Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Will I Have Feet When I Die?" Discussing Death with Preschoolers

“What does die mean?”  My son Alec, who is soon turning four, has been asking about death quite a lot.  Unexpectedly, he initiates conversations about his fear of dying.  My two year old echoes him, yelling, “I don’t wanna die!”  Nothing seems to trigger these interjections.  During a recent bath, Alec declared, “When I die, you and Daddy and Rhys are gonna die too, so our family will stay together.”  On another occasion, he asked if he would still have feet when he dies. 

Since death is such a hot discussion topic in my household these days, I am prompted to share how we are handling it.  As a person who is spiritual but not religious, it is of great importance to me to handle this subject with care.  As a mother, I want to encourage in my sons a healthy and open approach to death.  I don’t want to overdo it and feed a growing preoccupation, but at the same time I don’t want to play it down. 

Our family had just finished dinner when Alec’s father launched into a mini-dissertation on the meaning of death.  “Dad, I just don’t want to die!”  My husband, who was born in Scotland, reached for this William Wallace quote: “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”  He continued, “Here is how I see it, Alec.  Because you know you are going to die one day, you do your very best in all that you do each day of your life.”  He then explained that working hard and doing a good job in every endeavor defines one’s life and gives it meaning.  I was thinking to myself, “This is pretty heavy for a preschooler.  And I’m not sure that striving is the answer to the problem of impermanence.”  I thought about busting out some lines from the Kansas song, Dust in the Wind.  I refrained, not wanting to be left alone in the dining room.

When Alec first asked me what death is, I replied spontaneously, “Death means losing your body.  When a person or animal dies, their body stops working.  Dying means that you don’t have a body anymore.”  He went on to inquire, “Will I die?”  I told him that he would, and that everyone else will, too.  Naturally, he asked, “Why?”  I told him that is the way things work in our world.  We come and go and we are always changing.  And so it is.  I was thankful when he fell asleep thereafter, giving me time to prepare for the next inquisition.

I have been told by psychologists and early childhood education experts that children go through phases where they think and talk a lot about death.  Last year, when Alec’s class pet died, his teachers sent home an article providing tips for discussing death with preschoolers.  Alec’s school director lent us a wonderful book, Lifetimes: The beautiful way to explain death to children.  While I respect this input, it is essential for me to develop my own approach.  I strongly believe that the way we think about death informs the way we live life. 

It is possible to convey peace and confidence when discussing death with children.  Our little ones can tell when we’re being honest and when we ourselves are comfortable.  What we tell our kids about death is a reflection of our core beliefs.  Our culture, our religion and our education present us with standard notions of death and what it means.  Nonetheless, we’re not obligated to take all of that at face value.  According to our own wisdom, we can bring authenticity and integrity to the discussion.  Below are some foundational questions for articulating your beliefs about death.  Based on your unique and truthful answers, find the approach that works best for your family.  

  1. Do you believe that there is more to humans than a physical body? If not, then be honest about the finality of death.  One comforting and truthful phrase in this situation could be, “What matters is that we are here now and I love you now.”  A discussion of memories that survive in the minds of loved ones is also a possibility.  If you do believe in a soul that lives on, this is the perfect time to open up about that belief to your child.  We tell our children, “The love and the light in you will always be alive.”
  2. Do you have specific beliefs about an afterlife? If you do believe in a Heaven or Hell, think about how to frame these concepts for a small child.  I remember a dream from early childhood about masked robbers celebrating in Heaven.  This was how I made sense of what I heard in Sunday School.  If you think your child is not ready to hear about Hell, dig deeper into the origins of your belief.  Seek guidance from a clergy member.  If it feels wrong to you to talk about something to your child, take a look at that.  Don’t distrust your own feelings on the matter. 
  3. What is your view of reincarnation? If your tradition or your personal convictions uphold reincarnation, this belief has a very rich history.  There are beautiful examples of the natural cycle of life, death and renewal in nature as well as in religious texts.  My son has hinted at reincarnation asking if he can live a new life someplace else after he dies.  I have responded that I like that idea but I’m not sure how true it is.  For me, honesty feels best.  We are all growing together. 
  4. Does death have implications for the way we live now? Are you a carpe diem sort of person, or does vanitas vanitatum better capture your philosophy?  In my example above, my husband took a discussion about death as an opportunity to explain his work ethic to my son.  According to your own values, does death move us to accomplish more, to give more of ourselves or to fully enjoy each moment?  Your child will see you exemplify these values, but the words you say still have a big impact. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My Nebulous Spirituality

“Kind prince, many people are pleased and satisfied with the various limited religious doctrines existing in the world today. They all hope to live in the kingdom of Heaven someday and sit sublimely at the side of their personal deity, but by entertaining such hopes and beliefs they only foster concepts of self and others, longevity and brevity, life and death, and so on without end. With such conceptual entanglements they cannot even listen to the truth, much less study, practice and embrace it or explain it to others. In this case, how can they ever uplift themselves to the subtle, central realm to be with the Universal One of One Universal Life?” –Hua Hu Ching, as taught by Lao Tzu, translation and elucidation by Hua Ching Ni.

I follow a spiritual path. Some people call it a spiritual journey. Either way, there is an implication of motion. I am not standing still. I am traveling. On my journey I meet other travelers. We exchange experiences and impressions. We encourage one another in our growth. We may walk together for brief intervals, but mostly we travel alone.

Just as in a literal journey, some of us carry heavy baggage. Others pack light. Sometimes we pack our suitcase with souvenirs, only to arrive home with some of them broken. Our heaviest bags are usually the preconceived ideas and judgments we carry with us. As I progress, I am dropping a lot of this excess poundage.

When I started down this road, my heaviest bag was Christianity. For most of my life, I had considered myself a Christian. I needed to adhere to a defined belief system. As I grow, I no longer need a clearly defined structure for my beliefs. In fact, my spirituality could be called nebulous.

The word nebulous can take on a negative connotation, as in “unclear” or “weak.” Nebulous means cloud-like; misty; hazy; lacking a definite form. I think the formless is beautiful. I like to go that formless part of my mind where new ideas emerge. I love the romantic image of mist covering the mountains. A crystal clear sky is not always the most beautiful. Mist and clouds reflect and refract light creating beautiful sunsets.

I need to let go of the concepts and doctrines of Christianity. I cannot claim to know what will happen after my death. I know nothing about an afterlife. I do not know where mind or consciousness goes after death and I believe that the body succumbs to physical decay. I do not believe in “the resurrection of the body,” as Christians do. There is very little concrete definition to my spiritual beliefs, and I see that as progress. I feel unburdened by shedding my “Christianity.”

I still read and wish to follow the teachings of Jesus. I still pray. But now, I don’t have any predetermined agenda. I can respect Christianity as a tradition and want my children to learn about it, but I don’t want us to be hindered by notions of Heaven or Hell, the judgment to come, the life everlasting, original sin or any other Christian precepts or concepts. For example, I will never tell my sons, as I was told as a child, “If you have premarital sex God will not bless your marriage,” or “Satan is always lurking nearby to defeat you.”

Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit,” and the fruit that distinguishes Christians from other faiths is not charity. Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Taoists are also charitable, as are atheists. Christians are not the only ones giving aid to the sick and poor. Christians are also not distinguished by their message of hope. In fact, many preach about the end of the world and the great destruction to come. The main distinguishing feature of Christianity that I can see is its evangelism. Christians have traditionally worked hard to convert others to their faith.

In disclaiming my Christianity, I am not singling out the Christian faith as worse than the other alternatives. In general, religious doctrine is a burden to people. I simply prefer spiritual development to religious indoctrination. This has been my viewpoint for a long time, but I have persisted in calling myself a Christian when asked about my faith. Usually, it comes out as, “I am a Christian, but…” If I need to qualify my Christianity, then it is probably not serving me well as a belief system. Other Christians will undoubtedly agree with me. We all have the right to claim our beliefs with joy and confidence.

I joyfully claim my nebulous spirituality. I embrace my own values. The cultivation and pursuit of the following values form my spiritual practice: 1) Love, 2) Awareness, 3) Compassion and 4) Equanimity. There are certainly aspects of the Christian faith that are at odds with these values, for example: an emphasis on sin and the need for redemption; the concept of salvation; a focus on the afterlife rather than the here and now. There are many more opposing concepts, but those three alone are enough motivation for me to disengage from Christian faith.

How will I practice going forward? I will continue to pray. I will continue to meditate. I will continue to read the Bible along with religious texts from other faiths. I will practice yoga. I will acquaint myself more and more with presence.

Am I still a cultural Christian? Of course. I will still put up a Christmas tree. I will attend religious services with other family members who request that I do so. I will educate my sons in the tradition of their ancestors and culture. But instead of teaching them that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” I will tell them how Christmas was conceived. They will learn about the pagan traditions that influenced Christian holidays and the development of the Gregorian calendar. They will also learn about the unique and life changing teachings of Jesus Christ, whether or not they choose to adopt Christianity as a belief system. After all, they will be free to choose their own values as they grow. Although I cannot know this now, perhaps one day our individual paths will dissect.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Resilience Through Connection

"This moment for you really is resilient, because you are facing [the legacy of bipolar] it and letting it in.  Otherwise it would be fake resilience.  You can slide away from things and use quasi denial, and not want to face it, and that looks resilient to the world, but that starts to crack.  If you have been through this kind of shit, there’s stuff to face.  If you are reacting when you hear and read this stuff, that is good.  That means your inner self is waking up and saying, 'Me, me!  I know about that.'  Giving yourself a season to pay attention to that takes strength.  I think humility is very big.  Doing what looks strong on the outside isn’t always real strength.  In the end, everyone has to face real emotions."  - Dr. Ellen Luborsky, Psychotherapist

I interviewed Dr. Ellen Luborsky in connection with the book I am writing about the adult offspring of depressed parents.  Dr. Luborsky has written professionally about depression and has worked with many grown children of the depressed. 

I have taken a three month break from writing about resilience and depression.  I am finding that this work brings up a lot of emotions for me.  Coincidentally, my mother's struggle with bipolar disorder has taken a negative turn during this period.  Facing this topic forcefully and directly is often painful. 

My major obstacle in completing this work is affirming my own resilience.  Fortunately, interviewing psychology experts and working with my own therapist has reinforced my confidence.  The quote above illustrates the kind of encouragement I have received as a result of reaching out. 

The ability to reach out and connect is actually the major predictor for psychological resilience.  I am a big communicator and have thrived through connection all of my life.  I use social networking and blogging not so that I can live in a fish bowl, but so that I can consistently reach out to others in the midst of parenting two young children and self-motivating on my own project. 

I am decidedly resuming work on my book, and also on this blog.  I haven't stopped reaching out, and I don't plan to.  An integral part of this practice is my spritual column for Patch.com.  Patch is local news, and I love that, because it is a way to work on a smaller scale, and to do, as Mother Teresa said, "small things with great love."  For each column I connect with an individual or group in my community.  Global begins with local. 

In addition to the column, I am going to post regular entries here.  I am excited about coming out of a reflective and nurturing period and sharing the benefits I am gaining with anyone who is interested. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Discernment: The Internal Authority Figure

“If your friends told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?” Did your parents ever ask you that question in relation to peer pressure? I definitely remember hearing it and thinking that my parents were unoriginal, to say the least. Nonetheless, this trite rhetorical question serves as a reminder to navigate life with our own compass. “If your GPS tells you to drive straight into the ocean, will you follow it?” There’s an updated version.

I have been interviewing a lot of advisers lately. I write a local column about spirituality, Spirit Beat. The column features a different spiritual perspective or practice each week. To write Spirit Beat, I have to connect with people who are on a spiritual path. Most of these people are in the business of helping others, so they have theories and advice to share. I truly enjoy listening to and writing about all of them. This process is helping me to connect with my community and to define my own spirituality.

While I love gathering various theosophical perspectives, I have to be careful to remain detached from the work. On a personal level, I have to exercise discernment. Discernment is defined as “keenness of insight and judgment.” I believe that discernment is personal to each one of us. Only we know what is going to work for us and what is not. Only I know what perspectives are enriching to me and will help me to make sense of my life and relationships.

As children, we are constantly bombarded by messages from authority figures. Everyone tells us how to be and what to do: our parents, school principals, teachers, counselors, aunts and uncles. As adults, we don’t necessarily think about being guided by authority figures, but we are. Many people relate to doctors as authority figures. “She wrote me a prescription for this medication, so I have to take it.” Accountants are financial authority figures. Lawyers, psychologists and real estate agents advise us. We may not think of following professional advice as an act of obedience, but any time we surrender control of our own will to comply with someone else’s opinion, we are giving our power away. Of course, we willingly cede to the advice of others when it benefits us and when we need help. This is obviously the right thing to do, for our own self-preservation.

In following the advice of other people, whether hired professionals or trusted friends, it is a good idea to check in with our inner guidance. If my doctor tells me to take a medication that I think I do not need, I am going to research it and decide for myself. I have done this in the past and found out later that I was improperly diagnosed. By contrast, on an interpersonal level, I find myself listening not only to the people I interview for my column, but to almost anyone who has an opinion to share with me. I really want to know what people think and more often than not, I will give a lot of thought to what they say. I internally give other people the same credence that I give myself. This tendency of mine can be a real handicap. I care too much about the opinions of others, to the point that I second guess my own choices. I know I am not alone in this predicament. So what is the solution?

When reacting to external information from any source, we need to become empowered internally. We need to access the authority figure within us. We can listen to the words. We can genuinely like the person who is talking. In most instances, if someone is advising you they are well-meaning. That’s why we don’t shoot Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even if we don’t like the missionary, we can respect the mission. That doesn’t mean that we have to comply with the advice or even take it seriously. This is where discernment comes in. Am I able to separate what someone is telling me from what I personally believe to be true? Can I hold their advice up to the light of my own truth? I am finding out that I can. I can respect you and me, and follow my own path all the same.

How am I applying this with respect to Spirit Beat? I listen to what people say. I generally admire the individual expertise of each person. When I am able to sort out the information I have gathered, I give myself some mental space. This space allows me the room to change my own mind if I want to. That way I can incorporate new things I learn. In this space, I can also interview myself. “How do you feel about this? How does this compare to what you believe?” It is a moment where I simultaneously open up and create a boundary. I don’t want to be closed, but my mind needs shelter. Within the structure of my internal wisdom, there is always room for an outside perspective.

We can call on our powers of discernment in every informational exchange. It is an ability we tend to forget we possess. We live in a culture where people read headlines and run for cover. We don’t have to be those people. You are at the center of your school, and you are your own guidance counselor. If you are confused about a class, knock on the counselor’s door and talk it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Eye Splinters

A former boss and friend told me, "Sometimes it's better to be alone than in the company of the wrong people." Today as I switched the car radio to WNYE, I heard this advice, "Positive thoughts, positive people, positive outcome." How can we surround ourselves with positive people that uplift us with their words and energy? We make definitive choices about who we spend time with, but we must also give out what we wish to receive. The latter is the greater challenge.

I want to be around more positive people, so I am focusing on my own thoughts. Are they positive? Are my words positive? If not, then I won't attract the type of people I'd like to meet. It is often said, "Like attracts like," and as I look back through my life I see how true this is. My friends and partners have reflected the values and priorities I have held through time. I consciously chose them, but I also unconsciously attracted them.

Currently I would love to meet people who are more focused on the heart and less focused on the ego. The ironic part of that is my new tendency to look for ego-centered behaviors in others. As I focus on posturing and self-importance in the people I meet, I judge them. In this act of judging, I am putting out the type of negative energy I seek to avoid. I would do better to let go of any judgments and simply act like the person I want to hang out with. If I encourage others when I would like to be encouraged, listen when I would like to be heard and give love when I would like to receive it, I will be surrounded with support. This is how I want to start living.

This concept also works within existing relationships. Do you want your child to calm down? Take a moment to get centered yourself, and then ask him to chill out. Do you wish your spouse would open up to you more often? Try being more open yourself. Take the initiative when you feel you have lost touch with a friend. As my husband likes to say, “The phone works both ways.”

Displaying the qualities you are looking for in others can change the dynamic of a group, as well. I have seen this recently in yoga class. It always helps when the teacher sets the tone of the class, but students can also impact the vibe. Sunday I attended a class that I usually avoid. When I walked in the people who weren’t talking loudly were already in headstands or arm balances. I feel that the class attracts type-A personalities and show-offs, but that thought is not going to help me get through the class. I tried closing my eyes and meditating on my mat until the class started. I found that the students near me were quieter and less active as a result. Of course, when the teacher started by asking, “What do you guys want to do?” and someone replied, “Kick ass!” I did not yell, “Namaste, motherfuckers!” like I wanted to. That was probably a good move. I do consciously avoid the class as a rule, just as I might avoid certain people. All the same, if I miss a favorite class and need a makeup, I can still get my practice in and enjoy it. For all I know, the teacher may take it in a different direction or my perceptions of the class could shift. Maybe next week I’ll be positive about “kicking ass.”

“Be the change you wish to see in the world,” taught Mahatma Gandhi. To get an idea of how to adjust my attitudes, I am making a list of all outward changes I would like to see. I will list everything I want for myself and the people in my life. Then I will study that list and attempt to embody it. If I start there, I am less likely to injure myself. Jesus taught, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Sounds painful, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Value of Religious Affiliation

I made the decision to have my 2 and 3 year old sons baptized at the church where I was christened as a baby. We had the opportunity to celebrate their baptism this past Sunday on a week-long visit to my hometown. Since we do not have a church of our own, my husband and I were grateful for the support of my mother’s Lutheran church community.

When my father asked me why I chose to baptize my children, I began to articulate my individual beliefs. I do not belong to a church and my spiritual practices are in no way institutionalized. This is true for the majority of Americans and applies particularly to my generation. Nonetheless, most parents I know have held some sort of religious ceremony for their infants or young children. In March, I attended a bris for the first time. My twin nephews were recently baptized. Following these events, I thought more seriously about planning a baptism for my own sons.

My father is adamantly opposed to organized religion. I have many friends and acquaintances who agree with him. Religion can be divisive and exclusionary. Fundamentalist religious practices have caused great harm to humanity by spreading fear, hatred and violence. Christianity in particular is associated with intolerance, war and genocide. My Dad wanted to know how it was possible for me to baptize my children into a church that continues to ostracize homosexuals and includes teachings about Hell in its liturgy. Since I had already given it some thought, my answers to his questions came easily.

Institutions are created by and for humans. Human behavior does not follow simple patterns. No person is all good or all bad. Pitting good vs. evil is convenient, but simplistic. I find it impossible to separate institutions from the people that created them. I have yet to see one political, religious or social movement that does no harm. I made a common argument to my father; Christian institutions have acted both beneficially and destructively over history. He replied that I might say the same thing about the Nazis. For obvious reasons, I disagree. I continue to believe that our relationships with institutions are much like our relationships with individuals: we take what good we can from them, attempt to exist peacefully with them and support or oppose them according to our conscience. One iron-clad approach does not fit all. I do not fully condone or contest any person or any group.

I do not oppose any religion. I understand the energy of opposition. Formerly I worked in the law and will likely re-enter the practice in the future. I know how to entrench myself in a cause. Lawyers argue one side of an issue irrespective of their personal beliefs. In litigation and transactional practice, the law requires adherence to one side. Many people who are not lawyers live life in that way, supporting Y and opposing X, an approach that I find myopic. Resistance requires force and the outcome often disappoints. Hence, I try to spend less time resisting and more time cooperating.

Religious rites are acts of tribal affiliation. This is particularly evident in marriage and baptism rituals. Humans find comfort in belonging. We commemorate our belonging to a larger group through adherence to cultural rites. Our spiritual inclinations are organized into religious systems. When we affiliate with a religion, we affirm our belonging to a tribe. Christianity historically united a large number of tribes under one banner. Human tribes go to war with one another; they also create favorable alliances. If we evolve in another direction and tribal loyalties become obsolete, religion may one day disappear. The importance of religion in modern Western society is diminishing, but in many parts of the world religion continues to dominate thought and behavior. Even in our part of the world, most every person interacts with a religious institution on some level. It takes effort to avoid all weddings, funerals, and any other events with a presiding religious official. Religion has an impact on our lives, irrespective of what we believe.

Choosing to baptize a child is a clear and direct action in support of Christianity. When I chose to have my sons baptized in the same church and by the pastor who baptized me, I affirmed my ancestry. I affirmed my cultural heritage. I affirmed a church community. I also affirmed a part of who I am and what I believe. While I do not endorse every belief and practice of the Lutheran church, I cannot dismiss it as the initial source of my religious education. I am very grateful for the education I received and for the love and support that was shown to me as a child in the church where I was confirmed and had my first communion. I will not dismiss the value of affiliation in the nurturance of a child. It is important to belong; this is an undeniable human need. Religious rituals for children are intended to be sweet and memorable occasions, and for our family, this intent was preserved.

In preparation for my sons’ baptism, I promised the two presiding pastors that I would educate my sons in the Christian tradition. Indeed, I intend for my children to learn about the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In addition to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, I intend for them to study the texts of all spiritual traditions. As they get older, I would like to be able to talk about the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Tao Teh Ching, the Yoga Sutras, the Vedas, the Upanishads and any other texts that we can discover together. I will teach them not to hate, exclude or discriminate. I will attempt to raise them in an open and affirming tradition. As a family, we will honor the divine within ourselves through respecting these outward expressions of divinity. At the same time, my sons will benefit from the context of a particular familial and cultural tradition.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Nanny

"When I am a mother, I am never going to do what she does."  Words like those always come back to haunt you.  Opinions I had as a twenty-two year old nanny in Paris have changed now that I am a mom. 

There are some similarities between me and the mother of the two boys I nannied as a graduate student.  I remember greatly admiring my boss.  She was a beautiful Parisian fashion designer who worked for a famous department store.  Her husband was a sculptor and film set designer who traveled the world for his job.  They were the epitome of cool.  I was happy to find out that she had her kids in her mid-thirties.  That was my plan, too.  She had two boys close in age.  That's not something you can plan, but eventually so did I.

I now find that my critiques of the hip parents I worked for are behaviors I am repeating.  I used to wonder why these working parents wanted me to come take their kids out of the house on Saturdays.  My boss told me she needed some time alone to sleep in and do yoga.  I admittedly thought this was selfish and that she should want to be with her sons on both of her days off.  I don't work full time, but I do find myself using childcare hours to do yoga.  What was it she loved so much about yoga that would take her away from her children?  Now I know.  Now I am "that mom." 

Sleep is never fully appreciated until yours is constantly interrupted or you are forced to awaken at the crack of dawn every single morning.  In my life, there is no sleeping in unless my husband is kind enough to get up with the kids and take them out for breakfast.  I try to do the same for him on occasion.  When I worked for the hip Parisians, the father was frequently traveling for work so this was not an option for my boss.  Of course she wanted me to come early on Saturdays and let her get some rest.  I am now incredulous that I ever questioned this routine.  It was her life saver!

As I served dinner to two small boys who clamored for their "Maman," I wondered why she didn't make it home for dinner more often.  After all, weren't families supposed to be together for the evening meal?  Now I see that most working moms are lucky to have dinner with their children and the dads have this option only on weekends.  Moreover, a quiet dinner without children is the ultimate luxury for my husband and me.  While we are unusual in that we feed our boys dinner most nights, we know that we are in the minority in New York, and probably most metropolitan areas. 

I was always stunned at the frequency of her childrens' illnesses.  Could they possibly be sick again? I hoped I would not catch their viruses... or head lice.  Unfortunately, I couldn't escape the lice and had nightmares about this for a full 10 years.  Now when my own kids get sick every six weeks, it is a small hiccup.  We have nearly every remedy on hand.  I call our pediatrician more than my friends.  Luckily, I never worry about catching things anymore--an attitude I share with the pediatrician!

"These boys have no discipline!" This was my thinking as I carried kicking and screaming children from the playground when it was time to leave.  Now, I have learned to trick my sons with elaborate bribery so they will leave the park without a fuss.  If we are having an off day, we get sympathetic stares as red faced, dirt covered toddlers are whisked away in a fit of angst.  Oh how the mighty have fallen!

"Judge not lest ye be judged."  Yes, Jesus, I hear you.  And I am thankful.  I am thankful that in so many ways my life resembles that of the boss I once so carelessly judged.  She was the proud mama of two happy, rambunctious boys and now I am, too. She was unapologetic about needing her own time and space, and so am I.  She loved her kids and she knew how to love herself, too.  More than her sophisticated style, this earned her my admiration. 

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Efficient, not Cool: Yoga and Me

Today my Sunday yoga instructor opened her class with a brief discussion of this article in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/25/fashion/25yoga.html?

The article is entitled "A Yoga Manifesto."  Apparently the spirituality of yoga is becoming more chic and pricey.  The instructors are turning into high profile "rock stars" with attitudes.  Students are paying $125 per month for memberships to reputable studios.  A really good mat can set you back $100.  There are designer lines of yoga wear.  I have seen these phenomena and the article is good reporting.  Of course, these elements exist in the yoga climate.  Nonetheless, I am oblivious to the "cool" aspects of yoga. 

Here is why I do yoga: I don't have time to do cardio, lift weights and go to church regularly.  I feel like yoga gives me more bang for my buck and greater satisfaction for time spent.  Yoga does have a spiritual aspect, even if people hate the word "spiritual."  If letting go of everyday preoccupations and quieting your mind so that you can balance for longer in eagle pose does not appear spiritual on the surface, then ask yourself if reciting a liturgy while thinking about your grocery list is spiritual.  Is it?  What the hell is spirituality, anyway?  I have nothing against going to churches, temples or making a pilgrimage to mecca.  I think those are all commendable uses of time.  Personally, with my two toddlers, I'm not going.  I'll take a rain check. 

I hear people tell me they don't like yoga because they need to run on the treadmill and lift weights after class just to get a good workout.  For other people, this may be true.  Personally, I get physically spent enough in a good yoga class that I don't need extra cardio and weight training.  When I used to work out in the traditional gym fashion, I spent twice the amount of time at the gym as I do now in yoga classes.  After thirty minutes of cardio I would go to the machines and do repetitions.  I never lasted long in this routine because I find cardio machines and weights incredibly boring.  In addition, I never got the muscle definition and postural benefits that I see now. 

Another thing I keep hearing about yoga is that it has become a sort of bandwagon for middle aged women.  Now this I can see.  I am approaching middle age, at 38.  I can't imagine that I would be anyone's definition of cool, living in the suburbs with my two kids and my crossover SUV.  I don't have any celebrity contacts.  I don't frequent trendy restaurants.  I never see live theater anymore.  I barely get a chance to see a movie (note that I don't call it a film).  I do yoga to maintain physical, mental and yes, spiritual balance, without circuit training at the gym or attending Bible studies.  I find yoga to be an efficient use of my time. 

Does it work?  Absolutely.  When I started yoga I didn't expect to drop to a size 4 without dieting 22 months after the birth of my second child.  I didn't know that my sleeping patterns would become almost as predictable as those of my children.  I didn't plan on synchronizing my meditation practice with a physical routine.  I never saw myself as a spiritual chanting type, but now I truly enjoy maintaining a steady "om" in the right key.  I feel reconnected to my childhood roots in dance class, music lessons and church.  I really do.  As far as I can remember, those things were never trendy. 

Friday, April 16, 2010

Acceptance of Dis-ease

What is your first thought when you or a loved one gets sick? How do you feel about illness? Take a moment and answer that question for yourself. Then ask yourself how you feel about your body right now. Are you aware of it? Are you indifferent, pleased, concerned or annoyed? Do you accept your body as it is? There are no incorrect answers. These questions are subjective and individual.

Many spiritual teachers and alternative healers tell us that we create the conditions in our body with our thoughts. Do you agree with this, and if so, to what extent?

I recently watched a recorded speech given by Eckhart Tolle. He spoke about the death of human bodies. He said “bodies dissolve.” He did not limit talk of death to the elderly, but he did mention that as we get older we start to look around and notice more and more bodies dissolving. I liked the terms he used to speak of illness and death. I listen to Eckhart because he is accepting of the human condition and he radiates compassion.

I like my body. I accept it. I take care of it by eating well, avoiding most toxins and exercising regularly.

I do not consciously fear death. In the past I was afraid of illness. My attitude with respect to illness has changed dramatically in recent years. I was fortunate enough to be extremely healthy for 34 years. To this day, I consider myself healthy.

At the age of 35, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. My diagnosis came months after I contracted Lyme. Initially I experienced a painful nerve injury which paralyzed the left side of my face. I partially recovered from this injury. I also experienced back and neck pain, insomnia, fatigue, mental fog and a heart arrhythmia with a partial block. After a month of treatment with antibiotics, most of those symptoms subsided. I forgot about Lyme for the most part.

In recent weeks I am experiencing some of my initial symptoms again. I am looking into Lyme disease recurrence or what some people call “chronic Lyme.” I am not sure if it applies to me or if my symptoms can be explained by something else. I am amazed once again by how great I felt before the Lyme and also after receiving the antibiotic treatment. I don’t even feel all that bad now. I doubt that the Lyme and the ensuing symptoms are the result of my thoughts. I am not saying this is impossible. I simply doubt the theory.

Illness can be psychosomatic. Illnesses are often brought on by stress. Negative thinking patterns are certainly unhealthy. At the same time, all of us experience illness. We show love to ourselves and others by responding to illness with compassion. As we progress spiritually, we learn to accept phenomena rather than resisting. I love acceptance and what it can do for me. I feel better when I accept temporary and even permanent discomfort rather than resisting with my will, my feelings and my thoughts. I don’t like the dualistic view that puts illness and death at odds with wellness and life.

Most likely you have heard of or read Louise Hay. She is a revolutionary healer, teacher and writer. Metaphysicians, alternative healers and holistic minded people everywhere respect her work. She has authored multiple best sellers. In her books, You Can Heal Your Body and You Can Heal Your Life, she has a fairly comprehensive List of physical ailments followed by their probable mental causes and recommended affirmations for overcoming the ailments. Like many alternative healers, she refers to illness as “dis-ease,” a condition that disrupts the natural state of ease. She does not have a cause listed for Lyme dis-ease, but she does address malaria, a related illness. The probable cause of malaria in Hay’s List is, “Out of balance with nature and with life.” On an unrelated note, her listed probable cause for fistula is, “Fear. A blockage in the letting-go process.” If you have not heard of fistula, you may want to google it. I donate to a wonderful charity for this dis-ease: http://www.fightfistula.org/

The term “dis-ease” calls to mind the Four Noble Truths of Dukkha in Buddhist teachings. The philosophical meaning of dukkha is analogous to “disquietude,” as in the condition of being disturbed. The term is usually translated as suffering. Here is a definition from Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion: “Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.”

My approach to overcoming disquietude of any form is to accept it and find peace through meditation, prayer, yoga and other spiritual practices. I also try to pinpoint any thoughts that may contribute to disquietude, but I don’t have a set of affirmations or a plan to combat bodily discomfort through changing my thoughts. I accept some of my negative thoughts and feelings. I don’t particularly like dualism so I try not to spend too much time parsing out the good and bad in my mind. I feel that this could lead to obsessive thoughts and behaviors. I like the idea of letting go of thoughts, even if I am rarely able to do so.

I accept dis-ease as part of life. I am grateful for the opportunity that illness provides to care for myself and my loved ones with more love and diligence.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Unity Through Yoga

A group of apparently disconnected bodies moves through a space together for a short time.  When the time is over, the bodies chant the sound of "om" and then bow to one another saying, "namaste."  There is now a discernable connection.  This connection is healing and it feels like peace, power and unity. 

My favorite translation of "namaste" is this: May the light in me respect and reflect the light in you.  My teacher Sinda says this at the close of her classes.  This weekend I attended a class taught by Freddie Wyndham.  When he said "namaste," he also said "shalom."  I was very touched by this.  With Passover and Easter on the horizon, he wished each of us a happy celebration according to our individual faith.  I was inspired by his ability to unite a random group of people with a single purpose: Love.  He reminded us that Love is at the core of our being and Love is our true identity.  I experienced Love during his class. 

Not coincidentally, I have been speaking with a lot of my peers lately about their chosen stress relievers and paths to wholeness.  I am researching a book on grown children of the mentally ill.  Many of us do yoga.  Two people I have interviewed did yoga every day for a month as part of a grieving process.  One woman said that the experience of moving through the asanas in a room with a group of other bodies made her a little stronger each day after losing one of her parents.  Everyone I have spoken with who does yoga regularly benefits from the unity of the practice. 

There is so much divisiveness in our society.  We have red states and blue states.  We have pro-choice and anti-abortion individuals.  We have racial tension.  We have religious differences.  We have economic and social divides.  We have working mothers and stay-at-home mothers, and a new group called "hybrid moms."  We have vegetarians, vegans, meat eaters and people who love fast food.  We have home schoolers, magnet schoolers, Montessori schools and Catholic schools.  We have a news media that is constantly trying to smack labels on people.  It is a wonder that we manage to connect at all. 

Our ability to connect and share Love with others is a miracle.   It is the greatest miracle of humanity.  I wish to focus on this miracle rather than spend my time thinking about all of the issues that divide us.  I experience this miracle through yoga.  I have also experienced this miracle through music. 

How do you experience the miracle of connection with those who are "different" from you?  Do you believe in differences or do you believe in unity?  Do you believe in Love?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Alcohol and the Mind/Body/Spirit Connection

It is common knowledge that the world's major religions do not condone drunkenness.  Nonetheless, the abuse of alcohol continues to thrive in many cultures worldwide, particularly in wealthier nations.  Many people who claim to be, or who indeed are religious or spiritual continue to drink alcohol.  Until recently, I was certainly one of those people. 

For most of my life I was able to tolerate moderately high alcohol consumption.  I started drinking in high school and hadn't really stopped recreational drinking until recently.  I was never abusing alcohol to the point of addiction or damage to my health, but I was a regular social drinker.  When I first met my husband, we spent a great deal of time in bars together.  Most of our family members drink or used to drink recreationally.  In the past, splitting a bottle of wine with my husband at dinner was normal behavior for me, even after having children.  This is no longer true.  Why?  My body simply cannot tolerate more than one glass of wine or beer, and on a rare occasion, one cocktail.  After analyzing this physiological change, I have concluded that my new intolerance of alcohol results from the mind-body-spirit connection. 

As an adolescent and young adult, I was always interested in spirituality but had never undertaken a true spiritual path.  As a working adult and then a new parent, I was more focused on getting through what I perceived to be day-to-day life; spiritual seeking wasn't a real priority for me.  I prayed, but I had no regular spiritual practice. 

Since January of 2009, I have been regularly practicing Buddhist meditation, reading a daily Bible scripture, reading other favorite religious texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and praying daily.  Since September of 2009 I have been regularly practicing yoga 3 to 4 times per week.  Gradually over the past 15 months I have noticed some dramatic changes in not only my thinking and my emotions, but also in my body.  Foremost among these physical changes is my aversion to alcoholic beverages. I still enjoy the taste of wine, but I have to be vigilant about limiting my intake of it or I suffer from crippling physical fallout.  Three glasses of wine at dinner will knock me out physically for the majority of the following day.  I do not attribute this change to aging, because my older relatives and friends can drink me under the table.  I am fairly certain that my body is being transformed in conjunction with my mind and spirit.  Had I heard someone tell me this two years ago, I would have been skeptical.  Now, I understand how spiritual and mental contentment are not compatible with intoxication.  I understand this not only on an intellectual level, but on a basic physical level.  This is a true breakthrough for me. 

In the interviews I am conducting for my book on grown children of severely depressed or mood disordered parents, alcoholism is a constant theme.  I had not expected this.  I am over half way through my interviews, and almost every person I have spoken with has either battled with alcoholism or had an alcoholic parent.  When I was younger a psychologist warned me that I have alcoholic tendencies.  There is certainly a connection between depression and self-medication with alcohol.  I am extremely grateful be to learning about this connection in-depth.  This lesson coincides beautifully with my own progress in this area. 

I would like to leave you with some spiritual teachings on intoxication from three different belief systems: Buddhist, Christian and Yogic.  When I read these words now, they have an entirely different meaning for me than they did when I first encountered them.  May you be richly blessed in your mind, body and soul. 

"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical
and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming.
I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and
in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol
or any other intoxicants, or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain T.V.
programs, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body and my
consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future
generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion by practicing a diet for myself
and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation, and for the
transformation of society." (The Five Wonderful Precepts, by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.)
"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit."  (Ephesians 5:18)
"Yogis do not touch alcohol, since they consider it to lower the vibrations of their subtle body (astral body). This defeats the purpose of yoga, which is to increase the vibrational level so they can gradually unfold their Higher Self.  Yoga also considers alcohol to have an adverse effect on the central nervous system, and in particular the brain. The integrity of the central nervous system is considered very important by the yogis, since one of the goals of yoga is to improve the health of this system, and much of the progress of yoga is achieved via this vital communication system.
Modern science agrees with yoga on this point, since alcohol is known to first stimulate and then shortly afterwards depress the central nervous system.
Alcohol also causes poor sleep. Alcohol cannot compare with the effects of yoga. Yoga produces a natural stimulation without the depressing after-effect. Yoga also produces a general feeling of elation. The increase in life force produced by practicing yoga cannot be duplicated by drugs." (Yoga's View of Nutrition, from Holisticonline.com)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chick Chalet

Once upon an early March, Gabrielle invited two friends to stay the weekend at her ski chalet.  She was tired from a Wall Street week, yet eagerly anticipating teaching ski lessons and hanging out at night with her girlfriends. 

Gabrielle took the bus to the mountain on Thursday.  She was brusquely greeted by deep and crunchy snow covering the path to the front door.  Once inside, she discovered Jack passed out on the couch with her comforter.  The gall!  Something smelled funny.  "Jack, wake up! My friends are visiting this weekend!  It reeks in here! Can you go air out that comforter?"  Gabrielle busily set about tidying the chalet from a week of male fallout. 

Finally, at 7:15 Anaya arrived with her rolly carry-on bag, pillow and stuffed panda bear.  Gabrielle fielded a series of cell phone calls with questions like, "After I turn into the entrance and go over the bridge what stop sign is the one?"  "OK, now I'm in front of a sign that reads, Lodging and Parking.  Which road is it?"  "Wait, you just saw my headlights?  No, I don't see a black SUV."  Eventually Anaya parked in front of the black SUV.  To her dismay, she realized rolling luggage was an uninformed choice.  Jack and Brennan were leaving with their stuff when Anaya stepped into a giant mound of snow in an attempt to hoist her bag.  Jack: "Whatever you do, don't step off of the path, OK?"  Anaya: "What path? I can't even see."  Jack: "Gabrielle, can you come help her?"  Gabrielle: "Yes, yes, I'm coming! Hi doll!!"  Anaya: "So I see why you chose a duffle bag."  Jack: "Yeah. Umm... have fun, bye." 

Upon entering the chalet, Gabrielle showed Anaya a cozy little room with a skylight and a painting of "Paris By Night".  Anaya liked the room, but then noticed another one with a framed tapestry of a knight on the door.  That room had serious appeal.  Anaya asked if she could bunk there.  Gabrielle: "That's Brennan's room.  He doesn't like anyone else to take it."  Anaya: "That's OK.  He'll never know.  I'll put everything exactly in the spot where it was when I leave."  Gabrielle: "OK! You're brave! Go for it!"  Thursday night was catch-up time for the girls, and Gabrielle showed Anaya her photos from Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Thailand.  Anaya was moved by the beautiful photos of lotus flowers, long boats, reclining Buddhas and wat temples.  She had heard stories of Gabrielle's time volunteering in two orphanages, but the photos of the children cemented these stories in her heart.  After some homemade pasta, tea and hot chocolate, it was bedtime. 

Friday morning, this was the view from Brennan's window. 

Anaya asked a question to no one in particular: "Does Superman live here?" Gabrielle was out the door with her gear before Anaya could make coffee.  Anaya wandered around in her pajamas, started a fire and drank some mochachino.  She climbed up to the loft and completed a transcription for her book.  Before she knew it, the day was done and Gabrielle showed up at the chalet with Nathan and some beers.  After one beer, Anaya went out for candles and more firewood.  Gabrielle was ready for dinner at 7:00, so two old friends went out in Tannersville to feast on champagne, cheese fondue and rotisserie chicken.

Young boys stalked their table repeatedly shouting, "stinky cheese! stinky cheese!"  Anaya said, "This is my future, Gabrielle.  I should miss my boys right now but I don't."  After bedtime tea by the fireside, Gabrielle and Anaya retired to their rooms in anticipation of another fun day with a new guest.

Adina arrived right after lunch.  To Anaya's surpise, she had a broken hand!  No skiing for Adina.  Nonetheless, a new friendship was forged and the two went up the mountain to meet Gabrielle for apres-ski.  Even though Anaya's Alma Mater lost a bastketball game to the dreaded Jayhawks, she was consoled by a free Goose and Juice from a sympathetic bartender.  A seat next to this fire pit dissipated her bad mood.

Because of texting mishaps, Gabrielle could never find her girlfriends when lessons were over.  Adina and and Anaya tried another bar, then left to escape Wayne.  In spite of his good intentions, Wayne's uninvited physical contact and repeated invitations for dinner and cocktails at his house were creepy. 

Gabrielle was waiting back at the chalet when her skeeved friends showed up.  Adina: "What should we do now?" Anaya: "Let's go out!" Gabrielle: "Ugh! My legs are so tired.  I need to change out of these clothes and relax a bit." Anaya: "Shall we order in and then go out later?" Unanimous: "Yeah."  The order was placed, picked up and brought back.  To everyone's surprise, the Sesame Chicken was identical to the General Tso's other than the sesame seeds sprinkled on top.  Adina: "Why would they do that?  Do they think we're complete idiots?"  The Lemon Chicken went over a bit better.  Still, the food didn't really sit right with anyone.  A beer didn't help.  Tea didn't help much either.  The fire felt nice.  No one really wanted to go out anymore.  Adina had brought up a Netflix DVD, Bend It Like Beckham.  The group decision was to watch this film together.  There was one problem.  The DVD player was disconnected from the television since the male ski instructors had been using their Wii and another playstation during the week.  Adina and Gabrielle attempted to rectify the problem with little success.  Gabrielle: "This is what men are supposed to do!" Anaya: "I'm sure I could figure it out if that was my motivation, but I just don't want to get up."  Adina: "If I had a flashlight I could see which color of cord plugs into this hole."  Anaya: "If this is what men are for, what are we supposed to do?"  Adina: "Look good! We show up and look good.  That's why the men have to pay for the dates.  We have to pay for yoga and pilates classes, highlights, facials, manicures...by the time we're ready for a date we've already spent $500 to look like that.  That's why they pay."  Gabrielle: "Well, screw this.  Let's just watch TV."  Adina: "Oh good, Boston Legal's on!" Gabrielle: "I hate that show.  There are already so many bad stereotypes about lawyers."  Anaya: "But they're all true! That's why I avoid law firms." 

After a few minutes of Boston Legal, Anaya got restless, jumped up and walked away with purpose.  She indavertently ran into a wall, bruising her hip.  "Oww!!"  Gabrielle: "Are you OK? What's wrong with you all of a sudden?"  Anaya: "Well, I just thought we were going to do something.  You know, I came up here, arranged for babysitting, left my husband with my kids all weekend and now we are just sitting around watching Boston Legal! This is a little disappointing to me."  Gabrielle: "Well, thanks for making me feel like shit."  Anaya: "That wasn't my intention.  I'm just annoyed."  At that comment, Gabrielle, exhausted from a day of teaching four year olds how to to ski, retreated to her room making sure to drop off Anaya's broken hairbrush on her way.  For some reason, Adina and Gabrielle both forgot their hairbrushes so everyone shared Anaya's.  As Murphy's law would dictate, the handle fell off the brush on Friday morning.  Somehow no one had a bad hair day and the broken brush sufficed.  It's hard to ruin pretty hair. 

Adina wasn't tired and still planned to watch a movie; any movie.  As it happened, We Were Soldiers was airing on a major network.  Anaya settled onto the couch to watch with her.  Following the scenes of soldiers' wives receiving death announcements via telegrams, a tearful Anaya went to bed.  Adina was a trooper and watched to the end.

Sunday got off to a great start.  Gabrielle got front door pick-up service from her fellow instructors.  Adina and Anaya slept in a little.  Anaya surprised Adina with homemade pancakes and coffee.  After a leisurely morning chat, the two cleaned up the house for Gabrielle and the guys.  Then they went for a drive to refresh some supplies.  There were no hairbrushes to be found.  This was of no consequence.  Up the mountain they went, in search of sun, food and company.  None of these were in short supply. 

The mountain was full of happy skiers coming off the slopes and chilling on the deck.  Saranac and Coors Light were on tap.  Pizza and burgers were available.  While waiting for Gabrielle, the women enjoyed beer and pizza and met some fun characters.  Eventually they moved inside and found Gabrielle at the bar with some other people.  Doc, the Vietnam War Vet with piercing blue eyes and a passion for the Catskills; Mark, the hypnotist with a winning personality and esoteric insight; Glen, the MD and former NYPD cop with an adorable five year old daughter.  It was a fun crowd, so much so that Anaya lost track of time and forgot to leave on schedule for her boys' bedtime.  When they looked at their watches, Adina and Gabrielle realized they had missed the bus. 

A departure plan was devised.  Anaya would drive them all back and get them on the 9:46 to Grand Central from Tarrytown.  Dinner?  A quck drive-thru at the McDonald's in Saugerties.  Adina and Gabrielle went for the Big Macs but Anaya can only eat the Quarter Pounders.  Keeping a steady speed of 80 miles per hour and listening to Michael Jackson, OMD, and Country music, the women just made it to Tarrytown in time.  Gabrielle sat in a child safety seat the entire drive.  Upon arrival at the train station, she was worried about leaving trash in the car.  Adina: "Come on! I see the train! We still have to cross the platform!" Anaya: "Go now!! Screw the trash, I'll take care of it! Run!!"  They made it on as the doors were closing.  Anaya headed straight to Stop and Shop to buy milk and juice for her little boys.  The store had just closed.  Along with another man trying to buy Pepto-Bismol for his wife, Anaya begged the employees to open the doors.  At long last, the good people of Stop and Shop caved and let them in.  Milk and juice were purchased.  Anaya made it home and kissed two sleeping boys in their beds.  One man who was wide awake got some kisses, too.  A great finish to a perfect Catskills weekend!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Resilience in Offspring of the Mentally Ill

My mother is a thoughtful, kindhearted and vivacious individual who carried me in her womb and nurtured me from birth to adulthood. She happens to be mentally ill. Unfortunately for her and for me, her diagnosis with severe bi-polar disorder came quite late. We suffered together for many years. She battled her illness long before I came into her life.

For the benefit of my mother, myself and others like us, I am working on a healing project. I am completing research for a book about grown children of parents with depressive disorders. A clinical psychologist is reviewing my work and guiding my process. The greatest component of my project is interviewing others like me. I have completed four interviews and have three more scheduled for this week. Additional volunteers have offered to participate in the interviewing process as it unfolds. Ideally I would like to interview 10 men and 10 women. I am interviewing individuals with both diagnosed and undiagnosed depressive parents.  Far fewer depressive conditions were diagnosed in prior generations.  Like my mother, many people suffer for years before receiving an effective diagnosis and treatment.  From our collective experiences, we can help ourselves and our peers to maintain loving relationships within the family. More importantly, we can discover and appreciate our own resilience. According to mental health experts, "the offspring of depressed parents constitute a high-risk group for psychiatric and medical problems, which begin early and continue through adulthood." (Offspring of Depressed Parents: 20 Years Later, American Journal of Psychiatry, June 2006.) I am interested in how we are doing in spite of what the best research says about us. Do we plan to beat the odds, and if so, how? What do we have to offer to those who may not fully understand depression and its casualties? How do we best approach the topic of generational healing?

The book that most closely approximates my project is, Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Mother, authored by Susan Nathiel and published by Praeger in 2007. Susan Nathiel writes, "Certain children seem to fare well in adversity, so much so that we shake our heads and wonder how in the world they came out of chaos, abuse, or neglect in one piece. Researchers originally thought that some kids were 'invulnerable' to early stress, but this has been shown not to be the case. Resilient kids, as they are called, do suffer damage from early family dysfunction. Puzzling out the 'how' of this has been the work of many researchers, and the answers still aren't complete. What we do know is that, because of some children's inborn qualities or certain factors in the environment, they're able to make strong connections with people and/or find a meaningful focus for their positive energies."

Rather than coming at resilience from a clinical angle, I am entering through a more subjective door. My approach is personal and collective. I am also attempting to balance the gender scale on this project. Daughters of Madness and several books like it address the experiences of women. I have been talking to some men and I am interested in hearing from others. It is well known that depression affects both men and women and sons suffer right along with daughters of the mentally ill. I want to bring these sons into the discussion.

If you have any interest in my project or know of someone else who might, please e-mail me at michlgh@aol.com. As mentioned above, I am specifically seeking additional men who may agree to an interview. I also need 5 more women, so any and all inquiries are welcome.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Unincorporated Montana, Anyone?

Normally my posts are uplifting.  I would rather write about the things I am for than the things I am against.  I would rather be defined by what I am than by what I am not.  Nonetheless, there are times when I want to vehemently stand apart from a movement, an ideology, or even a person.  I know this is not a good use of mental energy and it can actually set me back.  Tonight, I don't mind being set back a little.  I'm ready to go on vacation and spend a week in my bikini with my kids and my husband.  Here is some stuff than I am not:

1. I am not a Mommy Blogger or a She Blogger or a Marketer.

2. I am not a Holistic Mom.

3. I am not a Bible Christian.

4. I am not Political.

5. I am not in a Book Club.

6. I am not a Spinner.

7. I am not a Shopper.

8. I am not a Mini-Van Driver.

9. I am not trying to Attract Wealth.

10. I am not trying to Win Friends and Influence People.

There.  That just about covers it.  My husband says that if he had it to do over again he would be a Gay Poet Farmer in Unincorporated Montana.  I would actually like to do that too, except for the gay part.  I am attracted to men.  I don't think my husband is actually gay.  We just like the gay lifestyle, even though we are straight.  We support gay marriage. Montana seems like a beautiful state.  I have farming in my lineage.  I could spend my evenings writing poetry.  Our kids might turn out a little strange.  On the other hand, with their DNA they're already gonna be strange.  Maybe we'll bag New York for Montana one of these days.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

This Little Prayer of Mine--A Mother's Review

         In January 2010, WaterBrook Press published Anthony DeStefano’s third book, This Little Prayer of Mine. Anthony DeStefano has a unique approach to the promotion of Christian beliefs in secular society. His first two books, A Travel Guide to Heaven and Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To are imaginative and colorful road maps to religious topics that are often discussed yet vaguely understood. Although he uses the Bible as a guide, DeStefano interprets heaven and prayer through the lens of his own creative vision and heartfelt convictions. Unlike a religious authority haranguing from a pulpit, DeStafano is a regular husband, father and businessman who also happens to be a modern Christian mystic. He is the CEO of a Catholic not-for-profit organization and has received numerous awards from international religious organizations, including the “Defender of Israel” medal from the Jerusalem Center for Peace Studies in 2003.

        This Little Prayer of Mine is a children’s book aimed at facilitating the practice of prayer in the home from a tender age. Parents and small children can be inspired by the simple and positive message contained within 33 pages delightfully illustrated by Mark Elliott. Upon receiving my hand autographed copy in the mail, I read This Little Prayer of Mine to my 1 year old and 3 year old sons. Like many parents of toddlers, my husband and I read to our boys each night before bed. Recently we have introduced books about God, the Bible, Jesus and prayer into the usual circuit. Religious instruction at such a young age is a delicate subject in many families, especially in modern society. Many families have mixed religious backgrounds and may not attend any place of worship regularly. Parents are often concerned about introducing metaphysical concepts to little children.

        How can we expect our children to understand communication with the Divine, a spiritual realm or an afterlife when our own beliefs on these subjects exist in such a nebulous territory? My own opinion closely mirrors this quote from Bernice A. King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King: “Every day we must live in a close, trusting relationship with God, always looking to Him for comfort and direction through prayer. This Little Prayer of Mine is the springboard for helping children to establish that type of lifelong relationship with our heavenly Father.” Throughout my journey in this life, I have always had the comfort of faith in God and the confidence and ability to pray to Him. Like anyone, I cannot claim to follow a perfect spiritual path. We should beware of any human claiming total mastery or perfection. Nonetheless, the lessons I learned as a toddler about taking my cares to God in prayer have remained with me to this day. We all have our trials to endure and we know that our children will suffer as well. Suffering is part of human existence. Teaching our children to pray is among our most noble and essential tasks as parents; Anthony DeStefano offers this accessible and enjoyable tool to get us there.

        For me, the defining characteristic of this children’s guide to prayer is its emphasis on honest communication with the Creator rather than ritualistic phrases or repetitive requests. From this book, children will learn that prayer is about sharing thoughts and feelings with God, not just asking for things they may want. Most importantly, there is no need to hide fear, sadness, regret or confusion from God. This Little Prayer of Mine teaches that God loves us as we are, children and adults alike. DeStafano seems to understand that God loves the whole person, not just the idealized version of who we are supposed to be as believers. This is an advanced concept, but one that can be modeled from early childhood. I want my children to share their deepest dreams and desires with God to nurture confidence in their own abilities. It is also crucial for me that my sons learn to accept themselves in the truest sense, and I believe that open communication with God is a cornerstone to healthy self-esteem. If there is one phrase I would like them to remember, it is this one: “But when I trust in you, my God, and in your plan for me, I know there’s nothing in the world that I can’t do or be.”

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Who's Your Aquarius?

“Who’s your Daddy?” is a commonplace phrase, generally asked as a rhetorical question suggesting dominance over the interlocutor. My Daddy is an Aquarius. The Sun is in the astrological sign of Aquarius from January 21 through February 19. Aquarians are known to be original, inventive, unconventional, independent, friendly and humanitarian. My father embodies each of those qualities. They are also known to be perverse and unpredictable at times. “Fanatical eccentricity” is another trait listed on the astrology-online.com profile, and I wholeheartedly agree with that one.

Growing up with an Aquarian father has been a real adventure for me, complete with ups and downs. On the whole my feelings for my father are quite warm. I have learned a great deal from his openness and intellectual curiosity. His birthday present from me is a tribute to his Aquarian voyage through life up to now.

Aquarians are known for changing directions in their open search for truth. These individuals are not afraid to venture into unknown territory, changing jobs, entering new relationships and experimenting with various schools of thought. Daddy has lived this way for the majority of his life.


David Garrison was born February 2, 1938 in Tipton, Missouri. He worked his first summer jobs beginning at age 5 on his grandfather’s farm in Anderson, Missouri. At one time, Anderson was “the strawberry capital of the world.” Daddy spent several summers picking strawberries and grapes in the patches and vineyards of southern Missouri.

At the age of 10, he moved to a town called Clarkton in the Missouri Bootheel. There he helped his father and brothers to construct a church. Once the church was built, he picked cotton during the warm months of the year. Back then, the Bootheel was “cotton country.”

My grandparents bought a family farm in Tipton Ford, Missouri when Daddy was 12. He helped his brothers and sister to milk cows and take care of other livestock including chickens and hogs. He raised a favorite pig called “Whopper.” As he was quite fond of Whopper, he disliked the paternally imposed initiation rite of killing and slaughtering Whopper. My grandfather wanted to teach him that as a meat eater, he needed to overcome his emotional attachments to the farm animals.

My grandfather Wayne was a school principal in addition to working as a farmer. As time went on, Wayne decided to construct homes as well. When Daddy was 14 he started working with his brothers, father and grandfather laying brick, roofing and plumbing. His construction work continued for the remainder of his time in junior high and high school.


Following high school, Daddy completed two years at Joplin Junior College. He then decided to explore his employment options in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He worked as a shoe salesman, a file clerk for a manufacturing company and a file investigator at an insurance company before deciding that a college degree would be necessary for vocational satisfaction. He enrolled for two more years at The University of Missouri-Columbia. He earned a B.S. in Education while living at home with his parents and laying brick as a part-time job.

My parents got married after college and moved back to my mother’s hometown of Joplin. Daddy’s first job out of college was selling “Baby Butler” products, safety equipment for babies such as high chairs and cribs. He got his leads from birth announcements in the local newspaper.

When my parents got up the courage to leave southwest Missouri, they both found teaching jobs in Kansas City. Daddy taught General Science and Physical Health to junior high school students. To earn extra money, he sold World Book Encyclopedias door to door in the evenings. When he was offered a traveling sales job for significantly more money he took a job with Corning Glass Works for 3 years. While still living in Kansas City, Daddy was offered another sales job with Champlin Petroleum Company, first in sales promotion and then as a District Sales Manager.

Since my maternal grandfather was also in the oil distribution business, he was able to convince Daddy to return to Joplin to work as an “oil jobber” for Champlin. When the local Mobile distributor passed away, he was offered that man’s job. He then managed 8 service stations which he converted one by one into convenience stores. At the time, convenience stores were a novelty. He turned this new business into a company called “Pronto Enterprises” and by the time I was in high school he had 25 convenience stores and 3 truck-stops. Because of a longstanding tax and accounting error, Pronto Enterprises was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1987. In 1990 the company had to be liquidated. Pronto stores were no more, but a lot of folks remember them.

Daddy’s next venture was a recreational horse-riding park called “Happy Trails.” I remember brainstorming with the family to come up with that name on a long drive to the Grand Canyon. 18 saddle horses and 8 draft horses lived in the stables at Happy Trails. The stables and trails were all on the 200 acres of land where we lived in the family house. Before the official opening of Happy Trails, I helped my sisters, my stepmother and our French foreign exchange student to break in the trails with the horses. We got through a couple of minor injuries while having a lot of fun. The saddle horses were Appaloosas and Quarter Horses. The draft horses were Belgians and Percherons. Happy Trails offered wagon and trolley rides. At Halloween we had something called “Spooky Trails,” featuring horse-drawn wagon rides at night up and down wooded hills with all kinds of scary actors and macabre displays.

Daddy always loved to smoke fish, turkeys, brisket, ribs and steaks in his smoker, so in 1993 he opened Uncle Dave’s BBQ Restaurant. To this day he uses hickory wood to smoke his meats. Uncle Dave’s served a loaf of homemade bread and apple butter to every table. Of course, the restaurant served the full array of Southern style sides. I know, because I worked there for a year as a hostess and waitress. The restaurant was a tiring endeavor so Daddy sold it in 1996.


From 1996 until the present day, David Garrison manages a fun small business called, “Paintball Ridge.” Logically, Paintball Ridge is located on the same land where Happy Trails once entertained adventurous customers. Paintball Ridge claims to be Missouri’s largest paintball park, “complete with 6 playing fields, a 2,500 square foot pro shop and a party room.” http://www.paintballridge.com/ I know how much Daddy has enjoyed working with teams of young players over the years and he still gets excited about tournaments and historical enactments.


Most folks call my father “Dave.” Dave’s career path is certainly unconventional. Times have been tough, but he always seems to have fun with his work. I never heard him say he was bored. As a quick addendum to this chronological history, let me thrown in some final quirky details:

• Dave is on his fourth marriage, and Ying Chau (Candy) is a devoted spouse and an energetic life partner.

• Although my father attends no church at this time, in the past he has attended many churches and he started one of his own when I was in junior high school. His church was called “Praise Place”; with a name like that, you guessed right if you envisioned a full band and lots of singing.

• When I was 23 Dave invited a sect of an international religious community to take up residence on his land. These people still live there and have reconstructed a large barn into a lovely house. They also have several cabins and mobile homes on their section of the land. The group does international humanitarian work and they live communally. Members of the group rotate through their Joplin location on a regular basis, usually to receive training for various missions.

• Dave is a longtime champion of LGBT rights and spent several years actively participating in Joplin’s largest open and affirming place of worship. He used to cook and serve meals for 100+ economically disadvantaged persons every Wednesday evening at this church.

• When I was little, Daddy claimed to be an agnostic. Over the years he has changed his position and now claims a firm belief in the Divine. He shares my interest in interfaith studies and we are both learning a lot about Eastern religions and philosophy.

• Daddy’s maternal great-grandfather was a Cherokee Healer. Both his great-grandfather and his grandfather are listed on the Cherokee rolls in District No. 10. With my aunt, Daddy has made several visits to the Cherokee Nation Headquarters in Tahlequah, OK to formally document our family’s Cherokee ancestry.

• Native American Fellowship Circles have been held on my father’s land on many occasions. These ceremonies have included bonfires, drumming, smudging and singing. Among others, the following tribes have participated: Cherokee, Pottawatomie, Choctaw, Inuit and Osage.