April 19, 2015

Lessons in Grace, or: Be Nice, It’s Easy

I post a lot of pictures of my cat. A LOT.

I post a lot of pictures of my cat. A LOT.

My 200+ Friends on Facebook are often subjected to photos of Geronimo Cat, my domesticated feral bulls-eye tabby. There are many reasons I share his picture so often, among them: 1) he’s my first cat and I’m head over heels in love, 2) he’s truly gorgeous, and 3) I’m learning to become a better photographer. Typically, after any given Status Update featuring Geronimo’s pic, I can count on the same four friends responding generously with a “Like” — all Cat People themselves.

One day a few weeks back I took what I thought to be a particularly stunning picture of Geronimo and posted it as my Status Update with the caption of, “It’s been a few days since I’ve shared a cat photo and I know you’re jonesing for one.” Well…..a friend of my niece’s, a man I’ve never met but with whom I’ve formed a fun and easy Facebook acquaintanceship, wrote, “I was going to say something if you hadn’t posted one by tomorrow.”

I’ll never forget the power of his playful comment. All at once I felt: amused, validated, honored, and warmed by his words. In that one response, he pulled off what so many of us pass on the opportunity to do: he made another human feel good with his graciousness of spirit. And what he actually did was give a little of himself. We all know people who are so stingy with their goodwill that they can’t give to another human in even those small and painless doses, yet opportunities for giving of ourselves in this way are abundant (especially on social networking sites), if only we will watch for them and act on them.

Someone once wrote, “They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

My Facebook Friend made me feel like he valued what I value. And I will never forget that.

April 8, 2015

Trivia question: what’s the best-known word in human speech?

Filed under: MiscellAnnia — Tags: , — Ann @ 7:06 am
So be it.

Aka, you said it, sister!

The other day I was scrolling through Facebook and saw that one of my friends had commented on a post, “Amen!” Later, driving to work, I started giving serious thought to the word. First of all, there’s the pronunciation. Growing up, I mainly attended Protestant churches where everyone chimed in with “ay-men” or “ah-men.” Later, attending services with a Jewish partner, I noted that the congregants all said “Ah-main,” the Hebrew pronunciation.

According to myjewishlearning.com, the word is a liturgical response common to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. Bouncing around on Google, I discovered that there’s no real agreement as to its origins and it pretty much depends on who you ask. I saw references to the word being of Greek, Christian, Hebrew, Hindu, and Pagan origin. If you want to read more about its roots, head over to Wikipedia and scroll down to “Etymology.” Most Jewish sources agree that “amen” has the same Hebrew root as emunah (faith) and is also connected with the word emet meaning “truth.” But there’s not even real agreement as to how it should be translated. Depending on where you go on the Internet, it means “so be it,” “truly,” “in truth, “affirmed,” or “trust in the Lord.” Some say it’s the best-known word in human speech; others say that “okay” gets that distinction. (If you really want to delve into murky etymological waters, check out the word “selah” on Wikipedia. In Judaism, it’s like “amen” but even more so — a sort of industrial-strength version. However, no one knows what it means or where it came from. And whereas “amen” appears in the Bible a mere 30 times, “selah” appears a whopping 74 times. Selah is the last word in Anita Diamant’s book “The Red Tent. It’s even heard in some reggae songs.)

So, some say ah-men, some say ay-men, some say ah-main, and some even say selah. However, many years ago when I was attending Jewish services regularly with my partner, I found that my years of exposure to Christian liturgy made me uncomfortable with “Ah-main,” so I created my own response. Which is why, if you ever go to services with me and listen very carefully at the end of prayers, you’ll hear me softly intoning this: “I’m in.”

Nobody’s the wiser, and it works for me.

April 5, 2015

Life: Mourning and Celebration

Filed under: Memory Eternal — Tags: , , , , — Ann @ 11:06 am
The light is always there.

The light is always there.

After my father died on January 13th of this year, my mind began to process thoughts and images at an accelerated rate. Some mourners describe feelings of “blankness” or “going numb” but for me it was the opposite: thoughts and visual streams were spinning their grief triggers at maximum speed. At times I felt as though I were experiencing the clichéd death’s-door experience of seeing my entire life flash before my eyes: childhood memories were a constant slideshow…things my Dad said, did, things we said and did together, images of he and my Mom, the family, vacations, conversations…thumbnail reminders of his presence in my life. And, of course, all of that re-experiencing was accompanied by a sadness so heavy that I felt pinned to the earth by Jovian gravity.

But among those thoughts and images, others emerged as well: happy memories in the making. Weddings, picnics, barbecues, engagement parties, baby showers, reunions — and these images had nothing to do with my father or my family. Instead, I was imagining strangers together, smiling, laughing, drinking Champagne, raising glasses, opening gifts, celebrating. It was as though, in the midst of unbearable grief, my mind wanted me to remember that somewhere out there, far away from me but out there nonetheless, there was joy. I needed to remember joy. And to believe that I’d be in the midst of it again someday.

Last night I attended a community celebration of Passover. The room was packed, the music was loud, the wine was freely flowing, and I was surrounded by the dearly loved faces of friends old and new. As I sat taking it all in, I remembered. My mind formed a thought: “This is joy.” I greedily drank in every sensory aspect of the experience; I needed to memorize it in case I forgot it again.

This morning, I penned a thank-you note to the person who sponsored my attendance at the celebration. I ended by writing, “After my father died, I craved the other side of grief. Last night was that experience, and I’m filled with gratitude.”

April 3, 2015

Praise asterisk, from whom all blessings flow

Praise Star

Is that you, God?

Yesterday I attended a Juvenile Probation training on adolescent trauma, facilitated by an excellent speaker who filled her presentation with amusing and/or intriguing anecdotes, no doubt in an attempt to keep us all riveted for 8 hours in a stuffy, fluorescent-lit room. She did a great job.

One story in particular will stay with me, probably forever. In the context of discussing gratitude-and-mindfulness research, she talked about being at an ascension meditation retreat some years ago and, one morning when the attendees were preparing to spend a good chunk of time in focused meditation and chanting, their teacher wrote on the board the phrase she wanted her students to recite out loud: PRAISE [*] FOR MY LIFE. The asterisk, of course, was meant to be a placeholder for whatever ‘higher power’ was relevant to each participant: God, Goddess, the Divine, the Source, Allah, the Universe, the One — whatever.

But as the group began to chant out loud, she became aware that quite a few of the participants were reciting, ‘Praise Star…,’ because they’d interpreted the asterisk as “Star” — a name for the One. She was so enchanted by the idea that she adopted it as her name for God and still uses the full mantra as part of her meditation-gratitude practice.

Praise Star For My Life. It has a lovely shine to it.

April 1, 2015

Blame and compassion

Filed under: Sacred Wilderness — Tags: , , , , , — Ann @ 4:08 pm


While browsing Facebook memes the other day I came across this quote (in blue), attributed to Dr. Wayne Dyer.

When I read it, I felt real anger rising in me for what I considered to be the compassionless message of the quote. As a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, I’ve worked with clients who suffered unthinkable abuse as children, clients who weren’t provided with any of the loving attention, modeling, resources and guidance necessary to ease them from infancy to healthy maturation. I’ve heard stories of abusive childhoods that left me gasping and horrified — reactions I kept inside while I quietly held space for my clients to walk me through their experiences.

The reality is, children who are exposed to such environments — survivors of complex trauma including severe neglect and abuse (physical and sexual), learn avoidance strategies early in life. Survivors of crappy abusive childhoods can’t tolerate distress and so they develop ways to stop feeling. We all use avoidance strategies to some extent but these wounded individuals feel that they have no choice: it’s either numb out or die. What’s a highly effective (though maladaptive) avoidance strategy? Substance abuse. Dr. John Briere, in his training on Treating Complex Psychological Trauma, states that the majority of IV drug users, especially women, have a Childhood Sexual Abuse history. Dr. Briere confirms that trauma survivors frequently engage in behaviors that some might call “bad choices” as a way to down-regulate overwhelming internal states. These can include excessive sexual contact (“promiscuity”), thrill-seeking and binge shopping (“irresponsible spending”).

In other words, the humans among us that we may think of us making the most irresponsible “choices” may be those who are suffering the greatest — with pasts that we can’t even begin to imagine. If a boy who was starved and beaten by his parents as a child is drinking vodka at age 13, smoking meth by age 14, in Juvenile Hall by 16, and ends up with the inability to hold a job, or a relationship, is his childhood not “to blame”? If we don’t like the word “blame,” can we at least acknowledge that the boy’s choices were guided by the horrifically bad hand he got dealt when he started life? If a girl who was raped by a stepfather from age 3 through age 12, ran away from home to escape it, sold her body to get enough money to feed herself, and became addicted to meth as the only way to numb herself enough to tolerate herself (so strong was her self-loathing by then) ends up as the homeless person you drive by every morning, that’s her choice, right? Hers and only hers? Dr. Dyer’s quote assumes that we all had the same choices, which simply isn’t true. (I haven’t even touched upon how racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, socio-economic status, and other discriminatory factors negatively affect choices. The stigma attached to non-trauma related mental disorders, and physical and/or developmental disorders can also limit life choices.)

Many of these men and women that our culture judges so harshly are longing to learn how to make good choices for themselves because they never had the structure and the modeling to do so. They are fighting for their lives with a courage I can’t imagine. Focused on getting help, getting sober, getting jobs, getting better. And survivors don’t usually blame others for their circumstances, anyway. Quite the opposite, they usually blame themselves and I work with them to help them have compassion for their lives and circumstances.

Maybe at this point you’re thinking, yes, but adults who were abused as children are rare. Actually, a child abuse report is made in this country every 10 seconds. Referrals to state child protective services agencies involve 6.3 million children. While not all of those are substantiated, too many are. And 80% of 21-year-olds who reported being abused as a child meet the criteria for at least one psychological disorder. [Source: childhelp.org] Children who experience child abuse and neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime. [safehorizon.org]

If I were to re-write Dr. Dyer’s quote with some heart and accuracy, it would go something like this: “Everything you do is based on how you learned to navigate the world as a child (combined with biological factors including genetics and temperament). If you had a secure attachment with your caretaker as an infant, you likely explored your environment confidently, developed a positive self-image, and had confidence that you could cope with whatever happened. Then, as a securely attached infant, you likely became an effective problem-solver as a toddler and a resilient, resourceful, curious preschooler. Your positive experience with your caregiver was a model that served as a guide for your interpersonal behavior and self-expectations. If you did not have that secure attachment, your parents are probably not to blame because they likely came into the world with their own challenges. If you had a severely rough start in life and/or are struggling with a mental disorder, addiction or any other dysfunctional reality, it’s not useful to blame your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age. You and only you can recognize when you need help (although a kind friend, mentor, teacher, or clergyman can certainly play a role in getting you the help you need), and you and only you can then take the steps necessary to get strong and well and empowered.”


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