But Wasn’t That Love?

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Flashback to hiking in the Himalayas

“He said, ‘I love you.’
She shook her head. ‘You can see me, that’s all.’
But wasn’t that love? Seeing what no one else could?”
                            –Bone Gap, Laura Ruby

“I’m so scared of dying without ever being really seen. Can you understand?”
–David Foster Wallace

When I was 18, I believed you could fully know a person. I believed you could understand a person’s thoughts and feelings and the entirety of their past. I believed that love meant that every axis of a person’s life was illuminated, that there were no secrets, no shadows to be excised. I believed that others could learn to see you in the same fluid, tilted way you saw yourself.

I don’t believe any of that anymore.

Last night I sat on a dock on Lake George and watched the surrounding mountains blossom with lights as darkness settled. The night was warm and the sound of boat horns echoed along the expanse of lake, and in an instant my memory sparked and I was brought back to my days in the Himalayas, how I’d sit on the rooftop deck of my dorm and watch the lights of Dehradun in the distance. I was always alone. I always left my classmates behind in their crowded rooms. The lights seemed to glitter in the thin mountain air, and I watched them with my legs scrunched together, singing the same Iron and Wine song underneath my breath.

My life was smaller at 18. I’d never lived outside of my parents’ suburban neighborhood. I’d never been by myself in a city, or fallen in love, or made clay sculptures in a cave by the light of my headlamp. Life was easier to encompass, it was still something you could hold and pass along like a tide-worn pebble, no thorns, no knots. I still didn’t fully believe in being alone.

A coworker asked to see my water bottle the other night after catching glimpse of my Glacier National Park sticker, and we talked about hiking, and seasonal work, and the beauty of the West. I spent three months by myself on the road, and it was one of the best periods of my life. But that time spent alone, those private, radiant moments, are impossible to share. Words are flimsy. Like sunlight through wanting hands, those moments cannot be held.

And it’s not just me. Most people I know have their own corners and cobwebs, the places of themselves where light only trickles in. The other evening my partner mentioned his time traveling out West–hitchhiking and surviving off pocket crumbs–and his brow furrowed with bad memories. I will never know most of his previous life, I’ll never know the boy he was before with brighter hair and fewer freckles, but maybe it’s through possessing these private thoughts and memories we ensure that above all else, we’ll always belong to ourselves. Life is better with mystery, anyway.

In this mess of light and love, of being seen, of being human, I think of a Vincent Van Gogh quote:

“I tell you, the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

I share my time and my thoughts. I try my best to be open and honest. And maybe that’s all any of us can do. Try to be human and empathetic, try to convey what it feels like to be alive in our own earthen and wanting skin, try to convey that through whatever means we can.

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