community, spirtuality

What Makes Love Last?

-how fortunate are you and i,whose home  is timelessness:we who have wandered down  from fragrant mountains of eternal now  to frolic in such mysteries as birth  and death a day(or maybe even less)

E.E. Cummings, “stand with your lover on the ending earth-” 

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Redwoods, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

I will soon be celebrating the marriage of one of my family members that has lasted several decades, 40 years to be exact, and I’ve been giving some thought as to what it is that enables a love relationship to endure over such an extended period of time. When my parents were in their 60’s, I interviewed them about their lives, asking how it was they met and married. My parents married during the Great Depression and it was a simple affair–no party, no special wedding dress, no photos. It was a regular day except they got married, and that event changed their lives. Neither of them emphasized the romantic aspect of their relationship in relating their history to me, and yet I never doubted that they loved each other and were committed to the relationship even though there was a period of years that my father lived away from home managing jobs in other states and came home once or twice a month. What was it that enabled their love to endure through time? Communication seemed an important key to my parents’ connection to each other. I remember hearing the low hum of my parents’ voices through the walls in the mornings and after we children went to bed. There was also a a commitment to the relationship in the bigger, long-term sense–that they were there for each other and for their children, even when apart. During WWII Dad worked in Hawaii, and also worked out of town for a number of years when I was in junior high and high school–but my parents wrote each other letters frequently and regularly made trips to be with each other. Dad wrote stories and poems that he shared with us as well.

My parents were also committed to being there for people in the larger community–to helping neighbors, friends and other people that they came in contact with or learned about that needed help. Dad built and repaired things for many people, and brought people turkeys at holidays, for example, while Mom sewed quilts and clothes for others. My parents didn’t live simply to improve their own lives, they contributed to their community. Helping others was an important part of living. Together they embodied what Martin Seligman in his study of the science behind of what creates a meaningful life has found–that people who feel their lives offer them a deep sense of meaningful fulfillment are those that use their personality strengths for a purpose larger than themselves. Much of this kind of caring, this love, can be carried on without words. It is a way of being together. Love is given in the tone inside and underneath the words, and is the mood inside the actions spoken with the body. As one of my friends told me, “A lot of what love is is simply showing up–being there for each other.”

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Forest Path, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

Being there for each other. What does that look like? The Buddhist leader and monk from Vietnam Thich Nhat Hahn in an interview with Oprah, explained when asked if he meditates every day, that he is also meditating “while drinking, while talking, while writing, while watering our garden, it’s always possible to practice living in the here and the now.” (Read more on the Oprah website “Oprah Talks to Thich Nhat Hahn” here.) Thay (as Thich Nhat Hahn is also called) goes on to say that when sitting with someone, “Darling I am here for you,” is his mantra. He explains. “When you love someone, the best you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there? ” This attitude of a listening heart is what I mean by showing up for the ones you love: in your full being you are intentionally, consciously present. You are listening not just to the other person’s words and actions, but to his or her heart, to the silences and things the person can’t quite articulate, even if you’re not sure what everything means that you are hearing or noticing. You are present for the other with your full self, and you work to know who you are so you can give yourself in a caring, open way.

Pamela Dussault in her The Huffington Post article, “5 Essential Steps to a Happy, Enduring Relationship” suggests that couples need to know their purpose for being together. The base for the relationship rather than focused on fear or the desire to control, has the focus of sharing life of companionship. Also, she describes that enduring relationships are those where partners have the ability to give and receive without having expectations. Lastly, she says partners in happy relationships connect with each other both emotionally and spiritually, appreciating the partner’s uniqueness.  A key, she suggests is that “your partner must be seen, loved, appreciated and cherished for who they are, as they are.”

Romantic love has been central to the idea of marriage in the Western world since the time of the Middle Ages and the troubadours when knights accomplished their deeds for the love of their lady. While enduring love can include romance as well as traditions, negotiating between both passion and what makes a love stable, creating a relationship of lasting love encompasses a larger territory than romantic love or tradition alone. To ask what makes love endure is to ask what is the source or foundation of the love. To ask what creates love’s foundation is to ask what is it that makes love meaningful. To ask that is to ask what makes life meaningful, and to ask what makes a life. Is life just going through the days sharing food and shelter? Is it doing a sport or if talking about a relationship, is it participating in a sport or (any other activity) together? Is it having children together or accomplishing tasks at work? Certainly, these are parts of what life is, and some of these things could be called necessary elements of life, but if that were the whole of what it was, life could still feel empty. If life were composed of going through certain actions, or saying the right words at the right time in the right way, that also wouldn’t be enough to make one feel he or she was really living life.

E.E. Cummings’ poem at the start of this post begins with the line, “stand with your lover on the ending earth.” The earth is a physical object, and all objects wear out or wear down over time. At some point the earth and everything on it will end. Cummings begins this love poem in the awareness that all is at the “mercy of time.” We will die. The earth will die. But love is somehow beyond time. The home of all love abides in a mysterious essence beyond time. It is part of what Cummings describes as “the fragrant mountains of eternal now.” We frolic in the mysteries of birth and death, but acts done in love, living done with love, time where we sit with someone with the attitude and heart that communicates both with words or without them, “Darling, I am here for you,” that lives on in a place both in and beyond time. That love allows us a taste of eternity. Annie Lighthart’s, poem, “The Second Music,”  elaborates on this idea where describing the everyday events of life she says,

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing, one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard yet always present.

There is the world we live in–all the wondrous sights our eyes have seen, our ears heard, our bodies felt; the wide oceans with their ten thousand colors of blue, the forests of intense greens, the smiles of a child, birds in flight, clouds drifting by in the vast sky, the hollows and hills of everywhere, rain splashing on stone streets, the icy lace clinging to trees, the laughter of the ones we love, the last touch of a hand from one who is leaving us, all these experiences, and so many, many more wonders known while walking in this world, these are ours, and inside of them “If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,” Lighthart goes on to write, there is a “second music” that she stops to listen to that is underneath and through all these moments, sights, sounds and experiences. She ends the poem by saying “I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.” This is the love that is living–I could say hiding–inside of the physical world. We perceive it with the heart because what is known with the heart is what lives on. That is the love that endures–the part of life when we are fully present with another. Love that endures connects to this larger love. That is the love that weaves the world together.

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Bridge, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

Recently, we had a guest visiting our house who is approaching her 80th birthday in September. When I asked her what is something that age has taught her, she replied, “Your age isn’t who you are. You are more than body, emotions or thoughts, more than any of these or all of these together.” None of us loves perfectly. Loving someone, anyone, is more than what we do or say, more than time together, more than body or emotions shared. Love is a journey, just as marriage is a journey, a pilgrimage toward love. You have to get out there and walk the trail. Sometimes you take a road you think is the right one but you get off track. Sometimes you might walk a long way through dry, flat land. You walk in rain and sun. You walk up hill. Sometimes you get tired. Nevertheless, love begins each day living in attitude of walking together. You walk and you listen to each other. Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. Now put the foundations under them.” This is the work of enduring love: you practice being present in small moments (and most of life is lived in those small moments, the daily acts) so that we will be able to be present for the big moments when they come. Our giving ourselves to learn to walk together and to listen to each other is what carries marriage across the threshold into the sacred and allows us to taste what is eternal.

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Taking Time to Live

In his book, Creating True Peace, Thich Nhat Hahn describes what life was like a number of decades ago when he was young, living in Vietnam, and people took time to live. He describes how people would organize a gathering– a poetry reading, birthday party, or party to mark the anniversary of a family member’s death, and how people would walk or bike to the reception, even if it took them all day or they had to leave the day before. When as many as four had arrived, they would be served food so they could eat together with others. When a fifth person arrived, that person waited for three more to arrive so they, too, could share their meal together. People sang, recited poetry, talked, and time was open and flexible so you could leave whenever you chose.  (p. 67) I’ve been trying to imagine what a life where relationships and being human together was more important than getting things done, where we have space to truly, deeply listen to each other and be heard, and when I came upon this description. I felt I got a glimpse of what that life might look like.

Thich Nhat Hahn describes another example that beautifully illustrates a way of living where people took time slowly, experiencing time in what I can only describe as deep living:

“Years ago in Vietnam, people used to take a small boat out into a lotus pond and put some tea leaves into an open lotus flower. The flower would close in the evening and perfume the tea during the night. In the early morning, when the dew was still on the leaves, you would return with your friends to collect the tea. On your boat, was everything you needed, fresh water, a stove to heat it, teacups, and a teapot. Then, in the beautiful light of the morning, you prepared the tea right there, enjoying the whole morning, drinking tea on the lotus pond.” (p. 68)

How astonishing and lovely that description is to me–to think that people had time to live like that. It’s interesting that these examples are found in his book about how to create peace, and this suggests to me that to be at peace has something to do with valuing time differently. Hahn asks the reader to consider, “Are we engaging in a lifestyle that touches the beauty and goodness within and around us, and leads us in the direction of compassion and understanding?… If what we now take refuge in—work, food, material comfort, television—cuts us off from our feelings, our family, and our society, it is not really a place of refuge. If our lifestyle numbs us to the reality of our suffering and that of others, we are moving in the wrong direction. We are isolating ourselves, and we are committing violence in the form of exclusion.” (p. 66) Beauty and goodness are values to be nurtured, and to nurture them requires space and time to grown organically if they are going to be places of refuge that enable us to give back to the world.

Thay’s quote reminds me of the quote I’ve included in earlier blog posts where Thomas Merton, quotes Douglas Steere, explaining that there is a “pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” To be peaceful, or to be a peacemaker in this world is difficult. It doesn’t mean doing good deeds. It’s more difficult. It means learning how to be peaceful, and that means making different choices in our everyday lives.

“Nowadays,” Thich Nhat Hahn says, “you may have a lotus pond, but you do not have the time to look at it, let alone enjoy it in that way.” Nevertheless, Thich Nhat Hahn clearly directs readers to understand the days given to us are our life, and are “much more precious than money.” How can we truly live quality lives today in a world where our social structures generally function in a way that make it easy for us feel like we are Charlie Chaplin in the film, Modern Times, where his job is to constantly focus on the next item coming down the conveyer belt? Chaplin doesn’t have time to scratch his nose when a fly distracts him, much less find time to take life slowly enough to savor it. If we don’t have time anymore to make lotus tea like Thich Nhat Hahn describes, how can we at least learn how to savor our lives so that we are not merely focused and productive at work, but are living fully?

It has been several weeks since I’ve begun including a short, close observation practice into each day with the aim to see how the practice might open up a space for seeing how I might live differently. It’s not been easy finding the time each day for this practice, and admittedly, some days the observation has only been a few seconds long–a remembering to glance at the light coming through the window as I continue on, working, focused on my responsibilities. Even so, during the day, the thought surfaces periodically–pay attention, pay attention to your life–and I realize I am so focused on my work, that awareness of other aspects of life narrows in a way that lessens me.

It might happen that I spend the whole day inside simply with the goal to be prepared for the day that follows. What, then, happens to the importance of family or close relationships when I do this? What happens to my awareness of the wider world around me? How am I being a model of wholeness when I say to others that these are important to living? Over time, if this pattern continues, I will be losing something very valuable. That small glimpse at the light through the window while continuing to work reminds me, that I’m supposed to be observing life so I can learn how to live. I’m put on earth to live. I am here to be alive, not merely to breathe and move and perform a function. The sense of obligation and commitment to my responsibilities at work wins out, even while the lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter Long Black Branches” in her book, West Wind, come to mind,

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
While the soul, after all, is only a window,
and the opening of the window no more difficult
than the wakening from a little sleep.

So, this weekend, something radical happened: I set my work obligations aside. Yes, and here’s the brief chronicle of what occurred: My husband and I talked during breakfast with family members at some length who’ve been in Italy for a month. We went grocery shopping, after which we took the metro across town to check out a new sporting goods store that might have shoes for the climbing club my husband works with. Using the public transport, we packed ourselves into the subway car with what must have literally been a thousand riders. It was a hot, tiring adventure that took most the whole day getting there and back. We had lunch at a market where we also bought a box of milk and had something repaired before returning home. After an hour’s rest, we went to a friend’s housewarming party where we met a number of new people, participated in several interesting conversations, and lit candles for an early celebration of the Indian Diwali holiday.

This morning I read the news, then weeded in the community garden with my husband. Later, I talked briefly with a friend I saw as I walked over to swim in the pool. After swimming, I worked on an art project in the clay room. This evening, my husband and I made dinner together, after which we watched a detective program on the computer.

It’s been ages since I’ve taken time off like this when not on a holiday. Actually, I feel as if I’ve had a holiday. I feel so alive! I could say it seems it takes so little to be so happy, but taking a weekend off isn’t really a small act. I don’t know how often I can put time aside like this, but I can truly say I feel more whole, more alive. I feel prepared to meet my students as a human being, not just as someone who has worked very hard. As a result, I have some questions about responsibilities that I didn’t have before. I have a responsibility to meet my students’ needs, to help them improve their skills, yes. But is the purpose of education only to help students compete eventually in a market place–on a job? I think not. The purpose of education is to help students discover who they are and how they can contribute to the world meaningfully. To live meaningfully means we also have a responsibility to live fully. To live fully means to pay attention to and nurture relationships with family, society, and the earth. Wouldn’t the world be better off if we all took time to grow these relationships? If we can’t do that, in whatever work we are involved in, we help those around us, including our children to do that. If we can learn how, then we will make it more possible for those around us to be able to live in ways that enable them to be more fully alive as well.

Some days my noticing practice has been a brief, purposeful glimpse through a window. Other days, observations seem to ride in to me on waves. Is the practice of daily observation leading me to see how to make a larger space for being, or was this past weekend a one time occurrence because of a natural break in a workload? I don’t yet know. What I do know is that the weekend has felt so enlivening, as if I’m living in a miracle, aware of the abundance of relationship. I am hoping to continue further down this path. I take my responsibility to my students at work seriously. To do that requires time. To live a full life requires giving oneself the space to be whole. This, too, requires time. Can the two be done together? Others have learned how, and maybe I can too.

Maybe you have some wisdom of your own about this path, dear readers. What does your journey look like? How does it feel?