Romance / by Liz Brown

Working at a job at a desk by myself and road tripping nearly every weekend has lent itself well to pondering. My most recent thoughts have circled around the concepts of the known and the unknown and the romance of both. All these photos are film and of my own city.

My first thought was this: 

Maybe there are two great romances in life: the romance of the unknown and the romance of being known. Perhaps God is both.

I left the idea there—as a stand-alone thought, as a caption, as a few words with no more depth or conclusion. But they were a beginning. A few days later, those words chased me down again: this time in regards to a city. There are so many stories that begin in cities. Poems about cities. Songs about cities. 

Ed Sheeran crooned: “The city never sleeps, and that makes two.”

The 1975 chanted: “Yeah, if you want to find love, you know where the city is.”

And those are just two that come to mind in a few seconds as I sit, writing, balanced on this little wooden chair.

Cities have a romance entirely unique to their size and diversity. They’re a delightful picture of the romance of the unknown. Unknown like eye contact with a stranger. Like buying a train ticket without looking at the destination. Like the feeling in your stomach when the airplane leaves the ground. Every day is guaranteed to be different, delightfully and extraordinarily so.

The city is dangerous in all the best ways. In this romance of the unknown, we may brave a bit more physical danger, but we are emotionally safe. Whereas in the romance of being known, we are safe physically; but emotionally, to be known, we give some person or some place the ability to draw close to us, the potential to reach close enough to hurt us. The unknown is a safety net of romance and being known feels like a free fall, not knowing if the bottom is a canyon or an ocean—but I wonder if the reality is the contrary. Perhaps the unknown is a free fall and being known is the safest place—it is just contrary to our feelings.

We tend to latch on to the romance of the unknown because it feels safer than the romance of being known. Or at least I that’s what I tend to do.

The biggest city I’ve ever lived in was Chicago. This week I thought about its adventure and mystery and opportunity and how difficult it was to leave. Years later, I still feel a kinship to those trains and cafes and dirty streets. 

The year I left, I wrote:

“…in the month before leaving the city, I was offered somewhere to live and fantastic photography networking opportunities seemed to present themselves. I began to question everything. What was I doing? Am I crazy to move to Iowa? There’s so much more going for me in Chicago.

But here’s the thing: in Chicago, I can make something happen. There are so many opportunities. I can work hard and take the credit. And then there’s Iowa. If something is going to happen here, it has to be God. I felt as though there were less opportunities and less dreams.”

The city represents opportunities. The numerous unknowns that I can make my own. 

The city is diverting, distracting, beautiful, romantic. It’s the perfect setting of a novel or to meet a stranger at dusk. When the world is so large and so completely out of my control, I feel strangely like it is more in my control. The unknown feels safe to my tumbleweed soul. It’s easier for me to cling to only one of those romances—the unknown—while forsaking the equally important romance of being known.

It’s why the boy across the bar is more intriguing than the one leaning against your elbow.

It’s why it’s easier to start a new book than finish the one on your backseat.

It’s why we run to mountains and away from our childhood homes.

It’s almost nearly easier for me to leave than stay. To stay and be known is messier. And more difficult.

The unknown is poetry. It’s picturesque. We can shoot mountains and write poems about the ocean or a boy whose heart we hope to meet. We don’t write poems about the grocery store at night or crying on the phone at 3am or the struggle to cultivate romance in a place that has lost most of its mystery.

However, in only romanticizing the unknown, we lose some of the depth of what love can be.

I’m of the opinion that romance must be both: unknown and becoming known and when I run from the latter, it’s only a sort of wanderlust or hunting for the person in the painting, only to realize he doesn’t exist. That the real people may have callused feet and messy hair and crooked collars and crooked smiles, but they have something the painted man or the mountains don’t: they are here and they can hear me and I can hear them and we can learn to know each other. It’s slow. Driving into the unknown is faster and fiercer and makes for more beautiful photos. And not that the unknown is always wrong. I simply think both are necessary.

I don’t want solely beautiful photos; I want a beautiful life and beauty comes with both length and breadth. With both unknown adventures and new humans and quiet deepness and late-night home-in-this-place laughter.

And the most beautiful thing about being known is this: you don’t have to face the unknown alone. You can face the unknown—known—and together.


(I’ll likely have more thoughts on this later, but these are a few hours of my life and thoughts on a page. Please, if you have thoughts about this, talk to me. I’m still pondering all of it.)