Monday, December 31, 2012

Singular ll

Last year, I posted a piece called Singular, (Dec 12, 2011) in which I mention Margaret, one of the "different" people. This is a companion piece. The setting is Ireland.


 Margaret wakes to silence,
no drips through the thatch.
From a pile on the floor she layers on clothes,
laces her boots with dirty fingers
and is out the door.

North or south?
She chooses Roscommon,
avoids the new highway,
stomps across lumpy fields to the lanes that know her.
Sheep look up, but only for a moment,
cows pay her no mind.
Her pace is steady, her gaze straight on.
Wild flowers, berries and burrs pass unnoticed.

By the time she gets to Biddy's
a dim sun is high in the sky.
She slaps her hands against her thighs.  No one comes.
At Delia Fallon's, she's given tea with bread and jam.
She's given bacon for her pocket and a chat,
though Delia knows Margaret rarely speaks.
"Stay awhile," Delia urges when the sky sends down a lashing.
Margaret tightens the rope around her waist, walks out.

At Four Corners, she sits in a drizzle by the side of the road
and knocks together the toes of her boots.
Today, It's Johnny Dole's truck that stops.
"Get in," he says with a thumbs up. She climbs into the high seat.
"No more trouble than a bale of hay," Johnny says and she giggles.
"How goes your day?" he asks, as if her days were ever different.
He has always known Margaret Who Walks the Roads.
Long ago his mother told him, "There's no harm in her and she likes to walk."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Christmas Walk

None of my favorite Christmas memories involves a gift, eggnog, home-made cookies, a shiny, clean house or a credit card deduction. They are moments that stand out because of beauty or closeness.  They could not be bought, staged or anticipated.

It's Christmas Eve and I am with my two sisters going to midnight mass at a church in downtown Cleveland.  It's crowded and we have to sit in the narrow choir loft with a dozen other people.  I'm excited to be out so late.  I love the greenery draped over the pews and the mixed scent of perfume and candles and incense.  I'm also growing at a fast pace ( by the end of the year, I will have gone from a short girl to the second tallest in my class) Sitting between my sisters is agony for me and annoying to them.  They might as well have put a pony in that pew.  No matter how often they nudge me, my legs, entirely on their own, jump and kick.  I try, but cannot sit lady-like as they do.  Between kicks, I nod off. It's late and the church is too warm and I'm wearing a second-hand, wool coat and I'm allergic to wool.  At last, the mass is over. I feel relief but also regret at leaving the lovely scene.

Outside, we link arms for the long walk home.  Snow is falling, there is no wind and no cars are on the road.  We don't talk but we share the experience.  I feel special to be part of this trio; my beautiful, smart sisters and I.  At home there will be neither presents nor a big Christmas dinner; such things are beyond our means.  But the magic and comedy of that night and the love we felt for each other and our family is a gift that has lasted for years.  And ... a Christmas touchstone ... I like recalling that growing girl who had no sense of future and lived entirely in the moment.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Still Scared

I find eternity a scary concept, thank you, Sister Immaculata. I was eight years old on a rainy October afternoon (I remember because it was my birthday) and, like my classmates, waiting for the dismissal bell. Sister filled in the time by explaining eternity to us. She told us to picture a beach and imagine a bird that flew to the beach every hundred years. It picked up one grain of sand and flew away with it. When all the sand in the world was gone, that would be just the beginning of eternity. That night, and many others, I lay in bed and let the immensity of eternity wash over me. How could there not be an ending?

Endings, like beginnings, are part of our living experience. There are cruel and shattering endings, happy endings and innumerable ordinary endings.No day exists without endings; they are part of the rhythm of life. But, here's something contradictory: some endings change.

I think of Neil. The story of his relationship with his mother ends with the realization and acceptance that his mother did not love him. He had a lot of reasons to end the story this way.  But one day, years after his mother's death, the ending changed.  He was standing in an aisle in the grocery store feeling rejected and unloved and sad because of a nasty incident with a business client. He found himself staring at a jar of pickles. He put the jar in his cart, though he never bought pickles and had no intention of having them for the dinner he was seeking. That night, he was unable to sleep, still feeling wounded by his client's shocking behavior. The way she turned on him was similar to what his mother would have done. Then, the pickles came to mind. Throughout his adult years of visiting his mother, she always had on hand the pickles and marmalade he liked as a boy. In that moment of recall, the ending of the story with his mother changed.  She did love him. It wasn't enough, it wasn't generous, it wasn't the way he would have like it to be. BUT, she did love him, some. The changing of this ending, made a change in him.

Even the cruelest ending can, over time, change.What was unbearable is bearable, what was forever is limited, what was never to be again, resurfaces. Only eternity has no ending. And how scary is that.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Glorious Book

I am lucky enough to live and work directly across the street from Powell's Bookstore which...sorry to risk offending other independent stores---is the very best bookstore in the world. Powell's recently installed the Espresso Book Press where people can self-publish their work right in front of their eyes and get a copy that is literally hot off the press.

My friend and fellow writing group member, Laura Stanfill, is releasing a book through Espresso Press called, "Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life." I am proud to say that I am one of the contributors so this post is a plug for Laura, a plug for independent bookstores, a plug for self-publishing, and yeah, a plug for me as well.

Check out the very cool process at Laura's blog:

Saturday, September 29, 2012


There is a lot of talk these days about people who live in bubbles and walk about without cores. I get the bubble simile, one is unwilling or unable to grasp other people's experiences, but the "core" concept I find more complex.  I first bumped into this word as it applies to people and not apples, in a self-help group run by Dottie years ago. Dottie went to a Gestalt workshop, loved the experience and decided to carry it home and offer it to others. A dozen of us, mostly students, joined her group out of curiosity and for the great cookies she baked every week; except for Edger, Dottie's husband, who had to attend.  Dottie would begin the group by asking us to say a sentence or two about how we felt in the moment. As usual, when it came to Edger's turn, he described what his body was doing. He said something like, "I feel the back of my thighs pressing hard against the chair. The straighter I sit, the stronger the pressure." Dottie, none too fond of Edger, lost it.  "No one cares about your damn thighs, Edger. What do you feel inside? Speak from your CORE."  I felt sorry for Edger, who mumbled something about his shoulders, and I wondered about my own core.

What does it mean to have a core?  I picture a column of values, principles and beliefs based on all life experiences; an inner identity.  To be in touch with your core means you know who you are and what you stand for.  And, without thinking too much about it, people around you have a feeling for who you are.  If asked to sum you up in a core word, they might say such things as: scholar, giver, taker, salesman, comedian, Don Juan, saint, teacher, healer, politician, brat, catalyst or artist. Not a full description. Rather, an intuitive impression.

Closely aligned with the concept of core is the idea of authenticity.  One knows when someone is pretending to be something s/he isn't.  The pretense may be motivated by shyness or by the need to play a role that doesn't suit.  It may be about inflating one's ego or trying to put something over on someone.  You may not think about the motivation, you just know when someone is being phony.  It makes you squirm and want to look the other way.

Most of us, at one time or another, have been oblivious or untrue to our core values; certainly we have all used pretense.  It's odd how being oneself is often the hardest thing in the world to do while at the same time it's the simplest of ideas.

Oh, and looking back on Edger, I think he was being himself ... concrete ... he just wasn't being who Dottie wanted him to be.

Monday, September 3, 2012


If you heard me say it was 75 degrees outside and I was a degree off, would you have to correct me? Some people cannot leave alone an incorrect statement.  Which is a good thing if one is about to take a wrong dosage of medicine or make a wrong turn onto a highway ... but the weather?

If you are an expert in a field of knowledge and someone misspeaks, it's easy to understand a correction.  Quite reasonably, you are defending the knowledge and your expertise.  One can also understand the show off who corrects to demonstrate how great s/he is rather than how stupid you are.  No real harm meant.  The pouncer is not so benign.  The pouncer lives to correct, is driven by the need to be right, to be the leader, the superior teacher who makes you less.  Put two pouncers together and they will turn a room into a coliseum.

Pouncers like to lurk.  If you have a pouncer in your life, you may find yourself making mistakes because you feel so closely watched.  Before you know it, you can't put the key in the lock correctly or add up the grocery bill or freely express an opinion.  Serious, full-time pouncers (unfortunately these include parents) damage esteem and relationships.  When challenged they highlight the errors made and ignore their controlling need to correct. If pressed, they try to fool you by giving up verbal criticism but their eyes seek and their mouths are grim with unspoken criticisms.  My suggestion: run, run away from the pouncer.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

No More Pretzel

There is someone in my life with whom I have a strained relationship. I wish it were easier and, believe me, I have tried everything I know to do to make it better. The thing is, the efforts I have made had---truth be told---been aimed at trying to change this person. If I just find the right words, or do this or stop doing that, then.....well, then I can make this person change. You can probably see the futility in this plan. When I finally saw my attempts for what they were, something shifted in me. We cannot change another person, only ourselves. So my focus shifted to what I needed to do to tend to myself. No sense twisting myself into a pretzel when all I end up with is twistiness. One more thing about this: my next thought after the initial insight was that I ought to let this person know that I would be changing my approach but DUH! that would just be another attempt at trying to change someone else. Instead, what feels true and right and strong is to simply live my own change. AHHHH.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Look at ME

What are you flaunting today? Is it your gorgeous legs, your after-baby, bikini body or your stunning abs?  Last week, Kate Middleton flaunted her cleavage at the Olympic Games and the same week several actors were flaunting their after-workout buns.  These folks may or may not have been aware of flaunting anything but "flaunt" is the media's favorite, descriptive word these days.  I think it suits, as it reflects the time we live in, an age of narcissism.

At various times, a dominant way of behaving seems to define an era.  Social and sexual repression in the Victorian age, depression in the first half on the last century (two world wars and the actual Depression) prevalence of anxiety in the second half.  And now we have arrived at narcissism. Our heroes, like Madonna or Lady Gaga, are show-offs, our kids want to be famous without accomplishing anything, we tell the world everything about ourselves through social media. It is an age in which we worship and promote the self, live under constant demand to do better, to produce more, to beat out others, to be beautiful, to be rich, to make ourselves projects and our children idols.  Our external lives are everything; our neglected, internal lives painfully confused; but who cares about that.

Makes me kind of miss those long, long ago ages; sitting around the fire roasting some humongous, freshly clubbed thing. No one caring how you looked as you chomped down on the day's achievement.You didn't live long, of course, but you had lots of company and very little washing up to do. And as for flaunting ...

Monday, June 25, 2012

Golden Communication Rule

Top ten lists of anything are almost impossible to pass up without taking a peek. But, it's the kind of information that sits in your mind a minute, then gets up and takes a walk. One of the most ubiquitous top tenners is the list for good communication with "Listen" at the the top. Makes sense, everyone gets the rule but good listeners are as rare as belly dancers in Alaska. Mostly, people press their lips tight and wait for their chance to speak. That's not listening; it's attempting to appear polite. Other favorites on the list are the business about a message needing a sender and a receiver, awareness of body language, the misuse of qualifiers and seven others that slip my  mind.

Rules help some but what one really needs is a sense of how to treat people.  Most of the bad communications I've witnessed share a common problem. One or both of the speakers tries to diminish the other.  If the other person is less, you're more.  If the other person is made small, you're bigger.  Doesn't matter the content of the conversation or whether it's a disagreement or a chat, diminishing tactics are often at play.

How about the guy who has to add-on to whatever you say, can never let your statement stand on its own.  Or the friend or relative who is always teaching and informing.  And the miserly one who listens but gives no response. And, my least favorite, the gentle, patient and superior one who tolerates others.

For some people, diminishing tactics are consistently present in relationships. But don't forget the other side of the equation. The diminished one feels resentment and resentment is the rust of relationships. So, my number one communication rule is Don't Diminish The Other Guy. Without this, the other nine rules don't mean much.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How ya Doing?

Do your words express how you feel? "Love" and "hate" are big-feeling words but they don't work so well for more subtle or complex feelings, and, overstated, they lose impact. What exactly does "I'm mad" mean? Are you miffed, peeved, annoyed, irritated, irked, sore, disappointed, vexed, indignant, fuming, irate, livid, furious or enraged? There are many shades of anger and many words to identify them. If "mad" or "angry" are your only words, you may come across as an angry person. Your kid doesn't pick up his toys and you say, "Don't make me angry." Is your feeling always so strong that it should be labeled "anger?"  Maybe you're disappointed. Or try telling your child you're "peeved" and see if that catches his attention.  If your partner looks at another man or woman, you may say you're "furious" but the more accurate word might be"indignant."  Words are powerful when they carry exact meanings.  In a sense, the more limited your choice of words, the more limited is your ability to understand and convey your feelings. Just the other day, a friend described a mutual acquaintance as "always on simmer." It so accurately stated why one does not relax around this person. What about a co-worker whom you've labeled "aggressive" or a "bitch."  Even as you say it, it may feel too critical and perhaps mean-spirited.  Maybe she has "spunk."  And the guy you say is unfeeling?  Maybe he has "grit."  Maybe the words, "hot babe" don't really fit that woman you're attracted to who has "grace" or "allure."

One of the things people recall about falling in love is a surge of creativity.  Feelings so new and strong that "I love you" was insufficient. Thus the bad (sometimes good) poetry. Words can still lead you back to those emotions.  And the next time you need to say "sorry" to someone, try "I feel diminished by my actions," or "I've let myself down as well as you" ... phrases that say "sorry" with obvious depth and may help you avoid the tart, "Sorry doesn't do it."  Words change things.  Use their power in your personal life.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Search for the Perfect Leggings

My friend has this pair of leggings. They are not super form-fitting like tights and not as loose as pants. They are somewhere in between and they are perfect. I love them and have been obsessed in these last few weeks with finding a pair for myself----unsuccessfully.  (My co-blogger will recognize this trait of mine in a long-ago search for the perfect white shirt.) I'm like a dog with a bone when I get like this and don't give up without a mighty fight. So beyond the very obvious fact that having the perfect pair of leggings or the perfect white shirt would be quite satisfying, my sneaking suspicion is that there is something else going on. Saying this out loud will sound completely ridiculous but here you go: If I had the perfect pair of leggings, my life would be complete. I would be blissfully happy and my problems would be over. 

It's easy to see the fallacy of logic when we are talking about an item of clothing but it's a little harder where other searches are concerned: if I could just find the perfect mate or the perfect job or if I could win the lottery or inherit a boatload of money or if I were famous or thinner. Somehow in all of these yearnings is the underlying assumption that there is something out there that will get us to the finish line where we can spike the ball and do the victory dance. When we think about it, we can understand that no such finish line exists, despite our feelings to the contrary. It is most likely human nature to yearn for perfect happiness and relief from any pain. But there is at least some amount of peace and contentment to be gained in the present when we work to let go of an unattainable goal.

PS: If you see those leggings somewhere, do let me know.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Two Step

The search for self-knowledge is a good thing ... but it sometimes becomes obsessive. One self-help book after another, gurus galore and endless conversations about what I or you did and what it meant when I or you did or said it. It's useful (and interesting) to see how you promote or damage your life because of past experiences. But understanding alone does not necessarily make a difference in a life without a second step.  It's avoiding that second step that may keep your nose in a book or your attention riveted on a guru.  Change of course is the  step. Doing something different from what you are used to: being less critical, skipping a fight, forcing yourself to have social interactions, walking away from an attraction and, in some cases, admitting that the drama of playing out themes is exhilarating and keeps you going.  Long or short, we all have our lists. And change is challenging. I think this is especially true in the narcissistic age in which we live when external change is so highly valued and internal change not so much. Graciousness, patience and generosity are boring words compared to the ever present "sexy."  Who needs character when you can have a six-pack?

To get those abs you may have a trainer, but ultimately you, and you alone, have to do the heavy lifting.  Same is true for psychological change.  A therapist can help you gain insight, but you alone have to practice new behaviors. Not easy and many people never try but, in my book, it's worth it. Hard abs will never bring the happiness that good relationships have to offer.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Neutral Place

Everything's OK is an easily overlooked feeling.  It may not even be recognized as a feeling.  It means things are humming along; the next day will look like this day, a bit duller or a bit brighter but not threatening. Everything's OK is the place you want to get back to when bad things happen.

In most lives, whether quiet or exciting, a time arrives when loss prevails.  Then, you look back on what was and wish you had been more aware, had more thoroughly embraced what you had.  Time goes by, grief trails on and your greatest longing is to feel nothing.  That day, too, arrives.  You sit in your kitchen drinking coffee and hear a bird sing, no up or down feelings.  It's a neutral place, a haven until you move on and create a new series of ordinary days.  But with the realization that, Everything's OK, is sometimes the best feeling in the world.

The Cocktail Hour

We met at six.
You built the fire
and mixed the drinks.
Shaved ice and lemon slivers.

You liked to say,
"There's good news and there's bad.
Which do you want first, darling?"
Always I chose the good.
And then, one day, there was no choice.
The world shook and I spilt my drink.

Long gone now those pretty drinks.

Snow falls in the early dark.
The bells of St. Anne ring.
The fire hisses.
The news is neither good nor bad. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sick Day

Laid up with a cold, I've been watching old movies. Or, more truthfully stated, I've been watching any old thing. But I did manage to have a thought: I miss subtlety. As in its absence when two people meet, know each other for a very short time, rip-tear-pull each other's clothes off and slam their bodies together. This scene, meant to convey great passion, is so common in today's storytelling that it conveys nothing more than urgent sex. Which, of course, is a pretty powerful and wonderful feeling, but so too are the more subtle shades of passion and love. A look, a smile, a note can convey depths of feeling as interesting, or more so, than getting slammed up against a wall.

I also miss subtlety in politics. Or is that an oxymoron? Before us is a year of name-calling, hammering home the message and deliberate misunderstandings. No wit, no nuance; only the same drilled words endlessly repeated.

As does music, language has enough notes to express a wide spectrum of human feelings; from harsh/raw to delicate/subtle. When both ends of the spectrum are available, life is more interesting.

Today, I feel overexposed to the harsh/raw end. I'd like to hear someone shout his/her love from the mountain top without actually shouting at me. Also, since I'm having a cranky fit, I'm not fond of "hook-up" or "hottie." In love and politics, it would be nice to move somewhere beyond slam-bang.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Often, the fewest words convey the most truth. Consider the last political discussion you heard. Did words clarify or conceal? And how about that argument you had with your partner that went on and on when a few words might have ended it: "I'm very critical. I'm sorry." Speaking the truth can, of course be difficult ; you might lose an election or a friend. But using words as camouflage also carries risks. You may be building a relationship on false intimacy. Or, if you are being dishonest with yourself, you may have feelings of alienation and confusion.

To know more, practice the simple truth. Try saying something important and true about yourself in one sentence. Something basic that shapes your life. When I asked Anita to do this she said, "I will never be abandoned." This was a decision made early in life that she was not aware of making until she spoke that sentence. The truth of it shows in the wide circle of friends she has acquired and in her interest in community. Carl's sentence was, "I will always be alone." Regardless of the people in Carl's life, loneliness is his core experience and it influences the depth and duration of his relationships.

If you had fun with that exercise, try this one. Tell an important story in your life in a sentence. Remember Hemingway's famous shortest, short story: For sale: baby shoes never worn.

And, though fearful of being wordy, I, nevertheless, have to quote Beckett's insight into Everyman's life: You must go on. I can't go on. I will go on. Talk about truth in brevity. Sums up a lot of days, doesn't it.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

How to Be Eloquent

One of the challenges for those of us who came from, well, not such great families is that our role models and first teachers were, to some extent, damaged. Many people adopt the healthy strategy of vowing to be everything their mothers or fathers were or were not. For example, if you had a narcissistic mother, you might be bound and determined to focus on other people's needs. It might be a conscious decision you made as a young person or a behavioral pattern that's more habitual and unconscious. That would be a really good decision, right? Except in this example you run the risk of not developing a healthy narcissism---that is, the ability to recognize the importance of your own needs as well. To define ourselves in relation to our first teachers can limit our own individual development.

I was thinking about this after I came across a lovely quote from Joseph Campbell:

"It's a good thing to hang on to the myth that was put in when you were a child because it is there whether you want it there or not. What you have to do is translate that myth into eloquence, not just into the literacy. You have to learn to hear its song." 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dinner Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I was at a gathering, seated in a corner at a small, round table with a rabbit, a dog and a peacock. The rabbit was a timid, middle-aged woman, unremarkable except for a slight twitch and a tendency to blush. The dog was a stout fellow with an immobile face until he barked and his jowls shook. In possession of several higher degrees and heaps of knowledge, the peacock was intent on impressing the rabbit and the dog and me. The conflict between the dog and the peacock frightened the rabbit whose timidity was real and was also a way to control the angry dog and the superior peacock. I must say that the rabbit did elicit in me an urge to rescue but, wisely, I stayed out of it and remained engrossed in my bland plate of food and a quite good martini.

To some extent, we all have facades; to be known is to be vulnerable in a sometimes hostile world. But some facades are so thickly built that an inner self does not come through. This sets up a conundrum: People want to be known and they also do not want to be known. Wanting to be known while remaining hidden is at the root of much anxiety, alienation and loneliness. The rabbit, the dog and the peacock, if they desired to change (know themselves better) would have to, bit by bit, give up fear in the guise of compliance, anger and superiority. That would leave more room for love, the antidote to fear. Hopefully, it would also make for better dining companions.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy V

My Wild Heart

Folded six times square
and tucked up in my breast,
My wild heart leapt
when you walked into the room.

Here, take it.
Shake it out
and dry your tears.

Washed and returned,
I'll press it thin,
then fold it back
in case, in time,
you need it once again.

Shirty Stuff

You know that drawer in your kitchen where you put things that have no other place to go? Once in a while I clean it out and this morning was one of those days; I threw away an earring, a battery, scraps of paper, a tube of sticky stuff that oozed onto an old candy bar and screws and parts to something. The catch-all drawer is clean now but not for long. In life, perfect is always temporary.

This messy corner of my life got me thinking about how necessary it is to manage messy in relationships if friendship and love are important to you. I can't think of a single, beloved friend who doesn't have some pesky little behaviors, some self-centered thinking or off-putting politics, and without doubt, they would say the same about me. Same goes for partners.

When you are young and/or naive you may believe that honesty is the only way to go. Point out imperfections: Tell her she has to be punctual if she wants to be your friend, tell him he needs to get to the gym. You may get away with this to some extent but people have a way of never forgetting criticism. Mind you, I'm not talking about big issues that have to be discussed. I'm talking about little, shirty stuff. (Recently stumbled across "shirty". Means irritating) It's not so much about accepting a behavior. You know you are never going to like the way he laughs or that she is a bit stingy. It's more the skill of overlooking. Mentally putting the shirty stuff in a junk drawer and visiting it as little as possible.

Want to give a loved one a valentine gift this week? How about a drawer?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sharp Turns

For one sweet summer, David and Brian had an intense love affair. David was crazy about Brian; spent all his spare time with him, gave him gifts, was interested in all aspects of his life. And then, one day, he wasn't. The best summer of Brian's life turned into the worst autumn of his life, and then the worst winter and spring. Nothing Brian did brought David back and he tried everything. David's single explanation for the break-up was, "You're just not worth it to me." Brian heard, "You're worthless."

After several sad years, Brian allowed himself to hear the very important, "to me" part of David's sentence and realized that what David said was true, and that David had a right to speak what was true for him. David had no desire to invest in any relationship beyond a first stage of romantic titillation. The words he spoke said everything about David, but because Brian had a fairly low opinion of himself, he readily misinterpreted David's statement. Funny thing about people, they like to be right, no matter the cost.

The sad part of this story for me is that it took so long for Brian to let himself know what had really happened. He hoped for a dream life with David but life went in a different direction. Instead of navigating the sharp turn, Brian took a long detour.

Sharp turns are part of life. Sometimes they are wonderful, sometimes awful. After one or two such turns, you learn to value the wonderful and, as much as possible, diminish the awful by not prolonging it. That is, you go through pain, not around it. You deal with the reality of what has happened and do the best you can to cope, to stay on the road. There are people who can help you do that. Pain confronted can be very intense but it can also lead to healing. Prolonged detours in the way of drugs, self-victimization and blaming, increase and prolong pain. Jung made the distinction between "healthy" and "neurotic" pain. Nobody wants either... but that's life.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


I was with a group of friends and acquaintances recently and I have to say it was a pretty chic crowd. That is, they looked good: styled hair, expensive suits, trendy shoes. Listening to them? I could have been at home watching reruns. There was the story-telling couple; how they met, their favorite vacation, the barbeque gone wrong. Stories so often repeated they seemed scripted. There was the divorced woman damning her dreadful husband ten years after their split. There was the bickering couple. Also, there was some interesting conversation, some funny quips and the food was wondrous. Still, what I took away from that evening was the thought that ever so often one needs to do some emotional updating. Here are three that come to mind.

Break a mind set. You know you have a mind set when you hear yourself saying the same thing over and over again. When you frequently say, "I would never do that" or, "I can't stand ___." Or, as a couple, you have the same agreements you had years ago but now they've turned into rules that bind. What terrible thing would happen if you didn't go to bed at the same time, even though one of you wants to read and the other is nodding off?

Choose a fight not to repeat. I know a couple who fought over toast crumbs on the counter for years. I know a man who never had a boss with whom he didn't fight.

Practice liking people. Give people a chance even if they are difference from you ... especially if they are different from you and especially if you perceive them as better than you in some way.

These examples may not fit you at all. But even the most evolved, steady, and brilliant person can benefit from an emotional review. And even a five percent change in behavior or thinking will pack a punch. Desire and specificity are required. Yeah, yeah, change is difficult but that mantra doesn't have to stop you. Think of updating a wardrobe. You hold up a sweater. "Oh, that old thing," you say and toss it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Point Blank

At my bank, I've tried not to go to teller number four. It hasn't been a totally conscious choice, just a small avoidance. One tends to avoid dour, unfriendly service people when possible and teller number four had a fixed expression that said, "Stay away." Then, one day, about a year ago, it was my turn in line and teller number four's window was open. I stepped up and said good morning with no expectation of a return greeting as she never spoke to me outside a business exchange. But today, while counting out my money, her hand paused and, with her head lowered, her eyes looked up into mine. "My cat died," she said. I said, "I'm sorry. I know how painful that is as I have cats myself." She lowered her eyes and pushed the money through the window. For the first time, I noticed her name tag. "See you, Judy. It's really sad abut your cat."

That moment has stayed with me for a couple of reasons. In those three words, "My cat died," and in the pain Judy's eyes expressed, was a life story. I don't know the details but I recognized isolation and loneliness, loss and meagerness. And I was reminded in a new way that deep, raw emotions, when fully expressed, come out in few words.

When trying to express how you feel (to yourself or to another) it's not good to move too quickly away from the core, simplest expression of a feeling and into the reason or source of the feeling. Words pile up quickly and, before you know it, you and the listener are in a word-tangle. Communication feels unsatisfactory when we don't hear or state a feeling in a simple (exposed) way and give it room to exist before looking to explain or defend it.

Last week, I was reminded of Judy when I stopped at a pet store to get a new Da Bird for Stokes and Toony. While poking around, I notice an older woman, dressed in a long skirt, a rough looking jacket and a fuzzy winter hat. I had seen her in two other aisles and now had a sense that she was hovering. Sure enough, she approached me as I was leaving the store and with a shy smile handed me a pamphlet, saying, "May I give you this?" I accepted and thanked her. Relief and mission-accomplished were written on her face.

In my car, I glanced at the pamphlet. "Tired of being depressed?" I read, along with advice about a particular selection in the bible to read. I thought it likely that this was her way of telling her story and, like Judy, how important it is to tell one's story, no matter how briefly, no matter that the listener is a stranger. I also thought that she was courageous in dealing with her depression by trying to help someone else. I admire courage.Wish I had asked for her name


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ch-Ch-Ch Changes

I had an end-of-year dinner party last week and as we sat down to eat I realized that every one of my guests had had a monumental change over the previous year. There was a divorce in a decades long marriage, a move across country, a new job, and a new relationship among other big things.  I was the only one there who could not point to anything as dramatic and that got me thinking about the notion of change. As a psychologist, this is my business of facilitate change. Change comes to us in many ways. Sometimes it's nothing we want or expect. Other times we pursue change. Sometimes change is dramatic, like the events in the lives of my dinner guests. It can come in a smack-on-the forehead moment; a sudden blast of insight that leads to substantive shifts. Sometimes it's like that, but rarely...extremely rarely (is it okay to use two adverbs like that?). Instead of these eureka moments, the change I see is more often is of the chipping rock variety. This kind of change happens deeply and slowly over time so that from one week to the next it might be extremely hard to notice. It's as though the molecules of your make-up are shifting in this quiet, organic way so that you might only notice by looking back to compare. 

Back to my dinner party: first I felt kind of cheated out of some huge change and then I turned my attention to the ways in which I have wanted to grow and made an assessment of my progress. Slowly, slowly in that chipping rock kind of way, I can see that I am different today than I was last year at this time. Little by little I have been working away at that granite mountain that is my belief that I must fix everything. If I had not taken the time to really ponder this I might not have noticed the changes I have made.

It's probably a mistake to put a value judgment on which kind of change is better. The lightening bolt ones are sexy and compelling for sure.  And the quiet ones feel satisfying in a deep way. How you get there probably matters little. And I actually think the eureka moments can only come after a quiet, sometimes unseen accretion the way that last drop spills water over the edge of a glass. 

I wonder what next year's end-of-year dinner party will bring.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Word

I often imagine how people wake up, or rather, to what they wake up. Some are exhilarated, maybe newly engaged or married, some exhausted with a new baby, some broken hearted with loss, some dulled with boredom and some feeling like a horse's ass. How did your new year begin?

Not a big fan of New Year's Eve but I do like New Year's Day. It has the same shiny feeling as buying a new notebook and sharpening pencils for the first day of school. I also like making resolutions, just one or two, thereby cutting down on disappointments. I begin by thinking about how I want my life to be different a year from now and base my resolutions on that. Next year, I want to be healthier. Not an exciting resolution; not like saying I want to get my pilot's license or finally play Hedda Gabler, but it's a good, solid resolution.

My second resolution is to change the world. Not all the world, of course, just a sliver, but millions will benefit. Here's my plan: get rid of the word, "amazing." The word is a prolific weed invading every field of life. I find it most annoying when someone being interviewed is asked how they feel about an important event: How was that trip to the moon? How did you feel when you won the Academy Award? What did you think when your neighbors built you a new house? Eyes widen then freeze as the interviewee searches for the exact word to convey the feeling. A big pause, a little intake of air, a slight head swing left to right and then out comes, "AMAZING."

Enough. It's had a good run but it's time to find a replacement. And, no going back to "awesome" or "surreal" or the less tiresome "brilliant" or "excellent" for which Canadians have an affinity.

Here is my choice for 2012 ... "wondrous." The first syllable can be drawn out to emphasis just how amazing (oops) something is or the second syllable can be hammered for a kind of gangsta cool or cynical disdain. So, I'm putting "wondrous" out there and hoping to see it spread around the world. To get it started, I'm wishing you a wondrous year with many happy morning wakenings.