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Hi. I’m about to start my senior year in electrical engineering at UCLA. In the middle of last year, I met the most amazing girl. She’s smart and beautiful and friendly and I’m crazy about her. We’ve been seeing each other ever since we met.
Here’s the thing though. Sarah is an English major. She’s very attached to books and especially to poetry. About a week ago she gave me this amazing-looking present. It was a parchment folder kind of thing with a ribbon, and inside was a poem she had written out with a calligraphy pen. It’s by e.e. cummings and it’s called “Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond.”
Sarah told me it’s her favorite poem of all time. I didn’t even understand the title, so I kept my mouth shut. Then she said she feels that the last line, which goes “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands,” is the most beautiful sentence written by an American in the past 100 years.
Penelope, I have no idea what that sentence means. I read the poem (which I had to do in front of her, which was scary) and I definitely get that it’s a love poem, but if you asked me to explain a single line in it with a gun to my head, I’d be a goner.
The thing is this was clearly a hugely meaningful gesture for Sarah to give me this poem. It means so much to her. I just didn’t have the heart to tell her that it went over my head. I mumbled something about how beautiful it was and that seemed to make her happy, but I felt really bad later.
I’m starting to worry that Sarah sees the world in a completely different way from me. I’m not so bothered by that myself because I don’t really want to be with a woman who is exactly like me. What I’m worried about is that there’s something important that Sarah needs that I’ll never be able to give her. I don’t want to fail her. But I will never be able to connect to this hugely important thing in her life. I don’t want this to be a dealbreaker for us. What do you think?
I Just Don’t Get It
You are allowed to be stumped by some big thing in your partner’s life. (Take it from an English major whose husband’s idea of poetry is partial differential equations.) What concerns me more here is your apparent anxiety about being honest with Sarah.
What are you afraid will happen if you confess that you don’t get the poetry she loves? Do you fear that she’ll think less of you, or that she’ll sit you down and start trying to educate you? You’re right that giving you a handwritten copy of this poem was very meaningful for Sarah, and it’s important that you respond to it honestly.
You can be gentle about your response. You’ll probably find that she’ll be glad to walk you through the poem. Don’t be alarmed by that prospect. You might enjoy it a little bit, and if she loves you as much as you love her, it’s unlikely she’ll try to force-feed you poetry on an industrial scale.
Remember that this smart, beautiful, friendly girl chose you as her boyfriend. She knows perfectly well that you’re an electrical engineer and not a literature scholar. The difference between you is apparently part of the attraction for her (as it is for you). She’s trying to bring you into her world a bit, to give you a glimpse of her worldview. That’s a loving gesture. Don’t be put off by it, and trust her enough to respond with gentle honesty.
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