Sunday, January 13, 2008

Love and maintenance

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 8th January 2008:

A poem by the late Detroit poet Robert Hayden brings home the importance of recognising a sort of love that that has little to do with romance but which deserves to be acknowledged and praised nevertheless. Called Those Winter Sundays it begins:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labour in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The image of the father who gets up in bitter cold to light the fires for the family before they, too, arise is probably somewhat dated in the central heating era but the principle remains: that such acts can be, in their own way, acts of love.

They are also, very often, unacknowledged. Hayden talks of getting up in the now warm house and

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Note: Click here for the full poem.

A few weeks ago, on Sarah Carey's GUBU blog, I came across a poem by the British poet UA Fanthorpe which expresses the same idea. It begins:

"There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;
Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget the milkman, which remembers to plant bulbs;"

Note: Click here for the full poem.

(WD40, if you don't know, is a type of oil good for rust prevention and other purposes.)

And it's not all sweetness and light. Hayden was raised by foster parents who had a very troubled marriage and the effects stayed with him throughout his life. Indeed, in the poem mentioned above he talks about "the chronic angers of that house." Nevertheless, he recognised in later life the value of the practical things done for him by the foster father whom he often had reason to fear.

It seems to me that for people who have had a harsh upbringing there can sometimes be a kind of healing in this realisation. A parent might be unexpressive about love but might nevertheless build his or her life around the needs of the child or the other parent.

This realisation is also part of the Japanese Naikan meditation which I have mentioned before in this column. To do Naikan, you call to mind someone who was or is important to you even if - perhaps especially if - you have a big resentment against that person. You then ask yourself three questions and reflect on each in turn: What has this person given me, what have I given this person and what troubles have I caused this person?

You are encouraged to be very specific in your answers. Maybe all you can think of is that this person put food on the table, ironed your clothes and saw to it that you went to school. You may be full of justifiable anger towards them but there are, nevertheless, these things that they did for you. And there are, after all, parents who don't do even these things for their children.

All of this is a million miles removed from romantic love which involves doing things for the other person simply because they are romantic and without much regard to whether they are useful. A bouquet of roses hasn't got a lot of utility to it but it can get a guy out of trouble because it appeals to the romantic side of love. So if you want a flourishing relationship with your significant other, don't rely on the "love called maintenance" but throw a little romance into the mix as well.

But never underestimate the importance of the "love called maintenance" either. In some people it can simply be a sour expression of a resented duty. But in others, it can be as true an expression of love as the roses and the box of chocolates and the diamond ring, or maybe even truer. That it so often goes unappreciated and unacknowledged -as by Robert Hayden as a child - does nothing to alter this fact.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read this and thought 'how true' Later a friend told me how he showed to his wife. It seems he didn't feel valued at home.

She did appear to pick up on the theme.

My experience wasomewhat similar at home.