Sunday, July 5, 2015

Appreciating the Ordinary

One of the secrets of a happy life is having a Low Threshold of Delight—finding joy in many things.

I'm reflecting on this as my week-long visit with Susan Anderson slides into its second half. I've been here for five days now and our newly minted intimate relationship is well begun. While it's tempting to assemble a highlight reel offering readers a peek of peak moments in the last 120 hours (whence the phrase labor of love), I want to focus today's essay instead on the mundane—which comprises the overwhelming majority of our daily lives, and gives us the greatest opportunity for boosting the amount of joy we experience, if we'd just open our eyes to it.

—Making the bed
Noticing that Susan likes a made bed when she enters her bedroom at the end of the evening, I've made it a point to take a couple turns making the bed in the morning. While it's more for her than me (who tends to be more casual about making my bed in NC), my paying attention and honoring what's comfortable for her sends the right message.

—Making the coffee
Since we both drink coffee, it's not right that Susan be the one to make it each morning. Yes, I needed to learn how to use her particular set of caffeine paraphernalia, but it didn't take that long and isn't it better that half the time I can present Susan with a cup of hot coffee when she comes downstairs instead of her waiting on me all the time?

—Emptying the dish drainer
As we both eat, it only makes sense that we both clean and put things away. That meant learning where everything goes. While I didn't digest it all in one go, it's not rocket science and I've just about got it.

—Chopping onions
Susan and I both like to cook (hooray!). Since her kitchen can comfortably hold two people with sharp knives at the same time without undo risk to life and limb, we take turns being the lead chef (the one who selects the menu and the recipes) and the sous chef (the one who chops the onions and brushes the dirt off the mushrooms).

—Doing the crossword together
While I'm not in Duluth principally for the word play, I seldom pass up an opportunity when it presents itself. While Susan gets first dibs on the daily sudoku we've enjoyed cracking a couple New York Times Sunday Crosswords together, helping each other over the rough spots.

—Playing ball with Lucie
Susan has a shelter dog named Lucie. She's seven years old and a beautiful mixed breed of border collie and black lab. Because Lucie is used to sharing the house only with Susan, I've been viewed with a certain amount of skepticism, and it's been challenging to get physically close to Susan without Lucie inserting herself between us. While it's been difficult to discern how much of that is protective and how much is not wanting to be left out, either way it tends to break up the rhythm of Susan's and my exploration. Mostly it's funny… but not entirely.

Our working hypothesis is that evenings will go better if one of us spends some quality time with Lucie at the nearby park playing fetch right before bed time, hopefully cutting back on Lucie's barking and/or throwing herself at Susan's bedroom door during quiet hours. 
• • •
Yesterday, Susan and I went to a neighborhood Fourth of July Party. It started at 4pm and didn't officially end until we got home from the fireworks at 11 pm, at which point we still needed to walk the dog. While I'm making steady progress in recovering strength and resilience since overlifting and straining my lower back nine months ago, I'm still plagued by sore ribs and often appreciate a nap in the middle of the day—a respite I didn't have time for yesterday.
All of which is to say, we were pooped by the time we got to bed last night.

Nonetheless, I took the time to appreciate how Susan drew people into the conversation at the party. There were about a dozen folks in all, representing an odd lot of neighbors, family relations, and friends of friends—which added up to people who knew each other well, and others not so much. It was fun observing Susan (and others) work the party, making sure that everyone was invited to share what was going on their life, all the while keeping a weather eye on the hors d'oeuvres to see when the chip bowl needed replenishing, or it was time to circulate a new plate of finger food. This kind of undemonstrative social lubricant can easily go unnoticed, but after four-plus decades of living in community, I know better and I made a point of telling Susan that I noticed the skill she displayed in putting others at ease.

Going the other way, Susan asked about my back after the fireworks show over Duluth Harbor, observing that I may have needed to lie down more than I needed to be extending the festivities into the night atop an outdoor rock wall to see the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air. From there we debriefed the party, so that I could better learn her friends and their relationships. 

The point of my telling this story is that after seven hours at a party Susan and I both chose opening comments (when we were first alone afterwards) that were appreciatively focused on the other. Enduring relationships, I've come to understand, are built more out of the wattle and daub of such caring conversations than the occasional bonfire or rocket launch.

How else might the evening have ended? We might not have talked at all. We might have moved directly into the animal heat that is characteristic of lovers their first week together.

Or we might have focused on weariness. I could have lamented my sore back, subtly encouraging Susan to have regretted suggesting that we stayed for the boom booms. Susan could have underscored her frustration at having achieved low Boggle scores, or that I hadn't volunteered to take a turn helping with dish washing during the party. The point is that we have choices about where we put our attention, and what feelings we want to reinforce.

In the couples work I did with Ma'ikwe the last two years, I learned a good deal about who I am and what it takes to create successful partnerships. It turns out that consistently choosing to focus on what's working and appreciating what your partner brings to the table is powerfully predictive of which relationships are the ones where love will thrive. Knowing that that's the kind I want, I'm purposefully bending the sapling of my budding relationship with Susan in that direction, so that the tree will be inclined to follow that trajectory.

In such ways does the ordinary have a good deal of influence about what becomes extraordinary, and leads to greater joy along the way.

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