Friends and Writers

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

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Last week I read a WordPress article from a capable author in her forties who had gone broke, lost her career, never been married, and been ditched by 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 vegan? 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 raw, 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 bad 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 on schedule; 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 training 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. Good luck and Buddha bless to you. 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.

Being Sensate

In this photo essay, Susann Hayden explores the sensory experience of the artist and the audience – featuring beautiful photographs from Trou Blanc Photography.

I’m not a visual person. Statistics show that most of my gender are not, compared to sight and visual cues dominating the sensory experiences of the majority of men. I take everything in without too much focus on any one thing and process it as a total sensory experience – combined with the smells, the tastes, the feel, the soundtrack. I am more surface that way, like taking a helicopter view that gives me a dominant impression that I can quickly process and store or discard.

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Cannabis in the Mist, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

What am I sensing? Emotions, usually. The general mood. A sense of beauty or violence or energy, to name a few of the labels I use to sort it all. I retain all of the sensory details, with the visual cues in the background fading more often than not. My eye for detail is limited by my overall perception of the stimuli; I remember a couple of details vividly – those that support my label of the experience, and those that seem to most contradict it. Therefore, the more juxtaposition of elements there are in the sensory experience I am having, the more interesting it is to me and the more I need to spend time in it and figure it out. At the end of the day, almost everything is a giant jigsaw puzzle in my brain, and moving the pieces into place is my purpose. I liken it to my own personal predilection for math and science as the basis for a structure that makes sense to me in the world.

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Blue Sky Cannabis, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

My husband, Michael, sees everything in vivid detail; he is a technicolor observer.He processes all visuals first; he has to be reminded to smell the air, hear the laughter, feel the rain on his skin. That is probably why he is a natural at photography; he would be an extraordinary cinematographer. He seems to have that elusive third eye where he can see what the lens will capture and what it will ignore. He also labels his impressions, though he would be loath to tell you the words he uses in his big brain. He doesn’t much like putting words to his visions or experiences; his photographs are the only clue to what he was thinking and feeling. In other words, where I see myself as a mathematician of the universe’s meaning, I see Michael as the artist that keeps posing more questions. When I recently told him that I see him as a seeker, he said he saw me as a finder.

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Shadow Leaf, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

My other senses are more acute than Michael’s. I grew up as a lovingly supported, creative kid with all manner of toys, paints, puzzles, pets, lessons, projects, scenery, travels, and experiences. All mundane and extraordinary stimuli were encouraged and discussed at length at our family dinner table. I read 472 books in 1st grade; I know because I got a gold star for each one. By second grade, the school librarian and I decided that I should just read every book in the card catalog; so, I did, from A-Z. There is no visual stimulation in most children’s books after you reach the third grade reading level. At that point, you have the colorful, illustrated paper jacket, but it is all text after you open the book. A love of reading may be the defining indicator of the potential for imagination and continued creative and sensate expression of an adult. The world is a reader’s oyster; there is nowhere – not even the minds of others – that is inaccessible to a person who reads. There is no question that can’t be posed, no situation that cannot be experienced.

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Leaf Stairway, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

Reading is no substitute for living, the non-reader always argues. But, that is an illogical response. What support is there for the assumption that an avid reader confines herself to second hand experience? It can be argued that the reader is more open and available to all of life’s experiences and, thus, develops extra-ordinary sensory powers that are wholly independent of what the world may or may not be actually showing her. In other words, I propose that frequent reading develops more acute sensory perceptions because most stimuli are accepted and dissected – not confronted with the muffled layer of something new, something threatening, or something difficult to process or define.

 

 

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Afternoon Sky, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

Michael grew up in a constant state of poverty: poverty of environment, poverty of sensory or new experiences, poverty of education, poverty of food and drink, of activities, toys, clothes, colors, affection. He also never read books. He had limited, narrow forms of stimulus in keeping with his parents’ strict socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious beliefs. His parents interpreted most stimulus as new and dangerous and confined Michael to television and video games. Thinking anybody that made a movie must be trying to create art and that video games were the modern version of that all American icon, G.I. Joe, Michael’s parents parked him in front of one toy – the television set – and left him to figure out the world as network and Nintendo executives saw it.

Television and video games are predominantly visual. Yes, there is sound, but taste, smell, and touch are automatically excluded. And, since sound consists of theme songs and canned laughter (TV) and assorted grunts and screams (Video Games), let’s agree that Michael was left with one form of stimuli: visual. Since his parents grew up with even less stimuli than Michael, let’s also assume that their main stimulus was also visual. And, since stimuli was confined to entertainment on the small screen of a television (while wildly unsupported with any understanding in real life experience) any attempt at a full sensory experience was usually overwhelming. Overwhelming usually means too expensive, threatening, uncomfortable, or sinful to the uninitiated; that was definitely the message passed on by Michael’s parents.

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Purple Flower, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

So, for Michael, every sensory experience is a warning. For me, most sensory experiences feel like being a puppy running through a big, sunny field of daisies. Once in a while, I will run into a bumblebee or a pile of poop, but that’s okay! For Michael, a sensory experience is like the scrawny weed that manages to pop up from a crack in the cement: a weird counterpoint in his apocalyptic inner landscape. He notices it but doesn’t ponder it. Unless he has his camera.

 

Michael’s photographs are teeming with sensory detail. They are beautiful and rich in color and texture and seasons and symphonies.

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Port Angeles Morning Sky, c.2015, All Rights Reserved.

Even the sepia ones instantly evoke a sense of nostalgia and sweetness not present in modern life. His landscapes invite exploration and travel; they provoke inner meditations on the vastness of nature and the relative miniscule stature of people. His animal portraits reveal unique personalities more interesting and layered than their human counterparts. Every time I see one of his photos, my imagination starts writing a story, like a phantom operated Etch a Sketch of character, plot, and scenery all quickly building itself in my head.

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Silver Isle, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

His photos touch on long forgotten memories of mine, so much that I can feel a spray of salt water across my face, the sun baking me brown, the smooth coolness of a marlin my dad and I would catch and pull overboard on one of our deep sea fishing trips. And, all of a sudden I can see my dad’s face, finally relaxing for a second. I get all of that connection and experience from Michael’s sensory laden photographs. And, I know he is an artist.

 

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Bubba in Bloom, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

As his wife, I can become annoyed that our holidays, our trips, our walks and our talks are not always remembered by my husband. He doesn’t see these in his mind’s eye any more than he can remember one detail about most of them. I could paint a picture with words that would evoke the very spirit of every one of those times. But, unless I write it down and somebody reads it, it only exists in our years together and, from that, the formation of a secret language, a smoothly choreographed handhold, and a thousand inside jokes – the shorthand and depth of experience that sweeten a relationship.

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4:20 Ferry, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

Michael rarely takes photos of any of that stuff between us to preserve it in a visual style. But, in this way, he builds the experiences and confidence to display even more facets of what he does elect to photograph and, in turn, invokes the collective conscience of a much wider audience. And I am content to enjoy him, by my side every day, drinking in every luxurious sense of our experience.

 

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 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; romance 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 also narcissistic; it can be 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