“When I don’t have the strength, I’m just a mirror of what I see.”
It’s difficult to say exactly when I first fell in love. I admit, I am an expert in the falling part, an expert in the terrifyingly rapid and seemingly endless descent part. Impressively fluent in the complete and total surrender part. The knee-buckling, stomach-dropping, giddy and intoxicated by my own desire-for-another part. I’ve memorized it, rehearsed and recited it with a shout-it-from-the-rooftops kind of fervor to an audience of one—usually “the one.” Or whichever one happens to be the object of my desire at that moment, whoever happens to be standing just below roof’s edge, drawing me toward (but often cautioning me against) the jump. The landing, however—the staying in love part—that’s where I falter.
Recently, I received an email from a guy I dated during my senior year of high school. Not necessarily a boyfriend, but someone I was romantically linked to, albeit briefly. It was one of those “You popped into my head and just wanted to say ‘Hi’” kind of emails, 15 years after the fact. I had heard from a friend several years ago that he had married the girl after the girl after me, but during our intermittent email exchange, I also learned that he is now a father.
This of course, sent me down a social media spiral, hunting for semblances of security in the new lives of my old ghosts; Googling past partners, and looking up previous lovers and crushes on Instagram, with the hopes that I would find something within my search to affirm that yes, every time, each of us made the right move when we decided to simply let go.
Earlier this year, I found myself revisiting the work of Sophie Calle, specifically her installation Take Care of Yourself, which was first presented in the French Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale. In this work, Calle enlists the efforts of over 100 women to help her process a breakup letter she received via email. Each woman was then asked to read the letter and interpret, analyze, or respond to it based on the skills and methodologies of her given occupation or professional field. The resulting work is an impressively detailed record of the endless ways in which we grieve, heal, and then finally move on.
One of the women she calls on for this project, and the author of the most striking response was Calle’s own mother, Monique Sindler. Sindler’s gut-wrenching response to her daughter is “You leave, you get left. That is the nature of these things.” Calle’s mother passed away and eventually became the subject of her 2014 exhibition Rachel, Monique.
We leave. We get left. That is the nature of these things.
I was deep in the woods of Elk, California attending a wedding—the quintessential demonstration and celebration of love—when I learned of the events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia that weekend in early August. I will forever be baffled at how a bottomless well of love, blazing fires of anger, and sadness can exist in my body at the same time. This would suggest that love is not the weapon against a most vile terror. It is not the opposite of hate, but rather the hand that holds it. And so it is only natural for people to default to a love rhetoric during times like these, times when it appears as though hate has the upper hand. But there is an extreme danger that lies within the framing of love as a passive, flowery, hugs-and-puppies kind of endeavor, as if there is no place for rage within love. As if we have ever known the pursuit of love to be without crushing pain.
For example, I often reflect on Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking when I talk about love and its primary threat, loss. In this book, Didion chronicles her own grieving process during the year immediately following her husband’s death. This work led me to resolve in part that even when it is at its most perfect, even when love abounds endlessly, someone will die before the other and that there is no escaping the inevitability of once again, being left behind.
So where are the places we can go if no one is ever promised to follow? Fathers will leave, mothers will die, and lovers will break our hearts every time (if we don’t break theirs).
I propose then, to simply go on, for growth in love is not marked in individual moments. Instead, it is measured by all that precedes a moment and more so, all that arrives in a moment’s wake. I propose developing a love practice that is cumulative and whose boundaries flex over time. A love that is messy and contradictory, and as complexly layered as our own varied experiences—one that is as dynamic and ever-shifting as we who profess it. I champion a love that works to quell our innermost fears and anxieties and aids in our collective healing. I want a love that is not bound to or located within another, but rather nestled firmly within the space between where I end and you begin. A love that is perfectly conditioned to exist even after those with whom we’ve shared it are long gone. A mature love that recognizes it is not necessary to continue holding space for someone in your life in order to reserve entire oceans for them in your heart. But one that also doesn’t deny them the space, should they choose to reclaim it. A love that doesn’t hold grudges, but will forever hold us accountable for our actions and inactions. A love that vehemently demands respect. A love in which we forgive ourselves just as quickly as we are expected to forgive another. I declare the activation of a love that knows when to call out the wrong and keep going, but also when to call it quits. A love that knows when it’s time to burn it all down and start anew. A love that does not aim to possess but lets us come and go as we please. A love which allows plenty of room for rage and for intention in tearing down oppressive structures, not each other. I need a love born of a decolonized desire, one whose skin softens as darkly as mine—a Black love. I demand a love that places people like Heather Heyer and Deandre Harris on the right side of history, every single time. A love that moves Us closer to becoming free. A redemptive kind of love into which we fall over and over and over again.
EJ Hill is an artist from South Central, Los Angeles.
This letter is the third in a series of X-TRA Online Summer Reading.