Sunday, July 5, 2015

To Unfriend or Not to Unfriend

My love for social media is bordering on the fatal attraction level. I've joined every type since they've been invented: Twitter, Facebook, MySpace (remember them?), LinkedIn, Instagram, Meerkat, Snapchat... the list goes on and on.

I've made new friends through these platforms, reconnected with old ones and gotten closer to current ones. For someone with an extroverted personality who wants to remain connected to everyone she's ever liked, social media has been a gift.

There are several people in my life who want nothing to do with social media. I hear reasons such as stalking concerns, privacy invasion and even fear that connecting on social media causes divorce. My answer is always that these situations are easily remedied with controls (both with online settings and personal restraint). But to no avail. 

I was raised by liberal parents. They were pretty hip and dad was always into the next new thing given his engineering background and general curiosity about everything. So exploring was always encouraged in our house as was an openness to other opinions. The more you get out in the world, the more you will find you are challenged.

During the course of my time on social media, I've followed or friended people whose opinions are very different from mine. I will often have one or more points of connectivity with them (sports, school, work) but learn so much more about them when we become internet friends.

There have been times when I am deeply committed emotionally to a point of view that I find is the complete opposite of some of these online friends. When I read their posts, I have to restrain myself. Clicking the unfriend or unfollow icon is so tempting and so easy. But is that really what I should or want to do?

I think back to my parents who subscribed to newspapers (both liberal and conservative) and read each one with interest. Sure they railed against the ultra conservative op-ed pieces but they didn't stop reading them. I think they also subscribed to the thought that their opinions needed to be tested in order for them to remain solid. 

Remembering that being out in the world means that long-held opinions might be knocked from a tight grip is the reason I don't unfriend or unfollow people. Unless that person says very hateful things, I remain connected. Reading their reactions to events along with those who agree with me is the only way for me to practice open-mindedness. 

I may not always agree with you and will challenge you sometimes but I will stand up for your right to your opinions as long as they are arrived at with logic, love and respect. 

If I surround myself with only those people who agree with me, I risk becoming an intolerant, narrow-minded autocrat whose circle will become smaller and more self-righteous as time goes on. 

I don't want to become that person nor do I want to be surrounded by those people. It is a study in that control I talked about earlier to use social media as a tool for self-discovery and growth. 

It's the opinions that we dislike that teach us who we are. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Life, Death and Societal Safety

When I served on a criminal jury a few years back, I was surprised at how unemotional I was about the task at hand. I was very quickly able to suspend the reality that a young woman was in front of me who we were deciding to send to jail or not for forging checks and cashing them at area banks. She was 19 when she committed the crime as I recall. The same age as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev when he murdered four people.

The judge spent a lot of time with us getting us to understand that we had to objectively weigh the evidence and leave our emotions outside the courtroom door. The young woman's court-appointed defense attorney was terrible. He didn't even appear to have studied her case and offered only one lame implausible scenario in her defense.

The prosecution had her on film cashing the checks at two different places. There was no mistaking her.

The jury was made up entirely of women. I noticed that as we were being chosen, the defense clearly challenged only men. Since attorneys have quite a few challenges without cause, that pretty much seated an all-female jury.

I understood why. Women would be perceived more likely to be sympathetic to this young woman and want to mother her, let her off easy, give her a second chance. The result was exactly the opposite. We unanimously decided she was guilty though as a group we all expressed the sadness we felt that her life was already so off track.

It was when I walked out of the courtroom and headed back home that it hit me. This young woman would serve time and I was one of the reasons. It was a long drive home stuck in Boston rush hour traffic so I had a lot of time to think. 

How easy it was for me to distance myself emotionally from her in order to get the job done. I am not an uncaring person nor did I ever feel vindictive in voting guilty. I had a job to do for the state of Massachusetts and its citizens and I did it. I do not regret that.

In discussing the death penalty and more specifically the Tsarnaev case, I often put myself in the jurors' shoes. I did not have to consume some of the shocking images that they did at trial and I did not have the same level of punishment to weigh. But I'm sure they had suspended reality just as I had - at least to some degree - to get the job done with the same amount of integrity.

I am for the death penalty in some situations - and the Tsarnaev case is just one of those situations. As with the young woman whose fate I had to decide, I am not cheering that justice was served or feeling that the "good guys" won. No one wins. Let me repeat that - NO ONE.

My reasons for supporting the death penalty are quite against the teachings of the Unitarian Universalist faith I belong to. I am likely in the minority in my beliefs on this and some other non-liberal stances I've taken in the past. 

UUs believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. And when we say "all", we mean all. When I work with the high school group and this topic comes up in relation to heinous criminals, it is a hard one to get our heads around. (Note: I never tell them my stance, but rather facilitate a discussion.)

My backing the death penalty has to do with the belief that anyone who has shown him/herself to be monstrously dangerous to society has to go. There must be no way for that person to ever harm anyone again. Life in prison is not life away from society. Prison is its own society.

Having been involved in animal rescue for 15 years in a leadership position, I feel the same about animals who are in a similar situation. Making a decision to euthanize a dangerous dog that cannot be rehabbed is not easy. I've had to do it. But it is done for the safety of society. Society is more important than any one individual. In order for the species to continue, I've always felt that there needs to be a way to eliminate those who would destroy it. 

So what was my reaction to Tsarnaev's death sentence? After reading this you would think that I would just nod and say that my Darwin-like sensibility was satisfied. You would be wrong.

As I watched the Boston news channel and followed comments on Twitter, I was overcome with sadness. While the 24 pages of the decision was being read (before the death sentence was revealed) I sobbed. Then I sobbed even more when the sentence was read. Why? Since I thought that the decision was correct?

Because a loss of life is still a sad thing. Whether justified (in Tsarnaev's case) or not (in the victims' cases). Again, NO ONE won. This is not about winning or losing. 

When I had to euthanize dogs because they could not be in society without causing harm, I sobbed each time. It mattered to me with them and with Tsarnaev that they started their lives as blank slates. They were held and loved and no one expected anything but wonderful things for them. But something went very wrong. Something that could not be fixed. And so, for the good of society, a difficult decision had to be made. 

I'm sure that there are many many people in my church and outside my church who disagree with me. That's okay. Death penalty opposition to others is a spiritual gut-feeling just like my vegetarianism is to me. Neither is "logical" and can't be argued that way.

But I do ask that my right to my own well-thought out belief be respected and I will do my best to respect others who disagree with me. It is my hope that we can all share in the sadness of the loss of life and potential. And that we can move on together to build a society that is better for everyone. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Quilting by hand

My latest quilting project
"Not many of you left," she said. 

I was in a fabric store in Portsmouth, NH today with a friend and I was checking out with my three spools of all-cotton thread that is hard to find. 

My friend Erika and I had been poking around the store looking at all the pretty fabric and I was dreaming of my next quilt. When I started seeing a life coach, we talked about many things that I want to accomplish, not just a change in career.

Getting back to quilting was just one of those things. And I've been on a roll with a queen-sized quilt that I started 4+ years ago but put down due to caretaking and work commitments.

I asked the quilt-shop owner some questions about the thread based on the type of quilting I do  hand-pieced and hand-quilted which is different from machine quilting in many ways.

When she said there weren't many of us left, she was right. I know other quilters and, with the exception of my friend Lynne who taught me how to hand-qulit, none of them do all the work by hand.

I've often thought that the art of hand-crafting is being lost in our society. We do lots of work with our hands still but it involves electronic devices. We don't even teach our kids cursive writing any longer. 

The shop owner who looked to be about 10 years older than me, said that she used to hand-quilt years ago. When my friend Erika asked her why she gave it up she said simply, "Arthritis." 

My heart sank. Is this my fate? Do I only have 10 years left to do this thing that I love so much? If so, I better get to work!

My mom always lived her life as though she would live forever. I'm not saying that I am awaiting death but I also don't kid myself that at 56 I have all the time in the world to accomplish some bucket list items. 

It's a trapeze act, these mid-life years. Honoring and appreciating the wisdom and experience that you've gained over 50+ years shouldn't exclude you from gaining more in the time you have left. It's easy to sit back and relax. Never pushing the envelope, always playing it safe.

The trick is to suspend reality just enough to allow yourself to act as if you have forever while bringing along what you've learned in forever.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A new job brings new questions

I've been at my new job for about a month now and I'm still not used to it. That doesn't mean I don't like it. It's just different. Very different. How diffent? Work stops at 4 pm. Period. I have no deadlines. I have no one reporting to me. My work is very straightforward. The technology is simple. I am never in meetings or on the phone. No one sends me emails.

When I left high-tech recently I left behind what was my career path. I had moved up the ladder (slowly due to my CFS but "up" nonetheless) to the point where the stress was too much for me. 

In order to do my management job well and support both my clients and my direct reports, I felt that I needed to be available pretty much 24x7. I was involved with a crisis du jour for years and didn't really think there was any other option for me.

When I left it all behind last month, I went to work for my beloved town. I've been involved in Westford pretty much since I moved here almost 17 years ago. The first thing I jumped into was the Westford Conservation Trust where I was a director and newletter editor for about three years. I've worked the elections for the town for 11 years and really enjoy that process.

For years I have also written for Westford news agencies as either a columnist or a news reporter. 

Going to work for my town was appealing to me on many levels. It wasn't just about downsizing my stress, it was actually more about helping my town. 

Several people have said to me, "So you're basically semi-retired now." My reaction so far has been to say that I am really just changing careers. And that I've worked part-time for many years now so that's no different.

But am I being honest with myself? And why do I feel so defensive about not being viewed as a serious career person? At 56?

My employee model as a kid was my dad. He went over 30 years without a sick day. He would take a vacation day if he was really sick - and by really sick I mean unable to move. He felt that it was important to set an example for his direct reports that sick days are to be kept to a minimum. Dad worked a lot and clawed his way up the corporate ladder without a college degree. He worked hard to provide for his family. 

Retirement did not go well for my dad. He was sort of lost without work. He liked to be a mover and a shaker and took great pride in making things happen that no one else could do. 

I always said I would not define myself by any job so that I could retire with ease. So why does my back go up when people say I am even just semi-retired? It's the old Yankee/Puritan work ethic, I think. I don't want to appear lazy or unmotivated. 

This has been an underlying issue with many in the American work force throughout time. So many of us feel that we need to be exhausted after a "good day's work." Working into the night and on weekends has become a badge of honor for a lot of workers in high-tech careers. There's almost a camaraderie built around how little free time team members have. It takes the "I feel your pain" head shake to a new level.

I expect this time to be an adjustment. 35 years of excelling in technical, competitive, political jobs has shaped how I view myself in society. It has also provided me with a sense of accomplishment. Like my dad, I have always taken pride in making things happen and moving things forward when others could not. 

My soul-searching work during this life-changing time is first to notice my long-held beliefs about work and life. Then I have to pull apart the pieces and examine them. Are some okay to keep? Can I integrate them into my new direction or do they just not fit any longer? Why do these beliefs matter to me? And is it okay to ditch them after all these years?

I'm lucky, I know. Not only have I had rewarding career experiences I also have had many opportunities presented to me because of a great network of people I've worked with in different capacities.

The questions I have to answer for myself make this time uneasy but also helps me prepare the way for a fulfilling retirement. Change without self-reflection is just change for the sake of change.

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:

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.