Repeat after Me: I Like You. I Love You.

Digital illo from a graphite drawing: Love Letter #14Maybe it’s the approach of the fourteenth of February that does it, but I seem to hear relationship talk everywhere I go these days. Maybe it’s because the university (where my husband teaches, conducts, and works alongside singers and musicians of every level both as students and fellow College of Music employees) is in the midst of vetting and hiring a wave of new musicians and administrators to fill in the blanks as faculty and staff move to other positions or retire. Maybe it’s simply because I’m always attuned to what works and what doesn’t, as a person whose relationships shape my life in every way. Very nearly all of them for the better, thankfully!

In any event, whether St. Valentine is listening in or not, it strikes me that there are a huge number of three-little-word combinations that make relationships tick. Some, sadly, tick like bombs about to detonate. Those that tick along like a well-oiled machine tend to avoid the trios of words that begin and end with “I” and “you” but have negatives in the middle, even if that’s what the parties are feeling is most realistic at the moment. “I hate you” or any variant thereof has little hope of communicating anything other than that the speaker is not equipped to reason out of a problem, and whether that arises from sheer, stubborn, stupid self-centeredness or from lack of experience and skills, it would be wise for any of us to attempt to learn and use the necessary tools for genuine two-way communication. The risk of not doing so is far higher than the implosion of that one relationship, though surely that alone should be reason enough to try. Every being with whom we share oxygen in our finite little lives has the power to bring richness and beauty to our existence, or to crush our very ability to see and experience such things.

I know that’s a mighty far-reaching claim, but think about it: every successful interaction or failure on your part colors not only your mood of the moment or day but your ability to rise up on the next ready for joy or expecting disaster. You, in turn, reflect this attitude on those others around you, and while that poison or elixir-of-happiness is rippling away from you in concentric, if eccentric, rings, it is passed along in ever-increasing circles that will always find their way back in one sense or another. Some name this Karma, some Luck, some Destiny, and some, The Golden Rule. But if you can’t pull up your socks and look trouble in the eye and take pity on it with a rational yet heartfelt conversation or ten, you’ve not earned your right to complain about it.

Rational yet heartfelt, I say.

It does no one any good to have a weepy, foot-shuffling, embarrassed, or even joyfully conciliatory moment of rapprochement, no matter how deeply felt, if it isn’t given clear thought and the foundation for future prevention of recurrence. It certainly won’t fix any damage to plan it all out and chart the full course of the détente if it’s insincere or only marginally acceptable to one or more parties to the agreement. If your heart’s not in it, take the time to figure out why—preferably together—and fix the underlying problems before settling the current dustup.

An old but tried-and-true way of saying what one can’t seem to convey coherently in the heat of an argument or when just overwhelmed with emotions is to write everything you’re thinking and feeling down, set it aside for a short period (preferably overnight), and come back to review it. Clarify, edit, and make it say as honestly and fully as possible how you’re feeling and why you think that’s so. Consider whether your partner—at work, home, or play—would be able to understand your view of things better if that essay or letter were in front of him or her. Have you presented your thoughts as calmly and factually as possible, no matter how emotional the content? Did you state things with fair ownership, making sure that it’s transparent to anyone that these are your feelings and interpretations of the situation and that you take responsibility for them? Can you speak without assuming that all of the blame lies either outside or inside yourself, but realizing that perhaps both parties might need to concede a little in order to have a meeting of the minds? Do you admit that you might not even meet in the middle all of the time, sometimes needing to be the one who concedes more ground and others, being met more than halfway? Are you obsessed with being right or 100% satisfied, or can you allow that someone else with a wholly different feeling or goal might be equally entitled to those different emotions, tastes, or wishes? If you can add those recognitions to the ‘document’ before you, why not do it.

Then read again. Is this something that, if shared in humility and a genuine desire to find common ground, could become the basis for a kinder, more thoughtful and productive conversation? Maybe you’ll even want to share it with your counterpart, but unless you promise yourself never to do so as an attack on your partner’s integrity, personal sense of  worth, and human value, think first about how you’d feel on the receiving end. Isn’t that the point, anyway? To find a way to understand how your relations feel and what you’d want if you were in their shoes? If it isn’t, then I’d venture that it’s not a real relationship but the desire to make someone meet your needs and wishes. A person seen as a toy or tool for your convenience and pleasure is not a relationship, whether it’s pragmatic or romantic to you or, no, you’re actually absolutely lacking in empathy.

You probably wouldn’t even be reading this if that last were true. The only exception I can imagine is if you’re interested in developing empathy, or mimicking it, and frankly, either of those beats going without, in my estimation.

So what is the real goal in relationships? I would say that it’s mutual benefit. What are the possible benefits? Endless. In a work relationship—office, school, community, organization—it’s the ability to be more productive as a result of combining complementary skills and knowledge or merely by virtue of doubling or further increasing the work force. Yet more: it’s also the ability to grow and succeed in the business at hand because the combined companionship and efficiency of a strong, smoothly working team allows more creative and meaningful thinking as well as better energy for the moment.

In friendship and love, I tend to think the goals needn’t be all that different. If romance or lust is the only commonality, for a minuscule few that might be enough, but for most of us it’s a relatively small part of the daily equation. Temperate, even affectionate, converse is a fine place to start and end. If our words are considered for their impact on the recipients, the respect for their beliefs and feelings, needs and wishes, they will not only effect a positive response but can reinforce the alliance and mutual admiration. It doesn’t matter if the language if flowery and poetic, or if the thoughts seem original.

What matters is that you are willing to say, consistently and regularly, some positive form of “I _____ you” to your partner, with modesty, commitment, honesty, patience, and kindness. What does your partner want from you? Most likely, the same basic things you want from your partner: respect, liking, sympathy, empathy, care for one’s well-being. I like you. I admire your intelligence, your beauty inside and out, your accomplishments. I respect your ideas, your hopes and dreams. I am sorry for your sorrows, even the ones that I can’t fathom because they aren’t obviously situational. I recognize that your pain and joy are real, and that I am a part of them. I had my feelings hurt, but I forgive you, and I crave your forgiveness in return when I’ve been thoughtless or foolish, too. I want to protect you from whatever you fear. I hope that you will always be confident in my faith in our partnership and that what I do will show my desire to make your life better. I value your opinion and will ask for it when I’m contemplating a decision. It affects us both! If all of that isn’t crystal-clear, I hope that you will always feel welcome to tell me your needs and desires and to ask me about mine and respond positively to them. I love you.

And whenever you can summon the courage to do so, say it out loud. Trust me, if it’s true it never gets dull. I like you. I love you. I wish you well in all things. I am thankful that you and I are partners in this. Life is good, isn’t it.

Kath & Mouse

I’ve been blogging daily just long enough, now, that I find it impossible to remember every post I’ve put up thus far, never mind any larger percentage of my life’s epic episodes. It’s nice that many of those events and adventures eventually reappear, at least in teeny-tiny increments, in my shadowy, foggy memory, but I suppose it’s far from essential. We all lose traction in the paths of life at times, and get by as best we can in spite of it all.

Maybe hanging out with the next-door kitty cats so much lately has distracted me a bit more than usual and I can blame their attentions for my current inability to recall if I have posted this little set before; perhaps my brain is already pretty furry anyhow. It hardly matters. I’ll just give you another look. Or a first one. It’s all just a tad cat-and-mouse anyway, what we do here on a day-to-day basis, isn’t it.Drawing + text: Cat and Mouse

Memory is such a volatile, ephemeral, thing, and so subject to filters and interpretation. Like human history in general, if I may say. When I wrote this, I certainly wasn’t expecting (let alone happy to contemplate) that Differentness—racial, gender-related, cultural, and so forth—would still be such unfunnily real divisive poisons in the current day and age. I hope that this will one day be only the humorously cartoonish tale it was designed to be, when I posted it before (if I have), when I blog it today (as I will), and whenever I post it again (for I might very possibly do it all over again, consciously or forgetfully. Ha. Joke’s on me.

Drawn to Dragons

This is yet another of my obvious addictions: the otherworldly or fantastical. I can’t stay away from dragons and faeries, aliens and archetypes, for any great length of time.

Thankfully, I seem to be in good company in this regard. So I doubt I’m either shocking anyone or even likely to bore them with it too terribly, since those not equally smitten will happily ignore or delete my many posts containing such curiosities. I’m also happy that, because of the very unfettered nature of the topic, I will never run out of subject matter for my drawings when I feel it’s time to get back in that gear.

It might be that I am something of a fantastical creature myself, of course, so perhaps that helps to explain my affinity with other denizens of the unknown realms. (Grins to self, scribbling away as usual.)Drawing: Enter the [Spaniard's] Dragon

Transitory or Transitional

Pen & ink drawing: Transitory or TransitionalMy spouse, in his combined capacities as a natural-born teacher and a lifelong curious learner himself, is constantly reading, studying, talking shop with others both in and out of his field of music, and cogitating inwardly and through his writing about ways to grow and improve. I am neither a born teacher nor as dedicated and skillful a learner as he is, but I have, I think, grown a fair amount in my appreciation of what quantities and depth of effort it takes to improve oneself, let alone help others to improve themselves, in any chosen course of study. One of the things that intrigues me is that, as in so many areas of life’s experiences, the macro and the micro aspects of learning and, in turn, teaching, always ebb and flow: it takes a multitude of tiny pieces of knowledge and/or effort to make any significant larger ones, and the large ones must generally be reduced to smaller and more manageable parts in order to be changed, eliminated, or simply learned, as well.

In a day’s rehearsal for an upcoming concert, it’s marvelous to see and hear what occurs as a major composition is broken down into its component parts and those parts studied and practiced and rehearsed in detail, bit by bit, but also to realize that the individual parts have no beauty or meaning unless also studied in the context of the whole. Fixing one small phrase or chord at a time can be a portion of the improvement process, but if that’s all that happens, then the performance will never have any cohesion or sense of drama but will forever remain a collation of essentially separate and unrelated atoms that happened to be sounded in the same room on the same night. Playing or singing through transitions—the places where one phrase or larger idea in a composition ends and the next begins—is a way in which my conductor husband helps his choirs, orchestras, and other performers to experience and express the whole of the story more convincingly themselves, and thus bring an audience into the flow of the work as well.

Music is a wonderful vehicle for individual experience of the aesthetic, emotional, artistic, and ephemeral aspects of existence, and as such is a grand gift. But when it becomes a communal, communicative experience rather than only an isolated solo, it has incredible power for building relationships between people, ideas, cultures, lives. When it is a bit of a song, hummed or played on the street, in the car, at work in the kitchen, it can cheer or soothe, feed or please; when it is a performance of a major musical work in concert, in a musical or opera, an oratorio or a middle school end-of-year concert that has many participants and has been labored over with passion by all of them through a string of intense rehearsals, its power is magnified and resonates for a long, long time to come. It’s as though the practice of singing or playing through the transitions from one passage to another of that single composition has expanded into life, letting the dissonances and harmonies, the threads of meaning and the ecstatic shimmer of aural beauty, all remain in the air and in our spirits long after the last notes have gone silent, carrying us through the transition from art into life with renewed depth and purpose.