It was our first vacation together, now 24 years ago. We were rafting on the Rio Grande in central Colorado. Just the two of us, in a small rubber raft. No guide, as two inexperienced rafters probably should have had. The gray water was swift and turbulent. Rocks jutted out everywhere, jagged knives, sentries of slime, poised to rip our flimsy float. We twisted and spun in the flow. Now I was in front, then he, then I. Hoarse with fear, I shouted over the roar of the river: Paddle this way! Paddle that! I resurrected strokes from long-gone memories of summer camp. Pull the paddle! Push the paddle! (No time for feathering now.) We traveled like smoke in a breeze, for miles it seemed, when abruptly the river veered right and a tall wall of rock appeared directly in our path. "Back, back," I screamed. "Stroke! Back!" Though he must have heard, he did not heed me. He'd gone to camp, too—Boy Scout camp. He did what he had to do, issued orders of his own—not that I could see or hear beyond myself at that moment. Miraculously, we cleared the wall and headed into a lull in the river. In frustration and fatigue, I announced: "We have conceptual differences!" To which he answered: "Shut up and paddle." Not exactly what I might have dreamed of. But we were safe after all, and in relief and disillusion, we laughed and kept paddling down the canyon.
What is a story if not a metaphor, a myth in the making?
Love is a raft in a swiftly moving river, scant protection against rapids and rocks, a private place of smells and tastes, eloquent looks and intimate touch, a cache of common dreams and accumulated history. We seek its secret, but it is as individual as one's own face, hidden even from ourselves. Me, Joan; you, Al. We have conceptual differences. We are conceptual differences. We don't even pull into the driveway the same way. But isn't that where love begins, in the difference—the otherness—that makes love possible, and necessary?
Love is the mystery of union, the distance to be transcended, the fuel to cross an infinity. It's another kind of math. Two times Love equals One. We are One and not One, a paradox in being. And that's only the half of it, maybe only half of the half—my half. We shout and we shut up. We laugh, we paddle. The fuel is a flame that flickers. We give it air, and we trust the flame will not go out. The dramatic tension is internal.
As Robert Heinlein told us in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land: "Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own." So simple—the happiness of the other is essential to our own. Practice it for homework. That's a how-to that bears repeating, on a daily basis. As one wise woman, who outlived three happy husbands, advised: "Find out what he doesn't like, and don't do it."
That's a love story I'd like to report, a story missing in the popular media. As Johnson said: It takes a shift of vision.
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