Cold hands, warm heart

January is a strange month

Last year, when certain health conditions went from “mildly inconvenient” to “genuinely worrying,” I joined a friend in trying some traditional Chinese medicine. During the consultation, the doctor made a point of telling me that my limbs were cold, indicating poor circulation.

This wasn’t surprising. People have been declaring me cold my entire life.

“Cold” applies in different degrees, I’ve learned.

Some people mean it literally. My dad likes to check my hands when we’re on trips, often just to make a joke about how “chill” I am when we’re on vacation. My grandfather used to do the same.

Other people use it as a synonym for cruel. I will admit that I can be unforgiving when I want to be. “Like a harsh wind,” somebody said once, the kind that bites, sharp and raw, on a stormy day.

Some people use it to say “logical.” It’s kind of funny how many acquaintances have independently arrived at “robot” as a descriptor. And aren’t robots cool and dispassionate, calculating outcomes unhindered by sentiment? They mean it as a joke, but there’s always truth in those, anyway.

Whenever new people use the word “cold” with me, I always wonder which one they actually mean.

A friend who uses “cold” for “sensible” recently asked me: “Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?”

I suppose people expect SMART answers from me. (How does that acronym go? Specific, measurable — all these buzzwords that corporations love?)

The reality is that I don’t often set particular goals, just intentions. And the truth underpinning that reality is that there’s a particular type of person I keep trying to be,1Whether or not I’ve ever succeeded is a question for another day so I haven’t had to set any new intentions in a long, long while.

Back in high school, one of my friends surprised me by calling me warm.

I had never been described that way until then. In fact, other people’s opinions before that had leaned towards the opposite: cold, closed-off, unreadable. I’d come to believe those opinions, and it never occurred to me that anybody could think otherwise.

Then my friend paused one day, regarded me with all the matter-of-fact certainty of a teenager deciding something true about the world, and said quite simply, “You’re actually a warm person, you know?”

Would it be exaggeration to say that some part of me has been thinking about that ever since? Probably not. I must’ve spent months trying to reconcile it with how I viewed myself at the time, and I’m still not sure how accurate that assessment might have been when it was made.

But I think what’s important is that I came to conclude that I wanted it to be accurate. I wanted to do my best to be a warm person — to espouse the kindness, care, and comfort that implied.

“Why would love be rooted in silence and scarcity?”
Strange, the ways questions like this find us sometimes.

There are terrifying risks attached to caring, or so anecdotes and pop culture tell me.

In particular, there seems to be a common aversion to being “the one who cares more.” It’s a setup for regret, or so I’m told2And I’m told often these days, listening to breakup stories and perhaps writing something close to my own: Who wants to be the fool who put their heart in the hands of people who might not even spare a thought for protecting it?

But that kind of thinking has always been hard for me to accept because it paints love as a blind feeling, as well as something that calculates value in terms of returns.

Personally, I prefer to take a cue from people like bell hooks and think of love as a verb: a continuous choice that manifests in action; an effort to show up for people in whatever way (even as distance or absence, sometimes) they need, entailing both intention and responsibility.3I’ve written more about it in that collection of quotes, but I suppose the gist of it is that my views on love are perhaps a bit more somber and boring than most? You think about it, and you choose — and doesn’t a big part of that choice include determining whom you trust enough to show up for in the first place?

As for reciprocation, well, I’m wary of that expectation because it cuts a bit too close to reducing interpersonal connections to something transactional, measured by function, utility, and exchange. There’s something to be said for allowing yourself to care without reservation, regardless of whether people give that care back in the same forms, or to the same degree. (On my most optimistic days, I like to believe that the love we send out always returns to us somehow. Perhaps from different people, or in different ways, but it comes back. Naive, maybe, and a little reckless — but I’ve always had a soft spot for beautiful ideas.)

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find some measure of reassurance in being able to affirm my ability to still trust people in that way: to identify enough good in them to come to care for them; and to identify enough good in myself to be able to try and offer them that care, in whatever way is suitable.

In the end, though, people aren’t static. Sometimes we change beyond our capacity to keep caring for each other.

Is it something to regret?

I don’t think there’s ever anything regrettable about loving people as much as we can. Regret only blooms, I think, when we refuse to let that love change as it needs to, and when we question the value of all its previous iterations once change inevitably comes.

“Everything you love will probably be lost, but in the end, love will return in another way.”

(a quote often attributed to franz kafka)

My grandmother’s death anniversary is coming up soon.

I still remember the day we watched her die. Whole families could still stand around a hospital bed then, unfettered by COVID restrictions or the fear of playing vector to any viruses.

My cousins were still on the way. My dad and sister had gone to meet them.

The monitors were beeping out plummeting oxygen levels, and the reactionary panic in my uncle’s eyes was quickly yielding to the realisation of impending loss. My mom gripped my grandmother’s hands tighter than she ever had, as if to keep her with us through sheer force of will. My aunt hardly dared to breathe, like maybe if we all held our breaths for as long as we could, my grandmother’s might not have to sound quite so strained.

In the end, when the monitor blanked out and lapsed into a last, unbearable screech, it was just us. The tears would come later, and the grief, and the tender accounting of what opportunities we did have to convey a love that no longer had anywhere to go. But in those first few minutes, there was just us, caught in a blooming silence, and I had to pull my mom away from that hospital bed with cold but steady hands.

Hearing myself called “cold” again these days, I wonder which meanings the word is meant to carry. To acknowledge change and decide accordingly — is that logical, or is it cruel? Or is it simply necessary?

At the start of every year, I ponder what it means to be warm.

Today, I think I am writing this as a reminder: We get a choice in whom to show up for, and the people we choose deserve love that is — to borrow from that tweet — abundant and obvious. In this context, then, warmth is a generosity of spirit; a cultivation of deep wellsprings of patience, trust, and respect; and a willingness to care as much as we mean, to follow through with our choices at every instance.

But that’s the crux of it too, isn’t it? At every instance is a choice, and at some point, I’m allowed to choose differently. Isn’t there room in the concept of warmth for that?

After all, the ways we give and accept love can differ, and they can change. Part of the process of choosing people is figuring out, again and again, what they need from us, what we need from them, and what we’re then able to provide and accept from each other.

And then it’s a matter of living out that understanding, steadily, warmly, for as long as we can bear to.

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.

From The Painted drum by Louise Erdrich
(Or here, maybe, for the rest of that final playlist.)