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.

Rivers of Tears, Rivers of Peace

Photomontage: Fox HuntingThe marvels and beauties of the natural world are inevitably balanced by equally intense harshness: death weighs against life, grief against joy, and unease against sanguinity. Angst steals peace. And life continues for all of those who grieve the loss of the dead and dying. We mourn, and we weep rivers of tears.

What do animals do? They suffer all of the losses that humans do, but are denied the relief, the respite of tears. Driving a country roadside at dusk, my husband and I spotted a fox pacing the length of a meadow, back and forth, back and forth, nose in the grasses, intent. A quarter-mile up the road, we saw on the other side a small heap of red-brown fur. It was very small. It was very still. The mother fox was searching for her kit, and when she eventually found it, her hunt would end sorrowfully. We stayed quiet in sadness for her.

What would she do? Sit silent watch? Yip, bark, whine? Surely, after a time, she would return to her den, her other kits; would they, too, feel the loss? It was clear from her search that the mother fox would go to great lengths to protect or find her young, and I can only imagine, from my perspective, that it would be with whatever is the fox’s form of emotion that she would seek, find, and suffer the death of her young. But she would have no tears for it. As much as I dread the causes of them, I am grateful for tears.

For, like the rising flood behind a dam, they signal an immense pressure and an enormity of feeling pent up inside us and growing in heaviness and strength until they are released. When we humans ‘let go’ of a dead loved one or comrade, it is not that we forget or no longer care; it’s that we are able to somehow vent the pressure of the intense, unbearable sorrow and suffering felt at the immediate loss. Tears are a benison in this, the floodgate opened in the bursting dam to permit some physical release of that intensity of sorrow, letting it abate enough to become manageable once more. When I weep, whether for an unknown fox’s kit or for my own lost loves, the river of my tears carries away with it some of my misery and leaves behind a kind of quiet that is washed of grief and open for peace.Digital illo from a photo: River of Tears

Invitation to Inspiration

Photo: Our Sorrows are Our OwnIf Beauty Dwells Inside

If beauty dwells inside the mortal heart

and soul, what dark impediment can be

so strong that we’d forget, incessantly,

to let it rule and be the greater part?

Have bitterness and poverty of care

for good and kindly things the weight and sway

to force the love of beauty out, away,

and leave a wound of emptiness in there?

What fault in us could any cause invent

to trade our greatest gift for grief or hate—

can joy revive, or is it left too late

that we grow wiser, love, create—relent?

Let us let go of emptiness, grow whole

by filling it with Beauty, heart and soul.Photo: Beauty without & within

I’m Dying to Know

Do you dare to think about your own death in reasonable, detached terms? Do you think that’s morbid and grotesque to even consider, or do you find it easy? If you find it easy to contemplate in the abstract, is it because you suffer from depression or are suicidal, or is it simply that you recognize living as an inherently terminal condition?

This is big stuff. Even the clinically depressed are sometimes able to recognize, on those tiny instants of light in the midst of the abysmal dark, that their death, no matter how insignificant and unworthy they may think themselves, will affect others. I know this from experience, and from lots of reading and conversation and observation. I know that even when I was at my lowest—thankfully, not as hideously low as that reached by many, as I know in retrospect—my rational moments told me that no matter how they felt about me, or even if they didn’t notice me at all, when I was alive, everyone who was peripheral to me in any way would have some tidying-up to do after my death. Physical, perhaps, for those to whom body removal and disposal fell, but whatever tiny tasks I was not present to perform anymore would either default to another’s To Do list or leave a gap, incomplete. I realized that I am the butterfly effect, in human form. You are. Every living, breathing being has a space in the universe, a purpose, and however unnoticed in life, has an impact both by living and by dying.

All the same, I feel especially fortunate that in my family, talk about death and dying were far from taboo. It wasn’t all that uncommon to find the dinner table talk veering in that direction, if somebody we knew was unwell or had just died. We didn’t need euphemisms and pussy-footing to protect us from the reality of death. It’s nothing more or less than the inevitable cessation of life, and if we can’t talk about that, we’re stuck dealing with all kinds of petty and logistical nonsense just to get through the process when we’d rather be spending time living and loving each other and getting through the complexities of the occasion with a modicum of grace and humanity.

So my family already knows that I would prefer they donate what they can of my organs or remains to someone who has a better chance of survival and health if I give it to them, or to scientists who can learn how to give future patients that better chance. In fact, the government know this: I’m on the organ-donor registry, should I die unexpectedly or with usable parts intact. My loved ones also know that I’d prefer a minimum of fuss disposing of whatever remains of my physical shell after that, the cheapest and quickest cremation and scattering of my ashes being my top choice. I figure that any Supreme Being capable of inventing the human creature from scratch can easily put me into another, newer shell if and when it’s my turn to exist in any other form, and as for the current body, it’s a good source of recyclable carbon and nutrients to replenish any part of the earth that enjoys a good, tasty meal of ashes, say, my long-loved flowers the irises.

Those close to me also know that I have far less interest in what they do to celebrate or mourn my passing than the still-living will. If the occasion of my death can be used as an excuse for a marvelous concert to raise awareness or funds or mere pleasure for the sake of a musical group, whether my spouse is still alive to conduct or attend such an event or not, that would be lovely. But hey, I’ll still be dead, so y’all can do whatever it is that makes sense to you and I promise I won’t roll in my grave or be a pesky poltergeist or complain in any other way. Still dead, if you didn’t catch my drift.

And that, in fact, is a beautiful thing, and a great comfort to me. I don’t look forward to the actual process of dying or the moment of my death. I’d happily live a long, long life in great health and an approximation of sanity that seems cheery enough to me, before dying for real. But once I do, I feel genuinely confident that none of this worldly stuff will matter to me in the slightest, so as much as I like to “plan” ahead to keep my survivors from any terribly fussy practical matters in the event, I’m not worried. Go ahead and dance on my grave, if there is one. Keep on living. Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. Really.

Digital illo: Mine was a Death's Head

Too Soon

Photo: Blurred by TearsStolen Away

Too soon, cold sorrow steals from me the light

Of promise, of the hope for growing love

Which I had longed to see his mastery of

Bring him to see such stars divide the night

That he might know it possible that day

Was his as much as anyone’s, and keep

Alive, alight, and not succumb to sleep

As refuge from an endlessly dark way,

But my poor strivings—anyone’s, I guess—

Could never generate the power he

Required to light enough so he could see

In such great bleakness any happiness,

And love and hope, invisible and far

From him as he from me, my distant star.Photo: Sorrowful

What Wounds can Teach Us

Cut

Skin, though as taut as rawhide, and as strong,

Still splits under a jagged, cruel knife,

Opens its jaws to scream a gout of life

As blood that would atone and end the wrong—

But wounds, no matter what the cause or source,

Cannot withhold their sorrows or their rage;

Injustice must be shouted off the stage,

So bleed they without pity or remorse—

Break, then, both skin and soul, and sear the heart

Of any who is cognizant of pain;

Who cries for justice and can’t sleep again

‘Til order is restored as at the start—

What’s done cannot be undone should a scar

Reveal the fragile creatures that we are.Digital illustration from a photo: What Wounds can Teach Us

Keeping Watch with Love

Text: BrevityJust because there are designated days (All Saints, Memorial Day, Defence Day, Anzac Day, Volkstrauertag, Poppy Day) for recalling those we’ve lost doesn’t mean in any way that we restrict our respectful, loving and admiring remembrances to those days. Those whom we hold in our hearts remain there, living or not, forever. That’s our path to peace.Digital illustration from a drawing + text: May We All Rest in Peace

The guarantee that we will die, and that all of those we hold dear will die too, means we will do best by finding ways to embrace and recall, most of all, the good and the uplifting things from their lives and ours, and expand on such things for the sake of our finest predecessors’ honor, if not our own.