samedi, mai 21, 2011

The gift of emptiness

I have felt so empty recently -- and afraid, and, frankly, a little on edge.

The fear was spurred by the ongoing scrutiny, day by day, of someone whose interest puzzled me -- but was not, I am sure benign, like that of the vast majority of my readers.

But I have come to see, am coming to see, that it really doesn't matter -- that I was surrendering power over my life to someone else.

And then there was the ongoing sense of vertigo, the sense that even I was an unreliable partner. "I don't know if it's you I don't trust, because I damn sure don't trust myself" -- one of my favorite Springsteen lines.

But a few days ago, I began to feel the vise around my emotions begin to loosen a bit. I realized that, indeed, I had no power, had no influence, had no control -- that, to crib the Janis Joplin song I quoted on Twitter, I had nothing left to lose (however silly that sounds to my jaundiced middle-aged ears).

It's all very eastern -- and as a driven child of the west, I'm not comfortable living in what seems like a monastic paradox.

But as I began to realize that the only person I could hold accountable was myself, and that I often let myself down, I began to see little rays of sunshine. No guarantees. No promises. Perhaps not a lot of hope. But as I regain the opportunity to enjoy the little moments, I am realizing that maybe nothing left to lose (when it comes to the experiences of the past few months) isn't such a bad place to be.

One baby step at a time.

Tommorow -- what I can dare, and what I am not yet ready to attempt.

vendredi, mai 20, 2011

The confidence of letting go

Waking up this morning, and racing to leave for a doctor's appointment about an hour away, with a sick kid at home, I found myself caught up in drama.

Again, I can't be specific about the issues, except to say that ceremonial occasions can be very difficult to navigate -- they bring out the worst and sometimes the best in everyone.

You can be fighting against the odds or hold a good hand -- it's all in your cast of characters.

I'm sure you know what I mean. The relatives who haven't talked in ten years, the ex-wife and husband who won't sit near one another at weddings, the bridesmaid who gets drunk at the reception. People can become six years old again under the strain.

I know I have been tempted.

Fear, unresolved childhood trauma, jealousy, rage -- they can keep us holding on, even when we know we ought to open our fists, and unlock the doors to our own prisons.

With regard to my own personal state of mind, I did have a bit of a breakthrough last night. I'm getting close to accepting the present reality -- and that brings with it some measure of tranquility. Acceptance, a huge part of mindfulness practice, is about deciding to live in the here and now -- not trying to twist the future to our desires.

Sometimes our desires are a little inscrutable, even to ourselves.

Liberation ain't about control -- it's about surrender.

Neither you nor I can control what occurs in the future -- but we can choose how we behave in the present moment.

As you learn to let go of grasping, paradoxically enough, you are better able to cope with what may come.

It's about staying flexible, limber, and confident -- confident in your own sense of internal balance.

Funny thing -- these are just the skills I'm working on in yoga. Or not working on -- hoping that with practice, they will be there when I need to call on them.

How about you? Ready for a little child's pose? Join me. I promise, I won't peek, evaluate or judge. Learning to bend? Well, it's a lifetime challenge.

jeudi, mai 19, 2011

From the bottom of my heart

Hmmm....this is pretty personal. But I want to express my deep gratitude to some of my female friends, and this is a good place to do it without embarrassing them.

I'm sure you, gentle readers, have noticed that I'm blogging furiously. That's in part because I'm between school sessions and have time. It's also because I've been trying, without letting it all show, to work out some pretty profound questions about my own ability to hang on to what is true. If I had to give a general summary, it would come down to the Jackson Browne line : "maybe what I was seeing wasn't what was happening at all."

That is a bizarre feeling -- one that dizzies someone who makes a living trying to give other people the facts in as unbiased a way as possible. And that's all I can say at the moment.

I'm not very good at sharing my problems with others -- and this time has been no exception. I'm very much an introvert, but one with a public face.

Only a few friends are aware of the real situation -- but they have been fantastic. One of them has been a blessing who has come into my life unexpectedly -- and has given me, as I asked, not what I wanted to hear, but a perspective that is realistic and helpful.

I'll find new strength. I won't be as self-centered. Maybe I can be of use to some of my other friends.

Another, coming from a very different place, has given me help organizing my life -- which takes mental and emotional energy that is hard to come by right now.

Still another has not only listened to my woes, but found me new work -- work which will help me get my mind off my sadness. Work that takes me in a direction, a more secular direction, that I've long wanted to go.

To them, I say: thank you. Thank you for helping me. Thank you for letting me use my gifts. Thank you for strengthening me in my weakness.

You know who you are. I hope you remember how much it means to me that you were, and are there, in your own special ways.

Merci, merci, merci beaucoup.

Your love is her drug: faith, and evidence

A few years ago, I was sitting at a bar in Wayne, Pa, sharing drinks with a divorced professor.

He was really a nice guy -- but he had the chip on his shoulder about religion I've come to expect from some guys with initials after their names.

We had an amiable conversation, but agreed we weren't a match -- in part because (and remember, these were the years of the war on science) there was no way he could tolerate the dissonance between having someone who had good academic credentials and a faith in a higher power around. Too jarring. Much safer to pull up the moat, and set out the alligators again.

But I have noticed something very prevalent in online dating, at least among guys. They may or may not believe in God -- but they give full-throated allegiance to the idea of redemptive love. Whether just past their first marriage, or sailing on through many relationships, they seem to believe that love will redeem their lives.

As I've said before here, I believe that we all have to have faith -- whether it is faith in a person, or an ideal, or God. And the arguments for and against these kinds of faith are remarkably similar.

Such faith, whether it is in the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition or the god of love, is the triumph of hope over experience, say opponents. It requires extraordinary sacrifices -- sometimes the sacrifice of the self. It is a crutch so that one doesn't have to stand on one's own two feet. It is a drug, an anodyne, to take away existential fear.

Take the creed you oppose, and those put-downs seem to fit, don't they? But what testing them out on yourself?

I couldn't find much to back up my thesis, until I stumbled onto this article about addictive love relationships. Yes, it's just another Internet article, so take it for what it's worth. But I thought the ideas were intriguing -- and there are lots of books out there that explore the whole power of addictive love (love as transcendence?) further.

In a few paragraphs, the writer connects love, addiction and our hunger to transcend:

n a rational, left-brain dominated culture such as ours, where opportunities for transformative, visionary experiences are limited (and are even consciously suppressed by some individuals and institutions), love and addiction have become two of the most common vehicles of modern life for experiencing powerful, ecstatic, altered states of consciousness, temporarily removing us from the mundane routines of everyday life and seemingly opening up powerful new dimensions of reality and possibility. With addictions, of course, these new dimensions turn out to be wisps of smoke, mirrors and illusion, as the reality of the addiction eventually crashes down upon the user's life. And even with love, which has its own set of illusions and tricks, we can start out by honoring a strong, compelling inner pull yet end up in pain and isolation.

Together, however, love and addiction are an even more dangerous combination, feeding multiple illusions and fantasies about who we are and what we are capable of. The dynamic duo of denial and discounting of negative consequences can help us rationalize any unhealthy situation. We may reframe a desire to constantly be with our partner as finally having met our true soul mate. We may rationalize our isolation and avoidance of others as a need to deepen our connection. While our egos may tell us that we are genuinely in love, in reality we may be in need, in lust or in addiction.

What I get from this, in part, is that the denial of need, our need to feel connected, can lead to all kinds of weird rationalizations. Part of the problem is that some of us deny the power of unreasoning emotion (and then it conks us on the noggin), and others act as though reason has no part in love (very romantic, very deluded).

I really liked the quote here from Buddhist psychologist John Welwood: " But intimate relationships unmask and expose us and bring us face to face with life in all its power and mystery. Unless we are willing to explore the unknown in ourselves and in our relations, we will never advance very far along the path of love.''

What works for me (at least in theory, though it hasn't yet worked in practice) are a few core principles. Love is a decision. Love is a choice. Love is one differentiated self meeting another. Love is holding on to yourself, and sharing it with the other. Love opens you up -- it doesn't shut you down. And it is still incredibly mysterious.

They sound a little addicted, don't they? But we still love the song -- you gotta have faith!

I'm a believer. You are, too. Whether it's the big God, or the little guy with the arrow, he's got you.

mercredi, mai 18, 2011

Dirty old men, French and American

There is nothing romantic about rape.

And the allegations against the former head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, are those of attempted rape -- and imprisonment.

The lawyers for the French Socialist, apparently known for his aggressive habits when it comes to females, want him out on bail. Shocking, isn't it, to think of someone that wealthy wearing prison garb instead of his bespoke suit?

Let's hope they keep him at Rikers for long enough to get a sense for how ordinary criminals feel.

But really, it's droit de seigneur, or droit de dirty old men as writer Stephen Clarke called it in this morning's New York Times, that is on trial.

It's hard not to think of another person, across a continent, who had not solely an affair, but a child. That's the former governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger -- when she learned that he'd fathered an illegitimate child, wife Maria Shriver moved out of their home.

In both cases, it apparently was common knowledge that both men couldn't keep it zipped. But it seems to trouble Maria Shriver more than Strauss-Kahn's wife, Anne Sinclair, a television interviewer. It seems she might have turned a blind eye to his affaires.

That being said, it doesn't mean that French women tolerate rape allegations any better than American women. It does imply, however, that there is still a double standard by which the wealthy can get away with doing things ordinary folks cannot (and certainly shouldn't) .

And hopefully, the media will ask American and French men what they think about the allegations.

As shocking a breach of decorum as it might be, a little perp walk might help the wealthy French, and their American friends, realize that rape is rape, whether it's in a 3,000-a-night hotel, or on the streets of a city. And consequences, when the truth comes out, are consequences.

We better all hope that the hotel maid has a fabulous lawyer.

Public service note

I'm going to avoid posting about personal topics for a while and stick to safer ones, like American politics and religion (grin). To be candid, it just feels safer that way. I'm starting to feel a bit like the clueless ingenue who ends up miscast and concerned.

I like to keep drama on the stage, and I'm going to work hard to keep it that way.

Happy to provide fuel for other, more intellectual conversations, though.

More soon.

mardi, mai 17, 2011

Facebooking, blogging and the Twittertease: How tweet IS it, really?

Take it off...take it all off? No thank you.

But I might expose just enough so that you will read me -- and want to come back.

I'm fascinated by the stuff that people put out on Facebook, in blogs, or on Twitter. What is it about the online environment that leads us to think we are the only ones in the room - or to trust our audience?

Think of the congressman (umm, former) recently from upstate New York who send a chesty picture of himself to a woman on craigslist. He's not the only one to be taken down by what he has done while online -- men in both parties have done some really ridiculous things.

It seems that online boundaries are fuzzy -- and all to easily crossed.

But what about those of us who troll for readers -- and don't want to look silly, or too naked?

I've been thinking about my demographics on Twitter recently. Frankly, no offense, but I'm a little frustrated by the fact I can't seem to move beyond Christian evangelicals.

Happy to have them, but I wanted to increase the diversity of those I follow, and vice versa. My tweeps include journalist friends, some colleagues I haven't met, a few atheists and secular journalists, and, for some reason the Twitter feed for the Titanic (no snickers, please).

Then there are some friends and relatives smart enough to never open their mouths.

Recently, while avoiding getting too personal, I've tweeted madly about baseball, politics and Paganism -- but I still attract conservative Christians, perhaps drawn by the use of the word "church" in my profile -- though it's attached to the word "rebelgirl."

Also, I'm not an expert on baseball (I know enough to be maddening, though) l, don't know a lot about Paganism (yet) and don't know a lot about French politics -- nor am I sure that I want to specialize in any of these arenas.

But my task, like that of other writers online, is to get you to read about things you don't even know you wanted to know. And I can only do that if you know about me.

That, frankly, requires a little seduction. And I don't think I'm the best seductress in the world (see my post about being "too nice"). But I'm working on it --commercially speaking, of course.

HOWEVER, I've been a writer and blogger long enough to be cautious. You get the truth here -- but you aren't getting the whole truth. Some ideas, and people, remain private. Don't trust that I have tipped my hand.

Generally, I won't whale on people, unless they are public figures.

If they are connected with the (large) banking industry, all bets are off.

I am hardest on myself here. I try to be kind -- forgive me when I can't quite reach it.

I won't assume I know you solely from what you reveal online -- if you do me the same favor.

Here's an illustration of a performance that shadows as much as it reveals - preceding virtual life, but calling on similar emotions.

This is one of the last videos Rosanne Cash and husband Rodney Crowell (two of my favorite songwriters) did before they split up. It's a song about a marriage in which everything is not what it seems.

So why, I wonder, did he choose to be in the video? Why did she invite him? Did they know already that their union was doomed? When he takes her hand at the end, is it hello - or goodbye?

The song works, but it works in spite of those seeming inconsistencies.

We are mysteries -- and often, perhaps, most mysterious to ourselves. We cannot assume that we either understand, or know.

But we keep, desperately, wanting to.

lundi, mai 16, 2011

What would the world be like...

If we all agreed on life's big questions?

If we hadn't thought through what's essential to us, and where we can give up a little bit?

If we didn't sometimes change our minds?

If we didn't come from different families, cultures, ethnicities and races?

What would it be like if we didn't learn to be grateful for our diversity?

Boring, I think.

How would it feel to be scared of the "other?" Afraid to change? Afraid to grow?

We know THAT already -- look at the sad state of American politics (let alone French).

We have opportunities every day to become different people -- more open, more flexible, less afraid.

It takes courage, whatever your beliefs, to stand up against the sea of pessimism and fear, whether it's personal or societal.

Yet our default seems to be that of retreating, going back into our shells, like the turtle I found on the driveway of the school.

As a country in which diversity is simply a fact of life, we have the chance to move forward by embracing our differences. Or we can try to go backwards by dividing ourselves into groups where we feel safe (a problem for liberals as well as conservatives). There is way too much righteousness around at the moment, and it does nothing but separate us.

Isn't it time we found the chutzpah and hope to say "yes" to the future, instead of delving into our fortresses like frightened chipmunks?

Come out, come out, and smile at your neighbor -- you might find have something in common than big teeth and a cute tail.

Hurt you baby one more time: A dating anthropology

Just because I don't believe that I am a candidate for a relationship doesn't mean that I am totally giving up on dating sites.

After all, they provide a helpful window on guys my age. And women, of course, but I'm not interested in dating women.

I can go back to studying guys, perhaps counseling them, and generally keeping out of trauma range. Actually, I'd never really experienced complete disorientation before. Maybe there's some upside to pain and doubt that I haven't mined yet.

I'm waiting to find out.

Perhaps it's best to stick to the tried and true -- guys in the fringes. Ignore the usual suspects: men who like to go to flea markets, call lifting a beer by the couch a workout, and recapture their youth on Harleys.

They aren't my "type," but they have normal potential.

I want to know more about the eccentrics. But only if they make contact with me, first. I've avoiding the co-Cupid who viewed me last week -- his tag was something like: IamDoMInant.

Well, you can walk your cowboy boots all over someone else's back, sweetie.

A guy wrote me a month or so ago. From what I could figure out, he was a businessman who had a decent job, literate, and smart. Only one problem. He wanted a dominant woman. Apparently, from what he said "God had made him that way."

This presents me with a theological question that I will leave to a higher pay grade. Suffice to say that while I have the black shirt, and the high-heeled boots, I don't have the attitude.

Then there are the married guys -- they get frightened off when I make it clear that lying and cheating aren't my first gifts. Nonetheless, I've had some fascinating conversations with men on the hetero lowdown.

The one who sticks out in my mind was a swinger in York, PA. His game was trying to seduce me -- but who wants to have sex in hotel bathrooms?

Mine was getting as much info as possible out of him for a potential article I was doing.

Suffice it to say that neither of us came away completely satisfied - but I think I had the edge.

Sadder (because he truly struggled with his behavior) was the social service man who frequented massage parlors. I didn't spend much time talking to him. I hope he got the help he needed.

See where I'm going? There is no possibility that I'm going to be emotionally involved with anyone of these men-- yes, I'm JUST that bright. But I am learning much about the hidden side of human nature.

Along the way, there are confused, sad and struggling men that I have counseled about their marriages or children -- but that isn't dating, and it's not a way to meet guys.

That being said, I'm not looking to meet eligible guys. I'm looking for distraction, and perhaps some continuing education.

I'm pretty sure I know where to find it.

Stephen Hawking, you make me cry

Actually, it's not just the famed physicist who reduced me to sobbing at my computer this morning. It's really our tribalism, that makes me fear for the ability of our species to transcend our own belief systems.

But first to Dr. Hawking. A person of incredible intelligence and bravery, he has beat the odds on motor neuron disease, outliving his diagnosis by decades. In a recent interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Hawking said this:

You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?

I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

I don't have an issue with Hawking's science. I don't have a problem with his beliefs. It troubles me when people of faith attack his ideas because they don't agree with them.

I'm not crazy about the "fairy story" comment, however, because it demeans a whole class of people. I don't like it when politicians do it. And I am equally upset when it is done by prominent non-believers. Although I do understand why they do it -- there's a lot of anti-intellectual bias rampant in many religious circles.

There are many times when I rant about the weird triumphalism of American political life, with its tendency to embrace forms of red-necked bigotry. Just get away from here for a while, and read foreign papers, and you can see how small our lens is -- as I am reminded by my Americans friends who live abroad.

But, since I am not living abroad I also look for places where I can join forces with others. There is so much to be done right here, right now, that allowing our beliefs to divide us when there is so much to be accomplished seems wrong.

I come from a family largely of agnostics and atheists (though for centuries we had rabbis on one side). People of faith, like me, are remarkable simply because somehow we mutated from devoutly skeptical branches of our family tree.

But no one in my family ever mocked me for what I believe. No one ever refused to talk to me. No one disowned me. No one, at least to my knowledge, disrespected my intelligence.

We love each other. And what we share is more important to us than what divides us.

It was only when I left the nest that I realized how rare that kind of tolerance is. But I will keep on raising that standard --
I will look for kindred spirits who share similar beliefs. I will, as Hawking suggests, try to make my work on earth meaningful.

And occasionally, I will surrender to profound pessimism about human collaboration -- and put my head on my desk, and let the tears flow. Giving in to pessimism, long-term, however -- not an option. Not for a Jackson. We are tougher than that -- or maybe more foolish. At any rate, if I'm going down on a ship, I want to be with the kind fools, however misguided we might be.

dimanche, mai 15, 2011

Rescue her (him, them) -- not

Way back in seminary, we were told that we had to fight the temptation to be St. Bernard's for our people in our parishes, or the men and women we counseled.

A "St. Bernard" is someone who has a need to "rescue" others -- to fix them up, to make them whole.

This is tough for clergy, as for lots of people who work helping others, like counselors, social workers, and volunteers. Part of the reason we went into the fields we did was to try to make life better for other people.

Many of my life lessons in this area, however, haven't come from my work in churches. They have come from being a parent, from my marriage, and from my experience dating.

Part of a parent's task is keeping a child safe -- for as long as one can keep her safe. And, of course, another job as a parent is learning when to let go. Because I have such a strong-willed daughter, however, I found myself butting heads with her much sooner than the books tell you to expect. Currently, we are engaged in an ongoing discussion about whether she, a 16 year-old, can date a 20-year-old.

Her dad and I say no, of course -- apparently "no" is open to negotiation, according to the DQ.

She's already gotten under our reasonably permissive boundaries more than a few times -- and I have to accept that there are areas in which I currently have little or no rational (or coercive) power.

While I was married, I came to understand that true changes only happens if you, or your partner wants to change. One of us was content with the status quo -- the other was not.

I couldn't change him. And he couldn't get me to stay. But boy, did we give it a lot of time, mucho therapy and very candid conversation.

I once fell, very heavily for a guy who absolutely fascinated me - and it seems the fascination was reciprocated. Talk about opposites attracting. A confirmed and wealthy hedonist, he had lived a lifestyle totally beyond anything I could imagine. Or even, frankly, cared about.

The only problem? Well, one of many potential issues? He could only be intimate in threes. Of course, that implies a certain problem with intimacy (emotional and physical), period.

He was, in spite of his obvious intelligence, compassion and money, a sex addict. I couldn't change him -- and I wasn't about to alter my values and ethics in that regard.

Addictions are tricky things -- some can be healed, and some people struggle with them the rest of their lives. That's also the case with various emotional issues, like being bi-polar or cyclically depressed.

But the person coping with the disorder has to figure things out for her, or himself. There is no way you can much beyond standing by, encouraging, or challenging them.

Change is tough. It is hard work. And there is no way around it -- you have to go through it.

That's as true for me as it is for my children, for you or for those you love. One doesn't know what's at the other end of the change process - all one can do is hold on to oneself.

Existentially speaking, at the end of the day, you can solely be responsible for your own behavior.

Which, apparently, is a life lesson I haven't quite incorporated -- something no school, however good, can teach.