Wednesday, October 31, 2012


This is Halloween: a time of spookiness and scary stories, horror movies and dire safety warnings.  What we miss or forget in all this get-the-costume-get-the-candy rushing about is what we’re celebrating and where it comes from. Oh, the religious right will try to remind us: They ban Halloween because it’s pagan, devil-worship, evil etc.  But even they forget their heritage on this dark holiday.

Halloween or some version of Souls Day Eve is celebrated all over the world and came to us when the Gaelic immigrants –Irish to us –came to America. In the same way that some places in the world Christmas is still a sacred holiday, there are some where All Hallows Eve is a solemn and austere time too. 

Halloween as practiced here, is really a combination of Druid practice with a touch of other religious beliefs thrown in. This weekend as we help our kids to dress up and wear masks and we carve pumpkins and eat candy corn we’re following ancient customs.  We wink at the Druidic past that underlies Irish Catholicism. It’s a part of our history that’s so easy to forget.

When the first settlers came to the New World there was no Halloween; It was only after the Irish immigrants came bringing their old customs that the ancient Druidic and Celtic customs joined our world. Bonfires and harvest suppers –even celebrated in churches –come directly from the dark night woods and the bare harvested fields. A nod, not so slight, to our belief in the nature gods in our midst.

As with many other holidays –and almost all Christian observances—new religious rites were deliberately laid on top of ancient pagan festivals. Halloween emerged from an act in the 8th Century when the All Saints Chapel in Rome was dedicated. That new holy day suppressed one of the oldest Celtic festivals called Samhein celebrated on the last day of October. Samhein celebrated harvest.

In Druidism, the ancient Celtic religion—underlying English, Irish and Scottish culture –the new year began November 1st so our Halloween was their New Year’s Eve.

Except for the candy, October 31st doesn’t leave much for grownups. Being scared of goblins and ghoulies lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. The dead just aren’t scary in the same way anymore. I think that’s true for many of us. Hence the arrival of so many ghost and afterlife TV shows and classes on talking to the dead. It’s a demographic phenomenon as much as spiritual. We baby boomers are losing family and closing in on our own deaths, so like everything else we touch we want to manage this unmanageable part of life too. We are a generation that has always been able to stay in touch. And we still expect to even with our loved ones who have died.

That’s what this holiday is really about. There is a belief that in the days near the end of October the veil separating this world and the next is thinner and so it’s a time we can be closer to those who have died. 
A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether Purim or Advent, hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us sort and reframe our memories. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived. 

This isn’t a very American idea of death. Culturally our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief we use words like closure and process. I think this is why we can sometimes be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done with it. We love closure and things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like.

The root of the word grieve is heavy. We carry our dead as a cherished burden. Death ends a life but not a relationship. Who would want to close the door on that?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sylvia Plath's Birthday

Today –October 27th--is the birthday of the poet Sylvia Plath.  She was one of America’s young, brilliant, and beautiful poets. After the success of her first book she married the British poet, Ted Hughes. They were an envied, successful literary couple.

On February 11, 1963, on a cold, dark London evening Plath put her two small children to bed, then turned on the gas stove in her kitchen, stuck her head in the oven and died. She was 30. She was talented. She was celebrated. She was heartsick. She was depressed.

Celebrate Plath today. Make cookies for someone you love. Bake lasagna for dinner. Read a poem. Write a poem. Cherish your life.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Retirement Party for Your Character Defects

In the Seventh Step prayer we humbly ask God to remove the defects of character that “stand in the way of my usefulness to you (God) and my fellows.”

That was something that I always wanted. But it took me a long time to understand that there is a world of difference from asking God to remove the defects that limit my usefulness to others versus the ones that that I don’t like or the defects that effect how others think of me. I wanted Step Seven to be a kind of self-improvement process or like getting a makeover. What I have come to realize is that this is a place where that humility kicks in: I don’t necessarily get to choose the defects that will be removed.  My Higher Power does. I don’t get to use the Seventh Step in a self-serving way, “Now I’ll get so good that everyone will like me.”  Dang!

So how to approach this step in a loving, and not self-bashing way?

Here’s a bit of Step Seven wisdom I got from an early sponsor with help from a very early therapist: We do not kill our character defects! My first therapist in recovery pointed out to me that my “character defects” were all things that saved my life growing up. Being a “high screener”—super vigilant --was a life saving skill in an alcoholic home. And being super organized (controlling) gave me a sense of safety and security as a kid. Being hyperaware of other people’s feelings and anticipating them made a chaotic world more manageable. Telling lies, stuffing feelings, being seductive or bossy or too complaint were all part of my survival.

And so my defects were once important assets. Until they weren’t.

My sponsor pointed out that it didn’t make sense to hate these parts of me because they were, in fact, parts of me and that I didn’t want—in recovery—to hate myself. Instead I could retire them.

I love the idea of retirement. If we think of our character defects as workers whose skills no longer fit our company’s goals then retirement is honorable and appropriate. Just as in a business we can say, “Hey, we are doing new things now and doing things a new way” but we honor the “retirees” for all they gave to our enterprise. Rather than shove the character defects out the door or pray that God destroys them we could have a retirement party for our character defects.

Imagine that. We could list each defect and thank them for their contribution, and thanking them for their help in our early lives. There could be laughter and stories just like a real retirement party. And then we can walk them to the door, take their keys and parking pass and shake their hand.

 But we don’t kill retirees.

Here’s the thing to remember: Just like at our workplace, sometimes retirees come back to visit—and sometimes they visit at inopportune times—and that can be frustrating. But we don’t kill them. We may say, “ Hey, I remember you; remember how we used to work together?” And then, ever so gently, we might say,  “But you don’t work here anymore.” And we walk them to the door, and say, “Thanks.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chief Inspector Gamache and the Near Enemies

I’m still reading the fabulous mystery series by Louise Penny that features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. I love this guy—and I love the psychological lessons that Penny loads into these books. With each new volume I learn things that I can apply to my recovery and personal growth.

This week is it the concept of “Near Enemies”: a psychological framework in which two emotional states can look the same but are actually opposites. Near Enemies derives from a Buddhist teaching where a positive psychological state has a sort of, “evil twin”.  One parades as the other, and is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other is sick.

Here are examples: Attachment can masquerade as Love; Pity as Compassion and Indifference as Equanimity.

We understand the first pair from codependency: Real love wants the other’s best interests; wants the other to grow, to go, to get on with life and to change; Love wants the other to be independent. But attachment clings, stifles, enables and cripples in the name of love.

The second pair is Compassion and Pity: Compassion involves empathy. You see the stricken person as an equal. Pity doesn’t. If you pity someone you feel superior to him or her.

And then the pair of Equanimity and Indifference. Louise Penny calls this the most corrosive pair. “Equanimity is balance. When something overwhelming happens in our lives we feel it but we also have the ability to overcome it. We might feel huge grief or sorrow, but deep down inside people find a core. That’s equanimity.” But, she goes on to explain, Indifference is stoicism, calm in a crisis without feeling, they don’t feel pain because they don’t care. People with equanimity can absorb a pain, feel it fully, and let it go. But they might look exactly like people who don’t care at all. “But who is really brave and who is the near enemy?”

If you are interested in The Louise Penny mystery series begin with the book, “Still Life” and go from there.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Unchain My Heart

 The idea that our perceptions determine the reality that we perceive is quite old. In the 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 projected on the wall from figures near the entrance to the cave that are moving behind them in front of a candle. To the men chained in the cave, 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; challenging it, testing it--is my attempt to unchain myself and to see the reality of what is outside the small cave of my mind. I have believed the shadows on my “wall” 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. Now I want to know what’s real.

If my thinking and perceptions can change I can slowly unchain my heart.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Cognitive Therapy--The Books

This is a follow up to the last post about Cognitive Therapy and how we can change our moods and feelings by changing our thinking. There are many therapists trained in a variety of cognitive therapy techniques. The name you’ll see over and over is Aaron Beck, MD—kind of the modern “pioneer”, (even though the thought-mood connection this is an ancient idea). Beck has done the most to breakdown the “how” of cognitive change.

There are two terrific books that I have read-and returned to again and again—that are a good introduction and that have really helped me. I go back to them repeatedly because in this, as in everything, change happens in layers and stages so I go back to get more help for the next layer. (Not unlike working the 7th Step.)

Here are the two books on Cognitive Change that I have found useful:

“Reinventing Your Life” by Jeffrey E. Young and Janet S. Klosko

“Mind Over Mood” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky.

These books are available at your library or local independent bookstore.