For Valentine's Day, a Conversation with Love Notes Columnist Stephanie K. Hopkins

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Each week, I can hardly wait to see what insights our Love Notes columnist Stephanie K. Hopkins will share about connection and intimacy and love in all its forms. It's like Christmas every week. Well, so today is Valentine's Day, the day we set aside to acknowledge love, not as an alternative to celebrating it every day but as a reminder that we should celebrate it every day. Now, now, don't panic. I'm not suggesting we buy roses and chocolates and spa packages every day, because, of course, that's not how we best express love. So how can we commit to expressing love every day? I sat down with Stephanie to get her insights.

SA: What do you think love is?

SKH: We often think of love as a commodity—something we have or we don’t. But I like to think of it as a way of being in the world, a matter of seeing. We can project all kinds of things onto other people—what we want, what we want them to be, what we are afraid of them turning out to be—it can be a real challenge to see someone as they are. And by as they are, I mean as they are always becoming, for none of us stay exactly the same. We are always changing, and so when we love someone, I think it means, among other things, witnessing and supporting them as they transform and continue to become. Witnessing can be a very powerful act: It says, I see you and you matter.

Of course, there are all kinds of fabulous definitions of love. Anais Nin: “What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever he is.” Love has also been defined as temporary madness, as war, as an uncontrollable force. I think how we love says a lot about our capacity—or our difficulty—to face what is bigger than us. Do we try to control it or repress it?  Or do we respect its power? Do we negotiate its terrain like we might the ocean—diving into it, while understanding that it is greater than us?

SA: Why write about love, why is it an important topic now?

SKH: We are in an age in which it’s too easy to be lazy in our relationships—we call one-line texts and status updates on Facebook “communication.” It’s also too easy to be indifferent. Many people, myself included, have no idea what to do in the face of other’s difficulty and atrocity, and so we can kind of shut down. It’s easier to feel sympathy for abstract “people” than it is to help those who are right in front of us, who might inconvenience us in some way or make us face something unpleasant.

Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, writes about the dangerous side of feeling sympathy from a distance: “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.” Also, sympathy can actually prevent us from doing anything, as we feel like feeling sympathy is enough.

Sympathy is important, but not without empathy, and not without action. Empathy is a deeper experience; it means putting yourself in another’s shoes, entering their suffering temporarily. It requires leaving ourselves, what is safely ours, and experiencing something from another’s perspective. When we feel sympathy, we are still safely within our own shoes, though we can provide assurance and care from this position too.

I write about living out of an ethos of care, which is a way of being loving in the world, which means considering others, taking responsibility for our part, making choices that are mindful, including what we buy and the effects of what we do on the environment, our communities, and individuals. All of this has to do with love.

SA: What do you make of pop culture’s representations of love, as in The Bachelor and Millionaire Matchmaker?

SKH: When I watch The Bachelor, which I do (Oh, do I…), I get scared. I feel like I’m watching a Stepford Wives kind of thing where everybody says the same thing about love. My Boo and I like to act it out sometimes: “You have everything I always wanted in a mate.” “I’m very impressed by you.” “I want the fairy tale ending.” “I feel like a princess.” “I am falling in love with you.”

The Bachelor is the least interesting expression and vision of love. I’m afraid for these people because real love is messy; it’s not something we shop for with a list in our hands. If we think we can control it, or that it’s going to look a certain way, we’ll be blind-sided. We need to treat it like the beast that it is. These shows reflect, to me, our desire to manage and control and compartmentalize. We want to fall in love, but we don’t want to get our hands dirty with it, nor be inconvenienced by it. We can fit it into our schedule as long as it involves a helicopter ride to a glacier, which, by the way, I’ve never done. Maybe I, too, would feel like a princess then, and I’d like it and eat my words.

SA: How would you describe your column?

SKH: My column is not an advice column. I don’t pretend to know what other people should do, although I find that people do ask me for advice often, and I find myself trying to give it to them. But I give it to them out of a place that’s just as much a work-in-progress as where anyone stands.

My column is more meditative. I tell stories, sometimes other people’s and sometimes my own. I ask questions. I try to approach those questions even if I can’t answer them. Writing, for me, is an act of empathy. Sometimes people will tell me stories and when I go home and I’m writing, I take on those events as my own—I try to really put myself in their shoes and imagine it was me with those regrets, me saying those hurtful things, me making those mistakes. And I try to understand why I did it, what I was thinking and what need was underneath those actions. Then I write about it from there. I also write a lot about my own experiences because I feel like it’s very difficult for us all, myself included, to be vulnerable, to face our imperfect selves, and I figure if I can do that on the page for my readers, then maybe I can show them that it’s not so scary. I guess in a way I’m modeling imperfection. And figuring out what is possible from this place.

I strive for being the bigger person, for loving generously, but I know that this is really hard. I feel jealousy and envy; I want to be right; I want things or people so badly sometimes that I feel like I temporarily lose my mind; I do all of that. I guess maybe I’m not afraid to do it in public, as long as I can use my own (sometimes humiliating) experiences to reach some kind of insight, some kind of hope. And if I can laugh at myself, even better.

SA: What do you hope to achieve through your columns?

SKH: I hope to make people more mindful of love, more hopeful. I think my columns are “real”— I am a dreamer and a romantic, but I’m also realistic about the challenges and difficulties of love. I want to find evidence of love in the world and hopefully inspire others to do the same—to see moments of love and opportunities for care. I also hope to inspire people to not be afraid to face themselves and their shadow selves (the darker parts of ourselves that we often try to repress), while at the same time, to be more forgiving of themselves.

SA: How do you come up with stuff every week to write about?

SKH: When I first started writing the column, I had no idea how I was going to come up with something every week. I was terrified. If you recall, there were even some weeks I tried to weasel out of it or make it an every other week thing, but you were firm in your deadlines for me and that really helped. Initially I would start by writing down everything I could think of that happened that week or that someone told me or that I overheard, and I would just pick something from that list and commit to it. The more I began writing about love, the more I saw and heard about love in the world—writing about it shifted my attention. And as a bartender, of course, people tell me things all the time. Plus when anyone finds out I’m a love columnist, often the first thing they say is, “Have I got a story for you!” Now I notice things all the time and I trust that when I sit down to write, something will come to me—usually it’s something that feels most pressing or urgent at that moment, something I’m trying to understand.

SA: Who are some of your inspirations and influences?

SKH: I adore Anais Nin. She was a dreamer and a mystic, and she was committed to the beautiful and the miraculous. I love Joan Didion’s fearless ability to face and take responsibility for herself and her actions. I continually return to her essay, “On Self-Respect” to remind me of the person I want to be. And I am in awe of Cheryl Strayed for her Dear Sugar column for The Rumpus. She’s brilliant. And she’s not afraid to lay herself bare in order to get at the deeper truth her readers need to hear. All three women are/were brilliant writers, as well as being fearless, self-aware, unafraid of struggle, and capable of deep, deep care.

SA: What about people who are alone this Valentine’s Day and feel like love doesn’t exist or doesn’t exist for them?

SKH: This is a hard question. On the one hand, I want to say things to pull people out of despair. We have a habit of thinking that whatever is true for today is going to be this way forever. Like, if we are alone today, then we are going to be alone for the rest of our lives. This is not true! It’s the way our minds forecast the future out of fear. I also want to say: spend the day with friends or family who love you. Also, this is practice being vulnerable. The more we make peace with vulnerability, the less we are afraid of it and can love from a place of courage.

But, I also want to acknowledge that sometimes we just need to be sad, and sometimes we need to feel sorry for ourselves, and that’s okay. So what I don’t want to do is give all this advice that ends up making someone feel worse because they just can’t snap out of it and be positive. If you feel the need to wallow, then wallow. Eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s! Play sad, sappy music that brings everybody else down! Just don’t get stuck there. And remember that love is a practice; it requires self-discipline like any other practice, so you might not snap out of feeling bad on your own. Waiting for love to come along and save you is neither realistic nor desirable, it places too much pressure on love, and on the person who does come along. It’s The Bachelor kind of love, but most likely the helicopter is going to be a Honda or it might even be a bus, so go easy on it when it arrives.

SA: What are some of the biggest mistakes we make when it comes to love?

SKH: We hold other people responsible for our lives, our feelings. We want them to save us. We think that love gives us rights to another person. We stop seeing them for who they are and we project our own desires and needs onto them. We let our fears take over, and often we create the problems we fear. We can make people smaller when we feel threatened by their growth. Let each other be as big as you both dare to become.

SA: If you could give one piece of advice to someone seeking to find love, what would it be?

SKH: Set out to love and be loving rather than to find love. It’s a vulnerable place, but it’s also a tremendously powerful place.

SA: As a bartender, you must hear a lot of stories. What’s the most romantic thing you’ve seen or heard?

SKH: Someone proposed one night. We played their song just as he was about to propose. He had the server bring the ring to the table with the dessert. We were all excited because we were part of it. I love that—making the immediate community part of and witness to your love. Even the cynical were teary-eyed that night. You couldn’t help it.

SA: What’s next for the Love Notes girl?

SKH: I am thinking of doing “Love Lectures”—audio mediations on love. I’m told I have a soothing voice, though when I was a teacher, some students said it was my voice that made them fall asleep in class—Ha! I’m still shy about giving advice because I’m fumbling around just as much as anybody else is, but there seems to be a hunger for advice that takes into account our messy human nature. So we’ll see!

Photo credit: qthomasbower / Foter.com / CC BY

Stephanie writes short stories, non-fiction, and young adult fiction. She recently finished a young adult novel, "Edge of Seventeen," and is working on a memoir about her adventures as an ex-professor turned bartender. You can reach her by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  and follow her on Twitter @stephaniehop1.

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