Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: Gathering Here, There

May your quite simple or elegant repast

serve you well, shared at tables of hope

and warming cheer, of peace and forgiveness.

And may your soul’s good ease capture

a gift of delight, and voices free music, and your

hands hold gently all hands in widening circles.

And even if not so fine a thing as all this,

do not turn back, the longing falling away.

May you not regret each trying, and not

dismiss balm and beauty of care we are meant for,

but keep asking for power of Love to bless and

fill you long, long after candles burn down.

When you leave the table, you are not truly alone.

Remember this: that eternal flame glows for you.

Merry Christmas.

Green Stamps for the Soul

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Lately the concept of redemption has been a recurring visitor, a cue that tells me I should look into this further. Thus far, I haven’t come up with anything in particular that has triggered this but it won’t let go. It’s not so unusual. But I’ve decided I will sort it out here. First, I have to acknowledge some of how such “guest words” come to  be.

Words knocking on a door of the language cathedral (sorry, language is that important to me) within the brain’s acreage might be generated by cultural/sub-cultural info that targets us randomly. Or maybe it’s a condensed version of phrases I seize upon within various books. It can be a convoluted paragraph that flashes into the mind’s magnifier before awakening. Only to leave me with vague recollections as feet hit the floor, depositing an orphan word, a tiny hint of an idea into my morning. Such has it been with “redemption”–it’s trailed me, more like a misty, never relinquished cape. Perhaps because I read and write a great deal, words–people’s entire names (I usually don’t know them), prayers or places–simply come forward and pressure me for attention and a decent response. Sometimes it’s a word I don’t quite recognize so have to look it up. Occasionally there is no such word in my dictionaries. Not too sure about this; I’m uni-lingual for the most part. And words come sung to me. I know. But it’s how it is.

But I try to give these assertive nouns (or other parts of speech) their due–as least as I can see my way through it. I’m less inclined to spend hours researching, more interested in discovering where a word has traversed my own life as well as how it can be applied in a broader sense. Shared. So this is what happened with the word of “redemption” and its other forms (inflections or conjugations of the root word). The following comes forward now.

I recall two meanings of the root word “redeem” from my early years. First off, S and H Green Stamps were happily redeemable. We got them (given as a promotional ploy) at supermarkets and gas stations. After being gathered, were saved, pasted into booklets, and turned in for a multitude of coveted, useless or helpful items from the company’s catalog. I don’t recall the items gotten–doll clothing and games, tea towels, a watch, implements of various kinds–as clearly as the experience of getting, saving and using Green Stamps. It seemed as if my mother only shopped at places that gave out the mint green stamps that were then licked and pasted into each blank page. She was a great coupon clipper and user; anything that could augment income seemed invaluable. I thought those stamps were magical: buy food or gas, get bonus stamps that could deposit a toy in my hands.

I was often talked into pasting in the strips of stamps that clogged the kitchen junk drawer. I whined about it but I can tell you I enjoyed doing this. I liked the way a blank page, sectioned into small rectangular spaces corresponding to the stamps, would soon be neatly covered. To make the gummed backs stick I used a small bottle of water (we otherwise had to lick all stamps ourselves) that had a rounded yellow sponge top. By the time a booklet was filled the pages were wavy from dampness and fat with stamps. I nearly recall the scent of damp, cheap newsprint with plastered, lined up green rectangles. I placed a finished booklet on the growing pile and when done, Mom put them in a box on top of the frig. Eventually, the stamped pages led to something handy or fun. I thought of the items as gifts. But that was how it worked: your mother or father got stamps and they were complied to be redeemed, or traded, for good stuff.

The second way I understood the words redeem/redeemable/redemption was through church attendance and the Bible. The idea was to be rescued from things I did or thought that tripped me up, could tear me down and also cause others harm.  It meant being saved from going under in a vast pool of treacherous sin–all that stuff that wasn’t good for a person, stirred up more by misguided choices–through Jesus Christ’s love for humankind and his subsequent sacrifice. I saw that it meant being set free, ultimately, from tough consequences of my human tendency to make errors– like telling a fib or sassing the parents or smacking my sister back, I guessed. I might get in trouble at home but Jesus saw through to my hopefully better intentions and, if not entirely overlooked the rotten ones, then forgave them and we basically called it good for the time being.

I wasn’t always sure what I might have done wrong. But as I sat on the cushioned pew in the high-ceilinged Methodist sanctuary with a koi-filled water feature right outside to look at, I just knew God loved me. Jesus had already paid for basic human weakness that led us astray, and even future wrongdoings if I forgot how to do the right thing. Such love was clearer to me than shimmering water of the pool with blue sky bits in it, and it went way past civilized behavior like good manners or small or big mistakes of human judgment. I could count on that.

And that made me want to do better. It was a reciprocal thing: being loved by God, then passing it on while loving God back. Even then I hoped to show my appreciation, be in sync with what I thought of as Divine Spirit, a perfect harmony that sang to me, vibrated in nature. It gave me deep satisfaction and if I could have found the right words, a sense of transcendence. And it felt better to live in accordance with “First love God deeply and fully; love your neighbor as yourself” (to paraphrase the two greatest commandments Jesus noted and insisted all learn and live). My parents insisted, as well, of course. The instructions stayed with me as the eternal light that guides me. It was a serious business, redemption, but as a child I wore it lightly, as if an ordinary thing to know and accept.

It would take unspeakable tragedies, sudden losses and repeated failures; long periods of anguish over my selfishness, badly made choices and lapses of faith before I could begin to know the greater meanings and how hard it could be to hold onto the truths it embodied. It’s unfashionable to speak of guilt or remorse but they have their places in the human grab bag of feelings–and in the guide of our conscience. By trading in selfish disregard, despair and even self-loathing–costs of a life gone awry–for mercy and compassion, I found it possible to give the latter more generously to others. When you have nothing, not even hope of life, and are given one more breath as well as the means to go on, it is easy to feel humility and thankfulness. And that becomes a redemption process.

But it is still, after all these years, hard to act in accordance with an old legacy of soul-stirring rescue and renewal. It asks a lot of people to exchange their unwise whims and ravenous appetites– as well as prejudices and a tendency toward small cruelties. That we can do worse, much worse, in the name of “right and might” we know from bloodied annals of history. But do we really act as if we know we can do far better?

Since I believe we come from God, God remains within us when on earth and we return to God in an unbroken circle, I have wondered: what shatters that primary, even mystical connection? We are each birthed into the world, and we don’t usually come with beatific smiles on our faces but crying out. But we arrive equipped with intelligence, fantastic systems of locomotion and for learning, a capacity for feeling a spectrum of emotions. We arrive with impressive free will fully installed, unlike creatures who are motivated by instinct–as witnessed by even a crawling baby’s refusal to do as caregivers desire, even demand.

We think we know so much from the very start. And we do, in some unspoken way…and then smudge it up here and there because we can. And just want to. And then is there still workable knowledge? That which can make things add up to our benefit while acting in good regard for others? Is our will expansive and benevolent or spurious and undermining? It’s our choice, after all.

The word redemption comes to me again and again because it’s powerful. And we each seek it in various ways at certain times. I worry about the fate of this place, our planet Earth. We all do. We lie very still in the breath of night and maybe go to the window and try to count the inexhaustible stars and wonder how that ravishing universe can seem so rarefied yet far from our pettiness and misery, our terrible designs with their misappropriated energies and labors. We fill our lives with distractions to quell the contagious anxiety rippling around the world. How far have we come from our best beginnings? How much have we forgotten of the mysterious congruence of a universe that goes on despite our misguided, our flagging efforts here?

How lost can a species of creatures become? Are we not primal enough? Or not open enough to wisdom greater than our limited, perhaps one might think lazy, speculations?

We are naturally inclined to be explorers. And we have good clues in maps right here. They are in our natural bodies: the pumps and one way doors, a myriad of interdependent chemicals, connectors and transmitters: the blood-rich, nerve-conducting wisdom. Our bodies mirror much outside of the flesh. We have extreme mapping in our brains, those vast reservoirs full of information and imaginative juices. We enjoy our barrier busting leaps of thought. Are we irretrievably lost? Think again, only let higher functions of mind and soul open more effective routes, bolder solutions, itineraries that can take us to answers and make things work for the many– not only the few. What is below is as above; the universe and this planet are part of an infinite, barely grasped whole. Entire unto itself, we guess– yet we are within it.

So much that we can discern about us reflects the rest in endless configurations. If you love nature, you can see that: whorls of a tree’s inner trunk and planetary paths and spreading circles a single drop of water falls into a pond. So much more. We are here to immerse ourselves in such wonders and utilize our capabilities.  To pass on love as the treasure it is. We are given all this in exchange of stewardship of a planet and the tending of our human lives so that all may flourish.

And yet here we are. These times of catastrophes, power mongering, failures to communicate. It is all so not new, but nonetheless disturbing.

How, then, can we participate in the redemption of our better natures? We must not once forget the inestimable value of human beings even as we struggle with blindness or confusion. Life can be redeemed little by little, moment by moment, one more sound act of reason upheld by care. And then another and another. There is never too much kindness; we do not run out of it, not if we keep it at the ready, put it in motion. But we are not the only vital characters coming and going as the story turns. Perhaps one challenge is to know our place and yet to find it essential and beloved.

We can count on God knowing we are floundering–we, I believe, share Spirit and Mind. We are earthly specks yet celestial beings, made for greater things though we strain to understand. Still we can take action, bring to the fore our finer and braver impulses. Let the clear heart of redemption move us to trade scattered, weakened intentions for something more sound. More sacred. Practical matters and visionary potential are not mutually exclusive. We can trade for the consequences of a quiet (create/enact the work of hope; smile often, gently) or boisterous (bring on the music, speak up for change) life but do it with the transformative intentions of love.

The time we are given and endeavors we choose, I learned, are worth infinitely more than Green Stamps stuck into piles of flimsy books. It is my responsibility to daily renew commitment to an uncertain life on earth, to make sacrifices as needed and ultimately to live with deep and abiding charity. This is perhaps the means and ends of the miracle of redemption’s power.

A Better Way Through Hardships

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The breaking news of my day included the younger of my two brothers–the one not in the Northwest– being in the hospital with serious heart symptoms. Again. This was not long after a surgical procedure that was to fix significant electrical anomalies deep in a heart chamber’s tissue. The gist of it is that he has dealt with a difficult situation for awhile–far more so than my own heart issues of late. And resolution is yet being sought.

We are a family rich in figurative heart, I think, being  musicians, writers, artists; makers of things and seekers of knowledge. It isn’t so simple or easy being in this family–all that temperament  get deeper and more tiring than one might desire, myself included. And we are a family with literal heart problems, ones that can take us down. It seems to be one or the other of us during each year, sometimes two or three of us as during this year. And we lost our oldest sister  two years ago to congestive heart failure/heart attack at just 78. I am dearly hoping to keep my other three siblings around much longer.

I called him when he was able to talk. His equanimity and good nature were holding steady. He explained the problem, his organized, logical nature routed past the acreage of feelings (of which he owns large amounts in addition to a fine intellect). I understood the medical issues. It was his mellifluous voice I needed to hear. His presence I wanted to access. It was, in truth, reassurance I sought, and it was enough for now. And “now” is exactly what there is at any given moment.

But after I got the first messages I tried to simply prepare for the day. Soon I found myself singing “The Lord’s Prayer”, a fine song based on the prayer that I cannot recall singing in years, as I am a singer who no longer sings much. Gratitude bloomed within me. The energy that arose from the very act of singing of faith as well as my human need rendered me still within. And also readied me. I felt able to pray deeply for my brother’s well-being and felt imbued with a sense of God’s awareness of us here on earth. (Both the making a mess of it and making things better.) It may sound strange, but it is what it is–I just do feel God (assuredly, many do). I texted friends and family who might not have received the news, asked for offerings of healing energy, a few words of prayer, their generous caring. I believe he’s getting this from people all the way to the other side of the country.

He is somewhat better by now. He has had ongoing confidence that there will be a way to amend the problems. He has faith in good medicine, yes, but he has an abiding hope in his beliefs and great zest for life, as well. He has been through many ordeals, the Viet Nam war and more. I know he is in the right place with his steadfast wife and a competent staff. He is certainly not alone.

I think of how often life has brought scathing, disastrous, alarming or grievous times. We all have them. We every one of us toss and turn through wretched nights and cast about for peace as we endure. How do we manage to make do in the worst of it? How do we determine a path to a cohesive balance? The options may include escape, sharing the burden with another or sinking into solitary perseveration. We can become outraged or self-pitying or go numb. We also can try to change what we can and learn how to accept life on life’s terms as, for example Twelve Step programs state. We are not the only ones who gain such coping skills; its been going on for thousands of years. It has got to be in our DNA by now: humans typically do not give up that easily. We are willful–and resilient.

I am pensive tonight. About my brother’s well-being, yes, but also about the order (or lack) of various matters in my life. Plans gone awry. This shouldn’t be a surprise since nothing is for certain except change. But the past few months leading up to Christmas have been different this year. My husband, Marc’s, health has plunged into crisis twice. My chronic issues have given me a some hard days though I manage quite well, overall. Then M. traveled on business for longer than expected. Christmas preparations were partly delayed. There are activities we always get excited about that we have thus far been unable to do. What happened to our big annual, handmade holiday calendar in bright markers that shows all we plan to enjoy? It never even got made. We missed two special concerts, as well–the weather interfered, then my own faulty heart.

Yet I am nearly ready, accept for cookie making which will have to be shared, happily, with my first-arriving daughter. And oh, yes–every single gift for twelve people still needs to be wrapped. But I just take it a step at a time since there is no other choice. I get done what can be done, work faster, but I know much is overlooked by my family and forgiven with good humor.

In a few short hours, my East coast daughter will be arriving. And a few days later another one will be flying in from another state. And when I think about them, everything finds its place inside my teeming mind. Because they are so brave, I can at least be present, accountable and entirely ready to offer hugs. I did as much when I worked (well, actual hugs were infrequent, sadly) in mental health and addictions treatment for decades–it comes more readily with the kids.

The first daughter was born two and a half months early, weighing only two and a half pounds. In the 1970s, there should have been no way she would survive. They understood preemies very little then, and interventions were few and often little help. She barely fit in a nurse’s hand; her skin was so ivory-translucent that the map of her veins was visible. She wore a heart and respiratory monitor that went off with terrifying regularity as I lay aching, way down the hall, craving just one touch of her. She did not come home for over well two months; I did not get to hold her, to nurse her during hospital time. The one time I was allowed near her, she turned blue as I tried to bottle feed her. Allergic to almost all formulas, she was allergic to many other things, too. Her father and I pressed our hands against the nursery window, gazed at her in the cage-like Isolette. My spirit felt like it jumped out to find her, hovered near her, longing for her, sad but full of a new and complex tenderness. Her tiny fingers were tapered, artistic, I thought; I wondered who she would become. I did not think she would not be able go on; she had come to us, she was breathing.

Each additional day she lived, she began to thrive. Her presence altered everything, changed what mattered in ways I never imagined. She was fortunate to not have any intellectual deficits or physical problems. Later labelled a talented and gifted child, she was so shy she barely looked at people or spoke for years but she paid strict attention, mind percolating a brew of ideas. She sat silently with a pile of blocks and built, then rebuilt structures for hours by the time she was two. She began to make things out of odds and ends that were unusually complex. She later became dedicated to opening up her life and fulfilling her dreams. Has pushed forward to become an artist; has shared kindness, made tremendous friends as she’s traveled the world. The child who hid behind my legs is, it turns out, fiercely independent. A quicksilver mind allows for lively discussions and intrigues people, including us. She keeps going forward, creating sculptures, teaching, finding more adventures, all 100 pounds of her.

The other daughter coming was born with serious hypopituitarism, in layman’s terms severe growth hormone deficiency, a rare congenital condition that became apparent at about six months old when she nearly stopped growing, then barely inched along the next months. She was overflowing with energy and laughter. But very small. Testing of endless sorts began in earnest within a few months, some very painful for her, frightening for us, but after a couple of years the culprit was exposed. When treatment of daily injections of DNA-recombinant biosynthetic growth hormone were administered at age four and a half, she began to grow better, more steadily. More evaluations at medical research centers, blood drawn, dosages altered, statistics charted. Growth hormone cost two thousand dollars a month. Soon she was entered into University of Michigan Medical Center’s free research study protocol for just 200 other GHD children across the U.S. The idea was to try a new kind of growth hormone, in other words, for her to become a study subject. It was scary decision to make–a child depends on parents doing the right thing.

After awhile her skin became less baby-soft, voice slowly gained a richer timbre, her very face changed before us–she finally looked older. Everything is affected by growth hormone if one does not have it in proper supply. Think how everything in our bodies replicates, our very cells. Without proper hormones, things fail to act correctly. She became used to the shots. Still, in kindergarten she was yet the size of a toddler. When anyone said mean things, she wiped her tears and carried on. We so wanted to protect her but what good would come of it? She was to add good to the world and explore its variety, not be afraid of it. And she was thrilled with learning, loved chatty socializing.

It took years of injections she learned to give herself; additional hormone replacements needed, it turned out; of trial and error in treatments. She was nonetheless a child who celebrated life, gabby, given to spontaneous songs and dances. She endured the rest, accepted the frequent medical visits, shots, routines. Strangers were drawn to her when we went to the store, the library. It was her size, yes, but also her easy smile and bright eyes. My child smiled at everyone, just started up conversations so I had to keep an eye on her. This daughter wanted to pull life to her in a full-on embrace.

Eventually, slowly, she grew enough so by 16 she came to be considered just a rather short person at 4 feet 10 inches or so. Her medical treatment did not end because she got taller. Severe GHD is a complicated medical condition that requires lifelong monitoring and treatment with several hormones. The shots continue daily. She often doesn’t feel well; her immune system is less defended. She quickly can overheat in the sun. Her muscles tire more easily than many her age and her joints ache. More easy breakage of bones is a risk. Yet she was a roller derby skater and enjoyed every minute–until she hurt her knee. But she is indefatigable in her arts career goals and is moving ahead. Her leisure time is spirited; her marriage, a good one. And unpaid work embraces the disenfranchised, undervalued and forgotten.

The point is not that my daughters are spectacular, even if I love them profoundly and thus suspect they may be. All of our daughters everywhere are extraordinary, unique–and also our sons. (I have also written of my son, who survived a ruinous, near-fatal motorcycle accident in his early twenties, then went on to success as a pro skater.) No matter who they are or where they live in the world, they each must learn life’s twisty lessons, meet untold challenges, be inventive enough to nurture contentment and what can seem like elusive joy. But my children taught me more than they’ll likely ever know. They are beacons for me, all five of our now-adult kids. I only want to share a fraction of what these two have faced, gotten through, plus a  view of what we, as parents, have had to learn about adaptation, unerring hope and tenacity. We have been on a journey that has been hard–not as hard as for many, that is certain, but what we each experience first is our own particular sort of pain, and our smaller and larger triumphs. We can come through more than we think we can and be the better for it.

As I finish writing I hear that my persevering, optimistic brother now better rests. A new heart medication is working to bring down weeks-long, dangerously high heart rate to a workable 75 beats per minute. I am hoping for even better news tomorrow.

How we address life’s hardships and trials, how we manage to live through it: this is much more the issue, not the difficulties themselves. And then not only through it all but beyond it to the next step, and next and next. What choices can we still make if and when faced with powerlessness and hardship?

I yet choose–my family chooses–to believe in the transforming power of an intricate, numinous design of life in this realm and beyond. I cannot imagine managing the deep ruts and landslides of life without wonder or hope, without manifestations of love. These give breath to breathe, light to shine upon winding paths.

Ready or not, Christmas will happen in my home. This is not the case for everyone who desires to celebrate it–or other religious occasions or holidays. We are well aware, are we not, that there is heartbreaking suffering going on in this often-sabotaging, murderous world. Our own country is approaching a perilous time of change. So much more reason then to trust the impulse to reach out and aid one another, to connect our lives with generosity of Spirit. To endure what may come with even a small dignity. To tend a creative faith in something finer, something brighter than what we think we can see. There is a sort of heaven we can encourage on this small, spinning earth. We can make it happen one moment at a time. Here, now. Trust the possibilities of living this life with expansive charity and a wellspring of hope. Take hold, hang on, share whatever good you can. Welcome Divine Spirit into your dreaming and doing. You will make such a needed difference.

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Off to pick up our oldest daughter. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. May the blessings of healing love and strong peace take root and grow well in your lives.

(Note: I will write my usual shortest post on Friday, then will not be posting until January 2017.)

All the Love You Can Create

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir,  Liebespaar

All nature unveils dazzling secrets in the springtime, ones that poets commemorate and about which songwriters rhapsodize. The season symbolizes so many real and alleged delights one might feel puzzled if not also reveling in the thick of it. It is, after all, about instinct for most life forms. This is grand regenerative drama with visual spectacles of foliage and flower. It speaks to inherent power, a bringing forth of new life with enactments of birth, a transformation of the unseen into the seen. Spring heralds a sweeping panorama of beginnings that ask us to go along for the journey. Animal and vegetable kingdoms participate amply at nature’s demand.

For homo sapiens, it’s more complicated than straight forward instinct. But this time of year we become acutely attuned to renewal on every level. It makes sense this includes a sensitivity to and a longing for romantic love. Or its reinvigoration. Its fulfillment, we learn early, is a fundamental basis of continued human endeavors. Without the dynamics of love and a passionate sexuality that attends it, life can seem bland, indeed, not to mention there would be fewer long-term commitments, extravagant weddings and babies born. Eros–that impassioned love that sparks deep attraction between two people–is important, no doubt about it.

“Love makes the world go round” or so the song intones. The gaining of it, keeping it and losing it: we are all familiar with these sooner or later. It feels intrinsic to cycles of life as we imagine a true-love-with-commitment scenario. We spend a lifetime looking for it. Spend untold amounts of money and energy to attract those we hope to identify as “ours”. There’s a complex portion of the economy dedicated to ensuring people will nurture and pursue this urge, this incarnation of happiness. From physical enhancements to emotional strategies to conversational skills, there are endless resources to aid in gaining love and a partner. We are told seduction is necessary–sexual, mental, emotional–and if one is good enough at it, the end result ought to be triumphant. It all starts to sound like a competition. As within other natural kingdoms, people seem up against the fit and fitter and fittest, just with more variations and options. So the race is on for emotional and physical security. Continuation of the species. A lasting refuge in which to raise and tend family or just enjoy the loyal, fulfilling company of another. When it comes to that, Eros may have been sufficiently satisfied and partners may move on to another phase of love. But it is still likely the glue that bonded them initially.

All this can be enough to overwhelm. The expectations, entrenched longing, requirements that seem endless. For so many, images of couples strolling hand in hand by a riverbank as butterflies flutter about don’t match reality. Such romantic interludes can feel more like a rude swat at one’s self-esteem. What if there is not another person to stroll with? Or that person is not even close to what one imagined or things have lately been on the wane or on the rocks? In that case, springtime is not much different from any other season. Or it may be that spring with its beauty and bounty is a cut to the heart.

I’ve often thought there is far much emphasis placed on an overly romantic version of love. It can get in the way of possibilities. Distort what may be going on beneath a beguiling exterior of an enamored courtship. For all its flash and shout, Eros can be less than what was wanted in just a short while. Unless one isn’t even seeking the steady presence of a long burning flame. In which case, it may be enough. And then one moves on–and this may be on repeat.

I recall my burgeoning awareness of the male of our species. As all youth surely believe, there was one perfect soul mate out there for me. I felt all I had to do was send out signals and the beloved would appear. I was sure as anyone that I’d find someone or just be found, in a packed crowd on a sidewalk, in the rustling audience of a concert, at the lake on summer vacation. I’d fine-tune wishes and requirements, become very discerning. This would enhance the potential for life mate discovery. But in the final analysis it seemed a mighty, mysterious thing. Perhaps a beam would even be emitted from my soul, heart and eyes so the right one would recognize my plaintive call. And that would be that.

Well, maybe for penguins, eagles or armadillos. Not as much for humans. Though never say never. That love hope stuff isn’t easily eradicated. Nor should it be. The wisdom may reside in broadening one’s perspective of what it can be as well as how you tend to it to keep things healthy.

It has been noted (derived from the ancient Greeks) that there are at least four types of love. My loose interpretation is as follows: affectionate regard (dispassionate, empathetic, between friends), charity (unconditional good will toward others, a love of God), erotic (romantic/sexual love), and family/community love (acceptance, loyalty). As a teen and young adult, I liked the author (and Christian philosopher) C.S Lewis as well as his ideas about this very thing, so I read and pondered.

I was eager to learn more. I already knew what love of a friend was; I had very close friendships growing up and into adolescence, some of the most intense and trustworthy I’d ever sustain. I knew about love for and from God, as I had experienced spiritual security ever since I could recall. And my family? Well, they were my tribe, they were who I shared daily life with, the ones who connected me to the past and even my future. But romantic love was a surprise, as it is for everyone growing up. Perplexing. Intimidating in ways but alluring and chock full of possibilities.

I do admit that even as a youth, I wanted it all. Who does not? I longed for a best friend who could also be a sensitive lover, someone who shared with me a deep love for God. Plus, a suitable partner with whom to raise a family, eventually. And someone with significant, incisive intelligence and a need for outdoor activity and also it’d be best if he was well-versed in the arts. And engaged in creative pursuits. Was that too much to ask? If that was what I needed to share in order to be a fulfilled human being, then it just had to happen. I dispassionately evaluated each date in this fashion even as I was enjoying the movie or concert or bike ride with conversation. I sure wasn’t necessarily thinking of marriage, just a decent, longer (more than six weeks to three months) involvement with potential for a relationship.

Wishful thinking, as we know it, does not guarantee one thing. But I was indefatigable. To my surprise as time went by, there seemed to be more possibilities than not. There wasn’t just one guy who might be The Absolute One, there was one who was this and one who was that. And some a combination of diverse characteristics I didn’t even imagine. This was confounding to my youthful sensibility. It made it harder, by far. But love? Is that what I felt? I might have said likely not, or not fully or deeply enough. What I did note, on occasion, was an appearance of two or three of the four “love types.” I thought that might be enough. It was not.

In the midst of all this, something happened despite calculations and magical thinking. I found myself in love at around fifteen. The sort that convinces you that the other is meant to be at your side forever. The type that brings intoxication when in another’s presence, yet even basic conversation is equally magnetic. And silence can feel a purposeful, even profound communique.

He was two years older. He was a somewhat shy, soft-spoken person who was transformed by being on the stage in many school plays. A very good student. A master of easy if sometimes sparse conversation. The opposite of myself in appearance–those clear dark brown eyes and near-black hair, much taller, skin a tinge deeper–he held a masculine, unique grace that spoke volumes. He shared a love of God, felt steady in his faith. We enjoyed many of the same interests.

We could pass hours of quiet days and nights in our pretty town. Sit on a hillside or street curb, imagine creatures in clouds, cite mythic constellations. Talk about little or much. The sound of his voice stilled and stirred me. He was more restrained, cautious. I was bolder, more open. We seemed complimentary to one another and it felt good. I thought: this covers it, it’s all four loves, he must be the one–already, so soon. What next?

We were together through that year, off and on for another. Then he graduated. We’d had many discussions about faith and philosophy, life’s challenges, what we aimed to accomplish, how we might stay together. I wasn’t that clear about a life trajectory, nor was I sure I wanted to be yet. It began to feel more complicated. The love I felt was there; a deep attachment had occurred. But I had more to explore. He was on a proscribed path to a mapped out future. And then he graduated from high school. Headed to university far away.

You know how this goes. The literal distance was great. Our differences became more diverse and persistent. I was not ready for what I considered a most ordinary lifestyle, was not going to follow him into the desert. We each had experiences that left what was “us” farther behind. I embarked on more dates, then more mature relationships. I graduated, started college. Then every few years we would hear from one another or run into each other when visiting the home town. And still, the sound of his voice; the unspoken words in his gaze…they held something true and good for both. But it was not to be; we were living other lives. We could no longer be those two youths discovering love for the first time, but could keep it private and protected, a beautiful memory.

Most of us have that first revelatory relationship against which we measure all others a long time. But eventually I moved on and so did he: we grew up. I found my way to another intense and collaborative relationship with the man who became my first husband. And I even liked marriage, that common agreement among two who commit to the old “through thick and thin.” Nonetheless, it ended. But I tried marriage again. Loving and being loved is that meaningful and hopeful.

I can be alone and well at peace with solitariness, for I made friends with my own self long ago. Yet I am not someone–despite a few wilder leanings, some brazen forays into the greater world–who prefers to experience life without a partner, if possible. Not now, in any case, as my life season moves closer to my amber days and nights. I still value love, its vast life terrains, its mysteries of heart and soul, its physical landscapes. Who among us does not want love in our lives? But there is more than one sort if you recall. I want to again revisit these with their ancient Greek descriptors: agape (spiritual, the  love for humanity), phileo (friendships or platonic love), storge (family, one’s community), eros (romantic love with sexual passion). Doubtless they overlap at times. Our experiences are defined by intentions and actions, our desires and chosen paths.

I am married, have been a long while to M. But I also have intense affection and love for my friends, allegiances that will remain as long as they are wanted, needed. Some friendships don’t last forever but that is alright, too. Without these casual or close friends I would be at a loss for countless small, even rare joys. I value comfort shared between two or more who respect and cherish one another as we each are. Friendship enlarges us. It instructs us in the ways of empathy, appreciation and acceptance. And my love for family is primal, so deep is the attachment, so instinctive my responses. My wider, more dilute appreciation of those who share similar interests as mine is significant to me. We are a community even if we do not have frequent contact (hikers, writers groups, music appreciators)–or any except virtual (like a blogging community).

But my love for God is my greatest love. No matter my troubles, no matter what changes; despite failed relationships or loss of health or career impasses; regardless of whether I am happy, foolish or intimate with darker moments–I know there is always love for me. I long ago acknowledged life as lived within reach of the Divine Creator and it has remained so, first and last. I was born into such love; I believe we originate from God. Thus, return to a homeland, an everlasting existence within God’s eternity. Never have I lost my love for God although life has kicked me hard at times and I have fought back and have been alone. Because not once has God forgotten me, only waited for me to reconnect. I am as sure of God’s Presence this moment as I was as a small child when I found myself in the presence of angels. God bears our sorrows and knows our yearnings and shows us the way to fulfillment even here on earth. I am reminded daily of ineffable connections to an infinite universe. The God I know energizes and protects our very essence. Such Love is the source of all others.

I do not need anyone to tell me I am valued, worthy of love. It wasn’t always so simple; the lesson has been well learned year by year, with regard and the loss of it to teach me. But it has become a truth that aids me in living well despite trials and tribulations. I have been fortunate to care for and be cared about by many. And I do know that we can each be one heartbeat away from devastation even as we seek love. It is part of the damaging workings of this world, the errors and blindness. Yet we need to reach to others; it is in our earthly nature. Mending from our brokenness we still have the urge to offer and accept love; it is our spiritual destiny.

So if during this springtime you see quintessential young lovers and feel the acuteness of your present aloneness, try to not bemoan it much. Reach out to someone, anyway, a smile, a helping hand. Offer a word of cheer to the harried neighbor. Nod warmly at the old lady crossing the street with her cart. Hold someone who needs it–a friend, a family member– gently, tenderly, for a moment. Whatever you are able to do will make a difference that links you to another–we are built this way on purpose. So find authentic ways to give of yourself. To care without demands.

Rediscover the comfort and awe of your spiritual belief or go in brave search of it. There are marvels to behold. What you kindly share will be returned if you allow yourself to open, then again and again. It is meant for you to know and nurture all this variety of love.

The Deal

 

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Through my office window slipped a warm breeze, adding a gift of more oxygen to the light. But the young woman sat before me with hands clenched, deep-set hazel eyes averted and brimming with unshed tears.

I had asked her a simple enough question: “What are your dreams?”

I knew the answer already but waited for her to speak.

“I don’t know! I don’t have dreams. What are those? Fantasies! All I ever had was a crazy need to survive.” She looked at me, eyes empty of tears as suddenly as they had filled, the hurt pushed back to the tender places she guarded so well. “I guess I’ve done that so far, anyway. Gotten by, day by day.”

It was an assignment: come up with three things you want, such as wishes you had as a child that were put aside, hopes you let yourself dare to long for, situation imagined that would make you happy. But Marta wasn’t accustomed to thinking in terms of what she would love for herself. For her daughter, yes: a better life, which currently meant shelter in a safe place, enough healthy food, health and friends. But for herself? Just getting by in the most basic sense was enough; she had eaten from dumpsters outside of restaurants and slept under highway overpasses and shot meth. None of it had killed her so far.

Marta’s mental health and addiction treatment had spanned three months so far. It had begun with a DUII, her first, and developed into something more far-reaching than she had expected. She had presented herself as amenable, even friendly, but it had been a veneer, a shield, as behind that was a tough woman who was paying attention, keeping tally. Deep beyond that was a soft core that floated in pain. I saw flashes of her soul when she thought I wasn’t looking. There was a radiance but it felt to her like a weakness. She drank to keep it in one spot, in the dark, under wraps. It was better, she informed me, than the methamphetamine she had used for eight years and finally quit at twenty-three after too much, too fast. As far as she had been concerned, she had to “do the time” in treatment. It was easier than what her spouse was doing: time in prison for violent crimes. Some against her.

For the first month or so she thought little of me and my tools for life and yet she had come to every individual session and two groups. I had reserved any judgment. I knew for a fact that a counselor–or anyone else–cannot predict who will make real headway and who will give up. Marta caught my attention, though, with her strong will and quick mind. She just couldn’t see the potential she had. Yet.

Years living the gang life and finally out, at least as much as she could be then. Multi-generational domestic violence. A child born right after she had gotten clean whom she adored and worried about every minute.

“Maybe Trina will have a good life, maybe she will be kept enough from harm, find a way to something good. I’m working on it. I changed jobs like you suggested.”

The corners of her mouth dipped, then changed into the barest crescent of a smile. She had left a fast food job for a factory worker job, working swing shift as her erratic mother kept her child. But it was better pay and she had done well enough that she was shift leader already. It didn’t surprise me. Marta knew how to problem solve on her feet, learned quickly and wasn’t afraid of hard physical work. She had inner endurance and stamina. I’d want her on my team as long–as she stayed sober and crime-free.

“So maybe you could look into moving in a few months, you think?”

“Maybe. Have to finish this first. This costs me! But, yeah, maybe by Christmas I can look around.” She shifted, put one foot underneath her. “That would be good for Trina. Some present!”

“So, one dream–one wish–is having better housing for yourself and Trina.”

“I guess.” She paused as if checking to make sure. “Really want to know? A small place outside the city, maybe. But I’d start with an apartment just outside of my block.”

“Outside the city…?”

Marta blinked at me, shook her head. “You’ll think this is weird, but I’ve always wanted to be in the country. My grandfather was poor but he lived on an acre of land in Texas and sometimes we’d visit him a couple of weeks. One year–I was eight–we lived with him. He was hard to get along with–you had to dodge dishes and worse–when he drank tequila. But he cared about us kids. He had three dogs. A huge cat, great mouse killer. I always thought it something that I’d wake up and see the horizon. The air was different, you know? Like there was more of it, smelled good, sorta shone in the daylight.” She gazed out the window.

Her jaw relaxed, her lips softened as they slackened. The vision in her head pierced thick inner walls, roused a gentleness I had sensed but rarely glimpsed.

“A garden, maybe, tomatoes and pumpkins and crap all like that.”

She flushed, wriggled in embarrassment despite the effort to stay in that other zone, the one where she lived only to survive, worked to keep her daughter safe, alive, first and last. Marta knew about guns. She knew about running through deep of night from feet right behind her, sometimes many, who pursued her for no good end. She knew about weapons and trades. She knew what it was to have her husband tape her mouth and beat her because she was too pretty and smart. Because her nature was to be dauntless. Or he just felt like it.

Marta knew sacrifice, fear, exhaustion, numbness. But not much more.

“Who all would live there?”

“Trina and me.”

She looked up at me suddenly, shock widening her eyes.

“I heard that, Cynthia….not him…not Tito…”

Silence filled the room, a divided presence, half-doomsday and half-epiphany. My heart thudded a bit. I had waited a long time for her wants to change, for her world view to separate itself from his. He stayed alive for her so he could dominate and brainwash, put her to work dealing drugs with him, give her whatever he thought she had coming. The last time he made a mistake he had no way out. And he was up for parole again in four months.

“Marta, you do have a dream. More than one. Close your eyes a minute, will you?”

She hesitated, closed then opened them, sat back and let her eyelids fall over tired eyes.

“Do you see it? ”

“No.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, okay, I’m getting there. It’s…a nice, safe place in the country, with my daughter. Small and…bgray? Somewhere to breathe and have a dog and a cat. My daughter running barefoot, real clover everywhere. Tito? His chair has a pit bull in it. He’s a good dog, maybe.” Her laughter rattled the room. “The house is nothing much but it’s mine, it’s good.”

Marta opened her eyes and squinted at me. “But the problem is, Cynthia, having a dream is dangerous. It can make you crazier. It takes a piece of you–because, dreams? Come on! They don’t come true.”

There it was, the slip back into the habitual self-talk of loathing and bitterness, the fall into a stream of fast current that wouldn’t let go. She would need to climb out of this, shut down thoughts that took her to dangerous places. She had to keep her mind open to something finer, healthier. Prepare for a battle but plan for victory.

That is, that was what I wanted for her.

“Can’t dreams make you powerful, too? Can’t they inspire you, teach you, help you hope?”

“In your world, maybe. In mine…” Her hands grabbed the chair arms and she leaned forward. “Big difference. But, hey, I’m in this treatment and the insurance is paying good money so why not? Why not think about things? You’ll tell me the truth, I know that. I can tell you things I haven’t said to anyone before. really bad things. Some good things. I’m not stupid. I can learn. So I’m willing.”

“Willing. That’s a concept to love.”

“So you say. Well, I’ll make you a deal, Cynthia, that’s how I do things. One, I’ll stay and complete this. It’s not so bad as I thought. Two, I’ll start a list of one thing a week I wish for. One small thing. Maybe I’ll get it better that way. Like today. I didn’t see Tito in that picture. That was…well, it scared me. I don’t even know what to think. But it makes sense, too. It might be right even though I barely can imagine.”

She sat back, released the arms of the chair, smiled just a little.

“But you got to stay my counselor. Got it? You can’t pull out when I’m going in for the long haul. I won’t do this with anybody else.”

Her words created a lurch in my stomach. I knew I was leaving the agency in less than 6 weeks. I wasn’t certain she would be completed by then.

“Marta, I appreciate your appreciation….but I can’t promise I will always be here. The good thing is, you’ve already changed your path by staying sober and envisioning something better for you and Trina. You’re so persistent. You’ll go forward if that’s what you desire.”

While she considered this, I restrained myself from throwing my arms around her, giving her an award, celebrating triumph with her. Still, I knew better. Changes would be stormy well as illuminating.

And I had my own secret. I knew it wasn’t me she counted as an ally as much as God. That the deep beauty within her was revealed to me by my soul’s ever-seeking eyes. Every session was preceded by a prayer, that I would see the true person struggling to get free. That I would be a conduit for God’s mercy.

The session presented a small beginning. Potent. But tentative nonetheless. I was always calm, knew to sit just enough, contained. I leaned back, too. To say less, not more. To not overwhelm this person with great joy when she was only learning what joy could be. And barely believed in it. Still…

“Marta, you’ve made my day, no, at least my week! Now time’s up.”

“Really?” She stood, her height commanding, shoulders squared and readied for the world. “I mean, the first thing?”

“Yes, really.”

“Nice.”

She spontaneous her smile filled the room.

Out the door she strode, down the stairs. I could see her from my office window. Her long dark hair gleamed in the light, her fancy tennis shoes made a fast path to her car. She turned around as she opened the door, put a flattened hand to her forehead so she could see up to my window. I think I expected her to salute in mock respect or to give a perfunctory wave or maybe do nothing at all. Marta was not an easy one to predict even though she had such potential. But she lay her hand to heart, then raised it up to me, a testimony, a promise, the sealing of the deal.

 

(Note: Identifying details and name have been changed.)