An ant hurries along a threshing floor
with its wheat grain, moving between huge stacks
of wheat, not knowing the abundance
all around. It thinks its one grain
is all there is to love
—Rumi, “The Road Home”
US is a collection of oral reports from across the United States, describing the many ways romantic love is sparked, pursued, won, and lost. The stories range from poetic, inspiring, erotic, and heartbreaking to hilarious, preposterous, and sometimes disgusting. US aims as an ensemble to do justice to the array of voices in our country, celebrating their earnestness, openness, optimism, vulgarity, humor, religiosity, sexuality, and generosity.
Love is one of the universal goals we share. It is a true bastion of absolute freedom. No one can tell us whom to love or how to love. We may do whatever we like, arrive at any arrangement we deem satisfying. Imperfect, irreducible, inexpressible, amazing, pathetic, frustrating, seldom gracefully executed, this is what we have, this is who we are.
We all have the power to make others feel terrible or wonderful, to tolerate them, to like and to love them. When we choose the latter, even imperfectly and sporadically, it’s one of the highest gifts we can bestow. We become, in a sense, magicians, transforming earthly lust with supernatural powers. Why are we not magicians more often? How can we be better magicians?
Neither my co-editors nor I can claim any special expertise about love. Our skill, we hope, is listening: encouraging subjects to express honestly not what they think love is supposed to be but how they actually experience and live it.
We sought to arrange our interviews in a collection readers would find compelling, entertaining, meaningful, and—at least sometimes—enlightening. As a friend described them after reading a few samples, “They’re like psychic bon bons.” This is because each interview reads like a complete short story, conveying a worldview, a regional perspective, a surprisingly intense glimpse into another life unimaginably different from our own.
One of the first questions people asked when we told them about our project was “How do you find these people?” In many ways, we revived the methodologies and the talented team of Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, an oral history I co-edited ten years ago. The process then and now began with a mass e- mail, followed by hundreds of conversations with friends, colleagues, relatives, and people referred to us from all over the country. We asked each contact to sift through his or her mental and social Rolodex for subjects who identify as happy, sad, black, Asian, Hispanic, rich, poor, and so on, until we began to feel we had a trove of interviews at least somewhat representative of the incredible diversity of the United States.
The message of US is not that love is wonderful or horrible, or even that we are necessarily better people when we love (indeed, many of us become monstrous). Our aim was to avoid theorizing and hypothesizing altogether and simply document a representative sampling of Americans (or foreigners living on American soil), in all their variety, carrying on about romantic love. Every interview began with the same question: “Please tell me about the person whom you have loved the most.”
While we rigorously avoided editorial intrusion into the views of our subjects, the spirit of this book as a whole has long been guided by an idea from the Upanishad, a two thousand year-old Hindu religious text:
Who sees all beings in his own
Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear.
At their best, these pages allow us to safely paratroop into the physical, emotional, and spiritual landscape of our fellow Americans. We may enjoy, admire, or recoil from what we learn from them. But my hope is that by traveling into the emotional reality of others who often are quite different from ourselves, we can expand our engagement with, and in fact love for, those around us. I can say that it has worked for me. The process of getting to know the people in Us has made me feel infinitely warmer toward humanity.
– John Bowe