Trying a new thing because, well, I can. If you’re just here for the books, scroll down (I’ll never know)!
I have a theory that summer is lust, fall is longing, and winter is love. The cold and darkness of this season encourage us to nestle in, to seek out celebrations of light and warmth to protect ourselves. Because love is, I think, the best way of protecting ourselves. (NB: this is not coronavirus health advice.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately, partly sparked by this month’s book and partly by the many frustrating re-evaluations of this year. I’m very used to long-distance love from the peripatetic life I’ve lived, but you can get used to just about anything. Still, this year has hammered into me an intense gratitude for all the kinds of love I’ve experienced, no matter how far away.
Growing up, I used to pray every night. Toys and books made the list a few times, along with the required “world peace,” but I always asked for love. I had a strongly socially-constructed/Disney-influenced vision of what love was and how it could be expressed. In one of those classic life lessons, a hackneyed, surely-not-this-again trope, it took me years to recognize that I already had in abundance what I thought I lacked. In this period of seeing few people I love in person, I still get to feel love from so many corners of my world, and I still try to send it out in return. I don’t always consider the things I do—postcards, baked goods, calls, even this newsletter—as acts of love, but in small, accumulating ways, they are. Like everything worth doing, love takes a lot of practice.
My grandpa is, for me, one of the best examples of love. The way he cared for his family, and especially for my grandmother through many years of dementia, was humbling to witness. When he passed away in October, a wise friend sent me a Khalil Gibran poem, which posits that the depth of our sorrow is the measure of our joy and love. It was an acute reminder that pain and joy are part of the same experience. Grief is love, too; it’s just the hardest part of it.
Love is worth considering in all of its iterations. A new book about the value of friendships sparked some recent conversations with friends about how much platonic love matters, too (and how little it gets emphasized in US culture). We all need multiple sources of love and affection and similarity and difference, and friendships are a huge part of that. They outlast most of the romantic relationships in our lives, and are worth not just holding on to, but holding up as some of the best examples of caring, selfless love. Family tends to have a vested interest, after all.
I’m grateful for all the ways I’ve learned how to love, even and especially through loss. Loss has shown me how much love I’ve had, have, and will have. Because love doesn’t go away just because the person you loved did. Like a skill, like a scar, love remains.
All About Love, bell hooks
Reading this book felt like kripalu yoga, like successful meditation, like joyful dance. Those are the things that tend to bring me into a state of calm and love and peace and acceptance, but whatever your belief system or self-soothing rituals are, I’m telling you, it’s like that.
This is a book that demands to be read with pencil in hand, to talk back to, make notes, ask questions: it reads like a conversation, and one that most of us probably need to have at some point in our lives. Happily, unlike much of the self-help genre, the text is never condescending or self-righteous. hooks treats love as a serious inquiry, and doesn’t try to distill its complexities into trite soundbite advice like “love is the answer.” In her explorations of love as a broad concept, and not just its romantic iterations, hooks is earnest and vulnerable and open to multiple interpretations of spirituality and experience. It’s her version of Goethe’s ‘living the question,’ which tends to lead to more and better questions along the way. How do we love? How do we do it better? Do our definitions of love match?
This book made me want to immediately gift it to others in order to continue that conversation and to be, as hooks put it, in communion—to share and expand her definition of love as an action, not a sensation. As with all of her work, I admire hooks’ smart, accessible style. All About Love is an excellent starting point for thinking about all the iterations of love in our own lives. It’s a reminder that love is never an end in itself, but a beginning.
If you like it:
Try another book that tackles the complexities of love, like Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. His wise and gorgeous prose covers first, familial, and fucked-up love. Elena Ferrante’s beautiful Neapolitan novels (starting with My Brilliant Friend) also explore the shifting balance of love over a lifetime.
If you don’t:
I get it, love takes energy. Maybe you just want the rush of excitement instead, for which I recommend Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare and its endearing epistolary setup. Romances are about the fantasy of love, not its reality: they are most definitely not written as models for healthy relationships. (I have watched a romance writer literally graph how they build the drama and tension of desire from the plot’s push and pull.) They do make for very fun reading, though. And if you're interested in the topic, Nicole Linh Anderson’s recent newsletter unpacked the promise and fantasy of romance in a great way.