How Do We Make Love?

A dear friend, Geoffrey, came to visit me in my new Oakland home. I adore him. After over a decade of knowing each other, we’re committed allies on the path of becoming. We share with courage, showing up to support, challenge, and celebrate each other. A couple of times we’ve lived in the same city (and neighborhood). Other times, we’ve lived on opposite coasts, with dicey gaps of out-of-touch-ness. These days he says, “I’m always somewhere”; He knows how tough it is for me to miss people. There’s space to be us, where and as we are. We know each other is here.

We’d planned to hang out at my place before going to the East Bay Meditation Center’s Friday night sangha. But as our flow got flowing, we decided to stay in our cozy sangha-of-two instead.

At some point, I gushed about a podcast I’d found called How To Make Love. Its creator and host, Laura Brewer, centers love beyond popular romantic notions, into the heart of radical, individual and collective change. Swoon.

I’d already declared that 2019 would be “the year of love,” so it was a timely find.

My new year started with a breakup. The relationship had been brief yet life-changing. It shook up what I thought I knew by hurling me past my comfort zone, “skilled” edges. It also awakened in me an audacious heart-centeredness and desire to love well. Which means: it brought up all the self-protective, charged ways in which I sucked at love. Sure, I’d dated. I’d had long-term relationships. But somehow none of it had prepared me for what this was.

That things ended was not surprising — the set-up was precarious, challenged. And yet, when it came, it seemed unbelievable. With so much potential, how had things gotten to an endpoint with such speed? How did we get to each of us feeling unsafe and hurting? Like most relationships, it was sincere in its tragedy. It was an attempt to be in something far bigger than us and more significant than what we were ready for. The harms caused and endured were unintentional, unskillful, and unfortunately irreparable. In laymen’s terms: we gave it our honest try and failed (miserably).

A breakup — an ending as a fact — is painful. How we care through separation matters; the process of leaving can hurt far more than the reality of “over.” Nursing a wounded connection toward a new shape seems risky, if not impossible. Pop culture gives advice like “no contact for three months.” Even if there’s a desire for the connection in the future, we’re told to “get over” each other. But often, “getting over” becomes getting rid of. We’re taught to dispose of people who harm us, like objects that no longer bring us joy. When, in our hurt and grief, there’s no more fight to fight, we leave.

This ending was a disconnection just shy of ghosting. Mutuality became disappearance, and it triggered considerable confusion in me. I felt shame for my mistakes, unsure of how to make amends. As someone who teaches people to orient to their environment and connections — asking “where are the other people in this”—I found myself unmoored, orienting toward a void. Even with a slew of somatic and mindfulness tools, grief did what it does: I felt lost and overwhelmed.

Some people around me thought my reaction was out-of-scale. And they were right. It was—as the potent, short-lived experience had been. But a few people closest to me trusted that I was going through more than a breakup. Like the best challenges, it was an invitation to learn something. This quickfire love wanted to alter me and my life even further, through it’s ending.

My 2019 commitment to love is about more than the boo-hoo of a broken heart.

For a long time, I’d lived in the story that “I have no family.” I was not in contact with either of my parents or brother. And for most of 2018, I’d been in a strained, barely-there relationship with my sister. My friends have always been my urban family. But over the years, doing more somatic work, I could feel the hollow of disconnection in my system more. I sensed what it was to move through the world in this story. There was always some percentage of feeling safe and connected in life that was out of reach.

The recent holidays were a perfect storm. For the first time, everyone I knew was out of town or unavailable. I had two solid weeks of alone time that felt distressing. I’d recently moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco and knew next to no one. So, I took a solo trip to a beachfront Airbnb in Baja for Christmas. Never mind that it was the rainy season.

I disconnected from the world, intent on going inward. Where I could, I tried to orient beyond my strained romantic relationship. I had the whole of my life to focus on, and tasked myself with sitting in a single question: where am I in all this?

I cried a lot.

The answers came in Pacific Ocean-like waves. I saw imperfect people, situations, jobs, and cities that I’d lost or left. And I felt, in the most unfiltered way, my heart’s ache and love — especially, for my family. The gig was up: I’d failed at shutting down my heart and “getting over” them. Alone at the edge of the continent, there was nowhere else to go. I found my imperfect self within all the complicated plot-points of my life. Blame was useless here; I’d judged, fought, and left, too. I’d caused all the kinds of harm and separation I’d been trying to protect myself from by others. In laymen’s terms: I’d given my honest try, often failing (miserably) — like everyone else.

I’d been so wrong.

The cumulative grief hit hard. I’d often felt so certain about was going on, and now saw how mistakenly isolating my perspectives had been. I could finally understand how, even among my closest, loving friends, I’d still felt alone. And how so many people close to me had received “love” and “care” that didn’t feel loving or caring. They felt pushed—sometimes away and sometimes down. When we disconnect from ourselves to avoid our broken hearts, we struggle to be in connection with others, and we cause harm.

Everywhere I looked, there I was.

With greater awareness comes choice. My whole life became fair game for transformation — it was time for a massive homecoming, to more than my heart.

By new year’s day, I’d reconnected with my mother after three-and-a-half years apart, and salvaged the strained relationship with my sister. I realized that the move to LA had been another example of embodying leaving something I was sure wasn’t right. More than a place, it was a community of folks who loved and cared for me that I left. And missed. It was time to head back “home” to the Bay.

And more recently, I came back into a relationship with my dad after thirteen years apart. We’re both older and softer, now.

“I told you, son, I’ll always be your Dad.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But it took me a long time to realize I’d always be your son.”

Everywhere I looked, I now wanted to be, with all my heart.

It’s no surprise that when the How To Make Love podcast came my way, I was smitten. I’d found the podcast by searching for talks with the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, one of my favorite Buddhist teachers.

Geoffrey and I had gone to a dharma talk by Rev. Angel in New York and had been blown away — affected by her presence and words. One of our favorite moments was when Rev. Angel said, in sing-songy verse:

“How lucky we are
to have work to do
and to know what it is.”

In her How To Make Love podcast episode, Rev. Angel invites listeners into the work of examing our love through the lens of justice. Given the month I’d had, the topic landed as a welcome, full-bodied yes.

She says:

“You can ask the question, ‘Is that just?’ in order to reflect upon yourself and realize where you are in terms of love, As a society and as peoples we can see that as well, we can say that we’re all about love all we want but if we continue to express and embody what we think of as love as an unjust society, as unjust systems, as unjust ways of being, then we have to question what our love is actually about.”

Oof.

Committing ourselves to this kind of work can be harrowing. But as a mentor of mine says: we choose our hard. Orienting to face life as it is is one type of hard. Shutting down and pulling away from our life’s pain is it’s own hard, too.

Back in Oakland, Geoffrey took in what the previous month had turned up.Then he re-settled himself into the couch, focused in on me, and asked the question of the night: “So. Love. How do we make it?” I smiled. I looked away. What a gift to be asked — maybe less for himself and more to offer me the chance to hear what I’d come to know.

I hedged a bit, saying something about not being ready to commit to knowing an answer. It felt like a big ask, and I said I’d offer whatever came to mind.

I paused and waited. And then, somewhat unoriginally, said, “we do our work.”

As obvious as it was, it felt true.

The way we make love is by doing our work.

At the personal level, we make love by addressing all the not-love that lives in and through us. The not-love that came our way, that our bodies have carried. The split-off and shutdown ways that we’ve embodied separation. And the not-love we transferred out into the world — trying to hot-potato our suffering, fighting for a reprieve from our broken heart.

We make love by owning our imperfection. We bow to the process of becoming that includes the mistakes we make so that we might learn to be more loving. We feel the regret of harming ourselves and others, and let it open our hearts further.

And most of all, we make love by forgiving ourselves and each other. Keep in mind that we humans are infinitely deserving of forgiveness, but without accountability and repair, our behaviors aren’t. We make love by being willing to apologize and make amends, and accepting them when offered. We make love by holding each other’s hearts, believing that we are capable of more than our worst mistakes.

My ex and I still aren’t in connection. My heart keeps opening its inevitable moments of wanting to close. I think, in some way unique to him, his is too. Maybe love, in whatever form, will turn things around here, also. That’s my heart’s wish. What that might mean requires life to run its course. And for me to do another important piece of love-making, an add-on I told Geoffrey: “We let go. Again and again, we keep letting go.”
 
Making love isn’t easy.

None of us is without our work.

Compassion is crucial. We’re going to mess up over and over again—perfect only in our imperfection. We can let ourselves off the hook for our humanness because we’ve all come by our suffering and its impact honestly. But as Rev Angel points out, it’s “not our fault but is our responsibility.”

In the entryway to my apartment is a print with a passage from David Whyte’s poem The House of Belonging.

“This is the bright home
in which I live, 
this is where 
I ask
my friends
to come, 
this is where I want 
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.”

My declaration that 2019 be “the year of love” is to keep doing my work. These days, it seems there’s nowhere else to go and live from than my heart, as hard as it is sometimes. May I be one person within a much-needed zeitgeist—because the love we need needs to scale. From our ways of being to our systems and societies, the world needs us to start making a helluva lot more love.

David Martinez