In 2018, Jen Kramer wanted to find love.
Not the romantic kind; that box is checked.
The kind that lives and works quietly in our midst, often unnoticed, frequently unremarked upon. The kind we sort of take for granted, even as it sustains us. Like oxygen.
"I've never been a New Year's resolution kind of gal," Kramer, 48, said. "But I read an article last year that said, ‘Instead of something arduous, why don't you add something to your life that would be meaningful.' I thought, ‘Huh. That would be fun.'"
She knew she wanted gratitude to be at the center of whatever project she embarked upon.
"Gratitude is about lifting other people," she said, "and I'm a better person when I'm lifting other people."
The final days of 2017 were winding down, and Kramer's aunt, about to face surgery, was on Kramer's mind. Kramer wrote a Facebook post about her.
It became the first installment in what would become Kramer's #yearoflove.
Every day - all 365 (!) of them - Kramer identified a different person to celebrate. Some were family and friends. Some were strangers. Some were people whose paths regularly crossed hers: The gentleman who goes by V and sells her coffee at Dunkin Donuts and always tries to talk her into a bagel. The young man named Xavier who works the register at Mariano's with friendly aplomb. The woman named Norma who works as a custodian in Kramer's office building.
"I didn't have any strategy to whom I picked or why I picked them," she said. "Mostly it was what was overwhelming me in the moment."
At some point, usually toward the end of the day, Kramer would write a short post on Facebook highlighting what that day's person means to her and, more broadly, the world.
"My boyfriend would say, ‘Who you gonna drop the love bomb on today?'" Kramer said.
One day it was Mica, Kramer's waitress at White Palace Grill, who helped Kramer with her Spanish. "She was wrapping up a 12-hour shift, and headed home to study and make dinner for her family," Kramer wrote. "I told her how proud I was of her."
One day it was her friend Robbie, who's fighting a terminal illness. "Your life is an incredible lesson to this world," Kramer wrote. "I cherish you and lift you up, every moment I can."
In February, when Chicago lost the inimitable Paul Bauer, a Chicago Police commander and friend of Kramer's, she dedicated a #yearoflove post to him.
"I keep asking myself, how does a city heal from a tremendous loss like this?" she wrote. "The profound pain felt by those that worked along side him, lived on his street, knew him from [his daughter] Grace's school. And what about the complete strangers that feel equal heartbreak. How do we heal?
"I clearly don't have the answer. But on this, the actual day dedicated to love, all I can come up with is this. That we must keep love at the forefront. Keep loving each other, keep forgiving each other and keep sharing our hearts, no matter the risk. Truth be told, it's all that really matters anyway."
Through loss and triumph, grief and joy, the project was Kramer's North Star.
"In a lot of ways, it's been an experiment in healing," she said. "Somehow, some way, showing love, expressing love, feeling love, exhibiting love has been a way to sort of navigate those moments of sadness - whether it's about a person or a way things used to be or a way we used to treat each other."
When Kramer was 21, her dad died of a massive heart attack. She was at college and never got to tell him goodbye.
"Maybe on some level I'm doing this because I didn't get to say what I wanted to say to my dad," she said. "I didn't get to say what I wanted to say to Paul Bauer."
If today were my last day on Earth, Kramer would think to herself, what would I want to say to this person? That's what she would write in the #yearoflove posts.
"Why don't we say those things to people while they're here?" she said. "Maybe this will be a little lesson to myself and the few people who've sort of followed along. It's easy to be kind, and it's easy to tell people how you feel.
"This was an experiment that absolutely altered the course of my life and the way I go through life," she continued, "and it cost me nothing."
But it paid in dividends.
"Where I went, love showed up," she said. "I took it with me everywhere. I looked for love everywhere. You just have to look."
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