Monday, October 31, 2011

Day of the Dead

I do love Halloween but my real holiday begins tomorrow. On November 1st 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. October 31st is a fun time to see little ones dressed up and yes to the candy but being scared of goblins 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 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 brothers 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 they died several years ago my feeling about my brothers is that I have misplaced them; 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 them.

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 on Tuesday night 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?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Hymn of Gratitude for Recovery

For more than 25 years, always alone in my car—blasting the radio, tape or CD-- I have sung a hymn of gratitude for my recovery. It goes like this:

Your love, is lifting me higher
Than I've ever been lifted before
So keep it up--
quench my desire,
And I'll be at your side, forever more.

You know it’s your love that keeps lifting me
So keep on lifting me Higher and Higher
Yes your love keeps lifting me
So keep on lifting me
Higher and higher.

Now once, I was downhearted
Disappointment was my closest friend
But then you came, and it soon departed
And he never
Showed his face again.

And your love keeps lifting me Higher
So keep on lifting me higher and higher

I'm so glad, I've finally found you
Now a one-in-a-million girl
And I whip my loving arms around you
And I can stand up, and face the world.

The original lyrics were by songwriters Jason and Miner. First performed by Jackie Wilson and later, a second platinum record, when performed by Rita Coolidge.

What is your recovery song?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Temp for God

Here is a spiritual strategy that I learn, practice and then forget and then, like this week, remember and start practicing again. When I do remember to do this my work days are so much better.

This started when I was working in an organization that hired temps to get through the busy times. I noticed that most of the temps we hired were pleasant, hard working and willing to do whatever needed to be done. They showed up each day and did what was on that day’s list. There was no sense of right, wrong, should, shouldn’t, not-my-job or “Why me?” I thought, “What if I came to work like that each day?”

So now, when I remember, I think of myself as a temporary worker. The temp agency that I work for is God. In my morning prayer I say, “OK, God I’m temping for you today; whatever shows up is what you are asking me to do and like a good temp I’ll do it pleasantly, willingly and without debate; where are you sending me today God?”

The temp agencies always seemed to send us mugs as a thank you gift. So maybe I need to get a mug for my desk that says, Temp for God.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Grief and Grievances

I found this wonderful and provocative idea in David Richo’s book, “How to be an Adult.”

In writing about grief and responding to losses of all kinds he says: “Betrayal, abandonment, rejection, disappointment and humiliation are not feelings but beliefs. Each of these judgments keeps us caught in our story. Each is a subtle form of blame. Each coddles and justifies our bruised ego. Each distracts us from the true feelings of grief. Grievances dislocate grief work. Anger without blame completes it.”

Here is the cognitive approach again. Beliefs not feelings. We have a choice. Yeah, simple not easy.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Time Management

For years I have bought, read and tried every new time management system. Day Runner, Day Planner, Franklin Covey, FiloFax, and Letts of London--just because they are so beautiful. I make lists--my lists have lists. My Post-Its are color coded. I do laundry during TV and text at the hairdresser. But even after years of recovery I have a knot in my stomache about how much I want to do and how much is undone.

Yesterday it hit me. There is a time managment "system" I have not really tried: The 12 Steps of AA.

Think about it; it's all there. Powerlessness, acceptance, and humility. What can one person do in 24 hours. The arrogance of beliving I can do more. The dishonesty of believing I can fit more in a day, an hour or a minute than will fit. And the cruelty of pushing myself and shaming myself for all that is undone.

Where is the faith in a Higher Power? Where is belief that I am doing God's work--in God's time? And where is peace?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Prayer by Marie Howe

Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important
calls for my attention—the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage
I need to buy for the trip.
Even now I can hardly sit here
among the falling piles of paper and clothing, the garbage trucks outside
already screeching and banging.
The mystics say you are as close as my own breath.
Why do I flee from you?
My days and nights pour through me like complaints
and become a story I forgot to tell.
Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.

                                                     ----Marie Howe, from “The Kingdom of Ordinary Time”

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bosses Day

Today is National Bosses Day. This week we’ll see articles on “The Worst Bosses” and radio shows will invite callers to tell tales about their bad bosses.

I’ve been working since I was 15 so I’ve had a boss every day for 43 years. For most of my career I’ve been blessed with amazing bosses who showed me how to be a good leader. They forgave me, gave me second and third chances, and offered me opportunities to try things I was not qualified to do but that I grew to learn and love.

For the last 30 years I’ve been a boss and I borrow from those good bosses. Along the way though, I’ve had some bad ones--men and women who made the workplace scary and uncomfortable-- but they taught me too. They are my “Don’t” examples.

There was one who didn’t speak to anyone before noon; one who said, “You’re stupid” to anyone in front of everyone, and one who put on her make-up in staff meetings. On my best days I aspire to be like “M” who taught me to, “Remove fear from the workplace” and on my not so good days I try not to be like “D” who drove around the building at the end of the day to make sure that all of the window shades were within a quarter inch of the sill.

But while we’ll laugh about the “Can you believe it?” bad bosses on Bosses Day, what we are quiet about is being a bad boss. You rarely see the articles in which bosses tell about the times that they blew it. And anyone who’s ever been a boss has blown it more than once. The truth is that if you’ve been a boss (committee chair, troop leader, coach, supervisor,) you did some things that were not so great or you did something that you later realized was bad boss behavior.

At some point in our lives each of us occupies a leadership role and when we blow it our mistakes are only magnified by our level of authority. I say “when” and not “if” because it turns out that we are painfully, excruciatingly human. Leadership is too complex for perfection. The best you can pray for is feedback, self-awareness and willingness to change.

Over the years I got a lot of mileage out of the story about the boss who was obsessed with window shades, but recently when I saw myself rearranging another person’s work, I thought, “There it is, my version of window shades”; it was the same naked impulse to control.

Leadership is about courage so here’s a challenge for Bosses Day: don’t talk about the worst boss you ever had, instead talk about your worst day as a boss. No one is exempt. Even Steve Jobs was bad. The recent stories about him tell how he screamed expletives at employees and humiliated subordinates. Yeah, it’s APPLE, but that’s still bad boss behavior.

It is about finding a middle ground. I cringe about the times that I cared too much about someone’s personal life and about the times when I didn’t care enough. Our best learning doesn’t come from what someone else does, but rather from what we do—even if we’re not yet able to change it.

So now, on most days, I say to myself, “Life is too short and karma too real; just don’t be the crazy boss.”

Friday, October 14, 2011

Out of the Woods

When I was newly sober the old-timers in my Baltimore home group would say I should not be impatient with my recovery because, “It takes three to 5 years to get out of the woods.” Of course, like many, I thought five years was forever.

Later, near the five-year mark, I realized that it took just that long to get into the woods and to make a real dent in changing my thinking and behavior. I remember when I celebrated my five year anniversary I joked that I had by that time come to in the woods and I was just beginning to identify the plants and creatures that made up the true nature of my character defects, other subtle addictions, and just plan bad habits.

At the five to seven year phase I began to really understand that recovery is a life long process, that there would be no prizes other than a decent life and wonderful community and so I could stop trying to get an “A” in AA.

Of course that meant more changes to my program, like trying a different kind of sponsorship, taking advantage of outside help, and looking at my work and health and family as part of my deeper recovery issues.

By year ten I began to actually have the life that I had dreamed of in the early years. But I also saw that there were fewer and fewer people in the rooms who shared my number of years. At first I felt bad, and I said, as many do, “Where are the old timers?” “Where are the people with ten or more years?” In Baltimore where I got sober it was common to run into people with 15 years or more than 20 years but there was definitely a gap in the ten to 15 year range. What was going on?

When we ask: “Where are the people with ten or more years?” The answer is: They are living sober lives, with new careers, working in their community, often in new relationships and sometimes with new families. We have added the PTA and the Rotary and new children to lives that were once filled with two meetings a day, making coffee and sponsorship. At ten years sober alcoholics start to have what many of us wanted and failed at miserably when we were drinking. It is this very new life, the one I acknowledge with tears of gratitude, which takes me away from AA the way I used to be part of it. Managing the gifts of recovery is part of coming out of the woods.

Yes, it is a paradox, and a subject worthy of sober reflection. We need people with more than ten years to show up at meetings so newcomers can have their power of example, and because no one it automatically “fixed” AA remains a lifetime process. But it is also a time worthy of celebration as sober people are well enough and committed enough to take what they have learned in the rooms and practice that in the world outside AA.

The truth is that there really is a time of coming “out of the woods”, and often this happens as we reach double-digit sobriety. It’s an important time, and one that deserves care and attention. Just like adolescents who have to leave the nest and test their wings we still need a place to recover and to celebrate being in the world with relationships and careers and community service. But we also need to find ways to maintain our commitment and membership in AA and to still make our contribution there, though sometimes in new ways.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Anniversary Gifts

Do you buy yourself a gift for your AA anniversary? People celebrate anniversaries in different ways and I love to give myself a gift.

I know one fellow in Baltimore who puts a dollar in his top drawer each time he attends an AA meeting and on his anniversary he counts his money and buys a new golf club or luxury gadget. Another woman I knew early on bought herself a piece of good jewelry for each anniversary that ended in a 5 or a zero. Another woman I know loves boots so her anniversary gift has become a splurge pair—“these boots are made for walking—and recovery.” Another wonderful gift I hear folks giving to themselves is an AA or spiritual retreat—an AA conference or weekend at a place like Kripalu or Omega.

Twenty years ago I bought a scarf for an anniversary and that became my annual gift. I have some beauties. Sometimes the scarf fits the theme of my year—when I did a lot of ACOA work around mother issues I bought a scarf with a mother’s day theme, and the year that most of my growth came from loss I bought a scarf with autumn leaves falling from blackened trees. The scarf from year ten is pink with silver keys—my reminder that I have the “keys to the kingdom”. But my favorite, I think, is rose colored with an image of a ship in a bottle—my reminder of where I was once trapped and how I sailed free.

Many of us also give gifts on our anniversaries—especially a “birthday” gift to a local Intergroup or AA World Service. We know that service is gratitude in action. And sometimes gratitude is gratitude in action too.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Out of the Woods and Into More Feelings

As I approach my anniversary I’m thinking about why I started this blog and this book. When I was ten years sober I realized that there were some things that were different or new in the ways I lived my sober life. When I talked with other women who had ten-plus years, I heard similar observations and questions.

For most of us the raw pain of early days was past but new kinds of pain or “strong emotion” emerged. When alcohol was put down and step work was moving along we began to see the other ways that we tried to stop feeling. Most of us had done at least one version of transferring addictions. Food, shopping, relationships, work, sugar, worry, exercise, TV, and on and on.

So this week it hit me –as I lived through some yucky feelings of jealousy, resentment and shame—that in some ways recovery gets harder. There are fewer “medicators” or distractions. More self-awareness means there is a shorter period of time in which I can indulge in a belief that “they” are my problem. In our early recovery days we heard about how uncomfortable it is to have “A head full of AA and a belly full of beer”. Ditto that with having a head full of AA and a heart full of resentment. You don’t even get to indulge in the fun part before the AA head says, “Uh huh, and your part is…?” Or “Oh might this be a projection?” Or “How nice of you who claims to be a spiritual person.”. Yes, yuck.

And while I don’t think to have a drink I might think a new sweater, some candy or another workshop will fix me up, but then I remember that I know the false solution each of those represents and “Sit still and Feel” becomes the only possible—uncomfortable—solution.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m grateful beyond belief for these years of sober life but sometimes I want some polka dot band-aids and red licorice and the cashmere comfort of unawareness.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Jealousy is a Gold Mine

Jealousy is one of the oldest and icky-est emotions, and it is linked to shame so it has real sticking power. What I find interesting is that it’s one of the hardest emotions to talk about in recovery because we, sober people, shame each other for feeling it. In 12 step programs and even in therapy we may hear how wrong jealousy is—and yet—here it is.

But as I was feeling some of this green icky stuff this week I dipped back into a rare and provocative resource.

My tutor is French analyst Marcianne Blevis and her book “Jealousy: True stories of Love’s Favorite Decoy.” She makes the powerful case that jealousy exists to help us and to free us. Yes, I know it never feels anything like that, does it? She’s onto something though.

Look at this thing she says: “Jealousy is a response to anxiety. (Jealousy is not the anxiety but a response to a preexisting anxiety”). She writes that the anxiety arose early in our lives: “If an impulse in childhood is struck down by a prohibition, it transforms itself into a terror and anguish” Ok, that makes sense: I will be jealous of one whom I perceive to be the thing I was never allowed to be. But then she says this: “Jealousy not only tangles our memories, but also puts us in contact with those unconscious forces of childhood that are struggling to free themselves from the realm of the incommunicable.” Jealousy is actually the route out of childhood anguish.

So when we shove away or shame away the jealous feelings we are cutting off a life preserver and tossing it back to the one trying to rescue us.

Blevis insists that jealousy is not bad no matter how bad it feels. It is built in as a gift to save us. It is as if it is the antidote that is taped to the side of the poison bottle. It comes to free us and give back to us the thing that was prohibited in our early lives, the thing we transformed into terror long before we had words.

Here’s a simple way to get at this in yourself: What were you not allowed to do that you did naturally and freely as a child? What did your mother or father prohibit? What were you shamed for as a kid? Was there something you did or liked to do for which affection or love was withdrawn? This will show up in your jealousy targets as an adult. For many women it has something to do with bodies, sexuality, attractiveness --and creativity--which is why we get confused as adults when we think our jealousy is about another woman’s attractiveness it’s actually about our own—and its repression.

There is freedom here –in the jealousy—for the taking. But it means not shaming ourselves for feeling jealous—but rather relishing it and mining those jealous feelings for the gold buried there.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Act as If--Again

It’s so frequently said, so obvious and so proven. But sometimes so hard to do.

Aristotle said, “We acquire virtues by first having put them into action.” A whole bunch of years later Timothy Wilson at the Universality of Virginia said, “One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change precedes changes in attitude and feelings.”

Note to me: Stop waiting to feel like it. Don’t wait to feel like writing; don’t wait to feel like doing yoga, meditating or dancing. And most of all: Don’t wait to feel loving;

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Are the Dead Anonymous?

Last week a friend died who was a member of a 12 step program. He was so scrupulous about his anonymity. He never broke it in any setting. Even if he knew that you were in a 12 step program, he kept mum. Even if someone hinted, suggested or dropped suggestive language into a conversation as we sometimes do…(you know, the “One day at a time”, or “Live and let live” slogans we might say fishing to see if another person says, “Oh, friend of Bill?”). Nope, not even then. He didn’t bite or wink or hint.

And now he has died and in meetings his full name is announced, his memorial service and obituary are referenced.

Do the dead have the right to their anonymity? Do we have the right to break it? I know this is tricky territory—friends are sad, grieving, wanting to show their caring. We know the rules of breaking anonymity outside of meetings, but what about in them?

What do you think?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Keep Out

I have never found anything in a man’s  wallet,  dresser,  glove compartment  or medicine cabinet that made me happy.