Friday, January 8, 2010

Small-R relationships

[The small print in the image above says "Sure there are plenty of other fish in the sea. But you're not anywhere near the sea. You're in the desert. Alone."]

I read that there are more single people around than there used to be - I see it around me, too. And it seems most of these yearn to have a Relationship. An 84-year-old woman who divorced three decades ago just confided this to me, how this desire persists despite her surround of caring children and friends.

Talking about the possible causes for this desire could occupy us for a long time. We could look at one of my home-made koans, Who is that one you want to relate to? But I want to make a note on something different - our failure to pay enough attention to the relationships we already have.

I remember a time in my life when I had no Relationship, I remember often feeling alone in a bad way. Yet, in my life then were my grown daughter, and the kitten she named Greylin after the feline hero of my first novel and made me take. In my dumpy apartment building I got to know an elderly neighbor, Margaret, whose recipe for a sort of quiche ratatouille I still have - she must have given me some, and I must have asked for the recipe. My parents were both still alive, and my mother wrote to me every week. ( I had no idea how precious those letters would become.) My brother was still alive and living here in town, my sister was still in this country. I belonged to a Unitarian Fellowship that had been very welcoming to me. I had two women friends who are still friends today - that's almost 30 years now. I had a small social circle that included - gasp - Tom, and went out and did rowdy things together now and then.

It was harder keeping any relationship up in those days, when a long-distance phone call cost by the minute, and you usually didn't make them except to announce a death, something like that. No answering machine. No Skype. No facebook, no e-mail such as I used yesterday to ask my sister in Australia if her back yard attracts Lorikeets. No lovely e-mail cards.

But I didn't give much thought then about keeping up those small-R relationships. You could call that taking them for granted. You could say accurately that it wasn't very mindful - back then all I knew about Buddhism was that I had a copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, whose mysterious pages I stared at now and then. The only kind of meditation I knew was the visualization I had learned in yoga, and it didn't seem to get me anywhere. Well, you know about Getting Somewhere.

Years later I saw a Unitarian video about daily devotions. One of the people it featured showed us how in his morning devotion he went through a little stack of photographs of - what did he say? his family, the people he loved - and asked of each one, "What does this person need right now?" I was struck by this. I'm sure I thought devotions were done for one's own self. Now what he did looks like a practice of compassion, putting Self aside to ask about the needs of those he loved. I felt that would translate sometimes into actions.

Even when we feel isolated, we are nested in family and a broader context. We have relationships at work, we live in a neighborhood, our every step affects the planet. There is what we used to call civic duty. Doing our part.

I recall a scene from the long-ago movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which the woman goes riding a bicycle with Paul Newman to the tune of a cheery song we all got very tired of. She asks him something like this: "If it weren't for the Kid, do you think you and I would have a Relationship?"

He replies, "We do have a relationship." A little cowboy wisdom.

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