20 Things I’m Learning From Relationships

I began this list for another blog but in 2016. That feels like an entire life ago, but it was sometime around the birth of my second son. I aimed for 25 lessons but stopped at 20. I haven’t edited this “draft,” though I’ll post it and, likely, return with an updated, five-years-after-divorce version. Maybe after I’ve those other five lessons.

Sons, relationships are tricky things. I define relationships as those lovely interactions which turn into friendship, companionship, and the regular engagement of my life with someone else’s life. I have in mind as I work up this list my relationships from before, from now, and from the future. My early attachments, friendships, romantic relationships, working relationships, and basic acquaintances are all a part of the learning environment here. To follow is a brief reflection of what I’m learning about me, about people, and about the world. I’m included necessarily in all three.

I’m learning:

  1. I am complete. I am a whole person, with likes and dislikes, most of which I can explain, some of which I’m still learning, and I’m whole.
  2. I am different. I’m not the person most people think I am, and a large part of developing a relationship is in presenting who I am in the mirror or face of who someone thinks I am.
  3. I am needy. While I don’t think of myself in this way initially, I’m more convinced that at an essential level, I need others, and I’m committed to the recovering work of being in quality relationships, committed to being needy and being okay with that.
  4. There’s a “but.” I only need others insofar as they are participatory in the salvific, constructive, overarching redemptive work of me being my real self. I think there is a small number of people who are willing to be in this type of relationship with me.
  5. I’m not a morning person. I wake up slowly to the world, and this characterizes how I let people in, how I engage people, and how committed my significant others must be to be in relationship with me.
  6. I do what I like. I work a lot, and I’ve systematically chosen to enrich myself with power (and been blessed with such a gift) so that I can choose to do what I like, not what I’m told–mostly.
  7. I don’t like to be told what to do. Others can tell this story as good as I can, but I’m really good at doing what I think is right, at being self-directed, so being in any true relationship is, at first, a testing of my ability to be interdependent.
  8. I know how to quit. I don’t quite know how to lose, but I know how to quit; this is an ever-present switch in me that enables me to cut-off those who no longer matter and it’s a lifelong temptation, the notion that people don’t matter.
  9. People want to be loved. This is trite truth, and it’s just as challenging because loving is very hard when it has to be consistently offered in murky, uncomfortable, or otherwise difficult circumstances. Indeed, most of love has to be applied in such circumstances.
  10. People have a hard time choosing themselves. A lot of people put others before them–consciously or unconsciously–and that behavior repeats itself in choices against the self. The slow work of healing is about saying yes to yourself, your wholeness, your being saved, your being true. You cannot choose another if you haven’t chosen you.
  11. People want others to know them. I think this is a divine desire, wanting to create in order to express self-knowledge; wanting to be in order to be known. When a person ends a good relationship, there’s destruction in deep places. That’s normal and it’s normal to feel it.
  12. People want to be supported. The most beautiful testament to love is in showing up after a long drive or after a fight or after some ending in order to express that some things don’t change, that love endures, and that love is displayed by supportiveness.
  13. People want to be heard. When a person talks too much, whatever that is, it just may be because they haven’t been adequately heard.
  14. People grieve. As foundational as is the reflex in people to love is the reflex to lose those loves, and when we lose, we grieve–consciously or not.
  15. People are inconsistent. This is one of the most basic abilities in people: to change and, therefore, to be inconsistent. It colors the best of relationships.
  16. People disappoint. Because we have our stated and unstated expectations of each other, disappointment is inevitable, and unfortunately forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is a series of choices that is hard to come by.
  17. Most people in relationships seldom know what they really want, ask for what they really want, or show what they really feel. This is wisdom from David Richo in How to be an Adult (p 84).
  18. Love and respect go together. Claiming to love a person has to pair with regularly allowing that person to choose, in other words, respecting that person’s choice. This is wisdom from Grammie Joseph.
  19. Telling a person ‘I love you’ is completely restorative, redemptive, and settling. Most people don’t say ‘I love you’ enough. Wisdom from Jonathan Alvarado.
  20. The most helpful, honest relationship is the one that is both alluring and scary. I have in mind a relationship with God but it’s true about the other real ones too. Healthy relationships carry a quality of the known and a quality of the unknown. When you’re in it with a person, you should humbly accept that there are so many potentially lovely unknowns to be discovered, and that’s nerve-rattling!

Celebrate, Grieve, Celebrate

These are three motions, three commitments, three postures – all worth living into. If you’re into making commitments in the first month of the year, consider them.

Celebrate what was. One of my plans in the first weeks of this year is to a write list or create a word cloud of all the things I got to do last year. So far, I’ve been writing the list in my head but I’m aiming for paper. It’ll include all the things I got to be and all the gifts I received. It’ll be my way of celebrating what was. The celebration is inherently an act of remembering.

Grieve what’s gone. We don’t grieve enough. I don’t grieve enough. I’m convinced that we’re taught how to end grief not welcome it. So, a lot of my work is around nurturing this soul gesture, building this emotional skill, and opening myself up to doing what the world often has little room for. We need to say goodbye and to grieve those goodbyes.

Celebrate what remains. Seeing what’s still present is another beautiful and clarifying gift. When a role or a job or a relationship or an ability ends, the ending needs to be felt. That’s the grief. But there are things which remain and those still-present things require their own celebration. What’s current needs to be enjoyed. The more we refrain from appreciating what’s present, the more we fix our focus upon the past or the future, and we miss what’s right now. This second celebration powers life and thriving.

There’s more to say but the more falls within those three postures.

Giving and Not Giving Energy

When you give energy to a thing, you give it life. Energy includes mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual material like thoughts and posture and effort. When you give a thing or a person or an idea energy, you give it life.

The other, accompanying side is that when you remove your lifegiving energy from a thing, you starve that thing of life. It could be a shift in your focus onto a different task. It could be removing a contact from your phone. It could be the choice to leave a call unreturned. It could be a decision not to go for that walk you said you would take. 

Giving to a thing is a gift that keeps that thing going. Removing what you give, then, is a resounding endorsement of another thing. What will you give to in the upcoming days of your life? What will you choose? Who will you choose? 

The answer really is about what you want to keep alive, what you wish to sustain, or what you will starve. Chaos needs energy. So does peace. Toxic relationships require attention. Living as an ambassador of contentment does too. 

Thurman on Reconciliation and Unhurried Tenderness

We cannot be in a hurry in matters of the heart. The human spirit has to be explored gently and with unhurried tenderness. Very often this demands a reconditioning of our nervous responses to life, a profound alteration in the tempo of our behavior pattern. Whatever we learn of leisure in the discipline of silence, in meditation and prayer, bears rich, ripe fruit in preparing the way for love. Failure at this point can be one of unrelieved frustration. At first, for most of us, skill in tarrying with another has to be cultivated and worked at by dint of much self-discipline. At first it may seem mechanical, artificial, or studied, but this kind of clumsiness will not remain if we persist. How indescribably wonderful and healing it is to encounter another human being who listens not only to our words, but manages, somehow, to listen to us.

From Disciplines of the Spirit

Little Things

I remember a time when the first son cried when I left him.  He was really loud that one time when I dropped him with Auntie Maggie. Where was I going? It took forever to get there, listening to his cries in the car.

I thought those days were gone, especially since the second son was decidedly a mother’s son, if the first was a father’s son. Of course, both of them have gone back and forth about whose they are.

They are, in fact, their mother’s and their father’s. And this makes sense in the beautiful way big hearts with room to love deeply work. They work in ways beyond the mind, beyond explanation.

And hearing that my little one cries when I leave in the morning and hearing his voice on the phone when I’m minutes into my commute makes the entire day sound like a father’s joy.

Indie Arie sang, “it’s the little things.” And he hasn’t always cried. He won’t always cry. I hope I’ll always remember the few times he did.

When Someone Matters

One way to know that people matter to you is how long you keep them–in your head, in your heart, in your spirit–when they bother you, when they hurt you. It’s one thing to drop and run. It’s another thing to be tripped by the fact of their mattering.

If you drop and run too fast, who you thought mattered didn’t. If don’t quite cut and run, if you don’t bolt, and if you move slower out of connection, something else may be happening.

If your feet are clogged by the dry and wet grasses of disappointment, anguish, and sorrow, perhaps you were good at a little word called love.

If you think of your students long after the ringing bell; if you consider the comment made and how pained it made your listener; if you remember, hours later, that interaction and its biting chump into you, perhaps you have evidence that you have loved.

Perhaps what happened in those relationships actually matter. Maybe what you built, created, and cultivated made a difference. Grant it and grieve.

An Ode That Isn’t Exactly An Ode

I looked at you, the glossy, colorful ways you showed me what black beauty was.

I looked at the curves you featured. I took in the sumptuous reds on your lips and imprinted in my soul the kinky, curly, flat, puffy, drizzly, stringy, clipped, busy, avenues from your head.

I looked at smiling black men, fathers and uncles and brothers and teachers, people professing with their lives what it meant to make efforts, what it meant to pull it together, and what it meant to create for one’s own community counter-images which were truer, better, and accurate images.

You trained my gaze, expanded my vision, and showed me how to start my attraction, how to turn my sight, and how to see the bodies of women closer to me, men very near me, children around me, people whose faces would come to close to my nose, in conversation, around the table, at church, and on all my childhood playgrounds.

I sat struck and dumb and inspired to write because of images you created by showing up like a gift, directed to me, made for me, fashioned with me in mind, and in your every offering was an issue that made me imagine and reimagine how to be black and how to be man and how to be beautiful and how to be with other beautiful black people.

In you and saw what love and work looked like. I saw the sights of wonder. I saw the sights of accomplishment. In you was a body of work, a composed collection cracking my developing notions of the color that captured everything from cream to cacao and did so with hands and eyes and ears of appreciation for how good black looked.

Written on the latest public occasion to grieve a significant treasure all of us should remember well, Johnson Publishing, which is in its last stages as a necessary-but-dying institution.

Betting the Old Fashioned Way

My oldest son wasn’t going to win the bet we made and I knew it even as I crafted the challenge to him in the grocery line.

His hand was on a bag, a nicely packaged offering of sugar and fat and a list of things we couldn’t pronounce. Now, it helps to know that since he was his younger brother’s age, I’ve been teaching the boy how to conduct himself in a kitchen and a grocery store. He cooks with me. He has shopped with me. We’ve been to South side farms to see dirt and crops and farmers.

Aside from the fact that his memory is as poor as his pockets–he has no money and no memory–I’m banking on the faith that these lessons about meal preparation, taste, seasoning, contamination, and presentation are going somewhere.

Occasionally I test him. I ask, “What do you taste?” And his average gets better and better. The more I expose him, the better he gets. At least once way back in the day, he could use his taste buds and not his eyes to list the ingredients of a soup that I threw a dozen things in. And with 70% accuracy.

“If you can tell me how to make donuts, you can have it.”

The boy has not met a challenge that he hadn’t already met.

I tell him, in moments like these, “Use all your powers.”

“I’m going to ask Grandma,” he said.

“I don’t think my Mama has ever made donuts,” I said.

“It’s has to be like making cornbread.”

He went into the story that we laugh at about when Mama came over last year to show us how she makes her cornbread. It’s one of his ways of saying that he knows I can make cornbread but that Mama’s is better. The story is funny but that’s for another post.

I laughed and I decided at that moment where our Saturday afternoon would be. I whispered it to the littlest among us because he wouldn’t tell the secret. Then, we paid for our groceries and finished the first half of the day.

The second half included a visit to the Oriental Institute for my budding Egypt scholar. Then, I told them that we were getting dessert before dinner. I have learned to say these things upon knowing we would. We went to the place where we could buy the best donuts in Chicago, Old Fashioned Donuts. We stood across the street waiting for cars to pass, and I told them, “This is the place where you will eat the best donuts in our great city. And you’ll learn how they’re made.”

It was a really bad bet that I posed that morning. Going to Roseland and looking into that window while Mr. Bulloch worked his magic was everything. I didn’t forget the bet, but the boys did.

After all, I set the one up anyway. I wanted to take the boys to South Michigan, among that sea of South side wonder. I wanted to hear the older boy say, to the licking and smacking of the younger one, “This is the best donut in the city.”


Contemplation Plus Fatherhood

My friend said something to me years ago that I can’t remember. He says things I like to remember but the way he phrased his words slips me. What I haven’t forgotten is what I’ve done with what he said.

In my mind, what I’ve done is try to pull together the strands of fatherhood and contemplation. I do remember leaving that conversation thinking, “How can I be a contemplative father?”

I think back to his words, said to me on the street in our neighborhood and just outside our mechanic’s office, when I hear people say of their own child-rearing, “The years run by.” Or something like, “Don’t blink. You’ll look up and they’ll be leaving home.”

When people say this, I think of contemplative parenting. I think of my conversation with my friend. In my mental world, contemplative parenting brings together being a parent and being in the moment. Contemplation means being where you are. It means being centered and keeping your weight over that center. It means to be present.

Pulling together contemplation and parenting, it’s impossible to miss moments. Your practice is to be in those moments. You certainly don’t remember them all. Your brain does things with memories that you and I can’t understand. There are things that you lose or let go of. You forget. You will forget but that doesn’t mean you will have missed the moments.

You will have lived them. You will have participated in them. In that sense, those moments as a father (for me) will always be there (in the present), have been there (in the past), and left me available for being there (in the future). If my orientation is to be in the moment, I miss nothing. To be sure, it is exhausting, this orientation.

It’s easier to obsess about a future. It’s easier to fume over yesterdays. It is hard to be right where I am. May God continue to help me.