I sit perplexed, thinking I have taken up residence in a snow globe. Flakes of white float about me while I remain, a tiny plastic figure, securely fastened. Presently, I feel like life is swirling around me. There are few familiar things to remind me of time or space. My extended family is scattered and I am tethered to a temporary existence that seems destined to be permanent.
Elders in my family are approaching death. At a time when a shared experience is almost mandatory these two souls are turning their backs on reality. We have an apartment nearby the care giving scene. Younger members of the fam have come to visit and offer their unique words of kindness, understanding and support. Friends too, have offered grace, humour and encouragement. These are the times we all look for signs of familiarity.
Family is defined differently from person to person. The word conjures up feelings of warmth and harmony for some, discord and coldness for others. Family was so rigidly defined by my first set of parental in-laws that, when their daughter died, I was written out of the will. Some families have members referred to as black sheep. My mother once wrote off several in her clan, vowing never to have them darken her door again. My father, in contrast, welcomed all as if they were blood relations. My sister and I were bonded only through our DNA. Our characters were as different as night and day, therefore I find the term family is best defined by closeness to another rather than genetic similarities. Blood is thicker than water but so what?
I have felt a soul connection with many, yet my reserved nature holds me back from collecting friends as family. I bristle when a boss in a work environment encourages us all to be like a family. Surprisingly, I can tear up when witnessing signs of a universal family yet it has to be at a certain remove. For example I love marching with crowds committed to a cause yet intimate Christmas gatherings of ‘the whole fam damnly’ put me on edge. On those occasions I keep looking for a singleton to share some meaningful thoughts of quiet reflection. In certain contexts the family collective can generate within me a sense of claustrophobia.
During a recent conversation with my stepson, I remarked how I envied his ability to maintain friendships. Unlike me, he seems able to spread his familial energy to help others feel included. In his company you feel his empathy and willingness to be a part of your life. I am unable to spread myself that thinly. My emotional capacity appears limited to one key person. My head puts Love and Family in the same mental box so I have trouble sorting out the contents. I feel stressed dividing my attention between multiple individuals while reciprocity is paramount in my relationship guidebook. In truth I am a son, father, uncle, nephew, husband and reluctant friend.
My wife understands all this about me and I am blessed.
I’ve hesitated a while before doing a posting on the word Love. Many people are either uncomfortable using this word or frustrated because it doesn’t do justice to their feelings. Love is impossible to explain yet easy to know: Like trying to describe a colour. Metaphors and similes bring you close to an understanding but the uniqueness of love resists analogies. It can come in spectrums, shades and categories. Love as a theme can be overused and also under appreciated. It’s likely the most talked about word in the English language but we find it hard to say the phrase, “I love you.” The language of love may have its very own unlettered alphabet. Love is felt but not seen. We know it though; just as the movement of a leaf can tell us that air exists. Perhaps love is undefinable, yet it is as real as in this heartfelt song by John Denver. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKhBPps7_Fc
In an effort to define love, we often try to qualify it. We talk of unconditional love, puppy love, unrequited love or romantic love in a desire to place the love-ness into a category. I recall a conversation with a friend when I had told him I thought I had fallen in love. To confirm my news he asked, “So do you Really love her?” Without that qualification he just couldn’t accept my announcement. Funny, how we feel a need to know the kind of love being discussed before we can buy into the reality.
I don’t believe any art form can be created without love. In this way I believe Love equals Art. A life’s creative work cannot be summed up in any other way but without referencing love. Poems of love tell of yearning, exultation, catastrophe and pain. Painters have described love as the light by which they work. Plays and novels have used countless words in exhilarating ways to give meaning to this single word; Love. Art tends to avoid any kind of labelling or judgement, when it comes to love. A song about love is open to the listener’s interpretation. We can judge, if we want, who or what the singer is referring to. Or we can just bask in the splendour of loving words, such as those found in this masterpiece by Rolf Løvland, sung by Josh Groban. https://www.youtube.com/watch/aJxrX42WcjQ
Growing up, we soon learn that love can hurt, be used against us, bring us hope or lift us to heights unimagined. Love can tangle us in knots of indecision or leave the way clear of doubt. As I get older I’ve lost the need to categorize love. People can have loving feelings towards all manner of things; human or not, living or not. Love is energy, moving out from us and returning. Love supports us, enabling us to be the best that we can be. My advice to the lovelorn is to be watchful. Love is everywhere. It is there when someone says, “I’ve got your back.”
I’ve heard many authors at signing events respond to someone’s gushing praise of their work with a rote rendition of, “You are very kind.” The use of the word kind, in this context, devalues it. We are not being kind when we show someone how much they are appreciated, we are being grateful. I wish we could see acts of kindness more often. It is not something that is regularly practised, yet when we see someone helping another who has stumbled we recognize a kind heart. I believe in kindness as a form of love. If more readily applied in our behaviour it can improve life on earth.
In University I studied Life Sciences, particularly wildlife biology. I became familiar with the work of Carl Linnaeus, a scientist who developed a system of classification of living things based on precise particulars of biological design. I had fun sorting specimens into well defined categories by kind, using observable physical characteristics. These days it is much easier and more conclusive to use DNA to sort living things. Consequently we have discovered that some species are closer kin than we could ever have imagined.
Some people say they have a kindred spirit, someone so close to their kind of thinking/feeling that they form a bond. The fictional character Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, talked a lot about this kind of friendship. While she gathered kindling for the wood stove she had thoughts of becoming less isolated as an orphan and more kin to the kindhearted community that would become her home. Author Lucy Maude Montgomery writes beautifully of a time where manners and kindness abound yet her stories are not all sweetness. She doesn’t shy away from issues found in a closed society. For example, she exposes Avonlea villagers who could be quick to tell outsiders to “Go home to your own kind!” Since the first printing of Ms. Montgomery’s widely popular stories, there has been numerous interpretations. The latest in Canada is ‘Anne with an E’. This television series is so charmingly sweet it could kill you with its kindness.
Babies, like birds, quickly show they prefer to flock together. Kiley Hamelin has done research work at the University of British Columbia showing that even young babies can sort puppet identifiers according to whether they are helpful or not. They can determine the kindness in others at a very early age, suggesting that figuring out who is kind among us may be a matter of survival and integral to forming bonds of friendship and family.
In British Columbia, Canada, residents have been lucky to have a Provincial Health Officer named Dr. Bonnie Henry. She is held in high regard for the work she is doing to control the spread of the COVID19 virus. At news briefings she is not afraid to show her humanity, often crying over grim news,. Her advisories and updates on the pandemic usually end with a familiar mantra, “Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe.” Indeed: Kindness comes first.
Playgrounds are a big part of children’s lives. When my boys were small we lived in a house directly across from a small parkette. It had a teeter-totter, slide and sand area. As the boundaries for their play expanded from their own front yard, crossing the street, all by themselves, was a longed for objective. I have fond memories of setting up a camp chair on my lawn and witnessing this early bit of boyhood adventure, just across the divide of our quiet residential street. Curiously, my sons’ favourite activity was transporting handfuls of sand to the top of the slide, giggling as the grains slid down the slippery slope. Once I watched my eldest try to walk up and over the teeter-totter. He made it up to the centre point and then, all wobbly (and with my heart racing) he jumped to safer ground.
Rarely seen in playgrounds anymore, the seesaw or teeter-totter has always seemed a strange choice for a kids’ park. It’s a dangerous piece of equipment! It’s made of hard materials. A certain level of balance is required while sitting in the tiny seat and holding the pokey handlebars. It’s one piece of playground equipment that requires another person in order to have productive fun. The choice of partner may also be a challenge since size, agility and communication skills are important considerations. Trust is also a big factor as you must have confidence that your teeter buddy will know the right time to get off their end, slowly, preventing the one in the air from crashing to the ground.
Seesaw is derived from the French ci-ca, meaning this or that. I love the broader philosophical view here: either this or that, up or down, here or there, you or me. A teeter-totter has a fulcrum like a set of scales. In order for this equipment to work properly a degree of justice must prevail so that one person isn’t forever stranded in the air, awaiting a fateful decision. In practise, this machine is a type of lever (one of humankind’s first tools) and yet metaphorically a seesaw has the potential to pry you out of your comfort zone, enabling you to gain a different perspective. The ride can be a thrill as you may pretend to be part of a circus act of tumblers, jugglers and acrobats. Add danger at your pleasure, equivalent to your level of imagination.
Certainly cheaper and with fewer moving parts than a roller coaster, a teeter-totter is also a handy metaphor for mood. Your state of being may fluctuate: ‘I’m feeling down today.’ Or ‘Hey my prospects are looking up for a change.’ Or ‘I think I need more balance in my life.’ I have often seesawed my way through life. I’ve been grateful for the partners I’ve had, on the other end, lifting me up, then with a push getting me grounded again.
Recognizing the value others bring to my play has not always been easy for me. Achieving balance is a knack that takes practise.
I told someone the other day that I was a one woman man. They recalled that phrase as the title of a song by country music legend George Jones.
Being a person that has spent time getting to know himself has made all the difference to my selection of a mate. I’m guided by what I see in another and what I see tends to be a reflection of me. By that I mean I am drawn to people who hold similar values, have similar interests, in short, get life in the same way I do. I’m not looking for a clone of me, but there has to be enough similarities so that we can relate, as mates. I have to feel a friendship, a kinship, before I can settle into a long term relationship. I need to recognize this person. From that comes the security of familiarity and then love, a very hard word to define. I’m a birds of a feather kind of guy. I don’t relate to the opposites attract theory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xweiQukBM_k
In the wild kingdom we often describe an animal mating for purely instinctual, procreational reasons. Some animals are known to mate for life, but it is rare outside the human species. I belong to the tribe that values exclusivity in mating, even while I was dating I could only manage one woman at a time. While my relationships have been one on one, I can admit I might fantasize but, oh my, polyamory?
I saw in my first mate a mutual desire to build a loving family. She caught my attention as a true friend, growing into a confidant, then a loving partner. A strong bond was formed. We had so many mutual ideas about how we saw life unfolding. We planned continually. We eyed the future as a promise. When cancer took her away from me it was hard to recalibrate my thoughts on life, what to do next, or who I might wish to spend time with. The very idea of a life mate had changed in me. Surprisingly I found someone quickly, she appealed because she was more a colleague. We both worked in education, loved reading and were writers in our spare time. It seemed like a match. However, our differences soon overcame our initial connection. Thankfully, she changed her mind and left. However, I was alone again. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_P-v1BVQn8
Finding myself in the world of digital dating, I considered my options, gingerly. Could a computerized approach to finding a mate bring me the woman I dreamt of? Quickly intimidated by online choice, I decided a party was in order. Lucky me! My fantasy woman magically appeared. She had the image I desired and the substance I admired. She shared my passionate adventuring view of life and was brave enough to take risks with me. We both continue to believe in the importance of the singular moment. Check. Mate. On with life. Together. Eyes forward. Hands clasped. We are mated still. Love is beautiful.
‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’ is the first proverb that comes to mind when I think of the word Friend. It relates to my belief that friendship is important when a person can’t go it alone because of current circumstances. I admit to being a DIY person in the general sense: I get satisfaction from doing it (life) myself. I also recognize that being an individualist can make me appear unfriendly.
I had a best friend. Through grades 7&8 my mom described us as ‘thick as thieves’. I thought he was going to be my BFF but I moved to another city for high school and saw him rarely. We planned a trip to Europe for our gap year but he pulled out at the last minute. Later I reached out to him to be my best man at my first wedding and he declined. My sons still tease me about my lack of friends with, “Whatever happened to Horst?”.
I appreciate this song by James Taylor because it was on my playlist during my only summer romance. She was a friend from far away that got away, despite my willing her to be nearer. I used to sit in my used VW beetle to read her letters then go home and play my Tapestry album. The poignant lyric, “they’ll take your soul if you let them.” still haunts when I hear it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEkIou3WFnM
The best advise I ever got was to be my own best friend. Friendship comes with expectations that others can’t necessarily fill. I can count on myself. I rarely have let myself down. I don’t say that because I feel superior. Friendship requires a lot of trust and effort. Alas, I am wary and lazy. My two beautiful wives have been my bestest of friends. I am an exclusive friend because it brings me security. Seems I haven’t got the energy that some have to spread their love around. I actually admire people who need people or can love the one they’re with. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeTGln5XGTE
On film it appears as though women set the bar for friendliness. I tend to enjoy conversations with women over men because we are more likely to seek similarities than differences. To me the friendliest and most stimulating conversations are about ideas. The people I would call my friends value the positive in life. I recognized myself in the character Sandra Oh played on Grey’s Anatomy with this scene where she admits she needs someone. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DN4Dw3tyLY
My niece recently reached out to me. She said someone told her she needed a ‘rock’. I was flattered, humbled and frightened at the same time. Could I fulfill her expectations? The request required the elements I consider part of friendship: empathy, kindness, discretion, availability, resources. You can deliver some of these qualities to an acquaintance, but a friend, a true blue friend, will need them in abundance. That can be exhausting.