Philadelphia

Love

love

I have come to realize that my sons do not say “I love you.”  I am trying to train them to at least respond, “I love you, too.” But lately, I’ve shied away from doing so.

One night, a while back, I was tucking Hayden(7) in to bed and I said, “Goodnight, buddy, I love you.” Silence filled the room. His face was buried in his pillow.   Frustrated, I said, “I love you, too, dad.” Still nothing. I tickled him. He relented. “Sort of”, he mumbled into the pillow. “Sort of?” I shouted back. “Yeah,” he said, “it means a little.'”

For a time, this incident made me sad. He knows I love him, I’d think. I hug him, kiss him, tickle him, and show him affection daily. And I know, deep down, deeeeeeeeeeeeep, deeeeeeeeeeeeeep down, he loves me, too.

Lately, though, I’ve changed my attitude about the lack of “I love yous” I hear.  I’ve had to search for why this affected me so much. There’s the obvious need to love and be loved, but I knew it ran deeper than that.

Why do we say “I love you”? What purposes does it serve? Certainly, it varies from relationship to relationship. Ultimately, however, I think it serves to remind people how much we care about them. But, as I consider this spoken gesture more, I also think it’s a way for us to remind them that they love us, too–or they SHOULD, we think (we hope).

Whenever I tell Owen (9) I love him, I do not get a response, but I feel a sense of acceptance. If I could read his thoughts, it seems they would say something like, “Of course you love me, I’m your son. I’m your first-born. I’m a good kid…but you don’t need to say it all the time–it’s a given. Relax.” Yet, often, when I tell Hayden I love him, there is almost a defiance in his reaction. His mouth turns into a half-smile/half-frown–a frile, if you will. I’m not sure I want to read his thoughts. I think he fights my love–I feel him rejecting this level of emotion because either he doesn’t feel worthy of my love, or he doesn’t want to care about me so deeply–or maybe a little of both.

But the love my boys identify with today, they will remember decades from now.

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I still remember the lunch my mother packed me for my first grade field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. I walked home for lunch everyday, so packing a lunch was a treat. The bag was stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness: a ham and cheese sandwich, potato chips, a soda, cracker jacks AND a candy bar. I knew I had the best lunch in my group. I wanted to shout for joy from the top of the monorail. That day, that lunch made me feel so  special, so loved.

I still remember the time in second grade when I came home with a bad grade on a spelling test. I was so nervous to show my parents. And even though I was supposed to get it signed, I decided to hide it where no one would find it–under the clothes dryer. It was someone’s birthday that night and my grandparents were over for dinner. Towards the end of the meal, it dawned on me that the dryer gets very hot. As a junior neurotic, I decided that my spelling test would catch on fire and burn the house down. I began to cry. “I’ve done something bad–really bad.” My whole family, grandparents included, marched down to the laundry room. My dad laid on the floor and fished the paper out from underneath the dryer. He was not mad at all–about my subterfuge or my poor spelling. He smiled and said, “Next time, just tell us, okay.” “Okay,” I said, whimpering. As we ate our cake, I felt oddly elated–my dad loves me even when I make mistakes!

Both of these memories evoke times when I felt wholly loved by my parents. A very pure, somewhat magical feeling.

I grew up in a house where “I love you” was spoken a lot. Ours was a large family in a small house. Day-to-day, amid the chaos, it was hard to sense the love, but the words were uttered. As we left for school each morning, these three words would be part of the exchange between the seven of us and our parents. And each night, before bed, I would kiss my mom and dad, and say, “Goodnight. I love you. See you in the morning.” My mother would respond with her now-infamous “God willing,” leaving me to conjure her death as I laid down to sleep. My father? I don’t remember his response. I think it varied. But, I marvel at the fact that I kissed him goodnight throughout my childhood, and with every hello and goodbye as an adult.

For me, for my past, love was a spoken reminder. Perhaps the words were said in an attempt to add calm to the fray. Yet, those words hung like an albatross around my neck for much of my life. Often, love felt heavy, sad, anxious, chaotic. Often, love felt conditional.

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To this day, my mother says “I love you,” to me every time we speak. If she calls me four times in a day, she says it four times. In an attempt to not become obsessive about this (which I think makes me more obsessive about it) I purposely do not respond with an “I love you, too” every time she says it–I shoot for fifty percent of the time. I am aware that my mother takes note of this.

Perhaps my refusal to overstate my love stems from the fact that, even now, there seems to be an unspoken obligation with those words, as if love can magically erase all the burdens of our past, or is the antidote for all that ails the relationships in a family. Love cannot. At least the words cannot. As cliché as it sounds, “Actions speak louder than words.” I love my mom, and I know that she loves me, but I’ve realized in life that saying I love you and doing I love you are very far removed.

When I first became a part of my wife Pam’s family, I marveled at the fact that they rarely said “I love you.” It is written in cards, but not said at the end of every encounter. It was as if I were finally connecting all the dots: Hmmm. They don’t go around saying they love each other all the time, but I know they do. They are kind to one another, and respectful of each other’s opinions, and they do thoughtful things for one another–DING! Oh, you can feel it but not have to say it every day, every phone call, every exchange. I found this to be very refreshing.

Pam and I do say it often–even several times a day, which I appreciate, because she is the most important person in my world–my life partner. In that case, I find it strengthens our bond.

As for the boys, I find I say it often to them, and usually there is no response. At first, this made me feel angry, worried. Then it dawned on me–they feel loved. They feel my love. Their needs are being met daily. They want for very little and we spend a good deal of time together, interacting or just in each other’s presence. I believe that structure, that sense of stability, makes these words seem unnecessary to them.  Thus, there is no need for them to say it back to me. For now. For now, they just need to know that they are loved and feel they are loved. And in the end, all of us need to accept that we are worthy of the love we are given.

Once again, having children has taught me valuable life lessons. Kids may be the result of love, but we cannot create life as a way to force someone to love us back. Love is cultivated over time. For a parent, it seems that love begins with an ultrasound. For a child, that love manifests itself in stages. It is our job to teach children how to love, and the best way to do that is to show them. In short, to love them. Unconditionally.

“I love you” can serve as a reminder that you love me, too. Or it can serve as a reminder that you are loved. As a parent, I choose the latter, and I know what the answer is, even if it is unspoken.

Now, I seem to ponder the concept of love more. Whom I love. Who loves me. Not, who I have history with, or who I am in close proximity to, but who I have an abiding emotional connection to and for. It has been a very enlightening journey–emphasis on the lighten. I DO feel lighter. I used to think of love as something that anchored me, like a rock. Now, I try to view love as a feather, as a breath. Light and soft.

 

 

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Valentine’s Day: A Grinch’s View

photo (44)Since we’ve all been single at one time or another, I think we can agree that Valentine’s Day is the cruelest of celebrations. Even though I’ve been with my wife for almost 15 years, I continue to resent this holiday.

I can remember twenty years ago, living in Philadelphia (the City of Brotherly Love) after college with some friends, and watching my roommate take his girlfriend to dinner one February 14th. I couldn’t help but see them exchange gifts and sweet nothings in our living room while I tried to blend into the walls. And as they left, I popped my dinner in a microwave and sat down to eat it–alone.

Let me get this straight–I thought. There is a day set aside for couples to go out to dinner, to shower each other with love and affection, to prompt them to be intimate with one another…because…because…because they’re unable to do so the rest of the year??  This is bullshit! I thought.

This is a day for couples to rub it in our single faces that they have someone and we don’t. Look at us? Aren’t we just adorable? See us holding hands, all giddy with love? Why, yes, I DO see you. And I saw you yesterday, and last week, and last Valentine’s Day when I was single, as well. I see you and I want to take one of Cupid’s arrows and shove it right up your… whoa…take a deep breath, Ghost of Bachelors Past.

photo (42)I’ve been with my lovely wife for a decade and a half. I have known the power, the beauty, the reality and the mundacity of love, yet I can still conjure up some anger and resentment over this stupid Hallmark Holiday. But that’s the frightening thing. This day was not invented by Hallmark–like Grandparents’ Day or Secretary’s Day. No, this day finds its beginnings in ancient Rome. In the article “The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day”, NPR writer Arnie Seipel reports: Though no one has pinpointed the exact origin of the holiday, one good place to start is ancient Rome, where men hit on women by, well, hitting them. From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain. The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile. The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.

Jesus, this sounds like a ritual born of a marriage between The Hunger Games and ABCs The Bachelor. Shouldn’t someone tell Jennifer Lawrence about this historical travesty. I could see her in the movie now, standing up to the man who is about to whip her with a goat hide. Yet, I am strangely comforted by the bizarre beginnings of this feast–it is as Effed up as I thought.

I am not a complete curmudgeon, though. I do try to be romantic. I’m known to give cards. I’ve writtenphoto (45) my wife love poems. I even gave her a macaroni heart when we were first dating. And I will certainly accept every cut-out heart and homemade card from our boys while they are still naive enough to show their for affection for me–societal “norms” will scare them away from such gestures soon enough.

No, I am a lover, but I resent the fact that this day is so manufactured. Do people really need a day to be reminded of how to love or whom they love? If I don’t send flowers or buy chocolate, am I a jerk? No.

I would rather give my wife a card on a random Tuesday. I would rather bring her some flowers from our garden to brighten her mood while she’s doing dishes. And I would rather we not rub it in other people’s faces that we have each other and they don’t.

I knew I wasn’t going to be good at Valentine’s Day even before Pam and I were married. While still engaged, I played a cruel trick on her that I thought was hysterical.

I had stopped by my mom’s house to give her a Valentine card. When I walked in, I was met by a giant, four-foot high stuffed panda bear with a satin heart that said “I love you!”

“Mom, why do you buy crap like this?”

“Oh, I didn’t buy it. I won it in a raffle at work. Isn’t it ugly? I’m sure the grand kids will like it, though.”

I had an idea. “Mom, can I borrow your bear? I want to play a joke on Pam.”

I had gotten Pam some gifts, but pretended the bear was it. When I went home to our apartment, I knocked on the door. When she answered, I held the bear out in front of me. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” I called out in my best bear voice.

“Well, what do we have here?” she asked, clearly annoyed.

“It’s your Valentine’s gift. It was the last one left in the card store.” Pam searched the bear to see if their was a present attached to the fur or satin pillow. Diamond earrings, perhaps? Maybe a watch on its wrist? Nothing. She was pissed, but she never let on.

Hours later, when we got back from dinner, my mom called us on the phone. “What did she think of the joke?” she asked.

“I never told her.”

“Michael, you did NOT keep it going all night?”

“I did,” I said, laughing.

“You did what?” Pam asked, intrigued by my laughter.

“The bear was a joke! I was only kidding.”

Insert death stare here.

It was then Pam was certain; she was about to spend the rest of her life with a jackass.

Enjoy your day everyone! And just remember, if you’re not in love or in a relationship this Valentine’s Day, at least no one is going to try and hit you with a dog hide.

photo (43)

Artwork by Hayden (7)

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We’re All In the Dance

Often, I run with my friend Keith. We can go as many as ten miles together, and the conversations run the gamut. But I always have my i-Pod (I just wrote the word Walkman and had to delete it – Google Walkman if you are under twenty). Once, I joked with Keith that if I ever died while we were running–via a tree limb or a plummet from a cliff–that he was to make sure there was a cool song playing on my i-Pod. My playlist is eclectic, to say the least. And I would hate for someone to find my body and have Kelly Clarkson, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj or any number of Pitbull songs blasting from my ear buds. I’m 43 for Christ’s sake. I love pop music and I’m very top 40, but I would hate for my legacy to begin with Lady Gaga’s Edge of Glory (even though the late, great Clarence Clemons plays saxophone on it). But there is one song that I would proudly play in any situation. We’re All in the Dance by Canadian singer-songwriting sensation, Feist.

Life’s a dance, we all have to do
What does the music require?
People are moving together
Close as the flames in a fire

I heard this song yesterday as I was running the trails of the Schuylkill River on the outskirts of Philadelphia. My mind immediately took me to the Broad Street Run, the premier race in the city of Brotherly Love–which just happened to be yesterday morning. This song was part of my race day repertoire about five years back when I ran that race. Its simple piano melody and waltz-like tempo seems contradictory to music one listens to to stay 240px-Phenakistoscope_3g07690dpumped in a race.  Yet, when I heard that song, something magical happened: The world slowed down. We were all speeding towards a finish line, but everyone seemed to look like they were moving in slow motion. The people around me seemed to bob up and down like horses on a carousel ride. I looked left, then right, at total strangers, and felt like I was surrounded by loved ones, by family, all moving in unison to the beat of this song. Then, there was a wave of emotion; chills that began in my shoulders scattered in every direction, ending on the top of my bald head with a million tingly strands emanating from my brain. It was such a moment of clarity: “We’re all in the dance!”

On that day, it was a race down Broad Street with tens of thousands of people from as many different experiences as there were bib numbers. But it’s also the dance we do as people in the parade of cars during rush hour traffic, or standing in the checkout line pretending not to read the trashy headlines from the tabloids, or the trips to school one takes beginning as a kindergartner, then one day returning as a parent, then a grandparent. The visits to the hospital, from newborn to old man, the times spent in prayer, in sport, in taking in a play, a game, a concert, an art exhibit. The dance involves the person at the restaurant who serves you the food, taken from the kitchen where many hands prepared it, and the one whose hand you lovingly grasp as you leave the establishment, to the homeless person you pass by guiltily with your belly full and your hand growing heavy with more of your meal in a doggy bag.

Even though the Broad Street was always one of my favorite events, I have moved away from road races. Yesterday, I was training for an upcoming trail race. But the runner’s high is achieved in both situations. And this song is always on my i-Pod come race day. I wait until I’m a mile or two in before I let the words wash over me, always to the same effect. My memory floods every time I hear the ethereal voice of Feist remind us that:

We all go ’round and ’round
Partners are lost and found
Looking for one more chance
All I know is,
We’re all in the dance

Feel the beat; music and rhyme
While there is time.

And that is my wish for you. For all of us. That we may feel the beat; music and rhyme–while there is time.

So, if you ever come across my body lying on a trail somewhere, and there happens to be an embarrassing song playing–think of my children and please advance “Now Playing” to Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Green Day, or The Killers. It’s the least you can do after my nice wish for you:)

Take a moment to listen to this song. And don’t worry if you start swaying–I won’t tell anybody.