Tucked in the upper right corner of my garage rafters lies a box containing an enormous vase. It has earned that spot because it is simply too large for any indoor closet. Scarlet and urn-shaped (an omen, perhaps?) it was a gift from my late husband on a bygone Valentine’s Day. He promised to fill it with roses each year after that. He made it to three.
Guiding like a beacon, it is the first thing I notice when pulling into my home. Sometimes, all I observe is the tattered, dusty edges of the box — how empty that picture of the crimson glass vessel appears. Most of the time, however, I recognize it as it truly is: A loving cup brimming with memories. It all depends on my point of view.
Now here I am, a dozen Valentines since my husband’s passing, without a holiday mandated significant other. Lavish bouquets will not be exhibited on my Facebook feed. No one is sending me sweet love notes this year.
But here’s the kicker — I am teeming with loves just as significant, if not more so, than the adoration of a spouse or partner. And, I bet, my fellow non-plus-oners, you are, too. You just have to recognize them and, most importantly, resolve to take heed of their beauty.
“Only in the eyes of love can you find infinity“ -Sorin Cerin
The Greeks defined eight types of love. Why eight? I’d like to think it’s because eight is the number of infinity. Universal love can’t be comprehended in a single construct.
My favorite synopsis of this Grecian octet is a blog post on the FTD website. I know, cheesy, but good content is good content. Plus, this is a Valentine’s piece, so what the heck.
Here they are, with a little commentary thrown in:
Philia: Brotherly Love. Kindred Spirits. The kind of person who understands that pineapple has no business being anywhere near a pizza, but completely understands why ketchup on tacos is the bomb.
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” -Audrey Hepburn
The Greeks never intended for these loves to be mutually exclusive. Like features in a luxurious landscape, they are to be planted together; complementing and highlighting what is sown alongside.
Love is never monochromatic. It can be dappled with a few complementary hues or bursting with psychedelic shades. Your preferences, your environment, help to select the flora.
So Cupid be damned! This Valentine’s I am going to shift my focus to the loves that presently adorn my life, instead of longing for those of seasons past. Like any landscape artist, I am working with the abundance of botanicals presented to me. Hopefully, you find it as breathtaking as I do.
But first, the fertilizer
Ever since my husband’s original cancer diagnosis (on the eve of 9/11 — another omen), one could say my life has been a reoccurring shit show. An endless carnival of freak occurrences and rarities that would amaze even Ripley.
Contrary to the old adage, my shit does stink. Big chunks of putrid stank bobbing in a viscous cesspool. That aroma, believe it or not, is peculiarly intoxicating and addictive. The compulsion to anoint oneself with sorrow’s perfume overwhelming.
But, to my surprise, it is within these piles that my loves have sprouted. Instead of prompting repulsion, these predicaments have fertilized my blessings. They laid the groundwork for my bountiful garden.
Mia famiglia: Storge-Agape-Philia
I used to take for granted my strong, extended family. I’m sure it’s partly due to my Italian heritage, but, to me, it was a given that everyone had one. Only recently, have I recognized my privilege.
My family is voracious in their appetite to make it all better and I admit, I lap up every morsel of their compassion. There is my mother, who bursts in with a month’s worth of homemade ragu and biscotti; her arms laden with bags of herbals and vitamins. Whether the ailment is physical or emotional, she has a supplement for it.
Her maternal might set to 11, my mother will nestle in for days or sometimes weeks to tend to her firstborn. Three square meals a day (always organic) her manna from heaven.
My father, in turn, will drive to the ends of the earth — and Costco — to gather provisions. Tucked within his bags of supplies will invariably be a surprise luxury item (jumbo shrimp, baby lamb chops, juicy rib-eyes) that he and I both adore. It’s a wink and a silent, “I’ve got you covered, honey,” that rings loud and clear in my heart.
Each of my siblings is steadfast as a succulent. A variegated array of devotion, their loyalty never waivers.
Then there is my cousin, who has made it his mission to make me feel attractive even though lately I feel about as appealing as a corpse lily. I know he is at the ready to beat down any dude he feels has done me wrong.
Treasured old friends: Philia-Pragma-Storge
Fortune smiled upon me when it granted me a fellowship of life-long friends. Most budded in elementary school with one germinating in our infancy. Beloved companions for 50 years, they are my roots. We have grown, matured, and endured alongside each other like a redwood forest.
We have experienced the trials and joys of all that life has to offer from youthful shenanigans to the frolics of middle age. Boyfriends, careers, marriages, and births have been our summer solstice. The biting frost of illness and death’s devastation our frigid winters. We have a symbiotic history that grounds and nourishes us. They know and cherish me to my core.
The Posse: Philia-Philautia-Agape
My posse, along with their spouses and children, is my trellis — my backbone. Interwoven with strength and radiance, this sisterhood+ rallies like a fire brigade as soon as a distress call pings our group text. Ever ready for the rescue, they’ve arrived within minutes whenever I needed a lift to an appointment, a toilet unclogged, or gallons of libations to drown my sorrows.
These families have cheered on my children, coaching and stepping in as surrogate parents when my capacity was waning. Even more glorious, they have always included me in their social gatherings. I’m not weeded out as the solo attendee or tolerated as the pity invite. Within this lattice, I am welcomed.
No landscape is complete without a bit of foliage providing an anchor or a touch of flourish. There is the former coworker who has become a dear companion and priceless dispenser of wisdom, the countless clients who unknowingly offered inspiration when I was desperate for validation, and, of course, my two sons who supply me with abounding purpose, pride, and hope.
“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” –Henri Matisse
I’ll admit, I still pine for a season of roses. It’s easier to be content with discontent. When the next storm arrives, I have no doubt I’ll find myself, once again, slathering sadness like a warm blanket.
But when that happens, I am equally assured that one of my loves will sprout anew and tenderly wipe the tears from my eyes. My focus cleared, I’ll soon notice the grandeur blossoming around me.
So what is blooming in your garden? Which of the eight loves decorate your landscape? Are you dazzled by their brilliance? Or are you struggling to see splendor amidst some desolation? Are you basking in a verdant meadow or shriveling in a barren desert?
No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity. ― H.P. Lovecraft
To my family, friends, and acquaintances: please read the following at face value. It is not a cry for help, a play for sympathy, or a prompt to initiate bringing me back into the fold. It simply is a reflection upon the uncertainties I, along with many others, are feeling at this time.
Truth be told, I have been feeling tenuous for a while now. Many of the ideologies I have woven into my identity have become threadbare. The events of 2020 have prompted me to take stock of my mental wardrobe: Are my convictions valuable or vintage? Can they continue to spark joy or do they provoke dismay? Do they fit me any more?
The modern definition of identity was proposed by Erik Erikson as his fifth stage of psychosocial development. While our primary personality is established during adolescence, he postulated that our sense of self develops throughout our entire lifespan. Our “ego identity,” according to Erikson, is constantly being shaped by our interactions and experiences with others. A challenge to your ego identity can occur at any time, most likely when one experiences a major life stressor such as losing a loved one, loss of employment, confronting health issues, or experiencing a traumatic event such as — I don’t know — a global pandemic.
Developmental psychologist James Marcia further elaborated on Erikson’s theory. He proposed identity is based on the exploration of a variety of life domains including intimate relationships, religion, politics, and occupation. The status of your identity is either in crisis — “a time of upheaval where old values or choices are being reexamined” — or committed to a role within these domains.
Fear of commitment
Welcome to my 2020. Or should I say, 5150? Except my current detention is looking more like 72 weeks instead of hours — perhaps even longer.
Full disclosure: This is not my first identity crisis rodeo. That occurred a dozen years ago when I became a widow. I envision identity like a lasso — twisted of multiple strands and used to secure yourself to someone or some ideal. When I lost my role as a wife, I clung to the other fibers of my life for strength. I was able to keep the rope somewhat intact until recent events have caused it to further unravel.
The first thread to break loose was with my church. Don’t misunderstand me, my core faith is as strong as ever, if not stronger. It’s just the man-made constructs that have disappointed me. When I was initially widowed, there were the standard outpourings of support and they were much appreciated. But once the dust settled, things took a turn. Slowly, steadily, (and I’m sure unintentionally) I was isolated. No longer included in couples’ events, I was relegated to coffee meetups and the occasional ladies’ lunch. Dinner party invites became nonexistent. I looked into the widows’ support group, but at 44, I was significantly younger than the rest of the members. There was no place I felt I belonged — or noticed for that matter. I would sit in the pew by myself, missing my husband more than ever. Feeling lonelier each time, I eventually stopped attending.
The next thread tattered by disillusion was my political affiliation. A lifelong Republican and Californian, I will never forget the feeling of being 18, newly registered, and attending a local Ronald Reagan reelection rally. I was thrilled to see a sitting president in person and proud to cast my first presidential vote for a man I felt possessed honor and character.
I wish I could generate anywhere near the same feeling of admiration for our current candidate. When did buddying up with our adversaries become a GOP construct? Putting policies aside, I wish my president to be a person of integrity. I continued to be baffled by how many Christian leaders (and friends) can support him as a man of God. They somehow excuse or refuse to acknowledge his consistent name-calling and slander of opponents, mocking of the disabled and women, and utter lack of humility. This list can go on and on, but suffice it to say, I feel like I’m in an alternate universe where right is wrong and up is down.
So now I’m left, or rather, was left, with my occupation. I had finally settled into my dream career: travel event planning. COVID-19 not only unraveled that thread, it chopped it with an ax and seared the ends. I’m a 56-year-old woman with a convoluted resume looking to reinvent my career yet again. California has more than 2.5 million unemployed workers. How do you like those odds?
Compounding matters, I suffer from an autoimmune disorder that has flared and left me at limited capacity these past few months. I’m not sure if it’s safe for me to return to work, let alone be physically up for it. As an added bonus, my current medication has caused me to gain 20 pounds and completely altered my appearance. Not only do I not feel like myself, but I don’t even recognize the woman in the mirror.
Temporary Restraining Order or Stay of Execution?
Marcia would most likely conclude I am residing in the moratorium identity status: in the midst of a crisis but seeking alternative identities. Working through the explorations leads to a commitment or “identity achievement.” Major life events — such as the death of a spouse — can create instability which triggers a MAMA cycle: moratorium-achievement-moratorium-achievement. I went through such cycles when I lost my husband, working through the identities of the widow, single mother, and middle-aged single woman.
Healthy adults will go through many MAMA cycles in their lifetime. It’s the natural progression of aging and growth. Some may term these events as reaching a “new normal” or acceptance of whatever stressor has been thrown in their way. Here’s the thing: most will encounter one upheaval at a time. What’s one to do, as in my case (and I’m sure many others) when you doubt multiple affiliations (religion, politics) and experience more than one loss (occupation, health) simultaneously? When a global crisis has disrupted society so much you’re constantly on guard, wondering what tomorrow’s shit show will be.
Do we hide, locking the world away? Do we appeal to God or fate to give us more time to sort this all out and/or complete our penance? Is there a remedy for this dilemma? Or vaccine to prevent it from happening again?
At the end of my rope, but not alone
I may be feeling unstable, but I’m not the only one. 2020 has taken its toll on everyone. A recent government survey reported 41% of U.S. respondents felt symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared to just 11% in 2019. As the year drags on, uncertainty continues to litter our collective psyche. We try to discard it, but our dumpsters are overflowing.
In a Popular Science article discussing mental health and the pandemic, Dr. Mary Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland, states:
Humans look to have a known universe. That is how we keep ourselves safe,” he says. “It’s frightening to feel out of control. Sadness, hopelessness, fear — those will wear you down.
I honestly don’t know if these statistics make me feel better or worse.
What I do know is a few strands of my rope have remained intact and will be no matter what my revised identity turns out to be: My two sons, who not only support but motivate me to keep it together. My parents and siblings, who continually encourage and assist in any way they can. And my posse — my closest friends — who are always available to provide a listening ear, words of wisdom, and a glass(who am I kidding — a bottle) of wine when needed. These are my lifelines.
Eventually, with some introspection, exploration, and a little luck, I’ll channel my inner Wonder Woman and reconstruct the lasso of my truth. Surprisingly, I have found a gentleman who doesn’t view me as frayed and fragile, but as a woman of substance and strength. He wants to join me on the journey to discover a more suitable church to grow our faith. From now on, I’ll let my conscience — not my political party — be my guide when voting. As for health and occupation, I will keep praying and hoping that good news is just around the corner.
Contrary to popular belief, sex is the least of it.
Photo by Olya Kobruseva from Pexels
When I was newly widowed, I became a fraction of my former self. Much like an antique book whose binding has deteriorated, I felt chapters of my life floating away. The stitching slowly coming apart leaving only the cover of a story that no longer existed. I was unraveling and insecure, wanting my support to reappear and make me whole once again. I was incomplete.
I had lost my intimacy.
Psychcentral defines intimacy as “deeply knowing another person and feeling deeply known.” It’s the understanding of what makes someone else tick. Complete comprehension of mind, body, and soul, it’s the comfort of someone profoundly perceiving and loving you daily. One of the most basic of all human cravings and, more often than not, the one most difficult to achieve.
Love, and intimacy, is a many splendored thing
Many would define intimacy as having sex. So much so, it has become a euphemism for the act itself. Stating “We’ve been intimate,” is a much more genteel way of stating “We banged each other’s brains out.” But there is a world of difference between carnal lust and sexual intimacy. One is purely physical, often forgotten over time. The other is an unadulterated connection that imprints and deepens the relationship.
Clinical psychologist, Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., describes five types of intimacy other than sex. All need to be nourished to strengthen a healthy relationship, both in the bedroom and out.
Emotional Intimacy: Perhaps the most vital, this form of intimacy requires constant effort. It is a conscious decision to communicate and be vulnerable — share your pains and joys. Be curious, respectful, and supportive of what delights or grieves your partner. Create a safe space to accept and trust yourself — to trust each other.
Physical Intimacy: Not the same as sex, physical intimacy is affection through touch. Holding hands, a kiss goodbye in the morning, cuddling on the couch are all reminders of the bond you two share. It’s a day-to-day affirmation. This form of intimacy can also include massages or dancing. Is there anything more romantic than a slow dance to a favorite song?
Intellectual Intimacy: Mutual values, respect of another’s viewpoint, and common interests are hallmarks of intellectual intimacy. Your partner’s opinion matters, even if it differs from your own. You’re comfortable alone together. It can be as simple as a love of sports, board games, or music genres. The adage “opposites attract” may work for some, but too much opposition will only lead to aversion.
Experiential Intimacy: Shared memories are the outcome of experiential intimacy. Holiday traditions, date nights, even family mishaps fall into this category. Watching a movie or taking a class together also strengthens the attachments formed with this type of intimacy. These events can be relived over and over again through pictures, a song, or an inside joke. They tattoo your heart and are uniquely yours.
Spiritual Intimacy: This type of intimacy is not limited to a common understanding in a higher power, but in the sharing of awe-inspiring moments. This could be a religious service, a walk at sunset, or the birth of a child. It is the mutual participation in something that touches your soul.
Baby take the time, do it right — SOS Band
As you might surmise, true intimacy takes time. Far deeper than the initial seed of infatuation, it needs to be cultivated and nourished. Not just two halves creating a whole, it’s the 100% intertwining of goals, vulnerability, and — yes — passions. It is the grafting together of two personas to form a distinct, more resilient, creation. Take it from someone who’s experienced the gratification of such a relationship — and hopes to, perhaps, once again — it is well worth the effort.
How my father went to Google and beyond to prove it to me
I am a grown woman in my fifties, with adult children of my own. Yet, my father continues to remind me that I will always be his little girl.
Our family compass
Once upon a time, my father knew L.A. streets like an astronomer knows the night sky. He could navigate through all areas of the county using only a few landmarks and cardinal directions. Heeding the time of day and traffic patterns, he was a virtuoso at charting the fastest route. His advice was invariably sought whenever a family member was about to venture into unfamiliar surroundings.
When I first received my driver’s license, my father taught me how to decipher the Los Angeles Thomas Guide — a thick, spiral-bound directory containing maps of every street, avenue, and freeway. Like a master cartographer, he demonstrated how the notes in the margins interlinked to other pages of crisscrossed roads and highways. I learned how these elaborate mazes could be chained together to plot a course anywhere in Los Angeles. The rite of passage complete, I was now a fellow keeper of the codes. I knew I could never be lost.
Now, over 30 years later, the Thomas Guide has been replaced by GPS systems much like Google has eclipsed the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is a relic of a bygone era when I relied solely upon my father’s direction. Its treasure map guidance unknown to a generation instructed by Siri.
Technology is my father’s strange new world. His was the generation of secretaries and dictation. Crafting a letter or researching a topic were skills done for him, not by him. He claims he is too old to learn new tricks and has been reluctant to communicate electronically. Still, my brother purchased him a refurbished laptop and my father keeps himself busy playing Backgammon and Hearts — not realizing he could easily unlock the secrets of his digital directory.
Or so I thought.
One giant leap
I had recently had surgery on my Achilles tendon and required to see the orthopedic surgeon for a follow up every two weeks. My right leg in a cast, I was not able to drive myself to these appointments. Ever my hero/protector, my father would make the 25-minute drive to pick me up, double back past his house, and drive me to my doctor’s appointment. A lunch date traditionally followed. We would cruise up, down, and around Van Nuys Boulevard looking for a restaurant to catch our eye and lure us in.
On one such outing, my dad handed me a recycled envelope as I settled into his car. Jotted in and around the To and Return addresses was a list of eateries sorted by cuisine. I immediately recognized the script of my father’s shaky hand. Burgers, Pizza, Mexican, and Deli each headed a column of restaurants and their addresses. “Take your pick,” my father said as he settled into the driver’s seat.
“How did you come up with this list?” I asked him.
“I figured it out,” was his cryptic reply.
As I perused the various eateries, I realized my father must have done multiple Google searches to garner such information. Soon, I was swept to the brink of tears by the sweet gesture. Wanting only to make me feel better, he overrode his fear and hesitation to compile the list. The strength of his paternal drive propelling him through the alien electronic nebula.
We were running early, so we decided to scout out the locations on the envelope before heading to the appointment. Like eager sightseers, my father and I scrutinized each locale as we drifted slowly down the boulevard. The two of us were caught up in the adventure and exhilarated by the quest. It wasn’t a journey to be rushed, much to the dismay of our fellow road travelers. We eventually settled on a tiny corner taqueria.
Age of enlightenment
We returned later and enjoyed a meal of spicy shrimp tacos and chicken tostadas. My father charmed the staff with his inquisitive nature and occasional dad jokes.
Just as when I was a young girl and fell off my bike, he doted on me with tenderness and concern — bringing me my lunch and refilling my drink. My age — his age — was irrelevant. I was, and will always be, a precious star in his galaxy.