Start by learning what love is not. Learn the hard way. Find out that love is not defined by temper tantrums, drunken stupors, screaming hysterics, underpants left fetchingly on anyone’s front lawn or any of the other flu-like symptoms associated with that first rosy blush. Nor can love be ordered, tracked or dropped off by courier on an agreed upon delivery date. Hallmark and the Bible may make stabs at defining love but you’re going to have to live into your own, more particular versions of this word all by yourself.
Discover that no combination of Schlitz Malt Liquor, Carlo Rossi red wine, Old Crow whiskey, Marlboro Reds or little multi-colored pills equal love. Not really. Nor do barbeque potato chips, chocolate éclairs or lemon meringue pie. Glazed donut holes do not good lovers make. You may have no idea if love is an action, a feeling or an ideal, but you do learn that anything you can swallow, ingest or throw back up, probably isn’t love at all.
Read that in order to truly love anyone or to be truly loved by anyone you must first learn to love yourself. Wonder what that means, exactly. Practice the affirmation, “I love myself the way I am” in the mirror, without sticking your tongue out, gagging or adding any clauses, footnotes or addendums.
Put all of your complicated, unresolved feelings for X, Y and Z onto the page instead of into your mouth. It’s more important to get the next page than to have the last word.
Accept that Prince Charming couldn’t have had more than two or three hundred lovers in his lifetime and that none of them were you. Even Jane Eyre had to wait until Mr. Rochester was blind and broke before they could get it to work. Practice loving your own assortment of imperfect, scarred, tender heartbreaks and misadventures, especially the ones that demanded you tear everything apart before you could build again.
Learn to look for love in unexpected places. Blow a kiss to the man in the elephant nose mask who wishes you a Happy Father’s Day in the dead of winter. Accept a flower from the woman in the wheelchair who looks like she’s been waiting all day just to hand it to you. Bring bittersweet chocolate to friends who have recently suffered loss, illness, heartbreak or tragedy. Recognize when you leave that love attached to your coat and followed you out the door.
Look into the face of the kitten, the child, the old man holding the door open for you at the gym even though he’s older than God and walks with a cane. But don’t clutch at these new, fresh faces of love and try to keep them for your own. They may bite, drool or hit you in the rear if you grab too much, too fast.
Finally, remove “unreciprocated love” from your lexicon. Try on new terms until you find one that fits like a perfectly tailored dress. Eat away your preconceived notions-- along with your donut holes. Be humbled, blown away, changed entirely by the new words that come to define you. But remember, when you feed the ones you love, don’t forget to feed yourself.