I write this as I drink shit coffee from one of those vending machines that plops out a paper cup then reluctantly chugs down your sweaty dollars before spitting out a thick stream of black juice. This, I think, peering into my “D3” brew, this is where the truth is. Without the pretense of a Starbucks cup or hipster hang-out nobody is endorsing this lifestyle. Who wants to date the girl shoving her hand up the vending machine so she can haul her crap coffee to the upper echelons of the library where, in the words of Brother Ali, “Face type: shiny, I stay up and write late nights.” The answer is, I don't know. And the answer is, I’m doing it anyway. I am also blasting The Cure, specifically the one sappy song that everybody already knows and makes me about as novel as being into disco balls in the 1970s. “Show me how you do that trick/the one that makes me scream, she said….show me how you do it/and I promise I’ll run away with you.” I apply this in a messed up way to academia. My fantasies consist of tight paragraphs and proper sentence structure and somebody who wants that as much too. Right now, America is a hot mess, which makes me feel small and perhaps has whittled down my romantic fantasies as well. Our “president” just tweeted a tweet, which included, no kidding, the phrase “...as we wait for what should be EASY D.” Besides the whole part about the entire world reading it the same blatantly inappropriate way, it reminds us of the question at large about the relationship between easiness and, well, intimacy.
Regardless of political lines, the larger problem is people have let fear take over love. Love is a reception, an openness to the unknown. To the idea that everybody is human and that there is some dignity to existing, that there are some basic rights that cannot and should not be stripped. Flagrant nationalism is not love. Drawing lines between skin color, gender, and homelands is not love. Love for your fellow human is a choice to ultimately privilege their humanness rather than the subcategories of descriptors. James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, talks about the relationship we have between our countrymen and how this is rendered by love. “Love takes off the masks that we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace-- not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the touch and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” Applied to romantic love, many people are under the guise that the beloved’s function is to make the lover “happy.” Sure, yeah, the lover’s presence and existence, the thought of them and the longing for them should make you happy. But part of love is also growth, not only of the individual but of the self with another. Having another love you means having another pay attention to you. Which means you become more accountable to the person you thought you were, and also, who you want to be. This unmasking, this honesty and humbleness is typically summed up with the word “vulnerability." Learning how to recognize masks, how to gently pull them from another’s face, and also to have the guts to let somebody pull down yours are part of the growing pains in life.
Romantic love in its fullness builds on the foundation of agape love and is maintained by agape love. But nobody really wants to talk about that. So we talk about “relationships” like the other is a pawn that may or may not fit the right way into our end game. We forget that we have relationships with everybody we encounter. We just want to wonder if somebody “loves” us, not as a human or a friend, but if they “desire” us. And this is fine to mull on, but desire is much easier to understand. Desire is the sauerkraut in the love buffet. You can usually tell in the first bite if it’s your kind of jam or not. But love, in the love buffet, is the chocolate chip cookie. It can wear the disguise of being comparatively tame, but nothing can beat the craving for a chocolate chip cookie except a chocolate chip cookie, and you know your favorite kind of cookie when it is made that certain way, and most people make them good, but not the same exact way. Desire is saying, “I want you” and hearing “I want you back.” Love is waiting through the silent spaces when desire lines are not straight.
Love is one of the few virtues that belly flops, that collapses, so often. Love is constantly evolving toward the other or away from the other. There’s not a lot of neutral ground and there’s not a whole lot of reliable measurement. Regular gestures become colored with meaning as we wonder if they mean our lover is staying, arriving, or leaving. And most of these gestures are the same gestures that happen in “desire.” He kissed me! She asked me to dinner! We saw our third movie this week! They can mean everything or nothing. And then there is that confusion, that “love stays.” Love does not always stay. It is possible to deeply care for another, to “love” them, and to ultimately walk away from each other. We are so often focused on whether the other is “ours”, we forget that merely having something as “ours” does not ensure any sort of sincerity nor necessitate any sort of longevity. Sometimes the most sincere and giving interactions are with people who have never been, and who never will be “ours.”
It is exhausting to love. To love is to say, "I want to try differently" instead of saying, “to you, I blame." There is no “good time” for love. Either you choose to love what is in front of you when it is in front of you, or you walk away. For both erotic and agape love, love is always work. It is only when you have made love a habitual way of seeing yourself and the other that it becomes something freeing. Love should not be easy. It takes strength, persistence, determination, and humility. It cannot be constantly shored up by superficialities. Love is a hope and a faith in right intention. Love will always get rejected. Will always be misread. At some point, in some way, in some sense, in some form. Love is being able to say, “Give me your eyes so I can see better this mess I made, we made, we are in.” Love is a plurality, a stumbling, a grace. Love is that Jeff Buckley line, “So I'll wait for you and I'll burn.” It is the hours in solitude of burning and reflection and questioning and thinking you are going insane but thinking maybe this insane degree of curiosity about another human is just a part of the comprehensive word “life.” Love is the acute awareness of the gnawing inside you that everything you feel, every gesture you make, everything you offer and give to the other, to the beloved might not pan out into something permanent. Love is the refrain, “Lover, you should've come over/'Cause it's not too late.” It is that lover coming over and the sensation of lying in the grass in early summer. It is also that lover coming over and feeling it in every inch of their body that they've already booked out.
Love does not necessitate possession or belonging or even time. The beloved may not be your person anymore, they may not have ever been yours. It may no longer be the time to give your romantic love, or appreciation for the individual that inspired or inspires it. But if it is love, if it is true love, there will be something called “a third of love.” Which means that the relationship between yourself and the other creates something outside of itself. A goodness, an energy, that can be, and that will be brought to your other relations and dealings with other people and other parts of your life.
Some years past, I was with a guy who had never been in romantic relationship since high school. For Valentine’s Day I made a valentine for every day we had known each other since we met. I filled 383 cards with photos from disposable cameras I would carry around, multi-lingual phrases I scoured the Internet for and meticulously cross-referenced, hand made cards, quotes, and notes I scattered all over his bedroom. He came home, put his head in his hands, sat in the middle of all the valentines, and cried. Like a true desperado, I had also made a mix CD. I actually bought some of the songs. Like crazy people in love, I selected each song for its lyrics, and also its usability. Cooking, hanging out, driving in the car. All the things I thought people in love liked to do with each other. That night I tried playing the CD for him at his place. He said, "Baby, I'm tired, let's listen to this some other time." Almost a year later, he would admit he never listened to the CD. If I had another year under my belt, my salty CD would be called something like “Boyz in Neverland” featuring a lot of Aretha Franklin. But it was what it was, and I loved how I loved.
"Mad Girl's Love Song"
So this year, instead of publishing the CD I made that boyfriend, I made a mix for That One Guy calling it "Mad Girl's Love Song". The one who has been in my life, the one who I’ve made a fool of myself in front of, and the one, unlike all the others, who has never asked for any endorsement from me. Neither him nor my ex boyfriend knew how many times I'd play through these in the dark driving through the night wondering at what I was making out of my life. That One Guy would roll his eyes at my “Shining Star” track. But I’m just proud of myself for that being a step up from my delusional “All I Ever Need Is You” pick to Peter Pan of some years past. I could go into some nerdy English shit about stars already being dead so comparing your love interest to a shining star actually being pragmatic and “shining” being a version of light which is what most world philosophies equate with pure love. But I’m not going to to go there. I have advanced degrees in language, which they should just call The Study of People Getting Frustrated They Can’t Say Shit Right, Mostly To People They Care About, Before Doing Harebrained Things. In other words, the instability and unreliably of romantic love can only be matched by the unreliability of the language we have to explain it.
I had loved before. Been loved before. I read the New York Times Modern Love column religiously, which is more or less consistently about people swinging into each other like a bag of bricks, teaching each other something about the impermanence of humanity, and then washing out like water colors. I consume foreign love films like some people pop chocolates; everybody ends up in some combination of dead, maimed, or alone, and there’s always some wailing violin that’s got tears running down your face so hard you are squinting two inches away from the subtitles. I have seen all the noir romances where the women have perfect noses and ironed pencil skirts and the men have hats at all the right angles, but somehow this makes their attainability even more elusive.
So I’ve come to this conclusion: I eat less donuts than I go running. Wash my face more than watch the television machine. Be nice to overcompensate for my own blaring personality deficiencies, including but not limited to tendencies towards isolationism and the preference of sitting in a quiet bar with a quiet beer thinking about irrelevant things like how the bloke in front of me eating a hot dog may or may not know that is because the advent of 1920s American Leisure Time. My conclusion: be better to people than they are to me, and maybe what the universe sends back will be the equivalent of a hug from a librarian which gives off a tinge of formality but the vibe that at least you’re not in shit city, and you’re doing some ambiguous thing right. Perhaps this is bleak and unromantic and what our pop culture would call “taking the L.” But I want to take the “L," because that just means, to both the Catholic schoolgirl and little Buddha inside me, that I am freeing myself from thinking I’m such a hot commodity that I deserve a certain kind of love narrative that I didn't even have the creativity to come up with. To love purely is to give without expectation. It is the loss of self, but also the constant generative energy of some desire beyond your ego. And perhaps that is the kind of loss we need to swallow more often.
Sure, you cannot love without expectation with erotic love. There has to be some sort of reciprocation otherwise you end up on the stalker spectrum or getting walked on like one of the smaller bugs in Bugs Life. But agape should be the base of all sorts of love. So when you say you love somebody, what you are saying is that you love them as you would any other human in the universe, but you also are seeing the privilege for what it is: you are present together in that moment in time and space, and you’ve also noticed that there's something extra sparkly about them. Many people are thrown off by being loved. But just as many other people are already going around loving big and bold and relentlessly.
People say they “hate” certain holidays. They cite commercialism. Well, don’t celebrate the commercial aspect. But you are part of a culture. Most people dislike things because they don't feel included. Because they aren't feeling the way that is advertised. Which is another way of saying, because they aren't feeling the way they think they should be feeling. There is only one way you should be feeling all the time, and that is humble. Whether it be sadness or euphoria, the only way you’re going to see anything beautiful in the world is to be devoted to the notion that there is always more than what you can currently understand. Valentine’s Day, like any other holiday, can be extremely romantic. It can be extremely sad. This is due to being part of the human fabric which means being part of the cultural fabric. So see holidays for what they are, leave it at that, and try to be a good human to the people in your tribe. There are plenty of people in the world without partners, grieving partners, or who have never had a partner. There are children that are watching, still, with eager eyes, to see what it means to love. There are also a ton of people surrounding us that have lived full and beautiful lives and who know what it means to love. So, don’t make it about you. Look around you.
The other day I sat cross legged on the floor in one of my best friend’s parents' house doing Marie Kondo Shit. As he pulled out boxes from his closet, he found framed pictures of him and an old girlfriend. He sighed real big, lay prone on the floor, and asked me if I’d do the same things over again if I knew what I did now. Of course, I said. I’ve had a lot of partners that weren’t the best fit. But they were beautiful people. I’d rather get close to beauty and be hurt and suffer in the degree that I could experience them. There’s a lot of ways to talk about this. Some people could read it as a lack of discipline or brashness. But it also takes an incredible amount of discipline and self control to keep loving somebody. Especially if you know you are not receiving back from them maybe what you want or what you think is right. You can’t help feelings. Emotions pass by like clouds. But you can control how you act on them.
I thought of some lines from “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath, the queen of Sad Big Love. “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead/ I lift my lids and all is born again./(I think I made you up inside my head).” Sylvia Plath, the Queen of 14 Year Old Girls’ Unrequited Dreams, hit upon an integral part of love and desire: to love another is to imagine, to believe, to give voice to the power of your feeling, past the point of certainties. To let your voice scrape past the point of needing another’s validation.To sing the song anyway. And it is not the song of unrequited love that defines love. But it is part of what makes up Love with the big “L” that we don’t see advertised.
Sure, the greeting cards are right. Love IS the great stabilizer. Feeling loved gives you the safe space, the freedom, and the courage to live more wildly. But love is not always built into our lives. Sometimes, love is something we have to learn how to generate. And love is necessary because it is the only way of generating empathy, of generating light. The people you have loved, and who have loved you, even for a moment, are the shoulders you stand on. They are part of your life you can laugh at, part of your life that you can shake your head at. But these people, each of them, will go on, have gone on, to lead comprehensive lives with dreams and hopes and desires that have nothing to do with you. Celebrate that person. Celebrate the fact that that human is giving you their time in this moment. For perhaps a semi-rational reason. For something perhaps that will largely be unable to be articulated to either you or themselves now or ever.
At one moment, and maybe in this moment, the person that you love is right in front of you. If they are not, there was somebody at one point in your life. And this doesn’t mean they are your person now, or that you lost them, but that you, too, have had something beautiful. And if you have not had that, take a look around you. There are people that you love and love in your life, even if it is not romantic love. That counts for something, too. So hush, for a minute. Listen to somebody else's story. For by realizing what it means to be human to others we can more fully understand our own humanity. We have forgotten that part of love happens in shadow. Part of love is pain. Part of loving is learning how to unknow what we think the universe is in order to create the space where it can bloom into what it should be. For faith, hope, and renewal- every beautiful part of love- come only when the other risks are accepted.
Look, you can’t have all the good stuff in life at once. Maybe this is your moment, maybe this will be a good moment for you. But maybe, this moment sucks. Maybe it’s hard and you just want ice cream but then you don’t want ice cream because you don’t want to be a fat-ass, in addition to being an unloved fat-ass. Maybe you’re going to need a box of Kleenex today. Or two. But look, kid. Pretty soon all the chocolates at all the stores will be on sale and it will not be pop culture dictating what you do with them or how and why they do or do not end up at your house.
So right now? Be a stand up person. There will always be somebody more alone than you. More sad than you. And there will also be people who can celebrate with more money, with more visibility, with more emotion, with more time, with more intuition, than you. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You did not earn a commercial holiday. Nor did you sign up for it. You can participate in commercialism or not. You can make your partner feel like shit by evading a cultural norm where people reach out to each other and say and attempt to show shit, like “hey, look, I noticed you and you’re great.” Or you can do something kind, not because it’s Valentine’s Day, but because it’s another day on Earth. There’s a Japanese proverb I chant to myself when I’m about to do something that could be borderline pinheaded: “We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.” I’d rather be clowning and take the laughter than be frozen, waiting in muted hysteria for someone else to clown for me.
We are all human at the start and the end of the day. We aren’t attorneys or postmen or chefs or models. We aren’t each other’s partners or boyfriends or girlfriends or co-workers. We aren't our bills or our credit scores or how many kids we have or what vacations we have planned or how much we can deadlift. We are just people, the kind they sketch out in children’s books who have favorite breakfasts and are afraid of the weird things that go bump in the night. Be gentle to each other. Love. Buy your best friend their favorite snack. Call your mom. Sit down with a whiskey or two and think about the meaning of the universe. Tell that girl or guy you like something audacious. Think of all the romantic hopefuls you have ever rejected and risk it yourself. Go buy some flowers from some cheap place where you can mix the arrangements and nobody will know. Originate a card by molesting one of the nice $6 store bought ones with a Sharpie. Make one out of random scraps of things you should have thrown out in your house. Instead of making a coupon book for somebody, just go wash the damn car. Give them that massage.The fifty consensual kisses, all at once. Steal other people’s ideas from the internet. Live. Regret everything. Go, actually try. Get REJECTED. Then laugh at yourself for being brave. And no, you don’t want a gift receipt.
Nietzsche said some shit in Latin once: “Quidquid luce fuit tenebris agit, [What occurred in the light, goes on in the dark]: but the other way around, too.” Ole' N laying down some knowledge like a G. To further bastardize people wiser than me, what Nietzsche is trying to say in the longer passage is that what we dream about often ends up shaping our soul in the same degree as what we experience in reality. In other words, we become the secrets of our dreams. So, to step into the light, I made an attempt at brandishing my way through my own darkness. Last year I made a mix CD in February for someone I loved. I should have known that compact discs were out of vogue and he didn’t really care about me and he would never listen to the music. But that’s not how it goes. You see the story you want to see. You live as the person you want to be. And in my story, I loved him. And so in that story, I was who I wanted to be. And when you love people, you offer them what you got.
This year, with the help of my friends, I swapped a couple playlists. One is with a science lab-partner from junior high who had tried asking me to Junior Prom over bolded words in song titles which I was too much of a blockhead to realize until many years later when I was cleaning out my desk while visiting my parent’s house. When I found that playlist I called him at his U. Yeah, Amy, I did ask you to prom, he said, laughing over the telephone wires. This is also, Philosophical Questions About Love While Marie-Kondo-ing Guy.
"it was a good day."
"V-Day in Past Perfect Tense"
Another is from a guy I dated in between high school and college and whose relationship with me largely consisted of us eating four hour dinners with his Brazilian-Jewish family and burning each other mix CDs with handwritten playlists and meticulous titles only matching the obscurity of the pen and ink covers we’d draw and the places we'd end up driving to play said mix CDs to each other.
"The Only Date I Need Is Edible"
"Scalping Tickets To The Love Train"
I thought of these men when I thought of the Peter Pan Playlist Incident. I thought of how I had known when it was over with Peter Pan, but had decided to keep shaping the denouncement. I had, quite literally, played the soundtrack to my life. One day, Peter Pan walked me home from an early summer date, telling me, as we climbed the whitewashed stairs of my Victorian, that he would actually rather break up with me than move his couch into my house. The shadows from the candy apple green wax leaves falling over his face. Watching his shapely Eastern European lips as he told me but that yes, he still wanted me to go to the beach house with his family friends. After this vacation, he would leave me again, but I didn’t know this yet. I did know I was losing something, I had lost something already, as the shadows flickered across his face and I felt like hurling up all the barbecue I had just scarfed down. So, I did what any “writer” would do. I stared at my life straight, for what it was, not what I wanted it to be. And I did what any “loser in love” would do. On the drive to the seaside as we rolled through blue collar neighborhoods with salt in the air and gas stations stocked with brown sugar taffy, I let the playlist I had made him that I had known he never had listened to play. I had that moment, I wanted it, all the pain and understanding and hope rolled into one, just for me. And sometimes, life is that way. You know you’re losing something and you’re the only one noticing but you still have to walk yourself out of the arena. Perhaps some people would call this masochistic-nostalgia. I have dubbed this, Shit-That-Turns-Into-A-Different-Form.
Charlie Brown, in his infinite pragmatism, said, “Nothing quite takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love." But life? Yeah, it doesn’t stop there. I’m not sure how easily you can turn loyalty on or off. Oftentimes, we want to slide our fingers down a dimmer button, to turn it down slow and easy on ourselves. But the truth is rarely pure and never simple. You can dig up beautiful parts of the past. You can sink your teeth into fantasies which are not yet yours. And you can walk smiling, with tears streaming down your face, into the future. Later, you can decide what to make of your candor. Chopin, who balled out of control on the piano, wrote in his letters, “It is dreadful when something weighs on your mind, not to have a soul to unburden yourself to. You know what I mean. I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.” We don't always get to have the person we want when we want them. Chopin knew this. But homedog also had the balls to say it as it was and play on.
There is some phrase, somewhere, about not truly being strong until you have the courage to laugh at yourself. May you, too, go walk into this wild world, laughing, and dancing, and also, swaying a little bit, those hips. Sure, your life could have been something else. But it is what it is, and you are beautiful as you are, and everything, as the night closes in and the sun pushes through again, will be alright.
Enjoy the playlists.
"The Only Date I Need Is Edible"
- Nantes by Barbara
- Please Forgive My Heart by Bobby Womack
- Wild Horses by Bishop Briggs
- Sweet Doggs by Trolle Siebenhaar
- Little Bit by Lykke Li
- Show Me by Mint Royale
- Marijuana by Chrome Sparks
- Shame by Young Fathers
- Down On My Luck by Vic Mensa
- Truth by Alexander
- Future People by Alabama Shakes
- Go! by Public Service Broadcasting
- Wide Open by The Chemical Brothers
- Let's Make Love and Listen To Death From Above by CSS
- Prayer in C-Robin Schulz Edit by Lilly Wood and The Prick
- This Way by Dilated Peoples
- Poppin' Off by WatchTheDuck
- Nobody Speaks by DJ Shadow, Run the Jewels
- Settle Down by No Doubt
- The Dead Flag Blues by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
"Scalping Tickets To The Love Train"
- She Came Along by Sharam, Kid Cudi
- You Could've Been A Lady by Hot Chocolate
- The Weight by The Band
- Dream Baby Dream by Suicide
- Make Me A Bird by Electrik People
- Strawberry Letter 21 by The Brothers Johnson
- Dancing in the Moonlight by Toploader
- Mr. Big Stuff by Jean Knight
- Midnight Train to Georgia by Gladys Knight & The Pips
- Just Like Heaven by The Cure
- Wild Child by Baby Alpaca
- UK by Black Marble
- Show Me the Way by Penguin Prison
- Modern Love by David Bowie
- I'll Do 4 U by Father MC
- You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon
- Grey Lagoons by Roxy Music
- Come Pick Me Up by Ryan Adams
- Age of Consent by New Order
- Disorder by Joy Division
Mad Girl's Love Song
- Paper Doll by The Mills Brothers
- Cucurrucucu Paloma by Caetano Veloso
- Shining Star by The Manhattans
- Ignition (Remix) by R. Kelly
- As Time Goes By by Dooley Wilson
- Solamente una Vez by Los Panchos
- I'll Be Seeing You by Billie Holiday
- You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You by Nat King Cole Trio
- Lover, You Should've Come Over by Jeff Buckley
- Ladykiller by The Horrible Crows
- Take Off Your Cool by OutKast
- Fantasy by Mariah Carey
- Pagin' the Devil (Take 1) by Lester Young
- I Feel So Good by Big Bill Broozy
- Everybody Plays the Fool by The Main Ingredient
- Wee Baby Blues by Art Tatum
- It Hurts So Good by Millie Jackson
- Speedo by The Cadillacs
- Dreaming by Al Bowlly
- How Bizarre by OMC
V-Day in Past Perfect Tense
- Mattinata Fiorentina by Alberto Rabagliati
- See You All by Koudlam
- Get It On by 19eighty7
- Mother We Just Can't Get Enough by New Radicals
- Break the Silence by The Dig
- Money Can't Buy by Howard
- String Quartet No.3, "Mishimia" by Philip Glass
- Afterlife by Arcade Fire
- Mild Blood by Broken Back
- Venice (Adam Snow Bootleg) by The Lighthouse and the Whaler
- Long Way Down by Tom Odell
- Sweat by RY X
- Outer Space by G. Genevieve
- Distortions by Clinic
- Fever To The Form by Nick Mulvey
- Beggar in the Morning by The Barr Brothers
- Animal by Javier Dunn
- Working Titles by Damien Jurado
- How Could We Be Wrong by Al Bowlly
- Just Like Honey by The Jesus and Mary Chain