How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."
That’s how Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous sonnet begins. It goes on:
"I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach…
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise."
It’s a beautiful poem (you really should read it in its entirety if you haven’t already) that sends a shiver up my spine every time I revisit it. Not least because love is such a universal emotion that it unites us all. And yet, all of us express it in so many different ways.
Be my baby:When it comes to romantic love, the world is divided into two categories. In the first are those who shower their loved ones with flowers, extravagant presents and exotic holidays We may not be able to articulate our feelings with the felicity that Barrett Browning manages so effortlessly. But in our own bumbling, mumbling way, we express the love we feel for family and friends every day of our lives.
We all know of mothers – and increasingly, fathers – who express their love through food. They find the greatest pleasure in feeding their children. They coax them to eat when they are infants, each mouthful an accomplishment, every clean plate a personal triumph.
They harangue them to finish their greens and go easy on junk food as they grow into stroppy teenagers. They stock up on their favourite foods when they come back from college. And even after they have grown up and have kids of their own, the fattening of the prodigal daughter or son never ceases. And thus, the cycle goes.
At the other end of the parental spectrum are the proponents of what they like to call ‘tough love’. Their love is expressed through the exercise of discipline: get up on time, get your homework done, get better grades, get a good job, get it together.
Those at the receiving end may find these constant exhortations annoying – and who can blame them for that? – but there is no denying that they come from a place of love. These are the actions of people who want good things for you, even if their way of ensuring that is less than endearing.
When it comes to romantic love, the world is divided into two categories. In the first are those who go in for the big romantic gesture. They shower their loved ones with flowers, extravagant presents, exotic holidays, and the like. These are the people who spend weeks thinking up the best way to propose marriage, splash enormous amounts of money on getting the perfect ring, and then take months to plan their over-the-top weddings.
Yes, George Clooney, I am looking at you. The erstwhile ‘committed bachelor’ who organised a ‘dream wedding’ for his lady love, human rights barrister Amal Alamuddin, in the impossibly romantic location of Venice, because they had first met in Italy.
The four-day wedding extravaganza, with A-listers flying in from all over the world, cost between 10 to 15 million dollars (depending on who’s counting). And that’s not accounting for the 750,000 dollars that George paid for Amal’s engagement ring, a seven carat emerald-cut diamond, or the cost of the many couture outfits the bride and groom wore every day.
So, that’s George Clooney for you. On the other hand, there are those who just pitch up at the wedding registrar’s office, say their vows, exchange their rings, and save their money for the honeymoon of their dreams, or even more practically, a deposit on a house.
That’s not to say that these couples are any less in love than George and the luminous Amal. It’s just that their love is expressed in a different way: in spending quality time with one another, buying a house in which they can build their life together, creating a home they can grow old in. For them, the romance lies not in the wedding but in the marriage.
These are the people who specialise in showing their love for others in practical, everyday ways. We all have friends like these (at least, I hope you do!). They are the ones who show up unannounced to accompany you for that MRI you have been so dreading.
They remember which colours/designers/authors/singers you like when it comes to buying your birthday presents. They send you fruit rather than flowers when you are recovering from an illness.
They will talk to you for hours on end if they feel you are feeling low. They will take you out for lunch, dinner, a movie, or even a walk, if they sense you need cheering up. In fact, their mere presence in your life is chicken soup for your soul (and they will send some over for good measure when you have a cold).
Speaking for myself, I must confess I am not the one for extravagant gestures. For me, the best measure of love is to share the things I love with the people I love.
It could be a book that I treasure, a family recipe, a movie that moved me, or a comedy show that reduced me to tears. And it is those kind of gestures that smack of true love as far as I am concerned. (Though that’s not to say I would turn up my nose at an emerald-cut diamond!)
But no matter how it is expressed, we should all be grateful for the love we have in our lives. So, as the festive season begins, let’s all hear it for love. Express it every day in ways both big and small. Keep yourself open to it in whatever form and shape it may come. And sing along with Bill Nighy, "So if you really love me, Come on and let it show…"
From HT Brunch, October 12
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