Of Love and Other Mysteries

 Try this exercise: Go out to a park or into a bar or church and ask several individuals their definition or understanding of ‘love’.

The answers you succeed in getting will surely be disparate and difficult to synthesize. Our age, sex, culture, religion (if any) and personal experiences will all influence our responses. Many will believe that true love, like Peace on Earth and other ideal states, is unattainable. Others will believe it’s a discipline, so if you play according to the rules, it will eventually be yours. Some will confuse it with infatuation —an obsessive and unsustainable flooding of emotions, that will always include that I’ll-die-if-you-leave-me feeling.

So what is it, exactly?

There is no simple answer and, indeed, it may be beyond human capacity to define. I believe this but respect the rights of others to define it as they will. One of the most challenging definitions is the following, which is often read at church weddings here:  

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

If this doesn’t make you count to ten, take a deep breath, think twice or leave the door to conjugal love closed altogether, then nothing will.

One of my favorite authors is Raymond Carver, known widely for his short stories and poetry. He was a smoker and full-blown alcoholic, who eventually sought treatment for his addiction in 1974, though he continued to drink until his third 682F5342-68F8-4F01-B5C9-F25DB515DE8Chospitalization in 1977. Among other things, he was warned that the threat of death was imminent for him if he kept drinking.

During that same year he met Tess Gallagher at a writers’ conference in Dallas, TX, and in 1979 they began to live together. They waited until June of 1988 to marry and six months later Carver died of lung cancer on August 8, 1988. Carver hadn’t divorced his first wife until 1982, and much of his earlier emotional troubles were undoubtedly traceable beak to their married life and eventual breakup.

Carver and Tess knew he was dying well before they decided to marry. Somewhere within his troubled history he had kept his sense of love alive. His prior life and decision to marry made me look into his work to see what he thought of love. I will leave you with two of his poems, both written just prior to his death, which fulfilled my search.


From the window I see her bend to the roses
holding close to the bloom so as not to
prick her fingers. With the other hand she clips, pauses and
clips, more alone in the world
than I had known. She won’t
look up, not now. She’s alone
with roses and with something else I can only think, not
say. I know the names of those bushes
given for our late wedding: Love, Honor, Cherish—
this last the rose she holds out to me suddenly, having
entered the house between glances. I press
my nose to it, draw the sweetness in, let it cling—scent
of promise, of treasure. My hand on her wrist to bring her close,
her eyes green as river-moss. Saying it then, against
what comes: wife, while I can, while my breath,                                                               each hurried petal
can still find her.

Late Fragment[1]

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

Please take from them what you find, even if it is nothing. For me, they take me closer to and understanding of love in its fullest sense.


[1](Both poems) Carver, Raymond (1989) A New Path to the Waterfall. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press

Raymond Carver Revisited

Raymond Carver with the love of his last 11 years, Tess Gallagher

Shortly after these two met, Carver’s doctor told him that his drinking was certainly going to kill him, and he emphasized sooner rather than later. Raymond’s spirits were notably renewed in Tess’ company and shortly after the doctor’s pronouncement he quit drinking and joined AA. Then, after surviving another eight years of life, a different doctor diagnosed him with terminal lung cancer. Almost two years later, on August 3, 1988, Raymond Carver died at the age of 50.

During those last two years this man, much too young to die, came to grips with the death rising up inside him. He and Tess dedicated themselves to compiling a book of his poetry mixed here and there with other poems, mostly by Anton Chekov. Tess and Raymond managed to finish the content of A New Path to the Waterfall before his death, but the task of compiling it all into book form fell to Tess.

In her Introduction to this small book, Tess Gallagher said:

It seems important finally to say that Ray did not regard his poetry as simply a hobby or a pastime he turned to when he wanted a rest from fiction. Poetry was a spiritual necessity.

His poetry written during these last two years was replete with shadows of his impending death. But at first he wrote with touches of humor as he did in «What the Doctor Said»:

What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

What a wry response to being told that he had at least thirty-two tumors on one lung:

«I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that»

Then, later, through his poems he confronted reality head on. I can imagine «Through the Boughs» as having been  written on the day that he came to feel more dead than alive, that inevitable time when fight becomes surrender and the present takes on more worth more than the future.

Through the Boughs

Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking

birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think,

that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was,

they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes.

The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and

won’t stop blowing.… Give me your hand for a time. Hold on

to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we

thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was,

those ragged birds cry.

Time is at the heart of what Carver expresses here. But time as what? It is time that was before all things changed; time as any day now, any minute, time of the present which seems to stand still while hands are held; and time viewed naïvely as an ally. 

To me it was time cut short. The final silencing of a uniquely talented voice that love had recently strengthened.


When Hope is Gone

This small volume of mostly poetry was published by the estate of Raymond Carver in 1989, one year after the author’s death. It was compiled by his wife, Tess Gallagher, also a poet and short story writer, who devoted herself to collaborating on what they both knew would be his final effort.


She also wrote the book’s introduction, and it was there, in a quote from Carver’s personal journal, that I found one of those magical lines of prose that make you stop reading to think long and hard about what you’ve just read.


When hope is gone, the ultimate sanity is to grasp at straws.

Sanity is an ephemeral state. It is circumstantial, cultural, temporal and not at all applicable in some universal way. Carver chose the sanity most comfortable for him and what he was facing then and there.

Some time afterward, he relaxed his stand and wrote the following well-known poem just before he died:

Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

-Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall

What at first appears to be an unimaginative and overly-simplistic list of what he wanted in his life, I could argue, after lots of thought, is really exhaustive.

Short Stories That Pack a Novel’s Punch


Raymond Carver (1938 – 1988) died too young, as did Roberto Bolaño, whom I wrote about in Spanish a few days ago. Carver’s personal demon was alcohol and, though he tried, he just couldn’t lay off of it until he quit, cold turkey, in 1978. His death ten years later was attributed to lung cancer, so tobacco trumped alcohol in the end.

Besides short stories, he also wrote many poems, and I suspect he might have even preferred to be remembered for his poetry over and above his prose. But just as it is with nearly every life lost, those of us left behind are the ones to determine who and what our memories will carry forward.

Carver’s reputation and status among other writers of fiction is not something that other authors and critics all agree upon. He has been compared favorably to Hemingway, he has been judged unjustly because his original stories received  heavy editing to reduce word volume by Gordon Lish, his manager, and he he has been criticized for adopting the minimalist model only to use it to hide his laziness.

I have become enthralled by some of Carver’s short stories, and today, I would like to single out «So Much Water So Close to Home». If you become interested, be sure to look for this story in the recent edition of Carver’s works, Beginnings, as he wrote them, without any of Lish’s subsequent editing. Personally, I couldn’t expect more from any writer’s short story.

It starts out harmlessly enough when Stuart and three of his pokers and bowling buddies head off on one of their twice a year fishing trips to a distant lake. There they get caught up in a moral dilemma that is easy to argue from either side, but, in my mind, very difficult to judge impartially. It made me do more soul searching than many novels have done.

I won’t say more than this so as not to be a spoiler. As my final comment I will say that Carver’s genius really shows up when he decided to write the story in the first person, from his wife’s point of view. Give it a fair read and maybe you’ll agree.