My earliest memories start around three or four. In one, I have climbed up a wooden fence, trying to balance my weight against the top while I reach out to feed a neighbor’s horse, that I have named Cow, a piece of my apple.
In another, I am wandering down the street back toward our mobile home, having just returned from the post office a half mile away. I had told my mom I was going and she had said yes, but when I asked to go to the post office to mail Mema some leaves I had burned holes into with a magnifying glass, she assumed I meant the “post office” that I had imagined in my bedroom. The leaves did not make it to my Mema; I had remembered a stamp but the address “Mema, Raleigh” was not specific enough.
In one of the most vivid young memories, I am on our home phone, sometime in the evening because I was in my soft, pink footie pajamas. I was about as high as the counter, my eyes just barely reaching to see its top. I was speaking to my dad – my biological dad whom I wouldn’t know I looked like were it not for pictures – and I was about to hang up the phone to go to bed.
My mom stood next to me and heard Rick say, “I love you.” I was about to say it back when she started motioning to me. “No, no. Hang up.” I was confused, and I remember being hit by a massive pang that I didn’t understand. My daddy was saying he loved me and I knew I wasn’t allowed to say it back.
I understand why now; my mom was trying to protect my already soft heart. But what stuck with me was that I wasn’t supposed to give my love. I didn’t interpret it as learning to protect myself; I interpreted it as the people who were supposed to love you, didn’t. And you weren’t supposed to love them either, even if you did. Even if that’s all that made sense to you.
When I was eight, I was going to an all-girls Episcopalian school in Honolulu. We wore starchy polyester uniforms with ties I never quite learned to tie. Our class instituted a secret buddy system; throughout the year, we were assigned another girl to do random acts of anonymous kindness for.
My secret buddy was Dayinta, a rail thin girl with dark brown skin from Indonesia. She wore round silver wire glasses and had a tendency to take the lead in class activities. For my weekly act of kindness, I decided to draw Dayinta a picture. It was of the grass, a tree, and the sun. I decided to write “I love you” in big letters across the drawing. We were supposed to love our friends. That’s what made sense to me. And I thought she’d be happy to know it.
When she grabbed my drawing from her cubby the next day, she looked horrified.
“OH. MY. GOSH. Someone in our class is gay!? Do you see this!? OH MY GOSH EWWWWWW. Someone LOOOOOOVES ME. EWWWWWWW”
I hadn’t the slightest idea what gay meant, but I could gather that it wasn’t good, that I had done something wrong, and that any love I had for someone whom I thought was my friend certainly wasn’t welcome. I never said a word, and hoped with every ounce of my being that she didn’t remember this when my identity was revealed at the end of the year.
I was reminded that my love wasn’t welcome. That it needed to be kept secret, no matter its good intentions. And that – perhaps most importantly, it wasn’t safe.
It’s odd how our full natures are already present in our littlest selves. I was as loving a kid as I am grown, only now I never know quite whether that love will be welcomed or allowed, so I’ve learned to hold it very close. I shut down my heart until I just can’t, and even then it’s a battle to try to keep it closed off.
It becomes exhausting for me to have to be so protective of it and on the rare occasion when I let it flow and then I’m met with the same “don’t” or the same “ewwwww” (in more adults words) it is crushing.
As much as I know that people certainly aren’t trying to be cruel, I don’t think they always understand just how tender my heart is. How much it takes for me to feel safe enough to love. How much I can’t help how deep that love goes; how much it is a part of who I am at my core. How much I try to keep any love that makes others uncomfortable under wraps. And how much it hurts when it’s shown to me why I should’ve kept it secret once it showed up.
At my core I know it is not a weakness. I know that how hard I love is one of my greatest strengths; it is what allows me to be so fierce, so protective of my people. It is what ensures that the people who do accept my love never feel any lack of it. That they always feel secure knowing a warrior has their back.
But it is also hard for it to not feel like a weakness when it is not seen as a gift. When it is not cherished. When it is not reflected. When it cannot be received.