Illustration: Indi Maverick

How to Write Love

Kinship, craft, humus, tattoos

STRANGER CARE is Sarah Sentilles’s heartbreaking, heart-expanding account of her relationship with her foster daughter, Coco—although saying that is a bit like saying Walden is a book about a pond. It is, but ponds are just the beginning. It is, and yet, we’ll never look at ponds the same way again. After Stranger Care, I’ll never look at mothers the same way again. Or daughters. Or parenting. Or caregiving. This book is about loving Coco, and letting her go. It’s a book about loving her birth mother, Evelyn. It’s a book about the systems that structure our care and how fallible they are; how we might care for one another in more expansive ways that reach beyond the boundaries of biology and the nuclear family, even beyond the species; how we might learn from the systems of caregiving that sustain the natural world all around us.

When I read Stranger Care, I loved it with all of my selves: my writer self and my mother self and my daughter self and my citizen self and also with a bunch of other selves I didn’t know how to name. One of the things I loved best about the book is that it invited these selves to speak with one another in new and different ways. I cried many times as I read this book, and felt not just moved but honestly, literally rearranged by it—as if, on the other side of feeling shattered by it, I was also built up again differently.  — Leslie Jamison

 

 

Leslie Jamison: In Stranger Care, you write about the fungal highways that run along tree roots underground, transmitting nourishment through the soil. And honestly, I felt your book as just this kind of nourishment—essential, made of soil and truth and love, at home in the gritty stuff beneath our feet, but full of so much grace. Its truths felt somehow subcutaneous—as if, once they arrived in me, I realized they’d been there all along, not fully recognized, crystallized by your piercing gaze, and your eloquence. Truths like: we live by the care of others, and by the act of caring for them; and by caring for the world that holds all these fragile, glorious bodies we fumble around inside of.

I’m imagining that somehow we could correspond along these fungal highways, as if they could send our notes back and forth like those old pneumatic tubes—in great bursting hissing gasps of declaration, gratitude, wondering. 

Stranger Care is a tale not just of love but of grief, as if we could ever tell one of those stories without the other. That’s where I wanted to start, with the question of love and how many different strands any love holds. How do you write love? Whenever I try, it feels like staring straight at the sun.

How did you write your love for Coco—and ultimately, for Coco’s mother, Evelyn? How did you write your love for Eric, your husband? And how did you write your love for the natural world—the fungal highways and the moon and the mother hornbills walling themselves in their nests? What forms and structures and details and arcs of emotion did each of these loves demand or invite?

 

Sarah Sentilles: What a perfect question! How do you write love? I wrote Stranger Care as a love letter to our foster daughter, Coco. My intention was to write a book that might mother her if I am no longer allowed to. I wanted to write a book that took seriously the idea that we are all made of the same material, and if whale and tree and child and rock all come from stardust, then no matter where Coco finds herself, she is never far from home.

A friend visited me a few days ago. She had just finished reading Stranger Care, and said, “When the book begins, you are looking at nature to find examples of love, of family, of stranger care, and by the end of the book, nature is taking care of you.” Sometimes readers see your work better than you can. A different friend once told me that when you love a place, it loves you back, which transformed for me what it feels like to live on this planet.

Growing up, I loved the magnolia tree in our neighbor’s yard. I had imagined my love as moving in one direction, from me to tree. But what if the tree loved me back? I live in a mountain town in Idaho’s Wood River Valley. I feel grateful that I get to grieve here rather than in a city. I am not sure I could have survived anywhere else. I needed the river, the mountains, the dirt, the big sky, the stars. I needed red-tailed hawks and vultures, lupine and sage.

Your question—How do you write love?—is also a formal question about craft. When I’m teaching writing workshops, I tell my students: the bigger the idea or the emotion, the plainer the language. The smaller. The more particular. In Stranger Care, how do I show my love for Eric? How do I show his deep and grief-filled love for the world? Here’s an example:

One day, just before social workers came to our house to determine if our home was safe for a foster child, Eric discovered that an ant colony had taken up residence under the cushions of our outdoor couch that we’d left on the patio to dry after a rainstorm. Ants had laid hundreds and hundreds of eggs. Without the cover of the cushions, the eggs would be exposed to the sun. It was early August and hot. “I don’t want their babies to burn,” Eric told me. He rested two of the couch pillows together to create a shelter, protecting the eggs from the heat. He checked on them every hour, all day, making sure the eggs were shaded, and watched as the ants disappeared with the eggs between the pavers.

To write love is to write generously. And to write theologically. Theologians, at their best, know they are writing about something (the divine) that can’t be captured in language. The challenge, then, is to remember that our words about God—and, really, for me, our words about everything and everyone—always fall short. Transcendence can serve a relativizing function, rendering all claims subjective, limited, even infected. My mentor, the theologian Gordon Kaufman, taught me that the most ethical thing we can say is, “I might be wrong.” To admit that is an act of love for me. How do we show our limits on the page? How do we show there is more to every person, every object, every being than what we write about them? How do we gesture toward transcendence?

I tried to do that in Stranger Care by leaving lots of white space—both as an invitation for the reader to animate the text and as a reminder that my words will always fall short, that my writing is just a fragment, that the “other” exceeds my ability to write about her. In Jane Bennett’s words in Vibrant Matter, I try to create the haunting feeling that something is being left out. The challenge is to live with that haunting, to accentuate it, rather than pretending it’s not there, rather than acting as if we know everything. I might be wrong—this is a sentence brimming with love.

I read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees when I was writing Stranger Care. Trees grieve, he writes. When you cut down a tree next to another tree, the still living neighbor tree will continue to send nutrients to her friend, who is now a stump, trying to keep her alive. Trees remember. Trees communicate. Trees share. Before reading his book, I had been living in a state of unknowing. All that time I had been walking by trees in distress, trees missing friends, trees paying attention, sending signals underground, tending kin and stranger, mothering. The world is bigger and different than what we think we know about it. How do you show that on that page?

I had the same feeling—I might be wrong; I have been misunderstanding the world—when I met Evelyn, Coco’s biological mother, for the first time. Eric and I picked Coco up from the hospital when she was three days old and brought her home. We didn’t meet Evelyn until two weeks later, at the courthouse. Think about that for a minute: the first time Evelyn met the people taking care of her child—strangers—was at a courthouse, in a hallway, after passing through metal detectors. Bureaucracy does not write love, cannot see love or admit it. Evelyn’s body still had signs of pregnancy. Her breasts still made milk she was not allowed to give to her daughter. “Can I hold her?” she asked, and I handed Coco to her, all five pounds of her, and Evelyn cradled Coco to her chest and whispered, for hours, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” That is what I hope the pages of this book will do for Coco.

And now I want to ask you a question, Leslie, and I will point you toward your own transcendent, gorgeous, haunting writing in my asking. Your essay “Baggage Claims” is about love and grief and care. I read it deep in my own grief, when I could barely read anything, and it lit the way for me. You write, “This is how we light the stars, again and again: by showing up with our ordinary, difficult bodies when other ordinary, difficult bodies might need us.” How do you write the body? How do you write repair? How do you light the stars?

 

“I might be wrong is a sentence brimming with love.”

 

LJ: Reading your words—even your casual replies—makes me feel like running onto the sidewalk to shake the shoulders of strangers and say, Hey, listen to this thing my friend said about her husband protecting ant eggs! Wanting them to try certain ideas, the way you might want someone to try a delicious radish, or a cantaloupe, like the idea that I might be wrong is a sentence brimming with love. Perhaps offering your sentences to strangers in the streets of Brooklyn could become the urban equivalent of loving and being loved by red-tailed hawks and sage.

It means the world to me that “Baggage Claims” found you in the midst of grief. In a way, it’s about the kind of vision and re-vision that you narrate so beautifully with Evelyn—I love parsing the word re-vision to bring it back to the idea of re-seeing, and I think you ask us to see it that way here. Your book asks us to see things again, differently: each other, the trees, the sky, parenting, the systems that structure our days or keep pain abstract to us.

My essay tells the story of an encounter with a stranger, a woman I met on a layover in Houston, in an airport hotel, how I regarded her with wariness, then compassion, then judgment, then pity—how ultimately, I had to keep reminding myself how little I knew about her life, and how toxic it can be to act as if compassion should be predicated on hitting certain thresholds of pain or virtue.

These are wonderful questions—how to write bodies, how to write repair. I want to ask them back. I’ve never known how to do anything but write bodies. My wise and honest friend Lynn Steger Strong—who writes novels and parents children and shows up for the folks in her books and in her life in remarkable ways—once told me she just tries to stick close to the bodies of her characters and trust that truth lives there. That felt like a light to write by. Not in a lofty, abstract sense but a deeply visceral one. Is this person fidgeting? What is she snacking on? Who is she leaning on? What is that man doing with those couch cushions? And what does it illuminate about his grief-saturated love for the world? I wonder also how it might apply to your book, which sticks close to the bodies of its human characters—yours, Coco’s, Eric’s, Evelyn’s—but also ventures toward nonhuman bodies: animals, water, trees, soil. These bodies give us new ways to think about harm, resilience, and repair.

I try to write repair in terms of humility, the humility of seeing clearly, both harm and grace, by seeing the limits of our own sight—which actually takes me right back to your work, and something you once said to me about how you think of white space as a formal declaration of the limits of your sight. Could you talk a bit about how the connection between love and humility informed the writing of this book? What did revision look like for you in the context of this project—both in terms of re-seeing other people and yourself, and also in terms of craft?

I’m also curious how you feel your relationship with the natural world has shaped the way you see other things (love, relationships, systems). How do you look and notice differently when you are in nature? What are your daily rhythms in terms of engaging with the natural world?

 

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SS: A friend once told me that humility comes from the root word humus—soil, earth. Before I heard that etymology, I was not a fan of the word humility. I felt it was often used as a weapon, something women or BIPOC folks or anyone working for justice in any institution or community was asked to adopt, while those in power kept their power and told the rest of us to quiet down. But thinking of it as connected to humus helps me claim humility as a practice of remembering that everything we do affects everything and everyone around us. Like those fungal filaments running through the soil. We’re all connected. Our words and deeds reverberate. Tread lightly.

I love your friend Lynn Steger Strong’s advice to stick close to the bodies of your characters. And I love your writing about revision as re-seeing. Racism and sexism and classism and all our other oppressive systems are structural, and they are also visual. We sort and treat bodies based on how we’ve been trained to mis-see them. How do we render that mis-seeing visible? How do we correct and repair our limited vision? How do we remember that we’re often misunderstanding one another, often mistaken?

I’m interested in making room for error, for failure in writing, for humility, for not knowing—which again is why I leave a lot of white space on the page—space for breath, for relief. I think of the white space as the dash some believers use when they write the name for the divine as G-d, a gesture toward the limits of human language and thought. I like redaction for that reason, too, this visual signal that you are not seeing everything, that you don’t have access to all the information. Governments use redaction to hide information, but maybe creative writers and artists can use redaction to protect, to point to our own unknowing, to make room for otherness and transcendence and alternatives and mystery. How do you write mystery, Leslie?

Sometimes, when people find out I no longer belong to an institutionalized religion after almost becoming an Episcopal priest they ask me, But don’t you miss the sense of something bigger than you? And I always want to say, Have you been outside? Have you looked at the stars? Have you watched the moon? Have you climbed a mountain? If we let it, the world can serve the same relativizing function that true transcendence can. I am small. The universe is vast. The robins feeding their young in a nest outside my kitchen window speak a language unknown to me.

We took our foster daughter Coco on a walk every day when she was with us. That is the sun. This is the wind. That is a lilac. We helped name the world for her. At night, I held her in the moonlight: Wherever you are, there will be moonlight, I whispered. I feel loved by the moon. In fact, I called Stranger Care “The Moon Book” on my computer while I was writing it, and I didn’t understand why until I wrote the epilogue. The moon is a patient teacher. Scientists still don’t know why the moon is with us or how, exactly, the moon formed or what makes its dust smell like burned gunpowder, but they do know there would be no life as we know it without the moon. The moon is far away, yet her pull affects everything.

 

“We sort and treat bodies based on how we’ve been trained to mis-see them. How do we render that mis-seeing visible? How do we correct and repair our limited vision?”

 

LJ: I joked around during one of our conversations that I wanted to get something you’d said written on my arm as a tattoo: My heartbreak is not the only heartbreak. But the longer we keep talking, the more tattoos I want to get. Soon my whole body will be covered with the ink of Sarah quotes! Things like: The moon is a patient teacher. I am small. The universe is vast. That’s something I can say Amen to with an unequivocal heart.

Your question about mystery feels deeply connected to the sensation of encountering something bigger than you. What we don’t understand intuitively dwarfs us, overwhelms us. I remember someone I knew in the early days of my recovery saying that her Higher Power was just the fact that trees grew from acorns—not just the transformation itself, but the mystery of it, a sacred force. Which I guess is how I try to write mystery: in the concrete particulars of how it plays out, the shadows it casts, the residues left. It’s connected to something you once said to me about trying to summon the most intense emotional experiences through the plainest language—this idea of getting at holy forces, unimaginable forces, miracles and mysteries not through the superlative language that tries to summon their awe, but in these sensory, physical, minute, granular glimpses.

Raising a child is a good lesson in that. It’s such a mysterious and awe-inspiring thing, to watch consciousness develop before your eyes, but it plays out as a series of ordinary moments you can observe and describe. These moments teach me how to see them in relation. My toddler daughter likes to put her blended family of puffy stickers in the bath—the farmer, the chipmunk, the mermaid—to see them immersed in the other world of the water, and then dry them again. She likes to look at the photograph of herself just after she was born and ask: Why was I purple? Why was I crying? When I told her that she had just gone through a big change—from being inside her momma to being in the world—she talked about that idea for weeks, the feeling of a big change. Her sticker friend going into the water: the feeling of a big change. Her sticker friend coming out of the water: the feeling of a big change. I guess that’s one of the places mystery lives for me: the sticker friends getting wet and dry, the little mind attaching itself to those details and teaching me how to attach myself to them, too.

Okay, final question: How did you write yourself as a changed character in this book? How is the you that emerges in the final pages of Stranger Care different from the you at the beginning? How did your sense of what the book was about change across the course of writing?

 

SS: If you get a tattoo of my words then I will get a tattoo of yours: This is how we light the stars. And maybe also an image of an acorn, that sacred force.

Earlier today, soon after I read your questions, a robin flew into the glass door of our patio. We have iridescent stickers on all of our windows to stop bird strikes, but the robin hit the window anyway and was on her back on our pavers. And not just any robin. This was the momma robin who had been sitting on the nest outside our kitchen window for weeks, who had, with her partner, been feeding three baby birds, trip after trip after trip. Eric and I watched her stunned body through the sliding glass door.

Please please please please,” I said.

That is what I used to say when I fed Coco in the middle of the night. I don’t know who I was talking to. I don’t know what, exactly, I was asking. But I wanted to keep her. More than I’d wanted anything before.

I turned away from the robin. I couldn’t take it.

“She’s up,” Eric said. “She’s okay.” I watched her fly under our patio table and to the grass, where her partner stood, the father of the baby birds in the nest.

“He was waiting for her,” I said and cried.

I washed baby bottles an hour later, because, as you know, Leslie, I am tending another infant now, our son, who we adopted and who was born in April. I watched through the kitchen window the two parent robins fly to the nest to feed the baby birds. They just got on with it, kept doing what needed to be done. She almost died. And now she was feeding her three babies. Flying from yard to yard to find worms to bring home. And if you saw her, if she flew by you, would you know that about her? That she almost died today? That she was a mother?

I changed when I became Coco’s foster mother. And I changed when we were asked to let her go. I walked through my days with a broken heart, terrified, with a sense that some essential part of me had been excavated, that what had been removed would never be recovered. Because some things cannot be repaired. Only transformed. And carrying those feelings—hauntedness, brokenness, grief, helplessness, despair—and trying to navigate my days anyway, awakened me to the fact that everyone is walking around that way. If they’re not yet, they will someday. And that is true for every bird and moose and whale and tree and refugee. We love. We lose. We love. We warm the bottle. We cut the lawn. We drive carpool. We protest. We stand in line at the pharmacy. We write.

When I was complaining once to my friend Alice Dark, a writer, about how long it was taking me to finish writing Draw Your Weapons (ten years!), she said, “Sometimes we need to become the person our book needs us to be in order to finish it.” I think about her words every day. What is this story asking of me? What is this writing doing to me? Who is it helping me become?

Stranger Care started as an idea, an argument, a way to prove (to whom?) that there are lots of ways to make a family. But it became a song, keening. The prose works that way—tighter in the beginning and then looser, an unraveling that can’t be stopped. Like your daughter’s sticker friend, I was baptized by something bigger, holding me under, lifting me up. This book is the liturgy for that feeling of a big change. I hope it might enact change for the reader—the rearranging you talked about.

Eric’s best friend, Derek, was visiting the day we got the phone call from the social worker about Coco. He took a picture of us when we left the house to go get her. “Last image of total freedom,” he said.

To get to the hospital, we had to drive across a bridge that spans a gorge. Beautiful. Terrifying. Part of me is still crossing that bridge, still standing in the middle of it, feeling it shake in the wind, wondering if what we’re made of will hold. But the medicine of writing—and the medicine of robins and fungal filaments and stars and acorns—is the understanding that we’re all made of the same material. And if that is true, like I wrote to Coco in Stranger Care, then no matter where we are, we’re never far from home. O
 


 

Leslie Jamison is the New York Times bestselling author of The Recovering, The Empathy Exams, Make it Scream, Make it Burnand a novel, The Gin Closet. She is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and teaches at Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn with her daughter.

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, was published by Random House in May 2021. Her writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe New Yorker, Oprah Magazine, Ms., Religion Dispatches, Oregon ArtsWatch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She’s had residencies at Hedgebrook and Yaddo. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale and master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. She is the co-founder of the Alliance of Idaho, which works to protect the human rights of immigrants by engaging in education, outreach, and advocacy at local, state, and national levels.

Comments

  1. Thank you…. for your sharing, for it’s depth and connection….
    Namaste 🙏🙏

  2. I need to read this every day. “how to write love?” That’s how.

  3. Yes. I agree with Mike. Beautifully written and beautifully touching conversation and thoughts.

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