4 things we learnt from A Little Aloud With Love
It's been two months since the launch of our latest anthology A Little Aloud With Love but we're still sharing the love because who says romance is just for Valentine's Day?
This April The Reader dedicated a whole week of Shared Reading groups to putting our new anthology into action, reading extracts and poems from A Little Aloud With Love in various group settings up and down the country.
We've been overwhelmed by the wonderful feedback from group members and often deeply moved by the personal stories and reflections they've shared but above all, we've learned a thing or two about 'that old black magic called love'.
To give you a glimpse into the new anthology in action and to share our newfound knowledge, here are the 4 Things We Learned About Love From A Little Aloud With Love:
1. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye -Antoine de Saint-Exupery
When Raymond Carver published his short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, he posed quite the gargantuan question: what do we mean when we talk about love?
There's no doubt that such a huge, all encompassing, deeply personal emotion such as love is sure to provoke a hugely personal response from each and every individual, something our group members discovered when they asked the seemingly simple question, what is love?
"We came up with so many views, so many words, by the end of the group we could have gone around everyone in the room and still not gotten to the bottom of it."
One group member put it succinctly: "Everybody knows the word and what they mean by it, but no one knows exactly what it feels like for another person."
Many groups were surprised by how much they had to say on the subject of love and how a very short extract, such as Stanley Middleton's Valley of Indecision, could keep everyone talking for over an hour. Group leaders, too, were often surprised by the unexpected turn discussions could take as members shared what love meant to them: "this certainly wasn't the response I had expected". Lending itself perfectly to the Shared Reading model, the anthology provided a sound foundation for deep personal reflection with elements of the stories and poems giving rise to rich and open discussions:
"I know we wouldn't have talked like this if it had been a 'normal group' but with this story we can just talk about love without feeling daft or embarrassed" - Group Member
"This is probably one of the best groups I've ever led, the room was electric with emotion by the end. There were sniffles, gasps, and sighs as we read the last paragraph of this beautiful piece. I felt like what was said had changed me, others said they felt different too" - Group Leader on reading The Room of Love by Wendell Berry
2. The course of true love never did run smooth -Shakespeare
If love stories have taught us anything it’s that not all our Romeos and Juliets are destined for a happy ending and as Shakespeare so rightly put it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’.
Just how many of literature’s favourite couples have the odds stacked against them before walking off into the sunset hand in hand? But what next? Fairytales may wrap up nicely with the smooth path of 'happily ever after' but great literature is more true to life and less kind to the idealists.
While reading The Weavers by Jan Struther one gentleman touched on this, talking about the hard work which must go into a successful marriage, creating a lovely image of two knitting needles both coming together one after the other to knit the wool into it's pattern. It's a wonderful image that brings to mind the thread of life weaving together a patchwork blanket, how some patches may fray or grow threadbare with much use.
Reading Happiness by Guy de Mauspassant¸ many group members marveled at how even the physical terrain seemed hostile to the couple’s relationship. One gentleman wondered at the desolation of the place, “how can love survive in such a place?”
Elsewhere, while discussing Wendell Berry’s extract from The Room of Love, a reading group marveled at how long love can endure against the odds, one member reflecting on his own parents who had overcome the religious differences of their families and gone on to enjoy 50 years of happy marriage.
Berry’s poem The Country of Marriage, had quite an impact on one group: “It’s so good, it’s such an unsentimental and honest and real account of marriage.”
The honesty of the poem encouraged a similar openness in the group with several members reflecting on how the image of a happy marriage often doesn’t reflect the troubled waters underneath, or how the contrary may be also be true:
“It’s so easy to talk about the troubles, but not so easy to talk about the love, the closeness, tenderness and affection. Like admitting you’re happy or that the marriage is going well is going to jinx things. It’s so refreshing to hear someone expressing it, talking about what was good and talking with great confidence” – Group Member.
Interestingly, a discussion about Carson McCullers' A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud, also reflected these ideas about hard work in a surprising way. Asking a quieter member of her group what love meant to her, a group facilitator was touched by the lady's answer which came after a long thoughtful pause: "empathy and responsibility". This combination of compassion and duty seems to give greater stock to love than the more cavalier and fleeting images of romance which perhaps lack substance.
Throughout the A Little Aloud With Love reading week, group members admitted preconceptions about love stories being soppy or sickly that had caused them to dismiss certain books or authors, but while reading stories from the anthology closely those assumptions were seen to dwindle away, giving way to more sincere reflection.
3. Love. The reason I dislike that word is that it means too much for me, far more than you can understand. - Anna Karenina
"a lot of the discussions were about the more harmful side to love, the sometimes destructive and suffocating nature of it and the desolation you can feel" - Group Leader on Happiness by Guy de Maupassant
Love stories are often fraught with conflict so it’s not surprising that many of the extracts fostered discussions about tempestuous relationships, the power struggle that can emerge between a couple and ultimately, the need for balance, for give and take in a healthy, loving relationship.
While reading Valley of Indecision, some group members began to recognise the power play between the scorned husband and cheating wife as he crouched by her chair: “he is placing himself beneath and letting her be higher than him, an extraordinary act of generosity given what she has done”.
Another story which raised questions about this struggle within relationships was He by Doris Lessing. One group member felt that Annie had to “suppress her voice” to be with Rob, others agreeing that the relationship was doomed to fail in the light of this.
Interestingly, discussions about The Great Gatsby took a similar turn with many group members suggesting that Gatsby, whose obsessive devotion to Daisy has been glorified in literature and film, was manipulative and his romantic fixation was unhealthy.
“It’s as though his fixation is like a photograph, where Daisy is in focus, but everything else is blurred, everything else has faded away for Gatsby” – Group Member
It was also suggested that Gatsby was more interested in the pursuit rather than Daisy herself, with many group members questioning whether the couple could ever be happy together: “Gatsy will keep striving for more, he won’t want Daisy when he actually has her”.
In some group settings stories about turbulent relationships such as these were more pertinent. In one women's group, a lady spoke very openly about a partner, how she detests and loves him all at same time, the facilitator queried how that could work but for the women in the group this felt normal:
"She said she hated him, hated his drinking, his violence, but she could still remember the reasons why she'd fallen in love with him, she couldn't forget those. The group spoke about that feeling that perhaps he could change" - Group Leader
This group seemed to suggest that hope was a dangerous thing that could keep you tied to a hopeless place, like Gatsby pining after Daisy, always hoping that things will change.
Another group mirrored this notion in their reading of the beautiful Never Give All The Heart by WB Yeats, suggesting that sometimes we fall in love with the idea of love, and not the person themselves. One lady owned to this, telling the group "I would make more of men I like, I'd make them more than they were in my mind", recognising how one can become "deaf and dumb and blind with love".
4. What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other - George Eliot
“That is the best thing I’ve ever read about marriage” – Group Member
A poem that proved very popular in our A Little Aloud With Love Week, was A Marriage by Michael Blumenthal, which for many, reflected the wider spectrum of relationships we experience, not solely romantic. “It’s about teamwork” concluded one group member, seeing the ‘someone’ not exclusively as a partner, but a colleague, a friend or family member on whom you can depend. One lady identified with the poem, seeing it as a reflection of the home life she shares with her daughter.
“There are so many kinds of love; family friends, pets, romance, babies – you want them all to work, like the poem wants” – Group Member
Many group members identified with the lonely struggle of trying to hold the ceiling up single-handedly, one gentleman declaring abruptly that “you couldn’t trust anyone” yet A Marriage seemed to challenge such declarations, with many group members concluding that they too had felt that relief when someone has stepped in to help, and felt “the blood flowing back to your fingers and arms.”
Contrary to the great drama of many sensational love stories, according to our group members there was a lot of comfort to be had in a stable, dependable kind of love, as one lady put it “like coming in at the end of the day and finding someone has cooked tea for you, they have taken the ceiling for a while.”
Having this alternative form of love to discuss proved useful for one group leader who, when she introduced it a group of young adults, was met by groans and the declaration that they didn't "like anything with love in the title.”
But enduring with A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud the group began to soften to this unusual love story, the facilitator finally seeing a breakthrough when one member cut through the nervous laughter and abrupt dismissals, saying of the boy in the story: “He's embarrassed. The little lad's only 12 and this total stranger has just told him he loves him." A small but frank concession from a group that dismissed love outright, this comment opened up the discussion to something deeper, making love something more recognisable to the group members.
If A Little Aloud With Love could absorb even the most impervious to love, we like to think the anthology has done it's job. If you'd like to explore the anthology for yourself and share your love of literature with someone special in your life, you can order a copy of A Little Aloud With Love here.