Thinking about love, pt 6: expression


In 2018, I submitted my childhood journals to a show called Mortified and a group of professional comedians picked their favorite entries for me to read aloud on stage in Austin. What made them laugh, they said, was the vocabulary. In the vocabulary of a 19th century war widow, I expressed the desires of a 10-year-old, whose imagination for how to fulfill those desires was shaped by the writing of middle aged women. It is wildly funny.

I am really lucky to have a highly verbal brain. I started talking early, which reduced the conflict between my parents and me, as I was able to tell them “I want a cookie” instead of standing by the pantry and screaming incoherently. So, naturally, they thought of me as extra compliant (in addition to my actually being very compliant).

In school, being verbal made me sound smart, so I was treated as though I was smart, and thus I was challenged and grew smarter.

I was able to articulate my wants and needs, convince people to do what I wanted, argue my case with teachers and parents, and deliver withering insults when the time was right. I was the class president type…so I was the class president.

In middle age, I can come across as highly evolved and self aware, because I can describe every feeling, instinct, and intuition in my body. This is partially a trick, of course, because I have yet to fully learn the difference between identifying things and integrating them, but I can dazzle you with accurate descriptions. And so they let me write books.

The world was built by verbal people for verbal people, so it looks like I’m a lot better at life than I really am. Nowhere does this show up more than in loving. I talk a big game about love, I’m really good at exploring its contours and commitments, and I say loving things to my people that do genuniely help them thrive and grow. I’m good at the verbal part of the clear communication a good relationship requires. But like everything else, I’m learning that there’s more to it.

Love Languages

We’re all familiar with the idea of love languages. Whether you buy into Gary Chapman’s categories— quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, touch, and gifts—or you see it more as a moment by moment “what does my person need right now?” sort of equation, the idea of a love language has to do with expressing love in a way that others can receive it, communicating it. My post about the elemental energies in love had a lot to do with how we show and receive love.

From the same root network of love, various flowers of expression spring up, guided by our unique situations and resources. There’s freedom and creativity and so much goodness that comes from the variety of expressions. We love the gilded lilies of words, but there’s so much beauty in a fragrant patch of jasmine, or a sturdy and stalwart thistle.

The important part is that love is expressed somehow. Love cannot just be felt in my own little private heart. I can’t assume that others know how I feel if all I do is think about how great they are. And it has to be expressed in a way that the beloved can receive. That’s the bitch about communication: it’s not just about one of us, it’s about both what I need to say and what you need to hear. Good communication, in itself is such a gorgeous conduit for love because it requires the desire to connect and it is enhanced by all the same things that enhance love: honesty, attention, care, and openness. Sometimes clear communication requires more than words, and actually may not always require words, but it always requires intentional, agreed upon signals. You can hug another person tightly, and feel them squeeze back. That’s a form of agreement. You can show up at someone’s door step with soup, and they can say “how did you know this is what I needed?” And that’s agreement. It’s a lot harder to have the tougher conversations without words. It’s really difficult to explain how someone hurt you, or ask how you can make amends without using words. I think I’m always going to speak up in defense of words.

But no expression of love can cover up for a lack of love. You really can’t fake it. We know the hollowness of saying, “You’re my favorite person” while actively neglecting their needs, or the slow death of relationships where someone does their duty but never expresses kindness or affection. We know that a single expression of love, in any language, cannot make up for explicit signals of unlovedness.

When communication feels off, I think we find ourselves looking for the expressions of love that live underneath the classic “languages.” Deeper expressions that work through the mechanics of things like words, time, gifts, service, and touch.


This is probably my number one non-verbal expression of love. In fact, this is the thing, to me, that turns the language of time into an expression of sacrificial love.

Before I got married, I didn’t have a “number one.” I swam in an ocean of communal needs and desires, working in ministry with no hierarchy of whose broken heart, broken car, or broken promises I needed to address. Knowing that I was “free” of husband and children, the people in my life called up on me indiscriminately.

When I became engaged to Lewis, we were out to coffee one day and he was sharing something deep and painful that had happened in his day. My phone started ringing and it was someone who needed something. I felt torn. These folks were used to me picking up the phone and being at their side, and I felt the impulse to do as was expected of me.

Then Lewis said, “Do they have someone else they could ask? Because you’re the only person I can really talk to about this.”

I suddenly had a number one, and I had to begin a whole new negotiation. Now I have three number ones and it’s really complicated, because half the time they all need different things, AND they would collectively absorb my entire body and soul if I let them. Being devoted to the transpersonal goal of human thriving and justice, I do sometimes have to balance their needs with the other things I’m called to do, as well as with my own survival. Having other people in my life I care about, I do sometimes have to ask whether being the field trip chaperone is the right call, or whether I should use that day to be with a friend who will be observing a tough anniversary. It’s not simple calculus, but the outcome of that calculus has to be orderly priorities.

Lewis and my kids do not get every second of my time, or my undivided attention every second that they are alive. But I am the only wife and mother they have, and so when there are things that only a wife and mother can provide, I’m there, letting them know that being their wife and mother is something I take really seriously, and delight in. What’s important to them is important to me. And I’m committed to helping us all align our priorities with love for the world, and pursuing the good of our neighbors.

My friends, though they do not get to be number ones, also get priority status. When planning our annual girls’ trip, the four busy participants realized early on that the perfect day wasn’t going to appear. We were going to have to prioritize being together, and say no to some other things. Some of the deepest love I have felt from friends is when they have communicated to me, “I’m incredibly busy, but I want to make sure I see you, so lets put something on the calendar.” OR “It was difficult to clear this day to help you, but it was really important to me to do it.” Some friends will show me a crowded calendar and say “see anything on there that would work for you?” I don’t need them to say “oh it’s nothing! No problem at all!” That might make me feel less insecure about asking for help or time, but when we’ve been honest about the effort it’s taken to prioritize our time together, the quality time has been amplified. Prioritizing others is inherently sacrificial, and it expresses love.


Lewis and I were recently discussing what makes a good gift (it being Christmas and all, this is on our minds). I love gift-giving. I love it so much, but only when I’ve done my homework. I only like giving gifts that I know will be useful, delightful, or honoring to the recipient. Which means that when I’m giving you a gift, I’m really telling you how interested I am in you. I’m showing you how much time I’ve spent learning you, noticing what lights you up, what you wish you had, or where your life has earned an upgrade. The gift’s intention is to communicate: I am interested in what makes you, you, and I’d like to contribute to you being more you.

That’s not the only way to communicate interest though. Not every person’s essence translates easily into tangible things, and not every person is good at connecting “what makes you, you” and tangible goods.

Some of the most loving people I know express interest by learning about what their loved ones like so that they can talk about it together. They watch movies they wouldn’t usually, either because they want to share the experience, or so they can learn more about the beloved. What we like says a lot about us.

Interest in our communities and strangers is also how we love them. It makes our acts of service acts of solidarity, because we’ve aligned ourselves. It takes listening, it takes work. But you cannot be a disinterested ally, co-conspirator, or comrade. You must invest in the learning.

As someone who creates a lot of content in the world, I am also genuinely touched and feel almost overwhelmingly loved when my friends and family read or listen to my work. It’s different from strangers with mutual interests—that’s my audience. When people who already know me well take time to just listen to me talk or read my work, I feel honored. It’s an expression of love that encompasses time, effort, and value.


Really, vulnerability is the core of the core of expression, the giving of love. Prioritizing someone is vulnerable, because you’re admitting they are more important to you than other things. Showing interest is vulnerable because you are placing yourself in the position of the learner. You want to know more, connect more, and to want without demand is inherently humble, because it admits that you don’t already have. It’s vulnerable to make time for someone, to open up a hole in your day that, if they chose not to fill it, will simply be empty.

Touch requires vulnerability too. To take the first step toward offering a hand or a hug. To lean in for a kiss. Whether asking for consent in that very 2023 way, or a tentative half-way gesture waiting for someone to cross the other half…those seconds between offering and being taken up on the offer are the most vulnerable known to man.

But the vulnerability that gets me the most—and it is my most potent medicine—is speaking my intimate feelings. The hard part about being as verbal as I am is that I can build fortresses of nuance and double speak. I can construct escape hatches of sarcasm and irony. I can choose my words to ensure plausible deniability and a laid back detachment that belies the utter chaos in my chest as I await a friend’s reply about a simple lunch plan. I can protect me at the expense of you ever knowing how deeply, deeply loved and wanted you are. Saying “I want to see you.” Or “I miss you.” Or “If you weren’t in my life I would be sad.” Or “I’ve been thinking about you, are you free for coffee?” is terrifying, because it shows you where desire has opened up a soft place, and gives you the power to decide whether or not love will be withheld.

In my best moments, I speak honestly from a place of love. I tell my people I love them, how amazing they are. I say yes to mentoring and supporting and holding space. I put my best effort into anonymous projects. When I am in Divine connection, I can do this without the need to receive anything in return, because whatever love I give is the love I have. I am Self-sourced. But there is a little wounded part in me, the wound I mentioned in part one, that feels the twist of the knife every time I do that. She panics, wondering if the intensity of that truth will push the beloved ones away, or the willingness to give freely will become an emotional Black Friday sale at Walmart. She screams to me “you’ve exposed me!” Her protector part says, “they’ll take advantage” if they are colleagues, or “they’ll take you for granted” if they are intimates.

But the secret strength of love is this: that little wounded part is the one who has truly sacrificed for love. She has felt every ounce of love I’ve expressed, and cried because she feels so exposed. I have asked her to be strong, to trust Self, to look away, so that I could love my people, love strangers, love the world. And the truth is, with all the priority, interest, and vulnerability I’ve received, in all the varied expressions, it’s time to ask her, the wounded part, to sit and look through them with the eyes of God, like presents on Christmas morning, and consider how loved she really is.