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Alight

Tomorrow is Independence Day. Red, white, and blue everything will abound, and towns across the United States will sound with clanging cymbals, sizzling brats, fizzing sparklers, and booming blooms of light.

The holiday has made me think about how often we talk about love in terms of sparks and fireworks. “Sparking” is even an old-fashioned word for “courting.” But it doesn’t take much of a tug on the metaphor to trouble it. Sparks flash hot and burn bright. Sometimes they start a big flame; too often, they fizzle, and fast.

Chemistry matters. Yet scientists tell us that the initial spark, the feeling of being “in love,” is better understood as an altered chemical state akin to addiction than as the stuff of real intimacy. The rush is intense and intoxicating: you’re drawn to your partner, compelled, amazed. You feel alive and exuberant when you’re together. The whole world is your holiday, every day lit up like a Fourth of July sky.

Fireworks dazzle. They light up the night, big and bold. Yet their beauty quickly dissolves into wisps of smoke.

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Consider a man I once knew, certain he had to feel a spark and fall in love within the first fifteen minutes, or there was no chance a relationship could grow. There are good reasons why one might assume disappointment would attend any sentence that combined the words “love” and “fifteen minutes.” But we’re not talking about love, then, are we?

Relying on “love-at-first-interaction” as the sole (or best) proof of lasting compatibility defies not only reason but research. It confuses love with lust, giving an emotional weight and depth to a chemical and biological impulse that’s only a small piece of the puzzle determining whether someone is a match.

The very fact of morning-after regrets proves initial attraction, however intense, an unreliable litmus test for lifetime harmony.
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Fiancé Steve and I are planning to celebrate the Fourth at a pool party. There will be good food, great fun, and, no doubt, celebratory snaps and pops. At the end of the evening, after the sparklers have sizzled and the fireworks faded, we’ll gather with our friends around the low-burning flames and glowing coals of a warm, flickering campfire.

And that’s exactly where I’ll want to be.

If lust is a spark, love is a campfire. Sustained with attention and care, it grows with time. It comforts and steadies, not only on special occasions, but through the slog and wonder of the ordinary day.

Sparks ignite, and fireworks astonish. But a campfire, if you tend it, will keep you warm. It will nourish you, feed you. Fire is elemental, the essence of life itself.

And while sparks don’t guarantee a flame, hot coals do promise sparks.

All you have to do is stir, and watch them fly.

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