I’m feeling kind of random today—as my previous blog post suggests…now I’m back from the park; I did shave, I did exercise, I did have some raspberries. And now I’m getting ready to revise my first novel, One Eye Open. I dropped out of graduate school to write this book—or to finish it, rather. I started it after my first summer in Brooklyn—1993. I started it and then stopped; moved back to BK, started a new writing project with some of the same characters, then went to graduate school and cringed as my voice started to change. When I left NYU in ’98, I wrote this prelude, which shows how three years of reading scholarly articles can ruin a writer. Fortunately, the rest of the novel doesn’t read like this…
Everything is relative, they say. This may be true, but I have my own theory of relativity. Some would say I haven’t known enough of life to theorize about its workings. Others say the effort isn’t even worthwhile, since the chaos of this world resists order and the sense we try to make of it all. They say also that people without power theorize in vain. In the world I live in, power is derived from wealth, from maleness, from whiteness, and from age. I am not wealthy. I am young, and a woman. I am black. But I have a theory, nonetheless.
As children we are taught to measure in all kinds of ways. We learn to count, to weigh, to place a ruler alongside of things, then show our findings on a graph. We carry this schooling with us throughout our lives, and out of all the things we are taught early on, perhaps this is the skill we most often apply in our lives. We measure our success, we strive to accumulate more and more. We measure the distances we have traveled, and we pause on occasion to look with satisfaction at the remoteness of the past, for often we want nothing more than to be removed from the people, memories, and associations it contains.
And what do we do with love? We meter it out as well. But love is not relative. It is complete in and of itself, and as such cannot be compared or contrasted, it cannot be gauged or measured, or balanced on a scale. Yet we do not teach our children to love without measure. We teach them to be economical and wise, miserly even, so that their store will not be diminished. We do teach them that love is precious, but because of their training children grow to believe that, like other things of great value, love is something to hoard. We do not teach them that their capacity to love is infinite. Nor do we teach them that love grows exponentially whenever the least amount of it is shared. Eventually, our children reach adulthood without the assurance that love cannot be spent—unlike so many of the other treasures of this world, it cannot be exhausted, depleted, or made extinct. Our love for ourselves and for others can only multiply, expand, and increase.
Yet when we are young, we have no real defense against our miseducation. And it begins when we are so very young. They say that before a child can even grasp language, she can be taught to count. And so her instruction begins in infancy and goes on to womanhood, and when she is ready or able to have children herself, she teaches them as she once was taught, and the lesson continues. I understand this now. We learn these skills when we are young, and we practice and perfect them as we grow. And once we are grown, we faithfully apply the ruler to ourselves, and to every other person who lives in our world.
When I was a child—and those years are not so distant yet—I learned these lessons well. I lived by them through my teens, and on into womanhood. I held fast to these, even when as a young woman I stood at the brink of faithlessness. I was loved, and believed I was loving in return. But I would not yield before the demands love makes. I had little to call my own, and I feared losing it all. My logic was this: if I have only myself to give, how can I let my one possession go? The math was terrifying yet simple: one take away one equals nothing. And I thought I already knew what it was like to feel bereft.
So I lived, and loved, within safe limits. And then in one season, one summer, I began to unlearn all those rules I once applied to my life. I gave up, gave in, and let myself be schooled. Not by one person, but by many, and that is how I came to know that love is not relative. My theory is this:
We learn to love by being loved. And love, like any necessary thing—air, water, touch—is essential to our survival. We crave it, seek it, ache for it. We love in order to make ourselves complete. And we love so that we may believe—in ourselves and in each other, in an order to this world that each moment threatens to overwhelm us with the insistence that life is random. But life, like love, is not random. It is precise, and deliberate—it is a choice. A choice each of us has the power to make.
If I had a child, I would tell her these things.
For now, I am telling you. They will say I have no right to devote such an abundance of language and time to a life as insignificant as mine. After all, I am black and a woman and young. I have no wealth, no tradition of power equal to theirs. But I have a story, nonetheless.
It happened in one season, a sweltering New York City summer. In this part of the world, seasons slide into each other, but we try to bind them with dates just the same. I don’t abide by official beginnings and ends. A season begins the moment you feel it, not only when leaves, or clocks, or sunsets change. Still, stories have to begin somewhere, so I will start with the season.