Old Love

Valentines Day.

Decadent  chocolates, diamond bracelets, elaborate valentines cards.    Young  lovers gazing  into each other’s eyes, dreaming of the perfect  love.

A beautiful reminder that in a troubled world, that somehow, somewhere, there is always  love.

But these images offer only  a shallow glimpse of  love. Oddly,  we  equate love with young love, with “being in love,”  while overlooking the most beautiful love of all, that of old love.  This  is not  the exhilarating  flush of new love.  It is  the  flame that flickers in the furious storm, yet  leaps to warm the trembling heart.

Old love has seen  glory and brokenness,  trust and  betrayal.  It has known exhilaration and endured  tedium. It has yielded to  the warm
embrace and recoiled at the jagged  word.  Through it all, it was always  love that  soothed  the chafing of the marital yoke.

The beauty of old love is not that of  the unfurling rosebud. Like the facets of a diamond, this love  is  patiently sculpted and refined over years.  It is  nurtured by the  light of understanding but  withers in the darkness of anger.  It  flourishes  on the rock of trust and crumbles on the shaky sands of deceit.

And old love is not  merely  finishing the race side by side.  Such is only a sad counterfeit born of pride, cowardice or simple inertia.  It is  a lifetime of  shared experiences, comfortable perhaps, but bereft of  joy.  The  heart well knows the difference.

Old love is longing for the other and yet  straining against the marital tether.  It is knowing everything yet nothing about the other.  It is  melding into the other yet retaining oneself.  It is  freely sharing,  families, children, sickness, possessions; all of  it, all of life.   It is unrelenting challenge; it is warm fulfillment.   It is at  once exhilarating and terrifying,

So to all  young lovers this Valentine’s Day:  Join  us if you will.  But know this:   Old love must be earned.  It will test your  strength and challenge your resolve. It will require your best and forgive your worst.   It will plumb your depths and expand your soul.  And  the rewards are beyond imagination for those who  stay the course.  

This blog is dedicated to my “old love” of 40 years.  Happy Valentines Day, Sweetheart. 

 

#MeToo, Y’all

 

Although she may not have recognized it, I don’t know a single woman that has not experienced sexual harassment at some time in her life,

Growing up, I had no idea what sexual harassment was.  It seems impossible now, but in high school, Wolf Whistles and  boys “looking you up and down”  were  a kind of  sexual validation.  Sexual ideation was the norm. Beauty contests were hotly competed, Marilyn Monroe was idolized;  young girls aspired to be Playboy Bunnies.  Social acceptance required  sexual validation, and thus  male approval.  Spinsterhood was a specter to frightening to consider.  Popular magazines gave tips for girls to attract boys and young women  to get husbands.

Merriam Webster defines sexual harassment as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate…”   obviously descriptive of   behaviors taken for granted in the 1950s.    So why were we not outraged?

In order to understand why otherwise intelligent women would allow, if not invite, this kind of behavior, it has to be viewed through the lens of the time.    The ability to “get and keep a man satisfied” was a life skill.  Home Economics, a required course for girls taught the fine arts of cooking, sewing, cleaning and ironing.  (Yes, ironing.)
Charm Schools and Finishing schools completed the work with instruction on  how to walk, sit, and converse with boys.

If it all sounds like a manipulative trap, it was.  For both partners. “Head and Master” law in Louisiana until 1979  gave a husband authority over all household decisions and jointly owned property without his wife’s knowledge or consent.  In practical terms, this meant that any purchase, even  groceries, could be subject to approval by one’s husband.  And  jointly owned property could be disposed of without the wife’s knowledge or consent!

This archaic system was undergirded by a fiercely fundamentalist covenant in the marriage vows that  husbands would love, honor and protect their beloved, sainted wives; and  wives  love, honor and obey their benevolent, upstanding  husbands.     Women, poorly educated for the most part, exhausted and housebound because of birthing and raising children,  needed  respect and protection, and obeying someone who adores you and has your best interests at heart doesn’t sound so bad. Such a system might  have worked  for Sleeping Beauty and her prince. But most mere mortals didn’t handle it well.    Men took advantage, women retaliated.

So, over time,  in self-defense, women and especially southern women,  refined their “feminine wiles”  into a  high art form in an attempt to gain control over their lives.   We’re talking about sex. (Except that no one talked about sex.)

Navigation of these treacherous waters required superior skill, handed down from mother to daughter in hushed whispers.    The tension between withholding sex at the risk of   “losing” the man had to be carefully balanced against the risk of pregnancy upon  awarding the sex prize.   Birth control methods ranged from the risky to the laughable.  And  if a woman became pregnant, it was  her responsibility, not that of her partner.  In the best case scenario in which she and her man were planning to marry anyway,  they simply moved up the date and produced  a “premature baby,”

Her other choices, however,  were dismal.  She could disappear discretely to a “Home for Unwed Mothers” and emerge alone months later having adopted the child,  she could choose to raise the child on her own, (social suicide for both) she could risk an illegal abortion in a  dingy back street clinic (God Forbid) or, often with parental input, convince the young man to “do the right thing”, a sure sentence for a lifetime of misery.

Marriage only led to a different kind of  dependence on men.  Husbands needed  to be “managed,”  My grandmother was fond of saying ” I have no respect for any woman that can’t handle one little ole man.”  It was a badge of honor with her. Implicit, but never spoken, was the understanding that one rationed favors, especially sexual favors.  And it worked enough of the time to keep her demons at bay.  Still, crude, sexist  and offensive behaviors from her husband and sons were simply dismissed as “how men are.”  Not worth making a fuss.

She was a master at it.  However, even she was no match for my grandfather in the end.  Despite her bargaining and pleading, he moved her in middle age from their comfortable home in town to a remote farm  with no electricity or running water.  She had no recourse but to go.  Her soft hands became worn with the harsh farm work, her smooth face lined, her  lace collars  replaced with farm aprons.  She died early, I suspect, from the harsh conditions and the pain of isolation.

Happily, we have moved a long way forward since those days. Birth control afforded  women unprecedented freedom.  Now able to plan the size of their families, women entered the workforce and began to enter previously all male professions.  But there was a long road ahead.  Men  still controlled the workplace and therefore its rules.  Too many of us tolerated sexual harassment and abuse and sadly some even participated, believing our physical attributes  more valuable than our intellect.

This tawdry history, in my opinion, helps to explain why it took us so long to realize that in the 21st century,  we were still hearing the furtive whispers of our mothers, anxiously passing on their knowledge in an effort  to protect us.    We didn’t notice that when we were called a “hottie, ” or were the subject of a wolf call, we were  being objectified.   (The underlying assumption being that we welcomed this kind of attention, or at least didn’t mind.) That it was OK to separate our personhood from our bodies.   It was just “what men did.”   Nothing we couldn’t handle.  We didn’t see that ignoring  the “hottie” comment was for some men,  an invitation to drape an arm over our shoulders. “He didn’t mean anything by it.”    And overlooking the arm on the shoulder could, to  such a man, lead to a hand on the skirt.  And so on.  You get the drift.

At long last and at great cost, women are being defended against sexual harassment. Many have shared horrific stories at great cost to them and their families.    New offenders come to light almost daily.   And inevitably, some of us have become hyper vigilant,   picking apart every comment for a trace of  harassment, leaving honorable  men who have never offended  confused and unsure of their footing.     It’s going to take time to find the balance.

But it’s not complicated, really.  As is the case for most of our problems – if not all of them  – it comes down to simple respect for one another.  We call that the Golden Rule.

 

FOOD FOR THE JOURNEY

When I reflect on the year past, it is easy to become anxious about the future.  2017  wasn’t  easy.    Disasters  hit  in rapid succession, their combined effect making each more daunting than the one before.   Floods, fires, earthquakes.   Simmering racial tensions heated and boiled over into the streets.  We were shocked to learn that our country, even our families were sharply divided by our social and political beliefs.   Social media became a national forum for proclaiming unsubstantiated “facts” and venting unfiltered frustrations.    Scientists were discounted and their hard work dismissed by  government spokespersons on the basis of undocumented claims  based on personal belief as best, or worse, vested interests.  One after another trusted leader tumbled from power as as  entrenched patterns of sexual harassment in the workplace came to light.   All of this served up to us as “Breaking News”   24/7 in HD Surround Sound, by newscasters scrambling  frantically  for the latest sensational tidbit.

Sadly, rather than becoming unified  against our common problems,  for the most part, we seemed to have been pulled apart.  I am exhausted by all of it.

2017 was indeed a challenging year.   However, it was not the only challenging year we have faced as a nation.  We have weathered  far greater  storms and we will come through this one. There has always been darkness.  Darkness in the world, darkness in me, in each one of us.   But there is also light. And to stay in that light and avoid slipping into disillusionment, I am going to need  spiritual nourishment,  Lots of it.

So here are some of my New Year’s resolutions to feed my spirit.

Spend  more time  with kids.

If we are watching, children will teach us how to enjoy the beauty of  ordinary things;  the intricate design of a daisy petal,  the magic of dew fall on  blue bonnets,  how to dream.

Dreaming comes naturally to children.  They have no battle scars yet, anything is still possible. Inevitably, as the years go by,  dreams are lost along the way.  It is easy to become cynical, to lose hope.   But without it  our spirits wither and die.  Dreams are  spiritual food.  They are the crucibles in  which  hope  is formed.  It is the dream that is important, not the outcome.  Children know that.

Make time for art.  

Edouard Manet “Boating” 1874

We Americans tend to think of art as a luxury, an activity only to be indulged when there is surplus money and time.   Art programs are the first to be cut from our educational and personal budgets.  But we are deluding ourselves. Art has dramatic healing power.

Odilon Redon, Ophelia Among the Flowers, 1905

A painting is more than  an image on a canvas.  It is an invitation to escape our world to another of our choosing, to be calmed, inspired, challenged;   to emerge recharged and refreshed.

 

Keep  friends close

I am blessed to have good friends. We are there for each other; for comfort, encouragement, support, or just a good laugh.  We “get” each other.  Each new conversation begins where the last one left off, even after years have intervened.   And yet it’s so easy to postpone that call or visit “until I’m not so busy;”   to tell myself I’m keeping in touch on Facebook or by text.  But I know better.  I’m cheating myself.  My friends  are not mine forever.  They are on loan.  Each moment with one of them  is a gift to be treasured.

    Hang out with animals.  No explanation needed.  

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

 

Thanks Giving

I don’t hear much talk about giving thanks this year.  We seem to consumed with our problems.  And there’s a  lot to worry about,  not the least of which are the divisions in our country and families.  In fact, some  are  “skipping” Thanksgiving this year to avoid  further division  fueled by heated arguments  around the family table.   If only things were different, maybe we’d feel more grateful, be more in the mood for Thanks Giving, It take a lot of  energy to be grateful when we’re preoccupied with  what we don’t have,

Growing up, the family always came to the farm for Thanksgiving.  I looked forward to having the cousins visit, but  I envied  my “town friends” Thanksgiving dinner of  turkey, pumpkin pie, cranberry dressing, sweet potato casserole with pineapple and marshmallows on top.  Exotic dishes like broccoli casserole  and Wonder Bread rolls with oleo. (For those less than a “certain age,” that’s margarine, sort of.)  Ours was a simpler fare consisting almost entirely of what we raised on the farm; chicken and corn bread dressing, hot corn bread  in iron skillets, creamed corn,  pickled peaches and deviled eggs, sweet potato and pecan pie.  Not cool.   My childhood favorite, because none of it came from the farm,  was my Aunt Katherine’s lime jello mold  with pecans (ok, these were ours) celery and  pineapple.

Imagine.  Nowadays, this menu would be considered gourmet! (With the possible exception of the jello salad)    Free range chicken, home churned butter and whipped cream from whole, non pasteurized, non GMO  milk of  placid free-ranging cows. Fruits and vegetables canned from our gardens and orchards.

It was better back then, right?  The family was united. The food was simple and fresh.  There were no hard feelings, no rancor. Smiles all around the family table.  The kids weren’t hooked on electronics, didn’t interrupt and always said “please and thank you.”  We didn’t watch TV, we talked to each other.  We were poor but happy.  Norman Rockwell would have loved us.  Oh, for the good old days.

Now looking back with the perspective of years, I  see a very different picture. The food really was great even if I couldn’t see  past the envy of  my friends’  Wonder Bread rolls  and pies made from canned pumpkins grown in the midwest.  And we weren’t characters  out of a  Norman Rockwell tableau.  Some family members were estranged, some battled carefully disguised addiction and  depression.  All struggled against an economic system controlled by a  privileged  few that perpetuated poverty in our family through generations as far back as we could remember. (Sound familiar?) Tacit agreement on certain topics that were never discussed, especially race and politics.   All presided over by my grandfather, the unyielding and stoic family patriarch.

Luckily, our family today agree for the most part on things political and at worst tolerate each other’s beliefs.  I’m not worried about heated arguments around the Thanksgiving table.    But it won’t be a  Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving.  Some of our family live far away and some have lost touch.  We have our allotment of disease and dysfunction and some of us are just plain weird. (Depends on who you ask.)

This Thanksgiving’s food will come from chain stores, not  the garden.   Some of us are vegan, others lactose intolerant, allergic to gluten, cranberries or chocolate.  Some have wine, some abstain.  For a moment, I will long for  the simpler days of real butter and cream,  fresh fruits and vegetables,  and sweet potato pie.  But only for a moment.  We always make it work and it’s always  delicious.

So really, not much has changed.  It’s a different family now, but just as then, we  love each other in spite of, and sometimes because of, our weaknesses and foibles, struggle with our  demons, tolerate our differences and enjoy Thanks Giving  dinner together.  And I don’t intend to waste another minute thinking about what might have been.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Betrayal

 

 

The unkindest cut.  The one we never expect because only those we trust can betray us.   It happens to all of us.

I hadn’t thought about her for years until I ran across an annoucement about an award she had recently received.  I was surprised at how quickly the old painful memories replayed themselves in my mind.  The initial shock and disbelief,  stabs of disappointment,  rushes of anger, and eventually, more in my interest than hers, forgiveness and acceptance.

She was my student, my star student at the time.  The one for whom I had such high hopes.   The one I rescued from the slums and nurtured. Supported, financially and emotionally.  Provided a network.  Advocated for.    Defended.

It was wonderful to watch her grow and flourish.  She was like a kid in a candy store.   Everything was magic for her; the university, her classes and research, the malls, the internet,  even the night-time sky.  She glowed with happiness.  We were a team.

Until she found a brighter star and  moved on to follow it, leaving behind a trail of lies and broken promises.

Shades Down Tight, Ashley Adcox

Painful as it was, and uncomfortable as the memories still are, I am grateful for the experience.  It taught me  that my expectations for her were a heavy and unjust burden.  No one has the right to require  loyalty from another person.  In spite of and maybe because of,  my good intentions, I caused her harm.   And probably more importantly,  it brought me face to face with my own past betrayals and the lies I told myself to justify my cowardly behavior.

She must have carried a heavy burden of guilt.  It’s the only logical explanation I can think of to explain the  smear campaign she launched  among the faculty and students.  I never knew the specifics or the extent of it, but the averted glances and hushed whispers told me all I needed to know.

Make no mistake; the release that comes with  betrayal exacts a heavy price.   A plausible justification for  cowardly behavior must be fabricated and a web of lies concocted.  The  guilt of my betrayals will always follow me,  nipping at my heels,  threatening to expose my lies,  until I finally face them and the people I harmed.

Each of us has the right and the responsibility to be true to our own convictions, even though acting on them may take all the courage we can muster.   And if this means severing ties with another human being,  we harm ourselves most of all if we hack them apart in the  dark corridors of betrayal.

It’s been said that in order to know love, we must first know pain.  It follows that in order to trust, we must travel through  betrayal, be crushed by it,  burn in its crucible, and be released.

There will be another friend, lover, child, to love in the light of day, free from the dark spectre of betrayal.