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.

Rough & Ready

Photo: Rough & Ready 1

Feeling ragged as an old mop lately? I rely on my cadre of kindly supporters to help me untangle my life.

If you’ve been reading the posts hereabouts in the last few days, you know I am no tough customer. I quailed as much at the thought of waking my poor sleepy spouse up in the middle of the night as at having him take me to the emergency room, let alone facing the fear of the unknown pain in my guts. And that was all for what might be the least horrific attack from a kidney stone in history, for all I know. Certainly I am as stunned (albeit happily so) as the follow-up caller from the surgical center when I say that I haven’t taken so much as an over-the counter mild painkiller since emerging from the happy haze of anesthesia yesterday afternoon.

The mountains of incredibly, indelibly kind and compassionate notes and calls I’ve received since airing my tiny miseries to you all are a true embarrassment of riches. I am grateful beyond your imaginings for the uplifting warmth and steadiness of your collective response to my discomfort and fears, and I treasure that surrounding goodness more than I can ever adequately say. But I feel more than a little sheepish, too, for being such a baby when I know that many, many who have offered such sweet and patient care and thoughtfulness to me in my weakness have also suffered far worse pain, deeper trials, and greater danger than anything I’ve faced in my whole charmed existence.

I look around me at the heroics of the people I love and admire, the friends, neighbors, and  companions who go about your business in the guise of ordinary mortality and hiding your bravery and strength behind the rugged facades of everyday occurrence, and I am slightly abashed. Slightly abashed, and very moved. You lay down your work and take time out of your already busy days to send off a word of comfort, an ethereal hug, a generous thought in my direction, and suddenly I feel myself filling with strengths and hopes that were not my own to begin with, and I am touched to the core with joy at my wealth and good fortune.

I am not nearly bold enough to manage the easiest of lives without endless help. You, who are so much more rough and ready in spirit, are always there to offer it to me. I thank you.

Photo: Rough & Ready 2

Whenever I feel like I’ve been tied to the railroad tracks, my friends come riding in to save the day.

Going Viral, Part 2: The End of Civilization as We Thought We Knew It

Digital illo from photos: Self-Destruct Mode

Self-destruct mode is easy. Living wisely is hard.

While I’ve been having my tawdry fever-dream worries about unequal health care and expanding populations competing for dwindling resources amid name-calling politicians, suspicious citizenry, and fearful doomsday announcers, there are plenty of other aspects that nag at me as parts of the larger knotty problem. (Aside: is it knotty of me to point that out in the first place?) How do we reconcile the desire for a well-balanced, healthy, safe, educated, and relatively comfortable populace with those ever growing numbers?

This planet is finite. I hear highly educated people saying that we have both the brain power among the best of our species to make our equally finite natural resources capable of stretching to serve the needs of the whole world’s population. I hear some of these same bright lights claiming that the potential is here and now ready to enable humans to live far longer than the current average. I’ve no delusions of mathematical or scientific adequacy, let alone grandeur. But my limited powers of discernment and logic make me skeptical of the veracity and practicability of these claims; even more so, dubious of their desirability. Explain to me why I’m supposed to be so excited to live 300 years.

I’m not too enthralled with the idea of outliving many of my beloved family, friends, and favorite connections, whether the latter are places or experiences that eventually become outmoded or impossible for any reason. Not crazy about having to expand my thinking to find ways to occupy and better myself for not just decades but tens of them. And where’s the appeal in living a zillion years if I have to work three-quarters of a zillion to keep myself in milk and cookies? I have little faith that the American Social Security system will sustain me through the span of a now-typical life in comfort, let alone the attenuated sort being proposed. Where is the food, water, shelter, and acreage necessary to support more of us for so much longer going to be found? If I don’t die for lack of some such thing, will I languish in boredom until I wish I could die? No, really, I’m asking.

If even a sizable handful of humans live that long, I’m inclined to think their wish for such expansive longevity has less to do with all of the additional goodness they can shower on the world and its inhabitants than with how much more they believe the world and all of its inhabitants can do for or give to them. If even a couple of those millegenarians succeeded, I don’t imagine them skipping around the globe and tossing vials of AIDS cures like rose petals out to the milling crowds of children who have been born infected, or composing chorales so mystically entrancing that everyone in earshot will suddenly burst into united song and lay down their enmities, forgotten for eternity. I have more of a pessimistic image of them spending their length of days and years figuring out ways to acquire, win, or steal more, to hoard more, use more, and waste more—without being called to account for it all. Oligarchy is the longest socioeconomic tradition I can discern in human history, and I don’t think any opportunist able to spend more years perfecting that pursuit would likely be inclined to do otherwise. In fact, I would guess that those best able to push their way first in line to receive the treatment and support it will take to live 300 years will already be wealthier than the vast majority.

So what might we get? A rebellion from the planet’s resources themselves, perhaps, like the accelerated depletion of space for the competing needs of farming, manufacture, and residence that outstrip the miniaturization and optimization of those physical systems. What happens is not inevitably so, but historically speaking, it’s typically competition and division. Somebody wins, and more somebodies, both human and other, animate and not, lose. And, also in the long historical tradition, it’s the rich and privileged who win and the poor and disadvantaged who lose. No matter what you think of Darwin and evolution, by the way, there’s plenty of recorded and even remembered history to demonstrate that riches and privilege are no more a guarantee of moral fitness and communal palatability than poverty or lack of resources ever proved that one was inherently rotten or nasty.

Do we just lie back and let chance decide everyone’s fate, with a good shove from the encouraging hand of whoever can afford it to favor their own interests? Sounds to me like a good starter recipe for fomenting an increased appetite for eugenics and eventual genocide. I would hope that we could learn to prefer a taste for a good, balanced stew of self-restraint, collective and collaborative work for the widest benefit, compassion for the weak, and the kind of independence that’s less about cache-building and stockpiling and fortresses, more about how each of us can supply more of our own needs without denying  others’, and how one person’s brilliance can be harnessed to shed light on the widest possible sectors of life.

If we’re too preoccupied with how to get other people to conform to our beliefs and ideas, how to keep our Stuff safe from anyone else using or benefiting from it, and how to make more room for more and better Stuff solely for ourselves, none of this is going to happen. I tend to think that few of us who are safe and well-fed and educated and privileged spend enough mindful time recognizing that we are so only because of all the other living beings who work and sacrifice to make it possible. I can’t fix basic household plumbing. I can live without it, I expect, but probably only until I start to get too cold, hungry, scared, ill, weary, or lost to manage one more trip to the nearest stream for semi-safe drinking water or one more trip to a quiet spot where I can relieve myself far enough from the same drinking stream. I can’t find my way from my own front porch to where my spouse works without constantly consulting GPS, so getting from home to the nearest place I could safely forage for food not tainted by the traffic and household waste of suburbia would be quite the stretch indeed, especially on foot. I rely on so many others to keep me alive and functional that I can’t even wrap my brain around the gap between my abilities and the comfort in which I live, and I suspect that most other middle-class persons, never mind the much-maligned One Percenters, would struggle in the same way.

Seems like an opportune point in our history to pause and reflect on why it is not only a benevolence but a necessity that we do our best to feed, clothe, educate, heal, and make very good friends indeed with the rest of our kind, and perhaps most of all, those we too easily forget to think of as our kind at all. We’ll pay for the privilege one way or another. I, for one, would rather do so by choice and with the hope of friendship as its basis than by force and in fear, knowing that I have stepped on too many backs on my way upward to have hope of anything in the end besides a very, very long fall.

I’m feeling better already, just thinking about it.

No Greater Gift

Digital illo: The Greatest GiftLove is the answer. Not romance, not lust, not preferential treatment; love. Real, tangible, spoken and expressed with clockwork regularity and with kindness and clarity. The sort of love that fills your car’s gas tank before you leave for work and gives you snow tires for an anniversary gift, that calls Tech Support and sits around on hold for forty minutes before the ninety-minute-long session of troubleshooting to fix your confounded computer’s latest case of the hiccups. The sort of love that silently reaches over and holds your hand when there are no possible words for the occasion, good or bad.

Love is forgetful and fretful, persistent to the point of irritating, deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, and demands, without realizing it, a high percentage of return—and all of this is absolutely nothing in exchange for the comfort, companionship, reverence, and acceptance received before any of these minor shortcomings are called into account. This kind of love transcends human norms so far that I can only assume it derives from some larger, more stable and powerful force than our own desires and whims. Love is what makes me sorrowful for the sorrows of a kindred soul, joyful in her joys, and comforted by a deep sense of her presence when she’s absent.

Love is, too, the act of sending a hand-written note, in this age of technology, that says “I’m thinking of you” and carries with it great personal weight in and between the lines. My second mother, the one I acquired so fortuitously and blessedly through marrying her son, sent just such a note recently. It wasn’t long. It didn’t cover a lot of ground. It said little that she doesn’t say to us in our regular phone conversations. But it was so sweet, so heartfelt and unexpected, that it brought happy tears to my eyes and I was flooded with a renewed sense of how deeply glad I am to be immersed in such love. And it reminded me that I will be all the more deeply blessed if I can find ways to pass along such love, no matter how small or simple those ways might seem at the time, to all of the other people I possibly can, for as long as I possibly can. Amazing how these things can multiply. That, of course, is one of the reasons that love, in all its forms, is such a powerful gift.Digital illo: The Amazing Multiplier

It was Only a Dream…

Photo: Waking UnderwaterA short meditation: The Oarsman

When I opened my eyes, I saw a cedar boat ahead, a craft of sleek and patinated wood; I was ashore, looking, watching without knowing why, standing on the verge with the clear salt sea touching my feet and on its cold breath casting up an offering of tide-polished stones and shells moved into patterns like a prayer shawl.

The cedar boat drew near, and in the boat, a man whose solemn joy preceded him and made my thoughts lie still.

Only the scent of cedar broke the salty air. I waded out to catch the prow and saw the oarsman watching me, and I was humbled but not afraid. He said nothing. I didn’t think to say a word, myself, but caught the boat and slowly pulled it ashore.Photo: The Scent of Cedars

The oarsman wore a long superlative braid that rose and fell on his breast; I made fast the boat to a spike of driftwood at the verge, tying the painter in a braid as like his own as I could make it.

When he stepped from the boat, the oarsman put his broad hand on my head, wordlessly, and I felt, too, his solemn joy.Photo: Solemn Joy

Be that Light

Photo montage + text: Mirror for Contemplating Possibility

Photo + text: Toward Light

Photo + text: Solrosbarna

Photo montage + text: Solrosbarna 2: Greatest Gift

The Strangest Kind of Strangers on a Train

The old tale of complete strangers meeting in transit, discovering they have identical problems, and “solving” the problems by trading crimes to eliminate the people they see as the root of their unhappiness, makes for a striking mystery drama, in fiction. Ask Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock fans! But I was reminded recently that we give too little credit to our commonalities as a positive solution to our problems, and end up missing crucial opportunities as a result.

The filmic version takes as its thesis that the two strangers who meet can find not other, or at least no better, solution to the problem of having bad relationships with inconveniently incompatible people than to murder them, and by ‘exchanging’ murders with each other they hope to escape detection by each having no apparent connection to, or a motive for killing, the other’s nemesis.

While this makes for startling and even compelling imagined mystery, it’s horrific if imagined in real terms. Yet we do similar things all the time in this world, don’t we? Because I tend to agree with a particular point of view in general, say, a specific philosophy or political party’s policies, or my country’s traditions, does that mean it’s wise or humane or practical or generous to follow along without question, no matter what my group, party or nation says and does? We mortals are remarkably good at noticing and magnifying our differences, as genuine and large as they may be. But we’re frighteningly weak, in opposing measure, when it comes to recognizing, focusing on, and building upon our true kinship. This, I believe, easily outweighs in both quantity and importance, our separating characteristics. Digital illustration from a photo: Opening Doors

The recent train outing in Sweden that reminded me so pointedly of this also confirmed my belief that it’s an area where youth is wiser than experience. In a railcar where a young father, not a local or a native speaker of the language, was keeping his fifteen-month-old daughter occupied and contented during the trip by helping her practice her tipsy walking, she made her way with his help to where another family, also foreign but not of the same culture as father and daughter, was sitting together. That group was of two adult sisters and their four or five school-age children. The toddler was naturally attracted to the friendly and spirited older children, and as soon as they saw her, they too were enchanted. What followed was perhaps twenty minutes of delighted interaction between them all, with occasional balance aid from Papa and photo-taking by the Mamas. And barely a word was spoken, much less understood by any of the participants, during the entire episode.

The greatest among the many beauties of this endearing one-act was that the conversation essentially began, continued and ended with the kids reaching toward one another with open hands, waving and gesturing and generally putting on an elaborate pantomime together, and above all, giggling and chortling with peals and squeals of ecstatic laughter.

Needless to say, all of us adults in the railcar grinned, giggled, chortled and otherwise became happy kids right along with them. Resistance was an impossibility and a pointless attempt, at that. And isn’t that an excellent lesson for all? Adults are too busy being territorial and fearful and downright feral to remember that the open hand of welcome and sharing is as quickly reciprocated as any gesture, and a smile of greeting and acceptance is contagious beyond any language, age, or cultural barriers. We can nurse our terrors of the unknown as supposed adults, or we can choose to laugh together like children.Digital illustration from a photo: As If in a Mirror