Six Degrees of Virtue: Hypocrites Au Naturel

The dexterity with which we distance ourselves from others can be quite amazing. In conversation with a friend I said, “I never wear makeup or style my hair.” I said it as a matter of pride, as if it were a display of moral fortitude, that I had somehow defied the cultural norm and become a rebel without mascara. She looked askance at me and said “When was the last time you dyed your hair?” I burst out laughing at my foolishness.

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My little glass house is surely less breakable than yours.

“I don’t eat at McDonald’s.” McDonald’s either has a subversive, brilliant marketing strategy or we are very adept at maintaining our delusions. Being seen in that line waiting for our Big Mac and mouth burning apple pie has become as shameful as being caught looking at internet porn and just as tantalizing. The trap has been baited. But I resist, piously eating salads at restaurants…garnished in booze-soaked chicken, 15 kinds of cheese and a dollop of sour cream. The lies we tell ourselves…

“I don’t shop at Walmart.” This is one of my favorite bits of hypocrisy. Walmart has become synonymous with cheap goods, bad employment practices and cruel photos on the internet. But look at other retailers – cheap goods, shoddy employment practices and horrendous customer service. Don’t bother placating yourself – you shop at some version of Walmart. By the way, if you’re taking unflattering pictures of people in public for the sole purpose of mocking them on the internet, you’re wearing a whole lot of ugly.

“I never read those rags in the checkout aisle.” If you watch the news, welcome to the world of tell-all, celebrity gossip and likely unverified information. We’ve gone garbage info writ large. At least the tattler magazines know what they are – and that might make them slightly more virtuous than CNN or MSNBC. I rarely watch the evening news, but wow, when did Twitter users become unpaid reporters for the networks? I do not care what Bitsy Palmer from Michigan thinks about a murder trial (sorry Bitsy), although she is quickly becoming more reliable than the news anchors.

“I don’t allow my child to watch a lot of television.” Although 2 hours of Minecraft, hunched over that laptop she begged and begged for is edifying. Or maybe you’ve hypnotized your captive non-mobile infant with Baby Einstein videos while you are similarly hypnotized by Facebook postings of cute kittens or the cause of the moment. Sometimes we’re sick of being interactive with creatures that are still fascinated by their own fingers or by any jokes involving bodily functions. Your child isn’t going to grow up to cure cancer just because he is learning how to put mixing bowls on his head instead of watching Sesame Street.

“I don’t use Facebook.” Yes, I’m a real diva with this one. Somehow, your time-wasting efforts are so much worse than my Netflix marathons or flipping through a yoga magazine wondering why anyone would wear white yoga pants before or after Labor Day – or skim reading blog posts while simultaneously giving myself a pedicure. Let’s face it, none of us are even slightly making the world a better place with these activities. They may help us unwind or breathe for moment or just entertain us away from unpleasant realities, but time-wasting isn’t particularly qualitative and eventually, may I burn in hell, I will have to use Facebook to promote a book. My first Facebook comments from friends will be high on ridicule and mockery.

“I hate tropes and stereotypes.” I walk a very fine line with this one. As a writer, the trick is to learn how to describe something without stereotypical and cliched phrases. As a human, it’s our go-to assessment, depending on our personal prejudices. When I hear the words hunter, or wealthy or diet from someone’s mouth, my mind immediately fills with assumptions about ethics, morals or intelligence. Knowing it is likely that I am wrong is useful, but it doesn’t stop the thoughts. As for tropes, if I hear the phrases “check your privilege”, “rape culture” or “So this happened” one more time, my brain will implode. Yes, overuse does dilute meaning and impact. Just like calling everyone who disagrees with you a Nazi or a socialist. Check your historical and political science definitions, please.

I acknowledge my hypocrisy because it makes me less likely (one would hope) to condemn others for theirs. It’s a complicated world and humans are complex, inconsistent beings. As a parent and a woman, I have often heard that tone. The “I would never do that” tone. People call each other names and do their best to set themselves not just apart, but above others. I’ve got bad news for them: your virtue is not unassailable, but that’s okay. It just kind of makes you a jerk. Like the rest of us.

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The Green Lounge: Write As You Are

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I’ve been a high-functioning depressive the last few weeks or, as we like to call it this winter, a Minnesotan. My compulsion to write was solidly trumped by the pleasure of not writing – just doing and being and making sure I got plenty of sleep and coffee, although not in close proximity to one another. I did a little paid work, volunteered a lot and walked aimlessly around my neighborhood, in the hopes of feeling more centered and feeding my pale, starving cells some vitamin D.

I’m still off-center and we just got snow-blitzed again.

So I drag myself, with some difficulty, to the keyboard. But I know that if I keep typing, eventually I will wonder why I ever stopped.

My old job needed me back temporarily to train a new manager. I met with her in a coffee shop last week. She was put together – groomed, French-tipped nails, makeup, fitted clothes. I, on the other hand, have spent a winter or four devolving into a schlump. But I was on time, despite getting lost on the way to a place where I’d been only a week before. Timeliness seems to be the only level of professionalism that I’ve maintained since I started working from home nearly 8 years ago.

I kept staring at her nails. My hands, dried and split from cold weather and housework, look something akin to a prize fighter’s. I used to try. Now I dress like Mr. Rogers, comfortable, interchangeable, squishy clothes. I used to wear business suits from Talbot’s. I used to wear mascara. I loved my business suits. It was like having a uniform. I’ve always had a thing for uniforms…on myself. Now, if I’d only hear my inner monologues in a sexy foreign accent, I’d be irresistible to me.

April is like a re-set month for me. Long after people have made and discarded New Year’s resolutions, April is a month of optimism. I do have to admit, though, that this year my April optimism is more like that thin layer of fluffy white snow that covers piles of half-melted dirty snow. Looks nice, but a little sunlight melts the pretty snow to reveal the grotty, depressing truth.

I rang in my 14th wedding anniversary by arguing with my husband on the way to a restaurant. Since we rarely argue, this made it a truly special occasion. My daughter will celebrate her first double digit birthday soon and next month, I will officially become a soccer mom. That used to be a thing, didn’t it? Are politicians still falling over themselves pandering to soccer moms? As usual, I suspect that I might be a day late and a dollar short to that political trend.

I’ve been reading a lot, both off and online – a silent reader on many of your blogs. Online reading is sometimes like jumping from shiny object to shiny object like a crazed magpie, so I returned to books. It is virtuous to say that I read for enlightenment, but sometimes it’s detached curiosity about how other people think.

I read intellectuals only to find that personal experience informs nearly every statistical and theoretical approach. In a data-driven world, it’s good to remember that the human experience is always subject to interpretation and the search for truth, for order, for rationality is unending. And even if you are very, very smart, it is unlikely that you are ever completely intelligent.

Offbeat, quirky books caught my eye at the library. I started reading Essays by Wallace Shawn (a playwright, but mostly known for his role in “The Princess Bride”) and have already come upon something to mull over.

“My congenital inability to take the concept of the inviolable “self” seriously – my lack of certainty about who I am, where I am and what my “characteristics” are – has led me to a certain skepticism, a certain detachment, when people in my vicinity are reviling the evil and the alien Other, because I feel that very easily I could become that Other, and so could the reviler. And this has had an effect on my view of the world.”                                                                               Wallace Shawn

I read this shortly after reading an article on Rwanda – a story about forgiveness between a family and the murderer of some of their members. We often hear tales like this and it brings to mind the nature of forgiveness, something I’ve written about here. While compassion should rule the day, I’m not convinced that I could just as easily wield a machete against an unarmed family as be an unarmed family. Maybe a little evil-reviling is okay.

This is a lot of words in which I say very little. So this post is a thank you and an apology. I’m writing again. Thanks for reading. Sorry that I had to do this post to make that happen. It’s a warm up to regular writing. It’s the only thing that is warm here.

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Empathy, Then Sympathy, Then Silence

canstockphoto13935158Stymied by too much reading and introspection, speaking or writing aloud seems particularly difficult this week. I just finished reading Anna Quindlen’s Loud and Clear. She’s a writer and journalist who wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times for many years and won a Pulitzer. She was characterized by cultural critic, Lee Siegel, as being a “monster of empathy” and one of the first “Queens of Nice” writers. I like and identify with her writing. It’s a monsters’ ball.

Lately, I’ve been running smack dab up against insecurities and doubts and fear when I try to write. Much has to do with the fact that I’m reading so much of others’ works, as well as the comments and criticism of those works. I wonder that I am not made of hardier stock, that I can’t storm the barricades with whatever banner I’ve chosen to wave without quickly falling back under the onslaught of criticism. Maybe because I am never certain that I am correct, that whatever cause I’m supporting isn’t subject to criticism, isn’t subject to question. I question everything. And most of all, myself.

Is this questioning, by another name, simply insecurity? Part of me says that it is cowardice. Self-awareness can be useful – one is aware of the fallacy of insulated thinking, of white privilege, of gender perspective, of seeing the world through the lens of one’s own experiences. I read several essays on writing about trauma, transracial and gender writing that really made me think about this blog and about my fiction writing offline.

Before I entered the world of blogging, I was less aware of the many unique issues that humans deal with on a very personal level. Much like the media focusing on the horrors of living on this planet, it has skewed my perspective and shaken me up a bit. I never saw myself as a label, always feeling like I was a little out of step with the rest of the world. Perception versus reality. Feelings versus statistics.

I thought that I was an empathetic person, able to vividly imagine being in the shoes of someone else, but lately, I’ve come to doubt even that. People who have been forced to declare and define themselves, through adversity and trauma and illness, have something to hold onto – they wish they didn’t, but it’s something. It is a form of clarity I do not have and it has rendered me a gelatinous blob, sliding this way and that depending on the cause of the moment, the news of the day.

What can one write about that isn’t superficial and silly? I’ve trotted out my abusive childhood enough times. I’ve blabbed about my parenting and military experiences. It’s not edifying or enlightening or nearly gory enough, nor can it make the world a better place. Shouldn’t there be a point to it, this angsty, masturbatory blathering? In my head, the answer is resounding silence and the next thought is: so just shut it.

The field has leveled for me and I see nothing in this direction or that worth writing about – somebody else is already doing it. Doing it better. Doing it with feeling. Doing it because it is their experience, in their DNA, in their history. Is it time for those of us who lead ordinary, unremarkable and common lives to stop talking about ourselves? Aren’t there lives to be saved? Children to be rescued? Wars to be stopped? What meaning can this cultural morass of blogging have in a world riddled by tragedy?

The minute you take up a cause that isn’t inherently yours, no matter what your intent, what level your passion, there is somebody to scream cultural appropriation! – white privilege! – middle class! – anti-feminist! -man-hater! -faux intellectual! Sit down and shut up. This is not your cause. You cannot relate. You do not know what you are talking about – stop riding our train.

So I write patter. I write nice. I write about kids and malls and my mood of the moment. I write about feelings in a world that takes delight in mocking them. I become a monster of sympathy, because nothing is my right to say. I become worse than the silent majority. I become a talking jellyfish.

I started this piece thinking that I’d eventually arrive at the conclusion that ordinary people need to have a voice, so that we don’t think the entire world is made up of victims and sociopaths. I thought I’d figure out what I was really doing here, that what I write is worth placing in a public forum and not better hidden in a private journal. I am waiting for Godot, arguing with myself in vain. And that’s not saying much. Again.

The Green Study will be on hiatus until April 1st. By then, I hope the inspiration of spring will relieve me of this grumpy blogging nihilism.

Best wishes,

MichelleSig copy

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Outliers: Contradictions Us All

canstockphoto13625435It’s a strange world in which we all strive so hard to be unique and special and identifiable, but quickly revert to the thems and theys when describing entire groups of other humans. If pushed on our own deeply-held stereotypes, we’d be quick to crumble to the idea of exceptions to every rule – that there are Republicans with compassion and Democrats with morals. That women can be tough, but kind and men tender, but powerful. That people without children can lead fulfilling lives and that large families can be healthy and functional. That someone can dance to Beyoncé, but still adore a good translation of Candide.

Many of us like to believe that we’re so completely different from other humans that we’re outliers. The term outlier can be statistically specific, but in this context, it is more about the mental distance felt between you and everyone else. This is where it gets curious. Talk to any single human being on this planet long enough and you will learn some eccentric proclivity, some lint-collecting hobby, or that they suffered an incredible trauma or god forbid, none at all, or mostly that they feel like they don’t fit in with the mainstream.

Who is the mainstream? Who represents this majority? Is it the media? Is it the mass of consumers that purchase certain products or gobble up celebrity news like popcorn? On an individual basis, we all seem just a little strange. Yet we can’t all be outliers, since it would defy the actual meaning of the word.

I think it is tough to feel like an outlier when you don’t have any recognizable skills. I’m not a genius. I have no affinity for intensive study of a single subject. I don’t have much in the way of material goods or a stunning appearance. It’s easy to justify being odd when you have a talent, or a lot of money or something socially quantifiable and admirable. Without those things, you’re just a weirdo.

I am a weirdo when it comes to the mainstream culture. I usually see movies that are 10 years or older, when people finally shut up about them – but I know the soundtracks. I never read books recommended by Oprah. I don’t pay attention to fashion. I don’t worry about my appearance (oh yeah, you can tell). I like punching more than dancing, mashed potatoes more than chocolate, and I love it when I have to order a book through inter-library loan because nobody the hell else is interested in it.

I can sing most of the lyrics by the Kingston Trio and I don’t watch commercial television. I have a tattoo that I got when I was sober and middle-aged. I think most subjects are interesting, but only if I discover them. If there’s a buzz about something, I won’t take a second look. I’m a purposeful contrarian. My daughter is much the same. Nature or nurture?

As a parent and wife and PTO mom living in suburbia, I look like a stereotype, except that those stereotypes don’t exist except as a superficial way for us to judge and categorize each other. The real commonalities between humans are beneath the outer trappings. It’s those fleeting moments of clarity that remind us we’re all in the same boat, flailing about trying to connect with other humans so that we don’t feel so alone or afraid. It’s the bare bones truth beneath it all. Everything else is just a different color of paint.

There is plenty of advice about cultivating compassion for oneself and ostensibly for others. But maybe it is better to start slow and cultivate curiosity about each other first. Humans are interesting, but we are not omniscient. Nothing can or should be assumed about someone’s intelligence or kindness or intent or background. We can ask questions. We can start a conversation. We can stop baring our teeth at the first hint of disagreement. We can stare wide-eyed, with mindful ears and generous hearts. And maybe we can stop the pretense that we’re not connected, on this blue-green island of misfit humans.

This post was inspired by the post Meanwhile… by Wyrd Smythe at Logos con carne . He had several poignant observations about aging, his sense of being an outlier and floundering about in the blogging world. It reminded me of a message that needs to be said out loud. 

             

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The Long, Long Winter of Our Discontent

canstockphoto1508295Mornings seem grim these days. The sun may be shining brightly, but many of us are buckling down in our ice-encrusted houses waiting out this unending winter.

I woke up worn out by a dream that played over and over again. I witness a car accident. The car is on its side, in flames. I’m standing in a crowd and see a man trying to climb out through the car window. People all around me pull out their cellphones to dial 911. I rush forward, trying to pull the man up and out of the burning car. I drag him to safety while talking myself through a fireman’s carry.

People are still talking on their cell phones. They may have been taking pictures. I’m tired, coughing from all the smoke and I notice there is a second person in the car. I start begging people to help me. I do not think I can save this person on my own. No one helps. I awaken, frustrated, desperate and depressed.

For the umpteenth morning in a row, it’s below zero with a windchill factor in the negative double digits. We are supposed to get more snow today, which really means nothing. The frozen tundra of our urban landscape, melt-off frozen into sheets of ice on the roads, means the ice will be more slippery, if that’s even possible. We’ll go through the motions – ice skating lessons, workouts at the Y, grocery shopping. I’ll notice, with a dull glumness that we’ve tracked more salt in across the rugs that I’ve cleaned for the millionth time.

The washer is broken. We apparently purchased a washer running on alien technology, since no one had the $20 parts we needed to make the fix. They are coming from the UK and no longer cost $20. Piles of snow outside, piles of laundry inside. I try to rally, picking away at small projects, trying to at least keep the rest of the household caught up. I’m a third day in the same jeans.

I have seed catalogs, but even they fail to brighten my spirits. I know that long before the planting, there will be weeks of tree trimming, soil amendment, fence re-staining. They’ll be different chores than the winter tasks and will seem better for being outdoors, but it’s hard to imagine now.  As much as I try to enjoy the winter landscape with ice skating and cross country skiing, I know I am a visitor in the hostile lands of the White Witch, who would rather freeze me where I stand than allow me to luxuriate in the beauty.

I’ve often said that I like living in the upper midwest. I like definitive seasons. We used to make jokes about snow birds who fled to Florida and Arizona. I understand them now, even in middle age. The joints move more gently, the skin doesn’t dry out and crack, the spirits don’t flag starting in early February from the long brittle days and the nights when the furnace can barely keep up with the plummeting temperatures.

The brain is going wobbly, leaping from one morose thought to another. My husband turns 50 this year and it hits me that even if he’s lucky enough to live long, he’ll die in the next 50. That I am three years younger has padded me mentally against having the same thought for myself. My thoughts continue along this path and I snort at my nearly comedic desolation.

canstockphoto0278524With a sigh, I pull myself up out of the reading chair, lift the window shade and see the drifting of large snowflakes to the ground. The furnace grunts and kicks on, seeming as fed up with winter as the rest of us. Thank goodness that winter is much like the pain of childbirth – forgotten once life begins. Spring will wipe the slate clean, our relief more like gratitude than a simple change of season.

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Putting Off Writing: Writing about Other Bloggers

canstockphoto16703797I was fired up this morning, having gotten a full meal of States Gone Wild. Yes, I’m talking about you, Arizona and gun reactionaries in Arkansas and Florida (again). I’m too mad to write a coherent post about them. Plus, the sun is out and I don’t want to be mad all day long. Instead, I’m going to write about you. Well, some of you. I’d be here all day long if I wrote about every one of the lovely bloggers I’ve met in the last couple of years. So please don’t take offense if I haven’t included you in this particular post.

First of all, here are some terrific blogs I’ve run across recently:

The Last Half: Eclectic, offbeat and occasionally profane. I’ve enjoyed a random reading of her posts over the last week. I love blogs that run on brain power.

Almost Iowa: Gentle humor, close to home. Found him through a funny MIA blogger that has recently come back to life, ad-libbed.

True Boots: I found this blog through Freshly Pressed. This writer has a dizzying array of life experiences that make for interesting and edifying reading.

musing: A book lover’s oasis – this is a lit journal out of Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, owned by Karen Hayes and Ann Patchett (yes, THE Ann Patchett). It has book recommendations and lovely interviews by authors. I learned about this site from its editor, Mary Laura Philpott, the writer at I Miss You When I Blink.

There are couple of bloggers that I’d like to say a few things about:

Ruth Rainwater at New Beginnings and Gratitude Journal: Since 2012, Ruth has been a kind reader and an erudite commenter on this blog. She is also a writer and has participated in NaNoWriMo. Late in 2013, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 adenocarcinoma. I consider her a friend, even if it is only online. What strikes me about Ruth is that despite the harrowing and painful challenges of treatment, she is, as I have come to expect, a person who roots out the positive, doesn’t wallow for too long and gets on with things. Many of us get flattened by the smallest of challenges – I like that there are people who lead by example. Thanks, Ruth.

Kathryn Sparks at kiwsparks: I tend to be drawn towards writing-focused blogs, but Kathryn’s posts really add color to my reader. She does fabulous illustrations, poetry and commentary that shows her gentle sense of humor and curiosity about the world around her. She recently released a book Miss Kitty’s Fabulous Emporium of Magical Thinking: Drawings & Other Artworks, Tall Tales and Weird Creatures (Volume 1). She is also a generous reader and commenter. Thank you, Kathryn.

Here are some shorter thank-yous, but only in length, not intention:

Thank you to S. Smith for your lovely notes to myself and my daughter. We served to be the worst Beta readers ever, but your 3rd book, Heirloom, in the Seed Savers series did not suffer for our procrastination. Your kindnesses have not been forgotten, but I think I’ve established that I’m a procrastinator!

Thank you to Honie Briggs. I’ve missed your witty repartee, but I know you’ve been busy accomplishing big things offline. Thank you so much for your generosity following NaNoWriMo 2012. Wine and chocolate were never so delightfully received!

Gratitude to Dave over at 1pointperspective. Every day I get to see the talented drawing on the wall above my desk – a depraved Easter Bunny. Some shit is just funny. Thanks so much for the repeated amusement!

Thank you to a lovely friend, Sandy Sue, over at A Mind Divided. It turns out the world is a small place and we have a lot in common. Her emails and quirky cards have made the blogosphere a friendlier place to be.

There are many more bloggers, writers, artists and photographers that I could thank here, but my attention span is even shorter than yours.

◊ ◊ ◊

I have noticed over this winter that longstanding blogging buddies are beginning to fade. This seems to be a natural occurrence in the lifespan of a blog, but I am rallying for another busy writing year and I value the community here – it keeps me from going completely nutters writing on my own.

This is my version of the Obligatory, Self-Congratulatory 2 Year Anniversary Post (January). Thank you so much to the readers and commenters who have taken the time to read, like or comment on posts. And now, we return to our regularly scheduled programming. Maybe not now now, but later for sure. Eventually.

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Love is Not Smothering…with a Pillow

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????People like to write a lot about love and romance. Not I. One of my goals as a writer over the next year is to write outside my comfort zone, no matter how awkward or sappy or…no, just awkward.

No one has ever accused me of being overly romantic or sentimental. And frankly, you just don’t know, when push comes to shove, if you will make it through the endless night of the man cold without rolling over and gently, but firmly pressing your memory foam pillow to his face, until the tuberculosis-like hacking and wheezing of snot becomes a blanket of comforting warm silence. You just never know.

I’ve spent most of my life getting this love thing wrong. I’m an impatient person, so I rarely waited to be asked out on a date. As soon as I spotted the most unlikely suspect for a love match, I was on the case. A drunk? Awesome – I could work out my daddy issues. Religious zealot? Super – we could have wildly guilty premarital sex. A polygamist at heart? Fan-tabulous- really adds that competitive edge that we women lack.

Even at 46, I’m pretty sure I’m still relatively clueless in the love department. Getting married and having a child seems rather accidental to me and on occasion, a little surprising. I stopped believing in the one after I met a couple or ten of those. As much as I’d like to re-write the narrative of my courting and marriage, it was a linear story, if not slightly awkward. Sounds unromantic, doesn’t it?

If you’re young and gravity hasn’t taken its toll, your love is unwrinkled, shiny and new. I didn’t marry young. By the time I even remotely imagined settling down with one person, I was quite cynical – and tired. My future husband was easy – even-tempered, kind, consistent, sober, funny and smart. I felt happy when I saw him and while I worked out all my relationship angst, he remained a calm and generous partner.

When I hear love songs or read the occasional romance (just for the sex scenes, of course), I wonder at this idea of fiery, sustained passion – this desperate feeling of not being whole or being a sacrificial lamb to love. And now that I’m at the mid-point of life, I’ve forgotten what that felt like. And it’s a damned good thing. Like the flip side of any emotion, passion involves drama and I just cannot do drama. It’s exhausting.

Lately, we’ve been trading off maladies, neither one of us ever in top form. My eyes, the flu, work irritations, scheduling conflicts. Our daughter is flourishing, although suffering from the micromanagement of people parenting an only child. We discuss house projects and schedules and relatives’ health. We laugh a lot. We drift in the tide of daily trivialities, closer and farther, farther and closer.

On occasion, I’ll look at him as if from a stranger’s eyes and my heart fills with gratitude and warmth and yes, love. Our life is a smorgasbord of joyous times and dull moments, tedious conversation and that of two people who can’t wait to tell each other something. Familiar sweatpants-wearing couch potatoes and formal, polite strangers. People in their 50th year of marriage or awkward newlyweds.

There are always those occasions that make me wonder if we are supposed to be more intense, more romantic, but those gestures, those sentimental soliloquies happen throughout the year. I nearly wept with joy when he fixed the washer last week, flinging my arms around him in a spontaneous gesture of gratitude. We thank each other a lot – not just for big moments, but for the little kindnesses that make our life together easier, more pleasant and more enjoyable.

canstockphoto5793629As I’ve grown older, although not exponentially wiser, I like being with someone who makes me want to be a better version of me. Not because he’s critical or judgmental, but because he’s a good person who deserves to be with someone who doesn’t take him or our life together for granted. Maybe that’s what love is for me. It’s not a sacrifice or a roller coaster ride or fiery, exhausting passion. It’s how I show gratitude for this fellow traveler who likes walking next to me, no matter where we journey.

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