Sam Shepard in Love, on Love
By Maria Popova
Of the varied threads of connection that can stretch between two people — threads of innumerable thicknesses, textures, and hues, so difficult to classify and in such constant evolution — which do we get to call “love”? Perhaps love can never be defined in the singular, for it is utterly singular to each person in each relationship at each moment in time — we each love different loves, constantly navigating and negotiating the infinite continuum of meaning with which this one small, enormous word is imbued.
In the history of literature, valiant attempts at definition abound, but perhaps those of them that seem to cut to the heart of the mystery — Rilke’s, Tom Stoppard’s, Shel Silverstein’s, Susan Sontag’s, Anaïs Nin’s, Alain Badiou’s — simply resonate with where we ourselves are at a particular moment in time, in a particular phase of a particular relationship.
One of the richest, most powerful definitions I’ve encountered, exploring love as a union of two sovereign alonenesses and a mutual awakening to dormant parts of each self, comes from the polymathic playwright Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943–July 27, 2017) in Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark (public library) — the great dramatist’s correspondence with his dearest friend, former father-in-law, and spiritual brother.
Both men belonged to “The Work” — a movement of gatherings based on the spiritual teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, whose philosophy was rooted in the idea that although our default state is a sort of waking sleep, we are capable of waking up. In 1982, Shepard met the actor Jessica Lange on the set of the film Frances, in which he had a supporting role. Lange earned an Academy Award nomination and won Shepard’s heart — the two entered into an immediate and intense romance that effected, as Shepard wrote to Dark, mutual awakening. On St. Patrick’s Day the following year, shortly after the premiere of his play Fool for Love, Shepard moved into Lange’s cabin in Northern Minnesota near Bob Dylan’s birthplace, which he described to Dark as “a town right out of Kerouac.”
In a letter penned twelve days later, Shepard writes from the thralls of something far deeper and more powerful than infatuation:
I love this woman in a way I can’t describe & a feeling of belonging to each other that reaches across all the pain. It’s as though we’ve answered something in each other that was almost forgotten. I look back on that whole ten years in California & I see myself hunting desperately for something I wasn’t finding. I know the Work point of view is the only true one. That life is inside. That nothing outside can ever finally answer our yearning. I know that’s true but, in some way, finding Jessie has reached something inside me. A part of me feels brand new — re-awakened.
With a keen awareness of our human curse to metabolize everything, to habituate to even the most transcendent experiences, Shepard adds:
I know even this will change. There’ll be moments of deep regret maybe. But life is a gamble. I felt the weight of that the first time I left home for good. I walked out of that house into the unknown & it scared the shit out of me but the adventure of hitting life straight on was a thrill I’ll never forget. I feel that now — along with the fear. But I see the fear stems from being alone in the world & it has a new meaning for me now. You can be alone in the midst of people or you can be alone & join with the other one’s aloneness. There can be a real meeting between two people at the point where they always felt marooned. Right at the edge. And that’s how it is with me & her.
Shepard and Lange’s daughter, Hannah, was born three years later, followed by a son, Walker. The couple remained together for the nearly three decades.
Complement this particular fragment of Two Prospectors, on the pages of which Shepard’s views on art and life unfold with unprecedented candor, with Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, Kahlil Gibran’s timeless advice on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence, and Virginia Woolf on the secret to lasting love.
Published August 3, 2017