Let us forget with generosity, those who cannot love us. – Pablo Neruda
Writing songs is hard and the hardest part is the lyrics. I don’t know a single writer who would disagree. We spend a lot of time talking about lyric in our songwriting classes – cliché the song-killer, the risk of cowardice with “You done me wrong” vs. the courage of self-disclosure and vulnerability in song, all kinds of nasty, tricksy pitfalls. College is a hotbed of the kinds of experiences that can dash us against the rocks of overused hokum.
So yes, we have some engaging conversations, especially about love, and in one such conversation we were talking about how to avoid common uses of humanity’s most powerful construct. It’s hard to do that without drilling down on some hard, heady questions – what is love, what are some of the nuanced uses of the word, is it really love? – all that stuff. I often suggest they avoid the word altogether in favor of painting it – don’t tell us, show us. Describe it vividly. I know, lots of great songs use it but I especially discourage use of the phrase, “I love you.” It’s more often about a sense of attachment and need than anything else, and it can be so gutless and toothless. We like to think it’s unconditional, but it’s often not. We expect something in return. We feel vulnerable. When we say, “I love you,” to our beloved we expect to hear it back, and if we don’t, well that’s a real problem! It’s a quid pro quo. But how dare we?!
I asked my young charges what the highest, most loving thing to say is when someone says, “I love you” to them. And they all say it – “I love you too!” I objected, and said right off the top of my head that instead, I think the best thing to do is first take it in, and then say in return, “Congratulations,” or “How great for you!” Their eyes went as wide as saucers and mine did too, I guess. Say that in response to your other and it’s a trip to the doghouse for you, you arrogant shit! But, saying either is truly better! It reflects back on the lover, not on myself. It builds up, acknowledges and honors the other as that kind of person who can love, who has learned to love, who has practiced and gained some mastery of love, who actually loves, and who loves me, with all my many flaws. It’s admirable and respectable. It sees the highest calling of humanity in my partner. It is not a statement of need or expectation on my part. I understand that sometimes it’s just an off-the-cuff proclamation and we don’t need to make such a big deal over it, but this is more about how I think about love generally and behind the scenes, and how I would like to practice and write about it.
What about heartbreak? What can we say about the other side of this, where the theater, landscape and context for love is stripped away from us, even if we initiated it, altering every fabric of our world? I was listening to Etta James sing, ”I’d Rather Go Blind,” one of music’s finest laments:
So you see, I love you so much
That I don’t wanna watch you leave me, baby
Most of all, I just don’t, I just don’t wanna be free, no.
I was just sittin here thinkin’, of your kiss and your warm embrace.
When the reflection in the glass that I held to my lips now, baby
Revealed the tears that was on my face.
Baby, baby, I’d rather, I’d rather be blind, boy
Than to see you walk away, see you walk away from me.
Heartbreak from finished relationships seems to me to come from the same place, especially in music, from a place of weakness. I am heartbroken. I am wounded. I am bereft! Woe is me! What is to become of me? I admit, there is not much worse we can go through in this life than losing those we love more dearly than our own lives and we rightfully grieve. Is there nothing to be done to console ourselves from that which is completely out of our control and yet so vital?
What if we can again turn it around? What if heartbreak, rather than somehow representing the power someone else or some relationship has over us, how great someone made us feel, the person we think we are when we are together, actually instead reflects who we actually are and our own ability to have loved?! What if it’s not as much a statement of the other at all, but a statement of our own strength, our own capacity to love, to have learned, to have chosen someone to try to love with, to have risked having the course of our life altered, to have actually loved another, flaws and all? Does it hurt any less? Yes, I think it does. It still rightfully hurts like hell. Congratulations! I do think it helps indeed and it gives me a lot of hope. I can love. I loved. I climbed up on the altar and I allowed that fire to consume me as best I possibly could.
In responding to expressions of love by empowering the other, we love. In responding to heartbreak by acknowledging and empowering ourselves, we practice love of self and self-care, and still honor the object of our love rather than lash out in pity, anger, or retribution. We acknowledge our willingness and capacity to have given ourselves to another, to have committed, to have risked it all. This is not their path anymore. This is your path. Let them go, not with the arrogance or apathy of, “Well that’s their loss,” but with an honorable sadness and grief, with generosity and kindness. Let us also hope we will be similarly forgotten. Breathe and smile at least a little on the inside, standing a little taller and more fortified knowing that you will go in and go out loving.
I’d Rather Go Blind, written by Etta James, Ellington Jordan & Billy Foster, © Arc Music, Arc Music Corp.