Friday, January 20, 2012


A Pair of Lovers, by Van Gogh

Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.
Eric Fromm

This posting has its genesis in a fine poem—To Have Without Holding—by poet and novelist Marge Piercy.  Since reading the poem a few days ago, I have continued to be haunted by the first line: "Learning to love differently is hard."

From my perspective, this poem touches upon something profound, specifically, the way that life experiences shape our evolving approaches to love.  One of the charming conceits of youth is the romantic ideal that each of us will eventually meet someone and "fall" effortlessly into a state of perennial bliss—a sort of nirvana in which the relationship is protected from the vicissitudes of life.  Romantic ideals, however, always have a way of colliding with reality, and when that occurs, we usually have only two choices.  We can either become disappointed and cynical, or we can begin to reevaluate and reshape our romantic ideals.  We can, as Piercy suggests in the first line of her poem, learn to "love differently."  We can even learn to "love with the doors banging on their hinges, the cupboard unlocked, the wind roaring and whimpering in the rooms . . ."  And if we do, if we are willing to give up the clutch-hold on our youthful romantic ideals, we may come to find the very thing we have been looking for all along, a deep love that is rich and enduring, one that is more than adequate to withstand the conflicts, disappointments, and frustrations that await every journey. 

Enough of what I think.  What do you think?  Perhaps you will find something in Piercy's poem that resonates with your own life.

by Marge Piercy

                                      Learning to love differently is hard, 
                                      love with the hands wide open, love
                                      with the doors banging on their hinges,
                                      the cupboard unlocked, the wind
                                      roaring and whimpering in the rooms
                                      rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds
                                      that thwack like rubber bands
                                      in an open palm.

                                      It hurts to love wide open
                                      stretching the muscles that feel
                                      as if they are made of wet plaster,
                                      then of blunt knives, then
                                      of sharp knives.

                                      It hurts to thwart the reflexes
                                      of grab, of clutch; to love and let
                                      go again and again.  It pesters to remember
                                      the lover who is not in the bed,
                                      to hold back what is owed to the work
                                      that gutters like a candle in a cave
                                      without air, to love consciously,
                                      conscientiously, concretely, constructively.

                                      I can't do it, you say it's killing
                                      me, but you thrive, you glow
                                      on the street like a neon raspberry,
                                      you float and sail, a helium balloon
                                      bright bachelor's button blue and bobbing
                                      on the cold and hot winds of our breath,
                                      as we make and unmake in passionate
                                      diastole and systole the rhythm
                                      of our unbound bonding, to have
                                      and not to hold, to love
                                      with minimized malice, hunger
                                      and anger moment by moment balanced.

Lest there be any doubt, I do not stand pure in this arena.  Quixotically, I have broken many lances in the windmills of youthful romantic ideals.  With every passing year, however, I have tried to reshape those ideals to account for the unpredictability of human life—my life and the lives of others—and while much work remains to be done, I feel, perhaps for the first time in many decades, that I am learning "to love and let go again and again."  I am learning to love differently.


  1. Quite agree about the dashing of romantic ideals.
    In my dotage , I believe in not so vivid but enduring love forged through long association.
    A splendid poem

  2. An interesting post as usual George. Maybe I am a simple soul when it comes to my emotions - I have been exceedingly lucky to have not one but two nigh on perfect marriages. Is this because I have found two nigh on perfect partners, or is it because I am willing to adapt to less than perfect? I suspect it is neither. I think I was brought up in an age when one was expected to marry and 'make a go' of it - at least that was the case in the family I was born into. Alright this is probably an oversimplification of things but for me it works, and it always has.
    My first husband died after forty years together - forty happy years. My second husband - of nineteen years - fulfils the same needs for me, fits me perfectly, we spend all our spare time together. I don't need to learn to love differently - unless I was doing that in the first place.

  3. Hi, Elizabeth. Thanks for your comments, and I'm delighted you liked the poem.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, PAT. I salute you, my friend. I think you must have been doing the right things from day one. I suspect that the way each of us approaches loves depends on our individual backgrounds, our communities, and the cultural periods in which we have created our lives. Again, however, my hat's off to you and your husband.

  5. I simply do not have the words to describe what this post is for me! This is gonna take quite a while to digest...this poem at this time. I also lack adequate words to say thanks, appropriately .. so a plain and simple thank you will have to suffice! off to ponder! :-)

  6. I do like these last sentences have and not to hold, to love with minimized malice, hunger and anger moment by moment balanced. This eternal balance to find. Perhaps it's more difficult to find it beetween two lovers, close relationship does feelings get more intense. For me and as a simple exemple since I could accept that sometimes I have sadness in me. I can accept the other could have the same. We can extend with all the over feelings and try to measure their intensity out...think !

  7. Interesting poem - it would be a good one for people to read and study at school, I think: not for English Lit, but for whatever they do these days regarding relationships and social skills.

    I think love has to be like this if we are to love real human beings (who change) for who they are rather than what we want them to be and I think the rewards are deeper than those for any youthful idealised romantic love... But, hang on, I think the love described in the poem is, in its own way, idealistic too.

  8. Thanks for your heartfelt comments, KARIN. Reading the variety of comments on this post is going to be quite interesting. Some will relate to the poem and post, while others will undoubtedly feel that things have gone according to expectations and there is no reason to "love differently." I, for one, think of love differently in my sixties than I did in my twenties.

  9. Thanks for your comments, THROUGHIDEAS. I, too, like that last line of Marge Piercy's poem, for it recognizes that the challenge is not to totally eradicate the emotions of hunger, anger, and even "minimized malice," but to insure that these emotions are always balanced moment by moment with love and respect.

  10. Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comments, DOMINIC! I agree with you on all points. First, I, too, have been thinking about how odd it is that we receive so little education on the most central issue of our lives—love. Second, I agree with you entirely that the love described in the poem is also idealistic in its own way. I would argue, however, that it's a more mature ideal, one that's more achievable. Note that I spoke of only reevaluating and reshaping our youthful ideals, rather than completely abandoning them. I"m an idealist by nature, and I suspect I shall remain so. That said, I think there is something to be said for the refinement of ideals that naturally flows from experience.

  11. After nearly 46 years of marriage, I think this is my hope and aspiration: We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person. -William Somerset Maugham, writer (1874-1965)

  12. Thanks for your wonderful comment, BARB, and thanks especially for that insightful quote by Somerset Maugham. For a changing person to love another changing or changed person—that is the challenge, but one that can be met in the spirit of Piercy's poem.

  13. I think genuine, lasting, glorious love begins and binds, not with mere romance—though it should always have romance and attraction and no small amount of desire—but with deep and true and compatible understanding and friendship. Really, best friendship…give-your-life, complete-trust, bare-all, friendship. You have to genuinely like one another, to enjoy each other's company—to always be capable of holding hands and feeling your hearts forever interlocked.

    Personally, I'm not altogether convinced that people truly change with the years, at least not in ways that matter. At our core, I suspect the dreams and fears and ideals and passions that shaped up as individuals only reside beneath ever-thickening veneers. Deep values may be buried under life's clutter, hidden, secreted away, even—but once we reach a certain point, they also often start to reappear, like stones emerging from ice. Love is grounded in intimacy, trust, and friendship, in knowing the person almost better than you know yourself; in them knowing you and liking you anyway. I'm an idealist, too, and always will be. Life is, well, life—ups and downs, good times and bad. I've been there, and I still believe with all my heart in love—romantic, idealistic, face-life-together and endure, forever love.

  14. I like Eric Fromm's quote and your post and poem both of which I hadn't read before.
    My thoughts?
    There are many kinds of love: romantic love, mother love, married love, unconditional love, friendship(non-sexual) love, brotherly/sisterly love, love of animals, love of things, love of art and culture. There is passion, there is lust (far too often confused and misunderstood as love - especially by the young).
    One thing is true, we all need love and the more we give the more we receive.
    Some might say God is Love and it is why we are here, to learn that very lesson.
    I think I have learned from sufferings that only love matters and it is the opposite of fear; just as the song said 'all you need is love'.
    I have strayed from the theme of Piercy's poem I know but love is very complicated though I do agree with Elizabeth's belief in enduring love through long association.

  15. An interesting post George. Love the poem by Piercy.

    Adult love IS expressed without clutching, holding, controlling ... and it is not always easy to act like an adult in our relationships.

    Winnicott, THE child psychiatrist of the twentieth century said the love of a good parent is expressed by "not abandonning and not interfering". The abandonning piece seems obvious, but the interfering piece inlcludes not only avoiding controlling or smothering, but also avoiding interference that denies the other to simply BE (e.g. to read, write, daydream, go for a walk alone, etc.) - to not interfere with their "going on being". That is not so easy when we want to grab, clutch, hold, hover, merge ....

    I think your post on romantic love and Piercy's poem touch on how to "not interfere", to respect the other's spiritual, alone, growth time ... it may be hard, but is O so worth it and O so rewarding.

    Funny, I just released a newly created poster entitled, "How To Love - A Primer" on my blog Pixel Dust Photo Art which touches on this very topic.

    Not the first time we have posted similar material at the same times!

  16. Thanks for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, GRIZZ. Yes, I agree that friendship and understanding are critical to a rich, enduring relationship. As you say, however, it needs to be "complete-trust, bare-all, friendship."

    The question of whether people change is more complex for me. I agree that, at some level, we always carry the core of our earliest dreams, fears, ideals, and passions. By the same token, the values I hold today, particularly with respect to inclusivity versus exclusivity, are different in significant respects from the values inculcated into me as a child. Were the inculcated values just an early veneer that covered up more authentic, more natural, core values? Perhaps, but I simply don't know the answer.

    I do believe, however, that change—both external and internal—is an undeniable part of being human, and, therefore, the best relationships are those that are structured to adapt to change in the spirit of love and compassion. As I read Piercy's poem, she is simply cautioning us that we always have the option "to love differently" if our ingrained habits and patterns of behavior are not reflecting the friendship, trust, and respect that are essential for an enduring relationship.

  17. Thanks for your lovely comments, CAIT. There are indeed myriad forms of love. Equally important, individuals experience love in unique ways that are often incomprehensible to others. The important thing from my standpoint, the thing that I believe is at the heart of Marge Piercy's poem, is that we keep growing into love; that we always examine the shortcomings of our own egos; and that, above all, we create love that can withstand the challenges that come with inevitable change.

  18. As always, BONNIE, I love and welcome your comments, particularly on matters of relationships among people.

    As you suggest, there is quite a difference between young love and adult love, and that is one of the points I was trying to make with this post. What worked at sixteen or twenty-five does not necessarily suffice for the long term, though one would certainly hope to retain some of the romantic ideals that first opened our hearts to others.

    I love Winnicott's counsel about "not abandoning and not interfering." That's great advice not only for parent-child relationships, but for any relationship. As you say, we all recognize the need to avoid abandonment, but how many recognize and respect the right of another to simply BE—to let their being unfold in the way in which it is supposed to unfold? To master that, I suspect, is to master the art of love.

    As to your own synchronistic post, I'm headed over to your place right now. Thanks again for your illuminating comments.

  19. George, I've been back to read this post more than once, and I still can't find words to articulate how I feel about this that would in any way add to what you've already said so well. My own experience is mirrored in your words. My understanding of love has definitely evolved. And yet, I know I have a long way to go. "Learning to love differently is hard." Indeed it is. But essential, and, ultimately, inevitable.

    Love the image of the van Gogh, and the poem has lines I love, especially those you quoted: "love with the doors banging on their hinges, the cupboard unlocked..."

    A wonderful post.

  20. Thanks for your comments, TERESA. I'm gratified to know that this post resonated deeply with you. Of all the words in the poem, I, too, kept being drawn to the line about loving "with the doors banging off their hinges . . . " That captures the essence of the poem, I believe—the need to be patient and tolerant when things disturb the universe or the human heart.

  21. George, I forgot to ask you a question, nothing to do with the post but would you mind telling me what camera you use?

  22. And isn't it a hard lesson to learn!

    Loving and letting go is imperative not only between lovers but also parent and child. Loving always means not 'grabbing and holding tight', f we think otherwise we are bound to be disappointed.

    On the other hand, if your love is hurt or discarded too many times, it will die too. Forgive and forget, love regardlessly, cling to lost hopes, these are a mug's game.

    I too have learnt my lessons in later life, no longer asking much of life and love but being granted untold riches. Perhaps the two are connected.?

    Piercy's poem speaks of the pain of unconditionally loving. 'Unbound bonding' would be too hard for me, particularly in later years; I need the security of affection and consideration and a small, but freely given, return on my emotional investment.

  23. This is a wonderful poem, George. It made a deep impression on me when I first came across it, and I'm equally struck by it now. I love that idea of 'learning to love', of working at it. Whatever 'love' is, it's a chameleon: challenging, changing, adapting, astonishing, transforming, renewing, perhaps disappointing or even disappearing. And then there's also 'Love': sacred, unchanging, divine, eternal, all-encompassing, non-possessive, undemanding. I've had glimpses of 'agape' from time to time, but most of the time we're all constantly struggling (or perhaps not, Pat!) with 'eros'. And Cait is quite right: love is not lust, though lust can be part of love.

    Oh, I'm with Grizz, I want it all: the friendship, the companionship, the understanding, the tolerance, the respect AND the madness, the passion, the turbulence, the romance. Call me an impossible idealist, if you wish!

    I think sometimes that having without holding, allowing the loved one just to be — without judgement or any feelings of possession or jealousy — is the hardest thing. But the most beautiful thing when achieved.

  24. Hi, CAIT. I use several cameras, but my primary camera is a rather old Nikon D80. I am on the verge of buying a Nikon D7000. The lens that is used in the bird shots is a Nikkor 300 mm telephoto.

  25. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, FRIKO. Yes, learning "to love differently" is always a challenge. Loving and letting go seems rather odd when we are young, but the years teach us, as you say, that it's imperative.

    I think you make a good point: Asking little is often the path to untold riches.

    By the way, Friko, I have been trying to comment on your Aquarius story, but, for some reason, my comments have not gone through. I will try again later today.

  26. So glad to receive your comments on this post, Robert. I assumed you would have some passionate views on this subject.

    As you suggest, love is almost impossible to define because it can mean so many different things. Like you, however, I have come to believe that we're always learning to love better, always trying to get better results for both ourselves and those we love. While others might have different experiences, most of my relationships in life have been—and continue to be—works in progress. Somewhere, T.S. Eliot said "we are only undefeated because we have gone on trying." He may have intended that sentiment in a different context, but it also seems appropriate to enduring relationships of love.

    Like you and Grizz, I will always be a romantic idealist in matters of love, as well as most every other matter of consequence. The romantic ideal has changed a bit, however—and I think for the better—as I have come to terms with the realities of life. As I said in some of the earlier comments, my current perspective on love is very different from the perspective I had in my twenties and thirties.

  27. Fromm seems right to me. Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence. But not all things called love are the same. And much of what passes for love is petty, clinging, and possessive -- always hurt, always wounded. I think to realize some kind of love that is capable of answering the problem of human existence, we must achieve a love more or less like Piercy writes about.

  28. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, PAUL. I couldn't agree with you more. Much of what passes for love is often shallow, petty, and hurtful. What most of us long for, however, is the deeper, richer veins of love, those places that will remain secure in the most challenging tempest.

  29. You're very welcome, ROBIN, and you're always welcome to drop by again and join the conversation.

  30. Thank you for this post, George, which sings with the tensile nature of love. Like that wet plaster, love gets reshaped again and again. You know that I am living in the reality of the labor and delivery of my brand new grandson, and so this post and poem resonate with the recent memories of pain and perseverance surrounding his birth, as well as the challenges of the first few days at home. Yes, love, all love, grows tougher as it is stretched and blown about, and I find it more deeply lovely after being cleansed in the crucibles of real life. I am glad for having to read this poem several times before finding words to respond to it. It is rich and loamy, as is the open soil of your post and blog and personhood.

    (Written with one finger while holding James.)

  31. Thanks for your lovely comments, RUTH, and it doubles the pleasure knowing that you pecked our your comments with one finger while holding Sweet Baby James. I certainly hope that Lesley and James Lawrence are doing well at this point.

    Delighted that you liked this poem, as I expected you would. Time teaches us that love has many more dimensions than we might have imagined in our youth, and the light shines on different facets at different periods of our lives. From my perspective, "to love differently" means to embrace all that enduring relationships entail—the full measure of life, all of our idiosyncrasies, all of our joys, all of our shortcomings, all of the unpredictable vicissitudes of life.

  32. Having been 'successfully' married 48 years, with three children and now nine grandchildren...of which two were recently married and one to be deepest wish is that they learn to love differently.

    Along with the Marge Piercy's poem, I appreciate your following's the very knowledge I wish my grandchildren to know:

    "One of the charming conceits of youth is the romantic ideal that each of us will eventually meet someone and "fall" effortlessly into a state of perennial bliss—a sort of nirvana in which the relationship is protected from the vicissitudes of life."
    "if we are willing to give up the clutch-hold on our youthful romantic ideals, we may come to find the very thing we have been looking for all along, a deep love that is rich and enduring, one that is more than adequate to withstand the conflicts, disappointments, and frustrations that await every journey."

  33. Thanks so much, WANDA, for your lovely comments. Given your admirable track record, perhaps you, rather than I, should have written this post. In any event, it's reassuring to learn that your own success has been based to some extent on the willingness "to love differently." And, yes, if we can pass that along to our children, we will have served them well, at least in my opinion.

  34. I love the idea of learning to love differently. perhaps that is more true to the spirit and nature of love. thank you for inspiring thoughts of love.

  35. Thanks for your comments, TAMMY LEE. I agree with you that the kind of different love alluded to by the poem is more in the spirit of true love.

  36. This is, I think, my favorite Marge Piercy poem

  37. Thanks, CAROLE. This is a lovely poem.