Holding On by Letting Loose

It’s natural  to search for meaning, some sort of anchor or True North in all of existence, following the untimely death of someone in your family or friendship circle. It can feel like you’ve fallen off of a cliff:  arms and legs cartwheeling, trying to grab hold of something, anything, to slow down the momentum of this new reality.

Trying to comfort someone who’s grieving is almost as difficult,  as I recently experienced with a friend. Words are just words. Cards and flowers are meant to express love and care, but can feel like absurd gestures when offered to a widow who was expecting another 30 years with her husband. Loss can feel like such a solitary thing, especially in Western culture. We tend to perceive the grief process as something that can never truly be felt, never fully experienced, by anyone but the closest person left behind. In my friend’s home, wooden blinds tightly covered her windows; she seldom went outside; and visitors, even friends, felt like intruders (as she later told me). As I thought about what I could, or should do as her friend – if anything – I recalled a travel experience that comforted me in its dramatic contrast.

I was in Egypt, walking with my companions through a square in Cairo, at around 10 o’clock at night. There were so many people out and about: a chaos of jostling bodies packed so closely that it almost felt intentional; a kind of slow, seductive dance that a thousand or so people were engaged in; enjoying the relative cool of the evening. One of my friends was Egyptian – totally used to this scene — who held tightly to my hand, pulling me along in the crowd as we pushed toward our destination (a coffee bar). The lights in the square were pale gold orbs on top of tall, futuristic-looking poles:  not bright enough to fully illuminate our walk, but some help in the growing dark. The lights washed the faces in the crowd in sepia tones. It was an odd, dreamy, slow-motion party filled with animated conversation in Arabic or Farsi (and probably other languages as well).

The coffee bar we were headed to was in a swank hotel on the Nile River. It felt like everyone in the square was headed there also. As we made our progress, I heard a loud, high-pitched scream: more of a wail, now that I think back on it. Knowing what can happen in large cities at night, I instantly assumed there’d been some kind of violence. I felt a little panicky. But my Egyptian friend didn’t react to the first, nor a second scream; he just kept pulling me along at the same pace. The crowd didn’t seem agitated either. I kept looking behind me, expecting some awful visual. Peoples’ bodies behind us were parting to allow what I thought might be law enforcement through.

All in black, some faces covered and some clearly visible, murky shapes of women were forging through the nighttime crowd, 2or 3 abreast. They were shrieking and crying, raising their arms above their heads. Their cries were painfully loud and visceral. The emotion vibrated in my body and made tears well in my eyes. It felt overwhelming. My friend gave a quick tug on my hand, indicating  that we should stop walking and step aside to let the women by. It seemed that at least 100 women passed us, all sobbing in the most heartfelt way. Next, a group of men came from behind the women, holding what looked like a stretcher on their shoulders. I was completely transfixed: there was a human body on the stretcher (wrapped in white cloth), and this crowd of men and women appeared to be part of a funeral procession. At 10 o’clock at night. In a crowded public square. In the middle of a sea of strangers.The grief of the mourners was not only on display, but a full-on public expression of emotional pain. The interest of the onlookers around us intensified; they began shouting out what seemed like commiseration and chanted prayers. Some tried to touch the body on the stretcher as it passed.

At the coffee bar my friends were nonchalant about what’d just happened. But I wanted and needed to talk about it; to be eased-into the idea that this was actually a very natural way for people to cope with death. As unsettling as it was, the group-catharsis I’d been a part of was also mesmerizing. I know that other cultures have similar rituals, but this one, in particular, was the most primal I’d ever witnessed: a mixture of deep sadness, surrender, release and relief. The relief came in being comforted by so many others who were physically, emotionally and spiritually ‘present’ for the mourners.

When my widowed friend finally emerged from her seclusion I spoke in a flood of words: what I’d been thinking and feeling about her, and her loss. She seemed appreciative, but reluctant to talk. When she did, for just a moment, the tears came, along with the look of “What am I going to do now??” Just as quickly, however, she changed the conversation. It made my stomach hurt, to be honest. There was still so much sadness.

Everyone processes loss differently. Sometimes just surviving the day, by carrying-on with routines, is the only option. But, might being able to let loose — to scream  and howl one’s pain to the skies – as in the crowded Cairo square, with so many people engaging with you in your despair – be a healthier way of coping, than suffering in quiet solitude? How many emotions do we feel we must endure in silence because they’re too fearsome and powerful to let loose? Why are we so reluctant to let others know the depth of our sadness, while it consumes us completely? There was community, that night in the square:   a joining of people’s hearts, in the midst of unfathomable sorrow. There’s a message in that, I believe – for all who feel alone in sadness and despair – and for those of us who stand as close as we dare, wondering what to do.

Yours. Mine. Ours?

When I finally felt ready to have a child I was 38 years old. (Which sounds almost young to me now, given recent statistics.) The experience of having ‘just one’ was plenty satisfying to me. I also knew in my bones that going into ‘production’ at 38 was not part of my Life Path. Turns out, the one child I had was challenge enough, especially in the 18-21 years.

My family was thrilled when I chose to get pregnant, and openly disappointed when I announced I was “one and done”. They understood how important my career still was to me (I wasn’t anywhere near the apex), but they lectured (guilted) me about the perils of having an ‘only child’. From my vantage point, multiple children in a household didn’t necessarily make for an ideal atmosphere. There was the ongoing lesson about ‘sharing’; and the one that got repeated during long road trips (trying to stakeout your exclusive personal space in the backseat of a station wagon, with two siblings and a dog) that usually meant  a lot of yelling from adults and children. Having one child felt do-able to me.

As my son grew older and his friendships expanded, my instincts felt confirmed. More than once he made comments about how ‘easy’ his life was, compared to his friends’ families (more kids in the household). Whatever the opportunity or resource (including love and attention) was, my son saw it as a ‘plus’- to not have any competition. I believed then, and still do, that for a woman who chooses to have only one child, there are advantages. There’s also a little more effort required to make sure your ‘only’ gets dosed with essential social skills. (We used summer camp, travel with cousins, and lots sleepovers). But the point of this story isn’t about raising  a well-adjusted only-child, if that’s the choice made. It’s about how you get to that choice. It’s about Cooperation, Compromise and Consensus, and how willing we are to engage in them.

When I was a young woman in a management role, the above 3 C’s (as I learned to call them) were drilled into my brain by my mentors. Through formal training and a lot of trial-and-error, I became a master (mistress?) team-builder and negotiator. In fact, this was my forté for the majority of my career. Over time, however, a quote from a friend and colleague who was a mental health professional (therapist) began to loop in my brain. Observing me in my office one day, in a state of complete exhaustion, she said, “Never work harder than your client.” The proverbial ‘light’ went on in my head: this was exactly what I’d been doing. In my earnest desire to get my team to see the personal /organizational value in cooperation, compromise and consensus, I’d dicounted the fact that human beings are not sled-dogs. Some enjoy pulling together; some will do it, grudgingly; and some want and need to craft their own roles, and define their own degree of commitment.

My son’s now approaching 30 and we often talk about how millennials are thoughtfully considering key life choices. “People aren’t having kids so much anymore – they’re getting dogs; it’s just easier “, he says. That actually makes a little bit of sense to me, but I need time to adjust to the idea of grand-dogs vs. grand-kids. More to the point is this question: are careers, relationships, marriage, babies, and mortgages coming to represent the antithesis of a value-add ? Is the thinking now, that Cooperation, Compromise and Consensus are activities that only unimaginative, Non-Woke people engage in?

From an older, wiser perspective, the answer is, Yes, and No. Careers, marriages, babies and mortgages often feel fulfilling and constricting, at the same time. Too much focus on what other people want can also jeopardize inner peace and happiness. There’s no single formula for a happy life, and, all choices involve some kind of trade-off, whether or not “the ask” is immediately apparent. The key, I think, is to pursue what’s heartfelt, and to keep growing (regardless of your age at the moment!), trying not to hurt anyone along the way.

When it feels good and correct to cooperate and compromise in a situation, I believe that this is a solid prompt to make adjustments to your own Non-Negotiables. When reaching agreement on a super-important topic, especially with a person you care for, consensus can make your inner light glow brighter, like an All is Well neon heart. The process is circular (read: ‘never-ending’) however, and has to be re-visited and repeated as people and circumstances change.

The Fountain in Kyoto

I’m always – in my head, anyway- planning my next travel adventure. The first question is whether I’ll travel solo, or try to work with the busy schedules of others. Sometimes travel alone is the best ‘medicine’ for the soul. Sometimes it’s just a lot easier on the nerves.

Travelers know that one of the tried-and-true tests of how real and how deep a friendship or relationship is, is to take a trip together. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does need to include a few stressors typical of travel:  adhering to timetables (flights and trains, for example); being able to pack well; generic discomforts such as missed connections; struggling with a new currency or language; jet lag; digestive upsets; environmental factors (heat, bugs, rain, traffic) and the potential for physical exhaustion and frayed nerves.

No matter how much enthusiasm for the trip there is from the get-go, no matter how beautiful or exciting the itinerary, fundamental personality differences will emerge on a small, or grand scale. How people cope with stress in day-to-day life is magnified tenfold during travel. I can usually spot those that are headed for trouble, even in the airport. They’re the couple who’s already bickering about grabbing food before getting on the plane. One suggests a quick snack from the Au Bon Pain kiosk; the other wants a sit-down, full-dining experience at Texas Barbecue. ‘Boarding’ is in 35 minutes. Guaranteed: the barbecue will end up being To Go, with more angst ahead when the Styrofoam pops open on the crowded plane.

I’ve traveled a lot, domestically and internationally, and I still learn things about myself in the midst of new places and situations. Some of my less than “stellar” moments have been during travel – I’ve overlooked some important detail or chosen a really bad hotel (bad, as in Bug-bad). Solo travelers can suck it up and learn, no one to complain to, or to blame for not packing the correct adapter. But traveling in the company of someone else requires patience, compassion, diplomacy and sometimes earplugs and a mini-pharmacy.

Nowadays, I’m much more circumspect and even outspoken, when need be, when someone suggests taking a trip together. If the travel is proposed for Spring, for example, and we’re talking about it a year in advance, I’m going to make sure I pay more attention to how my friend deals with change, uncertainty, and pressure overall. It’s my own little ‘gauntlet’ of trial-beforehand: maybe a three day or weeklong adventure somewhere. This may seem petty and strange, but a poor-fit with a traveling companion can can ruin the entire experience, and friendships too.

My Kyoto Fountain memory is seared into my brain, never to be forgotten, as a lesson-learned about traveling with others. Japan is, for me, a culture-shock experience of epic proportions. Tokyo and Osaka vibrate with intensity, novelty and situations pushing me far out of my comfort zone (in a good way). Kyoto, on the other hand, is beautiful and ethereal; wonderfully quiet in its lush, green antiquity. I was traveling with two other people who were clearly in awe, as I was, of Kyoto. On the day of our visit, a large bus of Japanese tourists converged on the same shrine as we were making our way to. They moved en masse, a blur of tennis shoes, matching white shirts, and cameras, talking animatedly, moving quickly toward a specific area of the shrine. Luckily, there happened to be an English-speaking guide with another, smaller group that explained what the excitement was about.

As we inched closer (my curiosity was now in control, so that I had to push my way through a wall of people jostling one another) to the shrine, I saw what the guide explained was an ancient, sacred and magical fountain. The water was trickling down a fairly large outcropping of rock covered with dark green moss. There were three separate fountains, each stream of water separated by about 18 inches of rock. At the bottom of each stream was a little recessed area, a small oblong pool, created – I guessed – my the 1,000+ years this fountain had worked its magic on the stone. The Japanese tourists had brought little expandable cups and they were slurping up the water from each small stream:  1 – 2 – 3, in order. I asked the guide “What gives?” and she told me that each small spring had a name: Wisdom, Beauty and Longevity. Apparently, the Japanese were in full-acceptance of the powers inherent in this water, but I was done being pushed and stepped-on and so started to turn away. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of my friends dash through the huddle in front of the pool and dip her hand in the fountain. She then stopped the flow of each little spring with her hand, drinking the water from all three with absolute glee. It was one of those slow-motion moments when you wish you had super-powers. If I had, I would have extended my rubber super-arm and grabbed my friend full-body, away from the fountain. But it was too late. The Japanese tourists stopped talking. They looked at my friend as though she were a being from another planet; then, they looked down or away. The Japanese are extremely discreet. Without saying anything, they’d made their feelings known about my friend’s behavior.

About three days later, we were now in Egypt. We had an early morning visit to a temple planned, but the friend who’d done the fountain dive hadn’t come down to breakfast. My other friend went up to her room to find our companion righteously (not using that word as in ‘just punishment’ for her fountain faux-pas) ill. She’d been in intestinal distress ( been there, done that horrible gig) all night and had a high fever. Of course, the hotel called a doctor immediately, samples were taken, and amoebic dysentery was the diagnosis. Her illness last through another country, then into Malaysia, and then turned into a kind of emotional paralysis:  she wanted to go home, immediately, and she wanted complete agreement on aborting the rest of the trip.

Needless to say, things became a bit strained at that point. Sitting in the historic Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore…the 20-foot palms surrounding us in the green and white décor, the slow ‘swoosh’ of the ceiling fans moving the damp air only slightly…my ‘healthy’ companion and I discussed what to do. She confided, being able to speak and understand more than a little Japanese (which she hadn’t really shared until now), that our friend had invited some kind of bad ju-ju from the fountain, according to the Japanese onlookers. Best-case scenario, this meant, “No Beauty, Wisdom or Longevity for you!” (Thank you, Seinfeld.) It would be a stretch to assume that her parasitic invasion was The Fountain’s Revenge. We’ll never know. But the cautionary tale is still told among my friends and fellow travelers.

Raffles, Singapore. A bygone era still thrives!

Changing our Emotional DNA

Sending Love…

My interest in what I call My Tribal DNA has increased over time. Not the popular “Twenty-three-and-Me” kind of sleuthing we can do to determine our cultural lineage. No, I’m referring here to how my sense of Self was formed, based on the experiences sent to me, via the DNA of my ancestors. This is a huge area of scientific study: how things like wars, famine, migration, and exposure to violence and other traumas create changes in our gene pool. In many instances, this is done through words.

It definitely helps, when you’re trying to figure yourself out (focusing on reasons behind the negative stuff, usually) to have a basic idea of who your grandparents and great-grandparents were; where and how they lived; and the events they may have lived through. In a previous Post of mine, “Wait for Me…”, I shared a story about my maternal grandmother (born in 1898) who’d lost 7 siblings to the dominant illness of her time, tuberculosis. There are parallels, nowadays, for this kind of loss. But, other than my granny, I know of no one else in my biological tribe who’s lost seven immediate family members during the formative years of growing up. I can only imagine the deep pain, seeping into the remaining family members, quietly and gradually changing their internal biology. Words of hopelessness, and grief, uttered in hushed tones. Words of frustration and anger shouted to the heavens. “Why?!

The experiments of Dr. Masaru Emoto have offered proof, for years now, that thoughts and feelings affect physical reality. Emoto’s research has helped me understand how and why I’ve been so incredibly hard on myself for most of my life. I can’t summarize here (do justice to) these amazing studies of how spoken words affect water-crystal formation; hopefully, my Readers are already familiar with Emoto’s research. (If not, it’s really a worthwhile detour). The takeaway for me is that Words Have Extraordinary Power. More than I was ever taught through The Golden Rule; more so than I ever learned in psychology and leadership classes.

Growing up with negative words or too much critical analysis in the family can change a child’s physical chemistry (just as Emoto’s water crystals were affected by words like Love, and Hate). I don’t feel that my family, two or three generations back, were a bunch of mean and dysfunctional nut-jobs. But I can piece together how their conversations– their words and vocal tones – could well have been fearful, angry, sad, stressed and utterly confused. My ancestral family, based on my research, were emotionally-tough people; they had to be, just to be able to survive in times fraught with challenges and unwanted sacrifices. If I’d lost so many children, I’d be a complete “basket-case”. I can only imagine how they were able to get through that.

My strong ambition to achieve; my perfectionism; my self-criticism; my worry and fears; my sense of life being a ‘struggle’ – usually over-exaggerated – is clearly a part of my tribal DNA. I don’t offer this as an excuse, but an explanation for, and a way of understand, a lot of my “issues”. I also think of this imprinting (and its results in my life ) as a reason to try to change this emotional DNA in raising my own child, and through my contacts with other people (and their conversations).

Words don’t just nurture, encourage, diminish or debase on-the-spot (as in the instant-impact of social media). Harsh, or loving, words are also creating generational patterns of attitudes and behaviors across the globe. Bringing about change begins with my own understanding of the power I have to resist those words (The Critic) that cause me to be less than I know I can be. With others in my life (even my pets!), making sure that my words soothe, even when I’m tempted to “go off”, sends a ripple — I believe — of Hope into the world.

When I worked with extremely at-risk adolescents, the vast majority were growing up in emotionally and physically toxic environments. In a formal study I did, it was remarkable (and disheartening) how much yelling and verbal abuse occured daily in their lives. But, I also felt a resilience emanating from many of these kids; a determination to someday live in a way that was vastly different. Despite the verbal messages of, “You’re not smart enough to…” “You’ll never be more than you are right now (pregnant, under-educated and unemployed)”, these young people were already in the process of canceling-out the ability of such words to shape their futures.

Current reality may be very tough; we may be harrassing ourselves constantly with negative messages. If we choose to, however, we can begin to change outcomes by noticing and questioning where this stuff comes from. I remember a short blurb I began seeing in my college Psych classes, about the power of words and the temptation to use them recklessly: Is it True? Is it Kind? Is it Helpful? This little check-in can nip sabotaging self-talk right in the bud, before it takes root in our souls. It’s a slow process, but it feels so good when it becomes habit. And it will.

Love: ‘Before’ & ‘After’

For a long time now, and with even more effort lately, I’ve been trying to recall my dreams the minute I wake up in the morning. Most of the time, even a vivid, totally-immersive experience during sleep evaporates as fast as my conscious mind tries to grab for it. This morning was different, though:  not only did I wake with a complete memory of what I’d dreamed,  but I was also keenly aware of the message from my subconscious mind, as to what it was trying to tell me. Last night’s dream was all about my relationship with Love, and how that relationship has changed, through both luminous, and harsh, experiences.

Being in Love is uniquely personal. I can’t, and wouldn’t try to describe it for anyone else. First Love (which was what my dream-memory recalled) was an absolute free-fall and deep-dive into the other person, without any fear or hesitation. I often had the sense that we were in sync at a cellular level: at times seeing, breathing, thinking as One.  Everything that I thought I was, and everything I wanted to be, was intertwined with this feeling. Love was authentic and trustworthy. Love was a kind of protective insulation from the world; a special way of feeling, and being, that sprinkled fairy dust on anything  we wanted to conjure together (even the mundane, like our first apartment). My first love lasted almost 9 years. Even then, the love didn’t ever wane, but our radically-different ideas about ‘stability’ became impossible to ignore. We were a cliché of the times:  the ambitious professional, constantly – and becoming bored with — propping up the starving-artist who wanted to play music and do little else. Still, over the years that First Love remained imprinted on my entire being;  it was my metric for how I knew a relationship could feel. But as I continued to date, even falling in love two more times, I began to change, and my lovers did too.

If we stay ‘single’ or get divorced, at a certain point, — or maybe it’s a certain age — men and women start to feel and act on the belief that Love is just not going to happen naturally. It’s over. Done. The time has passed.That’s when the small lapses start; the little half-truths or fully-baked lies.When I’ve had occasion to give a man the heave-ho because he’s grossly misrepresented himself (I once had guy tell me he was in a college nursing program; he was actually a gardener with no academic aspirations), I’ve always asked, Why? Why lie? A shrug of the shoulders is a common response. As if.  If I had time and space here, I’d share with you some similar, truly laughable, and even bizarre, online dating experiences I’ve had. (which is why I stopped taking that avenue!) Men have lied about their faces and bodies (of course, right?), but also their careers, interests, habits (smoking, vs. non-) and marital status (“married, but (not) in the divorce process”). Again: Why do this? It’s not like the Truth will never be exposed; but it’s a gamble that it won’t, so there’s the answer.

My male friends (not dating prospects, so they’re willing to be candid) back me up on this, telling me that I just don’t understand how hard it is for men to be “on their own”. They seem to think that women have the upper-hand, when it comes to coping with a solitary life; so, women are less-likely “cave” to deception and outright lying.

I don’t know about that. But what I do know is that it can feel increasingly difficult to remember Love, before the heart became jaded and wary; and, at the same time, easier to want to hide in seclusion, amidst the after effects of consecutive disappointments with Love. My dream last night, I’m convinced, arrived as a gentle reminder of the Power of Love, Trusting in Love, being Patient with Love, and the courage needed to take care of my Self until I cross paths with Love again. There’s really no point in trying to look for it; it knows where I am.

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