Archive for September, 2013

posted by Amy on Sep 15

In May I attended a workshop on chanting meditation at Glenstal Abbey in southwestern Ireland. After that I stayed at the Abbey for a few more days, attending the chapel services where the monks prayed the hours, wandering the beautiful grounds, and enjoying the company of the other guests and of the Guestmaster, Father Christopher. I enjoyed the workshop while it was going on. It was held in a circular room above a library. About six women, one man, and the facilitator participated. I especially liked the other participants. The theme of the workshop was “gratitude.” The facilitator has a masters degree in sacred chant, and she led us in a number of chants, including one we did while walking around the “Ladies’ Garden” near the library.

In a discussion about what we’re grateful for, one woman said we should be grateful for dark things. The seminar leader seemed uncomfortable with that idea. She said something about creating our own reality and not dwelling on what we don’t want in our lives. I think she missed the point. Dark things have their place in life. They bring gifts of their own. If we didn’t ever die or suffer we wouldn’t have any basis for knowing when we are blissful. If we never died we’d be selfish, lazy, self-centered jerks. There’d be no need for babies, and babies are the best thing in the whole wide world. So, despite the leader’s misgivings, I made a list of dark things for which I am grateful: cancer, death, abandonment, loss, fear, loneliness, making mistakes, and crying, and I prayed a prayer of gratitude for those dark things. As the great Sufi poet Hafiz said,

“My Eyes So Soft”

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.

Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you

As few human or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight

Has made my eyes so soft,

My voice so tender,

My need of God

Absolutely

Clear.

The seminar leader is not religious, but simply cherry picks the things she likes from every religion. I didn’t get the impression she actually knows much about any religion. In the seminar she didn’t talk about what chanting does. How does it differ from silent meditation? Is it different in a group? What happens to the body and brain when people chant? She says we “make our own reality.” Apparently, she prefers her reality to have no dark side.

But one of the handouts she gave us said, “Every breath, moment, action, every thought is sacred.” I had a strongly negative reaction to that statement, because it’s utterly, dangerously false. Raping someone isn’t sacred. Thinking, “I deserve this more than the person it belongs to” and stealing isn’t sacred. If everything is sacred then nothing is.

All the great religions that she samples and reappropriates have ethics and morals, and they all deal with evil. All have some notion of a path to virtue. Glorifying and deifying oneself is dangerously narcissistic. Pursuit of personal desire divorced from awareness of and respect for the existence, truth claims, and rights of the rest of creation is sociopathic. I do not, in fact, make my own reality. My identity and my reality are socially constructed. We humans are social, political, interconnected, moral beings. The seminar leader’s self-centeredness and narcissism were on display in other subtle ways throughout my stay there. She made me uneasy.

By contrast, I loved the monks and their chanting. They are not self-absorbed navel-gazers. They are doing what they do in reference to, and reverence for, the Master of the Universe. Like clockwork, their day is a cycle of prayer, work, and study. They are loving and serving God and one another. They form and nurture habits that become virtues: faith, hope, love, humility, gratitude, hospitality, self-discipline, compassion. It is outward-focused, not selfish or egocentric. (Which is not to say that people never use religious practices for selfish reasons, or to bolster their own addictions–they certainly do.) But I think I can sense the difference. There is a genuineness to authentic religion that is absent from mere formalism.

 

posted by Amy on Sep 8

On August 21, Robin Olson, the director of the spiritual life office at BU School of Theology, sent me this link to a news story about a woman she knows. I saw Robin yesterday, and she said the story has gone viral, with extensive news coverage and with numerous interviews. Robin and I talked briefly about the issues that raises, and then we both had to go.

There’s a fine line between “brightsiding,” that beautiful word that Barbara Eherenreich coined for the enforced cheerfulness and positivity that our culture demands of everyone, especially people facing grim medical diagnoses, and deciding to go ahead and dance with cancer. It might be impossible to tell one from the other from the outside, but there is an important distinction. Maybe someone with an inside view can explain it.

I wrote an earlier post about the cruelty of positive thinking that might have made it sound like I was targeting “New Age” or “New Thought” thinking styles, but the cruelty and bad theology are much broader than that, as I explained in “Bad cancer theology.”

People want to believe they can control their fate. This is especially true in present day culture, where public health problems are being addressed with fundraisers, “awareness raisers” and marketing campaigns, and where the focus is almost exclusively on lifestyle and other individual prevention strategies. Corporate sponsors like positive, uplifting messages. Donors want to believe that they are making a positive difference. And people with cancer will try anything to get well, including magical thinking. If I just want something badly enough and if I program my thinking to realize the preferred outcome, I’ll get it.

People also hate to think about sickness, suffering and death. Death is invisible in our culture. Cause marketing has helped remove the stigma from breast cancer, but it has replaced it with the stigma of not getting well. Some 39,000 people die of breast cancer every year in this country, so there’s an obvious disconnect between all the shiny happy pink images and the reality. Even the “survivor tents” at Race for the Cure hide from the truth about breast cancer: that you can do everything right, and still have a recurrence or be metastatic at diagnosis. That you are 98% sure to die from it sooner or later if you do get to Stage IV. And that something like 30% of those diagnosed and treated at an earlier stage wind up at Stage IV.

When I was first diagnosed a good friend who had also had breast cancer suggested that a “battle” metaphor for dealing with the disease might not be appropriate. I agree with her. Cancer is not a foreign invader. It is my own cells gone astray. They’ve outwitted the mechanisms that usually keep cells from growing out of control, but they meant well. Cancer is disordered healing. I think hating my cancer could all too easily become self-hatred and self-blame. I’d rather find a way to live with all the less-than-optimal parts of myself than kill them off. Cancer is like the physical manifestation of a character defect: excessive zeal, excessive perfectionism, excessive self-reliance, impatience, laziness, or hubris. I can’t escape my character defects, but I can learn from them. I am who I am because of how my particular body and mind have interacted with my environment through time. Cancer is not the only maladaptive thing about me. Maybe finding a constructive approach to one issue will generalize to the others.

Making friends with cancer is not the same as brightsiding. In my case, anyway, it is a decision not to let the cancer kill my spirit before it finishes off my body. I don’t want it to rob today of any of its joy, wonder, or beauty. I don’t want to focus on one scary, negative thing and lose sight of all my blessings. I don’t want it to define me. I don’t want it to change me for the worse.

No amount of worry or anger will change my future. All it can do is poison my present. I choose not to let that happen. “Positive thinking,” in the way I use it, is deliberate self-deception. It’s grasping at straws. I am not the least bit delusional about my medical status or my prognosis. I don’t believe that a “good attitude” can save me from dying of cancer. I’m 100% sure there’s nothing I can do to avoid dying of something. But I’m not dead yet, and I plan to use the time I have left extracting as much joy and delight from this beautiful world as I can.

 

 

posted by Amy on Sep 7

My sister-in-law posted on the Legacy.com memorial site for her deceased husband, my brother Ross, on the occasion of the 31st anniversary of their wedding. I don’t mind her doing that, of course. It’s one of the reasons I paid for a funeral notice and then kicked in a little extra to keep the site live for a year. Since Ross didn’t interact with me very much over the last 30 years, it might also be a means for me and other family members to learn more about his adult life. But it’s not working out that way.

Almost everything she has posted has a boring, repetitive sameness to it. Here’s what I mean:

From April 30:

My Wonderful loving husband I miss you so much I miss our talks our holding hands and all the excitement you brought into my life you are my love my world my soul mate it’s you and only you until we are together again you will always be in my heart and soul. You are an amazing person you are so missed by me and your family. I know you are in God’s arms. Always and Forever

From May 1:

Oh! My beloved soul mate Ross,

I thank God for I had you in my life. I thank god for the soulful and divine moments I was able to share with you. The most romantic moments are when I was in your arms and I forget the whole world. The most sensual moments are when I was able to cuddle with you and feel you breathing next to me. The most beautiful moments are when I saw you smiling all because of me. The most special moments are when I was able to cheer you up and make you feel proud of me. The most unforgettable moments are when I was able to fight the whole world for you. The most fabulous moments are when I simply was able to be a part of your life.

On May 26:

Now that you are gone and I am having to carry on my memories alone will have to see me through. Memories of all the days we spent together how blessed I will always feel that I was so lucky to be your wife for 30 years. Sept 4,1982 what a wonderful day that was and so many days that were great after that.NO ONE will ever measure up to you why God took you at such a young age who knows I guess God needed you. It’s been quite an adjustment living without you I am hurting so bad I say good morning to you every morning and good-nite every night to you. I will always think about our days together I know we will meet again you are my sweetheart, my true love, my soul mate I will love you deeply for all eternity.

On September 4:

I feel you all around me at church at home at work I am always feeling your love. So many people tell me how lucky we were to have each other and that some people never have or never will have the love that we shared for each other. We were always joined at the hip always together hardly ever did we do our own thing separately, we enjoyed each other that much even after all the years we were together always joined at the hip even you use to say it. I never pictured every minute without you in it you went so fast. I’m so lucky to have loved so much and be loved so much by you. So many memories I wish we could do it all again now I’m on my own I just take it day by day no one said it would be easy I need to learn to be strong again I need to find where I belong there is such a pain in my heart that will never go away until we are reunited again.

In only one post did she describe a specific event, their first date. But that one post shows she knows how to do it. And it does not surprise me that she doesn’t talk about him as a person, or about their life together. She never did that while he was alive, nor did she make more than cursory attempts to interact with me. She sent a few school pictures of my niece and nephew. She sent Christmas cards most years, but there was never any note or family letter. She posted quite a few pictures on the Legacy.com site. She never sent me any of those.

I actually have more memories of her life with Ross than she’s been sharing on the legacy site. There was the time my second husband, my son Ben, and I went to Santa Rosa for her daughter’s wedding. They did all the catering themselves, and they were busy, busy preparing food for the reception the next day. But nevertheless Ross found time to cook a perfect whole chicken (he butterflied it so it would cook evenly) and corn on the grill. Ben had a great time getting to know his cousins. There was the time they came to visit us in Denver for Thanksgiving, which is also my youngest son’s birthday. Ross gave his youngest nephew a Walkman, which was a hot new thing that year. There was the time I picked my oldest son up from college in LA, and we decided to drive the 900+ miles to Santa Rosa to visit Ross and Eve.

In those times, and in our few interactions on Facebook, I learned that Ross had thought through a lot of public and private issues. He read a lot, and he was extremely intelligent and sensitive. In one of our last email conversations, I sent Ross the famous Brene Brown TEDx talk about vulnerability, and he thanked me and said he realized that vulnerability was an issue for him.

Ross’s personality doesn’t come through in what Eve writes. Neither does hers, except for how telling it is that it is all about her: her emotions, her gratification, her sadness. Of course a widow would be sad, but who, exactly, is it that she misses? What was he to her? What does she mean by “soul mate?” On her wedding anniversary, you’d think she’d have some memories: What the cake tasted like, what they danced to for their first dance, what music they had, and who was there. What was it like to blend their families? How did he help? What was his greatest virtue as a man? What drove her crazy? What joys and sorrows did they share? What, exactly, did they do together, besides hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes?

My take on it is this: She isn’t doing this to memorialize him; she’s doing it to claim him for herself. In the Sept. 4 post she says she was there when Jesus came to take him away. (The first time I had any indication she likes Jesus is when she put a cheesy “Euro-Jesus petting a lamb” picture in the photo album on the legacy.com site.) Ross chose to conform to her demands of him, including the demand that he beat his kids. He chose her over them, and over his aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings. Ross and Eve were separated several times, but he always went back. He spent his entire adult life trying to win the love of a harsh, punitive, narcissistic woman who, not surprisingly, looked quite a bit like our mother. Over time his idealization of Mom increased, as did his demonization of Dad. Instead of integrating the good and bad sides of his parents, and himself, he did more and more splitting. I knew the truth, and I was not only willing but eager to talk about it. That’s why he avoided me.

In their 30+ years together Ross tried to differentiate from Eve. He tried to make a real career for himself, as a photographer or a chef. He tried to be a real person. But she always overpowered him. Finally, the only way he could get away from her was to die.

She is not a loving person. I’m sure her inability to love extends to herself as well, and I do feel sorry for her. But they were not soul mates. They had a very strong trauma bond, but that isn’t love. He was not her knight in shining armor, he was her serf, and she despised him for his weakness. He was not her beloved true companion. He was her source of narcissistic supply, and her supply got cut off.

On May 11, Eve sent me this message on Facebook:

Hello Amy

I just wanted to say thank you for the thoughtfulness of the card and the book I received today. It might take a few months to get the things to you but I will. My life is really hard right now and I am trying to figure things out. Your brother and I had a great life together over thirty years everyone said we were joined at the hip even Ross said that. I can not tell you how empty I feel and how lost. I am also sorry for your loss in losing a brother everything happened so fast. God says don’t judge me because you do not know what path God has put me on. I just want you to know that I am sorry I didn’t call you or anyone when all this happened. I have been a mess I have lost my best friend, my soul mate I hope you can understand he was my whole world. Thank you again for your kindness.

There it is–the same stereotyped language. Notice there’s no mention of her mendacity–actively concealing the fact of his death from his son, daughter, and siblings, just “God says don’t judge me.” She didn’t publish a funeral notice. She had a memorial service three days after he died. A week after he died Eve’s son posted something on Ross’s Facebook page saying he’d call him Monday as always. She says she’s “sorry” she didn’t call, but she shows no awareness of how messed up it is to do that to other people–including his son and daughter–who loved him too. Even in death, she kept trying to claim him for herself. I asked her whether she somehow felt judged, or whether she thought maybe I didn’t have a grasp of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. She didn’t reply.

 

posted by Amy on Sep 2

The Music Man opens with salesmen on a train saying, “You gotta know the territory.” They aren’t talking about knowing where the train tracks run or knowing the names of the towns. They’re talking about the people in the towns, and what’s going on with them.

When Henry Hill shows up in River City he asks what’s new. When he finds out that the billiard parlor has just installed a pool table, he tells a story about the trouble that will ensue as their young men fall prey to the evils of pool, first letting them vividly imagine their own sons’ moral decline, and then offering a solution. This calamity can be averted if they start a marching band and get music lessons for the kids. First came the narrative of impending disaster, then he told about how other people had avoided the same fate by accepting his offer. First he hooked their attention and created heightened awareness. Then he made an offer that fit into their own context.

Good sales people know that selling is not a matter of explaining features and benefits, and then bluntly asking if the prospect wants to buy. They build relationships first. They make themselves useful. They learn about their customers’ concerns and then they tell stories that hook the attention of the customer and demonstrate how what the salesperson is offering can meet a concern. It isn’t persuasion or “overcoming resistance.” It’s getting into step together.

Sales people also know not to waste time with prospects whose life situation doesn’t line up at all with what the salesperson is offering. The process of “qualifying” a lead is a kind of judgment, to be sure, but there’s no need to take it personally if there just is not a fit between salesperson and customer.

Selling is not linear. It is not a matter of cold calculation: “I have something you need, so you should buy it from me.” It is relational. It’s like dancing. I’ve taken a few swing dance lessons, from several instructors. My favorite instructor made a point of saying it was a matter of the leader and follower being connected with touch and eye contact, and that it’s up to the leader to establish that connection. The follower has to trust the leader, and for that to happen the leader has to demonstrate trustworthiness and respect. He has to be relaxed, attentive, and skillful. He has to show that he knows what he’s doing.

A first date is a sales call. But you aren’t there to describe features and benefits. You are there to see if there’s alignment between you and the “prospect.” She is there for the same reason. You are being evaluated on everything you do and say. Your goal is to make a connection, to tell stories into which the other person can imagine entering. How you present yourself and how you behave are inescapable elements of the story. I’m there to find out how you are dancing through life, and if you have the skills to do that well.

Like it or not, you are being evaluated and judged all the time. Everywhere you go, whatever you do, people see you and are aware of you. Are you smiling or scowling? Are you neatly dressed or sloppy? Are you punctual or chronically late? When you talk, your stories demonstrate your orientation toward life. Do you live out of love or fear? Are you forgiving or vindictive? Do you have a sense of agency and personal power, or have you given up your power to something or someone else?

I can tell a lot about a man on our first date. I learn more from how he presents himself and how he acts than what he says, but that, too, is important. His worldview, orientation to life, attitude towards women, and personal ethics are on display in what he says and does. Anything that comes up in the first few conversations, no matter how fleeting or seemingly trivial, is usually quite telling.

We all have frailties and shortcomings. Things over which we have no control happen all the time; however, we make choices about how to respond. I can tell a lot about you by how you are currently dealing with important human domains and with breakdowns in any of those areas: health, fitness, career, aesthetics, community, family, spirituality, and personal development. I can tell on a first date, from what you say and how you act, whether you have learned from your mistakes and take responsibility for the consequences of your choices. For my part, I try to be forthcoming enough in the first few dates to let a prospective partner see where I am in those domains. How he responds to those revelations is another important source of information.

On a first date I want to find out how real the man is. Can I get a sense of his true self, or is he closed down, scripted, and artificial? Does he make eye contact appropriately? Does he smile genuinely? Does he have self respect and respect for others? Is he polite but not smarmy or obsequious? Is he sincere? Is he trustworthy? Is he honest?

A real man or woman is self-aware. A real person has a sense of how the past influences the present and future, and takes responsibility for how personal choices contributed to any past or present breakdowns. A real person continually revises her life story in response to new experiences and relationships. She can see patterns and can modify practices based on that awareness. By contrast, phony people can’t do that. They have not reflected on meaning or sought any kind of transcendence in their lives. They sell themselves short, and they also do that to others. They and everyone else are objects, not subjects. Relationships are “I/It,” not “I/Thou.” Their stories are two-dimensional and scripted.

Your character comes through in everything you do and say. You continually signal what you really love and how you really see yourself, whether or not you think you are doing that. Your eyes give you away.

Love is not a transaction or an exchange. It’s more like a dance. In putting myself forward as a potential partner to someone I just met, I am not offering “features and benefits.” I am offering a possibility of dancing through life with me. On a first date, I am evaluating whether you know how to do that and whether you want that too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Amy on Sep 1

One of the men I “met” from my Craigslist ad spends his summers away from the Boston area. We have become email “pen pals,” and have spoken on the phone twice. He is a widower. It is an exceptional, meaningful relationship already, whether or not we end up deciding we are a match. We are taking it slowly, getting to know one another, and reflecting often on what we value about our friendship so far. Like me, he is looking for a head/heart/soul connection. I told him I’m looking for an anam cara and he understood what I was saying and said he wants that too. He is a college professor, and understands my passion for learning and for writing, and he encourages it. He says I should write a novel. I am very happy to have made such a wonderful new friend.

Which brings me to the subject of “LJBF,” or “let’s just be friends.” I know men don’t like women saying that to them. If they are on a dating site they want “more than that,” and they take LJBF as a rejection. I’ve had a number of conversations with men about that, and I really want to understand, but I don’t.

I can usually tell in one or two dates if I have no interest in pursuing any kind of relationship with a man. (It usually only takes one date, and quite often it’s a mutual decision.) Or I can tell if we seem to have enough in common to continue seeing each other. I can also usually form a hypothesis about the likelihood that he and I could be “right” for each other as partners, but I realize I could be wrong, so I’m usually willing to keep communicating and getting together, to see how it goes. I’m not going to marry–or even kiss–every man I meet. But that, to me, leaves open the possibility of being pals. I honestly don’t see that as a negative judgment.

I like and enjoy (in small doses) a lot of people with whom it would be impossible and unhealthy for me to live. Everyone has something to offer, and I can learn from anyone. I can overlook character flaws and quirks in friends that would be deal breakers with roommates or lovers.

The same is no doubt true in the other direction. I am very intense. I tend to rant about things that I care about, and there are some things that really, really get me going. I have an insatiable curiosity and an extremely active mind. I am constantly thinking and learning, and talking about what I have been studying. I am opinionated. My energy, my intelligence, and my intensity are not everyone’s cup of tea. Of course not. But things that would just not work in a partner might be pretty great in small doses.

I also have high expectations. I am loyal, kind-hearted, forgiving, good natured, and friendly, but only to a point. Some relationships, on balance, are more toxic than healthy. I can still love people with whom I have that kind of relationship, but I’m not going to pour out all my secrets to them, or go to bed with them. That’s too risky for me.

Not every relationship is emotionally intimate and 100% honest. They don’t have to be. I love all the people God has placed in my life, even the difficult ones. Especially the difficult ones. People who drive me crazy are helping me see where my weak spots are. I’ve learned that when I start thinking, “So and so should do such and such,” it’s almost always something I “should” do for myself.

For that matter, not every emotionally intimate, honest, healthy, life-enhancing, loving man/woman relationship is sexual. I am thinking of a particular man, who I love dearly and with whom I’d be very open to being sexual if he wanted that. He doesn’t. He is celibate, and he thinks that’s necessary for him. I respect that and I honor the boundary he has set. We have known each other for many years, and he is one of my dearest friends. I would not dream of walking away from him just because I wanted sex and he didn’t. We love each other, and that is priceless to me. He is my anam cara.

There’s always the possibility that a “just friends” man/woman relationship can eventually become truly intimate, honest, healthy, and permanent. Why wouldn’t a man be open to that?

 

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