No Greater Love

my love forever

I have known great love. I have witnessed great love. I have wondered why some people appear to find their soulmates and others struggle to discover that thing that we call true love. I am a reader of fairy tales but I learned when I was still quite young that life is almost always more complicated than stories with happy endings. I thought my mother and father were madly in love and I am rather sure that they were, but I also know that they fought with one another from time to time. I watched an aunt and uncle divorce and then remarry as though they could not quite decide if being together was right for them. I have cradled a friend whose heart was broken by someone that she believed would love her forever. I have only recently felt the pain of a cousin who lost his first and only love of over sixty years. Love is wonderful until it hurts.

Young people ask me how one knows if love is real. That’s a question almost impossible to answer. I usually tell them to consider how being with a certain person generally makes them feel. If they time with another leave them happy they are on the right track. If that individual makes them relax and laugh the signs are good. If it seems as though they have finally found their best friend, they may be in for a promising future, but they have to think about the words of the wedding vows very carefully because it is almost certain the there will be better and worse, richer and poorer, health and sickness in a long term commitment.

Sometimes we just don’t know how the person with whom we want to spend our lives will react to difficulties. I will never forget what my grandfather taught me about love when my grandmother was dying of cancer. He never left her side. He depleted his savings. He fulfilled her every need until she drew her last breath. He was patient and kind. He pretended to be stronger than he actually felt. Sadly I have also observed people who were torn apart by an extended illness. I knew a woman whose husband told her that he had to leave because her mental problems were too hard to watch. I find myself wondering if such weakness is there all along but goes unnoticed until problems arise.

I enjoy a good love story but I hate the ones based on superficiality. We do first notice someone based more on appearances that anything deep, but true love can’t stay that way. We all grow older and frankly less attractive than we once were. We should be able to become ever closer because we are able to see the true beauty inside the person that we have promised to love not just for a time, but forever. Sometimes we have to work a bit to keep that spark alive.

One of my dearest friends had a weekly date night, For years she and her husband went out together every Thursday evening. They hired a babysitter to watch their children, they dressed up, they had dinner and talked about things other than the kids, their jobs, the family finances. They made their outing a top priority of each week and sometimes added weekend getaways to their celebration of life together. They were still flirting with each other decades after they had married.

I have learned how to love from observing and listening to those who seemed to have the meaning of commitment figured out. I suppose I’ll never forget Mike’s Aunt Elise coming to check on on her husband when he was doing some work at our house. She was concerned about his heart so she asked us to “take care of her Bobby.” I’ll always remember that the very last thing that Mike’s mother did before she had a stroke that led to her death was hug Mike’s dad and declare her love for him. Even after decades together these women still made their feelings known. We would be wise to follow their example. Love is something to be celebrated and declared often.

People don’t always agree about everything, not even those who are madly in love. It’s critical to the health of the relationship that no one person dominates the other. Whether it be politics or religion or philosophies each one should have the freedom to believe as they wish. Respect is a needed factor in forging a long term partnership. I suppose that I treasure my independence more than anything else and my husband has always honored my thoughts even when he disagreed with them. It has meant everything to me to know that our love is not dependent on either one of us bowing to the other. We are a team but we are still individual.

So what is the bottom line? Love is wonderful and worth the hard work needed to keep it alive. It requires not just trust but trustworthiness. It flourishes best when each partner supports the other with understanding but not at the expense of quashing individual dreams. It may be painful at times so it’s a good idea to create fun to balance the duties that arise. It is about regularly honoring the promises made to one another.

One of the most beautiful love stories that I have ever heard is about a classmate of mine who seemed to actually be living a fairytale existence with his wife. He was handsome and she was gorgeous. When they danced together it was magical. Their life together was like sunshine and roses until one day when she was injured in a horrible car accident that left her brain injured and her body confined to a wheelchair. She would never completely recover and her care would require that she live in a nursing home. All the while he never abandoned her, instead visiting regularly and devoting himself to her well-being. There is no love greater love than this. If we want the real thing we have to be willing to be like him. 

Walking Canvases

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Fashion is an art form, a way of expressing oneself with hair and clothing. There are really no rules when it comes to the way we present ourselves, but we are generally guided by the mores of the times. Fashion often becomes the subject of controversy, particularly in traditional institutions like offices, churches and schools. We tend to be judgmental when it comes to fashion, often preferring more traditional ways of adorning ourselves. As with language there are certain unwritten but widely known and mostly accepted ways of dressing in particular circumstances. Sometimes we demand more formality and other times we allow great variance from the norm. Even in the most casual situations we sometimes cringe at the sight of extremes that are unlike what we are accustomed to seeing. We forget that fashion is ultimately a very personal thing as we attempt to foist our own preferences on others in a critical and sometimes even persecutory way.

There was a time when both men and women regularly wore flowing robes. Even today there are cultures in which even males don what may appear to be a kind of dress. In the seventeenth century kings and potentates wore long curly wigs, makeup, stockings and high heeled pumps. Mankind has always experimented with fashion so why do we find ourselves freaking out whenever someone does not conform to our own thoughts on how to dress?

We’ve heard about the young man from the Barber’s Hill school district who was told that his dreadlocks were too long. He was informed that unless he cut them he would not be allowed to walk with his classmates for graduation. Those who know him admit that he actually looks quite nice and that he is a good and respectful person. Nonetheless the authorities took the stance that rules are rules and he must abide by them or suffer the consequences. My question is why there should even be such a rule? It is highly doubtful that the length of someone’s hair whether male or female would detract from the ceremony in any way. If there is any sort of distraction it has been invented by the powers that be, not this young man.

We get a bit crazy from time to time and create more furor or silly things like appearance than need be. I recall attending an assembly during school hours when I was in high school whose only purpose was to harangue the girls about the volume of their bouffant hair, the length of their skirts, and the need to wear white socks with their shoes. What our teachers did not seem to realize was that the meeting was a total waste of time that we actually appreciated because it allowed us to have a break from our classes. Beyond that we were all joking and laughing about the ridiculousness of it all.

The truth is that the ways in which we choose to adorn ourselves are always superficial. They do not define us nor do they really matter. We may roll our eyes at what we see as the ridiculous of a young man struggling to walk as his oversized pants hang around his knees, but other than demonstrating what we may see as bad taste he actually hurts nobody. We certainly have the right to tell him that such clothing is inappropriate in particular situations but we would do well to consider whether or not our attention to such matters is worth the time and effort that we will have to expend to gain his compliance. In other words, what difference will it make?

I once had a student who insisted on wearing a belt with a skull on the buckle in defiance of a school rule. He never personally gave me a problem. He came to my class ready to work. He was polite, paid attention, and participated in the activities I had planned. He was always a top student, rarely making a grade below a B. Somehow that skull on his belt was no bother at all when it came to his academics and yet it became such a sticking point with one of the administrators of the school that it resulted in his being expelled. While I agreed that the student’s noncompliance was indeed over the top I could not help but wonder if the furor created by the assistant principal was much ado about nothing. Rules should somehow make sense, be meaningful and this one confounded me.

We each have personal preferences for adorning ourselves. Tattoos are all the rage among those younger than I am. While I have no desire whatsoever to ink my skin the younger set sees tattoos as a way of celebrating individuality, relationships, accomplishments. To them adorning their skin with art is as natural as purchasing a piece of jewelry or a new pair of shoes. It’s not my cup of tea, but it does not bother me in the least if someone else decides to adorn his/her body with imagery. I would only tell anyone thinking of getting a tattoo to consider what it may look like when the skin ages and wrinkles. I would suggest that placing permanent art anywhere on the body might lead to regret later on, so a bit of circumspection might be in order. Beyond that there are far more important things to dwell upon.

Each of us is unique. We like different things. We express ourselves in the way we dress. In some ways we are living art. Some of us emulate the old masters and others trend toward the avant garde. Our appearance all too often becomes the manner in which we are perceived, but in truth it’s what is inside our minds that should matter. It’s how we treat people that should be the metric that determines our fates. Beyond that let each one celebrate individuality however he or she may choose. Our world is made more beautiful by celebrating the canvases known as self.

Pure Bliss

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The annual RV show hit Houston this week reminding me of the time when we first decided to hit the road each summer to see the USA in our Chevrolet. We had a bright blue Chevy truck, a feeling of wanderlust and the germ of an idea about traveling across the United States smoldering in our minds. The RV show nailed our resolve to take some summer trips when we found a super deal on a camper shell for the back of the truck. Mike worked all spring that year turning the interior of the enclosure into a veritable wonder by installing sets of wooden structures along the front and sides that served the dual purpose of holding our gear and serving as platforms for mattresses that would become our beds. By the time summer vacation came around our truck was a self contained traveling machine.

We got married young and life took over to keep us busy with the art of surviving. Before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother became ill with first and most frightening episode of psychosis. I was not even twenty one when I had to swing into action to get her the medical care that she needed and bring my younger brothers to our apartment where they stayed while she was in the hospital. I spent that summer visiting Mama in the hospital, caring for my brothers, and keeping up with the bills that came to my mother’s mailbox.

There was no time for travel that year and the following summer the birth of our first child kept as at home as well. After that there always seemed to be some kind of family emergency or illness that left us busy on the home front, including one year when Mike developed a rare disease and ended up spending three months undergoing chemotherapy four days a week. We were in our early thirties when things finally seemed to settle down and thoughts of summer road trips became our dream.

Our first foray in our rolling conveyance, mobile restaurant and makeshift hotel was to Rocky Mountain National Park. We packed away our cooking gear, food, lanterns, clothing and other necessities and niceties in the wooden boxes along the perimeter of the camper shell and placed almost perfectly fitting mattresses on top of the lids to serve as our sleeping quarters. A fourth mattress on the floor of the truck bed would become Mike’s spot for when we grew weary each evening. With a tape deck playing Willie Nelson crooning On the Road Again and piles of books to keep us entertained during the long drive we were as excited as we might have been if we were traveling first class.

We took our sweet time reaching our destination with a couple of stops at campgrounds along the way. It was then that we developed an elaborate system for keeping things organized. Our youngest daughter entered the camper first and skittered to the far back bunk which was the smallest in total surface area. Next came our first born to claim one of the side beds and then me on the opposite side. Finally Mike crawled into the middle space on the floor and we settled down for a few last minute stories and jokes before we finally fell asleep in what we considered to be our high class quarters. With windows along three sides we were quite comfortable and content and mostly excited about the adventures that lay ahead.

Once we reached Estes Park, Colorado we parked our truck in a spot at Mary’s Lake Campground in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. We set up shop under an awning that Mike created from a gigantic tarp. We had two dish tubs for cleaning our cookware and a propane double burner stove for preparing our food. A plastic tablecloth on our concrete dining table completed the scene of our temporary home along with four folding chairs around the fire ring. We could not have been happier about our vacation heaven under the stars.

We’d travel into the national park each day and spend hours hiking and enjoying the majestic views. At night we’d build a fire and enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers, soup, chile or whatever culinary delight we fancied. We could not have been more comfortable or satisfied with our accommodations and we thought ourselves the luckiest and happiest family on the planet.

We took side trips to see a railroad museum, a few ski towns, a mining town, lakes and other wonderful sights. We had contests to see who could find the best souvenir for five dollars or less. We told spooky stories and read book after book. We gazed at the stars in wonder and marveled at the glory of our world.

Over the years we put thousands of miles on our little vacation conveyance and home. We saw Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, most of Colorado and even the Canadian Rockies. Eventually we outgrew the our sleeping quarters and opted for a gigantic tent for sleeping but we would never forget those glorious summers inside our magical truck when we saw so many wonders of the United States and realized how lucky we were to have each other.

The girls are grown and gone with family’s of their own now. Mike and I have a much fancier travel trailer complete with its own kitchen, bathroom and comfortable bed. Air conditioning and a heater protect us from the elements and we even have a television to entertain us when we wish. It’s perfect for the two of us as we age but on its best day it simply can’t compete with those times when we and our children were young and thinking ourselves so fortunate to have the cramped quarters of that tiny camper on the back of our truck. Those trips were incredible and filled with the most special of memories. I can still hear our laughter as we climbed into our beds after a long day of exploration. It was in those days that we experienced the meaning of pure bliss.   

Alarms

clock

For most of my life I was ruled by alarms. I literally began each week day with a ring of some kind rudely awakening me from slumbers. Each morning I would struggle to drag myself out of the warmth and comfort of my bed and I felt sluggish and churlish for hours as I prepared for my duties either as a student, an employee, or a mom. I dreamed of a time when I would no longer be ruled by an ever demanding clock. I fantasized about mornings stretched out past nine or ten in a state of blissful sleep.

Ironically now that I rarely have an early morning appointment or deadline I find myself waking up well before the sun has even risen without the aid of any bells or whistles or buzzers. My body clock is all that I need and it happily pushes me from my bed with a kind of eagerness that I never experienced when outside forces were demanding that I leave my home before the sun had even arisen each day. It now only takes a few sips of my morning tea for my brain to begin working in tiptop form. I have created a new routine for the start of the day that is blissful because it is of my own design. My first few hours are packed with rather quiet activities that strengthen my soul, my mind and my body. Retirement now allows me the time to heal myself and ponder more on others. I have no need of an alarm to notify me that it is time to leave the comfort of my bed because I am excited about the quiet possibilities that lie ahead of each day.

I am an inveterate introvert. I gain strength from quiet contemplation, time to meditate on worries and concerns and determine solutions for them. I suppose that my big city lifestyle of rushing here and there each morning before I gained my present independence worked against my need for time for myself. Somehow I made it work but there was an underlying anxiety lurking inside my soul that made me chronically tired. I suppose that I wanted to stay in my bed each morning as a kind of refuge, an excuse for contemplation, a reason for not having to enter the rat race before my mind felt strong and uncluttered. Now, like Thoreau, I have my own Walden Pond in the comfort of my home. I have simplified, simplified, simplified the demands that used to keep me running on a kind of endless treadmill from one responsibility to another. It is so lovely to be able to finally be the master of my calendar and the captain of the structure of each day.

There is indeed a time and season for all of life and most of us spend so much of it in a rush from here to there, attempting to meet the demands of caring for family, work, community. We like what we have to do, but there is just so much of it that we rarely stop the cycle completing one task after another. Our calendars and day planners are filled with appointments that barely allow us to linger over a thought or a meal or to even notice a sunrise. We use alarms and warning messages to keep us on track. Even one deviation from our plans can throw us into a dizzying tizzy. We grow tired and out of sorts, out of shape. Something has to give if we are to be all things to all people and so we often choose to neglect ourselves rather than disappointing everyone else in our lives. We need those alarms to keep moving and we resent their nagging sounds.

Now that my alarm is my own voice I do not resent it. I allow myself the time to consider my own place in the universe. I have belatedly realized that I must care for myself first if I am to be of help to others. I have learned to slow my pace by saying the tiny word, “No!” whenever I begin to once again feel overwhelmed. It is a glorious luxury that I can now afford thanks to retirement but I wonder why I did not allow myself the time that I needed during all those previous years. I see young people managing to have it all simply by taking command of their lives and carefully parceling their time to include self care. They have already learned what it took me decades to discern.

I suppose that if I were to create the perfect alarm it would not be one pushing me from my personal refuge, but rather one reminding me of my duties to allow moments for myself. It would prompt me to mediate or pray. It would urge me to keep a balance between work life and home. It would sound whenever I was taking on more than I should try to handle at once. It would gently provide me with support for the things that I need to do to thrive as my best self.

I see young people rushing and pushing themselves just as I once did. They express frustrations over not being able to do all that they need to do. They shove their own needs farther back into promises of a future that never seems to come. They grow more and more out of shape physically, mentally and spiritually. The alarms bark at them as they wearily wander through routines that sap their strength. They want to just run away or hibernate or scream. They feel guilt and anger and a host of negative emotions that they cover with brave smiles and a veneer of false strength. They know that one last thing may make them break but they do not know how to make those bells and whistles stop.

I would tell them to consider what they really want or need and then begin to make the changes that will leave them excited about the dawn of each new day. The first step is to define themselves on their own terms, not on what others believe they should be. Then they can begin to declutter their daily schedules, leaving space for the unexpected and allowing for personal care as surely as they do for the care of others. To do this they must learn to set alarms to warn them whenever they need to pause or ask for help or just snooze a bit longer.

Life is short and unbearably uncertain. Our goal should be to make the most of each moment. Our alarm clock needs to go off anytime that we are in danger of neglecting what is most important beginning with ourselves.

Loss

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“Loss” is a four letter word not meant to be a pejorative like the infamous ones that sometimes get us into trouble, but with a meaning so profound that it has the power to leave us unable to function in any normal way. Like the layers of an onion loss takes on deeper and deeper significance as we get closer to its core, and like that same onion it sometimes makes us cry. For me, loss is the ultimate trigger for stress whether it is directly affecting me or someone that I love.

Loss can appear to be superficial as in the inability to find something important, a receipt, a jacket, a favorite book, a prized heirloom. I grow anxious whenever I can’t find something that I treasure.

Somewhere in the move from my house of over thirty years to the one where I now reside I lost a gold charm bracelet that my husband had given me when we were dating. A heart dangled from the forged links and engraved on it were the numbers signifying our first date with the words “Now and Forever” reminding me of our infinite bond of love. My stressors went into high gear when I ultimately accepted the fact that it was gone and I grieved that I would never see it again, but it was in the final analysis only the loss of an object, a symbol of something far deeper than the thing itself. Still, I know that when we lose something special it saddens us and justifiably so.

When the walls and ceilings of my rooms were flooded by the sudden rush of hot liquid from my hot water heater I became a messy gooey ball of stress. My imagination became a fertile ground for turning this inconvenient bit of loss into a major event. I worried that mold would grow in the nooks and crannies of my walls rendering my house unlivable and unsaleable. I could not rest until I had ripped carpet and sheetrock from the the wettest areas. My impatience in finding someone who would quickly repair the damage grew into full blown anger. The situation consumed the thoughts of my days and nights. I had to remind myself that it was only a temporary loss, one that would eventually be set right. I calmed the beast roaring inside my mind with the truth that I had only lost things, replaceable stuff.

The greatest loss is the death of loved ones. Nothing ever really fixes that. Time superficially heals but the pain but grief lives inside the heart. Such tragic loss is the most difficult aspect of our human experience, even when we actually believe in a more glorious afterlife. We soldier on without the people who have gone before us but we never really forget them and in moments that come and go we remember how much it hurts to accept that we will never see them again. Such is loss that produces more than just stress. It tears at our very souls.

Loss is all around us. Even when it happens to someone else we feel the pain and stress that comes with it. We know that it engenders powerful emotions whether it is the loss of something seemingly insignificant or of a living being. We instinctively empathize with the person who is undergoing distress over loss because we too have felt such emotions and we understand.

Loss is such a small word and yet it stalks us like a powerful monster. We lose hope, confidence, reputation, control. We struggle with fears of loss. Like the nightmare that it sometimes is, loss creates anxieties and worries. It is a trigger that has the power to temporarily or permanently undo us, but our nature is to fight against its inclinations. We do our best to deal with it until the next time that it returns.

January presented itself with loss. I was unable to find the mate to a set of earrings. That was annoying but not the worst situation. When both a beloved aunt and a magical cousin died within days of one another I felt the weight of true loss. I grieved for myself but mostly for those closest to these incredible women, their immediate families who are struggling with the enormity of their losses. I felt the horror of those who lost their homes in a freak explosion that occurred early one morning. I saw a long road of repair and possibly even momentous change ahead for them. I awoke to the terrible news that two of my most wonderful friends had lost the use of their own bodies when they had strokes. I cried with the nation over the untimely death of Kobe Bryant and the eight souls who perished with him.

I suppose that loss is perhaps the greatest trigger for stress in our lives. When it piles on us we lose our sense of direction. We find it difficult to find the way out and yet we also know from experience that we need not be defeated. It may take time and great patience but we can find escape the darkness that has descended upon us. The loss may be forever but the way that we react to it can and does become more bearable.

Winter came in January, a time when some among us endured losses both great and small. We take a deep breath. We embrace one another. We find ways to soothe our souls. The cycle continues and we continue down the road of life knowing that we will eventually find the peace and tranquility that will set us in the right direction once again.  Loss challenges but we need not allow it to defeat.