Distance creates mystery.
I became an adult at the end of the letter writing era. Now we are all digitally connected, skyping our faces and smiles when not texting and emailing over the globe. There is no escape from each other. We have gained something definable, but lost something ineffable.
If your young love went on a family vacation or to a faraway school, you ached for time together and love deepened out of the pain. You idealized your partner and counted the days until his or her return. Romance flourished. Ecstasy was the moment of reunion: no separation, no ecstasy.
You wrote to her with care not usually taken in email and certainly not in the cobbled together, dashed-off, and criminally illiterate text message. Letter paper of the day had the heft and texture of something important. It matched the substance of your human communication. After all, a just-received post had been in the hands of your inamorata. The missive might even have been sealed with a kiss. The touch you craved had touched the parchment in your hands. Sometimes the paper was perfumed or held a flower. I still have a letter my dad sent to my mother from wartime France in the 1940s, along with what remains of a daisy impressed therein.
Soldiers still experience these feelings of distance in place and time. They know their dark side, no matter the electronic contact now available that was unimaginable in the 1940s or even in the early 1990s. One cannot help but wonder whether the one you miss will find another during your absence. Yet some amount of insecurity is necessary for affection to grow. Romance flourishes in the uncertainty of early dates and on the thin ice of self-disclosure. Love without risk is not love.
Once begun, the importance of the other grows because of the transience of her physical presence, the sweetness of her scent, her breath — all temporary before your lives meld. This is the law of supply and demand converted to matters of the heart. You don’t move in together on your second date, or at least you shouldn’t lest you destroy the developing magic. Some things are worth the wait and require the wait to flower.
In the course of my marriage I have traveled once or twice a year on short trips alone or with a male friend. The experience helps my wife and me appreciate each other anew. We create, in this way, a freshness of perspective — an opportunity to see each other with new eyes.
Solo contact with friends also is a form of time away from one’s love. I am able to make close relationships one-to-one which would otherwise be hard, if not impossible, in couples. I then expect less of my spouse to satisfy all my emotional and intellectual needs — a burden and a pressure. I don’t believe any single person is the repository of all desirable qualities for the other. Moreover, I return home altered — an individual with new ideas and an occasional epiphany to enrich my relationship with the love of my life. She does the same.
For most of human history a woman having public business or social life away from her husband was unseemly. In the West we do without chaperones, but couples are still supposed to be couples, two links in a charm bracelet. This was especially true in my parents’ day and before. It remains true in some places today.
The danger of lock-step devotion, however, is that familiarity can breed contempt. The lovingly linked charm bracelet can turn the starry-eyed into adjacent members of a human chain gang.
If you need to be within arm’s length of your partner for assurance of his devotion, you are in danger of suffocating the life out of his affection. Of course, spouses will stray and temptation is everywhere. A leash, however, does not guarantee fidelity. If you suspect your lover requires one, more’s the pity. There is no visible or invisible fence preventing a wolf or a cougar from being on the prowl. Watch the ’60s film, The Graduate, for an old lesson in how this works.
Something touching resides in the effort of writing a love letter to a dear heart who is far from you. Inscribing the words in your own hand counts. Choosing the terms to express the inexpressible matters too. How can the ABCs be transmuted into yearning, aching, desperation, sadness, loneliness, incompleteness? How can the bitter-sweetness, the future, the past, the passion and intensity jump from pen to ink to eye to heart? One would need music.
And yet, it has been done, and not only in matters of romance. Beethoven wrote these words at the head of his Missa Solemnis, to express his hope of how this musical message of transcendent spirituality would be received. A love letter might borrow the same heading:
Von Herzen, möge es wieder zu Herzen gehen.
“From the heart, may it return to the heart.”
The top image is Federico Andreotti’s, The Love Letter. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.