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.

Newness Absolute

Digital illo: CreatingCreating

Atom by atom and cell by cell,

The seconds tick and the hours tell

And up from nothingness and void,

Growing, expanding, and overjoyed,

What was mere darkness, lonely, grim,

Swells from the silence as a hymn;

Out of all absence, beauty came—

Because deep love had called its name.

Remember This

Photo: Forgotten ThingsIf you are getting more forgetful with the years, all is not lost. It’s more about remembering the central, crucial, meaningful things than about being able to rattle off all of your codes and passwords, your second cousins’ birthdays, or the conversion tables for metric-to-imperial measurements. It doesn’t matter terribly if you can recall whether you closed the back gate when you came in, since you’ll eventually go out again. Recollections of your intent to mark a play you want to attend on your calendar because it’ll be in town in six weeks or of what you meant to buy when you got to the grocers’ might be important, but only for a short while, and only in the smaller scheme of things.

It’s much more important to remember the peculiarly exciting, if murky, odors of a busy train station where you waited to take your first solo journey of more than ten city blocks, at the tender age of thirteen or so. More useful to recall the sound your heart made in your ears when that feral and atavistic fear and longing of new love brought its strangely sweet and terrifying joy into your central nervous system for the very first time. It’s far and away more significant to remember that you ever had a single human, known to you or an utter stranger, who looked you straight in the eye and said a kind word, or who listened to you speak because it genuinely mattered what you said, regardless of how small the topic.

It’s most important of all to remember that your presence on this planet shifts the very molecules of time, space, and reality for every other living entity, and did so from the instant of your conception and will do so forever and ever after you, simply because you came into existence. You are matter, and you do matter. What positive effects you can have by merely being present here might seem infinitesimally minute to you. But for one other being, someone you didn’t even realize could be so affected, you might be that person who looked her straight in the eye and said a kind word, the object of electrifying first love, or the indirect yet needful reason a youth boards a train, solo, for the first and most memorable journey of his life.Photo: A Life's Journey

The Return of the Hometown Girl

Photomontage: Seattle Area IconsThis past summer’s middle expedition of the three trips took us Home. A visit to Seattle and environs to reconnect with family, since two of my three sisters, my parents, and my spouse’s parents all live within about 40 minutes’ drive of each other in the same lovely neck of the woods where both he and I spent most of our growing-up years. His one brother and my third sister were both coming out to the Pacific Northwest with their respective spouses this summer as well, so while we hardly felt we got to more than say Hello and Goodbye to everyone in the short stretch of two weeks, it was a rare thing to get to even see them all in the same year, let alone in the same part of the world. A gift, on a grand scale, that, and one we knew we must relish to the full.

A side-benefit of this little jaunt was returning to our roots. My husband had lived other places than the Seattle area for slightly more time than I had by the time we moved to our present north Texas digs, but that region was, remains, and ever shall be our rooted home in many ways. So it was a pleasurable plus for us that our family out there took to the idea of playing Tourist in our own familiar places so nicely. It’s struck me more than once that it’s a bit of a pity that so few of us take advantage of the most famous and characteristic places and activities, sights and signs of the places where we spend the majority of our time, at least unless we have visitors who request such things. So my sisters, his brother, and our parents all indulged this homesick wish on our part to revisit those things that had colored our youth and shaped our loves over so many years.
Photomontage: Hometown Girl

We took a boat tour with my parents and siblings that I’m sure had more out-of-state visitors than locals on it, just to see Seattle and its environs from the Puget Sound side and to cruise leisurely through the Ballard Locks, where the salmon were due, imminently, to make their own annual sojourn up the ladder to their ‘roots,’ to spawn and renew. We wandered the Alki neighborhood and beach, where my grandparents’ apartment was in years long gone a wonderful place to visit not only them but the sun, the sand, and the “ice cream cone lady,” a miniature of the Statue of Liberty that still stands on the beach right across the street from where they lived then. We ate fresh local fish and chips and/or Dungeness crab at every turn. We went up to the trails at Paradise on Mt. Rainier for a sunny afternoon with Mom and Dad Sparks. My sisters and brothers-in-law and I went on the Seattle Underground Tour, a trip through the history of Seattle’s original incarnation before the whole town was demolished by fire in the nineteenth century and rebuilt on top of its own ashes, phoenix-like.

Most of all, we breathed in that familiar blend of resinous tree exhalations, saltwater spray, rich volcanic soil, wildly prolific blooms, and strangely electric, ozonated quiet that makes my heart skip like a young kid in tall grass. And we did so in the company of those we have loved the longest, those who love us for no apparent reason other than that we are family. Home and family are what we make of them, yes; they’re also the things that make us who we are, when we remember to let them. It’s good to revisit that, once in a while.Photo: Space Needle in Sun

My Little Night Music

Invocation

From the settling of the evening to the whispering of dawn

Lies a tenebrously winding way that wanders bleakly on…

What’s ahead is hid in veiling; what has been, lost in a mist,

And with strength and spirits failing goes the wayfarer, who kissed

Fond farewell to all familiars, bade goodbye to every known,

And set off to see tomorrow; now it seems all hope is flown.

But a flicker in the darkness sparks the vision of a wing,

And the silence now is shattered as a voice begins to sing!

Glorious, the song is lifted in its swelling, sweet refrains,

And the wayfarer is gifted with new courage in his veins.

What a loveliness is in it when such music comes along

To illumine every minute; what great powers in a song!

When the journey seems unending and the dark rules every vale,

For whoever needs the tending, let me be

A nightingale.Digital illo: Nightingale

In a Perfect World

Photo: In a Perfect WorldIf the universe were flawless, life within it ideal, and I supernally fine, I would arrange so that my dear, darling spouse could have the most beautifully untroubled and magically rich existence in history. When he woke up every morning, angels would fan him with their wings while serving him pizza and ice cream to his heart’s content and he’d never get uncomfortably sugar high no matter how many slices or scoops he ate. He would be wafted from rehearsing one unnaturally skilled and committed choir to another, each accompanied by the finest instrumental resources available anywhere, all the while enjoying the acoustic majesty of whatever stupendous space he desired at the moment. He would flit effortlessly to every city, country, and continent next on his wish list to make music or just to wander and rejoice in the culture and landscape, the people and history and endless other gifts of each dreamy locale, until he longed to be whisked to the next. He’d have a glorious day hike on Mt. Rainier any day he wanted, no matter where he was for the rest of the day.

And all of this would find him accompanied by me—but the fabulous, unimaginably sweet and brilliant and supremely good-humored version of me. Probably nicer to everybody than I have ever been, but especially to my husband. I might even be a good enough singer to qualify for one of his incredible choirs. If we wished. In a perfect world.

Especially today, it’d be nice to think he could exist in this perfect world. It’s his birthday, and I wish him every good thing on every day, with a plus-plus-plus-sized wishing on his birthdays. Sadly, no luck on that front. He woke up to the gentle breeze of my snoring, no angel wings. No sugary treats—homemade chili for dinner. Well, okay, a bit of chocolate for dessert. The choirs and ethereal travel…all of the other infinitely sweet wonders I wish were mine to offer him in vast quantities for every day of his long and deliriously happy life…only a dream, in this imperfect world.

But the love we share makes my world a greater joy, and I’m here to say that I hope that I can get better with each passing year at returning the favor. If all the perfection I can offer my beloved is to love him as best I can for as long as I live, then that’s what I’ll wrap up in silken tissue and a bow for now. He’s pretty tolerant of imperfection, I find, and that’s perfect for me. Happy birthday, my love.

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.