A geography of love and chaos

Cultivating a love ethic in the space between Montreal and Vancouver Island

It’s no secret that the world we have inherited is both beautiful and harrowing. So too, it appears, is our relationship with love. Caught in a confusing climate of endless Instagram photos captioned #relationshipgoals, and a deeply rooted cynicism about the role of love in our lives, it comes as no surprise that so many young people have had unsatisfying or unsettling experiences with love. In “Towards a Worldwide Culture of Love,” bell hooks writes about love as the opposite to forces of fear and domination. In her work, hooks calls for the renewal of a love ethic: a state of being grounded in a dedication to the genuine well-being of others. In trying times, cultivating a love ethic that replaces fear and inspires joy is incredibly important in healing and sustaining ourselves and our communities. A love ethic can be guiding in all the work there is to be done to create a more compassionate and fertile world; as a catalyst to lasting, transformative change.

In All About Love: New Visions, hooks suggests that “our confusion about what we mean when we use the word ‘love’ is the source of our difficulty in loving.” We need a common understanding of love that doesn’t over-emphasize or prioritize romantic love. We need a practice that delineates between the selflessness of love and the self-interested process of cathexis (where a loved one becomes important to you because of what they contribute to your life). We need a definition that acknowledges love, as hooks defines it, as a choice to nurture the spiritual growth of another.

Cultivating a love ethic means developing an understanding of love that captures the full range of human relationships and experiences – from motherhood to friendship to sex. A love ethic is not purely theoretical or abstract; it is the development of a language and a set of practices to express the way we feel for ourselves and each other. It is a concrete, day-to-day commitment to care, affection, recognition, respect, and trust of others. Ultimately, we are in need of an understanding of love that is as diverse, dynamic, and chaotic as our lives and our world. Even the acts of writing or speaking seriously about love – a topic often framed as self-indulgent, essentially feminine, or oversentimental – are reclamations of love as a topic of deep thought and constant interrogation.

A love ethic is not purely theoretical or abstract; it is the development of a language and a set of practices to express the way we feel for ourselves and each other.

In my own life, I have recently realized the need to be able to think about love as broader than simply the feelings I have for the person I choose to have sex with and make crafts for. For the past two years, I have, somewhat accidentally, taken on the long, arduous, introspective task of unravelling what, where, and why love is, and how to live lovingly in a time fraught with political, environmental, and personal turbulence.

This task has involved what seems like a million wonderful and inspiring humans, and a handful of wonderful and inspiring places. The chaos of moving around, meeting new people, of being young in a time of climate crisis, of falling in and out of love, have all shaped my experiences of love throughout my short adult life. In the past two years, I have travelled through Nunavut and lived in Montreal, Toronto, Haida Gwaii, and Vancouver Island. In each of these places, amid a swirl of new people, new plants, new surroundings, I have begun to understand the significance of a love ethic in an ever-changing world. Everywhere I’ve been, I have found love in the spaces where spirituality, science, environment, and human experience overlap.

In the plane from Ottawa to Iqaluit, at the beginning of a summer spent working with children across the territory, I was at once excited and inspired and overwhelmed. I wrote furiously about all of it in that in-between space: “Everything is love. The peace of empty spaces, of seeing clouds from above, turbulence, the lulling sound of Inuktitut, getting lost walking in a new place, sharing hugs, long talks, cups of tea. It’s all open heartedness, balance, and letting go.” Far from treeline, I was surrounded by kilometer after kilometer of tundra, ancient mosses, antlers and teeth and vertebrae, and giant pieces of pink granite, looking out over an ocean of ice floes and countless shades of white, blue, and grey. Like loving someone, being in the Arctic made the entire universe seem just a little bigger than it had been before; it felt full of infinite and storied space, though I had yet to hear all the stories.

When I was in the Arctic, I was in that particular kind of mood that follows heartbreak. I wanted to redefine myself after feeling shattered by a breakup with the first person I had romantically loved. Far from the threads that bound me to my friends and family in British Columbia and Montreal, the last thing I wanted at that time was to form a lasting emotional connection to another person. Like many who have made the mistake of loving someone who is uninterested in loving back, I was disenchanted with love.

While the many bright and generous people I met up North taught me about the lived realities of climate change and the ongoing legacy of colonialism in Indigenous communities, being somewhere so different in every way from coastal Vancouver Island, where I grew up, also taught me a lot about finding and feeling love. About peacefulness and hope in the midst of so much space. About joy in dusty summer sunshine and joy in literal dark, cold times. About acceptance of quiet perils; the threat of a polar bear or emotional vulnerability, alike. I met the North much like you meet someone who gives you butterflies in your stomach: full of curiosity, nervousness, self-consciousness, and a desire to share the experience with others.

About acceptance of quiet perils: the threat of a polar bear or emotional vulnerability, alike.

And, as it would happen, I did meet someone who gave me butterflies in my stomach. We kissed near the beach and talked about how the ocean tasted. I was overjoyed. I wrote a letter to a friend in which I mentioned this person in particular, saying, “you’d love them. I wish you two could meet. I wish everyone could meet them.” A couple months later, I copied out a similar verse from a love poem in Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language (one of those life-changing collections of poetry about love and relationships): “I dreamed you were a poem / I say, a poem I wanted to show someone… / and I laugh and fall dreaming again / of the desire to show you to everyone I love.” Retrospectively, this is all quite sweet and romantic. I love poetry, and ocean kisses, and after two years of knowing this person, I love them too. But at the time, I was conflicted and upset by my butterfly-tummy, poetry-quoting feelings. I was upset that I wasn’t redefining myself as someone ‘stronger,’ less vulnerable, less desiring of care and affection. I was confused at how much of my feelings of independence had evaporated the moment I made extended eye contact with someone I was attracted to. I’ve heard similar experiences from my friends, particularly women and femmes, who curl themselves up small when faced with feelings of love. They are afraid, as I am afraid, that our vulnerability and desire for love will come across as desperate or needy.

An important first step towards being loving is to overcome the cynicism and disenchantment a lot of us feel about love, to embrace the beautiful mess of vulnerability, risk, and excitement. Practicing love requires, as bell hooks writes, acceptance – acceptance that now is the time, and that this, in all it’s blue-grey, mossy spaciousness, is the place.

Haida Gwaii, much like the Arctic, seems like it could be the edge of the universe. It is a place overflowing with contagious expressions of love. Love for community, for the earth, for life. For a semester in 2016, I lived in the village of Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, for a field semester with seventeen other students. I was past the phase of being unaccepting of love. I came to Haida Gwaii determined to surround myself with reciprocal kindness and generosity and presence in the moment. And it wasn’t hard to do. I found myself surrounded by people who, like me and my close friends, would share small gifts, write notes, cook and bake for one another, give hugs and compliments generously. Expressing love caught on in our group, inspired by the generous land and people around us, and by a few fellow students expert in the daily practice of love. On the islands of Haida Gwaii I heard many affirmations of love for the abundance and unconditional giving of the land and sea, stories about the care owed to the Earth by the people who live here.

For many reasons, Haida Gwaii is a microcosm of how I wish the world were everywhere; rich in respect for land, community, culture, and calmness. It is rare to be in a place where practicing love – actively nurturing the spiritual growth of others – is the norm. Beyond accepting our vulnerabilities and feelings of love, I have come to discover that cultivating a love ethic also requires such generous expressions of love to others.

There are certain things, writes Kate Weiner in “The Sensuous Environmentalist,” such as the ability to express and accept love, that are “climate change proof.” In the midst of a year of political anxiety, crumbling glacial shelves, and rising sea levels, I’ve focused on weaving expressions and acceptance of love into my own life in order to keep afloat. I remind myself to tell my friends I love them, send cards and letters and drawings and pressed leaves to loved-ones who are far away. Though, despite the abundance of love I try to plant in my life, there are times when I find it difficult to express or accept love. I am quick to specify the difference between ‘love’ and ‘Love’, to avoid all the vague code and expectation wrapped up in declarations of romantic love. I have heard from so many friends, especially from men, that it is difficult to express Love, with a capital L, to another person. Though in an imaginary, ideal world I am someone who doesn’t over-ascribe importance to romantic “I love you’s,” in reality, I am. I’m curious about the difference between the types of love we feel for certain people. When I asked a close friend about why this difference, and the primacy of romantic love, might exist, they said: “I think it’s because we have too narrow a definition of love and have yet to categorize the nuances. Or rather, we mis-categorize the different types of love. Maybe love shouldn’t be categorized at all. I don’t know. I think the depth of love you feel for a friend and a romantic partner can be the same. Does that still make it a different kind of love? I’m still trying to figure it out.” I suppose I’m still trying to figure it out too.

There are certain things, […] such as the ability to express and accept love, that are “climate change proof.”

Learning about concepts of wilderness in the temperate rainforests of Haida Gwaii, I read about a term that stuck with me. In “Between the Local and Global,” Catriona Sandilands writes about the conservation of Clayoquot Sound in coastal British Columbia as a simulacrum of nature, a simulation of an imagined reality. Sandilands writes that in Clayoquot Sound, and in other places classified as ‘wilderness,’ conservation efforts focus on maintaining an imagined pristine and untouched natural space, whereas in reality the site has been inhabited, altered, and managed by humans for time immemorial. I feel that often, romantic relationships take on the form of simulacrum when it comes to love. We worry about when is the right time to say “I love you,” about when to post photos of each other on social media, about how aloof we should act at each stage of the relationship. We have a linear understanding of romantic love as a series of escalating acts and feelings, which is far less accommodating than definitions of friendship. Love is subject to the chaotic non-linearity and messiness of nature or human emotions. Often, the emotional labour of women in relationships is erased from narratives of love, or the labour of Indigenous peoples in caring for the earth is likewise erased in narratives of wilderness. Though the picture we have in our heads of romantic love is of a constant state of bliss, or of wilderness as pristine naturalness, the reality is that both these things require intensive care and intervention. Expressing our love organically, and rejoicing in diversity and imperfection, acknowledges the messy, involved, disorganized process that is loving someone else.

Creating a community rooted in these genuine, diverse expressions of love requires a great deal of effort, honesty, and open communication. Toronto, where I lived this past summer, is certainly a much bigger community than Haida Gwaii, and expressions of love are, perhaps, easier in a small community than in a city. However, small loving actions and expressions of love can still lead to contagious, joyful love in an urban environment. I moved to Toronto for a summer internship in community engagement, a space where I witnessed firsthand the ability of a handful of bright, hard-working people to spark big love in a city of nearly three million. People who a friend recently described as “bright lights” in this year of uncertainty, who do the incredible and often invisible work of nurturing the spiritual growth of those around them. In Toronto, I felt happy and at peace surrounded by a coalition of friends and colleagues grounded in good. Our friendships and collaborations are rooted in big conversations about love and communication and hope and dreams and plans for making the world a kinder and safer place.

The work of building a love ethic is necessarily located in a community or in the space between friends. In All About Love, bell hooks reminds us that “loving friendships provide us with a space to experience the joy of community in a relationship where we learn to process all our issues, to cope with differences and conflict while staying connected.” A lot of us learn to practice the essential skills of love through emotionally intimate and close friendships. Living under the confines of heteropatriarchy, many of us, particularly men or masculine people, are not socialized to have close, intimate friendships where love is talked about frequently and seriously. People who lack close or loving friendship may also lack an arena in which to practice the skills of love and to make sense of the chaos that is human relationships and feelings. Creating communities where love is both commonplace and celebrated can help to overcome the anxiety and divisions of a world that is increasingly tense with fear and domination. Practicing love in community has the potential to be transformative not only for our individual selves, but also as a wider resistance to patriarchy, capitalism, and structures which depend on fear and lovelessness.

In Montreal, I live with four friends in a collective home, grounded in an ethic of love, care, and co-operation. We share cooking, and dreaming/scheming, and plant both the courage to face our fears as well as vegetables and flowers. Attempting (successfully) to resist neoliberal individualism, capitalism, and patriarchy, we are building a loving community and a positive, nurturing environment for our friends and for each other. Though not everyone involved in this DIY family necessarily identifies themselves as queer, we are all participating in the queering of home-making, family-making, and of a collective understanding of love and commitment. It was Maggie Nelson who first illuminated my life with the idea of queering home and family. In her book The Argonauts, Nelson writes that there is “a long history of queers constructing their own families – be they composed of peers or mentors or lovers or ex-lovers or children or non-human animals. […] It reminds us that any bodily experience can be made new and strange, that nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it, that no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical, or the so-called normative.” In the space between the world we live in, entangled in divisions and uncertainty, and the world we hope to create, which acknowledges the infinite connection that sustains us, we are participating in pre-figuring a more loving future.

Practicing love in community has the potential to be transformative not only for our individual selves, but also as a wider resistance to patriarchy, capitalism, and structures which depend on fear and lovelessness.

Every time I come home to Vancouver Island, I fly over or sail through the gulf islands. From far above, the islands and ocean look like blots of moss in a small pond. The experience always reminds me of how human life, which seems so big, so whole from the ground, is a tiny part of something that is almost unknowably large and complex. I think love is like this too. Loving someone can seem so big that it could eat us right up if we’re not careful, but in relation to eight billion hearts on the earth, one act of love is almost insignificant. And still, genuinely loving someone can be the butterfly’s wing-beat that causes a string of sunny days thousands of kilometers away. It’s tiny, but it’s everything.

This time that I’m home, I’m thinking especially about love as a means of cultivating hope in times of crisis. Why is love so important to know and to practice at this moment in time? Perhaps because love is the opposite of fear, a fear that is easy to feel every time we read the news or think about the many heartbreaking, horrible things that have happened in recent months. Perhaps because love has the power to heal; us and the planet, soul and soil. Love is not only a survival strategy, but a reason for survival itself. Love is a method of resistance and re-imagination. In the harrowing but beautiful world, as Rebecca Solnit writes, “love is what you have, and generosity, and imagination. These are centres of resistance, and the resistance is that you go out into the world with the strength and vision you gather inside.”

Go out into the world, get crushes and butterflies, say “I love you” (say it often), hold close the people you love, inspire and encourage and care for one another, and work hard to create spaces where a love ethic prevails. When we practice love, whether by planting a row of herbs along a windowsill, or pressing flowers for friends, we prune the hedges of our hearts so they can grow ever taller and stronger. It’s the beginning of a new year, and it’s an important year to be loving.

bell hooks – All About Love
bell hooks – “Towards a Worldwide Culture of Love” in The Lion’s Roar
Maggie Nelson – The Argonauts
Adrienne Rich – The Dream of a Common Language
Catriona Sandilands – “Between the Local and the Global: Clayoquot Sound and Simulacral Politics” in A Political Space: Reading the Global Through Clayoquot Sound, edited by Warren Magnusson and Karena Shaw
Rebecca Solnit – facebook post from November 2016
Kate Weiner – “The Sensuous Environmentalist” in Loam Magazine