those, living and dead, whose words have provided equipment for living and offered the rest of us words to work with. Ruth’s beautiful, insistent commitment to Naomi, for instance, “for whither thou goest I will go . . . and thy people shall be my people” have served many of us as a practical standard of a fidelity that takes full measure of what is to be relinquished in a wholehearted yes to another. Shakespeare of course has provided us with many lines that lift us into gratitude; two of my favorite are these, the final couplet of Sonnet 29: “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

There are moments when love is best spoken by silence.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning gives me similar pause in two lovely lines buried in the middle of her famous sonnet, “How Do I Love Thee”: “I love thee to the level of every day’s /Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.” And Edna St. Vincent Millay offers an image of love in words that make me think again about what it means to become like a little child:

Love in the open hand, no thing but that,

Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,

As one should bring you cowslips in a hat

Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,

I bring you, calling out as children do:

“Look what I have!—And these are all for you.”

Good poets provide words as farmers provide food—ours to appropriate and repurpose as we will. They look, as Wallace Stevens put it, for “what will suffice.” But our deepest occasions of human and divine encounter, our deepest experiences of ecstasy or grief or recognition or reawakening, take to a place where words may not suffice. There are moments when love is best spoken by silence. Shared silence is an art and a gift, not happenstance.

The Hard-Won Gift of Love

In my work as a hospice volunteer I have been privileged to witness the quiet love of spouses who have learned to open up space for outsiders to offer intimate care, who know how simply to sit with their beloved one asking nothing, saying nothing, being available, and in deep humility recognizing that their job is to make way as the other finds his or her footing on the final stretch of the path. Theirs is a generous, humble and hard-won gift of love. It is the work of a willing heart that has consented to the terms of the assignment we’re all given, which Mary Oliver articulated so beautifully at the end of her poem, “In Blackwater Woods”:

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

Finally, we commit each other back to God—our spouses, our children, our “soul friends” without whom life seems barely imaginable. The prayers we lift up for them, and in a sense through them, are practical acts of love that infuse human affections with the breath of the Spirit that moves among us and within us, invited and inviting, teaching us what it is to open hospitable hearts to love that comes on terms that are never ours to predetermine or to assess.

It may well be that a candlelit restaurant or a card or a few fresh flowers suit the occasion quite perfectly. Having taken due pleasure in the occasional bouquet, it isn’t my intent to disparage any such gesture, but to remind myself first of all— and others who may need reminding—that the real delight in love derives from the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower”— filling us, too, with a gratitude that informed the writer of an old hymn (sung with her waning breath, as I recently read, by one woman on the very day of her death): “Since Love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”