It was Valentine’s Day this week. Which is great. People taking the time out to tell the person they love that they love them is great. But does anyone else find the branding a bit uninspiring? Chocolates, cliches etched onto tiny candy hearts, pink and red everything. The sameness of it all – the by-rote declarations of devotion, the formulas that have been deemed appropriately romantic – it’s like we’re all trying a bit too hard to keep the dream alive. Not of love, but of a very specific way of expressing it.

Maybe it’s been a lot of Valentine’s Days since I’ve had someone to give heart-shaped things to, or maybe I’m older than I was, and my ideas about what’s important when it comes to love have shifted pretty dramatically away from my 15 year old, one-true-love days when Ever After was the best thing since sliced bread. But I’m kind of over Valentine’s Day.

I know, how original.

So far, my life has not followed the established trajectory of reciprocal love followed by commitment. And the farther along I follow this path I seem to be on, the less important that all seems.

It’s not that love isn’t important — it’s that it’s MORE important than I’ve been giving it credit for.

I have an amazing writer friend who has a book coming out this spring, about love stories. It’s a book she’s been working on for a long time. Maybe even her entire life. It was in talking with her that I first started to take a critical look at my ideas about love, and the quest for it that we all seem to be on.

The truth is, we elevate romantic love above all the rest. I’m yours, you’re mine, and the better we play that out, the more fulfilled we’ll be. The love of friends or family members or communities is important, but it’s a consolation prize.

And love for a vocation, or a place or an idea — that’s the purvey of saints and psychopaths. An elevated, lonely plateau on the fringes of the human experience, where reciprocity is impossible. From the warm folds of a red, heart-shaped happily ever after, it seems hopelessly empty to love something that can’t love you back.

But here’s the thing: it’s not.

hikers, women, forest, trees

Talk to someone who really loves the mountains, and watch them transform. For some, the mountains are a spiritual experience. Or, more accurately, a fundamentally human one. A reckoning, an embrace, an acknowledgement of who they are at the most basic, fundamental level. A complete acceptance.  People have risked their lives — and many have lost them — for that kind of love.

It is expansive.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about writing that way. As a vocation, yes, but as more than that. She would do anything for it. Follow it anywhere, crawling behind it if necessary. She believes that writing loves her back.

I wouldn’t go that far. But I would say this: it doesn’t matter if writing, or the ocean, or the mountains, love me back. All three have made me miserable enough, but loving them is exquisite. It makes me more human – a better human, I hope. We all need love, but just as much, I think we all need to love. I don’t think it matters who or what we love, so much as how we love.

The theology I was raised on said that God is love. And that everything in the universe — the galaxies and suns, planets and rivers and mountain goats and beetles — were born out of that love. Because love is creative and life-giving. Maybe for that, I’ve always thought of wild places as infused with it. I’ve slept in fields, cradled in wild grass and blanketed in stars, and that is more than enough.

When my ex and I broke up, I had an experience that should have been facilitated by some sort of plant-based magic, but wasn’t. I had been putting all my love into one relationship. And then, all of the sudden, that vessel broke open, and it felt like there was so much love, nothing could contain it. It was swirling in the air around me. It wasn’t just that I suddenly had more love to give, it’s that love was its own thing. And it came back at me.

Maybe love is its own creature and we are among the wild places it inhabits.

We love people, and places, and things that don’t love us back all the time. And while the generally accepted goal is to find someone who returns your love, maybe that’s the wrong goal. Maybe the goal should be just to love. As unreservedly and expansively as possible. With wild and unflinching devotion.

Leaf, heart, tree, love