“Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum.” – Frank Sinatra

Like many, my parents promised one another, hand in hand, to endure the turmoils that love necessarily entails and feel love’s grace, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health. Such willingness to enter into a loving relationship predicated upon vulnerability and intimacy culminated in my dad unashamedly serenading my mom at their wedding with Frank Sinatra’s “The Best is Yet to Come.” A Rockwellian poster of Frank Sinatra forever adorns the wall adjacent to our kitchen, his affectuous smile—a constant reminder of the soulful bonds of matrimony—harmoniously presiding over the dining room table.

Much like the peculiar existence of the life-sized poster, entitled “Blessed with America’s Best” in bold cream letters, I had an altogether untraditional childhood. My parents deliberately abandoned classic American familial ideals such as punishment, systems of domination between children and parents, and notions of “earning one’s keep” while raising my sister and me. In other words, they sought to foster what scholar bell hooks deems a “love ethic.” To practice a love ethic requires the denial of many foundational principles of American familial ideals, such as patriarchal thinking, self-entitlement, and greed, as well as the concurrent embracement of trust, care, commitment, and love. As structures of domination cannot exist where a love ethic prevails, my parents and I existed as peers, and our home remained entirely devoid of punishment. Such practices operated in conjunction with my mom’s implementation of restorative, meditative healing to create harmony and love in our home. Our collective ardor for spiritual growth through love produced a set of guiding ethical principles that served as a means of bodily self-regulation and expression beyond the confines of our home. When I am lost, spiritually or materially, love guides me.

I first lost myself several months ago after ending a relationship with someone I loved deeply and wholly. I sought to re-member myself in the works of love theorists such as bell hooks, Erich Fromm, and M. Scott Peck, each of whom held differing theories regarding love but all agreed on one critical matter: love is an action. I found solace in the broken spines and tarnished, pen-marked pages of the books I habitually checked out from the library. Dog-eared pages reminded me that we all experience such loss—relationships fail, friendships deteriorate, even “situationships” perish. The impressions decidedly left on yellowed pages took me to Usdan in the aftermath of my reading frenzy and self-discovery to ask fellow Wesleyan students about love. I sat before the stairs spiraling up to the dining hall accompanied by an excerpt from my favorite poem and a Sharpied sign that read, “Talk with me about love.”

I asked students to answer a series of questions, but namely, what is love? 

I received answers ranging from the literal:

“Love feels like making a sandwich for another person,” or, perhaps, “Love is like going to Usdan when you’re hungover and eating an omelet with peppers and onions in it,”

To the metaphorical:

“Love is like two trees with interlocking branches but separate trunks.” “Love feels like you’re constantly tripping but constantly catching yourself; you’re tripping, but there’s no sense of danger.”

And while some students’ definitions emphasized crucial aspects of love—such as the tree metaphor aptly describing the paradox of love: to become one while remaining one—they shared with other responses the inability to describe love precisely:

“Love is whatever you make it out to be…” “It’s so hard to give a definition…” “Love is too big of a word to have any meaning.”

Despite our inability to define love, nearly everyone who approached me eagerly listed how they practiced love:

“I try to be present with the people I love…” “I take time for myself so I can be present with my friends…” “I tell my friends, ‘I love you’ a lot…” “I give hugs and kisses.”

They knew, as love scholars preach, that love is an action. If we merely thought of love as an act of will, an intention and an action, we could love much easier.

Love feels intangible and impossible to define because it is often presented to us as a feeling, as something that will merely come to us. Whether we understand love as coming from within and moving outwards or coming from without and moving inwards, to envisage love solely as a feeling fails us. Love necessarily entails the practice of care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication. To understand love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth,” as Peck writes, involves understanding that love requires vulnerability. Vulnerability, in particular, means subjecting oneself to the spiritual and emotional anguish of love. Of understanding that vulnerability can lead to harm, but continuing to practice it, nonetheless, in an effort to feel love’s grace. Over fifty people enthusiastically approached me in Usdan to speak of love with vulnerability and intimacy. Each person who graced me with their vulnerable presence beautifully chose love that morning.

We choose to “be present with the people we love,” “take time for ourselves so we can be present with our friends,” “tell our friends, ‘I love you’ a lot,’” and “give hugs and kisses” for the purpose of nurturing our own or another’s spiritual growth. Love is a choice we make every day. And it is undeniably the best choice we make every day.

Keep loving.