Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Self-learning never ends

In a previous blog post I talked about starting a journey with my life coach Sally. We've met several times now and it has been a huge help with my career decisions.

Having CFS creates a job situation that is very unique. Oftentimes people with CFS don't work at all and, because it is a disease that has no test to prove you have it, they face uphill battles to obtain disability insurance. I've chosen not to go down that road and just be creative and persistent with my work options.

After a couple of months of seeing Sally we came to the conclusion that the work I've been doing in high-tech for my 35 year career is really not a good fit for my innate skills and passions. My being good at whatever I do in high-tech has been confused by me with what I should or want to be doing. 

To that end, I felt empowered to leave my job. I love who I work with and for but the 24X7 type of work I do is killing me. Maybe if it was something I was more passionate about, I would not be so exhausted all the time.

The work I'm doing with Sally is not limited to my job decisions. She is a life coach not a career coach so our work doesn't end with my job change. 

Today we talked about where we can go from here. We did a lot of digging previously about what drives me and now we are going to focus on why those things drive me.

It was something I've never thought about before. I'm quite introspective and self-analytical but never once have I thought about why I do what I do. Strange,  huh?

When I put Sally's thoughts into my own words, what came out of my mouth was very scary to me. I said, "If I'm not doing something for someone else then what should I do? And, by extension, if I'm not being someone for someone else, who am I?"

Most of what drives me is my need to help others. To be the best employee, daughter, wife, friend, mentor is extremely important to me. But now that I'm not someone's employee or daughter, what does that leave me?

It was a question that rocked my long-held definition of my life and my character. I was raised to be all things to all people by my parents who defined their own lives as how they were of service to those in need. How do I change that now? And can I?

Sally gave me a place to start since I felt I had suddenly been hit by lightning. She told me to start journaling: "Now that I'm 56 years old, I will....." is the plan I need to complete. Imagine, 56 years old and I'm just now realizing that my life is mine, not someone else's. Where do I start? How do I redefine myself at such a late age? 

It will be a long process and one that I will take seriously. Sally proposes I start taking baby steps and make a weekly date with myself to do something I want to do: Learn a new craft or visit a museum, for example. 

I will make these plans and stick with them. It won't be easy to come up with things I want to do that don't involve others wishes. But I will push myself through it to get to the other side of this wall in my life.

Imagine? Thinking about what *I* want to do with my life. Frightening yet exciting all at the same time.

My life coach is Sally Seekings and I highly recommend connecting with her to explore making your life what you want it to be. To learn more visit Spirit Renewal Center, Chelmsford

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The body bears the burden

When I was in fourth grade, the nuns told us we were all going to leave our classrooms and go see a movie in the auditorium. We were so happy to get out of class to do something - anything - but school work.

The auditorium was set up with folding chairs and a large screen. As soon as we were all seated, a police officer stood at the front of the assembly and spoke to us. He talked about the movie we were all about to see and told us how  important it was for us to pay attention. The lights lowered and the movie began.

The story started with girls playing in a school yard. They were my age. But then a strange man appeared and I felt anxious. I could sense that something wasn't right. He offered candy to two girls and they got in his car.

I remember knowing that was a bad idea but kept looking for the happy ending. It was an uncle, maybe. Or he had a lovely surprise for them from their parents. The story continued with words of warning from the narrator. I started to think, "Someone will save them in time." "They'll escape and learn a lesson."

The next thing I knew, the girls were being hunted down in the woods by this strange man. They tried to hide but he found them. I remember feeling like I wanted to yell, "Run! Run!" but had to stay silent. 

As I sat there unblinking and horrified, the movie switched to crime scene pictures of two beaten, bloodied and dead girls. It was a real story and I was not prepared for that. I had never seen anything so evil in my eight years of life and I was sure that this evil would come and find me.

When I returned home that day (running all the way, terrified that I would be pulled into a strange car), I told my mother all about it. She was so upset that she went to the school to yell at the mother superior. But the damage had been done. I couldn't unsee that nightmare.

I was physically ill and lived in a state of complete panic for a week. I couldn't go to school or even out in my yard. 

At some point, my mother started walking me to school and doing the same on my way home. But it had to end at some point as my sister had just been born and mom couldn't always wake my sister up from her nap to meet me. 

I walked with my older brother to school who either hadn't seen the movie or was unaffected by it. He would often run ahead with his friends. I remember trying to keep up with him so I wouldn't be alone. I spent my school day looking out the window for strange cars or men. I could not erase that movie from my mind.

As always, time and distance help. I eventually moved on but it took many many weeks of feeling like my death at the hands of an evil man was inevitable. 

Fast forward to 2015. 

I read The Body Bears the Burden by Richard Scaer, MD recently. It talks about childhood trauma, PTSD, and somatic illness. The movie came back into my conscious mind and I started to remember how traumatized I was by that incident. 

I've always believed that my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome with crushing exhaustion, cognitive struggles and constant pain was the result of chronic anxiety. I suffered panic attacks off and on my entire life after that incident even into adulthood. They were always just around the corner even though I kept them at bay for many years in between flareups.

When I was in my thirties, the panic attacks became unbearable. I was afraid to leave my house or even sit in business meetings. I had that terrible feeling again that something evil was going to get me. I had been seeing a therapist but hadn't told her this story because I had sort of forgotten about it. Suddenly it all came flooding back.

It took me a long time to work through it. To be that child again and walk through the terror - only this time as an adult. After meds and talk therapy, I got to the other side. But I feel that the trauma I felt as a child had a long-term negative effect on my nervous system. A few years later, I developed CFS.

I googled the movie last night. I knew nothing about it except the following words: child molester film 1960s. The search returned a link to the movie on youtube. It is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tT35pryNVfk.

It took me only a few seconds to decide to watch it. I felt that the only way to take the power out of it was to watch it in a safe environment as an adult. My heart raced through the 20-minute film. So much of it was familiar to me even though I hadn't seen it in almost 50 years and had only seen it once.

When the crime scene images appeared at the end of the film, I didn't feel trauma or panic. I felt sadness and anger. Not for myself but for the two girls. It wasn't me as a child any longer absorbing that evil in a way that made it all about my own fear. I was an adult now and its effect has shifted based on my life experiences since then.

I did more research on the victims and the murderer. Facts about "scary" events/diseases/people are very comforting to me because they take the emotion and imagination out of the equation. 

The girls were seven and nine years old - my age when I watched it for the first time. The man that killed them was 18 and had a long history already of child-related deviance. He had been institutionalized for a time but was released by a system as screwed up as the ones we have today. 

He eventually pleaded guilty after trying an insanity defense. He died in prison at 33. I would guess that that "system" took care of his ultimate punishment.

I could spend the rest of this post talking about how the nuns were clueless and some were even great proponents of scare tactics with children. But instead I think about the others like me who were forced to watch that movie and have been forever affected by it. 

Did it help? Did it save any of us from being molested or killed? Hard to say. I never had a situation where that was even an issue. 

When I was falling asleep last night I remembered one more fact about that incident. The police officer who showed us the movie was my fellow classmate's father. She, like me, was a little awkward and shy. 

Our paths crossed about five years ago. We exchanged updates about our lives since we had left that school. I moved away as an adolescent but she had not.

She told me that she never married. Her parents died years before and she still lived in the house she grew up in. She never left home. She went to college down the street from her house and works nearby as well.

I wondered for the first time what her life must have been like being raised by a man who thought nothing of terrorizing children. What was it like in her home? How many more traumas did she suffer at his hands? 

It was then that I added one more tragedy to the death of those two girls. My shy friend who didn't have anyone at home to understand her horror. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Merry Little Christmas

My parents were the Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig of the family. Since before I can remember, they hosted a huge Christmas Eve party at their house. It was an open house so people came and went as the night went on.

They didn't have a lot of money back when I was young but saved all year to make Christmas "big" for everyone they loved. 

There are still home movies of family members coming in the door of my parents' small Cape with the unfinished second floor in Chelmsford. It was their first house and they were so proud to have a home to host family events.

A few years later they moved to a bigger home in Lowell that was perfect for the large events they loved so much. 

Dad was in charge of the bar and the coats. Mom handled the food and the entertainment. You couldn't walk into my parents' house without my dad saying, "What can I get ya to drink?". Even into their eighties, that was dad's greeting. 

Mom's signature greeting was a loud "HEY!" with arms dramatically thrown into the air to hug you before you even reached her. 

Hospitality was their gift.  

Mom loved a house full of people. Dad, although he was never the extrovert mom was, loved to be surrounded by family and friends as well. They glowed at parties. To them, helping others have fun was the best fun they could have.

While dad made the highballs and ribbed people about their favorite sports team or political candidate, mom worked the room. She would flit from person to person with a face lit up with love and joy. Her hazel eyes large and shining; her arms up for more hugs. And laughing. Always laughing.

The dining room table was filled with hot and cold appetizers and entrees that they didn't have to fuss over. There were desserts and coffee. And, my favorite as a kid, chocolate-covered cherries. 

Oh what a treat those were at Christmas - the only time we had them in the house. My mom had a fancy china dish for them with scalloped edges, little rosettes and gold accents. This only made the treat more special to me and my brother (and more tempting). "Don't eat all of those before company comes!", she would yell from the kitchen.

"Company" was always family and sometimes friends. Relatives from four generations would crowd into the house and squeeze onto the couch. Coming mostly from Irish-Americans, the stories would get sillier and increasingly boisterous as the highballs flowed. 

Even as a child I knew how lucky I was to have so many generations in one place. Every Christmas Eve, my brother and I would put on a Christmas show that we wrote for the event. Our stage was at the bottom of the stairs which wound up to our bedrooms that were bright with candles in the window with frost on their panes.

After one-too-many chocolate-covered cherries, my brother and I would be whisked off to bed by my mom. We would complain and whine because we wanted to stay up for the real fun that we knew was coming.

Once in bed, we would strain to hear all the goings on downstairs. With the candles still glowing in our darkened rooms and us all snuggled in our beds, we would hear our favorite Christmas songs played on the piano by my mom. All the adults, now stuffed with mom's Swedish meatballs and my grandmother's infamous chocolate cake with the candied cherries on top, would sing at the top of their lungs. Except for my grandfather. He would sing with his teacher face, concentrating on hitting every note. Singing was serious business for him.

We'd listen to the singing and the cheering and the laughing. Horrible attempts at harmony followed by more laughing. The Christmas songs would lead into For Me and My Gal, Five Foot Two, and all the other classics my mom would play because everyone knew the lyrics. 

All the while, my mother would laugh while trying to sing along. Forever distracted by others having fun. She had a great laugh. Right from her toes. Bending over the piano keys with her mouth open in a huge exhale before getting more air and laughing again. 

God, I loved listening to Christmas Eve from my magical room with the candle in the window. 

After everyone left (very late), my folks would stay up later to clean up and (I found out later) wrap our gifts. 

They'd go to bed just before my brother and I would wake them up early to see if Santa had come. We would race downstairs and wait for them. Our eyes darting from package to package. "He brought SO much!", we would say to each other. 

After a morning of opening the copious amounts of gifts my parents bought us, they would head to the kitchen and start preparing Christmas dinner. A few hours later, most of the Christmas Eve crowd would return for a full meal. 

Dad would ask, "What can I get ya to drink?" while taking coats. Mom would fly to the door with her arms in the air for a hug that looked like she hadn't just seen the returning relative 12 hours before. 

Christmas was big to my parents. And they loved it that way. Celebrating the great fortune that was manifest in the family that surrounded them was the real meaning of the holiday to them.

My husband and I put up our tree tonight. Our own traditions solidly around us: Ornaments collected during our 26 years of marriage, our favorite Christmas CDs playing on the stereo, candles in the windows of our own home. 

And when James Taylor sang to us to have a merry little Christmas my voice, which had been belting out the lyrics for several stanzas, caught in my throat when I got to "little Christmas". 

That's what it is now that mom and dad are gone. Little. No more singing around the piano, no house full of crazy Irish stories, no chocolate-covered cherries in the special china dish. 

I had to stop for a moment and find my joy again. Christmas will never be the same without my parents. They filled my Christmases with so much gratitude for my place in the family tree that I shared with them.

For a second I had a strong vision of them standing with their arms around each other in front of the last Christmas tree they shared together. They were smiling at me. Dad with his football-player shoulders and mom with her pretty little face looking at me with such love. 

I picked up another ornament and continued on with a lump in my throat. My husband stopped and looked at me. Knowing my thoughts. He looked at me with such love and understanding that I was able to continue.

It will be a little Christmas for me and for us. But my heart is full of gratitude for  the gift my parents gave me that is bigger and merrier than any I've ever received. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Prosecutor's Dance

I stayed up late Monday night when I heard that the grand jury decision would be announced in Ferguson. Since I was very young I've been interested in the law. In fact, when my grandmother asked me and my cousins, all standing around her at a collective age of 6, what we wanted to be when we grew up, she was surprised at my answer. There were the expected "nurse", "teacher", "cowboy" responses from my cousins. But I said, "lawyer." 

When I was in my twenties, I decided to pursue a career in law. Since I wasn't sure if I was really going to like it or be good at it, I started with a smaller step. I enrolled in Bentley College for what was then the only bar-certified paralegal certification program in the state.

I not only did well at it, I loved it. 

One of the courses I took was Criminal Law. Not many students in that program took the course since there really was very little demand for criminal law paralegals. But I was always fascinated with this area of law since I was young (thank you, Raymond Burr.)

What I learned in that class was more valuable to me than any other college course I've taken. I finally understood the criminal trial process. I no longer read the newspaper with questions about the difference between civil and criminal litigation, evidence gathering and discovery, and murder vs. manslaughter charges. 

When I watched Ferguson prosecutor Bob McCulloch explain the grand jury decision, I understood all of the background processes.

My first thought was that this grand jury was out-of-process. What I learned from my instructor at Bentley (a criminal defense attorney and former assistant DA) was that the grand jury is made up of people off the street like you and me –  just like a trial jury. 

The difference in a grand jury is that these citizens are not tasked with delivering a verdict. Their job is to decide if a criminal case has enough "probably cause" or merit to be prosecuted by the state. 

Now how do you define "probably cause?" This is a gray area that most citizens are not schooled enough in the law to determine on their own when the case is very complicated. 

My instructor told us that the prosecuting attorney (in the Ferguson case, that would be McCulloch) always drives this process. He works with the grand jury to help them understand the evidence, the law surrounding how it was obtained, and then always (always) makes a recommendation to the jury for whether there is probable cause.

I remembered this story because I wondered then what the point was of a grand jury if the prosecuting attorney was making the call every time. My instructor agreed that this was really not the intention of a grand jury when the process was started, but that it had evolved over time.

So when I heard McCulloch insist time after time that he had nothing to do with the grand jury process and that he sent his "assistants" to deliver the evidence, I wondered again. But this time, I wondered why he did not make a recommendation as prosecutors always do.

It would make sense that if the prosecutor did not make a recommendation to prosecute that the group of citizens tasked with the decision to prosecute would be less inclined to do so. Was McCulloch's lack of involvement interpreted by the jury as a vote against prosecution? Especially given that he is the lead prosecutor? Would the jury surmise that the evidence was not strong enough to prosecute so McCulloch was therefore not pushing for it?

I wasn't on that jury. And having been on trial juries several times, I can tell you that what happens behind closed jury doors is quite intense and can't easily be guessed.

My thoughts on Ferguson are many. And they are all over the map as far as both Brown's and Wilson's culpability in a situation where I was not a witness. I always try to stay impartial until I've seen the evidence and heard the testimony.

But I can say that the grand jury process was not only not typical but very unusual. And process is so important in such a high-profile case. This was too much information for a group of citizens to weed through without someone with a legal, prosecutorial background. 

Was a subtle message sent to the jury by McCulloch's lack of involvement? I think so. And I also think that his hands-off approach was more about protecting his own political future than anything even close to justice. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Reclaiming your future

When my friend Sally became a life coach years ago, she left a stressful job and started to figure out just where her gifts should take her. I envied her. As much as I like my job, it is stressful and demanding.

Lately I've noticed that I haven't been thinking much about my future beyond the next day's meetings. It happens to all of us. We have a job that we want to do well and help move our companies in a positive direction. In the high-tech world I survive in, that means 24x7 coverage for things that will inevitably go bump in the night. That leaves little time to focus on personal goals that don't involve just getting through the next deadline in one piece.

So I asked my friend Sally if she could be my life coach. I wasn't sure what to expect but she started by giving me some forms to fill out. I'm pretty quick to answer questions and move on to the next one. I do that at work all day. But the questions on the forms were not easy.

One of the hardest forms I had to fill out asked for 10 personal goals I wanted to accomplish for myself. I struggled to name three and couldn't think of another to save my life. 

These past few years for me have been mainly about care-taking for elderly and dying parents. Mom has been gone for 3 1/2 years and dad for one year. During that time, it took up most of my hours and energy to ensure they received the best care they could, to manage their funds, to sell their property, and to handle their estate. 

In the past year I've been focused on my jobs (both paid and volunteer) now that I don't have all those family obligations. Sort of getting back to my own obligations.

As I stared at the seven empty lines in the goals section on Sally's form, I thought about why it was so hard for me to fill in the blanks. Sadly I realized it's been years since I thought about what I wanted for me. It's been all about what I needed to do for others. 

Many people in my generation are faced with the same dilemma. We are working difficult or multiple jobs, making tuition payments, carting kids around to events, caring for our parents, and keeping our property up on the weekends. No time for our dreams or needs. 

I started to feel not just uneasy about my lack of personal goals but fearful about the quality of the three I had written. They all seem now to be so shallow and short-sighted. Not really goals at all but tasks that need to be done that I don't have time or energy to pursue.

This first meeting with Sally opened my eyes to the lack of care I take of my own life. It's great to do for others but what happens when you are no longer able to work or do or plan and instead are limited by age or health? There will be no goals then outside of the day-to-day requirements.

I'm selling myself short and ending this forward-thinking time in my life way too soon by only focusing on the day-to-day now. I still have time and, as I saw when losing my parents so closely together, it all goes so fast at the end. 

Before I left Sally's office today, she gave me some homework to help me focus on me for a change. One thing I had to do was give myself flowers - even if I just plucked some out of the dirt and stuck them in a vase on my desk. I did that on the way home and found that even a little gesture like that was enough to help me start looking at options around me. 

This will be a journey for me. I'm not sure where it will take me but I'm ready to begin seeing beyond my daily planner.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Matter of Music

Did you ever get into a what-if discussion with friends about which sense you'd prefer to lose if you had to lose either your sight or your hearing? Everyone I've ever discussed that with always say that they'd rather lose their hearing. When I ask why, they say that if you lose your sight, you lose your independence and that's the worst of all losses.

I have always said that I would not want to live if I lost my hearing. Let me tell you why.

One of the greatest gifts of being human is being moved by music. In the world of quantum physics, string theorists propose that at the heart of every particle  are "strings" of matter that vibrate constantly. These vibrations create a cosmic symphony and could explain why music is so central to the human existence. We are each a walking symphony of matter.

There are as many anti-string theorists as string theorists. Einstein was one of the "anti" crowd. Einstein believed that everything could be measured. String theorists, however, have never been able to find a mathematical equation to explain and predict string behavior.

Now, you can say that because Einstein's theory of relativity proved Newton's long-held theory of gravity wrong, the evolution of physics is such that Einstein's theories could, at the very least, be enhanced by new theories.

I am not a physicist and would never claim to know enough about the subject to prove any theory wrong. But as my favorite science teacher told me when I was in high school, science starts as individual experience.

In 55 years, I have yet to meet a person who is not affected by some type of music. Oftentimes, when discussing music with others there is an emotional piece to the discussion. How music makes us feel is very primal. We are drawn to different types of music because of internal buttons that are pushed. No one can explain that feeling precisely but at a higher level we might use terms like inspired, joyous, agitated, "pumped up", and sad. 

Music soothes the dying, helps us celebrate moments like weddings and birthdays, leads us into battle both literally and figuratively, gets under our skin if its key is not in synch with our idea of harmony. Think of all the times that music has changed your mood, or your resolve, or your life.

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, according to Shakespeare. And words of love and encouragement can be music to our ears. How many times have you been out with friends (or even home alone) and heard a song that made you get up off your feet and dance around? Has a book or a painting ever had that effect on you? Probably not.

I don't know if string theory will ever be proven in my lifetime. Maybe if we get a fast enough or big enough particle accelerator it will. But, regardless, even if string theory doesn't prove why music is such an integral part of our being, I'd still never want to lose it in my life.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Shared History

We were sitting at a table in the corner so we were able to take in all of the restaurant from there. It's an old building - restored, improved, added onto. But the wood is original and it's all you see: floors, walls, ceilings, beams. 

The Mill on the Floss is an ancient place in the Berkshires. It used to be an inn at one point but now it's a French restaurant. It has a long history and the maitre'd explains some of it to the two couples at the next table.

When he gets to the 1940s, I smile. He describes the previous owners who bought it then and made it what it is today. 

"That's my aunt and uncle," I say softly to my husband. Hearing your family history as described by strangers to strangers is a unique experience. 

My grandmother's sister moved to NYC to get out of Lowell as soon as she could. She had no desire to be stuck in a mill city. In NYC, she met and married a rich older man who was taken with her smarts and her beauty.

My aunt then went to cooking school to follow a dream. When she graduated, my uncle bought her the Mill on the Floss and she became the chef. It was basic American fare but the locals loved it. The Mill is close to Williamstown and a short drive from NY and the artistic and educated filled the tables. 

My aunt told a story about how the Clarks (from the Clark Museum fame) used to come for the Thursday night roast beef special. They were millionaires but still wanted good ole home cooking at a good price. 

My aunt and uncle ran the Mill until the late 1970s. By then my aunt had hired a chef so she could focus on the business and the mingling. My uncle was the bartender and hand-shaker. Because they were both comfortable running in more elite circles, the Mill became a popular stop for well-bred NY and Berkshire diners. 

I look around the restaurant as we sit there and wonder at how little it has changed since I was a kid. The old plates in the corner cabinet could easily be my aunt's and the expensive oil paintings were likely bought by my uncle. 

My husband and I stopped in the kitchen before we left and said hello to the owner - the wife of my aunt's chef - and her daughter who is now head chef. We talked about who's gone, including her husband and my parents. My aunt, uncle and grandparents have been gone even longer. 

We talked about how their spirits still visit there. There are times when doors open for no reason and the owner says, "It's your aunt. She loved it here."

Driving back to the B&B in the dark, I thought about the family history I hold in my mind. I thought about the stories I know but more about the stories I don't know. There is no one left to fill in the blanks. I am now part of the oldest generation in my family.

Will my niece and nephew be interested in the old stories? Will they pass them on? Or will they die with me? I think about how I have very few stories of family members who died before I was born. How can I expect the next generation to be as interested in these stories as me?

Maybe it's best that way. The Mill owner has lived in and worked that place now longer than my aunt and uncle did. It's their story to tell now to their generations. And that's where my family's story will live on.