Today it is Valentine’s Day. As I was posting my blogs for the month, I kept skipping today on the calendar because I felt I should write something about love. But other things kept coming up.
I went to bed late last night so I gave myself permission to sleep in until 6 am this morning and shut off the alarm so it wouldn’t awaken me at 5 am. When I awoke, restless, it was only 4:30 and I couldn’t stay in bed anymore.
As I began to think about love, I began to think about all the people in my life that I love, and how difficult they are to love. My mother and father are distant, emotionally, and disinterested in me and what I was doing. One sister removed herself from us and refuses to stay anywhere very long, always moving, always searching. The other is “not a people person” and can be crabby. The cat is obstinate – more obstinate than most – and, although she has come a long way, still lashes out unexpectedly, leaving me with gashes; we still have to be vigilant that she doesn’t get ahold of soft plastics (which she will eat) or into the closet or onto the counter (where she will destroy things). My husband is not an easy person to love sometimes, disappearing into distraction, or wanting to sleep all day instead of wanting to do things with me.
This extends to things as well: my apartment is hard to love, being so full of stuff, old stuff which should be pushed out; it does not feel peaceful. My country is hard to love, too, led by someone worrying who is enabled by frightened people who are attached to power, to status, to status quo; and populated by frightened people, people who are frightened that the world is changing around them, getting warmer, getting more confusing, more transactional, freer or more restrictive; people who are acting out of fear, lashing out at the forces that frighten them or hiding in distraction.
And I am hard to love, too. Not perfect enough to deserve love. Not easy to love, cautious, afraid to make mistakes that will cause rejection.
When I was younger, I was very difficult to love. I remember one holiday when I went away with my husband – then boyfriend’s – family. I said and did the wrong things the whole time. We went shopping and I broke something in one of those shops where the wares are interspersed with cute little signs in fancy fonts and cute rhymes intimating that, if you break it, you bought it. I broke something beautiful there by accident and refused to pay for it, and my now father-in-law paid for it on my behalf. This was not the kind of shop where he would buy things – too impractical – and this was more money than he would have paid for a gift, especially an impractical gift. But, without hesitation, he paid for it. Instead of being grateful and feeling love when I found out, I felt guilt and turned the anger against myself. I was so unlovable that, when we went to Christmas Mass – something I did only because I was with them – I squirmed through most of it and, when we reached the part where we sing Christmas carols – the only part of Christmas mass that I enjoy – I burst into tears and couldn’t sing and had to leave the church. Later they asked me what had happened and I said I missed my family, which was untrue. I didn’t miss the family I actually had; I missed the family I wished I could have had, a family filled with love, the way they loved each other, and the way they offered me love, despite how difficult I was being at the time.
I offer this story as an example of how hard I was to love when I first started spending time with my husband’s family, so many years ago. I remained hard to love for years after that. And then, one day, something shifted. I stopped holding myself outside that circle of love and stepped firmly into it, participating in the family activities instead of, as the members of my family would, sitting separately and watching the activities or disappearing into a book. And now, when they worry about teenagers who are imperfect, I remember how hard I was to love when I was younger, and have compassion for my nieces and nephews. It seems now that my in-laws don’t even remember how hard I made myself to love because my recent patterns of behavior have eclipsed those early memories.
We choose to forget and we choose to forgive.
When we don’t love ourselves, we push people away, as if to say, I don’t deserve your love. When I am perfect, you may love me, but not now. Now you must reject me, as I reject myself.
And when people love us anyway, despite the fact that we know we are so unlovable, we don’t trust that love; we worry that it is false, fake, and that makes us angry. And so we go through life, feeling angry and alone, blaming others for not loving us, blaming ourselves for not being perfect.
Jack Kornfield says the only time we can love is in the present moment: love in the past is a memory and love in the future is a fantasy. You cannot love who you were in the past, that younger, skinnier self, the one with the fancy job that everyone admired that let you travel and manage a large team of people who you loved working with. You cannot love the younger self whose body let you dance or walk long distances, or sit for hours writing, or take courage in your hands and make a fool of yourself onstage or send your writing off without fear of rejection. You cannot love some future self, who has everything figured out and never makes mistakes and is so fit that people marvel at how great you look at your age and whose apartment is effortlessly uncluttered and clean, who always knows exactly the right words to inspire your mother to step up out of her depression and regain her younger health; who instantly charms even the most challenging cat; and whose presence causes even the most intractable niece or nephew to turn into a model citizen. The future you doesn’t exist.
Only this you, the confused, imperfect, injured and battered self, the self who is unsure that what you have is what you want, the self who subconsciously grumbles during Tai Chi instead of treating it as a moving meditation, the self who sometimes says the wrong thing and hurts someone’s feelings, the self who is impatient with people who don’t listen when you cast pearls of wisdom in front of them. The self who weeps through meditation. The self whose clothing is ridiculously conservative, almost dowdy. The self who can’t find the perfect pair of shoes, comfortable, admirable, practical, outrageous.
This is the self you must love, because it is the only self you have.
And by loving this self, you learn to love other people’s selves, the imperfect, annoying, irritating selves that is who they are. And you learn to be loved in return, despite your imperfections.
So Happy Valentine’s Day. Enjoy the chocolate and the champagne. Let yourself live and love in this moment and every moment, because this moment is all we have.