Tag Archives: love

Infinite love, finite time

I tend to think of love as at least an infinite possibility. It’s not something to guard jealously or ration out, the degree to which I love one person does not reduce the amount of love I might be able to feel for a second person. The bigger issue is the simple, practical point that as a living mammal, I have finite time.

Love, for me, is not simply a concept, it is a lived thing. Love without expression is of limited value. It might create some warm and fuzzy feelings for the person experiencing it, but it does nothing, changes nothing. Love in action is much more powerful. Love in action shows up, spends time, listens, does things with, or for the focus of this feeling.

This is not simply about people either. Love for the landscape takes you into the landscape. Love for the ancestors takes you to ancestral sites. Love for wild things takes you to where you may encounter those wild things. It requires you to know them, hear them, feel for them, help them, be active in your care for them.

All the same is true for people. If love is something we feel privately, stepped back from the world, it is a hollow sort of thing.  Love is better expressed by doing. In some contexts, that might have a sexual aspect to it, but energy, like time, is finite, and shagging people takes both time and energy, and doesn’t make sense in all contexts. Physical affection can of course exist without manifesting lust as well, but that too doesn’t work for all situations, and sometimes it doesn’t go far enough. What we do for each other, what we make for each other and what we make together is key here.

It is possible to hold the idea of love at a distance and without contact for any amount of time. However, what we hold then is the knowledge that we love and the idea that we are loved. Without active expression it can all get a bit speculative and one sided. Letters, phone calls, emails, packages in the post can affirm bonds of affection over great distance, where silence does not.

If love is something you do consciously, day to day, then the choices of how to deploy your time may shift. How much time will you give to people who do not care about you in the slightest? How much time will you give to time-wasters and people who just want to use you? How much of your life will you invest in superficial acquaintances? There is only so much time available to you, in which to love the people, places, creatures that you love. Every hour given to something you do not love, every hour squandered on someone who leaves you feeling empty is an hour you did not get to spend doing something your heart was in.

And while life may involve cycles, afterlives, reincarnation and such possibilities, this moment is only available to us once. Today is unique. Today’s possibilities are unique. Will you grasp them wholeheartedly, or let them be lost in something insignificant and forgettable?


Romance – we do it to ourselves

I am very partial to a love story, and happy to find love in a story as part of some other narrative, but I hate romance. It is a genre written for women by women, and I recognise that many women love it, but I think there’s much to be uneasy about. I’ve read a lot of romance, one way and another, trying to get to grips with it, and how it has changed meaning over time.

The end point of a romance novel is that the woman gets her man. Either in marriage or in something that looks like a settled and dedicated relationship. It is a story shape that tells us we are to aspire to this. It is the big moment for any woman. Your wedding day will be the most important day of your life. That’s a really dodgy message. It was dodgy when Jane Austin was doing it. It remains dodgy.

It’s not unusual for the man to start out hostile, unpleasant, dangerous, threatening, or something else of that ilk. We are to take from this the good old message that he’s horrible to you because he fancies you, just like the way we were told at school that boys hit us because they liked us. We are told that the heroine will magically turn the beastly man into a good man. This keeps us trying to tame abusive men and imagining that we can change them. This is not helpful.

Romance is a hetro-normative genre. My experience of writing in it is that readers and reviewers get really cranky if you write lesbian, or gay romance. It has to be labelled clearly as such, and then they can avoid it. You can’t have polyamoury in the romance genre, either. Its one man and one woman for the happily ever after. So, whole swathes of ways of being are excluded. Romance is on the whole a straight genre. LGBTQ people are expected, too often, to call their love stories something else. I’m not cool with that.

On the whole romance is a genre where being young and beautiful matters. Winning the man tends not to involve saving him from burning buildings, or any kind of adventure. This is a genre of the domestic sphere, more often than not. Because that’s where we are to understand that women belong. If there is any drama, it is usually the woman must be helped, rescued and so forth.

Medieval romance gives us forced marriage. I have a lot of trouble with ‘medieval romance’ as a concept knowing it was an era when women’s bodies were political game pieces and children could be married off to be raped by men they’d never even seen before. By finding ways to make these setups seem romantic, I think we’re trying to normalise some pretty appalling things.

Captive romances take this a bit further – and there’s too many of them out there. Women are captured, taken prisoner (usually in a historical context) and fall in love with their abuser so that makes it ok. That doesn’t make it ok. Not ever. I do not think these are good stories to tell each other.

I wonder how much of the genre is about trying to make inexcusable male behaviour palatable to women who aren’t encouraged to think they can have anything else. We do it to ourselves. I think we need better stories – stories about love that don’t just focus on the start of a relationship but which explore what it means to lover over a longer time frame. I want romance to be a genre that does not assume the preferences of the main characters, and I want there to be room for people who can be romantically attached to more than one person.  Most of all, I want women to stop telling other women that shitty, domineering, controlling and even violent men are in some way sexy.

Relationship stories and questions of self

For most of my life, relationships of all shapes have been difficult for me. It started at fourteen with the boyfriend who found me too serious, and that refrain has carried on through friendships and love affairs alike. Too intense. Too much. Too difficult. From teenage onwards I had the keen sense that most of my interactions with people would depend on my ability to fake it. If I failed to be comfortable and convenient to them, there would be no one. I developed a story that I am no good at relationships.

There have been people ready to play this story out with me at regular intervals. I doubt they will ever cease to show up and expect me to be exactly what they want, when they want it, and to turn it off like a tap when that’s not convenient. They want the work I can do because I care passionately about things. They want the raw creativity and sometimes they want the ego boost of being the focus of my intensity, but they want to be in control, un-obliged and easy about not bothering with me when it does not suit them.

So, I learned to hide. I learned to mask intense attachments and passionately falling in love with people. I learned to mask hunger for specific company, and wild delight in being around others. I learned not to say things like I miss you, I love you, I wish I could have more time with you. Every so often I’d take a risk on someone and let them see something a bit more authentic, and nine times out of ten they would turn out to prefer the carefully faked me. The one in ten folk have been precious beyond all words, and are not, it turns out, afraid to be that valuable.

What makes it tricky is that there are people who play at being serious, intense, wholehearted and authentic. They wear it as a costume, because they like how it looks on them. They often enjoy drama, which I don’t. It’s all too easy to get drama and intensity muddled up. But, after the arm flapping and the big words, there’s nothing to back it up, and they move on to their next little game.

I’ve found along the way that other intense, deeply feeling, passionate people don’t do this. They aren’t quick to self announce, often having been through the grinder themselves. They don’t want drama. I discover that my longstanding story is wrong. I can do relationships, but only interact well with certain kinds of people. Give me people who feel keenly and think deeply, and good things will tend to follow. I can’t deal with superficial folk, drama queens, or the ones who are there for cheap kicks and inclined to move on when they’ve taken what they wanted. People who feel threatened by the idea of love, who are panicked by the suggestion of being needed, and who can’t bear to let anything mean too much.

When you think no one can accept you as you are, it is easy to get locked into trying to appease people who are never going to be ok with you. It’s not a good way to live, it sucks the joy and colour out of life. If you are a passionate, wholehearted, intensely feeling sort of creature, then only people of the same ilk can and will answer the yearnings of your soul.

Stories about love

‘Romance’ as a genre and how that genre impacts on us culturally has bothered me for a while. I say this not as some kind of literary snob – I’ve written plenty of romance and erotica over the years. I’ve read rather a lot of it as well.

It bothers me also that romance is denigrated as a genre, because it’s largely written by, and for women. Love is one of the most important things in our lives, it often defines who we will spend our days with, it impacts on us economically. Whether we breed or not, may have a lot to do with who we’re with. So does whether or not we’re persecuted. Who we are allowed to love has always been an intensely political question and there’s a great deal of power tied up in who is allowed to shag whom. Love is a subject to take seriously. Unfortunately if you want to publish in this genre you have to play by the rules and so can only tell certain kinds of story.

The romance genre is that it is all about beginnings. That rush of first love, and the establishment of a relationship. In a more traditional book, the conclusion is the marriage proposal. Life, for women, stops at marriage, in romances. There are of course always exceptions, but on the whole the romance story involves a young woman and a man. She will be beautiful and virtuous and worthy of love. He may well not be in the least bit virtuous or worthy. If there is an age difference, he will be older. If there’s a wealth difference or any other power difference, it will likely be in his favour.

Romance as a genre means straight romance. If the romance is LGBTQ then the odds are it will be specifically labelled as such. Back when I was writing them, I had to be clear about the pairing, the assumption being that a reader would not want to be surprised by the direction romance took. that bothered me a lot.  If the romance is polyamorous it won’t be labelled as romance usually. Fit, healthy, slim people (often with lifestyles that don’t suggest this is likely) fall in love. Yes, I know there’s You Before Me, but it’s unusual to have a romance with someone in a wheelchair, and he does have a lot of money…

Poverty (that isn’t overcome Cinderella-style), disability, and anything not hetro-normative is unusual in romance.

While all of that troubles me a lot, what troubles me most of all though is the obsession with the new relationship. We don’t have much in the way of stories about long term love. Romeo and Juliet are the model for romance – a couple of kids who get into each other’s pants and die shortly thereafter. Because otherwise it might get old, and stale. As though love cannot endure at that intensity. As if the only way for there to be long term love requires us to accept it settling down into some tamer, more domesticated form. That’s the story our culture tells itself, and I think that story is a long way short of being the whole truth.

Beauty is as beauty does

While I can and do appreciate the many forms in which physical human beauty can manifest, I’ve never found it terribly persuasive. A beautiful image has undeniable charm, and I’ll cheerfully look, but I’ve never acted on the power of visual beauty alone. I’m more interested in what a person does, who they are, how they are. The apparently beautiful face looks very different when sneering, or delivering a vicious putdown.

I’ve noticed over and over again how my sense of the beauty of a person comes far more from who they are than any pattern of physical characteristics. Generosity, humour, creativity, passion, honour, courage, integrity, intensity, compassion… these things cause people to be beautiful. If I see greed, cruelty, mean spiritedness, one upmanship, jealousy, and the like, there can be no real beauty in that face. Of course in practise we’re all complex mixes of feelings and we all run a broad spectrum and what matters is where a person spends most of their time.

I fell in love with Tom before I met him. I fell in love with him without hearing his voice, or having any idea what, if anything, the body chemistry would be like. On the day of posting this, we have been married 6 years, and I expect us to be together for life. I fell in love with his ideas, his art, his creativity and the person I came to know through emails. He fell in love with my writing first. I trust this more than I trust the appeal of a face, or a nice bum.

One of the problems with bodies is that they change. We tend to get older, we wrinkle, sag, blemish, illness and accident can change us dramatically. I’d rather wake up next to a person who is full of love, kindness and a desire to co-operate than the most perfectly toned abdomen in the world, if it’s attached to someone unkind. I’d rather the face into which time has carved laughter lines, or marked with grief, than a face augmented to show nothing at all.

If I love who someone is, and how they are, and what they do, then I will love the physical form they take. I will love the details of them – warts and all, in delight and acceptance. Equally, if I find someone unpleasant, no amount of the visual aspect will impact on me at all.

Bardic love and the subversion of romance

We know what romance officially looks like – the chap who brings flowers. The chap who writes a poem inspired by his beautiful beloved. In fact, poke around in the origin of the sonnet, and you’ll find the Petrarchan sonnet is defined in part by being written to/about a beautiful, unobtainable woman.

As a female writer, I’ve always found this a bit of an arse. As a lover, I’ve always found it annoying. I want to write poems and serenade under windows. To be the focal object of someone else’s creativity has never seemed like the aim of the game to me. Sure, it would be flattering, but it’s not my primary interest. An exchange of inspiration is a far more exciting prospect.

And then there’s the whole ‘romance’ issue – this brief part in an early relationship where the man is to bring stuff in order to persuade the woman to have sex with him. Fuck that! Fuck it in all its over-tight patriarchal orifices! But then, we have a history that for too long considered marriage to be consent. Get your woman to make that one big declaration of consent, and you’d never need to woo her ever again.

I like wooing, and courting. Not just as a kind of intellectual foreplay, but as a way of relating to people. As an expression of love that isn’t simply romantic, isn’t just about getting in someone’s pants. I like to praise and admire, and offer up love and adoration, sometimes with rhyming couplets. It’s a whole other expression of bardic love.

How to love

It took me a long time to make any sense at all of what happens when something is inspired in me. It may be that this is blindingly obvious to everyone else, but having never seen anyone else talking about it, I suspect not.

For me, there’s not much difference between falling in love and being inspired – each tends to cause the other anyway. When I’m not knotted up with fear, I love fairly easily and with an open heart. I’ve learned not to show this, having discovered, and tested the discovery repeatedly, that this is not something most people want to have to deal with. Just occasionally I find someone for whom my open hearted inspired response does not seem threatening or troublesome. I’m exceeding blessed in a husband who delights in how I am – and does not require that to be entirely focused on him.

The experience of love/inspiration for me is one of intense emotion and richness. I feel at my most whole, my most present and alive when really caught up in this. As a creative person, I depend on that rush of inspiration, and am lost without it. For a long time, I saw all of that emotional response as belonging to the person who caused it. They were the muse, and quite often the unobtainable beloved so popular with angsty poets… I experienced it as being because of the other person, which meant that without their blessing, permission, response… that vital flow of inspiration could be lost.

Half a dozen years ago or so, it finally dawned on me that what I feel is fundamentally mine. It usually is inspired by something or someone external to me, but the flow, the capacity, the intensity and everything I can do with all of that, is mine. It’s not conditional on what the object of my love, the source of my inspiration does in response to me. Obviously it’s nice to find my intensity is acceptable, but in some ways it doesn’t matter at all if it isn’t.

From this recognition I was able to make some big changes in my relationship with reality. In the past three or so years, I’ve become more able to love landscape, and skies. It took me a while to learn how to do it and how to be comfortable with it, resulting in an epic and sustained love affair with the landscape around Stroud. I can love other people’s creativity, and not find that problematic any more. In seeing this as something intrinsic to me, not coming to me from outside, I think I’ve also become better at hiding it, which probably makes me easier to be around. There will be an ongoing process of finding out who doesn’t need me to hide.

Love and inspiration are intense, consuming experiences. When it seems that both are due to something external, it’s easy to feel powerless in face of them. I’ve found this holds true for all aspects of passion and desire. Hate functions in the same way – it seems to be about what’s on the outside, but the force of the feeling comes from within, the shape of it fundamentally belongs to the person experiencing it, not to the outside presence sparking it. This is why it’s not a valid excuse to say ‘he made me angry’ or ‘he made me want him’ when explaining violent behaviour – and all too often this is exactly what happens.

If we want, if we hate, if we feel fear or love or anything else, that’s on the inside. In owning that, all kinds of other things become possible. It’s certainly changed my relationship with my own emotions. It gives me more space to own how I’m feeling and to recognise it as my own, but also to separate it off from external reality. Just because I love does not mean the other person is doing something that entitles me to expect anything. Just because I am enraged does not mean the other person has done something to truly justify that. This is not a mindfulness approach to emotion, I’m not trying to see the emotion as some transient thing to hold lightly and let go of – the effect is the opposite  – of bringing my emotional responses more deeply into my sense of self. What it gives me is full ownership, and full responsibility.

A soft animal body

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.”

A favourite quote, taken from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. I like the acceptance, and the allowance in the idea of ‘the soft animal of your body’. I like the permission to love, and the sense that this, and only this, is truly important.

I love this quote because it challenges me, because it is at odds with everything I am, everything I do, because I can see the beauty in it, but I’m a long way from living there.

What would it mean to accept my body as a soft animal? I’m kinder to soft animals than I am to myself. I’m not tolerant of my own bodily softness, seeing is as excess, as inherently unacceptable. The softness that is innately female I have a very complex relationship with, to say the least. To see the honest animal of myself, to see the mammal – accepting that mammals are furry, and they wrinkle over time, they hurt, and break and bleed if you aren’t careful with them. To see that mammal and honour it, would be a thing. As someone who honours nature, I’m pretty useless at doing that insofar as nature manifests in my own skin.

Love what it loves. Of course I love, and I’ve never tried to stop myself doing that, but I hide it. I try not to bother anyone with it, because I expect it to be an affront, something unwelcome. Rounds of seeing the disappointment in the faces of people when I’ve said ‘I love you’. Dealing with rejections from people who wanted me for sex but did not want anything of my heart, and felt pressured by the giving of it. Unreasonable, excessive, too much. I haven’t learned not to say it, but I’ve learned to be afraid of saying it.

The soft animal of my body, if it were some other animal body would turn up warm and friendly, to curl around legs, snuggle upon laps, offering warmth and its soft furry presence to comfort and soothe. I would be a cat, to purr soft affirmations into the bodies of others. This body doesn’t really lend itself to doing that.

I wonder what it would feel like to consider myself acceptable as a soft animal that loves what it loves.

Humans are not reliably kind to soft animal bodies – human or otherwise. Not to our own, not to each other’s not to the other soft animals we share this world with. How often do we treat things as though we expect them to be stone, and then claim to be surprised when they bleed and cry?

Fighting for love

One of my longstanding assertions is that I would never fight someone to try and get them to stay with me. Not friends, and not lovers. Anyone who wants to go, I would let go. If I’m put in a situation where I need to compete to get someone’s attention, I don’t compete, I step back. If someone pushes me away, I go. If someone has something better to do with their time than spend it with me, why would I want to get in their way?

Sometimes it’s probably a good idea. This summer a person I’d thought was a friend blocked me on Facebook, after a few months of odd behaviour. I could have fought over it, emailed, phoned, said ‘why are you doing this to me?’ or ‘what did I do to cause this and how can I fix it?’ I didn’t do anything. I let go, and a few months on I don’t regret letting go.

Like any simplistic response, it’s too simplistic. It held up well enough in the situations from my teens. It held up with the kinds of lovers who play manipulative games and wanted me to ‘earn’ their attention. It works in the face of asshattery of all shapes and sizes. It doesn’t work when dealing with depressed people.

When depressed people go away, it’s not an act of rejection. I know this, because I do it. I retreat when I feel like I’m no good to be around and have nothing to offer. I quietly hide when I’m too difficult to deal with. People I trust to be there for me when I’m a mess, I can count on the fingers of one hand. When other people are depressed and hide, I infer that they wish to be left alone. I’ve done a passable job of mentioning that I can probably cope, but even so I don’t get this stuff right in any reliable kind of way.

I need to change some of how I think about this. I’m easily persuaded to go away, and that people have better things to do than spend time on me. I’m easily persuaded that I’m a nuisance and/or imposing, and the reasons for this run deep. I tend to focus on whether I’m being useful, and that can distort how I see things.

I’ve had close calls with giving up on several people this year. Feeling that I didn’t have much to offer, and that I wasn’t needed anyway have been a big part of that. I’ve been letting assumptions about myself colour my entire understanding of quite a few things. I’m trying to put down my beliefs about how other people may see me, which is not easy. I’m thinking there are times when I need to stand and fight, rather than quietly slipping away.

Saying no to unconditional love

Unconditional love can often be held up as the ultimate that love can be, and can do. Some people become obsessed with trying to find the partner who will love them unconditionally. For me it’s been about the feeling that I *should* love others unconditionally and feeling guilty because all too often, I don’t. A new kind of clarity has occurred to me in the last week or so: In matters of love, the conditions are really important. Knowing what they are and why you need them honoured is vital. Understanding other people’s conditions and whether you find them acceptable is also essential.

There are things my marriage is conditional upon. That I feel safe, that my body, my feelings, my wants and desires are honoured. They don’t have to be met all the time, but they do have to be respected. My marriage is conditional on my partner being a decent human being, and if he woke up one morning and decided he wanted to take up deliberate cruelty as a hobby, I would not stay with him. That I cannot imagine him doing this, definitely helps!

I’m perfectly happy to accept similar conditions from other people. If someone has issues – practical or personal, one of the conditions of friendship may be that I am able to accommodate those issues. I may not be able to see them very often. I may need to cope with their illness, or be accepting of their circumstances.

I’ve had other conditions raised in relationships of all kinds of shapes. That they must never be told they cause unhappiness because it is unbearable. That they must always be right. That I must do as I am told. That my feelings are irrelevant, or that I am to submit to their understanding of what it is that I need. They are not obliged to flex or change to accommodate me, I must do all the changing required to make it work. And on, and on. These are observations of relationships that I have walked away from, because these are not conditions I can work with.

I’m very wary of double standards, and of people who have every justification for their actions and no scope to hear when it doesn’t work. I’m also increasingly wary of people who run forward proffering unconditional love, because I have noticed that the people who are keen to say that they love you more than anyone else ever could, often aren’t right about that anyway.

We need conditions on relationships. We need it to be acceptable to walk away from a person who does not uphold the basic standards of behaviour we need. If someone changes, or reveals their true face, or stops bothering, no one should feel obliged to stay and keep pouring love over them. Sometimes the act of walking away is the wake up call the other person needs to get their life in better order.

Boundless, limitless, endless unconditional language is very New Agey. “Everything is love” (even incest and murder?). Claiming everything you do is love can also be an easy way of shutting out any suggestion that what you do isn’t working for someone else. And really, there’s not much to be gained from dealing with the person who yells “everything I do is love” in your face whilst standing on your toes and stealing from your wallet. Conditions are a good thing, and we need them.