Friday, January 30, 2009

Repression of expression

"Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for truth." -- Benjamin Disraeli.

Things haven't changed much from the Victorian era when Disraeli wrote that. We seem to go through periods where we lighten up and feel more free to express emotions, but it doesn't seem to last. Public expressions of feeling tend to make others uncomfortable and, in many cases, expressing them in more private spheres does the same thing. And I wonder why this is the case. I think it is for a variety of reasons.

The first possible reason is that, particularly in the case of negative emotions, it makes other people feel vulnerable. If anyone over the age of about 5 begins to cry in public, whatever the reason, people tend to look away and avoid the situation. With children, the adults in the vicinity will become annoyed. With other adults, they start looking for the exit. Absent blood and protruding bones, it doesn't appear that there is any situation where we accept tears in public - whatever the provocation. And we all accept this as true. In cases where the tears flow out of control, even in highly justifiable situations, the person will immediately begin to apologize for crying, which to my mind is absolute lunacy, although I've done it. It is as if one is denying the legitimacy of one's pain. Perhaps those witnessing it feel uncomfortable because it reminds them of our essential vulnerability as humans.

Anger, while slightly more tolerable than pain, still must be reined in for public consumption. It is expected to be contained in tight, quiet, restrained little bursts and, in most cases, followed by an apology for "losing it". It doesn't matter the reason for the anger, however justified, it must be kept to a minimum. Although I have noticed, after a lifetime of quietly not making waves no matter what, the odd occasional outburst does tend to get people's attention and show that you are serious. But it makes folks uncomfortable and it is considered impolite, so apologies must follow.

The repression of expression extends to the positive feelings as well. If we are happy or amused, we are allowed polite restrained laughter, but guffaws are simply not acceptable. Giggles are fine in moderation, but if one is frequently amused one is not taken seriously. Which is all kinds of too bad. Sometimes a good laugh is all that gets one through the hard stuff. And they are contagious. A giggling child will get everyone in the area smiling at the very least. And some of the best moments with friends entail laughing uncontrollably. Perhaps the restraint is expected because not everyone is sharing in the joke. Could it be jealousy? I honestly don't know.

Quite possibly the biggest taboo of all to express is that of affection and love. People get visibly uncomfortable with any mention of those feelings except within the strict confines of the family or romantic relationships. And this is really a mind blower for me. I've seen people avoided and made fun of when they express affection spontaneously. And I've thought and thought about it, wondering why that was the case. The only thing that I can think of is that it might make folks feel an obligation to reciprocate and that is the source of their discomfort. Either they do not return the feeling or they think that accepting it will require some sort of action on their part. Either that, or it is just that intense emotion intensifies the level of discomfort we tend to have around all emotions.

So, what's to be done? Currently, we seem to allow emotions to leak out in the presence of alcohol. If affection or tears bursts forth under the influence, they are quickly packed back up with the excuse of drunkenness. I've heard that in Japan you can even tell your boss exactly what to do with himself, sideways, if you have the excuse of being inebriated. But it seems sad to me that we have to have a crutch in order to express our feelings.

What if we felt both able to express our feelings and to accept others' feelings as they are, without any expectation of response or apology? What if we looked on it as merely an expression of honesty? I'm not sure, but I suspect that it would allow for healthier relations between people. There is a type of freedom in knowing where you stand with others. There is also a bit of fear that accompanies that freedom. Anger may be condemned. Affection may be rejected. But, if they be true emotions, they should never be apologized for.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


"Our entire life consists ultimately in accepting ourselves as we are." -- Jean Anouilh.

I've been mulling over this quote and the general notion of acceptance for a while now. It seems to me, absent certain reprehensible behaviors, that there is something very true here. There is also something very much counter to what is thought to be the case by society as a whole.

If we are taught anything about acceptance, it is generally directed at accepting other people's differences or foibles. In some cases, this is a very good thing because the opposite of acceptance is, frequently, judgment or even condemnation. When dealing with the opinions, actions or beliefs of others, we must just accept them for what they are and then either embrace them or walk away. We can never change them.

But when it comes to ourselves, we are generally taught just the opposite. From the time we are children, we are encouraged, taught, expected or threatened into an endless round of self-modification. This is done to make us fit into the expectations of a wider group, whether it be a family, a religion or a community. Some model of preferred behavior is held up as an ideal and we are instructed to try to attain it. Doomed from the get-go, we then, frequently, see only our failures and not ourselves. And we certainly never even consider accepting ourselves for what we are, both good and not so good. At best, this can leave us with a slight case of perpetual discomfort. At worst, true self-loathing can settle in, crippling any ability we might have for self-love.

Now, I don't for a minute think that absolutely everything is worthy of acceptance, but, as a retired master of the try-to-be-perfect guild, I think some healthy acceptance is sadly missing in many of us. And, in a funny kind of way, there is a bit of arrogance in thinking that we are capable of attaining the much vaunted perfection, never mind the silliness in setting it as a goal. In some ways, the always striving after whatever perfection we choose to aim at is a substitution for actually attaining it. It's as though wishing one had a particular virtue, and being seen to be striving after it, is the same as having that virtue.

We seem to put ourselves through this chronic lack of acceptance in every sphere of our lives. We see any failure to live up to an arbitrary standard as a personal failure. And frequently we equate these failures with moral failures. We aren't thin enough.......enough for whom? We don't earn enough......again enough for whom? We aren't smart enough, nice enough, something else enough. We tie ourselves up in knots to be enough, when in fact, most of us are good enough just as we are. We spend untold amounts of effort focusing on living up to some standard set by others and often never even consider what is acceptable for our own lives.

I know this has been true in my life, to the point that it took a concerted effort to even figure out what it might look like to have self-acceptance on any level. I used to beat myself up thoroughly over the past, over and over again, little realizing that there was absolutely no use in it. I even used to give myself a thorough mental thrashing over things that I thought that didn't live up to the elusive standards. And it was always a case of lather, rinse and repeat; there simply wasn't enough self-flogging to be done.

Fortunately, I've given a good deal of that stuff the boot. But I find myself wondering how much of my personal goal setting and life choices are still subconsciously being governed by the old lack of self-acceptance monster. I'm quite comfortable with the fact that I am not now nor ever will be perfect. I'm also thoroughly convinced that growth requires change and that change entails leaving behind previous convictions and behaviors without condemning the best effort of the past. I'm fairly confident that as I muddle along doing the best that I can, I will make some spectacular boo-boos, but I'm equally confident that they will not spring from a malicious spirit and I find that acceptable enough.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


I like baseball. I don't love baseball, as in being able to quote statistics on every player and highlights of historic games. But I do like baseball, especially seeing it live. I grew up in St. Louis during a time when the Cardinals had phenomenal players. I've seen Bob Gibson throw his fast ball and I've watched Lou Brock steal every base they make. And, even now, a couple of thousand miles from the Cardinal's home field, I'll still watch them play on TV when they are in the series. And I think a home run hit is exciting no matter who hits it.

But I've wondered about this attachment for a team or a sport or an event. What is it that draws us in and makes us want to be present? I've known folks who become totally wrapped up in their team or sport of choice to the point that they schedule their lives around it, traveling to see games and giving full-throated support even if it is only from their living rooms.

And then recently during the Inauguration of President Obama, there were literally a million people or more crowded onto the Mall. Most couldn't possibly see or hear the ceremony without benefit of speakers and huge screens, but they braved cold and crowds and hours of standing just to be there when it happened. I'm certain that I had a better view from my living room 3,000 miles away than the vast majority of those in attendance.

So, what is it about being in a large crowd of people focused on a single event that energizes so many people? I think it may spring from our need to feel connected to others. Most of our connections are on a much smaller scale and they require that we give much more time and attention to those that we are connected with. Within families, friendships and even business relationships varying amounts of time and care are required to maintain those connections. This makes demands on us and, even when they are welcomed demands, takes effort and focus.

The fan phenomenon seems like it might give the benefits of feeling connected to something without any of the effort that more personal connections require. All that is needed is to show up and enjoy in order to be a full-fledged member of the group. The guy sitting next to you at the ball park doesn't care if your taxes are filed, if you called your mother or if your opinions match his. The most he might expect from you is a high five when there is a good play made on the field. It's a tacit equalizer where everyone can feel united for a brief period of time. It is also a respite from all the other demands that fill our days.

Not all of us feel drawn to these group activities. If I had been in Washington, D.C. last week, I expect that I would have watched the inauguration from my TV there as well. Although there might have been some temptation to go wave at the motorcade for a bit. That massive of a crowd simply doesn't speak to me. But an occasional baseball game with our local minor league team might just draw me in because it's a nice distraction and there really isn't a down side.

Friday, January 16, 2009


"Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can." -- Danny Kaye.

I came across this quote several months ago and was immediately attracted to the images it stirred up in my mind. It made me wonder what the current canvas of my life looked like and how I might want to add to it and spice it up. It also got me thinking about what it has looked like in the past.

When I was growing up and as a teenager, I think my canvas most closely resembled an insipid watercolor portrait. Watery colors with a few blues and gold sparkles, pleasant enough to look at, if anyone really wanted to examine it. But easy to miss entirely because of the small size and lackluster frame.

Then, in young adulthood, I entered what I refer to as my Beige Period. I did all the conventional things, in the conventional ways and never, ever, gave a moment's thought to whether or not it was what I wanted to do or was meant to do. It was even reflected in my clothing -- browns, tans and grays. A nice nonthreatening canvas that quickly faded into the background even more easily than the earlier watercolor existence. There were always other colors there, buried under the dull ones, but I never let them totally escape. Even when I'd let something peek out from under the gray, I'd cover it back up at the least sign of collective disapproval. I was a waiting room landscape, hanging unnoticed in my own life.

At long, long last, I hit 40 and my peacock period exploded outward. I splashed any and every color I could think of at the canvas of my life. Some didn't look quite the way I had envisioned them, but I merrily continued to add layers and depth and colors, blissfully curious to see what it would turn out to be. And my clothes reflected this activity as well. It was as though all the self-expression that had been bottled up for four decades wanted to spring forth all at once. And I notice that the canvas has gotten bigger as well as more colorful. No longer a watercolor miniature, now nothing will serve but a wall-sized mural and I don't rule out wrapping it around the corner beyond the edges.

These days I am becoming a bit more controlled in my paint splashing. I consider a bit more what to splash and where. The palette now contains rich jewel colors of incredible depth and luminosity, that I scarcely would have touched earlier in my life. The composition is open to possibilities while maintaining a sense of having a unified theme. And there are areas of complete audacity that I would have never thought I was capable of before.

I wonder how many of us allow ourselves to settle into Beige Periods the way that I did? I wonder what colors lie hidden beneath acceptable nondescript exteriors? I wonder how many Van Goghs or Chagalls lurk beneath whitewash? And I wonder why we fear to throw paint?

Thursday, January 15, 2009


The first thing I was taught when I began a serious study of philosophy was to define terms. The point being that it is useless to devote energy to debating an idea or position only to discover that you are talking about different things. The classic example given was within the area of philosophy of religion. In debating the existence of God, both sides must have the same understanding of what is meant by the word "God". If one side means the generally accepted monotheistic idea of God and the other is referring to a spinach deity from Alpha Centauri, clearly there cannot be any meaningful discussion or conclusions.

This all came roaring back to me recently during the health crisis of a dear friend. I was encouraged and, in one case, instructed to pray and to pray for a specific outcome. Unbeknownst to the people I was speaking with, we seem to have vastly different ideas of what praying meant or entailed.

I reflected for a while on my personal history with prayer, which, despite my earlier conventional religious background, has deviated wildly from anything resembling the usual forms of petition. In fact, I have never, ever engaged in prayer petitioning anything for myself. The closest I have ever come is, when in moments of despair, a silent scream for "help" has erupted from deep within my soul. It wasn't that I felt unworthy to ask, I just never believed that I knew what was for the best in regards to personal situations. I also never thought it was my job to tell the Creator what to do in any given situation. My great-grandmother would always say, "Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it." So, in my younger days, any formalized prayer was generalized and for others.

Then, as I studied more about spirituality and the traditions of various religions, I much preferred what is called contemplative prayer, which is much more like meditation than formalized petitions, a listening rather than a talking practice. And, for the greater part of my adult life, this has been the only spiritual practice that has fed me. It almost defied defining of terms because, I suspect, it is unique to the individual and their relationship with the Divine.

But, recently, I have felt a new dimension being added to this experience. And, happily, there was already language available to me in the way it was presented that didn't batter my current understanding. For a little over a year, whenever I feel moved to do so, I attend silent Quaker meetings. There is a lovely feeling in being able to enter into silence with people who hold some similar beliefs, but who put no dogma or expectations on their expression. Through this I have been introduced to the concept of "holding someone in the Light." I won't presume to say what is meant when someone else says this. But, for me, it means going to the deepest spiritual place within myself and carrying my love and concern for the person I am "holding" there with me, so that peace can enter in.

For me, this is the most and the least I can do. For me, it is the work of bringing peace and acceptance to whatever outcome is meant to be. Perhaps, that is essentially what those folks telling me to pray meant as well and we just can't define the term well enough.

"Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul." -- Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Technological Trip Ups

I’ll just come right out and admit it. I do not fully trust all the technological doo-dads that fill my life. I appreciate them, enjoy them and utilize them to the best of my ability, but I don’t really trust them.

I am old enough to remember when there were only 5 channels on the TV and to go from one to the next someone had to actually stand up, walk over to the set and turn the knob. Telephones were mounted on the wall or sat on a desk. Phone messages required a pen and paper. And if you weren’t at home, no one could contact you. Leftovers were reheated in the oven or on the top of the stove. Games had boards that you laid out on the table or the floor.

I’ve recently had a couple of technological trip ups that led me straight back to skepticism about the reliability of all our marvels. The first happened when I had forwarded a story that I had written to someone who had asked to read it. After a week had passed with no word and feeling a bit nervous that they had hated my story, I asked how they liked it. It never got there. Now, I know how to send e-mail just as well as anyone else, attachments included. But my story had just flown off into the ether somewhere, never to be seen again. I probably would have just written it off as weirdness in the Internet universe, but darned if it didn’t happen a few days later with a message to someone else. This made me doubt that other messages had reached their intended recipients.

The second event went unnoticed for almost two weeks. I had to replace my phone/answering machine the week after Christmas. The new one has so many bells and whistles that I was extremely careful in setting it up. However, I couldn’t help noticing that we had received absolutely no messages since it had been plugged in. Zero. Zip. Nada. So, brilliant girl that I am, I used my cell phone to call the house phone and leave a message. I hung up. The message light was flashing on the phone, but no message. After an hour of going through the not so thorough manual, I fiddled with how many rings before the message machine picks up. Apparently my new phone will record messages after four rings, but, if it is set for six rings, it tosses them into the great void.

Both of these incidents left me wondering if I had inadvertently snubbed someone, or several someones. There is absolutely no way for me to find out, but I wondered. I also got to thinking about how we’ve come to assume things about responses or lack of responses to all of our high tech communications. If there is no response to an e-mail, or a phone message, or a text message, what exactly does that imply? Does it imply anything? There seems to be a different expectation with the electronic messages than with more human based messages. Perhaps the more instantaneous messages make us lose our patience and expect instantaneous replies. And the silences between messages become uncomfortable more quickly than in the days when waiting was the usual expectation.

If there is no reply, does that mean the message wasn’t received? Or it was ignored? Or it landed in the spam folder? Or they don’t want to talk to you? The mind reels through the various possibilities and none of them are good. In the old days, we waited a “reasonable amount of time” before calling back or leaving a second message. But in our high-speed technologically enhanced world, what is a reasonable amount of time?

I’m already on record as being uncomfortable with the layers of technology intervening between humans. Even when communication happens, I feel like it is lacking. And when the technology acts up, it makes me even more uncomfortable. The only solution, I suppose, is to keep trying. But, just to make myself feel better, I think I’ll begin writing more letters. And, if you are expecting to hear from me and don’t, please try again.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


I’ve been reflecting on the issue of control recently. Over the past month, I’ve heard so many tales of illness, death, suicide and war that it has brought to the forefront the reality of our essential lack of control in so many areas of life. And, quite frankly, I’ve been amazed at my own response to the hardship and tragedies that I’ve come in contact with. A younger me would have been wracked with pain at being totally helpless to positively affect any of these sad and, sometimes, hopeless, situations. It is not that I do not care or have no feeling for those involved, quite to the contrary. But the acceptance of my inability to make an impact has allowed me to express my concern from a place of greater peace than at any other time in my past. It is as if, in releasing the illusion of control, I release the turmoil of the chaotic and enable myself to be more fully present to those involved.

I haven’t fully nailed down this new approach but it has me wondering about the impact that clinging to control has and I believe it may have a very widespread negative aspect on every aspect of human life. The most obvious would be the impact of war on the world stage. Most recently, the news is filled with the latest escalation of conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, with hundreds of people killed. Each side is suffering countless death and incalculable pain in the effort to control their own territory and ultimate destiny. And each side is equally certain of the justice of their efforts to secure that control at the expense of the other. I don’t pretend for a second to have a solution to either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to war itself, for that matter. But it does seem that striving after control as opposed to striving after cooperation seems to be a strong contributing element in all such situations.

Another area that I’ve been reflecting on is the ultimate human question of life and death, illness and suffering. I have heard numerous stories in the past few weeks of horrifying accidents, life-threatening illness, suicide and death. And I have waited by the phone for news of a friend clinging to life. What I have noticed in all of this is that there is nothing to control beyond my response. I can’t make anyone well. I can’t save anyone’s life. And I can’t do anything more than offer words of comfort to those who are suffering loss. But, in accepting my lack of control, there is no increase in suffering through attempting to change what is.

Economically throughout the world many, many people are attempting to hold on tight through a mess that frequently was made by others. We do the small things that we can to ease part of the problem, whether it be clipping coupons or buying less expensive necessities. But, ultimately, we can’t control whether or not our employer lays us off or ships our job to another country for cheaper labor.

Now, I’m not for a second suggesting that the only rational response is to roll over and let circumstances have their way with us. But, it seems, that trying to control the uncontrollable tends to make a bad situation worse. Perhaps a better tactic would be to seek out those positive steps that we can take and attempt to release the chaos that presents itself as futile attempts at control. And it doesn’t seem to mean that we have to give up a satisfying life to do so.

For example, my current situation doesn’t allow for an entertainment budget. It doesn’t matter how badly I would like theater or symphony tickets, it simply isn’t going to happen right now. But I can watch PBS on the television and have been learning very interesting things about the history of India recently. I can also pop a CD into the player and have Faure’s Requiem any time that I care to.

In the case of my seriously ill friend, while I have been distressed waiting for news and hopeful of it being positive, it does not do my friend one lick of good for me to wring my hands and cease to function. I can do no more than to hold her in my heart while I knit or wash the dishes and hope for the best. My sinking into pain ahead of its’ time is of use to no one.

I’m surprised at the peace that this realization has given me. I wouldn’t have thought it would be the case. But in ceding that I can only do what I can do and cannot do what I cannot do, essentially giving up the illusion of control, I also give up the panic of not being in control. And that is what allows a place for inner peace.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Fitted Sheets

As I was doing the laundry and remaking the bed, I got to thinking. Fitted sheets may be one of the best things since sliced bread, but they are also challenging little buggers.

On the upside, fitted sheets make making the bed infinitely easier than doing so with flat sheets. I can make a hospital corner that would put most to shame, but they don't stay on nearly as well as the fitted ones. And now that they make the extra deep pockets, there is rarely a need to re-tuck them between the regular changes of the bed linens. It's generally quick and easy to make the bed with a nice smooth sheet.

There are, however, some downsides to the fitted sheet. The first being the folding of the thing. I imagine that we were all taught by our mother, or someone, that the way to fold a fitted sheet involves tucking the corners inside one another, tweaking the edges so that it approximates a rectangle and then folding as if it were really a flat sheet. Naturally, those puffy corners don't lay flat and the approximate rectangle never really works like a rectangle, so the procedure is doomed from the start. But we give it the old college try and stuff the malformed mass in a drawer to wrinkle up until we need it.

And, given the sizing phenomenon of mattresses and bedsheets, it isn't always as easy as one might hope to figure out which way is up when making the bed. With a twin bed, it is easy to tell which end of the sheet goes where because it is so obviously a skinny rectangle. But the larger sizes are more square than rectangle, although not quite. If they were truly square, it wouldn't matter which corner of the sheet was put on which corner of the mattress, but they are not. So what should be a simple, straight-forward task actually requires a bit of thought in trying to assess which way is the long way on the sheet and then, when you realize you have assessed incorrectly, rotating it so that it will actually fit on the mattress.

While contemplating this situation, I began to think that people are more like fitted sheets than one might have imagined. When we are oriented correctly for our lives, we have the attributes of the well placed sheet. We fit, things are smooth and comfortable, and there are no wildly wrinkled places.

However, it's in the folding that the trouble begins to appear. When we try to make ourselves approximate some shape that we are not, things get lumpy, out of shape and crammed into dark places. And the wrinkles begin to set in with a vengence so that we cannot function in the way we were meant to. Similarly, if we try to make ourselves fit the wrong way round, we are stretched and pulled all to no avail. We neither function nor look right.

All of which makes me wonder why we try to do contortions like that. Probably because we were expected to for so long that we just come to enforce those expectations on ourselves. Sadly, many times we don't even notice the knots that we have tied ourselves into. I think a better model might be to be like sheets hanging on a clothesline on a warm spring day, blowing in a breeze and gaily waving our colors for all to see.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's thoughts

As I was thinking about this post, I was watching "Shirley Valentine", a movie about a 40-something woman who impetuously decided to live her life, as opposed to the life that had moved in and taken over her months and years. There was a line in the movie that perfectly captured what I had been thinking about in regards to my own life. "I fell in love with the idea of living."

As I deliberately considered what in my life needed to be chucked out with the garbage, I also began to muse on what needed to be embraced and welcomed in. The answer that came back to me was the word PLEASURE. Pleasure in all of its forms, large or small, lasting or transitory. And I recognize that, for me at least, this has to be a conscious choice that is made over and over each day until it becomes the norm rather than the exception in my life.

Some of this can be achieved simply by noticing and appreciating the things that are around me. The flickers and robins that nest near my home. The squirrels that cavort through the trees. The sound of rain as it drips outside my window. The smell of baking, the feel of silk and wool, the gurgle of someone else's baby. All of the free and delightful things that cross my path and don't cost a dime.

Then there are those things that I will make small efforts to welcome in. Getting up early to head into the woods just to see what interesting birds are to be found in that time and place. Eschewing cheap chocolate for the occasional perfect truffle. A glass of wine with a dear friend. A lingering glance and a gentle touch just when it is most needed.

There are also those larger things that I will go full out to hunt down and capture. A satisfying career, the ability to spin fine yarn, a fulfilling relationship and expanded awareness.

I am determined to wake up each morning asking myself the question, "How can I most fully live today?" And equally determined to follow the answer through whatever adventures may present themselves. Some days will give small delights, others will give full blown, mind blowing pleasures. All of them, when approached with awareness, will give something that enhances life as a whole. Some will give pains, it is true, but even those will bring experiences and knowledge that could enhance life further down the road.

I knew a Franciscan friar once who gave a retreat talk that he called his "fantasy of death." In this fantasy, when one dies and goes to heaven, one is nearly tackled and bear-hugged by God. God is so excited to see them and can't stop asking how the experience was and what they liked best, what was their favorite part. And I realize now that I've not focused on my favorite parts at all. It's past time that I got a list of those things going.

So many of us view life as work, a slog, and even suffering, to be gotten through. I know that was the case for me throughout most of my life. But, wouldn't it be better if we viewed it in a different way? Shouldn't we want to be the child we once were, wanting to lick the cake beaters, have one more story, suck down the last drop of juice? We were wiser as children than we are as adults.

Granted the less wonderful things will raise their heads and we will have to deal with them. But they simply must be less draining to those who are living out loud and to the fullest with the intention of living well. I'm determined to find out first hand. If you're trying to find me, it will be easy. I'll be the one standing over there with a huge smile, licking the chocolate of life off my lips. Care to join me?