Salvation From Serpents

18 Sep

One of the things I love about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is that I don’t have to believe that any of it is factual to see the truth in it. Do I really believe that the Red Sea actually parted just like it did for Charlton Heston? Does it even matter whether or not I do?

Fortunately my faith in God has never depended on blind belief in any particular translation of an ancient text. It’s based on experience; mine, of course, and also the experiences of others. So when I listened to this weekend’s Old Testament selection about Moses and the seraph serpents, it wasn’t with a literal ear, but with an ear longing to relate my own experiences to the story, and I was rewarded with an interesting interpretation.

The story takes place well into the Israelites’ wandering in the desert after fleeing Egypt. They’d starved and thirsted. They’d been fed with manna and quail. And they were weary from wandering in circles and living the Hebrew version of the Groundhog Day movie. They grumbled against God.

How many times have I done the same thing? I beg God to save me from whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into, and no sooner does He provide a way out and I’m complaining about my new circumstances! My discontentment will follow me wherever I go, if I allow it.

So in the story, God punishes this discontentment with serpents to bite the people, killing some of them. This does not sound like the God in which I believe! My God is loving and compassionate and would never deliberately harm me! This is why people reject Christianity, I think to myself.

And that’s when I ponder, maybe God didn’t send the snakes. Maybe the Israelites attracted them, and God simply chose not to stand in the way of a crisis.

And maybe they weren’t literal reptiles. They are called “seraph” serpents. The word means “burning.” Most people interpret this to mean “poisonous snakes.” But a seraph was also a sort of angel in the book of Isaiah. What if they were spiritual “serpents” who were attracted to the Israelites who were “feeding” them with resentment after heaping resentment? (I do believe in spiritual beings, both light and dark. Again, based primarily on personal experience.)

How many of my own resentments grow when I feed them until they turn on me, poison me, and bring me to death’s door, spiritually speaking? How often does my anger at God bite me? I’m a figurative snake handler.

God provided Moses with specific instructions for a remedy. Make a serpent, mount it on a pole so everyone can see it, and instruct the people to look at it, so that they will be saved. Christian theology interprets this as foreshadowing of the Crucifixion of Christ, as the words of Jesus in this weekend’s Gospel clearly state. But as a stand-alone story, it is also an analogy for how I can be saved from the spiritual serpents that plague me when I am grumbling against God.

I need to take a good, hard look at my resentments.

For me, this takes the form of a written list. In one column is the name of the person I resent. In the second column is why. It’s a freeform exercise, like brainstorming. I don’t judge myself, and I don’t censor myself either. I write it all down. I don’t consider whether resentment is justified or just a selfish indulgence. I just get it out on paper. Like mounting it on a pole. Then I look at it, hard.

Making this list is kind of like drawing out the poison from a snake bite. Sometimes I have to make a little cut in the skin of my pride and suck the poison out. It can be painful. I have to be careful not to let it get into my spiritual bloodstream while I’m doing it. I have to sit still.

I also have to consciously make the decision to let go and forgive. Like Jesus on that cross, I have to say, usually out loud, as much to myself as anyone, “They didn’t know what they were doing. They were sick. They were poisoned. They were hurt, and hurt people hurt people.” I don’t believe it yet. At this stage it’s just an intellectual exercise, but it’s a start.

Then I have to look at myself. In what ways have I engaged in the same behaviors I’m resenting? If I’m being honest in my search, I will find an absolute gem of a gift – compassion. I will find my own dark side, and I will sit with it. I will ask, where did that dark side come from? What payoff do I get by indulging it? Is my dark side just one of my talents or survival skills taken to an extreme?

And I go back to my resentment list and recall that anger is nothing more than a mask for fear. I fear these people on my list, and in fearing them I give them power that isn’t really theirs. Why? I name the fears. I remember that fears and worries are like prayers for a negative outcome. That fear is the opposite of love, that it will destroy me as certainly as any physical harm. I take the power back. I look in the mirror at my own darkness and find compassion for myself, and for them, and I cut the strings that bind me to the pain they may have caused me. I forgive. For real.

I look at my darkness and ask, what gift is there in this negative trait? There’s always a gift. Maybe I’m overly critical; that’s just the extreme form of being discerning. Maybe I’m competitive; if I tone that down I’ll discover a healthy drive to achieve excellence. As I look at every negative thing about myself and search for the positive within it, I find gratitude. Gratitude for all these wonderful gifts I never realized I had, and gratitude for that pain that drove me to look in the first place.

I ask God for help to see the patterns, and I ask Him to remove whatever of these characteristics keep me from being of service to others, and to help me stop hurting people. And I ask Him to show me how to repair the relationships that have been harmed by my poisonous resentment. Maybe I was only 10 percent of the problem, but I want to clean up my 10 percent.

Then a miracle happens. When I accept my faults, and when I start to take responsibility for them, no one can use them against me! I walk secure in the knowledge that I’m human and that God loves me.

This weekend’s gospel included the most well-known, often-quoted verse in the whole of scripture. Even atheists know it. John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

It’s too bad that’s the verse everyone knows, because John 3:17 is even better. I wish Christians of all denominations would display this at sporting events and on their license plates and church billboards, because most have them seem to have forgotten it.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

The seraph serpents, the resentments that eat away at us – they are not a condemnation. They are the gift that compels us to look within and then turn to the source of salvation.

Follow Your Bliss

17 Sep

As a kid, I loved my birthday. As an adult, meh. Sometimes it’s a good day, sometimes not so much. The whole late summer/early fall season is my “New Years,” and if the 15th of September isn’t all that great, I can trust there will be several days of celebration and reflection that make up for it.

One of those days is always, without fail, the day AFTER my birthday. September 16 is Trav’s birthday. Trav is one of the first friends I made when I was a freshman in college. He was a daily presence in my life for the better part of two years. He was the one who inspired and encouraged me to pursue a semester in London when he applied, and for that experience I will always be grateful. Like me, he was a mass communications major. Unlike me, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. Trav wanted to make movies.

He was an artist, a writer, and a brilliant storyteller. Stories, especially told through the art of filmmaking, were his passion. He and I and the rest of our “family” of misfits saw movies together at least once a week, and usually a lot more frequently. To watch anything with him, even (especially?) Mystery Science Theatre, was a joy I appreciated then and wax nostalgic about now.

When we first met, Trav asked me, “What’s your bliss?” Most new friends ask you what your major is, or what you hope to do with your college degree. I could have answered those questions. I was a mass comm major and I wanted to work at a newspaper when I grew up. But my bliss? I didn’t know how to answer that question. He proceeded to ask me if I knew who Joseph Campbell was; arguably one of the greatest intellectual forces of the 20th century, he said.

I had plans, but no singular passion, and I felt incomplete and inadequate. How would I ever live a happy life if I didn’t even know what my purpose was? Such was the melodramatic musing of the 18 year old version of myself.

For the last 20 years I’ve pondered Trav’s question on September 16. This year, I finally have my answer.

Life is my bliss.

Experiencing life. Fully feeling all of it. Embracing every opportunity. Exploring new landscapes, in the outer world and in my inner one. Getting hurt and being healed. Giving all and giving up. Loving hard and loving well. Being grateful for all of it.

Actually, it’s the same answer I would have had 20 years ago when he first asked that question, had I been able to verbalize it. I couldn’t name just one thing. I wanted to live life with an open and giving heart; whatever else happened in my career was just the road I happened to be walking, as far as I was concerned. I didn’t have a particular passion; I had some talents, and I wanted to be useful.

So now I embark upon my 40th year of existence. I’d like to assume I’m at the midway point, but recent developments in the lives of my friends and neighbors have taught me that’s not a safe assumption. Cancer is out there, and it doesn’t discriminate. War is out there, too, and so is evil. Life has enemies that take many forms.

So when I think about my “bliss” at 39 years old, it’s not about my bliss as much anymore. It’s not just about my getting to experience life. My “bliss” is about helping other people experience life as fully as I’ve been able to. I’ve been blessed with a really awesome life, with loving parents, in a land of opportunity that has pretty much been handed to me as a gift. I want to spend the second half of my life giving that gift to others in whatever way I can.

I think ultimately that’s everyone’s “bliss;” to be able enhance someone else’s experience of existence. I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason any of us is here; to grow strong and healthy enough to be able to allow others to grow strong and healthy and in turn serve others. There will always be evil in the world, in the forms of disease and dictators. I can’t do much about that, but I can make one person’s quality of life better. And maybe they will pass it on.

I heard a great quote this morning from Stevie Wonder. “Use your heart to love somebody, and if your heart is big enough, use your heart to love everybody.”

That’s my bliss. To grow my heart big enough to love everybody, and to use my gifts to help their hearts grow big enough to love everybody, too.

Solitude On Saturday

14 Sep

It’s Saturday, and by now you know the drill. Me too. I think I may have finally, after four years, accepted it.

Most weekends without my kids are “me” weekends filled with activity that, truth be told, are just distractions from the reality of single parenthood. I’ve hiked and biked and day tripped. I’ve cleaned with fury, and exerted myself to the point of exhaustion in my yard. I’ve gone on dates like a person who has starved and doesn’t know when she might eat again.

This weekend, I just worked. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t go go go. Later in the evening I decided to take myself to a movie I’d been wanting to see, and the thought of being accompanied by a date, while it crossed my mind, didn’t even feel appealing. For the first time in a long time, I craved solitude.

First I took myself to the new Southern Seasons store that just opened up in Richmond. This place makes Whole Foods look like it’s charging “Walmart prices.” It’s a gourmet foods store. I bought myself a $5 pint of soup and $5 slice of artisan cheese. Browsing the candy section, I felt like Audrey Hepburn’s character window shopping at Tiffany’s. Who pays $2.50 for a candy the size of a quarter? I don’t care how pretty it looks!

Then I took myself to see Boyhood. It’s a “slice of life” movie filmed with the same ensemble of actors over the course of 15 years, following the characters as they grow up (or just get older). It was the perfect movie for this single mom of little kids on the cusp of herb39th birthday. The story is told from the perspective of the boy in the family, but actually it is about each one of the members of the family and how their life choices affect them.

Some of the mom’s life choices echoed my own, and seeing how those choices played out long term was both painful and inspiring. She also was a single mom, and she was distracted from focusing on her kids under the guise of trying to make their lives better: moving near her mother, going back to college, dating men who appeared to be mature, while feeding her resentment and self-righteousness toward her kids’ slow-to-grow-up but good-hearted dad. By the end of the movie she has gone through two alcoholic husbands, several moves, with only one or two friendships with other women as an emotional support system. Near the end when her son is packing for college, she explodes at him with grief and frustration, sobbing, “I just thought there would be more.”

I do not want to end up like her.

After 15 years of being apart from her children’s father, she never did learn to be comfortable in her own skin. She was so focused on making a better life that she missed out on just being present to her kids. She wasn’t a “bad” mom; she cared about her kids, and she protected them from abuse. But never was there a scene where she just had fun with them. At one point early on in the film, the son complained about the jerk she married, to which she responded, “I wanted us to be a family.” He says, with the wisdom only a nine year old boy can have, “We already were a family.”

I haven’t been dating jerks, and I certainly haven’t had my sights set on marriage in order to “complete” my family. I was married long enough to know how much work feeding and nurturing a love relationship is, and there’s not enough of “me” to give to parenting and marriage, at least not right now. I’m sure a lot of married moms feel that way, too; I did. But at least when you are married to your children’s father, the work is like a long-term investment so that when the kids do finally fly from the nest, you have a relationship with someone who has shared the whole gut-wrenching journey with you. Being single, any significant energy I give to romance is robbing it from my kids.

It’s Saturday, and today I’m investing in myself. I’m committed to being present to my kids. I’m grateful for solitude, for the strong, heathy women who are my role models, and for the men whose friendship (with and without “benefits”) has made no demands or promises.

Lessons Learned

10 Sep

A few weeks ago a friend posted a sad picture on his Facebook wall. It seems his Jewish neighbor was the victim of a hateful, racist act. Someone had broken their beautiful ceramic mezuzah and had stolen the scroll it housed. I’m not Jewish, nor do I fully understand what the traditions mean, but I was moved by my friend’s desire to repair it, and also by the responses of some of his other friends. One of them cited a tradition in Japan called “kintsugi” which is when a cracked piece of pottery is repaired with gold to highlight the cracks. Another talked about the Japanese concept of “wabi sabi” which celebrates the beauty of imperfection and use.

In the wake of some recent heartbreaks (and let’s face it, the world is full of stories that will break our hearts), my thoughts have returned again and again to that mezuzah and the idea of repairing the cracks in our hearts with gold leaf. That’s the essence of what my blog, Holey Heart, is about (http://holeyheart.com/about/). I had no idea the Japanese actually have a cool word for it!

(If I ever get a tattoo, maybe it will be the Japanese characters for “wabi sabi,” just below my belly button, where the skin that was stretched out by three human beings will never again be taut.)

There’s a song I came across a few years ago called “Lessons Learned,” originally recorded by Kristen Chenoweth. There’s a line in the refrain that goes, “I’m thankful for every break in my heart/I’m grateful for every scar.” I think that’s perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned in the past decade – gratitude, not for the easy stuff, but the hard stuff.

I’ve written before about my bouts of depression, and I’ve discovered only two tactics to get me out of that mire – making a gratitude list, and praising God. That is the gold that binds the cracks back together to make me a useful vessel for God’s will once again. Every time I’m hurt, or hurt myself, I crack again. And in some ways, the older I get and the more God uses me, the more fragile I become. There’s a lot more gold binding the pieces together these days. I like to imagine that by the time my trip on earth is done, I’ll be more gold than pottery; a jar of clay that is made more of heaven than earth because I’ve allowed myself to be useful.

There’s another line from that song I especially like: “All the things that break you are all the things that make you strong.” How often have I mistook that word “strong” to mean “invincible?” Strong is about enduring in spite of the difficulties. Every hole in my heart has offered an opportunity for my God to fill it with something even better.

Today I’m grateful for the lows that have shattered me, because they have allowed God to piece me back together. I’m grateful for the loves that I’ve lost, because they have stretched my heart to a greater capacity to hold even more of God’s love. I’m grateful for every mistake that wasn’t really a mistake because I learned something.

Single On Labor Day

8 Sep

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and I’m calling into question beliefs I didn’t even know I had until they were revealed by the events of my Labor Day weekend.

Perhaps you’ve heard the following words coming out of the mouth of a self-righteous office manager, or your ex. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It’s a snarky, judgmental thing to say, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever said it, but I’ve certainly thought it, especially in my past professional life working at a stressful magazine advertising job.

I didn’t realize until last weekend that I’ve attributed this very common human attitude to my divine Higher Power.

Last Sunday afternoon I headed to the mountains to join a backpacking Meetup group from Washington, DC. I thought I knew where I was going. I didn’t read the directions, much less print them out. We would be camping and hiking in Shenandoah National Park, and I knew how to get there. I felt totally confident winging it. I even left early.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize is the parking lot for our camp site was NOT in the park. It was about a 45 minute drive from any park entrance. And I didn’t discover this critical detail until 6:30 pm, the time I was supposed to be joining them.

I could have tried to find the lot on my own in the setting sun and hike in the dark for a mile to the campsite, but that didn’t seem like a very safe choice. The park ranger who was helping me with the map suggested I just stay there at the campground in the park; after all, there were plenty of open sites, and it would be dark in an hour. I’ve never camped solo, but I didn’t really want to drive all the way home, either; after all, I’d come ready for sleeping outside in a tent. So I decided to stay, do a little writing, go to sleep early, and drive to my group at dawn.

I was pretty humbled by a hard lesson in preparation and thinking I know more than I do. Being solo was my divine punishment, I reasoned. I’ve never truly believed in a “punishing” God in the traditional sense, but rather a God who doesn’t stand in the way of the natural consequences of my mistakes. Clearly, I had made some this time, and I believed I deserved to be alone, “sent to my room” as it were, to think about what I’d done.

I did not believe in a God that blesses someone who makes a mistake in judgement. The God I believed in would have said, “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” The God I believed in would have left me to reap what I’d sown. And this was the God who, until this past weekend, I was attempting to trust? No wonder I had difficulty!

The God I believed in would never “reward” me with a serendipitous invitation to an bluegrass concert in the nearest college town with two interesting strangers who showed me the best night I’ve had in years.

Fortunately, the God I believed in is not the God who showed up at that camp site Sunday night. And because the God who DID show up did indeed bless me with a serendipitous adventure the likes of which I’ve never had, I’ve decided that’s the God I’m going to believe in from now on.

But buried within my distorted belief about God were some even more distorted beliefs unconsciously operating for some time.

1. Being alone is punishment, or at the very least, a natural consequence.

I’m not sure where this belief originated, but it’s an old one, and it has been reinforced by countless experiences where isolation and rejection were the natural consequences of being my awkward, imaginative, open hearted, genuine self. Over time I’ve developed some skills to avoid this consequence – becoming a chameleon, intuiting other people’s desires, giving them what they want, being someone they are comfortable around. These tools have served me well professionally, but at the cost of remembering how to be myself.

2. If I’m alone, obviously it’s my own fault and I’ve done something wrong to deserve it.

I’m an introvert and I do like some solitude now and then. I definitely prefer working independently rather than as part of a group. But I crave regular social connection. Introverts get lonely, too.

Prolonged loneliness has done its share of damage to my sense of self-worth. There’s nothing more human than to ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” when I’m in pain, and loneliness is painful. But that kind of self-pity is just a subtle attempt to control the uncontrollable. The truth is, I may not have done anything wrong. Rejection is not always about me; sometimes, it’s about the other person or group, and sometimes it’s God’s way of protecting me. Obsessively trying to find fault in myself, and then twisting myself into a pretzel to change, is about the most self-centered approach I could take to loneliness, and it has definitely added more pain to my life.

3. I deserve to be alone.

Obsessive fault-finding naturally leads to this ridiculous belief. This is resignation, not acceptance, and it is patently false. What I deserve is healthy relationships and a balanced approach to solitude and sociability.

4. Being alone is unsafe, or at the very least, difficult.

The people who invited me to the bluegrass concert were both Shenandoah National Park employees in their twenties. They were seasonal workers living there in the park. And when I told them I was nervous about camping there by myself, they both brushed it off. Melissa, age 23, said, “I love camping by myself. There’s always lots of other people and families around who will get to know you and include you.” Matt, age 27, said, “You’re never really alone in the park.”

It is true. When I had been there with hiking groups, everyone walked at their own pace, and I ended up walking by myself a lot, which was lovely. I passed other people on the trail, and made brief connections with other hikers who were not part of the group. The trails are well marked, and there are frequent sign posts to direct you. So I decided I didn’t need meet up with my D.C. group on Monday morning. I picked a nearby loop trail, got myself a paper map at the visitor’s center, and set out on my own.

I rediscovered solitude. I didn’t worry about keeping up with people who hike faster than me, and I didn’t feel the need to slow my pace to keep an eye on the stragglers behind. If I wanted to climb down a rocky ledge to get a better view of the waterfall, I did it. If I wanted to take pictures of the valley or return the calls of a crow flying overhead, no one was around making fun of my bird noises.

For three years of being a single parent, I’ve been focused almost entirely on the limitations of flying solo. I can’t just go to the grocery store when I need milk. I can’t keep my house as clean as I could when I had someone else to mow the grass. I run late a lot, and family outings are a lot harder with only two hands instead of four.

One Saturday this summer I took the kids to see fireworks with another single parent who has two kids. Five kids between us, but the extra set of hands to carry drinks and snacks, those shoulders to carry my little one when the walk got too long, the second set of eyes when the girls had strayed from the picnic blanket too far, and mostly having someone else to enjoy watching our kids be kids was like a cold glass of water after being in a desert.

I found myself feeling deeply depressed that it was only a temporary relief from the limitations of being single. Single on Sunday sucked. But two months later I can see it is my long-term aloneness that gives me such deep appreciation and gratitude for a simple moment of togetherness. I never had that gratitude when I was married and had partnership every day. And as difficult as being a single parent can be, being a married parent was even more difficult in some ways.

Life is hard, single or not. It’s my experiences of isolation and fear of rejection that have made me capable of unconditional love and acceptance of the people who do cross my path now. Some of them are quite different from me, but they have become the truest friends I’ve ever had. I may not share my home or my bed with any of them, but I do share my emotional life, by burdens and joys, and my stories of adventure and lessons learned.

Being single, whether as a parent or on the trail, may have its limitations, but nothing is more limiting than operating under old beliefs that do me more harm than good. It’s my attitude that is my greatest limitation. I’m so grateful for my mistake last weekend. It forced me to face some of those old attitudes and try out some new ones.

Serenity On Saturday

23 Aug

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and for the first time in my life, I’ve experienced serenity.

Not this Saturday. This Saturday I’m my usual hot mess. It was last Saturday when I went on my son’s Boy Scout camping trip. The boys went to a “lake” that was actually a 120 foot deep shale quarry filled with crystal clear water. You couldn’t see the bottom, and there was no beach to gradually wade in. All of us had to wear life jackets as we enjoyed a zip line and a multitude of inflatable climbing structures. My son was a bit intimidated by it all, but he enjoyed the canoe and the paddle boat.

They warned us to take off rings, earrings, or anything else valuable. When I went in the water, I left my glasses on dry land. But in the canoe, I never thought to take them off. I really can’t see without them.

We were paddling along the sharp cliff wall of the quarry, where there were blackberry brambles growing out from the cracks in the rocks. As we paddled under those brambles, a branch brushed the side of my glasses and knocked them off my head into the water, where they sunk into the blackness before I could even blink.

In about 5 seconds’ time, I experienced all the stages of grief compressed. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance. It was nearly instant. My heart raced for a moment, and then serenity washed over me. Complete acceptance that my glasses were gone. And I laughed. What else could I do? I spend hours every summer pillaging blackberry bushes for the plumpest, sweetest berries, and now they were having their revenge!

My son thought I was losing my mind that I was so calm. He was horrified at what happened and was frantically calling for the lifeguard who was patrolling the area in his kayak. I joined in the effort to get his attention, but not because I thought there was anything that could be done.

In that moment, I had totally surrendered. I let go absolutely. I had prescription sunglasses back at the campsite, and I’d go to LensCrafters when we got home Sunday. Until then, I’d be ok.

I can’t think of a another time in my life that I’ve been so at peace about something I couldn’t control, especially so quickly. Usually the journey to acceptance is a long winding road that involves a lot of crying and backtracking. Of course, letting go of people and situations is not like letting go of a pair of glasses, either. But it was a wonderful concrete example of what serenity is and how it actually works.

Since the incident with the glasses last weekend, I’ve had to do more letting go, and every time I’m tempted to “pick up” again, I take a deep breath and say to myself, “The glasses are under 100 feet of water.” The thing for which I want to grasp is gone, if it was ever there in the first place.

But that’s not the end of the story. One of the park’s employees had diving gear. He got suited up and found the glasses about 20 feet down, stuck on a rock ledge. I truly never thought I’d see them again, but grace came through yet again.

We’ve all heard that cliche, “If you love something, let it go. If it doesn’t return it was never really yours.” Well, I’ve had lots of “boomerangs” in my life, lots of second and third chances with work situations, relationships, friends and family. And I can say from experience that even if it does come back (which is never a guarantee) it’s still not really mine. It was never really mine, ever.

That’s the heart of serenity.

High Maintenance

21 Aug

Last week a male friend from work called me a “high maintenance” woman.

(Yes, he lived to tell about it, but my revenge is to immortalize him as fodder for a blog. That’ll teach him!)

To which I replied, “Any woman worth keeping is worth maintaining.”

I was shocked those words came out of my mouth. Not sure where the girl with low self-esteem went, but her replacement has a quick wit and a healthy sense of her own value.

I have never wanted to be high-maintenance. I’ve always tried to be sweet and accommodating and understanding and compassionate. I’ve been a great listener, an encourager, and not usually demanding. Although there was a time when I’d smother a guy with advice (and clothing suggestions), I’ve learned in more recent years to keep my opinions to myself unless I’m asked (most of the time). I’ve diffused conflict with humor, and I’ve done my best to meet my own needs so thoroughly that I wouldn’t need to ask for help from a romantic partner. I rarely asked for much of anything, and if I felt neglected I stuffed those feelings and made a gratitude list about my partner, or nursed a silent list of resentments and sulked in self-pity.

That doesn’t sound high maintenance does it? (All the men I know are probably laughing right now. Yeah, I hear you.)

The girl with the low self esteem also believed that a woman worth keeping was worth maintaining. But her perception was distorted. When she plugged her experiences into the formula, the answer she got was that she must not be worth keeping, since no one seemed interested in maintaining.

That kind of thinking has a self-perpetuating momentum to it.

It never occurred to her that she hadn’t ever given them the chance, or that she had a habit of turning toward good-hearted guys who simply weren’t capable of maintaining.

People are not high maintenance. Relationships, especially those worth keeping, are.

They require open communication and honesty. They require courage – courage to be ourselves, and courage to allow the other people to be themselves, exactly as they are, right here, right now.

Relationships require time. Time is an investment, and some investments are inherently risky. Time creates attachment. Even though we each have 24 hours in a day, not everyone is able to invest the same quantity or quality of time in a relationship. That doesn’t make them “bad” people; it does, however, make a relationship with them a riskier investment.

Relationships require an emotional investment, too. Some of us (yours truly included) seem hard wired to make generous donations of emotional capital only to bankrupt ourselves with emotional charity. Abundant giving to a child or to a geriatric parent or grandparent or a sick family member is laudable. But if I’m over-giving to a grown adult who isn’t willing or able to give back, that’s not healthy, in spite of what our culture and maybe even our religious faith may have taught us.

Love by its very nature is unconditional, but healthy relationships are not. I think it’s ok to expect a return on investment in a relationship between equals. But as the old saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone, especially if you don’t even tell the stone what you expect. You can’t go to the hardware store and expect to buy bread.

Which takes us back to having the courage to accept ourselves and our “partners” exactly as we are, even if an honest assessment means we aren’t really partners at all.

In hindsight I can see that believing myself to be “low maintenance” has lead me to settle for low maintenance relationships. Wanting more is often seen as “high maintenance” in a disposable culture that values ease and comfort over effort and endurance. But I do want more. I want effort and endurance. I want relationships worth keeping. I’m high maintenance and proud of it.

What I’ve learned from meditation and journaling about this whole “high maintenance” business is that maybe I’ve acted low maintenance because I didn’t have the time or emotional capital to invest in a relationship worth keeping.

That’s a difficult place to be – knowing your value, wanting the best, but not being able to afford it. I could mortgage myself. I could go into emotional debt, but I would have to work twice as hard to pay it off, if I even could pay it off. That leaves less time to invest in that “relationship worth keeping” later down the road, when the infatuation wears off.

There’s another choice. I could invest in myself. Every bit of time and emotion I focus on myself will earn interest, or so I’m told. My parents taught me to save up for the things I want. I saved for two years while my gorgeous bedroom set was on layaway, bringing home one piece at a time. I saved for almost a decade and worked overtime to be able to afford a two week trip to Ireland, and the down payment on my first house came from my savings. I know how to do this in “the real world,” so it’s just a matter of applying those skills to my “emotional world.”

I didn’t deprive myself during those years of saving; I was just more frugal. I can be frugal with my time and my emotions. I can learn to maintain myself, which is not the same thing as never asking for help and resigning myself to loneliness. Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers,” and it’s as good advice for 39 years old as it is for 6. Supporting myself means asking appropriate people for appropriate support, not being a rugged individualist boot-strapping my way through two jobs, three kids, and single parenthood.

Education is another way we can invest in ourselves. When I was first separated I read a fantastic book about rebuilding after divorce, and one of the chapters was on “growing” relationships – that is, temporary situations that help both parties grow. It’s an investment of time and emotion, just as going to college is an investment. But we don’t expect to stay in college perpetually, do we? We expect to graduate with skills and confidence that will serve us going forward.

Most relationships are of this variety, whether we admit it or not. I have a double major in depression and emotional unavailability with a minor in codependency. I just got my master’s degree in detachment with love, and I’m hoping to earn my doctorate in acceptance before this life is through. Having kids is a bit like a practicum course, and some of my dating experiences have been like unpaid internships, most valuable for the experience they provided.

And that’s where I’ll end the metaphor, because relationships aren’t like a job you qualify for with higher education, interview for with your best rehearsed answers, and use as a stepping stone to the next best paying gig. Relationships are a gift that you have to be ready to receive, and there is only one I’m guaranteed to have – a relationship with myself. And I can have a relationship with God, but only if I want it. I’m not entitled to anything else, no matter how hard I work. Everything else is a gift of grace, which I can hold only if I learn to let go of the things not meant for me and keep my hands and my heart open instead of clenched tightly in fear.

Being open requires daily maintenance. Worthwhile maintenance. The highest of maintenance.

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