The other day, I started thinking about love. I hosted a Valentine’s dinner party at my house, and I created a centerpiece with little, hand-stitched felt hearts, surrounding a vase with branches and a single, hanging heart. I thought about how trees have been used for years as an analogy for love. The Giving Tree, The Runaway Bunny, and one of my favorite quotes about unrequited love, from poet H.D.:

If I could break you

I could break a tree.

If I could stir

I could break a tree—

I could break you. (“Garden”)

"I will be a tree that you come home to."

“I will be a tree that you come home to.”

Maybe I’m still just a girl, living on 12 acres in Michigan’s north woods, running across the apple orchard towards the damp mystery of the forest, but, for me, love has always been like a tree. Nothing appears, on the surface, to be so solid, so strong, so independent. But it isn’t. A tree is an ecosystem, a world unto itself that both creates and is created by life and energy entirely separate from itself, entirely out of its control.

A tree, like love, only achieves its strength from the community that surrounds it.

The rain that washes away its fallen, dead leaves and replenishes its soil.

The sun that encourages its branches to bend and lift towards its smiling visage.

The birds who roost inside it, clearing away the dead branches to make their fledglings a home.

The wind that sends its seeds out into the world.

Like a tree, love does not flourish in isolation. It can’t survive without a community around it, surrounding it, supporting it, sometimes assaulting it with storms and conflict, but ultimately giving it the space to flourish, to grow, to dig deeply into the soil, and reach high into the sky.

 

Decorating for my party, I remembered suddenly a story about the first moment I realized I was in love with the man who would one day become my husband. And how even that intense, deeply intimate moment didn’t occur without a community, without support from outside, helping that first, small sapling to sprout.

I was dating my college boyfriend when I met my future husband. I was temping in my future husband’s department for the summer, taking over for a secretary who was out for three months recovering from carpal tunnel surgery. He sat in the cubicle behind mine. My then-boyfriend worked downstairs in the parts department. A friendship blossomed between us. Soon, I was spending every break, every lunch hour, with my new cubicle-mate. One day, while we were chatting about movies, he mentioned how much he loved Mall Rats.

“Me too! Hey, why don’t I come over tonight, and we’ll watch it at your place?”

My new friend was shy, introverted around girls, but he agreed to me coming over, splitting a pizza, and watching the movie in exchange for a ride to the shop where his car was being worked on.

Honestly, readers? My intentions were not entirely pure. But he was one of my best friends at this point. And something was drawing me to him. I tried. Really. I couldn’t keep myself away. There was a physical attraction, certainly. But also something more. His quiet smile spoke to me. His steadiness calmed my mania. I felt the most me around him, but also felt the genuine desire to be better than me. I had to be near him.

Still, I tried to justify our plans. If he was a girl, I reasoned with myself, there wouldn’t even be an issue. Of course we’d watch a movie together. Of course. There’s nothing for me to feel bad about. Of course.

I told my then-boyfriend that I had made plans, being a little too vague in the details, and I went to my friend’s house.

We talked for 6 hours. At one point, I looked up and realized that I couldn’t see his face anymore. We had been so engrossed in our conversation, neither one of us had noticed that the sun had set. That we needed to turn on a light.

We never watched the movie.

Or ordered a pizza.

I got back to the basement I shared with my boyfriend around midnight. The next morning, he very gently confronted me about my late night. Feeling guilty, I asked him if he would let me pursue the friendship I had started. Would he give me the space I wanted, so I could see my new friend more frequently?

“Of course,” my boyfriend said. “I would never tell you you couldn’t see your friends.”

I smiled as I thanked him.

He paused, and looked at me. I’ll never forget the thoughtful, careful way he said, “You know, that’s the first real smile I’ve seen you smile in months.”

It was at that moment I realized it: I was in love with my friend.

About a week later, I officially broke it off with my college boyfriend. Always kind and thoughtful, he let me rent my half of the basement for the rest of the summer (though I didn’t stay. I moved out before the next semester started. Two months after that, I was living with my future husband). He bore me no ill will, to the point of inviting me (and my new boyfriend) over to his apartment to celebrate his roommate and best friend’s 21st birthday.

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Without my college boyfriend’s permission, I may never have given the small sapling that was my love a chance to grow. Or I may have realized its strength and determination too late, after it had already sprouted, and was steadily and painfully choking out my old relationship. Or, worse yet, I may have given in, dug up the small sprout, and tried desperately to cultivate it in a dark, secret corner, away from the sunlight. A joy that would give me equal parts secret pleasure and pain.

Or maybe I’m just torturing a metaphor.

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My point is that love isn’t all you need.

My apologies to the Beatles.

You also need timing, support, encouragement, energy, inclination, work ethic, compatibility.

You need a whole ecosystem, working together. Like my college romance, an ecosystem includes dozens of tiny deaths—or even ground-shaking devastation. Fires, lightning strikes, earthquakes, floods. But if the ground remains fruitful, the forest will recover. Will grow again, or grow into something new. Something better.

So, thank you, college boyfriend. Thank you for making me realize the truth, and giving me the courage to pursue it. You are part of my love community. I hope you realize that.

I’m sure your gorgeous wife and three lovely children thank you, too.

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