Real love is selfless and free from fear. Real love pours itself out upon the object of its affection without demanding any return. Its joy is in the joy of giving. --Florence Scovel Shinn
Love the world, and it will love you back. I have always believed this--even lived by this--especially my first summer living in New York City, in 2005. In a place like Gotham, the real-time results to good cheer are astounding. Once, I remember looking at a man who was stacking trash cans on the side of the street. He looked so dour as he kicked a piece of garbage off the curb. Though I kept my gaze straight ahead, in my mind, I sent out an "I love you," just because. Almost immediately, the man looked up at me, smiled, and wished me a beautiful night. These moments shouldn't surprise me, but I delight in them nonetheless.
There is another piece of the equation, though: a willingness to receive the boomerang of kindness. A couple days last week, I couldn't help but notice that friends from all corners were showering me with love and affection. I wasn't asking for it, or even needing it. Words of appreciation were just showing up, and not because I had done anything to "earn" them, either. I won't say what they were because I am too self-conscious. (I always think back to the Thanksgiving scene in Eat, Pray, Love in which Elizabeth Gilbert writes about how her Italian compatriots go around the table, expressing their thanks for her presence. It is important to write things as they really are--and I have no doubt her friends adore her, as she seems adorable--nonetheless, it makes me so uncomfortable.) Really, the part that struck me was my own appreciation of their appreciation--that felt different. When I first got on Facebook, I remember someone commenting that she (or he, I can't remember) liked a profile picture. I said, "Thank you," and added that if we were having this conversation in person, I'd have said, "What?" pretending not to hear the compliment, just so I could hear it again. (That's not true, by the way.) It's hard for a lot of people, I think, to receive compliments without deflecting or minimizing the sentiment. When I'm on the giving end, this sometimes frustrates me.
Last week, for every nice thing a friend did or said, I made a point to say, thank you, and let them know I gratefully receive their kindness. More than the words, though, the free-flowing exchange of feeling--the non-verbal response--was the real indicator of mutual reception. Acknowledging the role we play in one another's lives--however big or small, that is the real currency.
* * *
Around this time, I had a vivid dream. My paternal grandfather, who passed away nearly twenty years ago, showed up at a party. Of course, he was at a party, I laughed in retrospect. During his life, the man knew how to have fun, and he was generous in sharing his joy with his family. I have so many fond memories of him taking us all to the beach in his RV, stocking his basement full of toys, books and dolls for us to play with, and dining at his usual haunts, his electric blue cocktail in hand. He had a very strong will, and I admired that, too. Even at a young age, I knew, that he had done something spectacular: lived his life on his own terms.
In one of my favorite pictures of him, he is holding me in his lap, and I am covered with the blanket my aunt made, the one I never wanted to let go of. I can't be more than three-years-old. He is looking down and smiling at me, as he is pulling my thumb out of my mouth. I can tell that I am fighting him, because the fingers of my free hand are splayed, tense. (Probably, he won.) I remember one or two more times like this, where he tried to nudge me out of my comfort zone--to put down my doll, my thumb or my book and live a little--always with a smile on his face.
He had a certain daring about him. He had played a banjo in a traveling band. He started his own company, after receiving no more than a third-grade education, and it became a success. He traveled. He created festive experiences for his large extended family. If he liked something, he bought two of them. This was true for his candy apple red convertibles, one with a white top, the other with a black top. It may have also been true of his shot gun (which was also candy apple red). My father once shared a memory from his childhood: a two-seater plane had landed on some land behind their vacation home. My grandfather walked up to the pilot, who may have been prepared to apologize and/or explain, and said, "Can you take each of my children up for a ride?" That marked the first time my father flew in an airplane.
So you can see why I'd find it such a treat to see my grandfather again, even in dream form. He had bounded over to see me, and there were a stack of cards on the table. On the top one, the word "hope" was written. The overall feeling was so sweet. When I told my cousin later in the day that this had been my waking dream, she said, "You know it's his birthday today, right?" I hadn't, not consciously. But in retrospect, I found it hilarious. In some fashion, he had invited me to his 108th birthday party. Naturally.
The happy emotion of the dream lingered, to the point of being bittersweet. I kept tearing up, thinking, "Oh! What I wouldn't give to see him again." The day after his funeral, I had done something risky: I swam alone at night, in the ocean, with large waves crashing on nearby rocks. At the time, I did it to be closer to him, so that I could look up at the stars, the seawater washing me clear, and, without thinking about anyone else, say, "I, too, will take chances."
There are so many ways to love.
* * *
This week, I went to visit a speech rehab group for native Russian-speakers with aphasia. Two years ago, I was assigned to write a story about the Brooklyn-based group. The whole process was fun and heartening--I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that people who had lost so much were capable of so much joy. Whether reading flash cards or singing folk songs, they laughed together, non-stop, it seemed. Part of this is due to the upbeat tone set by the professor, whose commitment has always inspired me. When she reached out to me recently, I leapt at the chance for a reunion.
When I walked in, the group was smaller than usual, due to the rainy weather. But, true to form, the group is always "sunshine on a cloudy day," to borrow a little Temptations wisdom. N, an older man with whom I had once spoken Italian--he spoke nine languages, pre-stroke--was there, holding up an Italian workbook. The professor told him I was coming to visit, so he brought it in hopes that we could speak together. Now, I am by no means an Italian expert. I lived there nearly twenty years ago, but only for five months. And, in fact, N had initially become so excited when he heard me speak Italian that he shouted, "More like this! More like this!"--and this, in turn, led to me reciting my address in Firenze, over and over. (l mio indirezzo e state 'Viale Ludovico Ariosto, Numero Cinque.') I'd always loved the sound of it--and taxi drivers surely thought I was pazza--but under pressure to speak, that is, embarrassingly, what came out of my mouth. Yet, apparently, just hearing the words had sparked new brain activity for N.
So, this time, I dove into my role as the world's most unqualified Italian tutor. N and I read vocabulary words, recited numbers and practiced standard greetings. We had so much fun. At one point, I admitted to the group that when I'd been in Italy this past summer, everyone wanted to know where I learned to speak Spanish. And when N heard the word "Spanish," he said, "Hasta la vista!" Not long after, a group of visitors walked in with an administrator. What I admire about N is his eagerness to connect with others, despite his obvious language limitations. To one of the visitors, N said something that I didn't understand. After the group walked out, I asked, "Was it Ukranian?"
The professor said, "Well, he said something in Yiddish, but..."--and here she shrugged her shoulders--"I'm pretty sure that man was Italian."
We laughed, a lot. Then, N turned to me and asked me what I am up to, in Polish. Oh, it was madcap and Fellini-esque, for sure. Maybe by the next time I return, I will have learned enough Arabic (a nascent hobby) to bring our exchanges to the next level.
For the rest of the day, I felt so happy. I plan to write more about this group and, in particular, the exceptional professor. But, I realized yesterday (and, well, everyday, if I am being honest) that happiness is never dependent on what happens in the future, but on our in-the-moment exchanges and acknowledging that our giving is our receipt in equal measure, and vice versa. Holding that awareness is, in itself, an art.
When I forget, maybe I can remember N's words, when he looked at my coat: "Be happy. You have everything."