THIS BODY LOVES
“We come into this world crying while all around us are smiling.
May we so live that we go out of this world smiling
while everybody around us is weeping.”
~ Persian proverb
I heard this quote and my eyes filled with tears. This, I thought, is the sign of a life shaped by love. My mother was barely conscious when I was born. My father was in a waiting room down the hall. Who smiled at my first cry? And who will weep for me when I am dying? And in between, how many people will I have been lucky enough to love and be loved by?
Google “what is love?” The hits seem to fall into a few different categories:
First, a bunch of church websites.
Then the definitions that describe love as either an emotion, or an action, or some cocktail of brain chemicals.
There are also all the articles full of instructions on how to find your “true love” or your “soulmate”.
And then on to Greek philosophy which describes the seven (or six, depending on the site) kinds of love:
the romantic, passionate, physical EROS
the affectionate, companionable, friendly PHILIA
the unconditional, familial STORGE
the selfless, universal AGAPE
the playful, flirtatious LUDUS
the committed, long-lasting PRAGMA
and the self-love of PHILAUTIA
Now we’re getting somewhere. Clearly the question “what is love” is one that has be pondered for centuries. Anyone who has every been lucky enough to fall in love has been bowled over by the emotion of it: how did this happen? where did you come from? why this person and not another? what is this magic, this alchemy?
For many, when we fall into love, whether it’s with a new baby, a new lover, or a new passion, we feel like we are experiencing something completely unique in all the world…just like everyone else does when they find themselves falling.
“Falling in love, getting married, having children, grieving, dying, how commonplace all of life’s grand transitions are in the abstract, how overwhelming when they happen to you.”
~ from Lost And Found by Kathryn Schulz
Connection. Relationship. These have been my guiding principles. This has always been what drives me, steers me, interests me, compels me, motivates me, fascinates me, satisfies me, comforts me, affirms me, enlivens me. So many different types of relationships. And even when I didn’t have the language for it, I knew that Love was the umbrella over all of it.
I have always had deep, intense friendships. In grade school I always had one best friend. And it seemed very important to specify “best”. The hierarchy being clearly ingrained even before romantic relationships were on the table. And then in high school the distinction made between “boyfriends/girlfriends” and “just friends”. Friends were somehow less than. I saw it. I experienced it. I enacted it. But I didn’t feel it. My closest friends were everything. And I loved them. Deeply. At times even glancing out of the corner of my eye at my closeted lesbianism by blurring the line between “just friends” and someone I was sexually attracted to or even engaged with. And then jumping back, slamming the closet door closed again, and carrying on with the status quo. Reserving the word love for one kind of love only.
In my work life, I have always been drawn to jobs and careers grounded in relationship and in engaging with and supporting others. Doula, psychotherapist, dance teacher, educator…all of these and more along the way, and in each finding moments of connection and love for those I worked with. And being a little bit scared of this love. Am I allowed to call it love? Would it be misunderstood? Misconstrued? Seen as inappropriate? In a culture where love is limited to only certain kinds of relationships, I squelched the moments of love that I knew existed for clients, students, mentors, therapists; stashed them away in a secret chamber in my heart.
But I knew that my heart had an extensive, expansive capacity for love. This body seems always longing to reach out for more and more and more love. I seek connection the way divining rods seek water. The down side of this is that I am dangerously susceptible to the addictive power of scrolling. Whether it’s on on social media or dating apps, I live in hope. Maybe a new, profound connection is coming with the next swipe.
This thirst for love and connection compelled me but also frightened me. What if I couldn’t sustain my capacity for love as much as I wanted to?
Becoming a parent cracked open a new chamber in my heart. One that, despite having wanted to have a baby for as long as I could remember, I couldn’t really imagine until I experienced it. An expansive, tender, powerful love like none I’d ever felt before. Not only a new place in my heart, but a piece of my heart now out in the world. An extended vulnerability that would one day go out into the world without me.
And so when I was preparing for my second child, I experienced hour after hour of panic. How would I ever be able to love this second baby as much as the first? It seemed impossible. I was sure I would fail this child with my insufficient love.
But then she arrived. And as if by magic, another chamber opened up in this heart of mine, one that was completely new and unique to this new being. And then the third and fourth children came and it kept happening. My incredible, elastic heart, capable of growing new containers for each new love. And each one brought its own new kind of love. Because each child brought a new relationship. I love them all deeply. But I do not love them all the same. Because they are different people. And I am different with each of them. Because our relationship, our love, is unique. Every time.
I have been blessed with so many different and different kinds of loves. And one never replaced another. Perhaps I used to protect my heart more. But I gradually started to realize that, if I allow it, the old house of my heart has the capacity to keep expanding, adding annexes and extensions, extra cabins, bunkies. Sometimes loves just pitched their tents in the yard for a short time. While others have laid solid foundations and built homes made of stone. More children. More friends. More connections. More love.
Oh, but lovers. This is a different category of love. These are special kinds of loves. These loves that involve touch and hunger and sweat and sounds we only make when no one else can hear and parts of bodies that we don’t talk about in polite company. This is a different kind of love, yes? A domain set apart from those other loves, right? All other love is expansive, maybe even universal, except the kind that involves sex, true? For those loves we set limits: This one, and this one alone.
And all of a sudden that made no sense to me. My heart, my incredible expanding heart, is part of this body. So why am I supposed to separate physical love from any other kind of love? It’s all in this body. And this body wants love. All kinds of love.
And suddenly I found I could erase the line that separated sexual love from any other kind of love. I found that it no longer made sense to me to follow the established hierarchy that had always dictated which loves were more important than other loves. It’s not that my lovers suddenly became less important, but rather that even my platonic loves became more important. I could no longer say that the partner I share my home and parenting with is more or less important that the sister-friend who I share my deepest fears and most inappropriate humour with. They are both beyond vital to me. Each one nurtures me in a unique way. Each one has a very particular job description that the other could never fill. No one person can ever fulfill all my needs. I am a relational being, and each relationship allows me to bring out different parts of myself.
I used to think there was something wrong with me because I experienced myself as a chameleon, changing with whoever I was in relation with. I spent so many therapy dollars trying to figure out my authentic core. So many therapy hours struggling with the dictum that “you can’t love another until you love yourself.” This felt impossible to me. I felt in my body that the best place for me to learn love is in relationship. When I love, I love not only the beloved, but the part of me I am when I am with them. And by redefining my relationship to love, my relationship to relationships, I realized it’s all me! This body holds multitudes. Each separate relationship engages a different part of me. Each new love teaches me new ways to love myself. And so the authentic me is a sum of these parts, the totality of every relationship I’ve ever experienced. The only way to be all of me…takes a village!
But what of other kinds of loves? The constellations and possibilities begin to seem endless. I’m not talking about the fact that we use the word love to describe altogether too many kinds of feelings, as in, “I love cheesecake”. (Although I do love cheesecake. I mean it’s cheesecake! How can my mouth not be in love as soon as that first bite goes in?!)
But there are other loves too, non-human loves. Of course there will be those who immediately think of their pets, their animal companions, their "fur babies”. These people might tell you that it’s the same as having children. (These people generally do not, actually, have human children, and so I must clarify: it is not the same. Though I will grant you that the feeling of love may be similarly true and deep and abiding.) No, when I think about my non-human loves I am talking about some of my deepest, lifelong love relationships: with dance, and with nature, and with memory.
When I am in connection with nature, there is a type of love that calms me, that allows my nervous system to relax. When my eyes can see all the way to the horizon, the muscles that have to work to keep focussed can soften. When my skin feels the heat of the sun, or the warmth of a breeze I am awake and alive. When I can smell moist earth and fresh green I am at home.
My relationship with dance is similarly a love story for this body. Music seeps through my ears and into the rest of my body creating shapes and telling stories. Stories tell themselves through my movements. My emotions are pure when they are in motion.
But there is another kind of love that I experience with those who are not ~ or, strictly speaking, no longer ~ human. Those who are not present. Those who are gone. The word in Portuguese is Saudade ~ the love that remains even after the object of that love is gone. I don’t speak Portuguese and there is no direct translation into English, yet I know this feeling intimately.
There are those relationships that affected me, changed me, left an imprint on me. I do not believe, nor have I ever had evidence of any kind of afterlife. And yet, I am still in relationship with those people with whom I shared love before they died. They continue to live within me, and my relationship with them continues to change and evolve beyond what either of us had the opportunity for in their lifetime. My fraught relationship with my mother, never repaired before her sudden death, has now had the opportunity to soften, to mature, to experience forgiveness. My prematurely ended relationship with my father has continued to teach me about love and acceptance almost five decades on. I carry on both sides of the conversation in these love stories.
But back to the Greeks. I don’t know if there are six, or seven, or ten, or a thousand different types of love, but I do know that I have never loved the same love twice. As I wept over the last woman who broke my heart, I heard myself grieving not only for the loss of her, but also for the loss of that part of myself that loved her so specifically. The part of me that emerged in our love together. The fact that I will never have that type of love again. And of course the other loves in my life stepped up and supported me, and tried to reassure me that I will love again, I will have great sex again, I’m not too old to get back on the dreaded dating apps. And I know that they are right. I still have love in my life and, god-willing, I will have more of it. But I will never again have THAT love. That particular one that I created with that particular lover. That I will never again be the me that I was with her.
But her love, and the love of all those I have had the gift to love and be loved by, will live forever in this body. And I realize why the first hits I got when googling “what is love” were from churches. My sensation of spirituality is the holiness of connection. When I sense connection in my body, that is divinity. Connection to friends and lovers and children and strangers, to myself, to nature, to trees, to pain, to celebration, to everyone on the planet, to the universe ~ at once so big and so tiny my place in it all.
And it is all about connection. It is all love. And I love it all.