Of Williamsburg’s countless cafes, my favorite for weekend mornings is Toby’s Estate Coffee. Like a glimmering glass fish tank, it ripples with dizzy energy that bubbles towards the tall ceilings, sliced by sun rays. Strangers swim circles around each other, all fizzing with sleepy smiles and frizzy bed hair as they reach for their mugs or for leaves of the newspaper, which is always dismembered in different directions: one section creased and bent on the long center table, one draped over the back of a stool, one left open haphazardly on the counter. Everything and everyone is scattered, swimming in espresso and stories of last night’s escapades.
I like to go with my laptop to write, to sit still amidst the flux. Normally, I work best in silence, but the buzz at Toby’s feels like white noise – like the ocean, gentle and lulling.
Last Saturday, I shared my table with a young couple. I can’t remember what they looked like, save for a few subtle details: his hat, her forearm tattoos. What stuck with me was the way they bobbed gently in and out of each other’s currents.
They shared breakfast: a donut and a yogurt parfait. They took turns taking bites, trading the bowl and plate back and forth, as they faced towards each other, their knees knocking. They spoke softly about nothing in particular. She reached instinctively to pick a tiny crumb of granola from his beard. He leaned to kiss her cheek before stepping outside for a phone call, and she smiled subtly, twisting the straw in her cold brew and looking down at a page of the Times. They left with fingers intertwined, still sticky with donut glaze.
It seemed so simple: that coziness of their togetherness amidst the coziness of caffeine and comfort food. That quotidian reliability, as easy as coffee. The way they buoyed each other, keeping each other afloat in a sea of strangers.
It made me feel both lonely and heartened at the same time.
I saw “The End of the Tour” in August, and I’m still thinking about it. The movie charts one Rolling Stone reporter’s five-day interview with David Foster Wallace, watching the way the two writers interacted, connected, even competed with one another. Both were plagued by loneliness. Both were desperate to have their voices understood. Both were easily enticed by nicotine and junk food — the sorts of substances that might, at least temporarily, produce slight jolts of euphoria to sate spirits starved for the deeper bliss of belonging. (Allegedly, Wallace was recovering from addiction to alcohol and perhaps heroin as well.)
A few weeks ago, I went to see “Amy,” the Amy Winehouse biopic. That same theme bubbled up again: the battle between love and loneliness that seems to be all art’s eternal undercurrent. While the film emphasizes Winehouse’s drug abuse, it spends significant attention on her rocky romantic relationship with Blake Fielder — the one who introduced her to heroin in the first place — and her wrought bond with her father. For Winehouse, love came hand-in-hand with betrayal, deception, and heartbreak, and yet, it permeated her life and lyrics, like another destructive habit she couldn’t kick.
“Love is a losing game,” she croons in one of her most popular songs.
Winehouse and Wallace were creative geniuses whose demises are easily attributed to an alluring but poisonous cocktail: fame mixed with substance addiction, spiked with mental illness, shaken and stirred. But on a basic level, in my distant and unscientific opinion, their downfalls were due to a desperate yearning for love.
Despite immense talent and acclaim, despite fans and friendships, despite tremendous triumphs, both were so submerged in the struggle for love – in trying and failing to grasp it in their hands, hearts, and art – that it drowned them.
When we lament aloneness and yearn for togetherness, I think what we mostly want is a waist to twine an arm around, a tangled bedhead to ruffle fingers through, a palm to press a palm to – something to hold onto and something to hold us up. We want love to be graspable. Perhaps this explains the way we pray with clasped knuckles and cradle iPhones between curved thumbs; the way people clutch their coffee cups at Toby’s and the way they grip the edges of the paper.
The way that couple intertwined their donut-sticky fingers.
We’re all trying to get a handle on love — romantic love, familial love, friendly love, self-love. Its different forms rise up in waves, drawing us into varied tides at different stages of life, and we flounder against its ebbs and flows of isolation and longing, fighting to dodge the loneliness that is its perilous but inescapable undertow.
It’s no wonder that we refer to dating as going “steady” and that we associate relationships with “stability.” We want to rope love into a life preserver to keep us afloat.
But love is not a dependable buoy. It is as wild and ungraspable as ocean.
The triteness of “love,” a tiny term we try to anchor in everyday reality, feels ludicrous. Such a short word can’t sum up the complicated currents of its darkness and depth. “Love” waters down the concept to something so pocket-sized, when its true essence is too expansive to clutch. It sifts like liquid through fingers – even when we try to capture it in our hearts and in our art.
I’ve been grappling with this essay for weeks, because I can’t quite put my finger on what love really means. I think that’s the way it’s meant to be. I’m not sure how I thought a few pages on “love” would ever feel adequately meaningful.
I’m not sure how, but I’m sure why. Because I, too, want love to be graspable. So does every writer. So does every artist. So does every human.
If you live in New York, you’ve probably spotted the graffiti that first appeared across the city’s sidewalks this summer, smattered in spray-paint: “PROTECT YO HEART,” it says, in bold block type. The last three letters of “heart” are always highlighted in a different color.
Everyone keeps snapshotting it for Instagram, but I’m not sure anyone really understands what it means.
Perhaps it suggests that true art is borne of the heart. That both our hearts and our artistic practices are easily broken by love and loneliness. That all acts of loving and creativity should be matched by prudent vigilance for safety’s sake. Or perhaps the “art” part is merely a self-referential bit of wordplay to imply the intended function of the simple spray-painted words.
Regardless, the graffiti seems to resonate with a wide audience, judging by its thousands of Instagram impressions.
I think that the word “protect” is the key. It’s comforting to stumble into validation for our feelings of vulnerability – to know that other humans feel fragile, too. We all want protective buoys from life’s rough surf, but we’re all easily swayed by the wild ways of “love,” – whatever form “love” takes.
I Googled “protect your heart” and found a reference to a bible verse – Proverbs 4:23. “Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.”
I also found a website that explains the movement, directly quoted below:
“Protecting Yo Heart simply mean to be careful what you put in your Heart, frm negative words, ppl, to negative feelings… You see, The heart is a self contained organ like the rest of our wonderful body. The heart plays an important role in your physical & Spiritual (vibration) life… Physically, by Making sure that clean blood is distributed thru out the body. and spiritually, allow you to freely give & accept Love thru out the Universe. now, the Key is making sure we don’t interfere with that natural order… We don’t have to try to Love, because Love is like Air, Its all over… [These stencils are a] reminder to be mindful of what we allow in. You see, ( The Anatha Chakra which is located at the center of the heart is wher the true, divine,eternal & pure Self resides).”
I had to read this jumble of words a few times in my attempt to translate it. What it boils down to is:
Freely give and accept love.
The natural order.
We don’t have to try to love.
Love is all over.
Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.
I have this new visualization I’ve been trying lately. When I explain it, it will probably sound crazy.
When I’m walking down the street, perhaps towards the subway or towards a coffeeshop, whenever I feel the smallest twinge of fear or insecurity, I envision holding my own hand. I imagine a ghost of myself — a version of me who is wholeheartedly confident, caring, and calm — sidling up beside me and knitting her fingers through mine.
It just feels nice. It feels soothing. It feels protective, like a shield shaped from a soft, warm cloud. I’m not sure it feels like love, exactly – I’m still sorting out how self-love really works. It’s something simpler, like love without its undertow, without its wild waves.
That visualization is now my buoy. It’s my reminder that I’m still afloat, even when life feels like drowning. It’s my way of out-swimming spurts of loneliness: a mindful moment of calm reliability and self-directed compassion.
Of Williamsburg’s countless cafes, my favorite for weekday afternoons is Devocion. Like Toby’s Estate, it’s high-ceilinged and sun-sliced, but the energy is different – like a lush, cavernous oasis with its wall of green plants and its soundtrack of Colombian music, secluded on a quiet Brooklyn block.
I like to go with my laptop to work, usually sitting at one of three wobbly outdoor tables, often alone. But last Wednesday, I shared that front porch section with a group of other creatives – a mix of musicians and artists, from what I gathered amidst the tiny tidbits of conversation I caught between editing photos and sending emails.
One guy stood, pulled a piece of chalk from his pocket, and leaned down to sketch a large heart on the sidewalk. Next to it, he wrote “love” in easy shorthand.
“This is what I do all day,” I heard him mention to one of his friends. “Walk around, drawing hearts, writing ‘love.’”
If you live in New York, you’ve seen this graffiti, too. It’s scribbled all across Manhattan. If you haven’t noticed, then the chances are strong that one of your favorite celebrities has – Victoria Beckham, for example.
“You’re the one who does these?” I asked. “What’s the story behind the hearts?”
He used to work at a bakery, and one day, he dotted a frosted “i” with a heart. It immediately made him feel better, he said.
It was simple. It just felt nice. It felt soothing.
He started drawing hearts on streets, on sidewalks and walls, in chalk instead of icing. When he considers how many hearts he’s drawn by now and how many times others have shared them on social media, he figures he’s managed to spread love to millions.
Though his work stands out in its magnitude, he’s far from the only artist (professional or otherwise) attracted to the symbol. In winter, I always spot tiny hearts scattered everywhere, etched by countless cold fingertips into fogged cafe windows. I see them scrawled onto dirty backsides of cars, scribbled on walls of public bathrooms. I passed a giant heart carved in a concrete sidewalk in Williamsburg last week – it’s on a block I’ve walked at least a hundred times, but, somehow, I’d never noticed the heart before. Not consciously.
He explained to me that the heart is the body’s strongest muscle. That, in fetuses, the heart develops before the brain. That the heart has its own brain, in a way, with 40,000 neurons. That the heart symbol dates back as far as 3000 BC, modeled after the shape of a leaf.
I suddenly remembered a little girl I passed on the street this summer. At just a few years old and a few feet tall, she wore a checkered dress and protective helmet while her mom trailed behind her, pushing her scooter, because the child had her hands full with two delicate leaves shaped like hearts.
Proverbs 4:23: “Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.”
Humans will always be grabbing at hearts. We all want love to be a graspable lifeboat. And maybe it can be, in its purest and simplest form. Maybe it’s something we can even draw by hand. Maybe there’s a message in every heartbeat: with each pulse, a reminder that that love – as deep and wild as ocean – is what makes us alive.
And this makes me feel lonely and heartened at the same time.
This is such a beautiful post. And it reflects my scarred heart- love interwoven with deception and betrayal, yet what I yearn for above all. Love the scripture as well. Thank you, Leah.
Thank YOU for reading + for sharing your scarred (beautiful) heart with me. <3
This is so beautiful. Your words are really moving. I am going to try holding my own hand this week :-)
Thank you, Jay — let me know if holding your own hand worked for you! :)
Susan Russell says
Wow, Leah! Your writing is so beautiful, and your sentiments so sumptuously expressed. I feel proud to be related to such a talent! Your grandfather Charley would be so proud of your writing and your deep thinking. I have shared your website, name, and essays with several people. I hope they have either contacted you or joined your blog or both! Thank you for the gift of these beautiful essays. Love, Great Aunt Susan