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My Life In Thirteen Love Lessons

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Lesson #1 Age two. My emotions are intense and jangled. One minute, I am toddling, smiling, bounding with joy; the next, I am weepy and frustrated, exploding with knit brows and tiny pounding fists. But my dominant emotion is love, love for all things—especially my parents. They are gods whom I adore. They compose my world. And every cell of my tiny two-year-old body fills with warmth when I see them. Compassion is instant. The moment is all I understand.
 
Lesson #2 Age six. I want to marry my dad—his rough, whiskery face and tousled dark hair, his smell of car oil, flannel, and pine. My mother explains that one day I will have my own husband, someone who is not my dad. I can pick any man I want, just not my dad. I raise an eyebrow. I wonder who. There is a sudden disconnect in me that I cannot name. No one else exists but him. Or … what does my mother mean? I grow somewhat anxious, dismayed, but I can’t name these feelings yet. They blink hot in me and fade.
 
Though, maybe wanting to marry my dad is more a wish to be just like my mom. I watch her hands mix ground black pepper into meatloaf in an old bowl that once belonged to my great-grandmother. My mother’s fingers are lean and long, and her hands are always cold. The zing and musk of her perfume soothes me, and my love for her abounds.
 
Eventually her belly starts to grow big with the weight of my baby sister. I worry her love for me will grow smaller. And that hot blink of a feeling in my side, then my temple, returns.
 
Lesson #3 Age nine. My sister is two, toddling and loving the world as I once had. I am older, though; by now, I’ve learned that human love is transient.

I write poetry that fills the pocket-sized, canvas-covered notebook my father brought from work for me. I’ve had four years of Catholic schooling, and I’ve internalized everything I’ve learned about religion—that Jesus died for our sins; that his love is more profound than any love we can experience here on earth. I am so excited by the thought that there is a man “up there” who loves us so much he would sacrifice his only son. I scribble across endless pages preaching God’s love in poetry.
 
Lesson #4 Age ten. My little sister’s goldfish dies. As we flush Goldie down the toilet, she wails and screams after it, I love you, Goldie! She sobs and sobs. I look on, wondering why things die. I feel a strange ache in my belly that rises up to my chest. It doesn’t feel good, and I watch to see if my mother might be feeling the same. But she guides my sister out of the bathroom, gently rubbing the top of her head, and looks as though she’s done this a hundred times. A year later, my guinea pig dies. I begin to realize my parents can’t keep things from dying. And I grow vaguely afraid of thoughts about my parents moving away to heaven.
 
Lesson #5 Age sixteen. My first boyfriend breaks my heart. Or maybe I broke his. And then begins the era of romantic love and heartbreak. It is not one I wish to repeat at any age.
 
Lesson #6 Age twenty-two. I love a man, and I lose myself in that love. I vow never to let that happen again. It happens again—age twenty-nine, age thirty-three.
 
Lesson #7 Age thirty-three. I escape my broken heart by moving to Italy. I fall in love with a small town in Umbria that’s surrounded by lush mountains, cypress trees, olive groves—all bristling with hues of rose, sage, lavender, golden and shimmering. I remember the first time I’d discovered the slightly metallic underbelly of an olive leaf. Being in this town ushers a different kind of love—one that reaches to my core, my very being, and shows me a self that is more whimsical, more passionate, more appetitive and loving, more than anything I’ve been in any human relationship. Leaving here creates in me a unique kind of heartbreak.
 
I’ve spent time filming the inhabitants of a tiny, dying hill town. I love each one of them—their stories, their songs, the fabrics they create, and the food they make from scratch and serve to me, eagerly anticipating my approval. When I return to the States to seek funding to finish my film, I meet a man. This time, no losing myself.
 
But then …
 
Lesson #8 Age thirty-six. I become pregnant. My body is surging with new life. Hormones wreck my mood and my appetite. I love the man who is the father of this child. We vow never to ruin our love with expectation or fear. We are filled with the sense that miracles happen, and this newfound abundance in our lives makes us radiate with love—for ourselves, for others, for people who have hurt us in the past. We forgive; we are joyful. At work, in our cubicles, we beam like radiant orbs. We return to his postage-stamp apartment in the evenings to cook together and glow and stare at each other in disbelief.  
 
Lesson #9 Age thirty-seven. My daughter is born. My breasts swell with milk. I spend a year not sleeping, and offering my tender breasts to seemingly insatiable baby-bird lips. I am full of pride. Motherhood is something I’ve waited for all my life, but the road to maternal bliss is rocky. I am often full of rage or fear or sheer exhaustion. I love selflessly. I give everything. I realize I need balance. It’s an awkward, sweet and sloppy, weeping, all-encompassing love.
 
Lesson #10 Age thirty-eight. My life no longer resembles anything I had imagined. Where are those dreamed-up serene afternoons nursing my infant daughter in a sun-dappled, white-on-white nursery?
 
Where did my love go? Perhaps it is temporarily off-line. In my dreams, there are bounty and perfection; in my life, there are flaws and disappointments, and sometimes lack. Like on the days I am too tired to be nice. I want to curl up in a ball and crawl under the covers and keep everything for myself—my time, my food, my breasts, my space, my thoughts. I walk through the world slightly miffed that I have to share it with so many annoying others—their bad grammar and misspelled words (I’m also a book editor), their cranky moods, their lack of boundaries, their lack of volume control and poor driving skills. I want them all out of my way, out of my sight. My parents push my buttons. My partner pushes them even more. My sister is no exception. 
 
In an online Buddhist magazine, I read: “The people in your life don’t get in the way of your spiritual practice; these people are your spiritual practice.”
 
And something shifts in me. What if I didn’t take on those bad boundaries and cranky people, and smile my way through the bad grammar—knowing it’s just that. Grammar. A few dangling modifiers. I can help an author find an agent and make a real impact on their lives. I can cheer up some Debbie Downer. Or sing, meditate, listen to music when I’m in traffic. What if all this has simply been a reflection of my own … lack … of love?
 
Lesson #11 Age thirty-nine. I begin to reexamine everything in my life. To morph into this new identity means leaving an old one behind. Motherhood has caused me to reassess anything I may have thought true and to recommit only to what I hold most dear. I haven’t the time for anything else. I begin to let go of old rage about parts of my life, unseen parts that have shadowed me like fighter jets. I embrace this new self that is brimming with change and growth, compassion and wholeness. Even more self-acceptance than I’d ever imagined.
 
Lesson #12 Age thirty-nine-and-a-half. My daughter turns two, and I observe her with the awe and humility of a violin student before a master—her amazing ability to overlook faults, to recover from disappointment or frustration before I can blink, to smile at me and laugh at herself when she falls, to wake in the morning with smashed hair and puffy eyes ready to throw herself into play—games, and toys, and jokes, and laughter—the way she rests warm, chubby fingers along my cheekbone if she thinks I might be down, and her particular show of delight when her father returns from work even at the end of a long day when she’s hungry, cranky, and tired. Her cheeks will flush and her eyes will sparkle. Her love can bowl me over.
 
Lesson #13 Almost forty. I remember the first time I’d heard the word infinity. I was seven, with an imagination that could catch flame like wildfire and a penchant for struggling with deep issues, like trying to grasp the concept of God. I tried to imagine things that never end. That just go and go and go into infinity. My brain stretched to understand this, but I would exhaust myself and fall asleep before I could imagine the answer. Infinity. Love always. That was something I had come to expect in my forty years. In my life. In relationships. From somewhere out there. Perhaps wrongly. I could have certainly kept steering toward what didn’t work out, what wasn’t right, what was missing. But rediscovering that access to joy I’d once had as a child with a more natural ability than for years to come, gave me back access to love. The antidote to lack. And a precious understanding that the only forever is from within.

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