heir poetry snuck into radio waves. Starred in films. Happily ended books. Dumped drama into musicals. Gave hope to greeting cards. The Romantics claimed love was one thing and others believed them. Love went from being part of everyone and everything to an ongoing quest in becoming one half of a two-person union. These two people would need to fulfill all of each other’s wants, needs, and desires. Intellectual provocations, enthusiastic erections, indefatigable spirit, torrents of cash, easy reproduction, unhindered time, personal space, always understanding. This person would have to channel our thoughts and feelings without uttering a single word. This person would have to fill all our empty holes, the holes we would have grown early on, from toddler bullying and teenage humiliation. They would have to tell us we were all they needed. We had to be the star they mapped their nights around, and if we burned out, they would surely perish.
Because we are reared to believe this is love, we inject our faces with botox and slip credit cards across the counter to pay for appendage enhancers and luxury vehicles and corporate law degrees. We forget about what’s important because everything else becomes more important. There are goggles for those who have a hard time envisioning love beyond the love they think they are supposed to feel with another person who thinks they are supposed to feel the same way back. And maybe they do feel the same way about each other. Maybe they wander into convenience stores and grab the same bag of corn chips and scratch off lottery tickets with lucky pennies and win trips to Corsican beaches and read aloud books to one another about home improvement. All of the stuff around them convinces them they are loved by the stuff of their relationship: the lights, the utility bills, the supposed security. They read up on optimized coupling and vow they are doing the right thing, making all of the right moves, asking all of the right questions. They look good around others, to others. Their parents are confident in their abilities to be outstanding citizens based on the way they hold each other in public, in their internet photos, and valentine declarations. They smile and say cheese.
But then one person decides love is probably something else, perhaps a farm in southern Chile, and suggests they go there on their own to experience it. One lover is devastated because they believed they were made up of all of the love the other lover needed. Still, they want to be supportive, so they give them a hundred dollars, a package of band-aids, and an electric guitar for serenading. It all seems healthy, and it probably is healthy, one person allowing another person to be free, to love people, places, and things other than them. Until one day on the farm, one lover falls in love with a horse and two dogs and blackberry brambles and lavender and rosemary and the two o’clock sun spilling over the edge of the kitchen counter. They fall in love with bellflowers and tiny earthquakes and they don’t shower for days because they are also in love with their new filth, their body unearthed.
My mother and father didn’t say I love you to one another. There were no kitchen embraces while washing dishes or stirring marinara at the stove. No nicknames or saucy winks from across the dinner table. The affections everyone was raving about weren’t in my direct periphery.
Not until I caught my sister and her boyfriend making out in the living room. I watched them through a sliver of a door ajar and wondered if I would ever do that kind of thing with someone else’s face. It didn’t feel anything like the beastly spectacle I had seen in my parents’ bedroom when I was five, after waking from a nightmare. Mom, dad, I said, tiptoeing up to their bedroom. But they didn’t hear me. The television was talking. The end of their waterbed undulated. My father draped himself over the back of my mother who looked defeated on her elbows and knees.
In middle school I would think I was in love with a boy whose sweaty hand I would hold in convenience stores waiting to pay for slushies. Another boy never won my heart, just a glommed kiss in the hot tub. Then there was the boy who bragged about my hand’s job under toss pillows. I wrote twenty letters to a boy proclaiming my excitement around his eyes, his skinny upper arms, his agility on ski slopes. He was kind enough to say thank you and nothing more. One boy stuck notes on my desk admitting his love for my eyelashes. There were girls I was infatuated with, some because of their beauty in locker rooms and in choir stands, others who taught me how to be something more
than just a girl. Their confidence was unrivaled, and confidence was hard to come by. Confidence was a sign of self-love. I loved their self-love and hoped some of it would rub off on me.
My best friend left notes in my locker about God being disappointed in my body’s desires. That isn’t love, she said. I didn’t know where to begin in believing her.
On repeat, I would say I love you to my partners, usually in bed after sex or during sex. And one day I would read somewhere that it isn’t a great idea to profess love during sex because of the feel-good hormones consummation incites. It would say the feeling of love during sex is a made-up feeling, or more accurately a feeling inspired by the loins and reproductive systems, which may give the person you are declaring love to the wrong impression. Bah, I would think, tossing the thing I was reading aside. Because I would believe in loving freely, during sex, after sex, before sex, no sex. But then shortly after, my lover would suddenly have an idea in their mind about needing me to be something more than what I was minutes before saying I love you. And with this new expectation, I would panic.
I’m in love with dirt under my fingernails after toiling warm soil. I’m in love with the sensation of q-tips in a freshly showered ear. I’m in love with the smell of sheets drying on the line. I’m in love with a drum intro because it stirs me to shimmy. I’m in love with the smell of a book’s pages as they flip toward their ending. I’m in love with people who admit to knowing very little. I’m in love with grass stains after rolling down hills. I’m in love with the placid row, row, row of a canoe. I’m in love with the color yellow on dismal days. I’m in love with thinking about breakfast before it’s consumed. I’m in love with the cleverness of crows. I’m in love with evaporating snowflakes.
I’m in love with amiable flight attendants on turbulent planes. I’m in love with the flip of a flop. I’m in love with foibles. I’m in love with burnt toast. I’m in love with spontaneity in Monday morning traffic. I’m in love with elaborate displays of affection on park benches. I’m in love with lingering over meals. I’m in love with napping culture. I’m in love with the shape and texture of dragonfruit. I’m in love with my daughter’s eye rolls. I’m in love with Saturday afternoon orgasms. I’m in love with all unidentified species. I’m in love with radicals. I’m in love with my grandmother in her easy chair. I’m in love with the wriggle of an earthworm. I’m in love with long summer shadows. I’m in love with not knowing where we came from. I’m in love with diatoms. I’m in love with the wise gurgle of lava. I’m in love with marathon enthusiasts. I’m in love with the slow reveal of spring knees.
Although we love each other’s object bodies, our limbs and cells, we mostly love the thing inside reeking of sun.
I tried to recall the first time I discovered love. It was probably something I felt as I was dancing to my Olivia Newton John record. Or floating in embryonic fluid. Or reading Anne of Green Gables aloud on the toilet. Or eating my mom’s baked ziti.
My father’s rage, obliterated every time blankets were pulled around my shoulders in bed, finishing our daytime agony off with a kiss on the chin, goodnight.
One day I would imagine myself a container of love, something not entirely dissimilar to Tupperware with poked holes for breathing. Sometimes I would imagine carrying this container of myself inside my underwear, mostly to the bus stop. There I would encounter others with limps, others who hadn’t bathed
because of a lack of basic necessities, others who were easily angered by time and its clogging traffic, others who oozed foam from their grimacing mouths. Out it would come, my container of love, from the insides of my underwear, onto the bus, its seats, onto the lap of a mother mourning her dead teenager. Lend me your arms, she would say. I need them for warming. And of course I would, despite how much I needed them. Bus doors would whine open, spilling me onto an iced winter street, hoisting my love contained self from my hands into a wind gust. Watch it rush away, I would, both eyes cracking from cold. A long walk home, still I would plow on, arrive, remove shoes from my feet, caress the heater, warm my fingers’ bones. Ready I would be, to pull another box out from under my bed, hidden alongside a month’s dust and a few lonesome socks. Out it would come, mostly empty aside from a Polaroid or two of old lovers dressed in bras, volleying bananas over a molded shower curtain. Out it would come, my unimagined box filled with unimagined love, pouring itself inside out until all I would hear was the din of a vacuum cleaner, my accompanying childhood hum, my mom’s leg shuffle, a slow dance in the kitchen, no shoes.
We’ve been told when it’s appropriate to unlock love. Benchmarks designated for love stand out like vantage points. Here is where you will feel it most. Here is where it will count: at birth, when meeting lovers, when celebrating unions and other accomplishments, when dying and witnessing death, but all of the in-between stages of love, or the feeling of love are rather taboo. Love comes effortlessly in beginnings and endings and hides inside the middle because its force isn’t as obvious. It’s a skill to find love in routine and ordinariness. In the brushing of teeth and the folding of laundry. In ragged intimacy.
Love can be a brush slipping through hair. Sea brine. New Jersey crickets. Embryonic hiccups. Douglas firs. Late Friday afternoons in certain offices. Moon landings. Question marks. Milk suckle.
The Origin of Life by Courbet is a painting of a woman’s lower abdomen, hip flexors, upper thighs, and vagina. If I think about sperm and egg meeting, and a being forming and developing its body inside another body, one that is warm, dark, wet, and gooey, if I think of the cells and blood building around and inside this being, I also think about how almost everything else started from a similarly murky place. Life, which to me is love, seems to begin and end in darkness, but it isn’t the kind of darkness children are afraid of. It’s one that contains campfires, lunar mud, and Nina Simone’s preternatural vibrato.
I used mushrooms as medicine to unplug love without knowing I was unplugging anything at all until a couple of hours later. I would eat a small bag of them, beginning with the stems. I would eat the caps and feel my insides roil. I would wait for them to kick in and begin to wander mountains alone, stopping at every tree and bush to say hello. The sky would open up, high-altitude stars aglow, all the pain I had stored up, obliterated for the moment into a larger pain, one made up of love, one felt by all sentient beings at one time or another. I would cling to those bushes and trees, and ask them for advice about what it means to be human. Whether or not there was any difference in being human or being a bush or a tree. They wouldn’t say much, nothing at all, but I was always compelled to latch onto them, to wrap their limbs and leaves around my body.
Empaths have it hard in this world. Love too much and you are seen as dangerous.
Robert Walser walked in love, eventually falling to his death in the arms of snow.
When a father says he loves you, he really loves you, and you believe him, yes you do, but you don’t believe he likes you very much, and maybe years and years have gone by since he complimented you on anything other than the food you cook for him or your generally fit appearance in shorts. He knows how to access his love around your food, but everything else you do remains ignored. You think of where he’s been, what he’s been doing, the computer on his lap, internet screams bulleting into his brain. He takes it in, smoking cigarettes to quell the anxiety bad news brings. Then one day he tells you while you are cooking for him - you realize this is when he does a lot of his telling of things, around food, his trust in food, the love of food potentially helps him divulge - he opens up to you about his parents, how they were never nurturing towards him. You consider floating over to his chair and rubbing his shoulders, but you remain frozen, stirring pesto under the whirl of a fan.
What about dying kids, or smoldering forests, or the Rwandan genocide, or radiation sickness, or caste systems, or overfishing, or the Genocide of indigenous peoples in Brazil, or planned obsolescence, or racial oppression, or fracking, or the Holocaust, or murder in the first degree, or the disappearance of the Spix’s Macaw, thylacine, passenger pigeon, quagga, and golden toad, or foie gras, or the death penalty, or the Uyghur genocide, or forced displacement, or intolerance, or homelessness, or colorectal cancer, or poached elephants, or the Cambodian genocide, or coral bleaching, or micro-plastics in drinking water, or soil erosion, or melting glaciers, or sexual predators, or polyethylene terephthalate, or corporate interest, or no access to healthcare, food, or Operation Warp Speed, education, and housing, or displaced migrant workers, or the Genocide of indigenous Americans, or nuclear war, or mass shootings, or The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or oligarchy, or plastic clam shells, or online aggressors, or dads that murder wives and babies, or factory slaves, or plantar warts, or black mold, or nitrates, or ancient human sacrifices, or ischemic heart disease, or hate? What about hate? Where do you locate the love inside hate?
Love says, I’m sorry and means it. It wasn’t trying to hurt you, really. Not at all. Look in the mirror, love says. It’s not me, it’s you. You take the sorry, ball it up, throw it into the air, catch it in your mouth, chew it with polished incisors, left and right. You crush the sorry into grit, into paste, into smooth liquid across your tongue. There it goes, that sorry. Funneling into the burble of an esophagus, basking in stomach acid, souping further away from the sorry of the heart into the sorry of the pancreas, the sorry of the duodenum, and the sorry of small intestines. You hold your gut in your hand and listen for borborygmus. You think of dinners and lunches and breakfasts nestled up next to that sorry. It wobbles, raises your arm hairs, staggers your step then flushes its final echo down sewer pipes.
Love says be whatever you can be because that’s all you are. But love, I say, who I am is often confused by who I’ve chosen to be. Love says, a lot of people feel the way you do, it’s part of the system. I remember telling my mother a very similar thing when I was 17 years old and she was 44 years old and she was just out of the mental hospital, taking a pause from shock treatment, numb and fried in the eyes. We slurped smoothies
and she sobbed and said she sometimes wanted to be dead. I shook my head and said, who you think you are isn’t who you are. Your circumstances aren’t you. Your money isn’t you. The things you want, but don’t have aren’t you. Go ahead and kill off those parts of who you think you are. Love is all you’ll be left with.
I put my child to bed and as she is falling asleep, I stroke her hair similar to the way my mother used to stroke my hair. I tell her yes it’s time to go to bed because I am writing an essay about love and I need to concentrate. My daughter asks what an essay is and I tell her it’s a combination of ideas inspired by associations, prehistoric trees, sunsets too. And all of these ideas, every one of them, are attempts of unplugging the corks inside my body so that I can begin to feel things again.
I love you, I love you, I love you, my child says to me every night.
One day, when you search for reasons why you may be experiencing a headache or aggressive neck pain, the internet may tell you straight up, you are going to die. Search results, death, 100% positive. You are going to die the doctor says, the internet says, your mother says. And you ask your mother if everyone else is going to die too and if so, why don’t we all die like Jesus on the cross, how come he is the only one we revere in this way? You tell her you would prefer to see her die on a cross because she is made up of love not unlike Jesus was made up of love. Or so you think. You don’t really know who Jesus was at all. Dirt was your God as a child. Salt water too. You tell her you would wear her cross around your neck, fondle it in grocery store lines while waiting to pay for pickles, the fermented kind because they’re the kind you’d been told was better for gut rot, which would eventually kill you and so many others. But more than anything, more than the pain in your gut or the percolating cold sore on your lip, more than the disappointment of having to tell your job they will need to find a replacement, you are struck by the way your breaking heart is both breaking and opening at the same time. Don’t go, it says. Or rather, I don’t want you to go, but I know you need to, so please do it without me looking. Go where the sun is, and the heart will follow. You are going to die, your friend repeats back to you with a thousand question marks. You must be joking. You must be dreaming. You wish this were a dream about your teeth falling out in front of someone you didn’t have the courage to yell at, an abusive cousin who called you fatty at the swimming pool, a lecherous banker, a savage parakeet. You wish this were a dream where the plane is on its way to crashing, but instead lands safely in an embrace of plum trees. You notice the time. I notice the time. I say, hey, I realize it’s the middle of the day and we both have a lot to do. You have to work, and I have to work, and we have so many emails to send and reply to, but I needed to tell you what the internet told me, what the doctor told me, what my mother told me. I am going to die, and you are going to die one day too, so let’s just love one another, ok?
One barn says to the other barn, how much sleep does an old barn need? Seems like old barns are always slumbering. One barn says to the other barn, that’s a misconception. Barns may look sleepy, out-of-commission, dilapidated, but we are always awake, we have to be. One barn says to the other barn, do you believe in anything other than what is already in front of you? One barn says to the other barn, I believe in the possibility of everything, including the invisibles. One barn says to the other barn, do you ever wish you could wear a different roof, one that isn’t sagging, one that looks more like a combover than a roof? One barn says to the other barn, I’m mostly pleased with
my physical appearance, but it helps that I don’t look in the mirror. One barn says to the other barn, how long do you think we’ll be here, sitting on these hills? One barn says to the other barn, maybe fifty more years, it all depends on the ground and whether or not it chooses to shake us from it. But that wouldn’t be so bad, being shook, again and again, to sawdust, then blown into a crashing wave, back to dry land, to sand, to stone.