The Light That Bridges the Dark Expanse Between Lonelinesses: James Baldwin on How Long-Distance Love Illuminates the Power of All Love

“As long as space and time divide you from anyone you love… love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win.”

The Light That Bridges the Dark Expanse Between Lonelinesses: James Baldwin on How Long-Distance Love Illuminates the Power of All Love

The longer I live, the more deeply I learn that love — whether we call it friendship or family or romance — is the work of mirroring and magnifying each other’s light. Gentle work. Steadfast work. You can save your life by doing the right thing in times when shame, sorrow and guilt cloud our vision. However there are still people who love you and will beam their light back. We can be that person to another in our most joyful moments.

In learning this afresh — as we must learn all the great and obvious truths, over and over — I was reminded of a passage by James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) from Nothing Personal (public library) — his 1964 collaboration with the photographer Richard Avedon, his high school classmate and lifelong friend, which contains some of Baldwin’s least-known yet most intimate writings, including his antidote to dog-hour despair and his counterforce to entropy. (In the years since I first wrote about this forgotten treasure, it has been unforgotten in a new edition by Penguin Random House — regrettably, without Avedon’s photographs, razing the spirit of collaboration between friends that occasioned the project in the first place; redemptively, with a foreword by the dazzling Imani Perry, who considers herself Baldwin’s “pupil in the study of humanity” and who writes splendidly about his enduring gift of reminding us how reading “allows us to recognize each other” and “makes everything seem possible.”)

James Baldwin

In the final of the book’s four essays, Baldwin writes:

The light is found in the darkness. That is why darkness exists. But everything depends on how you bear it. While in darkness it is important to recognize that there is light, and that one can find that light within.

This light, Baldwin intimates, is most often and most readily found in love — that great and choiceless gift of chance.

Love becomes a lens on the world, on space and on time — a pinhole through which a new light enters to project onto the cave wall of our consciousness landscapes of intimate importance from territories of being we would have never otherwise known.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. Available as a print.

He says:

For example, pretend that you are from Chicago but have never been to Hong Kong. Then, imagine that some kind of convulsion or accident causes you to be connected with a Hong Kong man/woman and that you eventually fall in love. Hong Kong is now the centre of your world. You may not know the number of people who live in Hong Kong. However, you’ll find out that Hong Kong has one man and one woman. Without them you can’t live. It is through this that our lives can be changed. This is also how redemption works.

It is quite a ride! Dependent entirely on what is not seen. It will not be possible to visit Chicago if your love lives in Hong Kong. Maybe you’ll spend all your time there and never return to Chicago. You will. As long as time and space are not between you and your loved ones, you’ll learn a lot about shipping routes, airlines and the effects of war, famine and disease. If you are in love with someone living there, you’ll always know the time. The love of your life will force you to confront space and time, as well as win.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of the sun by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. This print is also available as a stationery card and face mask.

A master of metaphor — that handle on the door to new worlds — Baldwin takes the case of what we call long-distance love and finds in it a miniature of all love.

Every love is the bridge between the vast expanses of lonelinesses. It becomes the telescope that brings the other life closer, magnifying the importance of the entire universe.

All love is light’s battle against the entropy continually inclining spacetime toward nothingness, against the hard fact that you will die, and I will die, and everyone we love will die, and what will survive of us are only shoreless seeds and stardust.

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