One of the greatest epiphanies or transformations I ever experienced was about love. Like everyone, right?
For no particular reason, with no context or situation, one day I realized:
I am free to love as much as I want.
I can love anyone I want.
And I love everyone.
This sounds silly, but it was a big deal for me. I grew up in a family of deeply rural immigrant farmers, mostly older women — poor, devout, unfettered by society to a degree that bordered on Lord of the Flies, often mean, certainly teetotalling, absolutely insane.
Tightwads: my great-grandma and her family came to Minnesota through Canada about a hundred years ago. They built a hotel in Minnesota that burned down. They moved to Montana across the Dakotas and it was hard to cross the plains. They settled on the far side of the Rockies on a free land parcel and set up a farm; hard labor even with a passel of kids. Shortly after the number of kids went into the double digits, my great-grandfather died, leaving a widow under 30 with no money to farm, raise kids, and try not to die, during the Great Depression and with another war in the wings.
I’ve always said you can’t set a Man vs. Nature survival story in western Montana; if you are healthy and able-bodied, you can Boy Scout it (or MacGyver it) and live like a king, so long as you don’t lose your head. That doesn’t make it easy, however — and being a recent widow with a slew of kids in the middle of nowhere does prime the pump for crazy. But when your machine is set to Survive, you put emotions last. Feelings don’t chop wood (although chopping wood does help blow off steam.) Feelings interfere with survival.
Variations on a saying from my childhood: “If you need a psychiatrist, you’re not working hard enough.” Says it all, doesn’t it?
After I left for college, my mother moved into my great-grandmother’s cottage, which was the center of a far-flung cluster of houses where her children lived on their own parcels of land. When I came home one summer and told one of my many great-aunts that I was studying psychology, I got every song in the jukebox, from such classics as, “You Think You’re Better Than We Are Now, I Bet,” to strange laments such as, “You’re Just Going to Move Away and Never Come Back Now, Is That It,” and “Nobody Needs Psychology, They Just Need to Get Busy, When My Third Baby Died I Painted the Barn Five Times That Summer.”
I loved my Aunt Bea. I’d walk up to her house in summer, and if she wasn’t out working the farm, she would fix up the player piano so I could pretend to play. She gave me coffee in an antique tea cup with violets painted on, which I adored. She showed me her root cellar and the rows of Ball jars of pickled beets and green beans and applesauce, shelves of cabbages, bins of potatoes. Mom reminded me of a time when she was young, and the barn cat had kittens; Aunt Bea killed them cleanly, one by one, at laughed at Mom for crying. Soft.
Work hard, and life is easy. Go to church on Sunday, or rest and listen to Rex Humbard on the radio. Coffee at all hours, and brother Lawrence’s boy brought a salmon; we’re all eating at Ma’s tonight, she’s making potet club now. No friends, no books, no games, no music, no play, no socializing outside the family. No hugs, nor other affection. No “I love you”. No.
But love there was. A strange, miserly love from people who had to penny-pinch to qualify as poor. Food was everywhere, but money was not, and love was weirdly the same. People married into the family, and died, or left, or stayed silent for decades, like Bea’s husband. The few married couples showed no signs of affection, though they pulled very much as a team. That was the love I observed. How does one get from my growing young singlehood to that dull and fun-free partnership, and why in hell would I want it?
The instruction I was given in coming of age, compatible with local culture, included:
- Virginity is all you have of honor and decency; protect it with your life.
- Marriage is your first attainment of value, and lasts forever; step on any girl’s neck for the best catch and win him like a prizefighter.
- Motherhood is the noblest achievement and also the minimum requirement to demonstrate that you are a woman. You can’t be a woman if you don’t have babies.
Love never entered into it.
There were a lot of other rules, but that was the cornerstone of living. Love / sex / romance / friendship / etc. were all hidden in the same vault, kept under lock and key, protected by the Coldstream Guards. My mother and grandmother, who had both had spent time away from Montana, with good times in dating and bad luck in marriage, modified my training: it’s okay to flirt, but not slut; it’s okay to show off, but not seek attention; and it’s very good to make boys jump through hoops to prove their love, because that proves your worth. Humans do not have the love of 1 Corinthians 13:4; that love is the love that God had for us, I was told, but not the love we have for each other, pffft, that’s not the way it works.
Okay. Love is jealous; love is mine; love is something precious that I keep locked in my heart (or my underwear) and only dole out in minute quantities to people who work hard and pay the price and let me own them forever in kind. Love is finite. If we love each other, there are no boundaries: I get to be mean to you, ignore you, expect things of you. I give everything to you, but with no generosity; you own me, too, but you’d better not ask anything of me. We are a single unit, held in tension.
After realizing I did not agree with this, and also that I had no clue what I really did feel or think or believe about love, it took a lot of years of experimentation to figure out a few things. Sometimes I got hurt, which was horrible; sometimes I hurt others, and my guts still churn to think of it. (Sorry, my darlings, wherever you are. We died on the altar of the science of love, martyrs to discovery, and now we know.)
Eventually I realized, through being loved, how love works. How it should work, if you’re me.
1. Love is a real and sincere feeling. You can’t fake it; don’t try. Be honest with yourself! Shut up all the you-should and the you-must thoughts that get in the way of hearing your heart’s honest truth. KNOW HOW YOU FEEL. Test it for authenticity. If any shoulds or have-tos creep in to your internal dialogue, put that feeling on probation until you can test it. Don’t love if you don’t feel it. But love to the infinite power if you do. It won’t cost you a nickel, and it won’t hurt a soul. It can’t. It’s love.
2. Love is not necessarily a limited resource. It’s like water: no less valuable for being everywhere. If you can connect with the real love you feel, it’s not something coerced into existence that dies outside the germ-free protective vault you created for it. It flows out of you; you don’t run out.
3. And what if you did? What if you stopped feeling love, for someone or something? Then so be it. Don’t force it. Don’t pretend it’s still felt. Be honest. Because…
4. How you feel doesn’t dictate how you act. Emotional honesty does not change the rules of engagement. You no longer love someone? Okay. That doesn’t mean you should mistreat them; it doesn’t mean their feelings don’t matter; it doesn’t give you license to be a jerk. Because…
5. Boundaries are everyone’s best tool in interpersonal relations. Check out these values statements it took me decades to find true:
- I love you whether or not you love me.
- I can’t force, demand, expect, or require you to love me.
- My love for you does not materially change based on how you feel about me.
It occurs to me that popular music covered these topics: Howard Jones sang the first line, Bonnie Raitt sang, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, and Louis Jordan sang, “It makes no difference what you feel about me / But it makes a whole lotta difference what I feel about you.” For that matter, “Let your love flow” is more truth than I expected from a Bellamy Brothers song. But for sheer powerful truth, here’s a quote from Still Life with Woodpecker that should be stitched on a sampler:
It was hard for me to feel rich. Poor farmers don’t raise rich children, as a rule, and I was raised to scrimp and save and hoard my pennies, and my love. Being loved, and trying to love others, taught me that I had big feelings in store. When I started to realize that I didn’t HAVE to be miserly with love, I started to have some success in washing away the bullshit of my upbringing — the social striving, the bourgeois reverence for manners over morals, the harsh character judgments imposed as punishment for cosmetic irrelevancies and superficial traits.
The more of that BS I was able to let go, the more I was able to accept myself. Radical acceptance with condemnation made me suicidal; radical acceptance with compassion — the knowledge that I always tried to do my best, the acknowledgement that I didn’t always have tools to do well, the realization that this is probably true for most people — struck me like a bolt.
I don’t have to deserve love to be loved.
I don’t have to deserve my love to love myself.
No one has to earn my love.
Maybe being loved will help them become lovable, just as being loved made me loving. Maybe not. And that’s fine, too.
“God bless the child who’s got his own.”