Love is a (nearly) useless word

Confession: I hate the word “love” the way some people hate the word “moist.”


It’s not that I’m a cold-hearted skeptic. I certainly feel love, in some cases more deeply than I understand. My problem is that because of the way we use “love” in modern, English-speaking culture, the word is essentially meaningless. And when words don’t have meaning, they have no power, and since love is arguably the most powerful force in all of creation, it irks me that we’ve diluted it with overuse until it’s on verbal par with “like” and “awesome.”

A brief list of things we love:

  • tacos
  • kitty jellybean toes
  • sex
  • thunderstorms
  • chocolate cake
  • grandma
  • our kids
  • our best friend
  • Beyoncé
  • God

Isn’t it weird that we use the same word to describe our relationship with each one of those things even though the quality of those relationships is wildly different? (At least, I hope so. If you feel the same way about kitty jellybean toes as you do about sex, there’s probably a number you should call.) And you don’t even know Beyoncé.

In today’s over-exuberant, clickbait world, we “love” anything that gives us the merest satisfaction, whether physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual.

To be fair, this isn’t (entirely) our fault. English is a hodge-podge language that didn’t bother to import much depth, relying instead on added descriptive words for emphasis and clarity. Other languages have great words for complicated feelings; for example, “kummerspeck” (German for the weight you gain when you eat because you’re sad) and “ya’arburnee” (Arabic for wanting someone you love to die before you do so you don’t have to live without them).

So what do we do? How do we rediscover the meaning and power of “love”?

One potential remedy is getting familiar with the thesaurus. Browse the options under “love” and sharpen your focus to find the word that describes what you really feel for someone/something. Perhaps “delight in” is better for kitty jellybean toes and “crave” is better for sex and “idolize” is better for Beyoncé. Enlarging one’s vocabulary is never a bad idea.

But that doesn’t quite solve the issue of relationship, does it? We can crave tacos and sex (maybe at the same time), delight in our best friend and our kids. They can both be true, but we intuitively know they aren’t the same. So there must be another layer: a difference in the quality of love rather than its specificity. We need containers for these subtle variations in order to understand what makes us love Grandma differently than God.

This is where C. S. Lewis comes to our rescue. In his book The Four Loves, he sorts these relationships into four categories according to Greek concepts: affection (enjoyment of things, family, animals; acquaintanceship), friendship (close connection that is not familial or sexual), romance (self-explanatory), and divine love (godly love; God’s love for us).

Right away, we can start slotting things from our list into those categories.

Affection: tacos, kitty jellybean toes, thunderstorms, chocolate cake, grandma, our kids, Beyoncé
Friendship: our best friend
Romance: sex
Divine: God

Most of the people, things, animals, places, art that we encounter falls into the “affection” category. We don’t feel the same type of love for tacos as we do for sex because tacos are everyday objects with no ability to engage with us beyond the pleasure of eating; we love family members because they are fellow humans who share our personal story. This affection is the love upon which all other loves are built. Without a baseline appreciation for the goodness in the world and in other people, we can’t experience greater love with friends, partners, or God.

From affection, our love becomes more refined.

In friendship, we lose the forced familiarity of family and gain engagement; friends have shared interests and goals, are good company, and support us in ways our family cannot. While your best friend may feel like a sister, she has a much different role, and so you love her with a different sort of love.

In romance, we add the element of passion to friendship; this is the most common and widely-meant version of “love”–to be in love with someone. It desires to possess a person just for being themselves, making us crave a closeness with them we don’t feel for anyone else.

In divine love, the highest and greatest form of love, we find the impulse to give everything and ask for nothing. It loves the unlovely; it is wholly unnatural to our humanity. This is the kind of love that God has for us, and the kind he inspires in us when we’re close to him. Lavish, self-sacrificing altruism.

As an added bonus, it’s possible to have all four types of love for one person. Ideally, that’d be your spouse, but I’m big enough to admit I’m not there yet.

D’you see?

Once we grasp these categories of love, the English word starts to take back its meaning. Differentiating between our love of thunderstorms and of our spouse extends our linguistic palette, which gives depth to our emotions.

Etymological clarity brings emotional clarity (or: being a word-nerd helps you feel better *rimshot*).

So, back to my annoyance with watering down the most powerful force in all creation. It’s not that we shouldn’t say we “love” kitty jellybean toes. It’s that we need to understand what kind of love that is so we don’t confuse it for something else, which can lead all sorts of awkward and confusing places, for you and for Mr. Freckles.

While the overuse of “love” these days does bug me, I don’t expect everyone to be a walking thesaurus, substituting affection, friendship, romance, and divine love for every mention people, critters, food, and things we feel strongly about. That’d be a little much. All I’m suggesting is that we think about how we love what we love so that we can love it better.

(That being said, I have to admit: I do love me some tacos.)

Extra Credit: If any of this tickles your fancy, here’s 30-minute doodle summary of The Four Loves.


  1. I justify buying a Tim’s (medium, dark roast, triple-triple) by telling myself  I’m sick so I need the caffeine to help me focus on writing. Nevermind I’ve already had three cups of half-caff before 9am.
  2. There was a time when I didn’t have to worry about leaving change in the cup holder.
  3. Writing feels clumsy to me still. I push through.
  4. I don’t so much regret eating pancakes for breakfast as I regret not eating more of them so I could balance how gross I feel with at least being full.
  5. Cycling through social media because I’m hungry for something I can’t have.
  6. 70F is still too cold.
  7. Mastering the art of not intervening when she’s messy, mistaken, or mad.
  8. I need prayer tonight, but when it comes my turn to ask, I can never think of why.
  9. Education is an affair of the heart, not just the mind.
  10. In summmmerrrrrrr!

State of the Ellie: May 2018

I know I said I was starting totally over with the blog, but I also know you guys love these posts and they’re good for my own perspective, so I’m going to keep them. I’m still toying with the format and I might not do it every month, but by golly, Imma try. Here goes.

from Ecstatic Alien by Leisa Rich

Health: I started back at the gym! It’s literally been eight years since I set foot on a treadmill. I’d planned to go back in February, but then my left knee spontaneously dislocated (DID YOU KNOW THAT COULD HAPPEN BECAUSE I SURE DIDN’T). That set me back until mid-March. Turns out  I was/am so grossly out of shape that the muscles and tendons that hold my kneecap in place just couldn’t anymore. THAT’S HOW BAD IT IS. Ugh. But! I’ve been going twice a week to a gym where they have free childcare for members, and no other body parts have tried to escape, so I’m counting it as a win. I’m also feeling a delightful sensation I haven’t had in decades: I want to move. The feeling is worthy of its own post, so I won’t elaborate too much, but damn does it feel good to feel good about exercise.

On the downside, I’ve been ill with various things basically since the start of the year, ranging from confirmed endometriosis attacks to acute sinusitis to this ghastly stomach virus I mostly certainly caught from Mackenzie (I suspect I’m one of the rare adults who contract rotovirus–lucky me). But I’m believing that with the Ontario spring finally beginning yesterday that I’ll be disease-free until October when the heating comes back on with all its recirculated germs.

Spirituality: I’m not entirely sure what to put here just now. It’s difficult to relate the stir I feel in my soul–it’s quiet and abstract. I’ve stuck with my journaling devotional writing in the mornings, which has been perhaps the most effective and satisfying prayer practice I’ve ever had. It’s my secret place, the place where I meet with God and hear his voice and share my heart with him. We whisper there. The fruit of it is unmistakable, though. In the last couple of months, I’ve been surprised by my own boldness, with my second and third thoughts standing back a pace going, “Oh, wow. Look at that.” God has sown a new confidence in me for the strangest things, almost entirely without my knowledge. As long as I keep showing up to connect with him, the seeds get planted, watered, and nurtured. It’s pretty cool.

I’ve also just finished reading Heaven for Kids (for me, not Mackenzie; because that’s my level of understanding about heaven), and I actually learned a lot. I’m very much looking forward to riding a dinosaur on the New Earth, and the sci-fi novel idea I had while reading about the New Heaven is either brilliant or garbage, I’m not sure yet.

Social: It seems like my social calendar just gets more and more full these days, which is a sharp change from when I was so desperately lonely with a newborn. It’s trickier to do stuff when you have a toddler rather than an infant (a fact I wish I’d understood when I thought I couldn’t go anywhere with a baby) because their attention span rivals a squirrel’s, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping us. I’m finding my stride with the moms at the drop-in center we go to, starting to have deeper conversations with these women I’ve known for nearly two years. I have given people my ACTUAL PHONE NUMBER this very week. I do not do this. Ever. And though mornings are fairly routine, my afternoons are often open, and I’ve taken to filling them with hangouts where possible. It’s a big stretch for my INFJ self, but a good one. While I still feel like a terrible friend, the more I connect with other humans, the better I often feel, which I never would’ve predicted five years ago. With the summer coming (and school closing) things could either slow way down or speed way up–either way, I feel ready.

If you’re reading this and want to hang out in meatspace, drop me a line and we’ll hook up (not like that)!

Marriage: This category feels necessary but dangerous. I’ve talked about my husband in public before, naturally, though with perhaps too much transparency; while there are so many things I’ve learned about love, commitment, and marriage over the last nine years, I want to make sure I share our stories (for they’re ours, not just mine) in a way that’s respectful and covers us both. So keep an eye on this space. There’s nothing here for this month–not because there’s nothing to say but because I’m not confident I can do it well–but there will be eventually.

Parenting: This is what you really came here for, isn’t it? It’s okay, I don’t mind.

Mackenzie turns two next week, and hoo-boy, can you tell. I am the mayor of Disciplinetown. Or maybe the evil dictator. Depends on which one of us you ask, I suppose. The crazy thing is that she’s only willful and rebellious with me, which I understand is par for the course, but I wish Daddy could see just one on-the-floor meltdown over being told to give back a toy she snatched from some unwitting infant at the drop-in center. Yanno? But! What I’ve discovered in the middle of this time of tantrums is that her capacity for enormous rage is fully matched by a capacity for enormous joy. Just like I’ve never been so shocked at a human’s incoherent defiance, I’ve never been so thrilled by someone else’s sheer enjoyment of the tiniest things. No one ever told me about this! I thought the Terrible Twos (and the newer Threenager phase) was all fight, all the time. I had no idea that she would–or could–obsess about taking photos with a digital camera or dance all over the place under falling bubbles or laugh wildly when given drink of fizzy water. THAT is how you survive this part of a kid’s life: holding on to the joy and letting the defiance slip past (not that it goes unaddressed, just that it’s forgiven and done).

I’m also finding that I’m enjoying being with her all day much more now that she’s has so much language (more than is normal for a kid her age, I’m told) and so many interests. I can’t wait to take her to a museum and have her actually engage with it! Of course, now that I feel like I’m finding my stride with her, I’m starting to look down the barrel of school (it starts at four here) and of possibly going back to work for financial reasons. Where before I didn’t want to put her in daycare because of money and laziness, now I’m sad thinking about missing these precious few years when she’s all innocent and sponge-like. Though she does make me absolutely batshit crazy some (most?) days, it breaks my heart to think of giving up this time where it’s just me and her–time we will literally never have again. My deep-rooted sense of nostalgia and over-developed sense of regret are nipping at me already although nothing has changed.

Ah, parenthood.

Vocation: I was going to call this part “Writing,” and may still, but for now I’m not 100% sure what’s going on in my career/path/work arena, so “vocation” felt most applicable to cover all the things.

In the aftermath of the Great Dissolution, wherein I took down all my books and all my blogs, I was confident that there would immediately be something new to start. If God had been after me for nearly two years to completely lay down my old work to make space for new work, surely he had some grand idea just waiting to drop on me when I finally did it, right? But I was left looking around going, “Welp. Now what?” And while I still sort of feel that way, I discovered two things in looking beneath that expectation: 1) a need to blog without fear again and 2) a training program.

I don’t know what I’m writing about these days, honestly. It’s back to the old-old-school style of writing whatever’s going on with me, whatever strikes my fancy. It’s oddly hard after years of honing my blogging to be on-brand, find audience, get numbers, bring in clients, sell books, whatever. But I’m learning to be okay with it. I need to be a person again, you know?

And how fitting that as I’m returned to this place of beginner’s mind that a writing community appeared on my radar. (More on that in a future blog post, primarily because the timing was too perfect to not be God.) I know in my soul that I’m made to write, but I’m still not sure what I’ll write about. For now, I’m dedicating myself to walking through the lessons provided and keeping a weather eye out for opportunities to grow into a better writer, whatever shape that may take.

Your turn! What’s up in your world? Leave a comment to tell me all about it.

Fill the well: what the creative soul needs

Quinta da Regaleira Sintra Portugal by Krista Pepper

A shocking number of my personal breakthroughs come while I’m consuming media. I wish I could say I’m appreciating iconic paintings or listening to underground bands or reading feminist poetry, but it’s usually from bingeing the same crime dramas I’ve watched for ten years. You can learn a lot more from Bones than what a kerf mark is.

In this latest rewatch (#4), something happened that’s never happened before: I started bawling my eyes out. Sure, I’ve cried at the show before–if Vincent Nigel-Murray’s death doesn’t move you, please check your pulse–but this…. This was different.

I’ll try to explain.

By season 8, Angela Montenegro‘s life is completely unrecognizable from the pilot. She started out a free-spirited, world-travelling, sexually prolific, talented artist; now she’s a happily-married mother who rarely leaves her office. She doesn’t paint moving or confrontational art anymore; she does facial reconstructions and runs crime scene simulations. It takes a couple of years, but eventually she sees the gulf between who she was and who she’s become, between the beauty she craves and the ugliness that surrounds her. The look on her face is one of a tiger realizing too late that the security of the cage wasn’t worth losing the freedom of the wild.

Even though I’d seen this episode before, the stark existential grief of a creative person confronting the smothering of their creativity by their own (good and wanted) life poured acid straight into an open wound in my soul. Empathizing with Angela’s struggle wasn’t an exercise of imagination anymore. This time, it was real. This time, it was my life, too.

I cried the ugly cry.

I wept for the vulnerability I once had, the stories I used to tell so fiercely and so fluidly, the ideas that used to interrupt my sleep, the time to dream and produce. I wept for the artist I was, dampened near to death by a good life that I wouldn’t trade to have the old one back but mourn all the same.

I despaired with Angela, now able to see through her eyes by having walked in those shoes.

But because Bones is good TV, it doesn’t leave Angela there–it solves her problem. And as it unfolded, as the fiery artist rose back up in Angela, I found myself rising back up, too.

The answer was so obvious: Her well is dry.

Without something besides work and family to sustain her, Angela couldn’t make the art her soul was designed to create. She had to take a step back (or perhaps to the side), cut her hours at the Jeffersonian, and commit to spending time studying great works of art and following her artistic instincts.

I cried a little more at that. At the realization that my own well is dry.

Between playdates and grocery shopping and temper tantrums and laundry and Finding Dory and housecleaning, I’ve lost touch with what fuels my ability to tell a story: life. In addition to and beyond the baby routine and the housewife duties and friends and family and church. Out there in cafes, museums, forests, waterfalls, concerts, strangers–that’s where the story lives.

I have to fill my well. Because an artist’s job isn’t to create something from nothing but rather to spin straw into gold. No straw, no gold. No inspiration, no art.

(I know I’m mixing metaphors, and I really do not care. We’re all on a journey; don’t judge me.)

See? Revelation from crime dramas. Told you.

And because I never want to waste a good epiphany, I’m taking steps toward filling the well. It’s starting with stretching my comfort zone to mind a friend’s toddler one day while she minds mine another day, giving me six solid hours of freedom for whatever my soul needs to do, see, or create. I’m concocting day trips to Toronto for fun with the kiddo without worrying (too much) about missed-nap meltdowns. Our family is investing in memberships to the botanical gardens and the science center. I’m going to buy a swimming suit for the first time since my honeymoon.

It’s time for me to stop dying to the things that fill up my well. There’s no glory, no reward for martyring myself like that. It’s dumb, and I’m done with it.

I leave you with perhaps the most poignant words I’ve ever read about this kind of art/soul sadness and its cure. Fair warning: it will give you the feels.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

Too much to say

There was a time in my life when I’d write anything on this page. I shared every story, held nothing back, left it all on the field, and rarely worried about what people thought.

And now, there’s nothing.

Which isn’t to say there’s nothing happening. My world, both inside and out, is a tumult of unfulfilled desires and unrelenting duties that I primarily share with someone whose greatest dream is to be Moana.

There is stuff going on in here. Stuff that desperately needs to come out.

What holds me back is that I don’t want anyone to be shocked. I don’t want the first time people hear about me considering taking Ativan leftover from an MRI to see if it helps the jaw-tightening, tongue-tingling anxiety to be from a blog post.

For example.

I also don’t want to be accused of withholding. Of putting on a brave face. Of airing dirty laundry. Of being a bad example.

“Oh, honey.”
“I had no idea.”
“Are you okay?”
“Why didn’t you call me?”

Maybe worse is silence. The kind I fill up myself.

“You wouldn’t feel/think/deal with that if you were a better mother/wife/Christian/human.”

But where is the time for those conversations between work and baby and commute and all of the rest of life that piled up and around me when I wasn’t looking? Who wouldn’t be shocked by half of what I’d say if given the chance to have those conversations face-to-face?

The response to my last post was lovely. But there was a (small and trying-to-be-helpful) contingent echoing the rallying cry of “don’t care so much what people think!” And they’re right. But also not.

I care what people think because it’s not just me anymore. The person who published everything that was on her mind existed before I committed to my marriage, before I had a baby, before I met God.  Now I’m a wife, mom, and banner-carrier for Christ, where before I was sort of just, this guy, you know?

It’s different now.

There has to be a middle ground. Some balance between past abandon and current self-consciousness.

Maybe the answer is to just do it. To open the valve and let it rush out and see what happens. I keep saying I will, but fear keeps me from it.

Maybe there’s grace enough even for that.


Integration and the returning Hero

There’s a definite pattern of separation and confluence in my life. Intimacy and mystery. Integration, disintegration, integration again. I want everything in its own box, easily findable and useable, far away. I want everything to be in one place, whole and universal, close.

That’s where I sit with this space (and the various others born from this pattern). This was my home, but now it feels like a foreign land. It’s me but not me. I’m in an integration cycle. I want one place, one identity, one voice, one stream. To pull in the feelers and consolidate them into a central, fully-me corner of the internet. All the sites, the posts, the tumblrs, the social media. Integration demands wholeness.

But is it the right choice? Because of how my brain works, I know that in six months or a year, I’ll be aching just has badly to break it all up for neatness and clarity as I’m aching for it all to be one now.

Ebb and flow.

I realize this is vagueposting, though necessarily so. After three months of devotional journalling in quiet solitude, it’s time for me to step back into the world. But I’m not sure I’m ready. I’m not sure you’re ready.

I feel like the Hero returning from their journey. Coming home again after adventuring in the dark, emerging victorious against adversarial forces, bearing wisdom and riches to share. But the Hero is never the same person when they return as when they set out. The journey changes them. And sometimes those they love most, those the Hero wants most dearly to hold close and be safe with, don’t recognize them. Sometimes, home isn’t home anymore.

I’m standing at the edge of the place I left, wondering what will happen when I walk back in the door with scars on my hands and dirt on my face and a pack filled with strange and wonderful things to share with you. The journey, this time away, has changed me. And the fear keeping me from moving is that you may not like the person I’ve become.

But until the Hero returns, the journey isn’t complete. There may be other adventures on the horizon, a life filled with comings and goings and change, but one adventure must end before the next one can start. The Hero has to face an uncertain welcome, confront the old with the new, and deliver the treasure they’ve won, no matter how it’s received.

It’s time for me to come home.

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