Posts Tagged ‘Love’

The Thinker


My mother passed away ten years ago this November. Her decline and death and the vivid memories it brought back (many of which are cataloged here in my archives) were on my mind yesterday as our car, facing stiff headwinds scurried west on I-70. For we were on our way to say goodbye to another loved one. As we exited onto I-68 toward Cumberland, Maryland the wind tried to push us off the road while we also gained altitude. By the time we exited on U.S. 40 toward Uniontown, Pennsylvania there was snow on the ground in spite of the bright sunshine, while the temperature kept steadily dropping. When we pulled off the road toward Aunt Pat and Uncle Paul’s house on the Youghiogheny Reservoir the winds were still brisk and the early afternoon temperature registered a frigid 10 degrees Fahrenheit. With my warmest coat and hat on, it still felt cold outside in the sun. The dry snow crunched below our feet as we ascended stairs to knock on their door.

Cousin Beverly had phoned us a few days earlier to let us know that her mother had a stroke late last year. It paralyzed the left half of her body and left her largely unable to move or say anything clearly. Since then it had been all downhill, which meant of course a hospitalization, a nursing home, and now hospice care in the lower level of their home. We steeled ourselves. She may be on a deathwatch, but the house was warm and Aunt Pat had plenty of company. There was Chris, a good-hearted friend of Bev who had moved up for the duration. There was a nurse’s aid and later a LPN. There was Uncle Paul, Pat’s husband, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but was reasonably alert and chatty, and who greeted us warmly. There was a small friendly dog, as well as another friend of the family who seemed to be there for the duration, driven up from North Carolina by Chris. Those Adventists know how to stick together.

Except for all the attention to Aunt Pat at first our visit seemed sort of normal. She was in a reclining wheelchair, placed into it by Chris, her mouth now perpetually wide open, with just slits to show her eyes. Her body was a mess of bedsores and infections. A catheter drained her bladder. A tube going through her abdomen into her stomach provided nutrition of a sort. The LPN applied dressing to her wounds. When Pat chose to talk it came out as a moan but her meaning was clear: she was in pain. Her vision had been declining for years due to macular degeneration. She could no longer make out faces, but only see light and colors. She could hear what was around her, at least when she was awake, but had virtually no other ways to be understood. The stroke had largely taken away her speech. The guttural sounds that occasionally came out were hard to interpret.

She was ready to die, that much we knew through our phone conversation with Beverly. From seeing her up close and hearing her moans, death seemed to be something to hasten, not postpone. Her face was pallid. The stroke had stolen with it any sign of animation. Pat had always been a forceful woman, kindly but stubborn, and a woman of deep faith and conviction. Part of her faith required her family to do all they could to keep her alive. It was clear to me that these extraordinary efforts while well intentioned had the effect of being cruel. My own mother eventually died from a bladder infection due to having a catheter in her 24/7, but like Pat she also had congestive heart failure. Pat’s heart was having a hard time meeting her body’s needs. She was retaining water (not a good sign) and her oxygen levels were dropping too. And she was often moaning. This brought calls to a registered nurse and the injection of a rescue drug to alleviate her pain. It also brought a major decision. She was gently lifted from the wheelchair and into her bed. There she will stay until she passes.

In the living room with Uncle Paul, he seemed inured to his wife’s suffering. It might have been the Alzheimer’s, it might have been that her condition was very old news, so he was eloquent with us instead, anxious to hear how we were doing although it had been more than seven years since we last visited. A little dog bounded from lap to lap happily. Paul shared pictures of their life together while other adults fussed over Pat’s condition. Like his wife, Paul is a passionate Adventist. He can’t drive anymore, which means he can’t drive an hour each way to Cumberland on the Sabbath to attend church. There is, he happily reported, an Adventist channel on the satellite TV. Ministers come by regularly to provide pastoral care to both Pat and Paul. While the moans from his wife waffled from her bedroom, he informed us that in all the universe Satan lived only here on Earth, and we must resist Satan and follow Christ. (I didn’t ask why God put us here and if that made God a sadist, but I wanted to.) He had tried to convert us the last time we were here. We nodded dutifully but did not agree with his thesis. This was no time to disagree about theology, but Paul is too kindly a man to disagree with in any event.

Meanwhile Pat drifted in and out of consciousness. It was not clear much of the time if she was conscious, but when she moaned we at least knew that she was hurting. We weren’t sure what if anything she could say to us, but when she seemed reasonably alert and we listened closely, it sounds like “hurt”. No doubt. I touched her gently not wishing to start yet another bedsore. Her skin was paper thin and easily injured. “Aunt Pat,” I said, “they gave you a medicine for the pain. It should stop soon.”

My wife talked to her and tried to listen but it was mostly a one sided conversation. She told her how grateful she was to her. It was Pat that had took her in when she had to leave college. There were opportunities in Washington D.C. that did not exist in Flint, Michigan. Pat had hosted her and Pat had also pushed her out. She had the courage her mother seemed to lack to tell her it was time to stand on her own two feet. After leaving their house, my wife lived in a fleabag apartment, then in a high rise with a roommate and not much after that she ran into me. It was Aunt Pat that indirectly brought her into my life. As I held Pat gently I told her how sad I was to see her suffer, but how profoundly grateful I was that by choosing kindness for my wife, I found the woman I love.

I watched while the nurse’s aide frequently hydrated her lips and mouth. Tubes were periodically sent down her sinuses to remove mucus. All sorts of things were being done to keep her alive, but her systems were failing. The nurse told Paul that much. Her body was shutting down. Medicines would not work much longer.

My wife promised Pat that she would come back but I don’t see how it is possible. I can’t imagine that Pat will live much longer and we are three hours away by car. I never had the emotional attachment to Pat that I had to my mother, but I certainly grew to respect both her and Paul. When my time comes I simply don’t want these sorts of extraordinary procedures to keep me alive. She was suffering pointlessly and needlessly. It would be more humane to simply do the best to manage her pain but otherwise let her die a gentle death. For now she was living the script that her faith taught her: to keep her body alive as long as possible, even though there seemed literally nothing to live for except more discomfort and pain.

My wife was crying of course when we left and began another three-hour journey home. I felt it best to drive while she sat in her seat mostly quietly, a sad and vacant look in her eyes. I don’t expect Aunt Pat to last more than a few more days. I am certainly grateful to have known her. I wish her (if it is possible to state this without sounding callous) a swift but gentle death. May it come soon.

The Thinker

Going to the dogs

It was a brief moment today. I was driving to work through a residential neighborhood. As I often do on Tuesdays, I had to wend my way past the trash truck. I give these guys a brake and wait for them to say it’s okay to pass them. Today though the guys on the trash truck were oblivious to me. They were petting a dog.

One of the homeowners had her dog on a leash and was doing walkies along the sidewalk. This dog, like most dogs, is a friendly dog, as was evident by its wagging tail. I didn’t quite catch the breed, but it was smaller than most, and black. The guys hauling the trash, unsurprisingly I am sorry to say, were also black. There were two in the back and one in the cab. The two in the back normally gather trashcans from both sides of the street at once, and the guy in the cab drives.

Today though the crew had gone to the dogs, er, dog. Both of them had stopped the hauling and were petting the dog that was happily making their acquaintance and straining at his leash as if he wanted to sit on their nonexistent laps. The lady at the other end of the leash was laughing. The guys on the street were laughing as they petted the dog. The guy in the cab smiled through his side view mirror at the encounter. I pulled around them cautiously and made my way to work, smiling as well.

That one dog provided a lot of happiness. Moreover, like most dogs, this was a colorblind dog, both physically and metaphorically. Dogs, bless them, have no sense of social class. One friendly human is as good as another to them. Black face, white face, brown face, red face – it just doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is their sense of you and how you relate to them. Everyone in this encounter appeared to be a dog lover, at least for that moment. No one cared if a minute or two of productivity was lost. There was a friendly dog that wanted some attention and was glad to give some attention. At least until that encounter ended, social class simply did not matter. The dog had brought together people who would probably never talk to each other otherwise.

In the gospels we learn that Jesus was a man from Galilee, he was definitely human and that he was also a holy man who many believe was God in human form. Jesus of course spent some years in Galilee and Judea preaching about love and inclusiveness. It’s hard to know where Jesus was in the social class of Judea at the time. If he was truly a carpenter’s son, he could probably be considered middle class for those generally impoverished times. For a while he developed quite a following, at least according to the Gospels, but he also developed enemies. The priests in the temple did not like him because he was so different and because people called him a rabbi. The Romans put him to death. And it appears he drew the scorn of many because he hung out with losers like Mary Magdalene, a common prostitute in the eyes of many, as well as lepers, the homeless and general miscreants. Our understanding of Jesus is of course imperfect. We have only the legend of Jesus, as there is no scrap of evidence that he actually lived, and the original gospels have long ago returned to dust. But Jesus as he is depicted certainly believed in transcending class, and in universal love, and in recognizing our common humanity.

Jesus, in other words, was a man who had gone to the dogs. It would not have surprised me if his family had a dog. For if you have to learn about love and have no other guide, in most cases you can get it courtesy of the family or neighborhood mutt.

I am a cat person more than a dog person, simply because my wife introduced me to cats and I had no pets to speak of growing up except for a family parakeet. I have spent enough time though with dogs to know they are fundamentally different than cats. Cats are Republicans. They want to know what’s in it for them and it’s almost always me first. In general, they will only return affection when they first get some. They may rub at your heels for attention, but their attention tends to be fleeting. If you ignore them for a few weeks, you will probably lose any affection they had for you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are Democrats. Certainly not all dogs are friendly, and many will be affectionate only with their master. But once you have earned their trust, and it usually takes nothing more than a chew toy, snack or just a scritch of their heads, you are part of their tribe. It may be fleeting or it may be permanent. Dogs are all about finding joy in life and in getting in touch with the feelings of creatures around them. Class means nothing to them. Most of the time they will radiate love, particularly with their owner, but often with anyone in their locality. If you don’t look happy they will sense this and come over to you, and darn well try to make you happy. It’s their nature.

Christians are still waiting for the second coming of Christ. Many believe he will descend from heaven through the clouds, with his radiance pouring down across the earth. Then the saved will be saved and the damned will be damned. As for me, today’s encounter makes me think that Christ has already returned. In fact, he’s been here for a long time and you can find him nearby. Just seek out your family or neighborhood dog. Feel their love, feel their radiance, feel the cares of the world recede when you are with them or, as I saw today, see class barriers momentarily disappear. If you want to be more Christ-like, perhaps you could just imitate your mutt more. Be friendly, be open, be loving by nature and if you sense someone is hurting go over and say you want to help them feel better.

We should all go to the dogs.

The Thinker

Advice for the lovelorn

I won’t claim that this advice is directed to anyone in particular, but it was inspired by reading this blog. Asplenia wears her heart on her sleeve, or at least on her blog. I am glad she remains anonymous, and also grateful that she reads my blog and occasionally leaves a comment. I’m not sure how many regular readers of this blog I have, but I suspect she has more.

Nor can I claim to be a fountain of wisdom on matters of the heart. It is true that I can point to a marriage of twenty-six years, but neither my wife nor I will claim we have had an easy marriage. I often think that if you have an easy marriage, something is wrong. Life is not designed to be easy; hence love should not be easy either. In my experience, love is more about continuous challenge than comfort.

No, love is not easy, so it might seem like it is something only the foolhardy should attempt. However, avoiding love is not easy either. There is nothing wrong with being single, just as there is nothing wrong with being married or in any heavy relationship. I don’t live in the delusion that I would necessarily be better single. Instead, I suspect I would be chasing other issues. Maybe I’d wonder if there was something wrong with me, and it would tug at my inferiority complex. For we are all relational creatures. Like it or not, we almost universally assess our self worth based on the quality of those relationships.

Asplenia is recently divorced and is actively searching for a new mate. She goes on lots of dates. Reading her blog the last year or so has been heart wrenching, so heart wrenching that it is sometimes hard to read her posts because they cut so close to the heart and often are so pierced with pain. It’s hard to put yourself back on the love market after a long marriage, particularly when you thought overall it was pretty good. It is hard to invest time in relationships, hard to think things are going great and then to find yourself dumped or disillusioned and back on square one. Asplenia has spent a lot of time riding reasonable expectation waves only to find them dashed. She has expectations for what a solid relationship should look and feel like. It is doubtless borne out at least partially by experience, but she also invests time in pondering the opinions of relationship experts, who she often quotes. If you have a hard time judging what a solid, intimate relationship should look like, these experts will sort it out for you. Good luck to her and the millions of others who deserve a terrific, long lasting, enduring and permanent partnership. Perhaps it will be an ideal one that checks off all the boxes the relationship experts tell us should be checked.

The temptation to keep looking for the perfect relationship keeps gnawing at most of us. Surely someone out there is better than what we got, or what we had, right? Surely, when I marry a perfect 10, I won’t end up getting someone who deliberately farts in my presence. Surely I will get someone who is not a spendthrift, and who can ignore a line of cocaine at a party? Surely there is someone out there without baggage, who will understand me intuitively, who is always kind and gentle and who never has a bad day, or doesn’t have a fatal flaw?

Maybe there are a couple of these creatures out there, but I haven’t met any yet. I think they are a myth, like the unicorn. On reflection, I’m not sure that even if I was fancy free and one of these wanted me that I should marry one of them. This is because I might feel the pressure to be perfect also and, well, not to give away a secret or anything, but I’m not perfect, and I never will be. I too am saddled with baggage, some light, some not so light. I too am the product of a mixed childhood and a mixed parenting experience, and it shaped my personality and I carry a lot of it into middle age. I will probably carry it into old age and to my grave. I will die an imperfect creature, as will my wife.

I am not sure where this desire to chase perfection comes from. Maybe it comes from going to church at a young age, where we learn God is perfect and we can be too in some nebulous afterlife. Meanwhile, if we rigorously follow the rules and spend much of our lives repressing our less than perfect aspects, we can sort of look perfect, at least most of the time. What typically happens is we give it a modest try, but we soon fail. This happens because, unlike God, we are programmed to be imperfect. But it also happens because perfection is just an idea, and what we think the perfect is is largely due to what others have told us all along should look like perfection. How did they know? Well, someone told them. And so it probably goes back to the point where us apes came down from the trees and started crawling on terra firma. All they really knew was that much of life was miserable, and hunting mastodons and spending evenings on animal skins wasn’t much to get excited about.

If we can’t be perfect, maybe we can look perfect instead. It may take losing forty pounds, or a nose job, or a tummy tuck, or spending three times a week at the local gym getting exhausted and sweaty. All that work doesn’t make us perfect, but may feed the illusion that we can become perfect, or at least more perfect than many. Sometimes it works, at least for a while, but just as often or more it fails because we discover some new flaw in ourselves.

Much of falling in love is based on a self-delusion. We see in others things that are not really there. It’s the phenomenon of psychological projection. To see our new lovers as the imperfect creatures they are is actually kind of hard, and perhaps makes it impossible to fall in love with them. We have to unlearn our innate talent at tuning out their flaws so early in the relationship. That stuff is supposed to come later, long after the wedding bells. And if we can deal with their reality, then we have to ask ourselves a harder question: can I live and love this imperfect person for maybe the rest of my life as he/she is? Is there enough commonality, shared interests, love and caring to make the relationship, on balance, good or very good?

It’s my opinion that wise people will realize this sort of relationship is probably as good as it is going to get. Surrendering to this reality won’t exactly bring total happiness, but it may bring acceptance that can lead to greater happiness elsewhere. This is because lots of things can make us feel happy, and a love relationship is just one of them. Surrendering to an imperfect loving relationship may allow a space to open up where we can be in a generally positive relationship. It may allow us the freedom to escape relationship-expectation hell for a while, or maybe forever, and wallow in the rest of life instead, which will have its challenges too.

Alas, I can’t claim the credentials of all the great relationship gurus that Asplenia reads, as my learning comes mostly from the School of Hard Knocks. But at least when it’s quiet, I can ask my gut. I may not like the answer it gives, but it has the aspect of feeling uncomfortably correct. It takes courage to accept not the best, but the pretty good. And that’s probably where we will find our optimal happiness, which won’t ever be at a hundred percent, at least not until our self-delusion phase wears out and we realize that perfection itself is a cruel illusion. However, with luck, maybe we can cruise somewhere around eighty percent most of them time. It may not be where we want it to be, but it may be what we need.

The Thinker

God is a verb

Those of us who believe in God tend to think of God as a noun. As you may recall from elementary school, a noun is a person, place or thing. God is probably not a person, unless you count Jesus Christ. Nor is God a place, except heaven is assumed to be some physical or ethereal space where God’s presence is overwhelming, sort of God’s home, you might say. Calling God a thing sounds sort of churlish since by definition there can be nothing grandeur or more magnificent than God. Given our poor definition, if we have to define God as a noun, saying God is a thing will have to do.

A sentence is made up of many parts of speech. God cannot be an adjective because adjectives modify nouns. Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, and since God cannot be an adjective it cannot be an adverb. You can look through all the parts of a sentence and using God for anything other than a noun mostly doesn’t work. God can be part of a word and be something else. Goddamn, for instance, is an adjective and sometimes an adverb. There is only one other part of a sentence where God could work: God could be a verb.

For many of you, you are wondering what the heck I am talking about. A verb expresses action, state or a relationship between things. defines a verb as:

Any member of a class of words that are formally distinguished in many languages, as in English by taking the past ending in -ed, that function as the main elements of predicates, that typically express action, state, or a relation between two things, and that (when inflected) may be inflected for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and to show agreement with their subject or object.

When you think about it though, using God as a verb makes a lot of sense. Granted it is hard to use God as a verb in a sentence, but what is fundamental about our notion of God is the notion of being in a relationship with God. If there were nothing else sentient in the universe, would God exist? Who can say, since no one would be around to detect the presence of God, but for sure it would not matter. God though only has meaning in the context of a relationship. Many of us seek to find God, and those who believe they have found God then try to understand God. This leads to a lot of confusion, however, because so many people have different interpretations of what God wants from us.

Yet if God is understood as the relationship between people, places and things, i.e. God is a verb, then clarity can emerge. This notion of God though will trouble most of us because we tend to see God as something external, all powerful, all good and unique, i.e. a noun. Saying God is a verb simply suggests it is what holds us in relationship to everything else. In this sense, we are literally part of the mind of God. In this sense, God becomes neither good nor bad, but simply is the relationship between all things, physical and spiritual. God in some sense is energy, or whatever forces exist, whether simple or complex, that hold us together in communion. This notion of God answers the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound? If God is a verb then the answer is yes. The tree falling in the forest impacts in some measure all of creation because God as a verb posits as an article of faith that everything really is interconnected with everything else. So yes, it made a sound, even if we did not hear it personally.

You will get no argument from scientists and not from quantum mechanics scientists in particular. Certainly no scientist will argue that every action is deterministic. Things are deterministic at the macro level. We know with confidence that our planet will be subsumed into the Red Giant that our sun will become someday, because we understand physics well enough. We also understand physics well enough to know that at the subatomic level outcomes can only be expressed in terms of probability, not certainty. Scientists have yet to find evidence of any phenomenon that can exist independently of anything else. A hurricane, for instance, requires heat and lots of water, so it is in relationship with its environment. Everything is in relation with something else, and the evidence is that every action affects everything else in the universe as well, not instantly, but over long periods of time.

Perhaps expressing a reverence for the relationship between all things is worship, and the relationship itself is God. Perhaps God is not a destination, but experiencing God is simply a matter of tuning into the relationship between all things, seen and unseen. God may feel most God-like when we feel a sense of awe from our interconnectedness. I feel it regularly. I felt it last year when I was traipsing around South Dakota’s Black Hills. I could feel it in the life of the soil at my feet and hear it in the brisk wind whistling through the pine trees. I felt it on Friday at a rest stop between Richmond, Virginia and my home in Northern Virginia when I stepped out of my car into stifling hundred plus degree heat. I feel it when the cat is on my lap, and is purring and looking at me with its adoring eyes. I felt it on Friday when I saw a broke, pregnant and homeless woman with a cardboard sign on the streets of Richmond and I felt a pang of remorse by driving by her without giving her a dollar or helping her to a homeless shelter. I feel it in the life cycle in particular, and my experiences of my encroaching mortality. I felt it when as an infant I was nuzzled up to my mother and drank milk from her breasts.

Perhaps God is simply what is. Perhaps our religious struggle is simply to come to terms with and accept what is, and to magnify and glorify the connections between all things. There are many ways to do it, but the principle method is to practice love as much as you can. This is because love certainly is a verb, and has god-like powers.

Perhaps we just need to accept the truth that God is love, and nothing more than that. Love is about enhancing the connection between all things so we are in greater harmony and understanding with each other. It works for me.

The Thinker

There is love

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.

Lyrics by Joss Stone
Sung by Dionne Warwick

The organist was playing something appropriately holy and Catholic, but as my 83-year-old father appeared from the wings of the chapel in suit and tie and a minute later his 77-year-old bride solemnly processed down the aisle, I was hearing Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man instead of the organ. I heard it all: from the blaring trumpets to the rattling bass drums. It is hard to think of a more common man than my father. Yet, if any occasion in his long life deserved a fanfare, this new wedding, sixty years after his first wedding and nearly five years after my mother died, this one qualified. He stood erect and humble, a man still in remarkable health, and with a natural glint of tears in his eyes waited patiently for his bride. His bride Marie gently ascended onto the altar and, at the invitation of the priest, sat next to my father to begin the rite of marriage. Almost immediately, and seemingly instinctively, they were holding hands.

It’s not that “old people” don’t get remarried, it’s just at my father’s age it happens so rarely that when it occurs it is so remarkable that it is almost bizarre. In my father’s case, it was also newsworthy. Someone from the bride’s family thought their story might intrigue The Washington Post. A Post photographer was present, sporting two enormous cameras that rarely had a moment of rest. A golden late summer sun beamed through the chapel’s windows and backlit an interdenominational stained glass window behind the altar. The room was nearly as radiant as the majestic smile and somewhat stupefied look on my father’s face.

My father and new stepmother

My father and new stepmother

My father and his bride met and fell in love at Riderwood, their retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. Residents of retirement communities know and accept death. Death is a daily fact, soullessly articulated by notices on the walls in the common areas. The residents do not know quite what to make with a wedding. The sedate residents of Riderwood mingling on the edges of the chapel seemed very confused by all the children, flowers and the general giddiness. “Goodness, it’s like someone is getting married,” one of them remarked to my wife. “That’s exactly what’s happening,” she told them. “My father-in-law is getting married here today.” This news caused great excitement in this land of walkers, wheelchairs, shuttle buses and residents with oxygen flowing up their noses. “You mean someone who lives here is getting married? Here?”

Yes, it does happen from time to time. When you read about a man in his eighties getting married, he is typically filthy rich and marrying someone half or more his age. Typically, the man is dead within a few years and his bride is locked in legal disputes with his children trying to claim his fortune. However, when your bride is seventy-seven, she is probably not after your money, and you are probably not after her for her youth, as she comes with just as many age spots as you do. Procreation is also out of the question, even with our modern medical advances. Sex is potentially possible if both bride and groom are in good health but it is likely that elderly couples will do much more hand holding than copulating. Who knows what anyone’s motivations are for marrying so late in life? In my father’s case, he married Marie because he loves her.

They love each other in spite of age spots, sagging skin, yellowing teeth and other maladies that come with age. They love each other because, well, they do. There is no accounting for it, but it helps that they are both institutional Catholics, raised large Catholic families, and yet remarkably still find themselves in good health for their age, with good life still ahead of them. They marry perhaps because they have the audacity and impertinence to enjoy whatever time they have left with someone they love.

It is audacious for people their age to look forward to a new life together. It is audacious to revel in the present and in the joy of life, rather than dwell on its inevitable conclusion, which actuarial statistics suggest cannot be too far in their futures. It speaks to their character, their values and their faith that they will not allow age to be a barrier to life or to love. Only the weak worry about an end of life. The blessed, the strong and the true of heart accept what life gives them and challenge life and themselves to fill their cups to the brim. Sometimes, as in the case of my father and his new bride, nature rewards them with rich years and a well-deserved new love late in life.

My father marries well. I have had four opportunities to meet my stepmother’s extended family. In some ways it feels like I have known them all my life and it is only now that I can associate these familiar voices and faces. When someone you know gets married, you often pick up immediate vibes from their relations on the future state of their marriage. There were no warning flags here, just warm, curious and interesting people with generous hearts and deep humanity. My hope is that long after my father and his bride have met their maker, my stepmother’s family will still be in our lives. For a marriage means new beginnings not just for the bride and groom, but also for all their relations, if they are smart enough to make the most of them.

With our parents off on a honeymoon (final destination: Switzerland) we hosted the remainder of our new extended family for a picnic in a park in suburban Maryland. My stepmother’s grandchildren drew on colored chalk on the concrete floor. Burgers and kielbasa (the latter acknowledging my mother’s unseen presence) grilled over a charcoal flame. Mostly we did not need the nametags we now wore. When our parents called us on the cell phone, we yelled Bon Voyage to them. We laughed. We ate. We enjoyed each other. We connected. We felt their love. We radiated in their spirit, and hopefully they in ours.

It is odd that their late-in-life marriage would bring happiness not just to them, but also upon us happy but often overwhelmed offspring and grandchildren with the joy of new connections. In the process, they bring new growth, vitality, energy to all of us.

Love cannot be defined. You only know it when you feel it. There is love.

The Thinker

Review: Cashback (2006)

Netflix is now offering a service where you can watch movies instantly on your home computer. I am not sure how but they offer this service at no charge above their monthly rate. Their selections are somewhat limited compared to all the movies you can rent, but it sure is convenient. Moreover, you can watch as many movies online as you want. Since I tend to like independent and foreign films I thought I would try my first online Netflix by watching the British film Cashback.

Sean Biggerstaff plays Ben Willis, an art major. Ben is an introverted and sensitive artist who is devastated when he is dumped by his steady girlfriend of more than two years, Suzy (Michelle Ryan). One consequence is that he becomes an insomniac. Eventually he decides that as long as he is awake and is a poor college student, he might as well earn some money. So he takes a night shift job at the local twenty four hour supermarket.

Ben is definitely not your typical early twenties young adult. Although he appears somewhat scrawny, he is a deeply sensitive and caring soul. Except for his lack of rippling muscles and his career prospects, he should be every woman’s idea of a great boyfriend. His artistic inclinations help him peer beyond the façade that most people exhibit and see their underlying humanity. He is particularly enamored with beautiful women and feels driven to capture their inner beauty in his drawings.

Unfortunately, Ben spends most of his life surrounded by crude and boorish men. This problem only worsens when he begins working at the supermarket. The store is full of characters, from the night manager to the shelf stockers all of whom have yet to emerge into adult emotional maturity. They may be crude and boorish, but each is memorable in their own way so they provide good entertainment. Working the night shift though is tough. Hours pass interminably. Ben’s own strategy to deal with the boredom is to freeze time. Whether it happens in fact or is a figment of his imagination is unclear. While people are in this frozen state, Sean is free to go around and examine them closely, and to draw sketches of them. He is so captured by beauty that while women are in a frozen state he will undress them to sketch them better. If you appreciate beautiful young women, there are plenty here to admire in both a partially and fully undressed state. There are also numerous flashbacks to Ben’s childhood, which help explain his obsession with beauty and the female form, as well as his somewhat different outlook on human sexuality.

For weeks, Ben seems unable to emerge from his funk over being dumped by Suzy, and appears to be one of the walking dead. Perhaps this accounts for his ability to freeze time. Only one woman appears to work at his supermarket at night, Sharon (Emilia Fox). She is the cashier and most of the time, she too seems to be one of the walking dead. Over time, Sean becomes interested in Sharon, although it takes a long time for the two to connect in any meaningful romantic fashion. As they do, Ben begins to sleep again.

The premise of this movie seems weak, but it is surprisingly engaging. I have tried to put my own years working retail into the form of a novel, but never got too far. If you are looking for a movie that captures the feelings of working retail (an experience common to many of us) this one should fill the bill. Of course, life working at the supermarket is merely a frame for a larger story about love, its nature and how it is experienced. The metaphor of freezing time works really well in conveying Ben’s feelings, which would be hard to capture any other way. At its core, this is a movie about the emotional pain and devastation that accompanies romantic breakups. It is also about how the human heart is healed from this experience. As this is a relatively unexplored aspect of love on film, this movie will give you some things to chaw over.

All the characters in this movie are memorable and each faithfully portray their characters. Director and Writer Sean Ellis does a nice job of portraying Ben’s sad and poignant reality, and adds some interesting visual tricks that merge past and present. Cashback surprised me because it turned out to be a much better movie than its premise suggested. It was doubtless shot on a modest budget yet the movie paints a broader and more interesting canvas than its modest plot would suggest. In short, be prepared to inhabit Ben’s world. You will both enjoy and grow from the journey.

3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

The Thinker

Love can be unlovely

Just as saying “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” does not at first trip naturally off the tongue, telling someone you love him or her can be awkward to say. After a while though it becomes engrained. It bubbles out unprompted when you are with your significant other. For myself, after twenty-two years of marriage I no longer know what I mean when I say I love my wife. “Love” has become squishy and abstract. Sometimes it feels like a lazy word. There are times when saying I love my wife feels more like a platitude than something meaningful.

It is a little like that question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” There is no way to answer it without feeling slimed. “How much do you love your spouse or significant other?” If someone to ask this of me, would I recoil? What the hell kind of question is it anyhow?

Just how do I measure my own love? Would I jump off a bridge if my love asked it of me? Hell no. Should she stay with me after I beat her black and blue because she loves me? I would hope that she would get the hell out of Dodge. Would I take care of her 24/7 in sickness and in health in her old age, giving up all semblance of personal happiness? I don’t know. I would probably try to find home health aides. At some point, the burden might become so crushing that I would put her in a nursing home. On the other hand, she will be going in for back surgery next week. Will I be there for her? Of course, I will. In addition, I will be with her at home for a few days while she lies flat on her back. I cannot imagine not doing any of these things for her.

I suspect very few couples have this kind of discussion about the boundaries of their love prior to tying the knot. I know my wife and I never did, but there were certainly many implicit assumptions about love that we carried with us into marriage. Instead, we just say we love each other and leave it at that. We cross our fingers and hope the positive aspects of loving someone outweigh what can be its crushing burdens. In fact, we do not really know the boundaries of our love for someone until they are put to the test.

When they are put to the test then love isn’t so much fun. That is what I have discovered. My wife is a lovely creature, but when God handed out bodies to inhabit, she was handed something shabby. Without getting into details, suffice to say that she is a challenging case for her doctors. In fact, she has a whole team of doctors of various specialties working to alleviate her suffering. You would think after working on her for more than twenty years that they might have cured something, but no. Her body is like a beanie bag chair. If one problem is fixed then another emerges to replace it. This means her life on a good day is full of discomfort, and on a bad day is full of wrenching pain.

Do I love my wife? I must, otherwise I would have checked out years ago. Do I love providing the persistent physical and emotional support to help her cope with her medical issues? Are you crazy? No. In fact, hell no. Frankly, I would rather be in Tahiti, but who wouldn’t? Nonetheless, I love her. In addition, I inherited the dutiful gene. I got it from both sides of the family and at this point, it is reflexive. Moreover, I have certain values, including kindness and compassion. Since I love her, I cannot imagine anyone who deserves more of it from me than her.

Nonetheless, I have discovered some inconvenient truth about values. Having values is easy. Living up to them is hard. Most of us do not have to get a root canal more than a couple times in our lives. How many of us, if called by conscience, would volunteer to get a root canal three times a week? Not many, which is what makes Mother Teresa’s story so interesting, and why I was so drawn to recent revelations. I sometimes feel by providing a high degree of support to my wife, that I am volunteering to get regular root canals. At some point a more dispassionate observer might infer, Dude, your values are really whacked.

It strikes me that all these love problems are easily solved. If love gets too burdensome, just bail out. This assumes, of course, that you can deal with the aftermath. I am quite confident that in my case, because I do love my wife, if I bailed on her the guilt (not to mention the wound I would feel acting at variance to my deepest held values) would likely be worse than providing the support she needs. Nonetheless, bailing out seems to be a popular option, given the divorce statistics in the United States. I do feel some satisfaction being there for my wife, and feel it says much about my character. I cannot say that it is fun. Nor was it fun to be the little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike, although doubtless the citizens of Holland were grateful.

If you are in a love relationship, hope that your values are not put to the test too often. If they are, expect it to be a learning experience about just whom you really are.

The Thinker

My odd Valentine’s Day gift

This Valentine’s Day, instead of my wife being next to me in bed, she was 2000 miles away. Specifically, she is in Arizona. She is taking care of her mother who is recuperating from lung surgery. She is doing this even though she herself needs surgery to repair a herniated disk in her back. She has been popping pain pills and getting physical therapy for months in an attempt to avoid back surgery. They did not work so recently the decision was made to operate.

I suggested that since her mother has plenty of family in the Arizona area it might be more important that she say home and get her back surgery rather than traipse across country to try to take care of her mom. But no, duty called. When you think your mother needs you that trumps everything, including your own major back problems.

I hope that she is earning some major karma points. I was similarly dutiful in 2003 when I went to Michigan to offer moral and logistical support to my mother during her long hospitalization and recovery. However, I was in good health. My wife kept the home fires burning on my trips. I am doing the same on her trip. I washed five loads of laundry yesterday, and I hate doing laundry. I even cleaned the kitchen floor.

I am also discovering a few things that I did not expect: it can be healthy to have time apart from your spouse. With my daughter working, I find that this week my household is often reduced to one four-year-old feline and myself. I do miss my wife, but I confess I do not miss all the drama that has been occupying our lives since her back went out after Thanksgiving. Herniated disks must be something like nine on a 10-point scale of painful things that can happen to you in life. Because she is in pain, she cannot help but broadcast her pain. Her back is a constant topic of discussion. I offer moral support, of course, and even some logistical support. I suppose it helps but it does not really solve her back problem. For eight days or so, I am free of it.

Ironically, her trip to visit her mom was perhaps the best Valentine’s Day gift she could have given me. Every caregiver needs some downtime and I have had precious little. I realize that since I do not have her degree of back problems, I am merely whining. Still it is a relief to have my wife with her bad back gone for a while. It is as if we are learning to better love each other by being less supportive.

Now that my daughter has her driver’s license, I do not have to fuss much over her either. She gets herself to work on time and comes home when her shift is over. Which leaves work (which was stressful this week), and hours and hours of glorious solitude. I am finding that I am slowly reverting into the creature I was before I got married. I am remembering who I was before I became tangled up in this institution called marriage.

Granted, before I was dating steadily in many ways life was a lot less fun. Sex was more likely to be my right hand than with another woman. Still, there was a certain reckless freedom to being a bachelor. As a husband and principle breadwinner, my life feels controlled and regimented. As a married man living the life of a bachelor for a week, I am discovering the pleasure of doing things at my own pace. Doing laundry yesterday was an example. If I felt like surfing the web for a while rather than move the next load through the laundry cycle so be it. No one was impacted.

I toyed with the idea of going out on the town by myself. Fortunately, I quickly abandoned it. It turns out I can have more fun at home than anywhere else. I am not sure what single 51-year-old men do, but it is probably not what twenty something single young men do. I think older single men congregate at the counter of their local Silver Diners, and read their newspapers while sipping coffee and consuming entrees loaded with fats and carbohydrates. My idea of a fun thing to do by myself is to spend a few hours at the local Barnes & Noble. I pick out a handful of nerdy computer books, hope for a ready cushy chair and just read. In theory, I could do this any night, but in practice, since I have a spouse I do not. I probably will do it tonight since my schedule is free.

Another thing I could do is take in a movie on a weeknight. I hear Tuesday is $5 movie night at the local Reston Multiplex. The leisure class does these sorts of things. They do not necessarily have to be at work at 7 AM. They can be spontaneous. While there are many great things about having a spouse, spontaneity is rarely one of them. No, things have to be negotiated and planned. I do not consider my dining tastes very advanced but I am an epicurean next to my wife. This typically limits us to a half dozen restaurants, generally with American or Italian food. She won’t do Mexican. She won’t do Thai. She won’t do Indian. She will do Chinese but she only likes one particular Chinese restaurant in Herndon. With her gone my dining options are now expanding. The problem is I generally do not prefer to dine alone. However, I can get takeout.

In short, I love my wife this Valentine’s Day. I did send her a card and made sure we had a long chat on the phone. I love her for being devoted to her mother in her time of need. It is an aspect of her character I cannot help but admire. I also love her for giving me this unexpected respite from our relationship. Perhaps I can be a refreshed and better spouse when she returns.

Happy Valentines Day, sweetie.

The Thinker

Marital lessons on love courtesy of my cat

In spite of what you are about to read, this is not “Let’s beat up on my wife day”. I love my wife. Obviously, there are things about her I wish I could change. I am sure she has a list of things about me that she would correct in me if I could somehow reprogram myself. We both are who we are. We are the people we were before we entered into marriage 22 years ago, plus the unique dynamics of those last 22 years. Our fundamental personalities are immutable.

Like many households, we have pets. Actually, we have a pet, one four-year-old male cat named Arthur that we picked up from a no-kill pet shelter about a year ago. Arthur too is a product of his conditioning. He was found on the streets of Lovettsville, Virginia where he probably lived a very scary and Spartan existence. At his core, Arthur is a sweet and affectionate cat, just incredibly skittish.

Arthur gets plenty of attention from us. The basement is his sanctuary. When he needs to escape, he retreats there and sleeps on the couch. When he is awake, he wants our attention, but he does not want to be picked up. When I am at my computer like now, he will often sit on the floor next to my chair. I have to reach down to pet him. This is not terribly convenient for me. It would be much more convenient to have him on my lap, like my last cat Sprite. Perhaps he will achieve this level of trust someday, although I doubt it.

When he deigns to pay us a visit, we greet him warmly. “Hello Arthur!” we generally say and we pet him and he purrs and he wraps himself around our legs. Even though we are confident that he does not understand English, we talk to him as if he understands us. I ask him how his day is going. I know his favorite spots. He likes scratches behind his ears, long belly rubs and to have his tail gently pulled. Generally, we try to keep him engaged but eventually one of us loses interest. He seems content to sit near us. Eventually he will find another human to greet, or will go back to the basement for more sleep. Should he ever feel bored, he has ready access to our screened in deck. Some months back I installed a pet door that insets into one of our kitchen windows. He traverses in and out of the deck dozens of times a day. In short, for a formerly homeless cat he has it made in the shade. The idea of escape does not occur to him.

I find myself more and more envious of Arthur, and particularly my wife’s reaction to him. I keep thinking to myself, why can I not get from her the level of attention that she gives the cat? I guess the same is true with me. I fuss over the cat probably a lot more than I do my wife. All I know is that if I got the same amount of attention from the people in my house that our cat gets, I would feel much more loved.

As an experiment the other day, I bounded down the stairs into the kitchen where my wife was preparing something and I said, “How are you? How is you day so far?” Of course, we had just talked about things a few minutes earlier, so she looked at me puzzled. I told her that I wondered what would happen if I started to give her the kind of focused attention that I gave the cat.

If I got that kind of focused attention from her, I suspect my marital satisfaction level would skyrocket. Oh, we do regularly trade the news of the day. I tell her what is going on in my life. (I leave a lot out actually, knowing that the intricacies of office politics would bore her). She keeps me up on what is going on in her life too. Yet I often suspect that her mind wanders when I tell her what my day is like. Moreover, truth be told, my mind often wanders too. Her boss is a voice I have only heard on the phone. Yet there are all sorts of details about her relationship with her boss and coworkers that she is willing to share. Therefore, some part of me is faking my interest in her non-home life, and I suspect the same is true when she asks me about my day. The reality is we do not care that much because these are separate areas of our lives largely walled off. This interaction may be more about giving the appearance of caring than actual caring.

However, we are both intensely interested in Arthur’s life. Every coming and going in and out of the deck is reported. If Arthur is in a playful mood, we will enjoy his antics. We pay attention to the sheen on his coat and monitor his urinary and bowel habits. We are fascinated with his reaction to bugs. (He plays with them more than tries to kill them.) Particularly as our daughter transitions into adulthood, the cat is becoming our new surrogate child, ever fresh and wide-eyed, recipient of enormously amounts of interest and love.

Perhaps it speaks to a relative paucity of engagement in our own relationship. There are times when after 22 years it feels like we are more like strangers living together than a married couple. Both of us are quite introverted. Our activities in common seem to be diminishing over time. She has little interest in most of my activities. If I can drag her to the Unitarian church I attend, it will not be more than once a year. The church thing does not interest her probably because it was not a product of her childhood. She believes in worshipping God by sleeping in late on Sundays. On the other hand, her fascination for adult fan fiction and in particular slash leaves me cold. I took the time last year though to attend a slash convention in Las Vegas with her. Her friends were all quite interesting people in their own right, but the slash thing bored me to tears. Perhaps in response I infuse more of my spare time in blogging. She has little interest in exercise, and certainly does not want to join my gym, so I exercise alone. Her knees do not allow her to go biking with me so my twenty-plus mile biking journeys tend to be a solitary experience.

Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps this is the natural state of marriage between two introverted people after more than twenty years. Still, something must be missing because I observe our cat and the love he receives from all of us. I wonder, what would it mean to our marriage if we invested the time and attention in each other that we invest in our feline? Would it be healthy or counterproductive?

Scarier still, is the main purpose of our cat to allow us to express feelings that we find it hard to express with each other? Is it the simplicity of the cat’s life that we find so appealing?

All I know is that I have a new vision of heaven. It does not include God or the choir invisible. It involves in my next life being a spoiled and pampered housecat where human affection is always readily available, I never have to worry about food, water or a dirty litter box. I can bask in the joy of a sunbeam or spend enrapt hours looking out the window as life passes by. Perhaps one such life as a cat would suffice and I would want to go back to the complexity that is human life. I do know there is something very appealing about being this kind of cat. I could deal with hairballs and the occasional urinary tract infection. All I know is I would feel so loved and I would be so happy.

I strongly suspect that this kind of love is simply not available in human experience, at least not for very long. Human life is too complex and our pathways through life are too stressful to allow this kind of love. Still, I want it even though I know it will never happen.

The Thinker

Two years later

Two years later, I feel acceptance and serenity.

When a loved one dies, there is no accounting for the nature and length of the grieving process. Nor is there a way to know for certain whether you have really moved beyond their death. Yet here I am two years after my mother’s death. When I think about Mom at all, and most days I do not, those are my feelings. I accept that she is forever gone from my life. I find myself wholly at peace with her absence.

When I learned of her death, I was racked with powerful bittersweet feelings. Feeling unhappy, distraught and an emotional wreck were to be expected. I did not expect to also feel relief and happiness. I was relieved that her misery was over at last. I was glad to resume a normal life. In addition, I was happy that just maybe my mother was now in the presence of the God she had so slavishly worshipped. Perhaps she was even reunited again with her long deceased parents and many deceased siblings.

The first few months after her death felt surreal and were unnaturally quiet. It seemed like her death was just an extended absence. After all, for much of her last thirty years we lived apart. At best, I spent a couple weeks a year with her. It had become normal to be away from her. What was not normal were the last fifteen months of her life. She and my father had been living their retired years in far away Michigan. Her health had reached the stage where living at home was no longer an option. They sold their house and moved across the Potomac River from me to a retirement community called Riderwood. However, by that time she could hardly stand up and had to be carried up stairs. When she walked at all, it was with her walker. I went from seeing her once a year to once a week or more. Unfortunately, the time I did spend with her was rarely pleasant. Each visit demonstrated that her body was falling apart. Finally, there was little more of my mother than a shrunken old woman in a nursing home bed, ashen in the face, her eyes occluded and blank, her hair a surreal unnaturally white color. Near the end, her disease would not let her utter a word or even turn her head. You were never sure whether she heard you or not. I put on a brave face in her presence. I bawled in the hallways or in the privacy of my car. At some point how could anyone, including the dying, not take some relief from death? My mother’s death was ultimately merciful.

It took about six months before I really felt the aftershocks. My mother was the emotional heart of our large Catholic family. She was a loving person but she was far from perfect. She grew up impoverished, traumatized by the Great Depression and burdened with the impossible expectations from the God she loved yet that seemed to require ever more sacrifice and duty. She exuded duty and guilt, values she probably would not have wanted to transmit to me but which I absorbed anyhow.

My forebrain understood all this, knew that she loved all her children and was a product of circumstances. My neocortex had a different opinion. It still resented my perceived insufficient nurturing and the harsh punishments she meted out when we were children. I navigated through life but felt more and more detached. Inside, I was filled with turmoil. My neocortex was like a vast, dark storm cloud desperately wanting to discharge some lightning. My forebrain wanted to keep it at quite a distance.

Eventually I found myself disgorging my confused feelings to my therapist. Through therapy, I learned that to resolve my feelings that I had to do more than blab to her about them. I had to share them people who could empathize. Attempts to talk about my mixed feelings about Mom with my Dad were deflected. This left my siblings. One sister did not reply when I cautiously raised the issue in an email. Another listened patiently then gave me a different perspective of Mom, for being younger she had witnessed much less of her dark side. It was an older sister who I met for dinner one evening when she was in town who at last let me discharge my voltage. The one thing I had not anticipated was that I had a sibling who was far more upset with my mother than I was. It was clear from the endless tears flowing down her cheeks as we talked. “It’s is just hormones,” she claimed. For me, while I loved my mother some part of me also loathed her. Yet my older sister claimed that she never loved my mother at all. Her tears suggested otherwise.

At first, I had no idea I was on the road to recovery. Yet within a week, the storm clouds had disappeared. The voltage was gone. The skies were blue and the sun was shining in my life again. Since then I have felt simple acceptance at her passing and a serenity that suggests my feelings for my mother have finally been wholly reconciled.

On my first motherless Mother’s Day, I made a point to drive out to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland where her cremated remains lie. This Mother’s Day, I felt no such compulsion. When I am near Silver Spring I certainly intend to pay my respects again. However, the sense of duty is gone. This suggested to me that whatever unintended apron strings were pulling at me from her grave had been cut. Instead, I concentrated on the one living mother left in my life: my mother in law. I made sure we sent her a card and called her on Mother’s Day. I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day and many more to come.

Somewhere in the space-time continuum, my mother’s spirit is still present. She is happy for me. She is glad I cut those final apron strings. At times, I imagine that she is whispering to me. She is saying, “Get on with life, Mark. Life is to be cherished and savored. Do not forget me but do not let my death hold you back either. Be free of me so you can make the most of your life. Someday we will meet again, and when we do we will meet in love, as friends and as peers.”

Thanks Mom. I love you too.


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