Every year, I have my kids write their own "I Have a Dream" speeches. (My favorite of Petunia's is right here.) We read books about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and discuss weighty matters like race, equality, oppression, social justice, nonviolent protest, and more. It is a pretty serious day in our home, a day full of digging deep, learning, questioning, exploring, and, most of all, feeling. Some of my deepest conversations with my kids have been inspired by Dr. King's legacy. It is a day that I like to mark in honor of a great man and teacher.
And this year, like everything else, we're a little bit late with it. I'd like to think that Dr. King would understand a single mom's struggle to keep the proverbial trains running on time. One kid was gone from last night until 6 pm today, coming home too exhausted to do anything other than eat and sleep; the other is studying for a standardized test that helps to determine her future and is mentally drained. I don't plan to give them a pass for these important conversations, but I do plan to take them up again in early February. It is what it is. And rather than beating myself up for it, I am just going to be patient.
But I will not let this day pass unheralded by our family in some small way. This year, I have my own dreams to share, and they are all about love.
This is something that has been on my mind a lot lately: love, in all of its forms. I used to think I knew what love is, and I did, to some extent. Love is the way my daughter's cheeks turn pink when she's happy, and it is in the velvet touch of my son's cheek as he sleeps. It is in the way my dog will not leave my side when I am sad, and it is in the way my parents keep showing up just when I need them most. Love is often found in my life where I most expect it: in my family. But it also is found increasingly in the next layer of my life: in my friends, those people who have been the absolute bedrock of my life for the past couple of years.
In the big empty void left by a heart broken into a million pieces, my friends -- they know who they are -- came in, and they hugged me hard enough and accepted me graciously enough that those broken pieces started sticking back together. The final, permanent cement came at Thanksgiving, when I was with some of the friends most dear to me in the Pacific Northwest. The friend who has had my back most closely for the past year -- who was spending the holiday with me -- called my phone. Since I share a name with another of his friends, I asked, "Dude, we're in the same place; did you mean to call the other one?" He said, "No. I call the people who are most important to me on Thanksgiving, and you're on that list." He said a few nice words, and a few minutes later, he was in the house singing along to "I Just Called to Say I Love You."
Now, this is not someone whom I'm dating; this is a soul-brother, someone whom I can trust with my life above and beyond most people, and one of few people with whom I know my heart is safe. And that moment when he rang my phone and said the kind words he had to say was kind of like the moment at the end of the Grinch story in which the Grinch declares that his heart grew a thousand times bigger on the day when he stopped grinching. A realization came to me in that moment that love is not only where I expected to find it, in my family and potentially in a romantic "other": sometimes, it comes from the most unexpected of places, and, right then, it came at me two different and valuable ways: One, it came from a friend who accepts me completely as I am, even at my very broken-est, without any judgment or expectation at all. He wants nothing of me, and he loves me anyway. That is what love looks like. And in that love, I found Two: a love for myself that I did not know I could have. There are a million ways in which I had been beating myself up, and suddenly, I just kind of stopped. Sure, there are flare-ups every now and then; I remain imperfect. But I now accept that imperfection. For the first time in my life, I feel confident in who and how I am, and I feel worthy of love, actually -- and I can define now what kind of love I can accept. That love does not look like a need. It does not look like an obligation. It does not look like making other people happy without taking my own happiness into account. It does not look like a fairy tale, or like all of the things that I thought that went with one.
No, love does not look like a dream at all. It looks like my real life. It looks like what is around me every day. It is flawed as I am, with tired kids and tests to be taken and, God, the bills to pay ... It is in not knowing if and when I'll ever partner again but, most of all, in being okay with that, because more than anything, it is in not accepting anybody who cannot accept me as-is. It is in looking myself in the eye in the mirror and knowing that I am doing my best with this life -- that I am seizing the moment, loving the world as naively and recklessly as I do, with all of its magnificent flaws, as I engage in this Herculean task of living a life that looks little like I thought it would.
Love looks like a friend, standing in a gentle rain, calling to tell me that I matter because I make him feel that way, too. Love looks like accepting love, and love looks like giving love, including to myself.
My heart hardened a bit over the past couple of years, and it is now softer than it ever was, and happily. As Dr. King said, "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Please enjoy the picture below, from Petunia's autumn trip to Washington, DC, in which she took a picture with that quote for me, because she has been raised to believe that acting with love, first and foremost, really matters. I think I had forgotten that, most especially when it came to loving myself. I continue to work on that. For now, I am especially grateful for the friends -- and the above is but one example of many, many I could give -- that have hugged me back together. I love you all more than I could ever say. xo