A Valentine for those who dream

Barefoot, she smiled, leapt without looking, and tumbled into the Seine.

The water was freezing; she spent a month sneezing, but said she would do it again.

Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.

Here’s to the hearts that ache; here’s to the mess we make.


From La La Land

You can fully enjoy the film La La Land only if it speaks to the romantic deep inside — with whom you may not yet be well acquainted. The film is a classic romance, which means it covers what I call the romantic trinity: “What could have been … what should have been … what cannot be.”

Romantics are fundamentally out of synch with the world of realists and idealists. But I still harbor a longstanding (and romantic) hope: That everyone has a romantic hiding somewhere inside.

Many of us find a way to let the romantic breathe, and even let it loose here and there, usually under carefully controlled conditions, like a prisoner on furlough, because we fear the power of that energy. Midlife “crises” usually mean the romantic has wriggled free, with or without our consent. At certain points in our lives that energy becomes uncontainable.

The romantic in us is the embodiment of the life force itself, so if you never set it free, you probably haven’t truly lived. Too many of us live without our hearts in what we do. Romantics show us how. That’s why we need them.

But that energy can tear lives apart if left unchecked, so most of us keep the romantic under wraps. Some try to strangle it altogether. You know them by their unhappiness. Some are disappointed or disillusioned romantics. You know them by their cynicism.

The rest of us let the romantic loose in small doses. He sometimes comes out after an extra glass of wine or in our dreams or blurting out our true feelings for someone in an unguarded moment. A reader once called me a romantic when I wrote a column threatening to chain myself to the Magikist lips, the late, great neon sign that hovered over the Eisenhower Expressway near Cicero. But a true romantic would actually do it.

It’s the difference between handing your significant other flowers and telling her, as Jack Nicholson’s character does in the film As Good As it Gets: “You make me want to be a better man” — and then becoming that man. For some, it might be one great romantic moment in a lifetime; for others, it’s a series of small blossomings.

One of the main functions movies serve is sublimating our romanticism, allowing us to live it vicariously. That can be a drawback if it keeps us from living our own life more fully. Nonetheless, it’s thrilling to see Ronny in “Moonstruck” tell the realist Loretta after they attend the opera “La Boheme”:

“I don’t care if I burn in hell. I don’t care if you burn in hell. The past and the future is a joke to me now. The only thing that’s here is you and me. … Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. Love don’t make things nice; it makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. Snowflakes are perfect, stars are perfect. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and, and die! The storybooks are b.s. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!”

You see the same romantic energy unleashed in films like Silver Linings Playbook, Zorba the Greek and Cinema Paradiso — or in Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderfully romantic short story, “The Long Walk to Forever.” 

And you see it in La La Land.

She told me a bit of madness is key 

To give us new colors to see.

Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us.

So bring on the rebels, the ripples from pebbles,

The painters and poets and plays

And here’s to the ones who dream

Crazy as they may seem.

Here’s to the hearts that break; here’s to the mess we make.

As Zorba, that romantic for the ages, tells his timid master: “A man must be crazy once in a while or he dares not cut the ropes and be free.”

Poet Mary Oliver advises, as we float down river in the skiff of our ordinary lives, “When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks — when you hear that unmistakable pounding — when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming — then row, row for your life toward it.” 

Not the kind of advice a realist would likely give. Which is not to disparage the realist, who in the best of all possible worlds willingly works with the romantic to turn dreams into reality. 

Each of the dreamers in La La Land helps the other to realize their respective dreams. The realist in one emerges when the romantic in the other weakens. Later, the romantic takes charge when the realist is close to giving up. 

In the end, though, they actualize their dreams without the other. The dream that doesn’t come true is happily ever after. In the beautiful compression montage of images at the end, the two lovers play out in their hearts the romantic dilemma: What could have been … what should have been … what cannot be.

Sad? Tragic? Something in the future that may yet be consummated? Perhaps. But for true romantics, happily ever after is rarely a realistic ending.

As my college professor in Romantic Poetry class some 40 years ago said about Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, “You can look at this poem two ways: One is, the two lovers had it, but it was only for a moment. The other is, it was only a moment, but they had it.”

The first is spoken by the realist. Romantics know the second is often all that life allows — but that moment redeems everything else.

I trace it all back to then,

Her and the snow and the Seine.

Smiling through it, she said

She’d do it again.

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