HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!
(Copyright: Sandra Conner 2009)
“Will you read me a story?” Just how many times I asked that question of parents and grandparents during my growing-up years I’ll never know. But ask it I did, because I loved stories. In fact, I loved the whole idea of someone being able to pick up a book of pages filled with letters, and being able to understand those letters to such an extent that they told a complete story that I could then understand and enjoy.
Reading. It was one of my fondest dreams and proudest accomplishments when still a very young child. Along with learning how to write those same letters on a page myself so that they would make sense for someone else. To say that I was fascinated with books would be an understatement indeed, and I have since spent my life pursuing the adventure of devouring written matter in virtually every form in which I could find it.
Now, in my middle-age season, as I work toward getting more of my own written work published, I’ve naturally been looking into all the various media currently available for getting written material into the hands of the public. With each passing day, I’ve become even more aware of the fact that I am now living on a new planet — Computer-World. Virtually every kind of transaction and correspondence is carried on via the internet, and even a good deal of our entertainment and recreation is now often found in the hallowed halls of the computer terminal.
But I’ve been especially concerned personally with understanding the whole electronic book media, since it is gaining more ground every year. One of the young men who was working with me a few years ago in the development of a publishing enterprise threw me for a loop when we were talking about my getting two or three manuscripts to him in order for him to help critique and edit the material. He suggested that I just send the manuscripts by e-mail. I looked at him in surprise and said, “But then you’d have to print them out yourself, because you wouldn’t want to have to sit in front of the computer to read whole books.” He gave me what I call a sympathetic but condescending look, smiled sweetly, and said, “We’re a new generation . . . we read off the screen.”
I’m sure my face registered my shock, and his words stayed with me for weeks after that conversation. (Now, I think I should add here, for the sake of any writers out there who are working on editing their work on the screen: Be sure you print out a hard copy of your manuscript and do at least one edit from that. Every good editor knows that you will inevitably find errors that simply do not come to your attention on the screen.) But back to my main thought: I began to ask myself, “Is that what we’re coming to then … a time when nobody will want to pick up a book and hold it while they read the words printed on the pages?” Something deep down inside of me answered, “No.”
Shortly after that, I spent a couple of hours talking with the owner of three large independent bookstores, and I asked him if he thought there would be a total shift to electronic books soon. He said that he could see a slight swing in that direction, but he believed it would be another four or five years before it made any major difference. It’s now all those five years later, and it has made a definite difference, but it still hasn’t emptied the hardcopy bookshelves enough to see the dust on them.
So still the question has been hanging around in my head … and in my heart. I say in my heart because the idea had made me a little sad … like realizing that instead of sitting with friends and being able to touch them while you visited, you’d have to just listen to their voice over a phone line. There’s just something about picking up a book and holding it in your hands … feeling the weight of it … smoothing your fingers over the cover … whether it’s made of fine leather, soft paper, or some other material … it doesn’t matter … it’s a book. And then there’s the expectancy of opening it for the first time … or even the hundredth time … and moving through the pages, smelling the scent of paper and ink that no computer will ever be able to simulate.
Those experiences are the appetizers, leading me into the bountiful main course of the book itself, which is followed, of course, by the sense of being satisfied and replete at the end of a magnificent meal. Nothing else can quite compare to that sense of fulfillment and that gratified smile that accompanies the reading of the words, “The End” at the conclusion of a good book, and the feeling that I’ve truly completed something worthwhile when I close the back cover for the last time.
But then I thought, “That experience can’t be the only reason I prefer to hold a book while I read it.” And as I meditated on my reasons, I came to this conclusion: I enjoy television programs and movies; I see a real merit to using audio books if one has a vision problem, or is driving for long periods; and I can understand the value of e-books scrolling across my palm pilot if I’m sitting in a busy airport or bus terminal and don’t want the fuss of several heavy books to carry. However, it’s a fact that when I’m actually holding the book in my own hands and reading the material, I’m somehow absorbing what I’m reading and becoming a part of it more completely than I do when I’m just looking at the words or actions on a screen.
Then I began to think about how blessed I feel to be able to walk into a bookstore or a library and let my eyes feast on aisle after aisle of shelves covered in beautiful books. I thought about all of the excitement and joy of choosing from all of that bounty and wanting to hurry home, quickly getting other chores out of the way, so that I can sit down and open my treasure and … read.
So I’ve decided: No, I don’t believe that any other media will ever totally replace reading a real book. No other media will ever be able to give the joy and total gratification that is ours when we hold a book and let our eyes search out and devour what resides within it. Or when our children or grandchildren cuddle up with us and lean in close to see for themselvesthose printed words that make the special magic when we “read them a story.”
So now, although I’m going with the flow – Facebooking, blogging, online news reporting, and formatting my own books for digital readers – I’m also committing myself to help the “new generation of screen-readers” to discover and understand the unique satisfaction and thrill of picking up a book and reading it. I’m making it my job to encourage them not to get so involved with trying to get in touch with their computer that they get out of touch with books. Even those friends of mine who feels that man’s best friend is the “mouse” can benefit from taking a break and picking up a book.
So let me offer this personal invitation to one and all. Take some time to visit your nearest library or bookstore and wander through the aisles of beautiful books. Choose one; take it home; sit down in a comfortable chair and prop your feet up. Smooth your hands over the cover a few times; smell that sometimes new — sometimes musty — but always unique scent of a book. Open the cover, and turn the page. Give yourself the gift that no one else can give you: read a REAL book!
Since I seem to be focusing on the subject of love during February, I can’t help but give some time to one unique aspect of how it comes – or fails to come – into our lives. No focus on the subject of love, in all it’s categories, could ever be quite complete if it did not include the concept of what love might have awaited us in different venues of life if we had made different choices along our way.
There is a theory espoused by some that there is actually an alternate experience of life that is running concurrently with the one we are aware of, and that if we could become aware of it as well, it would give us the experiences to which our alternate choices had opened the door. Of course, I realize that, according to the Word of God, that concept is not a reality, but I am still aware that had I made just one or two choices differently – even the choice of what street to walk down, or what restaurant to visit, or what time of day I went to the library – a hundred things in my life might be completely different.
The reality of this truth came home to me quite unexpectedly, and quite dramatically, one day a couple of years ago, while standing in a fast food restaurant. I’ve been fleetingly aware of other such experiences during my life, but this time, I was so touched by it, and my life so affected by it, that I immediately wrote it down and saved it, so that it would remain a part of who I am from that moment on. I share that experience with you now, and I hope you find it to be as much of a blessing as I do.
WHERE DID I MISS YOU?
I didn’t notice him as I entered the fast-food restaurant. His table was to my right as I entered the door. And he wasn’t in my line of vision as I stood in line at the counter, so I don’t know if he had noticed me as I came in or not. But as I carried my sack over to the end of the shelf where the napkins were located, I glanced up and met his eyes. It was for only the briefest second, because it was one of those situations where you know you’ve made contact, but you don’t know why and aren’t sure how to react. So you swiftly shift your eyes to the side, pretending to look at other things — as if you had just been letting your eyes sweep the area in general.
Why we do that, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a reaction only in those of us who have a measurable lack of self-confidence. Whatever the reason, though, I knew I had reacted that way when I really hadn’t wanted to do so.
But I felt the pull of his personality so strongly that I almost felt as if I’d insulted him by not smiling at him when our eyes had touched so fleetingly. Thinking it may have been just my imagination, I glanced his way again and found him looking at me again as well. But, again, I broke contact within mere seconds. And, once again, I was sorry. I now felt the pull of him so strongly that I knew I had to do something to connect with him, if only for one smile.
It was easier than I had expected, because at the table closest to his sat an old friend of mine. I usually tried to speak briefly to her whenever I saw her anywhere, so I decided I’d walk over to her table now, necessarily passing by his.
As I stepped past his table, my eyes still wouldn’t connect with his. So I just looked right at my friend and spoke. “How are you doing, Betty?”
“I’m doing fine. How are you?”
“I’m fine too. I’ll be even better after I eat this,” I added whimsically, holding up my sack. I glanced his way, and he was looking at me. He smiled. I smiled. He could hear every word I said clearly. I looked back to Betty, still holding my sack out in front of me. Then facing Betty, but letting my eyes drift in his direction, I focused on his left hand. He did have on a gold ring, but whether it was actually a wedding band or not I couldn’t tell. It was best if I didn’t know for sure anyway, but … disappointment pierced through me. It was a brief, stabbing feeling, and then sort of a dull resignation took its place.
But somehow, I just couldn’t quite let go of him yet. I held up my sack again – in Betty’s direction: “I don’t really need this … but … then again, I guess I do need it” was my next inane addition to the conversation. I glanced at him again, as if to include him in this “high-level” discussion. He understood. So I took advantage of that moment to look at him more closely.
There was nothing extraordinarily attractive about him. I mean he wasn’t the kind of man you’d naturally notice because he was gorgeous or was dressed in the height of fashion. His African-American complexion wasn’t ebony, but it was darker than brown. He had on a kind of knit cap that covered most of his short-cropped hair. His beard was mostly gray and extremely neat, but even though the beard was gray, the face was young. He was obviously overweight. Not fat, but certainly not sporting the kind of physique that normally caught a woman’s attention.
But it was his eyes and his smile. Or maybe it was his smile and his eyes. It doesn’t matter which, because his smile was so warm and genuine that it filled his eyes as well as his mouth. And it was that smile that made him really attractive — not the physical smile — the part of it that came from his soul. It was his soul that was in his eyes, and there was an invitation there: “I could sit and talk to you and understand you,” it said. “And you would understand me. We’d be friends.”
By that time (barely seconds) Betty was responding to my convoluted statement about the need for food, and she answered, “Yeah … you have to eat to live.” Brilliant answer!
“Right,” I said, looking back at my new friend. His smile was even sweeter — and even more inviting. He knew I wouldn’t — and couldn’t — sit down and talk to him. Why not? Because we had no connector. We had no tiny moment from our past that could have provided even the thinnest thread of oneness. We had just this one minuscule moment — taken out of time — to recognize, to dream, to wish. But he let me know that he had enjoyed talking to me vicariously and hoped that I had felt the same.
I smiled at him as generously as I knew how, hoping my message was in my own eyes: “I wish things were different. I wish I could sit down at your table and get to know you. Yes, we’d be friends; I’m sure of it. … Have a good day. Have a good life. … Bye.”
I walked out the door — sadder than when I’d walked in — poorer because of knowing there was a rich friendship out there that I would never own. Where in my life did I choose a path that put me in the position of never meeting him until today? Where did I miss finding him at a time when I could have known him, owned him as a friend, and had my life woven in with his? I wish I knew. No … I wish I’d known then … and I would have chosen differently.
© Sandra Conner 2009
Photo: © Brenda Calvert, 2011
Most of my life I have been enthralled with the theme of Elizabeth Barrett’s poems that speak to Robert of how his love saved her from death. Being a poet myself, I decided one day that I would like to re-affirm that theme in a piece of my own creation. The sonnet is not my personal forte (although I have written one or two over the years) so I have not tried to emulate that particular medium. But I decided to try to express in my more comfortable style of verse what I believe is the substance of what Elizabeth and Robert experienced together, as well as what I believe to be the root source of that substance.
Invaded by pure Love, Death must submit,
And bow its ugly head and bend its knee.
As the target of a perfect marksman must take the hit,
So Death, in spite of struggling, had to set me free.
Though pressing down to close my coffin lid,
Death was thrust back by power: your love for me.
King Jesus led the way in warring thus.
He came with love so pure it pierced the gloom.
And taking on Himself the curse sin brought to us,
He opened up the way to enter our own tomb,
And facing Death, He said, “Your time is up.
My love strikes death to Death. Now Life will bloom.”
Even so, He seems to’ve passed His love to you,
And coming now upon me, frail and spent,
You have not wasted time in wondering what to do,
But instantly to my own lifeless heart you bent,
And kissed my lips with love as with sweet dew,
Dissolving Death. Now Life arises — permanent!
© Sandra Conner 2009
Photo: Jon, pdphoto.com
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
. . .
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passions put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
. . .
And if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
(Sonnet # 43, Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
As I type the words onto this page, the month of February, the ‘Month of Love’ has just blossomed. Valentine’s Day – and all the trimmings! Yes, whether we’re in the mood or not, we are going to be surrounded all month by reminders that it is a good thing to love.
The Word of God says that all of the Ten Commandments of Jehovah are fulfilled in living our lives in genuine love. It also says that fear is cast out of our hearts and our lives by love. And, most important of all, it tells us repeatedly that the God we serve is Love. He’s what it’s all about, and He’s the source of all genuine love. But when the Word talks about love, it’s referring to much more than just an emotion. Certainly, the emotion is important – and extremely satisfying. But the love that really makes a difference in this world is love that does something.
Love, according to the original language of the scriptures, is the fulfilling of a duty or a responsibility to another – whether to God or to the people in our lives. It works good toward another person whether it ‘feels’ something or not. The truth is that feelings of love – like feelings of anger, happiness, hurt, etc. – come and go. But the act of loving another person is fueled by that deliberate intent of the will to do them good. Like faith, real love is more of an action verb than a noun.
I’m grateful that in my life I have known a great many people who love in this active way. But every time I ponder the subject of love – and especially around Valentine’s Day, when people are prone to send little ‘love letters’ to each other in the way of commercial Valentine cards – my mind turns to two lovers of the past who knew and experienced the power of love to change people’s lives completely.
Poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning lived one of the most powerful and life-changing love stories ever experienced by human beings. Much of their poetry, especially “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” describes that love and the power it had to overcome enormous obstacles, and to vanquish debilitating sorrow and hovering death. While the best remembered and most often quoted lines from all of those sonnets are the words, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” the truth is that some of the most riveting portions are Elizabeth’s descriptions of how that love destroyed death and renewed her life. In Sonnet VII she says this:
“The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer bring
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink
Was caught up into love and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm . . . .”
In truth, it was that love that literally saved Elizabeth’s life and gave both lovers many happy years of marriage and fruitful writing that blessed the world for generations. It also gave them a son, whom they loved dearly.
But prior to their marriage, Elizabeth and Robert courted, primarily by letter, for a period of 20 months. During that 20 months, they exchanged a total of 574 love letters. Think of it: 574 love letters! In 20 months, that is an average of more than 28 letters each month. Never running out of ways to say “I love you,” and never growing tired of manifesting that love openly.
Have you, dear readers, experienced the joy of seeing that love gives life to those who need it? My Valentine’s wish for each of you is that you will experience that reality.
And, by the way, does the person you love know without a doubt how you feel? Why not take advantage of this ‘Month of Love’ to make sure?
The “Song of Songs,” by King Solomon, says, “Set me as a seal upon thine heart … for love is strong as death. … Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.” (Songs of Songs 8:6-7). Those words were penned many centuries ago by an Israelite king, but during the American Civil War, a Union soldier penned words that echoed those of Solomon, almost exactly, in a letter to his wife about one week before he died.
Major Sullivan Ballou poured out his heart to the one woman he knew would understand it, his wife Sarah. He told her, “Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence can break. Yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me … to the battlefield.” In another statement he describes the level of his commitment to his love of country as well as his wife: “I know … how great a debt we owe to those who went before us, through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am … perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to maintain this government and to pay that debt.”
In those words, Sullivan Ballou spoke for every American soldier who has left loved ones safe at home to go into hate-filled, death-filled foreign lands and willingly give everything he had — including his own life — to make sure those loved ones were kept safe — and that the nation whose constitution undergirded that safety was defended and secured from all that would try to destroy it.
In every war that America has fought, thousands of her soldiers have gone courageously into harm’s way because they believed in the truth that “love is strong as death.” They believed that all the hatred and all the wars this world will ever know cannot quench love. And they have been right: ALL THE HATRED AND ALL THE WARS THIS WORLD WILL EVER KNOW CANNOT QUENCH LOVE — because real love comes from only one source: the eternal, unfathomable, unquenchable Creator of the universe. It is He who gives soldiers like Sullivan Ballou the unquenchable love that he writes about in his letter — love for his wife — and love for his country and all it offers a world full of people who long with all their hearts for freedom and security.
(Copyright: Sandra Conner 2011)
We all need to be loved, don’t we? And isn’t it a relief to know that there is One special person (called Jesus) who loves us whether we deserve it or not — whether we love Him or not? That’s the love that keeps us going, gets us through, gives us hope when it looks as though there’s none to be had — and in short — saves us.
But out of that miraculous love from our Creator flows a current of many different kinds, levels, and degrees of love into the individual members of the human race: love between a man and woman; love between parents and children; love for friends, comrades, and even pets. So much has already been written about all that love. Yet there remains so much more to be written today — and tomorrow — and tomorrow — and tomorrow. Because loving is living, and it goes on and on and on, in spite of every effort of a cursed world to defeat it.
This month of February seems to be celebrated the world over as the “Month of Love,” and it lends itself to an intense focus on that subject. That being the case, I’m so glad that I began this blog on the first day of February. I feel I have permission to write about Love all month long. In the next couple of blogs I’ll share some real-life stories of great loves in history that merit our attention and even our gratitude for the examples they offer us of how to love each other well. I hope they inspire you as much as they do me.