What does love look like? 8 Years In

In this, our 8th year of marriage, Thorsten and I invested in an Italian espresso machine. It was the dead of winter and we wanted a little taste of Italy.

The machine arrived, shiny and silver, all metal and dials and levers. After a few days of admiring it on the counter, it was clear that in order to enjoy good espresso, we needed to learn how to work it.

For a novice like me, making a good espresso has turned out to be somewhat complicated. There are a number of steps, the first one being: choose the right beans. After that, begin solving the mystery of how finely the espresso must be ground to extract the best flavor. You’ll likely get started on the next step before you perfect your grind. These types of mysteries take a long time to solve, so you can figure it out along the way. Step three is to put the ground espresso into a small metal filter. The machine comes with two of these– one for a double shot (Thorsten likes this one) and another for the one I use, a single shot. Next step: The metal filter sits inside something called a “portafilter.” (That’s basically the handle thing you use to pull the shot) and it has to be pried in and out (with a spoon or a knife) when you want to switch sizes. After each use the espresso powder must be discarded and the filter rinsed.

If you wait too long to empty the filter, it’s impossibly difficult to get the used espresso powder out of the basket. I am a fan of doing it immediately and leaving the filter in the sink to soak. Thorsten, on the other hand, hates things left in the sink and would rather leave it in the machine and dump it later. (Something that requires repeated slamming of the filter handle against the garbage can in a vain and violent attempt to loosen it.)

After a few days of passive aggressively irritating each other with the new machine, we made an agreement–“I won’t leave it in the sink to soak and you won’t leave it in the machine to harden.” The rule raised the stakes and made it into a bit of a contest– Who would forget the rule first? Who would win?

At age 16 I got most of my ideas about love from magazines and romantic comedy films. So if you’d asked me then, I’d have said, “Love is a proposal at the baseball game over the jumbo-tron.” I thought love was feeling excited, looking stunning and being admired. I wanted it to come from the right person, of course. A bunch of bold gestures from the wrong person would just seem over the top. Teenaged-me thought the intensity of a person’s romantic ideas should knock me down like a wave. Love should almost sneak up on me. Such a force, I thought, love should leave me with no choice in the matter.

It seemed of no consequence that I knew intimately what it was to be knocked down by a wave. The Atlantic Ocean is not gentle. There was nothing romantic about having my whole body scraped and pummelled across the sand, nothing exotic about the salt-water flavoured snot flowing out of my nose or the blood dripping down my knee every summer and there was definitely nothing romantic about not having a choice in the matter.

From church I heard, “love is a verb.” I took that to mean that love was supposed to be about action, not about feelings. Feelings were dangerous. “You can’t trust feelings,” they said. “Action– that’s the thing! And commitment– that’s what you want.” It should be the man’s actions, his intentions and grand declarations that prove his love and dictate the next steps in life. As for the feeling parts of love–well I was sure those had to do with how good it would feel when someone wanted to love me forever and give me lots of presents.

Presents–that was the next important aspect of love. My steady diet of Hallmark cards and rom-coms made it seem like marriage would provide you with your Valentine for life. Just imagine–Now you have a built-in person to buy you all the flowers and presents you were lacking as a single person. Isn’t that what the people meant when they said, “Cherish?”

It’s a good thing it took 20 years before the possibility of marriage truly presented itself. The years diluted many of these ideas. Our proposal had nothing to do with a sporting event or a crowd. There was no audience at all. We just looked into each other’s eyes and felt like we were floating. So much happiness bubbling up between us. We still act it out for each other once in a while just to be silly or when we need to remember what the hell we are doing this for.

When we got married, Love felt like that flying feeling you get when you’re looking forward to something amazing. And it looked like a multicultural multilingual group hug in a beautiful setting with an infinite horizon. Love, that day was about getting outside the comfort zone or making a new comfort zone together.

The practical parts of love were obvious to me- listen to one another, keep pursuing what makes you feel alive, be present and, of course give each presents. Funny –we didn’t say any of that in our vows. I guess I just thought it was implied.

A year or two in, we were still traveling but the amazing settings lost some of their sex appeal with a little one in tow. And I didn’t get nearly as many presents as a married person as I thought I would. There were some very specific occasions when I expected a gift and was disappointed. Thorsten would feel really bad.

“Feeling bad is so ineffective,” I realised. “It’s like a penance, except when you’re done feeling bad, I still don’t have a present. So, what is the point of feeling bad? It accomplishes nothing.” I remember Thorsten being really baffled. Gifts were just not really on his radar. He felt like our whole life was a gift– to each other. Fair enough, that’s actually really sweet.

Thank the Lord, a short time later I realised how satisfying it is to buy my own gifts. Why do gifts need to come from someone else? Why are people (especially women) encouraged to passively wait around for gifts? There is so much status and judgement wrapped up in what gift you got and who gave it to you. Is our value really measured this way? Or is there an entire industry designed around making us think so? The phrase “Gift Yo’self” came along too late but it came along with good reason.

During the years of pregnancy, childbirth and early babyhood, love was expansive, but it was intensely focused on the babies. If getting knocked off my feet was what I thought I wanted, the transformation to mother was my chance. There was a lot of survival mode for both of us back then. I’d say we lost each other for a while.

There were some slow burns in the last eight years that did actually need to be worked out. I observed during this time that working things out in real life is nothing like it’s presented in films. It’s not one and done. Watch the film “Walk the line” and you’ll think that Johnny Cash had one big traumatic experience with his tractor in the mud and June Carter dragged him out and protected him from the drug dealer and then their lives were great. But read his biography and you’ll find he was in the mud with the drug dealer a bunch of times.

In real life, working on a relationship is like sculpting something out of clay–not stone. Clay is great for sculpting because it’s forgiving. It allows us to fix mistakes and manage change creatively but there are drawbacks. With clay your basic material is constantly shifting as you try to mold it. And in a relationship it’s two people sculpting at the same time, while batting away the elements that pick or crash or blow into the sculpture as you try to work. If you make it too thin, the sculpture sags. If you step away for too long it hardens into a rigid position that is makes it difficult to repair.

At some point in the middle of the last eight years I think love got lost behind other things. There was duty. There was responsibility. There was general overwhelm, caring too much about pleasing everyone, caring too little about pleasing anyone.

When Corona hit us a light turned on. We had to be more purposeful. To start riding the waves instead of letting them knock us down. We started molding and sculpting our life together in ways that we never had before. It became a bit like a dance of lead and follow. We threw out the score card and looked into each other’s eyes more. I recognised that his soul, the one I had been enamoured with on that Amazon boat, was still there and we were going to be ok. When you zoom way out, the things that don’t matter fade away and you can zoom in on the ones that do.

Love started to look like laughter over a joke between us, too dirty and intimate to explain. It started to feel like, “Hey you want to snuggle for five minutes?” or “I’m warming up lunch do you want to eat together?” It sounded like, “I’m just exhausted” or “I’m crabby and I can’t make one more meal for these ungrateful, complaining maniacs.”

“I know, it’s ok,” One of us says to the other, taking over the lead. When one of us is lacking, the other one musters up the energy to cover us and we all keep going. Now love looks like a flow. And it has nothing to do with gifts or loud declarations. It doesn’t much matter what we are wearing and setting is way less important than I estimated.

One morning last month I came down to find not only the espresso filter dumped and rinsed but I also found that Thorsten had taken the time to pop his double-shot filter out and insert my single-shot so that it would be ready for me. I stood there basking in pure delight.

Eight years in, love is in the little things. That’s where the romantic comedies get it wrong. It’s not one big thing. Love is every little thing. A mysterious equation, an undefinable alchemy, most delicious when you hit on the perfect degree of fineness–Love is still growing over here one messy espresso at a time.

Cheers, cheers, here’s to 8 years.

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