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it is a miracle that we're here at all
hi friends, welcome to griefbacon. putting a subscribe button between any two paragraphs in this essay made me feel gross, so I’m putting it up here instead. if you enjoy this post, or this newsletter, and want to subscribe or upgrade to a paid subscription, it would mean the world to me. a subscription means you get a whole lot more content like this, as well as access to some pretty great discussion threads. (also I’m sorry I missed last week—the facade on my building, which shares a wall with every room (2) in my apartment, is being demolished. however loud and unsettling I thought this was going to be, it’s more than that, and I’ve had very limited ability to focus on anything. I’m planning to make up for it this week and next, though). anyway, here’s something weird about love.
A meme went around Instagram and maybe other apps a few months ago. “Couples,” it said, “let’s see those EARLY photos.” I meant to write about it then, and I didn’t, but it doesn’t matter. This is the kind of meme, or prompt, or post, whatever you want to call it, that will always show up again sooner or later. The internet never gets tired of evidence; the internet never gets tired of old loves.
From time to time, still, somebody finds the defunct Old Loves tumblr, on tumblr itself or in one of the many accounts elsewhere that still endlessly repost its content. Old Loves is dead, but also old loves never die, and like so often happens with old loves, people keep dredging it back up, trying to bring the past back to life, always hungry for old love, and for other people’s love, never able to get enough of it.
Old Loves [cw that if you click that link, the first post with a photo has Marilyn Manson in it; I love this tumblr as a concept but would have preferred not to see that this morning] stopped posting regularly in 2018; before that, people were constantly finding it and getting immediately obsessed with it (it was maybe first made famous by Lena Dunham, but let’s ignore that). The tumblr did what you might think it did: posted old photos of celebrities who used to be in love, or in couples, anyway, from back when they were together. It offered pretty much no context or text at all, just photos of celebrities in pairs. Sometimes it was people you might already know, in eras before you knew about them, or in pairings you might not expect. Often these couples had long since broken up, and the photo showed people who used to love each other, when they loved each other. Sometimes they were couples who had been famous for being a couple, sometimes they were two famous people you knew of but whom you never knew had dated each other, and sometimes they were ostensibly famous people you—or anyway, I—barely knew of at all, where their primary quality was the way they looked at each other, the way their bodies leaned in together, the way their pairing shut out the world.
We all know that people have been in love before. We all know that there are lots of couples who were together once, and aren’t together now. We all know that celebrities fall in love with each other, and get together, and usually break up. One part of a celebrity’s job is to give us a love story to gawk at, to act out old loves up on an illuminated stage. But the tumblr caught something else, too. Looking through it felt like seeing someone else’s photos of your parents before you were born. It was like when you catch a friend’s face in an unguarded moment, the way they light up when their crush enters the room or the glance they exchange with their partner before the two of them leave a party together. An image of two people nudges open the door to a private world. Just seeing it from the outside feels like getting away with something.
The meme from earlier this summer was a more accessible version of this same thing. People posted their old loves, even though the point was to post your current love. People posted the same spouse or partner they post all the time in the present tense. But the intervening time made those old photos compelling in the way photos of old movie stars when they were young are compelling. The images cracked open locked doors, turning new loves into old loves.
I’ve been married for five years this week; I’ve known the person I’m married to for nearly ten years. It seems an impossibly long time, and it seems like so much less time than it used to seem like, when fewer if any other things in my life had lasted that long. Writing about love is impossible and pointless. Putting it in language immediately deadens it and turns it into a fiction. Nothing that feels, nothing that wants, nothing that moves, stays the same even from one moment to the next. To write about something is to try to capture it in a still form, define a shape and make it knowable within that outline. Here is what we are, and here is what we aren’t. Here is where we stop, and here is where we begin. The field of play is defined between these goalposts at each end; beyond that is unknown and lawless, beyond that is a green haze where no one agrees on the rules.
But love dwells in that green haze, outside the lines, beyond the place where things are named and then stay in the shape of that name. Containers do not successfully hold their contents here; we are always spilling over, refusing borders, refusing definitions. Love is unknowable, and embarrassing, and stupid, and sometimes it’s nothing—putting all the fanciest vocabulary words you know up against a feeling in your stomach.
No matter how much I describe the intangible, I cannot extract promises from it. I cannot fix it in a single form and know it will still be there looking like that when I return at the end of the night. This risk is, I think, what we like about it, or what I like about it. As well as we know another person, or our own feelings, it is plausible, even likely, that the next day we might wake up and not recognize either at all. It’s the possibility of total loss that gives gambling its thrill; love and sports and roller-coasters and fast cars are exciting because they might crash and kill you. Long odds and high risks make each next day into a miracle. It shouldn’t work out, so if it does, it feels like proof of magic in the world.
We fell in love and we went to bars and restaurants and parties, we bought plane tickets and we carried furniture into an apartment up carpeted stairs and we went to City Hall and I frantically changed clothes at the last minute and a government bureaucrat in salmon-colored pants said some words and we signed some paperwork. Neither of us knew what we were doing; maybe no one ever knows what they’re doing. Maybe that’s the only way anyone ever manages to do anything.
Somebody said second marriages represent “the triumph of hope over experience,” but everything is that, isn’t it? Every day any of us get up in the morning is the triumph of hope over experience, choosing not to know better, choosing to ignore the warnings, to do it anyway, despite the likelihoods, against the odds. “The triumph of hope over experience” figures love as willful stupidity, which is true, but it also says—also correctly—that there is no greater human miracle than second chances. A belief in change is stupid in a mathematical sense, but it is also a ladder to climb back up into the world. Here in this unlikely room the door is never closed. Love is impossible, but that means it is a place where there are no borders between worthy and unworthy, where there is no notion of worthiness at all. The harsh lines do not hold; they blur out into the green haze beyond the legible view.
I think most of us who have ever loved anyone can agree that love is unfair. Who loves whom and why they do and when they stop and if they start again is illogical and uncontrollable, as threatening and sudden as the weather. Often that’s what’s heartbreaking about it—why her instead of me, why couldn’t you feel this then but you can feel it now, why did it change overnight, why did you go when you used to want to stay—but that same unfairness is also the gift of it. Sometimes, out of nowhere, something happens. Sometimes, against all the odds, we manage to stay. Each day we wake up again and choose to live into the world no matter how much it has hurt us, hope pulling off a dark-horse long-shot win against experience.
Maybe this is what we like about old photos of other people’s love, whether celebrities or real-life acquaintances. The unknowability and unfairness of love means that even learning the story of any one of these relationships still wouldn’t really mean knowing anything about it. Photos of people in love are like photos of UFOs or ghosts or Bigfoot. This happened, supposedly, because there’s a picture of it, but it can’t be explained. There is no logic or language to explain why we talked to this one person on this one day, why things worked out or why they didn’t, how we managed to walk around the exact right corner at the exact right time, and how we managed to stay. The illogic of love says that there is more to the world than bank accounts and grade-school math, more than deadlines and bills and bad news. Whatever can break your heart might also beat all of the impossible odds.
People’s blurry old-love photos are records of the great mysteries, like dusty illuminated church relics in ancient cave-like chapels where everything is made of bones, but even stranger and wilder than that. Two unremarkable faces smile at a camera or gaze at one another, against an unremarkable background, on an unremarkable day, and this is the vast landscape out beyond our comprehension, a glimpse at the parts of the ocean so deep that no one has been there. Folding laundry, and paying bills, getting groceries and feeding the cats, and speaking in tongues, and touching whatever is wildest and least knowable in our lives, barely visible enough to be contained by a camera and preserved.
thanks for reading. this is griefbacon’s weekly public essay. paying subscribers get at least one extra post each week (there’s another half of this, or what I thought was half of this before I realized I was writing two essays at once, or anyway more on this theme, coming for subscribers on Saturday), so if you enjoyed this maybe consider subscribing, or tell someone else you think might also enjoy it, or just post about it, or just live your life and don’t do any of that. more soon. xo