Thursday, October 29, 2009


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?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My Everybody

I have a bulletin board in my office on which I have posted pictures of women who inspire me. They are my “everybody”. I got this idea from Martha Beck (Finding Your North Star) who talked about how to get past being haunted by “everybody”, as in “everybody does that…” or “Everybody knows..” Create your own everybody” was her advice. She surrounded herself with other writers—living and dead—to create her own reference group.

On my wall are pictures of these women: Coco Chanel, Dorothy Day, Georgia O’Keefe, May Sarton, Wislawa Szymborska, Erma Bombeck, Helen Gurley Brown, Pema Chodron, Amelia Earhart and Audrey Tatou.

Each day when I look at those women I notice different things. Some days I am aware of their successes. Other days I might notice their creativity or their courage. Recently –struggling with a relationship question—I noticed that they had all had heartbreaks and big challenges in relationships—and survived. Today I noticed that these are women who defied what was expected, who risked—often quietly—what was expected of them by society and by those near to them.

These are my everybody. Who is yours?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Make a List Make a Life

I have been reading the new book, Creating Your Best Life, by Caroline Adams Miller. Miller’s book takes the idea of the “bucket list”—all the things you want to do before you die—and adds to it by giving us tools and handy research-based techniques to help make the items on the list happen.

It will not surprise you that making a commitment to another person is one of the steps. We know that in recovery. Caroline provides the why and the how to back up that step. Reading her book got me so excited that I began to make my list which includes: Being sober a long, long time and Having a personal relationship with a God who loves me. Then I added some career goals, relationship goals and even intrapersonal goals—like getting rid of the scary schema that twist my mind into painful pretzels.

You can check out Caroline Millers book and ideas at her website:

What is on your list? Let’s support each other by naming what we want as a first step in making it happen.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Byron Katie Loving What Is

A few weeks ago I attended a workshop at Kripalu Center with Byron Katie who teaches a self-knowledge and self-change process called The Work. Katie teaches a method that invites us to judge others and then turn around those judgments to look deeply into our own thoughts and beliefs—and ultimately to free ourselves by seeing our projections.

At Kripalu Katie worked with individuals on stage asking them to voice judgments about family and friends and then she walked them through her inquiry process by asking them to answer these questions about each judgment:

Is it true?
Can you absolutely know it’s true?
How do you react when you believe that thought?
Who would you be without that thought?

And then: Turn each thought around to it’s opposite.

Doing the “Work” provides a kind of fast-track to seeing inside of me. The idea behind it is that we make our own suffering by projecting all of ourselves onto others and then being mad at them for the things we projected. That is not so new. Many spiritual teachers and The Course in Miracles have pointed out how we create our world by projecting what we cannot accept in ourselves. But Byron Katie has given us a fast way to actually do it:
Judge your neighbor. Write it down. Ask four questions. Turn it around.

What I found this week after finally doing the exercises—called worksheets—is that of course it's me, of course it’s my thoughts, and the best part is that I can laugh at myself. In some cases writing out a worksheet was enough for me to shift my thinking about another person and in other stickier cases I could at least loosen my grip.

What struck me today is that for those of us in 12 step recovery—the lessons of The Work correlate nicely with our amazing 12 steps. The Tenth Step Axiom says that when I am disturbed there is something wrong in me. Doing a Byron Katie worksheet shows me this is true each time. The process also speaks to acceptance: what is, is. All my fussing and fighting and judging and insisting don’t change what is. And only when I face the truth about myself or a situation, only then can I begin to change—me!

Saturday, October 24, 2009


This morning the discussion topic in our meetings was denial. The first few speakers were bashing denial. Denial is bad, bad, bad. How silly is that? Would any of us be in recovery if it were not for denial? I know that my denial was really important and even life saving. If I had to grasp the whole picture of my addictions, the reasons behind my addictions and the consequences of my addictive behavior early on I would have killed myself. Even in early recovery denial was a life saver. If I had any clue what recovery would ask of me over the next twenty years I would have walked out the door in my first month.

No, denial kept me coming back. I thought perfect recovery was right around the corner. I thought my “cure” was in the next step, the next meeting and of course when I got that next chip: one year, five years, ten and yes, even the 20 year chip. Even now as I continue to work on my relationship with God and on my thinking it’s still true—some amount of denial is allowing me to stay with this process.

Melody Beatty –Codependent No More—writes about the importance of denial. She describes it as a warm blanket that we keep around us to keep us safe. We don’t run around tearing off people’s blankies—for their own good. But when we get warm and feel safe—slowly, slowly (by attending meetings and being loved in recovery) —then we loosen our own blanket and slowly let it drop.

In the meantime it is denial that lets us laugh and gossip and raise our hands to offer our experience strength and hope, and it is denial that comforts us as we trudge the road of happy destiny.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Scarlet Letter: A is for Able

I’m re-reading The Scarlet Letter and I find myself most moved by what I did not notice when I read this as a younger woman. Hester is transformed by her experience of being an outcast and she becomes a “sister of charity” writes Hawthorne, helping the sick and dying of the community. In a most moving passage Hawthorne writes that her Scarlet “A” intended to signify adultery became “transformed to mean Able, so capable was she of helping and caring”. It made me laugh; Hester is a caregiver!

Again this idea that we can go through very hard things and come out the other side--changed and transformed—and better for the experience.

As to how Hester’s transformation occurred Hawthorne writes, “Shame, despair, solitude; these had been her teachers. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dare not tread.”

Yes, we know this as: No matter how far down the scale we have gone…

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sartre Day

“Hell is other people." That famous line comes from the play “No Exit” by Jean Paul Sartre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature on this day in 1964. Many of us have certainly felt that sentiment at times and-- truth be told—when we were drinking we were, in fact, some of those hellish people.

My favorite line from Sartre’s play is this: “I am a gaze observing you, a formless thought that thinks you.” As a teenager I loved rolling those words around in my mouth enjoying the sensuality of his language. As a recovering woman I am reminded that my thoughts create my reality and that I can, in fact, think you.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Rushing and Doing

Maybe Moody blues and maybe Monday blues but I woke with a start and began working thru the list this morning. Then I remembered something I read in “MY Utmost for His Highest”—the old devotional book that was used by Bill W. and Dr. Bob and other early AA’s.

In the “Utmost” devotion for October 19th is says that “The press and rush of tremendous activity that we regard so highly is not for the Master. The central thing about the Kingdom of God is our personal relationship with Himself, not public usefulness.”

Ouch! I am so very invested in my “press and rush” and in the “public usefulness” part of my identity. Dare I reframe that to do less and be more?

It’s not the first time this question has come around, but to see it right there and to know surrendering doesn’t mean do more, it means let God do the doing.

Let’s see how I do the rest of this week.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Happy Birthday Friedrich Nietzsche

Take a twirl around the living room today in honor of the philosopher who said:

“And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Throw Them Over the Edge

Managing my own thinking—and not scaring myself to pieces –is one of my ongoing challenges. Here is my new strategy to deal with scary thoughts.

Every morning I walk at the YMCA. The track is elevated and overlooks the large gym floor below. That’s a help often because I get to watch the Pilates class or the killer Boot Camp group grunting and puffing thru a workout that would kill most Marines. Watching them makes me very happy to be walking or jogging on the track.

Today as the fear thoughts started in on me I had a new thought, “Throw them over”. So each time my head cooked up a new “What if…” scenario I’d say “Nope, over you go.” and toss that thought and picture over the railing and onto the gym floor below. It also helped to imagine these scary thoughts as scared, bratty little kids so when they land on the gym floor they can run around and wear them selves out—away from me!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Beach Surrender

We went to the beach this weekend. I go alone in the morning to pray, writing the names of each person on the edge of the shore and watching to see the water come up and take the prayer away.

This weekend I wrote the names of all of our family members his and mine, spouses and kids, siblings also. I wrote his name and my name and I wrote my workplace too. I live in the gap between wanting to make a complete surrender, making that surrender for an instant or a moment and then, seeing, even as I walk aback to my car fear returns and my wish to control something or someone is already back in my head.

Surrender is such an imperfect process but I do think it is a process. I really do wonder about people who say they have done it and it’s done. Do they really never worry again? Worry means I still think I can affect an outcome. Curiosity might be the antithesis of worry. Being able after surrender, to wonder: “I wonder how God is going to play this one out?”

These are the things I surrender and later worry: His health, our relationship, his family, having time together, my health, money, my job, my stepdaughter, my granddaughter, his sons, my ex-husband, his ex-wife.

Maybe this worry of mine too is something I need to surrender.

Over and over I surrender and return to these things.

The ocean’s rhythm is familiar; in and out, in and out, washing, soothing, wearing me down.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Imagine John Lennon

A couple of years ago I was in a chocolate store on Madison Avenue and as I was leaving the store I realized that the couple in front of me was Sean Lennon, John’s son, and his girlfriend. I was so curious that I walked up Madison Avenue behind them and when they turned into Central Park I did too. I was on my way back to the West Side so my path kept me right behind them. After a few blocks I noticed that the girl friend kept looking back and then whispering to Sean. I’m embarrassed to say that it took me many more minutes to realize what it must have seemed like from their point of view: Another creepy celebrity stalker!

Oh God...and in Central Park no less.

I think about that today—John Lennon’s birthday. Imagine if he had lived. Just Imagine.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Intensive Care Lessons

The first time I was in an Intensive Care waiting room I was 18 years old. It was a Wednesday night in July. I had come home from ballet class and my mother called to say that my father was on the living room floor and she could not wake him up. An hour later the family was gathered in the Intensive Care waiting room at Alleghney General Hospital on Pittsburgh's Northside. My father had had a stroke; he never regained consciousness, and within a few days he was dead. My strongest memories of those few days are the details of that small room and the strangers with whom my family shared that space.

Now, sadly, many years later, I have become a kind of expert on these rooms. Over these years, I have waited for and watched as four brothers and sisters died, and I have learned many things from Intensive Care.

I know how a hospital works and how to work one. I know what to pack and how to dress for this experience. I know what to say to nurses and what not to say to doctors. Like a traveling salesman who knows exactly what hotel room to book in any city or how to create an office in an airplane seat, I know how to "do" Intensive Care.

I have thought, in my more practical moments, that I might write a guide to the practicalities of the ICU, ways of making this difficult experience less stressful. In my more bitter moments I have thought of writing a critical piece lambasting medical personnel and the business part of hospitals for what sometimes is less than humane policy. I have even made lists to help me organize and give order to the chaotic experience of the Intensive Care waiting room.

Physically, most of these rooms are the same: small sitting rooms with an adjoining private bath. There is a TV that is always on and there is a black board and a phone on the wall. Usually there is a round table for eating and a coffee table with old magazines. Once you enter this room nothing else exists. Your world becomes the patient and the four, fifteen minute intervals that you can see him or her. There is no visiting in the regular sense; We are waiters, not visitors in Intensive Care. Those who visit intensive care wait for doctors, wait for news, wait for visiting times, wait for other family to arrive, wait for phone calls, wait for answers and wait to, someday, take another full breath again.

Among the practical advice I might share is the etiquette; how to live among the strangers you meet in this room. You will spend hours and days with them and there is a code of behavior: Take accurate messages, don't hog the phone, you can openly eavesdrop but don't interrupt. You may bring sweets to share and take a turn making coffee, but never ever offer hope to another family. That is their business. Yours is yours. This is a life raft of sorts, and you must be careful in this small space where everyone is filled with fear and tension.

If I did give advice to a newcomer to ICU I’d provide a primer on terminology. There are so many code words ( "codes" being one of them) and specialized terms. You listen to medical explanations and become conversant with medical jargon that is both meaningful and meaningless: "Counts are up (or down)", checking "N.G.'s" platelets, and vitals." You care about all of these things intensely and you don't really give a damn. Will he live? Will she die?

There is also a lesson on human relations I have learned in ICU, an insightful paradox I have observed over and over in my days in these waiting rooms. At the very time when a person - or a family - must turn fully inward to care for themselves and to will the survival of their loved one, there also emerges a most generous compassion. I have seen race, class and age differences dissolve instantly. I have watched people change diapers and tires for, and share food and fears with, others who, in any other setting, might be spurned or shunned.

But these are not the real lesson of the ICU waiting room. The real lesson is something that is harder to put in a handbook. Each time I sit for days or nights (they are the same) in Intensive Care, I relearn this. Sometimes I wonder if that is why I have to go back. I'm still trying to get the lesson.

This big lesson is not about medicine or any scientific fact. It’s about relativity and priorities. I have seen it each time as the details of “life” are left outside the ICU door. Most of what we care about when we are engaged in the rest of our lives, in what we erroneously think of as "real" - that is, the life we were living before we got the call that said, "Come to the hospital" - stops at this doorway. What people in Intensive Care waiting rooms know with certainty is that this is real life, not what we left at home by the phone.

I also know that few of us are wise enough to learn from someone else's experience and so we live our lives as if the day-to-day is real and that we will have time to do things later. It's not until that phone call and it is your mother/sister/brother or child that you get to see how fast "later" can show up.

The big lesson of Intensive Care is just what doesn't matter after all. For example: grade point average, where you went to school, what you drive, credit rating, house size, annual income, clothes and not even work. No one in Intensive Care talks of these things.

And so in one screech of tires, one lump, one scream, or one unexpected bit of blood, priorities change. In a single afternoon in Intensive Care, watching life drain out of someone you love, you get it.

It would be a gift to package the power of this perspective changing experience, but it doesn't work that way. I have tried, but it's a slippery lesson. It only comes when it does and only when we are open to it.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Addiction in Fiction

Over the years there have been many great novels that show what addiction—and sometimes recovery—are like. John Cheever’s stories are among the best. In a future blog I’ll write about some other novels and plays that I include in my “Literature of Addiction” class.

Last night I finished a new book that I recommend highly. It is “BLAME” by Michelle Huneven. Just published by Sarah Chrichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, “Blame” tells the story of a young college professor with too many alcohol-induced problems and a shocking accident that almost gets her attention. The book feels true to both drinking and recovery and Huneven makes the reader want more page after page. There are twists and turns in the plot just as there are twists and turns in recovery.

In many parts of the book I found myself saying, compare yourself in not out. The behaviors may vary but we recognize a real women in real recovery in this exceptional book and well told story. This would be a great book for a recovery book group.

Friday, October 02, 2009

God's Will

Again and again, this question comes around:

How do I know God’s will?

Here’s an answer I like and that I can use to decide if something is God’s will or I’m trying to make it mine:

Grace is the quality of God’s will.

That means there is no sense of force, no fight, no insistence, only grace and ease.