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February 12, 2015

Love is strong as death

Valentine's Day Relationships
Amy and Clark Glenn Handout Art /for PhillyVoice

While the wise workings of love far surpass my own limited understanding, I do know one thing. Without love, we are irrevocably adrift.

Set me as a seal upon your heart

As a seal upon your arm

For love is strong as death

Song of Solomon 8:6

Tuba City, Arizona

My friend Sarah kicks up her legs. She rests her feet in the corner of the open passenger seat window. Warm, southwestern summer air moves through the spaces between her toes. 

I’m driving. After a week of camping, practicing yoga and exploring the ancient ruins of northeastern Arizona, we are on our way to Sarah’s home in Phoenix. It’s a carefree time. I just finished volunteering at a horse ranch in Tucson. My graduate school applications are in the mail. I am 22 years old.  

Soon, we see them. Two young men stand by their motorcycles on the side of the road. They are securing their gear, checking maps. We pass by.

“They’re cute,” Sarah says and smiles. 

In less than 10 minutes, they pass us. Two motorcycles, fully loaded, speed by on the left. This time I get a better look at the riders. I turn to Sarah and say, “You’re right. Let’s catch up with them.”

We are the only travelers on the two-lane highway, “a car commercial road” as my husband would later describe it. We play a spontaneous game of motor vehicular leapfrog. We speed up to pass them and then slow down. Soon, they speed by and pass us. Then, they slow down. We repeat this game a few times and smile at each other. Suddenly, one of the young men drops back to ride next to us in the emergency lane. Through the open window, he shouts out an invitation to stop at the next gas station. They need to refuel and would like to meet us.

Soon, we approach a service station and watch them turn off the highway. 

“Let’s not stop,” Sarah suggests. 

I hear the edge of concern in her voice. After all, we don’t know them. Usually, I’d agree with her. But we aren’t stopping to talk to any random men on motorcycles. They’re our age. Like us, they’re on an adventure. There’s something special about them. 

“We’ve got to at least meet them,” I tell her. 

Spontaneously, I turn into a small-town gas-station parking lot in Tuba City, Arizona. I’ve never chased anyone down on the road before. This should be interesting. 

The midday summer sun shines brightly. Once the bikes are refueled, the four of us gather to talk. We discover that our motorcyclists, Jason and Clark, are on their way to California. Hailing from Alabama, they’ve devoted the summer to a cross-country motorcycle trip. 

At one point, Clark turns to me and says, “Have you heard of Young Life?” 

Was he about to sell me insurance? 

Later, I discover that Young Life is a non-denominational Christian youth group he once belonged to. The question is a compliment. 

“You are full of positive energy, and I’ve only encountered people like you in Young Life,” he explains. 

“Let’s get lunch together,” I suggest, pointing to a Navajo truck-stop café across the road. All agree. We leave the car and motorcycles and walk across the dusty, red landscape. 

As soon as we sit down to order, a rush of intense energy fills my body. From head to toe, I feel the intuitive wonder of knowing I am standing on the precipice of something quite remarkable. 

Clark and I spend the next hour sharing stories. We maintain steady eye contact as we talk with honesty, clarity, excitement and ease. 

“Whatever spirit lives in me also lives in him.” 

These words come to me clearly. I don’t eat a bite of my Navajo vegetarian burrito. I can’t. All I want to do is connect to this amazing person sitting across from me. 

“Will you come to the Grand Canyon with us?” Clark asks. 


The Beloved

Nineteen years later, Clark and I continue to sit down at a table together and share stories. That seemingly chance encounter in the desert profoundly transformed our lives. 

Our paths crossed on the highway outside Tuba City in 1996. We married in 1998. Our mutual love for travel has taken us to Iran, Turkey, Mexico, Australia, Germany and Colombia – to name a few countries. From college to professional school, from the West to the East Coast, we ended up spending nearly all of our 20s and 30s together. We’ve known great joy and heartache, delight and despair, fighting and forgiving. 

“Basically, we’ve grown up together,” as Clark puts it. 

“Marriage is an ordeal,” writes Joseph Campbell, the famous scholar of mythology. To fully develop our potential as individuals, while nurturing a relationship, involves both trials and revelations. Campbell continues, “What a beautiful thing is a life together as growing personalities, each helping the other to flower.” Over the course of 19 years, I can unequivocally state that I’m a better person for knowing and loving Clark. Marriage is a beautiful and difficult flowering. 

How to fully explain the energy that sustains a healthy marriage? In “The Power of Myth,” Campbell describes three forms of love: Agape, eros and amor. According to Campbell, both eros and agape are impersonal. After all, the sexual energy of eros can be awakened without knowing anything about the desired person’s interior life. Simply observe how savvy profiteers harness the power of eros to market their goods. Agape, compassionate love, is also impersonal. Wisdom traditions worldwide call upon us to cultivate agape for all, not just the people we personally know or like. 

Distinct from eros and agape, amor is personal. Like familial love, the energy of amor is directed toward a specific beloved. Campbell regards amor as the highest and deepest expression of love, uniting and transcending both eros and agape. Amor compels beloved ones to risk danger, adventure, marriage and even death. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke described amor as the most difficult love, “for which all the work of one’s life is just preparation.” 

The search for amor is a re-occurring theme found in mythologies worldwide. It is also a re-occurring theme in philosophy. For example, in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes explains why the search for the beloved is so intense. 

Originally, human beings had four arms, four legs and two sets of genitalia. Those with both male and female parts were called the children of the moon. Those with two sets of female parts were called children of the earth. The children of the sun referred to human beings with two sets of male parts. At this time, humans were extraordinarily powerful and lacked interest in honoring any gods. So, the gods became jealous. Using lightning bolts, they cut each person into two. Amor’s intensity results from the search for, and discovery of, the missing half of one’s original self. According to Aristophanes, no earthly joy can compare to re-unification. 

“If we hadn’t met that day in the desert, we would have met somehow,” Clark once told me. 

While I admire my husband’s faith in the mysteries of amor, I admit I’m agnostic on this point. I’m not certain I agree with Aristophanes. Is there only one true beloved out there for each of us to find? If Clark hadn’t met me, would he have found equal, or greater, joy/challenge in nurturing amor with another? Today, I look at our 3-year-old son and am astonished that his particular and beautiful existence depended upon an intuitive turn of car wheels on a desert road 19 years ago. 

While the wise workings of love far surpass my own limited understanding, I do know one thing. Without love, we are irrevocably adrift. For it is the power of love alone that sustains, even in the face of death. 

Strong as Death

Staccato beeping sounds wake me from a very short slumber characteristic of my hospital chaplaincy days. I look at the clock. It’s 4:11 a.m. I blink my eyes and speak a few encouraging words to myself. 

“Come on Amy, you can do this. Sit up.” 

I take a deep breath and check the message on my beeper. Someone died on the oncology floor. A grieving family awaits support. I turn on the lights, put on my shoes and quickly fold the hospital-issued blanket that once covered me. I affix my chaplaincy ID badge on my shirt. Since I’m already dressed, the process of getting ready takes only a few moments. Soon I am waiting for the nurse to buzz open the doors to the oncology intensive care unit. 

An elderly man’s body rests motionless on a hospital bed. A breathing tube sticks out of his mouth. An attending nurse turns off the now silent machines. A daughter and son-in-law stand quietly by the window. The man’s wife of 63 years sits in a wheelchair next to him. She holds her husband’s now lifeless hand. Her head hangs low toward her chest. 

The newly widowed woman weeps. Copious, difficult, painful cries of letting go rack her elderly frame. She shakes. Suddenly, she wants to stand. 

“I want to kiss him one last time,” she tells me. 

“I can help you do that.” 

I look at her with gentleness. 

I briefly introduce myself and ask permission to help her up from her chair. I place my hands under her arms and guide her to her feet. I move the wheelchair aside and stand directly behind her. She leans into my support. I hold her up. 

From this intimate vantage point, I watch the woman’s wrinkled hands slowly caress a very familiar face. I can only imagine the stories she could share. Sixty-three years of marriage to be sealed now with a final kiss. The couple’s daughter and son-in-law move to the foot of the bed. I ask the daughter if she wants to take my place in holding her mother. 

“No, I think I’ll faint,” she answers. 

Her husband holds her close. 

The nurse approaches. 

“Let me take out the tube. Then, you can kiss him,” she says. 

The nurse skillfully removes the breathing apparatus and applies balm to the man’s dry and cracked lips. She is making this moment count. I breathe in gratefulness. 

The woman leans toward her husband. Soft tears fall onto her beloved’s motionless face. 

“I love you. I love you. I love you.” 

Their lips touch. She kisses him one last time. We are all crying.  

I don’t remember how this encounter ends. The experience is timeless to me. In my work as a chaplain, this woman’s tearful, heart-wrenching, gentle and graceful goodbye stands as one of the most precious moments I’ve ever witnessed. 

Whenever I think of this story, I think of Clark. Will he be kissing my lips? Will my tears fall on his face? I vow to again recognize how each breath, each heartbeat, is a gift. When I despair at the inevitable ending of all compound things, I remember there is another power at work in our lives, one as strong as death.  

The Course of Love 

And think not you can direct the course of love.

For love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

-- Khalil Gibran

In the summer of 2006, Clark and I return to the Navajo truck-stop café in Tuba City, Arizona. We walk around the gas station where fate and four young travelers once mingled. Before we leave, Clark picks up a handful of red desert rocks and constructs a simple heart-shaped shrine. He places it by the side of the road where we first saw each other. 

“Ten years from now, let’s come back here again,” he says. 

Then he kisses me. 

Nine years pass. 

Next year, we’ll journey again to Tuba City, this time with a child in tow. I want to show our son the heart-shaped collection of stones. 

“Your father believes in the power of love,” I’ll tell him. “He put these stones here because he loves.” 

As I write these words, both my husband and son are sleeping. Breath moves in and out of their bodies. Hearts beat, minds rest, spirits renew in dreamtime. Their love, manifesting as father and son, singularly links through my being. It’s an astonishing wonder. Today, that free-spirited young woman within gratefully and harmoniously integrates with my identity as mother and wife. The day in the desert, the heart-shaped shrine of stones, the capacity of amor’s power to persevere through trials and sorrow, fill me with gratitude. 

May we each be open to the intuitive promptings of love’s direction. May we be sustained by the strength of love when we inevitably encounter death.

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