Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Years Eve

When I was growing up my mother observed a tradition about the bells on New Years Eve. She would say to us, “Where you are when the bells ring on New Years Eve is where you will be for the rest of the New Year.” As a kid that meant that our house was clean, that our school work was done and our rooms were “red up” (meaning straighten in Pittsburgh-speak). Later it meant that who you were with or how you were emotionally was how the future year would unfold, so we watched funny movies and went out at midnight to toast the neighbors.

I carried this idea all of my life and New Years Eve has taken on great significance. One year when I knew that the relationship I was in would end soon I made sure that I was locked in my room alone at the very strike of midnight. Another year when I was trying to making my commitment to writing stick I made sure that I was at my typewriter and typing words when the bells rang in that new year.

This year I am home with the man in my life. We have had a lovely lunch and went to see the movie “Doubt”, with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Tonight we’ll have a lot of chocolate and salt and watch The Wire. I don’t know what this year will bring but the most important thing that I am now and that I will be when the bells ring in a few hours is Sober.

What I want most of all today, in 2009, and beyond is a life of sobriety. I like this sober life and I am grateful to be out of the woods.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


The teacher talks to us about discernment. She says that discernment is always a choice between goods. In true discernment either choice is for something good: Go to Mexico or Go to Italy. Marry him or remain on your own. Study art history or study theology. Each one is good but you cannot do both. How to discern?

Some discernment advice:

Get the facts: Are their financial implications? Health requirements? Prerequisites?

Talk to smart people: Talk to those who have done these things.

Then live for two weeks as if you are making Choice A: I will marry him.
How does that feel?
Then live for two weeks as if you are making Choice B: I will leave him.
How does that feel?

Get quiet. Very quiet. Listen for God’s still, small voice. Stay quiet and pray.

What do you really want?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Step Two Restored to Sanity

My prayer has been to be restored to sanity. Working the program and steps and getting outside help and still I see myself caught. Caught in a web. Fear of abandonment and a feeling of my own defectiveness are woven together and I fight to get free. It’s hard to know whether my fears led me to a relationship that is not good for me or is it that my fears conspire to drive me away from someone who loves me? How do I know what is fear and what is God or good for me?

The answer that I know is that quiet and stillness will allow me to hear God, and that if I avoid all compulsive behavior I will feel what I need to feel. “Sit still and feel.” Isn’t that a slogan too? “Trust the process” and “Don’t leave before the miracle happens.” are also slogans that come to my struggling mind this morning.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Late Christmas Shopping

This is one of my favorite days of the year. This afternoon I’ll be heading out to start my Christmas shopping. For a long time I was ashamed to admit that I began holiday preparations with a few days to go, but the truth is this is my favorite part of the holidays.
When I do let it leak that I’m just starting my shopping there is always some very superior person happy to share that she was all done in July. Well goody, goody, but what fun is that? Nor need you tell me about those gifts you bought on sale last February. You saved how much money doing that? Well goody for you, but saving money is not the spirit of the season.

No, I did not procrastinate. I well know the advice about how to make Christmas shopping easier. But there are some things that don’t get better just by being easier. I’ve read many of those How to Get Organized books, but I’ve also lived through enough tragedy to know that organizing one’s life is an illusion.
I grant you that there may be a moment this week when I will envy those who had their gifts wrapped in July. But that’s kind of like having a good report from the dentist isn’t it? All very wholesome but where’s the fun?

And don’t even get me started on the people who buy their gifts online. How much holiday spirit does it take to point and click? Yes you meet the technical requirement of gift given, but where’s the spirit? Why not just hand everyone on your list a twenty-dollar bill, and say, “Hey, have a go at it”. I also hate that suggestion that you should have a stash of generic gifts in your closet just in case someone surprises you with a gift and you were not prepared to reciprocate. Think how mean that is. Someone is just about to feel big and generous by surprising you with a gift and you cut them off at the knees with a retaliatory box of bath salts. It’s the cruelest one-upmanship.

Those of us who begin our shopping this week may be enjoying the real spirit of Christmas. We get to watch humanity test itself and see kindness and patience and grace enacted –or honored in the breach--in toy stores and next to the stack of 30% off cashmere turtlenecks. We also know that the worst characters to run into at the mall now are the, “I was done in August” people who just learned they need one more thing and have to come out and play with the rest of us. They are usually the ones cutting in line or sighing heavily and making lots of eye contact wanting others to share their misery.

No, we who shop now are engaging in holiday ritual much closer to the original: It’s cold out , traffic is as slow as a lane of donkeys, and we get to watch the young family with a triple stroller searching the mall for a changing area. It makes you want to drop to your knees and pray. Yes, shopping in July could make Christmas nice and tidy. But real life is anything but that. Consider the story of the Holy Family: There was no advance planning; Mary was days away from delivery when they went on a road trip, and she had to give birth in a barn. Not exactly tidy and neat. The crux of that first Christmas story is that sometimes in the midst of mess and confusion and fear, angels show up and miracles happen.
But in order to experience that you have to be willing to join the fray and put yourself where humans happen to be. Relationships with people are like casinos: You must be present to win.

So today I’ll be where humanity is. I’m heading out to the mall, bundled up, grinning and bracing myself for encounters with my fellow man. I’ll be trekking in from the outerloop of the parking lot, looking for a few gifts and the real spirit of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

No New Husbands

A wonderful book about alcoholism from a women’s perspective is “Drinking: A Love Story" by Caroline Knapp. One of my favorite stories of hers that describes how we have to change our thinking goes like this:

She is describing how alcoholics always want something new or different to fill that ever empty hole inside us. She says this is why you hear people in AA talk about thinking alcoholically long after they put down their last drink. “My husband is acting like an idiot,” a woman at a meeting shared. “I have to remember that the solution is not ‘Get a new husband.’”

Monday, December 22, 2008


Off we go trailing shopping lists and credit card receipts. Hanukkah and Christmas are this week. We may complain about our errands but we enjoy the festivity these holidays bring to our gray December days.
Hanukah and Christmas, these holidays that celebrate light, are aligned with the seasonal transit of the sun. It’s a leftover from earlier times when the nature religions led all of the others. There was good reason, then as now, to shun the darkness.
We know that as the seasons changed our ancient relatives feared that the sun had died. To coax the sun god back they created rituals that involved fire and light. The Druids lit bonfires. We celebrate with candles and lights on our trees.
In the Northern Hemisphere this is the time when we face our vulnerability. We saw this last week when bad weather took light and heat from many. But weather is the least of it. This time of year we have other darkness’s: grief, fears and regrets. We do our best to outrun them. Some of us go to the Caribbean and some to sunlamps; many pursue spirits, religious or distilled. Just like our ancestors we want the sun and warmth to come back, so we go to stores and burn up our credit cards; we sacrifice our savings.
But we still fear the dark. Much of what we do this time of year is for distraction. Not unlike whistling when we pass a graveyard, now we sing and shop and eat too much. And we complain. But maybe our railing against our holiday chores is itself a part of the solstice. Now when we are oppressed by darkness –when our primitive fears can be felt even through layers of advertising and anti-depressants-- we are drawn to the lights and to other people as our defense against the dark, just as our ancient relatives were drawn to stars and fires.
Religion and spirituality is a way out of darkness and into hope and joy. The coming holidays are about mystery and miracles; oil that lasts eight days and the birth of a baby in a barn. But the flip side of each story is about the dark just at the edge of the light. Hanukah and Christmas are also about darkness. Sometimes we miss that. There wasn’t enough oil. A small family was homeless. But the oil lasted and there was light. The child born in darkness was called the “light of the world”.
Just like these holidays our own stories don’t work if we don’t include the darkness too. We’re fighting something ancient, natural and necessary. But occasionally we need to feel the darkness—even symbolically--like we sometimes need a dark night or a wild storm.
The words of this carol could just as well be a Solstice song: Yet in the dark street shineth, the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
On this day the sun is at the most southern point of its transit. Tonight is the longest night of the year. Starting tomorrow our days will grow longer again. The cycle is astronomical and holy. On this night we are as ancient as ever.
So maybe on this night we could allow the darkness. On this darkest night, what if we dared ourselves to wait before we light the candles. What if we sat a moment with the menorah unlit and the tree in darkness--and took a breath. That’s what solstice is about. We can enter the darkness and emerge transformed. We can stand it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Snow Storm

Big snow today following last week’s ice storm. What I remember is this: If I think I can’t get to a meeting because of the weather just remember when I used to go out in any kind of weather and at any hour for (a drink, some food, a man, a sale)—Insert appropriate addiction here. And then laugh, and go to a meeting!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Letting Go

Love is letting go. Peace comes from letting go. Let go and let God. We all know what that means and why it makes sense and that annoying as it is to hear those words that it is the truth. But, the person who can finally, at last, and someday describe HOW to let go will be a millionaire and a miracle worker.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Powerless and in Pain

For therapy I am doing a relationship history. Looking at patterns: the kind of men I pick, the kind I love, the kind I leave. I am here one more time asking: “Why this man?” I am full of insight but perhaps not wisdom. So much therapy. So much recovery. It can only be up to God now. That is what steps six and seven are about. Twenty-five years later I am again sick and tired of being sick and tired. So we say it’s Step One and that means powerless. Am I really powerless? So hard to imagine. I sought this, chose it, flirted, had coffee with him again. Reader, I kissed him. The rest is painful history.

So where is the powerlessness? Maybe if you believe in the schemas of cognitive therapy, that they are not just psychological but neural as well, that they engrave patterns on our nervous systems as well as add scent bait to the wrong partner, then yes powerless. Today it just hurts. I am powerless and in pain.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Be Grateful that You are Not on Fire

It’s a standard practice in self-help groups to suggest that, when life feels hard, the best thing you can do is make a gratitude list. In some groups, where the ethic is more tough love than tender nurture, that suggestion goes like this: “You need to make a list of things you are grateful for and start it with, “I am not on fire”.

I always thought that was a particularly harsh way of saying that your problems aren’t so bad, but that was only until I met Glenn McDole and Frenchy Dupont. I met the two former Marines while I was writing a book about China Marines –those who served in China before World War II. For these two men, and the families of their colleagues, today is an important day.

On December 14, 1944, 150 American Marines and sailors were killed on the Island of Palawan in the Philippines. In the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St Louis, Missouri a mass grave contains the remains of those men. The grave marker reads:

These U.S. prisoners of war of the Japanese were on the Island of Palawan, P.I. as slave laborers building an airfield for the Japanese military. Believing that an invasion by the U. S forces was imminent, the prisoners were forced into three tunnel shelters, thus following orders from the Japanese High Command to dispose of prisoners by any means available. Buckets of gasoline were thrown inside the shelters followed by flaming torches. Those not instantly killed by the explosions ran burning from the tunnels and were machine gunned and bayoneted to death.

Glenn and Frenchy were two of five men who escaped. Their story has been documented for military history, but their experience is also one of the most outstanding examples of human resilience.

The American prisoners on Palawan were part of a battalion that had surrendered to the Japanese at Corregidor. Arriving weak and injured they were stripped, starved and beaten. For almost three years on Palawan they received no medical attention and were forced to dig—by hand—an airstrip in the Philippine jungle. Naked and barefoot they worked for 14 hours each day. The men were allowed, at most, two meals per week from the garbage of the Japanese kitchens. Disease and starvation killed many, and most, like Frenchy, lost their sight as a result of beriberi and pellagra.

On December 14, as Americans planes approached, the prisoners experienced the immolation described on the grave marker. Glenn and Frenchy remembered the smell of roasting flesh mixed with gasoline and human excrement. But because they were at the end of the trench near an embankment seven men pushed out of the flaming tunnel, jumped over the cliff’s edge and rolled down a jagged rock slope. The Japanese shot at them as they fell. The men ran along the beach, bullets piercing their legs and backs, and then dove, bloody, into the sea and began to swim. Ten hours later, the exhausted, starved, blind, burned and shark bitten men crawled to shore on another island where they were rescued by Philippine guerillas.

Five years ago I stood in the National Cemetery in St Louis while Frenchy and Glenn told their story. I could not stop shaking my head. How did they survive? And, how did they live normal lives after surviving?

But they did. After returning to the states these men completed their military commitment and went on to have active civilian lives, careers and families.

Okay. What do you do with a story like that? On any given day my life is not perfect. I can easily grumble about the weather or writing or work. But today, on December 14, I can’t. On this day I remember the men who died on Palawan --and those few who survived. Tonight, at the top of my gratitude list I will happily write, “I am not on fire”.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Office Holiday Party

We are entering the time of year that makes seasoned managers cringe and human resource directors want to leave town. Fine words to the contrary, there is little Peace on Earth at the office now: It’s time for the office Christmas, oops, I mean “holiday” party. Yes, we’ve learned to choke on the word Christmas and insist that the December party where we dress in sparkles, bring wrapped gifts and drink eggnog standing next to an evergreen tree is just a winter event. But language games are the least of it when management has to plan the annual—“no one will be happy no matter what we do”--office holiday party.

This time of year career gurus remind us: you must attend, you should not drink, don’t dress like a stripper and do make small talk with many people. The warnings should certainly be heeded. The annual holiday party is ground zero for what is known in Human Resources as the CLM, or Career Limiting Move. CLM’s include Xeroxing body parts, getting tanked with co-workers and making jokes about the boss to his/her spouse. But love them --or leave them early-- the office holiday party is a ritual of the workplace.

The list of issues is long: do we go out on the town or stay in the building? Is the event during work or after hours? Will there be dancing? Music? And biggest bugaboo: booze or no booze? Divisiveness is in the details. One of the words tossed around liberally in the weeks leading up to the party is “they” as in they don’t have kids, they don’t like to drink, they drink too much, or they don’t have to pay a baby-sitter. Preferences also break down by personality type: Extroverts love the parties; Introverts want to die.

Some offices give money to charity instead but then end up bringing in a deli tray on December 22nd because it doesn’t feel right not to do something. I think it hits us that if we don’t have some kind of party, then we’re admitting that this is work and that these people are not really our family or our best friends. It’s one of the passive deceptions we engage in to smooth life along.

So what’s at the heart of this holiday ritual? Well, for starters we have strong cultural memories and it’s dark this time of year and we are longing for light. Workplaces have their own kind of darkness so it’s human to want to brighten that up too. But there’s more. The office party is really a throwback. Yes, that sushi with sparkles affair in the boardroom is a remnant from the Ebenezer Scrooge days. It’s a flashback to the days when Big Daddy Corporation rewarded its child-like workers with a decent meal and glass of bubbly they could not provide for themselves. The company party was also a time to reset any drifting notions of who owned the means of production.

I remember that kind of event. At the box factory where my Dad worked the assembly line was shut down once a year: the Saturday before Christmas. Hot dogs were served from the corrugator and Santa arrived on a forklift. There were no Bring Your Kids to Work days back then, so the Christmas Party was the chance to see where Dad went to work every day. It was simply understood that the family depended on this place and these people.

As our economy takes a turn we may have come full circle. So step up to the Holiday Office Event: Put on your sparkles, exclaim over the deli tray, and admit to your peers that you couldn’t have done it without them. That is the gift they will remember all year.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Praise and Blame are All the Same

Another lesson I come back to again and again: Praise and Blame are all the same. They are both about other people’s opinions of you. The tricky part of this is giving up both sides of the equation. When someone criticizes us we can easily say, “Don’t give that any merit or energy, it’s their opinion.” But in order for that to be true and in order to change how much we depend on the opinion of others we must also give up attaching any merit or energy to their praise or good opinion also.

To be free of feeling rocked by criticism we must also let go of being inflated or soothed by other people’s praise.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Steps Six and Seven

This separates the boys from the men and maybe it separates the women from the men too. In my case maybe that’s a good thing! I am looking at my patterns in relationships. That old, scared part of me that connect me to men who cannot be there in a committed way or who are unavailable: married, depressed, long distance, too busy, distracted or unavailable in some way. A wiser woman would walk away but I walk toward. The insight is not new, the grieving is not new but the impact of what this has cost me and others is overwhelming.

This makes steps six and seven so important. There is what I can do: inventory, therapy, amends, and changing my behavior when I can catch it but the old habits of thought and fear—so deeply ingrained they feel like simple reality. I need God’s help for that to change. Please remove these “defects of character” that get in the way of my relationship with you and others. That’s it.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Unchain My Heart

The idea that our perceptions determine the reality that we perceive is an old one. In a classic story, known as "Plato's Cave", Socrates describes how a group of men who are chained facing a wall observe shadows dancing across the wall in front of them. They have never known that these shadows are due to figures near the entrance to the cave moving behind them in front of a candle. To these men, the shadows are reality. One day one of the men turns around and sees that there are figures moving behind him casting their shadows across the wall. From that day on, the "reality" of the shadows no longer exists.

Changing my thinking—learning to and trying to --is my attempt to unchain myself and to see the reality of what is outside my cave. I realized this week that I have believed these shadows all of my life. I have made decisions about people and situations, about work and especially about love based on what I saw in the shadows. If my thinking and perceptions can change I will be able to unchain my heart.

Friday, December 05, 2008

New Meetings

I am trying new meetings and going back to old ones. I feel the need to connect, hear new voices, reenter my AA community. I have a home group and I do service but I do not feel connected. AA is the center of my recovery. I want to stay sober because that is the ground under all the other therapy, body work, healing and change. I feel like I am sitting just outside it now and I don’t like that. I know the answer: Go to meetings, raise my hand, speak to people, tell the truth.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Do Not Derange

I have a door knob hang tag from a motel that says Do Not Disturb on one side. On the other is the same phrase in French. But as my husband pointed out, the literal translation in French is “Do Not Derange”. I love that. It’s fair warning to anyone in my life.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Scary Voice

I’m thinking a lot about my thinking. This idea of two voices and the schema voice that trips me up so often. I’m reading a very helpful book called “Reinventing Your Life” which is about “life traps” or this schema voice or habit of thinking.

It strikes me that the schema habit or --the scary voice--is an old part of me. In fact it’s so old that it’s really a very young part of my self. It’s a kid’s voice. It is incredibly powerful and ingrained—persistent, resistant—but it is young. That voice is trying so hard—scary hard—to find stasis and familiarity. Even though the schema, scary voice is disrupting my life and has caused damage for years and years driving me out of relationships and into all kinds of pain—it does (if it can be personified) want to have safety. It thinks it is helping me. In its own weirdly misguided way it wants to help and protect me.

So the challenge is to change and redirect this schema or voice with out being violent to it. It needs to be changed with compassion; it needs to be lovingly thanked and then retired.