From the wobbly velvet-cushioned bench that runs along the theater’s front row, I watch the man on stage. Maybe he’s not oblivious to the crowd intent upon him, but it seems that way. He twists the tuning pegs; his face smooth in reverie. The crowd waits and, eventually, he begins the song.
In conversation recently with the man whose hands I adore upon my hips, I could never find the right notes. Instead I begged off with the excuse of craziness, shorthand in conversation for “I don’t know how to think about you, never mind express myself adequately.” I wish I could have stood there tuning the chords, and he might have allowed me that as a prelude to song.
After all, talking aloud isn’t anything like writing, which allows me to measure and move my words, weighing the meaning of each one against the consequences of another. Worse, when it comes to committing myself to the expression of emotion, I’ve proven myself unable to move much beyond mumbling.
With these thoughts in mind—and wondering if “love” is nothing more than a recent holiday invention—I email a friend, an evolutionary psychologist who studies love and commitment.
There are different types of love, Jon Maner, a professor at Florida State University, explains in an email. Each type serves a specific function, each ultimately associated with reproductive success.
First, there is the love one feels for a child; it’s designed to keep the child safe. “From the gene’s perspective, it’s good reproductive business,” he writes. “It doesn’t make sense to have a child unless that child prospers enough to reproduce.”
This one makes sense to me. The love I have for my daughter reminds me of waking after having thrown down a sleeping bag in darkness near the edge of a desert canyon. I knew the edge was there, but had no expectations for what might lie beyond. As it rose, turning the world from black to dark blue to pink, the sun revealed the depths and patterns and pockets below that I never could have imagined in the night.
Then there is romantic love. That initial passion—thoughts wandering, hearts pounding—is designed to foster romantic attraction and mating. After a while, that turns into companionate love (“more intimacy and commitment, less passion,” Maner writes). This is the love that keeps people together long enough to raise children.
That initial passion is easy: I have loved wholly and wildly. But flipping through the papers Maner sent—and thinking about where almost all my past relationships have fallen apart—I wonder if perhaps I’ve never loved a man the way I have a canyon, crest or hoodoo: gracefully, hopefully and with a committed heart.
When I first started working as a journalist, I could never articulate why I’d chosen the environment as my niche. Then in 2007, I saw writer Barry Lopez speak, and it made sense: “It’s OK to be in love with the world,” he said, “and to articulate that.”
Amen, right? Fairness and love are compatible actions, after all. When it comes right down to the guts of the matter, I am in love with this crazy land we all call home. I adore that cleave of the big river as it slings silt down the middle of the state, the mountains turned pink by the setting sun and the skies that turn a shade of blue I’ve never seen elsewhere. And I am committed to all these things. For the long haul, in sickness and in health, yada yada.
I can even admit now that my love for kinky mountains, twisted badlands and white-hot deserts has always outlived my affection for the flesh-and-blood men in my life. I’ll gladly cling to ropey arms or find solace pressed against soft lips. But no matter who it has been, I’ve always found myself looking over his shoulder, watching for the stars, cocking my ear for coyotes. I can understand commitment when it comes to landscapes. It makes as much sense as lying against warm sandstone and watching the skies for crows.
It’s warm enough today that despite the winter date upon the calendar, when I ascend the hill and sit upon the pink granite pebbles, I strip down to a short-sleeved shirt and vest. Greedy for the sun and grateful for this day, I center myself within this clearing I’ve claimed for the afternoon, lie back and stare at the sky until sleep overtakes me.
Eventually, the winter sun stretches its afternoon shadows into fingers that tap upon my skin and remind me it’s no longer time to bask. Pressed into the mountainside, my hair still warm with the sun, I realize that I can never fall asleep against lovers the way I do sand and stone.
I’m not a musician; there’s no way for me to warm up before a song, nor to sing those same choruses to different audiences. I think of the man I tried to talk to earlier in the week. I recall my muttered confusion and how in days past I’ve spent hours writing him entire letters—lost in the surprise of his smile as he pulled off my boots to find striped socks—only to edit them down to three- and five-line email messages that say nothing much at all.
And I realize that, as always, my heart is elsewhere.