Sunday, October 31, 2010

Day of the Dead

Today I celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It’s not a holiday I grew up with but one I’ve borrowed from the Southwest and Mexico. It’s become one of my favorite holidays partly because it’s a good spiritual counterpart to Halloween. 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. 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 that we love who are dead.

Day of the Dead celebration centers on rituals for remembering loved ones. We can visit in our imagination or feel their presence. It can mean prayer or conversation, writing a letter or looking at old photos. The tradition that I use includes making an ofrenda, or altar, something as simple as putting photos and candles on the coffee table and taking time to talk and remember. 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 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. 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 would suggest I move along in my process and quoted Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The simplified version of her theory lists stages: Denial--Bargaining--Anger--Depression, and Acceptance. But it’s false to create an expectation of five discrete steps. This listing implies order and that a person can move from point A to point B and be done. That 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 judge 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 people 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 that follows a death. Something just out of reach, still here, but also gone.

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 that letter I was just reading, are around here somewhere…if I could just remember where I left him.

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.

So tonight I’ll make cocoa and light candles; we’ll 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?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

There would be no Oprah without William James

The ideas and guidance of William James show up throughout our recovery movement and across the self-help spectrum. Here are a few more places where we see his ideas giving birth to today’s slogans and sayings:

Acceptance. James wrote, “Be willing to have it so. Acceptance of what has happened is the best first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.”

Just for Today. James wrote, “Everybody should do three things each day that he hates to do, just for practice.”

How important is it? James wrote: “Wisdom is learning what to overlook.”

Feelings are not Facts. James wrote, “If merely feeling good could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.”

And on the value of laughter and letting go James wrote, “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

King James, William that is....

In his biography of William James, Robert Richardson says, “William James book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, so dominates the study of religion and theology that when one hears references to King James—they mean William and not the Bible.”

In AA’s history too William James is the unacknowledged King. “Varieties” was an inspiration in the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was James understanding of conversion that the early AA’s found so helpful.

It was in fact William James who pointed at the urban mission work of Samuel Hadley from whom comes the idea that a cure for drunkenness requires the “absolute need of a higher helper”.

We remember that Bill Wilson in his correspondence with Carl Jung acknowledges his “absolute indebtedness to James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

New Tapes

In the rooms we talk about the “tapes” in our heads: Letting go of old tapes; changing the tapes; and erasing old tapes to change our thinking.

Something that has worked for me is to apply this metaphor quite directly. I have found that when I need to change a behavior or way of thinking that if I can find a recovery or self-help audio tape or CD that addresses the issue and listen to it over and over I can sometimes rewrite the tapes in my head. The speaker’s voice –kind of like a good therapist’s voice—gradually becomes part of me and the new idea or belief can also –over time—integrate into my thinking.

It does take lots and lots of repetition so it only works with teachers and speakers that resonate for me.

In early recovery I listened to AA speaker Bob E. from New Mexico. I bought tapes and CD’s of his conference talks and I must have listened to some of them hundreds of times. I got so much from him about caring for the wounds we carry as addicts and for genuine progress not perfection as he detailed his many relationships and jobs and geographic changes over 30 years of sobriety. I also laughed out loud at the good and bad of his recovery life and early on it gave me a frame that ours is a journey of discovery.

Later I discovered the work and audio tapes of Ellen Kriedman, a California psychologist and trainer whose bestselling book is called “Light His Fire”. I know, I know it sounds like some Cosmo Girl how to catch a guy title but it’s not. The book and audio workshop is about communication in relationships. Again, this one has lots of humor so it never feels old or stale. I still listen to Ellen and continue to learn from her.

Recently I’ve been listening to “Codependent No More” by Melody Beatty. Beatty has written a dozen or more books detailing her recovery from substances, grief and codependence. This one, “Co No Mo” --is one of the first books she wrote. I keep these cd’s in my car to give strength to the new messages I want and to gradually weaken the old ones my brain has played for me all the years before and even in recovery.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Your Own Path

You’ll know you are on your own path when there are no more markers or footprints to follow---If there are any markers or signs then you are following someone else’s path.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Act the Way I Want to Feel

We owe much to the philosopher William James. It was his book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience” that was critically important to Bill Wilson’s sobriety. James’s book was one of the texts that early AA members read and studied before they wrote our AA literature.

Ideas from William James permeate the Big Book and 12 step thinking and language. For example, James wrote: “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” Or as we now say:

“Act as if”. And, “Fake it till you make it.” Or, as I am reminding myself this week, “Act the way I want to feel.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Turning on the Furnace

We have come to the scary time of year, one that separates the men from the boys, the hedonists from the economists, and sometimes the husbands from the wives. Soon we’ll hear creaking sounds in our houses and rumblings from the basement.

No, not Halloween. I’m talking about the really scary time of year for grown-up homeowners: It’s time to turn on the furnace.

The coming of cold weather is humbling to humans. It reminds us how fragile we are compared to other creatures. Unlike a frog or fish, our body temperature does not rise or fall with that of our surroundings and without fur or feathers we must be vigilant to stay within the three-degree range required for human health.

Warmth is not simply a line etched on the thermometer; it’s also a sensation of comfort, a feeling that we are safe, that all is well. It’s why home and hearth go together. “Cozy” is the preferred adjective of this season. It’s used to sell everything from windows and slippers to hot chocolate. We seek comfort, but physical ease is just one part. Our homes are also where we are emotionally safe, where we close the door.

Turning on the furnace might seem as simple as responding to the weather with a binary flip of “heat on” or “heat off”, but this decision is not just about the weather report or how cold the bathroom floor feels in the morning. There is a weight to the moment when we decide to heat up the house that goes beyond the price of oil. Starting the furnace connects us with our ancestors who—in late fall --brought their precious fires inside.

In the old house that I grew up in, late October began a battle against cold air. The simple comment, “I feel a draft” would send either parent scrambling. It seemed quite normal to see my mother or father rise from dinner table or living room couch in mid-conversation to perform what seemed a dance-like ritual in front of nearby doorjambs and window frames. They moved their hands slowly and rhythmically as if performing household Tai Chi, divining the path of escaping heat and exorcising drafts of cool air.

It was a seasonal campaign, and the old house usually won, but we gave good fight: Little rugs were pushed against every door sill and we even got out the caulking gun and sheets of plastic to seal offending windows. We were sealed in for the season. And what a season. As the furnace warms up, the schedule heats up. Our lives are the kindling being consumed.

Winters are long in the Northeast. As you turn on your furnace now you’ll be warm and very much at home. But home with whom? That is the interior question of the season. Who will you settle down with for the next four months? Is it someone whose company you enjoy? A companion you respect? Is there anything you need to change inside before the fire comes in?

The trees remind us. Change your colors and let old things drift away. This is the season with yourself. This is your one and precious life.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Feelings Ego and Shame

I’m changing jobs. This week the new person arrived who will take my place. She’s wonderful. I’m the one that chose her. But, alas, those reasonable facts did not save me from my baby ego. I was caught off guard by, yes, feelings. Yeah, hum along, “feeeelings, whoa, whoa, whoa feeeelings…”

All of a sudden I was feeling bad because of the comparisons I was making: the staff like her better, volunteers too and she’s smarter, nicer, knows a lot more, even prettier. (Hey, these are Junior High emotions so why not?)

But that’s not the worst of it. Yeah, all that baby girl ego, but the worst of it was that I thought I was alone. I thought that having these feelings was some weak part of me, some unsober part of me, some “What a failure in recovery” part of me.

So I began to, sort of, kind of, tell people what I was feeling and people I spoke to all said, “Oh yeah, of course, I totally get it”. And then they told me stories about their job change and all very similar feelings that they had. These were people in recovery and people NOT in recovery. Men, women, managers, teachers, CEO’s.

So it’s not the feelings; it’s the shame about the feelings. The worst of this was not that I felt sad and insecure and displaced but that I felt so much shame for having those feelings! It was the shame that was my undoing.

This is, I think, why it’s so important to tell someone—some safe person—what is going on in our heads. Because it turns out that human beings—very healthy human beings --have all of these feelings. But I am still learning that.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hidden in a Bottle

Yesterday a friend spoke at the Saturday meeting. He’s been sober a long time and in recovery he learned to sail and bought a sail boat. His face fills with light when he says the word, “sailing”. He told the group that a couple of years ago, at a craft sale, he found a stained glass sun catcher that is a picture of a sailing boat inside a bottle. He hung this in his kitchen window and each morning, when he has his coffee, he is reminded that his love of sailing was hidden for years inside his bottles of booze.

It got me thinking:

What is trapped in my bottle? What is trapped in your bottle? What is trapped in your addiction? In your box of cookies? In your pill box? In your codependence? Is your artist trapped in your husband’s sock drawer? Is your love of dance trapped in your daughter’s struggles? Is your freedom trapped in your ex-wife’s new life? Is my next book trapped in my obsession with my boyfriend’s ex?

Picture that bottle—it could represent any addiction.--and even after years of recovery we still have something. What’s trapped in there? You may know or you may be in for a wonderful surprise when that bottle, box of candy or too long work schedule breaks open and spills its secret delights like a big piƱata.

Yes, there are painful things inside our addictions—stuff we don’t want to feel or think about or remember --but like the sailboat in a bottle we also have talents and treasures in there too. There are gifts hidden in our addictions that will light up our faces just like my friend’s face when he says the word, “sailing.”

Friday, October 01, 2010

October Begins

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have wakened to the fall;
Tomorrow s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Heart not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost
For the grapes sake along the wall.

-------------------------------------------------Robert Frost