Couple standing by the 9/11 Memorial. New York City, February 2020.


February 18, 2021

It is four days after Valentine's and I'm becoming so pro at missing momentum. Regardless of that, I did still want to take this opportunity to write a letter.

I'll perhaps begin with a confession that I am a brutal idealist. The type that writes about empathy in a pandemic, or sees she's an hour late for an application and sends it anyway. In nearly every circumstance I can't help but to be hopeful, a little naive, and painstakingly vulnerable.

So one might assume that I find writing about love easy. But in fact, I find it terrifying. 

I wanted to write a letter to the girls who were raised to be independent. The ones who are fearless in their own right, yet, when it comes to love, err on the side of caution. I want to reach my arm across the table to you, or rather, sit beside you on this wooden deck as if we are sisters, overlooked by pine trees, a lake, and a dark sky, tucking hands into each of our hoodies, hearing the sound of crickets, our thoughts anchored by stories we don't share to anyone. 

It is daunting to love. Sitting on a sacred, fragile corner, I like to leave this topic untouched. When I do bring it up, I communicate it through words that already exist, passing on things that have already been said — songs, scripts, poems and essays that come from other people — just to make it easier.

Author John Green equates falling in love to falling asleep: "Slowly, and then all at once." A favourite poet I watch, Rudy Francisco, describes it as riding a bike: "Scared, but reckless."

But no matter how much I read about it, dear, love is not at all like a vehicle you control and manoeuvre. I find love as some free-spirited stallion, a living, galloping beast that spends hours on boring pasture before roaming into the wilderness. You ride at your own expense. 

If you want easy and controllable, perhaps you plan a career, write a novel, decorate a house. But I think you and I both know, when it comes to love, not many things come close. 

So for the strong girls, I want to open this untouched sacred corner today, ever so slightly, to talk about it with you.

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I celebrate your strength, on which there is so much to be said, but I also hope you don't mistake guardedness for resilience. I still hope you let your heart beat freely, unrestrained by a steel armour you've sworn to keep around it so you can call it safe. Hearts are warm, pulsing, ravaging things, not made for the coldness of steel. And isn't it true that officials take their bulletproof vests off and throw it to the ground, when giving themselves as hostage?

Though love is unpredictable, messy, one heart-turning, bloody hassle, hopefully you realise you are still deserving of it. The wonder, the depth, the many variations of it — even if, yes, there's a risk it might ache. 

You don't have to pull away each time a life wants to lean into yours. Another favourite poet of mine Sarah Kay put it best: "If you grow up the type of woman men want to love, you can let them love you." 

Wariness, I learned, is not always fortitude. And it is not your doing — we simply mirror the love we know. Some of us are trained to expect the worst, by wounds, scars, the landscapes on which we grew up, and how these journeys cascade into your present day is, remember, none of your fault. 

So I'm right here sitting with you, to say that once in a while, love is also worth trusting. And also worth celebrating, in whatever form it comes — platonic, romantic, familial, other extents you haven't seen, touched, felt, or could imagine yet.

It is not your doing — we simply mirror the love we know.

You'll find there's high virtue placed around 'not needing a man'. You're right, we do not need men. And men, ideally, do not need us. Ideally, we are human and whole enough to inhabit our spaces in this world standing with our own two feet, without waiting around for another. But I'll throw in an unpopular opinion: Once you love someone, it is okay to need them. 

And once you are loved by someone, it will feel nice to be needed. On a train ride one evening, I once picked up my phone to hear news from a friend who's struggling back home. And I was glad she called. I was glad for this new knowledge she's opened up enough for us to share. You're allowed to sit in the warmth of being needed. It is okay to mutually agree that each of us will need each other. I hope you understand that even in your freedom, you may not always need romance but we'll always need people.

Clearly, they won't arrive in the form of princes or knights — which maybe we definitely don't need — but please rest and know there is no weakness in needing, nor is there any harm in being needed.

Woman with her dog in Central Park. New York City, February 2020.

If you are not in love, you would've heard the world tell you, "Love yourself first." So I will say this one thing and one thing only when it comes to self love: You can love yourself even if 'yourself' doesn't leave you completely enamoured.

Even when you are loved, you will not always like yourself (and this is fact). Throughout my life, "self love" became a challenge I constantly fell short of as I thought that it meant I had to admire, support, be in love with myself daily. 

In reality, there are (and will be) days and weeks and years where I am frustrated or angry with myself, where I debate myself over my own ideas — and perhaps in some ways this is healthy. But I have healed these wounds, treated my own scars. When my body needs something, it tells me, and I'm learning to listen. I don't always get along with myself but we've learned to live with each other and be there for each other and that will have to be good enough. 

Artist John Paul Brammer mentioned, "I want you to see your relationship to yourself less as a love vs. loathing binary and think of it more as, well, just another relationship that happens to be important. Think of it as something that needs to breathe, that needs forgiveness and patience, because there will definitely be screw-ups and obstacles and hurdles."

Above this, I hope you don't let the continuity of this journey make you think you are in any way "hard to love". Because you are not "a lot" or too much or too little. Don't listen to anyone who tells you you are (even if that person is yourself.)

You are not "a lot" or too much or too little. Don't listen to anyone who tells you you're hard to love (even if that person is yourself.)

I'm saying this because we live in a world that labels women as a lot, too much, and too little. 

The expectation of how a woman should love has swung pendulum-like across time. A century ago, she was the wife. At the turn of the century, she was the empowered mogul. Now in my early 20s, I can tell you I don't feel either version of these women is lesser than the other — the caring and motherly or the fiercely self-reliant, as if we couldn't be both. I say this because you need to know you have the freedom and space to love; whether that means picking both choices, or neither. 

You are allowed to be tough, soft, gentle, assertive, all of these things and more, without apologising or worrying that you'd be valued any less. I applaud the strides of a career-focused woman, and admire the day-to-day strength of married homemakers. I've seen the office towers they reign. I've spent a day in the kitchen with a mother of three. Both leave me in wonder.

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So if you're ever wondering, Who do you mean by strong girls? I would answer: I consider strong every girl who has ever loved. Silently or loudly. Momentarily or for many winters. Single, married, in relationships, in almost-relationships. I like to think they're everywhere around me.

If love is a fire, have a bucket of water always ready. If it is a puzzle, don't insist on doing it alone. If it is a handwritten letter from a ripped page of a two-dollar notebook, you are still luckier than most. On this day, there's a calm after the surge: of roses, teddy bears, cliché "love is in the air" Hallmark cards. Maybe you're sailing through pandemic dating. Maybe you're expectant. Maybe a wound still feels fresh. Whatever way your world, your heart, continues to shift, I pray that for the most part, it is painless. 

On Valentine itself, my housemates and I stayed home in our PJs, on day two of lockdown. By the afternoon, I was baking cookies and jamming to old Taylor Swift songs. At night, we had dinner while watching a Princess Diaries marathon in our living room.

I realise now it is always the little things. It is always in how love makes the little things feel like big things.

To wrap up this letter, I'll leave you with my last note, from Valentine's Day of last year:

14 February 2020

"You make me realise, everyday, that when love isn’t chocolate and roses, sometimes, it’s a phone call. A peanut butter sandwich. The hand one lends to make another’s life easier. I may not know much about love but when I decided to wear my heart on my sleeve, you pulled your sleeve up to show yours too. So if I have not told you lately that I love you, I hope you remember that I do."

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Take care out there.

Signed,

Jo