Gifts From the Heart

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Do you know your love language? Marriage counselor Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a bestseller called The 5 Love Languages, helping to bridge the gap between couples that were missing each other in how they expressed and recognized love. According to Chapman, the five love languages are: 1) Words of Affirmation; 2) Quality Time; 3) Receiving Gifts; 4) Acts of Service and 5) Physical Touch. You can find the one that best suits you in this online quiz.

My love language is Receiving Gifts. But before you go thinking she ain’t nothing but a gold digger, hear Chapman out: “Don’t mistake this love language for materialism; the receiver of gifts thrives on the love, thoughtfulness, and effort behind the gift. If you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that you are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. A missed birthday, anniversary, or a hasty, thoughtless gift would be disastrous—so would the absence of everyday gestures.”

Gift giving and receiving obviously holds special meaning to me; I’m sure it is not without coincidence that the name of my blog is called This Too, Was a Gift. In my view, the real joy of giving is actually the time, meaning and thought put into choosing the gift. Of all the gifts that I have received over my lifetime, the ones that really stand out are those I know the giver had to put time aside to think about me as an individual.

In a 2007 New York Times article, Dr. Margaret Langer, a consumer psychologist at the University of California Davis said that giving to others reinforces our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring. Women in particular concern themselves with giving and receiving gifts that have emotional significance. I know I do.

I like to give gifts that I know will have special meaning to the recipient, whether it’s something they really want, has a connection to an experience we shared or encourages a passion that is important to them. The value of the gift is not in the price tag, but the thoughtful effort behind it.

I have probably given out a thousand gifts, but my favorite still has to be a little heart-shaped beach stone I found. It was the first gift I gave to my partner when we started dating and to this day, it remains the best of its kind I have unearthed.

gimli stone (2)I started collecting heart stones the year my marriage ended. One caught my eye during the first summer vacation I took alone with my kids. I had been having a difficult time relaxing, even sleeping, on that holiday as I was constantly haunted by the ghosts of family vacations past. But as I turned the stone over in the palm of my hand, I felt only serenity. I immediately knew that this was not some random rock, but a healing gift from the universe. It said Love is still all around you. 

Since then, I have been an avid collector of heart-shaped stones and I look for them on every beach we visit. Although they are hidden in plain view and a good scouring up and down a rocky shoreline will usually turn up one or two, to me, finding a heart stone is like extracting gold.

“Heart stones, lifted from their obscurity with all their cracks and blemishes, lopsided and imperfect, are simply the best,” says Heart Stones author Josie Iselin. “The heart stone is a lovely vessel. When you take it home and set it on your windowsill or dresser; its presence buoys you up. When you give it to a friend or lover, you give what you have filled it with: strength, love and confidence. It is an intimate gift; the connections are powerful.”

One thing I love most about heart stones is how much they are like the hearts we carry within us. Their true beauty is in how they have been shaped and scarred by the elements then healed over with time. That is part of the gift. Discovering a good one is precious; being able to give it away to someone is priceless.

Becoming a Better Catch

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Never in my life have I seen so many photos of men holding fish as I have on dating sites. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I went directly from my parents’ house to my marital home, so I hadn’t lived the single life until I took off my wedding band. Online dating became my new reality and it was pretty much terrifying from the start.

It’s an interesting experiment that comes with a healthy dose of rejection. You’re either too this or not enough that. That’s hard when you’re coming off a broken heart. But it’s important to remember that dating is not a measure of your worth and that rejection is rarely about you anyway.

As confident and optimistic as you might start out, online dating can really wear you down. Because you must have a stringent filter to screen out the weaker or suspiciously creepy matches, you very quickly go through the pool of possible love connections until most potential has been drained away. So you cast a wider net. And you start to reconsider dating people you might have previously swiped past.

Which leads me to… the fishermen.

Plenty of guys choose profile pics that show them, well… showing off. If they’re not skiing or snowboarding, they’re fishing – or in the afterglow of said activity, proudly holding out their prized catch to the camera. You can almost hear them primitively grunt “Me, man. Me good hunter. Me caught big fish to feed woman!”

What’s startling is that a recent survey revealed that half of 1,000 women polled found dating profiles of manly men posing with slimy, smelly fish more attractive than those without. Seriously? Where were these women surveyed… Newfoundland?

I’ve always thought these pictures were pretty odd. Are they a clever metaphor for being a great catch, or a play on there being plenty of fish in the sea? Maybe they simply say this stud just really loves fishing and you too can look forward to eating shore lunch in hip waders if you’re lucky bachelorette number one.

While I have never been tempted to date anyone clutching a big mouth bass, I will admit that early in my limited online experience, I responded to one fellow who was an outdoors enthusiast. I grasped to find some commonality and ended up stretching the truth to fit. “Of course, I love the outdoors!” I replied exuberantly, despite the fact that my idea of roughing it is booking accommodations with three stars or less. “Some of my best memories are of weekends spent camping and hiking!”

(Well, that part is true, although I didn’t mention that the last time I did either I was still reading Tiger Beat.)

Our brief exchange didn’t get far. I can’t say that it wasn’t a total relief that I didn’t have to confess barely knowing a tent pole from a tadpole. Still, I felt icky for fudging the truth. Faking my interests for a chance to meet a complete stranger for a 40-minute coffee date is not at all who I am.

Sometimes we think that there’s no harm in pretending to be something we’re not if it’s not hurting anyone. I mean, it wasn’t like I was catfishing the guy (ba dum tss), I was just saying what I needed to say to appear more alluring. But it wasn’t long before I felt guilty for not being myself and realized that I wasn’t enjoying our interaction because of it.

We want to showcase the very best version of who we are to new people because we want them to like us. We do it at job interviews and we certainly do it while dating. We portray ourselves as poised and polished; we enhance our appearance, we tell our best stories and laugh at all their jokes. That doesn’t seem so dishonourable.

But forcing ourselves to behave how we don’t usually behave, think how we don’t usually think, or do things we don’t usually do will only lead to failure because it can’t be sustained. Imagine if you bait, catch and reel in one of those grinning fishermen when you in fact despise sport fishing. How long before your everlasting happiness reeks like a three-day-old carp?

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Could this be the rugged outdoorsman photo that sealed the deal for Angelina?

I went out with one genuinely sweet guy whom I never really got to know because he was always putting on an act. He was constantly trying to do things he thought would impress me. When he learned that I’d recently published my first romance novel, he bought and sped-read through it before our first date (I guess he thought it might provide some meaningful insight into my soul).

Throughout the evening, he peppered our conversation with thinly-veiled references about people and places in the book. It was jarring and a bit creepy, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. He was nervous. He was trying to woo me like some suave fictional hero, using my own story as the blueprint to my heart. Maybe I should’ve been flattered. He had read my book, after all.

After that, I couldn’t be sure which remarks and gestures were authentic, therefore all of them came off with a tinge of phoniness. It’s too bad, because like I said, he seemed like a sweet guy. He was either too unsure or insecure, as if what he had to sell wasn’t worth buying on its own.

When our friends are in situations where their image really counts, we advise them to “just be yourself.” Why? Because we already know how awesome they are by nature. Because people usually see right through imposters. And because it’s always easier to be true to yourself than to keep up false pretenses.

Pretending to be someone you’re not will eventually cause you to lose sight of the person you really are. And that’s too bad because who you are at this very moment is special and the culmination of your unique life experiences. Your thoughts, opinions, interests and behaviors shouldn’t be altered to impress, please or win over anyone else.

Your true self is lure enough. Cut bait and throw back the posers if you need to, because it’s worth holding out for someone who thinks you’re a great catch just the way you are.

The Pickled Wedding Dress

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My wedding gown has been folded up in a cardboard box since 1991. Even though I designed it and had it custom made just for me, I didn’t bother having it preserved. Of course I’ve thought about throwing it away, yet as the most beautiful dress I have ever worn, I can’t quite bring myself to take it out to the curb.

My daughter doesn’t want it either and I don’t blame her a bit. I suppose I could donate it, but there is that superstitious part of me that worries residual bad luck might rub off on the starry-eyed bride that wears it next. So it remains in storage, still dusted with odd bits of confetti that well-wishers showered upon me 25 years ago.

So I’ve had zero ideas on what to do with my gown. Until I saw the Pickled Wedding Dress.

Now on exhibit at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Los Angeles is a silk floral wedding dress crammed in a pickle jar. It is owned by a San Francisco woman whose husband told her that he felt “stuck” in their seven-year marriage and “probably” didn’t love her anymore.

“He’s been gone a year and I haven’t really known what to do with the dress,” writes the anonymous owner. “Every option has felt wrong. I hate throwing perfectly functional items in landfills and would hate to see someone walking around in my once beautiful but now sadness-infused dress.”

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She goes on to say that she didn’t like looking at it either, so she stuffed it down inside a jar “mostly for space reasons but any sort of appropriate pickle metaphors can also be invoked.” Truly inspired.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, which opened earlier this month, has 115 heartbreaking artifacts from jilted lovers – a case filled with mixtapes, a ripped-out payphone, a dried-out prom corsage, excised silicone breast implants, even an ax that one woman used to destroy her cheating husband’s furniture – along with the story behind each of them.

And in case you’re wondering, the museum is open to receiving future donations, too: “Have you ever had a broken heart? If you’ve wished to unburden the emotional load by erasing everything that reminds you of that painful experience by throwing it all away – don’t. Give it to us,” the curators plead. “Donate your object to the museum and take part in the creation of collective emotional history.”

According to the museum’s director, their graveyard of grief receives 10 to 20 new items every day.

Why do we bother holding on to relationship rubble – those love letters, stuffed animals, ticket stubs and other trivial keepsakes left behind in the wake of a break up? It’s probably for the same reason we retain souvenirs of the places we’ve visited: to prove we were once really there.

Although I still have my old wedding dress, it’s not for a sentimental reason but rather, a practical one (how the heck do I dispose of it?). After all, I had no problem clean-sweeping the house of any traces of my ex in what has become known as The Great Purge of 2011. We threw out so much stuff that my shell-shocked son still refuses to call “decluttering” anything but “the d-word.”

Honestly, the only things that remain of my 20-year marriage aside from the dress are photo albums, and a cute hand-painted vase I bought on a beach in Puerto Vallarta 22 years ago. I keep it not to remind me of my ex, but of the only time I’ve been on a winter vacation. In the aftermath of my marriage, I found very little worth saving.

IMG_3068What I think is most interesting about the Museum of Broken Relationships is that it puts the raw emotion of being dumped under glass – or inside glass, in the case of the Pickled Wedding Dress. These are just ordinary objects that mean absolutely nothing to anyone except the person who donated it for the world to see. And yet, it’s painfully obviously that these items are so much bigger and more significant than what first meets the eye, just as a pickle jar can barely contain the totality of that woman’s heartache.

Each strangely intimate, cringe-inducing museum exhibit is an opportunity for its donor to receive a sense of catharsis or closure – and for visitors to get a sense that even after love ends, life goes on.

“Hopefully, you can look back and know that even if it didn’t work out, it contributed to who you are today,” says the museum’s director. “We’re all failing together and we’re all trying to get back up together. And that, I think, is very beautiful.”

What relationship rubble do you continue to hold on to? Why did you choose to preserve it? And what the heck do you think I should I do with my old wedding dress?

 

The Winner Takes It All

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Remember “The Winner Takes it All” by ABBA? It’s one of the most beautiful and cruelest pop songs ever written.

Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson penned the crushing ballad , and then Björn’s ex-wife-slash-bandmate Agnetha Fältskog sang the lead vocals. The lyrics were rumored to mirror their divorce, although Björn denied it was the basis for the song, saying it was about “the experience of a divorce, but it’s fiction. There wasn’t a winner or loser in our case. A lot of people think it’s straight out of reality, but it’s not.”

I don’t want to talk
About the things we’ve gone through
Though it’s hurting me
Now it’s history
I’ve played all my cards
And that’s what you’ve done too
Nothing more to say
No more ace to play

The winner takes it all
The loser standing small
Beside the victory
That’s her destiny

I was in your arms
Thinking I belonged there
I figured it made sense
Building me a fence
Building me a home
Thinking I’d be strong there
But I was a fool
Playing by the rules

With lyrics that raw, there’s no way I buy that they weren’t about the end of the nine-year marriage between Ulvaeus and Fältskog – and neither did Spin magazine writer Chuck Klosterman. He said “The Winner Takes it All” is the only pop song “that examines the self-aware guilt one feels when talking to a person who has humanely obliterated your heart.”

Not to mention that the song’s original title was said to be “The Story of My Life.” So the jig is up, Björn.

The gods may throw a dice
Their minds as cold as ice
And someone way down here
Loses someone dear
The winner takes it all
The loser has to fall
It’s simple and it’s plain
Why should I complain

Agnetha finally confirmed the truth in 2013 during an interview with the Daily Mail. “Björn wrote it about us after the breakdown of our marriage. The fact he wrote it exactly when we divorced is touching really. I didn’t mind. It was fantastic to do that song because I could put in such feeling.”

I’m not sure I would have been so gracious. Writing a song about your divorce and then making your ex-wife get up on stage and sing it every night in front of thousands of people sounds like torture, but hey, maybe that’s how they handle their grief in Sweden.

And what about Björn’s stance that there was no winner or loser in their divorce? I can’t quite swallow that pickled herring either. There is always a winner and a loser, as amicable as you may try to be. The winner is the leaver, the loser is the one left. The winner writes the song, the loser has to sing the tune.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about winners and losers. Very few of us believe we come out on top after divorce. Ask a man if he thinks men get the short end of the stick in the divorce and they’ll emphatically agree; ask a woman if she thinks women get a raw deal in divorce and she’ll say yes for certain.

It’s really about perspective, which is subjective because it is colored by our personal life experiences. Once we form our perspective on something, it’s nearly impossible to change and everything we see and hear afterwards either supports our truth or is just plain wrong.

Both women and men form a belief that their gender gets screwed over by divorce but the truth is, neither are winners. The justice system ensures no one gets more than they deserve and yet, both sides believe they have given up too much. But when there are no clear winners, each side assumes that they must be the loser. Again, perspective.

In my case, one of us walked away from daily obligations, moved to a coastal city where temperatures rarely dip below light jacket weather, got promoted at work, took vacations we never used to be able to afford, and got engaged. The other got a six-figure mortgage attached to a 30-year-old house in need of paint and various repairs.

But I also have the kids seven days a week, so if we’re keeping score, that puts me ahead.

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Although this house is still mostly owned by the bank and showing signs of age, it’s still home sweet home to us. It has pretty nice curb appeal and it keeps us safe and warm and (on most days) dry. Under this roof is where we share our nightly meals and our birthday cakes, put up the Christmas tree, and hunker down together to watch Swamp People. We work, create and study, we play, we sleep, and most of all, we love each other here. There is a true feeling of home.

When I tally up everything divorce has given me, I feel enormously grateful. I get to see and spend time with my kids seven days a week – admittedly, some of those days are harder than others, but as they are now young adults, I appreciate how precious our time together is before they spread their wings and leave the nest. I am in awe of the neat people they are and their existence continues to give me purpose and yes, perspective.

One of the best things I can do for my kids is show them how to pick yourself up again and live happily. While divorce lifted a weight off my shoulders and brought a surprising sense of peace and assurance that everything would be all right, it wasn’t until I met my partner that I realized how good things could get. I was happy, but meeting him turned up my inner pilot light from a flicker to a bigger, brighter flame. I remember thinking, “Oh, yes, this is how it’s supposed to be.”

For the first time ever, I feel like I am in charge of my life. I think that I can attribute that to having experienced a journey of personal growth and self-exploration that got cut short when I got married at 20. Although I had to mature very fast, it wasn’t until after age 40 that I was able to gain a healthy knowledge of who I am as an individual. I feel more confident than ever to successfully handle whatever might come my way next.

Most of all, I feel like in this second chapter of my life, I am living the truest version of myself. That’s what I call winning.