Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Christmas/Holidays Past-Present-Future

I created this for a presentation and get acquainted event for my private practice, Sea-Change Marriage & Family Therapy.

These thoughts are near and dear to my heart; please let me know how they strike your own!

Christmas and Other Holidays
Past — Present — Future

Christmas (which is my holiday) and other wintertime holidays can be a joyful and love-filled time, but this can also be a difficult time. And that contrast, between what we think we should feel—joy!—and the mixture of intense feelings we actually experience, can make those sadder emotions we might feel painfully poignant. Denying the bittersweet elements of the holidays, though, coupled with the idea that those feelings are wrong, that we should be in a busy tizzy of bliss, can make us feel disconnected, ambivalent, and bad about ourselves, and not only that, our denied and excluded feelings can sneak up on us and surprise us, because they really don’t want to be left out or ignored. Those feelings have a life of their own, and they demand our attention.

During this holiday season, more than any other time of the year, we feel the past-present-and-future blended together intensely. Time has a different sense to it as the year ends, it’s more permeable, and our past experiences and our future dreams feel vivid and very much with us. We remember and miss times that are gone, people we have lost or who are far away, places we’ve left, and even our best and happiest memories can feel nostalgic or even deeply sad when we view them as gone from us, as losses, as things we’ll never have again. And in that way and others, we feel the future more powerfully than at other times, especially as we think of the new year, and we may wonder what will be missing then, whether we’ll live up to our own and others’ expectations of us then or ever, and all together, this pressure of sadness, of past, present, and potential loss, can make the holidays pretty blue. But denying them is not usually the best answer.

Recognizing that this is a powerfully poignant period and embracing our past-present-future Christmas, Chanukah, New Years, we can stop running from those bad feelings and turn around and give them the hug they need. Rather than trying to avoid thinking of those we miss, we can include them and feel their loving presence in real and meaningful ways. Instead of being angry or feeling judged when old traditions and expectations seem to be wagging a finger at us, telling us we are letting them down, we can take that hand and invite those expectations to dance with us in new ways that make sense and have meaning for us in the present.   —How do we do that?

Let’s start with the toughest one first: Loss of a loved one. I want to invite you to consider this: We never really lose anyone or anything important to us. The relationships we have continue forever, even when the other person is not with us physically. Whenever we tell a story to someone about our mother, our grandfather, our friend, we are introducing that person and sharing that relationship, whether that person is here on Earth or not. When we see a photo or hold an object that belonged to them or engage in doing something that we used to do with them, how do we feel? Yes, there can be a sense of loss, but there is also a profound sense of connection, especially if we realize that that relationship is never gone from us, it lives in us and with us always. Rather than turning away from such memories at the first twinge, consider embracing them and inviting them to be with you, especially at such times as this when the past seems especially strong. Feel the love and pleasure of that relationship. Engage in activities that make the relationship feel more treasured, more tangible. Embrace it courageously and joyfully. And realize, again, that it will be with you always. And share this relationship with others—and bring those relationships into the present and future—which I’m going to talk about more in a moment.

There’s also loss of a certain time; things are different now. This can be a loss almost as intensely felt as the loss of a loved one. But in the same way, we can recognize and fully embrace the fact that we never lose these things; they are an everlasting part of us. This time of year is a wonderful opportunity to share these memories and bring them alive for others, to enrich their experiences and enhance your appreciation and gratitude. And to tie them into visions of the future, what we hope for, what we will create.

So how do we do this? The best ways I know are through Stories and Rituals. By sharing our memories and relationships through stories and rituals, we bring them forward and pay them forward by gifting them to others. Creating and sharing from a heart-based perspective that is confident and knows that we should be embracing ALL of our feelings, that a plethora of emotions is ok, normal, and good; Sharing and connecting; Making old traditions our own, breathing life into them and giving them purpose and meaning through our focused energy and attention, and bringing them fully into the present, and through the present sharing, into the future.
Stories and rituals. Powerful stuff.

I’m going to tell you the story of two people I never met: my father’s mother’s father and mother. I never met them, but their story is very important to me, and through this story, although they died long before I was born, I feel I know them. In the early part of the last century, my great-grandfather was a wildcatter in Texas. These were men who risked everything, life and fortune, in the hopes of striking it rich. My great-grandfather, they used to say, had oil in his blood, and indeed he did strike oil many times, he had a knack for it, it seemed, but only, time and again, to sink that fortune into another venture, where like as not he lost it all, only to return to the fields to do it all over again.

During one such venture, there was a terrible explosion and fire, and my great-grandfather’s eyes were burned, and he spent some months in a hospital with his eyes bandaged, in the terrible state of not knowing whether he’d ever see again. The nurses were nuns and novitiates, nuns who have not yet taken their final vows. During this time of darkness and despair, there was one voice that awakened his heart as she sang softly while she tended the ill— “the voice of a nightingale!” he said, and a woman of great sweetness and care, a young novitiate. Indeed, he fell in love with that presence, that voice, but he kept his love unspoken, because he believed a blind man would be unable to care for a wife and had no business speaking to a woman in that way. Eventually, the day came for his bandages to be removed from his eyes, and he would know. The young woman with the nightingale voice was there as they removed the bandages—how could she not be?—and he was able to see his love for the first time. He immediately, the story goes, proposed to her, and she happily accepted.

They later had two children, a son and a daughter, my grandmother, who had her mother’s voice and sang opera on the stage, and her son, my dad, also sang, and in college, that is how he met my mother. So, you see, singing is literally part of who I am and why I’m here.

I wonder, do you feel that you know my father’s mother’s father and mother, now, perhaps just a bit? My father used to tell us these wonderful stories on Christmas Eve. He didn’t talk about his family the rest of the year very much, but there was something about that night that made him reflect and share a treasure trove of stories about family members whom I’ll never meet on Earth.
I’ve shared this story because,... well, I think it’s a good story, and maybe another time I’ll tell you the one about how my grandparents met because she hit him with her car, luckily not going very fast. Or how my other grandmother first laid eyes on my granddad while she was hanging upside down in a tree, and why she knew that he was the love of her life one sentence later.

I’ve also shared this story to illustrate this idea, this principle to you that stories are a powerful way to connect with those we love, to bridge from the past to the future. Realize that relationships live on forever in us, and we can intensify and share valued memories to enrich ourselves and those with whom we share them. Think about, right now: Whose story might you share with others? With your children, with a friend,…  You can make a commitment to do that this holiday season.
Rituals are another powerful way to connect our past-present-future seasons: old and new family traditions. Keep in mind these ideas to consciously foster the spirit and meaning you intend and want to create, as you think about the rituals and stories you want to enact and tell this holiday season.

From the Past:
·         Consciously connect with people and times you love.
·         Embrace nostalgia and remember old times, hold onto both the sadness and the joy of it
·         Remember loved ones who aren’t with us, and include them in your thoughts, acts, and words
·         Personal traditions—like seeing the lights on Candy Cane Lane, caroling, playing old-fashioned games like charades, making ornaments, baking, decorating, telling stories

In the Present:
·         Feel the joy of the season, be present, be aware, be receptive to what is here
·         Consider family traditions and how they speak to connection and identity today
·         Incorporate familiar family recipes, photos, music, decorations—savor what they mean to you
·         Something old, something new—bring the past forward, make it current and present
·         Introduce children to family stories and rituals
·         Live up to personal expectations—but only the ones you choose
·         Practice mindfulness and being fully present

Toward the Future
·         Pay it forward, share stories and rituals with others to carry forward in their own lives
·         Express dreams and goals for the future, during this time when possibilities can seem so real
·         Bring it all together this holiday season, with awareness of the continuity of time
Most of all, recognize that past-present-and-future are especially powerful during this season, and embrace that aspect of the holidays for all it offers.

Make it yours, make it meaningful, and that will make it magical.

My girls, Isy & Jenna, 2004

Friday, April 26, 2013

When you have kids AND dogs... you LAUGH A LOT!!! 

Chase is such a patient soul. And he looks rather stunning in silver lame, n'est-ce pas?

"Mom, save me!....Oh, never mind."

Friday, March 8, 2013


Please note: This post is just a little dark humor about difficulties, not a serious statement about the very real and serious issues of poverty that exist in this world. In actuality, my life is full of amazing blessings. So this is just a momentary bad attitude, k? k.

Contemplating my current pickles and predicaments, it occurs to me that there is a huge difference between broke and broke-broke.  Kinda like when you like someone, or like-like someone.  I've been in both conditions.

Fun place to shop? or impossible dream?
--photo by Ruth Houston Barrett Blank--

Broke: Out of the question to fly to my dear friends' wedding in Hawaii
Broke-broke: In question whether I can pay $20 to see my daughters sing

Broke: Can't eat out
Broke-broke: Nothing in the cupboard, oh wait -- found something, now we get to eat

Broke: Have to shop at Walmart
Broke-broke: Can't shop

Broke: Can't buy new clothes for my job interview
Broke-broke: Hope the thrift store has shoes that fit my kids this time

Broke: Running in 2-year-old shoes, no money for new ones
Broke-broke: No money for glue to fix my shoes

Broke: Better find the old flashlight, can't keep buying new ones
Broke-broke: Better find the candles, no money for flashlight batteries

Broke: Terrible health care plan
Broke-broke: No health care plan

Broke: Complaining at the gas pump
Really broke: Walking instead, in old shoes, that need to be glued back together

Just sayin'.
Meanwhile, I hope your life is full of all the riches your heart dreams of!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tell the Truth -- one of the bigger lies taught children -- an issue in therapy

photo by Ruth Houston Barrett
"Heather didn't do it, it was me!"

Frequently, in therapy with children, their caregivers have a powerful need to list all of the kid's faults, as if the longer and louder their list, the bigger the prize they will win.  It's analogous to what couples sometimes do in therapy, but in this case, it is one-sided, and the child tends to shrink smaller and smaller, the longer it goes on.  Which, as the therapist, I redirect.  There is a time for the parent or other caregiver (and it's often a non-parent caregiver in these situations, and it is often a very sad situation for the child) to speak with me one-on-one and feel heard and supported, but the time is not with the child sitting there.

It has struck me as surprising that a very common top-priority charge in these cases is that the child lies. I'm afraid that I've heard this so many times that I have an internal struggle to remain patient when I hear it.  Of course children in conflictual, punitive, abusive, unpredictable, neglectful, or otherwise troubled family homes lie.  They would be incredibly self-destructive or dumb not to.  Not only that -- where on Earth did parents get the idea that people are truly supposed to tell the truth all the time?

It is so prevalent a fiction (lie) that telling the truth is what good people always do, that it sounds shocking to many when I say: Our job is not to teach children to always tell the truth, but to help them to negotiate when, why, what, and how much truths to tell.  Especially children in troubled environments. In fact, "good" people -- meaning those who care greatly about doing what is best for others -- negotiate levels of truth constantly.  Here are the two most clear levels:

#1 When you should tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth:
Most of the time, as a habit, but especially:
When someone is counting on the information, or when having false information will harm someone.

#2 When you should not tell the truth:
When someone has no need for the information, and when having the truth will harm them or someone else.  Often called the "white lie," and some teach this exception as something we do courteously or to spare others' feelings.  But there are other, more serious, times when lying is actually the safer or morally superior thing to do, and personally, I believe children should get some real education on this.

I put it to you that what we really need to teach is the importance of #1 AND the judgment to determine when #2 applies.

Here's the rub -- what if the someone who will be harmed is oneself? Is it okay to lie in that situation?  Let me tell you, if you were in some of the situations these kids are in, you might think it was the right thing to do.

One situation that comes to mind: A very thin 7-year-old boy with severe ADHD was struggling hard and was super stressed with terrible feelings about himself; he had a hard time being still and focusing, even with heavy doses of meds that zapped his appetite.  The mother -- who could have been focusing on any of several serious needs her son had -- could only talk about what an awful liar her son was.  Exploring further uncovered that she was really talking about confessions, such as a lamp that got broken. It turned out that when her son finally admitted he had knocked it over, she allowed her boyfriend to whip him with a belt, followed by an evening spent locked in his room without dinner. (Of course, this necessitated my calling child protective services.)

Now should this child, morally, tell the truth? What about prisoners of war who would be beaten, say, for passing notes. Should they tell the truth?  What about someone in a bank during an armed robbery -- should they let the robbers know that there is someone hiding around the corner, calling the police?

Okay, these are extreme and dramatic situations.

How about this one -- how many of us have ever lied about liking a gift that was given to us? Is that wrong or right to do?

A child who hasn't seen their mentally challenged parent in some time meets with him in a supervised visitation.  The one gift the parent has ever given the kid is an old violin. The parent asks whether the child is practicing every day.  Should the child tell the truth?  What is the most moral thing to do?  In the case I saw, the child lied and said they loved the violin and hoped to be really good at it some day, and changed the subject. It was one of the most elegant, caring acts of thoughtful lying I've ever seen, and this child was only 12 years old.

Again, too extreme?

Okay, what does a child say if they were unable to turn in their homework because their father, as punishment for his drunken misperception that the kid was smart-mouthing him, threw it in in the trash and poured their coffee over it. Are they morally obligated to tell their teacher this truth?  Perhaps  it would be understandable for them to say they were ill and needed an extra day to complete it.  Or should I have focused on the terribleness of lying, when I saw this kid during the divorce (Mom had had enough)?

What should you do if you want your child to tell YOU the truth?
Check yourself, and see what you are teaching them to expect from you when you do.

I once wrote a paper in which I made the case that truth and beauty were almost the same thing; now I would change that to say that it is beautiful when it is safe to speak the truth, that ultimate truths of the universe are indeed beautiful, but that in our messy lives we sometimes do better with some caring fiction.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Being a Good Parent, or What do kids really need to thrive?

photo by Ruth Houston Barrett, Ocean Shores, Washington, Dec 31, 1998
My daughter and her father

The basic needs of children from their parents are simple, and not that hard to meet, really, given that we have years to get there. Much of it can be thought of in terms of fostering the development in the child of certain capacities -- like love, empathy, connection, spirituality, morality, beauty, appreciation, and good judgment -- that will serve them as persons throughout their lives. Most of the rest boils down to teaching instrumental (how-to) tasks, but the latter is shallow and empty without the former, no matter how well learned. As a parent, as a researcher in the field of family science, and as a professional therapist helping children, I've come to believe the following tenants of child rearing.

  • Children need to be made to feel that they are loved and wanted. (We could almost stop here.)
  • Children need to develop their capacity for empathy, to respect it, and to act accordingly, if we are ever to have a beautiful world.
  • Children must feel that they, and their feelings and thoughts, matter -- speaking to modeling and developing empathy and to the most valuable aspects of self-esteem.
  • Children need to learn that they can trust and rely on their people most of the time.
  • They need to learn about forgiveness.
  • They need to learn how to deal well with their own failure, frustration, and disappointments, so that they can develop coping and resilience, persistence and recovery.
  • They need to develop a moral compass, not through harshly punitive, shaming means intended for instant success, but through ongoing explanatory redirections that are firm and consistent and calm, and that tap into what the child already knows really matters and who they want to be, at each age and stage, and as life offers teaching moments.
  • They need to learn social skills in communication, cooperation, connection, respect, kindness, and so forth through being around people who model and teach them.
  • They need to learn what hard work is and why it is worthwhile.
  • They need to learn to express and take joy in their creativity.
  • They need to learn how and why to be courageous.
  • They need to learn that giving to others -- whether that is a material object, an act, praise, apology, love, or appreciation --does not take away from them, but instead enhances their own as well as others' well-being and enjoyment. 
  • They need to understand their own emotions, both "good" and "bad" -- what they are for, how to identify them, and how to manage them. 
  • They need to develop a sense of what is good in the world, what is beautiful, what is spiritually profound.
  • They need to know the joys of generosity and charity.
  • They need to know that they are heard, and learn how to listen.
  • They need to learn self-management and what energizes, motivates, sustains them.
  • And they need the values that their parents impart to them, such as religious and cultural, to provide meaning, purpose, and enrichment of the lives they will live.

I'm sure I've left some things off, inadvertently, but this is a pretty good basis, I think.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Breast Cancer: 10 Shared Wisdoms from the Other Side of the Mountain

Finally, I am just about at the end of the road of treatment for that little lump I found in my breast, ooooh, about two years ago.  After chemo, radiation, surgery, MRIs, biopsies, and more, I get to hang up my hats, unpack my survival kits, and breathe a huge sigh of relief.  So somehow, it seems I should have something to say about all of this, some wisdom distilled from all of that fear, suffering, and surviving business.

While I may never completely relax with the specter of "Might it come back?" lurking, I do hope I'm done with the beast of breast cancer.  After all, my amazing oncologist uses the word "cure" about me, and I'm to schedule a final surgery to remove the port catheter that is a physical reminder of all I went through. So here I am, just on the other side of the mountain,  a little disoriented here in normal-life land. Still, while it's fresh in my mind, before I've wrapped up those memories of nastiness in puffy clouds of gauze and "put it behind me," I'd like to offer some help and information to anyone who might be just beginning their own, similar epic journey.  While I can't guarantee that this is profound wisdom, I can say that these are things I discovered in the climb up and the hard scrabble down, things that helped me ultimately, and that I wish I'd known before I started.

#1 is to surrender to the suck. Don't expect too much from yourself, do let yourself off the hook in every way, and realize that kicking cancer in the teeth is the ONLY job you have for a while.

#2 is to ask for help and be open to receive without embarassment the love and care of family, friends, doctors, nurses, and whoever else is there to help you.  Take people with you to your appointments, especially the scariest ones in the uncertain beginning or when something new is happening.

#3 is to realize that it's going to suck, but it's going to pass. Take the drugs, take to your bed, watch movies all day and night, eat what makes you feel alright. (For me, cheddar cheese was a blessing, strong enough to taste good with fried taste buds and overcome that chemo taste in my mouth.) Realize that sometimes it is going to be frightening, painful, and depressing, but that you WILL get it behind you.

#4 is to treat all symptoms right away, before they get worse.  In fact, once you learn your pattern of after effects following chemo treatments, you can take steps to head them off.  It's a lot rougher if they get out of hand before you treat them, so don't try to tough it out.

#5 is to find and use the supportive drugs that work for you. Don't be shy about letting your oncologist know if the first symptom-relief medications are not working well, and do keep communicating until you find what works best for you and your symptoms. There are many options, and everyone is different, so sometimes it takes several tries. Don't worry that you're being a difficult patient (which I did, at first), but realize that your nurses and doctors want to help you and have the knowledge to help you manage the symptoms. You may need to look elsewhere if you decide to try medical marijuana, which many find works better than anything else for nausea, diarhea, heart burn, and appetite, without druggy side effects. (One of my antinausea meds put me into a heavy, dizzy, sleeping state that I didn't like.) There are no gold stars for suffering more than you need to, so do keep working until you find what works best for you.

#6 is to let your children help you, if you have them.  Of course you want to protect them, but try to strike an appropriate balance for their age and personality between over and under sharing.  Being able to do things for you is good for them in many ways. They can make you a cup of tea, rub your feet and legs (that helped me tremendously), put lotion on your dry skin, light a scented candle for you (I liked citrus), or bring you things.  When I was very sick, I asked my girls to come sit on the bed and talk about all that was going on with them, and even if I couldn't respond much, I loved to hear their voices and feel their presence, and I felt good that they knew how wonderful, important, and loved they are to me, even though I could not be as involved as usual in their activities.

#7 is to be patient with your partner, and support them as much as possible, as they support you in such crucial ways. With the stress, hormone-effecting therapies, steroids, drugs, chemo fog, and physical suffering, I experienced some serious crankiness and lack of clear thinking at times. I think that understanding this and externalizing it can help, and so can the knowledge that it is temporary, even though not short.  Try not to say every rotten thing you feel like saying, because you won't mean it.  I still cringe when I think of some of my outbursts.  Offload as much as you can to others, even though it's easiest to go to your default caregiver with everything, and you'll have to on the worst days, but the rest of the time do reach out and do accept help from your friends, even if it's just to talk. (I say just to talk, but the listening ears and heart of a friend are a wonderful gift.)  Encourage your caregiver to do things for him or herself during this time, they surely need it.

#8 is to forgive yourself when you're not as brave, sweet-natured, strong, or positive as you'd like to be.  Your super hero cape may be in the wash.  You're still a great person.

#9 is to be unrealistically optimistic.  I wrote about this in an earlier post.  That doesn't mean that being optimistic is unrealistic, but that being optimistic doesn't have to be only based on facts and statistics (which only apply to large groups, not to any one person).  It is powerful and helpful, when you are able to do it. The pendulum swings between worry and hope, and you can't be positive every day, but an optimismistic perspective will get you through the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months, and help propel you over that often brutal peak.

#10 is to laugh; laugh loud and often; laugh with all the people who are going through this with you.  Cry, too, when you need to, express your fear and anger, but let it turn to laughter whenever you can  Laugh at the ridiculous horribleness of it, laugh at the awkward things people say and do (without meanness), laugh at every incongruous, surprising thing you encounter, and it is amazing how much better you feel.  My husband is a riot, and I took him and my hilarious (and warm and loving) friend with me to many appointments, especially in the early scariest days, and this turned unbearably terrible moments into (believe it or not) largely enjoyable ones.  I could do an entire post about this.  Like waiting to hear just how bad the cancer is, and everyone but the doctor kept walking into the exam room -- "This is it!" "Oh, no, it isn't."  It became funny after 5 minutes, and became an hour of silliness, until the doctor finally arrived; the hilarity really took the edge off the sharp anxiety.

In my next post, I'll share the results of the massive amount of research I did about other things you can do for yourself to augment your main medical treatment, such as light exercise and several supplements that appear to have helpful effects, supporting you through chemo and radiation, and also fighting cancer.

Until then, hang in there, be optimistic, and tune into the love and light that surround you even in the darkest of times.

Fellow warrior,

Finding a bright moment, even in the toughest part of the journey. Summer, 2011, halfway through

Monday, January 2, 2012

Contemplations for the New Year....

The only person in charge of my being happy is ME, and we don't have to seek happiness, make happiness, earn happiness -- we just need to tune into it. It is there, already.

We can think about removing the blocks to happiness, like forgiveness, letting go of the desire to be the injured party, martyrdom, and so on. We can do exercises like writing gratitude lists. Those are cool.

But more than anything, for me, is just to take a breath, realize that I need to tune into the happiness channel that is broadcasting all day every day. Let go of sadness and irritation -- let go of it! Let it float away, don't fear its loss, don't grab it back. And just breathe, be happy. We have that freedom, that power in our daily lives.

Photo by Ruth Houston Barrett Blank, Our dog Chase contemplates the new wave...