Taking time out for some memorable and fun family events. Grateful for the summer Solstice, warm weather, flowering trees and plants, family and friends. See you in July!
Taking time out for some memorable and fun family events. Grateful for the summer Solstice, warm weather, flowering trees and plants, family and friends. See you in July!
Sometimes, the universe offers a remedy in unexpected ways. I’ve been upset and troubled by the Trump administration’s policy to allow border agents to forcibly separate children from their parents. All my mental health training in the need for a secure, safe and trustworthy environment in raising children opposes this unconscionable policy. But what to do; how to make a difference?
As luck would have it, I’ve been on a mission to collect ceu credits. The timing was perfect to listen to Ervin Staub, Ph.D, Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, and Founding Director of its PhD concentration in the Psychology of Peace and Violence. His topic: The Leader & The Led: How the Nature of the Leader Affects Organizations and Societies.
Citing years of extensive hands on research about German Nazism, Rwanda, prison life and bullying, he contrasted destructive and constructive leadership, followed by his insights on what people like myself can do to make a difference.
Neither the vast audience nor I were surprised to learn that Trump’s path fits many elements of destructive leadership. “Leaders are only leaders if they can attract followers,” Staub began. Underscoring the word “vision,” which, to my mind is the difference that makes a difference, he framed how destructive visions are born in response to difficult situations in society. They arise in the ferment of decline, political chaos, societal change and ongoing conflict.
Staub stated that because addressing the real problems are difficult and/or leaders choose not to address such issues (the poor track record of Congress re: healthcare, dreamers, immigration), a destructive leader elevates himself over others by claiming that one’s own group is not responsible for the problems. Trump blames others—Democrats, Obama, Jeff Sessions, NAFTA, you name it—and with it, succeeds in cohering his group.
The self-serving elite join in while bystanders, at the risk of complicity, do nothing,he said.
He warned about the harmful practice particulars of destructive leadership—the call for loyalty, the thrust towards patriotism, the use of rejection or punishing behaviors—to encourage compliance rather than concern for all.
Destructive leadership is where we are today in the matter of refugees and border security. I, for one, cannot be a quiet bystander when, as a mental health professional, I know that without careful assessment and placement, monitoring and follow up, wrenching children from the security of family can only result in damaging effects over their lifetime.
Staub left us with the following question: How can I be an active, effective bystander who contributes to constructive change? In what domain will I act, what will I do to influence leaders, followers, the social world around me?
For myself, I write to engage with the intent of distilling and offering constructive information. I reach out to my representatives re: critical issues, support multiple causes, and for the future, I plan to explore Staub’s interview titled Bystandership—One Can Make a Difference—published in his book, The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil.
I wore my therapist’s hat all day yesterday. My brain is still percolating with the ramifications of the seminar’s subject, Self-Compassion: An Antidote to Shame, and its relevance. How do we manage the day-to-day shaming behaviors of our president and our elected officials? I see and feel shame every day.
According to the psychological research on mindfulness and well-being, the best antidote to shame is self-compassion. But how does one attend to self-compassion if we are feeling angry, disgusted, anxious, overwhelmed, worried, scared, and incredulous? How often have I responded to a news alert or a banner on my i-phone with an out loud shout: “Unbelievable!”
As a therapist, during the decade of the eighties, my most challenging work involved clients with repressed memories of early childhood sexual abuse. Shame infused every session. Empathy and compassion for the client’s struggle, developing trust and a sense of safety, were key. The goal: to enable clients to face their story and to cultivate empathy and self-compassion.
Several of my most challenging clients uncovered events, came to an intellectual understanding, but continued to struggle with esteem and lifestyle choices that might ease their suffering. Shame and self-blame, often in the remembered voice of a stern and blaming parent, held a strong grip.
I don’t think it’s too big a stretch to say that our democracy is in the grip of a blaming, self-absorbed leader who puts family and friends first. Many pundits have likened his bullying to mob style leadership with all the innuendoes of secrecy, switch and bait, “what I can get away with” behaviors. For 483 days, we have been in the throes of a man decimating President Obama’s legacy and attempting to deconstruct our institutions. Abuse, in word and deed, are rampant.
Considering how Trumpian leadership triggers fear and undermines our sense of safety, I share the essence of yesterday’s 6-hour seminar on how self-compassion can be a significant resource in managing the stress of daily events. According to the seminar instructor, Chris Germer, PhD, a member of the Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance, self-compassion consists of three main components—
2. Common humanity: recognizes the shared nature of suffering when difficult situations occur.
3. Mindfulness: involves turning inward toward our painful thoughts and emotions and seeing them as they are without suppression or avoidance.
Ask yourself, What do I need now? Is it a cup of soothing, hot tea, a walk in nature, a good book, talking with a friend, listening to music or working in the garden before the rain comes as I did earlier today? After planting the Zahara flame zinnias and deep purple stock plants, I felt relaxed and ready to tackle this post.
In this Trump era, we need to approach information mindfully and adopt a self-compassionate attitude. In so doing, we can sustain our empathy and compassion for others like the #Never Again and #Me Too Movements, the Dreamers, the refugees at the border, the women in danger of losing their healthcare under Title 10, and the many more who are vulnerable to every day threats to their safety and well-being.
A week ago, I posted a picture of myself facing a large bowl of fresh fruits holding an “86” candle. At that moment in time, looking into the flame of light, the abundance of color and sweetness arranged by my daughter, surrounded by my husband, daughter, her significant other and two granddaughters, my heart soared with gratitude.
Several Facebook friends commented on how happy I looked. A runner/writer friend said, “Yay, interesting, the cake you Bostonians eat.” I replied, “Yes,” and delicious, too.”
Do I feel 86? No. According to recent scientific studies, accenting the positive, such as embracing gratitude, has a positive effect on aging. The May 3rdBoston Globe highlighted a Washington Post article about how our attitudes about aging can effect our aging process. .https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/cliches-about-only-being-as-old-as-you-feel-are-starting-to-have-scientific-backing/2018/04/13/4ccd9c4a-3125-11e8-8abc-22a366b72f2d_story.html?utm_term=.d130e75d145e
Paola Sebastiani, a researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health, reports, Aging well is not only delaying disease…feeling good about your life is an important aspect of healthyaging.
It turns out that I am not alone in feeling younger. One study found that as people age, they consistently say they feel younger—“much younger”—than their actual age. In truth, when I ask myself how old I feel, I’m a little flummoxed. As I look in the mirror, walk the stairs in my house, practice Tai Chi, change the linens on the bed, garden, write, discuss, plan ahead, eighty-six is hard to believe. It’s not that I’m slowing down. Of course I am, but not much. Engagement, learning, following my curiosity, sharing with others, continues on.
I was a sheltered child. Yet, on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps seven or eight years old, I accompanied my parents to a visit to an Uncle’s home where, upon retrospect, I participated in a death vigil for Great Aunt Becky. She was truly old (though I have no idea how old), lying in a double bed—tiny, emaciated, smiling wanly, waiting to die. The image never left me. The article cites William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.
Negative views about aging are communicated to us early in life, through media, books, and movies and what our friends and family tell us…These attitudes are present and pervasive already in childhood, so naturally it’s hard to enact meaningful change to these attitudes—but that’s what we are trying to do at the moment.
After many health events, I have learned about the importance of mindful listening to my body. This birthday, I decided to break a family tradition. Because I have a history of candida and am lactose intolerant, I asked my daughter to bring dessert but to forego the family tradition of a Lizzy’s coffee-oreo yogurt cake laced with chocolate sauce. Savvy in her own choices, I was grateful for the ease in which she honored my request for a bowl of my favorite fruits including pesticide-free, organic strawberries filled with sweetness.
Can a quiet novel written about a self-effacing, reflective character named Ben draw you in and transport you from the miasma of current events? I am grateful to my Solstice MFA colleague, James Anderson, for creating Lullaby Road, his second book about Ben Jones, a twenty-eight-foot tractor-trailer driver in the high desert of Utah who embraces the expanse of isolation and space while surrounded by characters with challenging circumstances.
I follow the poetic rhythm of Anderson’s words. There is no need to hurry, to find out what’s next. I linger, pause over Ben’s description of his route— tall grasses and twisted junipers, mountains of tires, filled with hissing rattlesnakes—as he delivers drums of water, propane, essential items to his varied customers
I rarely had sharp discussions with my customers. I rarely had discussions at all. Silence joined with indifference to keep conversation to nods and shrugs. Sometimes it almost compensated for how long it took some of them to pay me.
Every aspect of Ben’s life—the landscape, troublesome and endearing customers, friends and loves still on this earth and those who have passed—are woven into the fabric of this novel. Yes, Ben is fictional, contained on the pages of a book, born from Anderson’s imagination. Yet, he is real and lingers long after I leave the page.
Characters, such as John The Preacher, Ginny, a teen, the Doctor, serve to speak the author’s truth. Combination philosopher, poet, human being with a high moral code, and exceptional story–teller, Anderson commits to bringing us a character of moral integrity. Ben Jones is the antithesis of Washington insiders, the subjects of our everyday news, the stories in which we are drowning.
…too damn often a gun might seem like a preserver….I considered them a tool…carrying one around all day was like putting a wrench in your pocket in case one of your nuts came loose. In my experience it seemed that once you started carrying the wrench you started suspecting everyone’s nuts were loose except your own.
I met Ben three years ago in the pages of Anderson’s first book, The Never-Open Desert Diner.It was a page-turner, part mystery, love story and desert journey. I have been to the Southwest desert twice. Both times, I welcomed the change from the frenetic pace of the East coast as I entered the ease of meditative wanderings evoked by the landscape.
I walked out to the front of the truck and paused to watch the sun come up over the desert. …. the white expanse of snow-covered ground began to stretch out before me farther and farther until the sheer cliff face of the red, mica-flaked mesa a hundred miles distant was revealed, its flat top still obscured by clouds and behind them the first piercing rays of sunlight. And forbidding as the desert might be in summer, it was nothing compared to the silent and cold emptiness of winter…. Utah 117 ran straight through its bloodless heart. Driving it was my job…I felt safer in a natural world no matter how treacherous and unforgiving…
At the end of the day, tucked into the quiet night, I am drawn to the next phase of Ben’s journey. Satisfied and grateful for each well-crafted chapter, I sleep well, often dreaming of red adobe mountains, desert, and endless, high-country highway.
Gun ownership is on my mind. This week, following the dramatic progression of the Marjory Stoneham students Never Again marches “to make change against and stop gun violence,” I shared The Other 98% ‘s picture of a Republican hunter’s March 24th poster on Facebook with the comment: “A man with perspective and conscience.”
I was grateful a local friend had posted the picture and wanted to pass it on for others to see. It felt like a breakthrough, perhaps an opening of meaningful dialogue.
As a therapist, I am always curious about what particular image or piece of information draws us in and stirs meaningful links. On the surface, I was drawn to a hopeful feeling by this man’s poster.
60—YEARS A HUNTER
50—YEARS A REPUBLICAN
I NEVER SHOT 17 DEER AT ONCE
BAN ASSAULT WEAPONS
Only when I began to write this blog did I realize my long history with hunters and gun violence.
I first encountered the violence a gun could render on the front stoop of my home on Route One in Portland, Maine. My parent, especially my mom, was protective. It would never have occurred to her to shield me from sitting on the front stairs. Every fall, I watched a parade of deer strapped to station wagon rooftops as hunters drove homeward from the Maine woods. I had no words, just the raw instinct of a child’s first sight of a bullet wound circled in blood on a gentle “Bambi’s” chest. Years later, this poem emerged.
Along Route One, Portland Maine, 1939
Five years old, on the front steps, as
she watched the parade of cars, she saw
a gentle “Bambi,” her legs splayed & roped,
riding atop a station wagon.
Curious about a deer asleep on a car,
it was when she saw the next, its head slack,
its body dripping dried blood, that
she winced as though that shot
had gone straight through herself.
She wanted to run
but her eyes could not turn
from that endless caravan of prey.
Years later, she would learn of other carnages.
Already, she knew to cry.
Only once, on a trip to Alaska, to visit a friend and colleague, have I been party to men shooting guns at close range. Our host, a liberal and Alaskan enthusiast invited us to join a friend’s dinner party to try “bear” steaks. Because I had cut back from eating meat, I was hesitant but drawn to what was described as an “Alaskan adventure.” When the brown-crusted steaks were served, I took one taste and pushed my plate away. It was far too tough and gamey.
But the highlight, for the four men, was the opportunity to target practice in the backyard with a pistol and live bullets. I watched from the window, repelled and repulsed by the sight. Even for “fun,” watching through a window at a safe distance, the shots rang straight through me.
I’m grateful to the committed teens who have lived their lives under the threat of school shooting violence and who continue to stand firm in their #Never Again resolve.
In the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School shooting, the wisest, most engaged words and actions have come from adolescent survivors.
In the throes of grief, pain, fear, love, sadness, and shock, they have gathered and coalesced into the #Never Again movement.
I am a mother and grandmother of five grandchildren ranging from 14 to 26 years. The deceased Marjory Stoneham Douglas students and those students who live on could be my grandkids. Their fervor, their outrage that an assault weapon in the hands of a fellow student maimed and killed their coach, two teachers and fourteen classmates, sears my heart.
As a therapist for over 40 years, I sat with survivors of trauma. Those who suffered the worst were frozen with fear and helplessness. Speaking out, advocacy and action are essential steps in healing—for each of these young people, for their parents and friends, for the community at large.
I am grateful to watch, listen to, read, share and support their words.
Cameron Kasky, a junior, said, One of the things we’ve been hearing is that it’s not yet time to talk about gun control, and we respect that. We’ve lost 17 lives, and our community took 17 bullets to the heart. So here’s the time we’re going to talk about gun control: March 24…The March for Our Lives is going to be in every major city, and we are organizing it so students everywhere can beg for their lives. https://marchforourlives.com.
At a rally for gun control at the Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Emma Gonzalez said, We are going to be the students you read about in textbooks…We are going to be the last mass shooting… We are going to change the law…We need to pay attention that this was not just a mental health issue. He (David Kraus) would not have harmed that many students with a knife.
That us kids don’t understand what we’re talking about that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call B.S.
Yahoo News cites Delaney Tarr, a senior and co-organizer of next month’s March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. She admitted that it’s “scary” to think that students have emerged as the country’s leading voices on the issue of gun control… To see us listed as these heroes, as these bastions of change, it’s scary, because we are teenagers… We are children.
Speaking from the heart is what we do best, Delaney said. It is based in passion. And it is based in pain. Our biggest flaws, our tendency to be a bit too aggressive, our tendency to lash out — things that you expect from a normal teenager — these are our strengths.
I could not agree more. Delaney’s words match my experience of the potential well of passion now harnessed in the need to make a difference, to right the wrong of an AR-15 rifle ambush, which enveloped their school less than a week ago.
For those who cast doubt that teenagers can lead the way in changing our nation’s gun laws, I offer this recent post from a friend’s niece.
Anyone who thinks high school students can’t organize on their own has clearly never heard of Barbara Johns. At age 16, she lured the principal away from the school with a fake phone call, sent students to each classroom to announce an assembly, and, once the auditorium was filled, ordered the teachers to leave. She then led a student strike and walked on the mayor’s office with 450 students demanding a better school.
Barbara contacted the ACLU, and when they came to check it out, they told the teens that in order to pursue a lawsuit, they would have to convince their parents to join them. Yep — the kids had to convince the parents. You may have heard of that lawsuit. It was called Brown v. Board of Education.” For details, see https://zinnedproject.org/…/barbara-johns-leads-1951…/
There is no doubt that the practice of jazz and blues grounds me every day. The rhythms, the pivot of note sequences, their unexpected sounds, delight, challenge, and frustrate me.
Old habits, dormant all the years of absence, awaken as I tackle a new piece. One cannot approach syncopated rhythms or swing with the same mindset as the repetitive rhythms of a simple Bach sonata. Yet, my mind leaps in search of predictability.
What is predictable is the need for focus and effort. To become acquainted with a new piece, I sight read. I try on the piece, test my ability to follow the upper clef melody or lay down the rhythms in the lower clef. The decision to dig in and learn the piece is mine. As an adult learner, I make the choices based on appeal and intuition. Unlike the strict tutelage I endured as a child, I am as responsible for strategy and questions as my teacher.
The work is demanding, requiring inordinate patience with myself. I have been here before— at the crossroads of embracing a challenge, wondering if I have bitten off more than I can chew. The irony of learning jazz and blues is that the simplest, most basic pieces are boring.
Parts of my first book by Martha Meir, found at a local music store, were challenging enough to lead me through the frustration of fingering and counting new rhythms into a sense of possible mastery.
With increased confidence, I purchased Meir’s books 2, 3 and 4. Book 2 called out to me immediately. The piece, Misty Night Blues, infused delight like the first taste of hot fudge over vanilla ice cream. Since beginning lessons, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. Without knowing how, I make choices that work well for me.
During yesterday’s lesson, after playing a piece, Kim, my teacher, asked, “Did you notice any funky rhythms?” I had, acknowledging that I had “faked” or improvised one measure. Rendering the mix of an eighth rest, sixteenth and eighth notes all in 4 beats had frustrated and eluded me during practice sessions.
Kim reached for the music, took out her pencil and drew a straight line between every note and signature in the top and bottom measures. As I followed Kim’s mapping, my hands eased over the keys. I came away with a new keenness to tackle the “funky” parts of two other pieces. Jazz and blues demand precision. I must, in effect, contain my impulse to improvise until I master what the composer intended.
Some days, the Trump era news is so rattling, I fear I will not be able to concentrate. But once at the keyboard, beginning with a piece I know well, allowing my mind and body to merge and become entrained into the sound of coordinated rhythms, I am grateful to engage in possibility.
Every December, as the winter Solstice nears and daylight recedes too early into darkness, I search my garden catalogue for the perfect balm: an amaryllis bulb. I pour over amaryllis flowers in bloom—vivid red, lush white, soft peach, striated cherry. Each one is regal on its tall stem. Each one beckons: choose me.
I began the ritual decades ago when my mother was alive, a widow in winter, struggling with children and grandchildren grown, a husband buried. The first time I brought Mom a potted bulb, she was intrigued. Mom listened intently as I explained the importance of bright light and careful watering to bring the plant to bloom. The table by the picture window where she sat to watch the birds at the feeder was perfect.
I recall the phone calls, the delight in her voice, as she described the two graceful green points peaking from the soil, their bulging growth, their transformation on stalks into eight perfect blooms. By mid-March, the blooms died off and long arching leaves rose from the base of the stems, lifting Mom through to the end of winter.
She and I never did take the step to sink the leafy pot into the spring soil, to let it thrive in the summer months and re-build its bulb. The extra chore, to return in the fall at the exact right time, to lift the bulb, repot, set it into a cool place to rest (but to make certain it did not dry out entirely), seemed too challenging.
Since Mom’s death in 1994, I have continued to choose a new amaryllis every December. Coming onto a full year of Trump, I shied away from the very bright reds. They seemed too celebratory, too brilliant for my heart. Drawn to the lime green, there was just the one, I was too close to the sadness of the season. Softness in color, some green, some white, mostly blush, seemed right. I ordered the Amaryllis Nagano.
As I write, the Nagano, now in full bloom, sits on a wide bookcase ledge facing a south picture window. Within days of arriving, I hand mixed moistened soil in a wide vat, packed it into the base of a pot, set the bulb and fanned the roots on top, layering the soil just below the neck of the bulb.
Perhaps, it was my anticipation, how much in this fitful, unpredictable political and environmental climate, I needed a sign that growth was possible. In six days, the green tips emerged. Thankfully, I have a little instrument that measures wet and dry and protects me from over watering and causing rot. Like Mom, I feel delight as each bloom opens and reveals its striated color and green throat. Like Mom, I am sad as each blossom fades and dies off.
Upon seeing the plant in bloom, a gardening friend asked if I were going to rebuild the bulb. I’m grateful for her question. It seemed apt as the women’s movement grows, the metaphor of embracing and taking on the more complex task of rebuilding and cultivating possibility for sustained growth.
I have the privilege, twice a year, as an alumna of the Solstice Creative Writing MFA of Pine Manor program, to audit classes. This past Friday, I participated in an intimate community gathering in which Nicole Terez Dutton (poetry faculty) and Dr. Prabakar Thyaragajan (psychiatrist and poet) presented and led students, faculty and staff in a discussion of Writing as Balm, Armor and Resistance.
The Solstice group is diverse in gender, identity, age, and experience. United by the bond of writing, we are, as a group engaged, informed and sensitive to information and the world in which we live. To say that writers as a whole are more sensitive than most might be a stretch. Yet, I believe it to be true.
Writers read voraciously. Writers scan their universe, both wide and intimate, for the details of what is apparent and what is beneath the surface. Story, above all else draws us like a moth to flame. We watch on the subway, we listen at the train station, and in the coffee line at Peets. We observe couples, families, friends. Wired to story, we absorb and chronicle.
In this context, Nicole Terez Dutton set the stage to step back and identify all the variable assaults to our dignity as a nation, as a people of diversity, as a group of involved individuals struggling to live through and manage this wild, chaotic Trump era and its effects of what was once reliable and, for the most part, with precedence.
When she highlighted the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s 14 warning signs of Fascism and ticked them off, one by one, with incidents of this past year, we grasped the full sweep of the dangerous trajectory of leadership in our country.
We have to work against Fascism, we have to help each other to survive, she said.
In introducing Dr. Prabakar Thyaragajan, she said, we need strategies to be well, stay well, to be with each other.
In this spirit, I am grateful to share a brief account of Prabakar’s positivity philosophy of self- care.
I experienced delight when Prabakar said, the simplest way to listen to the self is to keep a journal (he keeps his on his phone, a novel idea to me). His directions to track sensations are simple and basic to the practice of mindfulness.
Nicole ended with inviting the audience to respond and state how each of us are managing. Solstice writers stood and spoke out about their own struggle and efforts to bring self to the page, to speak to systems of oppression, to take on projects that are satisfying and not too demanding, to bring solace and sustained work to ourselves.
I shared how writing this gratitude blog sustains my creativity while trying to make a difference. I ask each of you reading today to add to the conversation. Please contribute your approach and point of view and write a comment!