February 21, 2021

Dear Frances,

The week was cold and quiet. The plumber came to fix the sink. He stopped the drip but now the handles turn the wrong way. Out instead of in. It’s like that one Richard Siken quote,

“I take off my hands and I give them to you but you don’t want them, so I take them back and put them on the wrong way, the wrong wrists.”

It’s exactly like that. As always, Siken is talking about love, the broken or unrequited kind. I think what that plumber did is a kind of love, too.

Sometimes I think these could be love letters — the ones I write to you. First, I imagine you loving me. Tearing an orange in two, mistaking my coat for yours. Then, I imagine me loving you. Scribbling synonyms for hunger until my pen runs dry.

Then I imagine each of us being loved by someone else. I’m always being loved by some gentle, faceless person. Your lover wears a yellow coat. This is the version that appears the most exact in my mind. In this version, when I imagine a door, I can turn the handle and walk through it.

This is all I can see when I try to make love up. Fruit and porch lights. Famishment. I try to remember how real people do it. How it has been done so many times before.

The lovers sitting next to each other at a party. His foot hooked around the leg of her chair, his toe claiming the air behind her heel. Her hand tossed over her lap just so her fingernail can hold a single thread of his sweater.

These days, when I think about love stories, I think about surgery. Not holding hands, but reattaching them.

In the late 1800s, Scottish surgeon Alexander Ogston was introduced to doctor Joseph Lister and his rigorous antiseptic practices. At the time, a surgeon was not required to wash their hands before seeing a patient. Stains on an operating gown were a sign of experience, and so a surgeon’s gown was rarely washed. But Lister ordered his surgeons to wear clean clothes and sanitize their hands and surgical instruments before each operation. This would dramatically increase surgical survival rates.

After meeting Lister, Ogston returned to his own hospital and immediately removed one sign from the wall of his operating room. It read, “Prepare to meet thy God.” For Ogston, surgery was now survivable. Now, know this: years earlier, Ogston’s wife died shortly after giving birth. The suspected cause of death? Infection.

In 1889, doctor William Halsted introduced rubber gloves to an American operating room for the first time. Not for sanitary reasons, but to protect the hands of nurse Caroline Hampton, whose skin had turned red and chapped from the constant use of disinfectants. Halsted and Hampton married a year later and, I think you’ll like this part, moved to the mountains in North Carolina where they tended to dahlias and studied the stars until Halsted died in 1922.

Maybe if that plumber loved me he would have put the handles on the right way, the right wrists. But then I realize that I am writing to you in blissful silence. I hear no maddening drip coming from the kitchen. If love is an operation—a mission to make better—and a sink is a body and a dripping faucet is a fatal bleed, then all the plumber does is love.

When I tell you about the surgeons or the well-intentioned plumber, I don’t mean to paint these men as mavens of love. If anyone holds that title, it’s adrienne maree brown.

In Pleasure Activism, amb draws on Black feminist literature and challenges her readers to decolonize their ideas of love. To commit to a love that acts against ableism, capital gain, and white supremacy. To “become a community of care that can grow to hold us all.”

adrienne maree brown writes of a love that doesn’t disorient and disable, but one that stabilizes and inspires. A love that doesn’t refuse a hand but heals it. One that is not defined by obligation, blood relation, or holiday. A love that is more than a product or an expendable resource. In fact, she writes of loves, plural. Multiple interconnected, overlapping loves. Loves for “self and friend and comrade.”

“We learn to love by loving. We practice with each other, on ourselves, in all kinds of relationships. And right now we need to be in rigorous practice because we can no longer afford to love people the way we’ve been loving them.”

When we independently define love, we make it easier to give and receive. I’m learning this lesson slowly. One day, I will know how to love so variously. Veraciously. Until then, I will perform my small operations of care.

Dear friend, I will leave you with this: three ways to practice love during this cold and quiet time.

  1. First, forget how to spell love. Rid your mind of L. Undo O. Abandon V. Erase E. Next, in the keyboard settings of your phone, under text replacement, make “soup” mean “love.” Then, make a soup — a whole drum of it. Take this four-letter word and give it to someone who needs it.
  2. Stare at Agnes Martin’s “Faraway Love” until you start to see red. Then say the name of your love out loud.
  3. Walk down an oak-lined street studded with so many storybook homes. Imagine yourself coming home to each of them. What do you see when you throw open the door? What time is it? Are your legs tired? Whom have you come home to? What kind of tea do they have ready for you?

For me, I come home to the tall farmhouse near the crooked tree. Or that charming blue shoebox by the cemetery and the A&W. Or that apartment with the sunroom that faces the tennis court. Lemon tea is waiting for me. As is my faceless lover. Yes, my legs are very tired. The sun is setting. I see a warm living room. And, no matter where or whom I come home to, I see a writing desk and I am always writing to you.

“Nothing happens here except that I write and write, and curse and burn.” – Virginia Woolf