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Meditations On Love

What’s it all about, Alfie?…

By Jaime Woo

I did my undergraduate degree in engineering, and although most of my courses were in the maths and sciences, I had to take electives in the arts and humanities to round out my education. While some of my classmates hated it, preferring to focus only on what they deemed practical, I loved these classes. If engineering showed us how the world worked, then arts and humanities demonstrated why we should care about it.

In a course on Canadian literature, I was introduced to Barbara Gowdy, and immediately became hooked. She crafts worlds of weirdos and freaks, and in telling their stories, she asks us to inspect our own aversion to them: we are let into their lives, but in fact what we reveal is something about our own natures.

The title of one of her most famous collections of stories has stayed with me throughout the years: We So Seldom Look On Love. It’s a curious title, because we seem to be always talking about love. In my early 20s, discussing relationships took up as much space as any other topic. Yet, as many of us get older, we notice – we feel in our bones – just how little love there actually is.

There are love songs, and love stories, and viral proposals, but then you look at a world that lets people starve, or freeze, or gather dust in the corner. Surely, a world that knows how to love, that saturates in it, wouldn’t allow those things to happen.

When I was younger, love was that clicking together that felt so effortless it had to be meant to be. I didn’t believe in soulmates, because you obviously had to work at it, but I wanted that rapturous sensation that came from falling in love. I wanted the feeling that inspires people to gush that they had found their favourite person – their best friend – and just couldn’t imagine life without that person.

I’ve yet to feel that. At this point, I can’t be sure if I haven’t found it, or if I found it and just didn’t feel as strongly about it as others do.

***

I wish I had read bell hooks’ 2000 book All About Love when it was first published. It unpacks love in a way I could have used before entering my major relationships. She meditates on a definition of love from The Road Less Traveled, sharing that she “first learned to understand love ‘as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.’”

She carefully separates love from care and affection and cathexis (“the process of investment wherein a loved one becomes important to us,” as she explains). This is important because when I think of those love songs and stories and proposals, most of them embody these qualities rather than love. (There could be a whole parlour game that could come from separating love songs into these categories. “I Will Always Love You”: love. “The Heart Does Go On”: affection and cathexis.)

There are two parts to the definition of love that hooks puts forward: the extension of self, and the nurture of spiritual growth. What’s powerful about this is that it reminds us that love is not some uncontrollable force that overtakes us, but a meaningful choice. Love would be nothing but a series of hormonal reactions if it were not for intention.

I was talking to my friend and 1 Queen 5 Queers castmate Hollywood Jade about love, and he agreed that love is a choice. Crucially, however, it means having to be honest about both sides of love: “You can fall in love, but no one talks about falling out of love,” he says. “When you fall in love with someone, you’re choosing to love that person, and when you fall out of love, you’re choosing not to love that person in that capacity.” When we fall out of love, we’re deciding to reserve our energy that otherwise would go towards their spiritual growth.

That sort of complex, nuanced decision making usually gets filtered out of the reductive understanding of love that is downloaded onto us through popular culture and social media algorithms. It helps me understand why I’ve become more cautious about entering relationships as I get older, because relationships take so much from us, and we have to ask, if we are in a relationship looking for love, will it further our own and their spiritual growth?

Hollywood echoed that sentiment. To date someone, “they’re going to have to add so much value that I deem them worthy of my love – and that sounds arrogant, but it’s not, because my love is rich and valuable, and needs to be treated as such.”

As grown-ups, we have so many relationships, so many responsibilities to the people around us, and I understand what he means, in that if we bring someone into our lives, will they make us better, and in turn fuel us to make those we already love better – and if not, why would we want any less than that?

***

I’ve never enjoyed Valentine’s Day. I hate fighting for reservations, and the consumerist idea of demonstrating love through buying expensive things. Even when I was partnered, I chose to spend my Valentine’s Day with my grandmother. She didn’t even know it was Valentine’s Day, but I started the tradition when she entered her 90s, understanding that every Valentine’s Day could be our last together.

I would spend the day making dumplings, rolling out wrappers from scratch and then filling each one carefully with a blend of pork and cabbage. I’d make a pork bone and napa cabbage soup, and dutifully carry two portions of each on the bus to her apartment.

She’d steam a fish for us, and we’d eat while she asked me questions. They were the ones she’d always ask: was I doing okay financially; had I found someone to marry; how was my brother doing. She was a worrier, perpetually hoping to see us all settled down before she passed.

I’d answer as best as I could in my broken Cantonese, and the answers weren’t always what she wanted to hear, but I knew all she wanted for me was to be taken care of. Then she’d watch the clock that hung on her wall, anxiously ensuring I wouldn’t miss the bus. Even as I shared that I could check online for the bus schedule, she’d be vigilant that I mustn’t miss the bus and end up standing too long in the cold.

Before I left, she’d hand me a box of steamed sponge cake that she knew I enjoyed greatly, and a hefty container of steamed sticky dumplings. As she got older, she’d be too tired to cook, so I’d bring dessert along with my dumplings and some extra soup.

I chose to be with her on Valentine’s Day because when I reflected on love I thought about the sacrifices she had made to bring our family halfway around the world, to give us freedoms and opportunities we couldn’t find back in her village.

I think about the definition of love that bell hooks uses, and how my grandmother gave up and took on so much so that we as a family could grow. She lived alone, and it was hard for me to think of her being by herself on a day when we should be celebrating love.

She passed a few years ago, and I stopped doing anything on Valentine’s Day. I recognize in hindsight that that was out of grief. She was gone, and with her went my desire to do anything for the occasion. But this year will be different. Grief, after all, is an extension and expression of our love, so I’ll spend Valentine’s Day visiting her grave, with a warm container of dumplings and soup by my side.

JAIME WOO is a writer based in Toronto, focusing on the intersection of technology and culture. He’s best-known for his Lambda Literary-nominated book, Meet Grindr, dissecting how the design of the infamous app influences user behaviour.

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