Tag Archives: love

More than a brighter shade of happiness

“What have you been thinking about joy recently?” Mike asked me over lunch the other day.

“I’ve been thinking about that research suggesting that people are happier before they have children,” I said. “And about how happiness and joy are different.”

“Are you going to write the easy post about how you often feel less happy on a moment to moment basis since Dominic’s birth, but you have more joy in your life?” Mike asked.

“No,” I said. “Because, although I would like to think that this is true, I’m not actually sure that it is.”

Despite the fact that joy is the theme of this month, I’ve been trying not to think too hard about the difference between happiness and joy. This question confuses me, and thinking too hard about anything confusing in the face of this enduring sleep deficit is still a struggle. But there’s no getting around it, if I’m going to exert even a half-hearted attempt to grapple with the concept of joy, this particular question must be confronted.

Mike and I first started talking about joy a couple of weekends ago when we were hanging out at Zen and I was feeling low low low. Mike asked me what I was thinking about regarding joy on that day, too. As I recall, I told him I didn’t feel at all joyful and I didn’t feel like talking about it. Also as I recall, Mike being Mike, he persevered with the conversation, anyway.

“Happiness is present focused,” Mike said when I gave in and asked him what he thought about the difference between joy and happiness. “Joy is more future focused. Also, happiness is more self-focused while joy is others-focused.”

“Like how we feel about Leslie’s and Ryan’s engagement,” Mike continued. “Objectively there’s little in it for us other than a kick ass party, so why do we feel so elated by this? I think that feeling of gladness we feel at their good news, that’s less happiness than it is joy.”

I don’t agree with Mike about joy being tied to anticipating future good things, but then again I don’t think that I’m a very future-oriented person. If anything, I get more joy from remembering past blessings than I do thinking about the future.

However, I think Mike’s point about joy being related to empathy – being rooted in an appreciation for the “good” in life even when that good doesn’t directly benefit you – is fascinating.

Many dictionaries define joy as intense or especially exultant happiness, but this doesn’t seem nuanced enough to me. Even if I don’t find it easy to pin down exactly why, I feel as if joy really should be something more than just a brighter shade of happiness – something wider and deeper, something that stems from beyond myself and my pleasures.

I think the man who listed joy as one of the “fruits of the spirit” in Galatians 5:22 would agree. That man would probably say that true joy is a by-product of our appreciation for, and relationship with, the divine.

A good friend recently made a similar point by email.

“Joy is hard to quantify, no?” she wrote. “I think that joy doesn’t always make you happy, because the fruit of the spirit is the result of the work of God in your heart and experience shows this to be not exclusively a blissful journey. (Maybe sometimes we are more like in the stage of ‘the flower-bud of the spirit’? I mean, fruit will probably come, but not for a few months yet…).”

“I love that image of a flower bud of the spirit,” I wrote back. “I will hold the image of jasmine in my mind. At least, I’ll hold it in my mind until Mike teases me that I’m really more one of those carnivorous, meat-eating flowers you find in the Amazon. And then I might wonder aloud what sort of poor marriage decision that little flower made to end up having to adapt to living in the tropics, and tell Mike that sometimes flowers just do what they have to do to survive. Then we’ll both laugh. Thank goodness that, most days, we can both still laugh.”

We did plenty of laughing this morning when Dominic suddenly decided that our dog scratching himself was the funniest sight he’d seen in his whole little life and laughed until he turned bright red and started hiccupping. Today’s so far been a good day full of long baby naps and bright baby smiles and leisurely walks under cloudy skies to pick up groceries. Today I think of Dominic and smile. Today I can say without hesitation that Dominic’s birth has brought great joy into my life.

But today doesn’t tell the whole story of this last week.

Last week at this time I was alone in the house, exhausted from several nights in a row of broken sleep, unable to escape the screech of power tools right next door, and trying in vain to settle a grumpy baby who didn’t want to put down (or to sleep). I was walking the floor of our bedroom with Dominic in my arms, crying, thinking that this could not possibly be the point of life.

I would like to be able to say that even in that desolate moment I felt that the demanding, wailing bundle in my arms had brought joy with him when he burst into my life four months ago. Yes, I would like that. But the truth of the matter is that I simply felt so bereft of happiness and joy that I had a hard time conceiving that I would ever really feel either happiness or joy again.

I would also like to be able to say that even during that moment that felt so joyless, I still knew that the demanding, wailing bundle in my arms had brought joy with him when he burst into my life four months ago. Yes, I would like that. But the truth of the matter is, the only thing I knew for sure in that moment was that I still wouldn’t wish his birth undone. If the Archangel Gabriel had appeared in that instant and offered me the chance to hand Dominic over, I would have refused (unless Gabriel had promised to bring him back markedly more cheerful in a couple of hours – then I would have relinquished him with great haste as well as both happiness and joy).

Perhaps I still don’t have this difference between joy and happiness all sorted out in my mind because they’re impossible to completely untangle in real life. Sometimes, I think, joy does feel like a brighter shade of happiness. But sometimes in moments when happiness is nowhere to be found, I think it can feel like peace instead. And perhaps sometimes it’s not really a feeling at all, but more an attitude, or even knowledge.

I don’t think that knowing you don’t really want to push the reset button regarding the existence of your child – even in those dark, exhausted, tear-drenched moments – quite reaches the lofty heights of joy. Perhaps, however, joy can sink its roots deep into this knowledge and continue to grow even when the fertilizer of happiness is in short supply. Because I believe now that what I discovered last month about love is also turning out to be true of joy.

Last month I wrote about how love for Dominic hadn’t swamped me like a tidal wave but was creeping in slowly and inexorably, like a rising tide. I don’t know why I expected joy to be a different kettle of fish in this regard, but I did. Subconsciously I’ve been thinking of joy as something you either have – flowering full and perfect in your life – or don’t have at all. It took my friend’s letter to make me realize that I had missed a foundational implication of the fruit of the spirit analogy – the fact that fruit, uh, grows. Slowly. As in weeks, months, and entire seasons slowly. This much I do know about the process, despite the fact that I’ve never been all that talented at growing things and prefer to buy my fruit from others who have done the hard and careful work of tending.

Gosh, wouldn’t it be easier if we could buy joy from our local grocery store or, better yet, instant-download it directly into our lives using the buy-with-one-click button on Amazon?

Easier? Maybe.

Better? I can’t articulate exactly why, but I suspect not.

I will strive to remember that as I rue the irony of spending the next month thinking about peace in the midst of our ongoing negotiations with our noisy neighbors. I will remember it tonight when I wake up in the wee dark hours, as I will inevitably do, to reach down and place a hand on a stirring baby. And I will remember it this afternoon as I go soon to get him up from his nap, change him, amuse him, feed him, love him. If part of deep joy necessarily springs from focusing on others, this mothering thing surely means that my emotional greenhouse will eventually be a fruitful, joyous, sweet mess of color. And in the meantime, there are fresh mangoes and tamarind available at the little stall just down the street. Maybe I’ll take Dominic for a walk in that direction this afternoon.

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From love to joy

Last Wednesday I talked about how the arrival of one baby coincided with the death of a dream (at least temporarily) for another.

During the first six weeks of Dominic’s life, doors with traditional publishers continued to close one after another. I received a lot of positive feedback from editors about my writing and the book, but no one was willing to take a risk on it in the current publishing climate.

It was difficult not to let this disappointment dominate my thinking or taint the joys that other areas of my life were handing me. When it comes to compliments and criticism, most people seem to be hardwired to pay attention to the negative – good marriage counselors will often tell you that it takes about five positive comments to counterbalance a single negative comment in a marriage. For me, this dynamic can come into play in other ways as well. A single negative can sometimes seem to overshadow a whole fistful of joys.

I’ve been thinking about this anew this last two weeks. Life in Laos can dish out both intensely good experiences and intensely frustrating ones and some days it’s a struggle not to let the frustrations (circular saws screeching right behind the house all day, ant bites in unmentionable places, sore neck and back, no ingredients or oven to make chocolate chip cookies when the mood strikes, crying baby) overshadow the good things in life.

So as we transition from love to joy in this series, it seems fitting to catalog some of the things that have helped fill my joy cup this past week.

  1. The cool weather appears to have arrived to stay for the next couple of months!!
  2. A husband who took the baby in the 5’s on Saturday and Sunday so that I could sleep.
  3. Two hours of uninterrupted writing time on Saturday.
  4. Walking down by the river in the cool dark of evening with Mike, pushing the pram and chatting.
  5. Celebrating Halloween with friends here with a perfectly behaved baby, the charming movie Stardust, and big bowls of kettle corn (how have I reached this age and never before experienced the deliciousness that is kettle corn??).
  6. Mike arriving home by bicycle for lunch every day this past week.
  7. Friends here announcing their engagement.
  8. Not having to do the many loads of laundry Dominic generates (how is it possible that one small being can triple an entire household’s weekly laundry??)
  9. Cointreau, tonic water, lime, and ice.
  10. Eliciting Dominic’s first real laugh (it took about 200 repetitions of peekaboo, but let’s not dwell on that).
  11. Watching Dollhouse episodes while breastfeeding.
  12. Chocolate ice cream at AB bakery.
  13. Lime green walls and passionfruit sorbet.
  14. Coming to a decision about the future of book baby (come back on Writing Wednesday for the next installment in that tale)…

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is joy.

Over to you: Do you find that the negative in life disproportionately influences your mood and thinking? And what has helped fill your joy cup lately?

The Most Versatile Word in the English Language

In these bodies we will live
In these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love, you invest your life
(Mumford and Sons)

Love: What wells up when Dominic flashes a wide, gummy grin of delight when I bend down and speak to him.

Love: How I feel about the chocolate ice cream that AB Bakery has just started making. Yes, folks, we may not have incredibly reliable electricity, but there’s now some good ice cream in town.

Love: The fact that Mike, despite feeling completely exhausted, dragged himself out of bed at 5:15 this morning, took our flapping, squawking child and our whimpering dog away, and let me sleep until 9.

Is there any word in the English language as versatile as the word love?

After I started to get the hang of breastfeeding (read: after I no longer wanted to cry every time the baby started to open and close his mouth like a clam and I could actually concentrate on something other than pain and technique), I started to read during daytime feedings. This is probably why Dominic went from average to above-average weight within three weeks. More than once I picked up the kindle after he was attached and then completely stopped paying attention – leaving my son to gulp until he was absolutely stuffed and then fall off and lie there, happily somnolent and dribbling milk down my stomach.

The first book I read during this time was a young adult novel called Delirium. The premise is fascinating – the 17-year-old narrator, Lena, lives in a society where love is considered a disease, something to be surgically cured when you turn 18. As the booklist review puts it, “[The author’s] masterstroke is making a strong case for love as disease: the anxiety, depression, insomnia, and impulsive behavior of the smitten do smack of infirmity.”

Lena views love as a feeling – a transformative feeling, impossible to resist. “Love,” she says, “is a single word, a wispy thing, a word no bigger or longer than an edge. That’s what it is: an edge, a razor. It draws up through the center of your life, cutting everything in two. Before and after. The rest of the world falls away on either side.” It is that most dangerous of diseases, “the one that can kill you when you have it and kill you when you don’t.”

There is some beautiful writing in this book, but ultimately it didn’t wow me. Love is too narrowly defined as passion, desire, eros. There is little exploration of agape love.

Agape love is a selfless orientation that seeks the best for another without expecting anything in return. This type of love doesn’t transform us in a moment; it transforms us slowly, as hundreds upon thousands of moments pile on top of one another to make up our days, our weeks, our months. This love is not the work of a razor but of sandpaper. Sandpaper that grinds, smooths, and ultimately fashions the very core of us into something more beautiful. It is a love powered by will rather than only by emotion, a love of choice rather than just a love of chance.

A love of choice.

I was reminded recently of the popular misconception that you do nice things for people you like and bad things to people you don’t. But the paradoxical truth of the matter appears to be that you grow to like people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

David McRaney in an article on the Benjamin Franklin effect put it this way:

“It is well known in psychology the cart of behavior often gets before the horse of attitude. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience day-to-day. It doesn’t feel that way though. To conscious experience, it feels like you are the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants is performing actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research suggesting otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe.”

The things you do often create the things you believe.

Mike leaves Monday morning for a week of meetings down near the Cambodian border. He won’t be home until next Saturday night. So Mike has spent this Saturday riding around town on his bicycle stocking up on groceries and cash for me for next week, setting up a mosquito net for Dominic’s cot, finding and filing medical documents.

When I came downstairs ten minutes ago after finally managing to settle Dominic for an afternoon nap, Mike was programming the emergency number for our international health insurance company into my phone.

“What’s next on the list?” I asked.

“Washing the dog,” he said. “I’ll do it. Why don’t you lie down and put your feet up?”

This I know, I am well loved.

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is love.

Things to love about coming home

We’ve been back 48 hours, and I’m way too tired to write anything deep on the current theme of love, so I thought I’d just offer a look at things I’ve loved about being back so far…

The power went out before 9am the first morning we were back, so instead of unpacking and organizing necessities like change tables and diapers we spent three hours mostly trying to stay cool. Well, Mike and I tried to stay cool. Crazy baby didn’t want to lie on the tiles for some reason so he lay on Mike and sweated his way into a bad mood. A really bad mood.

Oh, wait. I was supposed to be talking about things I’ve loved. My bad.

OK, lets talk about the stroller. I love this stroller. Seriously. I spent more time researching this stroller than I spent researching the first and only car I ever bought. Way more time. The car decision (a silver jetta) was based on two qualities – shape and colour. The fact that VW’s are pretty safe was an incidental bonus. The stroller decision, on the other hand, was made after hours of online research, the waylaying of total strangers to check out the model they were pushing and solicit their input, and much cruising of e-bay.

The stroller I finally chose and bought second hand (a City Urban Baby Jogger) is a BMW of baby prams. It has suspension and sturdy rubber wheels to deal with Laos streets, mesh panels to keep things cooler, and a swivel front wheel you can lock straight when needed. The thing slides as if greased with astroglide when you give it the merest nudge. Not for the first time, I find myself jealous of my own baby. I wish someone would put me in this stroller and push me around while I did this…

Luckily for us, Dominic seems to love the stroller almost as much as I do. We’ve taken him out and about a couple of times now as we’re reacquainting ourselves with our favourite restaurants, and he hasn’t cried once. Well, not while the stroller’s actually moving. We’ve managed one meal out of three with him asleep in the thing. The other two meals have been eaten in shifts – one of us gobbling while the other walks the grumpy munchkin.

I’m not sure Dominic likes the heat. When he hasn’t been fussing he’s spent an awful lot of time looking something like this since we arrived home:

"Gosh, life is exhausting. I could really do with a big ice cream right now"

But he hasn’t been grumpy the entire time we’ve been back. Sometimes he does this.

"Did you SEE that??? It's a red and green COW!!!"

Awwww, isn’t that cute? I love that too. I haven’t got to see that face too much in the last 48 hours, but lets not dwell on that, it’s awesome when it comes to visit. Or when he snuggles down in my arms at 4am and spits out his dummy for the sole purpose of smiling up at me. Yeah, that’s almost as good as sleep. Almost.

So what else have I loved about being back? Cinnamon buns and a mint lemon freeze at Joma. Walking the familiar streets here with Mike and not coming home absolutely dripping – the cool season’s not here quite yet, but it’s on its way. Seeing trees near the house that were knee-high when I left which are now taller than I am. Feeling our little dog lick my hand, searching for affection. Sorting and stacking baby clothes – a weird one, I know, but even though I’m absolutely exhausted there’s something fun about organizing our own space to make it baby friendly. I think they call this nesting. I think most people do it before they have a baby, but hey, I’m not always the fastest player in the game.

Have you been away lately? What’s one of your favorite things about coming home?

Looking Like Love: A Letter To My Parents

It’s been five months since I stepped off the plane from Asia, roundly pregnant at 28 weeks, and saw you both there waiting for me and smiling. The hills here were green, the cool air smelled of wet eucalyptus and the pancakes that we stopped for on the way home were heaped with berries, tiny crimson waterfalls falling from the stack. As I unpacked in this bedroom later that morning I thought that five months seemed like an eternity. So many milestones in life had to come and go before I would depart – Mike’s arrival after ten weeks apart, the baby’s arrival, then Mike’s departure, then Mike’s return. As I hung up my shirts, I found it impossible to fathom that I would ever leave here again. But next week, now, I will.

Just before his last departure, Mike asked me over dinner what I wanted to remember about this time. The first thing that came to mind was that I wanted to remember how special it has been to come home at 35, half a lifetime after I first left, and experience so many of the good aspects of being parented again while I was in the process of becoming a parent myself. I wanted to remember the precious mundane of this time we’ve had together as well as the epic. I wanted to remember moments like these…

I’ve been home four days and I’m still nervous about driving on this side of the road again. Mum takes me to my first appointment with the obstetrician, then shopping. I try to protest that I don’t need any clothes, that the ones I salvaged from the communal stockpile of maternity clothes that get passed around among expatriates in Laos will be just fine for the next three months before the baby comes. I am overruled. As Mum is marching me into changing rooms she says I will thank her later. I am far less ruffled by this particular maternal prophecy now than I was at 14, and when I wear that grey tracksuit jacket every day for two weeks straight, when I am fifteen pounds heavier and needing clothes suitable for leaving the house, I do.

I am 31 weeks pregnant and Dad suggests a walk. I don’t really want to drag my baby bulk off the couch or circumnavigate my belly to get sneakers on, but Dad reminds me that I’ll feel better if I make the effort. Now we’re outside in that magical hour of almost evening. The golden light is skimming over the grassy fields, filtering through the gum trees, dancing on the dirt road ahead of us. We talk of work and family, and frustrations and joys – occasionally breaking new ground in this familiar conversational territory. Halfway up a hill we spy wallabies feeding in the glade below. I watch them bound away, envying their speed and grace, not to mention their birthing process.

I am 35 weeks pregnant and Dad is working in South Sudan for a month. Mum’s presence in the house prevents the quiet from feeling empty, and I am amazed at how busy life still feels even now. I am wrapping up consulting work. I am talking to Mike on skype. I am driving to doctor appointments. I am napping. I am melting dark chocolate to make elaborate biscuits with malted coconut icing. Mum says she is glad I’m around, even if I make an astounding mess in the kitchen each time I bake and by the way how do I generate that much washing up? I point out that I clean up after myself (in this area, anyway). We smile. We spend easy evenings watching crime dramas and reruns of Friends. It is the middle of winter but life has the peaceful feel of a still lake on a summer day.

I am 38 weeks pregnant and it’s the night before Mike’s arrival. The thick blue and grey wrap that I commandeered from Mum’s closet two days after I arrived keeps the cold at bay as Dad and I eat Thai food under the stars. After dinner we walk next door, into one of the happiest places on earth, and Dad spends too much money on gourmet ice cream to take home because he knows it will make me smile. Later that night I wake up at 3am to pee for the third time that night, come downstairs in the dark, and help myself to seconds. As a teenager I would have covered my tracks. Now, I leave the bowl in the sink.    

It’s 5am. I’m two days overdue and finally in labour. You’ve heard Mike stirring and come out to find out if all is well and kiss me goodbye. Already in the car, half gone on this journey into pain, I say I don’t want to be kissed, I don’t want to be touched. I know you won’t mind. Later that evening, after my life has changed forever, I will ask over the phone if you could please stop and pick up a pizza on the way to the hospital. When you arrive Dad also presents sorbet, Mum gives me prunes. “Now is not the time to get constipated,” Mum says knowingly. The idea is inconceivable – I am propped up in bed, sitting awkwardly on an hour’s worth of stitching and with the miraculous trauma of the day on replay in my mind. I tell you not to worry, that I have decided to deal with that issue by just never pooing again. No one argues with me. You beam and say that you’re so proud and that Dominic is beautiful. I look at that little bundle in your arms and wonder how on earth he happened.

These are those first days home from the hospital – a bewildering blur of baby, broken sleep, and breastfeeding woes. Dad is helping Mike dig a hole so that we can plant a tree to commemorate Dominic’s birth. Mum is making lunch, and dinner, and lunch, and dinner. Dad is building a fire to keep the living room warm and we eat in there – watching the flames fashion coals, watching Dominic asleep on a blanket on the floor. Mum witnesses our first fumbling attempts to burp our child, to bath him. She thinks we aren’t dressing him warmly enough. Demonstrating unusual delicacy she bites her tongue, wondering how much advice she should venture to dish out, but I discover an advantage to having a child so many years safely distant from my own childhood. Advice is generally welcomed rather than merely tolerated, or ignored.

Dominic is five weeks old. Mike has left again, bequeathing me the baby and a score of love notes hidden in such unlikely places that I will still be finding them three weeks after his departure. Slowly, slowly, I start to find my feet in this mothering role. I venture to think that just maybe I’ll be able to join good friends for five days at a reunion. I don’t know how many times I’ve circumnavigated the world alone now, so I am amused and mildly exasperated when Mum reminds me to start packing no fewer than four times in the days leaving up to departure. It gives me the warm fuzzies, though, on the morning that we do leave to hear her telling Dominic how she’ll miss him and to find that Dad has gathered me a pile of useful miscellaneous to take – the phone charger, sunscreen, a hiking headlamp in case I need to get up in the dark and can’t find a light, two bottles of wine to share. The car is full of petrol. “It shouldn’t need to be refilled,” Dad says, “but if it does, don’t forget that it’s diesel.”

It’s 5am and Dominic is seven weeks old. I’m getting up, fumbling for the dimmed lights, stooping to pick him up for the third time tonight. I’m too tired to sit to feed so I take him to bed and lie there beside him, satisfying his demanding little mouth with my body. He kneads my breasts with small fists and makes little mewling sighs of relief as he eats. I feel like echoing them. For I know that Mum will probably turn the handle to my bedroom sometime between 5:30 and 6am, as she’s done most mornings for the past month, carry him away, and leave me a cup of tea and the chance of some more much-needed sleep in his place.

I came alone almost five months ago, and a week from today I will leave as part of a family of three. I return to all the adventures and frustrations of Laos with new responsibilities. I return determined to think through qualities like love, joy, and peace during the year ahead. I return hopeful that I will, increasingly, embody these qualities. It is perhaps harder to define what love means than to describe what it looks like, but as I work to understand and live out love in this new family that Mike and I are creating I remain unfailingly grateful for my first family and the example that you set as parents – then and now. Thank you for, so much of the time, looking like love.

Lisa

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is love. Where have you seen love this week? What did it look like?

The most important quality in a marriage (2)

This post is a continuation of the discussion we began on Friday about the most important quality in a marriage. Below is an excerpt from the memoir I am working on. It recounts a conversation Mike and I had via skype before we got engaged, when he was  in PNG and I was in LA.

…Even when we were talking, on our carefully scheduled skype dates, it wasn’t guaranteed to be smooth and happy sailing. Occasionally we’d be talking away easily one minute only to find ourselves mired in a messy miscommunication the next. Or we’d be laughing and a moment later one of us would have blundered unexpectedly into a virtual minefield.

This was the situation I found myself in late one night, about a month before Mike was to arrive in LA in May. We’d been talking for an hour already, but before we wrapped up I suggested we dip into the question box.

The question box was a tool we used sometimes to help move us past the whats, whens, and hows of our days. A solid plastic rectangle, it held hundreds of small cards each with a different question printed on them.

What is one special holiday memory from childhood?

If you had to move to a foreign country indefinitely, which one would you choose?

What’s your favorite flavour of ice cream?

This night, however, the card that I randomly selected touched on a topic much weightier than ice cream.

“What’s the question?” Mike asked, after I’d been silent for a couple of seconds, debating whether to throw it back and pick another one.

“OK,” I said, deciding to stick with it, “what’s the most important quality in a marriage?”

“Commitment,” Mike said almost immediately. Then he paused and talked around the concept for a while, trying on words like honesty and forgiveness.

“No,” he finally said decisively. “Commitment.”

Sleepy and relaxed I opened my mouth and started to think out loud.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think it’s affection, or warmth, or… kindness,” I finished with assurance. “Yeah, kindness. I’d rank that above commitment.”

There was silence from the other end of the skype line.

“Hello?” I said.

“Is that because commitment would already be there?” Mike asked.

“I guess so,” I said. “I can’t easily see a relationship that’s full of affection and kindness not being built on some foundation of commitment, but I can envision it the other way around – a committed relationship lacking kindness. And that’s just ugly.”

Again, silence.

“Hello?” I said.

“I’m a bit paralyzed right now,” the distant Mike finally replied. “I think I’m better at commitment than I am at affection. I just don’t think I can discuss this any more at the moment. I have to get back to the office over here anyway.”

“Oh,” I said, completely startled. “Uh, OK. That’s not one of my fears in relation to us by the way, that you’re not good at affection, but alright.”

“We’re OK, it’s not you, I’ve just stumbled over some of my own inner furniture,” Mike managed to reassure me before signing of. “We’ll talk soon.”

We did talk soon, but not before I’d spent an uncomfortable day or two wondering where I’d gone wrong. Perhaps, I ventured to my parents after thinking it through, it was the moment when I opened my mouth after Mike had bared his soul and basically insinuated that I didn’t think commitment was that big a deal and that I’d be in a marriage only as long as I thought the other person was being kind.

“Yeah, that might have done it, I’d say,” Mum said.

“Mum!” I said.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said, negating any reassurance the statement might have delivered by laughing immediately afterwards.

“I do think commitment is hugely important,” I said. “And I know any commitment – to marriage, to a place – is going to have times when it’s tested. I was just saying that I’m not sure commitment is the be-all and the end-all. I mean, would I really want to stay in a marriage indefinitely if sheer single-minded commitment was all it had going for it? Commitment might be an effective glue but surely kindness or something else has to be present much of the time to make it worth holding something together?”

Mum didn’t venture to touch that one.

“What do you think is the most important quality in a marriage then?” I asked her.

“Balance,” she said.

“Balance??” asked my father, who’d been listening in from the other side of the study.

“Balance,” my mother repeated. “What have other people said?”

“Well, two of my colleagues said trust,” I said, “and another one said good-will – the commitment to hold a good image of that person in your mind even when you’re not liking them in the moment.”

“Does anyone want to know what I think?” Dad asked in my favorite tone of voice – that of the patient martyr.

Apparently it’s Mum’s favorite tone of voice, too, because she was quicker off the mark than I was.

“Not really,” she said breezily.

“Yes, Dad,” I said, rolling my eyes at both of them. “We want to know what you think.”

“A commitment to love,” he announced. “It combines commitment and kindness.”

“That is not a single quality,” Mum replied.

“And balance is?” Dad asked.

Over to you… any further thoughts on this topic? I’d love to hear them. Or, uh, what’s your favourite flavour of ice cream? I’d love to hear that too. Hope your week is off to a good start.

Love the feeling, love the action

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is love.

Three weeks after Dominic was born and two days before Mike left for Laos again, Mike and I went out to dinner at the Bangalow pub. I can tell I am not one of these women who is going to struggle to tear myself away from her baby to go on date nights – I finished the feed, tossed him into my Mum’s arms, wriggled into jeans for the first time in nine months, set my watch for two and a half hours and trotted happily out the door.

Over a delicious dinner Mike and I talked about what the month apart would hold for us and the challenge I had just set myself to serially blog about the different fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22) as they related to mothering, marriage and the miscellaneous of life.

“Are you going to do them in order?” Mike asked. “Because if so, I’m going to miss most of love.” Mike said this if it were an entirely novel scenario instead of a disturbingly regular occurrence that we are on opposite sides of the world and missing out on love.

“Yes,” I said. “Don’t feel bad, you wouldn’t be getting much loving if you were here, anyway. Not with a three week old baby demanding my time, attention, and body.”

Mike considered this in silence from a moment and then brightened.

“Oh well,” he said, smiling in the manner of someone who has just had a private naughty thought. “That means that during the month of self-control you’ll be in Laos during the hot season. And I get to watch.”

I thought about all the things that might test my self-control in Laos, took another bite of pork belly rolled in apples and dates, and sighed.

“So what are you going to write about first?” Mike asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Two days ago I set myself the goal of coming up with one idea or issue a night during the midnight feeds.”

“How’s that working out for you?” Mike asked.

“Well, I came up with one the first night,” I said. “Last night I wasn’t thinking of anything except ‘I’m so tired, it’s so cold, I’m so tired, it’s so cold’.”

“So what were you thinking about the first night?” Mike asked.

“The difference between love as an action and love as an emotion,” I said. “And how I didn’t feel like I felt love the moment they placed Dominic in my arms. I just felt cold and shaky, and shocked and relieved that I had somehow – against all the laws of physics – actually managed to get him out. I think popular culture leads us to expect that we should feel that rush of emotion. I know some women experience being overwhelmed by feelings of love just after birth, but surely others don’t.  I wonder if a lot of women get tripped up by that lack of feeling instant love.”

“Are you feeling tripped up by not feeling that overwhelming rush of emotion-love right after birth?”

“No,” I said. Slowly. Hesitantly.

“What does the Greek word used in the original verse mean?” Mike asked.

“I don’t know which of the words for love it is,” I said. “I’ll need to consult Google on that.”

“I don’t think love is a feeling, ” Mike said. “I think it’s an action.”

“When it comes to babies maybe it’s a feeling that follows an action,” I said. “Maybe it’s due to cognitive dissonance.”

“What?” Mike said.

“Cognitive dissonance,” I said. “When you hold two conflicting ideas at the same time it causes dissonance which messes with your head and makes you uncomfortable, right? We are generally motivated to reduce this dissonance by changing our thinking about one of these ideas to bring them more into line with each other. So if you go through nine icky months of pregnancy, then think you might die giving birth to this child, then have to get up in the cold and the dark every two to three hours to feed the little being, maybe subconsciously you figure that you must hugely value anything that costs you this much and that’s where all that love for your baby comes from.”

Mike took a bite of steak with mushrooms while he mulled that over.

“There’s something really wrong with that,” he said finally.

“Yeah,” I said. “Just for the record, that’s definitely not the dynamic at work in generating my love for you. I don’t think.”

“That might be the sweetest thing you’ve said to me today,” Mike said. “All week, even.”

“I don’t think it’s primarily the source of my love for Dominic either,” I said. “I don’t think.”

Dominic is five weeks old now and I still don’t have what love is in relation to a child anywhere near sorted out, much less where it comes from. But this has been my experience so far: Love has not swamped me like a tidal wave; it is creeping in slowly, like the tide. Dragging myself out of bed at 3am in the cold darkness to feed Dominic is love in action. Wanting to kiss his little face after he’s eaten when I know there’s a good chance he’ll baptize me with secondhand milk – that’s love the feeling.

What do you think? Is love a feeling or an action? And if love for our kids doesn’t spring from cognitive dissonance, where does it come from?

Missionaries and motorbikes

Whatever else can be said about missionaries, they sure are good at sharing. All the ones Mike and I have met recently are, anyway.

Many people have extended hospitality to us during the last couple of months, but several missionaries here in Luang Prabang have gone above and beyond. They have given up time to drive us around town and help us look at houses. They let us set up camp in their own house for a couple of weeks while they were away in Thailand. They’ve taken me to the market. They’ve called just for the heck of it – to see if we need anything. They’ve lent us sheets and towels. And, last week, two of them lent me a motorbike.

I ran into Marc and Raquel in town the day after we moved in.

“How was the move going?” they wanted to know. “Was I finding everything?”

I was getting there, I told them. It was a start. It would get easier after we got bikes or some form of transport that I could use during the day.

Raquel and Marc looked at each other.

“Well, you could have one of our motorbikes for a while,” Marc said, without hesitating. And without, I should point out, asking me if I’d ever driven a motorbike before.

(I had, by the way. In Vietnam, a decade ago. For one, gloriously reckless, afternoon.)

I did confess my lack of recent experience. That didn’t stop them.

“Oh,” said Raquel, with a casual wave of her hand. “I’ll take you to a side street. You can ride up and down a time or two.”

“Did it freak you out when you first got here, driving around town?” I asked Raquel as we headed off.

“Ooh yeeaah,” she said her shoulder, in that soft southern-state drawl that doubles the vowels in every word.

“Everyone drives so crazy here, you know. Not stopping at the corners, or the stop signs. See,” Raquel said of the person in front of us, “he hardly even slowed down. But I’m fine now. I just watch out for the people in front of me to do crazy things, and it’s the responsibility of people behind me to watch out for me. You don’t stop for pedestrians. You go around other bikes. You get out of the way of trucks because they do whatever they want. Those trucks… they’ll just run you right off the road.”

OK, I thought, trying hard to catch all these road rules for Laos from the back of the bike. Watch out for the people in front of you. Don’t look behind you. Stay away from anything bigger than you.

“Now, y’all call us if you need anything else,” Raquel said to me later that afternoon as I took a deep breath and prepared to drive from her house back to ours – an epic journey of less than five minutes. And so it was that I was took temporary ownership of one motorbike and one pink helmet.

When I got home that day I checked my blog and gmail, and what did I find?

A letter from Kate – a friend and missionary in an entirely different country – asking if we needed anything.

She’d read my date night post, she wrote. She knew what it was like to be far away from home. Could she send me up anything with our mutual friends, Matt and Alida (who were currently in Phnom Penh and headed up to visit Mike and I in Luang Prabang in a couple of days). Books? Cheese? Wine? Chocolate? Pirated movies?

“I’m pretty sure I could find good quality (ahem, pirated) films here if I just figure out where the pirates… I mean, dealers… I mean, cinematic entrepreneurs, hang out.” I wrote back. “But if you happen to have a good quality copy of Letters to Juliet lying around that you don’t mind sending up here on a loan, that’d be cool.”

What I really need to do,” I continued – thinking in type more than anything else, “is to find TV series on DVD. They are the best “wind down from writing” distraction. I can’t wait until the entire last season of Lost comes out.”

As for the rest of the comfort items, I summarized:

“Matt and Alida are already carrying me up some books that I’d had shipped to them before they left California.

I’ve found some cheese in one of the expatriate grocery stores.

We can actually get some Chilean wine up here.

And chocolate, well… as I’ve recently picked up the dangerous habit of eating Nutella straight out of the container perhaps it would be best if no one tries too hard to share chocolate with me for the next little while.”

Matt and Alida arrived yesterday. In addition to the books they came bearing big hugs, wine they’d carried from California, and some toiletries. They also ferried up another present from Cambodia.

Kate had sent up the last season of Lost.

Sharing – it is such an elegant conjugation of the verb “to love”.

Thank you to all our old and new friends – from Los Angeles to Anchorage to Laos – who have shared with us these last few months. We feel loved.

Looking for poppies

Gazing at the vase of tulips on our coffee table:

Lisa: “They’re so red and gorgeous. Do tulips look like poppies?”

Mike: “Yeah, a little. Wait…” (opening his computer, pulling up pictures from Afghanistan, and flicking through them rapidly). “I have photos of poppies in here.”

Lisa (spying one of Mike, dressed in Afghan garb, grinning broadly, and hanging upside down off the barrel of a tank): “Awww, look at you. You look like a lost militant, looking for a war.”

Mike: “And instead, I found you.”

Banishing Love’s Twin

Last week, right after my boss had asked me whether I’d be willing to go to Pakistan this summer if need be and I’d said yes, the latest Humanitarian Policy Group report on providing aid in insecure environments crossed my desk.

It made for sobering reading.

The relative rates of attacks upon aid workers has increased more than 60 percent in the last three years, with a particular upswing in kidnapping, which has increased by more than 350 percent. The most dangerous location for aid workers remains the road, with vehicle-based attacks by far the most common context for violence. And the 2008 fatality rate for international aid workers exceeded that of U.N. peacekeepers.

On the bright side — if you can call it that — this massive spike in violence appears to be mostly driven by incidents in just a handful of countries. Namely Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Chad, Iraq and . . . Pakistan.

For me, this has brought forth yet again something that has been coming to mind much more frequently since meeting my fiancée and getting married in one delicious year-long whirlwind. Michael has brought much happiness into my life during the last 18 months. But right alongside love has come something else. Something I had not expected.

Fear.

Not fear for myself. I am the director of training for a California-based nonprofit that provides psychological support to aid workers. You run certain risks when you travel to Kenya or to South Africa, not to mention to Santa Monica on the Los Angeles freeways. When people ask me about that aspect of my work I sometimes laugh and quote Nevil Shute: “To put your life in danger from time to time breeds a saneness in dealing with day-to-day trivialities.”

Still, I know it’s possible — likely even — that I only have the luxury of this flippancy because so far I have escaped without being on the wrong end of a carjacking, kidnapping or serious accident. At some deeper level I probably still believe that it won’t happen to me.

The problem with that (or one of them, anyway) is that I seem to be incapable of applying that same casual tolerance to risks Michael runs. When it comes to him, I have no comforting illusion of invulnerability. After my stints as a young forensic psychologist working in a prison and with the police, and what I’ve seen since of trauma and aid work, I know full well that it could happen to him. And when I really think about it, this terrifies me in a way I’ve never felt before.

Imaginary trails

I’ve never thought of myself as someone who’s particularly prone to catastrophizing — taking a passing fear and following it doggedly until it dead-ends in a worst-case scenario. But lately I’ve found myself wandering down those grim, imaginary rabbit trails more and more often. The other day I was stopped at a red light when a car coming the other way lost control, skidded across the intersection, jumped the curb and took the top off a fire hydrant. As water sheeted 20 feet into the air it took only two seconds for my brain to leapfrog from: “Is that woman okay?” to “What if someone had been standing on that corner?” to “What if that someone had been Mike?”

I don’t even need that sort of drama to push me down these mental paths. While Mike was away completing a humanitarian project evaluation in Papua New Guinea last month, I found myself at odd moments toying with the idea of him being mugged and knifed in Port Moresby. While driving to the airport to pick him up, I thought of plane crashes. It’s as if, without really wanting to, my mind is trying these thoughts on for size, pushing me to answer the questions that automatically follow.

What would you do then, huh? How would you cope?

Perhaps I keep circling in this direction because I just don’t know how I would come back from a blow like that.

Logically, I know people do. If one of these awful scenarios were to unfold, I know there’s a high likelihood I would eventually recover to be a walking, talking, functioning member of society. I would probably be able to smile and mean it. At some point, I would likely even be happy again. But when it comes to this topic and these musings, logic fails completely to breathe life into my imagination. While I can picture the possibility of pain all too well, I can’t really see how I’d get past it.

As I’ve started to track these depressing mental calisthenics during the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed something else too. A fragment of a single Bible verse is usually trailing quietly on the heels of the bleak visions, towing its own set of questions in its wake.

Perfect love casts out fear.

I’d never thought much about this verse before, except to wonder why it was fear that is driven out and not hatred or apathy. After all, I’ve heard it said that the true opposite of love isn’t the passionate intensity of hate at all but the emptiness of indifference. But lately I’ve been seeing it differently. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the more you value something the more acutely you realize what its loss could cost you — that as love grows so does fear. Perhaps the point of the verse has never been about banishing love’s antithesis, but love’s twin.

A growing love

Thinking through a co-dependent link between love and fear kept me occupied for a couple of weeks before I found myself confronted by the next issue raised by those five words: What does perfect love look like then? If love and fear truly are symbiotic, logic suggests that perfect love would simply breed perfect fear, not cast it out.

When I finally went to the source, I learned that the word behind the translation of “perfect” in this verse from 1 John is a form of telios, which doesn’t mean “flawless” but “fulfilling its purpose” or “becoming complete.” Telios, in turn, is derived from telos, which means, “to set out for a definite point or goal” or “the point aimed at as a limit.”

When I put this all together then, what I think John was aiming at with “perfect love” is a rooted and growing love. A love that is firmly anchored in some sort of external, defined and stable point, but ever-transforming into a greater and more expansive state of completeness at the same time.

All of which then begs the question — what is that external, defined, stable point or outer limit?

No one gets any prizes for guessing what John’s answer to that question is.

God. And in a circinate metaphor that is truly mind-boggling if you dwell on it for any length of time, John also asserts at least twice in that same chapter that God is love.

This doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me, to be honest. Independent to a fault, I like sorting out my issues by myself and on my own terms. The last thorough personality profile I took bluntly informed me that I had “a defiant nature.” When, in the middle of our wedding ceremony, I stumbled on the vows Mike and I had memorized, I didn’t look to the one I was in the middle of promising to spend the rest of my life loving and wait to be prompted — I narrowed my eyes and said, “Don’t help me!” I don’t want to need a God the way a 5-year-old needs a light at night to soothe away fears of shadows in the closet, even if that God is the very embodiment of love.

Without God in my equation, however, love and fear seem locked in a cyclical struggle for dominance that my love, in its own strength, just can’t win. As long as I’m only looking at Mike, my love will always be shadowed by the knowledge of coming loss. That loss might not come this year, or next, or for 40 years. But it will come, that’s inevitable. In this chaotic and uncertain world it’s only in the context of a purpose other than just my own and a love that overshadows and outstrips mine that I stand a real chance of untangling the two and freeing the energy to nurture love without it also nourishing fear.

To savor the mystery

Many years ago John sketched out his take on this dynamic in 13 simple words — words that I hope, over time, will come to my mind as readily and vividly as the catastrophic possibilities I am so talented at conjuring.

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

Because whenever I sit with the mystery those words represent, when I really savor them, I breathe a bit more deeply. And as my lungs fill with air, pushing against my ribs from the inside, I sense my love expanding, too — growing just a tiny bit more perfect, making room for peace, edging fear out just a little further.

Fear will never leave permanently, I’d guess. Casting it out will be something that happens in fits and starts. In steps forward and steps backward. In a rhythmic, intentional orientation and reorientation that I hope will over time get both easier and faster.

Mike gives me reason to believe that that’s the case, anyway. I’m perfectly confident that he loves me, so he’s either currently much more practiced than I am when it comes to waging war on fear or he hasn’t read the HPG Report yet, because when I told him I may be headed to Pakistan this summer all I got was, “Oh.”

There was a very long pause, and then bright hope.

“If that’s not the month I have to go to Sudan, can I come?”