“What’s in a love letter, anyway?” he asked.
I was in a mood. A little pouty and weepy, my inner 4-year-old whining, “I just don’t feel special!” God, why does this keep happening every month? It’s so ridiculous. Okay, rather than stuff it and wait for it to go away, I will wrap that little girl in my own arms and listen to her. She wants to feel loved. She doubts her self-worth every once in awhile and wants someone to show a preference for her and please her. “Little One, you are precious,” I tell her. I am taking responsibility for caring for this vulnerable one. Me. Passing that burden on to anyone else is manipulative and fosters a kind of co-dependency. I don’t want that any more. Oh, but I used to rely on it pretty routinely. I had a husband who, for 24 years, lavished me with gifts and compliments and love letters. I have been with Steve now for 4 years. He has never even bought me a greeting card. I do not want him to be other than he is, and I believe he loves me profoundly. So, what is the love letter game about? “What’s in a love letter, anyway?” Steve asked.
Six parts flattery to one part youth…or is that a martini? So I began to make a list of the elements of a love letter, Cat Stevens’ song “Two Fine People” running through my brain. In one column, I put the parts that I know Steve would never embrace. In the other column, I put the bits that I think he does communicate, albeit in person and not in writing. The list began to resemble another amusing song: “Title of the Song” (by DaVinci’s Notebook), which you really must click on and listen to if you never have before. …Now, wasn’t that fun?
So I showed Steve the little orange Post-It note that carried this weighty list. On the left, I’d written “flattery; promises: to rescue, for future, to provide; declaration of desire”. On the right I’d written “honesty, appreciation, gratitude, description of how I love”. I told him that his description of how he loves is unique and authentic to him and doesn’t resemble Cat Stevens’ (“…though Time may fade and mountains turn to sand…’til the very same come back to the land”). He walked to one of his bookshelves and took down his “Bible”, a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “How’s this for a love letter?” he asked and read from “Song of Myself”:
The smoke of my own breath;
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine;
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs;
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore, and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn;
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice, words loos’d to the eddies of the wind;
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms;
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag;
The delight alone, or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides;
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—(there are millions of suns left;)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.
The little girl opens her wet eyes and looks wide. Wondering, feeling alive, an equal to the sun and the trees and the birds in the sky and every playmate in the Universe. Is this not Love, this embrace? I reckon that it is.
Yup, today is Steve’s birthday. He is beginning to get comfortable saying that he is “in his late 40s”. We are still working on being transparent with ourselves and each other, genuine, authentic. This morning we talked about how difficult that is for parents to do with their children. We want to be better people, better role models, especially in front of them. But we miss the opportunity to be fully present, fully alive, and fully responsive when we hide behind those roles. That can hurt. The child may feel like they are not worthy to receive the person they love the most. I remember how honored I felt when my father asked me to help him with something. I was the mother of 4 children by then. He had broken his back and was lying flat in traction in the hospital. He asked me to help him brush his teeth by catching his spit in a pan when he spouted it straight up. It was the first time I truly felt that he was volunteering his vulnerability. I left the hospital in tears, not because I pitied him, but because I was so happy to feel connected to this man I adored for so long.
A man who had been my spiritual director for years sent me a TED video this week about Vulnerability. I highly recommend it. See if you don’t recognize something about yourself here. It may be a surprise. Then see if you can find someone to talk to about it. It may be a pivotal point in your life.
Today is All Saints’ Day as well. Here’s to all the truly good friends, the saints in our lives, who allow themselves to be seen, to be vulnerable, to be genuinely available and thereby, help us to find the courage to join them in that important place. “And I mean, God helping, to be one, too.”
(Steve, dressed up to see the musical “Hair” with me.)
I have been reading a book called The Barn at the End of the World: the Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd by Mary Rose O’Reilley. It has been my companion for months now. I am reading very slowly, savoring each chapter as a separate essay, which it lends itself to very well. The author writes about her time with Thich Nhat Hahn at Plum Village as well as her time working with sheep in a barn. My birthday reading included this passage of notes she took on one of Thay’s dharma talks:
“Koans are buried deep in the unconscious, watered carefully like flowers. They do not respond to intellectual reasoning. Mind has not enough power to break the koan. It should not be answered, but absorbed and waited for in right mindfulness until it explodes and wakens again in the conscious mind as a flower. What did you look like before your mother gave you birth? …
“At Plum Village, our basic koan is What are you doing? The answer is Breathing and smiling. Often I ask a student, What are you doing? Often the student responds, Cutting carrots. I say, Good luck. Now, you don’t need luck to cut a carrot, but you need luck if you are going to get your practice back on track.”
My life is a koan. My life with Steve is a koan on live chat. Our relationship doesn’t always respond to intellectual reasoning. We want to be able to express our irrational emotions and learn about each other from them. We want to move through adventures and experiences and be aware of ourselves and each other in the moment. We want to be present, to “show up” with a genuine answer to the question, What are you doing? And we want to look up. We’re working on it, and we are truly glad to be doing so. And sometimes, I realize that it’s easier simply to cut carrots. And that’s a mystery, too. “How wonderful. How mysterious. I draw water. I carry wood.”
My birthday evening was beautiful. I came home to find flowers delivered — two arrangements! I opened a bottle of champagne, cooked dinner, listened to music, and let myself loose until I was sobbing all over Steve. I felt very alive.
And today, I want to check things off my “To Do” list, eat bad food quickly and hide from my partner. Is there a reason?
There’s something I do sometimes that drives Steve nuts. I know it, and I’m trying to stop, but it seems to be a deeply ingrained habit. He asks me to make a simple decision about something, and the first thing that comes out of my mouth is rarely my true feeling about it. It’s either, “Well, we could do that….” or a few practical reasons to do something, none of which is genuinely revealing. It’s like I’m protected my deepest self, the one that really wants something particular. I imagine this is a coping strategy that arose from being Daughter #4 in my family of origin. I probably didn’t experience much success simply saying, “I want that!” so perhaps I tried to come up with smart sounding reasons why giving me what I want was good for the general public? Maybe. Maybe the rejection of my true attachments was too painful, so I would pretend to be interested more in logic, which would appeal to my father. It’s an interesting head game, anyway.
It came up again this morning, as I was thinking about how to justify something that I’ve wanted for more than a year. I want a new camera. I have been using a little Lumix that I borrowed from Steve’s aunt. I had a Canon AE-1 which my husband bought for me when we were dating in high school. It lasted 30 years, and then a gear broke down, and I couldn’t advance the film. So I moved onto the digital point-and-shoot camera, but I’ve dearly missed the ability to focus manually with ease and get really sharp pictures. What’s been keeping me from just buying a DSLR? This weird thing I have about justifying what I want. I never buy anything for myself until I can think of a few practical reasons or some really sentimental reason that will please someone else. Pretty neurotic, actually.
The breakthrough this morning was that I thought of the last bit of rationalization I needed to move forward. It’s not enough that I just want a camera. It’s not enough that I am turning 50 years old in a week and a half and a birthday present to myself is due. It’s not enough that I have the money because I’m still only earning minimum wage at my seasonal job. It’s not enough that I’m planning to take a lot of pictures on my upcoming 3-week trip, and I want them to turn out well. What got me over the hurdle was thinking that Jim, my late husband, would have bought me that camera in a heartbeat. On credit, even if he didn’t have the money. The first camera he bought me was still working fine when he died. I can hear him now, “Look, dear, the life insurance money is for you, from me. I want to buy you a new camera. It would make me happy.” It would, I’m sure. And he’d throw in all kinds of extra gadgets just for fun. A macro lens. A carrying case. He was that kind of guy, generous and spontaneous to everyone, including himself.
Why do I struggle so with offering up a spontaneous decision when I’m asked?
Change and the movement of life – flow and motion - energy passing through places and phases. Here I sit in an old house with the shades drawn and the ceiling fans going fast, aware that the heat index is at a level that prompted my employer to call most of the staff and direct them to stay at home. It’s hot and humid…but only for now. This is what my street looked like in February:
I have been reading through some letters and journal entries that I wrote in the year 2007, the year before my husband died, when my teenaged girls were in serious distress and the entire family was in deep pain. Here’s a list of feelings I wrote about:
depression, disappointment, hurt, shame, guilt, disgust, loneliness, despair, anger/frustration, regret/sorrow, fatigue, pain, inadequacy, fear, fragility, helplessness
Here’s a list of feelings that I decorated with a jagged black boundary and labeled “Off Limits, Not Allowed”:
Beauty, Happiness, Joy, Love, Health, Excitement, Passion, Rest, Pleasure, Peace
I wrote: “What do you do with feelings? They’re supposed to have ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end’, but when you’ve had the same feelings swirling around you for a half a year, a year, several years — they aren’t just feelings anymore. They become a way of life. I feel like Job — afflicted with boils. These hives on my legs itch like crazy, and I have no clue why I have them. I just keep hoping they’ll just go away.”
When you attempt to stop the flow of energy and movement and turn your present feelings or thoughts into a way of life, it may seem like you’re taking control and choosing something you want. It may turn out to be something that mires you in suffering, however. That’s something of which to be aware. You could apply that to the physical environment: attempting to regulate the temperature and keep it at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit as a chosen way of life may cause you to suffer inordinately whenever the temperature is much lower or higher than that. Aversion and attachment causes suffering. Letting go of them allows the dance of life to swirl you into new places. If you find joy in the movement and change of life, you will not be disappointed. If you insist on sitting in the same pile of ashes for years, you will inevitably feel itchy and uncomfortable. You can hope that changes miraculously, or you can get up and move. As Jesus said to the man sitting at the Sheep’s Gate Pool complaining and making excuses, “Wilt thou be made whole?” (John 5:6) Do you want to enter the flow of life? It’s your choice…
Here endeth my sermon to myself.