Friday, December 13, 2013

Pure Gold

A cold, gray day perfect for going to the dentist.  And it was a Monday. I met Alice for tea and sympathy afterwards and she listened to my woes before telling me her own dentist story.  It was both odd and moving.  The week before she had to have a crown removed, kind of chipped away.  The dentist asked if she wanted the bit of gold that was left, made a joke about selling it and was surprised when, in fact, she held out her hand.  She hadn't  given the incident much thought but in the telling of it she began to cry.  It was obvious she was experiencing a deep emotion.  When her feelings subsided, she didn't want to talk about them beyond saying she hadn't thought about her dad for a long time.  But that afternoon when she took the gold it was because her father had been a dentist and it was he who, many years ago, had inserted it.  Her father had not been a particularly warm parent and she had had issues with him. So why, she asked, after forty years was this well spring of love so strong and clear?

I chose three o'clock in the morning to wonder. I knew about that surge of love, out of the blue and more than the sum of experiences shared; as if all the love you ever felt for a person was swept up into a bundle of pure, almost hurtful joy. Because surface events fade it's easy to think that love does also.  But love seems to abide at a deeper level of our being and unexpectedly, and sometimes uncomfortably, makes itself known.

And here's another dentist story.  At the hair salon the next day, Maria told me her father had just given her a small jar that he had been saving for her. Within were all her baby teeth.  She was pleased and horrified.  She thought about making a bracelet. Love. It's a beautiful thing.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Flower in a Crevice

Whenever he can, the cat next door comes to my house to visit.  He cleans up my cats' leftovers before making a quick visit to the TV room to play with the toys scattered there.  We have an understanding that when I say "Go" Boris follows me to the door and leaves.  In the evening, he often returns to stand on his hind legs and look through the glass door until I bring him a plate of food.  This has been going on for years, unbeknownst to his owners.  They are fairly indifferent to Boris, at times, leaving him out in the rain and cold.  Nevertheless, they do give him a home.  I'm  taken with the fact that Boris has a secret life and that, despite some hardships, he has found ways to improve his lot.

Lots of us, I think, have secret lives.  Things that we do to keep us going, to please ourselves or just drop out.  One of my secrets is to stand on the back deck early in the morning and look up at the sky through the trees.  It reminds me of times I camped in Maine.  When I pay attention, it evokes similar feelings of awe.  Another thing I do, less noble, is to stop at a drug store now and then and pick up a candy bar.  Choosing is part of the pleasure, just as it was when I was a child.

"Some secret life," you might think, especially if you are busy having, say, an illicit affair.  That's a secret but it's shared and it's big and complicated.  Quite different from small, private, experiences that enrich life if you don't diminish them by wishing they were more or different.  The ability to see and appreciate what's available, be it ever so small, is one of the conditions of a happier life.  Boris will likely never have better circumstances but he is making the most of what he has ... living big in small moments.

This poem, in part, is about being present even as the past calls. Altamont is a garden in Ireland.


I spent a summer day
in the vast garden of Altamont,
long past its time of sculptured yews,
herbaceous plots and tended flowers.
Free to roam, roses and azaleas
mixed with daffodils and bluebells
and rhododendron ran wild down the lanes.
A different, fallen beauty.
But, I minded the lake.
Overtaken by lilies,
it could not move in the breeze.
The house, too, was in distress,
enclosed by moss and vines,
its windows shuttered.
On a small side porch
perched upon a parapet,
a peacock stood alone,
waiting, perhaps, for a larger crowd
that did not come.
It spread enormous wings,
opened a wide throat and brayed
an eerie high pitched call.
I fancied it missed its fellow creatures
and the sweep of their tails over cut green fields.
Knowing well the call to better days,
I turned away.

Bridget Harwell

*Liz has a piece in LIES in which she talks about knowing where you spend your time.
LIES: How to Cut a Pie, p.105

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Two Dresses

Yesterday, I got my first whiff of autumn air and, for a moment, night-before-school feelings came rushing through me. The night before school was, for me, such a mixture of joy, dread, fantasy, anxiety, sleeplessness and stomach ache that it stands apart from all other experiences in my life. To go to school was to get away; like going to the movies but it was real, you could go everyday and you didn't have to have a dime.

Of course, like any kid, after the first couple of days my excitement tapered off, especially as the classroom was always roasting and I, allergic, was always in wool. Whatever was available is what we wore and sometimes wool sweaters had to do. But then, one difficult year, grade four I believe, our summer clothes worn through, we had nothing to wear, not even sweaters. The first week of school came and went and we weren't there, a sad and scary time.  Until, somehow, my mother came up with a dress for me and one for my sister.  Identical, blessed cottons, mine peach, my sister's blue with thin lines of darker peach and blue marking off squares.  And, most wonderful of all, white Peter Pan collars!  We had missed the first week of school but our entrance the second week was glorious.

The autumn air got me thinking about the peach and blue dresses and then wondering if I had mixed them up.  "Was mine truly the peach one or was it the blue?" No matter, I thought.  They were both my dresses, equally prized, more precious because we each had one. Like many stories in my life that I value, this happy ending required a tough start.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Keeping it Real

Remember affirmations? Back then, it seemed everyone had a positive statement or two that they repeated throughout the day in the hope of becoming a better person or just getting stuff they wanted.  They, the affirmations, can be found tucked in old wallets and pockets.  Little pieces of paper that said things like: I am beautiful and worthwhile and deserving.  I am the master of my life and I am making a beautiful day.  I am walking step by step towards my goal.  Positive thinking, yes, but also a bit of magic.  These sacred incantations, not you, would do the work needed to be done to change your life.  Alas.

There are words, however, that can change life if one is thoughtful and willing to work for new behaviors.  I have a few favorite mantras (sorry) one of which I have found to be powerful in my life and in the lives of clients.  It is: Make it small. The remark your partner or friend made, the need to ask for a raise, the dozen chores you have on your to-to-list.  Make your reaction smallNo need to have a fit because your partner has a mean moment, no need to play over and over in your mind what your boss will say, no reason to treat yourself like an ox in order to get it all done today, everyday.  People lie to themselves.  And the biggest lies are about making things BIG. More messes and tangles occur because things get blown out of proportion.  Exaggeration is a bad habit that serves many bad functions.  Here are a few:

It helps you worry and if you worry enough it will lessen the blow when it arrives.  No, that's magic.

It is used to express feelings, especially negative ones.  If I exaggerate my pain, physical or emotional, it will be better understood how much I suffer.  No, people will just want to get away from you.

It helps put other people in the wrong.  No.  People will not see their flaws because your words are inaccurate and they will fight with you about the inaccuracies.

Lately, in service of learning Spanish and also for fun, I've been watching tela novelas which, like American soap operas, give  lessons in exaggerated reactions.  If you crave drama and misery, don't make it small. Make everything big ...  but you will need a therapist.

For more about this topic see LIES: The Truth about the Self-Deception That Limits Your Life, "Make it Small," p.14.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Important Stories

Memories. Some just float through the mind like lapping waves and recede, maybe forever.  Others, you notice.  Perhaps because they are cherished or, obversely, tamped down or just because they recur but for no apparent reason. Like plot points in a novel, they reveal more than others.  They are in the "My Important Story" category; vignettes worth examining for what they disclose about your life.  Here is one of my important stories.

I'm three years old sitting alone in a large room at a work table in an orphanage.  I have a tablet with slots in it. In front of me is a big pile of letters that I must sort through and match on my tablet words that have been written on a blackboard.  I've been at it for a long time.  I'm tired and I can't find a second "b" in the letter pile to write my final word, "baby" and hi Mr. Freud.  Fear is my strongest feeling.  A woman dressed in a black robe and hood will be coming through the door to check on me at any moment.  Just as the door opens I find a "b" and insert it in the tablet.  End of memory.

For a long time, this was a sad memory for me but no more.  What happened was that I found so much in it that fits my life story.  Fear is still a presence in my life (duh) but in this vignette I am industrious, I like the little letters and the noise they make as I insert them, I don't give up, and most importantly, despite my fear, I'm successful.  Also, letters made into words have always been important to me and finally,  I know that when I am lonely, someone always comes through one door or another.  As you can see, I squeezed a lot out of this memory. It's good to tell your important stories.

Here's a poem that somewhat relates to this piece.  How, I'm not quite sure . But it's a room, unopened for a long time, full of memories.

Jim's Cottage

Shocked by the breeze,
the room moves.
Newspaper meal
blows off the table,
coal dust shifts in the grate
and on the wall, a palm crucifix

the curtain lifts its grimy hem
and waves.
A small remembrance
of another time.
Of April air,
of clean and white
and free-flapping on the line.

Bridget Harwell

Monday, July 1, 2013

Help Yourself

One of the most useful questions you can ever ask yourself is this: Who do I want to be in this situation? Whether it's a first date, a fight with a partner, a difficult good-by or asking for a raise you will have more self-control and greater self-satisfaction if you hold in mind an image of who you want to be.  This does not mean choosing a false front.  It means choosing (and practicing) a different set of attributes, attributes that help you in whatever situation you find yourself.  So, rather than being the irrational, screaming, threatening or bawling, foolish one, you choose to be a cooler self, a person who is able to listen, who can get across a point clearly and respect other points of view.  Rather than being the shy one, you choose to be the friendly person who you know lives inside you but rarely gets out. Rather than being the one who crumbles or fights back when criticized, you're the one who is strong enough to weight and measure an opinion and accept or reject it on its merits.

One of the reasons some people never change is that they never truthfully ask themselves if they are who they want to be.  Does Rose really want to be known as the bossy person others resent? Does Martin want his kids to be afraid of him?  Does Phil want to be the one no one can count on?  "Yes" is sometimes the answer, but more often it is not.  Understandably, people avoid painful self-knowledge.  My suggestion, creep up on it.  Ask yourself who you want to be, not in a broad, global sense (more spiritual, more understanding etc) but in a particular situation. "I want to be able to be with my mother for thirty minutes without snapping at her." Act on that image. It really does lead to change.

More on this topic in LIES. chapter 30, "Look Out For Yourself"

Saturday, June 15, 2013

How to Cut a Pie

Let yourself deeply ponder this one. It's a topic we talk about in our book, Chapter 27: "How to Cut a Pie."

Saturday, June 8, 2013


Doesn't make a bunch of intuitive sense but it seems it takes longer for the ebook format to go "live" than the printed copy. So, finally, I am thrilled to announce that our book is now available in ebook form (kindle, et. al.).

We would love your feedback.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Who Do You Own?

I imagine the immediate answer to this question is, "No one," as the idea of owning another person is repugnant.  But not so repugnant that it doesn't come up frequently in relationships.  Many couples practice ownership of their partner. That is, they think it's their right to tell their partner what do do.  Not suggest or discuss but  tell.  Wear this, eat that. Clean, repair, spend as I direct.  More subtly, the owner may give the partner life lessons such as how to respond in various situations, whom to chose as friends, what taste to acquire.  The owner may come off as bossy or quietly superior but the reasons for ownership usually are: I'm doing it for the other's own good. I love____and I know more about somethings than she does.  I'm not going to stand by and watch him destroy his life. My well being is affected by her behaviors so I have a right to try and change them.

 Everyone knows you can't fix another but if you practice ownership you are a fixer.  The fixer holds a superior position, the fixee inferior.  Demanding and blaming are actions of an owner.  Requesting and explaining are actions of a partner.   Trying to own your partner isn't  going to change anything.  Try giving up the idea and, most importantly, the feeling, that you own another and see if over time the dialog (also know as  fights) doesn't change. And remember, in this world you don't get everything you want.

Below is an excerpt from our new book  LIES, Chapter 20: Managing Dislike, p.76

People can destroy relationships because they must have their say.  Like all of us, they have heard the most common piece of relationship advice: you cannot change another.  Nevertheless, they cannot resist trying. Their partner is clearly in the wrong. Hurtful words are blurted out or a soft approach is tried. Either way it's criticism and if it happens often, the relationship will suffer.  The criticism rarely feels like it's for your own good or the good of the relationship.  It feels more like the critic is taking care of him/herself, unloading dislike in the name of being open and honest.  And while the critic may feel relief and self-righteous, the one criticized feels beaten up.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Today our book makes its way into the big, wide world. LIES: The Truth About the Self-Deception that Limits Your Life is available on AmazonBarnes and Noble and IUniverse Bookstore as of this instant and will be for sale on other sites soon. We will be sure to keep you posted. We would love to hear any feedback and, if you do like the book, would be most grateful for any kind of review you might post on Amazon or B & N. 

The book was a labor of love and hard work--a wonderfully collaborative process. Thank you in advance to all our readers. We are most grateful.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Pick up that Crayon

Can tango lessons change your life? My friend Jake thinks so.  Prompted by a sign in the window of a studio near his house and, more importantly, by the desire to interrupt the routine of his life, Jake took off his business suit, put on dancing shoes and bravely went out one evening to learn to tango.  He loved it.  Adding tango to his life has energized him, given him a different slant on who he is and what he can do.  He's talking abut Argentina for his next vacation and about learning Spanish though, like dancing, he has told himself languages are not for him.  He has more energy and finds more enjoyment in all aspects of his life.  That's a lot to get from two classes a week of tango.

What happened for Jake can happen for the rest of us.  The secret is to tap into the creativity that dwells in all of us.  We are born with the creative urge; to make something else from what is, whether it's a thing, an idea or an action.  Think of the toddler who picks p a crayon, presses it to paper and, voila, something new is born.  If we think that creativity is only for special people of high intelligence and great talents, we can fail to give expression to creativity in our own, everyday lives.

We get tired of doing the same old things day in and day out and we dream of big changes, like winning the lottery or meeting some gorgeous person or moving to a remote island, none of which is likely to happen.  But, we can choose to do or learn or create something different.  Julie decided to take up painting though she felt she had no talent for it.  But she loves color and she loves messing with paints and charcoals and the hours fly by. And she has that special satisfaction that comes from the outward expression of inner sensibilities.  Whether it's beading or writing poetry, letters to the editor or a blog, decorating your home for the seasons or joining a nature group, giving creative expression a chance will increase satisfaction with daily life and take you places as yet unknown.  Unplug the inhibitions that tell you what you can't do.  If it feels a little awkward, a teeny crazy and not like you at all, go for it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Haiku for Lunch

I have wiped away
the print you left on my life,
but a smudge remains.

Now that I know life
it is too late to put on
a different show.

Here is a green field
where you can lie down and rest.
No thoughts, no actions.

 Bridget Harwell

*Haiku: an unrhymed verse form of Japanese origin
having three lines of five, seven and five syllables.

Monday, March 4, 2013

But Enough About You

So many relationships sour because people insist on being understood.  All the time.  Being understood is not the same thing as being loved, yet people often say, "If you really loved me you would understand me, you would  know what it's like to be me."  Mostly, this is adolescent fantasy; the dream of meeting a person who will love you and totally know you. A lover and  an idealized parent; a person who cares more about your happiness than their own, who is thrilled by, interested in and caters to your ever changing moods and inner thoughts.

As an adult you revisit some of these feelings when you fall in love, that blissful time of total union.  But time demonstrates that, though a couple, you are also individuals and that, while united in many ways, you also live individual lives.  You may love your mate with all your heart but you don't really want to know (or worse, have to guess) their every little thought and worry.  You begin to resent a partner who demands that you pay attention to her/his needs and moods.  Who demands that their inner life be as important, or more important, than your own.  Such tiffs and fights over this egocentric idea.  Many good times ruined because you think being understood is an essential ingredient for happiness.  I put it behind kindness, generosity and humor. No understanding is not, of course, a good thing.  I'm talking about degree in a culture that encourages a long adolescence.  You can dance, make love, raise children, share fun and sorrow and know a person through sharing.  You can also think about yourself so much that you miss life and who you might be in real time.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Morning After Valentine's Day

How did Valentine's Day go for you?  Did you wake up this morning feeling grateful and loved?  Disappointed or shattered? Or totally indifferent to the whole valentine set-up?  It's an easy day to love or hate. If you have someone special in your life, it can be a fun day but if you're alone, and don't want to be, it can be painful. And, if you like being on a soap-box, it makes for a good rant.  There's lots to say about  commercializing affairs of the heart and pressuring people to display their feelings.

Then there is the very uncomfortable position of no longer loving someone but feeling the need to fulfill  expectations.  You celebrate the day but your heart isn't in it.  How sharp the falsehood feels on Valentine's Day.

Hopefully, this was not your day, but if it was, here's a bit of sympathy.  Because the heart does want what the heart wants no matter how one manipulates it. So, for you pretenders, here's a small poem.


As fire chokes
and sweetness burns,
as the page yellows
and the sky grays,
so too our love,
my love,
and we must
put it

Bridget Harwell

Friday, February 1, 2013

The 75% Rule

I believe in the 75% rule. In my book, if we can get 75% of any given desire in any given situation, we are doing quite well. Somehow the 100% standard of perfection has a way of slipping in and messing up our expectations, causing nothing but suffering. Reminding ourselves that enough is really enough can free us from that kind of needless pain.

The following has been circulating on the web and, as far as I can tell, the author is unknown. To me it articulates the essence of the 75% rule. What do you think?

“I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.

I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.

I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.

I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.

I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.

I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.

I wish you enough hello’s to get you through the final good-bye.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Procrastination as a way of life is a delicate, self-inflicted wound, a cause of misery in many lives. Most of us put things off a bit, but when the putting off is an engrained habit and applies to both things we don't want to do and things we do want to do there's a problem. It's a problem not easily shared.  It can feel shameful to look like you don't care about work or school or pepole.  Are you just lazy and undependable or is something going on with you?  There are many explanations for procrastination, some of them complex, but often they involve a voice from the past. Take Emily's case.

Bright, funny and energetic, but chores piled up in Emily's life and friends got annoyed when they didn't  hear back from her. It wasnt't about time; this had always been her way.  Eventually, it all got done, usually quite well, and Emily was left wondering why she behaved in ways not compatible with her desires. Here's a summary of what Emily and I discovered.

Early in life, Emily learned that work was to be dreaded.   Her father hated his work and there was huge tension in the house whenever he had to meet a deadline. Her strict mother saw all house activates as chores to get through.  She complained about everything.  Sunday nights were awful, everyone trying not to think about looming Monday.  Even though she liked it, Emily feared school.

Emily thought she had worked through the roadblocks her parents left her.  She didn't realize that their voices had become her voice.  I asked her, the next time she was in an avoidance cycle, to put words to the feelings she pushed down by watching TV, overeating and staying isolated.  It was a hard task because it made her think about the thing that had to be done; the project she had to write up for work.  She wrote: I don't know how to write it.  I'm lazy.  I hate working.  You can never get away from it.  Everything is work.  The world is a terrible place.  I'm only safe when I hide.

Once she put words to the jumble of anxiety she felt, she was able to counter with her own truth: She was good at her job, her work was respected, she enjoyed it most of the time, she longed for big success, she was afraid she might fail.  Each time at the beginning of an avoidance cycle, she called herself out, disclaimed the old messages and ffirmed her voice.  It took practice but she reduced her procrastination.

A lot of us have voices from the past that we don't recognize.  Whose voice commands you and what is the message?  Even if procrastination isn't your problem, you might find the question worth asking.