July 10, 2021

Love is Not a Thing. Love is a Trigger Word—A Storm.


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Love is a trigger word, although love is not a thing—not a stone, a shoe, or something to fall in. 

Just like thinking that we can own land that was here long before us—a social construction for expressing a manner of inhabiting a space—our sense of love is shaped by social constructions. We inhabit it. It is something we are, yet we struggle to let ourselves be loved and loving.

Every year, this time of year, a tropical storm will spin up the Gulf of Mexico. Before the storm arrives, it’s hot—humidity clings like a wet sheet to my body. Coming home, the air in the apartment corridor sends a slight shiver through me as I come inside. It’s my body seeking balance, composure, equanimity. 

Equanimity, for Buddhists, is one characteristic of love.

Boundaries take all kinds of forms—physically and mentally, we feel them. I don’t know what my father was thinking, and I’ll never know what my mother was feeling when we moved from Luxembourg to Lakewood, Colorado. In a way, we were coming home. In a way, we may as well have stayed in Bech-Kleinmacher. Although we spoke the language, we didn’t know anyone. Dad wasn’t going to work at a university. We had always lived in proximity to a university. The land was dusty and taupe colored as far as the eye could see looking to the east, and looking to the west were the snow-covered peaks of the Rockies, clearly delineating the end of the world—new boundaries.

Back before I was somebody (not that I am anybody now, but somebody to anyone who wasn’t my parents or me), I couldn’t tell the world from me. But I knew it was larger; I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit empty because the space was so vast. I never knew, still don’t know, what to fill it with.

Perhaps it was—is—love, and certainly, there was an odd sort of loneliness despite not really feeling apart from anything. I was young then. I may have known more then than I do now.

My footfalls echo down the painted concrete corridor. Normally, as it was the height of the pandemic when I moved in, I would greet the occasional neighbor from behind my black mask. Vaccinated, I showed my face and gave a slight smile. It’s real. 

Changing my perception of boundaries.

I certainly felt love from my parents, my sister, my family, and perhaps the world, but it seemed more complicated—like simple things are. Things only become simple with practice, familiarity. There was an ease we had with each other back then, created not only by our relationship as a family but also by proximity and experience. For that moment, we were comfortable with each other and shared a common experience of vulnerability as newcomers. We were free with each other, and this gave us a foundation allowing us the freedom to experience our new world.

I was given a choice to repeat the second grade or continue with the third at Lakewood Elementary. I cried. They explained that we had been out of the country and maybe it would be better. I saw it as going backward: two is not as big as three. We, our family, had always gone big. My mother and father agreed, we didn’t move here from Europe to go backward, and third grade it was. 

Time is a boundary.

With two children and a wife, I used to come home to a full house; now, although I have some things, I come home alone. I thought it was going to be hard, but it hasn’t been. I had accepted that my boys had become men a while ago. My wife and I, well, people grow. If we’re not growing in one way or another, we’re not alive, and we both want to live; we both want balance and the grace and ease that comes with it. Sometimes, it is hard to find balance.

I made friends quickly in Colorado. AJ could throw a baseball with the accuracy of a bee sting. Jeff could make a room smile with a quip, and Sheila, the girl next door, brought a level of fancy to my thoughts that I didn’t understand. Green eyes, a brilliant smile, and sandy brown hair that was never made up but never a mess either. “Let’s touch tongues,” she said. We did, and my life has never been the same. I hadn’t had a friend who had made me feel like I had been hit with electricity before. This was new, unfamiliar, and unbalancing.

If a storm is bad, the day after is spent cleaning up, finding out what works, what is broken, in need of repair, all the time checking in on how friends and neighbors fared, even if I never really spoke with my neighbors. It’s the natural thing to do. If the storm isn’t bad, there’s a relief, sometimes an irritation at the buildup, but still a relief. Then it’s a matter of putting the things that could have been projectiles or ruined from the rain back, maybe a little rearranged. For a moment, the weather foisted compassion within us and among us, upon us. 

Compassion is another quality of love in Buddhist thought and one of the easiest qualities for us to touch when we let ourselves.

My father wrote reports on education. My mother, the science teacher, worked in a community college kitchen—or something like that. I didn’t really know what either of them was doing, and it’s still a bit of a mystery when I think about it. It didn’t really matter. We were all there, doing things people do. We were trying to take on our roles in the world, trying to fit within the boundaries.

The foothills always seemed to look brown and yellow. They were dingy, full of arroyos, and punctuated with occasional cottonwoods. It was a relief to see that in the distance, there was majesty; there were the mountains. They stood above us all, touching the clouds, their tallest peaks perpetually covered with snow. In the distance, there was promise. Although made in the moment, promises are always something for the future, and the future is always out of our grasp as it is tomorrow, and we only live today.

Back before I was somebody (not that I am anybody now, but somebody to anyone who wasn’t my parents or me), I couldn’t tell the world from me. But I knew it was larger; I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit empty because the space was so vast. I never knew, still don’t know, what to fill it with. Perhaps it is love.

After the storm, I put my plants back on my balcony. Out in the elements, my little solar lights had blinked faithfully through the night, unscathed by the winds and rain that, thankfully, seems to have fizzled out as they passed. I call and get calls from friends and family and am reminded that the rest of the world kept going despite our storm. Their calls, their concern, are kind and loving. 

Loving-kindness is another descriptor of love in Buddhist thought. 

It comes naturally under some circumstances, without a second thought.

I didn’t feel alone in Lakewood. I just felt small. Despite this, I didn’t feel it was a permanent predicament. From where I stood, Sheila had thrown a new dimension into the world. Another level. Although it resembled lust or desire, it really wasn’t. It was a curiosity, an introduction to a new, uncharted boundary, an invitation to an intimacy that isn’t familiar, almost a vulnerability, and sort of a secret because it isn’t shared with everyone.

After about a year and a half, maybe two, we moved to Denver. I missed Sheila but wasn’t really sure why beyond knowing I missed that electric feeling. She never said she would miss me, and I don’t think she did. We were neighbors. We never saw each other again and probably wouldn’t recognize each other now. People move. Though a part of her never left me, and I thank her, wherever she is, for it. She taught me that I have to learn to handle electricity, or it will handle me. 

For this, I have gratitude, another aspect of the Buddhist description of love.

On my balcony, I feel the heat of the Florida sun, smell the wet earth and sea in the air, and unwind my Tibetan prayer flags. I guess they worked. I live downtown, near a port. The apartment isn’t the house I was living in, and unlike the house, it isn’t really mine. It’s not sad or lonely. People are coming and going, restaurants, stores, and work are within walking distance. I don’t feel alone. I talk to people, and they talk to me, and we spend time together. It seems there is a lot of potential—potential to be. Just be.

Expecting storms, preparing, watching them pass, moving, rearranging, and putting things back together is constant—whether the storms are weather or other people, it’s not really different. I am not consistent with my experience and practice of equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness, and gratitude, but I know they are there. If I don’t fight it, I can find and be them.

Back before I was somebody (not that I am anybody now, but somebody to anyone who wasn’t my parents or me), I couldn’t tell the world from me. But I knew it was larger; I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit empty because the space was so vast. I never knew, still don’t know, what to fill it with. 

I now know I need to fill it with love.

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