The mightiest word

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
–from “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander

Last week I wrote a post (Playing the Death Card) in which I related an experience I had with tarot cards back in the early 1990s. I knew as I wrote the post that there were members of my family, and likely some friends, who would be concerned on religious and/or spiritual grounds about my use of these cards. Sure enough, later that morning I received an email from one of my sisters. She was resisting the urge to comment, she said. She went on: “Instead, if you would like to know what I think, let me know and we can discuss it.  If not, no problem, and I won’t bring it up again.” She signed off with love.

Contrast that experience with the one recounted in this deeply sad post I read earlier this week, To Forgive. The author, Justine Graykin, tries to come to terms with the death of her only sister, whose terminal illness was kept a secret from her – at the sister’s request – because of Justine’s atheism. The sister refused to have a relationship with someone whose beliefs did not include God. And so she died, denying both sisters the opportunity to forgive or to choose love over implacability.

Two tales of sisters, one in which love fosters understanding and another in which love fosters alienation. So, as I’ve thought about these (among other things in an emotionally eventful week), I find myself asking:

Is love really hard, or do we just make it that way?

The only answer I can find is that we make love hard by our unending need to be in control. To have the people and events in our lives conform to our conception of what and who they should be.

What if we could let go of all that?

I have been trying to do this in my life and relationships, and I’m learning a few things:

  • There is a difference between not controlling and not showing up. Me being who I am and letting others see that, see my preferences, my feelings, my responses is important. When I don’t do that I am just a tabula rasa (a blank slate) for their projections. Like Julia Roberts’ character in “The Runaway Bride”, my favorite style of eggs are whatever style the person I am with likes. People may enjoy having themselves mirrored back, but it doesn’t allow for much depth of relationship.
  • Love and respect require honesty. And I don’t mean bluntness. Or “I just call it as I see it” approaches. These are typically masks for allowing oneself to steamroll over another person. I mean the kind of honesty that requires courage – sharing your true feelings, showing your insecurities and hurts, putting words to the fears that make you want to control the other person. 
  • Honesty is a two-way street. If love and respect require you to be honest with others, they also require that you ask for and seek honesty from the other person. Listen carefully. Ask questions, even if you are afraid of the answers. In fact, ask specifically the questions you are afraid to know the answers to – because all that secret fear is toxic to relationships and makes you want to grasp for control.
  • Definitions are not required. Our love for defining and quantifying things is deeply ingrained. But, except in a few specific instances (such as “spouse” “parent” “sibling”), we don’t have to check a box beside each of our relationships. This is why I have never been a fan of the term “best friend”. Best implies a hierarchy. At different moments, different people may fulfill the role of being the best person for me to be with or interact with. Relationships, even those defined by a title, are not static. They ebb and flow.

There are people in our lives who are not willing or able to meet us in exactly the spot where we stand on the path. Some are further ahead than we are, others are behind us with regard to maturity, confidence, ability to engage authentically with others. Instead of seeing these differences as problems and trying to force our steps to be in synch, what if we rejoiced in each other’s unique perspectives? What if our hopes and dreams for the others in our lives were not that they become who we think they should be, but rather that they become the best version of themselves – and allow them to define who that person would be?

Maybe love could stop being so hard. Maybe love could become free flowing and easy. Maybe love could cast a “widening pool of light” as Elizabeth Alexander’s poem suggests.

In the end, the question isn’t really, “What if the mightiest word is love?” Because it is. The question, I think, is: “What if we managed to let love be mighty?” How would our lives and the world around us change?

Sisterhood: Part I

I’ve participated in a few events recently that have got me thinking about the concept of “sisterhood”. The first of these was a gala supporting a local agency that I attended with several of my close women friends. The second was the Especially For You Breast Cancer Walk on Sunday, at which I was one of 16,000 people in a sea of purple celebrating life, hope and healing. The third was the House of Hope annual banquet, an event which every year reveals something new to me about the ways women can support and heal one another. There is so much I want to say on this subject, yet it’s difficult to start anywhere other than with the place my original ideas about sisterhood were formed: within my own family.

I have three biological sisters: Chris, Gwen and Anne. Growing up, we didn’t remember from day to day (or sometimes from minute to minute) that we loved each other, but we did so fiercely. Some people say their sisters are their best friends, but I’ve never understood that – my sisters are my SISTERS. That means something different. It just does. I don’t talk to them every day, I don’t necessarily go to them with my hurts and disappointments, the way I go to my women friends. All the same, my sisters are like my appendages. I could probably survive without one of them, but I wouldn’t want to try. It would require a complete adjustment to the way I do everything in my life. A complete adjustment to my sense of self.

Through high school, my sister Chris and I shared a room. For many years, we shared a double bed. (Which totally sucked for her because I was a bedwetter.) We shared school, clubs, friends, spiritual awakening. We did not share any of these easily. There was jealousy, impatience, anger, frustration. Of all the people in my life, ever, the person who has had the harshest words from me is Chris. Thankfully, not recently. Big sisters: can’t live with them, but eventually you grow up and live separately. And that’s when you discover you need them.

Gwen was born just before my grandmother, Rose, passed away. Grandma always wanted a blond, blue-eyed grandchild and Gwen was both. Gwen was the sun to my gloomy cloud of teenage angst. I was always depressed and maudlin, Gwen never was. Her laughter has always been the most infectious I know. Her kids are funny and both look like her too, though completely different from one another. They are like the flip sides of Gwen’s personality – funny snarky (Hallie) and funny sweet (Atalie). Like all of us, Gwen has faced challenges, and though she sometimes expresses frustration, sadness or even a little depression now and then, her sense of humor and her optimism remain intact.

Annie was my sweet little girl. She was so tender-hearted as a little one, caring for pets and stray animals (and, if no living specimens were available, stuffed animals) that we expected her to become a vet. Surprise!  Anne turned out to be the nomadic adventurer of the family. For many years, now, sightings of Anne have been few and far between. She might be in the South Pacific, or South Africa, or sailing on a tall ship. Or filming a reality show in Los Angeles. Seriously, this woman could do anything she puts her mind to, and has proven that as an artist, pastry chef, ship’s cook, sound technician, letter press operator, television and film cameraperson and producer. She can still be sweet and tender, but is more often acerbic.

My sisters and I could not be more different from each other. The outward trappings of our lives are completely disparate. Our religious and spiritual beliefs and our politics run the gamut (trust me – Anne and Chris are pretty much polar opposites in these). Since my sisters have different last names, a casual acquaintance who happened to meet each of us at different events might never put us together as relatives. However, get us in the same room and it won’t be long before everyone figures it out. The laughter will give it away. Then, if you watched us interact, a certain “Aha!” would come as you realized there are deeper similarities than you first recognized.

My friendships with other women ground my days and allow me to feel connected to people and things outside myself. My sisters, on the other hand, help me to feel connected to myself. Connected through genetics and physical resemblances, through personality traits, relational styles and oddball quirks. The confluence of these traits is so intermingled, there’s not really any separating out the genetic from the “nurtured” qualities. It is just a fact that we share both surface and deep similarities. Sometimes when we talk, we lament our shared struggles (with control issues, with poor self-discipline, with rooting out our inner martyrs). Other times, we just laugh and enjoy the sense of home that is created when we’re together, even if only by telephone.

My sisters are not only smart, they’re thoughtful about themselves and their lives. Reflective. What I’ve learned from them hasn’t been overt. Its more like osmosis – their wisdom and their positive qualities surround me and I absorb them as much as the boundaries of myself will allow them to permeate. Sisters – both the word and the experience mean something qualitatively different from “friends”. Not necessarily better, but more elemental.

In August, my college roommate visited for a couple of hours as she was passing through town. One of her sisters passed away recently and we sat  in the warm sun, crying together as we talked of it. My sorrow for her loss was informed by my knowledge that I could not fathom the depth of her grief nor would I, if it were me, bear it well. It was tinged with an inner sense of relief that I haven’t needed to find out how to do it.  Relief, followed by a gratitude so immense that it defies description. If I ever question whether I am beloved of God, I don’t have far to look to confirm that I am. I have three wonderful, complex, lovely sisters who have enriched my life and helped to make me the woman I am.