Was it just a week ago that Owen walked with Kathie in the snow on a wintry Wednesday afternoon? Then we had the 70s and were out cleaning up garden beds, before the temperature dropped us down again. Today the wind howls violently, hurling patio furniture across the yard.
Lately I have been thinking about Love. The hot and cold of it. The way the warmth you feel in any given moment for someone does not have that much to do with how much you actually care about them. Like crazy weather, our emotions warm and cool, overheat, freeze, storm, or grow balmy, dependent on how much we have eaten, or slept, or what our hormones might be doing that day.
But Actual Love is something larger than the weather of our emotional landscape. I believe it’s something human beings receive, if we want to, and through long practice of bending, behaving nicer than we feel. I have seen nothing in a short 54 years to indicate that we humans know how to Love on our own. What I am describing is too pure for us to invent. We get pretty constantly distracted in self-interest, even on the way to Loving. It contaminates everything we do. At least that’s my experience, both giving and receiving. And yet we humans experience genuine, not self-interested love for someone else when we persevere caring for him or her kindly, through all the highs and lows of the emo river.
And while I am still just persevering, if I change Owen’s bed from smelly to sweet smelling sheets, or run him a warm bath to sooth his itchy skin, does he really care if I don’t actually feel super loving doing it? The doing is good. The bed and bath are still welcome.
And as I strove against rage and desire to do bodily harm in February, dealing with an unexpected Owen messes at the end of the day, the writing of these words was called into action. No – I don’t have to feel loving to be Loving. I can remonstrate, even raise my voice at my son, (though it’s doubtful how much good a raised voice does). The act of not doing him harm is LOVING him. Sometimes that is as loving as I am capable of being, in that moment. And that’s a comfort to know, when you are sitting across the table from your child for supper, to give yourself some extra space from him.
So much going on in February (even outside my churning brain) showcased the ebb and flow of human emotion, contrasted with the steadiness of Actual Love. On the world stage, the struggles and triumphs, and struggles and losses of the Olympic games. The grief, pain, loss and anger associated with the shooting deaths of high school students and teachers in Parkland, Florida — will positive things grow out of the horrible violence and subsequent anger? What does Actual Love look like here?
The February passing of an old friend and mentor of mine, Dr. Jane Williams-Hogan, deepened my reflections on this topic. Jane was a highly intellectual woman, who also seemed to have an enormous capacity to care. I attended her memorial service, at which she was remembered for her tireless work with numerous students who all benefitted from her extra support to help them grow and flourish in (and graduate from) academia. Sometimes Actual Loving must start by simply seeing people. Seeing the unique strengths latent in each one. Jane sat at a lunch party once, years ago, with aa youn Owen and me. I remember her calm manner with him. I remember that she spoke directly to him. I remember what a relief this was, how unusual it felt at that time of my life.
Maybe we would all love to manifest Professor Williams-Hogan’s warmth and patience. But it seems we show Love differently.
My father’s birthday falls after Valentines Day, and he was much in my thoughts all month. How has his life enriched, since last we knew him? My father worked with Dr. Williams-Hogan at Bryn Athyn College, but while Jane was not easily embarrassed by out-of-the-groove people, this was not my father’s strength. Maybe this was part of his generation, which associated shame with being mentally atypical, or challenged, or slow. Maybe he was affected by long-term exposure to collegiate prejudice for the intellectual. Whatever the reason, although he was a warm-hearted and very fair man, mental and physical deformities disturbed him. Despite his exposure to a mentally challenged father, and son, and grandson, my dad did not develop ease with the special needs population. He valued mental agility, wordplay, urbane discourse, and other ways of being, knowing, communicating. One of my daughters has said she feels her grandfather did not like or love Owen.
Although I know this is not true, I know what she is referencing. Dad was a liberal thinker who embraced reforms that would care for all all underprivileged – he was never rude, or unkind. Just embarrassed perhaps, maybe uncertain. I know he worried for me, having the burden of care of such a person as Owen. He never seemed able to see the flip side – the joy, the beauty, the humor, or the peace that is also part of the world of Owen. He did not (yet) have Jane’s talent for not being embarrassed by difficult people.
My sister’s family, who are avid videographers, have very amusing footage of a young Owen standing behind Grampa’s deck chair during a summer family reunion. Little Owen is massaging his grandpa’s curly hair, patting his face, and feeling his neck with moist invasive little hands. What inspired this show of interest? Grampa had been talking to Owen in his Donald Duck voice.
Now, I am not going to suggest that he looks comfortable in the video, crunched down in his deck chair, and I know the whole thing was instigated by my step-mom, trying to help Dad make a connection with his grandchildren. But this image : the uncomfortable grandpa tolerating a weird moment with his sticky, invasive little grandson, stays with me. I doubt my Dad was experiencing love in that moment. And yet, looking back upon it, that’s Love by my measure.
Owen by Kathie Constable