“We are so limited. You have to use the same word for loving Rosaleen as you do for loving Coke with peanuts. Isn’t it a shame we don’t have many more ways to say it?” ~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
I was a linguistics minor in college. Had I discovered my passion for formal language study earlier in my college career, I would have been a double major. Yet, I spent most of my time and effort on partying rather than studying and, though I graduated with a 3.6 GPA, I did not in any way apply myself nor did I leave the university with any semblance of a life plan. I wanted to write and that was it.
And, even my writing was scattered and undisciplined. I almost did not graduate because I nearly failed to turn in a portfolio for an advanced poetry workshop. I remember my professor emailing me after seeing me quite intoxicated the night before: “Party Girl, If you want to graduate, I need your portfolio today.” I was, fortunately, generally liked by my creative writing professors and this one was a kind enough to allow me to drop off a packet of forced villanelles and shoddy sonnets to his private home. Perhaps, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have graduated at all. At some point, I would have to face the consequences for my inappropriate and, even then, addictive behavior.
Still, despite the fact that I often borrowed pencils from other students in my classes and got by on my talent for writing papers on books that I never read, the study of linguistics opened my mind to the power of language and its impact on culture. I was amazed to discover, for instance, that not all languages included words that signified gender. I had a professor who was writing the first formal dictionary for a Quechua language spoken by an indigenous people in the Andes Mountains of Peru. In this particular dialect, there is no “she” or “he.” There is only “human,” “animal,” or “God.” In studying this language, I was struck by the equality inherent in this lack of gender qualification. I started to examine my own use of language ever more closely, noting that the English language, as a construct, emphasized male dominance and power. Uh, whoa!
I am currently reminded of my linguistic epiphanies, not because of feminism and patriarchy, but because I was struggling today to express in words the overwhelming gratitude I have for the love in my life.
I am, in fact, surrounded by love. I am cocooned in it. From the love of my son, of my higher power, of my family, my friends, my partner, I am in no way suffering from love. It almost seems to be the air that I breathe. Yet, how do I express that? Do I get all Elizabeth Barrett Browning and “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways?” or all Queen and “Ohhh, you make me live… You’re the best friend that I ever had…” I know the physical feeling, the joy that pulses through my body. I know the swelling of my heart. But, do I have the words with which to describe the phenomenon?
I learned today that in Sanskrit there are 96 words for love. There is a specific word for motherly love, erotic love, amorous love, the love found among friends, and even a word for one who loves the night time. In English, we only have “love” plain and simple. Is that enough?
Yesterday was my birthday, that individualized holiday that enables us– without appearing too self-absorbed, egocentric, or cocky– to be the center of attention. On your birthday, people sing to you and wish you well and give you thoughtful gifts and, in my case, throw bashes for you that you may or may not help organize because a birthday is a great excuse for a bash. And, yesterday, the little me-centered party had corn hole and disco lights and chocolate cake and a fire pit and s’mores. And, in the midst of the merengue and rap tunes and the oodles of gift bags with beautiful journals inside and the flowers and the singing and the dancing and the laughing, there was, most of all, love. And I do not mean just for me. There was true comradery. And, to top it off, everyone was sober.
In March of 2014, when I was still an active drunk, when I was still bouncing from crisis to crisis I wrote in a post entitled “The Sea of People who Encircle Me”: Lately, I have been nearly swept away by the passionate, compassionate, and comforting nature of my friendships and by the amount of love that surrounds me daily. I am, I admit, one hell of a lucky woman to be encircled by a sea of people who keep me afloat, buoying my potential, and pulling me from the powerful undertow of my own seeming self-destruction. I have been fraught with confusion lately, forks in the road looming before me, not sure which path to take. In my confusion, I have blathered and divulged, processed and pondered, analyzed and questioned. I have vomited up masses of past trauma and current dilemma. I have even made a hysterical phone call in the middle of the night. Despite the amount of emotional weight that I have had to lean on these kindred and saintly souls, they still stand firm both in their own beautiful strength and in their insistence that they are my biggest fans. I have so, so much for which to be grateful!
Now, though I am less in crisis, though I feel like most of the time I can give some of what I receive, and am not being sucked under by the “powerful undertow of my own seeming self-destruction,” the scene feels familiar. I am still surrounded by passion, compassion, and comfort. I still have to lean, sometimes heavily, on the people in my life. I am still so very blessed. Does it then matter if my native tongue doesn’t have the complexity and fluidity to express and define this love in so many different ways? Maybe to a writer it does. Or, perhaps, I am just trying to complicate things.
I do not know if I need or even want 96 ways to verbalize the feeling that we place under the one-word “love” blanket. I do not know that I need to distinguish between my love for my significant other or for my friends or for my son. Doesn’t it all in many ways feel the same? Doesn’t it all feel like warmth, like being in a sliver of sun on a cool autumn day, like sinking into a hot bath? I don’t know that I need to split semantic hairs. I do know that I believe, and I don’t know who would argue with me, that true love—be it between a dog-son and human-mom or a committed couple or just (or especially) for one’s own self—is the most important thing to have in this world. And, I am just covered in this love thing. All around the friggin’ board.
Perhaps, then, the real trick is finding 96 ways to express love through action and not worry about the words so much. There are so many physical ways to make love happen. And, I feel it. From the crown of my head to the tip of my toes I am bursting with gratitude. I am rich in the richest way possible. I am on fire. I have love, love, and more love and I must take all the action I can to spread that love around.