When I was very young, love meant many things but perhaps this was when I felt it most: whenever my grandparents came to our house. The tightening in my chest, the happy jitters, and, finally, the sheer combustive, ebullient joy when the sea green Chevrolet pulled up and it was finally them, my grandmother carrying her pocketbook, my grandfather with his adorable, flat-footed shuffle. I loved that purse, that shuffle, and I charged out the door like a panting golden retriever whenever their car pulled up: pure bliss.
Love was also felt on the epic firefly chasing expeditions that turned into sleepovers with my best friend; whenever my sketch pad, charcoal pencil, brain and hand transported me somewhere new; running through the field behind our house, which, in retrospect, was a pretty plain place that became transformed by my lens into the lush meadow of poppies from The Wizard of Oz. Love prior to, say, the fourth grade, was experienced as the pure, unfiltered expression of joy running through my little body.
As I got older, life and love got more complicated, as it does. Love wasn’t what I thought it was, apparently: love was what I read about with disbelieving eyes in Cosmopolitan magazine, it was found in the convoluted, tangled plot twists on All My Children. Love was what I overheard the older girls whispering about in the high school bathroom when I was supposed to be in World History: it was wild, a little scary, and being in it was your ticket out of the tacky juvenile jungle.
The first time I free-fell smack-dab into the sticky spider’s web of love-love, I was 19. In hindsight, I’m certain that I was ridiculous but that’s part of love -- we become ridiculous. I‘m pretty sure that that spring, I skipped down every sidewalk and, in my imagination at least, butterflies seemed to always be flitting around me, songbirds serenading me personally wherever I went. Whenever the phone rang, my heart almost pounded out of my chest. I imagined the first time he would meet my parents, what our apartment would look like (a beautiful vintage building with a courtyard and wood floors and potted herbs growing on our windowsill), our wedding. Our wedding band. My dress. Our song. The honeymoon. And...we broke up after two months.
But love was also the sweet guy with the big smile, the one who couldn’t play mind games if he tried, the one who I didn’t need to tiptoe around. We have this cultural trope of love as a big, nauseating roller-coaster of ecstasy-and-despair (thank you, Emily Brontë) and sometimes it is but sometimes, blessedly, it’s not. Sometimes love is someone who adores you just as you are. Sometimes love doesn’t inspire you to write bad poetry or sit outside an apartment building just to watch the lights go on and off. Because it’s soon to be Valentine’s Day, I am thinking about love in all of its permutations and expressions, which includes the inter-species kind, a variety I’ve found to be no less emotionally gratifying than romantic love. Especially as I’ve gotten older, love has become more and more uncomplicated, back to that simple, pure experience of blissed-out joy I felt as a child. Sometimes animals help me to connect with that most.
This was Lenny. He will have been gone twelve years this March and I still think of him pretty much every day. It took me years to not expect to see him when I got home, even after we moved to a new one. Meeting Lenny was like meeting someone I immediately recognized as being from my own tribe and that is a true rarity. When I got off the train after work, I would rush down the streets, so excited to return to his side, see those enormous café au lait eyes, that whole body wag, that deliciously soft muzzle I couldn’t resist. With my husband, we were a family. The three of us meandered down Route 66 one dusty September, we slept on the balcony together whenever it was too hot inside and he was also at my side when I had a miscarriage before my son was born. Lenny used to lie with his paws on my chest, staring into my eyes and licking my face with an intensity that made me a little woozy. The day he died, Lenny looked at me with cloudy, old man eyes full of love and devotion and I was struck by his expression because it was exactly how my grandfather used to look at me, an unguarded look that said so much. It was a pure love we felt for each other and remains why I cannot accept the notion that we only feel that way for other people. Part of what made our relationship so rewarding is the same thing people express about their beloved companion animals all around the world: it is not complicated by human emotions and psychological games, it’s pure, simple, not messy. Is it any wonder that as our lives become more complicated with social media, more isolated with technology and more preoccupied with responsibilities, we would seek these sustaining, enriching but undemanding relationships that give so much in return?
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and rarely saw animals other than dogs, cats, birds, squirrels and the occasional chipmunk so the first time I went to an animal sanctuary in the mid-1990s, it was a revelation. I was already vegan but being in the company of these animals - sheep, cows, roosters luxuriating in their freedom on those rolling California hills - confirmed for me that what I felt for them wasn’t just theoretical. I genuinely loved these animals and not just the idea of them; my heart swelled in their company. These animals were different from Lenny in that they were not a part of my life: how could I love those beings I hadn’t met before and would probably not meet again? Doesn’t using the word “love” to apply to strangers cheapen the meaning of the word?
I don’t think so.
When we are vegans, we have unlocked that part of our hearts that is normally closed off. It would serve to reason that when we open up the parameters of whom we love, we also have a more expansive understanding of why and how we love. Why are we speaking out against cruelty? Why are we revoking our own privileges? Why do we risk outing ourselves as unstable, bunny-hugging, dirt worshipers? Because we love. It doesn’t have a to a gushy I-want-to-rub-my-face-in-your-muzzle love; it’s love on its own terms. It’s as simple and straightforward as than that and, as we know, a prevailing characteristic of love is that it operates by its own wisdom. Whether we are talking about the one we plan our futures with, the dog we greet when we come home at the end of the day, the babies we nurture, or the first turkey we sit together at the sanctuary with, love is love is love. I think that part of why people have a hard time fathoming us as vegans is because they cannot fathom loving in this expansive way.
Margaret Atwood was right; there ought to be more words for describing the kinds of love we feel. As vegans, we are expanding the parameters of whom and how we get to love. Love can be messy and complicated but it can also be simple and just as heartfelt. We are vegans because we love, whether they have two legs or four, arms or wings, skin or fur. We are vegans because we love.