When she was 3 years old, if she wanted to tell someone emphatically that she cared for them, my sister Mary would state: “I love you 22!” That was, at the time, the biggest number she knew.
It can be hard to find the right adjective or symbol to attach to love when you want to communicate it. And love comes across differently in different contexts: You might, like Mary, just want to make someone you know, like your mom, understand how much you care; or, in a different level of relationship, you might want to tell someone who presides over a club or group to which you are deeply committed that your heart is grateful for the talk she gave or the leadership he provided.
We sometimes talk or sing about love experienced as big or small. It’s more than that, but the size of the experience sometime seems to matter.
In her song, “Big Love, Small Moments,” JJ Heller proclaims:
Big magic in the mundane
The big picture in a small frame
Everything is sacred when you take time to notice
Big love happens in the smallest moments.
Is love harder to articulate when it’s big, or when it’s small? It depends in part on how long it’s there. Maybe its felt rush is big during an encounter with a special person, but it’s then gone too fast to be able to put it in words, vanished beyond smallness.
Another challenge to getting it across might be that the one you love is not able to understand your verbalizations. I held my kids and grandkids as infants. I’d get into those quiet, eye-locked gazes; only one of you knows how to talk. I’d tell my granddaughter that she was special, and that I loved her very much. It often seemed that the idea got through, but how? She’d smile or go into a quieter mood, seemingly calmed by what was communicated in my tone more than in than my words.
As Heller says, love happens. It’s active, whether anyone’s talking about it. It’s a force. It moves among us. It doesn’t wait for words.
Faith gives us words to speak of love, and stories to convey its movement in history. God is with us. We experience God as love. But we don’t always articulate it as such. God doesn’t need our words to be here. And when we use them, we never capture God’s love fully.
And then we love others who aren’t human. How do you express it to them? When I was a kid, I loved our dog, Skip. Part Springer Spaniel, part English Setter, he’d be jumping at the gate when I walked home through the alley from school; his tail wagging, telling me through the tenderness in his brown eyes that he was there for me. How do you tell a canine friend that you love him? You might say so verbally, but it’s the energy and sincerity in your voice and the affection in your movement that gets it across as you enter his space, stroking his white fur.
Maybe love isn’t supposed to fit too easily into any formal speech. It’s a force from beyond us even though it flows through us. It predates and transcends human language of any time. Our words haven’t caught up.
Given the ineffable nature of love, as well as the fact that we can’t live without it, whether it’s big, small or barely there at all, we persist in finding new constructions to express it.
The most memorable ones, like “I love you 22,” stay with us.
Rich Kordesh is a longtime Oak Park resident who grew up in Berwyn.