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  • Writer's pictureHina Siddiqui

Love is not a Perpetual Motion Machine

“Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot and some say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing on the black earth. But I say it is what you love”
Sappho (Poem 16, 1-4)

Everyone talks a lot about love. Especially the poets.

I’ve never understood half of what they say though. I mean, it sounds nice. It sure does. But it makes very little sense. And even when it, like, tangentially kinda-sorta implies something vaguely sensible, I can never bring myself to agree.

So, anyway. I’ve been thinking a lot about love. We acespec people tend to do that. Because every over-the-counter script for love tends to be very anti-aroace. Because most people tend to think of love in terms of couples and attraction and falling - basically things that are rather hard to pin down and leave so much room for interpretation, that they might as well not exist as concepts at all. Because, well, love shouldn’t be treated as if it’s a privilege, meant only for those who fit the heteronormative, sexual mold.

Also, poets are fucking annoying.

Anywho, let’s get into it, shall we?

He's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.
Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights)

I believe that love is the collaborative creation of a system of living. It is not a feeling or a language. It is not a sense of completion but of engagement. More than performative, I think love is collaborative. And of course, I am not just talking about romantic love. This sense of collaboration applies as much to that moment you shared with a stranger on a bus as it does to your home where you live with your family and seventeen cats. Thus, to love is to consistently co-create spaces and systems of care, affection and safety with those you share this love with. Care, affection and safety are very definitive concepts. They overlap and coalesce over time. The protocol for each is unique for every relationship. It is something that can be customized and curated. But the essence, the principles of it, remain the same. So, for example, in certain cases, care may involve celebrating occasions and events, in others it may be the equitable sharing of domestic responsibility and in yet others it may be relaxing foot massages after a long day.

Please accept this juvenile Venn diagram, the first thing I made on Procreate as a reliable visual description of the ingredients of love.

And thus, with all due respect to Ms. Bronte, it follows that if there is no collaborative system based on care, affection and safety, it is not love. It is codependency, infatuation, obsession, pining or any of the other wonderfully tactless words within the English language (trust me, the lack of nuance in English is a whole different rant, don’t get me started, I’ll get distracted before making my point). And if you do want a stronger indictment of the romantic love between Heathcliff and Catherine, I highly recommend this little Medium article on the topic by Ashlee R. Phillips.

Love means creating a new world. Together. If anyone has ever engaged in any kind of world-building activity, as a writing exercise or while playing a table-top game or while sending that effusive drunk text at 3 in the morning - that feeling? that sense of joy you get when you’ve given breath to realms that continuously morph behind your eyes - that’s love. And at times that joy is exhilarating, at times, it’s so quiet, you barely notice it. And yes, at times, creation is a chore. You slog through it and you're fucking exhausted by the end of the day. But the system, with its checks and balances, carries you through.

And the best part is, you do NOT need a romantic partner or a monogamous relationship legally recognized by the Church and the State to do so. You can co-create with your estranged parents, you can co-create with the kids in your class and yes, you can co-create with that stranger on the bus, wrapping it all up neatly before your stop arrives.

Love means never having to say you're sorry.
Eric Segal (Love Story)

With a child, pet or at times even with those who have special needs, the collaboration that is love, may need to be led differently than it would with a group of adults. I’m not going to say typical adults, because that would be rude. Not to mention, unfair to myself.

For example, as a teacher, you know you have to take charge at points, put down your foot, enforce the rules and even evolve new ones. But by and large, once the system is set in motion, even the youngest children can contribute to the collaboration. And when it is functioning adults, each of them is equally responsible for ensuring care, affection and safety within the system. Not all the damn time, but it needs to average out. Because of course there will be times when there is vulnerability, stress, illness - where the quantum of responsibility shifts. But on average, in any given system of love, leading the collaborative process is also a shared responsibility and shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of any single individual all the time. It’s only fair.

And speaking of fairness, and I cannot stress this enough, YOU NEED TO FUCKING APOLOGIZE WHEN YOU FUCK UP. And not just apologize, everyone in the system must recognize the wrong done, verbally take responsibility, lay out a plan to do better. And then do better. And while you are at it, please do remember, Eric Segal literally wrote the novel as a promotional activity for the movie that was to follow. And despite its popularity, the fiction jury at National Book Awards in USA threatened to resign if the book was nominated. There's a reason all our parents have such dysfunctional relationships. It's probably because they read this book.

'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Alfred Lord Tennyson

Love as a collaborative system looks not only at individuals but also the collective. For instance, if you were part of an artistic collaboration to create a graphic novel, one of the first things you would do is understand what each individual artist's contribution would be and what role they would play in the collaboration. There’d be space to discuss this and make amendments through the process. I think the reason this whole love language (see endnotes for more) thing comes as such a revelation is that most of us do not discuss our roles and contributions in relationships. Things are understood to be determined by prevailing social conventions and conditioning. Which is essentially why my mum continues to cook dinner for the entire family (me excluded) on a daily basis at the freakin age of 65 (again a whole different rant, that I have touched upon elsewhere, so I am going to leave it be for now.) The point is that in a loving relationship, the roles and responsibilities of every individual need to be discussed. Not only discussed, but revised and recalibrated across time and space. This can mean something as simple as a family chore-chart. Or it could be as complex as a five-year plan.

There is no winning or losing in love. There is just the creation of something that did not exist before and cannot be replicated ever after.

Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds
William Shakespeare (Sonnet 116)

Like, for reals, Mr Shakespeare, if love doesn’t alter, what exactly is one supposed to do, watch as it stagnates its way to extinction?

The way I see it, love is not love which does not have a goal. Whether it’s something economic, like buying a house or something socio-emotional like adopting a kid. Or the dedication of a lifetime to a shared dream, or simply the consistent pursuit of happiness - I think the collaborative system needs to know what it is looking to achieve. And then, that goal needs to be pursued. Cognizantly. With consistent check-ins to realign and reaffirm. Love needs to alter over time and space. Because if there’s no wriggle room, how are you gonna grow?

Which brings me to my final point, when you think about systems, think about science. As high school physics reminds us, while in theory a perpetual motion machine may seem like a wonderful idea, no system can continue to work without external energy. So in the process of setting up this collaborative system, we need to set up power supply points as well. These could take the form of counselors, educators, a favourite grocery store, knitting circles, found family, social networks etc. And that way, love becomes the basic unit of society.

So, if we’re talking about a love that lasts, don’t listen to the fucking poets. Except maybe this person.

I love you. I want us both to eat well.

The cover image is a picture of a Shishi Odoshi taken in Japan by Nick Kenrick, that I got on Flikr (License). If you watch anime, you're probably already hearing the resounding thuck sound the bamboo fountain makes. It was designed to keep deer and other animals away from agricultural land. And to a large extent, it comes across as a successful attempt at perpetual motion. It struck me as an apt metaphor for love - the consistent filling and emptying, the various components that come together and the clear practical and aesthetic usage of the piece - all in all, a system that works.

This piece was originally supposed to be an exploration of Love Languages. When I initially came across this phrase: I honestly thought it was some kind of internet slang us heathens in the slash/romance fandoms invented to give greater depth to the description of relationships and lovemaking.

Apparently, that is not the case!

Love Languages - and associated terms and psychology - are a legit field of relationship study, pioneered by this completely trustworthy-looking old white guy. The basic premise is that each individual is likely to have one preferred love language (there are 5, in case you were wondering) and will express and experience love in accordance to that language. There’s even a neat little quiz you can take on their website that breaks it down for you.

But the entire thing has such a cishet-allo-ableist-monogamy-centric vibe to it (not to mention a white, privileged male gaze) that I kinda cringed even while taking the quiz. So, I decided to cancel all that, and present my hot take on the topic of love. But for anyone who is interested in knowing more and taking the quiz, check out the official website. Oh and for funzies, here is my test result. Make of it what you will.

Also, I am certainly not alone when it comes to reimagining relationships and formats of love. If you are interested, here are a couple of places to get started:

Relationship Anarchy, a phrase coined by queer Swedish computer scientist and gamer Andie Nordgren. RA basically applies anarchist principles to intimate relationships. Read Andie's original short instructional manifesto here and follow her on Twitter here. You can also learn more about RA on this wonderful website by Kale, who self-identifies as a white, queer, disabled, sex-positive intersectional feminist and activist who is passionate about building community.

Minimizing Marriage, an amazing book and philosophy by Elizabeth Brake, Editor of the Journal of Applied Philosophy. Her work examines the morally salient features – promise, commitment, care, and contract - of marriage and the role of the law. She also talks about Amatonormativity, a term she created for the widespread assumption that everyone is better off in an exclusive, romantic, long-term coupled relationship, and that everyone is seeking such a relationship. You can get a gist of her thinking in this article about being single and flourishing on The Conversation.


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