Monday, October 21, 2019

The Heart of the Matter

I've been sentimental-crying a lot since I turned 60 earlier this year. I'm not a crier by nature. I used to be when I was young and easily hurt. But I've had to toughen up to get through life's challenges and occasional loneliness, and crying became an anomaly for me.

Recently a friend told me I was an empath. I have heard the term for a few years but because I don't suffer fools gladly, I figured that didn't apply to me. I reread the definition recently and was surprised to be guilty as charged. 

My dad always told me that I was "too sensitive". I never agreed. I felt that I was just a kind person and that everyone who hurt me was too INsenstive. But as I did more work in therapy, I found that I could be both sensitive and strong. What a gift that was for me.

But it didn't fix all heartaches. I've had to keep working on that.

Recently I've been in contact with some old college friends who I haven't seen in close to 40 years. Thanks to social media, your past becomes your present in the time it takes to respond to a friend request on Facebook.

Besides being "too sensitive" as a youth I was also incredibly shy and had almost no self esteem. People who know me now as an outgoing, confident extrovert never believe me. But life in my teens and early twenties was very difficult for me. 

I went to college and met a large group of friends who loved me regardless of (or maybe because of) my emotional and social awkwardness. They saved me. They also raised me to a large extent. 

Looking at old college pictures (I always had my little Instamatic camera with me at parties) and sharing stories with some long-lost college pals in the past few weeks has been a huge gift for me.

When I've looked back at those years, they have mostly been filled with wonder. We were an outrageous gang of crazies. We partied like no others I knew, danced constantly to our favorite bands either at clubs or in our friend's apartment. I think if we hadn't had his apartment to go to, we would not have hung out as much together. We could be ourselves there and yearned for weekend nights just so we could all be together again.

If you're looking for a comparison, our group was like a combination of the characters from Friends and the "brat pack" of the 1980s with a touch of Animal House thrown in (hey, it was the late 1970s). 

We dated each other, broke up, and dated others in the group. There was rarely any jealousy. We were so tight that not much could ever tear us apart. Several of the couples ended up marrying and are still married today.

I've found out through new conversations with these long-lost pals that there was more going on than I was aware of. The guys in the group had a pact to protect the girls in the group - especially the innocent and sensitive ones like me. No one was allowed to make a move on us unless the guys in the pact thought the suitor passed the test. This was so touching to me and explained how I was able to stay safe through some pretty wild times. That was because the guys were always diligent.

This revelation brought me to tears. How sweet. How kind. 

It also made me realize that this crazy gang wasn't just about fun. I tend to over-romanticize events that are extremely important to me. So after almost 40 years, I thought that maybe this was another example and that everyone else in the group couldn't possibly have felt that our connection to each other was as magical as it was to me. I was wrong.

But, like I said, that time was not only special but also difficult for me. I fell deeply in love with someone during that time who, by simply living his own life and following his own destiny, broke my inexperienced heart. I had to walk away or I would never have been able to move on. This is when I stopped being a crier. 

I pushed through intense loneliness as my friends all got married and had kids. I went to their weddings and baby showers and smiled for them. On my own, I lived with constant heartache.

Meeting my husband at the age of 26 changed all that loneliness. Finally I had met someone who truly cared about me. Who would love me despite all of my failings and I would do the same for him. We have been happily married for 31 years.

While reconnecting with the old gang recently I started to remember the old heartache and unexpectedly feel it in a way that I hadn't in a long time. It was a hurt that never healed because it was too painful to revisit.

But now that all the stories and backstories are being told, I'm seeing my empath leanings in real time.

There isn't much in my life that I can't work through. And music and literature always help me. 

As I got in my car to drive to work this morning, I reached for an old CD. There was a song on it that was just what I needed to help me feel it all while singing through sentimental tears. I've played this song many times in my life. While going through therapy, having difficult conversations with my father, and peeling off bandaids that hide emotional wounds that refuse to heal. 

Forgiveness is the theme of the song but it wasn't until today that I felt that the forgiveness I needed was not something I need to give to others but to myself. 

And I need to re-grow a part of my heart that I cut off because it was too shattered for even me to live with. While listening to the song I realized it is finally time to get down to the heart of the matter. But I'm thinking about Forgiveness.

Don Henley's The Heart of the Matter (video link below)

Monday, May 13, 2019

A Tribute to Ellen Mellen

This is a tribute to a dear friend that I wrote and read at her memorial service. It was from all of us in her group and from the heart.

We are Ellen’s small group - a First Parish discussion group that has met once a month for about 10 years. Some of us have been in the group longer than others and there are some here who were with us in the past. We all treasured Ellen’s presence and participation.

Every group meeting starts with a check-in and we go around the circle to talk about what has happened in our lives since we met last. Ellen’s check-ins often included stories about her grandchildren and how amazed she was at their accomplishments. She was very very proud of them. When it got close to Spring, Ellen itched to get to the Gloucester house and her beloved porch where she could watch nature. 

Every month we choose a subject to discuss and, no matter what the topic, we all hung on to every word Ellen said. Sometimes she didn’t say much; she preferred to mostly listen and ponder. When she shared her thoughts she commanded our attention, simply and quietly, with her wisdom and thoughtfulness. 

As a group, we walked with her after Roy’s death. She described her time after Roy as one where she was walking on an unfamiliar and uneven path. She would have been okay, she said, if he had been there to steady her. But without him she felt like every step was treacherous. We were there for her during this time but she was also there for us by modeling a journey that some of us will have to walk ourselves someday. She taught us strength, and self-compassion, but most of all, grace.

Ellen hosted us at her Gloucester home every summer. We would bring our lunches and she would make us cookies for dessert. We would sit on the porch and she would tell us stories about her time there through the years. She would educate us on the changing tides, the birds, the gardens. This was her happy place and she loved sharing every bit of the experience with us. 

We are sad that we will never sit on that porch with our beloved friend again and feel the cool breeze on our faces. We will miss her stories and her kind heart. Her intellect and her warmth.

Ellen understood and accepted the ups and downs of her life just as she did the rising and falling of the tides on the Annisquam. Her love and awe of nature and its laws were something she knew applied to her as well. And probably why she treasured her life so very much.

We know the tides wait for no one but we will miss her as we walk that unfamiliar and uneven path without her to steady us.

Godspeed, dear friend.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Weed Stigma

Today is 4/20. I didn't even realize it until I got to the marijuana dispensary in a nearby city. The physical price for recreational marijuana today was 45 minutes waiting in the rain. 

That wasn't my price though. I was waived to the front of the parking lot next to the entrance. Then ushered to the sparse line for the medical marijuana patients. I showed my medical ID card and my driver's license and was directed to the short line with my fellow patients.

There are comfy chairs there in our line. Along with several of us with canes. We suffer from lots of things: chronic back pain, nausea from cancer treatments, PTSD. I'm there for the pain caused by ME/CFS and Dysautonomia. 

I've been going to this particular dispensary for over a year. The people who work with us patients at this dispensary are helpful and empathetic. I often wonder if they go through sensitivity training before stepping behind that counter. They are so very kind.

The people in the recreational line laugh together. And stand. There are no comfy chairs for them. I wonder if they really understand what we deal with or if they think we are just lucky to not have the long wait. 

When I got my medical id card last year it was a last resort. The pain in my hands and back and especially my legs was past the point of Aleve and a heating pad. I had gotten to the point where I would recline with my feet up on the couch at night and just moan. Not every night, but most nights. The pain made it hard for me to fall asleep and stay asleep. And when you need 12ish hours of sleep each night just to feel a normal state of exhaustion, this was making the exhaustion level rise to a scary point. I still work part-time and needed that normal level of exhaustion in order to function.

When I got my card I hid that fact from all but close friends and family. I wouldn't talk about it at work except to a couple of close coworkers. When I applied for a job in another town, I expected to not get the job because I knew I would fail the drug test. And since weed is not legal federally, I read that the state-level legality wouldn't matter to most employers. 

Well, I did fail the drug test but I still got the job. I was honest and upfront and HR said that it wouldn't be a barrier to employment. 

So once I passed that hurdle I started thinking about how I need to not keep quiet about my marijuana use. If there is a stigma, I should be part of destigmatizing it and not hide from my marijuana use.

I could have gone on opioids. My doctor probably would have approved it. But I didn't want the addiction that came with it. I feared that some day a cure would be found and I'd be so hooked on oxycontin that it would be too late to matter.

Medical marijuana is more potent than recreational marijuana. Kind of like how a prescription anti-inflammatory is more powerful than an OTC one. It also comes in many different forms because a tincture might work for one person but edibles might work for another. The cannabis strains tend to be more varied as well.

I tried several types before settling on a THC/CBD mix vape oil. I only use it at night when I'm in my pjs. Driving under the influence of THC is not something I would do. 

The effects of the marijuana wears off in a matter of hours when I am sound asleep already. 

To say that I have no more nights of lying on the sofa moaning in pain would be a lie. I still have breakthrough pain and/or a really rough day where it takes more THC than I am willing to ingest to make it all go away. But even then, the THC at least soothes my nervous system so that I'm not freaking out about it.

It is a godsend to me and so many people that I meet in line. Some of us can work part-time because of it. Some of us can eat now because certain strains help with the nausea. Some of us can finally sleep after being in constant pain for years.  

And it's not addictive OR harmful to an adult's body including our brains. 

So if you are thinking that you could use medical marijuana for whatever ails you, it's easy to get.
    1) Get to a cannabis doctor and get your "prescription". They will get the process going with the state.
      2) Follow the doctor's office instructions to register with the state.
    3) Once you receive your id, go to your local dispensary and talk to the lovely people there about your condition and your other meds and your concerns and they will help you find the right thing for you.
    4) If you find you are trying different types of strains or forms (edible, oil, leaf, etc.) because "nothing" is working, stay with it. I had to go through edibles and tinctures before I found something that worked. 
    5) Don't be afraid to try THC. When I started, I would only use CBD because I was afraid of the THC high which made me very paranoid when I tried weed in college. So the nice people at the dispensary talked me into trying a THC/CBD blend as vape oil and it is what saved me. 
    6) CBD is not a miracle drug for everyone. I keep reading on my support groups that people have been disappointed with CBD once they finally spent a fortune and tried it. I tell them not to be afraid of the THC. It's all about whatever works.

It costs money to see the doctor ($200/yr in Massachusetts), the state id card ($50/yr in MA), and the vape oil I use ($50/month). I feel very lucky to be able to afford it since (again, it's not federally approved) it is not covered by health insurance. 

The big drug companies should be worried if people like me are getting this kind of benefit out of a drug that is not addictive, is all-natural, has no side effects, and actually works. It is probably a big reason why it is not federally approved yet. 

I think of all the bodies, and families, and careers that have been destroyed by prescription painkillers and alcohol (which is socially acceptable and readily available). And then I look at how few lives are adversely affected by marijuana. It makes no sense to me that marijuana is not legal. It is not a gateway drug. I know people who work with the addicted and no one goes to heroin because they started smoking weed. 

There should be no shame in using marijuana for any reason. But especially if you are a medical user. I only hope that the stigma dissolves over generations. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Yin and Yang and Astrophysics

Below is the chalice lighting I wrote for a February Sunday service. It is about my church but it applies to us all.

When Cory Booker announced his run for the presidency a few days ago, I saw a quote from him that made me think of First Parish: “Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.”

It’s been quite a few months here at First Parish. We’ve enjoyed and celebrated our success with the building project as well we should. It was a huge accomplishment. But we’ve also had to carry the loss of several beloved church members during this time.

Our individual joys have been many these past months with anniversaries, new babies, and weddings. Interspersed with those happy times have been our own personal difficulties - deaths of loved ones, illness, heartbreak. 

The universe would not exist without balance. The Chinese inherently understood this when they created the concept of Yin and Yang in the 3rd century BCE. They didn’t need astrophysics to figure that out. 

The science behind cosmic and natural balance isn’t just for textbooks. We live it every day. We couldn’t walk without balance (well, that and gravity). We couldn’t manage our finances without a balance between wants and needs. We would never be able to make an important decision without weighing pros and cons. 

Isaac Newton’s third law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In more human terms: for every birth there is a death; for every joy there is a sorrow.

At First Parish we live out what Booker calls an “active conviction” - for the Yins and the Yangs and everything else in between. You actively provide that sense of balance when one of us feels like the earth is shifting beneath our feet. You actively provide love and hope when someone is feeling unloved and hopeless. 

We can never forget that providing a safe place when someone’s world is unsafe and unbalanced, though difficult and upsetting and heartbreaking for all of us, is the greatest gift we can give. 

It is the most important reason for our being here at First Parish and on this earth. I light the chalice today for the active hope we offer in the face of despair.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Turning the other cheek

I'm always surprised at how weddings and funerals can bring out the worst in families. Or it can bring out the best.

Major life changes that we celebrate with family are times when we must be with people whom we may disagree with either politically or socially or religiously. There are often unresolved issues from childhood that become more prominent when so many expectations are heaped upon these gatherings. 

I also look at major life changes (weddings, child births, funerals) as a way to start over. To be a uniter not a divider. To find the spark of love that you once had for each other and capitalize on it.

My husband teases me all the time about my love of logic and science. He calls me Spock which I just love. But I often lead with my heart when it comes to people. I am easily hurt and disappointed by people when the hand I extend to them in welcome is slapped down. It doesn't happen often but when it does I am reminded of the story in Matthew's book in the bible about turning the other cheek.

I don't consider myself to be a Christian in the accepted definition. I don't believe in the traditional Judeo Christian god or believe in heaven. My spiritual beliefs are constantly evolving and are grounded more in humanism and transcendentalism with a good dose of astrophysics. None of that truly matters. I should be judged by how I live my life and how I treat people - especially people who are in need.

In that regard, I am a Christian. I try to follow the example of Jesus and others who came before and after him who didn't just talk the talk but also walked the walk. 

So turning the other cheek is a bit of a conundrum for me. Although I feel that I need to be respectful of others beliefs (as long as they are not harmful) and always try to lead with kindness, I am also not a pushover. 

Was Jesus a pushover because he turned the other cheek? Did his violence in the temple make him a hypocrite? I think about these things when my extended hand is pushed away. 

Where is the line between being forgiving and losing your self respect? 

I have no problem drawing that line with friends and coworkers and others. But with family it is much more complicated as walking away from one person affects others you care about. I wonder too how much I am expected to give up in order to keep the peace. Why my hurt is somehow less important than someone else's.

There are no easy answers. As a Unitarian Universalist I live by a set of principles, not a creed. We have as our first of seven principles: we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I often refer to this as "the fucking first principle" when faced with someone who clearly is not a good person and I am holding my anger in to deal with them respectfully. 

As times go on and our nation embraces anger more easily, the first principle and Matthew's story become more present in my thoughts. Do I owe it to EVERYONE to be respectful and kind when they are not either of those things to me? 

If a family member knocks me down over and over, am I not living my beliefs if I fight back? Even Jesus had his limits in the temple.

When I agonize over these choices I often come to a place of peace. Because those I am agonizing over are not agonizing over me. They dismiss, they judge, they "other" me. But I take the time to consider my beliefs and hold them up to a mirror. 

Maybe I will never have a temple moment but that doesn't mean I will not hold others actions up to their own mirrors. And maybe that's where grace lies. Not in lashing out, not in turning the other cheek, but in being honest and respectful in the face of people who use their beliefs to harm. 

I might not be a Christian but I am nonetheless christian.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Mentorship Matters

I shared these opening words at my church this morning. I share them with you here:

It’s hard to fall asleep at night when there is so much uncertainty in the air. Every day yields another crisis that leads me to deep worry and even sadness. Somehow lying awake in the dark trying to make sense of things is my way of thinking I can fix it all by worrying about it.

Turning worry into action is hard for me given the limited energy I have. I’d love to hit the streets in protest, march with activists, visit politicians’ offices, attend planning meetings for social reform. But I’m left with the strong emotional reaction to political events and no significant outlet which is hard for a passionate person like me.

So … what to do….

The American culture has always placed a lot of worth on action as a force for change. And there’s no denying that a concerted effort like a revolution can work. So maybe, for me and others like me, the challenge is to redefine the concept of “action” in a culture filled with very public “doers”. 

We often overlook small acts when faced with a large problem. We forget that chipping away at a wall can change it. We don’t have to knock it down to affect its height. 

Being part of a peace-seeking community no matter how small is an important act and the first chisel strike to that wall. Within this community we are given the opportunity to positively affect others. In my volunteering with youth here I started the act of mentorship years ago which for me did not end with high school graduations. 

The small act of offering advice and support, and just being there for the latest generation of doers is action. Chipping away at the walls that impede their progress toward changing the world is chipping away at the walls facing all of us. 

I find that the only thing that helps me worry less when bad things happen in this country is reading the social media posts of the youth that have been mentored in this church. I have to weed through some less-than-uplifting comments from my generation to find theirs but there they are. 

January was National Mentoring Month but the act of mentoring our youth here is something we do all the time. It will never appear on CNN but It is an important act that arms the next generation with the chisels they need to knock down those walls. Don’t think they can do it?  Just watch the youth from Parkland, FL.

I light the chalice today for the quiet acts that we do to change the world and the recognition that small acts done today can make a big difference in the future. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Hillary and Melania and the MeToo Movement

It's not always what's said that defines a moment. Sometimes it's what's not. 

Donald Trump's well publicized cheating with a porn star while his wife Melania was home with a baby - and then paying for the porn star to keep quiet - is to some just another scandal for our latest president.

I have seen sadness and support for Melania both online and with people I speak with - on both sides of the political aisle. She is the victim here and no one I follow on Twitter or other social media sites has said otherwise. I'm heartened that even hardened liberals who rage at Trump have not gone down the wife-bashing road which unfortunately can happen when a husband cheats. 

This heartening moment might be brought to you by the MeToo movement but I think that's too new a phenomenon for it to have had that much of an impact that soon. So my mind has wandered to other potential reasons.

I am reminded of the time that Bill Clinton cheated on Hillary. She was not pregnant at the time and he did not pay off a porn star though he did cheat with a White House intern. 

But when Bill was found out, the comments around the water cooler and around the media was about how Hillary was somehow to blame for at least part of it. She was demonized by conservatives and even some liberals who portrayed her as (if you'll pardon my street slang) a cockblocker. She was a wife who must be a turnoff in bed. Who could blame Bill for being oversexed when he had HER to go home to at night? This was long before the dawn of social media but it was a very prominent discussion at the time.

So now comes Melania. A pretty, demure ex-model who knows her place and stands by her man with her head down and her eyes averted. 

How different she is from Hillary who had a successful career before (and even after) her stint as First Lady. Who jumped into the health care debate at her husband's request and tried to work with Congress to enact a universal health care bill while First Lady. She was and is strong, smart, and vocal. She is not a tall, thin body type and probably stuggles to keep weight off as many post-menopausal women do.

I was lead to wonder by the difference in the two women and the difference in the treatment of both when their President husbands cheated publicly. 

Let me be very clear about one thing first: I am not advocating that Melania be treated poorly because of her husband's cheating. She is a victim in this scenario. Just like Hillary was.

My observations are more about why Hillary was and probably still is looked at as part of the problem with Bill but Melania is not. 

You won't be hearing that Melania is someone a man wouldn't want to take to bed. You won't be hearing that Melania is too outspoken and successful and therefore must be emasculating to men. You won't be hearing that it's no surprise that her husband cheated on her since the person he cheated with was more attractive than her.

And therein lies the lesson.

In this time of MeToo and Time's Up, let's not forget what isn't said. And how what isn't said speaks volumes about our perception of women. Even now. 

My only hope is that the lack of blaming of Melania is about how far we (especially men) have come this past year in our respect for women. And not about how pretty and quiet women still catch a break when strong and vocal women do not.