I went to a dear friend’s wedding this weekend, spending three days in the company of all our mutual friends: Jennifer’s family, our high school group and their partners I’ve come to know, the lovely women I met at her bachelorette getaway and bridal shower. It was a sweet and beautiful wedding.
Concentrated friend time always makes me think deeply about my life — as do weddings, by virtue of their very momentousness (and the rituals and traditions that emphasize their significance). I’m trying to think how to lead gradually into what I want to say here, but I don’t seem to be able to do it, so let’s just get to the point. I’m not the friend as I used to be. This might not be apparent even to my good friends, but I can feel the difference in my heart. I used to spend hours making cards for everyone’s birthdays, and now I mostly don’t. I used to pour out all my affection in these same cards, and I even made them for people who didn’t know me, like professors in large lectures. My attitude was, life is short; everyone who’s ever touched me deserves to know it. My mom used to warn me against taking so much time for people who wouldn’t “appreciate it.” She’d see me drawing away at someone’s thank-you note and say, “You should just buy a card for so-and-so. This person can’t tell the difference between a Hallmark card and something you spent three hours on.” Even knowing this was often true, I rejected this philosophy, telling her, “That’s not why I do it.” Love is not an investment to be made only when returns are guaranteed. Friendship is not a balance sheet. Over the years my friends have proven this in ways I could never have foreseen. I get emails from people I’ve fallen out of touch with, telling me how much they’ve treasured my cards. I maintain contact with people who should have left my life long ago, just because I took the time to tell them what they meant to me. Even if love were an investment, my returns have been more than generous.
But at some point… I stopped doing the cards, and I stopped reaching out to everyone I wanted to acknowledge. On some level it was an inevitable logistical decision: as one grows older, it’s simply no longer possible to write lengthy, heartfelt notes of appreciation to every single person who’s made an impact on one’s life. And relationships grow more complicated with time and age; by the time one graduates from college it’s already obvious that the pure simplicity of “love always” isn’t accurate in every friendship. But deep down, I know my mom’s return-for-investment perspective did play a role, even though I fought against it. As I say, the love I’ve sent out into the world has more than made its way back to me, but there have been plenty of times when it seemed it wouldn’t. Too many affectionate gestures unacknowledged, too few of my own received, too many beloved friends who seemed to love me less than I loved them (as if the same yardstick could be used to measure each person’s heart). At some point, my heart just didn’t want to be so open anymore. My regular outpourings of loving cards dwindled to a trickle, and even those weren’t as elaborate as they used to be, nor their messages as earnest. What I didn’t realize until I started writing this was that my love had become conditional… and that before the change, it had been so close to unconditional, and I never knew it. I went from loving without expectation of return, to holding back when return wasn’t guaranteed. And since it’s never guaranteed, that means holding back always, with everyone.
As I think about this, I’m certain this closing down of my heart has everything to do with how easily I cry these days — and also what doesn’t make me cry, like VONA and weddings. At VONA it hit me that protecting my heart is damaging my writing too. Really being an artist means keeping one’s heart open as much as possible, in spite of not getting that love back, or in spite of being hurt. When I hold my heart back, I can’t give it fully to what I’m doing, and that’s as much true in art as it is in friendship. There was a time when I kissed all my friends when I hugged them; these days, if someone I’m not used to touching puts an arm around me, my shoulders stiffen. In spite of my own objections, I do keep that balance sheet: this person I can trust with my hugs, this person probably doesn’t really like me as much as she likes her other friends. I think my best friends still know how much I love them, but I don’t take the time to articulate it anymore, to demonstrate it in every way I can imagine. I think if I did, they’d be surprised at the difference in intensity. I think it would surprise me too.
I’m not sure exactly when I started holding back in my love, chronologically speaking, but emotionally I can make a guess. It’s when I started wondering whether all my cards were appreciated, proportional to the amount of time I’d spent on them. It’s when I started questioning others’ declarations of friendship, when I started wondering “then why don’t we hang out more often?” or “then why didn’t I hear from you on my birthday?” whenever I heard or read an “I love you.” I think back on people I’ve wondered this about, and I realize that it’s not so much about closing the heart down as it is about denying its full capacity. Protecting myself means I don’t lay my love out on the line, but it also means I pretend it doesn’t hurt when someone responds less enthusiastically than I expected them to. Our hearts were made to love, and love means pain as well as joy. When we deny the pain, we deny a vital part of what our hearts were meant to do. I think now that this is what happened to me. At VONA Evelina taught us to be brave in our writing; I resolve here to be braver in my love and to open my heart up as full as it can go. I don’t know if this means the birthday cards will begin again, but I’m going to try not to hold back anymore.
Let me love.
Let me hurt.
Let me love.