Love in a time of declining democracy (or how do you promote a book?)

Last semester was hectic. I was teaching two new classes (both on love!), so there was tons of reading to do, and daily prep work. Between bouts of marking papers, I was finishing the final rounds (rounds, plural–so many rounds!) of edits for my book. As I got dressed in the mornings, I listened to the news with a mix of hope and dread.

I spent some days feeling like a total boss who was doing cool things in a perfectly capable way and then finding myself overcome by the sudden onset of rage and despair. This despair typically emerged from listening to one of those news segments where journalists interviewed “real voters” on “the issues they care about” and I wondered–again and again–at the media’s willingness to let people make racist or xenophobic comments on air as if these were sensible concerns that deserved the same airtime as other voters’ fears about losing their healthcare.

I kept thinking, January will be better. In January the news cycle would die down. I’d be fully prepared for all my classes. The edits would be complete. In January I would sleep in more often. I’d get back to Wednesday nights at the climbing gym and the brewery. I’d read all the books that were stacking up on my kitchen table! 2017 was a beautiful utopic time when I’d write tons of blog posts!

You see where this is going.

But, as I wrote on Instagram, the end of 2016 had the useful effect of putting some things into perspective. Continue reading

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A failed attempt at rejecting true love

When I teach memoir writing we spend a lot of time talking about truth and Truth. Memoir, unlike some other forms of nonfiction, allows for a bit of negotiation between verifiable facts (truth) and larger, more abstract notions of How the World Works and What it Can Mean to Be Human (Truth).

Because memoir is based almost entirely on memory, things can sometimes be True without being verifiable. If I’m writing, for example, about a conversation I had with my mom when I was ten, I’m aiming to accurately capture the spirit of that conversation even if the dialogue can’t possibly be exact. But even when the class gets to a pretty good working definition of these two concepts, truth still feels a little slippery. Even in a genre nominally and practically dedicated to the investigation of truth, creative nonfiction, it still isn’t always obvious what qualifies as true. And maybe this is why I find myself increasingly resistant to notions of Truth in Love.

We throw around references to “true love” pretty casually, but what exactly is it? Seriously. I do not pose this as a rhetorical question. I’d love to know how people define true love and how(/if) they separate it from other forms of romantic love.

In my own efforts to process the idea, here’s what I’ve come up with in terms of our collective notion of true love: it happens once and with one person; it’s mutual; it lasts “forever”; it’s selfless. But when I investigate these ideas they all break down pretty quickly.

  • True love happens once: Often the phrase “true love” is preceded by the word “one.” We are, at best, a serially monogamous species. Most of us will love (in ways that are deep and devoted and serious) more than one person in our lives. Which of those experiences is the one true love? The person you were with the longest? The one you had the most intense feelings about? The one you’re with now?
  • True love is mutual: If you have never been in love with someone who did not love you back, you’re missing out on a profound (and profoundly miserable) human experience. Most of us would agree that unrequited love feels far from trivial. Many people have made major life decisions based on feelings that weren’t wholly reciprocated. It seems short-sighted to dismiss those feelings as less legitimate than feelings that were returned. And even in mutually-loving relationships, individual investment in the relationship is not always perfectly equal.
  • True love lasts forever: I put “forever” in quotes earlier because I find this concept as shaky as “Truth.” Not to be a total literalist but nothing lasts forever, not the earth or the sun or the universe or your feelings. I don’t mean to imply that love isn’t valuable or even sometimes profound. I just want to point out that the ways that we fetishize love in our culture don’t always make sense. Endowing love with mysticism requires putting ourselves in positions of willful ignorance and passivity. In general I am annoyed by willful ignorance, in love I am particularly annoyed.
  • True love is selfless: Can anything requiring reciprocity to be legitimate still be selfless? (again, not a rhetorical question.)

I’ve been thinking about this idea of true love as I’ve been catching up on all the Valentine’s-related stuff I ignored while on vacation last week. A lot of the criticism of Valentine’s Day (at least on my various social media streams) is that it’s too commercial. And, yeah, advertisers definitely use the holiday as a way to equate expressions of love with giving material gifts, but it’s pretty easy to reject the consumerism of the holiday while still acknowledging the sentiment. I really like the idea of having a built-in reason to tell the people you love that you love them—and of extending the celebration of love beyond romantic love. This year I spent the holiday eating mahi-mahi and drinking beer with twelve of my closest friends and I had this abundant, totally joyful feeling of love (though I acknowledge this is an easy feeling to summon while slightly sunburnt and totally tipsy and very far from rainy Vancouver.)

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See what I mean?

So I don’t want to reject Valentine’s Day but I do want to rethink the concept of true love. Still, I get that it’s difficult to separate the practice of loving someone from the mythos of love. I just spent an hour listening to love songs on YouTube as I’ve been writing this and I’ll be the first to admit the mythos of love—that insistence on mystery and ineffable Truth—is seductive. I love the way I feel Continue reading

the head and the heart: a valentine to the brain

One of the best things about writing (publicly) about love–and I think I’ve said this before–is that people send me love stories. They send me articles and images and videos, and I have not yet gotten tired of receiving them.

On Valentine’s Day in particular love stories abound, and they run the gamut from saccharine to sad; some are so full of the right kind of sweetness that my eyes go glassy on the bus ride home from work, and others are more like the middle-aged couple beside me at the bar tonight who dedicated their dinner hour to some heavy hand-holding. Later, I was unsettled to find them standing beside my bicycle and making out in that slow-yet-aggressive way that includes certain unconscionable suction noises that neither my loud jokes nor my flashing LEDs could modify.

For most of today, I was content to read the love stories, the one about the nun and the monk, the letter from a wife to her husband’s student, the photo essay of marriages that survived half a century, even the dog and the box of chocolates. But on my bus ride home, tear-ducts prickling as I listened to yet another love story (what is it with tears and transit?), it occurred to me that one who keeps a blog about love stories–and receives them via e-mail and reads them in between classes–ought to post a Valentine, even if at the eleventh hour. So here it is, friends, the most lovely of love stories I saw, read, or heard today (collected both on and off the bus). It includes lots of beeping, whirring and mechanical noises, but no suctioning, I promise.

This is ostensibly a story about science (though the science itself seems a bit shaky, even by the researcher’s own admission). What really got me, however, was not the data gathered from the subjects, but the participants’ post-experiment radiance, their astonishment at their own capacity for love. After just five minutes spent meditating on a loved one in an fMRI machine, even those most infatuated seem to surprise themselves, as if the machine stuffed the love into their brains rather than measuring what was already there. By internet standards, it’s not a short video–about fifteen minutes long–so wait until you’re settled on the couch (or bus seat, as the case may be) with a bottle of beer and a dog at your ankles and a few minutes to yourself. It’s worth the watch, even if–especially if–you haven’t spent your day doing any heavy hand-holding.