We all know the importance of loving oneself, more than the ability to love any other… though no one may have expressed it more sincerely than Bethany Toews.
I fell in love for the first time in the summer of 1995. I was 15. Love washed over me like a tidal wave spelling out the word Y E S. In all caps. The world opened up. The sky got bluer. Ridiculously blue. Flowers became more fragrant. Intoxicating. I was intoxicated by the whole wide world and everything in it. I was intoxicated by the boy. His lips. His lips on my lips. His eyes on my face. His hands on my quivering body. My body. My body exalted. My body seen. Allowing me to see it, too, as if for the first time. I became a beautiful cliché. I fell without a choice. I didn’t even know I was falling. I didn’t know what was happening. I just knew I never ever ever ever ever wanted it to stop.
But then it did. And the tidal wave became just that. A regular ol’ tidal wave. Crashing down on me. Drowning me in sorrow. I felt like I was dying. A broken heart feels like just that, a heart broken. It hurts in a life-threatening way. Which seems appropriate considering it is a vital organ keeping us here, above ground, out of the grave. When it stops, when it gives up, we stop. We want to keep going. We want to keep loving. Love is what tells us our heart is alive.
Somehow I made it through. I found my way back to dry land. It took me five years and many ice cream sandwiches and countless jars of peanut butter and thousands of dollars worth of mediocre Indian food delivered to my tiny Brooklyn apartment and oh so many disappointing nights in smelly bars with sticky floors. But eventually I army crawled my way out of what had been an excruciating spell in exile. Five minutes is a torturously long time to feel cast out of love. Five years was unbearable. And yet, somehow, we bear it.
Evolutionarily speaking, rejection often meant a death sentence. Being cast out of the tribe was a pretty solid guarantee you’d get eaten by a tiger, or choke on a berry by yourself. The literal life or death importance of not being rejected led our brains to create a very powerful reaction to rejection. Neurologically speaking, emotional rejection is felt as physical pain. In one study it was likened to the equivalency of a broken leg. Imagine breaking your leg and then just trying to go about your usual business without properly addressing the wound. Walking around, wincing with every impossible step. Smiling with panicked eyes, saying “I’m fine,” when asked how you’re doing.
Love hurts. But love heals too. And that’s why we keep trying.
In time, I fell in love again. And it did heal certain wounds. And it reopened old ones I had forgotten I had. And it gave me entirely new ones too. And my heart broke again with the ending of another beginning. And once again, the tidal wave. I have been brought to my knees more than once by love. Coughing up. So. Much. Salt. Water. Crawling onto the sand. Unsure of where I’d rather be. Underwater thrashing desperately around. Or alone in stillness on the shore, no longer a part of the ocean.
What hurts about heartbreak is the illusion that forms, that somehow love has been taken away from us. That we are a love castaway. That the best we can hope for (and deserve) is a wonky faced beachball named Wilson. Here’s the thing: LOVE DOESN’T GO ANYWHERE. Love is right where it has always been, in and around you. Everywhere. In the space between the wind and the swaying branches and the dancing leaves. On top of the mountain with a view of the the sun dipping with flourish behind the darkening edge of the earth. In the sheets, damp with tears, alone at night. There love is, where it’s always been, waiting for you to simply know it.
And that’s where I am. Just getting to know love. In the quiet places, and the crowded spaces alike. I am getting to know love, through me. Not through the hypnotic gaze of another. Or the dot dot dot of an unrequited text message. Or the tender (or awkward) embrace of a sexy stranger. I am getting to know love in the sacred home of my body. It’s a revolution. I am well aware of that. Using the same time, focus, energy, attention, intention, affection that I normally POUR into the love and adoration of another. Instead, redirecting that like the loveliest of rainbow colored U-turns, right back to me. Right back to this body. My body. My body is my boyfriend.
And as I make this conscious shift to choose, say a hot date with a book, or a bathtub, or my laptop, versus going blind in the Tinder-sphere, or going cross-eyed looking for someone in a room full of potential soulmates, I start to connect with how it’s all just sort of the same longing. Energetically speaking, there’s very little difference between having sex and writing a poem. The desire to feel alive, connected and seen. The desire to honor the burning swirling need to express. Whether in low shared moans or the singing of a song. The holding of hands or the baking of muffins. Making. Making love or making something, anything, with love. And yes, I will acknowledge, when it’s working well, making love is a really really really nice form of making.
Self-love doesn’t have to mean you give up on dating, or engaging. Self-love isn’t just a lifetime of solitary soaks in quiet apartment bathtubs. It doesn’t have to mean you don’t actually prefer being held in the arms of someone else. I love being held. And sure, I spend a great majority of nights holding myself. But I don’t stop holding myself in my desire to be held by the arms of another. In fact, I think learning to practice self-love in the presence of others is the real challenge. Self-love isn’t the absence of outside love, it’s the maintenance of the capacity to hold and give love, whether alone or in the presence of others.
What self-love is really about is not abandoning the body from which love is given and received. The filter with which you are able to maintain the tender task of love in action. And yes, it is a task. It is, contrary to popular belief, not a feeling. Love is an act of will, of courage, of service, of truth. It takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice. But sacrifice doesn’t have to mean cutting out your own heart and leaving it on an altar as you tragically bleed out waiting for some godlight to stream down from the dark and ominous sky. The word sacrifice comes from the root “to make sacred”. It means no longer pretending that you’re not performing the holiest of tasks when you offer up your heart to the higher plane that love demands.
And where that starts is in your own chest. In your own soft belly. In the warmth and strength of your thighs. The will and grace of your hands. The power of your feet to hold you up and keep you here, firmly planted to this earth. Your ears to hear and your heart to beat. Your lungs to breathe. Your hair to enter into dialogue with the breeze. Your eyes to see and shine and communicate in saltwater when you have been moved by the moonlight. My body is my boyfriend. She wants me to know her. She wants me to listen. To respond to her text messages. To massage her when she’s sore. To hold her when she’s scared. To laugh with her when she’s dancing like a sassy gorilla in her granny panties. My body wants me to promise not to leave. To stay. To honor her needs. To know, that as other people may, and will, come and go, I will always be here with her. Loving her. Holding her, as she has always been holding me.
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