A former boyfriend told me, early in our relationship, “I think gift-giving on specific holidays is stupid. It’s more important what you do for someone, every day.”
As someone raised in a household with crazy, over-the-top holiday gift-giving rituals, I was slightly concerned that he’d turn out to be a chronic forgetter of birthdays and anniversaries. But he wasn’t. Rather, he had a grounded generosity that manifested itself daily in lovely, gentle and surprisingly creative ways.
He made dinner every night (Italian, mainly, but also cassoulet and mole, among others) and cleaned up. He planned long adventures for which we slipped on our vagabond shoes, exploring remote cities (Cuzco was a favorite), deserts, mountains and forests on four continents. And he was a romantic (and former pastry chef), baking cakes; making cards out of polaroid transfers (he was a photographer) with poems written on the back and waiting with me every morning in the subway station, until the train arrived to whisk me to my first publishing job uptown.
This wellspring of love was fundamental to his nature, underlying his talent for painting and rock climbing and love of cooking and motorcycling and his friends. But it had other origins in which it had been burnished, including his upbringing (during his teenage years in Australia) as a Jehovah’s Witness. And though he had not been a member for years, he did retain some of its lesser-known practices, which included not celebrating holidays the way Jared and Zales and Godiva would like us to: by spending money (as the Smothers Brothers said, long ago, “it’s better to have gifts than receipts.”)
When I met him, I was conducting my own private experiment in a new way of loving. I was raised as a Christian Scientist, a religion whose practice and beliefs are rooted in the Bible and in one particular aspect of its teachings: Love, as Jesus taught it. Love powerful, healing and transforming.
When I went to church, growing up, I didn’t learn about fights and wars and Judgment Day as much as what love did to put them in perspective. And this wasn’t just some subtext to the church’s message: it was emblazoned right up there on the wall in the Sunday School in big letters you couldn’t miss, as well as upstairs, on the front wall, above the front desk, where elsewhere, you might have stained glass, crosses, choirs, organs, incense, mosaics or what have you:
God Is Love. (John I, Chapter 3).
As a romantic optimist from the single digits onward (I had my first boyfriend in the sixth grade) this was thrilling. If God Is Love, then there was plenty to go around.
I don’t think it’s a misuse of Jesus teachings to confess that this quote did —and has done — surprising wonders for my love life. In fact, the past Mr. Wonderful came into my life as I decided, in earnest, to really practice that kind of loving and its more difficult requirements (loving enemies and neighbors as ourselves).
This was my challenge, years ago, when I returned to church after a break up right after my mother died.
My mother, I am fortunate to be able to say, was the most deeply loving and generous person I think you could ever meet. But she died at age 67. And two boyfriends, right around that time, had cheated on me. Love didn’t seem very sustaining to me during all the turmoil.
So I went back to church, and stared at that quote, “God Is Love,” on the front wall and listened to a talk being given by a spiritual healer, Myrtle Smith, from Northern Ireland — a place where loving your neighbor as yourself, and your enemy, were very much needed, but little practiced, in those days.
She related a story about her daughter’s break up with a fiancé. Seeing her distress, Myrtle asked her daughter to make up a list of the spiritual qualities of manhood that were important to her, and celebrate them in everyone she met.
I took that challenge away with me from the church, and made my own list: loyalty, kindness, moral courage, intelligence, strength, creativity, beauty, commitment and some others. I carried it around with me, and looked for those qualities in the most unlikely people: my neighbors on Mulberry Street, in the heart of New York’s Little Italy.
Everyday, I walked past the Ravenite Social Club, where the Gambino family held court. I entered my tenement building, squeezing past John Gotti and two or three associates in track suits, doing business in my vestibule, blocking access to my mailbox.
This was where I practiced loving my neighbors as myself. Challenging? Not really. If you are determined enough, you can see love abiding right where others would see the worst in human nature. And I was determined.
I didn’t consider it my responsibility to turn a blind eye to human nature or some of the many crimes that Mr. Gotti would end up in jail for. My project was to look beyond that. It was really not so hard.
Not long after, I met the model boyfriend in a pizzeria in the neighborhood, and we spent seven lovely years together. He had every quality I’d been loving in my mafia neighbors, settled so deep in his being that there was no greed in him, no violence, no scheming, no fear.
And so, friends, I share this with you on Valentines Day, a day for loving our neighbors as ourselves, loving our enemies and letting that love that is not personal bring with it a sense of wellbeing greater than chocolate-covered strawberries and date nights and all those nice, romantic things.
As a wise teacher told me, it doesn’t matter whether or not you are loved, but whether or not you are loving. Good advice. Do I always follow it? No. Like everyone, I need reminders: it’s too easy to feel depleted, like just one of the many human beings walking around this planet feeling taken-for-granted, imperfect and unloved.
My sense, looking up at that message, “God Is Love” high on the church walls isn’t that we’re being asked to do something impossible. We’re really not trying to give from some empty well deep within us: our cup is always full.
Sometimes, we get cheated on; sometimes, we get squeezed in between the mailboxes and the Dapper Don; sometimes we are looking for love; and other times we find it with someone who understands that what you give everyday is more important than what you buy.
And I thank God for that.
from my screenplay and blog, The Modern Christian Spinster’s Guide to Love in the Twenty-First Century.