Love Dilemma One: Generosity or Parsimony?

The problem with caring is that behavior matters. Ask any parent. Or, teacher.

A teenage son wrecks his car. No one is injured, but the car is totaled. He now has no car. His car insurance will go up. He has no job. Money is a concern in the household. As a parent, what would you do? What should you do?

Is there a rule book for parenting?

Let’s assume that you are a parent that really loves your teenage son. You want what is best for him and you want to see him happy. So, are you thinking long-term or short-term here? Is a life lesson with payoff years down the road worth a few weeks or months of misery, now?

Perhaps the generous thing is to buy your son another car—not necessarily a great car, just a car. License it, insure it, and present it with no strings attached.

No strings?

Is such generosity a true act of love? Or, is parsimony more responsible.

So, here is the thing. That accident means insurance goes up, way up. If the teenage son has a cheap car, insurance on that car can replace more expensive insurance on other household vehicles.

Is the decision still about the teenage son? What is best for him? Or, did it just become what is best for you, the parent? And, if so, is that bad parenting, meaning that you don’t really love your son?

Can a parent be too generous? I am asking if it is possible for a parent to give too much to a son or daughter, so much that it actually makes happiness more difficult for her/him in the future. Perhaps, parsimony is a more loving practice for parents, to mete out resources with a stingy hand.

We could explore the same dilemma between spouses, I am sure: whether ‘tis more loving to be generous with one’s husband or wife rather than frugal. I wonder if intent really matters—you know, the thought that counts. I guess I am just postulating in print what love might actually look like in human behavioral matters of the material.

Is it more loving to give a student an A than a B? Given that high school teachers now have one or two hundred students at any time, and assign many grades or scores to each student during a semester, and these grades become permanent records that affect students’ graduation, acceptance to college or military, scholarships, and even future employment, is the loving thing to do to give higher grades?

I’m sorry if these are easy questions for you. I am sorry because they are not easy for me. If you have the answers, I would like to know the reasons and rules. Because, I think love is hard, parenting is hard, marriage is hard, teaching is hard. Living a life grounded in love means living, always, on the razor’s edge of dilemma.

Maybe that is love, choosing to live on the razors edge, willing to make mistakes and bleed, and going back tomorrow for another chance. And, maybe that is the hard part of life for a survivor of traumatic stress, the vulnerability of love’s razor.

Love Remnants

It had been a very long week that May of 1988. Nancy and I had left Wisconsin in the early morning hours with my sister in her motor home headed for Arizona. The trip was unplanned but not really unexpected. Our dad had been sick—now he was sicker, and we made the decision to go get him and Mom.

We did not make it. When we stopped for fuel just across the state line in Missouri, Nancy called Mom only to find our Dad had died half an hour earlier. We continued to Yuma.

Much of that week is a blur of memory. A brother and other sisters showed up, a nephew, and my brother-in-law. We cried, laughed, and attended services for Dad at the little church in the foothills, but we did not lay him to rest. He would go home to Wisconsin.

When the arrangements had been made to send the body, we all prepared to make our ways back home. Nancy and I would ride with Mom and my sister and brother in-law in their motor home.

That was a good thing. Nancy is a natural care giver, an RN especially interested in families of the dying and deceased. She took charge.

Mom was, naturally, having trouble sleeping. Nancy suggested she wear one of Dad’s shirts to bed. We could see Mom’s face brighten. She picked out a rather plain western dress shirt Dad used to wear to church. It became Mom’s nightshirt. She slept well.

It is a simple thing, a shirt, and it does not really matter how such a thing works. Is it a trick of the mind? Is it a spiritual phenomenon? Or, both or neither? I don’t care. It works.

There is a feeling, a very real sense of closeness, which comes from wearing a loved one’s shirt. Dogs know this. They often grab a piece of clothing to hold close during a lonesome day. It is comfort.

I like to believe that love leaves tracks in things, that things people hold close and/or dear somehow hold remnants of their love as essence of their souls. I find comfort in the belief as people find comfort in the things like Dad’s shirt.

Dad did not have a lot of things. And what he had was divided among six children and many grandchildren. I have a few.

I own a two colored wildflower prints from an old book he cherished. They hang on our bathroom wall where I see them every day.

I inherited his first gun, a 16 gauge single shot he bought used. They ate rabbits and squirrels for survival during those hard times before WWII. It hangs on my brother’s wall where I put it when Nancy and I moved into our RV.
And I have his ring. Not a wedding ring, just a simple Native American silver ring with turquoise chips in an interesting design. I wear it most of the time when I am not home or doing physical labor.

It is not big, bold, or valuable. There is nothing special about it, although I do get compliments. I believe some people can see beauty beyond the visual aesthetic.

Dad loved that ring and wore it faithfully. Twenty five years later, it still keeps my father close to me. I hope I leave such love tracks in a few things to comfort those I leave behind. I hope you do, too.

Choosing Love

It ain’t easy, this love stuff. The instruction manuals are not written in English. Maybe that’s why some of us need dogs and little children to teach us how to do it. Labrador Retrievers are really good at it.

Dr. Hart counsels Combat Veterans upon the hazards of getting stuck in our combat roles. If we had a lot of responsibility in combat, we tend to take on responsibility back at home. If we had little responsibility in combat, we tend to avoid it at home.

Me? I tend to get stuck in the middle. I was a Lieutenant.

I do not like making decisions—at least, not alone. I tend to feel traumatized, as though I were still deciding who would die, or afraid I might make a mistake and the wrong people would die. Life or death choices are not for me.

I taught school and got sick every semester at grading time. Imagine how I would have done as a surgeon or emergency room physician. I couldn’t even be a paramedic although I know biology and have a knack for diagnosis and triage. So, I avoided it.

After several viewings, Forrest Gump still amazes me. He always knows what love is. He always seems to know the right thing to do—good at life, you know. Of course, when he didn’t know, he ran for a few thousand miles. I tend to sit in the woods and listen to the wind.

One reason Combat Veterans isolate themselves is because we see people as more dangerous than lions, tigers, and bears. Fear is that reason, and it makes sense in combat terms.

Another reason is love. Yes, this is another dilemma. Love is the antidote for PTSD, but it also causes us to isolate. I have found two reasons for this.

First, loving and losing is painful. It goes back to the avoidance of FNGs, the new guys. People who have experienced combat loss of friends simply choose not to make new ones. It hurts less when they die.

Back at home, we lose all our friends. They get reassigned or ETSed (Expiration of Term of Service). So, even if we all make it home, we lose each other, anyway.

Second, being loved is also painful. Oh, sure, it feels wonderful to have an intimate friend, someone we can trust, but….

Isn’t there always a but? Being loved is a big responsibility—because it entails power. Being loved gives us the power to disappoint, fail, or otherwise hurt someone. For Combat Veterans stuck in the middle (between seeking responsibility and avoiding it), this is another dilemma.

Now, add some symptoms of Combat PTSD. The Veteran is certain to disappoint, fail, or otherwise hurt the very people who love him or her. We cannot help it. Our brains have been trained, even re-wired, that way. After awhile, we get very tired of failing at love. So, we avoid it—the very thing that might support our recovery.

Love is a grave vulnerability for most Combat Veterans because it threatens us with more loss, both loss of our loved ones and loss of ourselves when our disabilities fail us in love.

We cannot recover alone. We need love, but we need more. We need understanding. We need mature love beyond philos of brotherly love and way beyond eros of sexual attraction. We need a Natural love.

We must relearn that failure is not terminal. And, we need friends who can accept our defects and failures as progress.

When a Combat Veteran returns without an arm, we no longer expect him or her to applaud. When a Combat Veteran returns with a shrunken hippocampus and working memory, with an aggressive amygdala, and a need for security, we must not expect her or him to enjoy party crowds, fireworks displays, and air shows. It is us, the people who stayed home this time, who must change our expectations.

Changing our expectations is a way of choosing love which just might grant the Combat Veteran freedom to choose love, again. Is that too much to ask, America?

Love Echoes

There are spaces between the trees, today, where my friend and companion of thirteen and a half years no longer walks. Our Yellow Lab, Serenity, has passed from the pain of this physical world, and her absence leaves a void.

Across that void I feel the echoes of her love. That love lives. It touches me. And, I reach back.

Love is like that. It transcends. It echoes across the void, reverberating softly without end.

Spring flowers come and go. Trees endure a few more years. Even rocks become sand and silt carried to the sea. But love remains. I can feel it upon the land.

We leave tracks, you and I, physical tracks upon the Earth, emotional tracks upon the hearts, and spiritual tracks upon the void. We cannot do otherwise.

PTSD is a kind of reverberation; echoes of tracks from our past, only these were not the tracks of love. I think we can just leave it at that.

Some words attributed to Chief Seattle haunt me: Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe. Even the rocks, which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events…. (I do not use quotes because Seattle did not speak English.)

The wake of a Combat Veteran riding wildly through the noradrenergic dysregulation of the brain’s limbic system, a Dinosaur Dump, is turbid turmoil. It is stressful. PTSD generates more PTSD.

Love is the antidote. That, I conclude, is the whole point of this inquiry into love beyond Eros.

But, love lost is painful. I miss Serenity. I cannot touch her, hear her, see her, smell her.

Or, can I?

Love leaves tracks. I know that.

There are places I love and places I do not. Some places make me nauseous. Some call me back, again, and again.

I believe the last time I grieved a loss such as this, when I said goodbye to Serenity, was the day I said goodbye to my little farm in Cambridge, WI. I lost more than land, that day. I lost all the tracks on that land.

Twenty years I searched for more land until I noticed an ad for this place in da Nort’ Woods. I did not buy this land. The land adopted me and I inherited all the tracks upon it.

A year later, a puppy adopted us. Her tracks are upon this land, her best memories in the woods and water (and, mud) of this place. I cannot own these. I can only accept the responsibility to care for them for a little while longer.

There are many days when I feel I have made enough tracks. Including today. That, however, is not my choice to make. My choices are only what kind of tracks I leave, today, and how I care for the tracks left by others.

Today, I choose love, and I believe Serenity is happy about that. I feel it in the echoes.

Perfect

I think I shall never see,
A poem lovely as a tree, (leading couplet from Trees, by Joyce Kilmer)

No tree is perfect. I have looked. All my life.

I have studied trees, climbed them, planted them, pruned and trimmed them. I have chopped them down, picked them up, carved them, and burned them. I have bathed in their shade, hidden in their branches, ducked under them, leaned against them, and hugged them. I have even written a poem or two about them, notably imperfect.

I love trees. I own about a million of them. For real. Our several acres of Northern Forest in Wisconsin is recovering from logging a few decades ago, and many thousand Quaking Aspen and Balsam Fir grow here, along with many Sugar Maples, Paper White Birch, Black Ash, White Spruce, a few White Cedars, Red and White Pines, American Larch (Tamarack), some Slippery Elm, and one big Red Oak. Have I missed anybody? Oh, a couple American Linden (Basswood) and a few I may be forgetting.

Not one is perfect. One White Pine has two heads. A favorite Red Pine is so crooked we call it Dancing Pine (or, Kokopelli Pine). Most are irregular due to shading, crowding, insects, and disease. Some are in the wrong places for my human purposes (I can’t see through them down the stream valley to watch critters).

The forest is…perfect, I mean. No, my forest is not the best forest. Perfection is not a competition. Nor, is my woods better than what it will become. It is perfect in its becoming.

A forest is not a thing as people think about things. In the first place, it is many, many things—different kinds of things, living and nonliving (in Western cosmology), finned, feathered, furred, and green, brown, and colorless. But, more than that, a forest is a process.

With the movement of accent one syllable, the adjective becomes a verb: to perfect, to complete or make nearly perfect.

That is a forest, any forest. It is a process of becoming better, growing into a more perfect community.

I call my woods Lonesome Pines because that is more poetic and less gruesome than Pine Bones. The massive logging of our native White Pines, scattering discarded branches among the tops, resulted in terrible fires. The fires charred the stumps, preserving them for many, many decades. I walk among them in reverence.

Today, I also amble among growing trees. Sure, many of the Aspen and Balsam die and fall, but others grow. I found two new Tamaracks in the swamp just this morning. We celebrated, the forest and me. We are living a process of perfection. We are getting better—recovering, if you will.

No human is perfect. No marriage or nation is without flaw or dysfunction. But, then, again, these are not things. They are processes. We are acts of perfection.

I write this on a Fourth of July, and I marvel at the process of these United States of America. Our Constitution is not perfect. Our forefathers were men of flaws. But, this process of growth, of constantly re-inventing ourselves, of becoming a more perfect union—that is what this holiday is to me.

Combat Veterans understand imperfection. See, the thing about combat is, when we do it right, somebody dies. When we do it wrong, somebody else dies. Right or wrong, we risk dying, ourselves. Combat is like logging a forest: everybody suffers.

Recovery is like re-growth, a process perfection, of becoming more perfect, and we aren’t done, yet. It grieves this critical old Veteran to witness America’s focus on imperfections rather than on the process of perfection. We can do better, America, you and me—and that is all life really means, making choices to become better.

Happy Birthday, America. We’re growing up.

Delight

I sat in the woods with my aging dog,
Just watching Nature abiding,
When I came to know a little thing,
Without us even trying,
The dancing trees in graceful wind,
Light, colored, satisfying,
We sat immersed in something real,
Beyond our space and timing,
“Delight,” came the answer.
Without me even asking,
Ah, but I had held the question,
How will I ever,
Love enough?

Delight, a noun, 1: a high degree of gratification: joy.
Delight, a verb: to give joy or satisfaction to (Merriam-Webster)

I find it difficult to be happy, grateful, and delighted as I watch my friend and companion of thirteen years cripple away. Serenity is a beautiful Yellow Labrador Retriever, the smartest and kindest animal I have ever known, and that is saying quite a lot, and I suffer her pain. I grieve her dignity lost with incontinence, her independence gone with legs no longer capable of steps or ramp, and her tremors and confusion at sundown.

But I delight in our memories.

She taught me delight. She showed me joy in her leaps into the lake after a stick, her digging in the earth behind my shovel, her dragging the little trees I cleared, and the way she greeted people with the solid expectation of adoration.

Serenity shared her delight in the world. She began whining a few miles away from our Nort’ Woods home, getting frantic before our camp came into sight, so I had to let her jump out of the truck and run around. She always came back wet from her own little swimming hole at the stream. But those were younger times.

There was the time I laughed aloud hunting grouse with friends because after I shot at the bird zipping by, overhead, all I saw falling were leaves. Serenity came bounding, without training or being called, to see what I had. She came back with the grouse, delight dripping from her face.

Her hearing is gone and her eyesight dim. Even her nose is not what it was, and her old legs cannot get her over the logs. So, we don’t hunt, anymore.

And soon, way too soon, I will have to end her life. In that I cannot delight. But I can cherish her memories and her lessons.

If more combat Veterans had Labrador Retrievers, I believe there would be a lot less PTSD in this world. Maybe life is not meant to be so complicated. Maybe the whole point is delight. That’s what she taught me. Because I love her, I delight in her delight. And because she loves me, she hangs on, trying to give me another delightful memory.

And tonight, when her delight turns to fright and I cannot soothe her, I will know we are right, the time is near. But tomorrow morning, for a few more tomorrows, we will delight in one more walk in the woods. And I will be grateful.

Gratitude is a form of delight, and delight is the sincerest form of prayer.

Natural Love

“A brother is a friend given by Nature.” (Jean Baptiste Legouve)

There once lived three brothers working on a farm, aged 5, 10, and 15. That was long, long, ago.

The eldest left the farm to drive truck and the others stayed.

When the middle son had a medical condition briefly preventing him from working on the farm, he drove truck with his older brother, but he stayed on the farm.

When the youngest brother graduated from high school, he drove truck with his oldest brother for a summer before he left the farm for college, and the middle brother stayed.

When one brother needed help, the others showed up. It’s what they knew, lessons from their parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Money changed hands, time was shared in passing, deer were hunted together, parents and other family members buried, joys and sadness lived.

Years turned to decades and the middle brother went to trucking, but he stayed on the farm. The eldest continued trucking through his heart attack, through two open heart surgeries, and well past an age of retirement.

The youngest son retired from teaching, once, and went back for more. The oldest brother finally gave up trucking of medical necessity but returned to the farm to summer in an RV, work the garden, and help with farm chores. The middle brother lived in the same farmhouse he entered at age 4, continued trucking, and worked the farm in between. The youngest brother returned in summer to occasionally dabble in farm work.

Summers became a time of reunion as the eldest brother returned to the Wisconsin farm from Florida and the youngest visited from Arizona. The brothers laughed, played Sheepshead, and sweated together, again—home…home on the farm.

Always, the farm remained open to family. And, so, another summer brought the eldest home. Eighteen years past his second open heart surgery and thirty three past the heart attack that brought the first one—and the arrest on the table—find him rototilling the garden, mowing lawn, feeding and watering horses, pulling wagon loads of hay, and generally contributing what he can.

The youngest comes to visit for a week, invited into the house with his sick and dying dog, sleeping on a screen porch much like he did as a teenager, throwing a few bales of hay just to say thank you, or, mostly to feel the joy of honest work on the old farm.

After a hot day of hard work, the eldest reflected on the condition, the contribution to the farm, the opportunity to return: “I just love this…for the end of my life, really.”

The end of life may be sad, but it need not be tragic. I have seen too much of the tragic, people withering away far from home, if they ever had a real home. Not all families share this kind of brotherly love, this simple contribution of time and talent with each other.

Maybe that’s the point…of life, I mean, to have a home to enjoy at the end of life. What do you think?