As I am writing this, the mother of a beloved friend, Sandy, is at the hospital and in the process of dying. Sandy is a woman who has been family to me and mine; family in the way that chosen family’s family becomes your kin. It’s funny to me how the family of your chosen family are not people you choose. They are part of the package of loving someone. If I choose loving you, commit to you, that means I love the people you love. Period. This is true whether or not I like them or want to be around them. If they are an extension of you and I choose you, then I get them as part of the whole package.
Sandy’s youngest, our beloved, is my partner’s best friend. This beloved is also our kid’s guardian, the one who tracks our kid if me and my partner die together. Our beloved is a middle aged nonbinary butch queer with some kick ass super fierce tattoos. They could be a cliche, except that they are more authentic than most folks I know: heart of gold, total pussycat, body marks and gender story that makes some folks take a step back as though our beloved were scary.
I had been planning to write about relationships and love this week, even before our beloved’s mother began to die. I wanted to write about love and relationships because over the weekend I went to an extraordinary event, a reading with Adrienne Marie Brown. It was one of those community events where you can feel the possibility of revolution just a few breaths away because of the searing amount of love (and desire) dripping in the hall. It’s overwhelming to walk into a space like that, isn’t it? The amount of energy, of intensity, of wishing and longing and celebrating and hungering with notes of caution and pull back and eddies of history that just lap against your skin, ok, my skin. It can take me some time to settle amidst the wow.
There were so many different shapes of love in that room, and my fingers were itching to draw them, to touch them, to play with them like violin strings. As a child, I saw energy as lines of light between people. I used to think of it as golden confetti, because that’s what it looked like to me. Like the way dust motes can twirl in a sunbeam, except with more body and as something that is brighter when it’s dark. The greater the relationship, the more varied and complex the lines would be. As a child, I would trace relationships like this, helping me notice who is safe, who is known, who is feeling care rather than anything icky. Somewhere just before puberty hit, the lines faded away. Sometimes they still flash out in the middle of nothing, like the sudden startle of heat lightning. Even when I don’t see them with my eyes, my fingers feel like they can trace them, my skin sense them, a tug at my heart pulling in their direction.
One of the things that sometimes confuses me about movement spaces, even after over 30 years of living in them, is how readily and easily people say “I love you” to each other. This is not about not believing what is being said. Most of the time I do. I feel that lurch in my heart, that finger itching feeling, and the shape of that love, the link between the two, twinkles in the light. In that moment it’s a real thing and it’s beautiful. It’s just that most of the time, I have a hard time saying those words back. At least, saying them quickly or saying them before we’ve had time to build up some wear and tear between us.
Now, my words are ALL about love, I’m constantly calling folks dear heart and beloved and when I feel that someone is beautiful, or generous or powerful, I tell them so. I love loving, it’s a totally fun thing. I love weaving it, feeling those twinkles like a whole other kind of webbed fairy dust that is bigger than the judgement and grinding down of oppression. I truly love the shit out of loving and feeling loving. And still, even with this, saying “I love you,” this direct and specific thing, to someone I have only met in movement spaces, in places where we share a deep sense of connection around the world we see and the world we envision but not the everyday tangle of shared experiences, this is hard for me.
When I first fell in love with my partner, who is Brazilian, she told me she loved me in English a year or two before she said the same in Portuguese. She said that the feeling of it in English feels lighter and faster compared with eu te amo, words that you don’t say often but when you do, there is a specific kind of weight. You don’t say “eu to amo” as you are running out the door to get groceries.
This made so much sense to me. It felt right. It felt right in the way of a particular teacher I once had, the only one like this, a teacher not from the US, who refused to give an A in class unless you had truly done something extraordinary; a teacher who felt no need to justify or explain why she chose extraordinary when she did. As she said, if you have consented to be taught by me then you have consented to be judged by me and I will decide when I feel you have learned or stretched or transformed because that is part of the consent, too. When she said these things, a part of me purred, even as part of me wanted to wrestle her for an A. I wished for her for more of my classes.
At the event last weekend, Adrienne began by talking about the people who taught her, who impacted her, who were woven through with the writing of her new book. As she spoke, she named a beloved, Alana, who lived with and died from cancer during the writing of Pleasure Activism. As she talked about Alana, she looked to the audience where a friend, Ryan Li, sat. Ryan Li and Adrienne loved Alana together and were close with her during her last months and her transition. Telling the story of her book is telling the story of Alana. Telling the story of Alana is being in deep community with Ryan Li. I sat right behind Ryan Li, who is also a friend of mine, and felt that shift in space and time between them. There were hundreds of people in the room, this was a public event, and still, the line between them as Adrienne spoke of Alana, was something entirely different: a straight and clear line without fuzziness or breadth. It was both bigger and more simple than the fact of a room full of friends and strangers.
There were other forms of love in that room, other kinds of connection as Adrienne brought loved ones to the front of the room to read their pieces from the book. So much love, so much celebration, and equally important, more horizontal or broader in feeling. In that space, within the context of the room we are in, Adrienne and her dear ones who came to read from the front showed us love and strength that might carry within them those direct simple lines but which, in this space and at this time seemed to reach out, arms wide open, and gather. Like I said, a broader, more horizontal feeling.
It’s one of the things I love about love, the fact that it has so many different shapes.
When someone I primarily know through national work or who I have not known for long tells me they love me, I feel nervous. I sometimes wonder if this is just a midwestern thing and I think of one of the jokes I first heard when I moved to Minnesota — did you hear the story about Ole, he loved his wife Lena so much, so incredibly much, that one day, in the middle of winter, he almost told her? I heard that story and laughed and laughed, feeling like it described these Scandinavian and German-descended Minnesotans and definitely not me. I mean, my GOODness. SO not me.
But still, when someone tells me they love me without really knowing me, without knowing my kin or the places where I move in community, without knowing me outside of what they experience in specific movement spaces, outside of the story I tell them about myself, I get twitchy.
Struggle or the wear and tear of life, of relationship, is where wisdom grows. And wisdom, that deep in-knowing place, is what makes me rest. I am talking about the kind of struggle that evolution recognizes, the struggle between egos and belief systems and desires and wants; the struggle that makes life bigger. I am not talking about the struggle that comes from state and interpersonal violence. I am not talking about systems and cultural beliefs that exist only to keep some people big and other people small. I am definitely not talking about the impact of white supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia, ableism and so on. But I am talking about the building of relationships among those who vision something better, who wish to topple, to destroy, to erase those systems of supremacy. It doesn’t take wisdom to know that violence and hatred are wrong. Children tend to know this immediately until they get numb-conditioned to think of it as normal. It’s that early childhood knowing, that belly sense of wrong and right, that prepares us for struggle, that is the foundation for wisdom. It’s exactly what systems of supremacy and violence-without-repair either numbs or ramps up to such an extent that everything either IS struggle because of how often a body is or has been targeted or it feels like everything is struggle, even when it isn’t.
My partner’s best friend’s mother, Sandy, is dying right now. In a few minutes, we are going over to the hospital to be with this kin of our kin, our extended family of choice. There will be many different shapes of love in that room, the deep cord of love that is there between this mother and her children and grandchildren and those closest in. And then there will be the other kinds of love, broader and more horizontal, the shape of those connected through this web.
It makes me feel safe to feel these different shapes. Saying I love you in that clear deep straight line way is a responsibility; a way of saying I will be here for your life, there is something here, deeply, that we share. It says I will struggle with you. It’s specific and concrete and is all about letting go of any control over what will emerge. It’s about going through or having gone through things, sometimes once and sometimes in a forever way that means you are not the same on the other side. It’s about the willingness to be changed because that is finally what this love is.
I think we often put a lot of pressure on each other in movement spaces. This pressure to be the deep love to each other, the people who finally fully get it. It’s a kind of survival love even when we haven’t yet intimate-struggled together and found ourselves on the other side. I think sometimes it feels like such a relief to find people who see us that we can give it all out of a sense of gratitude, forgetting we still get to take time, to choose, to love lightly, to love broadly and to love deeply. I think sometimes this happens because we’re afraid that we might not have time to let that love emerge and grow. I think sometimes, because we do these things, when our love gets hurt or betrayed or we just get confused, love can feel like another all or nothing game. This is because of histories. So many of our people have been deeply hurt. This happens in present moments, with real people in real time. It’s love that shapes the fact that we try and that we struggle.
As I’m writing this, I am at the hospital. The room has been full of people all day, coming and going. People in deep relationship to this mother, this grandmother who is dying, and people who love those who love her deep. People who love small or recent, people who love through work and through family, and people who have loved for lots of years. It’s all here, each propping up the other, straight direct lines and broad horizontal reach, each being exactly what it is. Just like at the reading the other night. There are many shapes of love. We get to decide who and when and how much.
In this room, everyone is saying I love you to each other, known and unknown. I am noticing that this is happening, right now, even as I have already started thinking about and then writing this piece. And I am most of the time saying I love you back. Because right now in this moment, the steady sound of the heart monitor in the background mixing with the rough throat sound of sobbing, it’s true. Which means this whole piece is even ending differently than I thought it would. The conclusions I was going to name, the story that started unfolding as I was sitting in that room watching Adrienne and Ryan Li see each other, it’s now changed.
Which probably tells me the most important thing about this word that makes me twitchy or makes me settle: love shapes. Love changes. It is, maybe, the essence of life feeling itself in connection to something else. And so its shape is as varied as life. It carries within it all of the eddies and swirls of histories that had the time to settle into wisdom and those that are still held, like an exhale waiting to happen. This includes my own histories, the things I’ve experienced that have taught me to be careful with words about love, that it’s good to wait until you know for sure before relaxing into trust. This is what forms the shape of love, those moments where it has not been easy or solid as much as the times when it’s been like the touch of god’s own hand.
Yesterday I got to spend the day with Sandy as she was dying, this grandmother who grew up over 80 years ago as a German Irish Scandinavian descended little girl in rural Minnesota. I spent the whole day in a room that reflected her legacy, the impact of her life. I was surrounded by people who were like her, by people who were not like her, this fabulous queer, Black, Brown, old, young, urban, rural weave of grieving loving people. After she died, we all stood in a circle and remembered her. There were a dozen maybe more people in the room and every single person told a version of the same story: Sandy loves her family and she loves who her family loves. It wasn’t complicated for her, she just loves us, accepts us for who we are. “Are you hungry?” is what the people in that room remembered her asking? “Are you ok? Can I get you something to eat?” It was a good thing, a powerful thing, to watch the power of a lifetime of love impact the shape of a single day of dying.
While her name is not mentioned above, this piece is also written for and with Irna, whose fierce questions and claiming of love are constantly teaching me and for Lila, who taught me something important while I was writing this. For Kelly, Brenda, Isaac and Dev. And for Rocki, because, well, eu te amo.
And this piece is written in memory of Sandra Suzanne, who loved so well and so thoroughly.