Of Love and Opposites

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,

then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,

into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,

and weep, but not all of your tears.

—Khalil Gibran


I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about love and fear–how both love and fear are places to stand. Anne Lamott, in her classic book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, quotes an old man from her church who booms in the middle of service “God is your home.” This is one of my favourite takes on that thorny question–What is home?–and like any good metaphor this one is better and more resonant than a more explicit formulation. “God is your home” kind of cuts through the whole question, changes its ground. I’ve been thinking a lot about love as a home in this world, a kind of shelter. Not a bomb shelter, by any means. Maybe even the opposite of a bomb shelter. But a place to live, nevertheless. A form of habitat.

This fall and winter, thanks to the support of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, I’ll be busy writing the first draft of a non-fiction book about habitat. So I’m thinking a lot about what we need as creatures in order to flourish, what we need as artists in order to create. Thinking, too, about what those of us who are mothers and artists need, as far as supportive conditions go, in order to get the work done. Single mothers, especially.

In my Grade 12 year, I had an extraordinary English teacher who pulled my best work out of me through a combination of inspiration, intellectual/ethical rigour, and encouragement. I wrote an essay for him about Alan Paton’s beautiful novel Cry, the Beloved Country. I would give a lot to see a copy of that essay again, as I’m sure it would amuse and embarrass and impress me, probably in equal measure. What I do remember is that I wrote about fear, and love. I quoted 1 John 4:18. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath torment. [S]he that feareth is not made perfect in love.”

When my daughter was very young, I first realized how difficult the concept of “opposites” is to explain. I used to sit on the floor with her and read, over and over, a lovely little board book by Tad Hills, The Book of Opposites. Duck and Goose and Bird illustrate what I found difficult to articulate: that part of the work of coming to understand the world is inherently about reciprocity, relationship. Up; down. Happy; sad. Heavy; light. It is easy to lift a feather. It is hard to lift a friend.

As everybody but me already knew, children come to understand opposites not by way of conceptual explanation but by the accumulation of examples. So my daughter can now pair the classic oppositions along with the best of us. Meanwhile, my ability to pair oppositions is deteriorating. Are happy and sad really opposites? What about brokenness and wholeness? Doesn’t true wholeness include brokenness? What is the opposite of anger? The working title of my (recently completed) poetry manuscript for years was a rip off of Tad Hills. The Book of Opposites. An interrogation of thresholds.

I suppose at the root of my thinking about love and opposites all these years is the implicit claim made by John the Apostle in the verse quoted above: that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. I’ve been tuning in, more, to the way that fear displaces the generosity of love–particularly the kind of fear that comes up as a self-protective reaction between individuals. I’ve been trying to learn what it means to live in love instead of in fear. I think it has something to do with the lilies I sat beside in a community garden a few weeks ago, the way they didn’t change their posture at all when the hard, sudden rain began to fall. Even though, had I stayed long enough, I’m sure I would have seen that rain tear some of their petals from them. Love, I think, has something to do with being that open: alive, tender, defenseless.

Beautiful–now!–like lilies–and not for long. Seeing everything in this way. As my sister often reminds me, quoting Jeff Foster, “Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.”

To be like the lilies sometimes, unafraid of being open, even though the hard rains will fall. I aspire to this. I think this is love. I think this is a way of being with each other. I think this is a way, even when all the other ways have vanished, of going home.

To live in love that has no fear in it. An impossibility, like peace, but one worth heading toward and navigating according to, anyway–as Aung San Suu Kyi has said of peace–like a star in the night sky. Not to make one’s home merely by being “in love,” infatuated (you don’t need to be an etymologist to spy the fatuousness at the root of that word). But, instead, no matter where we are–in love or out of it–to make the effort to learn what a more robust love might be, as a habitat.

Not an Eden. Not a place without predation (and hence–sometimes–legitimate fear), but habitat nevertheless. A place with nourishment, a way of being there that supports flourishing. Not a place, only, of peace and pleasure–as Khalil Gibran says, in the quote above, with aphoristic clarity.

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