Fierce Grace for Grieving

There have been many grieving parents and loved ones who have commented on my post about Philip Seymour Hoffman. My heart aches for them.

While watching a documentary the other day about the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, approximately 13 minutes in, parents from Ashland, Oregon tell of the loss of their 11 yr. old daughter. The mother then reads a letter they received from their friend Ram Dass.  I was so moved by the letter that I stopped the film and copied the it word for word (errors in punctuation are mine).Image.  I share it here in hopes that his words also touch the hearts of those who are grieving and have shared their experiences with us all.

Here is the letter in its entirety:

From the 2001 documentary, FIERCE GRACE, about the western Hindu teacher Ram Dass (formerly Harvard professor Richard Alpert, PhD).

Steve and Anita,

Rachel finished her brief work on earth and left the stage in a manner that leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts as the fragile threads of faith are dealt with so violently.

Is anyone strong enough to stay conscious through such teachings as you are receiving? Probably very few, and even they would only have a whisper of equanimity and spacious peace midst the screaming trumpets of their rage, grief, horror, and desolation.

I cannot assuage your pain with any words, nor should I, for your pain is Rachel’s legacy to you.  Not that she or I would inflict such pain by choice, but there it is.  And it must burn its purifying way to completion.

You may emerge from this ordeal more dead than alive, for something within you dies when you bear the unbearable. And it is only in that dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees, and to love as God loves.

Now is the time to let your grief find expression. No false strength. Now is the time to sit quietly and speak to Rachel and thank her for being with you these few years and to encourage her to go on with her work, knowing that you will grow in compassion and wisdom from this experience.

In my heart I know that you and she will meet again and again and recognize the many ways in which you have known each other.  And when you meet, you will in a flash know what now it is not given to you to know, why this had to be the way it was.  Your rational minds cannot understand what has happened.  But your hearts, if you can keep them open to God, with find their own intuitive way.

Rachel came through you to do her work on earth, which included her manner of death. Now her soul is free and the love that you can share with her is invulnerable to the winds of changing time and space. In that deep love include me too.

So much love,

Ram Dass


Author/Playwright Emmet Rensin writing clearly about craving, please read!

Below is the link to an essay by a professional writer who is oh-so-much-more eloquent and concise in his description of the experience of craving and choice in the life of an addict in recovery. I think he nailed it.

Making some back-to-school new year’s goals

The Romans had it all wrong.  January is not the beginning of the new year.  The beginning of the new year is whenever the kids go back to school.  Kids know this. Teachers know this and without a doubt, anyone who has to keep kids busy all summer knows this.  

In light of the above, I’d like to wish us all a Happy New Year!  

Though I am decades out of school and my children are grown, this is still the time of year where I want to spend time making plans (who will cook for Thanksgiving this year) and goals (cleaning out that garage as soon as the hot weather passes and before the cold weather sets in).  I think I’m just too old now to change the habit of expecting to learn something new starting in September. 

Especially since my life was turned upside down, emptied of contents, and then dropped on my head this last year I am eager to learn/do/plan anything I can to avoid ever having this experience again. For all that I have to learn to do differently, I might as well be going back-to-school now.  

As a result of beginning to learn new things and reorganize my life, as my good friend Catherina Mendenhall recently remarked, “my to-do list is now longer than my life expectancy.” But a to-do list won’t make me a better person.  And I want to become a better and a smarter person in this next “school year”.  Becoming a better person requires taking stock of my actions over the last year, figuring out how to behave better, then resolving to do so.

I did it.  I wrote out an inventory of myself this last year.  All things considered, I did pretty well–no murder, no stealing, no stalking, no frivolous law suits for the sake of revenge.   How do I improve on not suing, stalking, stealing or murdering?  Maybe I don’t need any resolutions this school year?! Before I patted myself on the back too quickly, I consulted the internet.

Perhaps its no surprise that search results for resolutions and the like brought up the so-called 7 Deadly Sins, very quickly.  Add the highlights from the 10 Commandments, and it’s pretty easy to figure out what to do to become a worse person.  It took a bit more research and I eventually found the 7 Heavenly Virtues.  There’s a word that has fallen out of use–virtue.  Could I resolve to become virtuous? Do I want to be? Do I have to be religious? Celibate? 

According to psychologists, attaining something positive (a reward) is easier for humans than abstaining from a bad habit, especially if that bad habit as a secondary gain, i.e., the impossibility of abstaining from overeating when eating chocolate cake gives you a sugar high approximating nirvana.  Therefore, pursuing a virtue should be easier and more successful than avoiding a sin, especially if the virtue has a secondary gain, i.e., virtue=cash, happiness, respect.  

Posting resolutions to become more virtuous will probably guarantee that I fail in all of them.  Too late. This is my blog topic and I’m sticking with it. Please, feel free to join me in this endeavor.  Lust, greed, and wrath have had their day.  Go counter culture and embrace their opposites! Maybe we’ll start a revolution ; )

Here are my virtuous resolutions:

1)  Practice kindness–combat my inclination to judge others, gossip and feel sorry for my unmarried, poverty stricken self with thoughts and words of kindness and to stop all negative thoughts and talk in its tracks. (Corresponds to the problems of envy and jealousy.)

2)  Practice humility–be 100% responsible for my failures and shortcomings without lapsing into self-loathing, ambitiousness or perfectionism.   To stop all efforts to please or impress others or myself with my perfectionistic ideas of what it means to be ‘good enough.’  To admit to my mistakes and my faults without story-telling. (Corresponds to the mistake of pride.)

3)  Practice diligence–set limits on internet/I-Phone surfing, talking on the phone and watching television.  Stick to my daily schedule that allows for work, sleep, eating, exercise and some down time. Finish my credential course. Create a workable budget. Find work.(Corresponds to the errors of sloth, laziness.)

4)  Practice charity–be of service to others by becoming self-supporting; donating time and money to the local food bank; donating possessions that I don’t need; conserving water, electricity and fuel; living more and more simply.  (Corresponds to the problems of greed and selfishness.)

5)  Practice patience–go without things that I do not need in order to stay out of debt; dissolve all expectations of others; make decisions more slowly; pause before speaking and pass my responses through the filters of truth, kindness, and necessity; accept that life is not fair; stop whatever I’m doing whenever I begin to feel anger.  (Corresponds to the problems of anger, frustration and impatience.)

6)  Practice temperance/self-care–follow all medical recommendations for diet, exercise and alcohol consumption; assert my preferences with others rather than try and please others by being “easy going;” turn down requests, invitations that interfere with, distract from, or deplete my health, work or relationships; extract myself immediately from any person or situation which is critical, abusive, punitive, embarrassing, disrespectful or dishonest. (Corresponds to the mistake of being gluttonous, or taking too much of anything.)

7)  Practice purity–seek God first; pray, meditate and study spiritual texts daily; express gratitude daily;  keep track of blessings, healings, miracles and progress daily; be aware of and contain my desires and ambitions for financial security, career, work, house, spouse, physical luxuries, etc.  (Corresponds to the problem of lust.)

After writing all of this down it is clear that these resolutions won’t be achieved easily or all in one year.  I’m not admitting to failure before I begin, I’m just acknowledging that using virtues to set goals sets the bar really high.  But better a bar too high than no goal at all.  

What are your resolutions?  What are you going back to school for this Fall?  Write me in the comments section and I’ll get back to you.  Meanwhile, I’ve got some “studying” to do!

Knowing What The Goal Is

Sometimes we suffer from thinking we’ve failed when in fact we are a success. Isn’t this a strange idea at this point in history in western culture? If those of us from the west know anything at all, it’s the difference between success and failure. We are all products of a success obsessed culture driven by the wealthiest economy in the history of the planet. We know personal success! Don’t we?

Maybe not. We know personal ideal, personal best, and personal achievement, but these are all quite different from personal success. Personal success is something we cant know about until the end of our lives. Personal success is about things other than stellar careers, setting records, bank accounts, world travel, waist size, level of education, beautiful homes, or even succeeding in a marriage.

Personal success is about how much we’ve given, not how much we’ve done or how much we’ve gotten. Personal success is about doing no harm to others, forgiveness, compassion, gratitude and generosity.

I read this today, “…when we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded that our highest destiny is to face life’s pains and prevail, over and over again.” Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple, Beverly Hills, California.

He continued, “Stamina, not giftedness, is the most precious attribute of character. Resilience is the strain of spiritual DNA that distinguishes those who build lives of purpose and beauty.”

I wonder what would be different in western culture if stamina, resilience, and facing life’s pains were the earmarks of achievement instead of money, looks, instant rewards, power, and celebrity.

Rabbi Wolpe wrote more about a hero from another time, Helen Keller. Miss Keller, who was both deaf and blind, but learned to communicate and became world renown as an educator and a pioneer in advocating for people with disabilities. According to Rabbi Wolpe, Helen Keller taught that “the world is full of suffering, but also the overcoming it.”

Many people struggling with disease, hunger, loneliness, homelessness, heart break, unemployment and the possible loss of hope meet each new day with the resolve to continue on (stamina) and offer themselves in service and love to others (resilience). They meet their bad luck with patience and humor. The way of it is that this saintly behavior does nothing to eliminates their struggles, yet they must have some kind of knowingness that their highest destiny (and ours) requires, as Helen Keller said, “the overcoming of it.”

Whenever despair gives way to laughter, happiness, love and forgiveness is a moment of high destiny. When you can prevail over life’s pains and allow peace to break through in this way the Angels applaud you and the rest of us are grateful for your courage, stamina, resilience, and gifts of love.

As we head into the fall season, holidays for some and the transition into the creative hibernation of colder weather for all, may we think on prevailing over and over again in the face of life’s pains and summon more and more stamina and resilience towards achieving our highest destiny.

What’s trust got to do with it?

Congratulations to Tina Turner, who got married yesterday, apparently while I was writing this post : )  Little did I know that my blog title would come to me on a special day in her life.  I admire her greatly. And I am certain that she knows all to well ‘what love has to do with it’ as well as what I learned about trust only this week.  I pray that she and her new husband know only happiness together!

And now about trust…..

I had a startling insight the other day.  Startling not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of how surprised I am that I have lived all of these years not understanding something so basic and important.

If you have a history of secure and fulfilling relationships you already know what trust has to do with it so you can skip this.  However, if you or anyone you care about has difficulty creating safe, stable, and fulfilling intimate relationships then you might want to read on.

Here’s the context:

Five months ago my second husband announced without warning that our marriage was over and he also refused to talk about it saying, “I don’t do forensics.”  It was his analytic way of saying to the woman who made his dinner and shared his bed the night before, “You’re dead to me.” I didn’t know that I was married to a mafioso. I was about to find out.

He really meant it. He didn’t talk to me anymore. He didn’t move out either. So after 5 really awful, silent days of grieving in a small house with my husband unwilling to be in the same room with me or speak to me, I left.

He still won’t communicate. He won’t answer an email of any kind. All communications have to go through lawyers. Seriously, Tony Soprano on his worst day would have shown me more mercy.

Results are that I’ve been left to figure out what went wrong with my 18 month long second marriage by myself.  In the ‘shock and awe’ of his departure strategy I couldn’t understand anything about our relationship. And I really, really want to understand what happened because I really, really don’t want to go through anything this painful again, ever.

And now about that insight:

The other day I was musing over one of the 6 disagreements my husband and I had during our short marriage.  Yes, I counted because there were so few of them, they were easy to track. It was during this moment of contemplation that I met my inner mechanic.

I didn’t know I had an inner mechanic. But there he was, a kind, pragmatic, gentle masculine energy–like Mark Harmon on NCIS, on any cowboy good guy in a western.  He lifted up the “hood” and looked into my heart and said, “Well, there’s your trouble.”  And in one thought all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

My inner mechanic said, “You don’t trust him.”

In that instant I remembered the moment when my trust in my husband was broken, about 9 months into the marriage.  He had humiliated and disrespected me in public in front of my friends. And every 3-4 months he would repeat this behavior. Over time he expanded the audience of my embarrassment to include his adult children.  I realized in this flash of memory that not only did I not trust him, but also that I had been completely unaware that my trust in him was gone.

HOW COULD I HAVE NOT KNOWN THAT?!  Who doesn’t know that they can’t trust their spouse?  And how could I have had such enormous feelings of love for him throughout our short marriage (18 months) when I didn’t trust him?

This insight left me “speechless,” even my mind shut up.

I can feel love and take loving actions, but I don’t know, at my age and after all of my training and experiences, that without trust in my husband that there will never be intimacy between us. Wow. If I was missing a leg, would I fail to notice it? I am a relatively smart person with a supposedly high emotional IQ. I am still stunned at the level of my unconsciousness.

Space and time prohibit the full explanation of how my deep state of cluelessness came to be my modus operandi since….well, forever.  But I suspect I am not the only one who is willing to love people they can’t trust.

Turns out that loving feelings and loving actions are separate from being able to trust someone.  Seems obvious to me now, but I hadn’t ever stop to think about it until now.

I suspect that there are lots and lots of couples out there who love each other but no longer trust each other.  I’m thinking that there are lots of marriage counselors getting paid to try and patch that problem up while not being able to articulate the core question, “do you trust her/him not to hurt you?”

So what does trust got to do with it?  Why isn’t love enough to make a marriage work?

Here’s what I have figured out so far.  Feel free to add to this. I want to learn all that I can.

   1)  If I can’t trust him to avoid hurting me, then I won’t be vulnerable with him.  I’ll keep my emotional distance instinctively–meaning whether I am conscious of keeping my distance or not.

   Check. I did begin to withdraw after he repeated his public display of disdain for me. And while I made every attempt to communicate with him about my hurt feelings, forgive him, and remain kind and loving, I had instinctively and unconsciously drawn an emotional line in the sand that I didn’t cross again. The problem is that you can’t make a marriage work with distance between you.

   2)  If I can’t be vulnerable with him, I can’t really be myself with him. I’ll give him the parts of me that I think he likes best because I want to feel love from him.

   Check.  I began to avoid giving him any news that I thought would be stressful to him.  I began adjusting myself to think about what he would like before I did things. What I wanted was to feel more love from him. It didn’t occur to me that I was afraid of him getting upset with me.

   3)  If I can’t be myself with him, I can’t  keep my connection with him strong, no matter how much I love him.

   Check.  Everything makes more sense in hindsight. I remember feeling more and more like I was doing something wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what is was during the last 6 months of our marriage.  It took effort for me to try and get on the same page as my husband.  We spent time together and talked a lot about a lot of things, but not so much about our feelings.

I wanted to do more things together as a couple–date type of activities and I couldn’t get his interest in them. He certainly didn’t initiate anything.  At the time I passed this off to his busy work schedule. And so I tried just leaning into whatever was going on with him and work and his grandkids as a way of connecting with him but it didn’t work very well.

Now I know why. It wasn’t mutual. He wasn’t trying to connect with me. And if he had tried, he would have met that line in the sand I had unconsciously drawn and kept moving each time he berated me in front of friends or family.

    4) If my connection to him isn’t strong then I can’t experience intimacy with him.

   Check.  About the time I started adjusting myself to please him (see #2), our intimate life began to feel strained to me. It wasn’t effortless anymore. I began having problems with thinking too much. It never crossed my mind that there were emotional issues in the marriage. I thought that our honeymoon phase was coming to a close as it does for every couple. And I blamed myself for my difficulties with responding to him physically.

It makes sense now. If I can’t be myself with my clothes on, I’m not going to be able to be myself with them off.  I loved him and I wanted to be with him but my protective emotional distance and my increased need to please him took me away from the moment, a real deterrent to enjoying what marriage has to offer.

While a satisfying sex life isn’t the only component of connection in couples, sex is the canary in the coal mine of true connection in a relationship. If your sex life starts to sputter, something is wrong in the trust/vulnerability/connection department and your relationship is in danger.  Partners who are connected can have medically induced sexual dysfunction and still have a satisfying sex life. This is fact. But when the connection between couples becomes weakened, their sex life stalls out.

   5) And without intimacy I will not know love.  I can have a relationship. I can love him, but I will not feel loved. And when I love but don’t feel loved, I suffer because I am not that much of a saint to be able to be a wife to a husband with whom I can’t have a connection.

   Check.  By the third time he “made a joke” at my expense in front of family and friends I was not feeling loved or respected.  And by the fourth time he utterly failed to protect me or my feelings, dismissed me for being upset at all, and looked at me with a kind of contempt I’ve never seen before, I exploded in tears and yelled at him for not loving me.

And then I recovered. We spoke about things. That is, I spoke about things. He listened. I felt heard. I took responsibility for holding in feelings and then exploding. I apologized.  We seemed to get back on track.  I did notice a few days later he had not apologized for failing to look out for my well-being, dismissing me, and being insensitive.   There was so much unpacking to do after the move across the country I decided that I would ask him about that later.

One instance every 3-4 months isn’t enough to send me to a divorce lawyer.  I’m a traditional gal. I like to keep my commitments. And for whatever reasons, I loved this man with my whole heart.  And he said he loved me and he showed that he loved me with the exception of those 5 or 6 moments of hostility. My thought was that we’re doing alright for older newlyweds with emotional baggage from our first marriages. And like most of us who end up loving spouses we can’t trust, I had enough optimism for the both of us that time would allow us to work things out.

Now I know that I was headed for increased suffering if our marriage had continued.  I know that a pattern of disrespect and hostility only increases in frequency over time.  So every 3 months would have turned into every month and then every week pretty quickly.

So, I figured out what went wrong in my short marriage without my husband’s help. But he had already done enough.  My husband did me the biggest favor he could have ever done. He left me.

The rationalizations of a married woman who loves her husband are powerful things.  They will keep her in a relationship that is unhappy and unloving, sometimes for life.

My inner mechanic taught me in an instant that if I want a true marriage I need to be able to trust my husband not to hurt me in any way.

And that’s what trust has to do with it.

Why I’m Not Talking

It took over a dozen tries to get a picture of this butterfly. Somethings are worth the effort and the wait.

It took over a dozen tries to get a picture of this butterfly. Somethings are worth the effort and the wait.

Socializing is really difficult for me sometimes.  Now is one of those times.  I have the skills. I don’t mind the mild anxiety (what should I say? did I say too much?did I leave too early? did I stay too long?….) that comes with the activity. It’s just that talking is draining these days.  I feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the experience.

Some of the nicest people I know have reached out to me in the aftermath of the emotional and financial tornado that mowed down my life and I can’t connect right now.  I don’t mean to be rude, mean, or indifferent.  I just don’t have it in me to talk.

This is where I wish I could have gotten away with telling everyone that my husband had died after spending all of our money.  If I was a poor widow no one would be expecting me to return calls or go out to social events yet.  But memories and empathy are in short supply these days and apparently the rest and recover period has expired for women whose husbands walk out on them after 18 months and take all the money.

It’s hard to be upset with anyone–that takes too much energy also. Everyone’s got her/his own troubles to manage.  Also, I know I make people feel better about their own lives when they can get me to talk about what is going on in mine.  By comparison their stress isn’t so bad.  (It’s a tough job being at the top of the life stressor heap, but somebody’s got to do it.) So I can’t blame them for wanting to “check in” on me from time to time.

I sound like I’m depressed.  Yep. I am. Gratefully, it’s not the ‘can’t get out of bed or brush my teeth’ variety.  It’s the ‘my life just blew up and I’m overwhelmed’ type of depression.  And what I’ve learned is that I am newly sensitive to my own energy level, especially if it dips too low.  Life is difficult enough at the moment. I don’t want to let myself get to the ‘can’t get out of bed’ place.

Talking drains my energy.  Especially talking about him, what he did, what he’s done to me recently, and what he might do when it’s time to go to court.  And if I try to answer the question, “what are you going to do now?” you can be certain it will need to be followed by a long nap because I have no reasonable ideas about where to go from here.

All of this reminded me of an old saying that my mother and grandmother used to repeat,  “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

I can tell you everything you need to know about my family by saying this:  there wasn’t a lot of talking in my house.

This was crazy-making to us kids because you couldn’t figure out what was wrong all the time and you couldn’t predict when the next unsettling event was going to take place.  We might as well have been living on a chicken farm for all the eggshells we walked on.

Predictably, I started talking when I left home to go to college.  I don’t think I ever stopped.  This too has had its problems, but they were not nearly as difficult or as stressful as living with the quiet and courteous hostility that I grew up with.

Hmmm…quiet, courteous, and hostile. I guess that’s who my husband really was. After all my experience in my family with that style of non-communication I am surprised that I didn’t pick up on it in him.  My family never walked out on me though. Maybe the kind of hostility that makes someone treat you really well up until the moment they leave you is a different kind of rage.  Or maybe hostility is just so familiar to me that I didn’t take notice of it.  Something like the odor in your house after you cook a favorite family meal….only a guest who hadn’t eaten that meal before would notice the smell. I wonder, what does rage smell like? Garlic? Cauliflower? Tomato sauce? Liver and onions? Burnt popcorn?

I digress.

Curiously, I am invoking the right to “not say anything at all” precisely because I can’t “say anything nice” at the moment.  Am I reverting? Nah. (At least that’s what I’m telling myself. So please, don’t argue with me. Thanks.)

I think, I hope I’ve come full circle.  I’m not pretending I’m not angry. I’m not repressing or suppressing my anger only to have it exert itself in other ways or all at once.  I’m not “saying anything at all” because talking about the devastation my personal tornado has caused makes me feel depleted and upset. It hurts me. Having the experience of being a victim is draining.  I can’t afford the energy loss if I want to stay up and out of bed.

My dear family tried their best but we missed the point.  “Don’t say anything at all” is not for the purpose of being courteous, it is to allow you to express your anger appropriately, make adjustments in your life as needed, and then transcend the negativity. “Don’t say anything at all” is a way to power up out of being a victim.

Conversely, unless you’re trying to sort things out and create solutions for yourself, talking about the awful things that life throws at you, telling that story over and over again, keeps you in the victim spot.  And it can do so permanently, if you let it.  I, for one, do not want to become the docent of the ruins of my own life, recounting the stories of what once was my life and how the tornado called Bob came through and destroyed it all. I’ll end up being a personal archeological site: uncomfortable, dusty, and boring.

Perhaps I’ll take up storytelling again when I can link my losses to what I can create in their aftermath.  But for now, I’m not saying anything.