I watch way too many animal videos on social media. Baby goat shenanigans are my favorite, but I’m a sucker for dogs who get surprise puppy siblings, ducks who befriend pigs, and donkeys who exuberantly greet their owners with happy “hee haws.” If I only watched about a third of the videos I currently watch, I’d probably have at least three more novels penned. But it’s a feel-good time waster for me, and my algorithms are all aligned perfectly.
This morning, I opened Instagram to find a Mama cat who had saved a baby mouse from the back yard and taken it in as her own. There were shots of the baby mouse eating out of the cat’s food bowl and of the mouse snuggling up with the Mama’s new kittens. The perplexed owner kept saying things like, “I’m not sure what to do with a baby mouse, but she’s part of the family now.” And my Grinchy little heart grew ten sizes bigger.
Love. It’s perplexing and heartbreaking and soul-healing all at once. In Hurricane Lessons, I wrote this:
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In “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden,” Robert Fisher has this to say: “Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80; Greek three, and English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness or emphasis that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling. Eskimos have 30 words for snow, because it is a life-and-death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately. If we had a vocabulary of 30 words for love…we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart.”
Ninety-six words for love. Love for significant others. Love for friends. Love for sexual partners. Love for children. Love for ideology. Love for animals. Love for the land. For food. For air. For the salty sea. For the wind in our hair. So many kinds of love. So much love.
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When I was younger, I believed a family was easy to define: A mother, a father, the children, a pet or two. I spent most of my life building that kind of family—the kind that had been modeled to me, the kind that I read about in my beloved books.
But I understand now that the notions of love and family are too big to be forced into a one-size-fits-all box. My grandparents created a beautiful family with eight children and countless grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And as they aged, some of their children found new spouses and new children to love, and our family grew bigger and broader and more inclusive. I have a friend who is a single mother to her daughter. But her brother is spending time in jail for drug possession, so she is raising his young son as well. Her love is big and expansive. Love is a squishy word. It stretches and flattens and expands and refashions itself to fit the circumstances. It does not remain rigid and unyielding.
When my children were young, we always had extended family Thanksgivings. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—all gathered together in homes with card tables set up to accommodate everyone. This year, my four children are spending Thanksgiving together on the Oregon coast. It’s a different Thanksgiving, but one that fills my heart in every way.
“Send pictures!” I keep texting them. So far, I’ve received one. But I’ll be grateful for whatever they send.
On Thursday, I’ll be with friends who have become chosen family. We will eat and play cards and laugh, and I’ll probably drink too much. I might even show them the video of the Mama cat who adopted the baby mouse. Because haven’t we all felt like that baby mouse at times? Cold and hungry and abandoned until someone says, “Come with me. Sit at my table. Eat my food. You’re safe now.”
I’m happy to have had the traditional holidays I’ve had. I’m also so very grateful to be able to make new traditions, to have new experiences, to continue expanding my family and my heart. I am so incredibly grateful for those who have said, “There’s a chair for you here.”
This holiday, I wish that for all of us. Gratitude. Love. Family. Wouldn’t the world be such a kinder, happier place if we kept building bigger tables?