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.

Dear Ones All

Photo: Bouquet of the Day 1I have my own Theory of Relativity, and I hope you’ll find it useful, too, as you grow from the tiniest curl of humanity to a venerable old woman. No claim of scientific knowledge here, only an observation on what I think really matters in my small corner of the universe: relationships between people.

Relationships, regardless of economic or social, religious or political status, can be begged, borrowed, and bought; they can be stolen, stumbled upon, forced or freely given; there are also, of course, the clearly genetic sort or the biologically driven. All are valid, and many of them necessary, but none of those fully encompasses the best of what I think defines Family.

For starters, none of those aspects can guarantee a relationship’s ultimate failure or success. Human connexions, like living creatures, can suffer from Failure to Thrive, whether through damaging acts or events or mere neglect. Estrangement is, I think, the perfect name for a lost relationship: what was familiar has somehow changed, become alien. Whether birth, common interests or goals, affinity, or contract is its basis, a relationship can still fail. Or it can flourish.

Family is, for me, the height of relationship, the pinnacle of human interaction. Bloodlines, religion, and legal bonds don’t own it. My view of the ideal, when it comes to family, is that it should spring from an ongoing will to maintain and foster the connection; just keeping it plugged in is useless unless all involved see that it’s well-oiled, reboot it when in need, and occasionally, polish it to a high gleam and rediscover its original beauty.

In my heart and mind, family as that highest form of relationship is an earned status, a privilege. If it doesn’t work in mutuality, with both parties contributing, it’s a different sort of transaction. I don’t see it as a constantly equal balance; in fact, the level of need versus the level of resource and capability in any individual varies greatly over time and situational changes, and the more people in the equation, the more the possible iterations. Sometimes the crisis is virtually universal, everyone called to extraordinary service for each other’s good. The established bond helps bridge those gaps between need and sparse resource in the moment. Happier times and better circumstances, when life is more gracious again, will replenish the void for more balanced give-and-take in days to come. Ebb. Flow.

The crucial elements in all of this have, for me, much more to do with respect, mutual values, friendship, and delight in one another’s company than with lineage, contracts, or societal expectations. I’m a rarity in having both born relatives and married ones that do meet and surpass my standards for true family. Further, I’ve a remarkably expansive extended family, acquired over the years through shared ideas and experiences and the love and respect that grow out of them. I know that with all of these joys, I’m beyond blessed. I have a world-sized circle of good people, both related by DNA and not, surrounding me and, through that, one of the largest and most wonderful of familial relationships possible. I’ve spent years discovering just how wide caring arms reach to embrace me, and how deep open hearts’, minds’, and hands’ resources go, regardless of physical proximity, when anyone anywhere treats me like family.

It is a wonderful world, my beloved, and there is always room in it for more like us, if you are willing to take on the role and cultivate the larger Family too.Photo: Bouquet of the Day 2

Death and Perfection

My friend said to me not long ago something that got me thinking about death, specifically about the way that love and other relationships are affected by it. What I was thinking about was, mainly, that until any of us dies, we not only cannot but perhaps should not be perfect; if it were possible, what would be the point of continuing? I hear people talking, often enough, about how there might be people alive today who will live to be 150 years old, perhaps even twice that, and my immediate reaction is Why?! Is there really so much important stuff any one of us is going to accomplish in two or three of our current life-spans that we ought to crave living several lifetimes?

I certainly have no desire to live extra long if it means that I will have to get another job or six in order to afford it, and retire, if I’m lucky, when I’m 215 years old. Or if it means that I outlive whole swaths of people I have liked or loved or admired and have to struggle to make friends over and over again. Or, most especially, if it means that my slow-aging compatriots and I live in a world full of people who can survive all sorts of diseases and previously life-threatening injuries, but not necessarily with a very desirable quality of life, or worse yet, we exist like crammed masses of crawling and buzzing insects in an ever-decreasing amount of space relative to our numbers, scrabbling and battling for resources that couldn’t possibly expand to enrich all of us, let alone with any sort of fair distribution or generosity. If the current chatter ever gets a whole lot more encouraging about the long-lifers spending equal attention and energy on making the world more peaceable and the people in it healthier, kinder, happier, more generous, and a whole lot wiser, then I might consider living “forever” of greater interest.

My friend’s comment also prodded me to think about how death has affected my own life and the relationships within it. To revisit the many what-ifs about whether I could be better than I am, had I cherished and understood my long-gone relatives and friends more wisely and profoundly. About whether I can still garner the strength and intelligence to improve if I pay attention to the lessons I did learn, or maybe can still learn, from them. Certainly, I have wondered enough times what my life’s sojourn, and I within it, would have looked like if various loved ones had lived longer, not to mention how different the whole world could have been. Something in me always eventually rebels at that thought, however sorrowfully, for there is a large part of me, too, that knows how easily I become fixed in my thinking about even living persons I know and forget to reevaluate our relationships, to renew my commitment to them. And I know very well that those who have died remain perpetually frozen ever after in the way that I perceived them and our living interactions. It’s so much easier to be a devil or a saint when you’ve ceased living and can never again do or be anything new to change the balance of the known and the imagined.

And this path of contemplation returns me, of course, to wondering whether it will matter especially to anyone else that I did exist. I have no children to carry on my genes in a direct line, for better or worse. Most of the people who fill my days, no matter how valued in the present time, will continue on their life paths and I on mine, and the majority of us will lose contact and even forget each other, and that is natural enough and no terrible thing, either. But when my dust rejoins the remaining carbon of this known planet, will it matter?

And will I live in memory as devil or saint, or simply and satisfyingly, as an ordinary mortal being, fixed, perhaps, in the amber of another person’s memory just as he or she knew me and never more or less? I can’t answer. I don’t need to answer. I’ll go the way of all living and dying things. I will mingle my dust with all of my fellows’, and with everyone who has gone before or after us, and if any spirit lingers on, may it be—for all of us—the best that is remembered, and the rest forgotten and trodden into our survivors’ own life paths, going wherever they, in turn, may go. If the mountains of our remains raise them up any higher, then so much the better that we both lived and died.Photo: Enfold Me in the Green

Enfold Me in the Green

Enfold me in the green breast of the earth

And gently speak my name with love once more,

Then turn and take your way to what’s before

You now, that all the world will know your worth

As I was blessed to know it in my time—

That hand, unstinting in its tender care,

The scent of rain around you everywhere,

Your slightest whisper in my ear sublime—

That now you’ll speak to other waiting ears.

For now I sleep; let earth be the embrace

To keep me kindly in my newer place

While yours will others bless in coming years.

I thank you, now I need no more the sun

That shall be yours until your day is done.

The Great-Greats

Naming things is an endlessly fascinating and complicated way of creating and better understanding our relationships with them. Different cultures have even devised quite distinct ways of classifying and identifying the kinships within them, to the extent that families and relations in the different cultures affect the very ways people interact and consider themselves connected, responsible for each other, and much more.Photo: Great Great Grandparents

One of the appealing (or appalling) quirks, depending upon one’s view, of the American traditions of familial identification and the names given them in English is the way we use the word Great to specify layers of distance from ourselves. This photo, for example, is of one of my sets of great- and/or great-great grandparents (my maternal grandfather’s forebears), if I am not mistaken, and there is much to pique my curiosity in this image.

First, of course, is the question of whether I have identified them correctly at all. But then, in what ways—besides the nominal—were they great? Clearly, being among my ancestors is an easy in to that category. [Ba-dum-tsssssssshhhhhh!]*

Seriously, though, what distinguished these people? Safe to assume, from what little I do know of my relatives in Norway, these two lived on a small farm, and they worked hard. I mean, incredibly hard, by my standards. I’m inclined, actually, to think that the gent is my great grandpa and the lady next to him is his mummified mum, but having seen many a portrait from that era whose subject I was shocked to discover was eons younger than I’d have imagined, I can’t be sure. If this is a couple, I am extra, extra glad I have such a lazy and comfortable life. I may be no spring chicken, but I like to think that people will be able to tell whether or not I’ve already died, and when it does occur, won’t be able to make work boots out of my hide without tanning it further.

This could be the great-grandfather who was a tinsmith. A pretty skilled one, at that. The hands I see here could easily be tough enough to have put metal in its place. As for the farming, what little I’ve gleaned [enough with the shtick! I’ll try to behave myself]* from the various family stories and photos indicates that my family were subsistence farmers, growing what produce would feed their own households or be swapped with neighbors for  further goods, and raising enough sheep and goats, chickens and cattle to keep them in meat, eggs, hides and bones as needed. Agrarian life, until more recent decades, was generally a far more solitary and jack of all trades kind of existence. My grandmothers, great and otherwise (and I can only assume all of the neighbor women of this ancestress’ approximate vintage) did such work as probably made them all look equally leathery.

I would like to think that the sober, if not condemnatory, expressions in the photo sprang from the typical problem of holding still for the interminable exposure time a photograph required in those days, not to mention doing so while squinting in the sunlight. But I also suspect that a combination of that hardscrabble life of theirs and the grimly perdition-obsessed brand of religion to which many of my relatives have subscribed means that these two generally took life mighty seriously as well. They probably didn’t see so much to joke about or room for fun and games in their daily lives.

What I can safely assume about my relatives still gives me some hope. Obviously, they knew enough about how to survive and yes, thankfully, to procreate, that I am here generations later to tell the tale. I consider my existence a fine thing. Although they weren’t either wealthy or showy, they are dressed in well made, tidily kept clothing and lo, my mustachioed male relative even sports a watch chain, so theirs was not, even from the perspective of my privileged and cushy life, a torturous life of pure privation. So I don’t feel enormous existential guilt for their suffering. But I’m not inclined that way like they might have been, anyhow.

My late Norwegian relatives lived and labored in a landscape and climate rather like where I grew up in the American northwest, so I know that even if their daily work was hard they did it surrounded by beauty and nurtured in a mostly benevolent natural environment. They raised children who were able to go out in turn into the wider world and make their ways, eventually finding own their paths, making their own livings, and raising their own families, and eventually crossing many mountains, borders, and seas. I think all of this a fine, if modest, sampler of human existence with [dang it, I just can’t help it!]* relatively little grand tragedy or overblown drama. Most of all, I am glad that the long-gone beings who posed for this rather inscrutable image contributed to the production of a line of pretty good folk, culminating in my immediate family. That’s greatness enough for me, and makes me very thankful indeed. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.

Pessimism is Its Own Reward

—or recompense, at least!Digital illustration from photos: Gloom = Doom

Pessimism is Its Own Reward

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

The Only Magical World

Digital illustration from a photo: Mythic MirrorThere’s only one plane of existence that is guaranteed to seem perfect and right to you at all times, and that’s the one in your dreaming heart. But the place in the real world that will come closest to that kind of mythic perfection is the one where you can dwell in the center of real, constant and generous love. On the third of August, every year of my life, I get to celebrate such a love because it’s the anniversary of my parents’ marriage.

Their love for each other has withstood many tests and trials over time, but because it was genuine and down-to-earth love from the beginning, the tests and trials have tended to be more externally made and less harsh, perhaps, than they might otherwise have been. And in its best and least challenged days, it shines the brighter because it feeds and is fed by a larger love—for life, for those articles of faith and those people they hold dear—and I, as one of their offspring, get to share in that care and affection, friendship, respect and kind generosity.

This is the sort of beauty and distinction that transcends fairytale happiness and is, instead, steady and sure. Better than supposed Magic and miracles, it is so dependable that even when the sun isn’t shining quite right or the cogs of the world aren’t turning exactly as one might wish they would, it’s possible and natural to have assurance that what needs to be will return; goodness will prevail, and we will all get back to the constant and comforting business of loving and being loved by one another. It’s a potent blend of companionship and  concern and hope that aren’t dependent on spells and manipulations but reside in the everyday promise, and every third of August I get to celebrate it anew because my parents taught me what this kind of love can be.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad.