Friday, January 12, 2018

What We can Learn from French Women

You have read the articles about how French women shop, dress, cook, flirt and even parent their children. We have been told that they are more elegant, chic and more mysterious than we “pursuit of happiness” American gals.

So, we wonder “Could I learn to be all of that?” Well, the mystery has been solved—or more accurately, we are being let in on the secrets. And it’s really good news. 

The “secret” to being charmingly French is not in the 100 splashes of cold water (on face and breasts), and it’s not in the wine with lunch and dinner (thank goodness, after all, we tried that), and it’s not even in having a collection of Birkin bags and Hermes scarves.

Author Jamie Cat Callan is touring the country right now to teach us that the big secret to French charm is in one’s thoughts and attitudes. 

And certainly, every woman in recovery, knows about “think it through” and “attitude adjustment”. We know how to do that.

Last week I drove to Chatham, New York—a beautiful village south of Albany and North of Manhattan—to see—and hear—Jamie kick off her book tour for “Parisian Charm School—French Secrets for Cultivating Love. Joy, and that certain je ne sais quoi”.

At the Chatham Bookstore Jamie kicked off the evening in a most French way with beautiful foods by Alexandra Stafford, and French music and a great deal of laughter. 

Then Jamie spoke about French style—fewer clothes, but clothes you absolutely love, French food—they eat much less than we do, but always the finest quality so they are more satisfied, and French dating—they don’t! French women have friends of both sexes and socialize in groups, and maybe a special relationship develops over time—over a long time.

The French spend time with their families –immediate and extended (yes, even if dysfunctional or troublesome), and they embrace their history—personal, cultural and national. 

The biggest take-away from Jamie Cat Callan and her years of French life and study and practice is that French women are different but we can borrow their qualities: savoring, thinking, moving—and speaking—slowly, and being more present in the world and in the day. It is those qualities that lead to their great wardrobes and great skincare and not the other way around. 

"Parisian Charm School" may not technically be a recovery book, but it is a book for recovering women-to help us recover a sense of self, self love and care, and a charming new life.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Happy Introvert Day!


It is January 2nd! The day that introverts get to breathe a sigh of relief.  We can come out of hiding; it’s safe to answer the phone and we can stop pretending we feel the flu coming on. Yes--the holidays are over. 


From mid-December through New Year’s Day, those of us with an introverted nature live in a state of perpetual dread. The weeks of office parties, neighborhood potlucks and open houses drain all our energy. But today we can relax; we made it through.

I speak from experience. I am an introvert. It surprises most people because I’m outgoing and friendly and very far from shy, but I prefer one person and one conversation at a time. 

I fought this for years, always trying to be someone else. I made myself go to parties; I tried to fix what I thought was “wrong” with me. It didn’t help that other people would press, “But you’re so good with people” as if being introverted meant living on the dark side. But I finally got it. 

This is also one of the blessings of long recovery. I no longer eat or drink in order to fit in or to numb the discomfort of social activities I don’t like. It’s a great relief. 

It’s no wonder that we introverts are sometimes defensive. Seventy-five percent of the population is extraverted; we’re outnumbered three-to-one, and the American culture tends to reward extraversion. 

Here’s what introverts are not: We’re not afraid and we’re not shy. Introversion has little to do with fear or reticence. We’re just focused, and we prefer one-on-one because we like to listen and we want to follow an idea all the way through to another interesting idea. Consequently small talk annoys us.

Many great leaders are introverts and many of our better presidents have been introverts: Lincoln, Carter and the John Adams—both father and son.  No, maybe I’m not being totally fair, but life isn’t fair to introverts. Introverted kids are pressured to “speak up” or we were hounded to “be more outgoing”. 

The philosopher Pascal wrote, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”  Introverts do. So let’s make January 2nd, Happy Introvert Day. We’ll be quiet and happy. And grateful as another year of “Out of the Woods” recovery begins.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

In the Dark Street Shineth

Off we go trailing shopping lists and credit card receipts. Hanukah is done but Christmas is this week. We may complain about our errands and even about some of the folks on our shopping list, but we do enjoy the festivity the holidays bring to our gray December days.

It’s no coincidence. The holidays that celebrate light, Hanukah and Christmas, are aligned  
with the seasonal transit of the sun. It’s a leftover from earlier times when the religions of nature led all of the others. There was good reason, then as now, to run from the darkness.

We know that ancient man feared that the sun had died.  It was his terror that the heat and light were gone. To coax the sun god back our ancient relatives created rituals.  The Druids lit bonfires. Now we celebrate with candles and lights in our windows. 

Spirituality is a way out of darkness and into hope and joy. The vehicle is mystery and a miracle, whether it’s oil that lasts eight days or the birth of a baby in a barn.

In the Northern Hemisphere this is a time when we face our vulnerability. Weather is the least of it. We all have moments of darkness: our grief, fears and regrets. The darkness we fear most, of course, is the grave. We still think we can outrun it. So, some of us go to the Caribbean and some to sunlamps or light boxes; many pursue spirits, religious or distilled. Like our ancestors we too want the sun to come back and give us life again. So we go to the stores and burn up our credit cards; we sacrifice our savings as we gather at the mall where we may find what passes for community. 

But we still fear the dark. Much of what we do this time of year is about distraction. Not unlike whistling when we pass a graveyard, now we sing and shop and light candles and eat too much. And we complain. A lot. But maybe our railing against our holiday chores is itself a part of the solstice. Now when we are oppressed by darkness –when our primitive fears can be felt even through layers of advertising and anti-depressants-- we are drawn to the lights and to other people as our defense against the dark, just as our ancient relatives were drawn to stars and fires.

We talk of holiday depression as if it’s somehow wrong or an aberration. But these holidays we’re celebrating, Hanukah and Christmas, are also about darkness. Sometimes we forget that. But it’s true: the flip side of each story is about the darkness at the edge of the light. 

The words of this Christmas carol could just as well be a Solstice song: Yet in the dark street shineth, the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

We’re fighting something ancient, natural and necessary. Occasionally we need to feel the darkness—even symbolically--like we sometimes need a dark night or a wild storm.

So maybe there is another way to experience this day. On this, the darkest night, what if we allowed the darkness and went toward it, daring ourselves to sit still before we light the candles or the tree. What if we sat a moment seeing the tree in darkness--and breathed. That’s what solstice is about. We can enter the darkness and emerge transformed. We can stand it.

On this day the sun is at the most southern point of its transit.  Tomorrow is the longest night of the year. Then, soon the days will grow longer again. The cycle is astronomical and holy.

On this night we are as ancient as ever.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ebby and Bill --84 Years Ago Today

Today is a special day in AA history. On this day, December 14, 1934, Ebby Thacher came to visit his old drinking buddy, Bill Wilson. In Bill and Lois’s Brooklyn kitchen Ebby gave his "testimony" and explained to Bill the power of the Oxford Group's influence on his life.
Those Oxford Group steps are what, today in AA, we call steps 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. That was Ebby’s gift to Bill and that gift that has been passed on to all of us, and on to the millions of people in twelve-step programs.
In the Oxford Group members would take all of those steps in one evening: The inventory, the confession, the examination, and then making the list of people harmed.


Then, encouraged by a sponsor, new members went out to make restitution --later called amends.
Ebby was Bill’s sponsor. It began there December 14th—one drunk helping another. Bill was willing. He saw something in Ebby. He wanted what Ebby had.
From this start we get Bill W. committed to sobriety. And you know the rest of the story.Eighty four years ago--from a cold flat in Brooklyn to the rest of the world.
We know that Ebby later struggled. But we also know that there would be no Bill Wilson, and no Alcoholics Anonymous, with out Ebby. He was was well used by God.
Thank you Ebby.
***

Learn more about AA history in "Out of the Woods" published by Central Recovery Press.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Acting As If


In Twelve-Step programs we hear the phrase “act as if”. We are guided to “act as if” we have courage when we are scared, and we are told to “act as if” when we feel like an imposter in our work lives.

Acting as if has helped me many times. It’s a great tool to shift from negative to positive thinking, and it is a way to invite the changes we are making to shift from being intellectual concepts to be fully embodied parts of us.

Act as if is closely related to “Fake it till you make it” which I first heard in Alanon. In that program the “faking” I had to do was to act like I felt detachment when I was still clinging and craving.

 There are still many times when I tell myself to act like a writer and teacher when my confidence is missing in action.

These ideas are not new and they are not unique to Twelve-Step thinking. Like most AA
wisdom the idea of acting or faking our way to growth and change has been around a long time.
Aristotle wrote, “We acquire virtues by first having put them into action.”

 Many years later the philosopher William James expanded on the connection between how we act and how we feel wrote, “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together. By regulating the action, which is under the direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”

It’s worth noting that early AA’s devoured the writings by William James, especially his book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” Bill Wilson was enraptured by these ideas of the early psychologists in the James circle.

Then, translating for a modern sensibility, Timothy Wilson at the Universality of Virginia said, “One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change precedes changes in attitude and feelings.”

Look at that again: “Behavior change precedes changes in attitude and feelings.” If you don’t like how you feel first change your behavior. It’s so simple but still hard to really get it. Don’t wait around to feel better; act as if.

Yeah, “act as if” is much easier said than done. But maybe make it an experiment. And here’s a bit of crazy contemporary proof: Research over many years has now shown that people who use Botox are less prone to anger, and it’s because they can’t make angry facial expressions.

One tiny caution: “Act as if” shouldn’t be used with your finances. Don’t spend money you don’t have and don’t charge-card yourself into debt. But even there you can act more generous than you feel by donating or tithing and the feeling of generosity will follow.

So I’m making these notes to myself this week: Act like I love to meditate, act like my body craves yoga, and don’t wait to feel like writing: Just go do it and watch the feelings follow. 

***
More on how we make changes in recovery in the book, "Out of the Woods" published by Central Recovery Press.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Are You Grateful for Mixed Blessings?

On Thursday, many of us will be sitting down to dinner with family or friends and gratitude will be mentioned as we offer a blessing on the meal. It’s appropriate to the day of course; we were taught the Pilgrim’s story of thankfulness for surviving their first difficult year in the New World. 

At many of our tables there will be a nod to the formerly religious aspect of the day as someone suggests, “Let’s go around the table and everyone say what they’re grateful for.” 


It’s easy at times like this to name good health, career success, and our kid’s accomplishments, but we often forget that some of our best gifts don’t come in pretty wrapping.  I suggest that we put a new spin on this tradition. This year ask your guests: What are the mixed blessings in your life this year?

Here are some examples: There was the day you were running late and therefore missed the big accident or traffic jam; or the day you skipped church but when channel surfing heard a speaker that gave you a new outlook on life; Maybe it was the day you got lost in a new part of town but in your wandering found a store that sold exactly what you had been hunting for months. Get the idea?

Then try upping the ante a bit: How about when you got fired but at out-placement you found the work you really want to do? Or maybe the person you wanted to marry said “No”, and broke your heart, but months later you met the one you were supposed to make a life with. 

You get the idea, but let’s push it a bit farther. How about the serious illness that knocked you off your feet but having to stay in bed gave you time to recast your life? Or maybe the struggle to accept a more permanent disability made it plain who your friends really were or revealed a talent you didn’t know you had? 

Okay, even harder now: What about the death of a loved one that devastated you but one day in the midst of grief you felt something other than pain and realized you were feeling joy like nothing you had ever felt and you knew that you could feel it because the grief had cracked you open.

 Similarly, you may have gotten a gift from someone else’s death when you saw just how short life is and you decided to quit with the worry/status/fear and get on with your life.

These mixed blessings are not easy to accept or admit, and sometimes it is just faith itself that is the gift. It can be in the midst of terrible things that we’re forced to develop trust, and then we find, when the crisis is over, that our new beliefs are ours to keep.

Of course the graduate school level of this kind of gratitude is saying “Thank You” even before the good part comes. If you’ve had experience with mixed blessings you begin to know-- even while life is painful or unpleasant-- that there will be meaning in it. And so we say Thank You –purely on faith –even when we’re getting hit hard.

Yes, some of these blessings come in less than Hallmark moments. Maybe it was the painful feedback from a friend that clued you in on the truth about your personality flaws, or the DWI that was humiliating and expensive but it was also what made you look at your problem and change your life. Maybe it was an emotional breakdown that allowed you to put yourself back together in a new and stronger way.

As parents we coach our kids with, “What do you say?” when a gift is given. Can we learn to say that to ourselves when life hands us a package that isn’t very pretty?
So when that, “What are you grateful for?” comes around at your Thanksgiving table this year don’t groan, but dig deep. Name the blessings that came from pain and grief or loss and trouble.

When we can say Thanks for both the good and the bad, for the easy and hard times, then, just like the Pilgrims, we’ll have a real Thanksgiving.



***
More holiday essays in the collection: "Looking for Signs" published by Troy Bookmakers.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Hidden Casualties of War

At the start of American sporting events we are expected to stand up to sing the national anthem. 

But at many sporting events there is now another requisite moment during the game when we observe a “tribute to our Armed Forces serving overseas”. A soldier in full dress, with excellent posture, comes onto the field and for that moment we pause again.  We feel virtuous and patriotic. 

We mean it—we really do. For anywhere from ten to almost 60 seconds we really care about the men and women of our military. We feel appreciation and even concern. And then satisfied that we have cared, and as the soldier, so beautifully decorated, is escorted out of sight, we return to our debate about favorite teams and best commercials.

Our soldiers are dying. They are dying the way that soldiers have always died—killed in combat and by tragic wartime accidents but they are also—increasingly- dying at home by their own hands. That is the part we don’t see, don’t honor and don’t stand up for.

The soldiers we see at sporting events are clean and composed and they exude strength and will and endurance. The conceit is that they are there to remind us of the hardship they endure for us but in fact they may be there to cajole us into believing that the respect we feel for them is enough. 

What if during the Super Bowl or on Baseball’s Opening Day we saw a group of American soldiers twitching with the physical and mental pain of post-combat fatigue, stress and disability? Not the heroic amputee—we know that symbol of sacrifice—but the one whose hope, sanity and peace have been cut off. What if we stood for 60 seconds to witness the grown men and women who serve and protect us while they shake and cry and go numb?  What if we saw them as they struggle to manage their depression, anxiety and dissociation? 

As our nation’s longest war moved past ten years we arrived at a terrifying statistic. The Army’s own briefing on military suicide reported that, “If we include accidental deaths which are the result of high-risk behavior (drugs, alcohol, driving) we find that less young men and women die in combat than by their own actions.” It is for these men and women that we should be holding our hands over our hearts. 

I don’t come from a military family. My understanding of this collateral damage came when I spent a few years interviewing China Marines—pre-World War II veterans. In China they experienced the combination of bloody atrocity and deadly boredom that today’s soldiers endure. That research became the book, “Never Leave Your Dead”. 

The men I visited were in their 80’s when they told me how they still—65 years later—struggled with their addictions, insomnia, grief and tragically how their trauma had impacted their families –some for two generations. 

We are slow learners. Military mental illness is always with us. It’s had many names –all euphemisms to keep it just out of sight. It is Soldiers Heart, War Fatigue, Shell Shock, Nostalgia, Viet Nam Syndrome and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Every faith has a tenet that asks us not to close our eyes to suffering. And here too –with our warriors—we should not look away.  

***
Twenty years of research led to this book--a history of military trauma, and a way to see how war trauma impacts a family.