Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"Willie, what is love mean?"

My dear Pim,

I have been trying to figure out how to answer this question from you. I, who am so good with words, am struck dumb by the fact of love. The American jazz musician Louis Armstrong, when asked how to define the meaning of jazz, said, "If you gotta ask, you'll never know." I think love is like jazz, you can only know it from the inside, from the heart, and not from any definition which tries to capture it in words. If you don't feel it, you can't know what it is.

Then I think: I am not a very good person to ask about love. I have been married twice and both marriages ended in divorce from women with whom I am no longer friendly. I have had several other love affairs in my long life and most of those women left me because I was not then a good person. I have been a selfish lover, looking out for my own needs over those of the women I've been with. I wanted to be loved more than I wanted to love. And this I am convinced is wrong. Love can never be selfish. It must always be concerned with the well-being of the other person. Love is giving more than receiving.

Love is a deep, tender feeling, an intense emotion, that arises from an attraction or desire for someone or some thing. There are many varieties of love: for a parent, a child, close friend, a pet animal, a favorite place, music, a political ideal. Love between people is our concern. It is much more than just friendship, than simply liking someone very much, and it goes beyond lust or sexual desire. It includes the values of sympathy, empathy and commitment. Love has many stages: the puppy love between kids, the infatuation of teenagers, and the more mature love of two adults who almost become one complete person. "I want to grow old with you" is something lovers vow to each other. I wanted to grow old with my second wife, but she wanted a new life. So I decided to start a new life myself.

Sometimes people say: "I love you, but I am not 'in love' with you." I am not sure what that means (probably that they like you rather than love you). Others try to love everyone, even the whole world. I am not sure what that means either. If you love everyone and everything, the word does not make sense, it is emptied of all meaning.

You are probably asking this question because I have doubted your love for me. I did not think a young woman could fall in love with an old man, and suspected there were other reasons to explain your attraction to me. I don't know what you felt for your first boyfriend, or for Andy (were there any others?), but I suspect with Andy it was infatuation which is fascination mixed with excitement and a bit of lust. While there is "love at first sight," I think love needs to take time to simmer, like a good soup on the stove. During your brief affair, Andy did not love you and that rejection hurt. You went to bed with me, you said, because you wanted me to love you. My love would take away your suffering. And perhaps it did, for a while. But you did not stay with me because you loved me, but because I loved you, I was nice to you, and it felt good. That is not a promising beginning for a relationship.

I am sure that you cared for me. We care for our friends, but that is not necessarily love. You care for your sister, your mother, your grandparents, and they do for you. Care can sometimes be just a response to duty, your duty toward those who help you. You cared for me, I think, because I was kind and generous to you. You wanted to speak English all the time, you said, and living with me was convenient and comfortable. In the beginning, it was exciting for both of us to be together. We went on adventures and we had "new experiences." You had never lived with a man before, you had never really had a boyfriend. I think it was an experiment for you, trying your wings like a young bird learning to fly. You had fun playing house, cleaning and washing and ironing and cooking for me. But, like everything in life, it gets old. Maybe if I had been less nice to you, it would have been easier for you to leave me when it was time to go.

You tried to make our affair last. First you told your sister, then your mother, and finally your colleagues at work. But you could not tell your friends about me because, you said, you would lose face when they learned you were living with an old man. You also could not tell your relatives, your cousin in Bangkok or your grandparents in Kalasin because they would disapprove of you living outside of marriage with an unacceptably old farang. So our relationship had no future. In the beginning you offered marriage as a way for me to get a visa (no one would know except the officials). Then you realized our age difference was a permanent barrier to getting married in Kalasin (I offered) and I felt you slowly begin to slip away.

I don't know if you really loved me. I cannot see into your heart, I cannot feel what you were feeling. Probably you should fall in love a few more times with different people to decide on your own definition of love. I always loved falling in love. It was a delicious feeling. Everything took on a rosy glow, and in the presence of the beloved I felt like a king. Nothing was impossible. Being with her was divine, being away from her was hell. In my life I have often sought that feeling, but it cannot be deliberately found. It has to find you. You cannot wish or will yourself to fall in love. It always comes as a glorious surprise.

So I must ask myself if I have loved you. It was not love at first sight. I felt sorry for you and wanted to make you feel better about yourself. I was surprised and delighted by your desire for me. The small apartment seemed larger with you in it. I felt like a kid again and it was wonderful looking at the world through your eyes. It was easy being nice and kind to you. I learned so much from you about Thailand, its culture and its food. In many ways you were my teacher. When we were together it did not seem as if the age difference mattered. Only when we imagined seeing ourselves through the eyes of others did it seem a problem. But I did not know how hard it was on you to keep up appearances, to lie to your friends and relatives. My feelings for you were selfish. You were my possession and I did not want to lose you.

Realizing this now, I feel I can let you go. I always knew this affair was doomed, and I'm surprised that it lasted a year. You should have a younger man for a lover, someone of whom you can be proud and brag to your friends, someone perhaps who can give you a child. In the end, I can love you only by letting you go. Only in this way can I think of you rather than myself.

Now I am beginning to think that I can truly love you, as your friend.


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