Saturday, April 24, 2010

Don't Do That

This is the new slogan for women with more than ten years of recovery.

In earlier stages of recovery we learned, “Easy Does It but Do It” and we learned “Feelings Are Not Facts”. We learned “Look Back but Don’t Stare” when we had to consider issues of our past. And we were reminded that “Under Every Skirt’s a Slip”—my all time favorite slogan--from old timers who knew that romance and sex had to handled carefully.

But last week talking to my friend Stephanie—who also has double-decade sobriety—she was telling me about something she does to undermine her happiness and I said, “Don’t do that.” Later in the conversation I was bemoaning a bad habit of thinking myself into misery and wondering how to change it and she said, “Don’t do that.” And it hit me: “Don’t Do That”—anymore. Whatever “it” is, don’t do it anymore. Don’t shop with credit cards; don’t eat cookies at 11 at night; don’t say yes to the volunteer commitments you know you’ll resent.

After ten years we do know some stuff about ourselves. The road is long and there are surprises at every turn but many of us know the things we do that make us miserable and for many of our issues what we most need to do is, “Don’t Do That.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Be Still and Know

A few years ago on a retreat for women in recovery a spiritual director gave me this meditation practice to use to quiet my ever spinning mind. When I remember to do it my heart and head do settle. I find this also works to quiet my fears in difficult meetings at work.

Sit quietly and say each line yourself:

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Colonel Chicken Cares about Your Breasts but Not Your Life

Does the American Cancer Society care about heart disease? Does the Heart Association care about diabetes? Does Crohns and Colitis care about strokes? Does Liver care about Lung? Does anyone care about all of you?

Our health care, health research and health education have become so fragmented because of marketing—and money—that it seems as if no one cares if we live or die they just want the organs they represent to survive. You can go ahead and die, they seem to say, as long as you don’t die of OUR disease.

A current ad campaign by Kentucky Fried Chicken is promoting an appeal for fried chicken and The Susan B. Komen Foundation. You can buy a big pink bucket (a bucket!) of fried chicken for the woman in your life and 50 cents from each big pink bucket of FRIED chicken will go to breast cancer research.

This makes me crazy! Does anyone want breast cancer? Nope. Do we want to prevent deaths from breast cancer? Yep. But this fried chicken breast campaign begs me to ask The Colonel—and Susan B. Komen: Do you really care about women’s lives or only about breasts?

Here’s some women’s health research: More women—more by far—die of heart disease than breast cancer. More women die of cardiac related disease than breast or any other cancer. So if you really want to promote women’s health should you be encouraging us to eat buckets of FRIED chicken? (We know that you think we are babies—all that pink crap--but you must also think we’re stupid and can’t Google: breast cancer versus heart disease.)

What’s next? How about some pink Marlboro smokes? Pink Absolut vodka shots? A gallon of pink Hagen Das Ice cream and pink Wise potato chips consumed on a big pink couch in front of a pink TV?

Come on Susan B. Komen, get some balls—or are you leaving that to The Lance Armstrong Foundation? Will one of these health charities have the courage and integrity to care about the whole woman? Wouldn’t you love to see a marketing message that says: A woman has boobs and brains and lungs and a heart and we need to take care of all of it for good health and a good life.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bad Marriages in Books

I’m reading “Shadow Tag” the new novel by Louise Erdrich. She’s been writing a long time and I’ve loved her novels, “Love Medicine” and “The Beet Queen”. Now, the new book has me stunned and dismayed. Great writing still—I think. But oh my, “Shadow Tag” is the story of a horrific marriage—one of the worst I think for the sheer meanness and emotional cruelty between husband and wife. It’s been rumored, hinted at and suggested that this book is “about” Erdrich’s own marriage to Michael Dorris. God help them both if there is any truth to that.

For our purposes we need to know that “Shadow Tag” is also the story of a woman alcoholic—and the slow, semi-hidden progression of the disease. One scene in the story describes how the disastrous couple’s youngest child loves to draw pictures of his mother—and the mom notices that he always puts a sparkly globe in her hand –“Look”, she says, showing the child’s drawings to her husband, “He’s giving me a sacred symbol.” And the husband says, pointing to the object the kid has drawn on his mother, “That’s a wine glass; he thinks it’s part of your body.”

This book got me thinking about bad marriages—real and fictional. I know there are some great readers reading this blog so help me out: What are the worst marriages in literature? Is it Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”? Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?

I can’t say you’ll love Louise Erdrich’s new book. But if you want to see—again—what a permanent wine glass on the end of your arm can do to a woman and a marriage take a look at Shadow Tag.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What Really Matters

Long board meeting last night. My own fears and ambitions collide. Questions at home. Questions at work. Time to write? Make art? Call my friend? Send that birthday/condolence/congrats card? Call my other friend? Talk to people? Be silent?

Then I hear that a woman I know—and admire/envy/am impressed by/like—has had a brain aneurism. She’s in ICU. She is a year younger than me.

What really matters?

In early recovery what matters is getting out of trouble. The trouble might be at home or at work or financial or social. You are on the brink of getting fired or divorced or more depressed or in some kind of inner or outer trouble. You find AA and what really matters is getting sober.

A few years into recovery life happens and it gets easier, then harder, then easier—then you realize it’s neither of those. It’s simply life and what matters is staying sober and refining your use of the skills—practical skills, emotional skills and our tool kit of spiritual skills. You are living life on life’s terms—sometimes. Mostly. Except when you’re not.

What really matters?

Still later in recovery—into the woods and heading out again—you have gone back to school, remarried, had another baby, adopted a child, gotten fired for real this time, changed careers, decided you are gay or straight or male, gone to Italy/Paris/Africa alone, had someone you love die, watched a friend die, aged.

What really matters?

If you are Miss Congeniality or a Playboy centerfold you might say: the end of racism or world peace. Fine, good, but let’s set that aside. After world peace and a cure for cancer (way overrated by the way—if we cure cancer you get to die of really horrible stuff) what really matters to you? Family yes. Another given. But after that: What really matters?

This is my question today as I walk the hill near my house and as I think about my former colleague in ICU. How will I use this 24 hours of mine. What is worth worrying about? The frustration of knowing that the “right” answer is “not much” but even at that I’ll still worry today. So my mantra while walking, dressing, fantasizing about the perfect handbag and making another to-do list is this: What really matters?

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Prayer for Monday

It is Monday and I am filled with fear. Fear about writing and about work. Fear about relationships and love and mostly fear about whether I really know what to do with my life. I kneel to do my morning prayers. I read step seven. And then I open my daily meditation book and here—torn from another book—I have inserted this page with a prayer by Thomas Merton.

Merton’s prayer says this:

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadows of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

There is some comfort in knowing that even Thomas Merton didn’t know what he was doing or whether he was doing the right thing. I smile though, noting that he does not say there won’t be perils, just that he won’t face them alone.

Well, that’s Monday too.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


I know it seems crazy, and it seems like it’s been said, and said and said, but I’m thinking about control and how I spend too much time wanting to control other people. I know, duh. But here’s the thing—buried in all that controlling—is a trap for me. Maybe this is what is slowly sinking in: I’m the one who gets controlled when I spend time, or energy or thought in trying to control someone else.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday World

I have an Easter memory from years ago. I was living in Washington, DC, and that year was a low point in my life. My older sister had recently died and both of my brothers were seriously ill; my best friend was leaving town, and on top of that I was questioning my work.

In my journal that April I wrote, “Am I depressed?” When I read those pages now I laugh and shake my head. “Depressed?” That I even had to ask. In that long year I thought I’d never laugh again, just as I thought I’d never again feel love, the joy of easy friendship, or the satisfaction of good work.

I went to church that Easter out of both habit and desperation. I had grown up in a church going family. It was what we did. And so to honor the family that I was losing I went. I chose a big downtown church for Easter services—one with hundreds in the congregation--not daring to visit a smaller church where I might have to speak to people or be embarrassed by my own tears. I wanted the paradoxical safety and anonymity of being in a crowd.

The minister that Easter Sunday said many things that I don’t remember but one sentence has stayed with me all these years. He said, “We live in a Good Friday world…” That I understood. A Good Friday world is a world full of suffering, questioning, unfairness, trouble, mistakes, hurts, losses and grief. That was certainly confirmation of my life that day. “But”, he continued, “We are Easter people.” Those words stopped me cold. I was stunned to be reminded that painful morning that there was something other than what I was feeling.

My life was not instantly transformed; his words did not change the course of my brothers’ illness; nor give me answers to my questions. But the idea of being “Easter people” gave me a pause in my grief and the teeniest hope that there really did exist something other than pain.

Today all of the things that hurt so much back then have changed. As my brothers died friends came forward to help. I began to write and publish. Months later I fell in love and moved to upstate New York where a new life began with new friends, new work and yes, of course, new problems.

What strikes me now is that this believing in “Easter” in the midst of “Good Friday” is as much about being an American as it is about being Christian. Americans are, by character, a people of reinvention. There is an extra layer of intention that we bring to “new life” that isn’t true even in other predominately Christian cultures. As Americans we are future oriented, we look forward not back, and we are, for the most part, a culture of optimistic, hopeful people.

The gift from that Easter service many years ago was the reminder that we are, by religion or culture, a people who believe in possibility. When our hearts are shattered we are sometimes shocked to discover that there is joy as well as pain inside. Out of the ashes of our mistakes, from our defeats and even our despair, we rise again in better lives.