We all want more love. Between seeking it, courting it, and nurturing it, we spend the better part of a lifetime engaged in an all-out quest for affection. We yearn for partners who adore us, kids who worship us, friends and colleagues who celebrate us, even a cat who chooses to curl up on our side of the bed. Taught to see love as something that happens when we're good and deserving, we're utterly lost without it.

The search leaves us at the mercy of circumstance. If we're connected to the source of our longing, we're "in" love. When the connection is broken, we're "out." We don't think of love as existing on its own -- but it does. Love transcends the people and things that pass through our lives as well as the ups and downs of relationships. It's an entity in itself, an enduring, unwavering presence. When we choose to live -- and love -- unconditionally, embracing ourselves, other people, even the world at large, we find freedom. We feel at once more rooted and grounded, confident and buoyant, less vulnerable to stress, fear, anxiety, disappointment, and jealousy. In a word, we become our optimal selves.

With an eye on Valentine's Day, we asked a former Fulbright Scholar, a prize-winning novelist, a celebrated journalist, a pop-culture diva, and The New York Times "Modern Love"-column editor to share their thoughts on love. They look at the phenomenon from their personal perspectives, peeling back the wrapping to expose the gift itself. What you'll find in their moving stories is that love plays a far greater role than any single moment or person can contain. Rather, it's a force that piques our curiosity, tests our instincts, and surprises us-even when we have known it all our lives.

At Home in the Land of the Beautiful, by Emily Rapp

(Emily Rapp is a core faculty member in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is the author of "Poster Child: A Memoir.")

Before I moved to Los Angeles, I had none of the following: A personal trainer, a nutritionist, an acupuncturist, a psychiatrist, a massage therapist, a celebrity hairstylist, an astrologer. But within weeks of moving into my Santa Monica apartment, I'd hired one of each. After two years of living in artists' colonies and university towns on the East Coast, I arrived in LA with a job but no friends. I was soon overcome with powerful envy of the women here with their tanned, taut flesh, their trendy hair, their casually hip designer clothes. Life in LA as a 31-year-old divorced woman with an artificial leg (my foot was removed when I was four due to a congenital defect) suddenly felt like a recipe for social isolation. How would I make friends if I didn't look right? How would I date? How would I compete? I quickly assembled a team of professionals to get me into more acceptable shape.

Seeing my body as a project was nothing new. As a child, there were trips to the prosthetist for fittings of my wooden leg; as a teenager, the all-consuming maintenance of an abstemious lifestyle; as an adult, high-intensity fitness training. But what I realized now as I shuffled off to see my trainer, nutritionist, and hairstylist was that the lobbies and salons brimmed with other women who felt just as I did -- like imposters in this land of the beautiful. After conversations with a few of them (some of whom have since become friends), I realized something surprising: We all thought we could somehow make ourselves perfect, which was why we all waited our turn in the stylist's chair, on the therapist's couch, on the acupuncturist's table. We hoped to trim and talk and poke ourselves into a perfect state, one we might never quite achieve, even with a lifetime's worth of appointments. It was the insecurity, not my body, that was the real problem. I decided to keep the trainer and the psychiatrist and drop the rest.

On most days, I feel fit, active, and sometimes euphoric. Oddly enough, I feel more at home in Los Angeles than I have in any place I've ever lived before. My hair looks fine; my qi feels well-distributed; the planets continue to spin. I've built a life replete with friends, work, colleagues, art, intellect -- and, yes, even dates. I walk along the palm-tree-lined streets of Santa Monica or past the flashy high-rise buildings on Wilshire or through the mosaic-filled parks of East Los Angeles and think: This body is mine, and it's alive in this city. And I'm overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude that feels a lot like love.

Love on a Leash, by Liesel Litzenburger

(Liesel Litzenburger wrote "The Widower" and "Now You Love Me.")

Thirty and single, I moved back to Michigan, where I grew up. A loop of questions played over and over in my mind, and they all seemed to begin with "why": Why wasn't I more settled? Why didn't my life look more like I expected it to look? Why wasn't I in a serious relationship?

My friend Camille's advice was simple. "Get a dog," she said. A dog!? I couldn't have a dog. I didn't have a yard. My job required that I travel, stay out late, move. A dog? I didn't own a house. I liked my freedom. A dog? Maybe when I had kids -- not now. A dog was number four or five in the life plan, not one. But Camille was insistent. "You need a dog. Then you can worry about the house, the guy, the kids, whatever you want in life. But first, the dog. Trust me."

Camille hadn't wanted a dog either. One day, though, a man she barely knew approached her in a park with his beautiful golden retriever. He was dying of cancer. "I know you'll love her just as much as I do," he said, gently placing the leash in her hand. Camille accepted and grew to love Roxie as much as anyone has ever loved a dog.

A few weeks later, I pushed past my fears and adopted a dirty, half-starved puppy from the local animal shelter. Found abandoned in a parking lot, she'd been scheduled for euthanasia the day before, but the worker who put down unwanted animals called in sick. The dog melted into my shoulder as I carried her away. Outside, free at last from her cage, she took huge happy breaths, rolled on the grass, stared up at the sky. I named her Flora. Years later, I love her more than I can explain. Some days I rest my forehead against her warm dog forehead and send her my best thoughts. She does the same. Love is always there; Flora reminded me of this. I bought a house so Flora could have a yard. Later, I met a wonderful man and fell in love. There's more, of course -- all of it out of my preconceived life order. "Try to love the questions themselves," the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. Camille was right. Love the parts of life that have no answers. And get a dog.

Barb and Me, by Peggy Orenstein

(Peggy Orenstein is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine.)

I met my true love at age 10 on the ski slopes of eastern Minnesota. We were the two most hopeless cases in our Snow Bunnies class. Kismet works in mysterious ways: Three years later, we landed in the same seventh-grade home-ec class. The scarf she made for a final project came out shaped like a rhombus. I reknit it for her, and we were tied together as buddies for life.

When we think about love, we think about the melding of intimacy and passion. This isn't that story. What Barb is, what she's been for more than 30 years, is my best friend -- my anchor, not my rocket ship. Ours is the template I've brought to all subsequent relationships -- with men, with other women friends. Perhaps because of that, I've gone through life with few confidants, and that's fine by me. It's rare to find someone else who measures up. Barb has borne witness to every big event of my life. It was Barb who celebrated the publication of my first article and the birth, so hard won, of my only child. It was Barb who sent Hershey's Kisses when I was recuperating from a broken heart and coloring books when I was recuperating from breast cancer. And it's Barb, I swear to you, who's calling as I write this sentence, because she always knows when I'm thinking of her. Though I'm grateful that she'd risk our friendship rather than lie, I cringe whenever she asks, "Do you really want to know what I think?" Once, after she demanded I leave a destructive relationship, I didn't speak to her for months, not until I was ready to admit she was right. She never said, "I told you so."

After that, I looked for a lover who'd treat me as well as she did. In my husband, that's what I eventually found.But as much as I love him, I'm a practical gal. I've read the stats: Women almost always outlive their mates. So when the menfolk go, Barb and I have a plan: We'll spend our golden years together in the Jewish little old ladies' home back in Minneapolis. That will be us in the corner of the cafeteria, playing mah-jongg and giggling over the cute male orderlies. That will be us, still acting like 13-year-olds after all these years.

The State of Connecting, by Sally Horchow

(Sally Horchow, a popular lifestyle and trend expert, coauthored "The Art of Friendship: 70 Simple Rules for Making Meaningful Connections.")

Love may be a "many-splendored thing," but it's also a many-misunderstood one. "Don't worry," people intoned during the lonely years before I met my husband. Skeptically, I listened as they sang their choruses of "It'll happen!" -- or worse, "When you least expect it, expect it." I was never standing by, not expecting it. I looked and yearned and hoped for it. When it came, it was because I had worked for it. When it came, I was ready. That's the real lesson of love, I think: It's not something you wait for the world to bestow upon you. It's something you work toward. But not as you would the gold ring (or, in my aforementioned search, a diamond one) -- rather, as in a kind of meditation. Love exists in a constant state of practice. Love is life's work, a state of mind you strive for, not attain.

As I eventually found out, the process of finding love is not unlike finding a friend. You listen, you express yourself, you follow up. And you keep an open mind. I've found friends in shy wallflowers, mean professors, and complete opposites of my other friends. They've appeared in crowded airports, at the frozen food section, and in jobs I hated. I made these friends because I live in a constant state of connecting. The thing is, we all do. We're human. But it's when we make a conscious effort to render these encounters meaningful that we begin to practice connection as an art.

When I finally did meet my husband, he was someone I had great conversations with, someone I could depend on, someone who liked me -- warts and all. He was and is a really cute, funny, sweet, smart, well, friend. That's a part of love I never expected.

Curious Love, by Daniel Jones

(Daniel Jones is the editor of "The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom," an anthology of essays on contemporary relationships.)

As the editor of the New York Times "Modern Love" column, I've read thousands of accounts of people's tireless search for love. They find it and lose it, face death and divorce, go on dates with whackos and dreamboats. Some lead seemingly ideal lives, while others face constant heartbreak and turmoil. But among these stories, one constant shines through. The people who lead lives of love aren't necessarily those who marry soul mates or have the exact number of children they want. They are, instead, those who approach the mess of life with curiosity and a hunger to understand, learn, and embrace.

A friend of mine discovered this in retrospect, after he'd agonized for years about whether or not he and his wife should have children. Would being a father bring more love into his life, or simply more obligation? Would it free him or suffocate him? He tried desperately to figure out the answer, but of course it's impossible (even with the help of sophisticated spreadsheet software) to quantify the intangibles of a life experience you haven't yet had. Ultimately he and his wife did have children, two of them, and discovered a kind of love that he couldn't have imagined or predicted. The lesson so intrigued him that he went on to conduct a full-fledged study of other men who had wrestled with the same decision. His conclusion? Those who tried to determine, as he had, whether becoming a parent would be a plus or a minus tended to struggle. But those who approached fatherhood -- and everything else -- with a powerful curiosity were most likely to be happy with their decision, and ultimately, their lives. Obvious, right? But it's also profound in what it says to me about the nature of love. Not only is it unquantifiable and unpredictable, but in order to have more of it, you need to greet it with a curious mind and an open heart. Rather than try to calculate which actions will yield more love, you embrace the choices you make and the unexpected things that happen to you for what they are. And while an open heart won't shield you from pain (in fact, quite the opposite), it will bring you in direct and frequent contact with the force of love in your life -- and all the richness that comes with it.


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