What do we mean when we speak of love?

This year, my children are keen to know what Valentine’s Day is all about. I am blaming myself. At my own insistence, we have read all the Ramona Quimby books between Christmas and now, and in the most recent volume to be shared, there are scenes of clandestine note passing between the children in fictional school, suggestions of liking and teasing, and the looming presence of a Valentine’s box in the corner of the classroom.  I tell my children that this day is a celebration of love, and they agree that this could be a nice thing, a good thing to do, to show our love to each other. I tell them that when I was little my own mother always got me to make a heart smothered card for my father, but oddly never one for her. I decide that this year, maybe I will send her something. 

Love is a tricky thing. My family is good at doing it, but bad at expressing it. It can be hard to feel loved if you are not told, and it can be hard to tell someone you love them in words, especially if words don’t come easily, and you feel that all the gestures you make and things you do should make it clear anyway. I still think it is nice to be told, and to tell. I don’t know if my own experiences of lack of open communication about love come from growing up with older parents and an older family. My Dad had been in world war two as a teenager, whereas for most of my school friends, that experience belonged to their grandparents. The impact of this conflict ricocheted through my childhood, being a favourite topic of conversation for several members of my family, and a source of embarrassment for me, because I felt strange hearing about it,  and knew that nobody else’s parents were talking about it. I still remember hearing about my Dad’s experience of holding a shot-down pilot in his last moments, and pretending to be the young man’s mother, when he had cried for her – that surely is an act of love, though, as a dismissive teenager, I didn’t consider the impact it must have had on those young men. 

The candle I was given as a favour, years ago.

This feeling of keeping people emotionally  at a distance and just   getting on with the work of being together is something that I have consciously tried to change in my own life, even though it is my default way of being. I was amazed and envious at the warmth and openness of the man who would become my husband’s family, who have survived all kinds of conflict and trauma, yet are able to be absolutely clear and honest about their feelings. I tell my children I love them all the time, and sometimes they tell me, quite unprompted. I never expect a parroted response from them, we are not like preacher and congregation. Sometimes they tell me when we’ve had a really nice time doing something together. I am in awe of the openness of their expressions about the things that they love: woodland adventures, gooey chocolate brownies baked just right, an extra deep bath, time spent watching favourite programmes together, candlelight at the table, and more stories than can be possibly sensible at bedtime on a school night. 

As we begin efforts to spring clean, and rearrange our house both physically and energetically as the season changes, my daughters are delighted to find heart shaped tea lights at the back of a cupboard. They are also pleased with the heart shaped basket, which I use for first footing every year, bearing into hearth and home, all things symbolic of what we need for sustenance. They find a little wood candle holder, it’s hollow depression  filled with shards of china and glass that I have carried home from the allotment in my pockets, like precious jewels. ‘These are the things you  love, your treasures’ my daughter says as a statement of fact, and she is right. I do love the little fragments I find as I turn the soil, and wonder if they were once enjoyed as parts of a family’s long saved for china set.  Who supped tea? Who sliced out apples and cheese, who stood stucking on a pipe, gazing at cherry blossoms, or maybe stars?

I ask my children what they think I love, and they are emphatic. Trees, horses, books, stories, Daddy, family, us, flowers, everything! I ask them the same question, and get answers ranging from Minecraft, art, dancing, a favourite bear, raindrops and puddles, Garfield, chocolate cake, the beach, stargazing, and the whole universe! My children are right about me, being near trees makes me full of wonder and joy, at the magic of beings who can live in both worlds, with roots in the earth and branches in the sky. Horses do something magical for me too, the feeling of working with another living creature, breathing together, and allowing each other to be in communication feels ancient and somehow holy. I think about how most of the things we have named are simply things we can engage with in daily life, rather than grand gestures that need to be made. 

Allotment treasures

Love is work too, to love something or someone requires effort and exchange. I was moved when listening to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, to learn that part of entomologist George McGavin’s proposal to his wife was to promise her cups of tea in bed every day. My husband makes excellent tea, and when  I am working hard on planning and marking, sometimes he or one of the children silently places  tea where I am working. To me, this is love in action. 

This year I have thought about actions and connections more than ever before. When the first lockdown happened, nearly a year ago, many people in my community leapt into action, making sure that everyone was ok, and that those who needed extra support and help were provided for. The street champion’s network, the community WhatApp groups, and doorstep check-ins mean we have been together in a way that we’ve never experienced until now. As things shifted and were cancelled, I saw neighbours offering all kinds of acts of love, one taking song requests and DJing with the local festival sound system in his back garden, another chalking activities for children all over the local park and offering beautiful painted stones, placed on her garden wall free to those in need of a boost. Another neighbour, in her nineties, but still a dab hand at the sewing machine, made whole flocks of colourful masks, that hung in her garden tree like exotic birds, for anyone who needed them, free, or for a small donation to the community centre. Meals were distributed, shopping rotas organised, check ins and phone calls for those who wanted them. Sadly  I know that this experience hasn’t been the same for everyone, and those who are isolated,  not enabled with technology, or suffering chronic illnesses have felt cast adrift in a sea of loneliness. Some for many years, and feeling even more intensely sad as the meaningful things in life become impossible.

Around this time of year, we are bombarded by companies wanting us to sell us objects that they say express love. Almost anything can be marketed in any way, you could sell anything as an unmet need that another person may love, if only it is done in a convincing way. It is hard not to buy into the rhythm of emotions as commodities, but I think we need much more than that. I do give my husband a gift, but am of the mind that such things need to be nicer versions of everyday objects in use,  or special consumable treats. A heart shaped Cornish Yarg from a local cheesemonger has been a veritable success in recent years, as it carries with it the memories of holidays in near TIntagel, where we camped in a tiny tent amongst a tangle of boots, clothes and provisions. We feasted on bread and cheese, and one year, got engaged at the foot of  a secret and spectacular waterfall. In return he has proffered some wonderful smoky Earl Grey tea, that I would often pick up on work trips to London, now delivered as a gift.

Last year, we celebrated family love with a chocolate cake and everyone’s favourite foods for dinner. I cut out little heart shaped notes and wrote messages to each of the children telling them what I love about them, naming characteristics that I see in them that make me full of happiness. I slipped the notes into pockets and lunch boxes. When the children came home, they were full of excitement, and keen to show me what they had found and how much they liked what I had written – such simple acts cost nothing. This year I may write acrostic poems using their names, telling them the things I love about them the most. I also plan to write cards and notes to those I love, telling them why I am grateful for them being in my life. Perhaps giving love honestly to others at this time is more important than spending money on things we don’t need. 

As I ponder this need to do something meaningful and the conundrum of supporting local businesses as they flounder due to restrictions, somehow I am reminded of a colleague who one year presented everyone in his class at a girls’ school with a rose and one girl with an onion,  and how powerful their discussion of love was. Years later, the students who are still in contact with their former teacher still remember this lesson and mention it around this time every year. In layers and rawness, in warm drinks and early morning wake-ups, in hands held through illnesses, endings, and beginnings, love is much more than seasonal gestures.  As I re-read Carol-Ann Duffy’s words, I realise that the accumulations of ourselves are what we have to offer, and that being able to see those in others is powerful; being able to be vulnerable enough to show them to another, even more so. I think she has it right. 

I give you an onion …


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