“The man in rags outside the subway station plays love notes that lift into the sky like tiny beacons of light.”
“What is love?” Kafka asked in contemplating love and the power of patience. “After all, it is quite simple,” he answered his own question. “Love is everything which enhances, widens, and enriches our life. In its heights and in its depths. Love has as few problems as a motor-car. The only problems are the driver, the passengers, and the road.”
Behind the comical quip lies a common strain of cynicism. One need not be as profoundly defeated by love as Kafka to default to this achingly human form of self-defense — for cynicism is, after all, a maladaptive coping mechanism when we feel the threat of disappointment and heartbreak. I take a less cynical perspective and stand with J.D. McClatchy: “Love is the quality of attention we pay to things.” And in those moments when the heart stands on the brink of breakage, I like to revise Borges’s timeless reflection on the nature of time, substituting love for time to produce a sentiment of equally exquisite profundity: “Love is the substance I am made of. Love is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”
Perhaps the truest and most abiding thing about love is that it means different things to each of us, and presents itself in myriad different guises.
That splendid multiplicity of manifestations is what author Matt de la Peña and illustrator Loren Long explore with uncommon loveliness in a book simply titled Love (public library) — a testament to my long-held conviction that great “children’s” books are simply great books, imaginative and intelligible to young readers, replete with soulful wisdom that spills into what we grownups call philosophy.
In the beginning there is light and two wide-eyed figures standing near the foot of your bed, and the sound of their voices is love.
The book is as a mosaic of vignettes, each unfolding against the backdrop of the New York City skyline and capturing a particular tessellation of love, addressed in the second person to a child who transmogrifies across ages, genders, ethnicities, and faiths across the pages — a small black boy whose older brother hands him breakfast as they watch their father take the bus to work in the blizzard at dawn; a small Latina girl clutching her teddy bear as terrifying news streams into the family living room under the blessing glances of Frida Kahlo and Jesus Christ; a Muslim girl laying in an open field of flowers, drinking in the love of the trees and the wind and the universe; a little white boy curled with his dog under the grand piano of a lavish home, looking small and lonely and afraid as his father rages and his mother cries; a young black girl searching her own beautiful eyes in the bathroom mirror — all discovering the various meanings and manifestations of love, braided of sweetness and difficulty and simple gladness.
A cabdriver plays love softly on his radio while you bounce in back with the bumps of the city and everything smells new, and it smells like life.
Love is the embrace of a mother after a bad dream, and a grandfather’s creased face, and a father dancing with his daughter atop their mobile home overlooking a clothesline and the ocean sunset, and the old lady pointing to the sky with reverence for the steadfast stars.
Love, too, is the smell of crashing waves, and a train whistling blindly in the distance, and each night the sky above your trailer turns the color of love.
On the night the fire alarm blares, you’re pulled from sleep and whisked into the street, where a quiet old lady is pointing to the sky.
“Stars shine long after they’ve flamed out,” she tells you, “and the shine they shine with love.”
One day you find your family nervously huddled around the TV, but when you ask what happened, they answer with silence and shift between you and the screen.
And in time you learn to recognize a love overlooked. A love that wakes at dawn and rides to work on the bus. A slice of burned toast that tastes like love.
And the man in rags outside the subway station plays love notes that lift into the sky like tiny beacons of light.
Complement the throughly wonderful Love with philosopher Skye Cleary on why we love, John Steinbeck’s letter of advice on love to his teenage son, philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how you know whether you love somebody, and Jessica Strand’s enchanting illustrated collection of classic love poems, then dive into this growing archive of beautiful love letters.