One of the hardest, most complex parts of having not been loved well in the past is the way it forms – the way it leaves a mark – on one’s ability to know in the present if one is being treated with dignity and respect.
It seems so backward to me, because I also have been loved, am being loved, remarkably well, and I know this. I have the best friends, the kind I didn’t dream could exist in my life, but they do exist and in my life, and their care still astounds me. I’m convinced that friendship may in fact be *the* best gift of God.
And I have memories of good love in my body. There are bodies my body knows, ways of being held with arms and with eyes that molded the clay of this woman, and there are tendernesses of voice I know by heart. For me, receiving the peace of Christ has taken particular embodied forms, patterns of embrace.
One friend kisses my forehead, one the top of my head. One kisses my cheek before pressing his to mine. One prays over me with hands on my head. Some arms go over, some arms go under, some love has a way even in the embrace of lifting a person out of herself and into someone else.
But this kind of formation in love, this experience of having been deeply loved, for some reason takes so long to get into a person.
The inhumane, the indignities – they can be over in a flash, and yet still never really be over. But for love to undo all of that… It takes the continual washing of love, waves rolling up onto the shore of one’s thirst again and again and again with the regularity of tides to begin to smooth the jagged edges of pain.
Why isn’t love stronger? Why does it take so much damn time?
I think it’s something about the way love, in order to be love ultimately, can never be simply past tense, barring death. Death is the only thing which can make love be past tense, and still retain its integrity as love, but even then – even in death – there are bonds of belonging, strands of memory that exceed the loss.
Love must always be at least perfect tense, with the hope and assurance of future tense. Love must be a past action with present force, love which was and is and I trust will be to come, for love is belonging. Belonging is one essence of love.
Love is stronger, but shows its strength as gentleness, spread across the long-haul of a lifetime, because that’s how long belonging takes in order to be belonging.
Which is all to say that when I ended everything yesterday, I was reeling. I sat in the back studio room, my hands shaking, pressed to the stack of portfolios, praying desperate blessing over these students who have made me these past four months, simultaneously so grateful and so heartbroken, trying not to worry about what would happen next for them.
The most confusing part was how long I’d let it go on, how long I’d tried to be brave, be stronger, endure, endure, endure, let it not touch me. But I’d been slowly closing down since early December after the first real incident happened. To that point, I had by some stroke of beginner’s luck and probably severe mercy, been perfect enough. I’d seen her emotionally thrash my co-workers, shame their weaknesses, and their slowness in learning new things. And I’d watched my students shrink to puny versions of themselves in her presence, ashamed of their art as she doled out harsh criticisms to six year olds. I determined I would just never be vulnerable. But there was a night I couldn’t control, and I was on the receiving end of her cruelty. I came home and sobbed for literally hours. And it took me weeks to begin to adjust.
But over the last few weeks in particular, I’d been witness to so much unkindness and on the receiving end myself that I’d begun to toggle back and forth between flying beneath the radar, shrinking myself, complying – and becoming hard, defiant, trembling, hardly able to contain myself. Rage was building up inside me, and I knew I was on the brink of scary.
At the end yesterday, I felt like a shell of myself. It was finally safe enough to admit what kind of emotional shape I was in, and what kind of toll it has all taken on me. I loved it for the art. I adored my students who were the best kind of gift. I was learning pottery, and had pieces in progress – pieces I really cared about. I’d hung on for what I loved, knowing that the wheat and the tares grow together. But I was not (and am not yet) healthy.
In the aftermath, I reached for my loves. I texted my beloved housemates, who cheered me on and affirmed I’d done the right thing, celebrating this as an act of agency and strength. I called my mom to cry and she listened, and lamented my pottery with me. I emailed two other friends who walk closely with me in the daily and have been so instrumental in teaching me belovedness and pressing me to step into new imaginations of myself. I emailed one of my pastors.
And maybe this is where love has been stronger in a trajectory sense. I have distinct memories of love putting me back together before, of loss that felt overwhelming, and love that clarified me. Instead of crumbling in defeat, I reached, knowing I would be held in belonging and kindness, dusted off and set on my feet again. I am loved in the perfect tense.