Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Dreaded Check List

I fantasize about being perfectly organized.  Since my memory is selective at the best of times, that requires a check list.

Unfortunately, my Inner Teen detests check lists.  If it's on the list, she immediately finds something else to do, or engages in an argument with my Inner Parent that lasts until it is too late to do anything.

I've tried the "sit on the couch until I feel like doing something" approach.  That works fairly well, unless I happen to be angry, exhausted, sick, frightened or depressed.  In that case, the only thing I will feel like doing is going to the bathroom.

Most days, I use the "one to three things" approach.  I pick at least one thing that is really bugging me and make it my project for the day.  If I manage to accomplish that, I am often so jubilant that I leap into another task in order to experience that sense of triumph again.

This morning, in a moment of madness, I composed a check list called MY DAILY GOALS.  These are things which I am doing some of the time, but would like to do every day.  There are a LOT of those.  Failure to accomplish any one of these provides me with a perfect opportunity to beat myself up.  The whole thing is self-defeating, because if I do everything on the list, I won't have any time to do anything else, and life will be incredibly boring.

I was clever enough to use a small piece of paper, which forced me to stop at 8 items.   That's probably too many, but I'm going to keep track of my progress for a week.  Not so I can beat myself up about what's missing, but so I can prove to myself that I am accomplishing SOMETHING.

So -- in case you want to cheer me on, here's my latest list of daily goals:
1. Be dressed by 9AM (which is an upgrade from "be dressed by 10AM")
2. Eat breakfast by 10AM (after that, it's brunch).  
3. Exercise for at least 20 minutes . (I can survive 20 minutes most days, and often continue after the time is up, provided I remember to START.)
4. Sing for at least 10 minutes.  (I listen to a lot of music, but making it has gone by the wayside.  I'm losing my voice to age and disuse, and I am sad about that.)
5. Throw something out, or put it in the give-away box. (Getting rid of something always boosts my mood.)
6. Write something longer than a grocery list.  Poem, story, letter, blog, whatever.
(Writing is a proven anti-depressant for me.)
7. Walk outdoors, weather permitting. (Another proven anti-depressant.)
8. Pray for my family. (I often forget to do that while I am praying for everyone else in the world.)

I have accumulated five check-marks today.  As soon as I post this, I can add another one.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Mother's Albatross

Last night, I opened my personal emotional Pandora's Box.  My mother's trilogy  manuscript, which haunted both of us for so long that we nicknamed it "The Albatross."  The heroine, Annuschka Niemand ("Nobody"), was Katinka Kuhner (my mother) in disguise, living through the turbulence of World War II in Germany.  The Albatross began as a memoir, but Katinka decided to fictionalize it to avoid possible complications.

Sometime in midlife, on a farm in Southern Ontario which she called her personal Shangri-La, Katinka decided to discover the truth about her past.  Her father had a Jewish grandmother (although Katinka did not know this until late in life).  Her mother was a chronic rebel who wore bloomers for competitive rowing at teacher's college, rejected evangelical Christianity for progressive atheism, and was briefly a probationary member of the Communist party.  From the beginning, Katinka's parents saw Hitler for who he really was.

What to tell the children as the blight spread over Germany?  The best way to keep them safe from reprisals was to lie to them about the nature of the new Messiah who was going to recreate Eden in Germany.  The more dangerous way was to tell them the truth and then teach them how to lie about it in order to survive.

Katinka was not yet a teen-ager when she first became aware of the Nazism.  The labyrinth of lies that she had to navigate plunged her into permanent confusion.  After years of reflection and thousands of pages of writing, she concluded that the whole truth was not accessible, but her experiences were valid and she wanted to share them.

In 1980, we started working together on her manuscript.  It was just supposed to be a minor editing job for me, but I got involved.  I wanted this trilogy of hers to become a best seller.  At that time, I had published a couple of articles, and was more driven by my English teacher genes than any deep knowledge of the publishing business.  I wanted to write to the market as I understood it.  She wanted to be heard in her own voice, just as she was.  We sent a lot of lengthy letters back and forth, but we never solved the problem.  I managed to finish editing the first volume of her trilogy before I became overwhelmed with other activities.  The people who read her books commented on the superior quality of the writing of the first volume.  Nonetheless, she felt that I had mutilated her baby.

After a decade of numerous revisions and correspondence with writing groups and publishers, she stashed the whole thing -- alternate versions, commentaries, and miscellaneous information -- in the drawer of a filing cabinet.  A couple of years later, the drawer broke from the weight.  By that time, she had lost interest in the project and was going to shred it.  I volunteered to adopt it, provided I could do whatever I wanted with it.  I was harboring a fantasy of re-writing the work, publishing it, and proudly dropping a book with her name on it in her lap.  

The Albatross now lives in a blue Rubbermaid container in my spare closet.  I made a couple of efforts to work on it, but whenever I did, I became so depressed that I stopped.  It is not easy reading.  The guilt that she felt for living in the midst of evil without finding a way to fight against it haunted her for the rest of her life. 

I miss hearing those stories in her own voice.  Now they exist only on paper, and I have to decide what to do.  Shred them, and try to escape?  Resume my unfinished editorial business?  Or leave things as they are and let my descendants decide?

Katinka wrestled mightily with God.  Towards the end of her life, she said, "Why should I be the prisoner of someone else's fantasy?" and gave up on religion.  She did not expect to continue existing after physical death, except perhaps as a anonymous part of an all-pervading spiritual entity.  If she did finally encounter God face to face, they had a lot to talk about.

THOUGHTS IN THE NIGHT (by Annuschka Niemand, age 19, after returning to Hamburg to                        discover that all the Jewish people had disappeared.  Translated from                                German by Katinka.)
     I want to live!
     I live in shame!
     I am refreshed and still receive my daily bread.
     With heavy heart I cannot move --
     Why don't I help?

     Far away from shelter and love
     My brothers and sisters live in despair,
     Accompanied daily by death and fear --
     And hate, the bitter enemy.

    How much longer, O God,
    Will you let your children cry?
    Why is there no help?

    Why don't you help?
    No answer? 

    Only your silence from eternity.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Yet Another Account of the Fall

God walked in the garden, calling his children.

He knew where they were, but he wanted them to know where he was, so he kept calling, pretending to search for them.

He found them huddled behind some bushes, arguing about fashion design. 

"Hello," God said.  "What's happenin'?"

"We're making clothes," Adam said.  "Eve refuses to cover her chest unless I do too.  Can you set her straight?"

"So you have discovered shame," God said.  "Any particular reason?"

"Nope," Adam said. "We just thought you'd find us more presentable if we covered up."

"And you discovered lying, too," God said. "That's a lot in one day.  Did you eat some of that fruit I warned you about?"

"No," Adam said quickly.

"No, of course not," Eve echoed.

Good stared at them sadly, close to tears.

"It wasn't my fault," Adam said.  "She made me do it!"

"No, I didn't.  I just suggested," Eve jumped in.  "And anyway, what's the big deal?  We're OK.  We didn't die."

"But you will," God said.  "And until you do, you will know shame and blame and deception, and the universe will throw your evil back at you.  What was a gift will now have to be earned, with sweat and toil and tears."

"It's not fair!" Eve exploded.  "Why did you let that stupid snake in here?  He told me you were jealous, and it looks like he was right.  If this was so important, why didn't you protect us?"  She looked at God with pleading eyes.  "We didn't really eat the fruit, you know.  We were just taking little bites to see what it was like."

"You have now entered a new phase of your existence," God said with kindly finality.  You can't stay here any longer."

Eve made one final effort to set God straight.  "You're over-reacting, if you ask me."  

God did not answer.  He made them clothes of fur to keep them warm, and escorted them out of the Garden.

"You wanted to do your own thing," God said. "Now you can."

"I always wondered what was out here," Adam said.  "It's so big!  How will we find our way?"

"By trial and error.  Be as kind to each other as you can.  You are morally independent now, and you will need each other more than ever."

Adam took Even's hand.  "Let's go,"

Eve started to cry.  "Can't we compromise?  I didn't mean what I said."

"You're on your own now," God said gently. "Free to find your own way."

"No more talks in the evening?" Adam asked wistfully.  

"No.  But if you sit quietly and listen, you will hear the echo of my voice."

Saturday, March 04, 2017

40 Days of Transformation

What am I doing differently for Lent this year?


At least, nothing intentional.  I may be suffering from additional guilt for not having a spiritually enlightened answer to the question.

I have joined a Facebook group -- "The Lenten Project" -- in the hope that it might inspire me.  I am overwhelmed by the effort the members are making to fill what remains of the 40 days with meaningful efforts to draw closer to God.  The person I relate to most is struggling to emerge from depression and anxiety and is trying to emerge from her "comfortable cocoon" by posting on the site daily.

I am in a cocoon too, but it is anything but comfortable.  Since my mother died in July 2015, just after my 71st birthday, my life has been a perpetual Lent with no resurrection in sight.  I have worked hard to take care of myself, interact with other people, and get closer to God, and I have seen some progress.   I dream of waking up some morning and discovering that I have enough courage and energy to carry out the plans I made so hopefully the day before.

In the "good old days" (that would be the Fifties), Lent was less complicated.  The most popular things for people to give up for Lent were booze or candy.  Their bodies probably thanked them for that sacrifice, but very few made the change permanent, perhaps because it would mean thinking of something different to give up the following year.

Hard-liners went to extra church services, fasted on Fridays, or gave up meat.  If they gained any benefits from these practices, they did not discuss them with me.

My mother explained to me that giving up something costly that we enjoyed would free up money to give to people in need.  That made sense to me, but I never actually tried doing it.  My one big Lenten experiment in my teens consisted of giving up reading the comic strips in our daily paper.  I couldn't give up TV because we didn't have electricity. Abstaining from those comics was incredibly difficult, but I did it.  I had no inclination to do it again.

Today's Lenten disciplines seem much more elaborate, and often center around improved self-care, as well as spiritual reading and intentional acts of charity.  Doing a random act of kindness daily takes a lot more imagination than abstaining from one's nightcap.  

A lot of people complain of being over-stressed and not having enough time, longing to simplify their schedules and find a niche for rest and possibly prayer.  Making even a small change can be a huge challenge, difficult to sustain.

Some gurus of Lenten disciplines seem determined to make Lent a guilt trip rather than a voyage of discovery.  If we are really serious about the whole idea, we must fast from injustice, greed, resentment, self-indulgence, and every imaginable manifestation of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Others will tell us that baby steps are all we can manage, and God's grace will supply the rest.

All I know for sure is that I am looking forward to Easter.  My cocoon is getting awfully tight.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Lament of a Dinosaur

When I was in my forties, I noticed that many people in their seventies seemed to be suffering from future shock.  There were too many changes, too many losses.  Too much activity around them, disrupting their familiar rhythms.  Too much information. Too many new things to learn.  Instead of helping their grandchildren with their homework, they were asking them for technical advice to operate their television remotes.

Today, I know how it feels to navigate the Labyrinth of Creeping Senility.  It seems that nobody under fifty can begin to understand where I am coming from.  I'm a dinosaur, trapped in a cumbersome, ever-deteriorating body, watching newly-minted mammals scurry about, taking over my world. 

Mother Theresa said that the greatest poverty of all is to be unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.   While I have sometimes felt unwanted, unloved and uncared for, logic tells me that I have never actually been in that pit of desolation.  My personal poverty is the overwhelming feeling that I have nothing more to offer to anyone.  Life as I know it is over.

The classic advice for this state of mind is to find something to do.  Broaden your horizons, learn new skills, meet new people, help the less fortunate.  Forget yourself and your woes, and your serotonin levels will soar. Your endorphins will dance again.  Think positively, and you, too, can stop the clock and be as old as you think you are.  You can become the very model of a modern centenarian, celebrating life on the cover of Zoomer in full belly-dance regalia..

It is great to dream about alluring opportunities, to browse possibilities, to make plans for an endless parade of adventures.  But then morning comes.   Just getting out of bed is my personal Mount Everest.  Once upon a time, I could be showered, dressed, and ready to go in 20 minutes.  Now the process takes about an hour and a half.  And I'm just in the early stages of ageing.  How long will it take when I'm ninety?

Beating myself up for my uselessness is not going to accomplish anything.  The best alternative I can think of is to invent some creative uselessness, seasoned with laughter.  

The past is past.  But, until further notice, there is still a future to be explored and celebrated.  Love can flourish at any age. Beauty and joy will always be right in front of me, if I choose to see them.  Human life, despite its chronic toil and tribulation, is a banquet of miracles.  Even when my steps slow down, the dance goes on.

Today may be the last day I have.  It is mine to seize.  This dinosaur is not extinct yet.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015


A recent Facebook post about "tone policing" summoned a powerful memory from my subconscious. The incident haunted me for hours.   If I had any delusions of grandeur, they were swept away by the realization of my utter helplessness when faced with the challenge of suffering.

I had just finished presenting a workshop called "Taking Care of Each Other."  I had confidently told people that nothing is beyond God's grace, and the way we live in community incarnates that message.  We are blessed to be a blessing.  A number of people told their stories.  We finished with a Eucharist.  I felt that a lot of healing had taken place.

As we were enjoying the traditional post-meeting coffee and dainties, I was approached by a man I had not seen before.  Even before he opened his mouth, it was clear to me that he was a firestorm of rage.  His eyes snapped with anger, he moved with the decisiveness of a man who would not be denied, and his body seemed to emanate a fiery energy field.

He made it clear that he was not part of our group, and did not wish to be.  He had come to pick up his mother, that's all.  But he was holding a sheet of paper with a page and a half of hand-written text, and he wanted me, a complete stranger, to read it.

It was a concise and direct account of his sexual abuse by church clergy.  As I read it, m heart sank.  I had no reason to doubt any of it.  I had nothing to say. I was not responsible for what happened to him, but I was involved by virtue of my affiliation with the church.

I didn't say much.  I told him that he was a courageous man to walk into a church after what happened to him, and that his anger was more than justified. He talked about what his life had been like.  As the waves of his rage flowed over me, I wondered what I could possibly do to help. I probably tried to make the point that God was just as upset about this as he was.

In time, the man wound down sufficiently to concede that not all people in the Christian church are terminally evil.  He admitted that he liked the nuns in elementary school because they were kind to him.

He began to walk away.  "Sit down," I said without thinking.  "Sit down and I will pray for you." 

To my surprise, he stopped and came back.  Perhaps I reminded him of one of those kind nuns.  I laid hands on him and prayed fervently that he would get to know the real Jesus, not the false image the priests had burdened him with.  That was all I had to give.

He seemed calmer when he left.  Hopefully, this was one small step in his healing process.  Instead of planting a bomb under the foundation of the church, he had walked in and told his story to one person.  Despite what had happened to him, he found the faith to sit down and let a complete stranger pray for him.  Somewhere under that avalanche of anger, there was hope.

The Gospel of John states that Light shines in the darkness, and darkness can never put it out.  The Christmas story which we love to re-tell is a story of a baby born to an obscure couple in a violent, corrupt society under military occupation.  The joyful song of the angels is quickly followed by a savage massacre of toddlers by Herod's soldiers.

The surviving baby grows up to become a man who refuses to be silenced, no matter what the cost.  He alienates his family and his religious community, and soon faces torture and death at the hands of the Powers that Be.  The story does not end there, because hatred and evil cannot overcome love any more than darkness can overcome light.

I have made a covenant with God to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbour as myself.  I have no idea how to accomplish this mission, but I know Somebody who does.   Love is God's final answer to everything.  That's why we can't stop trying to usher in the Kingdom of God, even if we can see no reason to hope.

Monday, December 07, 2015


Our church bulletin at St. Thomas has really good fillers.  One of them yesterday was entitled Christmas Thoughts, by an anonymous author.

It's sharing your gifts, not purchasing gifts;
It's not wrapping presents, it's being present
and wrapping your arms around the ones you love;
It's not getting Christmas cards out on time,
It's sending any card, anytime, at the right time;
It's not having the biggest and best
Christmas light display,
It's displaying the Christ light
that comes from your heart;
It's not Santa coming down the chimney,
It's Jesus coming down from heaven,
and giving us the gift of eternal life.
The part that comforted me particularly was the idea that Christmas is not about getting Christmas cards out on time.  The only time I ever managed to do that was when I started sending them out in July.  I like getting Christmas cards, and buying Christmas cards, and I always have big plans for sending Christmas cards, because I really want to share some good cheer, love, and hope.  But I get stuck.  Right now, my grand total is up to 6.
I've been trying to figure this out . . . 
Could it be that I miss those people?  Miss them a lot? 

Saturday, December 05, 2015


The traditional season of New Years resolutions is approaching.  This year, I am going to beat the rush.

When my husband died five years ago, my counselor asked me to define healthy grieving.   I came up with:

1. Tell the truth.
2.  Feel the feelings.
3.  Celebrate the good stuff.
4.  Forgive the bad stuff.
5.  Live as fully as possible.

I haven't mastered any of those intentions, so there is no need to change them anytime soon.  Who knows?  They might turn out to be important keys to healthy living.

Thursday, December 03, 2015


It seems that my "silent period", when I wasn't officially writing, was not as silent as I thought.  I keep finding documents scrawled in longhand.  I was working very hard to get my head straight and figure out my priorities.  These observations were probably written a year ago.

If I feel trapped and helpless, I will get depressed.

If I believe my choices are meaningless, I will get depressed.

If I believe that the desires of others are more important than my own, I will get depressed.

If I feel worthless, I will get depressed.

If pleasure and empowerment are defined by controlling others, I will get depressed.

                                     * * *

Freedom for myself and others is the soil in which love can grow.

Giving is not a trap unless there is a hidden agenda.

Doing what I want conserves my energy by eliminating inner conflict.

Self-improvement has no intrinsic merit.  I don't have to climb to the very top of the mountain to enjoy the view.


Here it is, folks -- the annual Christmas letter. I have lots and lots of Christmas cards, as well as seasonal stamps.  So all I have to do is put them in envelopes, address them, and send them off.  Hopefully, that will happen sooner rather than later.  I don't have a good track record for sending Christmas greetings. 

When I started thinking about composing my Christmas epistle, I considered writing several pages detailing all the challenges I have faced since I sold my house in Terrace Bay and moved into Thunder Bay.  The experience has confirmed that I am not a happy city dweller.  The traffic, the air, and the multitude of strangers all push my emotional reserves to the limit.  There were some compensations, especially when there were medical crises, but overall, I was pining for the intimacy of the community I had left, even if the mill sometimes made the air unbreathable.

My mother knew I was unhappy here, and offered to pay for my next move.  I was considering my options when she had her stroke.  At that time, I was grateful to be living nearby.

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Welcome to the season of Advent!  I hope that you will enjoy every minute of this magical time of year.

I am in transition now.  The Northern Ontario chapter of my life is drawing to a close, and I will be returning to the West this coming spring.  It won’t be the same as I remember, because there have been a lot of changes since I headed off to Hearst in June 1996.

Katinka suffered a catastrophic stroke and died in the early hours of July 25, right after my 71st birthday.  She was the one remaining person who has known me all my life.  I will miss her every day until I see her again.  It was probably the right time for her to go, since her quality of life was slowly spiralling downwards, but I wasn’t as ready as I thought I was.  I am now the oldest surviving female in my family line – a matriarch.  I hope some special privileges go with that.

My call now, as I see it, is to be a grandmother.  I have never had as much time with my grandchildren as I would have liked.  I am sure other activities will present themselves after my move, when I am ready for them.  For now, downsizing is the primary theme of my life.  I have been taking a load to the Salvation Army thrift shop almost every week.  Sometimes I can’t resist bringing something else home, but it is always less than I brought.

I visited my descendants in Edmonton twice this year, in the spring and in the fall.  Beth and I managed a brief escape to Miette Hot Springs. 

When Katinka died, I seemed to inherit her aches and pains.   I had a lot of trouble with my right leg, and was not able to resume my line dancing classes.  That was a big disappointment.  Fortunately, I am slowly healing.

Weather permitting, I will be spending Christmas in Terrace Bay this year.  I am very grateful for the invitation.  This will allow me to go to church with my former parishioners at St. Andrew’s United Church.  They are very special to me.  Three of them have died since I left, reminding me that nothing is permanent except change, and we must make the most of whatever life offers each day.

My situation resonates with the Christmas story.  When Mary became pregnant, she and Joseph had to leave their old life behind and undertake parenthood and a new lifestyle as a married couple.  As if that was not challenge enough, they were forced to flee their homeland and become refugees in the nation that had enslaved their people many years before.  When they finally returned home, both agony and glory awaited them.  There is no way of knowing or controlling what our future life will look like.  The best we can do is take one step at a time, in faith.  Even if we don’t have the road map or the GPS, we know Somebody who does.

May you all experience the glory of Christmas, and give and receive love, joy and peace.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


In the unlikely event that I will die at midnight tonight, here are my final instructions for all those I care about (you know who you are).  Failure to comply may result in hauntings, unexplained disasters, terminal guilt, and bad karma.

1. Love each other.

2. Share your stuff.

3. Pray together (really -- it works).

4. Every day, do something you really want to do (unless it's illegal, immoral, or deadly).

5. If you are feeling depressed, give someone a helping hand, a smile, and or a word of encouragement.  Repeat as necessary.

6. Think of some way to detoxify and revitalize the environment for yourself and the fellow tenants of Planet Earth.  Then get started.

7. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.  It is easier to say something later, after thinking things through, than it is to delete something you blurted out in the heat of the moment.

8. Take the time to make your compliments sincere and specific.

9. Don't judge people before you have had a chance to get to know them.

10. Don't use #9 as an excuse to avoid holding people accountable for their choices and actions.

12. Stop wasting time, energy, opportunities, and other resources at your disposal.  Today may your last chance to create something beautiful, useful, or inspiring.

13. Make your own music.  If you don't know how, start learning.

14. Improve your cooking skills.

15. Grow your own food, even if it is only a pot of herbs on your windowsill.

16. Make friends with your emotions.  There is no escape from inner turmoil.  The first step to taming your monsters is to acknowledge their existence.

17. Don't confuse DE NILE, a river in Egypt, with DENIAL, a toxic way of life. 

18. Hug those you love whenever you get the chance; respect the preferences of those who prefer a different form of communication.

19. Get to know animals and enjoy their antics, but don't mistake them for people.

20. When someone gives you advice, take what you can use and forgive the rest.  No matter what the outcome is, you and only you are responsible for your choices.

21. Remember that an honest enemy is generally less dangerous than a dishonest friend.

22. Go outside without your phone.  If you are scared to do this, take a friend with you.

23. Take time to observe yourself and others without judging.  Leave the Final Answer to God.

24. Take care of your body.  No replacements will be issued.

25. If you miss me, read my blogs.

These statements reflect my thoughts, feeling, and priorities today.  They are subject to additions, deletions, and amendments without notice.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Importance of Doing Something

If people are rewarded for doing nothing, they do more of it. Eventually, they forget that doing something is an option. When the rewards stop, they sit and cry over their losses. Or they get angry and destructive and try to make somebody else pay for the injustice they imagine has been done to them. Meanwhile, the people who are willing to do something have to carry heavier and heavier loads to compensate. Always do a little more than is expected of you, and soon more will be expected of you. No wonder there are so many crabby people in the world.

             (from an e-mail, January 2012)

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Drama Queens: A Generational Curse?

My maternal grandmother's life was an ongoing melodrama about the Perils of Christine, the poor victimized heroine who was misunderstood and undervalued by all. After a short, intense honeymoon period, all her relationships would end up being flushed down the toilet when other people refused to follow her scripts. Her episodes of chest congestion were imminent pneumonia and her hemorrhoids were colo-rectal cancer. She could scream and hit and throw things with the best of them.

She lived to be 92 in a world that failed to live up to her expectations, wondering why so few people came to sit at her feet and partake of her superior wisdom. Today, she would probably be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and walk out after the first ten minutes of cognitive therapy, proclaiming that the therapist was a charlatan and an idiot very much in need of an extended course of electroshock treatments.

My mother believed her mother's scams for a very long time. At age 85, she is still struggling with the fact that she was unable to please her mother. She honestly believed that her mother's soap opera was more important than her own. She got her self-esteem by devoting herself to me. When I told her that I was not interested in being the purpose of her life, it broke her heart.

I am a drama queen too, but I didn't dare to act out much until I grew up. I spent the decades between 20 and 40 trying to understand myself and control my destructive impulses. I flipped between extreme grandiosity and feeling that I was the worst piece of shit in the universe. No happy medium was possible.

My daughter held it all in. I wish she had been a drama queen. I would have been able to understand her better.

My granddaughter - ah! That's an adventure yet to be written. Hopefully, all the wisdom we have accumulated in the past generations will help.

It is better to have a drama queen child than a drama queen parent. If a parent understands what is going on, there is still hope for the child. Parents can get help, learn to cope, and maybe break the cycle.

The basic rule is simple: Figure out what the child needs (focused attention? limits? a break from being nice all the time? fair treatment? solitude? sleep?).  Then provide for those needs when he is not acting out. (Yes, there are male drama queens as well.)

Say no calmly, without blaming. Arrange things so that acting out is consistently counter-productive to achieving Her Majesty's self-willed goals. (We often reinforce negative behavior without realizing it.) Understand that unconditional love is not the same thing as unconditional surrender.

Get adequate rest, recreation, and de-programming. Work as a team with your spouse and other important care-givers. Get knowledgeable help with parenting skills, anger management, assertiveness and boundary-setting. While it is not possible to transform someone's essential personality style, it is possible to channel it in more positive directions.

In many cases, these things are generational. If we can break the cycle, the devastation is arrested and future generations have a better chance at the good life. Mental health is worth working for.

The bad news is, personal change takes a lot of energy. The good news is, it's worth it. Today's drama queen may be tomorrow's teacher or musician or politician or inventor. Who knows? She may even become a child psychologist.

Saturday, December 01, 2012


What's the difference between a back seat driver and a coach? A coach's opinion is solicited and valued. A back seat driver's wisdom, however clever and useful, is nothing more than annoying noise.

Ogden Nash (or was it Piet Hein?) counseled:
Don't take advice
at any price!
That to you
is my advice.

I would add to that: Don't give advice unless you are being handsomely reimbursed and have good malpractice insurance!

People who seek advice are generally looking for affirmation for decisions they have already made. Then, if things go wrong later, they can blame the adviser instead of taking responsibility for their own behavior.

People who give advice for free claim to have the best intentions, but their hidden agenda is generally world domination.  I know.  I am one of those people.  No matter how much I protest to the contrary, I secretly believe that the world would run perfectly if everyone did things MY way.

My mother told me that she felt guilty when she didn't follow my advice. The law in our family of origin was, IF YOU LOVE ME, DO WHAT I WANT. I told her that henceforth, I would try to abstain from offering unsolicited counsel and charge her 25 cents for any solicited advice . If she paid for it, it was hers to use or not as she saw fit. I made 50 cents on that agreement before we forgot about it, and we got a giggle or two.

I often find myself in a position where it seems imperative to repeat my standard warning: I am a person with strong opinions, and inclined to express them forcefully, but you don't have to do what I want just to please me. You are responsible for your own decisions and their consequences, so you have to do what you think is best for you.

In my early days of parish work, a lovely lady with no church affiliation consulted me about the fact that she was living with a man she was not married to. He was a recovering alcoholic with only a short period of sobriety, and she didn't want to be trapped in a relationship with him if he fell off the wagon. After hearing her out, I said I understood her concerns, and perhaps it would be better to wait before making a radical commitment.

She stared at me with horrified eyes, demanded WHAT KIND OF MINISTER'S WIFE ARE YOU? and sallied forth to tie the knot ASAP. I hope it worked out well for them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Still Alive

from an e-mail, Jan. 12, 2012:

Yesterday, I had one of those moments of epiphany when I remembered who I am. Under all the layers of neurosis, self-pity and fatigue, I am still alive. I am Spirit. I am wind. I am flame. My life is burning whisky, not tepid water. I can't change the choices I made in the past, but I still have choices now. My mission is to help myself and other people feel authentically, and find wholeness through the experience. That's the sacred purpose of ancient Greek theatre, and it is at the heart of all art forms. We are a family of artists, but we were afraid to live that. My grandfather did, and he was rehabilitated in concentration camp, and later died of malnutrition. The arts are dangerous. Better to make money scrubbing floors and doing whatever is necessary to survive, and criticizing others for not living out their dreams.

Every time my mother starts to paint, she angrily repeats her mantra: NOTHING WILL COME OF THIS. She is doing some wild stuff now. I hope she stays with it.

Today, I am struggling. Tomorrow, I might jump into another time line or transcend to another dimension.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Co-Dependent Parent

You may be co-dependent if:
*you scratch yourself when your spouse itches, while failing to notice the skin cancer growing on your own arm.
*you spend every waking hour obsessing about and micromanaging your child's life, while your own needs are ignored.
*you feel like you and your mother have merged into a single person, and you can't separate your opinions from hers.
*you flip from one emotional extreme to another, depending on how someone else is doing today.
*you feel that if you could only find the right buttons to push, someone else's life would magically be transformed.

The concept of co-dependency is a relatively recent development in psychological thinking. It began in the field of chemical dependency, where the spouse or other significant person in an alcoholic's life was referred to as a "co-alcoholic", or "enabler". It was discovered that successful treatment of the co-dependent was just as likely to result in recovery for the addict, as treating the addict. Without the shock absorption provided by the co-dependent, the consequences of the addiction become increasingly painful and compelling, hastening the process of hitting bottom and making the choice to live rather than die.

At first, it was assumed that the addict's behavior caused co-dependent symptoms in significant others. However, when the addict becomes clean and sober, the co-dependent behavior of the family tends to continue as before. Unless the other participants in the dependency game choose to confront and change their own emotions and behavior, they find the new situation intolerable and start looking for a new addict to attach themselves to.

As therapists started looking for the hidden causes behind this baffling phenomenon, they realized that, in most cases, the co-dependency predated the addict's chemical abuse. Co-dependents are programmed in childhood to behavior patterns that dovetail with the emotional profile of an addict.

According to Pia Mellody, a high-profile psychotherapist and writer, the five core symptoms of co-dependency are:
1. Difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem. (We are either the royalty of the universe, or a useless piece of excrement.)
2. Difficulty setting functional boundaries. (We are either enmeshed with others, or separated from them by thick walls which allow no intimacy.)
3. Difficulty owning and expressing our own reality. (We have been told what to think and feel so often that we are unable to think our own thoughts or feel our own feelings.)
4. Difficulty taking care of our own adult needs and wants. (We expect someone else to read our minds and provide what we need. We can't get what we want because we don't have any idea what that might be, so we concentrate on trying to get what we think we should want.)
5. Difficulty experiencing our reality moderately. (Life is a roller coaster of extremes.)

Virtually everyone experiences these symptoms occasionally, especially in relation to certain people. However, when they are a dominant pattern in our lives, the result is a chaotic mess of misery.

The relevance to child rearing is not difficult to see. A child whose role models are co-dependent will consider that behavior normal, because they lack the resources to think about it critically. When they grow up, they will engage in co-dependent behavior in their adult lives, perpetuating the curse.

If the parents are co-dependent with their children, they will try to live through them instead of managing their own lives and taking care of their own needs. The children will feel guilty for "making" Mom or Dad unhappy, and entertain delusions of grandeur, imagining that they have vast powers over others. They also learn the cardinal rules of a dysfunctional household. Don't think your own thoughts. Don't feel your own feelings. Don't trust your own perceptions. And above all, don't tell anyone what is going on.

A parent with severe emotional wounds is not capable of raising healthy children. The children will become shock absorbers between the parents and reality, and pay the price the rest of their lives.

Personality disorders, including co-dependency, are treatable. Learned behavior patterns can be unlearned. The road to recovery begins in pain and demands a great deal of courage and hard work. However, the rewards are worth it, for this generation as well as the ones to follow.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What About Tomorrow?

What about tomorrow? No need to worry; it's not here yet.

Six-year-olds who are sniffing gasoline don't worry about kidney damage tomorrow or fifteen years from now. Smokers are told that the "coffin nail" they are smoking will shave 15 minutes from their life, but they figure that those are the last 15 minutes of their lives, not worth living anyway. People who live on junk food and don't exercise have some vague idea that they are damaging their health, but they can deal with that tomorrow, when symptoms actually emerge.

We all want the good life -- satisfying career, good cash flow, supportive mate, adorable children, beautiful house and pets that don't scratch the paint off the doors. There are no guarantees that life will bring us these blessings. However, if we invest in the future -- getting an education, safeguarding our health, building nourishing relationships with others, applying for jobs that we are interested in, giving a day's work for a day's pay -- our chances of getting something worth having are greatly increased.

Every journey, no matter how long, begins with the first step. Every mountain, no matter how high, is climbed one step at a time. Every new skill has to be learned, one attempt at a time, with many failures and setbacks. Every structure, from a tiny log cabin to a great skyscraper, is put together one piece at a time. The law of cause and effect has not been repealed. We can dream big, but we have to start small.

It is useless to worry obsessively about tomorrow, or anything that we can't control. We are wiser to turn our attention to what is happening here and now, enjoying the gifts the day brings, while rising to the challenges in front of us.

No matter how good today is, it will not last forever. No matter how bad today is, there is something we can do to improve it, if not for ourselves, then for someone else.

What about tomorrow? For better or worse, we are building it now.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Mastering fear

"Don't try to make the butterflies in your stomach go away. Teach them to fly in formation."

-- Bob Carr, street performer and juggler extraordinaire

The Granite Life-preserver

A friendship based on guilt may look like a life-preserver, but it's really a millstone. Guilt leaves us feeling exploited and unsure. If we behave lovingly out of guilt, that gift will come wrapped in resentment. The more we give, the more we hate, until everything falls apart.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Without Hope of Return

Once upon a time, in my more idealistic days, I decided to befriend Lil B., notorious drunk and part-time AA member. The friendlier we got, the more she asked me for.

When I took her to the doctor and sat in the waiting room until she was ready to go home, I reminded myself that I was to be a servant.

When I prayed through the night for her daughter who was in critical condition with a drug overdose, I rejoiced with Lil when the tide turned and her child's life was spared. I thought we would be friends forever after that.

When Lil asked to borrow my brand-new upperclass vacuum cleaner (which I loved dearly), I reminded myself of the saying recorded by Luke: "Lend without hope of return." The vacuum eventually came back with a permanently damaged motor. The dust bag had broken, and Lil blamed me for inconveniencing her with a substandard vacuum cleaner. (I eventually invested in a new motor, but the machine was never the same.)

Lil's self-serving attitude gave me the backbone I needed. When she phoned the next time, she wanted me to transport a TV set to her cousin's place. "Lil," I said kindly, "I have decided not to do any more things for you. I want to be your friend, but I get the impression that you don't want that -- you are just interested in what I can do for you."

"Well," huffed Lil, "IF THAT'S THE WAY YOU FEEL ABOUT IT--" She slammed down the receiver and I never heard from her again.

Afterwards, I thought ruefully. "Jesus was lucky. He didn't have a car, or a TV set, or a vacuum cleaner." That's when the penny dropped. The admonition to divest ourselves of property is not a command – it’s a call.

Perhaps the call to material poverty is selective, like the call to celibacy. Jesus didn't seem to mind dropping in at his affluent friends' places for free meals. He never told Mary & Martha & Lazarus to sell their house and go on the road with him.

Like all calls, the call to poverty is an invitation to a fuller life. We serve best out of our poverty -- material, emotional, spiritual, sometimes even when our bodies are being eaten away by painful disease. Only a few choose to follow that call. Their lives may become easier or more difficult as a result. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the choice they have made and why they made it.

I don’t have to hang onto my achievements any more than I have to hang onto my property. I don’t have to hang onto my deeds of mercy and service either. I am free to do what I want. That is enough, if I am willing to admit it and embrace it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


It is much easier to function synergistically as a part, rather than struggling futilely to be the whole. Many problems we are unable to solve on our own will find unexpected solutions in a collaboration, especially if we let go of our pre-judgements and bring ourselves to the table with an open mind, ambiguities and all. In any effective group, the solutions come not from us, but from God. That works best when everyone is actively seeking God's will, but God is sneaky and will work for good even through those who think they don't need Him. Most problems are solved in process, not definitively. It is important to be patient and learn from what is unfolding.

Friday, February 29, 2008

God's Shalom

Peace be with you.
It sounds so easy, so comfortable,
so politically correct.
But there is a price.
How can we be at peace
with God and our neighbours,

as well as ourselves?
Aren't those conflicting priorities?
How can we judge their relative importance?
How can we begin to have peace,

make peace,
be peace?
It's all so personal!

If we claim to have good news to share,
we must also be good news

to those we want to share with.

That may cost us something --
Save your life and lose it;
lose your life and save it.

God's economy is strange and paradoxical.
The only thing we cannot forfeit
is the love of God.
Our souls are not for sale.
We give what we do not own;
we receive what we have not earned.

How is healing possible in such a world as this?
We have no control; we can only ask.
God will not be manipulated.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Tyranny of STUFF

It takes time and energy to take care of stuff. Physical stuff, intellectual property, outdated issues, unresolved traumas and conflicts, even memories. I have a choice: caretake my past or build my future.

I want to live. I don't know exactly what it takes to make me feel alive, but I have only a limited time to find out what it is. I realize now that the experience of abundant life is a continuum, not an on/off thing, and my dreams of perfection were unrealistic. I will never get everything I want, but I can work towards getting more of it.

I can't grab the right stuff if my hands (and heart, and mind) are already full of wrong stuff, obsolete stuff, broken stuff, and even OK stuff that isn't as important as I thought it was.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Facing Truth

Rev. Dr. Ursa proclaims: Our most fervent prayers are born of guilt, fear, and resentment. The most effective ones are the fruit of love.

Ursa's evil twin counters: So -- before I presume to pray for others, I should divest myself of my own guilt, fear, and resentment? You've got to be kidding! That's how I legitimize those nasty feelings!! "Dear Lord, Joe is a jerk, but I'm OK because I'm praying for him. When I get finished being holy, I expect you to hand over my lollypop! I've earned it!"

We need honesty in our recovery tool kit just as much as we need faith, hope and love. Honesty with God is difficult, because God is huge and scary and all-powerful and may retaliate if we fail to please. Honesty with others is difficult, because we risk being cast into outer darkess, with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Honesty with ourselves is most difficult of all -- we cling to our shredded self-image, the delusion of self-sufficiency, the filthy rags of our self-righteousness, praying desperately to believe that if we just faith hard enough, the world will re-arrange itself in the glorious patterns we dreamed before we lost our innocence.

When the All-Powerful and All-Knowing comes to us in the garment of unconditional love, we howl and weep because we have nowhere to hide. It is not an easy matter to acknowledge who we really are. But until we do, our deepest hurts remain unhealed and festering.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Desperate Dog

If the shoe fits, wear it. if the dog barks, feed it. If it bites -- you have a problem.

The Parable

of the Desperate Dog

A fearful woman decided to protect herself by getting a large dog. Whenever something or someone threatened her, she would scream for help. The dog would rush to save her, growling, barking, sometimes nipping. She would act horrified and punish the dog for being so aggressive. "Bad dog! Bad dog! How could you act like that?"

After a while, the dog got the message that he should not be so aggressive. He stopped responding to her screams. This was even worse. "Bad dog! Bad dog!" she would scream. "Why didn't you defend me?"

One day, while the woman was beating her dog, he turned into a handsome prince who said, "I love you dearly, but I can't go on like this. We need help."

They sent a letter to Dr. Phil, who invited them to appear on his show. He was sympathetic to their cause, and offered to pay for a session with the world's greatest therapist.

After six hours of waiting, they were finally ushered into the consultation room. The therapist heard them out for as long as he could stand. Finally, he interrupted them. "I'd like to help, but it's a waste of time. You aren't interested in constructive change. You're looking to use my advice as a baseball bat against each other."

"Forget the advice," the lady snapped. "Just tell me how to turn this cretin back into a dog."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Impression Addiction

(October, 2006)
It has recently come to my painful attention that I sacrificed most of my life to fantasies. I wanted to be the best, the most beloved in all things, and I needed people to tell me that I was this mythical person. Impression management was more important than the experience of living.

The price for my unwillingness to accept reality was a chronic sense of failure. Failure as a student (because I couldn't score 100% all the time); failure as a teacher (because some of my students refused to comply to my unrealistic visions of them); failure as a mother (because my children weren't perfect); failure as a wife (because my husband wasn't God); failure as a woman (because I was not a sex goddess and did not particularly enjoy the company of children); failure as a Christian (because I had doubts and could not invoke God's power on demand). The universe would not conform to my dreams, so I was a mistake.

Last Good Friday, I drew pictures of the failure monsters, the success idol, and other evils. I renounced them and burned my artwork before God's altar.

Now I need the help of my friends to see myself realistically: to acknowledge both my strengths and weaknesses, to be comfortable with my limitations, to absolve myself of responsibility for things which I cannot control.

It's a hard road, but it's a whole lot better than hating myself.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Time wasted or time redeemed?

From one of my e-mails, October '06. I think I was lecturing myself.


Healthy, nurturing relationships are essential. We all need people who like us for us, and want to share themselves and their resources "just because". When I encounter people like that, I tend to be just a little leery -- is this too good to be true? Time is the test. There is no need to offer trust to anyone who hasn't earned it.

Mother Theresa said that our society has a famine of love. I am agreeing with that more and more. Simple friendship is a very scarce commodity. Everyone has better things to do -- working, networking, climbing the ladder. "Just because" is not acceptable any more -- everything has to have a purpose. In my book, there is nothing to compare with the feeling of heading out to meet a friend, to "kill" some time together. But what we are actually doing is redeeming it, finding ourselves in each other's pleasure, and laying foundations for a future we might actually want to show up for.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Whose Mistake is it, Anyway?

I recognized myself in this story, told by Sheila Fabricant Linn in the book Belonging, and pray that I have made as much progress as she has. She commissioned a jeweler to recast her mother's ring for her own wedding. The first version was unsatisfactory, so she sent it back. The second version, which arrived two days before the wedding, was even worse -- not only did Sheila dislike it, but the stones kept digging into the side of her fingers.

"So, the day after the wedding we returned it once more. From then on, I noticed that every time the phone rang, I was afraid the jeweler was calling to yell at me for bothering her again. I was acting as if it were my fault that she had not made the ring correctly.

"Finally she did call to tell me they were ready to mail the ring. She spoke to me in a very loving way, and apologized for not having made the ring as I wanted it the first or second time. I realized what I had been doing. We had hired her, we were paying for her work, she had made a mistake . . . and I was acting as if I needed to make amends to her.

"Years ago, I would not even have sent that ring back. I would have taken the consequences of another's mistake and worn something for the rest of my life that I did not like. So, even asking the jeweler to redo the ring was a step toward making aments to myself for all the times in the past when I took the consequences of other people's mistakes. Realizing how I had been blaming myself for the jeweler's mistake, I tried to make further amends to myself by appreciating the way I had held out for what I really wanted. I do that again each time I look at my ring and let myself enjoy how it feels exactly right for me."

While I was typing this, I remembered an incident from early motherhood. Andy -- still a pre-schooler -- bought a box of plastic pre-historic figurines. They weren't expensive from an adult point of view, but they represented a substantial investment for him. As soon as he got into the car, he tore open his purchase and discovered that one package of figurines was missing.

As he grieved over the loss, I sat in the car with the engine running, clutching the steering wheel. All I wanted to do was put my vehicle in gear and get the hell out of there. Then I said to myself,


I shut off the engine and explained to my son that when we buy something in a store and there is something wrong with it, we can take it back and ask the people who sold it to us to fix the mistake. He was surprised and happy to hear that. We marched back into the store together. I let him handle the transaction himself because I was sure he could do it better than I could. He trusted that justice would be done, and I didn't. His explanation was so charming that he got not only what he asked for, but an additional package of figurines.

It would have been so easy for me to tell my son to stop whining and appreciate what he got. But that was a message I had heard too often as a child. I was still, at age thirty-something, absorbing the consequences of other people's mistakes instead of holding them accountable.

The good people of the Christian church tend to support unassertive behaviour, labelling it "forgiveness". But it is not loving to support other people's mistakes, unintentional or otherwise. We each need to own our deficiencies before we can experience grace and grow through it. Forgiveness is a divine act of grace, but we can't honestly offer it to others unless we first admit that we were wronged.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Preach, Teach, and Leave Literature

You know you're recovering when you can go to a family reunion and you don't have to preach, teach, or leave literature.
--"Karen" (from Anne Schaef's Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much)

Preach, teach, and leave literature -- the style of evangelism we love to hate. Yet we all do it. When we get on a bandwagon -- the latest diet, the hot new book or movie, the game to end all games -- we want company. Once our enthusiasm wanes, we redouble our proselytization, hoping that the new converts will help us to re-live the first hyperflush of insane hope that this time, we would get things right and everything would be fine forever.

If I can't control my life, I try to control others' lives. Now there's a bit of twisted logic! Somehow, someone else's backyard jungle is more exciting, more worthy of attention, than my own weedy flower beds.

Dr. Shaef: "How much easier it is to work with people instead of trying to overpower them with the righteousness of our rightness. CONTROL IS DEADLY FOR EVERYONE."

So, Doctor -- even if I succeed, I fail?


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Desperatedly Seeking Inner Autonomy

When children are told what to see, what to think, and what to feel, they become conditioned to suppress their own perceptions, thoughts and feelings. Their real self becomes more and more separated from their illusionary self -- I think the shrinks call that "personality disassociation"? The road to authentic seeing, thinking and feeling is long and hard, but there is a road. God can be a big help as long as we are willing to be absolutely honest. If we believe that our honesty would threaten God as it threatens the powerful people in our lives, our faith becomes a stumbling block rather than a channel of grace.

My grandmother's favourite non-violent correction was, "You make me sad!" This may have seemed enlightened when compared to abusive name-calling and hitting, but it took its toll. It is a heavy burden for a child to imagine that s/he is responsible for the emotions of others.

Adults are directly responsible for their own emotional states. Circumstances and other people can influence us, but they do not have the power to control what we think and feel. When I first heard that at a support group meeting, it seemed ludicrous. Even now, decades of struggle later, it seems an impossible challenge to master my own inner dialogue and the feelings that are generated by it.