Most of my life, I’ve been on the trail of true love. Lately the search has intensified due to sheltering-in-place, social-distancing and self-quarantine. With the unexpected luxury of more time, I’ve been working my way through my DVD and CD collections, which, being American art forms, heavily tilt toward romance. Also because I’ve been a romantic since falling madly in love with Snow White after a trip to the movie theater when I was 5.

My DVD journey began with Shakespeare in Love, wherein Queen Elizabeth, holding court, proposes a wager: “Can a play capture the very truth and nature of love?” she asks. Shakespeare accepts the challenge and begins writing the immortal Romeo & Juliet, a torrent of romantic language the like of which had never been heard by human ears before (or maybe since). “She doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear; Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! … Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”

Just words, perhaps, but according to the film, based on the symbiotic relationship between real life and the imagination known as “lived experience.” After the play’s debut, even the crusty queen admits that Will has won the wager. He and his lover’s torch burned brightly, but all too briefly. Star-crossed indeed. Ah, you might say, they loved, but it was only for a moment. Is that the very truth and nature of love? The Bard turns such stinginess on its head. It was only for a moment, he says, but they loved.

My cinematic journey continued with Robin & Marian (Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, who capture the very truth and nature of aging love as they choose not to live happily ever after, together engineering a romantic end to their love story), followed by Bridges of Madison County (Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep conduct a clinic on falling in love, with a codicil on the enduring nature of true love), Out of Africa (Streep and Robert Redford underscore how true the love that cannot last can be) and coming full circle with West Side Story, Sondheim and Bernstein’s modern retelling of Shakespeare’s fortune-forsaken lovers, whose love blazes brightly, but is cut short by the petty hatreds and societal shortcomings holding them hostage.

None of these stories have happy endings. Nonetheless, all capture the very truth and nature of love.

Yet all are works of the imagination. Does true love exist in the real world, beyond art’s creative crucible? 

In the pandemic’s crucible, we are seeing love’s mettle tested. Relationships, confined to home, endure stressors that probe for cracks and weaknesses. What are we learning? What advanced degrees in love are we earning? I live alone, but, judging by numerous entries in the dozens of small notebooks carried in my back pocket for the past 20 years, I’ve given this fair thought. Combing through, I found some advice about keeping love alive.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

“The way to handle a woman is to love her, merely love her, simply love her, love her, love her.” (Merlin, as recalled by King Arthur, in Camelot)

“How could you ever be happy with a man who would treat you as if you were a perfectly normal human being?” (Oscar Wilde)

“The love we hold back is the only pain that follows us.” (Audrey Hepburn as an angel in the film, Always)

“Fate is kind. She gives to those who love the sweet fulfillment of their secret longing.” (Jiminy Cricket, “When You Wish Upon A Star”)

“Do something excellent in her presence.” (From the film, The Tao of Steve) 

“Now that we are one, which one shall we be? Shall we be you or shall we be me?” (Jerome Kern, Ira Gershwin)

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.'” (Mary Anne Radmacher-Hershey)

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be.” (Luke 12:32)

“If that’s not love, what is?” (Fiddler on the Roof)

“You have to be willing to let go of the life you planned in order to make room for the life you’re meant to live.” (Maria Shriver, AARP magazine)

“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)

“Every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.” (Seneca … and the song, “Closing Time” by Semisonic)

If that’s not love, what is? Good question. Marriage and romance, sadly, are not synonymous, but they intersect. Romance frequently leads to marriage but marriage too infrequently leads to romance. If you work at it, though, they overlap. Less anger, more kindness. More credit, less critique. More faith, less fear. Less self-interest, more selfless interest.

On my walks, I pass a house with a sign in front, written in multicolored chalk:

“There is no place like home.

There is no place like home.

There is no place like home.”

The lesson Dorothy learned by being blown all the way to Oz, we are learning staying home during this crisis. For better and for worse, there is no place like home. We have the opportunity to discover how true our love is — for each other, our neighbors and our fellow Americans. 

There are two kinds of love — internal and external. Internal love exists at the level of feeling and potential. If it doesn’t spill over, however, if we can’t bring love into the world and turn it into a verb, it’s like a tree falling in the forest. Love only becomes real and tangible when we show it. You don’t really love someone unless you’re actually, actively loving them. As Martin Buber wrote, love happens “between” an I and a You. 

During this crisis, people have found many ways to show true, if less romantic, love. I helped a friend of mine this past weekend make soup to deliver to friends who suffered a terrible loss from this disease.

Many sicknesses afflict this country. Love is the antidote to all of them, but we are the ones who will bring this cure to the world. 

We are love’s antibodies.

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