Monday, July 27, 2015

An open letter to couples in the first year of their serious relationship

"Are you ready for the spin cycle, Larry?" "Nope. Are you?"
Photo by Fabrizio Lonzini, Flickr

Dear committed couples who have been together one year or less,

Congratulations! After much searching and wondering and wringing of hands, you have found someone whom you are 99.9% certain you want to spend the rest of your life with. I applaud you for this achievement; it is 50% attributable to your hope, optimism, and smashing good looks, and 50% to fortunate timing.

I can see Year One of your relationship unfolding thus: first a period of intense infatuation where everything you discover about this person is miraculous and enriching; then a period of necessary acclimation where you accommodate your daily rhythms to fit this new addition; and lastly, a period of escalated social activity where you rush to not only introduce your person to everyone you love, but also to meet all of the people your person loves.

It is this third stage I would like to warn you about today.

Perhaps "warn" is too strong a word for a time so precious and fleeting. Precious because you are watching people you'd give your life for all get to know one another and become friends in their own right. Fleeting because amid the scheduling and driving and cross-country flying, you -- the one more wrapped up in making it happen rather than the actual happening -- forget to pause and absorb what you hath so finely wrought.

Perhaps a better word would be "caution." Or "advise." Yes, let's go with advise, seeing as this entire letter is unsolicited anyway. I advise you, dear couples, as you traverse the period I like to refer to as Getting Everyone to Know Everyone as 'Now' Becomes 'Forever,' to stay mindful of three sizable demands on your time:

1. You must grow together as a couple.

You had the first few months all to yourselves -- week after week of happy daydreams and pajama snuggles and a romantic cocoon of your own devising. Prioritizing your relationship was easy because it was exciting and new. Once real life reasserts itself, however, you must put extra effort into carving out that special, undisturbed time where just the two of you can explore what you're creating together. Consider this time together sacred, because so are you to each other -- "dedicated, set apart, [and] exclusively appropriated" (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).
2. You must maintain your individual relationships as you also build new ones.

Friendship is a gift, one that nurtures and sustains you in different ways than a romantic relationship. Your friends were there with you when you were single, and they (hopefully) will continue to be with you as you add a partner to your life. But just as your romance requires investment, so do your friendships, be they old or new. Know it will not always go smoothly. You will run up against others' expectations or desires, and more often than not their reactions will be out of your control. What you can control, however, is your response. Continue to listen, acknowledge, and ask your friends to do the same for you. I promise, the new normal will emerge.
3. You must protect and foster what makes you, you.

No one can complete you. Not your partner. Not your family. Not your friends. They support and encourage and love your soul, but they do not embody it. It is up to you and you alone to tend that essential part of your being. Engage your interests, pursue your goals, deepen your connection to the world around you. Remember to be quiet occasionally, and sit by yourself. Such moments will keep you in touch with what makes your friends cherish you, what makes your lover want you, and what makes you feel exactly like you.

By now you're probably sweating and searching for Xanax beer chocolate. I don't blame you -- each of these demands requires diligent care and feeding, and there are only 24 hours in a day, much of which you must devote to sleep, food, and basic hygiene. So here is my final piece of unsolicited advice:

4. Go easy on yourself.

You are doing the best you humanly can. With that effort at the forefront, you will end up in the right place, even if there are some bumps and tears along the route. And no matter what else happens, remember that you're bound to learn much, much more about your partner, your friends, and yourself.
Godspeed, new(ish) couples. I look forward to seeing you on the flip side. But not too soon.

With love and admiration,


Prayer #289: Falling for You

God of hand-holding and hand-wringing,

Hold me in Yours as I figure out how to be present to myself as well as to those I love. Let me peek through Your fingers and spot when my people are striving to give to me as I am striving to give to them. Caress me when I am anxious; block me when I am injurious. And if You must let me go, let it be so I may continue falling in love -- with him, with her, with them -- all intoxicating reflections of You.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tell us in your own words

There’s a delightful moment in the musical “Guys and Dolls” when self-righteous missionary General Cartwright declaims in operatic tones to gangster Nicely Nicely Johnson, “Tell us in your own words.”

She's referring to the personal story of salvation he's purporting to have. And "tell us" is exactly what Nicely proceeds to do, not just with words, but with rhyme, rhythm, melody, harmony, and a full choreographed dance routine alongside a bunch of sin-riddled gamblers.

Could the character have stated his story simply, a la group therapy? Sure. But this being a Broadway musical, he was beholden by the laws of his theatrical universe to make it big. Different. Memorable. So memorable, in fact, that twenty years after I first listened to the "Guys and Dolls" cast recording in my parents’ car, I can still recite “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” by heart.

Yesterday I channeled a bit of General Cartwright when a poet friend shared how unhappy she was with her verse of late. “I want to be like Robert Frost,” she told me. “He has these perfect images, and he just drops this wisdom in … but everything I write comes out coy or arch.”

“Is that your voice, though? What if instead of fighting it, you embraced it?”

She considered that for half a second. “But I don’t like it. I want to be like Frost.”

I tried again. “But why be a second Frost when you can be a first you? I want to hear your voice. What do you have to say?”

She, however, had none of it. Which means -- to my great sorrow -- that I will have none of her for the foreseeable future. None of her wit, none of her creativity, none of her unique, specific, compelling worldview.

Talk about wasting one's most valuable asset. What do I have if not my own voice? Who else has my exact senses and sensibilities? Who else has my mix of experiences, my list of desires, my raft of dreams? No one. Only me. And for you, only you.

The man who gave us the classic lines "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference" would never in a million years want a writer to follow his well-trod path. Let's plot our own instead and explore a wilderness not yet charted.

Prayer #288: My Own Course

Rock your own boat. Plow your own field. Tilt at your own windwills, the ones that in steady thrums claim you cannot defeat them, that you are doomed to stand before them forever, disarmed.

God of voice and character, speak through the conflicted cacophony in my own mind. Endow what I have to say with confidence. Help me leave my windwills far in my past, twirling listlessly against an empty sky, while I carry my message farther than I thought possible.


Wednesday, July 08, 2015

On the Charleston shootings

Three weeks have passed since Dylann Storm Roof killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and I cannot stop placing myself in the middle of that Bible study.

Bible studies provide time and space for contemplation. They offer guided meditation, academic exercise, and community bonding, all in one construct. To think that a man, a stranger, sat in the participants' midst for an entire sixty minutes before opening fire boggles my mind. Did the environment of devotion and love move him at all? Did Mother Emanuel's community sway him, even for a second, to reconsider his actions? Did an opportunity for grace present itself to him? Or was he so rotten, so sodden with hate, rage, and pain, that not the smallest chink of light got through?

I will never know, of course, because I am not Dylann Storm Roof. I was not sitting in the church that day listening the words they were poring over. I do not know how hard God was beating against his rib cage, trying to push aside the pitch-dark fury, struggling to reach Roof's core humanity.

But what I can do instead is turn the questions on myself. Whenever the world pours forth such tragedies -- when we can longer turn a blind eye to the worst elements of our shared humanity -- I force myself to ask, "What hate am I carrying? What prejudice? What fear?"

In essence, how am I failing to love?

"Love will always win." Photo by Matt Drobnik, Flickr

Because the one rule above all is love your neighbor as yourself. And it's the #1 rule because it is the most difficult. It both draws on our natural goodness (for yes, I believe people are fundamentally good) and assaults our learned behaviors. So we end up in a constant war within ourselves, nature vs. nurture, joy vs. fear, whisper vs. shout.

Why are we not love to and for each other?

Love your neighbor, even when he is wrong.

Love your neighbor, even when she scares you.

Love your neighbor, even when you hate them.

But guns are easier. More expedient to use. More expedient to blame. When what we must really do is live out love, even if we don't yet feel it.

Prayer #287: No Words

I have no words left
none to ease the pain
none to soothe the grief
none to stop the violence
except for the hardest ones of all:
I love you
I love You
I love.