It is the time of year where I write a reflection. I have tried to find a good, gimmicky, fun-fun-fun theme this year (last year was cats!), but all I can come up with, surprise surprise, is love.
But whatever. I think that it makes sense to commemorate my thirtieth trip around the globe with a huge, loud LOVE FEST. Here goes.
On a recent trip to New Orleans, I sat for about an hour in the shade of a water oak looking out at the bayou (like the visibly tortured poet that I am). Across the water were two very big turtles, and I kept thinking about how amazing it was that there are turtles in New Orleans; you forget when you’re not in New Orleans how common turtles are there. After a while, I noticed a funny pattern: every time someone walked past, one of the turtles slid back into the water while the other stayed planted on the cement. Then the wet turtle would amble out of the water once the threatening human had safely walked away, and resume vigil by her companion.
I wondered why both turtles didn’t dive in when people walked past them, and so I went to investigate why one of the turtles was so uncharacteristically approachable. The reason was sad: Her shell had been cracked open — a lot. New Orleans produces a lot of turtle-related road kill, and I could tell she had been hit by a car. As I stopped and stared at her, I noticed her confidant’s head nodding out of the water, monitoring me. This behavior, which greatly resembled human loyalty, was perfectly heartbreaking.
Writing it out now, I am ashamed that I didn’t bring the cracked-shell turtle to a turtle rescue organization. But at the time it was so obvious that the turtles had to stay together. I walked past and watched the second turtle climb back out of the water as soon as I was gone, settling in next to her doomed companion.
Over the course of the last year I decided to start writing “I love you” at the ends of my letters, and to sign them with the word “Love.” I hadn’t done that before because I thought it would make people feel uncomfortable. Last year I decided that I didn’t really care, and if the loved people in my life felt uncomfortable about the articulation of my love for them, then we probably needed to have a serious talk anyway.
I moved in with my boyfriend Luke in August; we bisected the country (New Orleans to Chicago) and unloaded our moving truck into a small, clean apartment on a shady, quiet street. Chicago has a lot of wonderful things (bunnies, good Mexican food, a zillion museums, a lake and a river, multiple bird sanctuaries, trains), but among them all, alleys rank pretty high. Chicago has more alleys than any city in the country. Before Chicago, I heard “alley” and thought “aggravated assault,” but the ones in our neighborhood are sleepy and well lit, and on a citywide level, alley-related crime is minimal. We take long walks along the alleys to see what people have left by their trash bins. We have book shelves, boxes, wooden chairs, plates, mugs, and a $300 wool pea coat that came from the alleys.
Recently — last week, really — all the alley things and all the things we brought with us from New Orleans gelled, and our apartment began to feel like a complete and total thing. It was like when you spend months perfecting a Lego castle and you are finally ready to present it to your mom.
There are times when I love being here so much I feel like I’m cheating on New Orleans. “Don’t worry, baby,” I want to say to New Orleans. “I’ll come back for you. This Chicago is fine and everything, but you’re the one I really love.” The truth is that I really love them both, but I’m worried that if I say that out loud, someone will waggle a finger at me and say that my ability to stray proves my inauthenticity.
In the summer, I met someone wonderful who told me he loved me in the best way I had ever been told. I mean that he said it like it was simultaneously massive and weightless; like its worth was greater than life itself and like it didn’t matter at all at the same time.
This reminded me of when I tried a science experiment as a nine-year-old in my mother’s kitchen. I’d read about it in Nickelodeon Magazine: The claim was that if you mixed cornstarch and water, they would mix into a kind of ooze that was both a solid and a liquid. If you touched the mixture really fast, your finger bounced right off it like it was rubber; if you let your finger sink in slowly, it was clearly a liquid, and your finger would graze the bottom of the bowl. The mixture was whatever it needed to be given the circumstance.
I hadn’t thought of love in these terms before, but when the man said it to me like that, I thought, Why not? Why not let it be whatever it needs to given the circumstance? Both huge and inconsequential; both important and frivolous.
It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.
I think she uses the word joy to get around writing yet another essay on the word “love,” because to me she’s nailed love on the head.
In a lot of ways, love is defined by the amount of vulnerability it catalyzes. For example, I like butter. If given an opportunity to spend some time with some butter, particularly in the context of eating it on a fluffy roll, I’ll enthusiastically acquiesce. But when butter isn’t around, I don’t think about butter. The idea of losing butter — about all the butter melting away, or about butter suddenly disagreeing with me (as it does with so many of the lactose-averse) — doesn’t terrify me or make my hands clammy. And also, if I’m being realistic, there’s not a huge risk that I am going to lose butter. The likelihood that butter is going to stick around until I die is very high.
But people, on the other hand, are more finicky. The shelf life of a human body is ultimately very brief. And people, unlike butter, are finicky. They’re susceptible to pain and trauma and wonder and change, and people emotionally depart from other people all the time. When you love a person, you have to acknowledge that you are going to lose them. The more you love a person, the more the idea of the loss is painful. You are vulnerable. Some people think that this vulnerability is enough of a drawback that they choose butter over other people most of the time.
Last year, my family’s dog Foofy, whom I believe I will always love more than any other dog, died somewhat suddenly. This was particularly confusing to me because in my mind, Foofy was still a young dog. First of all, her name was Foofy, which is simply not the name of an old dog. But also, I had been nearly an adult version of myself when she was a puppy. Every human I can think of who was born when I was 16 is still young.
I had never been confronted with the lifespan of a dog. It is a truly brutal reality; awful enough to make me wonder if I ever want to get really close to another one. Last winter, Foofy couldn’t see well enough to get a stick you threw into the woods off the Terwilleger Trail — once her favorite activity. When I walked her home I told her, “It’s ok; you’ll be better next year, and we’ll try again.” It wasn’t just a thing I said, but a thing I believed.
Last night I sat at the kitchen table with Hannah. With other people, I can put words in front of their names to explain who they are: “My boyfriend Luke”; “my sister Alexis”; “my gynecologist Zelda.” But I don’t know what word goes between “my” and “Hannah.”
I love Hannah. Saying I love Hannah is the easiest thing in the world to do. When we share meals we spend most of the time cooking — one person takes the hot dish and the other takes the salad. (Salads are a big deal for us. If you’re picturing a hunk of iceberg lettuce and a drizzle of a fishy cream dressing, change the picture to something from a porn magazine about robust vegan dining.) We assemble the food slowly, because when you’re talking or listening intently, sometimes you can’t be doing anything else with your hands. You have to stop what you’re doing — you have to abandon onions or even full pots of boiling water — to steep in the conversation.
Since I moved away from New Orleans, the thing I miss the most by a wide margin is having long dinners like these. I have written about them over and over again in essay after essay, and I still feel like I can’t translate them to an outsider. That’s something that characterizes family, I guess: tradition that defies explanation; that is emotionally complex but descriptively simple.
The conversation diverged and dipped in and out. We started at 6:30 and soon it was 11. The points and turns of our conversation felt almost pre-determined; it was more of a carefully choreographed dance than anything else I can describe in human terms. The word love didn’t feel big enough; my chest was a dish that was actively overflowing. There were no words, so I cried. (I am a person who loves to cry; I cry every day the way other people take vitamins or go on runs.) Hannah said, “I have accepted about myself that I am just not a person who cries. But I understand, and I feel the same way.”
And here was where the correlation between love and vulnerability was not enough to constitute a full definition. Because — and this is going to sound hyperbolic, or at least overly sentimental, but I don’t know how else to put it — I felt like I had a mythological golden shield around me, and that nothing could hurt me, and that there was nothing more in the whole universe that I needed.
Since we moved to Chicago, Luke and I have gone to the Montrose Bird Sanctuary almost every week. Sometimes we talk, but usually we don’t, because birds don’t really like the way humans talk. I used to believe that dating someone long enough that there are enormous stretches with nothing to say sounded incredibly boring, but now I understand it differently. When there’s safety in the quiet, it saves you.
The Montrose Bird Sanctuary has been an anchor. The weather in Chicago peeled away the flowers and trees like pages in a magazine, but the lake is always right there, and the big tree where I hope to see an owl is always on the other side. In late fall, when there were only robins and chipmunks left, the sumac flamed up red and bright and eventually burned out. Leaves have only just started to re-sprout, and I can see how the arc of the verdure has shifted only slightly, so that the sumac looks the same, except a little different. The whole place holds a balance: Everything will change and change back and change again, no matter how rooted, no matter how ancient, no matter how sure.
The spring migration is concluding right now. I didn’t know there were so many kinds of warbler — not really, I mean. I knew that there were lots of them in the bird book, but I couldn’t imagine actually seeing such a variety, or recognizing the differences. The guys at the Chicago Ornithological Society say the birds return to that stop every year because they “love” it there. I love it there. I also love the idea that birds can love. I hope that this wonderful, antithetical, strange emotion isn’t a strictly human design.
For my birthday, my sister Alexis flew to Chicago, rented a car, and took me to a big house by the Lake Michigan. We bought $150 worth of groceries, and in the car we played the playlist on my phone called “Of All Time.” I never play “Of All Time” for other people, because it has a bunch of Weird Al Yankovic and Spice Girls and Aerosmith on it, and I don’t want anyone to know me that well. But Alexis gets it. She even had a Weird Al fan ‘zine once, so she really gets it.
When we’re not at Lake Michigan, we text each other every day. The texts are mostly check-ins: How are you?; I’m ok; What number?; Like a 6; I’m about a 6 too; etc.
When we are at Lake Michigan, we do not stop talking to each other. We fill in the millions of blanks left between the text messages. We climb up 100-foot sand dunes and talk the whole time, and we jump down them, and we keep talking while we’re jumping. When we are at Lake Michigan, we get drunk on cheap hard cider and sing karaoke (alone, no microphones, YouTube lyrics on a countertop) for three hours until our voices are fried.
There are people — sisters are usually like this, and sometimes you find sisters in strange places if you weren’t born with them — who let you pick up where you left off. There’s no animosity or regret.
My friend Karaline, who I met when I first moved to New Orleans, sent me an email last week with a long quote from a book by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (married to Charles, but an aviator of her own rite). Here’s just a little of it, with huge chunks left out:
When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. … Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits — islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.
When I talk about my love life — which, to keep things simple, is complicated — I usually offer the following caveat: “I know I sound confident that I am doing things right, because I’ve been very happy; but I am sure that in ten years I’ll tell you that I was wrong.” I’m always wrong about the minutiae. I’m always wrong when I think I have solved some kind of problem; whenever I’m sure that “the world would be a better place if only ---.” Who really knows about any of those things.
But ever since I was very young, I have felt pretty sure about love. It is possible (probable, even) that the how of it, at least in my case, is still under construction; but I am sure that love is the motor inside the whole of humanity. I vow to never eat butter ever again if I turn out to be wrong.