Who Knows How?

"Who knows how to make love stay?

1. Tell love you are going to Junior's Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if love stays, it can have half. It will stay."

2. Tell love you want a momento of it and obtain a lock of its hair. Burn the hair in a dime-store incense burner with yin/yang symbols on three sides. Face southwest. Talk fast over the burning hair in a convincingly exotic language. Remove the ashes of the burnt hair and use them to paint a moustache on your face. Find love. Tell it you are someone new. It will stay.

3. Wake love up in the middle of the night. Tell it the world is on fire. Dash to the bedroom window and pee out of it. Casually return to bed and assure love that everything is going to be all right. Fall asleep. Love will be there in the morning."
-Tom Robbins (Still Life With Woodpecker)

In 1979, my mother moved us to Athens, Georgia. She did this because my father, a passionate, loving, creative man if there ever was one, had suddenly died and she was reacting, as grieving mothers do, to the situation at hand. Which was deeply bad. It was bad enought for me so I can't imagine, don't want to imagine how bad it was for her. Her younger sister lived in Athens, along with two teenaged daughters. My aunt had just begun a divorce. I supposed it made sense to a new widow that moving close to one's newly single sister was a good idea. My cousins took me on like a little sister, a wonderful thing for me during a very sad time.

My mother and her sister did not get along well, though they were inseparable. They had a traditional sibling rivalry exacerbated by grief and abandonment, two women alone in a charming town, lives turned up side down by lost love. They were a constant yin/yang of tension and release, of arguments and resolution, a swirling maelstrom of domestic mayhem, firecrackers popping with little warning.

I tried to stay out of the way.

My aunt, in my young mind, was larger than life. She was bold and funny, she had a million records and read fiction. She had traveled to Europe. She lived in Five Points, the coolest area in town, in an old home filled with artful clutter. She got Rolling Stone. She drank and had opinions. My mother, by contrast, was quiet and reserved, depressed. She didn't listen to music, save my father's. She didn't read much except Time. We lived in a funny little 70's rambler on the outskirts with everything obsessively ordered. She cried. All the time.

I mention all this because, while I loved my mother, I idealized my aunt. My aunt had energy and angry verve. My mother had little ability to function. I was surrounded by violent dynamics I didn't understand. Anger/Grief. Action/Passivity. Dominating/Submitting.

We were at her house for one event or the other, with me typically staying out of the way or doing my part to defuse potential arguments by telling jokes and stories to whoever would listen, or reading the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac, Bowie, or Wings albums, or scouring her bookshelves. My aunt had a grand collection of books, and Still Life With Woodpecker was one of them.

I found Still Life and read it incessently over the course of a summer. I was probably 12. I had no idea what any of it meant but I knew that it was the most interesting book I'd ever read. Something in it got inside of me, and locked the difficult adult world out. I read it several times around 9th grade and while I started digesting the outer layers of the story, the meatier morsels of it (of outlaws, essential insanities, rescuing ourselves from ourselves) were still too chewy for my child's mind. I scarcely gave it a glance in college, but I'm sure it influenced my choices.

Choices as in, I smoked Camels and as in I drank little but tequila, and as in I moved to Seattle, where the story itself, was set. I swear had no conscious thought of the book when I moved. None at all. The decision to pull up stakes and head NW seemed, at the time like a divine intervention. Literary, is now my guess, but who is to say that God doesn't work through a Remington SL3? I read the book years later, after finding it in a some used book store on Capitol Hill. Lights went on. I've read it over and over again, each time I see more of myself come into focus.

Who knows how to make love stay? This has been a core question for me. For a time, earlier in my life I was convinced it did not, yet I did everything I could to hold it, control it, make it safe. Parents dying in front of you or losing their grip? Well, that does something to a girl. Struggling between loving a mother made of tears or an aunt made of fire, never knowing whose side I was really on? That does something else all together.

Whatever it did do, I've tried to do good things with it, in my relationships, in my career, in art. We are nothing but our scar tissue and the muscle we've built up over the years of living our lives. We've got a choice to use those scars for better or for ill. As I've aged, I've come to the position that Love wants to stay, but we can't get in it's way; security, as Robbins says, is out of the question. But Love is worth it.

This final Robbins quote describes why I consider much of his work, but especially Still Life, to be a bible of sorts. I'm sure my desire to aid and abet, to love the moon more than the sun, to refuse to be dragon bait developed in no small part due my exposure to his words.

"People are never perfect, but love can be, that is the one and only way that the mediocre and the vile can be transformed, and doing that makes it that. Loving makes love. Loving makes itself. We waste time looking for the perfect lover instead of creating the perfect love. Wouldn't that be the way to make love stay?"

That's something to consider.


  1. That is, indeed, the way to make love stay.

    Beautiful post, my dear.

  2. Can I tell you how much I love this? I love this. And I also loved Still Life With Woodpecker, and made some questionable choices as a teen. Love the way you put it into words.


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