Love in all the wrong playlists

Cutting Room Floor

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As someone raised in the wreckage of an all-consuming divorce, it’s safe to say that I have my reservations about love, although I don’t doubt the existence of love in its entirety. Rather, I believe love is an active choice, a series of actions and hard work that eclipse the traditional notion of a feeling.

Growing up in a traditional South Indian household, hearing the word “love” tossed around at ease amongst my American friends made me nervous. That’s not to say that I didn’t experience love — my mother, sister and I simply never said “I love you” to one another because those words never seemed to be enough.

I like to joke that I’m emotionally constipated — even as a writer, it’s difficult for me to express my most vulnerable thoughts as coherent statements. For me, words have never been a powerful enough medium to convey something as fragile as love. The only way that I have ever been able to convey such an emotion is through the act of sharing music.

When we were younger, my sister and I would park ourselves in front of our Sony desktop every day after school and watch our favorite music videos on YouTube, singing along and fighting over what video we would play next. Despite working long hours, my mother somehow always managed to tuck me into bed and hum a traditional Telugu song to me each night. As a family, we spent the weekends doing chores and listening to my mother’s collection of Hindi music from the ‘60s, songs I still listen to today when I’m feeling homesick.

It wasn’t long before I started making playlists for my closest friends in high school as a way of sharing new music I had discovered. Now, many years and many faces later, my Spotify library is filled to the brim with public and private playlists like “// not your gran’s vapid pop //” and “it’s winter, my love” each one curated and housed by me but belonging to other people.

Each playlist tells a shared story, capturing the finite moments, both mundane and extraordinary, that encapsulate the mess of emotions swirling in my head when I think of a person I love. As someone who has never believed in the elusive feeling of love, the playlists I have generated over the years are remnants of my attempts to convey love as an action.

I have made playlists to express empathy for friends experiencing heartbreak and to convey the homesickness perpetually pulling at my brain. I have created playlists to show my affection for the handful of men who have managed to chip away at my hard brick exterior and reveal the soft, vulnerable girl hiding underneath.

These playlists hold everything I have ever experienced, from the utter joy I felt laughing and screaming with friends on a spontaneous beach day to the churning I felt in my stomach during a fumbled kiss in the dark that I knew would be our last.

Not every playlist is an infinite symphony of the love I have shared with those around me. Some playlists have been cut short, buried in the depths of my library, rising to the surface only on rainy days when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic for the laughter and familiar touch of someone who may have walked away long ago.

Despite my attempts to convince myself otherwise, my seemingly methodical approach to love as a set of actions leaves me feeling just as vulnerable as the supposed feeling of love. With each playlist I construct, each song I so lovingly arrange in succession, I give away a part of myself — I trust people with access to some of the most intimate emotions that have ever graced my body and my brain. And often, when I share these pieces of myself with people who cannot afford to reciprocate my vulnerability, I’m left with the harrowing feeling that my actions of love have been wasted.

Even now, when one of my closest friends texts me “goodnight, love u” to close our conversations every evening, I can’t help but hesitate before shooting back “Love you too.” What does it mean to tell her that I love her, I wonder, when I can’t even convince myself that love is a feeling? Then I try to remember how I felt while making her a playlist titled “simp SO hard.” And that’s when I know that I love her.

These days, I have been working on constructing my own playlist, perhaps as a method of conveying a newfound love for myself that has arisen from the ashes of love’s past. From Khalid and Kevin Abstract to DRAMA and Solange, my playlist captures the bitter finiteness of some of the loves I have experienced and the beautiful infiniteness of those loves that make up the soundtrack of my life. There are tracks commemorating the numerous playlists I’ve generated over the years, embodying warm embraces and first kisses, unending laughter and inevitable tears.

This playlist in all of its misshapen and overgrown glory has built a living, breathing life of its own; it has evolved into a composite of songs and artists that is a permanent work in progress. It is a reflection of the family, friends and romantic interests I’ve encountered over the years who have all made me practice the act of love at its fullest. My playlist is a commemoration of the growing pains I have endured through love and loss, a record of my vulnerability. And it is gloriously infinite.

Contact Manisha Ummadi at [email protected]. Tweet her at @mrummadi.