Lose the Fear. Keep the Love
Love is eternal, even if lovers aren't.
It’s easy when it’s like this. A perfect day under a perfect sun in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, my favourite place in the world. Even the puffy clouds are only there to provide a welcome break from the heat, and tourists gasp with pleasure at their tables as the light dims. They applaud when the sun comes out, as though it can hear them.
And it can.
But not even the sun lasts forever. And every time my wife gets on a plane to visit her parents, I remember again what we all try to forget. One day, one way or another, we’ll say goodbye for the last time. How do you love without being afraid?
There’s nothing like the ruins of an empire to remind you that everything is temporary. What gives the place its gorgeous melancholy glow––the edges of the cobblestones worn smooth by ten million footfalls, the marble benches rounded and softened by six hundred winters––is the lives that have been spent and vanished, never to return. The radiance of a life is visible only when it’s lived as though it matters. And there I go again, putting up glass walls between the world and me.
We learn and then we forget.
The rapture of that single moment, the sun setting over the dome of St Peter’s or the bright day dawning over Rome’s seven hills, or me here in Piazza del Popolo, glutted with sun and memory — all of this is as doomed as a spider web anchored to the wheel of a parked car.
Rome can make you believe in permanence and change at one and the same time, but even the Colosseum will fall someday, long after we’re already gone. And they’ll build something new in its place.
I know all this, but that doesn’t mean I believe it. Maybe I’m worried that I’ll lose that last bit of miraculous magic I’ve somehow kept until now, the tiny scrap of wonder that is all that remains of my youth. It doesn’t matter, but it matters to me. Maybe I’m scared that if I try to live in that wonder, that bliss, the well will one day run dry, leaving me completely and finally alone.
We don’t know until we’re told. The piazza would be less charming if it weren’t for the Baroque masterpieces hanging in the church. The legend has it that this northern entrance to the city of Rome was haunted by demons, drawn by the presence of Nero’s bones. The church they built to sanctify the square is now best known for the work of a genius with more than a touch of the devil in him. Each layer of meaning is founded on the last, Renaissance basilicas built on top of bloodsoaked pagan altars. We build the city piece by piece, just as we build the past.
I love her. That’s the truth. I miss her the minute she’s gone, and as all lovers must, I live in the fear that she might be taken away from me while she’s somewhere I can’t protect her.
But love is an unknown, a big black dog I can’t bring myself to trust, and even to name it seems like an incantation that will only bring misfortune and disturb dark gods. You’re floating now, where the air turns to poison and the ice blooms, and no part of me can reach you. There’s that fear again.
The old couple on the bench beside me are discussing Leonardo da Vinci. And one day I will be dead or widowed or divorced. But you don’t start a thing by looking at its end. A symphony is not beautiful in spite of its end, but because of it. I don’t write to flatter or to please. I’m not about to start now.
This is not a love song. Not even now.
But the wife of the couple beside me has seen me writing in English, and as she gets up to leave, she apologizes for disturbing me, and in spite of myself, I start to talk.
They were married in 1964. They honeymooned in Rome. Then and now, they climbed the many stairs to the terrace that overlooks the massive square. When they get home, the photos from now and then will sit side by side, a testament to the way the places humans build wear them out.
But love lasts, even though lovers don’t. Love unites me and the old couple beside me, and the pigeons cooing in the shadows of marble statues, and the sun that warms the stones. In love, we are all eternal.
Rome’s stone bones will still stand when all three of us are dust, and the photos have all been thrown away. Rome makes you think that way. My favourite city, and hers too. For those of us who feel the breath of the dead on the back of our necks, the fading light of the past lending a golden glow to the present, there is nowhere else like it on earth.
The obelisk in the centre of Piazza Del Popolo is older even than Rome. The same spell that makes us wander through Roman homes and temples with cameras blazing made the Romans haul this monument over the sea from Egypt. Yesterday’s graffiti is an eyesore that the city workers will scrub away, but the words scrawled on the walls of Pompeii are protected behind plexiglass.
Time works like distance to make dirty things sacred.
Climb that gorgeous mountain, and you’ll find nothing at the summit but some scorched rock.
History could roll on untroubled by us, but it doesn’t. The fate of the world pivots on a well-timed whisper or the sway of a skirt. It’s happening right now. It will happen again.