44. What we don't talk about when we don't talk about love
We don't talk about how we love people.
Sometimes we do, on special occasions. At funerals. At weddings. When your 5th-grade teacher has you write a letter to your mum.
If we still had etiquette books, love would be on the list of topics to avoid at parties, along with religion, money, and politics, which is maybe why we’re so messed up about those things. Why we’re often so bad at them.
Would you sit and listen to someone, even a good friend, explain in detail how they love someone? Does that sound kind of... terrible?
Do we know how to talk about love? Paul McCartney and John Lennon, generally considered among the greatest popular songwriters of all time, had an early hit that went:
Love, love me do
You know I love you
I'll always be true
So please love me do
The first time I told someone I loved them who wasn’t from my family, it was a lie.
At the beginning of the first lockdown—a phrase so robbed of specificity I'm not sure why I use it—I started to read poetry in earnest, something I'd not done for 20 years. I had a sudden craving for literal love languages. I wanted to know what people talk about when they talk about love.
This is the Nonsense of Love by Mindy Nettifee
Our kiss is a secret handshake, a password.
We love like spies, like bruised prize fighters,
like children building tree houses.
Our love is serious business.
One look from you and my spine
reincarnates as kite string.
When I hesitate to hold your hand,
it is because to know is to be responsible for knowing.
There is no clean way to enter
the heavy machinery of the heart.
Just jagged cutthroat questions.
Just the glitter and blood production.
The truth is this:
My love for you is the only empire
I will ever build.
When it falls,
as all empires do,
my career in empire building will be over.
I will retreat to an island.
I will dabble in the vacation-hut industry.
I will skulk about the private libraries and public parks.
I will fold the clean clothes.
I will wash the dishes.
I will never again dream of having the whole world.
So here's a request. I want to hear about someone you love. You can reply to this email, send one to email@example.com, or mail something to
However you write to me, I'll respond in the same fashion.
I realise this is a lot to ask, especially after saying this is something we simply don’t do. And yet, I’m asking.
"Love is the quality of attention we pay to things."
- J.D. McClatchy
This is about someone I love.
Long before my partner and I were anything that would have made this action understandable, I sent her a list of 50 things I liked about her. It was an easy list to write.
Over the next 4 years I added 100 more things, and sometimes I read them over and have a little cry. I do this and think, this would make for a good movie, which is both a real thing I think and something that makes me want to die a bit.
If I showed you the list, and after you overcame the awkwardness, like I’d just texted you a picture of me as a naked child, and the revulsion, like, dude, really, we don’t need to do this, and you read a bit of it you might think, ok, I get it, I get why you love her. But why isn’t love.
Talking about why you love someone is like describing the wetness of water to a thirsty person, technically accurate and devoid of all feeling. And this is why I think we don’t do it, because talking about why you love someone is gross.
But maybe we can talk about how we love them.
How she loves me is loving the things about me I most love about myself.
That might sound terribly narcissistic or tautologically hogwashed, but it’s also true that how I love her is I love the things about her she most loves about herself.
Which is another way of saying, we pay attention to those things.
Because I think love is a circle, with two hands holding each other... which I guess are attached to arms that loop around, and maybe also end in holding hands? Love is body horror, is what I’m saying.
from This Is A Love Poem Without Restraint by Lorna Crozier
How do you use the word love
in a poem?
If you look at it
it will burn into your eyes
Here are two things she notices and pays attention to, and I now notice and pay attention to. One is about the world, and one is about me.
When we’re out and about she notices when colours align between various objects. Sometimes the colours are on me and on a wall, or on me and an interior space, or on me and a car and a wall, or, and this is when shit gets real, on me AND a car AND a wall AND a coffee cup I’m holding AND a flowering tree.
When that happens, the alignment needs to be documented.
And now, I notice this too. I pay more attention to colours in general, expanding the palette of my wardrobe to increase the possibilities with my surroundings. I mean, I really do that. It’s fun. It makes getting dressed an adventure.
The other thing she noticed is I like talking to people. You like talking to people, she said, and I said I guess and she said, you do, and then I shrugged. And she said, you like listening to people, and I said ok sure and kind of flapped my arms, and she said, you’re good at listening to people, and I said, maybe, in a higher pitch and then talked about my favourite Radiohead album.
And her noticing made me think that this thing I was just doing before was maybe a good thing, and now every time I do it I feel a bit good about my place in the world. That’s what noticing did.
When I moved to Haarlem I thought, I like talking to people and I like listening to people, so even though I felt not at all so brave I went out and I talked and listened to people. Antoine at the deli. Do Bartels who cuts my hair. Ax and his almond cookies and slightly citrus coffee. Each time I do, I feel a little good.
And that’s how I love her.