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I spent several days in Colorado to celebrate my mother’s aunt’s 90th birthday. Her family made her keep it small – no book group, no havurah; she’d have to hold separate celebrations with those women because the restaurant’s large room could hold only 60 or so of us --close family, a little less close family, friends, her latest boyfriend (a cute older man in his early 90s).

The theme of this woman’s life is love. Over and over at her birthday celebration, friends and family stood to say how welcoming Sheila was, how full with love, how special. It was awesome to witness. How many of us could fill a room with people who love us and are filled with gratitude to have known us? May we all have a few good close friends, those who need us entirely, as well as family we both love and enjoy. May we all, though we don’t.

Sheila’s life has been about making connections and staying connected, and she spread that joy to everyone.

Her first husband – and that’s how my mother is related to her – was not Mr. Love. Henry was, as was his twin sister (my mother’s mother), an alcoholic with a variety of other addictions and bad moods. The twins’s mother died when they were just two years old in the flu epidemic of 1919.  Both twins died young as well, my grandmother in her 50s and Henry just past 60.

After Henry’s death, my mother’s aunt-by-marriage stayed connected with us. We continued to travel to Colorado each summer to be with Sheila and her kids, all closer to my sisters’ age than to my mother’s. Thus my cousins-once-removed became my only cousins: neither my mother nor father had siblings. Not true – both had half-siblings, though the connection was faint and there was not much love between them.

At the celebration dinner, Sheila told the story of her very fast and intense courtship with Henry. I think Henry chose Sheila because she radiated love, and he wanted some of that.  They quickly had five children, which Sheila has described as some of the happiest years of her life.  When my children were small, those were some of the most difficult years of my life because I lacked the patience. Or maybe I lacked the confidence it takes to slow down and be on toddler time.

I don’t think Sheila needed confidence or patience as much because she had so much love.

Here’s what I learned on this weekend trip. I learned that love is a choice that I sometimes refuse to make. I retreat into judgmentalism, a trick analytical people use to stay in their heads and defend their positions. I learned that I’d rather be loving than judgmental.

I have decades of unnecessary harshness towards others that I wish I could erase. It’s wonderful that as we get older we can learn to be better, stronger, softer, wiser. It makes it hurt all that much more, though, that I didn’t know and couldn’t do then what I hope I know and can do now. The stakes feel even higher: there’s less time to get it right. There are decades of habits and layers of defenses. I learned well how to judge and withhold love.

On Friday night, the first night of Sheila’s birthday celebration, I spent the evening catching up with the cousins and their kids, who are close in age to my own kids. It was great fun to see them becoming their adult selves. I did not avoid my sister at the gathering, but I didn’t seek her out either. I just didn’t care. Though I hadn’t seen her in a year and had talked with her only a few times since then, I felt little desire to connect. There’s a long history there of alienation.

I assume that I love my sister, even though I do not wish to spend much time with her. I don’t feel the love, and I don’t seek to increase the connection. I did try to do that, for years, and when it ended badly in all sorts of ways, I just gave up.

I don’t know what happens to love then. I don’t know if we love less, or we just let the love settle underground, some place safe where we can’t really feel it but it lives nonetheless.

I have begun to question what love is. Is love when we like someone and hold values together and spend time nurturing each other? Or is love something that’s built on experience, on years of living together, of family ties, and it’s something that can’t be destroyed because it’s just there, like it or not?

I know I love the people that I love. I have no difficulty telling them that I love them. But I don’t feel that love so much. I don’t wake in the morning and feel love in my heart. That’s a choice. I could focus my awareness anywhere I want.

On Saturday morning, I took a Nia class in Denver. When I’m a student and not the teacher, I can close my eyes and go inside and just dance. That morning, as in many Nia classes in which I’ve been a student, I had a moment of clarity, deep and profound, a knowing that does not come from my analytical mind and cannot be ignored. With this knowing, I felt a sense of grief and then calm. The root of my judgmentalism is there in my history, and seeing its source, I lighten. This is the bright side of an analytical mind – just explain it to me! Just let me see what it really is and why it is. Once I understand something, I am free to move beyond it.

A friend told me recently that I don’t need to feel love for someone to act with compassion toward that person. What a relief it is to not have to search for that feeling of love. For some people, it probably comes easily. For some people, like Sheila, love radiates and spreads and informs everyone around that person. I am not those people. I come from the line of Henry, addicts, alcoholics, insomniacs, who are depressed and grumpy and judgmental and smart and smarting.

Like Henry, I married a partner who finds it much easier to love (and to sleep and to avoid addictions). My husband is less judgmental and demanding than I am. Sometimes, when I want to know if I’m normal, I think, what would Hugh do? (One of Sheila’s grandchildren admitted the same thing, offering wondering not WWJD but What Would Grandma Do?)

If I eat a huge meal and feel regret, I think, well, does Hugh regret when he eats big? No, he’d just say his belly hurt and then absolutely forget about it. It’s just food. It was just a meal, not a judgment on someone’s worth. Like, how ridiculous that would be if eating a bunch of cookies was the measure of a man? 

If I plan a workout but decide not to do it and feel really lazy and guilty, I think, well, would Hugh feel bad? Fuck no. If I don’t call my mother every week, am I a terrible daughter? Hugh rarely called his folks, and he never really thought about it. If they wanted to talk to him, they could call him. I’m not saying whatever my husband does is optimal. It’s just not tortured.

I have several core beliefs, absolutely messed up beliefs that do me no good. I believe I am a bad person, and I believe that whatever I do will never be enough.  If I help someone, that’s good, but I could have done more and I should have done more. If I worked hard, I look for the ways I could have and should have worked harder. If this were simply seeking self-actualization, perhaps it would be a positive force toward personal improvement. But really it’s just a way to lash myself and reinforce my inherent not-good-ness. It is an incredibly selfish and self-conscious worldview. It is me connecting to myself, over and again, in a loop, ruminating on my faults and wishing desperately to defend myself. Well, I will never be enough. So be it. Now let’s get on with things! Now I can focus on enjoying my moments and being kind and loving to the people that I love and valuing connection. I can focus on knowing what I value and living those values.

I hadn’t written this blog for 18 months, I’d said, because I wasn’t sure anyone cared to read what I had to say. But it’s more than that. I know others have feelings and experiences that I have had, and sometimes reading about it in others makes us feel less lonely. Writing is one way to connect. I wasn’t writing this blog because I couldn’t get past my frustration with focusing on myself. I would write about myself and then, oh, lordy, I am boring myself with myself. I am so tired of me being me.

But now I also hold a tiny strand of hope: what if I turn away from a few of the habits that hold me down? What if I embrace a slightly kinder way of being in the world? What if I gave fewer fucks about all sorts of things, including whether I am enough or I do enough? I have this terrible and limiting core belief, and what if I treated it like no big deal? Stop giving it so much power. Stop ruminating on it. Stop feeding it. Just notice it, wave hello every now and then, oh, there you are, and move on. I will never be good enough. Yeah, yeah, that’s the human condition. What else you got on deck for today? Nothing to see here. Move along.

I will never have the shining love light that Sheila has. It’s just not my constitution. I will always be analytical and by extension judgmental. Next up: I can catch myself in the act and shut it down when it’s not doing me and my loved ones any good. It might take me a few decades of practice, and if I’m lucky, I’ve got time. I’ll start now.

May I make it to 90 years old, and may I look back at all my years with gratitude and love. May I become less depressed and anxious with each year. May I connect more where it’s important. May I live on compassion when love fails me.