Smoke and Mirrors

Susann Hayden discusses an ongoing quest to quit smoking cigarettes and traces the clues that may lead to kicking the habit.

Lucky for me that heroin is illegal. Otherwise, I probably would have smoked it at some point to quit smoking cigarettes. Buddha knows, I have tried everything else: gum, patches, pot, Xanax, raw cookie dough, exercise, meditation, tearful promises, urgent prayers, psychotherapy, hypnosis, tough love, goal setting, reward, punishment, abrupt withdrawal, tapering off, locked rooms, 3 day fasts, 3 day tranquilizers, relaxation tapes, 50x magnification spa mirrors, lollipops, inhalers, screaming, sobbing, self-loathing, begging for help, books – just to name a few. When the facts and inspiration from reading doesn’t help me, I suspect there may be a deep-rooted psychological block to overcome.

For the life of me – the literal Life. Of. Me. – I have not been able to conquer this hideous habit over the years that I have been actively trying. Until maybe last week. A randomly chosen movie – Dead Again – featuring Robin Williams as a former therapist, had one line that clicked into my subconscious and made me think about the subject differently. Early in the film Williams’ character coolly observes a private investigator – played by Kenneth Branagh – and says to him, “Do you want a cigarette?” Branagh replies, “No. I don’t smoke.” A few lines later, Williams says again, “Here – take a cigarette.” Branagh retorts, “Why do you think I want a cigarette? I am trying not to smoke.” Williams explains, “Look. There is no trying to quit. You are either a smoker or you’re not. Think about it. And when you decide, you’ll know what to do.” I could easily answer that question: I am not a smoker. Why on earth have I spent so much time and effort to sustain a habit I don’t even like? Psychological issues usually trace to the beginning of a behavior– some tangible episode/event that sparks a behavior change. This weekend, I strolled down bad habit memory lane once more to prove my suspicion that I am not a smoker.

Parental Influence? My dad never smoked; my mom was a social smoker. Both of their fathers had smoked and dad’s had died in his fifties of emphysema. My mom’s dad – a small town sheriff during the depression – was shot to death by the town drunk in a little town in Georgia when mother was five years old. Mom remembered him as a tragic romantic figure, with a head full of black hair and a cigarette dangling from a full bottom lip; over time he came to be personified by Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind – mother’s favorite book. My mom smoked during weekly bridge games and Friday night dances at the country club. She also smoked a couple of cigarettes every New Year’s Eve. The woman could literally take a year smoking one pack of cigarettes. Each time, my father would have a conniption fit and lecture all of us on the evils of smoking.

This was in the seventies, before the real evil of mass produced cigarettes was even known…to the public. But, my father remembered the devastation caused to his depression era family when the patriarchal bread winner had to take to his bed permanently with a terminal case of lung disease leaving six children to fend for themselves. My mom had more of a denial mechanism: her father was cut down by the malevolence of alcohol and ignorance. She never saw her dad wrinkle and wheeze from a long life of cigarettes. My siblings never really took to cigarettes; it was just me who faced that demon. Maybe we are predisposed to an addiction gene, but clearly I cannot look to my family for the cause of this plague.

Youthful Indiscretion? My first cigarette was five cigarettes. They accompanied my first drink: Jack and Coke in a railcar suite at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo when I was barely thirteen years old. At this age, I was a freshman in high school. Everyone else seemed so much older. When the girlfriend of a senior at my high school asked me to keep her company in Tennessee for an overnight away soccer game, I jumped at the chance. She was great to me that weekend; she introduced me to alcohol and cigarettes, talked me through the pitfalls of being a female in high school, held my hair when I got dizzy and sick that night, and never said a word about it to anyone. She set the bar really high for my feelings that what I chose to do was mine to do and deal with accordingly. I didn’t smoke or drink again for a year. When I did, it was in defiance of my boyfriend who thought smoking “wasn’t ladylike”. I smoked my way right to a break-up, then quit again for the rest of the school year.

I would have let the smoking chapter end, but my dad heard about my smoking a couple of months after I stopped. He prepared a long chat with me – drove out to my boarding school on a weekday – egads! – and told me that if I didn’t quit he would remove me from school. I was outraged at the heavy handed tactics, bummed a cigarette from a classmate walking by the window of the family sedan dad and I were conversing in, and lit up on the spot. I smoked off my nose to spite my face. Then, I smoked for a few more months to show my dad who was the boss of me. But, I really couldn’t stand it, so I quit again for several years. What could have ended right there as a youthful indiscretion/rebellion crept back a few years later.

Social Pressures? I am an introvert. I hide it really well, like my corporate training taught me. But, I unwaveringly enter any social gathering looking for the chance to skip outside to smoke a cigarette – alone. Outside, there is usually some other soul like myself who I will talk to over my American Spirit; as an introvert, this one-on-one conversation is infinitely preferable to me. The only times in life I have ever had more than two cocktails was when I could not escape, like a cocktail party or a presentation day for work. People will press drink after drink on you while telling you all about the wickedness of something else. Socializing within these confines is a soul sucking situation for me.

I became a professed teetotaler by my junior year of college; nobody forces non-drinkers into bawdy conversations. But, I was singing in a bar to pay for school, so I took up smoking again to find a way out of talking to the customers in the clubs where our band played. Ironically, no one ever pressured me to smoke to be cool. Smokers are generous with cigarettes; they will always give you the last one out of their pack. But, no one ever pressed a cigarette on me. So, while there are social pressures for me associated with smoking, they spring from inside myself. I have adapted aberrantly with cigarettes, so I can’t blame social pressures for my smoking any more than I can blame society for people’s fascination/obsession with loudmouths, drunks, and self promoters.

Oral Fixation? Definitely. Thank Allah I never had much of a taste for alcohol, because I have rarely spent a moment of my adult life without a coffee, diet soda, juice tonic, or glass of ice water in my hand. My mom did breast feed me and I loved her very much. So, yes, I don’t at all discount Freud here when I think of my need for oral reinforcement when feeling upset or anxious. Since having gained and lost the same 15 pounds throughout my entire life, I believe my family when they say that they can always tell when I am happy because I’m healthy and fit. When I am not happy, the pounds go on and no unclaimed cigarette lying around is safe from my clutches. This epiphany from the movie happening at this point in my life seems to point to a successful oral substitution change to something healthier for a while, like carrot sticks or Nicorette gum. There’s some hilarious patter in the Gwyneth Paltrow/Ben Affleck movie Bounce, where Gwyneth Paltrow takes up smoking again to wean her off nicotine gum. Sadly, my oral fixation may be that pronounced. But, as I am aware of it all of the time now, it seems to be lessening dramatically on its own. Time to move on to the next excuse/reason…

Emotion Mitigation? When I quit smoking, I alternately cry easily or fly off the handle about almost everything remotely inconvenient or imperfect. I know smoking helps me hold back a lot of my feelings. I am honestly afraid of the physical and mental energy I have when I am not smoking. I quit for ten years starting in graduate school. During that time, I ran five miles a day, played racquetball incessantly, started a new career, and moved to the big city of Atlanta. There was no time or reason to think deeply or smoke cigarettes. Then, I switched to a job that would lead me to living and working in Europe. During that time, I also married and became pregnant. And, waiting for that baby to arrive was when the smoking bug hit me again. I made it through the end of that pregnancy without smoking, but it was touch and go. Once my son was born and would only drink from a bottle, that’s all I needed to light up for another ten years. My time raising my son was golden. Work and marriage were horrendously stressful, though.

Smoking was also much easier. Europeans don’t think about cigarettes the way Americans do at all. And, their cigarettes are not as full of drain cleaner, et.al., and extra addictive poison sludge like those in the U.S. So, I started again. When I moved back to the US, I stopped once more later for several years when I was happily ensconced in a completely different job. But, then, after a lifetime of friends who didn’t smoke, I met my future husband and he smoked like a chimney. We talked and smoked and smoked and talked. It was heavenly. I fell off the wagon again.

See how I wrote two paragraphs without acknowledging the important discovery I made in the first sentence of this section? Cry easily, inconvenient, imperfect. Those issues all come from early childhood: scary big sister, Type A personality from birth, shameful Bryan’s Song crying jag at six years old, having to hold my bladder too long at elementary school because of an overwhelmed second grade teacher, pathological need to score 100 on tests, training for track every day in all weather, dancing en pointe, tendency to have head in the clouds reading books and singing along with record player until sibling revolts snapped me back. Okay… So what if I spend four weeks crying while I am not smoking? Who cares? My husband won’t harass me about it, nor will the computer. I live in the city now in a tenth of the space I am used to inhabiting: everything is inconvenient. If I focus on improving/embracing this period of change, then I won’t need the smokes as a crutch to prop up my denial of my discomfort right now. Imperfect? Um, yes I am. I do tend to hide that from even my closest intimates: I am supposed to be the person who always has the answers. If I stop doing/being that, I bet I will stop being stressed out over things I don’t care about and stop smoking. I am writing full time now; the only answer I know and want is to keep doing that.

Behavioral Habit? At this point in life, I absolutely have to quit and have needed to for a while, now. If you smoke, you know what I mean. I have the lung capacity of a hummingbird. My face shows the signs of a day of heavy smoking; it also rosies right up when I forego the habit. I smoke so as not to eat when I am nervous. I smoke to punctuate something good happening or something bad. I wash my hands and brush my teeth all the time. Smoking is robbing me of time – a moment here, there, and everywhere – that is not going to come endlessly anymore. I must stop and identify the feelings propelling me to light up every time I change gears. When the urge is purely physical, as it will be for the first couple of weeks, then I can use my inhaler. When I want to use the behavior to celebrate writing a chapter or working out (I know, it’s pathetic), I could find another way to behave right there in the moment that suits the non-smoker that stands tall at my core.

Conclusion? I am not a smoker. I am a generally happy person in the middle of a lot of change and transformation. I do want to live for a good, long while. I am not a self-saboteur. I will use these mirrors from my past to cut through the haze of smoking. My sister lives 4000 miles away! I can do this. It has been 36 hours since I started writing this and since I have had a cigarette.  Please leave any comments, tips, cartoons, advice, etc. in the comments below. Thanks for listening and cross your fingers for me.

 

Summer Dance (GSC Thin Mint Cannabis)

Summer Dance (GSC Thin Mint Cannabis)

WP Photo Challenge – Dance

My husband and I were enjoying a cool, overcast summer day tending to our field of flowers when a sudden gust of wind blew up from the Pacific Ocean – less than a mile away. Suddenly, the wild trees and shrubs encircling the garden began to bend and shake. But the girls, as we like to call them, were so plump and healthy they stood absolutely upright in the wind with only their tinier leaves shivering and winking in a dainty dance. I immediately thought of Wordsworth’s poem about the daffodils and my heart filled with joy. I hope yours does, too. Happy Spring!

This and all Idea Culture post photos are courtesy of Trou Blanc Photography.

Girl Scout Cookie Thin Mint – OG Kush x Durban Fl. Hybrid. Produces lots of smaller super frosty buds; has a smooth mint taste with excellent bag appeal. High THC levels. Resistant to pests and mold, Thin Mint is hardy indoor and outdoor. Very good resin producer for concentrates. Average Yield: Normal. 8-9 Weeks. Indoor/Outdoor- October finish.

 

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud 

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

– William Wordsworth

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/dance/

Ides of March

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.

(from William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, spoken by Marc Antony)

 

On this day, March 15th, in 44 BC, Emperor for Life Julius Caesar was assassinated on the senate floor of Rome as he prepared to speak to the political body collected before him. He endured 23 stab wounds by as many members of the senate, many of whom he considered friends and allies. Historically this date, commemorated first by the Romans, is considered the defining marker between Rome as a republic and Rome as the world empire the following generations would witness. Above is the imagined eulogy his true compatriot, general Marc Antony, would have delivered at Caesar’s funeral a few days hence. It is this stirring speech, delivered in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar as commentary on events that had occurred over 16 centuries earlier, that forever solidified the Ides of March as a date to ponder man’s inhumanity to man, as well as to reflect on pride, ambition, loyalty, and betrayal – among individuals and in government.

It is fitting that the March Ides occurs in the middle of the Lent season and in anticipation of the renewal of spring. It was Caesar who commissioned most of the changes that are part of our modern calendar. In his day, March was considered the new year; Caesar had already decreed that 46 BC would see March as the third month of the year on the Julian calendar, which is virtually the same calendar we still use today. Thus, the current year cycle is now a few months underway by the time march winds blow and final snows fall. The ides simply denoted the middle of the month; it is the fact of Caesar’s murder and the historical consequence that have lent the word ‘ides’ the ominous tone it still carries today.

At the time of Caesar’s assassination, spirituality consisted of keen observance and homage paid to the mythological gods like Jupiter and Mars, who were thought to rule mortals and influence fate through judgment, benevolence, or displeasure with human conduct both individual and societal. Oracles, omens, and assorted prognosticators were employed and influential in personal and government affairs. In fact, it was a seer in ancient Rome who warned Caesar to beware the ides of March of 44 BC.

Christianity and Catholicism would appear within a century after Caesar’s death. The Lent season, recognized by both religions, marks the six weeks before Easter – when Christ rises from the dead. Lent is a time for prayer and penance; it is a time for shedding bad habits and coming closer to the best within ourselves in preparation for a brand new season of piety and devotion to higher purposes. During Lent, most practicing Catholics give up something that is causing harm to themselves or others; many Christian denominations encourage followers to fast, cease smoking, and engage in prayer and various soul cleansing rituals, as well. For Caesar’s contemporaries, the new year – and the ides of any month – commenced with a sacrifice to Jupiter, the Roman’s supreme deity. Following the ritual, a time of celebration and feasting was observed, much like the modern feasts of Easter Sunday and the lighthearted rituals of egg hunting and spring baskets of candy for children. The Ides of March is not so different in modern society than it was in Caesar’s day. The Roman pagans, upon the death of Caesar, then also had a real life martyr to remember and study as they prepared for a season of renewal.

For a time before Caesar’s death, there had been a civil war between Caesar and Pompey, the prevailing leader of Rome. Caesar had routed Pompey in this war, both militarily and popularly. Caesar’s army had continued to march victoriously through the Gallic Wars, conquering more and more territory for Rome, even bridging the English Channel to invade Britain. Caesar simultaneously conducted a war with Pompey for the love of the people; he passed many laws that slowly diluted the power of the establishment – the rich and titled – and inflated the seats in the senate to further leech power from Pompey’s old guard. Most importantly to the populace, he allowed everyone to obtain Roman citizenship and share in the fruits of the rich, expansive empire and kept his people fed through alliances with or defeat of territories with rich food supplies like Egypt and Spain. He also sought to centralize the Roman government with less oversight on municipal concerns like methods of taxation. The calendar was also a very important populist strategy as it coincided with the seasons, which gave more order to a constant food supply.

Marc Antony’s eulogy in Julius Caesar was delivered to a large gathering of constituents and citizens of Rome. These countrymen, previously big supporters of Caesar, had been manipulated by the old guard of the Senate – through ‘media’ channels like graffiti, town criers called ‘praecos’ who broadcast news in the forum, and posted proclamations – to believe that Caesar no longer had their best interests at heart. Romans were told that Caesar had become arrogant and power hungry and had sacrificed their interests to his own. The audacious act of honorable senate members actually murdering Caesar themselves in the senate house further punctuated the need for swift and violent action the Senate had been trying to incite in the Roman mob.

Antony’s speech speaks to the disinformation fed to Roman citizens in a rhetorical triumph of emotion and logic. Antony begins by using his own stature as decorated everyman soldier of Rome being as one with the Roman people gathered: “Friends, Romans, countryman”; then, after reminding the crowd of his credibility with them as their defender, he asks them to listen to him. He starts his undermining of Brutus, the most publicly admired of the old guard, by questioning Brutus’ attacks on Caesar’s character. Antony then asks questions to make the Romans think not only about what they know about Brutus’ own character and reliability but, more importantly, about the efficacy of the actual facts or opinions they have been told. He uses several examples of Caesar’s public behavior to make his case: Caesar’s campaigns which kept Romans fed and safe, his refusal to be king, and his social programs that benefited every citizen. Antony concludes with sorrow that Romans have been so misguided by the Senate and asks if they have all lost their powers of distinction and reason. This is the lesson for everyone at the idea of March: what do we really know about the people and government we trust, where did we get that information, and to what purpose?

After Caesar’s death, Rome was favored with an excellent emperor in Augustus, the appointed heir of Caesar, certainly, but also a leader in his own right. He crushed the nepotism that had plagued Caesar’s tenure, eased the stranglehold of the old guard in the senate, and transferred more independence to the citizenry of Rome. He continued the social programs, territory gains, arts, and sciences begun by Caesar and led Rome to a golden age of relative peace. When Augustus died, his successors slowly but surely led Rome to its ultimate downfall through tyranny and greed. However, the lessons of the Roman empire, Caesar, Augustus, and the story of Brutus’ betrayal have endured to this day. What became of Brutus and Cassius and the other murderers of Caesar? Both Brutus and Cassius ended up suicides within a short time. After Caesar died, over 300 conspirators were hunted down exposed, and executed.

The Ides of March has an ominous feeling to it because we are reminded through one of the first well known political assassinations in world history, that evil sometimes triumphs. But, in addition to mourning for Caesar, it is a good reminder that what happens in the world is everyone’s responsibility: we must think for ourselves. Justice will ultimately be served. It is easier to find men who willingly volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience. – Julius Caesar

Friends and Writers

Susann Hayden explores adult friendships and offers advice for writers to find fellowship.

Last week I read an article from a capable author in her forties who had gone broke, lost her career, never been married, and had lost each of her friends all while commemorating the first anniversary of her mother’s death. Her pain was palpable through every paragraph. The theme of the piece was adult friendship and the framework was centered around long time female friends who, in gender solidarity, were expected to stick around through thick and thin. Reflection on some of these questions made me recommit to solutions for myself around the difficulty of finding and keeping friends as an adult – and a writer.

It didn’t surprise me that this writer had lost her friends. As we go through our paths as adults, most of us drop countless people by the wayside and are, similarly, left by the curb ourselves. The reality is that if over half of marriages end in divorce, why wouldn’t an even bigger proportion of friendships end every few years or decades? Think about the friends you had in elementary school or in your childhood neighborhood. Didn’t you transition to different friends by junior high? How about from high school to college or high school to work? Have you ever relocated, changed careers, had a baby, endured a serious illness, survived a natural disaster, bought a house, taken up an adult hobby? Have you ever reconsidered your religion, changed your major, come out with a previously undisclosed sexual preference, inherited money, become a vegetarian? Think of all the changes and choices we are privileged to make as adults along with the unending list of more serious life events that can descend on us like comets falling from the sky. Many of us lose contact with family members through many of these events, much less friends we chose when we were 10 or 18 or 25 years old.

People who find romantic love that lasts to a golden anniversary or people who find friendships that last a lifetime may be just blessed in this way. Like a born athlete or a musical prodigy or a genius – maybe this is just the gift life has bestowed. Yes, we can improve ourselves as friends and people but it is no guarantee that others will do the same for us at the same time or at the time that we need it. When friends drop us in the times we need them most, as will spouses and employers and landlords, it can be devastating. (Gender has nothing to do with the endurance of friendship any more than any other race, age, lifestyle marker accounts for loyalty of any kind.) When life transitions, friends can behave as if bad luck or singular choices are contagious. We are shunned and unfriended and, ultimately, dropped. It’s the same feeling as having a lover leave who has been naked with you, knows your covert predilection for Sookie Stackhouse novels, and agrees that your sister is a nutter. Suddenly, all of those intimacies are gone; when you already are feeling vulnerable and hopeless, these losses seem compounded. The hardest part is not seeing it coming. We have made a social contract and the agreement is broken. It’s stunning and appalling. It is sanctimonious to think we have not made some of these hardened friendship choices ourselves.

Both of my parents died when I was much younger. One of the feelings that I never expected was a sense of freedom. My parents rarely placed familial suppositions on me. But during both of their funerals, I still had this surreal feeling that my life was now my own. I had no more fears of confounding them, celebrating the holidays the way we always had, dressing a certain way, or hearing again about me calling marshmallows ‘hush-mush’, or how I got the family car stuck in a lake. I was absolutely free of anyone’s expectations but my own. There was no history attached to me that would prevent me from being what I envisioned.

I have come to feel the same way about losing friends. If you have ever steeled yourself for a phone call where you will be explaining to someone who ‘knows you’ that you are now eating vegan, practicing Buddhism, learning to skydive, or voting for Jesse Jackson, then you can probably relate to this. In those times I always resented having to explain myself and my choices. This pre-conversation angst was always a reliable signal to me that it was probably time to move on from those friendships. In truth, I have also dropped people for marrying someone I couldn’t stand, raising obnoxious children, or forcing raw food or family newsletters on me. I have eschewed former pals for playing endless games of Farmville on Facebook, talking to me about going to hell, mentioning the Kardashians, or voting for Republicans. Usually, we are simply no longer compatible in any way and we need to move on. Often, I have become obsessed with a new passion and purpose and need to be surrounded by a circle of supporters who share my enthusiasm. And, my friends aren’t moving on at that particular time. The timing is off: one of us is changing and one of us is steadfastly maintaining. We have become cronies instead of compatriots.

When you change, people cannot always change with you. Some of the changes you make in life seem too scary, too ludicrous, or too risky for others to come along. Some paths have to be walked alone for a while. Sometimes you have to be your own best friend through transition. For everything we lose, there is something better to take its place.

Our society has changed. Look at the main ways we communicate now: social media, emails, texts, and phone tag. Change is not bad, it just is. At the same time, we bemoan the loss of personal time and gatherings and holidays and face-to-face talks, we have gained the ability to video call, share real time photos and video, keep our friends and family current on the daily reality of our lives – what we like to do, where we like to go – and communicate with a whole world of friends we could never have ‘met’ any other way but through the technology we feel is alienating us. It’s a trade-off. The important lesson is to find what works for us for an appropriate level of community and intimacy, and leverage technology to sustain it. Still, I miss the times when getting together with a friend for a drink, a movie, a weekend, was possible just be picking up the phone. And, most people – even those that use social media constantly – still desire a level of friendship that can’t be forged without personal contact.

Life in any city or small town makes meeting friends easier because activities are arranged for you all of the time from building get-togethers to gallery walks to sporting events to holiday festivities. But, you have to be patient and actually not pretend you are busy by playing with your phone apps -or, worse, talking on your phone – or look away the minute you meet someone’s eyes. City dwellers have an armor around them to stay safe or stay on time; small town people are worried about how you will change the dynamic they have grown to expect. It’s important to be authentic, open to opportunities, and keep at it.

Here are a few ideas for writers and other entrepreneur types looking to make friends as an adult.

Writers’ walking group: Let’s face it. Writing is a solitary pursuit and one that can make you inactive. Walking, getting fresh air, being joined for a while by like souls who understand what you go through at the computer could be just the antidote to writer’s malaise. Beware searching for the right criteria on places like Craig’s List. I looked for other writers and possible walking buddies last year and came upon the perfect ad line for what seemed like a writer who liked to walk and wanted some company. I clicked in to the post of a female lying naked, face down on her bed. Turns out, she liked to take long walks, was looking for an artist, and was really anxious for new friends. Yeah, that’s not what I meant. Like every worthwhile pursuit, finding walking buddies will be a process.

Find a stranger mentor on the web: My mentor is a total stranger named James Altucher; he has helped me more than he could ever know this year. James is a financial analyst and the best-selling author of Choose Yourself and countless other books about being an entrepreneur in the new economy. He is a prolific email and article writer and his style is humorous, specific, and self-deprecating. He tells the tales. He also has a plethora of practical advice to encourage walking your own path and understands that you have to make money at it. His ten ideas a day and 1% improvement theories really keep me on the right track. His books are sometimes free through the Kindle program at Amazon and his free subscription service to his website and email list offer me a daily dose of strength and motivation. I don’t know James and I have nothing to gain by shilling for him here. But, he has recommended many books and avenues of research for me and made me an idea machine for my thinking and writing. Thanks so much, James.

Start reading other blogs until you find a circle of like minds or minds that stimulate your own creativity. Don’t study the experts for this exercise; follow the fascinating. I trail photographers, postcard collectors, museum enthusiasts, fashionistas, astrologers, travelers, home cooks, surgeons, poets, pastors, and stay at home dads. They hail from Calgary, London, Dubai, Bangkok, Kowloon City, Tokyo, Moscow, Charlotte, New Delhi, New York City, Lisbon, Rio, and Dayton, Ohio. I love my gang of fellow creatives – and I have never met nor spoken with a single one of them. But, I do not feel alone or disenfranchised. They show me the depths of their thoughts and share minute, intimate, details of their lives with me. And, several of them make me laugh out loud while I am reading. I am so grateful.

Take a class: Seriously. It really works. Take a class in something unusual that will attract the people who have hidden dreams and quirky proclivities just like you. For example, I don’t know of anyone who ever met a new pal in a sadistic spinning class, but I know a lot of people who have met great friends at a sweaty co-ed yoga studio. (Co-ed is key: even if you find the opposite gender scary, it helps to have a well-rounded group with a lot of different perspectives when learning a new skill.) Ditto cooking classes and watercolor classes, pet trainings and scuba lessons. Dance classes are also great, but don’t pick the ones for two person dances. Pick something like tap or modern dance, where there is no gender or couples pressure. Take a class in chess or improvisation, public speaking or ornithology; learn a foreign language or music appreciation. Just pick something and go. Do it NOW!

Thank another writer with a note: I do a lot of reading and research for my writing. Recently, for example, I wrote a post on forgiveness after reading a compilation book on the topic and finding an excellent article to serve as my framework. I was so appreciative of the way this writer explained her theories that I looked her up online, found her website, and sent her a short note through her contact page. I simply stated that what she wrote really spoke to me and that I could grasp and synthesize her theory because of the excellent examples and stories she used to illustrate her points. I thanked her and wished her well. Less than a day later, I received a warm note from this busy woman, letting me know she was glad she could help and wishing me well right back. I have read about the importance of thanking your author mentors as far back as Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, but I never took the advice before now. I have now decided to do this at least once a month because it is a good exercise for future friendships and relationships, period. If you want a friend, be a friend. If you want support, be supportive. If you want give and take, give first and see what happens. Again, I will probably never meet any of the writers I acknowledge. But, I feel like the world is full of potential friends; I know I am not alone trying to be a pioneer.

Do Volunteer Work: Feel like you are friendless and alone because your college pals don’t support you as a writer? Feel hurt by being left behind to deal with your changes? Feel scared about looking for a new job or downsizing to make a career change? Then get your self up and go volunteer. Just type in ‘volunteer opportunities’ and your zip code into Google search then pick up the phone. Some place in your area needs your help right now to serve food or make phone calls or clean toilets or keep somebody company. One of the best ways to feel less distress is to go see the state of someone else’s life – someone else that needs a lot more comfort than you do right now. Want instant gratification and appreciation? One of those people you go help today will hold your hand or smile at you or say thank-you and it will sustain you for weeks. Volunteering is addictive to those needing humanity. And, as a writer, think of the stories and experiences you will gain.

By the way, I believe a new level of friendship is being and could be better forged through participation writing and reading these blogs. I don’t know how that would look, but I see more opportunity to connect beyond leaving brief praises and likes. Many longer term bloggers appear to have established a comfortable social network of followers and work friends through sharing posts. But, there may be a chance for more interaction or support for those who would like it. Please share any thoughts and ideas in the comments section: more ideas about adult friendships in general, how to forge them, how to keep them, how to forge friendships as a writer, etc.

We all deserve to be surrounded by people who understand and support us, however fleeting or enduring that may be. And, to the woman writer who has had such a rough transitional year, I repeat the eastern philosophy that I was told by a friend: When things are falling apart, they are really falling together. Who couldn’t use a few good friends?

Forgiveness

Susann Hayden explores the idea that forgiveness may imply a lack of understanding that all things in life are working to bring us to a higher purpose, a concept featured in motivational coach Jackie Woodside’s article, “Forgiveness: A New Paradigm, A New Possibility for Transcendent Living”

For a while now, the concept of forgiveness has troubled me.

A few years ago, I was building my way up a happy career ladder when I decided to take a risk on an entrepreneurial opportunity in a new industry. Looking back, I wanted to tell myself that I should have waited to build more solid foundations financially and mentally before taking on such a huge risk to my freedom and standing in the world. Certainly, after five years when the business had sucked hundreds of thousands of dollars of savings and earnings down its sinkhole, and my once fun and synergistic partnership resembled more of a grim, let’s-just-get-through-this kind of ordeal, I worried I had been rash and unwise. While transitioning out of that initial mess took another year – where my partner and I had to part with our homes, our business equipment, and our operation – I developed a bitterness, cynicism, and rage that surprised me. I found it really difficult to let go of this one. I found it impossible to forgive.

In some dark moments, I blamed my partner and he blamed me. With time, we gained enough perspective to honor having come a long way together on a ridiculously tortured path; we resigned ourselves to the conclusion that it just wasn’t far enough given all the other unknowns and pressures of our industry. But, at least we finally felt able to move forward. We were having trouble doing it together, though; we were in danger of losing each other after everything else. That’s what made me decide to solve the forgiveness problem, once and for all.

In the book Forgiveness: Heart-Healing Stories for the Stubborn & Hard Headed, a chapter written by Jackie Woodside, a professional speaker and motivational coach, resonated with me. The chapter didn’t so much illustrate a story, but more a transformation in thinking about the concept of forgiveness. In “Forgiveness: A New Paradigm, A New Possibility for Transcendent Living”, Woodside asserts that she takes issue with the idea of forgiveness as it implies a lack of understanding that all things in life are working to bring us to a higher purpose. At the very least, they are all necessary to shape us into the person we become, which is the total package we must embrace, since it is the reality of ourselves that needs acceptance and love – not a person that wronged us or who we have wronged.

Forgiving can perpetuate a sense of victim consciousness rather than a consciousness of acceptance of the spiritual tenant that all things are working together for [the] highest good. Yes, all things, even those things that we have determined to be inappropriate or hurtful. We hear all the time that the quality of our life depends not on what happens to us, but on what we make of what happens to us…. Your experience of life has less to do with what happens TO YOU and more about what happens WITHIN YOU. -Jackie Woodside

Thinking more about where I have been trapped with the idea of forgiveness is the constant need to ask “Why” something is happening. As an objective critical thinker, ahem, I can always see where I or someone else did something wrong. It’s a horribly unjust and unkind occupation to criticize a partner or friend who is with you in a mystifying situation. How many times in life are we relieved or helped up by someone we caused to fall down beside us? Additionally, seeking some imagined exemplar of behavior in ourselves as we navigate a completely foreign experience is futile and soul crushing. How far will we ever get if we constantly look to shore up our own and others’ weaknesses to the point of self-annihilation and total isolation? How will we ever find the courage to try something enlightening? How can we find the tenacity to appreciate the greater good of every experience?

Criticizing fellow travelers in a leaky lifeboat is simply a waste of time and effort, and it shows bad form. Even if they punched holes in the raft with a very big pair of scissors, you are still sitting in it with them. It’s their boat. They didn’t kidnap you. They didn’t hold a gun to your head. They said, “How about we take a little trip and see what happens? I think we can make it to the other side and have a fabulous picnic.” If you didn’t check the picnic basket, check the boat for leaks, check your companions for sharp objects, then haven’t you, by proxy, agreed that you are reasonably sure they can sail you to shore? And, aren’t you entrusting them to do their best to get you there? There is no lesson in a hindsight view of what dreadful leaders people can be when in the middle of shark infested waters. That is, I am sure, the opposite of grace under pressure, good sportsmanship, or good personal skills. It’s the Bill Clinton exercise of personal responsibility: the willfully obtuse justification. And it is an excellent way to miss the next good ship lollipop. Focusing on forgiveness is choosing to live in the past. It is a fear of the reality of something that has already happened; it is an insidious form of denial.

When I feel the need to “forgive” someone else, I am missing the opportunity to figure out the lesson I need to learn. Yes, I have whined through some of these last years, “I don’t want to learn any more lessons. I want to be comfortable and dumb.” Other times, I have tortured myself with the thought that I must have done some seriously bad stuff in my life to get this kind of karma punch, over and over again. But, when I look at the title of the aforementioned book again, Forgiveness… for the Stubborn & Hard Headed, I think I may just see the message. After all, isn’t being hard headed just a way of holding on to being right instead of being fully engaged in…being? And, underlying that, isn’t stubbornness really just the base fear of letting go of an outdated prism of experience that keeps us imprisoned inside an illusion of security? Does any of that have to do with my partner, anyone, or anything else?

Adapt or die. It is one of my favorite phrases. And, yet, there I sat, feeling despondent and reading books about forgiving someone else for his shortcomings. Et tu, Brute?

Exchanging forgiveness for empowerment reconnects us to the self-assurance of childhood. As a kid, I would wake up to the start of a long summer day with only myself to amuse and the whole neighborhood to prospect. I would leap out of bed and head out to explore, create, and entertain myself. I had a huge mental list of all the places and activities I could enjoy and a free floating plan of where to start; I was also open to whatever found me along the way. The ultimate design was discovery and engagement. Sometimes, I shared these days with accomplices. Other times, I spent the whole afternoon just lying in the grass with my arm flung across the neck of my best friend: a tremendous, solid black German Shepherd named Chief. As an adult, relearning to approach dreams with a beginner’s mind, working and adapting my own plan, and learning to master every part of the boat by myself while listening hard for my own counsel – is ultimately, the course I am plotting. If I am lucky enough to have a partner who wants to come along, I have to alter my course to be a shared one – with value for all. Maybe that’s what “Take no prisoners” should mean.

An appropriate level of discomfort is the sweet spot. When did the racing pulse and queasy feeling of trying something new and possibly – probably – inviting redirection become so loathsome? Where would Ben Franklin be if he was puffing disdain for the kite maker? Why would it bother anyone for Einstein to assert that perhaps none of his theories may be true since they were all built on other theories? In a society where corporate media discourages erstwhile soul searchers with Faustian whispers to pop a prescription pill, smoke a cigarette, eat a Twinkie – ad nauseam – as a salve for every boo-boo moment, I have to believe that gaining confidence and self-satisfaction facing overwhelming hurdles is more desirable than looking outward to someone or something else to blame or make it better. It’s gratifying to have support through tough moments from people who love us and want the best for us. But, ultimately, we go through those evolutionary changes inside ourselves – alone. For myself, the way forward turned out to be a renewed willingness to embrace vulnerability, change, and a novice eye. If I needed to ‘forgive’ anyone, it was myself.

In 1875, Victorian poet William Ernest Henley wrote a short, inspiring poem called “Invictus”, though many people wrongly subscribe it to Nelson Mandela…or Morgan Freeman. The last lines sum up the personal responsibility and majesty encapsulating such: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Forget about forgiveness. Grab the wheel and discover new worlds.

Love Your Pet Day, February 20th

The national Love Your Pet Day is coming up on February 20th. People have had pets since the beginning of the human species – tens of thousands of years. Whether birds were trained to deliver messages or snakes were charmed to charm, cats were to be worshiped as gods, horses were to be charged into battle, elephants were to display the majesty of wealth, or monkeys were to sit observantly on shoulders, animals have been cultivated and domesticated to provide complement and compatriot to man. Of all of these pet companions, dogs have endured the longest and the most auspiciously. Dogs make wonderful pets; they work hard at it. The endurance and evolution of the species reveals valuable lessons in cooperation and adaptability.

There are 525 million dogs in the world and 7.4 billion people; that’s one dog for every 14 people in the world. 75% of dogs reside in the developing countries; there is one dog family member in one-third to one-half of all households in the U.S. Americans spend an average of $1200. to adopt a new puppy and get her started in life, and about $500. for each successive year of ownership. (Most dog breeds have a 10 to 15-year lifespan.) U.S. pet owners spend close to $60 billion a year on their pets with cat and dog ownership almost evenly split. Subtract from that figure the costs associated with pets like horses, birds, fish, and guinea pigs, and it’s safe to say close to $20 billion a year is spent on dog ownership each year.

As a comparison, the average cost to raise a child for 18 years is @$200K. Raising a dog who cannot speak, is always glad to see you, will perform heroic feats to save your life, and will happily perform tricks in front of the neighbors seems a relative bargain. And, dogs will never be too cool to hug you, will never be on a diet and refuse to try your newest recipe, and will never answer your cell phone to inform your boss that you are recycling beer cans and can’t come to the phone right now.

Dogs have been around for @40,000 years. The domestic dog today, Canis familiaris, descended from a wolf canid. Dogs are the oldest form of domesticated animal and are considered one of the most successful species on the planet because of their adaptability in socialization and relationships. Dogs have been with humans longer than any other animal and have learned – with human intervention – to be socially and behaviorally attuned to humans like no other species.

“[Dogs] are uniquely attuned to human behaviors. Behavioral scientists have uncovered a surprising set of social cognitive abilities…not possessed by the species closely related to the dog or by highly intelligent non-human species like the great apes. These skills parallel some of the social-cognitive skills of human children. Dogs demonstrate a theory of mind by engaging in deception” and other cognitive processes and behaviors. Gaius in Trouble 2They appear empathetic and communicative to people and are able to learn skill sets and behaviors; they also have the memory to recall and respond to a wide variety of different commands and gestures and have the capacity to recognize hundreds of words. Significantly, they have also learned to work alongside humans as shepherds, herders, hunters, exterminators, guarders, detectors, policers, load pullers, guiders, companions, hearing aids, therapists, and best friends.

The hundreds of dog breeds today are relatively young for such an old animal. Humans have bred species of dogs for specific behaviors, features, and functions for millennia, but most current dog breeds are only a couple of hundred years old or less. There is a staggering diversity of dog appearance, size, behavior, and function. In tailoring their genetic traits, dog breeders have produced more desirable behaviors without losing the cognitive adaptability and function of the species; still, some physicality is lost in promoting other traits. For example, the male French Bulldog – the “it” dog breed in urban settings – is physically unable to mount the female for mating, so these dogs are produced through artificial insemination. (The same people that own French Bulldogs, one would assume, are in favor of cloning and gene research to cure and prevent disease and promote evolution in humans.) Hunting and guard dogs often have their tails docked to make them faster and less predisposed to being grabbed by the tail by brambles or hands. Try taking your teenager to get a haircut for a job interview and you will appreciate the predisposition to adaptability of the dog species.

From the beginning, dogs weren’t singled out by humans to be a mass-produced food source or predator for other food sources; they were selected, from all other species, to be bred for their behaviors. In fact, this selection – by nature and by nurture and human intercession in dog breeding – has reduced the fight or flight response of dogs compared to their wolf ancestors. Thus, through gene engineering, dogs are generally less fearful and less aggressive. This would make them more susceptible to modern predators…if the modern predators had made it as far as dogs have in the developing world. Who are their animal kingdom enemies? Mostly wolves, coyotes, leopards, hyenas, and alligators. These animals are also predators of humans, but account for a statistically insignificant number of human or dog deaths each year. Physiologically, dogs are considered predators and scavengers; but genetic manipulation has caused an evolution to a more domesticated dog species. Cats and sanitation workers may disagree.

Sadly, domesticated dogs can be abused and exploited through neglect and abandonment or raised to fight or bite indiscriminately. In the U.S., over a million dogs annually are abandoned by their owners and euthanized in animal shelters; 43 of 50 states have first time felony provisions for animal cruelty. Additionally, 13-16 million dogs each year are raised as livestock and consumed by humans in East Asia. This is a cultural distinction. Western societies have cultural distinctions of acceptable behaviors that are questionable, too. For example, as a comparison to the $20. billion spent on dog ownership in the United States, domestic violence in America costs about $8 billion a year; one in 4 people in the US can expect to be the victim of this abuse, while at home and perpetuated by a family member. Studies show that in @75% of domestic violence cases, the family pet is also abused.

Other social problems we cannot seem to cure for humans, we have applied great vigor to diminishing for the world’s dogs. Overpopulation is controlled by the standard practice of neutering, which also makes dogs more compliant and sociable allowing a dog to recover from the constant hyper-aroused sexual state necessary to procreation. (The human male is prescribed Viagra, long past his procreation phase, to prolong his anti-social sexual frenzy.) Modern dogs, unlike their wolf ancestors, have also adapted to a diet high in starch; though, as dog food makers and savvy owners offer more protein meal options, incidences of human diseases found in dogs like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and cancer, are declining. Conversely, Americans indulging in high-carb diets have pushed obesity and related disease to the forefront of health risks for adults and children.

Dogs are susceptible to more parasites, like worms, than humans because of their tendency to be outdoors and on a less rigorous bathing schedule than the average human child. Because of rigorous screening, marketing efforts, vaccinations, and pharmaceuticals, dogs are more likely to be checked and inoculated against these types of health conditions than children in undeveloped countries. And, dog owners – like parents – are often more vigilant for their pets’ health than for their own. As Jack LaLanne, the 20th century father of fitness once asked in an interview: “Would you get your dog up in the morning and give him a cup of coffee, a cigarette, and a doughnut?” Alas, gender bias still exists in the dog world, with male dogs being called “dogs” and female dogs still referred to as “bitches”. Can’t win ‘em all.

Rabies kills 55,000 people in Asia and Africa each year; some of these cases occur from dog bites. Dog bites are the primary health risk dogs pose to humans worldwide. In the U.S., falls account for the highest risk to humans from dogs. Still, the health benefits of owning a pet dog far outweigh the 100,000+ incidents of traffic accidents, bites, and falls combined caused by dogs; dog accidents like these account for about 1% of the total U.S. dog population and are not even a mathematical factor as a percent to the human population. A wild dingo ate Lindy Chamberlain’s baby in 1982, not the domesticated dog we celebrate as a pet.

Gaius Playing BallWe seem to be a world of pet lovers. We seem to be a nation with extreme ambivalence about humanity. On Love Your Pet Day, please go home and love up your canine companion. Take her for a walk, buy her a protein treat, don’t give her chocolate… While you are at it, say hi to your neighbor. Hug your kids. Say something kind to your spouse. Send $20. to a charity that helps people. Think about all of the human intervention that has made your little bundle of joy a kinder, gentler, more loving and helpful creature. Be thankful for your health and take care of it. Rover is depending on you, as is the human race.

 

 

 

 

Valentine’s Day

In this wry essay, Susann Hayden looks at the differences between love and romance.

 

The specter of Valentine’s Day is upon us again. Woo hoo. Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays I find inequitable, cruel, and nothing akin to the feelings I can have for other people, places, and things. Christmas spirit comes every year to everyone; it’s democratic. Deep magic can happen at Christmas to the poor and disenfranchised, the lonely and the lost: just ask Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch. Anyone can be moved – even saved – by carols, twinkling lights, good cheer, and elves of all shapes and sizes.

But, Valentine’s Day is much more subjective. If you are alone, you must be inadequate somehow. If you don’t get flowers, candy, or a card, your relationship must be passionless. If you have no parents or friends or lovers, there is no enchantment for you. If you just lost someone dear to illness or violence, Valentine’s Day is invasive, at best. Must we always be expected to appreciate someone else’s happiness without feeling the absence of our own? Romance is cyclical; I get it. Tis better to have loved and lost, etc. Better luck next year. Whatever.

Maybe it is the way Valentine’s Day brings the meaning of love under the spotlight that really bugs me. I am in love and someone loves me. I love my life-sized stuffed panda – my writer’s mascot – who guards me through the lonely hours at the computer. I love Coca-Cola. My son loves me and I love him. I love lamp. Forrest Gump knows what love is; I can’t seem to get my head around it.

I used to love Valentine’s Day. Every year in elementary school, we would bring a shoe box from home and spend an afternoon decorating it with paper hearts, lace doilies, and glittery stickers the teacher spread out on a large, low circular table in our classroom. We would finish by writing our first names on our valentine mailboxes in carefully scrawled block letters. If you were an unfortunate with a first name shared by others in the class, you would have to include the first initial of your last name after your first name, guaranteeing a little less allure for your vessel. Who wants to swear undying love and a giant Reese cup to Karen L. or Ted P.?

Every year, my mailbox would overfloweth. Every year, I was surprised by the fancy, ardent valentines I got from little boys who spent the rest of the year throwing sand in my face. Even on Valentine’s Day, it was routine for a small heart-shaped Whitman Sampler box from the drugstore to be whipped at my head by some little caveman in our homeroom. I was always stunned, but never very flattered. Even then, I had a cold heart to the random acts of love violence from little men. I never once got excited to make a valentine for a boy; I was much more excited about carefully opening the box of valentines my mom and I would choose for me to give my classmates and my teacher. I would spend hours sorting my colorful paper greetings from best to worst and my girlfriends accordingly. Most of the boys in my class would get the leftovers and undesirables. My teacher usually got assigned the biggest and prettiest card, the one-off different from all the other valentines in the box. From those simple beginnings of sorting and assigning, I think I gave myself a distorted view about love.

No one told me to sort the cards. No one told me to choose the box of cards that most expressed myself as a person. My mom and dad didn’t buy valentine cards or gifts for anyone but each other and us kids. My brother and sister were a lot older than me; they were experiencing the holiday inside the complicated rituals of teenagers. Other kids – including my son, Parker, decades later – were very quick and clear in their choices.

My son liked Batman, ergo the Batman cards were his choice. When we opened that inaugural set of Batman Valentines when Parker was in first grade, he read and methodically sorted the eight types of valentines included in the box into eight neat stacks. Then he shut his eyes and had me write each kid’s name on a valentine as he visualized his way around his classroom. His instructions for my inscribing were easy: pick the top valentine from each stack, 1-8, sign “from Parker”, then start over at the first stack again. Valentines, Go Fish – it was the same process for him.

By 2nd grade, we were like socialites with a seating chart. That year he liked Buzz Lightyear, so Toy Story cards were purchased in early January; let all the losers with bad parents get stuck with Strawberry Shortcake or Hot Wheels. This time, I was relegated to carefully gluing wrapped candy to the cards after Parker had arranged and signed them. All the girls got Jessie, Bo Peep, and Rex cards; all the boys got Buzz, Woody, and Mr. Potato Head. Slinky and Hamm seemed to be in the neutral gender zone, though I noticed Hamm was definitely dispersed to kids my son didn’t know very well. What did this mean? Was he a genius with Orwellian sensibilities – a super intuiter of potential swine? Was he a misogynist for assigning the wishy-washy character of Rex, the self-loathing dinosaur, to girls only? As the late afternoon wore on I discovered that in the space of a year, he had developed all kinds of methods for arranging and categorizing gender and likeability: “MOM! I don’t have enough Jessie cards for the brown haired girls. MOM! I don’t have enough ‘tato heads for the funny guys in my class. MOM! You can’t tape a pink sucker to that Buzz card.” Elementary school is a tough gig of being introduced to people and relationships. Whose brilliant idea was it to introduce a love holiday into the mix? No wonder adults are so mixed up about romance and intimacy.

Through my teenage years and early twenties, I spent Valentine’s Day with assorted boyfriends and love interests. Those were sometimes sweet and sometimes awkward occasions filled with sterling silver jewelry and musical cards, romantic picnics and surprise concert tickets, hot kisses and knee-weakening hand holding. But, it never felt like the days I had learned to anticipate from elementary school: no sudden revelations of love, no giant candy boxes from secret admirers, no new, immediate best friends. I spent a couple with girlfriends drinking fruity cocktails while swearing off males and romantic love of any kind. We didn’t mean it. We always ended those evenings swearing to do better next time: to notice deep flaws and intimacy issues as soon as they arose, to be better listeners and nurturers, to get sharper haircuts or different clothes so we would stop being deadbeat magnets, to trust our instincts, to play the field before getting too close, too fast. We broke hearts, too, don’t get me wrong. If the opposite of love is indifference, then we certainly were blithely arrogant and ignorant of many a potential, suitable mate and probably stood in our own way of finding intimacy and connection. After all of that structured, appointed build-up of romantic love as a kid in school, were we unreasonable to get more scared of intimacy and more dreadful of the big day where anticipation would meet its match?

I gave up on love and passion after having my heart broken before I was thirty. Until then, my one true love were my parents and I just didn’t have the same depth of feeling in friendship or romance for anyone else in life. I tried, but no one ever matched up to my family’s consistent support and care and it just didn’t seem like it was enough to commit myself to giving a huge bag of affection and constancy for the linty mints of others. Then my dad died and, soon enough after, my mom died and I kind of buried my heart alongside them. And all of those great childhood days like Valentine’s Day I tossed in, too.

It is said that you always find something when you aren’t looking. When I least expected or was even thinking about love, Cupid’s arrow struck me with someone I never would have bet would have been my soulmate. I had my first real Valentine’s Day in decades the first one we shared together. He brought balloons, breakfast, a singing bear, and a big red velvet box of candy into our bedroom and woke me up to tell me he loved me. It felt like elementary school all over again. He was handsome, funny, kind, intelligent, artistic, and sexy. I adored him and felt like I was the luckiest person alive; he made me feel engaged and hopeful again about love and everything else. I married him five years later. The distance between that first Valentine’s Day and our subsequent marriage was where we had to work out all of our childhood notions of romance and love. After that first Valentine’s Day, we didn’t celebrate another one. And, as this one in 2016 comes around, I just don’t know what to think of romance or of love anymore.

Romance is fun. It is passionate and twirly and nervous and bubbly. It is discovery and listening and empathizing and feeling united in a depth of emotion. Romantic love is like existing in a parallel universe; everything seems shinier and prettier, fresher and perkier than it did the day before you were in love. Romance is surprising, exciting, sharing, and optimistic; it is the question. It is the previews before the movie; it is the amuse bouche. Courting and wooing are meant to take time; the feelings building are to be savored. Rushing means you are filling a hole; taking time means matching levels of feeling to actions. Romance is narcissistic; it is hurtful and obtuse. Romance is sexual; it is quivering and hardening. It is sensual and it is exotic and it feels absolutely unique. It is chemical and it is physical. It is walking in the rain without needing an umbrella; it is riding a Ferris wheel without looking at the view. It is Chinese take-out with fortune cookies and chop sticks in the bag. It is consuming and it is urgent. Romance is castles and gestures and roses and rose colored glasses.

Romance is fantastic and every relationship should have a grand start with it or an early period of it, at least. Romance also finds its way back in love through growth and change. Since newness and unexplored territory is part of the seduction of romance, it can be reignited just by progressing as a human being. Insignificant change is not the same as evolution; romance blossoms into love with the strong catalyst of time and adaptation. Because, more than anything, romance is a promise of the future that delivers instantly – and fleetingly – in the present.

Love answers the question of romance. Love is the future that romance promised; it is the destination of chivalry and courting, but it is really just the beginning of a much longer, much more involved journey. Love is a Thanksgiving dinner and the nap afterward. Love is an invisible force that is felt like a constant hum in those sharing it. It is warm and liquid. It is the brass plaque on a park bench dedicated to beloved wife and mother. It is there in a lost job, an illness, a windfall, a new baby; love is unconditional. It is deep trust, deep affection, and deep knowing. Where romance is Christopher Columbus, love is Abraham Lincoln. Loving someone makes you a better person: a saint, an architect, a true friend. Love makes you kinder, more patient, more understanding, and more giving than you would be without it. It makes you want and believe that everything you are is and will be sublime. Love is supportive; it is protective, generous, nurturing, and constant. It encourages and sometimes, carries. It cannot be chased, captured, kidnapped, bought, demanded, or taken; it has to be earned by preparing the heart, mind, and soul for its arrival. Two people can learn to love together; it’s a process that has no clear beginning and no end. Love is hard and it is painful. Love endures and love stays. Love is a miracle.

Some people may be falling in love this Valentine’s Day and others may be falling out. Some will be reaffirming the passion and romance that started a long union; others will be mourning the loss of their beloved because life can be inexplicable that way. Some will be looking for love in all the wrong places and others will be begging a Hallmark shop owner to stay open just five more minutes. Wherever you are this February 14th, Happy Valentine’s Day.

To my sweetest husband, especially, I love you. XO