Lessons In Life, Love, And Vulnerability

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Autumn is almost here. I can feel it in the air, see it in the orange leaves that fall from the trees, cluster between the road and footpaths. This afternoon I sat outside, on a bench by the student union, listening to music and letting the cool air wash over my face whilst I waited to meet a friend. I could feel the seasons changing. I’ve been afraid of change lately. Normally I thrive on change and despise stagnancy, but for a year that has felt so uneventful, there have been too many changes. My parents’ marriage has ended after 22 years, half my friends are leaving Glasgow either for a year or forever… All the things I thought I could rely on are slipping through my fingers, and the future is so clouded with fog, I can barely see where I’m going.

It’s been a year of learning about life, love, and letting go. A year where I didn’t quite realise what I had until it was gone. I spent so long looking at the past and the future, that I lost too many present moments. I wasted my time on people who were far beyond my reach. I was praying for a chapter, asking for a paragraph, and all I got was a sentence.

There are times when I’ve fought so hard to convince myself something was love, because that thought fit better in my mind than the reality. I am obsessive, I have a tendency to become infatuated with people and ideas. Calling something love gives it this pure, holy quality. I hide behind the word “love” so I don’t have to admit to myself that I have been foolish. I have led myself up the garden path for so long, because it’s easier to cling to the past, to some ridiculous notion of a word I didn’t quite understand.

I am an honest person, painfully so. Honesty is the one thing I refuse to sacrifice, for anyone. But there are so many times where I’ve lied to myself. Not on purpose, I would never deceive myself on purpose. But I have been utterly deluded for the past eleven months. Last week, something shifted. A situation in my life that I could see no way out of changed, suddenly, because I took control and did the thing I was scared to do most: I wrote to someone I hadn’t had contact with in six months. I got a response, in many ways the response I wanted. And for a few hours I was over the moon.

Later that night, I went to a party, and spent time with some of my dear friends. Maybe it was the gin, maybe it was a friend being uncharacteristically sweet to me, but I gained some perspective. A friend of mine was really drunk, and far more open with me than usual, and they told me all the things I most needed to hear. They told me I was special and beautiful, and that there just aren’t other people like me in the world. In short, they made me feel loved. Earlier that day I was elated because I pushed forward a stagnant situation, a situation I had obsessed over long past its expiry date. But that high of my small victory paled in comparison to the feeling in my heart when I sat, tipsy, on my friend’s sofa at 2am, listening to the same drunken speech I’d heard 20 times that hour. I felt valued, I felt loved, and I could finally see the difference between the love from people who know me inside out, and the “love” I thought I felt for people I barely knew at all.

Love can’t be put into words, because love is something you just know deep inside. Love is when you look into someone’s eyes and see their soul, and that kind of love is something I’ve felt for very few people in my life, and all of them have been my friends.

I am a hopeless romantic. Emphasis on the hopeless. (I feel like I’ve made that joke here before, oops). But lately I’ve realised that romantic love, or at least my minimal experience of it, isn’t the highest degree of affection you can hold for someone. I think once you get to a certain level of love, all the labels like “romantic” or “platonic” or “friendship” fade away and there is just this pure love that surpasses any kind of container or category. It’s something you feel in your soul and heart and mind, and it is limitless. It’s the kind of love that crosses oceans and isn’t fazed by circumstances or limitations.

I’ve never felt that kind of love for someone I wanted to be in a relationship with, and maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong in the trainwreck that is my love life. Every man I’ve ever been romantically interested in has been someone I barely knew. It doesn’t matter how strongly I felt if those feelings were based on my superficial knowledge of a person. You can google someone till the cows come home, or stalk their sister’s instagram religiously, but that doesn’t mean you truly know them. No amount of social media stalking can replace the intimacy and trust of looking into someone’s eyes. My love life has been a failure because I focused too hard on the “romantic” and not enough on the “love.”

There have been three, maybe four, people in my life whom I loved with a love beyond words. I am usually good at putting labels on my feelings and writing entire poems or blog posts about the smallest moments with a person I care about. But there were some loves where words, and labels, failed me. The first is not something I call love anymore. It was once the strongest love I ever felt, but when you love a person who is emotionally abusive, the taste of that love sours in your mouth in the aftermath, and you learn that pouring yourself into an empty, poison-lined vessel isn’t what love should feel like. But at the time, I looked into that person’s eyes and drowned in them. I had too much love to contain, it spilled out every time I spoke to them. I often forget that the first real poem I ever wrote was about this person. It seems like a lifetime ago.

Now I have friends who I love in a different, healthier way. But my love still spills over the edges of my being, resists limitations. It spills out in hugs and face kisses, it spills out in words. Most of all, it comes through in my eyes, and it’s not something I can hide. One of the things I’ve noticed whilst editing my novel, is just how often I describe my characters’ eyes, or have two characters look into each other’s eyes during an emotional scene. I need to edit it out because it’s cliche and repetitive, but it did make me think a lot about what love means to me. The thing I always come back to is that love is about honesty, and truth, and that is why eye contact is so important. Eyes don’t lie.

I was once romantically interested in a man who never looked into my eyes. If I had paid more attention to that fact, I could have saved myself a year’s worth of pining and heartbreak. If someone can’t even look directly at your face, they most certainly don’t want to look directly at your soul, your truth, your being. I have mastered the art of ignoring red flags, allowing myself to be blissfully ignorant to uncomfortable truths.

I don’t want to be ignorant, and bliss was never in my nature to begin with. I want to change, I want to stop deluding myself into chasing after people that don’t want me. When someone wants you, it bleeds through into everything they say and do. I have a friend who shows love in a much different way than I do, and for a long time I doubted he loved me. Because he never said it, he barely even let me hug him. It took almost a year of friendship for me to hear the words “I love you” or see his affectionate side. When I did, I had never felt more loved or wanted. I felt seen, spoken to in the language I understand best. But when I was thinking about it later on, I realised that there is more than one way to say I love you. Sometimes “I love you” translates to insults and laughter and conversations entirely in gifs, sometimes “I love you” comes out as “go fuck yourself” said in the a certain tone of voice. “I love you” is replying to my essay-length messages in the middle of the night when I’m having an emotional crisis. “I love you” is sending me memes during lectures to make me laugh at the most inopportune moments. I had been so insecure because the one or two times I’d said “I love you”, I’d never heard it back, and I didn’t realise it had been spoken in a different language all along.

What I mean to say is, when someone loves you, the evidence is there if you know how to look. When someone doesn’t love you, you can analyse the evidence in a hundred different ways, but there will always be a piece missing. I know what love does and doesn’t look like now, and I could have seen it a whole lot sooner if I had known where to look. When it comes down to it, true love is vulnerability, the deepest form of vulnerability there is. You entrust your soul to another person, and pray they won’t break you.

I have been hurt by love (haven’t we all?), and it’s not an easy thing to move on from. Two days ago I found myself writing a poem about someone I loved two years ago. I thought I had healed, but when I look at them my skin crawls. The first line of the poem is “My skin doesn’t crawl at the sight of you. It grows legs like a centipede, and runs away.” When you give someone a piece of your soul and they abuse that privilege, it’s a shock to your system, the kind of shock that can take years to heal. After this person betrayed my trust, I fought hard to build myself up again, so I wouldn’t be vulnerable to that kind of emotional attack.

When I read things I wrote a year ago, there is a hardness there that I lack now, a sharpness in my words that leave a metallic taste in my mouth. Perhaps next year I’ll read back what I write today and see a hardness there too, but I don’t see it now. Because I have learnt to be vulnerable again.

Last night I performed at a spoken word poetry event at this pub called Inn Deep. I had been wanting to do it for a year, because I associate that place really strongly with a particular person and a particular time in my life. The first poem I performed last night was one I wrote nine months ago, last November, and it’s called “Heartbreak Walks into a Bar.” It’s my favourite poem I’ve ever written. Not because it’s particularly good or beautiful or deep, not because it contains elaborate metaphors or perfect similes. It’s my favourite poem because it’s the most real. All my poems are personal, but this one has a special place in my heart. There was a time last summer that is vivid in my memory. Whilst most of the year was a blur, there are scenes and images that are in high definition, like a montage in my mind. The poem is a tribute to that montage. It’s a poem about looking back on snapshots of a doomed love story, of all the images separated by months and sewn together by narrative. The final stanza is about healing, being loved by your friends and mending your broken heart. It feels more relevant to my life now than it ever did when I wrote it.

As we were walking home afterwards, my flatmate said something about my level of vulnerability in that poem, and to be careful of people who might want to take advantage of that. It was never something I had thought of with regards to “Heartbreak Walks into a Bar.” It is a vulnerable poem, but my main worry with it had always been that if someone who heard the poem knew my muse, they would figure out pretty quickly who it was about. If you think I’m not subtle when I write about people in my blogs, my poetry is on a whole other level. I had never thought about how much of myself is revealed in that poem.

The thought nagged at me for the next few minutes. I am incredibly vulnerable with my art. This blog has documented more of my personal life than I ever intended to write about, and my novel is a deeper reflection of myself than anything else I’ve created. My poetry stitches tapestries out of my pain in its rawest form. I use art to heal myself, but also to heal others, to show people they’re not alone. I never considered the thought that someone could use it to hurt me. But as I thought about it more, I realised that vulnerability is intentional, and I’m not as naive or trusting as I sometimes seem.

I have weaponized my vulnerability so no one can use it to hurt me. If I reveal my most private self, no one can use it against me. Do not be fooled, I may seem like an open book given how honest I am about my life, but I am an incredibly private person, and what you read here or anywhere else is simply a distillation of my essence. But I am vulnerable here, just like I am vulnerable im my poetry, and that is a choice I have consciously made. Art, like love, comes down to truth in the end. It’s all about the authenticity. For me, I find my authenticity through vulnerability. I’m like “hey, I’m an introvert and I used to be depressed and anxious and I have a thing for tall blond Eastern European guys and I’m insecure about my weight and have an inappropriate sense of humour and I’m super smart and obsessed with Estonia and by the way what time of day were you born so I can stalk your astrology?” I wrote that sentence as a parody of myself, but I’m reading over it like “where is the lie?” It’s spot on. And at the same time, it is only a snapshot of who I am.

I know who I am, but it’s not something I can put into words. I can joke about surface stuff, like my penchant for crushes on guys from the Baltic States, or my (unrelated!) obsession with Estonia, because those are things that don’t change. But when you get down to the core of me, I am beyond language, and for me to admit that, and be vulnerable in my identity, is part of finding my authenticity. I am constantly evolving and growing and learning who I am. Maybe I can’t look into my own eyes and see my soul, but I can feel that honesty. Perhaps that’s how I know that I love myself now, because after a lifetime of searching for a label that fit, I can no longer put myself into words.

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