Saturday, April 25, 2015

Silver Bullets, Wool Coats, and Love

The last afternoon before spring vacation, an assembly at the middle school where I work made me cry. Technically, the assembly was full of announcements and reminders about cleaning out their lockers before going on vacation, about not texting at school, and about the upcoming construction project at the school which will require patience, obedience, and flexibility on everyone’s part.

If it were just announcements, I wouldn’t have found myself tearing up. All of this information was presented in a series of short funny videos that teachers had made. The final one was a music video of various teachers lip-synching to Wilson Phillips “Hold on For One More Day.” It was absurd and beautiful and filled with the joy that these teachers find and make among their students.

We rarely see the love that holds the world together, that shapes our lives. Those hundred seventh and eighth graders have no concept of how dearly their teachers love them, what joy they have in teaching them. And it is too heavy and strange a thing to place on students to say: “we are here for you, we are rooting for you, we love how and who you are now, and how and who you will be later.” You can’t say that in a way they will understand. But you can take a few hours and create a video and make them laugh and feel safe. And that is something the same as love.

A week or so after that middle school assembly, I was in the hospital, visiting my dad. With the fresh recognition that most actions worth noting are an articulation and permutation of love, I began to see the tubes of medicine and oxygen pumping into his ailing self as some medical transmogrification of love. What the flowers on the windowsill said was love, the pictures on the wall, the cards, the strangeness of his own prayers over each course of drugs, the nervous, hopeful footsteps of his visiting friends, his ability to still make jokes with his daughters, his own need for my mom to hold his hand until he slept and to write down all his plans for their house—all of it was love being poured into different shapes and containers.

Lately, my favorite line from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is when Emily revisits her twelfth birthday and, with the poetic clarity of a dead character, can see the amorphous, omnipresent love imbued in every mundane word and gesture and action on an ordinary morning. “So,” she sobs, “all of that was going on and we never noticed…”

It’s hard to notice, all the time. And, much as I might hope otherwise, I know that love is so deeply buried under all sorts of other harder emotions and motivations that we need mining gear and scuba suits to find it. But I believe love is there, is always there, and going on all the time if only we can believe it.

I think of love much like I think of the limited, shifting, innumerable molecules of known elements in this world. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, and nor is love. Like the twisting chains of molecules that become a leaf, a robin, a plastic i.v. bag of saline, an ocean, so love morphs and grows and braids among everything that is and was.

Love, though, is not a panacea. A chirpy video does not insulate middle school students from the personal struggle of adolescence. Love in all its many forms and immeasurable volume, and from so many hearts, did not keep my dad alive.

Still, it is the best thing we have. Love doesn’t halt or erase the awfulness of life. Rather, love highlights and is the wonderfulness of it all. Love is a thick wool coat against the cold, not a stopping of the howling winds.

In these first weeks of learning how to live with a Dad-sized hole in my life, I am trying to be better at seeing all the love that is always going on. I want to use my words and actions and life to wrap around who and what I love so that fewer sharp or icy or unwelcome troubles touch them. I want to be patient and grateful and dig deep to see the love underneath everything. Following another line of Wilder’s advice, I hope to slow down and take the time to look at everyone, knowing how little time we have. I know I will fail and fall down on this task, but I trust that I will always rise up and try again another day.

One morning in the hospital, my dad was opening a sheaf of cards that had just arrived. “Jesus Christ,” he joked with his singular gleam in the eye and glittering chuckle, “I can’t possibly owe this many people money…they must actually like me.”

Let’s no longer wait for the crises and eleventh hours to wrap each other up in love. Love may not be going anywhere, and will not stop the winds outright, but we will not always be here to say and do what we might, however the words come out of our hearts and minds and hands.

My wonderful dad, bull-trout riding in Missoula, Montana, in 2009.

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