Sunday, December 30, 2007

Legacy of Roberto Clemente

In Spanish, Clemente means merciful. Roberto Clemente lived up to his name.

In the same way that Americans of a certain age will say to each other, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Baseball fans will ask one another, “Where were you when you heard that Roberto Clemente died?”

Roberto Clemente was that important--to Pittsburgh and to baseball, and to the world of sports and beyond.
As we end this year, one that has seen money and drugs foul the world of baseball, we can remember a ball player who allowed us to see athletes as honorable. The word “hero” is often misused—especially in sports--but the true meaning is “one who gives his life to help others”, and that is what Clemente did on December 31, 1972, thirty-five years ago tonight.
Clemente is remembered as one of the best arms in baseball. Many believe he was the greatest right-fielder ever, shining in the outfield, tracking down every ball in range often making spectacular leaping and diving catches. And then there was that throw—all the catcher had to do was stand there.

Known as “The Great One”, Clemente’s lifetime batting average was .317. He earned four National League batting championships, twelve Gold Glove awards, and was National League MVP in 1966 and World Series MVP in 1971. He was the first Latin American player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition to his hard work on the field Clemente worked between games and in the off season helping the poor and visiting sick children in every major league city. He did none of it for media attention.

Bob Prince, colorful announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, used to sing out, “Arriba!” when Clemente came up to bat. In Spanish arriba means “get going” or “get there” and Clemente could get there. December 31, 1972 he was going to Nicaragua to ensure that the relief supplies he gathered would reach the starving victims.

The qualities mentioned by those who played with Clemente or who saw him play are: Pride, fury, grace and always dignity. The poet, Enrique Zorilla, wrote: “What burned in the cheeks of Roberto Clemente was the fire of dignity”.

On September 30, 1972 Clemente drove a double off Met pitcher Jon Matlack for his 3,000 career hit. Three months later, on New Year’s Eve, his life ended when the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors.

Even if you care nothing for baseball, or even if you are a Yankee fan who still cringes at the mention of 1960, you can borrow from Clemente’s legacy as you consider your New Year’s resolutions. Roberto Clemente often said, “Any time you have the opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t do it, you are wasting your time on this earth.”
Roberto Clemente died that night in a plane crash en route to Nicaragua bringing relief supplies to victims of an earthquake. He was 38 years old. No time wasted.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

In Defense of Late 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 just seven 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 this week 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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Anti-Thinking Thanksgiving

We are entering a week that features equal portions of gratitude and uncomfortable dinner conversations. For many Thanksgiving is a mixed bag; we count our blessings and defend our beliefs. Good manners dictate no talk of politics or religion but these days there’s little else. As we say grace some of us will add a silent prayer, “Please God, do not let Uncle Bart start in on Reagan as our greatest president.”

But if we can pay attention through dessert we’ll notice something that should trouble us even more. Increasingly there is a conversational disconnect that goes like this: When asked, “What do you think about such-and-such?” Many people will reply, “Did you see that report on TV last night?” Their response, instead of sharing their own thinking, offers up a source of information. You might imagine this is the unique province of far-right talk radio fans, but no, it’s just as likely to come from followers of NPR and John Stewart.

This loss of genuine thinking shows up in all parts of our lives. In business we’ve traded Peter Drucker’s long discourses on the nuances of management for the abbreviated ideas of The Apprentice. As consumers we’ve substituted marketing for self-examination, letting researchers figure us out, and advertisers tell us what to want.

Did we get tired, or did we just get lazy? Or are we afraid to think?
That may seem an odd question at a time when the new buzzword is “human capital”, but we’re conflicted about being thinkers. We have a history of disdaining intellectuals and preferring the not-so-smart to the smarty-pants. We rely on lots of information rather than on the messiness of thinking, mulling, reconsidering and being confused which are at the heart of a genuine intellectual process. We have a kind of perverse national pride in anti-intellectualism. Even our President’s pretense at being just an ordinary guy—one who went to Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School--is intended to put Americans at ease. And it does.

Thinking takes practice and we are out of shape. But it’s a dangerous time to have weak intellectual muscles. Our current global challenges exist at the intersection of economics, environment, religion and history. The solutions aren’t simple and they’re not technological. However as we face these complex issues we’re moving further from the disciplines that teach people how to think. What we need now is very old school, and that is the Liberal Arts.
I know, I know, the accusation that liberal arts are not practical has some truth, but there is important history in that charge of impracticality.

The ancient Romans had slaves from all over the world. Some of their slaves, like the Greeks, were bright and the Romans controlled them by limiting their education. Romans allowed slaves to be educated in math and engineering so they could build things, and in the arts so they could entertain, but only Roman citizens—free people—could study history, rhetoric or philosophy. It was understood that people who studied these artes liberals would learn to think and so they were the exclusive privilege of the liberi, the free men.
Thinking is hard work. It involves being comfortable with not knowing and that flies in the face of punditry and dinner table debates. But if we want to truly understand what we read on the front page, or be able to sort through both NPR and Rush Limbaugh we have to practice on tough material –literature and philosophy--which might temporarily confuse, but ultimately will reward us.

We may joke that the mantra of the liberal arts major is: “Do you want fries with that?” But the deeper question, when we find ourselves shrinking from difficult ideas, might instead be: “Do you want freedom with that?”

That is somehting to chew on with the turkey and stuffing this week

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Day of the Dead

Today I am celebrating Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This isn’t a holiday I grew up with, but one I’ve borrowed from the Southwest and Mexico. It’s become one of my favorite holidays because it’s a good counterpart to Halloween. Except for the candy, October 31st doesn’t leave much for grownups. Being scared of goblins lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. I’m not spooked by the idea of ghosts now; in fact, I’d welcome a visit from some of them.

That’s what Day of the Dead is about. There is a belief that on this day 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.
Day of the Dead has rituals to help us remember our loved ones. We can visit in our imagination or feel their presence. We can use prayer or conversation or begin by looking at old photos. The Mexican tradition that I use includes making an ofrenda, or altar, something as simple as putting photos and candles on the coffee table. We also have chocolate as a symbol of the sweet and bitter separation from those we love.

A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us to sort and reframe. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived.

This isn’t a very American idea. Culturally our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief we use words like closure and process.

I remember my frustration when I was grieving and well-intentioned friends suggested I was taking too long and quoted Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The simple version of her theory lists stages: Denial--Bargaining--Anger--Depression, and Acceptance. But this list implies that a person can move from point A to point B and be done. It makes grief seem like an emotional Monopoly game where you go around the board, collect points and get to a distinct and certain end. This false notion of linearity is apparent when we hear people speak of someone who is grieving, “Oh, she missed the anger stage”, or “He hasn’t reached acceptance yet.”

I always thought that “losing a loved one” was a euphemism used by those who were afraid to say the word dead. But after losing my brother Larry I know that lost is the perfect word to describe the feeling following a death.
Though he died several years ago my feeling about my brother is that I have misplaced him; It’s that sensation of knowing that my book or my glasses are around here somewhere…if I could just remember where I left him. It’s a sense of something just out of reach, still here, but also gone.

This is why we can be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done. We love things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like.
So tonight I’ll make cocoa and light candles; we will look at pictures and tell stories and we’ll laugh.

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?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Building a Cognitive Life Raft

Outside help. Yes, still, after 20-plus years in recovery I take advantage of what is euphemistically referred to as “outside help”. It is therapy and now, the full continuum of alternative care: acupuncture, Reiki, energy healing, groups, retreats, spiritual direction. The 12 steps may be a core but—since some are sicker than others, and yes since I’m still impatient and a perfectionist—I take all the help—and all forms—that I can get.

But the reading. Self-help reading sometimes takes a beating in AA. But I’m ever grateful for self-help books because that’s how I got here. Robin Norwood’s “Women Who Love Too Much” pointed me to AA, OA, ACOA and Al-Anon. Since then I have read across the genre. Recently the new memoir lit has intersected self-help and I have loved books like “Here If you Need Me” and “Eat. Pray. Love.” A smart woman learns from her mistakes; a wise woman learns from other people’s mistakes. So give me books and all your stories: what you did and what happened.

Building a Cognitive Life Raft: I learned that phrase a long time ago and I love it. A cognitive life raft. When I thought that I was wasting time reading self-help or psychology books I really was building a layer to help me thru the sea of pain that would accompany the next change. We’re supposed to “feel our feelings” and “do the grief work”...yes I have done it all and it works: pound those pillows and scream, break the tennis racket on the couch, write the letters that never get mailed. Buy yourself a Teddy Bear and a doll and re-parent yourself for years. But I also found that I needed to lay down a theoretical base, to build a cognitive structure to support all that, so psychology books and self-help built a raft for me to ride the river of emotional healing.

I still do this. I’m struggling now because I need to change a relationship. I’m sad and scared. I write about it and I talk about it and in the car I play Brandi Carlisle and Bonnie Raitt and I cry, but I also read about abandonment and cognitive schema’s (Thank you Oprah) and I read Robin Norwood again…lay an intellectual foundation, build my cognitive life raft…then bring it: the pain that inevitably accompanies growth.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Labor Day is New Year's Day

The new year has never entered with champagne and icy roads, nor begun in silver lame and silly hats. Though you may have spent many a January saying new years words, you know as well as I that the real new year begins now, as it always has, the day after Labor Day. It does not matter that it is hot outside or that you are still putting on shorts when you come home from work. The new year begins as it did for 12 critical years. It begins with back to school.

And it does not matter how long it has been since you went to school, or if you have kids of your own going off to school. You know in your bones that the new year begins now. And how could it not? For 12 most important years you went off on that first Tuesday in September to try out the new identity you had forged over the summer. Was your look changed this year? Had you let your hair grow long? Or cut it short? Would they recognize you right away? Would everyone sense the new sophistication gained at summer camp in New Jersey, or two weeks visiting your sister in L.A.? Yeah, you were that same old kid when you left on the last day of school in June, but every year in the fall there was a new you and it debuted the day after Labor Day.

Every September you promised yourself you'd be more popular, more friendly, more outgoing. Or you promised you'd play around less, make new friends, hang out with the good kids.

If it was a year of changing schools then there was more newness and more opportunity to be a new you. That was the beauty of the beginning of September. Every single year you could return from summer and try out a new identity. You could be a scholar this year after a past as the class clown. Or you could be the friendly one after years as the grind and curve setter. The opportunity to redo your image came every year the day after Labor Day. And it still does.

January is not the right time for New Years resolutions. How could it be? You've been too busy with the holidays and it's cold and yucky out, and you are broke from gift giving. How are you really going to create a new body or mind or personality in the middle of all that?

September is the time to not only promise yourself a new exercise program, but to start it. It's still light after work and it's not cold in the morning. You really can go exercise. September is the time to start a diet that will stick. You are coming off a summer of fresh foods, and you are not bloated by 30 days of holiday treats and booze. As for a new look; who can afford one in January? You've worn your name off all your plastic just trying to get through the holidays.
No, the new look and image you have been promising yourself comes in September just as it did when you were a kid. Remember how it worked in Junior High? You decided to wear a tie and tweed because that summer you discovered poetry (or an older girl who liked poets). Or you promised yourself that you would wash and set your hair in a smooth flip every morning to look like those girls in the magazines.

In September you could try out in public all those looks you had been practicing in the mirror behind your bedroom door.

So what if the good intentions only lasted a few weeks. Some part of it always stuck, some part of the new you was the real you and real change and that's how you moved on.

And you still can. The chnages happen in September. Buy some new sox and a red plaid shirt. This is the time to be kinder, nicer, smarter, to listen more, eat less and to hang out with the good kids. The trees remind us how it's done; try some new colors, shed the old layers. It's September. Happy New Year!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Back to School Shopping

This is a big week for the shopping mall. Whether we’re sending a kid back to school or just responding to our own internal clock, fall shopping is now. Throughout the stores today we’ll complain about prices, and we’ll commiserate about what kids insist they, “have to have”, but the odds are good that adults will also want a new shirt or sweater this time of year.

The pull to shop is powerful; it’s that New Year’s feeling that’s built into us from years of preparing for school, but there is also a strong push that comes from advertising. The August issues of women’s magazines insist that “brown is the new black”, and “low waists are out”. It’s easy enough to take shots at the fashion industry, imagining the marketing wizards who pull our strings to make us shop, and we can sigh that we are slaves to materialism who base our identities on what we wear. Yes, all of that is true. But it’s not new.

The truth is that we’re all wearing costumes all the time, and what we wear is a form of communication. So if we’re going to cover our nakedness and communicate we may as well have some fun.

I didn’t always feel this way. For years I bought into the idea that virtue was to be found in the equivalent of wearing sackcloth and ashes. I hid my love of clothes and felt ashamed when I bought the fall fashion magazines. I believed it was politically incorrect to know the names of designers as well as I knew poets. But that changed.

I remembered why clothes became important: What I recall from 7th grade, in addition to Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, was my obsession with another girl’s shoes. My parents allowed only one pair of new school shoes: nice, neutral penny loafers. But that fall I sat near a girl whose shoes matched her clothes. For weeks I stared at her feet and the navy kidskin flats trimmed with bright green piping. The many shoes that tumble out of my closet today are futile attempts to fill-- in the present--a hole that exists in the past.

But there is another factor: I stopped believing there is only one way to be a feminist, and I decided it’s not politically incorrect to love clothes. Although fashion is commerce and marketing it’s also art. After all, color, shape, line and texture are the ingredients that sculptors work with too. Clothes are a form of self-expression and communication, and even stylistically, freedom of speech. Feminists for Fashion? Sign me up.

But where do we draw the line? How do we balance the role of clothing in our own culture against the fact that, “I have nothing to wear” is an actual truth in other parts of the world? How do we shop and dress consciously? How do we find the middle ground?
Is there a way to manage desire so that it inspires our creativity and doesn’t shame us—or young women who are naturally enjoying this part of life? I believe there is an emotional center in which we can enjoy clothes and not be dominated by them.

The answer is discernment, that seemingly religious word. It means stilling the internal voices—our own and the ones piped in from ads-- and making conscious decisions about what we buy and why. It would be a great gift to young shoppers and we can practice with them too.

Our time here is brief; there’s more than enough pain to go around; we don’t need to grit our teeth or dress in grim determination just to get through life. So go shop, celebrate with something new, and enjoy what you wear.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Oh, the Married Men

One of the great songs by the Roches is called “Married Men”. Maggie, Teri and Suzy sing: “Oh the married men, the married men. Makes me feel like a girl again to run with the married men.”

I’ve been humming that song all day. Last night in a women’s meeting the woman who chaired was celebrating two years of sobriety. She shared that she had been dating a married man for five years, and was now struggling with that and realizing that soon she’d need to end the relationship. Her shame and pain were palpable. Now, with two years of recovery she was experiencing the reality that sets in with clearer eyes. It’s less easy—though not impossible --to rationalize and justify having an affair when you are sober.
Being in a women’s meeting it was possible then for others to talk about this particularly effective way that we hurt ourselves. When I spoke I talked about the married men in my life before and, yes, even in recovery. For those who have not had an affair with a married man it is only another “yet”.

I was dating a married man when I got into recovery. I went to my first AA meeting with him because he was court-ordered and he had lost his license. I was helping by driving him to AA on Sunday mornings. We went to AA and then we went to “brunch”. Brunch was saturated with alcohol. But the gift was that less than a year later, when I was ready to go to AA for me, I knew where to go and I knew that the people were nice and I had a sense of the protocol of meetings.
I am tickled though that we all use the word “dating” for married men. When I was dating my married men, the court-ordered one and yes, the 13th stepping one in early recovery, there were no dinners, no movies, no where was the “dating”?
Now, I must admit, as I said in the meeting, I still play in this dangerous water. No more affairs but I flirt, and I fantasize. What is that? I have had many other addictions: smoking, food, work, exercise but never, so I said, self-mutilation or cutting, but isn’t that what married men are for sober women? Ways we can cut ourselves or throw acid at ourselves? That is how great the pain is—and the shame.

So what to do with this addiction: I try to apply the same principles I learned to apply to alcohol to my desire for a married man. First, don’t romance the drink. Stop the fantasies of romance and love. He can’t. End of story. Yes he’ll say all the right words. Married men always do. They can say “I love you” faster than any single guy because there is NO commitment for them.
Second, and maybe this should be first: don’t pick up the drink. It may be the first flirt, the seeking and accepting of the first too-intimate compliment or the first hint of “You’re so special”—bait I particularly crave. And then, as with all dangerous and addictive substances: recovery is one step and one day at a time: don’t email him today—just this 24 hours. Don’t call and don’t even check your messages hoping to hear from “Him”. For one day—and sometimes for just this hour—say no, call someone, pray, do service, call another recovering person, go to a meeting, and remember that it only gets worse not better when you talk to “Him” about it. As Susan Cheever writes in, “The Other Woman”, conversations about “Why we can’t have sex” almost always result in heated and explosive sex.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Plane Crash Fantasy

I am in an airplane flying home from Bermuda. I’m sitting over the left engine. I’m happy. I love to fly. I look down at the wing and love the miracle of lift; all that air flowing over and under the wing creating lift, allowing this big metal box full of people to rise into the air and stay there until the pilot changes that air current to bring the plane down.

We know that sometimes. .very rarely in reality…things happen and a plane can have a bad landing or a crash. That’s where my fantasy comes in. I have had this fantasy a long time. I always think “If this plane goes down, I die happy”. To die in a plane crash beats cancer and MS and ALS and cardiac deterioration and so many other things. As I’ve said, I love planes.

But another fantasy follows that one. I imagine there is the crash, the disaster, near disaster, the emergency landing, the lost engine—and I survive. I’m one of the survivors and as the fantasy continues I am able to help others. I can see the way out, I lead some people thru the flames; I unbuckle someone who is stuck and shout, “That way, go that way”. I survive this near-death horrible fate and I’m able to help some others to survive too.

I’ve had this fantasy for years and never told anyone shamed by the lack of humility in this fantasy: The hero is me. I survive and save others.

But then, in this plane on this trip I hear myself and I hear the words of this fantasy in my head: “I survive and I am able to save some of the others.” Then it hits me: It’s already true, that’s already happened. It’s happening now. I survived and I AM able to lead some others to safety.

It’s not a fantasy. Recovery from addiction is a gift and a miracle and we survive and have a chance to lead someone else to safety or at least point the way out. Recovery is a gift. I survived the crash.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Bull Durham: Why We Love This Movie

The past couple of nights I have been watching Bull Durham. This is the movie from 1988 with Kevin Costner playing an aging catcher in the minor leagues. This is a movie that appears to be about baseball and life in the minor leagues, the travails and hopes and desperate desires of men who want to play ball for a living. It is seemingly a men’s movie with all the swearing and ass slapping and drinking and baseball lore. But no, this is really THE all time best chick flick.

Yes, we’d love to bed Kevin Costner from the first moment he arrives in the locker room wearing his navy blazer, rumpled white shirt and the khakis that are the perfect shade of tan with a hint of olive. He’s a manly man who in the first 20 minutes gives the fabulous, if too artful, monologue about his beliefs which includes, “I believe in the cock, the pussy,, the small of a woman’s back…that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap", and which ends with his belief in “long, slow, deep, soft wet kisses that last three days”.


But there is a scene later that truly outs women viewers and fans for what they truly want.
“Do you want to dance?” Sarandon asks Costner, sitting in the kitchen late at night. He says yes, but surprises her by not dancing but instead he sweeps all the food and dishes off the kitchen table onto the floor and spins Sarandon onto that now empty table and they go at it rolling and clutching.

Oh, that is it: We want a man to want us that much; we want a man who wants to make love a second time so much that he goes for it in the kitchen and on the table. We do want that kind of passion in our lives. But, there is something else in this scene. I realized later that what we truly desire most—which is hidden in this romantic scene is not what Costner does, but what Sarandon does NOT do. As all of her dishes and leftover food hit and crash on the floor Sarandon allows herself to be swept onto that table instead of diving for a broom, or a cloth or saying to her lover, “Hold on just a second, I’ll clean this up and then meet you in the bedroom.”

No, she is in the moment and desires this man and this sex more than she desires a clean floor or neat kitchen. She wants the rapture of this man and his body even with cereal and milk oozing everywhere under the fridge and cabinets, and she is not saying, “Oh dear God that was my mother’s china bowl.” Nope, she’s on that table fucking her brains out.

Oh, to be that kind of woman and that kind of lover. We assume the power is in the man, that to be taken that way would free us. But what we see in Bull Durham is a woman who CAN be taken. She is not a woman thinking, “When did we last wash these sheets?” while a man is dutifully going down on her. Oh we do wish and wish for a partner with sweet abandon but Sarandon in Bull Durham shows us a woman who can abandon herself.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Glass of Water is Enough

I was listening to an essay on our local public radio station and a man was describing his experience of meeting Mr. Rogers and what it was like to be in his presence for an interview. The simplicity of him and the very simple centeredness. He described the impact of that brief meeting and how he later, after Mr. Rogers died found himself trying to be an entertaining dad to his own kids and it occurred to him that Mr. Rogers was simply himself, just himself and that was the message that he conveyed to little kids: It really, really is OK to be yourself. “There’s no one like you” Mr. Rogers would tell people, “no one just like you” and “I’m glad you’re my friend.”
Mr. Rogers landed on that paradox we know so well from being addicts and addicted people. That thing the Big Book talks about: the egomaniac with an inferiority complex. And this message from Mr. Rogers is the perfect antidote to that complex problem/situation/personality dilemma: we want to be special but we feel like shit. Or we know we are nothing so we try to puff up and be a big big deal. “There is no one just like you,” he says and it’s all there: no need to puff up, you are special but so is everyone else. It’s like the statistical improbability of Lake Woebegone: Where all the children are above average. In a sense we are all above average despite what that does to the averages.
This writer on the radio said that he caught himself being a clown to his own kids and buying them things and trying to be a “great dad” when he could simply be “their Dad”
He said, in his closing and this shot me through to my core, “I realized I could simply be a glass of water instead of a can of Coke.”
I got it immediately. I want to be a can of Coke because I think I have to be. Because even after so many years there is still a part of me that does not get it that I am enough. Or I think of the next recovering woman, “Well, she may be enough, but not me”.
A glass of water rather than a can of Coke. I think I need to be shiny and red and branded and sugar sweet instead of cool and clear and simply the most thirst-quenching thing on earth. Is there anything truly more thirst quenching than a glass of water? Anything more relaxing to be around than a person who just is?
Yes, this is another way to say “Be yourself”, and “You are enough” or “Go as me”. But I like this question: Am I trying to be a can of Coke or glass of water?
A glass of water is enough.

Friday, June 15, 2007

In the Deep End on Father's Day

He was there at the end of the diving board. He would tread water for an hour, waiting and watching while I practiced my dives. For years this was our Sunday afternoon ritual and delight. I was four-years old when we began, and on those summer Sunday afternoons I believed that if he was there at the end of the board I could do anything.

My father would wait in the deep water, off to one side. He would look around and give me the sign that it was OK to dive and I would stroll to the end of the board, tugging my stretchy lavender swimsuit, and bounce before I dove in.

I would rise to the surface sputtering, and look for his face. He would hesitate a moment to let me right myself, and I would cough and beam. He would grab the back of my suit and give me a push toward the side. “Swim to the ladder,” he would say, and he would stay at the end of the diving board waiting for my next dive.

I remember the feeling as I paddled to the ladder. The world was perfect: I was diving in the deep end of the pool; there was no pain in the world. There was no need or want in my life. I was a perfect, grinning, sunburned, water-logged four-year-old, in love with the world, herself and her daddy.

He died when I was 18. In the intervening years life happened to me and to my father. By the time I was 13, he was traveling a lot, and when we did spend the occasional weekend together we did not speak of personal things. As a teen-ager I felt awkward with my father so I would interview him about his job. He would tell me stories about work, grateful to have something comfortable to talk about. I know a lot about industrial engineering. It filled our time.

On a July evening, when he was 56 years old, my father had a stroke and died. It’s been years and I still wrestle with those two men--the daddy who waited in the deep water and the father who left suddenly, without a word, when I was 18. Somewhere inside of me there is a four-year-old still wearing her lavender bathing suit. She is at the end of the diving board, leaning forward trying to hear someone say, “You are so special.” The hunger for those words is so deep.

In romance we get some of that need met, but after a while no one wants to admire us every day. But when a four-year-old is anxious and needs repetition we search on. Another way to meet that need is with an affair. After all, clandestine romance is all about intensity of feeling and intensity of attention. Having an affair is a way that a four-year-old can twirl in a 40 year-old body and hear again, “You are the only one.” But satisfying the need that way begins to cost too much, and that kind of romance causes one to twirl faster and faster for fewer and fewer of those precious affirmations. And other people along this dervish path get hurt.

So what is the gift from a father who left when we were both too young? For a long time I resented the missing memories: no father-daughter chats, no drives to college, no adult conversations. But I have this other thing--a picture in my head and in my heart of my father at the end of the board. It’s a spiritual gift from the man who loved me but who left without talking. Today I believe in a God who looks around my life and says, “Hold on a minute. We don’t want anyone to get hurt”. Then, “Okay, go for it.”

Today there is a God at the end of my daily diving board who says, “Okay now, catch your breath. I’m here.”

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Jesus Loves Me

This is about Step Eleven.

I’ve read and prayed and done a lot to define a personal Higher Power that is positive and not punishing. Before, during and well into recovery, I have punished myself too often and too much. So I wanted to find, and define for myself, a Higher Power/God that really loved me.

Being raised in a church-going family and having some Christian education as well, the obvious choice would be Jesus as a loving God, right? I mean, I actually sang that little song for many years in Sunday School and I know all the verses to Jesus Love Me. But even with all that, it never really felt like Jesus loved ME. I mean, the actual, real me. I know he loves all people and I am one of them, but me? Really me, individually and idiosyncratically me? I couldn’t get that.

One night in a meeting I heard a woman talking about her relationship with Step Eleven and faith, and she said, “God digs me.” I was stunned. That was exactly what I wanted. I wanted it that personal, and that warm, and as un-theological as that: “God digs me.”

How to get there?

I began to read. I read Books on faith and recovery, lots of theology, and I read the Bible. The New Testament calls Jesus the Bridegroom. Having been married several times I get that totally. Richard Rohr says that we need an affectionate relationship with God. That begins to hint at having a personal relationship, but that still had a teeny twinge of the evangelical and born-again which I could not abide given the politics that seem to accompany that, as in:”Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior and those who perform abortions should die.” Uh, no. But I still liked the idea of an affectionate relationship with God. After all, we know he has a sense of humor and that’s a big part of affection. It certainly approaches a relationship in which one could say, “God digs me.”

But again, how to get there?

I continued to read, and to remember what I knew about Jesus. The dominate metaphor in the New Testament is Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Again, that’s a very good image, and a great deal of caring is expressed in that metaphor: He feeds his sheep, he goes all night looking for the one that is lost, he corrals, he cares, he shepherds. I understood the metaphor but I grew up in a large city, the only sheep I saw were in petting zoos. What in my personal experience expressed that same kind of caring, devotion, affection and acceptance to the point of seeing all my flaws and still loving me with a sense of humor. What, or whom, delights in me like that?

I knew at once: A Boyfriend.
I have always had boyfriends and even now, married for many years, I refer to my husband as my boyfriend. I much prefer that idea of a partner. So with some hesitation, and some trepidation that this might be sacrilegious, I said this:

The Lord is my boyfriend; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He restores my soul.

And with that I was home. Jesus, my boyfriend; a date for life.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

It's Not Just a Meeting

I am reading the New Testament. I had read—or been told—these stories for years, but now I want to know more. So I am also reading theology and criticism and history: Who was Jesus and who were these guys? The ones he hung around with and the ones who wrote about it later. Yeah, different guys. That’s the first eye opener --even after years of Protestant Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and years of church shopping in AA as part of working an 11th step. The Gospel writers are not the apostles. Maybe that’s a duh for you , but I swear no one told me that important fact in many years of my Methodist upbringing. So that’s part of the learning and the fun in this reading I’m doing.

This week I’m reading about Paul. Now Paul is a good story for recovering alcoholics. First he’s Saul, a Christian-murdering, self-righteous prick, and then Wham!, on the road to Damascus he is struck. He sees God and hears God, is temporarily blinded and he is then a changed man who goes on to the be the first major missionary. He gives up his good life: his status and safety and possessions. You can easily find recovery metaphors in Paul’s story of being struck, a spiritual awakening and surrendering and having a new life. We get that.

Now, a lot of that I knew. The “Used to be Saul, But now I’m Paul” story is interesting when you are a kid. But I didn’t know more about the man or what he thought about the things that happened to him. Now I’m reading Richard Rohr (a theologian and a priest who writes about addiction…check out his tapes called How To Breath Under Water which are about the gospels and addiction) and Rohr points out that God comes to Paul where he was and as he was. God saved a murdering prick like Saul, and God didn’t make Paul come to him. Translation (and this should sound familiar): we don’t have to get good enough for God, and he doesn’t need us to come to him. That’s the grace part: he takes us where and as we are. We don’t merit it or earn it, just receive it. Amazing grace, huh?

But then also this: Paul’s deal was then to organize and yes, proselytize. He’s a community organizer, he’s speaking and preaching and traveling to build the church and—Rohr points out: this church is the body. Christianity IS community. We “practice” our faith with others not alone, hence community. That’s when I began to hear the bells: Community equals fellowship. It’s a “we” program. I don’t get sober, we do. I need you in all your screwed up-ness and you need me and mine (you can read previous entries if you need evidence of the valuable brokenness I bring to the shared table)

I still haven’t found the church I feel natural in, but I am in churches all the time, especially in church basements and Sunday school rooms. We AA’s are in and out of churches all the time. What we are is a fellowship. We are the body of AA.

Here’s another thought I found provocative this week. At my Tuesday meeting a woman said: “AA is a fellowship, not just a meeting, so do you know the person next to you?” You can imagine how everyone looked at the people near them and when we said the closing prayer there were a lot of hands extended and many introductions taking place.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Under Every Skirt's A Slip

Oh, Humility! The things that come back to haunt us in recovery. Here is one that gets every woman in recovery at some point, but this week still surprises me. I had a big crush on a man and enjoyed a couple weeks of fantasized romance and yes, lusty, sexy feelings.

This week as the crush and feelings of infatuation have slowly faded I can put some of this in a context of before and after recovery and particularly what belongs to “out of the woods” and later stage recovery.

It began like this: a friend, colleague and I had lunch. It was a spring day and I felt good and the conversation became flirtatious. Maybe I was needy that day? Maybe my heart was open? Maybe it was a spring awakening with some dormant physiological need to mate being rejuvenated? Whatever the trigger I went home infatuated and began imagining myself as the beloved. Now, to be honest look at those words, my fantasy was about me being the one desired, Ok, but never the less it was full endorphin loading. I am married so one of the pluses was a good jolt to our married love life. No apologies there. But soon it moved on to distracting day dreams, fantasies and a need for more. Ah, there’s the addicts mantra: More.

Here’s the good. In addition to all those “I feel pretty” days that followed I had a genuine boost to my libido and a realization that what I had assumed was hormonally dead was simply not. I’m over 50 so waning sexuality has been, I thought, a combo of being married long and physiology. I had lamented with friends my age that I feared becoming one of those women who write to Dear Abby to say how they wish their husbands would give up sex and just cuddle. I feared I was reluctantly becoming one of them. But no, this crush and libidinal boost showed me that my body works just fine and in fact—maybe the books are right—works even better in mid-life. Assisted by this infatuation, a healthy imagination and some triple-A batteries I was having more orgasms per day than I thought imaginable.

No, the object of the crush was not a participant. In fact he was unaware of the influence he was having. But thanks are still in order. I really am grateful for this sexy energy and to see that I could kinesthetically recall that girl I once was.

But then this: The recovering woman—kicks in. Is this wrong? Dangerous? Not sober? To know the level of my fear it helps to know that before recovery I had had some pretty bad relationships in which I was the other woman. In one case I was married, in another I was not. Short version: many people got hurt very badly including me. (Years of therapy to be able to include that “including me” part).

So here I am, a happily married, recovering woman having a crush and wild fantasies about a married man. Oh, oh. A slippery slope? Perhaps. And fear rushes in: Am I in denial that my marriage is good? Am I on a slippery slope of an affair, of a drink, of making a fool of myself, of getting hurt, of hurting another person? It didn’t feel hypothetical at all.

But here is where the recovery kicks in. Today I have habits and one of the habits I have is that as soon as I begin to feel myself having a secret my recovering instinct screams: Tell Someone. It’s truly a habit now.

So with this big infatuation I told on myself to recovering friends. The first question they ask: “Have you acted on this?” No…but they are good, they ask, “Do you feel like you could?”, and the answer is yes. So now we know the danger. Next is to tell my therapist. Yes, we look at where this is coming from. I know the list of suspects and Dad heads the list. He died when I was 18, the quintessential “unavailable man”. I still want him to look at me as only a father could and to say ‘You are so special”. That is a line reserved and appropriate for Dads and Daughters, but if you’ve been there you’ll recognize that line is also the mantra of the married man: “You are so special”, “No one but you”… and “You are the only one who…”

So I keep talking to recovering women and writing in my journal and praying. My prayers begin with: remove this obsession and keep me safe from myself, but then—and I think this is the later recovery part; the prayers become gratitude and thanks. Thanks that I have these sweet and tender feelings, thanks that my body is not dead, thanks that I do have libido (I do, I do) and thanks that I can have a crush and this person can even suspect it but I do not have to feel ashamed of this or of me. That’s the longer recovery bonus prize: I can have this, own this, tell on myself, process it—Not act on any of it—that’s key—and I can be smart but not ashamed.

Here is what else has occurred to me this week as the crush ebbs: I can see the Promises in this. First: I prayed for help and to be safe and God is doing for me what I cannot do for myself. Mr. Crush is not responding. The temptation is all in my head. Second: I intuitively knew how to handle: I told on myself, sought guidance from recovering women and my therapist. Third: We will not regret the past: I felt the old memories and the shame of past infatuations and affairs before recovery, I remembered the pain I caused others. I sincerely regretted the damage I did to other people and my younger self but I don’t hide that part of me. But I also—here’s the intuitively part again—do not raise my hand and blab to the world all of this. Four: Self pity will disappear. Not once did I allow myself to imagine that I was a victim of unrequited love or to frame this as me being wrong to have these tender feelings. And oh yeah: We will gain interest in our fellows? That speaks for itself I think.

The other thing that I saw through all of this is that recovery really is a habit and my habits kicked in: prayer, surrender, talking to recovering friends, writing about it, getting outside help, using steps 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7—asking God to heal me and to remove what only he can. Only God can heal the hole in my heart that I may be able to describe psychologically but that I cannot fill myself.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Mary Month Of May

I grew up in a Protestant family. My brothers and I went to Sunday school, got confirmed, and later married in the same Methodist Church on Pittsburgh’s Northside. Overall, it was a good experience. But I always envied Catholic girls, especially in May.
Our working class neighborhood was a mixture of Protestant and Catholic families. Kids were divided by schools: Spring Hill Public or Saint Ambrose Catholic. But it was a close neighborhood and we all played together after school. We were in and out of each others houses often, and one mother could stand in for another when it came to discipline or first aid. The differences were few but the Catholic girls seemed to have something special.

It was in second grade that my feelings of envy emerged. My Catholic friends were having their First Holy Communion. My friends got to wear poofy white dresses and headbands with flowers and little veils. They were given medals with pictures of saints, rosaries and most intriguing, scapulars.

A scapular is two small patches of cloth with holy pictures on them, connected by a loop of string. My girl friends told me that it protected them from evil and all manner of bad things, and it was a sin, they told me, to take it off. The idea of a passionate commitment to something, even a string with holy pictures, was very appealing.

Catholicism offered my friends other comforts. As a kid I would have liked a patron saint or a guardian angel, but the Methodist church didn’t offer any of those. Instead we were counseled, in an ecumenically respectful way, that all that stuff was Catholic and kind of magical. Now, this was at the same age that I was fascinated with writing in code, creating invisible ink, becoming a blood sister, playing with the Ouija board and making up secret societies. I was made myth and magic out of anything I could get my hands and mind around.

The best thing, though, that Catholic girls got was Mary. She was presented as motherhood and sweetness, but Catholic girls got a very clear message that there was a woman in heaven, that somebody understood the female side of things.

For Protestant girls, Mary shows up once a year-- at Christmas --to give birth. She might get dragged out again on Good Friday—but only in the background. No role model, no intercessor, no friend.

My Catholic pals had statues of Mary. Some had the plastic glow-in-the-dark kind, and the older girls had painted plaster Marys, dressed in blue robes with big doe eyes like my Barbie. And Mary was always standing on a snake. I certainly did not understand the symbolism, but I knew at ten that this 12 inch woman had some power you could not buy for Barbie.
Best of all, my friends had May altars. A May altar was basically a table with an old lace tablecloth thrown over it. They put their Mary statues on it with flowers and candles that they were allowed to light when they said their prayers.
It still strikes me how feminine those altars were. The Catholic girls had total permission to identify with the feminine in spiritual matters. But no one gave little Protestant girls such romantic, mysterious things to do or own.

This carried over into all of a Catholic girl’s life. Mary got prayers, devotions, pilgrimages and even architectural consideration: there is a Marian shrine in every Catholic Church. Talk about having a room of one’s own. Mary’s presence meant that the Catholic Church included at least one woman at a high level. In her assumption into heaven, Mary had broken Christianity’s glass ceiling.

We pretty much get the shape of our beliefs early on, and what Catholic girls got was a She and a Her, someone like them, to pray to. And they got all those accessories: medals, scapulars, rosaries, ruffled altar skirts and little white prayer books. Protestant girls got black leatherette New Testaments, Jesus stories, but nothing that said, “We’re glad you’re a girl.”

Of course, later, Catholic girls ran into, the birth control issue and the wall that said, “You can’t be a priest”. But what I saw my Catholic friends get was faith in their girlhood and an image of feminine power. That’s not a bad way to start out.

Monday, April 16, 2007

What will I Be When I Grow Up?

It seems that I come around to this question again and again: What is my true work? What is God’s Will for me in my work life? Does God care about how I earn a living? Can a regular person—like me—have a “ministry”? I’m a writer and a teacher and a speaker. I have skills with language and persuasion. So is it ego to want to be these things publicly? To want to be recognized? In writer-land that means published. In speaking land that means invited and hired and, yes, paid.

I know I’m not alone in asking these questions in recovery. So what work should we do? And how do we know if it is God’s will?

Today sorting through files I found these three people wiser than me on this topic:

In 2005 I attended the International AA Convention in Toronto. One night, at one of the big stadium meetings. I heard one of the really old timers speak about his recovery and his work. He was a retired commissioner for corrections in a Southern state. He was sober 47 years. He described how he went from being a double-felony-manslaughter inmate to the state commissioner for corrections. He killed two people, went to jail, got sober in prison. Step by step he listened for God’s will and took each step toward doing recovery work in prisons. He had many hurdles to overcome. AS he described each hurdle, some seemed impossible at the time, He said: “If God has work for you to do the walls will come down.”

In 2006 I went to see a film on Choreographer, Bob Fosse. (If you have seen Chorus Line or Chicago or the movie Chicago you have seen his work)
When he was interviewed about his work and his distinctive style and choreography he said he had always had bad posture and so he created his dances with his now signature curved shoulders. He also said that he had "bad legs" (for a dancer)--and so rather than use turn-out like in ballet he turned his dancers legs in.
And that he started to go bald at 25 and so always wore hats to dance hence his incredible use of hats as props in all of his major works...
He said:” All of my gifts have come from my defects."

Theologian Frederick Beuchner wrote that vocation is from Latin Vocare to be called. Our vocation is the work God calls us to do. But how do we know?
Buechner gives this formula: The kind of work God usually calls you to do is the kind of work that A. You need most to do AND B. the world most needs to have done.
If you get a kick out of your work, you’ve met requirement A, but if that work is writing cigarette ads, chances are you have missed requirement B. On the other hand if you are a doctor in a leper colony you have probably met B, but if you are miserable and depressed you probably bypassed part A.
He said: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.”

It’s a way to sort this, “What am I gonna be when I grow up”? question.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

So Sari, A New Me

After years in recovery—teamed with years in therapy-- you can begin to believe that you have a handle on yourself. That you know some stuff and that you are onto your own tricks.

Part of this is about transferring addictions but if you’ve been around awhile that’s no surprise. I quit smoking, then drinking, then starving, getting weighed, diet pills, exercise bulimia, obsessing over wearing a certain size or the number of the scale. After most of that felt calm I saw the men stuff, the relationship issues were there all along of course, but then not dating or actually learning TO date: go out with a nice somewhat boring man, participate in a fun social activity together, share only the smallest amount of personal information, come home, say thank you at the door and do the same with a different person the next week. Dating. Who knew?

OK, so there was that to work on: more therapy and alanon and ACOA. Then of course noticing the money and the shopping and not earning enough money and not saving any money...addiction by any other name is addiction.

But here is the latest peek at myself. I’ve been looking at handbags—an old love and a fashion object. About two weeks ago in the Sundance catalog I saw a tote bag that was described as being made from old Indian Sari’s...the photos showed theree of this bag, different colors and prints, it had a long leather strap that looked like it could go across the body. Hmmm. Only $98. Of course that’s over $100 with tax and delivery but still I had paid much more and there was something about the soft fabric and the old saris, I mean it would have some other—older Indian—woman’s karma right? And for spring/summer...this soft bag across my body with kahiskirts and jeans and sandals. A nice look.

So I order the bag...takes seven days. I say “expect it in ten”…I’m already trying to manage my own desire. I wait the week and three days. I pass up other purses when I shop, “Nope, the old sari quilted bag, slouched just so across my body, the worn leather, --it will be burnished after several wearings"—I can feel it all and UPS hasn’t arrived yet.

But then it does. I come home to “the box”. Here it is. I’m excited. How soon should I wear it, I wonder. But then I open the box and there is a lumpy, kind of laundry-bag looking sack. It is made of old fabric yes, but the bag part is huge and the strap is cheap thin leather with a shiny surface. It will never soften or burnish. I sling it across my body and I recognize the look. I demonstrate for my husband: I bend and scoop, bend and scoop. It looks like the kind of cloth sling/sack that women wore to pick cotton. This is not chic, not cool, not very nice, has no Karma. I’m disappointed.

But it’s what happens next that surprises me. I know that I don’t want THIS bag, and I want my money back. That is clear. My husband, laughing at my cotton picking imitation says, “Send it back and get something you like.” Yes, of course. That makes sense, that’s the right thing to do. But something is holding me back. I try the Sari hunk of cloth bag again. I put all my regular purse contents inside it hoping that somehow my things inside will transform this into MY purse. Nope. It just looks even droopier and like an old laundry bag.

So what’s holding me back? It’s not until I am filling out the return form and packing the Sari bag in the carton to go back to Sundance that I realize. It’s not just the bag I have to return, it’s the new identity that I have constructed in my head. I get it: in the ten days from ordering the bag to seeing the actual object, I had constructed a new me to go with the bag: I was going to be causally chic, I was going to BE the kind of woman who wore old sari cloth with khaki and denim and simple sandals, I was going to be the slightly bohemian, somewhat hippy-ish chick, that tossed a bag like this across her body and…

And what? Laughed more, worried less, sat in coffee shops and didn’t sweat the to-do list, was able to toss my hair back (my hair barely touches my ears) and laugh, listen, be still and relaxed. I wanted to be relaxed and this silky sari-quilted bag was supposed to bring that to me.

And now I had to send that and her back with the frumpy, lumpy bag.

In ten days I had created a new me and done a kind of geographic cure without even leaving my house. And then the UPS man delivered reality right back to me.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Celebrate Lois Wilson This Week

March 4th is a special day to millions of people in 12 step programs. It is the birthday of Lois Wilson who might, with great affection, be called the most famous co-dependent. She was the wife of Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Their story is chronicled in AA history books.
It was Ebby T., son of a prominent Albany family, who first “carried the message” to a very deteriorated Bill Wilson. The message Ebby brought to Bill and Lois was that he had gotten sober through the help of the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian movement. The six steps of reformation in the Oxford Group were the forerunner of today’s 12 steps.
At Ebby’s urging Lois and Bill began to attend Oxford Group meetings and a few months later, on a trip to Akron, Bill reached out to members there and met Dr. Bob Smith. From the date of their meeting--one drinker helping another--we date the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Those early meetings were held in private homes. Wives accompanied their husbands and took charge of the refreshments. While the men coached each other through confession and repentance in the parlor, the wives sat in the kitchen, confessing their own frustrations as they discovered the common impact that alcohol had on their families.
To her dismay, Lois later wrote, Bill’s sobriety didn’t bring the happiness she expected. While he was drinking, Lois had played a central if troubled role in Bill’s life. Now, as he recovered she felt less important. This resentment over Bill finally achieving sobriety without her help troubled Lois. She and other wives, who had lived on the edge emotionally and financially, realized that the 12 steps “could also work for the wives”.
Every organization has history and myth. History tells us that the very first meetings in which the wives of alcoholics began to study the 12 steps began in San Francisco, but the myth, always more powerful, says that Lois Wilson began the program in New York.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. All over the country, as AA grew, it was women who often were the first to seek help for their families. In New York, Lois and other wives offered support and promoted a spiritual program. At conventions Lois took the podium to tell her side of the Wilson family story, sharing with great humor the lengths she went to control Bill’s drinking and the humiliations she endured as she realized she could not.
As Bill W. took on the role of father of AA, it added a nice symmetry to have Lois as the mother of Al-Anon. Positioning Lois Wilson atop the recovery pantheon was strategic; She was a doctor’s daughter, with a college education. Lois gave a respectable face to a problem that was shameful and secretive.
In 1957 Al-Anon gained broad public recognition when Lois Wilson appeared on the Loretta Young television show bringing the problem of alcoholism and its impact on the family directly into America’s living rooms.
But there is always some danger when one is placed on a pedestal. Lois was criticized because she could not do in her own home what she advocated for others: setting limits on bad behavior. While Bill did stay sober for many years he was also a chronic womanizer. The fact of his adultery was made public when in his will, he left part of the royalties from “the Big Book”, AA’s text, to his last mistress.
It may be that in this very personal and painful way Lois Wilson left us her legacy of recovery. Al-Anon with its mission of respectability for families affected by alcoholism, has today more than 30,000 groups in 100 countries. She also, by her graceful life and the imperfection in her marriage, gave us an embodiment of AA’s slogan, “progress not perfection”. Thank you Lois.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Humility and Humanity

I have been reading Thomas Merton and read a passage where he says the humble accept their humanity.

I talked with my therapist about this. I am a seeker and a searcher and a mighty self-improver. In that way that our strengths are our weaknesses, it has been my self-improving urgency that brought me to The Course in Miracles and from there to 12 step programs, OA and then Al-Anon and then AA. Once on the 12 step path I gobbled, perhaps binged on books, tapes, ideas, classes, workshops, retreats, teachers therapists…seeking always, wanting a better me. I had those experiences of seeing some stubborn, painful part of me finally let go gave me more hope that even more could change.

But then I began to sense that even this seeking to improve is also self seeking. And we know what AA says about that. Can I stop even the self-improving kind of self-seeking? At what point does self-improvement become a way of telling God who and how I should be? In what ways is constant self-improvement a way of not accepting myself and not trusting God?

Then I read Merton. The humble are not arrogant or proud, they accept their humanity.

So my fear and my anxiety and my wanting to be loved and wanting recognition are all parts of humanity, all things humans desire and want and experience. So can I accept these parts of me without trying to remove, edit, adjust or eliminate them?

Can I coexist with my own humanity?

When we practice the 6th and 7th steps we often begin by telling God what defects we want removed. But if we read the step carefully is says that we ask God to remove the defects that are in the way of our relationship with Him, which means he knows best. Does God want us or me to NOT be human?

Can I coexist with my humanity? And when I cannot is it a form of pride or arrogance or spiritual arrogance: I know what needs to be fixed; I know how to make the best possible me. I see the lack of humility there. I see that lack of faith and trust.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dorothy Day is One of My References

How many sinners does it take to make one saint? Is Dorothy Day one? Should she be? Does it matter?
Having recently come to know about her through reading Rosalie Riegle’s book of interviews, I was thrilled to have history and theology come together in this very human, human being. Perhaps it says too much about my inner workings, but I am always pleased to find out that very good people have some not so good characteristics. I guess it makes me feel like I have a chance and in fact, the not-so-goodness of good people encourages me more than the, well, sanctified, goodness of so-called saints.
Perhaps that’s why I hope she doesn’t get canonized, and why I’ve always thought it a mistake to throw Mother Teresa in the Saint bin. Rather than help the more-bad-than-good rest of us, it discourages. I mean, if she’s a saint then she had more good to begin with and maybe more celestial pull along the way. But if she was just a vain, cranky, complex, idealistic, but falling-from-ideal-daily, kind of gal, then I can struggle forward inspired by what another well-intentioned but poorly performing woman might accomplish.
Related to this question of how good do you have to be to be good, is the question about Dorothy Day that I saw emerge in the last few chapters of Riegle’s book, and that I gathered from the other readings that I gobbled up this week: The Long Loneliness and Loaves and Fishes. That is: How do you integrate the person with their work? This question is on two levels: First, how do we, as readers of stories about Dorothy Day or other spiritual leaders, balance what they did versus who they were. And, second, maybe from that, how do we, in our own lives, balance doing good work with being flawed people. I find I am living this question daily as I work in human services, aspire to Christian ideals and love clothes, shoes, books, music and art. Can a committed Christian wear an Hermes scarf knowing how many people it would feed? Yes, you can be sure I was underlining every mention of the feminine in Dorothy Day’s life!
And there were many: The handkerchiefs and the hair, the perfume, the photos by Richard Avedon and the “good” tweed suit. Reading about her and asking these questions made me recall reading of another woman who has been an inspiration for many American women: Katherine Hepburn. So often she was described as strong, independent, her singleness and trousers taken as symbols of a kind of strength women tortured themselves with by comparison. After Hepburn’s death we learned that she was in a deeply codependent relationship with a married Spencer Tracy, collapsing under his criticism, changing her every appointment, hairstyle and opinion to please him, enduring his emotional abuse and cold distance. It turns out that even Katherine Hepburn wasn’t like “Katherine Hepburn”. Ditto for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.
I think of this as I read about Day because I wonder about the challenge of allowing a good and famous person to be revealed in their humanity. We say that the personal is political, but are there also times when the personal is irrelevant, and is there an in-between?
I know that I am asking myself a very personal question when I raise this issue. There are three paragraphs in this book I have underlined and copied: page 171: Dorothy describing The Catholic Worker as a kind of school. She wanted people “to have that formation, that experience to take into other things: We also need editors, journalists, we need teachers. These are all potentially religious vocations.” Something in me relaxes when I read this. Similarly, on page 146: “Dorothy always called it a school. She stressed everybody’s individual vocation…You will know your vocation by the joy that it brings you. You will know. You will know when it is right.” So thinking and study and writing could be a religious vocation?
And then this powerful idea on page 139: “Instead of rules she had these deep references. She read a lot and prayed a lot, so that kept her focus…When you make choices all the time with that constant inner reference to something like the gospel or the way Dostoevsky sees the world, you’re going to land in the same place over and over again. So it’s not rules exactly but something deeper.”
That quote raises a wonderful question to think about and ask each other: “What are your references?” What if we asked people that in a job interview? What if our references were not people who knew us, but rather people we carried inside us hoping to know? I think that Dorothy Day can now be one of mine.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Spiritual Angle

I’m working with a sponsee on Steps two and Three and reading what I ask her to read. I find myself also seeking out other spiritual materials and having one of those times when everything converges.

I hear sometimes people mention the spiritual PART of the program. I have certainly approached recovery in parts: physical: not drinking, not binge eating etc. Then the Emotional or psychological: therapy, self-help, self-examination, working, as we say, on my ISSUES. And then, the spiritual: prayer and meditation, church shopping, classes in yoga and meditation, attending talks and lectures and various worship services. Even work with a spiritual director, which turned out to be some of the best therapy I have ever done.

But this week I have come full circle again. Volver, as it were. And in the Big Book on Page 29 I read this: Each individual, in the personal stories, describes in his own language and from his own point of view, the way he established his relationship with God.

The Big Book and the program of recovery are not about how we stop drinking. It is about how we can establish a relationship with God. From there God may heal our addictions.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

In Defense of Introverts

At last it is January. This is the time that introverts get to breathe a sigh of relief. We can come out of hiding; it’s safe to answer the phone and to stop pretending we feel the flu coming on. Hip Hip Hooray! The holidays are over.

Yes, from mid-December through New Year’s Day, those of us with an introverted nature live in a state of perpetual dread. The weeks of office parties, neighborhood potlucks and open houses drain all our energy. But this week we can relax; we made it through.

I speak from experience. My name is Diane and I am an introvert. It does surprise people because I’m outgoing and friendly and, in fact, very far from shy, but I prefer one person and one conversation at a time.

I fought this part of myself for years, always trying to be someone else. I made myself go to parties; I tried to fix what I thought was “wrong” with me. It didn’t help that other people would press, “But you’re so good with people” as if being introverted meant living on the dark side. But, finally, I got it.

This is one of the blessings of being over 50. Along with the wrinkles comes a, “What you see is what you get” self-acceptance. It is a great relief to stop trying to be who you’re not.
But it’s no wonder that we introverts get defensive. Seventy-five percent of the population is extraverted; we’re outnumbered three-to-one, and the American culture tends to reward extraversion, while being disdainful and suspicious of reflection and solitude.

I’ve learned to spot us though. We’re the folks walking toward a festive house at the holidays saying, “How long do we have to stay?” Or we’re the ones in the center of the room assessing other people and slowly backing toward the door. Introverts crave meaning, so party chitchat feels like sandpaper to our psyche.

Just so it’s clear: Here’s what introverts are NOT: We’re not afraid and we’re not shy. Introversion has little to do with fear or reticence. We’re just focused, and we prefer one-on-one because we like to listen and we want to follow an idea all the way through to another interesting idea. Consequently small talk annoys us. So does pretending to be happy or excited or anything that we’re not.

We saw that play out in the last presidential campaign. Most introverts knew immediately what that campaign-killing screech from Howard Dean was all about. That was the consequence of an introvert trying to act extroverted. I’m sure he attempted to follow the bad advice of media consultants: “Dean should be more outgoing, more vivacious.” Well, ya know what? Howard Dean wasn’t any of those things (nor was John Kerry for that matter).

I do think though that many of our better presidents have been introverts: Lincoln, Carter and the John Adams—both father and son. No, maybe I’m not totally fair, but life isn’t fair to introverts. Introverted kids are pressured to “speak up” and “make friends” or told they’re not leaders. We’re hounded to “be more outgoing” and tortured with invitations that begin, “Why don’t we all…” No thanks, we don’t want to do anything that involves “we” and “all” We prefer to visit you, just you, and not a dozen other people.

The philosopher Pascal wrote, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” But we Introverts do.

So let’s make January Happy Introvert Month. We’ll be quiet and happy.
As a bonus, January’s weather is on our side. You say it might snow? Oh darn, I guess we’ll have to stay home.