9½ Notions Regarding the Art of Love

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alentine’s Day is like Christmas.  You know you’re supposed to find it appealing.  You know this is the day to shower the people you love with love.  But more often than not, it feels like a marketing ploy designed to convince you that money can buy you love.  Still, you know there is an art to love that takes considerable time to master. 
               
                In order to alleviate all the pressure surrounding February 14th, I advocate practicing the art of love year round.  Here are some suggestions to get you started.
  1. Love yourself first.  If you can’t love yourself, no one else can either.   The wonderful thing about falling in love is that you get to fall for yourself in the process.  Wooing another with your wit and wickedly wild ways requires you to conjure up a certain amount of charm you may have forgotten you possessed.    Sure, your new love may have you “walking on air.”  But if you didn’t have your own wings, you’d still be on the ground.
  1. Be the love you seek to find.  So, you want a fiery red-head who meets you at the door dressed in nothing but cellophane?  Perhaps you prefer a hunk of burning love with the soul of a poet?   If you are slouching on the couch, drinking beer, and eating bonbons, how appealing do you think you are going to be to your particular vision of loveliness?  If you want excitement, be exciting!   If you want your partner to perform a tantalizing tango, make sure you know more than the two-step. 
  1. Dare to be romantic.   Aside from the main characters in romance novels or movies, most real people are sadly lacking in romance.  This is a shame since romance is so easy to evoke.  While flowers, sparkly objects, candle-lit dinners, and nights at the opera are thrilling, so is a steamy sonnet snuck in a lover’s lunch box or a single sunflower sitting next to the baby wipes.  Romance is not just for the rich and famous but for the daring and original.
  1. Love is about expression not perfection.  We are bombarded with images of the ideal and hypnotized to believe we have to be perfect to be loved.  Yet what we inevitably fall for in another is his imperfections – those adorably small ears, the one-sided dimple, the slightly bowed legs.  It’s our vulnerability that opens us up to love and emboldens us to express that love in our own quirky way.   Of course you might want to refrain from singing “Muskrat Love” at a karaoke bar in front of people who can promote or demote you, but serenading your sweetheart in the moonlight might make her swoon.
  1. Clean your slate daily.  Life is messy and love is tender.  If little slights or unintended hurts are not cleared up on a regular basis they accumulate like compound interest.  This is not something you can afford to have working against you.  Do not let perceived offenses go underground and fester.  If you do these grudges will undoubtedly erupt at Thanksgiving dinner in front of  family and friends or at a parent-teacher conference in front of your child’s principal.  Do what it takes to come clean daily. 
  1. Make love, not war.   Opposites attract – in theory.  In reality, the moment you say “to–may–to” and I say “to-ma-to,” we’re ready to call the whole thing off.  Most of us choose a partner precisely because they are from Mars and we are from Venus.  They compliment us.  They know what wines go with what foods and we know how to calculate the tip.  When things gets ugly, try to recall that this is the man you defend in front of your mother or this is the woman you gave up Monday night football for.  While the behavior  may drive you crazy, you still love the person, yes?  Some things are worth fighting for; others are worth agreeing to disagree.   If you’re going to fight, fight fair.  And always make up. 
  1. Say what you mean, mean what you say.  Don’t be lazy with language.  We have an exquisite vocabulary at our disposal and yet we insist on using the same words time after time.  Although you may be very comfortable with your “love you/love you, too” routine, you can do better.  Paint word pictures or set your sentences ablaze with sizzling suggestions.  Don’t say, “You look nice” when what you really mean is “You look ravishing, delicious, or sinful.  Don’t say, “What’s different about you?” when what you’re really wondering is whether his eyes always dance with devilish delight when you mention mud wrestling.
  1. Listen, learn, leap.  Just when you think you know someone inside out, he will surprise you.  Instead of being outraged, be amazed, amused, or intrigued by what may have rocked his world.  We are curiously creative creatures trying to find our way in the world.  It’s easier to do that when we know there are th
    ose who love and trust us even if they don’t understand us.   If you love someone, drop the conditions you place on her.  Then trust her enough to know she’ll do something spectacular with your unflinching support and adoration. 
9.   Ask for what you need.  Yes, it’s uncanny that the same person who can finish your sentences cannot fathom your ever-fluctuating need for space and intimacy, freedom and security, conversation and silence, carrots and carrot cake.  As nice as it would be for your loved ones to anticipate your every wish, they cannot.  There is no logic in the “If he really loved me he’d know I don’t like mayo on sandwiches made with packaged turkey slices but I love it on sandwiches made with fresh turkey.”  Or “If she really loved me she would know I already have a ¾ inch wrench but what I’m sorely lacking is a 5/8 inch wrench.”  Assume the one you love is so smitten with you that they get light headed in your presence and can’t remember anything but how much they love you.  Be gentle.  Help them help you.
9½ .  Laugh.  Often!  Need I even remind you of the importance of a sense of humor?

Square Pegs

When I moved to New Mexico I had no idea how the mountains and the high desert would shape my life.  If I felt angry, irritated, or anxious, I’d head to the trails and walk until the landscape worked its magic on my mood.  With my dog Malcolm by my side, I felt prepared for whatever crossed our path, from the mystical meeting with a javelina, to the respectful rerouting around a red racer or rattler, to the wagfest that followed our meeting of dog friends and their people on a similar path.

It may have been the combination of the air at that altitude, the constant contact with the ground beneath me, the absolute joy of a carefree canine sniffing and marking his territory, or just the presence of mountains that made my troubles feel like molehills.

The kind of stress I experienced in Santa Fe was more of an existential angst than the kind of stress I experience these days.  But I’ve yet to encounter any kind of stress that can’t be relieved by a long walk. 

Winter in Iowa means if I am going to take that walk, it’s usually on my treadmill.  But the other day we had a break in the temps and I decided to head outdoors.  The early morning fog was hiding many things, the most dangerous of these was black ice.  But I was determined to let the liquid landscape of the Maquoketa River works its wonders just as the solidarity of the Sandias had.

Life sometimes rewards our valiant attempts at discipline and provides us with an unequivocal sign of encouragement.  Mine came as soon as I looked up from the frozen tundra and discovered two magnificent birds above me.  Could they be eagles?  Indeed!

One landed in a tree across the river.  The other landed in the tree right in front of me. I’d never had a close encounter with eagles before.  Like celebrities tolerating the paparazzi, they sat regally allowing me to “ooohhh” and “aaahhh” and wonder how I might capture this moment when my camera and phone were back at the house.  Would they wait for my return?

Most likely not.  They had jobs to do, places to go, nests to feather, food to provide for the family. But that didn’t stop me and my other dog Abbey from setting out every morning since then with my camera and the intent to find them again. 

We didn’t see the eagles immediately but we did encounter a chocolate lab one day which made Abbey, a yellow lab, very excited.  I suppose it’s the recognition that another looks, sounds, thinks, acts, or behaves like we do that somehow makes us feel like we belong.  I call it finding our tribe.

I remember having the feeling of finding my tribe when I first moved to Santa Fe.  Admittedly I’m an odd duck.  For most of my life, I’ve been the proverbial square peg in a round hole.  Although I understood the mainstream, I preferred the edge, the fringe, the outer limits.  This is what made The City Different so appealing.

Santa Fe seems to me to be a city of self-appointed exiles.  People who don’t quite fit in with the population in their respective birth places find the unique blend of beauty, art, and eccentricity of Santa Fe the perfect place to discover their own. The convergence of three distinctly different cultures creates an atmosphere of acceptance that makes Santa Fe essentially Switzerland, a neutral zone where anything and anyone is welcome. 

So why am I here and not there?  I think Charles Dickens said it best in The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”   To paraphrase Mr. Dickens, having lived there “was a far, far better thing that I had ever done before.” 

But when I’d walk the arroyos day after day repeating the mantra, “Place me where the needs of the community and my skills come together,” I’d get the distinct impression that meant going back to where I came from.  After all, a city can only accommodate so many gurus. Not that I considered myself to be one, but the things I learned in the desert were destined to be shared with those who would otherwise never know its secrets.

So in this circuitous pattern that I’ve come to recognize as my unofficial life plan, I found myself back in the Midwest , working in another kind of educational system, once again feeling like a square peg in a round hole.  This time, however, I understand the purpose of the square peg. 

Square pegs, it turns out, are more plentiful than one might suspect.  They are just really good at hiding out if they happen to live in predominantly round peg places.  But as soon as one square peg dares to stand out, others start popping up.

For example, this year we had the good fortune to hire a fabulous faculty member who moved to Maquoketa because her spouse had taken a job at the high school.   She could teach the classes that were in high demand and had an unbridled passion for her subjects and students. 

Sadly that passion can get snuffed right out of a person in one semester if steps are not taken to protect it.  Because of this, I refuse to let her fire go out on my watch.  Together we’re working to create weekly writing workshops for students.  It’s nothing grand, but it’s a start.

The price of being a square peg can take its toll personally before one’s contributions have been recognized professionally.  But the beauty of midlife is knowing it’s not over until it’s over.  As Richard Bach said, What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”   The challenge is continuously reinvent, mentor, make meaning, and help others recognize and achieve their potential.

Square pegs, like eagles, can be inconspicuous until you know they are there.  < /span>Then you actively seek them out.  You look for the signs that they are among us. 

Friday morning I’d just gotten off the treadmill and let the dogs out the back patio.  Malcolm barked and I looked up.  And then I saw it.  The eagle had landed. 

For a week I’d been combing the riverfront looking for eagles.  Then when I least expected it, one appeared right outside my window.   It seemed to know the sight of it touched something within me and therefore granted me a brief audience.  So it is with rare birds.

If you consider yourself among these rare birds, square pegs, nerds, geeks, quirky creatives, whatever you prefer to call yourself, please come out, come out wherever you are!  Your tribe needs you.  

Carpe Diem

On Friday it snowed 6 inches in Maquoketa, squelching any fantasy I may have had that this winter would be a mild one.  It was a perfect day to snuggle up in bed with a good book and my two dogs to keep me company.  But since the buck stops with me at our satellite campus and I live five minutes away, snow days are seldom an excuse for me to miss work.

If I had to, I could walk to school, even though no student in their right mind would venture out to meet me there.  On rare occasions I do get the 5am call from the main campus to say we’re closing, but our college is not as quick to close as other institutions.  We want to make sure students get their money’s worth even though the typical student reaction to school closing remains the same from kindergarten to college.  It goes something along the lines of, “Yessss!!”  This is especially true if a paper is due or an exam scheduled.

One of the skills I’ve come to appreciate immensely at midlife is learning to surrender to the present moment.  If life (not to be confused with DQ) sends you a blizzard, gather the coworkers who made it to work and order in pizza.  Savor the break in routine and the chance to slow down and reconnect.

Surrendering is a skill that takes a lifetime to master and I lay no claim to being close to mastery. However, I am convinced every obstacle, every irritant, every time I don’t get my way, I get to practice this skill. 

Because of the nature of my work, January and August are full of opportunities for me to practice.  At the end of the day though, when the snow settles and my younger snow dog Abbey and I take an aerobically challenging walk by the river where the snow has yet to be plowed, I remind myself in this moment, life is good. There is much to celebrate.

I’m not a big fan of snow, but this snow is beautiful.  I’m not a big fan of cold, but the crisp air does seem to snap me out of whatever funk I had been experiencing from spending too much time in my head and not enough in my body.  I’m also acutely aware that by morning, the untouched snow that is sparkling so spectacularly under the street lights will turn to a dirty grey slush that will make driving more manageable but walking less so.  Consequently, carpe diem is my motto as we walk in this winter wonderland.

In order to seize the day you have to be fully present for it.   Have you ever driven somewhere and wondered how you got there?  Have you ever left your house and wondered if you left the iron on, the bird cage open even though you’re cat sitting for your sister, or your cell phone in the charger? 

Sometimes we go unconscious doing routine things.  Other times we go unconscious when we’re out of our comfort zone and a little frazzled by current events.   I can lose my boarding pass at least five times from the ticket counter to the gate.  And I consider myself a frequent flyer.

The key for me seems to be to catch myself going unconscious and bring myself back into the moment.  In the midst of frantically searching for my boarding pass, I can acknowledge that I am a little nervous and calmly talk myself down from the ledge of lunacy.  I can remind myself my boarding pass is most likely in the  trip wallet I bought specifically for it because I tend to lose track of it when I get anxious.

About a month ago I had an advising appointment with a student at 4pm.  At approximately 3:50 we suspected a gas leak outside our building.  When I told the student I’d need to address this issue first he handed me his cell phone with the gas company’s emergency number on speed dial.  He had recently been involved in a similar situation at his job and knew exactly what to do.  Within moments we had the building evacuated and a technician from the gas company on his way. 

We have procedures in place for emergencies.  But in that moment, this student expedited the process by offering up exactly what was needed.   If I had not realized this student had as much to offer me as I had to offer him, I would have complicated matters and delayed the process.

We think we have to have all the answers.  As advisors, elders, parents, caregivers, coaches, politicians, neighbors, and friends, we are often expected or paid to.  Yet we can only know what’s best if we know what’s really being asked.  And to know that we have to be present to what is being asked of us now, not autoresponding to what we believe we’ve heard a hundred times before.

I’m reading a marvelous book by Martha Beck called Finding Your Way in a Wild New World. In order to help us navigate the wild new world we find ourselves in, she suggests four practices, the first of which is dropping into wordlessness.  That’s not an easy thing for a wordsmith or anyone with an inner Chatty Cathy to do.  But I do believe that’s where the present offers up its gifts. 

Like 6 inches of snow.

Despite what might be currently causing you grief, what gifts is the present offering you that you might want to seize this very day?

Time Out for Thanksgiving

My favorite holiday hands down is Thanksgiving.  Not only is there a magnificent feast of food, family, and friends, but also an amazing gift of time.
The older I get the faster time seems to go.  The thing I relish more than anything lately is having a few unclaimed days before me to metabolize my life through writing, walking, or having long conversations with dear friends.
When I took a job four years ago at Clinton Community College the tempo of my life shifted from a spacious and relatively solitary existence to one crowded with information, people, places, and challenges.  I now interact with more people in one week than I previously had in a month.  I will admit I was a bit of a hermit compared to socially acceptable standards.   But as a writer, the silence fed my soul on a deep level.
Of course having a job feeds my body on a very practical level.  Accepting a “real” job was nothing if not a testimony to my ability to have my head in the clouds and my feet on the ground.  Consequently I am extremely grateful that this particular job allows me to have holidays plus a few extra days off. 

A stretch of days that demand nothing more than minimal interaction with the outside world is what my mind, body and spirit consistently crave.  Yet for most worker bees, that stretch of days is usually accompanied by a holiday or two. 

Since holidays are notorious for bringing out bad behavior, the trick to negotiating these potential stress fests is to have stress reducing strategies firmly in place.  Several years ago I came up with my  Top 10 Tension Tackling Tunes to Keep You Humming through the Holidays.  (Click on the link and I’ll be delighted to email my list to you.) While even I find it hard to follow my own advice on occasion, I do find that knowing myself helps a great deal. 

If I move and I write every day, I will feel better.  If I speak the truth, even if it isn’t popular or preferred, I will not have to carry around the guilt of betraying myself.  If I say no to requests that aren’t important, I will have more time and energy for those that are.  If I don’t pluck something from every party platter that parades across my path, my physique may no longer resemble that of Mr. Claus.  If I can focus on what I can give instead of what I might get, I can be more present in relationships.  And if I can keep my wits about me, I may see the humor in it all.
Of course knowing and doing are two different things.  As I mentioned in the last post, regular practice is required to defy gravity.  It is also required to get through the day.   If I am too busy, too traumatized, too distracted, or otherwise engaged to plan a healthy meal, squeeze in a little exercise, write a thank you note,  or simply stop instead of snap, it’s unlikely I will default into forgiveness or gratitude.
That’s why time outs are so necessary.  Even in sports that thrive on edge-of-your-seat action, time outs prevent that action from being chaotic or even disastrous.  Like a GPS, time outs remind us of our destination and give us a chance to recalculate so we might spend our time and effort wisely.
Whether you have the opportunity to rejuvenate this weekend or just manage to muster up a moment in the middle of midnight shopping, may your time out bring you clarity, a spot of grace, and remind you of reasons big and small to give thanks.

Defy Gravity

Earlier this month I finally made it to Wicked, the musical about the lives and friendship between Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West.  I had heard a few of the songs long before I had seen the play and was not surprised that Popular was so, well, popular.  It’s funny and cute and something we all can relate to at some time or other. 
 
But my favorite song was Defying Gravity, sung by the well-intentioned but deeply misunderstood green girl.  I had tears in my eyes as Elphaba ascended to new heights belting out her battle cry to be yourself despite all odds.  
Of course not everyone who hears the call can heed it.  The unsuspecting and highly suspicious citizens of Oz assumed the worst.  They could only see the flying phenom as the villain the people in power had made her out to be to hide their own wickedness.  Not once did they consider the rest of the story.
History seldom records the whole story.  If we’re lucky, one day it will find its way to light.  That’s when a prisoner can become president and change the world.

A few weekends ago I watched the Kennedys miniseries.  Even though I was born in the 60s, I was too young to really grasp the extreme changes that swept the country throughout that decade.  It was fascinating to put events in context and try to comprehend the courage it took to lead a nation through such turbulent times.  It seemed like everyone who tried to do so was assassinated.  It’s enough to make me think twice about leading a revolution.
Yet every era has a need for visionaries, leaders, courageous men and women who are committed to doing the right thing.  Every organization needs someone with a moral compass at the helm or somewhere in the ranks to blow the whistle should things go horribly wrong.  But how many of us, really, want to be the whistle blower?  It’s not a popular position.  At least not until Hollywood makes a movie about you

Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.  Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.  Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”
I say midlife is nothing if not a daring adventure.  Anything that may have seemed secure – relationships, jobs, finances, familial roles, or institutions – can and will come up for questioning.  Avoiding the danger of dealing with these issues at the first sign trouble is not a good strategy.     Just ask the Pope or the officials at Penn State. 
While it may seem easier in the short run to sweep these inconvenient truths under the rug, we all know they will come back to bite us or someone or something we love or hold dear.  We don’t have to be Glinda, Elphaba, Nelson Mandela, John or Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Erin Brockovich, or any public figure to live a courageous life.  We are asked to do so every day in a million quiet ways.
In order to do so we must activate our latent midlife superpowers, the most powerful of which may be our ability to defy gravity.  By rising above it all like those hot air balloon characters in the Macy’sThanksgiving Day parade, we can do what’s necessary and right and good, even if our voice shakes or we lose popularity points.
What do you think, shall we dust off the broom and take it out for a spin?
All it really takes is regular practice.

Friend or Foe?

We all have them in our lives.  Like fingernails on a chalkboard, there are certain people we would swear were put on this earth solely to irritate, agitate, or otherwise discombobulate.  These people obliterate any chance of a hassle free existence.

For some it’s a boss, a relative, a senator (or pick your politician), a next door neighbor, a daughter’s coach, a son’s teacher, a parent’s pharmacist, or a constantly complaining client.  For others it may be the butcher, the baker, or the candlestick maker, people who are in our lives more out of necessity or by virtue of profession than choice.  

In the case of the Texas Rangers, it would be the St. Louis Cardinals.  I’m writing this during Game 7 of the World Series.  In my case, it’s been my landlord.  I bought a house so I would no longer have to deal with his covert attempts to kick me and my dogs to the curb.

My practice of Ho’oponopono was seriously challenged the past couple of months in order to act my age and not my shoe size.   I was able to do this partly because I remembered something a guru or shaman or hung over hippie once told me.  Those who are our greatest enemies in this life may have been our greatest allies in another.  What if these people loved us so much once that they agreed to come back again as our enemies simply to ensure our growth?

Whether you believe in reincarnation or not or whether you can fathom that your current curmudgeon could be motivated by anything other than spite, greed, fear, or self interest, the fact remains that these people often elicit our most resourceful responses.  They compel us to act on our convictions in a way that a pep talk with a friend who has known and loved us all our life may not.

I think of the day my landlord posed the question, “How important is it for you to have two dogs?”  Of course the appropriate answer arose as soon as the opportunity had passed.  Instead of answering his question with another question, “How important is it for you to get a rent check?” I called my real estate agent.  

Of all the buttons to push, this was the one that catapulted me into action.  My response was something like Sandra Bullock’s character in The Blind Side ,  “You threaten my dogs,  you threaten me.”

The truth is I had been tolerating little things ever since I moved in.  It was a little like being nibbled to death by ducks. Things had reached a head by the summer but since I had convinced myself my third move in four years would be out of Iowa and I was not ready to make that move, I simply endured it.  That is until the day of the inciting incident.

An inciting incident is what moves the story to the next stage.  In a nutshell, it’s the conflict that makes any story worth reading, any challenge worth accepting, or any World Series game worth watching. 

Okay, scratch that last one.  Personally I would have preferred the Rangers win in four games straight rather than the Cardinals in seven so as to avoid the nail biting, teeth clenching, gut wrenching histrionics that occurred around the fifth, sixth, and ninth innings of almost every game in the series.   As a former Queen of Calm, tonight ‘s stress management strategy is to write instead of watch the game.  I must admit, however, these shenanigans up the level of play for each team.

[Aside:  I’m really not a sports fan and certainly not a sports writer but if I had to pick a sport, baseball would be my choice – except for the excessive spitting.   I spent my twenties in Texas and a many memorable evening at the ballpark in Arlington.  Hence my affection for the Rangers.  That and I believe in spreading the World Series wealth.  Why does any team need to win eleven times when another team just wants to win one?]

The fact is every hero needs a nemesis to help realize his or her superpowers.  Up until this point, the only noticeable superpower that has surfaced at midlife has been the Invisibility Cloak.  Where I may have been noticed or at least acknowledge by name earlier in my life, now I get the generic “Ma’am” or “Mrs”, neither of which I respond well to,  when asked if I want to use my AARP discount.  That doesn’t set well either.

Maybe the real superpower and the one that requires an arch enemy or difficulty du jour is to realize what cartoonist Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com  suggests.  ” We are only happy if we are frustrated.”

Anything worth doing is fraught with frustration partly because expressing ourselves authentically is incredibly challenging.  It’s also intensely important to the way we see ourselves.  Ultimately, it’s deeply satisfying precisely because of what it takes to achieve.  (Any guess how many revisions this blog goes through before it sees the light of day?)

I still have a long way to go in embracing the persistent presence of the challenges and challengers in my life.  It takes time and distance to concede they may be doing me a favor by forcing me to move my own story along.

What do you think?  Can a foe be a friend in disguise?  How hard is it to consider?  Who has been especially “friendly” to you lately?



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