9½ Notions Regarding the Art of Love

V
alentine’s Day is like Christmas.  You know you’re supposed to find it appealing.  You know this is the day to shower the people you love with love.  But more often than not, it feels like a marketing ploy designed to convince you that money can buy you love.  Still, you know there is an art to love that takes considerable time to master. 
               
                In order to alleviate all the pressure surrounding February 14th, I advocate practicing the art of love year round.  Here are some suggestions to get you started.
  1. Love yourself first.  If you can’t love yourself, no one else can either.   The wonderful thing about falling in love is that you get to fall for yourself in the process.  Wooing another with your wit and wickedly wild ways requires you to conjure up a certain amount of charm you may have forgotten you possessed.    Sure, your new love may have you “walking on air.”  But if you didn’t have your own wings, you’d still be on the ground.
  1. Be the love you seek to find.  So, you want a fiery red-head who meets you at the door dressed in nothing but cellophane?  Perhaps you prefer a hunk of burning love with the soul of a poet?   If you are slouching on the couch, drinking beer, and eating bonbons, how appealing do you think you are going to be to your particular vision of loveliness?  If you want excitement, be exciting!   If you want your partner to perform a tantalizing tango, make sure you know more than the two-step. 
  1. Dare to be romantic.   Aside from the main characters in romance novels or movies, most real people are sadly lacking in romance.  This is a shame since romance is so easy to evoke.  While flowers, sparkly objects, candle-lit dinners, and nights at the opera are thrilling, so is a steamy sonnet snuck in a lover’s lunch box or a single sunflower sitting next to the baby wipes.  Romance is not just for the rich and famous but for the daring and original.
  1. Love is about expression not perfection.  We are bombarded with images of the ideal and hypnotized to believe we have to be perfect to be loved.  Yet what we inevitably fall for in another is his imperfections – those adorably small ears, the one-sided dimple, the slightly bowed legs.  It’s our vulnerability that opens us up to love and emboldens us to express that love in our own quirky way.   Of course you might want to refrain from singing “Muskrat Love” at a karaoke bar in front of people who can promote or demote you, but serenading your sweetheart in the moonlight might make her swoon.
  1. Clean your slate daily.  Life is messy and love is tender.  If little slights or unintended hurts are not cleared up on a regular basis they accumulate like compound interest.  This is not something you can afford to have working against you.  Do not let perceived offenses go underground and fester.  If you do these grudges will undoubtedly erupt at Thanksgiving dinner in front of  family and friends or at a parent-teacher conference in front of your child’s principal.  Do what it takes to come clean daily. 
  1. Make love, not war.   Opposites attract – in theory.  In reality, the moment you say “to–may–to” and I say “to-ma-to,” we’re ready to call the whole thing off.  Most of us choose a partner precisely because they are from Mars and we are from Venus.  They compliment us.  They know what wines go with what foods and we know how to calculate the tip.  When things gets ugly, try to recall that this is the man you defend in front of your mother or this is the woman you gave up Monday night football for.  While the behavior  may drive you crazy, you still love the person, yes?  Some things are worth fighting for; others are worth agreeing to disagree.   If you’re going to fight, fight fair.  And always make up. 
  1. Say what you mean, mean what you say.  Don’t be lazy with language.  We have an exquisite vocabulary at our disposal and yet we insist on using the same words time after time.  Although you may be very comfortable with your “love you/love you, too” routine, you can do better.  Paint word pictures or set your sentences ablaze with sizzling suggestions.  Don’t say, “You look nice” when what you really mean is “You look ravishing, delicious, or sinful.  Don’t say, “What’s different about you?” when what you’re really wondering is whether his eyes always dance with devilish delight when you mention mud wrestling.
  1. Listen, learn, leap.  Just when you think you know someone inside out, he will surprise you.  Instead of being outraged, be amazed, amused, or intrigued by what may have rocked his world.  We are curiously creative creatures trying to find our way in the world.  It’s easier to do that when we know there are those who love and trust us even if they don’t understand us.   If you love someone, drop the conditions you place on her.  Then trust her enough to know she’ll do something spectacular with your unflinching support and adoration. 
9.   Ask for what you need.  Yes, it’s uncanny that the same person who can finish your sentences cannot fathom your ever-fluctuating need for space and intimacy, freedom and security, conversation and silence, carrots and carrot cake.  As nice as it would be for your loved ones to anticipate your every wish, they cannot.  There is no logic in the “If he really loved me he’d know I don’t like mayo on sandwiches made with packaged turkey slices but I love it on sandwiches made with fresh turkey.”  Or “If she really loved me she would know I already have a ¾ inch wrench but what I’m sorely lacking is a 5/8 inch wrench.”  Assume the one you love is so smitten with you that they get light headed in your presence and can’t remember anything but how much they love you.  Be gentle.  Help them help you.
9½ .  Laugh.  Often!  Need I even remind you of the importance of a sense of humor?

Square Pegs

When I moved to New Mexico I had no idea how the mountains and the high desert would shape my life.  If I felt angry, irritated, or anxious, I’d head to the trails and walk until the landscape worked its magic on my mood.  With my dog Malcolm by my side, I felt prepared for whatever crossed our path, from the mystical meeting with a javelina, to the respectful rerouting around a red racer or rattler, to the wagfest that followed our meeting of dog friends and their people on a similar path.

It may have been the combination of the air at that altitude, the constant contact with the ground beneath me, the absolute joy of a carefree canine sniffing and marking his territory, or just the presence of mountains that made my troubles feel like molehills.

The kind of stress I experienced in Santa Fe was more of an existential angst than the kind of stress I experience these days.  But I’ve yet to encounter any kind of stress that can’t be relieved by a long walk. 

Winter in Iowa means if I am going to take that walk, it’s usually on my treadmill.  But the other day we had a break in the temps and I decided to head outdoors.  The early morning fog was hiding many things, the most dangerous of these was black ice.  But I was determined to let the liquid landscape of the Maquoketa River works its wonders just as the solidarity of the Sandias had.

Life sometimes rewards our valiant attempts at discipline and provides us with an unequivocal sign of encouragement.  Mine came as soon as I looked up from the frozen tundra and discovered two magnificent birds above me.  Could they be eagles?  Indeed!

One landed in a tree across the river.  The other landed in the tree right in front of me. I’d never had a close encounter with eagles before.  Like celebrities tolerating the paparazzi, they sat regally allowing me to “ooohhh” and “aaahhh” and wonder how I might capture this moment when my camera and phone were back at the house.  Would they wait for my return?

Most likely not.  They had jobs to do, places to go, nests to feather, food to provide for the family. But that didn’t stop me and my other dog Abbey from setting out every morning since then with my camera and the intent to find them again. 

We didn’t see the eagles immediately but we did encounter a chocolate lab one day which made Abbey, a yellow lab, very excited.  I suppose it’s the recognition that another looks, sounds, thinks, acts, or behaves like we do that somehow makes us feel like we belong.  I call it finding our tribe.

I remember having the feeling of finding my tribe when I first moved to Santa Fe.  Admittedly I’m an odd duck.  For most of my life, I’ve been the proverbial square peg in a round hole.  Although I understood the mainstream, I preferred the edge, the fringe, the outer limits.  This is what made The City Different so appealing.

Santa Fe seems to me to be a city of self-appointed exiles.  People who don’t quite fit in with the population in their respective birth places find the unique blend of beauty, art, and eccentricity of Santa Fe the perfect place to discover their own. The convergence of three distinctly different cultures creates an atmosphere of acceptance that makes Santa Fe essentially Switzerland, a neutral zone where anything and anyone is welcome. 

So why am I here and not there?  I think Charles Dickens said it best in The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”   To paraphrase Mr. Dickens, having lived there “was a far, far better thing that I had ever done before.” 

But when I’d walk the arroyos day after day repeating the mantra, “Place me where the needs of the community and my skills come together,” I’d get the distinct impression that meant going back to where I came from.  After all, a city can only accommodate so many gurus. Not that I considered myself to be one, but the things I learned in the desert were destined to be shared with those who would otherwise never know its secrets.

So in this circuitous pattern that I’ve come to recognize as my unofficial life plan, I found myself back in the Midwest , working in another kind of educational system, once again feeling like a square peg in a round hole.  This time, however, I understand the purpose of the square peg. 

Square pegs, it turns out, are more plentiful than one might suspect.  They are just really good at hiding out if they happen to live in predominantly round peg places.  But as soon as one square peg dares to stand out, others start popping up.

For example, this year we had the good fortune to hire a fabulous faculty member who moved to Maquoketa because her spouse had taken a job at the high school.   She could teach the classes that were in high demand and had an unbridled passion for her subjects and students. 

Sadly that passion can get snuffed right out of a person in one semester if steps are not taken to protect it.  Because of this, I refuse to let her fire go out on my watch.  Together we’re working to create weekly writing workshops for students.  It’s nothing grand, but it’s a start.

The price of being a square peg can take its toll personally before one’s contributions have been recognized professionally.  But the beauty of midlife is knowing it’s not over until it’s over.  As Richard Bach said, What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”   The challenge is continuously reinvent, mentor, make meaning, and help others recognize and achieve their potential.

Square pegs, like eagles, can be inconspicuous until you know they are there.  Then you actively seek them out.  You look for the signs that they are among us. 

Friday morning I’d just gotten off the treadmill and let the dogs out the back patio.  Malcolm barked and I looked up.  And then I saw it.  The eagle had landed. 

For a week I’d been combing the riverfront looking for eagles.  Then when I least expected it, one appeared right outside my window.   It seemed to know the sight of it touched something within me and therefore granted me a brief audience.  So it is with rare birds.

If you consider yourself among these rare birds, square pegs, nerds, geeks, quirky creatives, whatever you prefer to call yourself, please come out, come out wherever you are!  Your tribe needs you.