February 14, 1987, Richard and I had been married for six months and we were fighting. All the time. None of our rough edges had been rubbed smooth as they would come to be over time, the slow drip of water wearing down the need we each had to be right. He was opinionated and stubborn. I was insecure and needing more reassurance than he was capable of giving. I didn’t want to risk giving him a Valentine’s Day card and exposing my heart, so I gave him nothing. He gave me flowers and a card that said, cautiously, formally, that he loved me.
He withdrew into places I could not find him while I blundered around in the dark, angry, frightened. Sometimes in my distress and mistrust, I was desperate to provoke a fight: I’d reach for the last unforgivable sign from him and threaten to pull down the whole edifice of our life. I said we ought to divorce without meaning it, or wanting it, then froze in terror if he appeared to be considering it as an option.
Being nurtured doesn’t come easily to me. I was the family caretaker by the time I was five years old, both my parents and my older brother using me to fill their own dark needs. Now, coming out of numbness back into feeling, I had to fight all the demons in my head that said having my own needs was selfish, and being selfish was unloving.
We had a child. I threatened divorce much less frequently, then not at all. The family we had created was precious, worth trying to make peace instead of war, worth dismantling my defenses, slowing down enough to listen instead of react. I hung up my metaphorical black leather jacket in the back of the closet, and only wear it now when my shadow clamors to be heard.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been cleaning out a storage space filled with an overwhelming, overflowing amount of stuff we packed up when we moved to Maui for six months in 2011. Last night Richard unearthed a box of all the Valentine’s Day cards I’ve given him over the years. The ones I bought, and the ones I made with red construction paper, stickers, glitter and glue, a picture of our family pasted inside. A stack of Valentine’s Day cards like a flip book of a heart slowly opening. Is this safe? What if he abandons me? Or dies like my father did when I was a child? What if what if what if giving way over time to gratitude and awe that such good fortune could befall us.
Our child had grown up and left home. We are just the two of us again. We have aged, been softened by illness, by loss and by heartbreak; we have grown wise enough to know that love that endures is worth cradling with both hands.
I’m still scrappy and hot tempered but I’ve mellowed with time, letting love tame me. I’ve learned through trial and error that everything done without love will disappoint, empty calories that will leave me hungry, and that if I let it, love will crack the shield of my loneliness and isolation. I’m making peace with the knowledge that love is a risk, and a heart will be broken by loss, cracked wide open for Spirit to get in.
This is the history of love written in cards, on the sand, on post-its and lipstick on the mirror. This is the story of choosing love over fear, and the sweet relief of surrender.
Find god in rhododendrons and rocks,
passers-by, your cat.
Pare your beliefs, your absolutes.
Make it simple; make it clean.
No carry-on luggage allowed.
Examine all you have
with a loving and critical eye, then
throw away some more.
Keep this and only this:
what your heart beats loudly for
what feels heavy and full in your gut.
There will only be one or two
things you will keep,
and they will fit lightly
in your pocket.